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Open Features: Evening Classes

...The craft was not difficult for someone of Helen’s artistic ability; what she found much harder was learning to talk naturally, to show an interest in the other students’ work, to admire their techniques, to ask Julian for advice, and generally to appear as a member of the human race...

There's a reason why painfully shy Helen has become a recluse as Judith Power reveals in this intriguing story.

It was Tuesday again. Helen looked forward to Tuesdays so much; she felt her life had changed for the better since she had joined an evening class in stained glass art. Until now, she had spent her evenings at home alone, watching TV or reading. Occasionally someone from the office would remember her existence and invite her to come out with the rest of the team, but Helen had refused so often that she now found her colleagues’ amazement when she accepted to be embarrassing, so she carried on refusing. If only she wasn’t so painfully shy, she thought, her life would be so much more fun. She skirted round the real cause of her reluctance to socialise, even with people she had known for years.

Now though it was different. As soon as she entered the art room at the local college, she cheerily called out ‘Evening all’, and whoever was there replied equally happily, ‘Hi there Helen,’ or some such greeting which to Helen sounded like the acceptance she had never received until now.

When Helen had attended the enrolment evening, all she knew was that she wanted to learn something artistic. Art had been her best subject at school, but family pressure ensured that she had taken a job in administration at the town hall.

The hall was crowded when she went to enrol; most of the tutors were present to advise the prospective students. Nervously Helen had looked around. Everyone seemed to be there with a friend. Helen had always found making friends difficult, but she was determined that attending a class was to be a new beginning for her. She therefore smiled at one of the advisors and said, she hoped brightly, ‘Am I in the right queue for…’, she looked round desperately, ‘Stained glass art?’ It was the first class Helen saw listed. She thought that it would be as good as anything else; after all, it was the attending a class that was the object, not learning anything specific.

‘Yes,’ replied the bearded tutor. ‘I’m the lecturer as it happens. Can I tell you anything about the course? Have you done anything like it before? By the way, my name’s Julian.’

Helen almost choked trying to suppress a giggle. What a cliché, a beard, Julian! Still, she did want to learn something, so she carried on. ‘Could you tell me a bit about the course?’

Julian explained a little about stained glass techniques. After five minutes, Helen said she was hooked, paid her money and asked about equipment. All seemed straightforward, and she looked forward to the first class.

Now Helen was well into her first term. The group was friendly; some were, like Helen, absolute beginners, while others had been attending the same class for several years. It was a mixed group, so Helen was even able to learn to chat informally with men, a skill she thought she’d never master.

The craft was not difficult for someone of Helen’s artistic ability; what she found much harder was learning to talk naturally, to show an interest in the other students’ work, to admire their techniques, to ask Julian for advice, and generally to appear as a member of the human race. She watched the other students and listened to the chat, trying to learn techniques to become an accepted member of the class. She thought she was succeeding.

It was coming up to Christmas, and she had been included as a matter of course in the groups’ plans for an end of term celebratory meal at the local pub. For the first time ever Helen had agreed without hesitation to go to the meal. She even looked forward to it.

‘See you all next week,’ Helen called as she left. How gratifying to hear the friendly replies: ‘Yes, see you Helen. Have you got your car, or is it still in for its service?’

‘I’m fine tonight thanks,’ she replied, picking up her toolbag. She was assembling quite a few useful tools for her creations. At the moment she was working on a small stained glass box, which was coming along nicely, Julian had said.

The end of term meal loomed. Despite Helen’s determination to enjoy herself and carry on improving her social skills, she could not prevent a feeling of trepidation threatening to overwhelm her. Then out of the blue, Margaret, one of her fellow students, approached her in the last class before the end of term.

‘Helen, I’ve been thinking, why don’t we meet up and travel together? There’s not much parking at the pub, so one car instead of two might be a good idea.’

Eagerly Helen thanked her and agreed. ‘If you’re sure,’ she said, ‘I’d like that. I must confess I do get a bit nervous going into pubs on my own, even if I know I’m meeting someone as soon as I get in the door.’

‘I thought as much,’ said Margaret. She did not add anything by way of explanation, but Helen was content to leave it at that.

On the night of the meal, all went well. No-one had dressed up, informality ruled, to Helen’s relief, and she was able to chat easily with everyone. She enjoyed herself, she found to her amazement.

Before she knew it, Christmas had come and gone, and it was time for the start of the new term. On the first evening back, she arrived early. To her surprise, Julian came up to her as she was assembling her tools.

‘Hallo, Helen, good Christmas?’

‘Lovely thanks, Julian. How about you?’

Julian would ask her out. Helen was sure of it, and she wasn’t ready yet. Besides, Julian wasn’t really her type. She suspected he played the field, which was up to him, but she didn’t want to get involved.

A moment later, Helen’s intuition was confirmed when he said ‘Well, it was all right I suppose, but I was a bit lonely. My girlfriend has just left town. I should have done what I really wanted to do.’

Helen knew that she was supposed to say, ‘What was that, Julian?’ She didn’t say it. She carried on laying out her materials for the class.

The silence grew. Then, to her relief, Margaret joined them, and in the general chat, the moment passed, and Julian went to look at someone else’s work. At the coffee break, Margaret asked if she had interrupted something between Helen and Julian.

‘I was so grateful you did,’ Helen replied. ‘I’m sure he was going to make a move, and I’m just not interested.’

Margaret laughed. ‘You’ve probably guessed by now, Julian tries it on with all the new women students. We’ve all been there, had to smile sweetly and say we’re with someone, even if it’s not true. He never pushes it, and he is a brilliant teacher, so we all have a quiet chuckle, say ‘Oh Julian, not again, you know I’m getting married next year, to a six-foot rugby player, and he backs off. Don’t let him get to you.’

Helen smiled. ‘That’s a relief. I won’t take it seriously then.’

*
The term wore on, and Easter loomed ahead. Helen always dreaded long bank holiday weekends. Her loneliness deepened, especially when the weather was gloomy, there was nothing on TV and the shops in this quiet town remained firmly shut. Out of the blue though, Margaret asked her if she was doing anything special over the holiday.

‘Not really, just relaxing,’ Helen replied.

‘How about coming round and relaxing at my place. I’m always a bit blue on Bank Holidays. Everyone always has plans, don’t they?’ asked Margaret.

They fixed the details. On Good Friday Helen rang Margaret’s doorbell, and was taken into a smart modern flat. They cooked supper together, ate and drank prodigiously and settled down to finish the bottle of wine which had been Helen’s contribution to the occasion.

In time the chat turned to their careers. Helen briefly described her dull job in the council tax department of the local authority. ‘How about you Margaret? Do you do something more interesting?’

Margaret began by saying, ‘I work in the Crown Court as a judge’s clerk. I love it. Every day is different, I never know what to expect.’

There was silence for a moment. Helen seemed to be hesitating. ‘I thought I’d seen you somewhere before,’ she said.

The silence continued. Then Margaret said quietly, ‘Do you want to talk about it? I was in court a year ago, if that helps.’

‘I’ve never talked about it, I’ve never felt ready to, and I don’t know if I ever will,’ replied Helen.

‘Perhaps not talking about it is stopping you moving on with your life. I’m sorry, that sounds a dreadful cliché, I know, but sometimes clichés contain a grain of truth.’ Margaret smiled as she said this. ‘Weren’t you offered counselling at the time?’

Helen looked embarrassed. ‘I was, of course, but I didn’t feel ready for it then. I’m sorry, I keep saying that I’m not ready. To have a date with Julian, to talk about what happened, to accept counselling. Perhaps I’m more ready now. Just coming to this class was a major step for me, and I feel I have made progress, not just in learning to do stained glass projects, but in re-joining the human race.’

‘Why don’t you just say one sentence about what happened? You never know, one sentence might lead to two, and you’ll have at least broken the silence,’ suggested Margaret.

There was a short silence. ‘Here goes then.’ Helen took a deep breath. ‘My father had always been cruel and violent to my mother and me. I could never have friends, as he went out of his way to be unpleasant to them. Mum couldn’t even invite her sister over. We hated my father, but there seemed no way out.’

Helen trembled as her account of the trauma reached its climax. ‘One evening a row broke out yet again between mum and my father. I was there, but as I usually did, I went up to my room when the row started. Suddenly there was a blood-curdling scream. I rushed downstairs. My father was standing over mum raining blows to her head. There was blood everywhere. Then silence. I pulled out my phone, called an ambulance and the police. My father stood stunned. He was taken away, and I didn’t see him again until the trial. I hope I never see him again.’

Margaret said nothing. There seemed nothing to say.

Helen asked, ‘How many sentences was that?’ Her voice shook, then she began to sob. ‘It’s the first time I’ve even properly thought about it for a year,’ she wept. ‘I suppose it’s good for me but you can probably see why I never talk about it.’

Margaret made tea, and after a while suggested, ‘Do you think that now you’ve spoken a little about what happened, you might be ready to get in touch with the counsellor?’

‘Can I think about it for a while. I promise that this time I won’t say that I’m not ready yet.’ Helen smiled through her tears.

*

Just before the summer term began, Helen rang Margaret. ‘Hi. I thought I’d let you know – I’ve made an appointment to see the counsellor. She remembered me and sounded so positive that we’d be able to work together that I arranged to see her.’

‘Well done you,’ enthused Margaret.

At the opening class of the new term, a new member joined the group. Christopher seemed shy but determined to learn. Before she knew it, she found herself joining with Margaret in making the new student welcome, showing him where the equipment was and making sure he had someone to talk to at coffee break. At last she felt ready to offer someone some help in a small way.

The final event of the summer term was the annual exhibition of students’ work, featuring exhibits from all the college’s disciplines. At the set-up day there was a lively buzz in the air. Prizes were awarded, but for Helen they were an irrelevance; to her the great successes were completing the whole year’s work, embarking on her therapy and greatest joy of all, making friends.

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