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.

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Evidence that Fran sometimes puts one foot in front of the other voluntarily

We walked into Warwick town today from our Leamington home. It's about two miles.

I had to return some shoes to a shop. I thought they'd fitted me when I bought them last week but somehow by the time I got them home my feet had decided to become puffer fish. Stuffing them into the shoes was like trying to wrestle a baby back into the womb the way it came out. Had I had a bout of body dysmorphic syndrome? Why had I bought shoes to fit a pixie?

I'd never felt more like an ugly sister, with a shoe dangling from my toes uselessly.

Back to the walk.

My husband said, 'Let's not walk to the shop down the main road. Let's take the scenic route by the river. It'll take about ten more minutes.'

I checked my watch and started timing him. 'If this takes hours,' I said, 'I will have no mercy.'

I am still smarting from a 'brief' walk he took me on when I was heavily pregnant thirty years ago and I thought I would have to give birth under a tree, cutting the cord with my teeth and burying the afterbirth in a bush.

My children, grown-up now, all used to moan if we were on a long drive, hit a traffic jam, and Dad said, 'Let's take the scenic route.'  They knew this would involve a field, some bewildered sheep and Dad pretending he didn't need a map he was fine thanks.

He doesn't drive now, but when he did, he never took the motorway. Instead, he preferred the rural option, maintaining that it 'wouldn't take much longer'. 'Not much longer' was usually three hours over the estimated travel time. It takes a while to negotiate tiny thread-like roads on which cars have not travelled since 1966.

The kids would say, 'Dad, are we going the fast route today or the count-the-daisies route?'  because he went so far out of our way and so slowly that it was possible to tot up the number of small flowers we met on the way. They never tired either of the 'Dad, there's a tortoise rushing past us!' joke.

I enjoyed the walk today, though. It was indeed scenic, down by the river. We saw ducks, tiny lambs, men playing cricket in a field and a shrew shooting across the path in front of us. We heard tweets and shrills, the baa-ing of reedy lamb voices and the 'clock' of bat on ball.

We met a few other walkers, mostly adults with dogs. But we also passed two teenagers, a boy and girl, playing music on their phones at screech level. I believe the kind of music they played is called grime. The clue is in the name. As they walked past us, it was as though we were walking past a rave venue and a door had suddenly opened to give us the full experience.

'Why?' my husband said, when they'd passed us. 'Just why?'

'To block out the intrusive sound of bird song and rustle of spring leaves, of course,' I said. 'Who wants to hear that constant tzz-tzz-tzz of nature's noise? How annoying to have Englishmen cheering a run just as you're trying to deafen yourself with electric guitars and drums. People ought to be more considerate.'

He looked at me quizzically. He's not good with my straight-faced sarcasm and has to check.

'I did the same as a teenager,' I confessed. 'I used to carry a ghetto-blaster around on my shoulder and play Showaddywaddy or Queen with the sound turned up to 12.'

He looked shocked, as though, had he known this before, he would have baulked at the altar and said, in answer to the vicar, 'Actually, I don't.'

'While singing along,' I added, in the same way criminals ask for more offences to be taken into consideration.

He winced.

He had a more sheltered life than mine: a world of home cooking, flute playing and doing his homework, while I was staying out all night with unsuitable friends and having cider-drinking competitions. I suspect he was also considerate to other humans in a way I wasn't.

In terms of the walk, his timing, on this occasion, was spot on. We were at the shoe shop exactly when he said we would be. My kids would be impressed to hear how much progress he has made.

What's more, the shop exchanged the pixie shoes without complaint and found me replacements: ones which wouldn't permanently fuse my toes together.

We got the bus back home, but by then we'd had a couple of beers in town, done a few crosswords, and moseyed around the bookshop, and neither of us felt like doing the return journey along the river.

Ironically, the bus goes the long way round too, calling at three housing estates and taking 20 minutes rather than the five it would take in a car. But I was sitting in a comfy seat, and it was warm, and I had some new shoes, and I'd done a whole crossword without looking up the answers, and my eyes were heavy.

Sometimes, slow is good. Ask any tortoise.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Reasons why Fran will never take her husband to the Caribbean

My husband had his first ever cocktail today when we were in a Caribbean restaurant in Birmingham called Turtle Bay. He's left that rite of passage late, being 61 next birthday. But he's always said cocktails were too sweet and more of a woman's drink.

'Go on,' I said today. 'Try it. They're 2 for 1.'

If it's 2 for 1, he'll fall for it. He's Bargain Man. He'll buy fourteen pounds of broccoli from a market stall just because he can and for the next week it's broccoli in everything. Take it from me, one can have too much broccoli jam and I've little good to say about the homemade icecream.

But, cocktails a woman's drink, huh?

So, how come, after one concoction of rum, lime juice and ginger beer called a Jamaican Mule, did he grab the waiter by his apron strings and demand an immediate refill within thirty seconds or he'd want to see the manager?

I was a tad worried. He gets chatty after even one beer and, being a gardener, will then launch into a protracted story about a visit to the garden centre to buy fence posts or tell me about all the seeds he's just ordered from the Marshalls catalogue.

After cocktail number 9, Fran's husband had started on 'Tomato plants I have known and loved.' 

As rites of passages go, it was a success, though.

I often get my pupils at school to write about 'firsts'. My first time at the cinema. My first time as a bridesmaid. Rites of passage are a rich source of memories and impressions that aid powerful writing. The first time we do something, meet someone new, or make a discovery, can be of psychological importance, often because of associated strong emotions such as fear, triumph, or rejection, for example, or even rum-soaked joy.

Here are some 'firsts'. Do they bring back memories for you?

first time riding a bicycle independently
first kiss
first time getting drunk
first night away from parents
first pocket money
first part-time job
first wage packet
first time on a stage
first time in hospital
first broken heart
first realisation that parents don't know everything
first humiliation by a teacher
first pet who died
first time seeing a dead body
first publication of a story
first grandchild
first thirst

I got silly there at the end. I fancied some rhyme.

Out of the list above, which I typed as they came to me, the only one I haven't done is seen a dead body, although if my husband had ordered a third cocktail, that could have been my chance. His blood would have been ninety per cent rum and ginger, which can't be good for anyone's life chances.

With my first wage, I bought a guitar. I was eighteen and in my first post as a medical secretary at the London Hospital in Whitechapel, the East End of London. In my lodgings was another teenager - a nurse who played guitar in the evenings and offered to teach me. My guitar cost £17 and, armed with three chords and an ego to die for, I embarked on a world-changing songwriting career, writing songs which I warbled proudly into a cassette player, strumming away on my new acquisition, sure that within the month it would be a 'yes' from Sony.

Worse than this, I sent these cassette tapes to my foster parents, who had wisely opted to stay in Leamington when I moved to London, probably because they knew I would sing to them live otherwise.

'Here are some more of my songs,' I would announce at the beginning of the tape, then launch into my latest three-chord reedy-voiced impression of someone very ill and in need of a priest.

I've never asked them, but perhaps it was a first for them: the first time they'd ever wanted to crunch a cassette tape underneath their heels until it was dust.

Sunday, 23 April 2017

A sonnet in honour of chocolate

As it's Shakespeare's birthday today, and Easter is still in our minds, I thought I'd post a sonnet I wrote in honour of chocolate, and celebrate both at once.

A shout-out to Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, too. HI, ELIZABETH!

Anyway, sonnet and chocolate nearly rhyme, so it makes sense to put them together.

How do I love you? Let me count the ways.
I love you when you're cast in bunny shape
or in a simple slab from Sainsburays
or from the fridge, or melted, or in cake.

I love a Minstrel cool upon my palm.
I love a Cadburys button on my tongue.
I find it hard to stop - you have such charm -
before I know it, I've had twenty-one.

I love you whether white or Swiss or Belgian.
I want you to myself. I do not share.
I'll eat you 'til my little belly's bulging
and I can barely get up from my chair.

Oh, chocolate! I'll love you 'til I die
(though when I do, you'll be the reason why).

Someone said 'I've brought you chocolate. Dive in'. So ... 

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Reasons why Fran is playing more children's games these days

A month ago, to see my grandchildren, I had to go on one of these all the way from Leamington to Richmond in South-west London.


Now that they have moved to within ten minutes' walk of our house in Leamington, I just have to go on one of these.

Correction. Two of these.

Correction: The legs above were my dream legs, not my real legs. 

Correction: These aren't my real legs either. They're someone else's. For my legs, think, 'Somewhere between Picture 2 and Picture 3.' 

It's taking some getting used to, knowing that just by putting one leg in front of another (never my favourite activity) I can be at my son's house, playing Snap or Snakes and Ladders with a 3 year old and a 4 year old, or watching a Peppa Pig DVD, or answering a litany of questions from a curious Elijah, who's just started school and wants to know the answer to Every Awkward Question Ever. 

I took them both to see their Great-Great-Granny in her care home. She's my mother's mother, is nearly ninety-five, and Elijah (nearly 5) was fascinated. He wanted to know 

- what does nearly blind mean?
- what is a walking frame for? 
- why does she need us to shout? 
- why is she old?
- why can't she walk very well?
- what is quite deaf?
- why does she live here?
- where does she have her dinner? 
- who else lives here? 
- why don't her legs work very well?

Sometimes, he asked the same question two or three times, not because he hadn't heard the first time, but because he was so interested, and wanted to hear the information all over again. 

It was ironically not unlike a conversation with my grandmother, the dear old lady in question, only with her it's because she forgets that we ever had that conversation, so we have it twice. Maybe thrice. And again the following day. 

Some might lose patience with this, but I find it oddly calming, and it saves on thinking up new topics. Every time I visit her I can say 'Did I tell you so-and-so had died/is getting married/has moved away?' knowing that I did, but she'll deny all knowledge, and so we can do it all again. She's just as pleased with the news every subsequent time I tell it. I told her about Vera Lynn becoming a hundred years old at least five times, and she relished the information just as enthusiastically on each occasion.

My grandmother is 95 in July. I am 55 at the end of April. Elijah will be 5 in July. 

Out of the three of us, Elijah's legs are definitely the ones with the most potential. My gran's legs are weak and unreliable. Mine are too plump and varicose-veiny. Elijah's got his dad's legs: like a young footballer's, with strong thighs and muscles. 

I feel like breaking into 'The Circle of Life'. To save you the pain of that, here's Elton John singing it instead. 

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Evidence that Fran is still in the country and entering a new phase ...

I do apologise. Did you think I'd been abducted by Planet Zoggians? Left the country with just a bag of underwear and a passport to start a new life? Been locked in a public toilet somewhere in town for three weeks and only released when someone realised 10B hadn't had Shakespeare inflicted on them for ages and were looking unusually cheerful?

'Where's Mrs Hill? We don't know. We decided not to query it.'

Facebook keeps telling me: '123 people who like your 'Fran Hill - Writer' Facebook page have not heard from you in a while. Write a post.'

I'm not sure I like its tone.

My 'Fran Hill - Writer' page is where I put my 'I've written a blog' updates. And any major progress on my novel. Or any major achievements in competitions ... So, I'm not saying that page has been 'quiet' but if a butterfly flew past it, you'd hear its wings like a pair of bellows.

I'm sorry, therefore, for my absence on the blog. Various events in family life and school life and personal life have swallowed up all my good intentions like a voracious greedy maw, chomping away at them and saying, 'Aaaah!' with no thought at all for my blog followers.

One key event is that my son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren are moving to Leamington from Greater London. Instead of me calling them to say, 'Hi - we're just setting off to see you - we'll be there after four hours on crowded trains, delayed trains, replacement buses, and Paracetamol' we can call to say 'Hi - just setting off ... if you haven't made a Victoria sponge already, you still have time to bung a mixture in the food processor.'

They're moving in two stages. Yesterday, we helped the son and daughter-in-law unpack a van-full of boxes, kids' bikes and bedding. They drove here from London, leaving the little ones with a friend. Next Saturday, they'll be back with grandchildren instead of boxes - or perhaps grandchildren IN boxes if the journey doesn't go too well - and our new adventure called 'Being Nearer the Grandchildren' will begin.

I don't know what it will look like yet. It's unknown territory. I'm not exactly Grandma-at-home-with-the-kettle-on because most of the week I'm Grandma-in-a-classroom-with-my-don't-you-dare-face-on. In fact, Grandpa will probably see them more than I will, as his gardening job is Proper Part-time, as in, not Part-time-but-really-full-time like mine. Not jealous not jealous not jealous not jealous not jealous not jealous not jealous.

Apologies, too, for all the hyphens. I'm a bit hyphen-obsessed at the moment.

One thing I vow to do is to teach the grandchildren the difference between dashes and hyphens, as I find even my sixth formers are not sure. When I say, 'A dash is an item of punctuation, with a space either side of it, but a hyphen is mostly used to make compound words or to split words at the end of a line' they stare at me as though I'd just stood on a desk and yelled the f word in the middle of a lesson.

The same happens when I tell pupils that:

as well is two words
a lot is two words
thank you is two words
the word 'weary' means tired, not suspicious
starting a new line does NOT equal a new paragraph: never has, never did, never will, and, no, this ISN'T just one of my hobby horses.

I will let you know how the Ten Minutes Away grandparenting goes. I am pretty excited about it. I hope I can do the job justice, that's all, and that the grandchildren don't tire of us.

Perhaps I'll leave the hyphen/dash lesson for a few weeks, in that case.

He vowed to ask Mummy and Daddy whether the move was permanent after that last visit to Grandma's.