Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Evidence that notes for your loved ones can carry the most tender messages

If I've posted this poem of mine before, it was back in the Edwardian era when I started the blog, and those followers have died now, or got bored, or perhaps died of boredom, so here it is again.

It's called Love Note, and I think you'll sense the fond feelings and affection coming through.

Love note

You're late - I've gone to Mother's.
Your stew is in the dog.
The Peugeot’s got a teeny dent.
I’m never good in fog.
Johnny's at the Youth Club
and needs picking up at ten.
Kate’s at that new boyfriend’s house.
She didn't say 'til when.
The washer in the kitchen tap
is letting water through.
The dog has chewed your slippers
And your brand new ipad too.

The cat’s had tummy trouble
and has had some in your shed.
The rabbit’s looking peaky
and the hamster’s looking dead.
The CD player goes uh-uh-uh.
I can’t work out what’s up.
The dishwasher won’t open
and the freezer door won’t shut.
A tile slid off the roof today
and cracked a paving stone
as well as an old lady.
A lawyer said he’d phone.

The bank has sent some letters.
I’ve put them in the rack.
We’ve had five bills from Barclaycard.
One of them’s in black.
Your mother’s sent a letter too.
She says she’s changed her will.
She’s leaving you with fifty quid
and the mansion to uncle Bill.
The neighbour’s jukebox just arrived.
Their party starts at nine.
I might be back by Monday.
or might not.
Love Caroline. 

And this poem wasn't one of them. 

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Evidence that I have plenty of material should I wish to write a sitcom

You know when you feel like you're starring in your own sitcom?

Here's what happened. Prepare to feel better about yourself.

Awkward pause before story begins. I can't believe I'm telling you.

A confession.

For a week, I'd been on a no-carbs diet, eating lean meat and salad, salad and lean meat, lean meat, lean salad, and lean meat salad.

That evening, I sat with my husband and ate lean salad and lean meat again, only he had salad, half a cow, and a pile of potatoes higher than a crack den. I tried to look happy, forking in my lettuce, but I was expecting to have lost three stone in my first week, and disappointment made me miserable.

We had a meeting to go to. 'I'm going on my bike,' he said, as we washed up.

'I'll go on the bus,' I said, 'and meet you there.'

We often travel independently like this, because he likes to get exercise, and I .... and I ... anyway, on with the story.

'You'll be early,' he said. 'Don't arrive early. It doesn't start until 7.45.'

'I'll find something to do,' I said. 'I'll sit on a bench and read. It's a nice evening.'

I got off the bus at 7.30.

The bus stop was outside a fish and chip shop.

The first humiliation of the night was that two girls from school appeared behind me in the queue, giggling as the assistant packed up a large portion of chips for me with more carbs than a paddy field. 'Salt and vinegar?' he said, as if to say, 'If I have enough supplies, that is, to cover this lot. I may need to ring the Cash and Carry in the morning.'

I wandered along the road, looking for a place to stand and scoff my chips. I was unwilling to do so anywhere those girls - or anyone else from school - or any other human - or thin, snide cat -  might pass me. There's no elegant way to eat three hundred and ninety fat chips with your fingers, especially when they're so hot that you're going, 'Hoo hoo, huh huh huh' like a steam train but still stuffing them in as though you'd been told you had ninety seconds to live.

I then realised I was on the road my husband would cycle along in the next five minutes.

Near the house where the meeting was, alongside the road I stood on, is a spinney, a small wood. I strolled into it, as though keen to study wildlife, and checked over my shoulder that no one was watching. But a curtain twitched in a row of houses opposite. I must have looked suspicious clutching my paper-wrapped parcel, as though I were about to bury a small body. Or part of one.

I ate the chips while standing in a clearing. It had rained, so all the logs I could have sat on were wet, and I didn't want a muddy bottom as well as burning shame. I hoped no one else would walk through: a man with a couple of dogs, perhaps, or two teenagers hoping to grope each other in peace against a tree and not expecting to find a middle-aged plump woman feasting in secret.

The chips tasted good, but I prefer them laced with ketchup than with guilt. And it was nearly 7.45, so I didn't have time to eat them all. But there always is tragedy in comedy.

The next challenge: to find a bin. No way was I going to say at the house, 'I've just eaten three hundred chips. Can I put the remaining ninety in your kitchen bin?'

But the only bins I could see were at the ends of long drives so that people in their living rooms would have seen me coming down the path.

My conscience wouldn't let me dump the package over a wall into someone's garden. There were too many potential observers behind too many suburban curtains and blinds. And I didn't need to add littering to my list of offences.

Approaching the house, I saw other people arriving, climbing out of cars. One waved 'Hi!' My husband arrived, too, on his bike. I still clutched the package. What to do? I stopped, turned my back so no one could see, opened up my handbag, and stuffed the package into it, screwing it up as tightly as I could, and squeezing it in between my diary and purse.

I couldn't do the zip up on the bag.

Inside the house, trapped in my own subterfuge, I left my open handbag in a corner of the hall, and over it I draped my jacket in case the chip smell emerged. There's a dog in this particular family home. I spent a worried evening in the living room during the meeting, hoping I wasn't about to be exposed as a chip addict by a terrier, nosing at my bag like a Customs and Excise hound.

'Would you like a lift home, Fran?' a man said after the meeting.

'No, no, I'll be fine walking,' I said. And I would have walked the whole 50 minutes back, there being no evening buses, to avoid being in his car with my aromatic contraband. But he insisted.

He didn't say to me, 'Why are you clutching the edges of your handbag together as though stopping blood from an artery?' as he drove me home. But I'm sure he wondered.

As I got out of his car, my husband appeared on his bike, home before me. Damn. Now I couldn't get my illicit package into our garden bin before he saw.

In the end, I dropped it into a neighbour's bin, emptied that morning by the council. The package made a big 'DOOM' sound as it hit the bottom. I hated doing it ('Darling, did you by any chance put half a packet of chips into our bin? ... Are you sure?') but I knew I would hate more admitting that I had consumed a bag of chips the size of the Americas when I was meant to be on a lean meat salad salad lean meat diet.

I avoided looking at any curtains as I ditched the evidence, in case I saw twitching. Was someone saying, 'Why is Fran putting something in the Brown family's bin? Isn't that what alcoholics do?' 'Maybe she's just dumped a load of English essays, dear, like people do with double glazing leaflets when they don't want to deliver them.'

The next day, my husband said, 'Do you have any tissues in your handbag? Can I look?'

I leaped up from the sofa so fast to get them for him that he must have thought, 'I haven't seen her move like that since the man with the Indian takeaway knocked at the door in February.'

But I couldn't take the risk. My handbag still smelled like the inside of a pickle jar.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

Reasons why I should stay in

I walked past a man doing his gardening this week on my way home from work. 'Good evening,' he said. 'It's getting warm, isn't it?'

'Yes,' I said. 'Nufney wedder.'

I don't know why I couldn't pronounce 'Lovely weather' so that he would understand. It just didn't come out right. So, he looked at me askance as if thinking, 'If I'd known she was Dutch, I wouldn't have started a conversation.'

As I walked the rest of the way home, I remembered other 'encounters in the street' that have left me red-faced.

1. Once I walked past a lady who still had her umbrella up even though it had stopped raining five minutes before. 'You know it's stopped, don't you?' I said. I thought she hadn't noticed and that I was being helpful. She snarled at me as if to say, 'I can judge that for mySELF, thank you,' and carried on down the road, with her umbrella still firmly up, like Noah, despite everyone else's scorn.

2. Then there was the day I click-clacked in my work shoes past some men digging up the road. One looked up and gazed as I walked by them - I was indeed surprised as I'm no Sophia Loren - and as I made my way down the street, I heard the other one say, 'You didn't get any last night, did you, mate?' I'm guessing he didn't mean fish and chips. I still blush when I remember that. Cruel, or what? If I'd had my wits about me, I'd have yelled, 'No, but I did, and I think Johnny Depp was perfectly satisfied.' But I didn't. I was too busy clacking down the street as fast as I could, away from humiliation.

3. Some tourists stopped their car once - a distinctive silver car - while I was walking and asked the way to a local visitor attraction. I pointed them in the direction I thought right. As soon as they'd driven off, their faces shiny with grateful smiles, I realised I'd sent them the wrong way. I could do nothing about it, so I kept walking. Then, in the distance, I saw their silver car coming back. I squeezed behind someone's hedge, privet tickling my nose and ears, until they'd gone past. That was a couple of years back, but if you see a silver car with some puzzled East Asians in it, tell them I'm sorry, and that Hampton Court is still very nice if they fancy trying again.

Have a lovely weekend. Unfortunately, the wedder's not been very nufney today, but Sunday should be better.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Reasons why Fran needs a personal fashion adviser (and some self-esteem)

Is there anyone else as useless as I am at choosing and buying clothes? In the past week, I have had all these fashion disasters.

1. I bought a pair of linen trousers which fitted perfectly in the changing room, forgetting that after an hour's wear, linen trousers stretch to two sizes bigger, bagging around your bottom as though you'd lost three stone and flapping across your thighs like a tarpaulin in a strong wind. Then, of course, it's too late to take them back to the shop. ('It says these were size 18, Madam, when you bought them. How come they're now big enough to camp a family in?')

2. Conversely, I bought a pair of black trousers for work, which seemed fine in the changing room, early in the morning on a breakfast of yogurt and fruit. However, the next day, after porridge for breakfast, a lunch at work of ham sandwiches and someone's birthday cake, a few Party Rings someone left on a desk, and five mugs of restorative teacher-tea, I walked home feeling as though I'd been shrink-wrapped ready for the freezer. All I could think was: is there anyone walking behind me, and will they be wondering if at any minute I'll burst out of these trousers like a Cumberland sausage on a too-high heat?

3. I bought a dress. I thought perhaps it was time for a style change from my usual uniform of black trousers and variously-striped-and-patterned cardigans. With a pair of black tights, I mused, examining myself in the changing room mirror, perhaps I'd get away with it, despite not having worn a dress since my son's wedding in 2008. Then I got home and put it on and twirled this way and that in front of my bedroom mirror. Let's just say, I've never felt more as though I was a woman who's really a man in drag as a woman. What didn't help was that the only pair of black tights I owned were some I wore as an infant in 1964 which I found stuffed in a drawer and, as I pulled them on, fourteen ladders appeared, running down my legs like zips out of control. The tights went in the bin. The dress is going back to the shop. And I won't be going to the pantomime this year in case I haven't yet achieved closure and the Dame brings it all back.

Fran's pupils found it hard to concentrate on the punctuation lesson she was delivering. 

I have had one success. I went into the charity shop and found a pair of blue summer trousers for £3.99. They are also linen and despite being ironed get as creased as Gordon Ramsay's forehead after thirty seconds of wearing unless I stand still and do nothing. But they fit, not being too baggy, or too tight, or too similar to sex-change clothing. 

And they'll get good wear, nothing else in the wardrobe being suitable for public view.  

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.