Monday, 14 August 2017

Evidence that Fran now knows the difference between plain and dry

Last week, I stayed overnight at my grandchildren's home to look after them while their parents went to a friend's wedding. Elijah is five. Phoebe is three.

This meant giving them breakfast on Friday morning.

It also meant finding out that Elijah could teach me a lesson in kindness.

A short play, set in a living room

Scene 1

Me: Have you finished your cereal, Phoebe?
Phoebe: Yes. Can I have toast now?
Me: What would you like on your toast?
Phoebe: Just plain, please.
Me: Okay, I'll go to the kitchen and make that. Elijah, have you finished your cereal?
Elijah: Not yet.
Me: I'll do your toast after Phoebe's. What will you have on yours?
Elijah: I have Marmite, please. I love Marmite the best.

Scene 2

Me: Here's your toast, Phoebe. Plain, as you said. Elijah, I've put some toast on for you. It'll be ready soon.
Phoebe: (looks at toast in horror, as though I'd served up rats' brains sprinkled with cayenne pepper)
Me: What's the matter?
Elijah: You've put butter on it, Grandma.
Me: Doesn't 'plain' mean ...
Elijah: No, plain means no butter.
Me: Dry toast?
Elijah: Yes.
Me: With nothing on it at all? I thought plain meant, no Marmite, or no peanut butter.
Elijah: No, it means plain.

(There is a pause, while Phoebe looks at me with trembling lip as if to say 'You're going to ask me to eat this, aren't you? I know it in my bones,' and Elijah looks at me as if to say 'If she tries to make Phoebe eat this, we are going to have Armageddon.')

Scene 3 

Elijah: Actually, Grandma, I think I'd like toast with just butter today. (Moves Phoebe's plate to his place.) Phoebe can have my toast when it pops up.

How wise Elijah was, to select kindness and mercy in order to save the situation. He knows Phoebe better than I do. He lives with her. He knows what 'plain' means in Phoebe-speak. He knew she would have expected me to understand. He looked at the wider implications. He sacrificed his own preferences to achieve a win-win situation for both me and Phoebe.

The world needs more Elijah.

I sat there, watching him eat toast without Marmite that he loves the best, and watching Phoebe eat cardboard.

'You're a kind, kind boy,' I said.

He knew that, for Phoebe, toast with butter is rats' brains with cayenne pepper.

And so do I. Now.

Later that day, finding stones to make, as Phoebe called them, 'wipples'. 

Saturday, 29 July 2017

Reasons why Fran is nervous in the garden

We don't have an expansive garden. Put it this way, when Paul says 'I'm going out to mow the lawn,' it takes him longer to haul the mower out of the shed and plug it in than it does to finish the job itself. There's a zzsshh zzsshh sound for about twenty seconds and that's it done: tidy lawn, with its nineteen blades of grass short and neat.

He still indulges in a heavy self-satisfied sigh afterwards as though he's just mown the gardens at Kensington Palace or the Taj Mahal, but I'll allow him that, as I never offer to mow the lawn myself.

Sometimes I think it would be fun, though, while he's in the shed foraging out the mower, to run outside with a pair of nail scissors and do the job myself before he emerges. 'Da DAH! Surprise!'

We like to encourage the local wildlife into the garden but because of its size there are limitations. Bees, butterflies and tiny birds we can cope with. If a fat pigeon, a pregnant cat or even a particularly plump Queen Bee turns up it all gets a bit crowded and we end up having to go back indoors. Either that, or endure a claustrophic few minutes on our four-slab patio, wondering why we ever said we wanted to move from London to Warwickshire to be closer to nature. Be careful what you wish for, etcetera.

We hung a small birdfeeder out earlier this year on our pyracantha bush to encourage along the sparrows and the bluetits. One like this.

It's been very successful, so much so that sometimes there are seven or eight tiny birds balancing precariously on its edge. That's pushing it in terms of garden space. If the number rises to ten, I have to bring the washing in.

Despite that, without consulting me, Paul went back to the store last week and bought a bigger birdfeeder, more like this. The pyracantha can only just support it.

'What are you trying to do?' I said. 'Won't that attract enormous eagles and ostriches? Or dodos?'

In fact, what happened was that for a couple of days no birds came at all.

'I think they were a bit disconcerted by the change,' Paul said.

I told him I wasn't surprised. It would be like us heading off to one of these for a pint of milk or a packet of Digestives  ....

.... and finding it had turned into one of these ....

Gradually, the sparrows and bluetits are returning. I fear, however, that, finding such bounteous provision, they are going to tell all their friends. And then what? We'll have two choices: sit indoors, or stay in the garden, acting in our own version of Daphne Du Maurier's 'The Birds', flinching from feathers and ducking as sparrows, glutted and satiated on enough seed to feed the developing world, fly above our heads, grinning.

Monday, 17 July 2017

Reasons why Fran will now have more time to wait for the call from Vogue

Someone stopped me in a corridor at school last week to say, 'Oh, I hear you're retiring. Congratulations!'

Retiring? Retiring? How old does she think I look? Is my new make-up regime not effective? Have I chosen the wrong plastic surgeon?

'Not retiring,' I said, graciously, while thinking 'One more insinuation like that and I will bop you over the head with this Oxford English Dictionary.'

'Oh?' she said.

'Moving on from classroom teaching, though,' I told her. 'After the summer holidays, I'll be working in a learning centre which provides one-to-one GCSE teaching for pupils not coping in mainstream education.'

'One-to-one?' she said, with a breathy sense of wonder as though saying, 'Five years' holiday on a remote Greek island with Sean Bean?'

I can't believe it either. I've always thought my choices for my main day job were a) teach whole classes in a school or b) leave teaching as my main day job.

But then just before Easter I met the headmaster of a tiny little school which operates in my town, supported by a network of local churches, and which needed a teacher of GCSE English for three days a week.

'Let me cuddle you until you squeal for mercy,' I said nearly said to him, when he offered me an interview.

I did walk out of that interview feeling I'd fluffed the whole thing. You know how you go over what you've said, and think, 'You sounded like an idiot there. And there. And there. And there,' and wish you'd actually said this and this and that instead?

But he phoned me and said, 'You sounded like an idiot but we'll take you anyway .'

So, last Wednesday was my final day at school (independent schools finish disgustingly early for the summer and I have survivor guilt about it).

The joy of the new job is that I'll be doing what I love to do best: teaching English. Plan the lesson. Find resources. Teach the lesson. Mark any work produced in the lesson.

But teaching English in schools comes with all kinds of administrative baggage that won't be part of this new job: baggage which people tell you about but the reality of which doesn't hit you until you're drowning in it.

You know when Auntie Freda comes for Christmas and says she's only staying for two days but brings three suitcases, six carrier bags, two boxes, a bonkers dog, a parrot and a friend called Colin? Well, schoolteaching is like that, and I've spent fifteen years using up evenings and weekends dealing with all the extra baggage.

So, what will I do with my evenings and weekends now?

Well, I do still need other work as my three days won't quite keep the wolf from the door. So, I'll be keeping him at bay with some bits of freelance writing, private tutoring, proofreading and waiting for that delayed call from Vogue Magazine to do a cover shoot.

And you know that second book that I've been writing since the beginning of recorded time?....

Now there's a chance it might emerge, blinking into the sunlight.

And I'm very, very grateful for that chance. And happy. This kind of happy ....

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Evidence that Fran brought up her kids in luxury and decadence

On birthdays and at Christmas, while we were raising our kids, there was always one present that had to be opened first. It would be sitting on the dining table, ready to be unwrapped before breakfast.

Why before breakfast?

Because it was a valuable computer game or expensive toy that had to be opened immediately. 

Because it WAS the breakfast.

Yes, we always surprised them every year by wrapping up their Christmas or birthday breakfast.

What was in it?

It was a parcel of smoked salmon, syrupy pancakes and croissants.

It was a box of sugary cereal.

We didn't let our kids have sugary cereals on a day-to-day basis. They now, in their late twenties and thirties, swear that this was a form of deprivation.

I'll just say this in my own defence. The kids still have all their teeth. And they also have a memory of a childhood ritual no other child in Britain will have ...

The childhood ritual was this. On special occasions, we made an exception to the sugary cereal rule, wrapping up a box of Frosties, or Coco Pops, or Sugar Puffs, for their breakfast.

It looked like this. I'll find you a picture.

*Googles: 'Frosties wrapped in Christmas paper. Google says, 'But why would there be such pictures? Who would DO this to their children?' and yields nothing*

Okay, here's a packet of Frosties.

Please imagine that, wrapped in the paper below. I say this, not because this is the actual paper we used, but because I wish it had been available when the kids were young. It's junk food wrapping paper, and would have reminded them, in the true spirit of celebrations, of all the other things we never let them eat.

The ritual changed in nature over the years. 

When they were only little, they ripped open the package, desperate to get at the sugar, like little honey bees on the frantic search for nectar, and saying 'Thank you, thank you, Mum and Dad!'

As you all know, this kind of innocence doesn't last long. 

As they got older, they groaned when they saw the package. But they opened it anyway and grudgingly spooned the cereal in as we said, 'Merry Christmas, kids!' and winked, as though we were the Most Amusing Parents Ever. 

Once they hit the teenage years, the ritual continued, but laced with a heavy sense of irony. For a start, they were busy gobbling sugary cereal at every friend's house they could possibly wangle a sleepover at. I imagine that, at teatime, when asked by a friend's mum if they'd like sausages or chicken, they'd say, 'Do you by any chance have Coco Pops?' and making this kind of face.

Also, they were old enough to pour themselves a bowl of Bran Flakes from our kitchen cupboard but then lace it with a layer of sugar thick enough to masquerade as a snowdrift. 

On family holidays, sugary cereal became mandatory and if we took a box of All Bran with us, Paul and I would be the only ones eating it while everyone else laughed and poured themselves a third bowl of Sugar Puffs. 

Now they have left home, we visit their households for Christmas. Last year, we stayed with our two daughters who share a house. There was a familiarly-shaped present waiting for us before breakfast. The girls were guffawing as we opened our box of Bran Flakes.

'We know you asked for a new posh notebook and a pair of sparkly earrings, Mother, but we needed closure.'

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Evidence that Fran's photographs are not primarily of beautiful landscapes and scenery

I'm going to entertain you with a few photos from my phone camera for this blog post.

That last sentence was full of hope.

My husband apologises to a fish for the fact that we're just about to fry it to perdition and eat it with dill sauce.
That's the definition of insincere. 

This is what passes for vandalism in Leamington Spa. Someone sticks a washing instruction label over the bus timetable. It's wild round here. Armed police and everything.

Fran's husband adds to her cute display of preserves on the kitchen windowsill with his own brand of interior decor. 

Fran realises that although her kitchen decor is no longer coordinated, at least her socks match her laptop.

Fran, sitting with her 95 year old Gran and her 4 and 3 year old grandchildren, isn't sure whether to feel young or old.  

Seen outside a pub near Fran. An early work by Dylan Thomas.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Evidence that Fran's kitchen is where real drama takes place

'I don't like eating peaches,' I said to Paul yesterday as I bent over the kitchen sink trying to consume a fruit that didn't want to co-operate. 'It gushes juice, for a start, so I have to eat it in this undignified position. And it's got this velvety skin which keeps slipping about. I feel as though I'm noshing on someone trying to shrug off a posh jacket.'

He watched me as I struggled on. I thought, 'I wonder if he's finding this arousing.' But he wasn't, because he turned away to check through the spice cupboard to see what needed to go on the shopping list.

I'm not surprised. Plump woman with peachy face leaning over kitchen sink isn't a pose you see in 'Hot Ladies' magazine, I bet.

After I'd recovered from the peach-eating, which necessitated a full scrub-down - I may as well have gone for a shower - we had a tense conversation about another kind of drip.

'All these brown stains near the recycling bin,' I said to him. 'That's you, unable to stop a teabag from dripping on its way from mug to bin. Just put your hand underneath it, like I do, to catch any drips. I keep having to wipe them up.'


'I'm going to call you Jack the Dripper,' I said.

'Please don't. That's tasteless.'

'Okay. But do as I said. Hold your hand underneath the teabag.'


'I don't like the hot tea dripping into my hand,' he said.

'You're a wuss,' I said.

He's not, though. He's hypersensitive to touch. For instance, I can walk about the kitchen in bare feet but he can't. He has to put socks on, otherwise he hops about saying 'Oof, oof' as though our kitchen tiles are hot coals.

I can wear a teeshirt with long sleeves that tickles me in the crook of my elbows. He can't. He's just paid a sewing lady twenty pounds to alter some sleeves for him on two teeshirts he bought. He does the same with shorts that reach the knee. That lady does extremely well out of the alterations he sends her so that clothes don't tickle him.

The sewing lady treats her friends to lunch with Paul and Fran's savings 

Special occasions are worse. If we go to a wedding, we have The Big Domestic about the Tie. He can't tolerate being trussed up at the neck. He wants to be able to wear a shirt, with no tie, and the top button undone, otherwise he feels as though he's being strangled. Chance would be a fine thing, I say to him, if The Domestic has continued for too long.

In fact, all his clothes are kind of baggy and unstructured, and most of them are pretty old and holey, because he's a gardener, so if I'm out in town with him, I have to stop people offering him a Greggs sausage roll, or prayer, or the address of a hostel.

'Please, no,' I say. 'He's with me.'

'How lovely of you to befriend him,' they say. 'You're a saint. I'll leave you to it, then, as long as he's being looked after.'

Still standing by the kitchen sink, I said to Paul, 'Well, to stop the dripping problem, why don't you squeeze out the teabags properly? You don't squeeze enough.'

'What?' he said.

He hadn't heard me. I'd just emptied something down the waste drain and it had gurgled so loudly, it had drowned out my words.

'I can't believe I've just been upstaged by a gurgling drain,' I said. 'Now that is humiliation. I bet Adele would feel the same if Bob Dylan sang over her.'

'What were you saying anyway?' Paul said.

But I didn't have energy for more nagging. It takes it out of me. I've been less tired after an exercise class. And that class was in 1972, so that's telling you something.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Evidence that hats give Fran bad memories

I went to a grammar school in the 1970s and part of the girls' uniform for the Lower School was a blue beret with a gold tassel.

I was eleven when I first wore it.

Here's a blue beret.

Here's a gold tassel.

The tassel was attached to the centre of the beret. It was long enough to lie across the top of the hat and then hang down over the edge of it by several inches, bobbing along as you walked.

As a ridiculous piece of headwear, it rivalled this.

And this.

And - remember this?

I'm not saying the beret-with-tassel made us feel conspicuous, but if the sun caught the tassel, a magpie on holiday in the Outer Hebrides caught the glint and started back.

My question is: why would anyone do this to a child? I swear Freud wrote books about gold-tasseled hats and their effect on the adolescent psyche. He must have done.

I'd heard rumours, before I started at the school, about what happened to new first years. 'The older kids steal your tassels,' was the word on the street.

As a threat, I know this doesn't rate alongside, 'The older kids saw off your right leg as you enter the school gates' or 'The older kids poison your custard with deadly nightshade'. But as a quaking only-just-out-of-Juniors, insecure, troubled youngster, I was pants-wettingly terrified. The school rules in my new 'Student Handbook' made sans tassels sanctions very clear. The formula was:

beret + tassel = happy teacher
beret - tassel = unhappy teacher, public dressing-down, and detention

A memory.

My mother and I, standing on the pavement in Millers Road in Warwick at a bus stop, awaiting the school coach on the first day. Me, begging her to let me take the beret off before the coach came and I would be forced to face other students. She refusing because she'd read the school policy: berets had to be worn to and from school. Me, having a humdinger of a meltdown at the side of the road, sobbing like a burst main. 'Don't make me wear it. Don't make me wear it.' Me, clinging to her coat as though I wanted to be part of it.

Then, the ultimate humiliation. She, when the coach finally came, coming up its stairs behind me and calling down the aisle, 'Could someone look after her? She's a bit nervous.'

I took one of the seats at the front, among other 11 year olds nibbling their lips and looking down at the floor, and I burrowed into the seat, trying to disappear.

Not only was I wearing the beret and tassel at that moment, but I also wore shame the colour of a furious burn.

My tassel was stolen on the first day, along with tens of others. The rumours were correct. The fifth years had made it a Thing, the day the first years arrived, to invade the cloakrooms at lunchtime, pluck our berets from the pegs on which they hung, and tug off the tassels, which they left strewn on the floor. The result was almost beautiful, like discarded pirate's treasure, or as though Midas had been in the cloakrooms.

It turned out there was safety in numbers. To shamelessly quote Lady Bracknell from 'The Importance of Being Earnest', 'to lose one tassel may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two tassels looks like carelessness; for half of the first years to lose tassels seems like the fifth years have yet again escaped the clutches of the on-duty teachers and therefore sanctions seem inappropriate.'

The second day, I refused to let my mother come with me to the bus stop. I waited for the coach with the beret, its tassel sewn on again, folded and stuffed into my blazer pocket. I would don it when the coach passed the school gates, and not before, just like everyone else.

The second day, senior teachers prowled the cloakrooms.

I don't agree with school uniform. I never have. I've been teaching for fifteen years and I'd estimate that one year of my career has been spent, not teaching Shakespeare or creative writing, but intoning, 'Please tuck your shirt in', 'Don't roll your skirt up at the waist,' and 'That hoodie doesn't look like a school blazer to me' and entering sanction marks into school data systems when students have arrived at school in trainers, not shoes.

I keep to the party line if that's the school rules, but my heart's not in it.

This makes me wonder how teachers at my own secondary school viewed the imposition of The Tasselled Beret.

For me, it's one of the most vivid memories of my mother that I have: her climbing up the coach's steps and asking if someone would take care of me. At the time, I saw it as betrayal. Now, as a mother and grandmother, I have a different perspective.

She died when I was fourteen, so I've never had a chance to discuss it with her.