‘Now remember,’ said Mr Litlove, as he was leaving for work on Thursday morning, ‘the first time you go, you always meet the weirdos. So don’t judge this one, okay?’
‘Mmmm,’ I said, carefully neutral. The first tai chi class was scheduled for that morning and I’d been saying for weeks now that I was going to go. Needle-thin rain was falling steadily from a slate grey sky, I wasn’t sure where the community centre was, and it felt like very early in the morning for me, though it was almost nine o’clock. Ever since I’ve had chronic fatigue, first thing in the morning is not my finest hour. But as unenthusiastic as I felt, I was determined to make it. Whether I’d ever go a second time, though, was not a decision I was about to call.
As I rummaged about in the wardrobe, trying to find something that would do to wear, I felt even more insecure about the whole thing. I do not possess sportswear, as I do not possess a sporting bone in my body. The only thing I could face pulling on were an old pair of comfy jogging bottoms, all potatoed out at the knees, which I’d bought many years ago in a sale. This accounted for the fact they were trimmed in magenta, which matched precisely nothing else I owned. I’m not quite sure why, but I was convinced the room would be packed with trendy fitness-oriented mothers, their offspring parked in school for the day and keen to do something healthy and uplifting for themselves. I could just picture myself shuffing in, looking like a bag lady in all the layers I deemed necessary to stay warm in January. But still, layers were more important than vanity. So to top off my spectacularly un-coordinated outfit, I added my woolen zip-up cardigan with a hood, in a very nice sea-green colour. Alongside the magenta trim it was a statement of something, but probably best not to say what.
The community centre was easier to find that I’d feared (which ruined one excuse for going straight home), although it was one of those buildings with a wide array of full glass doors, only one of which opens. A few minutes later I found a way in, and then I was inside a building that was like every other community centre in the world, most probably. A central seating area papered with flyers and posters held some retired people, having tea (and probably enjoying the spectacle of people out in the rain pushing futilely at fixed glass panels), then there were two long whitewashed corridors heading off at right angles. It wasn’t hard to locate the large gym-like room in which the tai chi class met, though it wasn’t exactly easy to step over the threshold.
I arrived in the room in the blank and bewildered state of the newcomer, looking, I don’t doubt, pretty gormless. The first thing I noticed was that there were no young mothers in bendy yoga poses. In fact, I lowered the average age of the class by about twenty years.
‘Are you here to join us today?’ someone said brightly by my side. I turned and saw a neat grey-haired lady wearing a red t-shirt with a dragon on the front. She had, I noticed, a little Parkinsons shake about her head and neck and looked to be in her early seventies. ‘I’m Margot, the course instructor. Have you done any tai chi before?’
As a matter of fact, I had. But this was many years ago, when I’d gone to an evening class in a dance studio in Ely. The instructor was a Chinese man who’d taken us through the first section of the form with a perfectionist’s eye for detail. Every single movement had to be exact; he would come and shift a shoulder or an elbow a fraction of a centimetre, turn a head a quarter of an inch. I’d enjoyed it, though. As a child I did a lot of ballet, and although I had all sorts of habits to unlearn, it still felt enough like dance to be a relatively natural form of movement for me. That was a long time ago, though.
The class was forming out of an amorphous crowd as Margot called us all to attention. Although it was a beginners’ class, there were clearly several people who had been to workshop days as they were all wearing the same kind of t-shirt. I noticed a squat little old lady who had to be eighty if she were a day, whose chin was so sunk into her shoulders that she didn’t appear able to look left or right. She had one of the t-shirts on. In front of me was a bearded man, early sixties at a guess, in a zipped up navy blue fleece, to my left a thin, shy-looking woman, to my right a woman who I loved immediately because she was wearing a magenta t-shirt, making me feel right at home, both of them in their fifties. The class moved at a cracking pace, so by the time we’d got through the introductory segment that Margot wanted to teach us, we’d reached as far in the form as I had in three months with the Chinese instructor. Everyone around me had been surprisingly competent. I felt that it might be embarrassing if I needed a sit-down before they did.
There was a small kerfuffle at the back as a few latecomers arrived at the door. I saw my elderly lady with the sunken head shuffling off to greet them.
‘No, Edna,’ Margot called. ‘I want Terry to go. No, Edna. Edna, NO!’
Edna, who was clearly quite deaf when spoken to from behind was retrieved by her sprightly young seventy-year-old friend and we went through what we’d learned one last time. After that there was to be a break, and then the new people were to sit at the front and watch the old people, in every sense of the word, go through the complete form. I was doing a bit of useless hovering by the water jug and glasses when I was saved by a man who came to chat to me. Tall, another beard, ohh, mid-fifties, probably.
‘I’d been ill,’ he said, ‘and this has been terrific for me. Can’t believe how much better I feel.’
‘So you’re not a beginner?’ I asked, wondering if anyone was besides me.
‘Well I wouldn’t say that. I’ve supposedly just finished the beginners’ course.’
‘Will you be part of the…?’ I gestured towards the rows of people who were lining up for the full form. There must have been about thirty of them and the room was steadily filling up.
‘For my sins.’ He grinned at me. ‘We haven’t a clue what we’re doing. It’s organised chaos.’
Margot was now calling the new people together (four of us in all) into seats in a semi-circle in front of the group. Edna was sitting with us, too.
‘I’m here to give moral support to the others!’ she said, with a sweet smile.
‘Edna,’ said Margot. ‘You can’t sit there, dear. You’ll have to move to the end. Go along, dear, move.’ Edna took her ousting with good nature and Margot moved in to give us a bit of history about the group while we watched the full form.
There is something strangely awe-inspiring about a large group of people who are moving in complete silence. The full form contains well over a hundred moves and the exercise went on and on, through its slow, careful movements. Oh there were pockets of organised chaos, and I loved the expression on people’s faces that clearly said ‘I have no idea what I should be doing now’, but the force of the group picked the stragglers up and soon they were back in step. As I watched them, I thought how extremely graceful they were. I think, as we get older, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for us to move with grace. One man right in front of me had a walrus moustache, neatly combed grey-blonde hair and steel-rimmed aviator glasses. He had the sort of figure I’d describe as ‘cuddly’. But what a mover he was! He had the hand and arm movements down perfectly, the transitions between them flawless. He caught me watching and gave me a secret smile from beneath the walrus moustache, and by instinct I winked back.
There was a sudden, collective ‘HO!’ from the group, who slapped their thighs and caused us onlookers to nearly jump out of our skins.
‘We call that the principle boy move,’ said Margot, laughing. And I knew I wanted to learn that one. In fact, I wanted to learn them all. I had lost my heart, partly to tai chi, but mostly to my delightfully game new classmates, who moved like the chorus line from a grey version of Swan Lake. They looked wonderful.