With sharp giggles she gets even
for all the sadness,
and with quick little fallings-in-love,
like burps and hiccups of feeling.
She’ll blame Manny. Yes, that’s what she’ll do. It’s all his fault, anyway—if he hadn’t been waving that stupid Hello! in front of her like an angry bee she might have seen the new customer come into the shop, recognised the face, gasped in horror, and, forgetting all modesty, dived for the lower shelves of Bernard’s fastidiously under-arranged and confusingly titled section of Kettlepunk and Science-Fiction-Faff. She would have pulled Manny by the hem of his dolphin t-shirt and hissed into his beard, “It’s Miss Draper, Miss D! Hide me!”
“Who’s Miss D?” Manny would ask, trying to look.
And of course Bernard would then spot this new arrival shaking out an umbrella—indoors—and fly at her, overcoat flapping; and the moment of delicious deception would be done with and gone, and they could go back to reading about Kate Moss and why it’s just the thing to wear sunglasses the size of one’s skull.
She turns with a wide, fixed smile. All teeth, all panic.
“Yes, Miss!” With back straight and shoulders squared, she bleats out the words, just like in class, like she’s eight years old again.
Manny, meanwhile, buries his nose in Hello! and tries very hard not to laugh.
Miss Hettie Draper wears a knitted skirt and heavy blouse, the type of fabric that would squash in a wardrobe and be a chore to iron. Difficult to wear, too, for anyone under the age of sixty-five, and Miss Draper, who takes the young pre-schoolers with their plastic lunchboxes and sticky fingers, is in reality only just thirty.
Delicately put, it would be fair to say that the teacher and the teacher’s wardrobe aren’t quite cut from the same cloth.
“Now, boys and girls,” she says, bending at the knee. “Who here has a best friend?”
Through the chorus of me me me! little Enid Francesca turns away and picks at a plaster stuck to her elbow. Mean, mousy Mandy and her doll with the one shoe missing had inflicted a small playground war-wound, causing much shrieking around the swings and a trip to Mrs Llewellyn’s box of bandages. But she had put the plaster on all wrong, despite Fran’s protests, and now, now, she has a little rage bubbling inside her, and—
She doesn’t understand the question at all.
Friends and Fran don’t mix.
“My word, look at you!” Miss D— smiles from beneath her hat, (she was Miss D— then, and as far as Fran’s concerned she’s Miss D— now, like a crossword answer left always unsolved) and the lipstick crackles very slightly in the V of her lip. “Haven’t changed a bit. Always such a bright girl...”
“What, did she light up the room?” mumbles Bernard, from the till.
Fran can’t seem to break the frozen expression on her face. Except her eyes—she has marvellous use of her eyes—so she levels a death stare towards the Irish grumble, and says, with just a slight stutter, “And what, um...what brings you to this part, this part of—of London?”
“Memories, dear.” Miss D— pats her on the arm. “Memories.” She cranes her neck around to get a better look at things. “I must say, this is all very cheery. Though, if I’m honest, I never took you for a bookworm. You were always knee deep in grass stains, and I don’t think I ever saw you stay more than five minutes in that library.”
“Oh, this isn’t mine,” Fran says, quickly. “I just...well.”
“Live here. Like a mouldering fixture.” Bernard wanders past and clips Manny, who is hovering, over the head. This brief moment of violence goes without mention; Miss D— raises two neatly pencilled eyebrows instead. Firm, quiet disapproval, the permanent mask of an overworked teacher, while little Fran with her pixie haircut, stuck at the back of the classroom, works a pencil lead into the palm of her hand.
That shop was never going to work.
The sheer amount of ridiculous chintz and frippery masquerading as new-age objet d’art had always been a source of unease and possibly ridicule, and, lurking somewhere at the back of her mind, not exactly the smart career path her mother had always hoped she’d follow. A clever girl like you, Fran—you could have the whole world if you wished! Sadly A-Levels hadn’t the ears for mother’s wisdom, and had not so much opened doors as the lid off a pot noodle.
But never mind. Needs must! as an uncle once said. (Or perhaps it was Biggles.)
Her decision to give up the lease comes halfway through a bottle of cheap red; Fran’s very special and not at all drunk impression of a John Hancock sealing the deal late one night as she reads the contract for the last time. If nothing else, it frees her of one part of that awful, edging-decidedly-past-thirty cliché. The sad lady shop owner. Cardigan a shade of pink the paint companies would call cosmopolitan or fuchsia dream. Sad, if it weren’t so close to true.
“And is there a special someone in your life?”
Oh hells bells, she has to ask. She has to ask that question. The single most horrible sentence to leave hanging in the air while the lucky beneficiary stands mute, mind racing as their eyes gaze hopelessly at a crack in the wall.
The very idea of a special someone, the cloying expectation of it, makes her stomach turn.
“Always,” she says, with a wink. Nothing like shirking the truth to soothe the soul.
Across the room, Bernard smirks. Fran stands her ground, a wan smile locked on her face, and makes a mental note to throttle him quickly and stealthily in his next drunken stupor.
When a new species is discovered, a butterfly, for example, or a lovely beetle with evil, I’ll-eat-you-in-your-nightmares mandibles, and the boffins at the Natural History Museum have to pin it to cork or do something otherwise quite official and serious, there is one particular butterfly or beetle put aside and called the type. The original specimen, to which all are compared.
Fran Katzenjammer is the defining type for Unlucky in Love.
Oh, the potential, the hope, always longed for, never sighted. The heartache blazoned upon a sassy corduroy waistcoat that looked cute in the high street chain store (the one she really shouldn’t have stepped foot into because the sales assistants all looked fifteen and wore dour expressions as if they’d sucked on a lemon), but in the unflattering light of this slightly cheap Italian restaurant, just seems sad. Sad and lonely, with just a slight whiff of desperation, masquerading as a cheeky pinot noir. Her date drives a 1989 Mercedes, is twice divorced and newly looked over for promotion to Head of English at Such and Such Comprehensive; and he’s spent the soup course and most of the main hammering on about the wine in the style of someone who’s read one book on wine and could now bore for England on the subject. Oh, the men, the strangers, the friends of friends and acquaintances and you’ll love him, Fran—he plays badminton and collects pipes! There have been the silly ones, the shy ones, the loud ones, the ones who, deep down, really just want someone to mother them.
Which is how she spends her evenings (and her days, and her lazy afternoons when the idea of job hunting seems particularly disheartening) in the company of a weirdly insular Irishman who is permanently inebriated, and his loyal manservant. Sorry, his loyal Manny. Dear, sweet Manny, who wears the placid and slightly rheumy expression of a bloodhound, and likes to read the horoscopes at full volume to drown out the sound of Bernard threatening random customers who break his arcane rules by coming at them with the full clout of Johnson’s Dictionary.
(And after a while, she supposes—well, that she quite likes this version. There’s got to be as much potential uncovered and unfound, as there ever would be lost.)
“Jam jars,” says Fran, suddenly.
“What’s that, dear?”
“There’s a little store just down the road, they have all sorts of oddments and curiosities, and I know you always collected those jars and tins from the war.” She hooks a hand through the teacher’s arm and steers her around. Not forcibly. Well, maybe just a bit. The force of very slight desperation. “I know the owner,” she lies through her teeth, “I bet she’d just love to talk gooseberries and labels for an hour. Manny, get the door.”
“Well, if you say so...” Miss D—’s voice trails away as Manny scrambles into action and she’s unceremoniously plonked outside. Fran walks a few steps with her down the footpath before subtly disengaging her hand, waving merrily with the other.
Miss D— waves back, but there’s confusion in her eyes, and as she walks away, umbrella dragging a little, something kicks in Fran’s stomach. Guilt? No. Lunchtime? Possibly. Still, crisis averted and all that.
Bernard is standing out on the footpath when Fran turns back. His arms are crossed.
She glares. “What?”
“You know,” he says, conversationally, leaning against the wrought-iron fence, “I have a book on karma. The Little Book of Karma. Striking originality. Anyway, I keep it in a locked draw so Manny can’t get to it, obviously, along with all the other microscopic novellas the publishers keep sending me so that I have a reason to practise my Heimlich manoeuvre when that sandal-wearing loon inevitably swallows them. And you know what, Fran? That old lady will wander away and get lost, and when the constabulary eventually stumble across her, dazed and confused and opening up her umbrella in all sorts of inappropriate places, you know what her first words will be? That Fran. She led me astray. Oh, Officer, it’s like she never grew up.”
Fran steps within an inch of his nose, eyes boring small holes into his. He wilts, just a bit.
“Spoken from experience,” she says, and turns for home.
There comes a point when every new day starts to resemble the previous one.
Her tiny flat is like a mousetrap, waiting to spring shut. It wouldn’t surprise her if she woke up one day to find the ceiling warped and reaching drunkenly for the floor.
Manny thinks that they should all run away together, in a caravan. He shares this thought one night, when it’s late, too late, and she doesn’t feel that it’s entirely fair to leave when there’s still a whole inch left in the bottle. It sounds like he’s been reading too much Enid Blyton again, but she knows he’s only trying to help, it’s all he ever does, so she plants a kiss on his head and gulps the last of her wine until she can feel it slide back up her throat. They have a competition comparing schoolyard traumas. As Bernard tells it, his childhood was a cross between an absinthe-tinged version of Goodbye, Mr Chips and Dante’s Inferno. She doesn’t have the strength to pick this apart, as much as she wants to avoid the whole subject.
Bernard lights a cigarette from the one already stuck between his lips. He coughs, sending ash fluttering in a plume across the table. She stares blearily at her watch. It’s stopped at nine thirty, two days ago.
“Not sorry for myself, no, not at all.” Fran waves the glass before her nose, back and forth, watching the way Manny’s face stretches and bends in the refracted surface. “Hurrah for me.”
And the way they look back at her, the way nobody disagrees, she’s pretty sure this is the truth.