Sunday, 20 November 2016

Reasons why Fran takes longer to cook dinner these days

Location: The Hill kitchen.

Him: What are we having?
Me: Roast, with those leftover thingies from yesterday, with a bit of .. you know ...
Him: Mash?
Me: Yes, mashed potato which I thought I'd mix with some ... some wotsit from the fridge
Him: What, the butternut .. er ... stuff?
Me: Yep. Can you hand me the silver thingybob?
Him: This sieve thing?
Me: The colander. That's it. Colander.
Him: Do you want me to ... to ... sort out the whatjamacallthems?
Me: Yes, please. Can you ...
Him: Peel them?
Me: I'll do the oojamaflips.
Him: Okay.
Me: Give me one of those knife thingies.
Him: A knife?
Me: Yes, that one, next to the one we use for chopping all the ... you knows.
Him: Vegetables. Shall I check that the ... er .. the roast ... the roast... meat ... is cooked?
Me: Yup. Shall I do some thingy sauce, with those Bramley wotsits from the ... you know, the allotment?

And on it goes, the Litany of Vagueness that emits now from our thinning, ageing lips as we prepare dinner. I'm nearly fifty-five, he's sixty, but together our brains have a combined age of nine hundred and eighty-seven, especially when it comes to naming objects.

I fear we are regressing to the 'pointing' stage of 8 month old babies when *extend finger towards banana* means 'please give me that banana to eat or I'll scream like a broken siren until I'm spent.'

But if we cook dinner together via pointing, we could still be there at midnight, by which time we'd give up the struggle, throw the whatjamacallits back in the oojamaflips and the meatystuff back in the coldthingy and go to bed hungry.

Anxious about my erratic memory, I've completed myriad do-you-have-early-dementia Internet quizzes, googling 'Why don't I know the word apple?' although the problem isn't, in fact, not remembering. It's not remembering in time, the moment you need the memory. As a teacher, this is especially frightening. Simple facts land on the tip of my tongue and then dissolve like sherbet. 'Right, then, class. Let's get back to Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare's characterisation of Romeo's friend .... his friend .... his friend ... ('Mercutio, Miss? The one you taught the lesson about yesterday?')

I haven't yet said, 'Right, then, class. Back to Romeo and Jeanette.' But I have anxiety dreams about doing so.

The most I've ever scored on the dementia quizzes, though, is 2 out of 10. One of the questions is usually 'Do you easily get lost even though you are on familiar territory?' but I've been doing that since I was eleven, turning left instead of right, right instead of left, and flipping my A to Z upside-down, right-way-up, inside-out in an attempt to orientate myself. These days there are navigation apps for one's phone, but that would mean learning to use it, and when do I have time for committing that to memory while I'm busy wandering the streets, looking for destinations?

Don't think I'm poking fun at memory loss. It's a scary thing - I see it frustrating my 94 year old grandmother who can remember the names of childhood friends and TV programmes she watched in the 70s, but not my face until I get up close and say 'It's me. Fran.' And I have a friend my husband's age with early onset dementia who can no longer remember how to cook the Bakewell tart which lured people to her house on Sundays drooling like those big dogs with flappy jowls.

My only comfort is that perhaps my own memory loss is a temporary, menopause-linked symptom. Maybe when I'm the other side of the menopause, I'll suddenly remember everything I forgot and will stand in the kitchen yelling with joy: 'Pork! Butter! Colander! Egg! Spoon! Whisk! Carrots! Onions! Carving knife! Mercutio!'

That might alarm my husband, though, who would rather have me with some memory loss than a kind of kitchen-linked Tourettes.

'I've made you this delicious pie, dear. Give me a minute and I'll tell you what I put in it.'

I was reassured at a quiz night on Friday when I helped my team out with several questions in the Literature round after squeezing my eyes shut and praying to my own brain not to let me down. I needed the encouragement: last year's quiz night saw me covering my face with my hands while everyone looked my way, touchingly sure that I'd know the name of a Steinbeck book or remember who wrote the Barchester Chronicles within the space of ten seconds. 'Sorry, sorry, sorry,' was all I had to offer as we left the spaces blank. As soon as we'd given in our answer sheet, I remembered the information. This wasn't a comfort to my teammates.

On Friday, though, we came sixth out of twelve teams. Things are on the up. Tomorrow, when I cook the dinner, perhaps I'll even say, 'Please pass me the whisk' without a hint of hesitation ...

... at which point my husband will say, 'Now, which thingybob do we keep the whisk in?'

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Evidence that Fran has seen plenty of wildlife in Cornwall, including the pasties

Thoughts from Cornwall on seagulls and pasties

On seagulls.

I am on holiday in Looe, Cornwall. Have you been there? If you're a seagull reading this, the answer is yes. In fact, you are probably reading it in Looe itself. Every seagull in the world is here, either as a permanent resident or on its own holiday. Very near our holiday home is the fish market. Every day the boats bring in mackerel or gurnard or haddock. The seagulls wait for their moment, flicking through their copies of 'Fish Burglary Tips for Birdlife' and then, in packs, like SAS troops, they pounce, hoping to grab as much as possible from the plastic ice boxes layered with the morning catch. The fishermen wave them away with their copies of 'How to Keep Seagulls from Stealing all your Stock' but back they come. It's like a war of attrition.

When our son was five, we were in Tenby in Wales and he was eating chips out of a paper cone while we stood on the beach. A seagull swooped down, its beak pointing due south towards the paper cone, and then STAB, STAB, STAB. Three chips, skewered on the end of his beak, and our son's mouth open in horror as this monster bird from a Daphne du Maurier story ravaged and pillaged his supper with not a hint of an apology.

The same happened to my sister earlier this year only this time with a long sausage roll. The seagull had obviously seen one of those rom-coms in which lovers eat spaghetti by taking an end each and slurping it in gently until their lips met in the middle, and wanted to try the same trick with my sister and her sausage roll.

This seagull's mother said, 'If you keep your mouth open like that all the time and the wind changes,
don't blame me for what happens .....' 

Talking of pastry.

On Cornish pasties ....

We decided to try the local pasties for lunch. I knew the pasty would be sizeable. I've seen them in the bakery shop windows, nudging aside Chelsea buns and doughnuts as if to say, 'Move over, small fry.' But I wasn't expecting to have to clamber inside the bag to fetch the pasty out, as you do a duvet from inside its cover, hauling it out by its corners. I wasn't expecting to climb my cheese and onion pasty, straddle it and control it before I could eat it. You do that with horses, don't you, not pastry goods?

It took some taming but finally I managed to negotiate my way from one end of it to the other. Afterwards, I felt triumphant, as I would had I lassoed a herd of wild bulls or silenced a cage-ful of roaring lions. I also felt as though I wouldn't need to eat until three days later and, even then, perhaps a thin chicken broth or a tomato salad.  I got up from my chair to say, 'Shall I put the kettle on' but the chair came with me because my hips had widened by fourteen centimetres and I was wedged into it. The Chair and I went to put the kettle on regardless. After enough pastry to line the basin of the Atlantic, one needs a hot cup of tea, if only to calm one down after the tussle.

The ship in the distance delivered this pasty to Cornwall. It has gone back to fetch the next one. 

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.'