Volunteering by Simon Pinkerton

On a Friday in September and with me having only a few hours left before I got to leave for the weekend and hand over to some poor sap, there was some sort of god awful musical thing that we all had to endure going on at Cherrywood.

I glanced over at a couple of the other members of staff, who stood there with closed and curt body language, acting as well as they could though they were just as nervous and anxious for it to finish as I, and then Sandy flashed me a little data-package look that I interpreted as “play along, will you?”

It was completely unjust: Naomi was the only one of us not even trying. She stood with crossed arms and a pout so ridiculous it looked like terrible plastic surgery. I made eyes back at Sandy that I hoped said “I'm not the offender here,” darting them towards Naomi, hoping Sandy followed my lead. She did, and then she muttered something religious, steeled herself again, and plastered a bony smile back on her face.

The only genuine smile in the room was that of our volunteer playing the piano—she was loving it. Bashing away at the keys, singing in perfect pitch but way too loud, rocking her frail body left and right. Two neutrals: the man with the enormously-lensed camera taking occasional stills and the lady with the notepad who would presumably be writing a story. The volunteer had brought them with her without prior arrangement, which Sandy was uncomfortable with as this was a secure facility, as anonymous and confidential as possible. There were people living a few houses down who had no idea what we were other than a mysterious medical structure they weren't invited to. I'd spoken to many over the years, very vaguely, very satisfyingly, shamefully delighting in keeping my secret. After all it was a very affluent road which I couldn't possibly afford to live on.

To pass the time and block out the hollow noise, I imagined the write-up: a local terrible eight-page rag wrapped in advertising comprising poorly-written pieces on traffic woes, a village green under threat from development, a school fete, and then a report of a wonderful deed at a mental health centre, a delightful act of charity from an old semi-luminary: Veronica Something played wonderful ditties and the chronic mental patients had heartily enjoyed it, even getting up and dancing/shuffling, this selfless act of time-sparing and talent-sharing provided to lessen the sadness and torment of the patients. Perhaps it would be written to suggest that she had encouraged some unique form of expression in those who were marginalised in society.

This was nothing novel for us. In four years I'd overseen countless recitals, laughter-yoga sessions and pantomimes. Some of them were good. Most of the time you got the sense that the same few clients enjoyed everything we put on for them, while the majority just wanted to be left alone, or not be patronised, or to be high or drunk.

An interesting new development was this shameless self-promotion and self-therapy by means of what was in truth a pretty small gesture of charity: a one-hour piano concert. Veronica breathily flung her head from side to side to view all her heroes twitching and turning about the place. Her delight was palpable as she saw, and interpreted as progress and enrichment, the same attention-seeking routine from this minority.

And the worst part was that this behaviour always gave way to bullying: after a few more minutes those gregarious souls would be physically pulling the other, more dignified, up from their seats and onto the makeshift dance floor; they wouldn't stop despite all the protestation, and very vocally they would be unwilling to take no for an answer. They never do! That’s why we have the sedation techniques and the larger male nurses to hand and the buttons that connect us to the police.

It always sounds like a good idea to get a musician in, and a couple of the patients always tell us afterwards it made their week. They certainly kick up a fuss if it doesn’t happen.

Simon Pinkerton is a London-based writer of laconic stories, poems and novels, with humor pieces coming out on McSweeney’s and Defenestration in the next couple of weeks. He has a lovely Twitter for you here @simonpinkerton, please hop on, and a blog that nobody reads here simonpinkerton.tumblr.com.