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`I found my calling'.

Byline: By Emily Miller

Emily Miller meets modern day `calling bird' Coleen Waugh.

A dressmaker by trade and "nanny" to five-year-old Andrew, bingo caller Coleen Waugh knits and sews for fun.

She spends her days supervising hundreds of fellow grannies, and she loves her job.

But beneath the purple polyester uniform, a wilder side to this "calling bird" makes her a fitting modern alternative to the classic Christmas song.

At the end of a morning shift announcing numbers, Coleen rounds off warmly: "For those leaving now, have a safe journey home. We hope to see you soon."

Stepping down from the stage, she weaves her way through players' tables towards the back of the hall. Slot machines and neon lights line the mauve and orange walls.

It's time for a well-earned cup of tea in the staff room and a chat about what makes her tick.

Forget blue rinses and start thinking sunbeds.

Here is a 55-year-old who believes in living life to the full.

She has been inspired by night porter husband Ian who is 20 years her junior. They wed 13 years ago after the collapse of Coleen's first marriage and live in Lemington near Newcastle.

Ian was working as a bingo caller when their eyes met across the Plaza bingo hall in Newcastle.

"Ian is only four years older than my daughter Denise, who's 30.

"Is that shocking? My friends were taken aback at first. I went back to my youth."

Coleen loves her job and says it is up to her to be "a nice smiling lady".

"In this job it just doesn't pay to be miserable.

"People pay to have someone who's cheery and helpful."

After a decade of calling, she now does 32 hours a week.

But holding the microphone still gives her the jitters.

"I was just a floor assistant when the boss asked me if I fancied calling. My first game was very nerve wracking. It still is, actually. Some bingo callers are really confident, chatting away between games, but I don't have the gift of the gab. If machines play up, it's my job to explain what's going on. That puts you on the spot.

"It's a nightmare when the mind starts wandering to silly things like what's for supper. You call the wrong number. The players notice it's different from what's on the screen ( and then they shout at you."

But customers can also spice up life. "A hen party arrived wearing feathers in their hair, short skirts and boas around their necks. They had drunk a bit, but weren't totally plastered. Bingo was a new experience for them, which is what a hen night should be."

But most players are old hands who receive special treatment from Coleen.

"It's weird because in chit-chat with older people, I talk in a way I would hope to be spoken to when I reach their age."

Coleen straddles generations, but she explains that it isn't always easy.

"Gaining a grandson meant losing part of my daughter. Until then we were like sisters. When she was younger and had school friends over, I'd play hop-scotch or splash them with the hose pipe. We still text each other every day."

Coleen left school at 16 and worked in clothes factories until 1986. She started at the Gala Bingo on the Westgate Road, Newcastle, after stints in Heaton, Walker and the city-centre Plaza.

And another move is afoot, with Gala's central branch due to shut in the New Year as they upgrade to a plush new hall on Shields Road, Byker.

"I'm looking forward to the move," Coleen says. "There'll be more staff to socialise with. I love the feeling of being in a team, and that's what we are. Take my workmate Katy, for instance. She cuts my hair."

So what does "the team" say about her? Cashier Grace Hudspith, 49, of Scotswood, Newcastle, says: "If you want a giggle, go to Coleen. She always makes you laugh." And the boss? Manager Bryan Maughan sums her up: "She's a live wire, and is always up for a chat."

Up in the staff room, smoking is allowed, but Coleen quit in May. And the smell of cigarettes in the bingo hall revolts her. She says: "It's disgusting, and I wish the Government could ban smoking everywhere, but of course that would cause problems. People should be able to relax in whatever way they choose."

For Coleen and Ian, that involves getting into the fresh air. Last summer the pair strapped tennis rackets to their bikes, cycling to Ryton in Gateshead for a match before cycling home again.

No bingo player herself, Coleen says sitting down and marking off numbers would give her itchy feet.

"Lots of people can't believe I'm 55, but then I've always had a laugh and I don't act my age. I can be serious, but a" she tails off, keener to talk dancing and pubbing. She's been going out with the girls for more than 30 years.

But back to bingo, and her eyes light up again. "There's no denying the massive buzz when someone hits the jackpot. A lady in her 70s won pounds 54,000 and afterwards she just kept on asking me `Have I really won that? What am I going to do with it?'

"I've never taken a day off. Of course I get colds, probably from the customers' germs. But they're the ones who cheer me up if I'm feeling rotten. Rather than calling from the stage, I prefer doing jobs down where people are playing, checking claims.

"I'll do it until I retire."

Our calling bird takes a rare pause. "Retire. Now that's a strange thought!"
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Dec 28, 2004
Words:951
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