A fun way to pay for the playground

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The Independent Online
FRIDAY afternoon: A group of women are hauling large Formica-topped, canteen- style tables around an otherwise empty village hall. Voices and laughter echo in the wooden rafters as tables are set on a floor polished by years of playgroup, shows, dances and bazaars. Beer barrels thunder into the side bar.

It is the eve of the third summer ball of Silsoe Lower School Parent Teacher Association. The ball is now the PTA's top earner. It made pounds l,100 last year for this little village school set in relatively affluent Bedfordshire commuter land 50 miles north of London.

The PTA committee ran the ball itself at first, but the amount of planning meant other events were short changed. The job is now delegated to four volunteers: Bev Edwards, Annie Lawton and Marion Townsend - all ex-PTA - and Rita Scurr, who is still a member.

Organisation began 12 months ago, when the band and the hall were booked - the washing up from the last ball was barely dry.

SATURDAY 10am: The women are back, this time with Annie's husband, Ned. Annie is in charge of the design, which will transform this hall by the time the first revellers arrive at 7.30pm.

It is a masked ball theme and the Lawton family, children included, have made the decorations. School hoops are no longer primary colour plastic but striped with burgundy and gold crepe paper. Suspended inside are gold- sprayed comedy and tragedy masks made from cardboard. By tonight they will be hanging from the rafters.

The day progresses, tables are laid with stiff white linen. Glass candle lamps, borrowed from the village drama group, sprout from every table. More helpers and friends arrive.

Hand-made gold masks, attached to slim green garden canes striped with gold ribbon are anchored in pots of sand as table decorations.

People go giddy blowing up dozens of gold-coloured balloons. Doors to the playgroup and the drama stores disappear under swags of burgundy fabric last used in spring for a village production of Bugsy Malone. The transformation is almost complete.

3pm: The food starts to arrive. Salmon mousses, cheese terrines, coronation chicken, gorgeous salads and puds are left in their plastic boxes and wrappings in the committee room, where food will be served. Most of it is donated. Parents and friends have signed up to cook and prepare the buffet. They have picked dishes they are good at making and the result is great. Mass catering that tastes like the best of home-made.

6pm: The band arrives. The food is unwrapped.The tension begins to mount. Two PTA husbands in bow ties and waistcoats do the final touches to the bar.

7.30pm: Start time. Everything is ready. Within minutes small groups start to arrive. By 8pm the place is buzzing and the band strikes up. One hundred and sixteen tickets have been sold at pounds 12.50 each, but it feels like a private party. Most people know one another and the dance floor is soon heaving.

The food is such a hit that people heap their plates and there is only just enough for the final few in the queue. The organisers sweat and fret until everyone is fed. A husband stands sentry on the puddings to prevent a people from taking too much.

During the break, Ned auctions a brake pedal once belonging to Nigel Mansell and a signed visor from Damon Hill. The older children in the school have been writing to celebrities asking them for gifts to raffle and auction at the ball and the summer fete.

Later a groaning, luxury hamper is raffled. The basket was given by the headteacher, Helen Cook, and filled by Rosemary Duncan, one of the PTA members.

12 midnight: With the crowd still yelling for more, the ball has to come to a close. Village hall rules prevent it from going on any longer. It's been a great party.

SUNDAY 9am: Bleary-eyed mums, dads and children arrive to transform the hall back to its plain old self. The man arrives to collect the dirty washing up, the decorations come down, the parents' dishes are washed and stacked, ready for collection. The children burst the balloons. By noon the hall is empty.

The ball made well over pounds l,300. The money will go towards expensive wooden adventure play equipment for the 99 children at the school; the equipment should last until they are old enough to belong to a PTA themselves. Even if it doesn't, it's still been worth it.