Wendy was loud. She was one of those women who you heard before you saw, which was handy because it meant that you could disappear if you felt that way inclined, decide that you maybe couldn’t deal with her at that moment. The other thing I remember about her was her habitual chewing of gum. I try not to be a judgemental person (and I am conscious that Americans may generally take a different view) but it drove me mad. Round and round the white stuff would go in her mouth, and every meeting was punctuated by its visibility, like slightly soiled pants in a washing machine.
She was extremely well-meaning though and I could forgive her this indiscretion. She was good to me, set me off on an interesting path of working with Oldham’s youth. I recall a girl’s group in Werneth that she instigated, a lovely bunch of Asian girls who created a piece of heartfelt theatre, and similarly a group of white girls who a book of poems. They were a tough bunch, that lot and I remember their look of amazement when I captured their words and recited them back to them in some order of my choosing.
“Bloody Hell,” one said, “That’s fucking brilliant!”
The youth worker chimed in then to prevent any further swearing. “Amazing!”
“Did we really say all that?” another girl asked, to which the only answer was, “yes. You did.” (They taught me how to use the word ‘bob’ as an insult. “It’s bob that”, they’d say using a bastardised version of the word bobbin, the bit that was left after the weaving had taken place in the mill. And they taught me this: “I’ll have twos on that” i.e. the second portion of a cigarette. You could have threes, too.)
One session I found myself playing badminton with those girls, another time I sat around with them as they told me about their lives, sad lives full of difficult negotiations with boys, the first wave of girls who had to deal with the ready availability of porn which had begun to make life difficult for them. It got worse for poor girls as time went on, trading sex for cigarettes and booze. I was working with the kind of white girls who got entangled with young – and older – Asian men – who seemed to be kind (kind yet than the girls’ male white contemporaries) and yet in my short-lived project stints I could tell it wasn’t going to end well.
“Should you stop that?” I remember asking a youth worker when a vulnerable white girl got into the back seat of a taxi going who knew where at 10 o’clock at night. “What am I supposed to do?” The youth worker asked, not unreasonably, “I can’t stop them.” This was in the late 90s, early 2000s and I guess, although we sensed it wasn’t right, we didn’t fully understand the full horror of what might be happening. And, all my projects were time-limited, I was parachuted in when cash was available here and there, giving young people, girls and boys, the chance to express themselves, over six, eight or ten weeks. I always suspected that the action was just ‘off’, somewhere else and that the youth club was a warm place that held them for a short time. Then – and it’s worse now – kids were third generation unemployed and we, Wendy and I, and other well-meaning professionals wanted to give them something else.
It was extraordinary to school such kids to a performance, or a publication, to watch a spark catch fire but I knew how vulnerable they were and how, when the funding runs out as it always does, there’s nothing. At 14, 15, 16, they’d get pregnant or start to drink or take drugs or lose hope in some other way and then it was a much worn path to nowhere, possibly love – if they were lucky – possibly marriage, more likely benefits and the next 40 years making ends meet. I once met a truly amazing woman on Fitton Hill, i forget her name, but we were the same age: 32. She was already a grandmother. But she was full of energy, dynamism, love. Always skint, always struggling yet funny, angry, clever. I loved working in those communities, and knowing this, Wendy took advantage of me: you go in, she’d say, do some poetry, write their life story with them. So I did.
One time, Wendy and I prepared for the visit of Princess Anne, “Will you do a piece of theatre?” She gave me the toughest of groups: mixed sex teenagers. I’d have to coax them. Some days only half the group turned up. Other times I’d be lucky to get them all to stand up at the same time. Rehearsals were hardcore!
“Right,” I said, “Princess Anne is coming an you are going to say what you need to say!”
They smiled, young people without teeth, or without hope, or both and then humoured me. I very nearly lost my nerve. I was full of angst for them: they didn’t give a shit.
I waited in the hall alongside Wendy. It’s true what they say, the only smell the royals sniff is new paint. I’d never seen the youth club look so spick and span, positively shiny.
“I’m not standing up,” I said, “When the princess comes in. It goes against my socialist principles.”
“Me neither,” Wendy said.
Around us, the great and the good gathered: policemen with medals that weighed down the front of their uniforms down. Mayors, other dignitaries.
Then, a small chap entered and announced, “Be upstanding for Her Royal Highness, the Princess Royal.”
And taken up by the pomp and ceremony, Wendy and I both dutifully stood, grinned shyly at each and shrugged.
And the kids did not let me down. They delivered everyone of their lines. They told Princess Anne and all the dignitaries in that room just how difficult their lives were, how hard it was to get a job, how shit it could be day after day with nowhere to go and nothing to do. Next to me a TV journalist whose name escapes me said, “Yes” with a bit of fist bump and then Wendy smiled, gave me a hug, “You’re a marvel,” she said.
There was something about Wendy that set her apart from others. It was about passion, about difference, about being driven: we shared that.
She was also massively allergic to nuts: something that she managed. One time, I remember her banishing someone from the room who was eating peanuts, “Sorry love,” she’d shouted, “I can feel my eyes swelling.”
Wendy was dynamic, committed, full of anger about the way young people were being abandoned. She wanted to make a difference and to take them with her. One time, she got the chance to take a group of kids on an international exchange in Eastern Europe. She jumped at the chance.
On the plane, on the way back, she got all her party settled then, like them, began to eat the plane food.
She knew immediately that she’d made a mistake. Her throat constricted and the world changed. Somewhere over Lithuania – a country that had just got itself on the map again – Wendy died. No amount of medical intervention helped, and without her epi pen, which was inexplicably in the hold, she had no chance at all. Aged just 38 – all that potential , gone. I wept bucketfuls of tears for Wendy and the kids who wouldn’t get the chances she’d have created for them. And I wept for the young people on that exchange who’d seen her in all her glory and watched her felled in seconds by eating something wrong.