It is a rainy Wednesday lunchtime, I have just finished my chocolate espresso and Michael is constantly waggling his eyebrows up and down at the waitress. She is not impressed.
Myself, and two of the workers from the “Hokey Cokey” art project are having coffee in Utopia, an inoffensively fashionable coffee shop. Technically, this is research, so the council are picking up the cheque. In celebration of this, we have all had the most enormous muffins on the menu. Mine was banana and nut. Mmmmm.
So, just to clarify, we didn’t come up with the project name “Hokey Cokey”. We all hate it. It’s called “Hokey Cokey” because it’s about bringing what is often termed “outsider” art “into” the wider community. In. Out. See? Well exactly.
“Outsider” art, is one of the least offensive names for art which is produced by groups considered to be excluded from “regular” society. This is all pretty much straight out of our information leaflet you understand. Anyway, in the case of “Hokey Cokey”, our particular outsiders are adults with learning disabilities.
There’s me and there’s Sasha, our artist in residence, and there’s anyone else who wants to turn up and enjoy themselves. And we really do. Enjoy ourselves. So anyhow, we’re opening up a gallery to display all the work we’ve put together, and eventually, it’s going to have a coffee shop in it. Which is why we’re here at Utopia. That and the muffins.
“What do you think?” I ask
“Nice.” says Michael, who has now moved on to winking at the staff.
“You’re out of order.” I say. “If you don’t watch out that waitress is probably going to belt you.”
Michael is undeterred.
“She likes me.”
“I think Anne might have something to say about you chasing other women.”
Here, Michael stops.
“You wouldn’t tell her?”
“Oh really? Stop harassing the staff and we’ll say no more about it.”
Michael nods solemnly and shakes my hand by way of a gentleman’s agreement.
“You’re a good pal.”
“I am. She’s way out of your league anyway.” I say. “I mean don’t worry about it, she’s way out of my league too. We should both just chuck it.”
Lisa returns from the toilet.
“Nice soap. Smell.” she says, thrusting her open palms almost entirely up my nose.
“Mmmm.” I say. “Are we about ready to go then?”
“I am.” says Lisa, hauling on her coat.
“Me too pal.” says Michael. He looks at me very seriously and slaps my arm. “Me too.”
I grab my notepad. I’ve been scribbling down things I’ve noticed about Utopia in order to at least vaguely justify this field trip. It is full of incisive comments; “We should definitely get those syrups which make the coffee go all different flavours. Hazelnut?”
As we leave, I half heartedly smile at the waitress, but she doesn’t seem to notice, or care. She really is out of my league, I wasn’t joking about that.
Hokey Cokey HQ is a former charity shop on short term loan. If the gallery and the cafe all work out as planned, we’ll take on the lease. In theory. We really have to get it right first time, which is why we’ve invited the Provost, the social work department and the entire council to our opening party. It’s in two days. I’m sure it will all work out fine.
Michael, Lisa and I arrive back at the same time as Susan, another of the workers. We are barely through the door, when Lisa spies someone exciting.
“Craig!” shouts Lisa and runs off into the workshop.
Sasha walks over smiling. Sasha’s always smiling. And it’s one of those ‘weak at the knees’ smiles. I’m sure you know the kind I mean.
“Hiya.” says Sasha.
I am about to ask Sasha how her morning was when I notice Susan standing very still, and very close. Susan seems to have almost no concept of personal space, but is far too polite to butt in on a conversation. It is easier therefore, to just ask her what she wants.
“Hi Susan. Can we help?” I ask.
“Today...” announces Susan “I have brought...for you and Sasha...a special treat.”
“Smashing.” I say. “What’s that?”
“It is...home baking. Buns.”
“What kind of buns?”
“Coconut. And I have also added...a small number...of chocolate chips.”
“Thanks very much Susan. You’re the tops.” says Sasha.
“Well Sasha...you deserve a treat. But now...I must go...and finish my sculpture.”
Susan wanders off into the workshop. She’s been making a model of the Yellow Submarine. Our toilets have an undersea theme. It certainly makes going to the bathroom more fun. There was a big octopus which was going to hang from one of the ceilings, but it fell on my head and so we had to remove it for health and safety reasons. And also because I was very angry.
I examine the buns.
“These look excellent.”
“Mmmm.” says Sasha “She’s really come on since she got her own place. How was Utopia?”
“Well Michael failed to score with the waitress.”
“What about you?”
“Well, I wasn’t really trying.”
“Waitresses aside, do you think we can make our coffee shop as cool?”
“Oh easily. Well, not easily...it’ll be murder. But we can definitely do it. Probably.”
“Mission accomplished then.” she smiles. God.
“Come and see some of this new stuff.” says Sasha excitedly. “People are just going to be blown away.”
She leads me through the gallery and into the workshop, to the untrained eye a chaos of colour and plaster and wire. But when you stop looking and just see, there’s clearly alchemy at work here. A secret science. Admittedly, we’re not actually making gold or anything, but there’s so much gold paint all over the floor that it almost doesn’t matter.
“Anne’s made a vase...just feel that texture, and with those colours...outstanding! And over here Simon started a painting of a dolphin. And look at this...yesterday Lisa drew this picture of a policewoman on the computer. And she’s copied and pasted lines of them all on screen. Loads of them.”
She almost dances round the room as we go. And she’s right. The artwork is impressive, but I’m honest enough with myself to know that I am spending more time being impressed by her. We’ve been planning this party for three weeks now, and coincidentally, that’s exactly how long I’ve been coming up with ever more complex reasons to avoid asking her out. So I nod and I smile and I give the big thumbs up, taking the opportunity just to enjoy how close she’s standing to me. I know. I know.
It is mid afternoon and I am sitting in the tearoom imagining. Susan walks in purposefully, and I suddenly realise that I haven’t yet had one of the buns she baked for us. Susan can get very hurt if you ignore her bakery and so I grab the little bag and make to open it.
“Have you eaten my special treat yet?” asks Susan, pointing at exhibit A, the unopened buns.
“No Susan.” I say, holding up the bag, “I was actually just about to...”
“Oh. Good!” she says, and snatches the buns away.
“I have...just remembered...that today’s special treats...were I am afraid...not for you. They are for...the MacDonald Centre staff.”
“Oh!” I say “No buns for me then.”
“No. Perhaps...a special treat for you and Sasha...tomorrow.”
“Fair enough.” I say “I’ll look forward to that.”
“Although...I am making marshmallow cakes...for the party...so I may be unable...to bake anything for you.”
“Well I’ll just have one of your marshmallow cakes then.” I suggest.
“They’re for the party!” exclaims Susan.
“Yeah. But I’ll be at the party.”
“Oh. Of course...how silly of me.”
Susan slaps herself on the forehead, smiles, and walks away with the buns.
I should have eaten them at lunchtime.
I am so disappointed by the loss of the buns, that I decide to see them as a symbol of my inability to seize the day, even with confectionery. I’d be the first to admit that this is rather flimsy, but y’know, I’m of a mind to feel sorry for myself. They had chocolate chips and everything.
It’s late. Dusky.
All the workers left around four hours ago. Right now, Sasha and I are slumped against an enormous papier mache banana. We are The Velvet Underground sweating. Still, the workshop’s tidy, except for the bit of floor where Michael has painted “Rangers” in a nice Royal Blue.
“Time’s it?” I ask.
“Just after nine.”
“There’s hardly any point in going home.” I say, which is meant to be just one of those things you say but comes out sounding like a sinister proposition. I adjust my big black top hat and twirl my evil moustache in anticipation of her response.
“More iced coffee I think.” she says. Read into that what you will.
Sasha wanders over to the fridge. It’s covered in magnetic poetry, which today reads “atonal balloon, sasparilla nightmare windmill”. So true.
“What are we making to eat? For the party I mean.”
“Sausage rolls?” I suggest. “Go traditional.”
“That’s rubbish. The food should be y’know...as exciting as the exhibition.”
“No. Y’know, just...fun.”
“Fun eh? How about papier mache banana sandwiches? They’re really chewy.”
“Too bland.” she smiles.
“Maybe the way you make them. Anyway, sausage rolls are fun. We could call them ‘pigs in a blanket’.”
“I think we’ll ask the team tomorrow.” says Sasha, unimpressed.
“Goddamn you free thinkers and your blasted democracy.”
“Yeah well it’s either that or you’ll have us cutting the crusts off triangular sandwiches.”
“Nobody likes crusts! And what are you suggesting...sandwiches cut into...spaceships or something?”
“Bingo! And we could lay out a big table with all the identically shaped sandwiches, except we dye the bread all different colours, Warhol style.”
“I don’t think he ever branched out into catering.” I say, and for a moment I consider cracking a joke about everyone being hungry for fifteen minutes, but thankfully, think better of it just in time.
“So...” I say, loudly announcing Some Serious Conversation.
“Are you bringing anyone to the party?”
There is a silence. But is it the silence of someone who doesn’t like to talk about their private life, or the silence of someone who can see an unwanted proposition approaching waving a big red flag and banging a drum?
“I’m not actually seeing anyone right now.” says Sasha.
More silence, but not the sort which is a cue for me.
“I’m kind of down on relationships. I finished with this guy last year and well...it wasn’t very nice. Not a good break up.”
“None of them are exactly good.”
“No this was really terrible. The police had to take me away.”
“Oh.” I say. I don’t know what to do with this information.
“But he dropped the charges. I mean...he provoked me.”
“What did you do?”
“Well, I was painting him and he didn’t like it so...”
“What, a sort of caricature thing or...”
“No. Him. I was actually painting onto him. In gloss. I’d found out he’d been messing around on me from day one. Well...day three, so I decided to paint him bright red.”
“And I’d just started inking on the word ‘wanker’, when he woke up.”
“That’s when he phoned the police?”
“That’s when he phoned the police. I couldn’t get the paint off the phone for weeks.”
I laugh nervously. I am working with Zelda Fitzgerald. Perversely, this mental health issue instantly makes Sasha ten times more attractive. I’m not even going to attempt to justify that.
“What about you?”
“Girlfriend? Nah. My mum’s stopped just short of putting my name in Exchange & Mart.”
“Well your biological clock is ticking.”
“I think it might actually have stopped.”
Just there, I catch myself. I really do pull off being feeble and non-threatening with aplomb. It’s not deliberate. I have a mate who intentionally turns on this sensitive loser act around women.
“When women don’t feel threatened, you’ve more chance of getting them to shag you.” he says.
It would be a lot easier to get annoyed about this statement if it didn’t turn out to be true on a fairly regular basis.
So anyway, I’m not trying to sound pathetic, I’m just being myself. Unfortunately, I genuinely am pathetic. Bonus though, I think she likes that.
“Well...” I say, incisively.
A policeman passes and checks that we haven’t just broken in to stage an art exhibition.
“I suppose we should lock up.” she says.
“Mmmm.” I say, downing the chilly dregs of my iced coffee. “Yeah we really should.”
We pull down grilles, lock the doors and go our seperate ways. I stalk home alone to watch “Annie Hall”. See. I’m pathetic even when nobody’s watching.
The party food production line is in full technicolour effect. My sausage rolls were unceremoniously howled down at yesterday’s morning meeting, and so while Susan humanely dyes the bread, Michael is using a cutter to turn them into flying saucers and rockets. Elsewhere Lisa pours fruit salad into tall glasses which have been decorated with stick on smiles and crazy eyes. Sasha meanwhile, surreally sculpts carefully dripped icing across the tops of cakes.
I’m out of my depth here and so wander into the workshop where Anne sits, painting one final piece for the gallery. She looks especially focused this morning, meticulously coating this last canvas in end to end green.
“How you doin’?” I ask.
“It certainly is green. What is it, a field, or..?”
“No. Just green. The...the...colour.”
“Very relaxing Anne. Good stuff.”
“This bit is...a different green.”
“Like a Mark Rothko print.” I observe cleverly.
“No. Like my dress.”
Anne gestures, and sure enough, she’s decked out all limelike.
“Green.” she explains.
“Got it.” I say. “Good one.”
“Have you decided what to call it?”
“Really? ‘Cos I would have gone with ‘Green’.”
“No.” says Anne very definitely. “Boyzone.”
“You’re the artist.” I say.
“Yeah. And Sasha. Sasha’s the artist.”
“She sure is.”
“Is Sasha your girlfriend?”
“...eh...no.” I say, and then cleverly mask my embarrassment with an enormous Brian Blessed style laugh.
“No we’re just friends.”
“...” I say, for a while, and then “Let’s make party hats.”
“Do you know my boyfriend?”
“Yeah. Michael.” she giggles “He’s gorgeous.”
“You’re right enough Anne. He’s a fine lookin’ man.”
“Yeah. We’re gettin’ married.”
“You marry Sasha.”
“No!” I laugh.
“Don’t you like Sasha?”
“Of course I like Sasha.”
“Woot woo.” giggles Anne as I fall into her trap.
“Sasha likes you. She said she wants to do a slow dance with you at the party.”
Anne emphasises this point by waggling her eyebrows up and down in the manner made popular by her boyfriend Michael.
“Oh really?” I say.
“Yes really.” says Anne and goes back to painting.
This conversation is clearly over.
Soon they will be here. I look around our gallery and there isn’t anything I don’t like. Even the buffet is art. And I see her smile beaming from every corner of the room, a spotlight laughing, illuminating everything we’ve done.
Anne stands by the door, ready to open it with a vengeance when our guests arrive.
“Woot woo.” says Anne.
“She’s in the storeroom.” points Michael “For the paper towels.”
“Right.” I say.
And suddenly, This Is It, as if perhaps “paper towels” was the secret trigger placed in my mind by a benevolent hypnotist. I am going to ask Sasha out. Right now.
I leap toward the storeroom like a man in serious need of a new broom.
I throw the door open a little more melodramatically than I had intended and Sasha is struggling to reach the shelves.
“This fucking octopus.” she says. Which is suddenly the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard.
“We had to put it somewhere. It’s a hazard.” I say “Anyway never mind that. Listen. Do you want...I mean...this afternoon..why don’t we sort of...couple up. Host and hostess style. We’ll be like the Fitzgeralds. But with less cocaine.”
That, was brilliant.
“Couple up? What’s brought this on?” asks Sasha, who is, at least, smiling.
“Well...it was Anne really. She said...she said you wanted to do a slow dance with me at the party.”
“Oh did she!”
“She did. But I’m a terrible dancer. And so rather than stand all over your toes I thought it’d be easier to just ask you out. But it isn’t, and it seems to be taking forever and it’s very hard to do it properly with that octopus looking at me.”
“Anne eh? She’s all there and round the corner. She’s been talking you up for weeks now. Not that she needed to really.”
I lean forward, time slowing to a near standstill. But not enough of a standstill for the door not to open as I lean against it. And as I tumble backward, I grab Sasha to steady me, but she’s already tilting badly. So Sasha too, grabs for support, but despite having a full compliment of eight arms, the octopus sculpture is of very little use on this score. The first kiss, the door opening, and the octopus poking me in the eye. And we fall together into the party, all tinsel and kisses. Wrapped up in ourselves and also, in the wire frame of the banished octopus sculpture. The team are clapping and laughing as we roll helplessly around on the floor.
“Will you go out with me?” I ask, crepe paper seaweed sticking to my glasses, tinting Sasha a pleasant green.
“Yes.” she says “But I think I should warn you that this octopus is also making advances.”
Party poppers for big moment fireworks, our names are writ across the skies in tissue.
We kiss again, and Lisa pours pink lemonade into painted paper cups.
Anne opens all the doors.
note : I spent seven years working with adults with learning disabilities, more time than I've ever spent in any other job, you were guaranteed a wee laugh pretty much every day. Some of this actually happened, making this particular entry just slightly more self indulgent than normal.