While handing me a letter, my wife says to me,
“Tomorrow, you have the ‘writing for fun’ training from 10am until 3pm”
I read the letter and then read it again. I thought the training venue was going to be the university but it was at The Salvation Army instead.
Initially, I didn’t like the idea. I searched for the postal code of the address on Google Maps to find out the whereabouts of the building. To my surprise, the venue was literally a 20 minutes’ walk from my house, which was closer than the university.
However, being the curious person that I am, I decided to call the university to ask why the venue had been changed. The lady on the other end of the line told me that the administration had picked this place because most of the participants lived nearby.
The next day, I left home at 9:30 in the morning. When I got to the building, the red bricks and the large glass door were visually pleasing and welcoming. The automatic door opened and the first thing to hit my ears was the sound of children’s voices.
I thought I had entered a child care nursery, I was sure I was not in the right place.
The reception was right across the entrance of the hallway, where a young blonde-haired lady was busy on the telephone. She looked up at me and smilingly said,
“Good morning, Sir. How can I help you?”
While smiling back I put my hand in the right pocket of my coat to get the letter out but I couldn’t find the letter. I quickly searched the left pocket but couldn’t find it there either.
The smile on my face was turning to embarrassment. I nervously looked up at her,
“Sorry, one minute, please”
She smiled patiently and said,
“Don’t worry, take your time”
Watching me while I struggle to find something from my pockets, the lady inquisitively asked,
“Are you here for the writing for fun training?”
Out of relief, I quickly replied,
“Yes, thank you for asking”
She asked for my name and then started searching for it on her computer. After a couple of minutes of searching, she finally found my name and asked me to follow her to the room where the training was being conducted.
She entered the room first and kept the door open for me to enter. The room I entered was a big one, occupied only by ten participants. The receptionist introduced me to another lady, who smiled and extended her hand towards me,
“Welcome to the course”
For a moment, I didn’t want to let go of her soft and tender hand. I thanked her for her welcome while her hand slipped away from mine.
She explained that she was the trainer for this course, and then gestured towards the other participants in the room and asked me to join them. I could feel my level of excitement rising. I sat on an empty chair and said hello to the participants sitting near me.
The building looked like a community centre. I later came to know that the big room we were all seated in had apparently been built for training purposes. While I was busy thinking about the building and how warm and cosy it was, the trainer came forward and welcomed everybody with a smile.
The tutor, as usual, informed the participants about the whereabouts of the restrooms in the building first and then informed us about the exit doors, in case of an emergency. Later on, she gave us a tour of the place and everybody followed suit.
Amidst the tour, I came across some people using computers in another room and tumbling upon the inquisitive look on my face, one of the local participants decided to ease my curiosity,
“Locals come here to search for jobs on the internet and some of them come here to learn computing skills”
When we got back to the training room, I realised that I hadn’t noticed the huge cross that was nailed firmly on the wall behind where I was sitting. The cross sign further raised my curiosity and I went back to thinking about the building. It looked like a community centre from the outside but in actuality it was a church. The trainer started briefing us about the course but my mind was busy finding out the nature of the building, one that I had never before come across during my time in the UK.
After a couple of hours, the trainer announced a 20 minutes break so could have some refreshments; hot drinks and biscuits were then served. When I came out of the room, my curiosity took over and I started exploring the so-called church. A child care nursery was located in front of the reception; the children were being taken care of by trained caretakers. A small community cafe was adjacent to the kitchen where elderly women and men could be seen chitchatting, laughing whilst sipping on their hot cups of coffee. There was a small charity shop next to the cafe where clothing from men and women and toys for children could easily be seen.
As our break was about to end, I rushed back to the training room. The trainer continued with the course and my fascination with the building had now been replaced with a renewed interest in the writing for fun course.
The training finished at 3pm. All the participants packed up their respective belongings and started to leave the building. I, on the other hand, went straight to the reception and asked the lovely receptionist whether she could spare me a few minutes to talk.
Thankfully she agreed and I started to ask her all the questions that had boggled my mind since I had entered the building,
“Is this a church or a community centre?”
She confirmed to me that it was primarily a church but that they also used the building to do a lot of charity work. My curiosity peaked even further, I asked her to elaborate on the various activities that took place at the church,
“Well, we have Bible-study every Friday evening and then worship service every Sunday morning. Besides worship, we have a child care nursery for low income families and a small community cafe for local elderly people who can’t travel to the city centre. We sell coffee, tea, cakes, biscuits and sandwiches cheaper than business cafes.
The computer room is not only for looking up prospective jobs but is also used for computer lessons for the locals. Free food parcels are distributed amongst the poor and arrangements are made for homeless people. Giant supermarkets often send their unsold items and out of fashion dresses to our charity shops, which we sell on further reduced prices. We also have wedding celebrations here…”
As I listened to her quietly, my thoughts took me to the streets of Pakistan where we have hundreds of mosques and imam bargahs that have shut their doors to such activities, social gatherings and charitable causes. And then I just wished…
The short story was originally published on The Express Tribune newspaper Pakistan on 10th of January 2014.