Only In Wakefield…Could You Be A Cranky Woman Named Thelma

I think for this blog we need a column called, “Only In Wakefield” because this is something people here say a lot when we’re gobsmacked by yet another wacky or wonderful thing that we Wakefielders get up to. Perhaps our annual “Office Christmas Party” at Kaffe 1870 qualifies under the wacky category. Let me take you there…

My Carol Burnet wig with the frosted tips sits slightly askew on my head as I clutch the microphone on stage, cackling out a Judy Garland hit to the crowd of horrified onlookers below. Normally I would never be on a stage where musicians —the actual kind, with talent, who sing “in tune”—perform at the weekly open stage of Kaffe 1870. In no way am I a singer or musician. In fact, when I was eight a choir teacher took me and a boy out of class to explain that she wanted us to just “mouth the words” at an upcoming school concert because we weren’t singing in key. I was crushed—I loved singing!—and didn’t understand what she meant by key. Since that day I’ve had a near phobia of singing in front of others and often find myself still mouthing the words around a campfire. But tonight I’m singing alone on a stage, loudly, and don’t care how off-key I sound. Tonight my name isn’t Laurie. Tonight my name is Thelma Bird MacIntyre, a woman thirty years older than myself who doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks of her and tells people exactly what’s on her mind. Thelma also has a slight stoop, a middle-aged son named Herb living in her basement, and she loves to cut it up on the dance floor.

Dear Mister Gable, I am writing this to you

And I hope that you will read it so you’ll know…

I croon out the lyrics that I recall coming out of my parents’ hi-fi stereo. Weirdly, I’m not at all nervous. I am so thoroughly Thelma that my generally shy self is nowhere to be found inside this polyester green dress. Most of the audience is perplexed, not understanding who the old lady on stage is. But also in the crowd are my fellow office employees cheering me on. At least that’s who we are tonight at our Awkward Office Christmas Party. Every year, about seven of us —it used to be more but, inexplicably, some people lost interest—dress up as made-up people and pretend we work together in an office. This is our office’s big night out, with photocopied bum shots, prizes for best paperclip collection, and spiked rum punch. “Wendy”, our office manager anxiously keeps the activities rolling along, while “Martina” from sales usually sweeps in at midnight to declare that someone in the office is the real father of her child before taking the stage to belt out Whitney Houston in perfect pitch.

I interrupt my Judy Garland song to blow into the whistle I carry around my neck for this exact purpose. “Herb!” I holler out so he’ll hear me at the back of the room. “Put that cheese ball down! No dairy! You know you have irritable bowel syndrome and so does everyone in this establishment!”

I watch Herb stuff the ball into his mouth anyway. “Shut your gob, Thelma!” Herb doesn’t like Thelma very much. She’s a bossy controlling mother. My husband Rob is Herb. Rob is the sort of person who impersonates people from movies, or speaks in funny voices while contorting his face in Mr. Bean-ish ways, or just comes out with new characters occasionally, so this party game works out well for us. It’s possible we’re playing out imagined versions of our future selves, although I hope not. Mostly, we don’t have to be husband and wife for a while. Being husband and wife can get repetitive.

Helmsly Dribblestall, the geeky guy from tech support—but actually, an incredibly talented and handsome musician we all know—comes to escort me, Thelma, offstage. Helmsly is wearing track pants that come up too high, Coke-bottle glasses with a safety strap, and his hair is plastered down with some kind of grease. Bashing out chords on his guitar he breaks into a rock version of Good King Wenceslas but stops to take a call on his headset, “Tech support. How can I help you?” The nasal voice he’s using sounds like a cat in heat.

Herb and Helmsley (Mr. Decembers from Nude Calendar)

“Helmsly! Stop working! Go back to your music!” we call out from the audience.

An hour later I’m deep in conversation with Jake the office’s young night watchman, telling him he should consider dating much older women, when I notice a non-local woman who I know to be a compulsive talker assaulting a friend of mine with her chatter. Neither of them is part of the office party. I grab my cane and bee-line over to their table. The words are still pouring out of the woman’s mouth even when I arrive and my friend is too polite to stop her. This is usually me. I’m often one of those people who gets talked at, maybe because I’m a good listener so it gives nonstop talkers free reign. But not tonight. I throw back my head and shriek in a manner I hope is a real arrhythmia- producer. I bend down to look the woman in the face. “You just love to yak and yak, don’t you, hon? You’re a human audio book.” I mime twisting a key over my mouth. The chatterer freezes in place as she stares at me, holding onto a tight grin.

I look up to see a musician from Ottawa, a guy unaware of the night’s improv setup, start to take to the stage. In real life I know this guy to be a musician who always plays longer than his allotted fifteen minutes. People are too civil to tell him this, especially since he’s an out-of-towner and our village has a reputation for being laid-back and friendly. But Thelma doesn’t care about any of that.

I grab the musician’s shirttail until he has no choice but to turn around and face the octogenarian. I wag my finger. “Don’t think when you get up there you can just keep plaguing us with your noise. You always play too long. None of that tonight!”

His eyes harden as he fixes me with a chilled stare. His whole demeanour betrays his disdain, which shocks me since I’m used to him being jokey with me and my female friends. Clearly he has no appreciation for cranky old ladies. He stalks on stage and proceeds to play while I, Thelma, keep pointing at my watch repeatedly from the front row. Whenever he stops to explain something, I yell out, “More rock, less talk!”

In real life I go out of my way to be as pleasant as possible to pretty much everyone but sometimes I wish I didn’t have to. I love not being me for an entire night. It’s so unexpectedly liberating, refreshing, like a rain shower you hadn’t seen coming that perks you up and charges the air with electrifying possibility. For a few hours, another person has stepped into the body I usually inhabit and is speaking so loudly, so fiercely, so unfettered, that the whole world can see how ecstatic she is.

Toward the end of the night, a woman I know comes over to shake her head and laugh, saying,  “I’ve lived in lots of places but I’ve never seen anywhere even half this…this…” She holds out her hands like an offering, trying to find the word.

“Wacko?” I offer, “eccentric, deviant?

“Open,” she finally lands on. “This open.”

I agree. And once again I think, as I have over the past seventeen years, how lucky I am–how lucky we all are–to have found this place, this remarkable wildly-offbeat village of Wakefield, and call it home.