Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Nan and the night-time surprise

Nan lived with her three son; the youngest of whom (met in earlier tales as Uncle) was also a sleepwalker.  He had on occasions been found sitting at the foot of Nan's bed, completely unaware of how he had got there,  but still managing to terrify her in the meantime. He was never woken  as Nan always said it was dangerous, but would be led gently to his bedroom and put back to bed.  Events took a more serious turn when he opened the front door and went sleepwalking in the street; from then on the exterior doors were always locked and bolted at night.

One night Nan wakes up; it is dark, the house is silent - but she knows something is wrong.  In the boys' bedroom there are only two sleeping forms; the other bed is empty with the covers thrown back.  She searches the house, but can't find Uncle - the front door is still locked and bolted so he must be somewhere inside. By now she is panicking and wakes his brothers to help find him.  Eventually one of them notices that the window of the first floor box room is ajar and looks out to see Uncle sitting on the (very small) porch roof - a good three/four metres off the ground - fast asleep.  With some difficulty they manage to get him back into the house - one brother climbing up the porch while the other holds onto Uncle through the window.  The next morning he has no recollection of his somnabulistic experience.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Nan and the birthday party

Being born just before Christmas meant that I rarely had birthday parties as a child.  Although I can understand now why they weren't very high on the parental agenda I was deeply resentful at the time (and for about twenty years afterwards...)

One year Nan decides to throw me an impromptu party.   I tell Nan about a party I had been to where there had been a magician; not to be out done she promises me some party entertainment.   Her niece is coming to visit,  bringing her four daughters - all under ten - they will do as party guests.  As a family they are very odd (to my mind), they look identical;  just at different stages of development: they even dress alike - including the mother).  They sound alike and are loud and boisterous except for the middle girl.  She is extremely nervous, never speaks voluntarily, every time she has to go into another room the nervous girl looks anxiously around the door before moving.  Even the cats make her flinch.

It was inevitable that she does not respond positively to Uncle's jolly game where he pretends to wrench the nose off your face and then  poking his thumb through his first and second fingers, shouts,  'I've got your nose!'   This is followed by him wrestling you to the ground - I find this most entertaining, but it is possibly a little full-on for the uninitiated.

Nan disappears upstairs to get herself ready for the entertainment while we eat sandwiches, jelly and ice cream (standard party fare before the advent of sushi and tapas for the under-sevens).  We wait with anticipation as she can be heard coming downstairs.

Leaping into the room Nan is wearing a black cloak, a tall black hat and a hideous witch's mask.
She shrieks, 'I am a witch and I've come to eat your brains and then to suck out your eyeballs!'
There was lots of excited screaming; although the photograph taken at the time shows me calmly eating crisps.

 But then the nervous girl falls off her stool and has a fit brought on by fright (she had never had one before or since).  An ambulance is called and Nan's career as party entertainer is over.

Monday, 27 February 2012

me and bras

I went to John Lewis to buy that oh so desirable an object - a new sports bra.  At least JL has a good private lingerie department where you are unlikely to run into passing male acquaintances as you hunt through racks of garments that look like medical trusses.

I initially looked online and was rather taken with the idea of what M&S advertised  as 'suptuous sports bras' - now suptuous to me suggests something that would feel amazing - silk, satin, possibly even velvet.  Impractical I know, but what about a lavender-coloured velvet sports bra with chantilly lace - how nice would that be?  Anyway sadly M&S had nothing in the least bit sumptuous to offer.

Putting aside fantasies of aesthetically pleasing sports bras (wonder if blokes have similar dilemmas when purchasing jockstraps?) I head to Oxford Street.  JL (they should employ me as a global ambassador) has an extensive range which is good.  But I am disturbed by what they are called - Shock Absorbers being a pretty good brand, but I don't want to feel like my big end (or whatever shock absorbers are for) has gone.  Actually they certainly do give you a shock when on - never wear for a hot date (any date actually) unless you are perhaps into S&M - then it might be an acceptable look.  Suspect if Michael Fassbender had chanced upon a Shock Absorber in Shame  he'd have found a new addiction.

The names of these garments of torture (constricting in the extreme - I could hardly flex my shoulder blades)  leave something to be desired unless you are a former East German shot putter ( I mean from what was East Germany, rather than a retired sports person)  - who wants to wear something called Sportsjock,  Lessbounce, Moving Comfort Juno (for your inner goddess?) or the French brand Zbra (no  - I can not have a racial stereotype attached to my chest).

This was definitely a case of  'be careful what you wish for'.  I remember all the nights when I'd pray for a chest (Ok, let's not be coy - breasts).  I think I could have empathised with Job (studied for RE A level) if he had been afflicted with a flat chest - but all those boils just left me cold.

Getting changed for the first PE lesson of secondary school was an eye-opener in more ways than one.  Most of us wore white regulation  vests, the lucky ones had a small bow or fabric rose to relieve the grimness ( although I have to admit it can be a good look on some - think Wolverine or David Beckham).  But at least we were together in our sartorial shame  - that was until the two girls in our class, who already looked like they could be pulling pints behind a bar, (jealous - moi? - Non) took off their shirts to reveal ... black lacy bras.  OMG  I don't think I had even seen a black bra - I lived a sheltered life where female relatives thought that a pale blue or pink underwear was extremely racy and likely to put them on the road to perdition.

I go home and tell mum I must have a bra - she laughs and I continue to wear a vest for a good while (I will not reveal how long - I am not seeking pity).  Eventually the day comes when I get my M&S 26AAAA  (very slight exaggeration) and think I have become Madonna in that J-P G cone bra.
But today when wrestling with the sports bra (I think I may have dislocated my shoulder trying to do it up) I remember those vests with great fondness.

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Nan, me and the broken arm

About a week after I have broken my arm - plaster from wrist to elbow - term ends and I am due to go to Ramsgate with Nan.  No one at home is very sympathetic about my injury - it was my own fault and I just had to lump it.  I am sad that I won't be able to go swimming in the sea (one of my all-time favourite activities) as the plaster has to stay on for 6 weeks.  It is a nasty itchy thing (even the frequent use of a knitting needle for scratching doesn't help) and now has many obscenities written and drawn on it - Ah! The originality of youth.

But Nan, being a fellow hedonist feels my pain; decides there is no reason why a broken arm shouldn't stop me swimming.  Every time I go into the sea -  four or five times a day whatever the weather - my arm is wrapped up in several plastic bags and secured with elastic bands.  The cast does limit my marine activities: front crawl isn't feasible - you end up hitting your head with the cast quite often - although a sedate (slightly lop-sided) breast-stroke is just about manageable. The plaster does get a bit soggy, but usually dries out over-night ready for the next day's dunking.

Strangely the broken arm never healed properly (it is thinner than the other one and I can't put any weight on it - those who know me may come and inspect it).   I sometimes wonder if it was the swimming that did it

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Me and the broken arm

This story is dedicated to Jana.

It is summer - so sadly no more hockey or netball.  How I miss wearing those lovely divided skirts and thick socks held up with elastic garters (actually cut the garters - they were excruciatingly painful) - not for us those wussy shin pads that are now compulsory - we were the Jean Claude Van Damme of hockey teams and proud of it).

Summer meant athletics - which I hated with a vengeance for a variety of reasons.  The chief being that we had to wear gym knickers and a short airtex tops - so not a good look for the vast majority of girls - the boys were luckier and got to wear white short and shirts so were able to cover up a bit more - it was not unlike the Degas painting The Young Spartans Exercising.  Then the joy of sports day - having to sign up for events you had never done before - generally for a very good reason.  Failing to get to the sign-up sheet, within the first ten minutes of it being posted, could mean an afternoon of extreme terror (rather than just the run-of-the-mill sports day humiliation).  Inevitably the only events remaining would be either shot putt (not possible  - I had no arm muscles-  whereas now I could give Madonna a run for her money), javelin (unpleasant to be responsible for the near-death experiences of classmates) and long jump (risk of sand in gym pants - exfoliating, but not in a good way).  I would try to sign up for one of the running events that involved going round the track about 50 times - it had a certain Zen quality or hurdles (I can think of no good reason why).

All the equipment was set out for sports day on the playing fields; we had been warned not to go anywhere near it unless with a teacher.  It is lunchtime; having listened to the dire warnings my friend Coral and I saunter down the field to 'have a look' at the instruments of torture laid out on the grass.  We decide to race over the hurdles.  I extremely competitive and  determined to win - I jump too soon and fall.  My hand doesn't look like it belongs to my arm, it sticks out at a funny angle and hurts like hell.

In the sick room the Deputy Head is called for her opinion (she of the plimsoll  which was used to hit bad girls).  She grasps my hand - pumps it up and down -  says that it isn't broken and I should get back to Latin (as goodness knows I need to get those gerundives sorted).  I faint, Mum is telephoned to come and take me to hospital where my broken arm is put in plaster.

I get a starring role in the next day's assembly to my chagrin.  The Deputy Head talks about casting out bad apples from barrels so not to spoil the rest and a certain girl who now has a broken arm - as I was the only person sporting a cast it was obviously me and I endured a few days of being called 'hurdle girl' and such.  The only positive thing I can say about this experience is that I did not have to take part in sports day.

Me, Quick Worker and my friends

Faith is having a party as her parents have gone away for the weekend and left her older brother in charge - he is putty in our hands.  The problem is that she doesn't want to invite Quick Worker.  None of my friends like him for a variety of reasons. They say he is boring – it is true that he mainly talks about football (but so does Harry Redknapp and I've always had a soft spot for him) - but then we weren't exactly scintillating, none of my group would have impressed Alain de Botton.  Our topics of conversation being how much we hate school (a lie - we are all basically nerds), hate living in the country, hate not having a Top Shop within 20 miles,  boys we hate, boys we like, boys we are indifferent to (not many of them) and mostly boys we lurve.
Anyway back to Quick Worker.  They don't like the way he dresses – appreciation of the DM is not universal.  They didn’t like his taste in music – he liked pop and we liked rock (I, of course, would never admit my interest in Elgar or Reynaldo Hahn - it would have been social suicide).  Poor Quick Worker - this dislike of him makes me feel quite protective.  

The party is OK, although Faith is extremely stroppy and accuses me of forgetting my  real friends and says I'm selling out to the man.  In the end I go and sit in the bathroom for some peace and quiet – sitting in an empty bath is quite relaxing I recommend it if you haven't tried it - enamel baths being the best as they are nicely chilled).  I think I may even have had a little nap while people banged on the door increasingly desperate – this being the only bathroom in the house.  

Eventually I go back to the party - somewhat refreshed.  I hunt for Quick Worker and find him with Faith in her bedroom - I am pleased they seem to be getting on.  The party ends.

The next day when I go round to Faith's house her mum says that she is in bed with a cold and doesn't want to see anyone, but I insist - after all we are BFF.  Faith is grumpy, bundled up as if for the Arctic and even has a scarf on.
'Bit hot for that,' I say.
She slowly unwraps the scarf to reveal a Quick Worker signature love bite.
'I told you he wasn't very nice, ' she said triumphantly. 

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Me and Quick Worker

It is the summer term; I go to a school disco with my friend Faith: she is the Holmes to my Watson, the Queen Anne to my Sarah Churchill, the Rachel to my Monica  -  we are the bestest of best friends.  This manifests itself  by us wearing  the same clothes, having the same hair cut and colour (courtesy of Clairol) and even buying the same type of knickers - generally decorated with the days of the week or dodgy cartoon characters - such is our desire to be the same.

On this particular evening we are dressed in identical navy blue jumpsuits - think Tom Cruise in Top Gun (I can hardly believe I am admitting this).  They have zips that go down to the navel - obviously being good girls we are  zipped up to our collar bones.  When apart we are both quite shy, but when together become a total pair of exhibitionists; we dance when everyone else is still shuffling around the walls, before the teachers herd them into the middle, we also make an awful lot of noise.  I'm sure some of this showing-off was down to me not wearing my specs - I take the line that if I can't see, then no one can see me. Of course we do identical dances; probably practised while watching Top of the Pops and spend quite a lot of time declaring our undying devotion to each other.  I am about to change schools, but we will remain as one and no man (if we should ever be so lucky) will come between us.

A boy keeps trying to break in on our twosome, muttering strange things about twins (the charmer...).  Then Faith needs to go to the loo - instead of going with her as I would normally - I stay and talk to Quick Worker ( for it is he).  I have no excuse for my disloyalty - it was not his scintillating conversation, a mutual love of music or reading - no, I suspect it was his DM's  - you may call me shallow, but ask yourself if you would have behaved differently.  Faith was then dumped for the evening - but don't feel too sorry for her as I think she enjoyed the experience of dancing with one of our geography teachers.

It is time to go home. Quick Worker and I say good night - this involves grappling in a corner (a compulsory activity) and then there is just time for one last trip to the loo before Faith's Mum arrives to take us home in her yellow Honda.  When in the brightly lit room Faith takes one look at me and laughs gleefully. 'Well, he was a Quick Worker', she snorts.  Somehow I have the most enormous, disfiguring love bite on my neck.

Despite the ensuing heatwave I spend the next two weeks assuring my mum that I am cold and need to wear a polo neck sweater (not a great look for those of us who are lacking in the chin department).

Monday, 20 February 2012

Nan and the fancy dress party

I am invited to a fancy dress party by one of the boys I met at Lucy's party.  Finding a suitable costume will be challenging; it is necessary to be cool, alluring, individual (but not too individual) and wear as few clothes as possible - while at the same time avoiding the gimlet gaze of Mum who might make me stay at home and do my homework.

 I enlist Nan's help; she understands that girls just wanna have fun , has wardrobes of interesting clothes left over from the 1950s and has gone out in some pretty shocking outfits in her time.  There are still problems to be overcome: I am 8 inches taller and 5 dress sizes smaller (viz Twiggy and Barbara Windsor - only from the neck down).  A red velvet cocktail dress takes my eye, but I (sadly) do no have the curves to fill it.  Nan (I feel) is not taking this sartorial conundrum as seriously as she should, for instance her repeated suggestion that I dress as an old lady with a head scarf, shopping bag and falling-down stockings. After much sighing and huffing on my part she pulls out a colourful floral dirndl skirt with a sticky-out petticoat,  a white embroidered peasant-style blouse and announces I would make a good gypsy.  No - I am not a swarthy, dark-haired flashing-eyed voluptuous Carmen-type, but skinny, mousy and freckled.   Although not at all convinced I give in because a) my lift has arrived (Uncle in his Ford Cortina) and b) I cannot resist the lure of the charming Piers - slightly punky, when off school premises (a good look) or traditional Sloane-wear (rugby shirt with turned-up collar) - when within the hallowed grounds (not quite so good).

So there I am  - the most anaemic romany princess in all of Oxfordshire wearing an off-the-shoulder top made for a woman with the frontage of Diana Dors (I'm getting worried about the recurrence of off-the-shoulder outfits in my fashion history), enormous hoop earrings (very bling - or tarty as we said in the olden days). Footwear  proved a problem - Nan has feet the size of Miss Piggy's and I only have my cowboy boots which she says won't do for the authentic gypsy vibe.  She suggests I go bare-footed and I (idiot that I am) agree.

Uncle drives me to the school.  Unfortunately the party is taking place in the cricket pavilion - to get there involves a lengthy walk over wet playing fields.  I make my great entrance with mud up to my ankles and hide in a corner while I survey the scene. I am a lone gypsy in a room full of girls wearing variations on the 'sexy' outfit: sexy school girls (think Britney) and sexy tights/leotard combos (think haven't finished getting dressed).  Remind self not to ask Nan's advice about anything to do with clothes ever again.

Needless to say it wasn't a great evening.  Piers obviously preferred the schoolgirl-look to the gypsy - perhaps he had premonitions of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding?  The evening ended with me trudging back to meet Uncle, who loyally said I looked nice and offered me a Murray Mint - I would like to say that this made it better, but it really didn't.

Sleepwalking at Nan-next-door's house

I am about five and live with Nan-next-door during the week. My bedtime routine never varies: get changed for bed, come downstairs for a nightly lettuce sandwich, watch Grampy cleaning the shoes (daily routine inculcated by the army) and take as long as possible saying goodnight.
I hate going to bed  - I suffer from insomnia, loneliness and the dark.  Also the longer I can stay up the more opportunity there is for the family to admire the new nighttime attire I got for Christmas. This consists of a dressing gown in a soft, pale blue quilted fabric decorated with images of frolicking bunnies. It has a peter-pan collar and rabbit-shaped buttons.  Accessorised with a pair of fluffy bunny slippers it is both warm and whimsical - what more could a girl ask for?  I spend a lot of time swishing around in said outfit, smoothing it down and fiddling with the buttons.  The family responds satisfactorily with 'Don't you look sweet', 'Who's our little bunny' and other such nonsense - I adore it.

Sadly after a few months I am the only person who is still in love with my 'bunny-girl' outfit and I miss their nocturnal attention.  But all is not lost - thanks to an idea gleaned from 'Tom and Jerry'.

I am put to bed; five minutes later I hop up, put on the slippers and gown and head downstairs. Pushing open the sitting room door I enter with half-closed eyes (don't want to risk falling) and stick my arms out in front of me (sleepwalking à la Jerry -  before he wakes up and beats Tom to a pulp).  The response from my captive audience is gratifying - although I don't like the way my uncle sniggers every time I get near him.  To give more of a show I head into the kitchen; but have to beat a hasty retreat as the lights are off  and it is scary.  This results in me being 'woken up' gently and spending an extra half-hour downstairs.  A good strategy I decide that becomes a nightly occurrence until Nan takes my beloved dressing gown and slippers out of the room at night.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Me and the cycling proficiency test

The police are coming to primary school to teach us how to safely ride our bicycles; this has been organised by  the headmaster who is obsessed with all manner of legal physical activity - Mens sana in corpore sano being his motto. The course is run by the most enormous, scary policeman.  I am small, my bike is big and every time he barks an instruction I freeze.  Also (to be honest) there are better things to think about - what's for lunch or will the tuck shop have replenished supplies of sherbet fountains (top tip: always discard the liquorice stick and use a slightly grimy finger - it gives a more authentic, fizzy  flavour). 

Back to the long arm of the law.  By the second day he had identified his victim , who he nicknamed 'Dolly Daydream' .  Yes, it was me: Debbie McGee to his Paul Daniels, chosen to demonstrate all manner of complicated manoeuvres - signalling, braking, the bike equivalent of the emergency stop and things like that.  Fortunately after what seemed like weeks (surely only a few days) we take the test. 
Monobrow Boy and I fail.  Mr Policeman says pretend-kindly: 'Well Little Dolly, if you stop that daydreaming, perhaps you might pass next time.'  What next time might that be? I don't think so.

The Monobrow Boy cries all afternoon; I don't because, although humiliated beyond measure, I am relieved it is over.  Monobrow will not be comforted and crossly says that it doesn't matter if I fail because I'm just a girl; at the time I have no answer - The Female Eunuch wasn't in the school library and Enid Blyton (the source of all wisdom) seemed to agree with him.

Actually the deep shame of this failure stayed with me for years.  I've often wonder if this is why I have never learnt to drive.  I did try once, but as the person trying to teach me kept flinching every time I touched the accelerator (why is it so near the brake?) and shouting: 'Don't hit the f*****g car in front',  I thought it better to resign myself to a life of shanks' pony and/or being chauffeur-driven.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Nan and why ladies shouldn't wear trousers: part 2

As a student I loved to experiment with clothes (I must have had a premonition that a lifetime of cardigans was before me).  In my first term at university I cropped my hair, bleached it almost white and added food colouring streaks to match whatever clothes I was wearing that day - great if it didn't rain.  I put multiple piercings in my left ear with a sewing needle (don't try this at home - it does hurt) when I should have been writing  an essay on West Stow Anglo-Saxon village (I have since developed displacement activities that do not involve pain).  The androgynous look continued with army fatigue trousers (very comfortable, the pockets were always useful) , khaki-coloured shirts with button-down collars and a black silk tie for more formal occasions (sorry Dad - I expect you wondered where it went), black lace-ups completed the ensemble.  Comfortable and stylish - to my mind anyway.

One night when so attired I went to catch the midnight bus to Oxford (apologies to Gladys - does not have the cachet of the original).  Outside Warren Street tube I was approached by a plump, middle-aged lady in a vivid yellow satin frock.  She first asked if I knew the way to Brewer Street. I said that I didn't, being fairly new to London, but that we could look in the A-Z which I just happen to have with me in one of my many pockets.  She smiled and asked what I did.  I began to explain at some length that I was an archaeology student at UCL. 
She became slightly more insistent, almost purring: 'What I mean darling, is what do you like to do?' 
I begin to ramble on about how I liked foreign films especially anything by Eric Rohmer (oh yes, I could have featured in a junior 'Pseud's Corner').  It gradually occurred to me that she had quite impressive five o'clock shadow and looked more Glen than Glenda (good film - I know it is sometimes billed as the worse film ever made - but not in my opinion).. 
Finally realising that subtlety was wasted on me she asked: 'Which way do you swing?'
Somewhat confused I  said that as far as I knew I didn't swing, but I was off to Oxford for the weekend.

When I told Nan what had happened she sniffed: ' Well, if you will wear trousers you have to expect these things.'

Friday, 17 February 2012

Nan and why ladies shouldn't wear trousers: part 1

When growing up I never saw my Nan in trousers (or slacks as she would probably call them).  She thought women had a duty to be feminine at all times and complained whenever I wore trousers. But it was her insistence on 'bringing me out of my shell' that saw me wedded to jeans throughout my teenage years; the only place I regularly wore a skirt was at school where pleated, grey sacks of a certain length were de rigueur - but at least I was safe from Nan there.
Until I got wise to her, and went into permanent denim, a typical scenario has the two of us walking through Oxford - it is daytime, she is sober, I am fourteen - skinny and self-conscious.  She would then address random men: 'This is my granddaughter - doesn't she have fabulous legs?  Have you ever seen such good ankles?' This would be followed by a simper (from her, not me - I would be pretending I didn't know her)  'She gets her bone structure from me, of course.' (When I finally saw Taxi Driver  I felt a certain kinship with Iris.)

Mortified I would remonstrate with her, but this seemed to increase her need to embarrass me. Nan seemed to think she was doing me a favour, always saying things like 'Don't hide your light under a bushel'.
The apotheosis of my humiliation came when she tried this trick on a group of German language students.  They gamely (and politely) agreed,  saying such things as 'sehr gutt' and 'Nette Knöchel'.  Thanks guys, I appreciated your efforts at international good will, but it really didn't help and I'm not sure your national aesthetic is to be trusted given the popularity of The Hoff in Deutschland.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Nan and the knitted swimming costume

Unlike her nemesis Nan-next-door,  Nan wasn't such a gifted knitter.  Most of the things she made bore little resemblance to the original pattern; for instance hats could double as small sleeping bags.  When she finished whatever garment she was knitting we had an interesting ritual ,whereby all family members tried it on to see who it would fit; poor Dad was frequently offered cardigans in pastel colours which he generally declined.
Actually I'm surprised Nan continued knitting after her first experience with wool.  As a child Nan lived with her family in Ramsgate, but she was not allowed to go onto the beach as Great Gran thought it common. Once she started work Nan gained more independence and ignored most of her mother's dictates including the forbidden beach. One summer she decided to knit herself a swimming suit that no one else would have.  She said she felt fantastic tripping down to the sands and revealing her white costume to her youthful admirers.  Her splash in the sea was also satisfactory -but she would never go deeper than her shoulders as she couldn't swim and she didn't want to get her hair wet.
Her return to the beach was not quite so triumphant; the white wool had stretched alarming and the costume was almost completely transparent.  She rushed back into the sea and stayed there until the beach emptied as none of her 'genetlemen' friends would bring her a towel.  Home-made swim suits never featured on her fashion agenda again.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Me and the Redhead

I've always liked people with red hair and have never understood 'gingerism'.  The Internet is full of unpleasant jokes and sites such as 'Ed Sheeran, the best thing for redheads ... since hair dye'  and what is the South Park-inspired  'Kick a ginger day' all?  Lots of lovely gingers out there: Damian Lewis, PianoGhibli girl on YouTube,  Tin Tin, Wilma Flintstone, Ann of Green Gables, Elizabeth I, Lucille Ball.  Admittedly there are some gingers who spoil it for everyone: L. Ron Hubbard, Lizzie Borden, Judas and The Redhead.

The Redhead was a small boy who lived in the same block of flats as my parents.  At the age of 5 he was feared by all the residents as the naughtiest, roughest and snottiest kid on the block.  I thought he was amazing; although I didn't like it when he disfigured my dolls, locked me in the garage or make me walk through stringing nettles. Is this interest in 'bad boys' hard-wired into the female brain and, if so, why?  For example in The Gilmore Girls Dean is kind, gentle and builds Rory a car; but Jess, the small-town bad boy, is much more interesting, yet makes nothing but trouble.

Anyway I digress - back to The Redhead who continued to terrorise the block.  No one could leave their ground floor windows open after he set fire to some net curtains, he would pick on smaller children, steal toys and either refuse to return them or give them back in such a state you didn't want them anymore.  
I had a  tricycle that I was allowed to ride uncahperoned around the block with The Redhead running after me emitting blood curdling yells (very thrilling, but a bit disturbing at the same time).  But the day came when he wanted a ride; when I refused he pulled me off by my ponytail and set off at quite a pace.  Being younger and smaller I couldn't catch up however fast I ran; it took me several circuits of the block to come to this conclusion.

I cried a bit and then my eye chanced on a metal pole that just happened to be lying in the grass - it was a metre-long tube.  As the Redhead shot by me, peddling furiously, I whacked him on the back of the head with the pole - it was most satisfactory as he dropped the bike and ran off crying for his mum.  He needed about ten stitches and kindly let me feel the scar on demand.  He never seemed to bear a grudge; I suspect in his heart he recognised that I had learnt all I knew from The Master.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Nan-next-door and the lettuce sandwich

When I lived with Nan-next-door my regular pre-bed supper would be two slices of white bread, spread with butter and filled with a generous helping of lettuce.  Nothing more - no cheese, ham or sandwich spread (very odd stuff  sandwich spread - why would anyone want to eat something that looks and tastes like vomit?)   I imagined that the lettuce sandwich was standard gourmet fare for the children of Oxfordshire and we were all tucking in at aabout 7.30.
Recently when awake at 4.00am (insomnia, not hectic social life - I regret to inform you) I was desperately searching cures for sleeplessness on the Internet.  I found the usual suggestions: warm baths, massage, drink milk etc.  But the more esoteric ideas caught my eye: put a small weight on your body (how small 500g, 1kg - any bigger and that sleep might be permanent) or take extract of sea snail entrails (this being Japanese I began to muse on what the South London equivalent would be - suggestions gratefully received).  Others also wouldn't do: I can't curl my toes otherwise I get cramp and really don't fancy rubbing my feet with dormouse fat and where do you get dormice from?  Although I suppose I could have substituted the hamster when it expired.  See the following for more detail:

I also found a reference to eating lettuce to help with insomnia - supposedly they contain natural opiates which act as muscle relaxants.  Perhaps this is some ancient folk cure passed down from mother to daughter since time immemorial and Nan-next-door wasn't just being a cheapskate.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Nan-next-door and the knitted jumper

Nan-next-door was a slightly obsessive knitter - so as a family we wore lots of woolly homemade clothes.  For me she made little fair isle jumpers, cardigans with rabbit, lamb or flower-shaped buttons, jumpers made with fancy stitches, scarves with matching mittens, bobble hats, caps with straps under the chin that buttoned up and bonnets with animal ears.  There was some unwritten rule that as a girl I should generally wear pastel colours; insipid lemon, pale blues, mint green  and blossom pink. For Christmas I might be allowed something more vivid, perhaps red or emerald green - usually with a seasonal motif.  I fear my passion for the cardigan may have developed in these early years - not as a professional badge of honour  which many have presumed (or should it be the badge of shame - the librarian's scarlet letter?).

Grampy (my maternal grandfather) also had an considerable knitted wardrobe - as extensive, but not as cute as mine .  He had chunky, textured jumpers in rather more masculine colours: mustard yellow, plum, moss green and  - if he was really lucky- a sober navy blue.  He also had some Scandinavian patterned ones (he could have been an extra in The Killing - providing it was a non-speaking part - he wasn't a linguist by any means - actually he didn't speak much at all).  The zip-up cardies were his favourites - good apparel for the allotment where he spent most of his waking hours; they could be removed easily and draped over a handy spade.  The masculine collection also included gloves,  so thick it was impossible to bend the fingers and rather creepy balaclavas with strangely small eye holes.

The disadvantage of these woollies was that they were always scratchy.  The fact that they got smaller with each wash trigger what I believe is my only phobia - stuckjumperphobia, a variation on claustrophobia.
I was getting ready for bed and needed help getting the Christmas jumper off (oatmeal brown with red snowflakes and robin buttons).  But when Nan-next-door tried to pull it over my head it got stuck at the level of my ears.  As I shrieked in pain (and probably for the effect, I did like a drama) she tried to pull my arms out of the sleeves to get more leverage, but as I wasn't double-jointed this manoeuvre wasn't possible.    Panicking,  as I could hardly breath with felted wool obscuring my nose and mouth,  I started to bellow.  Grampy rushed in to see what was happening (and probably to tell me to shut up).  The jumper would neither go up or back down.  They had a lengthy debate about the best course of action while I slowly asphyxiated.  In the end Grampy's solution was adopted; he got a pair of scissors and cut me out much to Nan-next-doors dismay - she was very fond of that sweater. 
Hyperventilating and with a red furrow (fortunately not permanent)  all around my head I was very cross and could only be comforted with a lettuce sandwich.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Me and the Rugby Player: Nan tells me off - part 1

Nan has only told me off three times in my life; not because I am perfect (I say mock-modestly...), but because she loves me unconditionally.  The three occasions remain etched in my mind; at the time I was resentful,  but each occasion provided useful life lessons.

Nan was the consummate flirt - no man of any age or condition was safe and this included my boyfriends.  They had to be inspected by her - think Salome eyeballing John the Baptist's head. One of her favourites was the Rugby Player (hereafter RP).

I first saw RP dancing with his RE teacher at an inter-schools function; having admired his moves from afar I managed to jostle her out of the way - playing defence in the hockey team came in useful occasionally.   RP was kind, well mannered and extremely large - picture The Incredible Hulk - but not green.  He was also useful to have around the house; for example when the spin dryer broke he could wring the clothes out so they were almost dry (including  jeans).  Everyone liked him and Nan loved him, feeding him a constant supply of food and asking to feel his triceps at least twice per visit - he just lapped this up.

I was concerned how she would cope when we split up as there was a certain inevitability about it because:
 1).  I was fed up watching rugby; I would get cold and, despite repeated explanations, I was never sure what was going on.
2).  He had blond hair and I was only really attracted to blokes with dark hair.  When I met him it was in a dimly lit room and I was dazzled by the dancing ...
3). He started wearing similar clothes to me; jeans and t-shirts weren't such an issue, but when he said it would be cute if we wore the same coloured jumpers I realised we were to be no Burton/Taylor, Dante/Beatrice, Abelard/Heloise (I bet he was glad it wasn't the last pair).

The end came one Saturday when I was at my part-time job in the jeans shop. The pressure to sell was intense; anyone bottom of the sales league  for two weeks running got the sack.   RP, being a good soul, comes in to ensure I made at least one sale.  I disappear into the store room to find something to fit him - rugby, like fencing, strangely inflates the thighs.  When I reappear he is in a changing cubicle; one of my colleagues says RP wants to surprise me. He pushes open the cubicle doors and emerges clad in a pair of  Lee dungarees that exactly match the ones I am wearing (a good look with striped t-shirt and plimsolls - but in my opinion only for girls) and says something cheesy like 'Hey babe, now we can look like twins.'
I am speechless.  I do not want to be the twin - I want to be unique - and I want a boyfriend who looks like a bloke instead of a super-sized toddler.  Increasingly desperate I suggest a pair of Levis might be a little more appropriate, but he insist on buying the dungarees.

I go to Nan's, weep a little and tell her it is all over.  For only the third time in my life she tells me off because I am being picky (she wouldn't be saying that if she had seen what I'd seen), I am shallow and who would be a stand-in for the spin dryer next time it broke?  But her main complaint was that she had packets and packets of the biscuits that only RP would eat and what was she supposed to do with them?

The lessons I have learnt from this:
Do not make immediate relationship decisions based on ability to dance.  Dancing is an ephemeral pleasure and does not generally lead to long term happiness.
Always take prospective boyfriends to a well-lit room to inspect hair colour (hats to be removed if worn).
Casually mention dungarees on men and see if his eyes light up.

Nan and the secret garden

I am reading 'The Secret Garden' by Frances Hodgson Burnett and love it so much I bore the family with detailed retellings of it - with a few tweaks: Mary Lennox becomes Renka Lennox and Colin isn't such a drip - he's more like Julian in the 'Famous Five' stories.

Nan indulges this (as she does everything) and offers to take me to a secret garden provided I don't tell my parents.  Nan, clutching the inevitable picnic in a string bag and I, clutching my key text, walk up the hill for about a mile along a road lined with towering, dark green conifers planted behind a tall wooded fence.  Nan pushes me through a hole in the fence; inside there is the most enormous garden, smooth lawns, trees and shrubberies.  To be honest I feel a little short-changed as it is much too big and park-like to be the secret garden.  But Nan seems to be having fun so I don't complain.  We head to the far side of the garden, behind what she says is the gardeners' hut (this is more like it!); behind the hut is a deep ditch full of bunches of flowers and floral arrangements.  I am sent into the ditch to see if I can find any decent flowers to take home while Nan sits on the grass shouting directions and partaking of a restorative banana sandwich.  I, exhausted, climb up and down (like a small non-bearded Chris Bonnington, but with Start-rites rather than crampons).  I manage to pull together a collection of browning lilies and chrysanthemums.  I also find some sweet little cards and put a few in my pocket for inspection later. 

Later when Mum turns out my pockets for the wash she gives a little cry and asks where the  cards came from - I had forgotten all about them.  They had writing on them which was hard to read as it was joined-up, something I had yet to aspire to.  They said things like 'Darling Bertha, always in our hearts, your loving cousins Cyril and Lucy'   or 'Henry, gone to a far better place, from all your Friends at Pressed Steel'.
I forget my promise and tell Mum about the secret garden.
I suspect my parents may have complained about this outing as I was never taken to Oxford Crematorium for a picnic again.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Nan-next-door scars me for life II

I am seven, Cousin Julie is five.  We come back from a trip to the Cowley Centre shopping precinct to Nan-next-door's house to have glasses of milk and malted milk biscuits; I have a passion for the biscuit barrel because it has a 'secret' compartment containing a lumpy bag.  I am sure the lumpy bag contains something delicious, but Nan says it is poisonous not  to eat it.  I try and give it a sly lick at least once a week as I am not a trusting child.

Nan-next-door hugs us both and says fondly:  ' I can quite imagine you when you are all grown up - Julie will be the beauty of the family and Renka, you can be...' she pauses '...the brains'. 

I'm not sure I like this distribution of attributes so I wait for Nan-next-door to go out of the room, push Julie onto the floor and crack her head against the fridge several times for good measure.

Nan-next-door scars me for life I

Nan-next-door decides to get a dog (my Nans were neighbours for most of my childhood).  She is quite a large lady, decides a tiny handbagged-sized mutt would be the best look and  buys a Papillon - a butterfly dog - called Andy Pandy.  Andy is small, weedy with a skull that looks like you could crush it between two fingers like a walnut; but  Nan-next-door adores him, showers him with love, grooms him daily and buys him an attractive range of accessories (the sort of thing Joan Collins might wear if she was a dog).  Recognising he is now the supreme being within the family  Andy wears a permanent self-satisfied dog-grin, yaps incessantly and seems to be taking an awful lot of attention away from me (just for the record I am about 6). 

Nan is sensitive to the fact that I don't like Andy; in fact I hate him above all living creatures (yes - even more than Cousin Julie).  Nan-next-door decides that we should bond and encourages me to stroke him, dress him up in dolls clothes and wheel him around in my dolls pram; he is resistant to the last but I find if you wrap him tightly enough there isn't much he can do (think mummified cat).  Then feeling she has brought about a rapprochement between us ,she says 'Give Andy a kiss' - I lean towards his nasty Golum-like face and puckered up with my eyes closed only to feel excruciating pain as his razor-sharp teeth sink into my nose.

So obviously the antipathy was mutual.  From then on I kept well away from  the canine piranha; but his memory lingers on in the faint scar that appears on my nose when I have a suntan.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Nan and why it is perfectly acceptable to lie for a dog

Nan had no capacity to resist an unwanted or unloved animal.  When challenged by Uncle as to why there was yet another cat living in the side passageway  she would look him straight in the eye and say 'That old thing?  Why I've had it for ages.' (Good fib for clothes, but works surprisingly well for feline acquisitions).

My parents usually ignored her entreaties to take the sweet little kitten, puppy, guinea pig, budgie, rat etc home - mainly due to the Sooty debacle.  Nan persuaded them to adopt a tiny, black spaniel-mix puppy as company for Suki - the dog she tricked them into getting a few years previously.  Sooty, being extremely incontinent, was shut in the kitchen overnight together with Mum's pride and joy (as a family it doesn't take much to make us happy) the new kitchen table and 6 chairs.  The next morning the floor was littered with puddles and wood shavings - Sooty being the canine equivalent of Jaws.  For many years  all female guests ran the risk of getting their American tan tights laddered if they sat at the kitchen table.

Nan turned her attention to the next generation of animal-rescue victims - me.  We were 'just popping in' to see her friend who happened to have five cuddly caramel-coloured puppies in need of a good home. 
'You should take one home,' Nan  insists ' Poor Honey must get lonely on her own' (Honey is probably the only dog my parents have been allowed to acquired without Nan's intervention/interference; a pedigree golden Labrador - as stupid as she is beautiful).  I argue that Mum has strictly forbidden me from coming home with any animals - ever again (even now the pungent aroma of the water vole that died in the box in my bedroom comes back to haunt me).  Also Mum would only want a pedigree dog - not some Heinz 57 variety.  Nan sniffs disapprovingly - we are in danger of getting above ourselves and deserting our working class roots.  But I am like a sandcastle in the path of the incoming tide - i.e. completely and utterly unable to defend myself, seeing destruction as my destiny.  There is no beating Genghis Nan.  Mum is to be told the dog is a rare type of Labrador; thinner, browner, less Labrador-like, but still Kennel Club approved.

I take the dog home.   My parents insist I take it away again.  After tears and promises, that I will take it for walks and do all the other unsavoury things you have to do for dogs, they relent.  Fortunately they forget that I am off to University in under three weeks and won't be taking part in the twice-daily humiliation of walking a crapping dog.

Despite this ill-starred beginning Sally (another top family dog name) becomes a much loved pet.  Dad makes her a daily cup of tea in her special mug; only he can make it the way she likes it (his words).  Although Sally achieved doggie Nirvana sometime ago (no - she wasn't really a great Kurt Cobain fan) she is gone, but not forgotten.  Dad seemingly incapable of remembering what Sister and I are actually called, addresses us as Sally.   Sister, being a kind forgiving soul,  ignores this lapse of memory - while I give a little bark.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Nan and Parson's Pleasure

Nan often took Small Sister and I for walks to admire the beauties of Oxford: the Botanic Gardens, Magdalen College Meadows, the Ashmolean Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum (highly recommended - dinosaurs and shrunken heads). 
One of Nan's favourite outings was to walk through the University Parks to a spot called Parson's Pleasure.  Strictly speaking we didn't actually go to Parson's Pleasure as it was (is?) a male-only nude bathing area on the river.  No - we went to sit on the other side of the fence that hid the swimmers from view and eat our picnic - banana sandwiches in wholemeal bread, raw carrots and red cabbage.  One August Nan was given a bottle of champagne brandy (cognac) for her birthday.  Thinking it fizzy champagne she thought it an appropriate accompaniment drink for a picnic; given that I was 13 and Sister 4 I think it  safe to assume that Nan was responsible for the empty bottle at the end of the afternoon.  Things got a bit raucous when she insisted on looking through the knot holes in the fence and at the same time warning us not to follow her example as  'it was very shocking and shouldn't be allowed' and at the same time encouraging the gentlemen bathers not to be shy.

The day ended with Nan and Sister walking back to Cornmarket singing such gems as 'I've got a lovely bunch of coconuts' and 'Show me the way to go home' .  With me walking as far behind them as possible and praying I wouldn't see anyone I knew.

This was a sad day.  Up until then I had thought everything Nan did was wonderful; she was the loudest, funniest person I knew - a real 'give me lemons and I'll make lemonade' person.  But from then on I avoided any al fresco event that involved both Nan and alcohol.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Nan and the side passageway

At the side of Nan's house is a door leading to a covered passageway with a door to the kitchen in the side wall and another to the back garden at the far end. There were numerous territorial battles between Nan and Uncle as to who had supremacy over the side passage.  Nan used it as a moggy hotel for any stray cats who came through her garden and rejected Dandycord rugs. Uncle used it to house his equally precious motor bike (often to be found in pieces, occasionally to be found in one piece and riden around the block before being taken apart again).

One extremely foggy morning in the 1950s Nan had been ticked off by Uncle for her use of his 'empire': 'Muuther, I don't want to find any cats in that passage when I come home - horrible stinky things and their fur gets all over my bike.'  With that he jumped onto his Norton, revving up the hill, a young man in a hurry - sadly more Lone Ranger than Marlon Brando in The Wild One.
Some time later Nan went to catch the bus to work.  Stepping out into the dense fog, she could hear the sound of a horse galloping down the hill.  Expecting to see a horse and rider she came face to face with a lone horse with a bridle, but no rider.  Grabbing the bridle (always wondered quite how she managed to do this - being vertically challenged - possibly some sort of flying ninja jump - must ask her for more detail) she began to talk to the horse, warning him that it wouldn't be a good idea to continue down the hill as the main road was ahead and that he should come with her until she could find out where he belonged (yes, she did and still does talk to animals in exactly the same way she talks to humans).
The horse was led into the passageway to await Uncle's return.  Sadly Nan wasn't there to hear his initial reaction; but given that he continued to bring this up in every arguement they had until the 1980s I suspect he wasn't very pleased.

Monday, 6 February 2012

Nan and the party dress

Some background. At the time this story took place my outfit of choice consisted of a t-shirt worn under one of my dad's lumberjack-style work shirts (no, he wasn't a lumberjack- he just liked to dress as one).  Said shirts had to be smuggled out of the ironing pile and then smuggled back before he noticed;  he wasn't keen on me borrowing them as his work mates always commented on the great smell of Rive Gauche that seemed to surround him.  I digress.  The above was worn with the tightest jeans I could squeeze into (coat hangers being the tool of choice) and if they weren't tight enough I would take them in.  This was fine when cycling to school as I could free-wheel as it was down hill all the way.  Coming home was a bit of a problem; the bike was impossible and not being able to bend at the knee resulted in a strange stiff legged walk - but who hasn't suffered for art?

Great look (or so I thought), but not the sort of thing to wear to Lucy's party (names changed here to protect the innocent) where most of the other guests were girls from Oxford High and boys from St Edwards - it was like Bridehead Revisted, The Great Gatesby and First Form at Mallory Towers all rolled into one -  heady stuff for a girl from the local comprehensive.  I confided in Nan who said that I was not to worry and that she'd find me something to wear.  When she fell asleep in front of the TV I kept whispering 'Miss Selfridge, Miss Selfridge' into her ear - but Paul McKenna where were you when I needed you (possibly not born?)
The night of the party I get changed at Nan's house; excited to see 'the dress' which I have been assured by Nan would 'knock 'em dead' my mum thought was 'pretty' and 7 year old sister lisped was just what a princess would wear.  I had been warned.

Yes - they were all correct: knock 'em dead with laughter, pretty awful and yes, Diana might have worn it when feeling depressed about Camilla.  It was made of pale blue cheesecloth (younger readers may need to look this up - but if you can't imagine the best sort of thing to clean windows with - floppy and scratchy at the same time).  The skirt had at least 4 flounces; imagine a ra-ra skirt, but not as sophisticated and each flounce was decorated with a band of blue lace and blue ric-rac.  The top was a cross between Jane Russell's dress in 'The Outlaw', minus Howard Hughes' intervention and Sophia Loren's 2009 Oscar dress -without the good taste.  This was the first and last time I wore an off-the-shoulder dress.  We both realised it looked hideous, but Nan being a glass-half full woman suggested we try and make it less noticable; I could wear some bright red lipstick or back comb my hair so it balanced out the fullness of the skirt or as a last resort I could borrow one of Uncle's jumpers (khaki green, khaki brown - lovely with pale blue).

The jumper won and got me on the bus without being laughed at.  Fortunately the top deck was almost empty and I was able to change back into my t-shirt, lumberjack shirt and jeans combo which I made sure I took with me.

The party wasn't so bad after all - Southern Comfort, pogoing and lots of Blue Stratos (these were posh boys).  Although I didn't fit in with the girls - long dresses (Laura Ashley, Miss Selfridge) the boys were a different matter;  they were either wanna-be punks or had never met a girl from a state school before.

Nan and Pinky

Nan acquired a cat called Little Mum who had taken up residence under the Helichrysum bush in the front garden.  The cat cried so pitifully that she had to be adopted (this was the tale Nan told Uncle - his version was that Nan had appropriated the cat from what she saw as an undeserving family).
Little Mum, small, cream-coloured with a ginger face and beauty spot soon produced a single kitten.  At this point I'm beginning to wonder what she was called before she produced the said kitten - have a feeling it was soemthing like Marie Antoninette - naming cats not being a strong point in our family.  I was allowed to name the new arrival and decided that 'Pinky' would suit - yes, the naming weakness is obviously genetic.
Unfortunately the small bundle of fur with his tiny pink nose grew into a monster cat and got even bigger when he was neutered.  Pinky was not an attractive cat; large,white and flabby with strangely small ears; but despite this he and Nan became a mutual admiration society.  Every day he would wait at the bus stop for her to return from work - he would first jump into her arms and then settle himself around her neck and lick her ears with his raspy tongue.  Nan would stagger home, being a diminutive woman (4 foot 10 with size 3 feet and small 'aristocractic hands' - her words not mine) with her loving bundle.  Sadly Pinky wasn't awfully bright, didn't understand the concept of the weekend and could often be found at the bus stop when Nan was indoors watching TV.