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Union Learning Short Story Competition

We have run a short story competition throughout May, with participants sending us their stories regarding unions. We would like to thank everyone who participated, and are delighted to announce that story titled "Union U-turn" by Alison Ford has been chosen as the winning entry.

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 In the photos: Brian Linn (General Secretary), Alison Ford, and Maria Clark (Aegis Union Learning Scotland Project Manager)

You can read the winning story below.

 

Union U-turn

By Alison Ford - May 2017

 

Ye gods! I cannot believe that I am here, clenching my teeth through insufferable claptrap, clichés and platitudes – we lurch away from confessional homilies, and veer into great swoops of whimsical banality.

I am so bored. I do not want to be here – but it seemed like a good distraction with overtones of personal growth – so I offered to attend a Union workshop.

They are recruiting for representatives. It felt like a fit with my values “floating left”: I have a left-wing heartbeat somewhere beneath my designer clothes.

The leader of the workshop is gushing and girly. “Welcome everybody and thank you all so much for your interest in our workshop today. I attended one myself three years ago and it was an amazing and positive experience. It has changed my whole life and I’m sure you will find……” Her fluty voice trembles with the conviction of utter sincerity, her slender throat encased in a casually tied Jaeger scarf. I roll my eyes heavenward and stifle an instinctive moan. The ceiling is an attractive shade of blue, and dappled with shadows; the sun bounces off a mirror somewhere and shoots little rays of rainbow into a corner. The leader announces that her name is Sam; inwardly I re-christen her “Pollyanna”.

“Now Everyone”, confides Polly after we have all ‘Shared’, “I thought it would be an ice-breaker to discuss what the Union means to us personally. We can take each letter and try to come up with a banner or slogan to unite us all. So, first letter “U” – Sophie what does “U” mean to You?” I roll my eyes again. Oh, spare me. My fellow attendees are encouraging Polly with fawning smiles and ingratiating little quips. From time to time, they simper at each other. I cast my eyes downwards – the floor is laminated and the colour is an unrevealing beige. I can count the little joins on the surface 1… 2… 3 … and even make out a mysterious face on the smooth veneer by screwing up my eyes.

“U”, “U”. Sophie giggles shyly and goes coy. With sticky sincerity, she tells us that, she

does not know why, but all she can think of in the heat of the moment is the phrase, “To assume makes an ass out of YOU and me”. I am so embarrassed on her behalf I feel my face turn as crimson as a poppy, but the rest of the group gushes in applauding Sophie’s creativity and burgeoning stream of consciousness technique.

“N!” yells Polly, with passion.

“Nouse!” shrieks back a group member, obviously, a Polly-devotee. “ A Union Rep has to have ‘Nouse’”. He wears it proudly, his Nouse. I idly wonder what the plural would be. He reveals that his name is Jack – would that be “Union Jack”? I wonder.

“I” fires out Polly.

“There is no ‘I’ in team”, Union Jack catapults back, never missing a beat.

“O”,

“All for One and One for all”, comes the chorus. These people are so in tune. I, on the other hand, am clearly vibrating on a more unusual frequency.

“N another N,” sings out Polly, nearly hysterical now.

“Nurture?” ventures one participant, his face aglow with the rapture of belonging and being a part of this climactic event. "Unions nurture the workforce".

“Oh, Elizabeth”, Polly turns to me, her face aglow with the effort of interest and concern. “You haven’t said anything. How are you finding the session?” The group crowds in, all looking straight at me, their eyes hard bullets, presaging questions. I would have to be polite.

“Oh, erm, I ‘m really enjoying the positive atmosphere,” I manage.

“That’s great, Elizabeth. Do tell us more. What is it that you find so appealing?”

I shift uncomfortably and fall back on safe, tested patter. “I find you all so inspirational”.

“Really? That is so kind of you Elizabeth. Can you expand on that?”

Yikes! Polly has flushed me out. I feel the chill of mawkish fingers tracing the hinges of my brave face. Fortunately, Sophie cannot help herself. She nuzzles in and hijacks the question meant for me.

“I find it so inspirational to be surrounded by such dedicated colleagues.” The group veers off psychologically into mutual praise-singing, unctuous as sickly treacle.

 The clock sings out with authority, my rigid friend. Five sharp chimes. I make my excuses. There is somewhere I have to be. I thank them and leave.

On the bus, I am still thinking about Polly and her ghastly crew. A glib phrase for every occasion and Polly unbearably saccharine. I bet the worst thing to ever happen to her has been a fall from her pony on gymkhana day. I make my way to the hospital.

At the cancer ward, I sit beside my sister. She likes to hear about my day, frail though she is, parchment-white and stick-thin against the blousy pillows. I tell her about the Union self-help session. “Yes, but you’re scoffing.” Forcefully said, but her voice is wispy and waif-like. The starch-white nurse joins in to protect her patient. “Someone said ‘We read to know we’re not alone’. It’s like that. They stand for Strong Togetherness. We join a Union to know we’re not alone. If you’re being picked on, or bullied, you are only too glad they are there. If you’re sacked, it’s a steam-train ride through hell and you are all wrapped up in a big snug Union overcoat.” She laughed. “Nurses need them a lot”.

I know this really. Nurses need them a lot. So do ambulance drivers, coal miners and teachers. The Union is a sheltering oak tree in the storms of life. All that collective wisdom and commonsense – and they have multiple resources to draw on. This is the reason I attended the session today, so I recant my tale and this time I manage to inject some positivity into my relayed experience and I focus on the optimism and enthusiasm and their longing to make a difference. I try not to discolour it with my own personal ‘zeitgeist’. I tell them both how the spell-check did not recognise “Nouse” when Polly typed up the notes and the suggestion it gave was “Noose”. Then we laughed because this was ridiculous, and I like to see my sister laugh. The nurse plumps the pillows into clouds and marshmallows and goes through the motions of straightening the unrumpled covers. Big nurse over a low wide bed. My sister sleeps.

I make my way to the exit. I see Polly. She’s there with a big bunch of flowers as pink and gold as a sunset. The nurse is explaining to her that the flowers cannot stay, that her mother is too ill and her immune system too damaged. Polly’s face is lustrous with grief. She looks haunted and beautiful, her eyes dark caves in the despair of her face.

“Elizabeth!” She sees me and smiles. “Oh dear! Do you have someone here too? She puts her arms around me with tenderness. “You have to carry on, don’t you? We have to be strong for THEM Elizabeth”.

And this time I get it. I see our commonality. And I see the stark charm that lies behind a hackneyed phrase – blunted by overuse, but still there, still shining. It’s something to say, however unoriginal, when we struggle to find the words and to show the bond between us all, between all humanity, what it is to be human. And it is no threat to the fragile brave face we present to the world, the quintessential politeness and generosity implicit in turning a brave face in the midst of heartache.

“Are you coming to the Union meeting next week?” she asks.

“Would not miss it for the world, Sam”.

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“I became a Union Learning rep to help promote learning among my colleagues. I want to be able to promote continuing education for all.”

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