‘Carlisle Living – the Musical’

First published in Carlisle Living September 2016

This month, I bring you ‘Carlisle Living – The Musical’. It’s a story of one woman’s struggle to write her column told via the medium of music, song and dance. Like most modern musicals it tends towards the gloomier end of the emotional spectrum: imagine ‘Rent’ or ‘Les Mis’ with fewer laughs. Unfolding in real time over two hours, Carlisle Living! is set in a poorly maintained semidetached house. There’s comedy, heartbreak and a ground-breaking use of mobile phone technology. Take your seats as the orchestra tunes up …

The curtain rises on Act One to reveal an untidy living room. The hoover is left carelessly across the kitchen doorway; a pile of unironed washing totters on the arm of the sofa. A spotlight picks out the slumped form of a woman – Sarah – at a table with an open laptop in front of her. She is typing. As she hits the keys, discordant notes play. Sarah types with increasing ferocity and the notes build into a cacophonic crescendo. Suddenly she slams the laptop lid shut and breaks into the opening number, ‘I Don’t Think I Can Ever Write Anything Funny Again’. As she sings, a beautiful young woman – Sarah’s daughter Jessie – comes downstairs and sings a melancholy counterpoint ‘You Weren’t That Funny In The First Place’. The duet ends when Matthew – Jessie’s boyfriend – arrives for breakfast. Sarah returns to the laptop and resumes her discordant typing.

In the kitchen, Jessie and Matthew perform a wild salsa-inspired number ‘Carnivorous Boyfriend’ while making a giant fried breakfast with sausages, bacon, hash browns and thirty-four eggs. As they conga into the living room with plates, overfull cups of tea and bottles of ketchup, Sarah attempts to ring her son Tom. The phone screen is projected onto the back wall of the stage. There is no reply, and Sarah sings the wistful ‘FaceTime Unavailable’.

The arrival of the Amazon Delivery Man creates a diversion. Jessie has ordered 800 things off Amazon Prime and all of them require a signature. ‘Sign Here Please’ is more upbeat but the mood is soon shattered when Sarah is left to put the packaging in the recycling and loads the dishwasher. ‘Clearing Up’ segues into the heartrending ballad ‘Broken’, when Sarah finds the dishwasher, washing machine and boiler aren’t working. As she sings, Sarah trips over the Hoover and breaks off the crevice tool. Act One ends with a reprise of ‘FaceTime Unavailable’ with Sarah trying – once again – to contact Tom without success. The curtain falls as she does the washing up by hand.

Act Two kicks off with a rollicking song and dance showstopper – ‘Is It OK If I Pay After Pay Day?’ – where The Man Who Mends the Boiler, the Washing Machine Man, and his assistant The Dishwasher Apprentice troop through the kitchen, dismantling and reassembling Sarah’s household appliances until they’re mended. Jessie and Matthew join in and hilarity ensues. Once the final repair man has departed, waving gaily, Sarah rings Tom. This time, he replies and their duet –‘Connecting … ’ – is projected on the wall. Sarah tells Tom about her domestic disasters and Tom responds with his solo, ‘How Come You’re Such a Clumsy Old Troglodyte?’.

Sarah realises the events of the day have provided the material for her column. She resumes her seat at the laptop and types. A glorious melody pours from the computer as she plays and performs the closing number ‘Carlisle Living’. The cast – including a projected FaceTime Tom – join in, one by one, leading to a rousing finale. As Sarah triumphantly types the final note – the curtain falls.


Imposter Syndrome

First published in Carlisle Living  – July 2014

Like most children, I spent a significant portion of my childhood pretending to be grown up. Dressed androgynously denim and plimsolls – as we all were in the 70s – pretending to be an adult chiefly took the form of dressing up as a lady and imagining I had long hair. For one happy summer, my friend and I shared a wig that we took in turns to wear, sometimes in the privacy of our own homes, more rarely, on an expedition down the road and on one thrilling occasion, a trip to the newsagents to buy a sherbet fountain. In order to mark that special event, I completed my ensemble with a pair of my dad’s Foster Grants, which – apart from a crack across one of the lenses – were nearly as good as new.

In my mind’s eye, I was a very glamorous lady, with long flaxen tresses who’d just parked her sports car nearby and was breaking her journey by popping into a shop for a fizzy liquorice treat. Of course I’m now fully aware that the wig fooled no one and if the newsagent thought anything about the confident stranger swishing around the penny sweets tray, it would be why she was wearing the pelt of a dead Border terrier on her head and a pair of broken sunglasses.

When the wig was unavailable – Juliet had ownership of it on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (she got more goes because it once belonged to her sister) – I’d have to make do with tights. I really hope as I write this, that I’m not the only person who wore tights on her head pretending they were plaits. If that does turn out to be the case, I urge you, before you judge me, to try it yourself. A pair of old tights – clean ones, obviously, I’m not a monster – pulled over your head with the legs dangling down over your shoulders make a simple but stylish coiffure. And when you’re nine, prancing about with waist length American tan hair, one of your grandma’s discarded handbags and a pair of clip-on earrings, is about as grown up as it gets.

It’s a digression I know, but another favourite childhood diversion was fashioning a nun’s habit from bath towels and striking a series of poses in front of the bathroom mirror wearing an expression of stern serenity. It’s always been a source of mild regret that I never had the opportunity to take Holy Orders, because, although I say it myself, I cut quite a dash as a nun. Mind you, the convictions that tend to steer one towards the religious life – the determination to live chaste in selfless austerity, not to mention faith in God – are convictions I lack. Looking good dressed in a habit and wimple are probably very low down on the list of reasons to join a convent. Thinking about it, it’s probably not on the list at all.

The trouble is, I’ve never really lost the feeling that I’m only pretending to be a grown up. When I’m driving the car down the motorway, for example or signing a legal document or assuring the person in the call centre that I am indeed the sole account holder, I still experience a flutter of anxiety. What happens if they find out it’s not a grown up and it’s only me? I’m not sure who I think is going to challenge the authenticity of my adult status. I have the vague idea of some kind of avenging force, perhaps a combination of Brown Owl – who wouldn’t let me play Snow White in the Brownie pantomime – or perhaps Mrs Oswin, my primary four needlework teacher who told my mother not to get her hopes up about me because I couldn’t get the hang of cross stitch. ‘Wait a minute …’ she’ll say .., storming in, ‘You’ve put Sarah Ledger in charge? What were you thinking? She can barely thread a needle!’

I’m told this is a common delusion, that there’s even a name for it – ‘imposter syndrome’ and all adults, even those who exude confidence and shoulder great responsibility, see an anxious nine year old peering back at them through their grown up’s disguise, whenever they look in the mirror. Although it’s a bit disconcerting to realise that other grown-ups with really important jobs – the Archbishop of Canterbury, say, or Kirsty Wark or Theresa May -have moments where they think they don’t actually know what they are doing, it’s nice to bear in mind that we all share that most human of conditions – self-doubt.

To some extent, I’ve got my disguise sorted. Most of you would not mistake me for anything other than a rather imposing middle aged woman. However, on some days, I still wish I had something in my wardrobe that makes me feel as sophisticated and self-assured as an old nylon wig that’s been through a boil wash and a pair of cracked sunglasses.

Extract from ‘Jagged Cliffs Ahead’

Extract from ‘Jagged Cliffs Ahead’ Hugo Furst’s debut novel

This is, perhaps, one of my favourite passages in English Literature. Although Hugo Furst is credited with authorship of ‘Jagged Cliffs Ahead’, critics claim that it was co-authored by Avril

By the time they came to the beach, Pisces was very eager and very tense. The tide might be out. She might not be able to find the sea; and she wanted it so much. Almost passionately she wanted to be with him when he stood among the waves. They were going to have a communion together—something that thrilled her, something holy. He was walking beside her in silence. They were very near to each other. She trembled, and he listened, vaguely anxious.

Coming to the edge of the shore, they saw the sky in front, like mother-of-pearl, and the sea growing dark. Somewhere on the hoizon, the sun glowed; dark, doomed.

“Where?” he asked.

“Down the middle path,” she murmured, quivering.

When they turned the corner of the path she stood still. In the wide walk towards the beach, gazing rather frightened, she could distinguish nothing for some moments; the greying light robbed things of their colour. Then she saw the sea.

“Ah!” she cried, hastening forward.

It was very still. The water shone. The finest lace-like wave curled pure white.. Sabaste and Pisces stood close together, silent, and watched. Point after point the steady waves shone out to them, seeming to kindle something in their souls. The dusk came like smoke around, and still did not put out the water’s glow.

Sabaste looked into Pisces’ eyes. She was pale and expectant with wonder, her lips were parted, and her dark eyes lay open to him. His look seemed to travel down into her. Her soul quivered. It was the communion she wanted. He turned aside, as if pained. He turned towards the sea.

A reply to Mariella’s reply

This morning, I read Mariella Frostrup’s reply to a father whose son had sent a ‘sexually explicit’ email to a female teacher. The father was concerned that his son – although punished by the school – has not taken the incident seriously enough. I usually enjoy reading Frostrup’s column, but her opening paragraphs today caused me concern. I’ve quoted them below:

“There are few places on Earth where a child can escape the relentless barrage of indoctrinating imagery suggesting women’s bodies are there to be exploited. It’s proved extraordinarily durable propaganda.
Part of the problem is that we women are complicit. Where once we donned dungarees and burned our bras, today we’re queuing for Victoria’s Secret. If we really have earned the right to choose then what we’ve chosen is to perpetuate the presumption that our appearance matters more than what comes out of our mouths. It’s no longer something that we can blame on boys and men. We actually need to do a little navel gazing ourselves, which shouldn’t be so difficult in a world where they’re just one of the many female body parts abundantly on display!”

My initial thought was ‘Good Lord! Aliens have stolen Mariella Frostrup and replaced her with a poorly researched imposter!’ and then I was angry. I would say that one of the places on Earth where a teenager might escape the relentless barrage of imagery suggesting women’s bodies are there to be exploited, might be the classroom. There’s no mention in the father’s letter of the content of his son’s inappropriate email, but the words ‘sexually explicit’ are worrying. And I’m not sure why Frostrup  has leaped from classroom to Victoria’s Secret. What does it matter what underwear the teacher wears? How would the child even know? How on earth does a choice of underwear make anyone – male, female, teacher or otherwise – complicit in receiving unwanted sexually explicit emails?

In any event, it doesn’t take much to arouse the teenage imagination. When I was at school, there was a young teacher who accidentally popped open two top buttons of a blouse during a lesson. It was the talk of the cloakroom for years. She was in reality, a modestly dressed young woman of mild demeanour, but the Third Form interpreted her two popped buttons as evidence that beneath her M&S cardi seethed a sexual volcano. I’m not sure how much of this lurid supposition got back to her. I hope none.

Wild gossip about teachers is bad enough, sexual harassment is worse. It’s not only unpleasant, unsettling and undermining but frightening. Young teachers – male and female – are particularly vulnerable. Sometimes the slender age gap between student and teacher can make the boundary for the student unclear. Teenagers push the boundaries anyway. None of us have escaped inappropriate comments and although they can be deflected with humour, often a firmer approach is required. There are times when another colleague needs to be consulted to help manage these interactions. I’ve known teachers who’ve been deeply embarrassed by conversations that have got out of hand and it takes some work to re establish boundaries.

But – blimey – email! That’s not on. In some schools emails between students and teachers are encouraged as it’s an excellent way of communicating instructions and feedback. But the rules should be  clear: the content must be work related, the tone and greetings formal, anything else, let alone sexually explicit content, is unacceptable and without those limits, email between student and teachers are unworkable.

I wonder what Frostrup’s reply might have been if the letter had been from an adult seeking advice about another adult sending unsolicited sexually explicit emails at work. I would imagine she might want employers, unions, possibly even the police involved. I can’t see why it should be any different in this case.

Talking at the table … from 2006

Sarah’s Diary 20th January 2006

When my children were born, I had expectations for them: that they would try their best at whatever they did, that they would recognise and value good friends, but above all, that they’d be able to speak up for themselves. The first two are going as well as can be expected, but my God, has that last one backfired.

Some parents tell me that they have to coax information out of their little ones, asking open questions in soothing tones so that their child does not feel interrogated or threatened. And then those books that tell you how to be an ideal parent, suggest that you shouldn’t ask questions at all; you should make a leading comment such as, ‘I hope you enjoyed your day at school today.’ to draw forth an unforced response. I’ve flicked impatiently over those pages and searched in vain for the chapter that tells you how to get them to shut up, because my children communicate with no trouble at all. As soon as we are gathered under one roof in the evening, I receive a rundown of the day’s events. In stereo. With actions. They don’t just tell me what they had for lunch; I get to hear quality report, including a comment on presentation, and the range of choice available. Jamie Oliver would be proud. Sometimes they can’t wait to get home to keep me abreast of whatever current news is breaking and they ring me from their mobiles while I’m on my way back from work. If I don’t answer immediately, they leave a four minute voicemail message and then give me a brief written test as soon as I walk through the door to make sure that I have listened attentively.

Outside the house, my children’s eloquence is regarded more highly. The travel agent was impressed when – unprompted – they delivered a full and frank evaluation of last year’s holiday and listed their suggested destinations and facilities for next year. She wistfully commented that it must be lovely to have children who could articulate their views so freely. And although she was looking a little weary when they still hadn’t finished, twenty minutes later, I have to admit, that I felt a glow of maternal pride to hear them carry on the family tradition with such flair.

When I was a child, my parents had a rule that we were only allowed to speak at the dinner table if our topic of conversation was of general interest. Unfortunately, it was my parents who got to choose what constituted a topic of general interest – not me. Topics banned from the list included the day-to-day activities of The Bay City Rollers, the plots of any television series, discussions about the ludicrously unfair treatment that my brother and I had to suffer at the hands of teachers who picked on us for no reason – apart from not doing our homework, not listening and talking incessantly – and any recounted conversation between two people below the age of majority. And that pretty much rendered us silent. Well, it was supposed to. When we weren’t spilling things all over the table – my parents had a large glass water jug that was a frequent casualty during mealtimes – my brother kept up a persistent and indignant protest about the dullness of the topics considered to be of general interest and attempted to throw in a few fascinating anecdotes of our own. Unfortunately, most of these tales quickly degenerated into the kind of story that included phrases like ‘… and then he told the dinner lady I pushed him but I only tapped him lightly and then he tripped over his PE bag …’ whereupon my parents would invoke their power of absolute veto and try very hard to re-establish order by making light chit chat about their day at the office.

Until I had children of my own, I considered this a most unfair – even unhealthy – rule. But as soon as my own kids were old enough to string a sentence together – and my son could talk fluently before he grew hair – the wisdom of this measure has become apparent. I now also understand what my parents meant when they urged me to keep my voice down. However, as single parent, it is very hard to enforce the ‘general interest’ rule because, apart from the dog, I’m usually the only adult present at the dinner table and the dog’s views about what is suitable for mealtime conversation are fairly limited.

There are compensations; I know that in a tight spot – or a court of law – that my children will be able to hold their own. And meanwhile, there is something very reassuring about living with people who never run out of anything to say.

An old one …

Sarah’s Diary 26th May 2006

Sarah Ledger awoke slowly.

An alarm clock was bleeping in the darkness – a tinny familiar bleep. Squinting at her surroundings she made out a duvet, an IKEA bookcase and an antique dog lying curled in a basket.

Where the hell am I?

The threadbare dressing gown on the bedstead bore a bleach stain.

Slowly the fog began to lift. She was at home, in Stanwix.

Her heart pounded as she took in the luminescent figures on the face of the clock; a bizarre message in shimmering shapes. The little hand was pointing to the six and the big hand was pointing to the nine. What the hell could this mean? Ledger had little doubt. Her extensive knowledge of telling the time had made her an expert on deciphering the cryptic messages on the dials of timepieces. It was morning. It was a quarter to seven. It was time to get up.

In the bathroom she gazed tiredly in the mirror. The woman staring back at her was a stranger – tousled and weary. You need some breakfast Sarah.

Descending the 13 stairs of her semi-detached house, she wondered if anyone else on her estate realised that thirteen was the exact number required by building regulations to get from upstairs to downstairs and that there was absolutely no sinister reason at all for this uncanny coincidence. She decided to keep the information to herself.

Having opened the door she stood inside the living room: her eyes stopped short on an unexpected object lying on the table. Quickly she picked it up. Scrawled across the paper in ballpoint pen was the message ‘Do you fancy going to see The Da Vinci Code? Ring 01228525586 to see if you can book tickets!’ Ledger had long been familiar with the ancient series of 26 runes – the alphabet – which could be transformed and rearranged into sequences – words – which, in the right hands could convey so much information. She often wondered if anyone realised that 26 was twice thirteen, twice the number of stairs in her house; twice the number in attendance at The Last Supper.

For a moment Ledger thought that the ringing in her ears was a sign of her incipient madness, but it slowly dawned upon her that it was the chimes of the doorbell. She turned and in a series of swift, deft movements unlocked the door and opened it. Before her stood a young man, a haunting certainty in his stance. Dressed casually he was attractive and looked to be about thirty. His thick hair fell to his shoulders; he radiated a striking personal confidence.

To Ledger’s surprise, the man extended a polite hand. ‘Bonjour Madame Ledger. I am Agent Pierre Neveu. I am to be your impossibly gorgeous Anglo-French sidekick for the remainder of the column. We will develop an unlikely tension sexuelle – sexual tension – and will leave your readers in a pleasing state of uncertainty as to whether or not we get it on after the column is finished. I will say things en francais – in French – for no specific reason and then I will unnecessarily translate what I have just said for the benefit of your readers.’

Ledger took his warm hand in hers and found herself momentarily fixed in his strong gaze. His eyes were olive-green – incisive and clear. ‘Please excuse the interruption,’ Pierre continued ‘but I have deciphered the numeric code.’

Ledger felt a pulse of excitement. He broke the code?

‘I wanted to warn you, Madame. It’s un plaisantaire numerique –  a numerical joke. This is the one of the most famous numerical sequences in Carlisle 0-1-2-2-8-5-2-5-5-8-6 it is the telephone number of the Londsale Cinema and everyone knows…’

‘…everyone knows …’ interjected Ledger nodding slowly, her shock thawing and the warmth of understanding flowing through her veins ‘that the Londsale closed at the end of March and the only remaining independent cinema in Carlisle is the City Cinema in Mary Street.’

Exactement – exactly.’ nodded Neveu in triumph. Ledger was already moving towards the thick yellow volume that lay on the windowsill. Skillfully thumbing through it, she wasted no time canning the finely printed pages to find the correct decryption. Moments later she punched them into the plastic keypad. The voice at the other end of the line sounded chillingly close; ‘City Cinema?’

When she had finished, she turned to Pierre, a knowing smile on her lips. ‘It is done. Our quest is at an end. I’ll be at the City Cinema at 7.30. There will be a spare seat next to me.’

‘Is that an invitation? You presume too much. Mme Ledger.’

She cringed at how it had sounded. ‘What I meant was ..’

‘I’d never go and see the Da Vinci Code. It’s bollocks.’