Sunday, 19 February 2017

Reasons why Fran will never be on that Great British Sewing Bee programme

Lying on my bed is a pair of black trousers. They need some sewing work done but I am to needlework what Donald Trump is to coherent discourse and am putting it off.

I bought the trousers one summer, several years ago. The label said 'medium length' but when I first wore them, the hems smothered my shoes, dragged along behind me like two recalcitrant children, and yelled to the world, 'This is a shortarse if ever there was one. There's enough spare material here to cover a three-piece suite.'

I turned the trousers up to a more reasonable length but, that day, didn't have any black cotton. So, I waited until I could get to the shops to buy black  used silver-grey cotton instead and kidded myself that the stitches wouldn't show if I was careful.

Wouldn't show? Wouldn't show?  Perhaps if I was to needlework what Donald Trump is to verbal gaffes they wouldn't have shown. But -

I wore the trousers to school the next day and taught the first lesson of the morning to teenage cool-dude A level English students. Until you've been a middle-aged plumpy teaching a roomful of fresh-faced cool-dudes who can throw chopped and irregular layers of garments in different colours and patterns on top of a hangover and still look fabulous, you may think I'm exaggerating about how one's confidence can be destabilised by a touch of amateur needlework.  Some of the students were no doubt future fashion designers who'd learned at the feet of mothers who'd hand-sewn their ivory christening gowns in tiny elegant Jane Austen fully-matching-ivory-cotton stitches, with sequins, beads and all.

The lesson took place in a classroom with the sun crashing in at the window, its beams focused on my trouser legs, cruelly lighting up those silvery stitches as a car headlight picks out a cyclist's fluorescent jacket or strobe lighting picks out dandruff. My fumbling, clumsy stitches, quite clearly sewn in by someone with pork chops for fingers, dominated my thoughts and I tried to keep my legs tucked under the chair. No doubt some students were thinking, 'She looks tense. Why is she curled up like that? I hope that's not a diarrhoea bug she's trying to keep under control.'

I put the trousers in my wardrobe that night. 'I'll re-sew them tomorrow,' I said, 'with black thread.'

The next day, I re-sewed them. That was in 2013.

There they are now, lying on the bed.

I really ought to get round to taking out those silver stitches and re-sewing them.

I really ought.

After all, it's my half-term, and I'd have the time.

On the other hand, there's a nice lady in a shop fifteen minutes' walk from here who does sewing jobs and repairs for a very reasonable fee.

It would surely do me good to get out for a walk tomorrow ...

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Evidence that tiny things shouldn't be underestimated

I walked past a tree just now, coming home from town. The traffic was quiet, the road peaceful, and the houses Saturday-afternoon lethargic. But on the topmost branches of the tree perched a teeny-weeny bird singing a song so loud and bold and shrill that the tree winced and looked embarrassed, like someone who'd taken a garrulous, opinionated relative into a library and was regretting it.

I looked up, expecting to see the bird grasping a microphone and on its left and right, balancing precariously on the branches, a pair of mahoosive Panasonic loudspeakers.

My, my. What a voice for a bird so minuscule. Put it next to a large fly, and the fly would be taller. Had the bird lain down in the road and cried, 'Come on, local moggies - free meal!' I suspect the moggies would have taken one look, said, 'We've seen more meat in a vegan's pantry,' and moved on.

I'm not good on bird species, but I think this one was a lesser-spotted-town-crier-bird, or a an early-Tom-Jones or the rare megaphone-dressed-in-feathers bird.


What other things make an impact completely out of proportion to their size? I've had some ideas.

1. Babies.

Babies are born small for a good reason. Anyone who's ever given birth will be able to tell you that reason.

But, boy, do babies make a noise.

Here's a picture of a crying baby.


Whoever drew that picture lied.

Here's a more realistic picture of a crying baby.

NO one's tonsils are cute.

When tiny babies cry, their whole bodies disappear behind their open mouths. In fact, mothers all over the world are wandering around, saying, 'I hear the noise, I see a black hole, but where is Baby?' Then they realise that if they approach the black hole, the child is there, just behind it. The words 'Mummy's here - would you like more milk even though you've already drunk fourteen pints this morning?' will restore the black hole/child balance within seconds.

I will list the rest of my ideas. You know where I'm going with this now.

2. Mosquitoes.

3. Broken wind after cabbage.

4. A tiny Lego brick on a carpet in the dark.

5. A kidney stone.

6. A shred of basil between your front teeth.

7. A little toe stubbed on a bedpost.

8. An eyelash hair in the eye.

9. A bit of egg yolk in the meringue mix.

10. A tiny crack where the handle joins the mug.

11. A needleful of anaesthetic.

12. One forgotten kipper at the back of the fridge.

Can you think of others, followers? Please tell me in the comments :)

Fran suggested it sing 'I believe I can fly ...' but it was offended and clamped its beak tight shut

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Reasons why Fran is writing at midnight

I'm writing this while sitting in bed very late on a Wednesday evening, unwisely so because I have to be up at six. But I usually listen to Radio 4 at this point and they're playing some of their unfunny comedy. I swear they use the late comedy slot to try out people who ring up and say 'My mum says I'm hilarious. Can I have a show?'

'Yeah, sure. We have a space at 11.15pm we reserve for people whose mums think they're hilarious.'

'Will it be a big audience?'

'Sure, we get all kinds. Insomniacs who really don't care what's on as long as someone's talking to them. Women breastfeeding and using our show to bore the child back to sleep. Drunk people: they're easy to please. Shift workers so knackered we could play them Paradise Lost backwards and they wouldn't realise. Old people who napped for longer than they meant to at 4pm and now won't sleep until 3am. Women still breastfeeding. Ex-comedians who want to feel smug that they weren't that bad at your stage. Oh, and usually a wannabe comedian's mum.'

'Do any talent scouts listen then?'

'Pff. If they do, it's because they're insomniacs, breastfeeders or drunk people. Or their radio isn't tuned properly.'

'So am I not likely to hit the big-time if I have a late show on Radio 4?'

'You're more likely to hit the bottle. As are your listeners from what we've heard on your demo tape: those who aren't already half-blood-half-vodka.'

If I turn the radio on now, at 23.45 it'll be Today in Parliament. The problem with that is, I've already watched BBC Parliament for half an hour today on BBC iplayer to see what the result of the launch-Brexit vote was (not that it was a surprise). That was half an hour of my life I'll never get back: MPs shuffling about in the House or gossiping thigh-to-thigh with other MPs on narrow not-enough-room benches; (mostly) men in suits squeezing their paunches past each other on their way into and out of the lobbies like a fat man's version of Inuit-rubbing-of-noses ; and over it all the Speaker calling for 'HORS-D'OEUVRES' all the time and not a canape in sight, poor chap.

Here's the list. I want dim-sum, a couple of mini sausage rolls, and a cracker with a touch of liver pate. 

I'm lucky with my sleep, especially since hitting fifty. As long as I sleep for five hours solid, I'm up the next morning ready to roll, although in the winter that first peel-back of the duvet is a challenge, then there's the insult of cold air, the search for the slippers and the blind shuffle to a chilly bathroom. All that achieved, though, I'm soon perky-perky and as bright as a new coin.

That means that if I go to sleep too early - say, at ten - I'm awake at four and only get back to sleep with the help of a hot drink and - here's a trick you can borrow - reciting my times tables in my head. It's so efficient, this method, that I rarely get to 1 x 4 = 4 before I'm snoring like a troll. Ask me anything about multiples of three. Past that, don't bother. Ask a real insomniac.

We're into the midnight news now so it's time to get horizontal and curl up. I don't think I've missed much, not listening to the late-night sessions of what passes for humour, and anyway the news itself at the moment contains a generous helping of bizarre could-that-really-happen comedy.

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Reasons why Fran can now work in her study again

The Boiler Man has been.

If you want to know why that's even A Significant Thing, see this post from last Sunday

He took out a spanner, said, 'Yeah, I know what this is,' turned a screw, and bingo! The boiler has been renamed Whisperer. I do not have words for the relief I feel. I will just offer you these comparative situations in an attempt to explain.

I get the same level of relief when I ....

- have eaten a bar of chocolate and when I read the calories it says '100' where I was expecting '300'.

- wake up after a dream in which forty children are rioting in my classroom, lobbing doughnuts at each other and shouting 'Out, teacher, out!'

- leap out of bed thinking it's a Friday and that I'm an hour late for school, then realise it's a Saturday

- find a seat on the bus next to a string-thin person so that they don't have to commune with my thigh

- watch a string-thin person get on the bus and take the seat not next to mine

- realise I am in a cafe, alone, with a book, and have forgotten to bring the marking I intended to do

- get a phone call from the administrator at school saying, 'You know we wanted you to cover another teacher's absence and take a Year 9 PE lesson in the last lesson of this afternoon? The teacher came back.'

 - take my shoes off after a day on my feet and snuggle them into soft slippers

- realise that the wasp in my hair isn't a wasp

- get on a train at Leamington with a Prosecco-swilling screeching cussing hen party dressed in pink handkerchiefs who all get off at Banbury 15 minutes later

- find that the homework essay a student accused me of losing was in her bag all along

- snuggle into bed on a winter's night and realise that Book at Bedtime is on the radio and not some late-night unfunny sketch show that Radio 4 has labelled comedy

- realise that the three buzzing flies pirouetting around the room while I try to write/read/mark have finally located the window

- when I realise that I hadn't pressed 'Reply to All' 

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Reasons why Fran is currently hiding in her front living room with the door shut

I like general noise. I work best when in cafes, surrounded by the hubbub of gossip, coffee machines, the clink of cups. At night, I often drift off to sleep with Radio 4's Book at Bedtime murmuring in my ear. Silence worries me and makes me restless.

However, there are some noises I can't tolerate. Let us talk about them.

1. My husband using the pressure cooker

My husband makes stock if we have chicken bones left over or sometimes puts a soup together with all the root veg from his allotment. He likes to use the pressure cooker but he knows to warn me before it starts the hissing phase.  I have to know the exact time because I hate to be taken by surprise by that hissing: it makes me want to slap people. Maybe it's some kind of primal warning system of danger - a throwback to long ago (hissing serpents ... temptation ... No, Eve, don't DO it!) but that hissing noise crawls under my skin. I've typed 'hissing' several times now and it's recreating the tension in my chest; my heart is beating faster. When the pressure cooker is h ... making that noise it makes, I go to the other end of the house and turn a radio on, hoping it's not this song that's playing.

2. Clicking pens

Some years ago, I began a new teaching job. A class of fourteen year olds resented having a different teacher and one way they communicated this was by clicking their ballpoint pens on and off in the lessons. I won't judge them too harshly and perhaps it was cosmic justice; I was a pain in the butt to teachers as a fourteen year old and clearly remember humming at the back of the room or tapping a ruler, just to rile the poor man or woman doing their best to teach me about coastal erosion.

My Year 9 class must have googled 'Things that will drive Mrs Hill crazy-crazy' because they were spot-on. It would begin five minutes into the lesson. Click. Click. Click-click-click. Clickety-click. They did it under the tables, but gradually I isolated the noise to a group of girls on the left-hand side of the classroom.

'Someone is clicking a pen,' I'd say, trying to stay detached despite every nerve ending in my body screaming RESCUE ME FROM THIS TORTURE. 'In fact, several of you are. Stop it now, because if I find out you're doing it on purpose just to be disruptive, I will dangle you from the classroom window until you beg for mercy  put you into a detention in which you will complete exercises on the semi-colon.'

The only thing that stopped it was, sure enough, to catch someone at it and keep them behind, however much they protested that they'd 'done it by accident'. This, combined with some jokes of mine they found vaguely amusing, and a few bags of Jelly Babies, saw an end to it. We got on with some Shakespeare instead of reenacting High Noon with stationery items.

But it's like a trigger. If I hear a pen clicking, my toes curl up like a jester's. That posse of mutinous girls psychologically damaged me. One day I will talk to a therapist about it, if I can find a way of starting a conversation about penclickyphobia.

3. Our new boiler

Let me introduce you to our new boiler. We are calling it 'The Moaner'.  Our landlord kindly put in a new central heating system for us just before Christmas but it involved taking away our old boiler (whom we are now calling Our Old Silent Friend). Our Old Silent Friend was in the kitchen and provided warmth and a listening ear should one have had no one else to talk to about one's problems.

The Moaner has been installed upstairs in an airing cupboard. It's in the bedroom I use for my study. This is the Moaner's daily itinerary:

7-10.30 am - Switch on. Get on with business without causing too much disruption.
10.30 am -  Start moaning, quietly at first.
11.00 am -  Build up the moaning to a crescendo, hitting the top note (werewolf) at around 11.30.
The rest of the day until the heating goes off at 10pm - keep the werewolf impression going, but make him sound hungrier and hungrier.

Have we had the gas man round? Yes, three times. Has he mended it? Yes, each time he says he's mended it. Has he really? No, despite his best efforts and we're most grateful (if you're reading this, Jason). What's going to happen now? Someone from the boiler company is coming this Wednesday.

Since the Moaner moved in, my study has been off-limits. I have a spacious pine desk by a window overlooking ancient trees and it's my favourite place in the house now. It's where I read, write or mark when I'm not in cafes making a cappucino and a free biscotti last four hours. The Moaner, of course, knew all this. Maybe he also Googled 'Things that will drive Mrs Hill crazy-crazy.'

If we sit in our downstairs back room directly underneath the airing cupboard where the Moaner lives, we can hear him, werewolfing away above our heads. I am sure our next-door neighbours can hear the noise. They are probably saying, right now, 'Do you think they've trapped a live animal behind a wall like that man did in that Edgar Allen Poe story The Black Cat? Should we call the RSPCA?'

No, I'd like to say to them. Call me a therapist. I'm going crazy-crazy here, almost crazy enough to say to my husband, 'Make a soup, for heaven's sake. We have to drown it out somehow.'

'The Black Cat' by Poe. A fabulous but disturbing short story. Recommended.
Warning: Do not teach this to eleven-year-olds without re-reading it very carefully.
They don't sleep for weeks.
I found that out the hard way. 

Thursday, 29 December 2016

Reasons why Fran is glad of the fickle British climate

Twice now, we have accidentally had a Christmas barbecue, both times because my daughter-who-was-a-contestant-on-Masterchef has arrived at our house with the Christmas meat, over-estimating the size of our oven.  Once it was a piece of beef which was so big and boastful, we had to tell it to breathe in before it came through the front door, let alone the oven door. Last year, she brought a goose which had an ambition to be an Olympic shot-putter and had been undergoing intensive training before its hopes and dreams were cut short. Both the beef and the goose found themselves being barbecued in our back garden, there being no room in our tiny oven for roast vegetables and meat with pretensions. We took turns togging up in hats and coats to baste or check the meat, avoiding the twitchy curtains of the neighbours who wondered why, if we wanted a barbecue at Christmas, we didn't just move to Australia.

This year, we went to our daughter's house for Christmas and, by design rather than accident, because she is someone who lives in London but really wants to be a farmer's wife and live off the land, we sat in her garden all Christmas day watching as she roasted two pieces of meat - lamb and pork - on a giant spit made by her partner who lives in London but really wants to be a farmer. While she prepared the meat, my husband, who's a gardener, dug up the parsnips, potatoes and carrots from the vegetable patch. If you used to watch The Good Life, you're in the right territory.

The picture below is of the meat loaded onto an uber-skewer in my daughter's kitchen, with a smug duck looking on, glad it wasn't his turn. So that you can get a sense of the size of the skewer, I will tell you that the bench is about five feet long. The partner who lives in London but really wants to be a farmer is also a skilled carpenter who made my daughter a table and benches to seat ninety. If they do achieve their ambitions and move house, I think the house will have to be lifted up by a crane so the table and benches can be removed, and the table and benches will need to have wheels attached so they can be towed down the motorway towards Sussex or Wales or Ireland, wherever the farm is.

Here's the pork and lamb cooking over hot coals at the bottom of the garden.

Christmas Day, weather-wise, looked nothing like any of the Christmas cards. Not a snowflake in sight. In fact, it was such a mild day that we could sit outside, without coats, and watch the meat on the spit. So, our Christmas Day entertainment went like this:

- pour a drink
- go down the garden with the drink and a book
- Say 'Those juices are less pink now'
- watch the meat being rotated by someone else in the family
- eat some crisps
- take a turn rotating the meat
- read a book
- chat a bit
- Say 'Those juices are less pink now'
- eat some crisps
- go back indoors for another drink

No, it's not Charades, and we had to catch up on the Queen's speech later, but watching meat cook for hours and hours and hours makes you relax. Our modern, instant cooking methods that we use day to day don't provide this same sense of 'Aaaah, that's better!' It's just not the same, peering at the dial on the microwave while it goes 59, 58, 57, 56 ....

There was some incongruity within this pseudo-rustic scene in that my daughter's house is in Isleworth, next to Heathrow Airport, and the planes fly over her garden so low that you can order a drink and a snack from a member of BA's cabin crew and watch a scene from Shrek 3 before the planes move on. Occasionally, when one of us said, 'Those juices are less pink now', no one heard. You can't imagine how noisy those planes are until you've sat in my daughter's garden and felt a hot undercarriage singe the top of your head as the aircraft flies off to New York or Italy or Africa.

Every five minutes, someone said, 'Shall we taste a bit?' so we sat in a line, our mouths open just like the beaks of baby birds in a nest, and tiny slivers were sliced off and deposited in our mouths like little sweetmeats.

At five, we sat down around the mahoosive table in the kitchen, squinting through the candlelight at other family members sitting far away at the other end of the table, and calling to each other for salt or to pass the parsnips just as Heathcliff calls to Catherine across the North Yorkshire moors. In the middle of the table was an Everest of fragrant, juicy meat, and if you're a vegetarian, and still reading this, WELL DONE, YOU!

With the meat, we had homemade mint sauce and cranberry sauce and apple sauce and crispy potatoes cooked in goose fat, and parsnips and carrots and indigestion and regret.

But it was fabulous.

As an addendum, here's a picture of one of the parsnips, which I dubbed an octoparsnip. I think you'll see why.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The story of Goldisocks and the Three Beans

Once upon a time, there was a little girl who lived in the land of One-Wrong-Consonant. Her name was Goldisocks.

Goldisocks had bright yellow hair and socks to match. This made it hard for her. When you spend your spare time peeking in at the windows of strangers, trying to be subtle, buttercup-yellow hair is a disadvantage in itself. Having matching socks that would light up a Norwegian Arctic winter or guide a ship into port in a wild storm makes it all more challenging.

Nevertheless, Goldisocks skipped off one morning into the woods and found herself in front of a cottage she had never seen before: the home of the Three Beans. Here they are in the picture below: Daddy Bean, Mummy Bean and Teen Bean. Mummy Bean is the one on the right whose face shows open distress and I'm about to tell you why.

Earlier that morning, before Goldisocks was up and about, the three Beans had been arguing over breakfast. Teen Bean had been grumpy and hard to please (he's the one at the top of the picture slathered in Marmite but prone to tantrums when Mummy Bean asks him to go and have a wash).

Also, Mummy had yet again served up poorly-cooked Quaker Bats. And, as intelligent readers well know, there's nothing so galling as having bats served up as your breakfast which aren't at the right temperature.

'My bat is far too hot,' said Daddy Bean, flapping at his steaming mouth.

'That's odd,' said Mummy Bean. 'My bat is on the cold side.'

'My bat is just right,' said Teen Bean, as sullen as thunder, 'but I don't want bat.' He shoved his plate of just-right-bat away from him and thumped the table. 'I want more toast and Marmite.'

'More Marmite, darling? Are you sure?' Mummy said, trying to be conciliatory but feeling as hopeful about this as someone hanging from a cliff by cheap nail-bar false fingernails.

'You are already more Marmite than face, son,' said Daddy Bean. 'Let's go to the coffee shop at Waitrose. I'm going to have one of their bath nuns.'

Mummy Bean frowned. For some reason she couldn't work out, that had sounded like something Daddy Bean shouldn't have said in front of Teen Bean.

This all explains why, when Goldisocks turned up to peer through the windows of the Bean house, there was no one in.

Within minutes, she was sitting at the Beans' kitchen table sampling Quaker Bats. All were cold now. 'These wings are as leathery as ... as leathery as ... as leathery as leather,' Goldisocks, who was predicted an E for her GCSE English, said aloud.

She looked around the room. In a row alongside the kitchen wall were three chains.

What she didn't know, and neither did I until thirty seconds ago, was that Daddy Bean was a collector of traditional-style bathroom accessories. This was because ... this was because .... *thinks* .... this was because his father, who'd been a plumber by trade, had died in tragic circumstances while fitting a state-of-the-art, ultra-modern toilet in a customer's house. He'd hated the new styles, but had reluctantly agreed to install this toilet for the longstanding customer. It had fallen on his foot during the installation. The foot had turned gangrenous and within days Bean Senior was dead. Daddy Bean had started his collection instantly to preserve his dear father's memory, hence the three chains suspended from the ceiling in the Beans' kitchen.

*wipes brow*

Goldisocks couldn't contain her curiosity. Like all little girls in fairy tales, she talked to wolves, bit into obviously dodgy apples, and went into forests alone. She wasn't going to resist pulling a toilet chain if she got a chance. She pulled Chain 1 gently. Nothing happened, except that it swung a little then returned to stillness.

She pulled Chain 2, a little harder. It swung for longer, twisted round, then back again, then went still.

She pulled Chain 3 with a yank so hard that the ceiling to which it was fixed came crashing down around her ears, as did Teen Bean's bed which landed on top of her. She was hidden by rubble, a bed, and frothing clouds of dust.

She was a very lucky girl. The Beans were on their way home, cheerful after a much more successful breakfast. Particularly, Mr Bean had enjoyed his bath nun, more than perhaps he should have.

The Beans gaped in disbelief, squinting through the dust and cough-coughing, at the heap of rubble in their kitchen. What could have caused it? Had they left the toaster on?

Teen Bean suddenly said, 'Dad! Is there a fire burning underneath there?'

But it wasn't a fire. As they looked closer, they saw a tiny beam of yellow, shining out from beneath the dust and destruction like the glare of a lighthouse from out of the sea's darkness.

Daddy Bean stepped forward and balanced awkwardly on the rubble pile - balance isn't a bean's best skill - to take hold of what he thought might have been a bright yellow fragment of Teen Bean's bedding (Teen Bean had nagged his parents for a Despicable Me duvet cover he wouldn't want any of his school friends to know about). But as Daddy Bean tugged the yellow material, it came off, and revealed a toe. He scrabbled away some brick fragments. A foot. And from underneath the rubble, a groan.

Mummy Bean called the Fire Service while Daddy and Teen Bean foraged at the rubble to reveal more and more of a sorry-looking Goldisocks. Minutes later, firemen having arrived to join the search, she had been rescued from the devastation, sobbed a thousand apologies to the Bean family for all the trouble she'd caused them, and been taken to hospital to be checked over.

'She left this behind,' said Teen Bean, holding up the sock which was still luminous despite a covering of dust, while watching out of the window as the ambulance disappeared. (He wasn't aware, but on another continent, the sock's brightness meant three planes changed direction and someone reported seeing a UFO.)

'That's not all she left behind,' said Daddy Bean, crossly, dialling a local builder to start the renovation process. 'I hope we never see her again.'

Teen Bean was thinking otherwise. He'd liked the look of Goldisocks with her sunshine hair, outrageous socks, and clear predilection for doing things she shouldn't.  He laid the sock on the windowsill reverently. It glowed with promise, he thought.

'Come on, everyone,' said Mummy Bean, trying to draw the family together in the crisis. 'We're well rid of her. We'll start clearing up. But before we do, let's all have one of those yummy sugary toughnuts I bought from Waitrose.'

Teen Bean tried his best with the toughnut, but it was no good.  He put it down on his plate and sneered. 'This toughnut is as leathery as .... as leathery as ... as leathery as leather,' he said.

He didn't know it, and neither did Goldisocks, and neither did I until roughly three minutes ago, but he and the girl in the yellow socks were made for each other in more ways than one and there was a happy ever after to come, in which Daddy and Mummy Bean would have more peaceful breakfasts without Teen Bean's militant face, and in which Teen Bean and the new Mrs G Bean would soon celebrate the births of their identical baby twits in One-Wrong-Consonant's City Hospital.