It’s not that we have any kind of prejudice here. That was a phrase that Sandra had heard so often since she arrived in Bolingbrooke that she supposed it must be true or at least that most people believed it was. Well, fair enough, she thought, making her way to the branch of the East Counties Bank she’d been transferred to a couple of months back. In a way you couldn’t argue with it. The bank’s own customers included at least two Asian families, and Madison, who was a he who had become a she and really preferred to be known as a they, and unmarried mothers and same sex couples, and so far as she knew, none of them had met with any unpleasantness. She had never even heard those phrases beginning with “I’m not racist/homophobic, but” or the even older and more suspect “Some of my best friends are….”
Mind you, she had to admit that the token minorities (and she hated that word token, telling herself it was an insult in itself) were from families who had lived in Bolingbrooke, or at least, their families had, for decades. In some cases, for generations. And they were just as irritated (and just as careful to correct tactfully, as if it didn’t matter) as anyone else by people who misspelt the town’s name as Bolingbroke, as in the famous road sign To Old Bolingbroke and Mavis Enderby, which had, once, if you believed the urban myth, borne the graffiti, The gift of a son. True, they were both in Lincolnshire. But it was a big county.
They were minorities, but they were their minorities. Nobody ever used the word foreigner or incomer to Sandra’s face, but she was pretty sure they had used them behind her back, and it was nothing personal (she told herself).
There were things you were expected to do in Bolingbrooke. You were expected to support the local Rotary Club in all their fund-raising activities. You were expected to patronise the local shops, though it was an open secret that practically everyone who lived there did an intermittent big shop in the out of town supermarket. If you had a garden you were expected to keep it tidy, and if you did not, at first there was a very polite letter and help was offered to those who needed it, but if you did not put things right, or refused that help – well, Sandra had never heard of anyone who had, but suspected it would not go well for them. The people of Bolingbrooke agreed with the headlines in the tabloid newspapers about planning permission being a ridiculous manifestation of the nanny state (or political correctness gone mad, if you preferred) but did not hesitate to let their feelings be known in no uncertain terms if anyone did or intended to do anything too outlandish. They had, in some cases reluctantly, accepted satellite dishes and replacement windows, but heaven help anyone who thought of putting on an extension that looked, as one of the bank’s customers, Mrs Dwyer, put it, “Like a boil on your backside.” For someone who put great store by good manners, she could be surprisingly earthy in her choice of phrase. They were also very firm in their views on such things as rapid growing conifers and strange choices of paint. Sandra was quite relieved that, as her spell there was only temporary, she was living in rented accommodation, or she didn’t know whether she might have been tempted to kick against the traces, just on principle!
What made life awkward was that there were things in Bolingbrooke that Sandra liked very much. She liked the fact that they still had an independent book shop, run by Dennis and Dave, one of the same sex couples, who seemed possessed of almost magical powers when it came to hunting out obscure books and making them appear in the shop within days. She liked the fact that they still had what she termed a proper Post Office, and not a couple of counters cowering almost apologetically in a corner of a supermarket. She was moved and impressed by the way that money was raised within a couple of weeks to send a local child to have life-saving cancer treatment in Germany, and appreciated the town still having a thriving weekly market and a park for children to play in. Swings and roundabouts, she thought, wryly, and she wasn’t just thinking about the park.
It wasn't long after Gareth Hampson arrived that Sandra realised she wasn't the only newcomer in Bolingbrooke. Nor even the newest newcomer! But he was no humble bank clerk filling a temporary vacancy. He was a property developer. Sandra told herself not to pre-judge people, but something about that particular combination of words made her nervous. No, not nervous exactly, but not inclined to think they would be friends. Ironically (and he made a point of making sure folk knew about it) he did have some family connection to the town - his grandfather had been born there. But he seemed to have little sense of connection to it, for all he did his best to ingratiate himself with people. He was the kind of man who actually enjoyed wearing a suit. Now there was nothing intrinsically wrong with that - Sandra's own grandfather had been a dapper dresser. But something about him reminded her uneasily of the kind of politician who would change his mind within a heartbeat (or appear to) to curry favour, whilst secretly despising the person he was pandering to.
At first Gareth made no obvious efforts to "develop" the town. He believed, evidently, in starting small. His first target was the rotunda. Well, some called it the rotunda and some called it the bandstand - a circular structure, with stone slats enclosing it but open to the elements, in the market square. He had been heard to say it was an eyesore and he would love to put something else there - a bright little tourist information kiosk, perhaps. Or it might be better demolishing it altogether and starting from scratch.
He was wrong about it being an eyesore. Well, at least he wasn't wholly right. This being Bolingbrooke, it was kept clean, and if any bird chose to use it for toileting purposes, the evidence was rapidly removed. There were rumours that there had been graffiti on it once, and that even now it appeared but was removed as rapidly as it did. Still, it had that forlorn look that comes with any disused building, a dinginess, a dullness, looking as if it had forgotten itself what it was originally there for.
Truth to tell, his designs on the rotunda (or the bandstand) divided the townsfolk. It did not exactly split them in two, as far more believed (or if they thought otherwise they did not say so) that it should stay, but there were still some who dared to say that removing or revamping it may be no bad thing.
Mrs Dwyer was definitely in the "let it stay" camp and didn't hesitate to make her feelings known. But one day in the bank, something rather unsettling happened. She was holding forth about that "smarmy upstart" when she burst into tears. No, she didn't exactly burst into tears, but they started falling, and she started muttering, "Excuse me. Such a foolish old woman ...." Sandra's fellow-clerk Henry gave her one of those stricken looks. She understood. This might be an age of equality, and he might be a local and Sandra an incomer, but when it came to a woman getting tearful, he was enormously relieved that there was another woman there to minister to her!
Sandra gently ushered Mrs Dwyer into the little back office, and passed her a box of tissues while she made her a cup of tea, sensing that she would prefer to have a little time to collect herself after a show of emotion that was (so far as Sandra knew) out of character.
"I'm sorry about that," Mrs Dwyer said, dabbing her nose daintily as if to make up for just having given it a hearty blow.
"It's fine. Things can get on top of us all."
"What a kind girl you are. Despite -" she broke off.
"Being an incomer?" Sandra asked, with no edge to her voice.
"I won't deny I was about to say that. But it's not right. And the truth is we can be very clannish round here. The thing is, I've been here all my life, well, apart from a spell away at college, and - it was here I met my husband. Laurence - Larry, I always called him. We were married forty years, almost. Would have been forty this November. We had always - well, half-known each other, I suppose. In a small town nobody is ever a complete stranger, and even more so back then. But we started courting - folk still used that word - and - one of our favourite places to meet up was the rotunda. Sometimes we just sat in it, hand in hand, and when it was used as a bandstand - Sunday afternoons mostly, sometimes on a bank holiday or when there was a VIP in town - we listened to the music. The trouble is, I can half see the point of people who say it's become a bit of an eyesore. We should never have let it happen. But the thought of it being pulled down ...." she didn't break down again, but Sandra realised she wasn't far off.
And that was how it all began. The plan to restore the bandstand (or the rotunda). There was such a thing as a compromise - keeping it intact, but doing it up a bit, and having a little tourist information centre inside it, but with leaflets and racks that could easily be stowed away when bands came to play there again. All the town got behind the campaign, no matter how they had felt before, but its recognised leaders were Maureen Dwyer and Sandra Cullen.
Just before Christmas, out of the blue, Sandra was asked if she'd like to stay on at the Bolingbrooke branch as the lady who was on maternity leave had decided to be a stay at home mum for a while. She didn't hesitate to accept!