Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Reasons why making appointments is risky

I am leaving my current teaching post on Friday and moving on to another post. But isn't it just the way? As soon as you decide you need to make a change, what you have seems infinitely attractive.

It's the same in all aspects of life.....

'Oh, hi. Can I make an appointment for a haircut, please. My hair is SO messy at the moment. It's everywhere, and I can't stand another minute of it. The sooner it's cut, the better.'
'4.30 on Friday?'
'Yes, that's great. Thanks.'
'Okay - I've written you again - see you then -'
'Hey, hang on a sec.'
'I'm just looking in the mirror here, and as soon as you said, '4.30 on Friday?' my messy hair suddenly looked buoyant, springy, healthy and alluring. I do believe I have turned into the L'Oreal girl. Cancel that appointment.'

Three minutes after cancelling the hair appointment, things began to deteriorate again. 

'Hello? Doctors' surgery. Can I help?'
'Oh, yes. I really need to see a doctor urgently.'
'What's the problem?'
'I've a terrible cough. I can't stop coughing. (Cough cough.) Every time I speak I cough (cough cough). I think I might have pneumonia (cough cough cough) or some kind of aggressive chest infection (cough cough cough cough). All I know is, if I don't see a doctor soon, I may not have long to live (cough cough cough).'
'Oh dear. How about 3.30 this afternoon?'
'Gosh - that long? (Cough cough) Do you have anything this morning?'
'Well, we could squeeze you in at 11.30 if you like.'

[At 12.00, having sat in doctors' surgery waiting room for half an hour without coughing once]
'So, Mrs Hill, what seems to be the problem? I understand you made an emergency appointment.'
'I - er - (tries to manufacture cough, but without success, so thinks quickly) - I wondered if you could look at this mole that's been worrying me. I swear it's getting bigger.'
'A mole? Where? Show me.'
'It's just on my arm, here. I mean ... well, it was there yesterday ...'

Thirty seconds after leaving the doctors' surgery 


Sunday, 3 May 2015

Reasons why I had to slice my cheese today

My sister bought me a grater for my recent birthday. She'd read this post mentioning difficulties with controlling grated carrot and decided to help me out. The grater has a container underneath it which is meant to catch all the gratings. Here it is.

It's very shiny and sharp. You know how when you decorate a room, the rest of your house looks shabby and ashamed? My old grater looked the same, once compared with the newcomer - all sorry for itself in its decrepitude - so we threw it away and my husband said he'd find a place for the new one in a kitchen cupboard.

I was going to use it this afternoon. My husband went out for a walk, and I'd done seven hours' solid A level marking, having started at eight in the morning, after which I think I deserved a five course meal in a Heston Blumenthal restaurant and a night in the Hilton, let alone flippin' cheese on toast. I put some bread under the grill. I got the butter ready. I found the cheese in the fridge. Then I looked to see where the grater was. I tried all the cupboards, but couldn't see it anywhere.

I knew I shouldn't have let my husband Put it Away. He can Put-Away for England and once he's Put Something Away, your hopes of finding it without a compass, a map and a good sense of direction are as slim as a banker's conscience.

In the end, I had to slice the cheese instead of grate it. Okay, it's a First World Problem, but I was intending to send my sister a picture of my grated cheese all tidy in its box and brighten up her day.

I think my husband must have had a deeply traumatic experience in his childhood. Perhaps one day he didn't put his socks in the washing basket and his mum grounded him for a month. All I know is, he lives by the principle of 'Anything Left Out Gets Put Away'. Sometimes, when I'm cooking, I get out a spoon to use later, then find when I need it he's already washed it, dried it, and Put It Away.

He'll take your mug from you well before you've finished the tea. He'll tidy up a magazine when you're only on page 2 and just stopped reading to go to the toilet. I swear he looks at me with intent when I sit down for too long, wondering if I'll fit in a corner of the wardrobe.

He's useful, though, when it comes to holidays. He can pack a case or the back of a car like Cassius Clay could pack a punch. He squeezes it all in, fitting toiletries into shoes, and rolling towels up to nestle in suitcase crevices.

The only thing is, it's all fitted in so tightly that when you open a case he's packed, or a cupboard, or a drawer, things spring out, like suppressed emotions, and all hell - and socks, deodorants or cans of beans - break loose, like Jack in the Box.

It's probably morbid of me to muse on what he's going to do with me if I die before him, and how he's going to stuff me into my coffin. I can see it now.

Worm 1: I'm heading in here. This one's fresh.
Worm 2: I'll come too.
Worm 1: You'll be bloody lucky. I'm having to breathe in as it is.

Anyway, when my husband came home from his walk, I asked him where he'd put the grater. He showed me. He'd slid it in between a box of pegs and a food mixer, sideways on, so that I didn't recognise it at that angle. It was like one of those quizzes where you're shown a picture of a gadget but from a weird perspective and you have to guess.

'I had to have sliced cheese instead of grated,' I said. But for some reason, he thought I was making a fuss over nothing much.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Evidence that even rejected writing can find another home

I like this passage from near the beginning of a book I was writing a year ago. It's a shame the main premise of the book got a big NO WAY from a potential publisher. I enjoyed writing the two middle-aged characters, even if the story was flawed. The narrator has a friend, Beatrice, who stays with her overnight and is found murdered in her bed the next morning.

Look, here’s a quick snapshot from the previous evening, a few hours before Beatrice died, just so you don’t judge me.  Here’s me in action, apron-clad, frying mince and onions and pouring Beatrice, who seemed in need of cheering up, a generous glass of red wine.  Here’s me saying, ‘So, how’s life at the B & B?’ and ‘I’m so glad you didn’t have any guests and could get away for a couple of days’ and giving her a second portion of blackberry and apple crumble.  Here’s me nattering to her about this and that, mainly this dead friend and that divorced one.  Strange, isn’t it, how getting past a certain age makes your friends’ separations (either from spouses, or from breathing) a subject of great interest?  It reminds me of my old Uncle Fred, sitting at his kitchen table with a slice of bread and butter and browsing through the local paper, muttering, ‘Outlived him, outlived her’, then slurping tea from his saucer.  I never thought I’d be like that, but I am.  The obsession with other people’s demises comes in the same parcel as the free copy of Saga Magazine that plops through the letterbox like a poor prognosis soon after your 50th

Beatrice and I went back a long way, all the way to the 1960s and ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and Oken School in Warwick where we both had ‘potential’ but not enough ‘motivation’.   Poor Mrs Thompson, our Form Tutor, kept us behind after many a registration period to dole out earnest advice and portentous finger-wagging warnings about the fact that we’d both end up working in newsagents.  But Beatrice had an alcoholic mother who kept her at home when she needed some shopping or cleaning done, and I had no similar excuse but an incurable addiction to my candy-striped bed sheets, so between us, potential had as much chance of success as I have now of being mistaken for Kate Moss in the High Street.

I’d met Beatrice in the lunch queue about two weeks after starting at Oken.  She’d only recently moved to Warwickshire from Scotland.  Her dad was a policeman.  I asked Beatrice if she’d moved because of his job and she said, yes, he’d been transferred, but they’d had to move because of a ‘family problem’.  We started off with a hatred for rice pudding skin in common and from there went on to share a passion for the Beatles, for wearing illegal eyeliner that made us look like pandas, and for backcombing our hair so that we had to front-comb it all again when we got to school and Mrs Thompson caught us.  These are the things which bind girls together so that they’re still having each other as house guests in 2012 and sharing in shepherd’s pie, wine and other people’s tragedies. 

What were the chances that Beatrice, having been brought up by a gin-soaked mother, would end up with a gin-soaked husband?  Well, every chance, as it happened, because that’s exactly what she did.  I liked Bryan, though.  A nice chap, he was, who smoked a pipe and was very careful that the moist bottom of his gin glass didn’t make a mark on Beatrice’s mahogany coffee table.  When he died of liver failure, heart disease and throat cancer in 2001 (talk about overkill!), I couldn’t help but say to Beatrice at the wake, ‘Your Bryan never made a mark on your coffee table, did he, my love?’ and then we had a good cry together.   She said she’d rather have a thousand marks on the coffee table than a B & B to run on her own and debts up to her eyeballs, and I could see her point, but I still wished I’d had a husband who knew what a wet glass would do to a good bit of polished wood.

Are you getting the picture?  No, Stewart, the man I married, was not like Bryan.  For one thing, Beatrice’s Bryan stayed married to her until he died.  Stewart and I only lasted just over three years.  And, to Stewart, that’s what mahogany coffee tables were FOR, putting wet glasses on.  There were so many white ring marks on ours that he even played a little game with them called ‘Which one shall I use?’ and chose a different ring each night to fit his glass onto, laughing into his chest, his double chins wobbling like stubbled blancmange.   It hadn’t taken long for this side of him to emerge; I used to look at him, and then look at the wedding photo on the wall above the mantelpiece, and then back at him, and think, ‘Was I taking something when I married you?’  Tell a lie, I think I actually said this to him once or twice. 

There was never any gin in Stewart’s glass though.  In that respect, he wasn’t like Beatrice’s Bryan.  Stewart was a teetotaller, and preferred fruit juice or lemonade, a pleasant trait he combined uneasily with being a lying git with a floozy in most Warwickshire streets.  Insurance salesman, see. 

Beatrice didn’t want to be our Patrick’s godmother when he was born in August 1976.  ‘Och,’ she said.  ‘I don’t believe in all that guff.’  But I wanted him to be christened, and he needed a godmother, and I wanted her to be it, so she came in the end, bribed with the promise of a night out at the cinema to see ‘Rocky’.  We were both suckers for a bit of oiled muscle.  A couple of years ago, long, long after the christening, Beatrice confessed to me that Stewart had put his hand up her skirt while she was reaching over to help herself to some sherry trifle at Patrick’s christening tea.
‘Why did you wait until now to tell me that?’ I asked her.  
‘I wasn’t going to say, was I?  I thought you were happily married.’
‘So did Solomon’s 700 wives think they were,’ I said.  ‘But he had 300 concubines.  Anyway, what did you do?’
 ‘What did I do when?’
‘When he put his hand up your skirt?’
‘I told him, if you do that again, sunshine, I’ll clamp you around the goolies with these salad tongs until you scream for mercy, you bloody filth-bucket.’
‘And what what?  What do you mean, what?  Then I lay on the table, of course, and let him have three goes.  What do you think, you muppet?  He was off like a shot, all red-faced, towards the dips and carrot sticks.’ 

Beatrice reminded me of Stewart’s groping that night she died, while we were finishing up our shepherd’s pie and mopping the gravy with some French bread.  I choked for laughing and drank so much wine to try and clear my throat that I got tipsy very quickly.  ‘Do you want me to get you some water?’ Beatrice had said, and I’d just raised my eyebrows at her as if to say, ‘Have you gone mad?’  She poured herself another glass and had caught me up pretty soon.

It was later, while we snaffled our way through a box of Milk Tray, that she told me why she’d rung me out of the blue on a Wednesday morning to ask if she could come and stay.  And why she was so terrified, she didn’t want to go back.  

Either that, or they show me I should try another hobby. But I'll stick with HER idea. 

Friday, 17 April 2015

Reasons why you should avoid reading anything in the mornings

I had a letter from the tax people this morning. It began exactly like this, with the first word in lower case and the rest in forceful capitals:


Is it me, or have the tax people not done the training module called 'Achieving a consistent tone'?

On the other hand, I'm more irritated by letters which begin, 'Hiya Fran! We don't know you from Eve, and frankly we don't care, but would you like to donate £3,000 to our worthy cause?'

To distract myself from having to think about tax, I had Special K for breakfast and read the back of the box while eating it. This shows you how desperate I was not to read the tax letter.

There's a current, thrilling 'free personalised spoon' offer from Kelloggs and it goes like this:

1. I save 3 'vouchers' from three different boxes of Special K.
2. I email Kelloggs, giving the voucher numbers.
3. I give them the message I want written on my spoon handle. (I would choose 'I am a fork which does great impersonations.')
4. I tell them which Kelloggs logo I want on the spoon, next to the message.
5. They send me a spoon right away.
6. Correction. They send me a spoon but it might take 90 days to arrive.

90 days? 90 days?

That's a quarter of a year! By then, I could have developed a wheat allergy, or gone on a nothing-that-needs-a-spoon diet, or moved house so the new tenants get a spoon delivery that freaks them out. Or I might have regretted my choice of message, seeing it anew as puerile and the product of a twisted mind.

The 'logo' thing hacks me off. Their aim is to get every household in the country advertising Kellogg's products for free on the handles of all the spoons in Britain.

What's the betting that when my spoon comes, there'll be a letter with it beginning, 'Wotcha, Franny! Your spoon is enclosed, LOL!'

What will yours say?
Mine will say, 'I've been in this package for 90 bloody days and am seriously peed off.'

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Evidence that people can be admired for all kinds of feats

Yesterday, a woman on the train who had no teeth was noshing her way through a whole Scotch egg as if it were an apple. (For the uninitiated, a Scotch egg is a hard-boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat and breadcrumbs and fried.) If you'd given me the choice between watching her eat a Scotch egg and not watching her eat a Scotch egg, I'd have plumped for the latter. But she was directly opposite me, and I admired both her skill and her total lack of self-consciousness. I didn't take a photo (one can get thrown off trains) but to help you imagine, here's a picture of a woman with no teeth.

And here's a picture of a Scotch egg.

This egg is a world-record beater for the largest Scotch egg made in a restaurant. The one she ate wasn't quite that impressive, but, to her, it may well have seemed that way.

There are other tasks that could be compared with a woman with no teeth eating a whole Scotch egg.

a) Someone eating a whole joint of roast beef with a rubber fork.
b) A man climbing a mountain in slippers.
c) A woman knitting a scarf using spaghetti instead of needles.
d) Sportspeople playing tennis using fly swatters.
e) A farmer building a dry stone wall using bubble wrap.

Can you add any, followers?

I'd like to think that when she got home from her train journey, she thought, 'What shall I have for tea? I know. There's that bit of pork crackling in the fridge, then I'll have a bag of peanuts, and I'll finish with some nice treacle toffee.'

As long as I'm not there to watch, I'm pleased for her. I hope she has a lovely evening.

And, yes, I had a pleasant week away, thank you. I did do other things apart from go on trains and watch people eat Scotch eggs. Not that you'd know it from this rather narrowly-focused blog post.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Reasons why teachers get nervous about Ofsted inspections

I thought, for the Easter weekend, I'd give you an extract from 'Miss', the book I'm editing, ready to tout it round agents and publishers. In the book, 'Miss' is worried about an imminent Ofsted inspection, her husband is going to walk out on her, fed up with her workaholism, and she is about to find out that his old flame will be one of her Ofsted inspectors ....

I hope you enjoy the extract. I enjoyed writing it. Happy Easter holidays!

As 11F arrived, jostling at the door with the tardier members of my tutor group, I remembered that Max King, my teaching assistant for this class, had a meeting with his line manager. Also, I'd left my photocopied worksheets on a shelf in the Reprographics room downstairs.

‘Right, Year 11. Settle yourselves. Phones away. Ties on.’
I turned to a blonde girl in the front row. She was critiquing her flawless face in a mirror. 'Maisie, sorry to interrupt your beauty routine, but I need a favour.'   
She dropped the mirror into her blazer pocket.  'Can I have a merit?’
I sighed.  'You should help people in distress without needing reward.’
‘If it's that bad, then it's worth a merit.’
'I'll go, Miss,' said Caleb, next to Maisie, grinning. ‘You know I’m a champion athlete.’ He had moved from Ghana the previous year and now sprinted for Warwickshire.    
'It's only to Reprographics,' I said. 'Not Wales and back.'
'It's all right, Miss,' Maisie said. 'I'll do it.’
'Hang on, Maisie.’ The class wasn’t settling and it was my fault. I turned to the board. ‘Year 11, copy the date and this title. Quietly.'
I wrote, 'Friday 2 February. Making your reader tense'. 
 Ofsted wouldn’t approve of such a bumbling start. Neither would they sympathise with my insomnia or domestic problems.    
Hang on. Weren’t they responsible for some of my domestic problems?

Pupil 1: What is the date?
Pupil 2: It's on the board. Use your eyes.
Pupil 3: It says the second of February.
Pupil 1: Write it down then.
Pupil 3: But it's the first. I know it is. It's my dog's birthday.
Everyone: Oh, Miss! You got the date wrong.
Me: Sorry. Sorry.
I rubbed out the 2 with the heel of my hand and replaced it with a 1.
Pupil 3: Now it says it’s the fernd of February.
Me: ‘Fussy!’  

‘Right, Maisie. At last.’ I told her where the photocopying was and she left. Too late, I noticed she hadn't even opened her book. She liked discussion and debate, but was much less keen on writing. 
Caleb had noticed too. 'What do we do when we've done that?' he asked, glancing at Maisie’s untouched book, as sly as old age. 

11F were resitting Creative Writing coursework they'd flunked in Year 10. They weren’t easy to manage. Too many had particular needs and some were notorious for behaviour problems. It only took a break time argument, a row with Dad the night before, or a bad Maths test result for someone to kick off and others to follow, like sheep. Carefully-crafted lessons could hit the dust.
No, don’t observe me with Year 11, Ofsted. Come and watch me stuff a sack with squirrels.   

Marissa tossed back her hair. A young Kate Bush doppelganger with untamed black tresses tumbling down her back like a free spirit, she wanted to know if tense as in tension was the same as tense as in past and present tense. I was umming and erring, therefore grateful when Maisie returned with my photocopying. A Twix wrapper lay on top of the papers. She presented the pile to me as though it were a purple cushion with a crown on it.
'Thanks, Maisie,’ I said, taking the papers but giving her the wrapper. ‘Put your rubbish in the bin. Why were you eating in the corridors?'
'It's not mine.’
'Whose is it?'
'I don't know, Miss,' she said. 'But it was right next to your photocopying.’
The class began to laugh. 
'Why would I have asked you to collect a Twix wrapper?’ I said.
'I don't know,' she huffed. ‘Only trying to be helpful.' She dropped it into the bin then sat down, flipping open her exercise book.
Caleb pointed to the whiteboard. 'You have to write the date and title.'
'Obviously,' she said.
It's a good thing he's an athlete, I thought, because the diplomatic service isn’t going to take him.

They used the photocopied worksheets to match tension-building devices to their definitions, then I asked, ‘Before we start writing, who can tell me the worst way to end a story? I mentioned this last week.’
There was a pause. Last week? We’re not elephants.
Maisie had an epiphany. 'But it was all a dream!' she said, throwing up her hand.
‘Well done!’
Her grin was wide. 'Can I have that merit now?'  
I started a merit list on the board, writing her name. 'I give in,’ I said. ‘Despite the fact that you thought I would litter Reprographics with a Twix wrapper.’
I turned back to the class. 'I want you to write the beginning of a story,' I said, ‘using at least four of the devices on your worksheet. And, Karl, to do that, you’ll need to put the phone you’ve got on your lap away or I’ll confiscate it.’
‘You couldn’t see it,’ he scowled. ‘You were facing the board.’
‘Call it intuition,’ I said. ‘Put it away.’
‘What’s intuition?’
‘Here’s a dictionary,’ I said. ‘Keep that on your lap instead.’

Ten minutes before the bell, I asked for volunteers to read. Most had embraced the task; a minority had needed more persuasion. We’d had a Tippex-for-nefarious-uses confiscation, an argument about a boy kicking someone’s chair, and a girl who’d cast a Geography teacher as a psychotic serial killer and needed help with alternative ideas. 
Oliver, usually quiet, with glasses and floppy light brown hair, said, 'I’ll read mine, if you like.’
‘Great, Ollie. Can I play Instant Critic?'
He nodded, cleared his throat, cleared it again, and began. 'It’s called ‘Christmas’.’
‘I always thought my mum and dad would be together for ever,' he read, 'like in fairy tales.'
The class went quiet. I drew a giant tick on the board and underneath, 'narrative hook' and 'simile'. 
'But that goes to show,' he continued, 'how wrong you can be. At Christmas, we did have some presents, but we never got to open them. They stayed under the tree, as though they'd been abandoned.'
I wrote, 'emotive' on the list. Girls said ‘Aaah’ and ‘That’s so sweet.’
'This is good, Ollie,’ I said.
'I don't know what the argument was about,' he read, 'and I don't suppose I ever will.  Now.'
I wrote, 'increasing tension'.
'By the end of the day, Dad's brown suitcase was in the hall.’
He stopped.
I wrote, 'visual image'.
'My mum kept saying, "But it's Christmas.”’
I wrote 'direct speech', feeling crass and wishing I'd never started this.  Oliver's story was like a sharp stick, poking at my own hurts.
I turned. 'Carry on.'
'That's as far as I got, Miss,' he said, and closed his book with a slap. 
Caleb said, 'That was bare sad.’
I wrote, 'bare sad'. Caleb had spoken for us all. Why be fastidious? I gave Oliver a merit.
After Oliver’s, we heard another boy’s story, featuring a zombie attack on the school dining room. His reading was interrupted by the bell as a mutant was gnawing at the leg of a dinner lady. 
Oliver stayed behind as the class surged out. 'Did you like my story, Miss?'
'It was moving,' I said. 'It must have been hard to read, so soon after the event.'
'Oh, that was two years ago,’ he said. ‘It’s all fine now. Mum’s just had another baby.’

He skipped off. 

Miss couldn't wait for the holidays. Something had to be done about the Hair.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Evidence that you can use a duck-billed platypus to say almost anything

Just a reminder that, on my new blog, once a week or maybe twice I'm posting up ideas, tips and exercises - along with a few laughs - for anyone who loves to write.

There are a few posts up there now. Today's is about using a variety of sentence types to lift your writing style.

Go and have a look or recommend to any writer friends. And follow to get regular updates.  Here's the link.

Writing with the use of a duck-billed platypus