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A Back-note of Protest

winning entry

by Susan Ruben

2024 Short Story Competition Winner

A Back-note of Protest

Danny, the manager - lanky, straggly beard, ex socialist worker - had summoned us, the motley crew who use the community centre, to a meeting.


“It’s a new and exciting government initiative,” he said, with undisguised disdain.  


We all have to sign up for courses, which Danny tells us those in power believe will engender a sense of purpose, and better mental health. Prepare us for work. I speak up.


“Danny” I say. “I’ve been coming here since before the smoking ban, and on the sick for thirty-seven years. I follow the great tradition of Samuel Johnson, idling.”


 Danny explained that unless we co-operated, he would lose vital funding and the centre might have to close. I decided I would play along, but with a back-note of protest. That was how I came to put my name down for needlework, with Deidre Walsh.


Deidre - posh, floral attire, lipstick smile - was not keen on me. She smiled rather smugly showing lipstick-stained front teeth, and said “This one is just for the ladies.” Well, that got my goat. I went straight to Danny, citing sexism, and my admiration of the work of that artist chap who wears dresses and makes tapestries. “It’s really grabbed my interest,” I lied.


Danny knows my modus operandi. I don’t give up on points of principle. He told Mrs Walsh that classes are open to all. She shrugged, and said “Oh dear.”


 So, the class is me, Deidre Walsh, and six women. The room smells faintly of lavender. We are making a quilt for a baby’s cot. Deidre, is an exacting task mistress. She has her favourites and I am not in her top six. Still, I will not give up despite her attempts to undermine.


On the first day she gave me the smallest needle in the stack, then drew attention to my pound shop reading glasses. Next, she ordered me to re-do my ‘terrible hemming’. Naturally, I refused. “Why?” I yell “It’s better than Maureen’s effort.” Palpably true, as Maureen has a terrible shake.


Deidre says, “Temper, temper John. We don’t compare in this class. With hard work, everyone can excel. Even you.” When the top six giggle, I throw down the bit of cloth, stamp on it, and storm off for a smoke with Nigel.


Nigel – divorced twice, lonely, - feels I should accept that needlework is not for me. Having done two weeks of a counselling course he sees himself as a bit of an expert on the human psyche. “Oh no Nigel never,” I declare. “That’s what she wants.”



I’ll show those women. Like Yvonne – skinny, over-talkative. She brought in a piece of embroidery, that proclaimed ‘There’s no place like home.’ Deidre, beaming said “How true.”

What nonsense. Take my flat, neither decorated, or dusted, since the millennium.


 I groan at our next task. We are to choose a phrase that inspires us, to stich on our work. Then the pieces will be sown together on one side of the quilt.


 Deidre is adept at fifteen basic stitches with names like fly, chain and web. I can just about do running and back stitch. She suggests we take our embroidery hoops home, and get started on our phrases.


I seek help from Nigel, as we share a joint. He’s flippant, considering his new vocation, suggesting ‘Life’s a bitch then you die’. Then. ‘Every opportunity hides a disappointment.’ Or ‘Make incompetence your passion.’


I’m still giggling when I fall. The pain is intense. An X-Ray shows a crack in some foot bone. No weight bearing for three weeks. The doctor straps me up, then prescribes a paltry supply of sub-morphine painkillers.


The next day Nigel visits. My flat is sparse. I have two of all the essentials like mugs, plates and underwear.  No ornaments, or family photos, so some might call it bleak. Nigel will be my gofer. Using his concerned counsellor voice, he says “I hope this won’t get you down, like last time”


I assure him that I will be busy stitching. I need a completed piece of work for Deidre Walsh on my return. “Just do my shopping and light housework” I say “Oh and let Deidre know that I will be back.”


I get going. The lighting is terrible and my foot is throbbing. Deidre, in my head pointing out the importance of a clear mind. I give up, throwing the hoop at the telly.


Next day I acquire some decent painkillers, then slip into that very pleasant stupor that characterised my youth, and middle-age.

Days pass a blur, until Nigel finds my stash and gives me a stiff talking to. “Toxic negativity” he says. He flushes them away. I shout, “You’re as bad as Deidre Walsh, always finding fault.”


Nigel leaves me to stew. Next day we make up over tea and a hobnob. I get back to my task.  No more pills. I need that clear head. Nigel is all encouragement. “Practice makes perfect,” he intones. Despite his toxic positivity, I embroider, as if it matters.  Perhaps succeed at something.


First day back. In I hobble. They all seem engrossed. I sit down and take out my work planning to add a rabbit. Deidre appears. Holds up my hoop.

I explain that I’d shortened my phrase to ‘Must grumble’ I bristle when everybody laughs. Deidre then says “Good effort. Better than expected”

I feel strangely emotional when, at tea break, Yvonne says I was missed and gives me a bunch of flowers from the class. Deidre nods, smiles and even helps me shape my rabbit.



Nigel is waiting. I’m late as I’ve been engrossed in the rabbit’s tail. I give him the flowers by way of thanks, and mention that Deidre Walsh has improved. I tell him I will need to keep diligent, lest she slips back. Nigel gives me one of his, knowing quizzical looks.


He really needs to work on his counselling skills.  

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