When I was eight or nine years old I took part in a dance at my small first school in Northumberland. It was part of an annual event called Coffee Evening, during which the whole school would be turned into a sort of village fete-cum-bring and buy sale. I don’t know why it was in the evening rather than the day, and come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it took place on two consecutive evenings: Thursday and Friday. It was always sometime in June or July.
The Coffee Evening I’m thinking about would have been my last or penultimate one at first school. As one of the older kids I was taking part in what we would call a country dance. Country dancing was what we did every other Wednesday afternoon with an elderly local couple called Mr and Mrs Gamble. Square dancing I suppose is the correct term for it.
But the particular dance we were doing this Coffee Evening was a maypole dance. The maypole was white and antediluvian. The wood creaked and squeaked when we danced around it, as we tugged on the frayed multi-coloured ribbons that criss-crossed in beautiful geometric patterns on the pole if we got the dance right. If somebody messed up, the ribbons would get horribly knotted and the whole thing would fall apart.
On the Friday night we performed the maypole dance in the front yard of the school. Almost everyone in attendance at the Coffee Evening had gathered round to watch. At least one of my parents would have been there. The two guttural-voiced, gargantuan-stomached coaches of Newbrough Hunters FC, Tommy Gradwell and Philip Leadbitter, would probably have been there too. Our headmaster Mr Moore was of course looking on to check that everything went OK, and I suppose also out of pride for his school and pupils.
We danced to the folk music coming out of the speakers of the massive black tape player. Everything was going according to plan, but then I felt the ribbon go slack in my hand. It had snapped because it was so old and frayed. I shrugged. There was not much else for it but to gather up the remains of the ribbon, and to carry on with the dance. I must have looked pretty stupid dancing around the maypole with no ribbon, weaving in and out of all the other kids seemingly without purpose. But we made it to the end of the dance as though nothing had gone wrong, and the geometric pattern on the pole was formed perfectly. There was a little gap where mine should have been, but this was barely noticeable.
Mr Moore said in Monday morning assembly that me carrying on with the dance was the best thing that had happened during the whole Coffee Evening, and at this point I became overwhelmed with an almost unbearable happiness.