Sunday, 23 October 2016

Reasons why Fran's neck is cold

I've had my hair cut.

I went into the hairdressers. 'I've had it short for so long,' I said, 'so I've tried growing it longer this year, and it looks fine....'

'So?...' she began.

'... as long as I'm standing still and there's no breeze or anyone near me breathing heavily or using a hand dryer.'

'What happens then?'

'I look like a Gorgon.'

'Are you sure about this decision?' she said.

'Couldn't be more sure,' I said. 'Anyway, a friend told me longer hair made me look more mature. I felt like an ancient cheese. And that decided me. Also, I've been trying to blowdry it in the mornings, so that I look like the people in the magazines.'


'I was thinking 'Glamorous Hair' magazine, not 'Crufts Monthly.'

'It can't be that bad.'

'So why am I being chased down the road by Afghan hounds?'

She washed my hair and cut it. Chop, chop, chop. Snip. Chop, chop. My hair slumped to the floor in clumps. Slumpy clumps. This must be how sheep feel, I thought. Naked. Vulnerable. Cold.

'Arrggh!' I said, as she snipped away. 'My face! My face!'

I haven't seen my face properly for a while. It took some getting used to. 'Hello, face,' I said. 'How are you doing?'

'Okay,' it said. 'But suddenly exposed and over-sized. My nose feels enormous, like a tusk.'

'Do you want me to cut your hair above your ears?' the hairdresser said.

I told her no. 'I swear my ears are getting bigger as I age,' I said. 'Some people end up with ears like cauliflowers, don't they? Soon I won't be able to get through narrow doorways. Keep them covered.'

When I'd gone into the hairdressers, it was autumn. Walking home, it was winter. My head felt light, as though I'd taken a heavy hat off, or had emerged from under a duvet.

The next day, at school, one of the students said, 'Have you had your hair cut, Miss?'

'I met this angry lawnmower on the way to school,' I said. 'A short fight ensued, and this is the sorry result.'

Another one commented in a different class, 'You've cut your hair, Miss.'

'I needed a quick way to lose weight,' I said.

'That's actually quite funny,' she said to her friend, as though teachers plus humour equals WEIRD!

But most people looked, widened their eyes, but said nothing. I'm sure Gorgons get the same reaction when they appear, minus the snakes, in elfin haircuts.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Reasons why Fran is using a different bus stop

I've been thinking about tone.

Windows 10 just said to me, 'Your battery is nearly out of power. You might want to plug in your laptop.'

Sarcasm? From a computer program? Do I have to take this?

It reminded me that, in London, on South West Train services, there's a sneery woman's voice on the tannoy which admonishes the passengers thus: 'Please remember to take all your personal items with you.' The 'please' comes out as a sigh, as though what she really wants to say is, 'You are basically uneducated, irresponsible scum, all you passengers, and if it were up to me, we'd lock all the doors from the outside and let you rot amidst your scabby rucksacks, laptop cases and handbags.'

Another thing. I was standing at a bus stop one morning recently, awaiting a bus into Leamington. The bus stop is right by someone's garden wall and it was a humid day. My ankles were swelling up as though wanting to occupy the whole of Warwickshire by teatime. So I perched on the wall. It's not fair to let one's ankles dominate that way. Other ankles deserve a chance.

The front door of the house opened and a prim woman in her sixties came out, wearing an apron. I guessed she wasn't heading for the shops. Instead, she headed for me.

'Good morning,' she said.

I was reassured. She was being friendly, surely, even though 'Good morning' seemed a tad formal. I gave a little wave of acknowledgement and put my weary middle-aged face on. I thought she might say, 'Hot, isn't it?' and wipe her own brow, then I could say, 'Yes, I hope you don't mind me resting on your wall,' so that she could then say, 'No, of course. Who wants to stand in this weather?'

But she hadn't read my script.

'Would you like me to bring you out a cup of tea while you sit on my wall?' she said.

Uh oh.

It's all about the tone, isn't it? She said it completely deadpan with not a hint of spite and yet I knew that if I'd said, 'Ooh, yes please, one sweetener and only a dash of milk' she'd have launched at me with a bread knife, dispatched me to the next life and buried me in a shallow grave without displacing her shampoo and set.

'Sorry,' I said, and stood up. My ankles cried 'Wahey!' and prepared to resume their domination of the county.

The woman sniffed, then lifted up her chin and let it lead her back into the house.

They've been cutting down the bus services recently due to lack of passengers. Next time I go past her garden, I will look to see whether the level of the soil has risen.

Perhaps she'd like a job with South West Trains. Or Windows 10.

Or the Mafia.

Fran was having to find an alternative to socks

Friday, 30 September 2016

Evidence that the Muppets and uncooked pasta can appear in the same blog post

Two things that happened today.

1. In one of my English lessons, the students were experimenting with pronouncing the word 'monologist' (the speaker in a monologue). None of them could get it right, because if you start the word with the stress on 'mon' as in 'monologue' the word runs away with you and the 'g' ends up as a hard 'g'.

I had an epiphany. 'Think of the Muppets theme tune,' I said.


I sang it. 'MonoloGIST, doo-doo-dah-doodoo, monoloGIST, doo-doo-doo-doo ...'

Here are the Muppets doing it.


One or two of the girls laughed. Others smiled. Some looked worried about being in the same room as me. That's a shame, because they're trapped with me until the summer exams next year.

2. I'm lucky in that our school has a proper chef to cook the lunches, so the food is usually yum-yum. But today I chose a slice of ham and some pasta salad. The pasta was nearly-raw.

Sometimes in lessons I ask students to write poems about emotions, without mentioning the emotion itself, but representing it instead in concrete images. Here is a poem I've just written. Guess the emotion.

It's a train. The back end of it
pulling out of the station
where you stand
catching your breath,
clutching your ticket
to the theatre show.
You will see the second act.

It's a huge Valentine's card
with a velvet heart on its front,
a £4.95 sticker on its back,
handwriting you don't recognise
and a promise of love
in its centre.
You see the scrawl in the corner
too late to protect yourself.
A joke, from your brother.

It's a pasta salad
with peppers, onions,
juicy dried tomato, energy
for the long afternoon
and colourful on your plate
next to the plain diet ham.
You bite. You wince.
You nudge the pasta to the edge.
The ham comes out as the winner.

Did you guess?

'I guessed she meant 'disappointed'. Boy, I know how she feels.'

Friday, 16 September 2016

Reasons why Fran now checks her watch every two minutes in the mornings

Last year, my teaching timetable went like this: in school every day by 8.20 except for Wednesday, my day off.

This year, it's:

Monday: start at 9.55
Tuesday: start at 10.55
Wednesday: start at 10.55
Thursday: start at 8.45
Friday: start at 9.55

Those times indicate 'start teaching' so usually I'm there at least half an hour before lessons to give the photocopier chance to run out of paper, the coffee machine chance to give me hot water with milk in it, and the computer a chance to give me nothing at all except error messages and the urge to whup its screen with a HAMMER.

*calms down*

Anyway, as you can imagine, with all those erratic start times, there's room for confusion.

And that's why I was sitting on my sofa, in pyjamas, one day last week, slurping a second cup of tea and wiping toast crumbs from my lips, convinced I had acres of time before I needed to be in school.  I'd even filled in a couple of crossword clues.  

'I'll check my timetable once more, though,' I thought, 'just in case.'

I think that was the prodding of the Timetable Angel.

My stomach went 'flip-flup-flip'. 9.55. Not 10.55. 

I don't often regret giving up driving. I did then.

I had fifty minutes to transform from 'pyjama-clad crumby-lipped woman in house' to 'formally-clad fully-prepared teacher of brand new class at front of classroom two miles away'.  My husband said to me that evening: 'I knew something had gone amiss. You don't normally strew your pyjamas on the floor of the bedroom and leave half a mug of tea in the hall.'

My choices, once dressed? Power-walk for 35 minutes with a rucksack full of books and a September sun sizzling my forehead, or catch a bus. 

Because I knew it would help me get fitter, I power-walked.

I caught the bus.

I'm a big fan of buses. I deliberately ride to work on the one that goes the circuitous route so I can be on it for longer, reading my current book (I love you, Simon Armitage, writer of 'Walking Away'), looking out of the windows at angry people in cars, or furtively adding snippets of people's private conversations in a notebook. 

My passion for the lazy bus ride is because I believe rushing is of the devil and am never, if I can help it, in a hurry. As a result, neither am I ever in a little black dress. You pays your money. You takes your choice.

That day was different. I had to rush.


The bus stopped at every. single. stop. Everyone in the West Midlands had their cars at the garage for an MOT, a sudden onset of arthritis in the knees, and no money for taxis, but still wanted to get to Warwick town centre.  

The driver knew several alighting passengers personally and they exchanged extended autobiographical life experiences with him before they sat down. 

He stopped for an elderly lady called Maisie who'd not yet reached the bus stop but who waved him down.  They were great friends too. I suspect she delivered him from his mother's womb in 1952 and had been round for tea every Sunday since then. 

He stopped at three junctions to wave other vehicles through first, in front of him, including two trucks each the length of the M6 motorway. 

Every traffic light, spotting my bus as it approached, turned against me with a personal, deep spite, and went red with joy as our driver braked. 

By the time we came near the final stop, all seats were taken, many by octogenarians and mothers with fourteen children. I knew if I waited for the rest of the passengers to disembark, I'd arrive at my lesson in time to say, 'Okay, pack up your books now,' So I edged my way to the front of the bus to be first in line. As it was, there was another traffic light delay before the bus juddered to a halt, so I stood there for at least two minutes, awkwardly near the driver as though trying to start a long-term relationship, and with everyone behind me thinking, 'She looks desperate to get off. Probably didn't do her pelvic floor exercises after the births of her children.'

I ran, my rucksack banging against my back like a rock, and my body heating up to Gas Mark 8. I had five minutes to do the ten minutes needed to get into school, sign in, grab my teaching materials, and dash across a road, into a separate building, and up two flights of stairs.

But on the way I careered round a corner and had to brake suddenly for a bent old lady of about ninety with a walking frame and legs as thin as sticks. 'Excuse me, dear,' she said, only she said it like this: 'Excuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuse meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee deeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaar.' I waited, my heart going BOOM, BOOM against my chest wall like a hammer drill.  'Cooooooould youuuuuuuuuuuu telllllllllll meeeeeeee wheeeeere theeeeeeeeeeeeeere's a haaaaaardwaaaaaaaaaaaaaaare stooooooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrrrre.'  

Perhaps it was a good thing someone had stopped me. I was five seconds away from a stroke. She probably saved my life.  

I didn't know where there was a hardware store so apologised and moved on, trying not to rush past her in case the sudden breeze blew her down. 

It was just as well I couldn't help. When I give directions to people, I spend much of the time saying 'No, I mean left. No, I mean right. No, I mean straight on,' while they listen politely having a we-have-asked-an-idiot epiphany.

How did this all end?

I arrived thirty seconds after the pupils did. They had lined themselves up neatly,on the staircase like the welcoming staff in Downton Abbey. So I had to pass all twenty-five in order to open the classroom door, my hair stuck to my forehead and the back of my neck, sweat dripping from me as though I'd trekked the Andes, and my lungs screaming 'Stop while we regroup, for heaven's sake!' 

Meanwhile the pupil's innocent faces gazed at this vision of Exhausted, Puffing Woman who was to be their English teacher for the year. 

'I'm sorry I'm late,' I said. 'Bus trouble.'

They looked puzzled. I think some thought I'd said 'bust trouble' but I didn't have breath to explain. 

Please make sure you write the date, underline the title and write neatly. I have very high standards.

You probably won't believe me if I tell you that, on the bus home that evening, the driver was a Jenson Button wannabe who hurtled us from Warwick to Leamington like a maniac at the wheel. But it's true. 

Sunday, 28 August 2016

Reasons why Fran went quiet

I'm sorry I've been absent for a month or so. Did anyone notice? Did you wonder what that unusual quiet was, or why you could suddenly hear birdsong and butterflies whispering?

The reason is, I've been writing the first second third fourth seventy-ninth draft of a novel all summer, grabbing the opportunity afforded by a long teacher holiday, or should that be 'long holiday for teachers' in case you think it's only for teachers who are unusually lanky with limbs like string. What fun syntax is, readers!!

Here are some other things I have done this summer.

Thing I did #1

I came within a few inches of snogging a llama at a farm. Is it just me, or is that llama looking sideways at my daughter-in-law taking the photo as if to say, 'Please get this llady away from me as soon as possible.'

Thing I did #2

I stayed in a holiday cottage in the Cotswolds where all the mirrors were so high up on the walls you had to be six feet tall to see more than your fringe, yet all the sofas were so low down that if there'd been an emergency in the kitchen you'd have taken six minutes to reach the scene. I looked on the brochure to see if it said 'Only suitable for people who can grow or shrink themselves at short notice' but, no. All I know is, by the time you'd leapt up and down to try and pluck your eyebrows and then winched yourself out of a seating position a few times to fetch biscuits, you've done more exercise than is right and proper on a holiday.

Thing I did #3

I met an old lady on a bench in Bourton-on-the-Water who should have gone into stand-up comedy. I got into conversation with her about the lengths to which people will go for a tan. She told me she'd seen a news article about a woman who was stuck in a traffic jam on a hot day and, so as not to waste the opportunity, lay in the road in between the cars to catch more of the sun. I mused with the old lady about whether being run over while you were sunning yourself was a good way to go. 'At least you'd be nice and tanned for when you're laid out,' she said. 'And if you were going to hell, you'd go down brown.'

Thing I did #4

I watched the Olympics. The dressage, you can keep. I feel sorry for the horses who I'm sure are thinking, 'How the heck do I face my mates tomorrow?' I'm also not keen on team sports. The hockey, for instance, reminds me of school, and of the fact that I still haven't ever confessed to my secondary school that I was the person who wheeled the trolley of hockey sticks into the girls' showers in July 1978 and turned the hot water full onto the sticks so that they warped. This was as revenge on Miss Smith who never believed me when I tried to convince her that I was on Week 46 of my monthly period and therefore could not possibly do cross-country running. My favourite Olympic sport is gymnastics. I love the 'floor' work. I do floor work myself quite regularly although I have yet to move on from Stage 1: sitting to Stage 2: moving a limb.

Thing I did #5

At the farm with the llamas ... the llama farm, where llama farmers and llamas alarm us but don't harm us ..... unless we're in pyjamas .... where farmers of llamas can calm us .... 


....  I watched Pig Olympics with my family: my husband, two daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren. We yelled and waved flags to support our chosen pig, Harry Trotter. There were five pigs in the race. There were meant to be six but we were told that one had 'strained a hamstring' in training. Another pig was called Boaris Johnson; he came in last in the two races we watched, lolloping along at the back, looking as though he didn't care. As you can see from the picture below, these particular pigs look more like sheep. I'm sure their bacon will be delicious, although you might have to pick bits of wool out of your teeth.

My favourite conversation of the day was with 2 year old Phoebe who was doing some 'pretend cooking' in the play area of the farm.

'What would you like, Grandma?'
'I'll have eggs and toast, please.'
'Okay, here you are.' (She hands me invisible food.)
'Thank you very much. That looks delicious. How much do I owe you?'
(She thinks.) 'Hm. That'll be .... that'll be .... four o'clock, please.'

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Reasons why Fran should learn to check timetables

Saturday's results: Public transport - 49. Fran Hill - 0

None of it was Chiltern Railways' fault, to be fair. They did their best in the circumstances ...

I'd set my alarm for 6.30. I needed an early bus to the station, then a train to Birmingham for a day of writers' workshops. I'd been looking forward to it.

I hadn't checked the internet to make sure there were no hiccups in terms of engineering works.

Everything went well and I had a lovely day. 

First, I forgot to turn the sound up on my phone, so at 6.30 the alarm went 'Ungh, ungh, ungh' making little effort noises to wake me. I slumbered on. Poor wee alarm, so keen to help.

At 7.32, I woke.

It's funny how quickly sweat can appear on one's forehead. Pff pff pff.  Little prickles of moisture, and then a sick feeling in my stomach, the same as you'd get if you'd just arrived for your package holiday in Spain and remembered that you'd ironed some clothes for your holiday and - had you switched the iron off? Or not?

I re-checked bus and train timetables to work out a new journey. Could I make it to Birmingham in time? Maybe ...

I leapt in the shower like a mud wrestler who's just remembered she booked a date with George Clooney for five minutes' time.

I dressed as hurriedly as a catwalk model with 20 seconds to change costumes, except, in so many other ways, not like a catwalk model at all. In fact, let's leave it at the hurrying.

I threw two sips of hot tea and one Weetabix down my throat and as it went down the Weetabix yelled, 'WHERE'S MY BROTHER?' but that was all I had time for.

I grabbed the bag I had packed the night before with notebook, pens and copies of my book in case anyone said, 'You wrote a BOOK? Here's a fifty pound note. Let me buy one. No, don't worry about the change.'

I caught a bus.

I got off the bus, caught the train in time, and had a lovely day. 

I had five minutes to walk the ten minutes to the train station. At the train station, I said to the man at the counter. 'Puff, pant, puff, pant, puff, pant, puff, pant, I think I'm dying.'

'Come again?' he said.

'Is the 8.34 to Birmingham Moor Street running?' I said, drawing on everything I was told during three birthing experiences so that I had oxygen.

'There aren't any trains,' he said. 'The line's up because of engineering works. There are only replacement buses.'

I said, 'Oh, never mind. C'est la vie. Que sera sera. The Lord moveth in mysterious ways.'

I said, 'Kill me now.'

His face said, 'You seem as though you're doing a pretty good job of that yourself.'

I made it all a lot worse by asking, so desperate for good news that all logic had flown, 'Do the buses take longer?'

He couldn't have gazed at me with more pity.

I boarded a bus which would take me to Solihull Station. It would take forty minutes.

It took forty minutes and I got there in time and had a lovely day. 

Forty minutes into the journey, we were at a country station stop called Dorridge, reached via some narrow lanes more suitable for pedestrians, bicycles and very thin cows.

'I thought I was meant to stop here on the way to Solihull,' our bus driver said to an orange-jacketed Chiltern Railways female employee with a clipboard and an anxious forehead.

'Not according to our timetable.'

'Oh, bugger,' said our driver.

We set off again, via South Wales, Cumbria and parts of Northern Scotland, before arriving at Solihull Station.

There was a train waiting on the platform. No tannoy announcements were being made, no information boards gave any clues, and I could see no staff to help me. I leapt onto the train and said, 'Is this the train for Birmingham Moor Street?' to everyone else in the carriage settling into seats and putting bags on racks.

'We think so,' they said. 'It's pointing the right way.' 'It's going at the right time.'

So, the carriage was filled with people like me, travelling by guesswork, with that faint hope stirring in our optimistic hearts that all would be well.

I sat down. By then, who cared? If it went to Bournemouth for the day, I could have fish and chips by the sea and a triple rum and raisin icecream. If it went the other way, to Glasgow or Edinburgh, I've always wanted to try a deep-fried Mars Bar, and if I died eating it, a railway station ticket man in Leamington Spa could confirm to police, 'Oh yes, she looked a bit peaky when I saw her. I'm not at all surprised.' And maybe Chiltern Railways would have sent flowers.

It went to Birmingham, though, and I sneaked into the workshop only twenty minutes late.

'This is the writers' workshop, isn't it?' I said.

'No, no,' someone said. 'This is advanced Russian grammar. You must be in the wrong building.'

'Yes, do sit down, and welcome,' the tutor said.

I had a lovely day.

BACON-wrapped? A step too far, surely, even when you've been lost on public transport for weeks and weeks. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

Reasons to eat plums

My husband came home from his allotment yesterday with some gooseberries.

When I say 'some', I mean 'enough to make a crumble to feed Warwickshire'.

It was a sunny evening. We sat at the garden table with the gooseberries in a giant bowl between us. 'I need to prepare these for the freezer,' he said. 'Do you want to help me get them done before we cook dinner?'

I stood up so that I could see him over the tower of fruit. 'No, I don't want to, particularly,' I said. 'But if I don't, I fear dinner will happen in the early hours of tomorrow morning.'

I sat down again, and began. He was using a tiny pair of scissors, but I was using my fingernails, which was quicker. Pick off the top. Pick off the tail. In the pan. Pick off the top. Pick off the tail. In the pan. Pick off the top. Pick off the t -

'This is a kind of hell,' I said, after half an hour. 'Did you hear Farming Today the other morning? They were saying that gooseberries were an unpopular dessert ingredient these days with Brits. I WONDER WHY.'

It's not only the hard work, though.

1. They're hairy. They remind me of cold-weather testicles. I told my husband this and he nearly cut off his thumb with the scissors.

2. They're sour, and the average crumble needs fourteen pounds of sugar to make up for it. Forget the sugar, and your face will look like a cat's arse for a week.

3. They're not unlike peeled lychees in their resemblance to eyeballs. (My husband preferred that comparison to the testicle one.)

4. Lots of people don't like them, so if you had eight people round for dinner, and had cooked a gooseberry crumble or pie, only two people would want it. 'A yoghurt, anyone? They're only just out of date.'

5. They go through the digestive system like a fast tube train through a tunnel with a stiff breeze behind it. I was going to say strong wind, but -

6. No one can agree how to say it. Some people say 'goozbree' and some people say 'guzbree' and others say 'goozberry'. I've also heard people call them 'goosegogs'. The world doesn't need any more conflict. Nobody has that trouble with 'plum'.

We were on gooseberry number 9,376,501 when my husband said, 'Why do people who feel left out say they're playing gooseberry?'

'When I've done another million,' I said, 'I'll look it up.'

Google came up with a very clear answer. 'No one really knows.' The most frequent idea was this, from DictionaryCentral.com:

Play gooseberry ‘be an uncomfortably superfluous third person with two lovers’ goes back to the early 19th century, and may have originated in the notion of a chaperone (ostensibly) occupying herself with picking gooseberries while the couple being chaperoned did what they were doing (gooseberry-picker was an early 19th-century term for a ‘chaperone’).

As for why they're even called 'goose' berries in the first place, Google doesn't know that either. My favourite etymological dictionary www.etymonline.com says helpfully, 'No part of the plant seems to suggest a goose.' This seems reasonable, although, do geese have testicles? Just saying.

Anyway, my husband says he's got three times the amount he brought home yesterday still on the allotment, waiting to be picked: enough to cure constipation in everyone in the whole wide world or ensure that no one ever comes here again for a dinner party.

Next time, Fran would add the sugar to her dinner party crumble