Sunday, 28 September 2014

Breakfast at Betty's (Part Two of the Harrogate Chronicles)

What a dramatic few weeks!  I am giddy with it all.  The most drama I usually encounter is:
  • a Sunday afternoon double-bill of Morse on ITV3
  • the gift of a dead shrew left for me in a Clarks loafer  
  • a gin-soaked, bi-annual tussle with a bearded double-glazing salesman
As you know,  collective Stepfords at my school ousted Godzilla in Evans (head teacher, Magda) last term. We stood together (supported by our unions, who were fantastic) and she was gone within days.  Well, our temporary replacement is, astonishingly, just as power-crazed and nasty.  And, in my new role as Union Rep (picture Arthur Scargill in ballet pumps and tortoiseshell specs), it is MY responsibility to keep the nut-job in check.  Whereas Magda was obviously unhinged, and thought nothing of bursting into your classroom (full of children) and screaming about how crap you were and how thick your class was, Magda II (Python in a Pencil Skirt) is more measured and icy.  Or she was.  Until Friday.

On that fated morning, I had to draw the Python's attention to a union guideline that she was intent on infringing.  I shan't bore you with the details. Although, I shall point out that I keep my union notes in a tiny but darling leather-bound notebook, covered with birds and blackberries.  I find it adds a certain femininity and refinement to the tawdry business of trade union discord.  (If Cath Kidston stores existed in 1984,  the miners' strike may have had a very different outcome.)  Anyway, the genteel and civilising touch of pretty stationary was wasted on the Python. I referred to my chintzy notebook, quoted regulation 127b/c with my most wan smile, tucked the notebook back into my bra and BOOM!  An apocalypse of fury was unleashed. The python was in meltdown.  She started clearing her desk, wildly slamming possessions into her Radley handbag. Then she RAN (no mean feat in a pencil skirt and patent stilettos) rampaging through the school, screaming that no one could work with us and that she had had ENOUGH.  'God help the person who gets the permanent head teacher's job here!' she roared, as she left, passing, in a TERRIBLE fluke of fate, the candidates for the permanent post, who were assembled for their interviews that very day.

Dear me.  It was farcical. So, as I type this, I know not whether the python will return tomorrow.   I hope she doesn't come back.  But then, who WILL take us on?  We all suffered two years of bullying, berating and insults from Magda, yet not one of us ever walked out, lost our composure or even called in sick. We got on with our jobs and put the children first.  Python in a Pencil skirt didn't even last four weeks.  Yet again, it all makes me long for the halcyon days of Pompous Pilate and The School of Hard Knocks.  Which may have been located on one of Sunderland's most infamous sink estates, but now seems a veritable haven of calm and common sense by comparison.

But, it is not just the inevitable school issues that have occupied my mind recently. Things have ended with Rochester.  I think.  It's hard to tell. The flaky fanny rat proclaimed he was no longer happy to be blogged about, which seemed slightly perplexing after 5 years of posts.  So this may well be the penultimate instalment.  I will finish the Harrogate Chronicles, but I doubt the rogue and I will tussle again.  I will probably return to posting about lurchers, corned beef recipes and cardigans.  I apologise in advance.

Anyway, the setting of today's tender scene is Betty's Tearooms in Harrogate; it is mid-morning.  The room is a muted symphony of teaspoons chiming on bone china, hushed voices and stifled gasps as bills, discretely tucked in heavy, embossed cream envelopes, are opened.  I love Betty's.  You must go.  You MUST.   Holly Golightly may have declared that nothing bad could ever happen in Tiffany's (naive, I think; surely armed robbery is a very distinct possibility) but that is only because she had't been to Betty's.

Our lovelorn are couple seated in the window, overlooking a lush, late summer park.

Rochester:  So, here we are  In Betty's.  How does it feel?  I noticed in your tweets that you didn't think it was exactly my scene.

Miss Underscore: It feels good.  You don't look too discordant. Mind you, I think it is apt that we're here for breakfast.  I can't see you negotiating a cream tea with that beard.

Rochester: Read us the menu, pet.  Fonts are so fucking small these days. Especially pseudo Edwardian ones.

Miss Underscore:   Can we go glasses shopping for you later?

Rochester:  Aye. We probably should.  I'm no good at that stuff.

Miss Underscore:  (picking up the menu)  I like reading menus to you.  I feel like Jane Fontaine in the early scenes of Rebecca: an elderly person's genteel and demure paid companion. Now.  Breakfast.

Rochester: Hang on. You haven't got YOUR reading glasses on.  How come you can read that but I can't?

Miss Underscore:  They're just stunt glasses really.  I can manage without them.  Although not on a night, when I'm tired.  Plus, I like to occasionally glare at my class over the top of them.  It terrifies the living daylights out of them. Right.  Item one:  full English breakfast, item two . . .

Rochester:  Stop!  Go no further. I'll have that.

Miss Underscore:  Well, that was easy.

Rochester:  I'm not sure about your new glasses, like.  They're a bit big.  I tried them on myself last night.

Miss Underscore:  They're rather 70s.  I feel like an uptight Upper East Side academic in one of Woody Allen's early films.  You know, big glasses, Laura Ashley smock, centre parting.  I'd be discussing Cezanne and Salinger with a dishevelled professor in corduroys, at a party in the Guggenheim obviously. I'd seethe with feminist fury when Woody ambles in with a 17 year old date and pinches the last vol-au-vent.  I'd glare at him murderously through my big specs.

Rochester:  So, your glasses are part of your teacher performance art?  Just like my Quality Street ties.

Miss Underscore: (whispering) Rochester, look at that chap.  Discreetly, oaf.  Look.  Codger to your left.

Miss Underscore nods to where a blithering and blahhhing, pink-cheeked octoganarian in crushed pumpkin cords stares angrily at his kedgeree through a steamed up monocle.

Miss Underscore:  You wouldn't find him in Sunderland.  Or Shields.

Rochester:  He's straight out of P G Woodhouse.  As is that fruitcake over there (he points over Miss Underscore's shoulder): unbrushed red hair, 1940s dress, cashmere cardigan, crimson lipstick.

Miss Underscore:  Oooh, where?  She sounds pleasingly bonkers.

Rochester:  (Squinting)  Ah sorry.  It's you, pet!  Lots of bloody mirrors in this place. It's disorientating. I should have recognised you from the fucking great looking bloke you're sat with.  I'm going out for a fag.  You order for us, eh, flower?  What are you having?

Miss Underscore: Eggs benedict, strong breakfast tea, orange juice.  Don't go out yet, Rochester.  We've just got here.

Rochester:  Ok.

Miss Underscore:  I was thinking of you on Monday when I went to see Aunty Margaret.  She asked which brother I was jaunting to Harrogate with, by the way,  'Brother number one, or brother number two.'

Rochester:  Bollocking hell!  There's only one right answer to that.

Miss Underscore:  Anyway, her next-door neighbour popped in while I was there.  Jean, she's called.   Much younger than Aunty Margaret.  Only about 70. I hadn't seen her for years.  She told me her husband had just got out of hospital and was very ill in bed.  You know, this conversation brought home to me how tough colliery women are. (Harrumphingly, as Jean)  'He's got chronic COPD,  jaundice, massive heart failure, lung cancer that has now spread into his bones, and I told him, I told him Elizabeth, IT'S YOUR OWN FAULT, STAN and DON'T YOU DARE COMPLAIN TO ME!'

Rochester:  Fucking hell.

Miss Underscore:  'You were told 25 years ago to quit smoking and you didn't.  You were told to quit pigeons, and you didn't!'

Rochester:  Pigeons?

Miss Underscore:  "And now you're lying there all swollen like a yellow Moby Dick in pyjamas with only weeks to live!'

Rochester:  Poor bastard!

Miss Underscore: (continuing as Jean)  'I told him, Elizabeth, he gets NO sympathy from me.  None.  That's nice lipstick by the way.  I told him he had weeks, well that was to spare his feelings, but I really expect it might be days.' At which point, Aunty Margaret chirped in 'Might be HOURS, get him told, Jean.  You can't shilly shally around these things' Jean continued, 'I've got a lovely anaglypta chasen to redecorate the bedroom when he goes. You see, Elizabeth - ooh, what a lovely colour your hair is!  Is that Cathouse Crimson? Joan from the butchers uses that shade. She says it complements the black pudding nicely.  Anyway, I gave up smoking years ago, but HIM, oh no,  HE wouldn't hear of it. So, he can't moan now, can he. . .  even if he could talk. Which he can't.  And isn't THAT a blessing in disguise!' Seriously, Rochester.  That was the conversation.

Rochester:  What the actual fuck!

Miss Underscore:  I know.  It was astonishing. I just sat there, nodding at them both.  But, see.  smoking, Rochester, smoking.  You are smoking LOTS.

Rochester:  Aye.  I know.  But I don't have pigeons. I wish I hadn't started smoking again.  .  . She really said all that, this Jean?

Miss Underscore:  Yes.  Truly. Hard as nails, those colliery ladies. Hewn from granite, beef dripping and Max Factor Creme Puff.  I think she loves him really.  Steely though.

Rochester:  That's your heritage.  That's what you will become. What's wrong with the pigeons?

Miss Underscore: Feathers and dust.  They trigger the COPD, apparently.

A waitress, starched and aproned, glides over and takes their order.

Rochester:  You were SO pissed last night.  So very pissed.  You have very good deportment.  I've often thought that. Often thought you looked like you spent your early years being forced to walk up and down with a stack of books on your head.

Miss Underscore:  I did!  I did!  Aunty Daisy made me do it with her collection of romantic poets.  I owe much to my Aunty Daisy: my good posture and my penchant for swarthy Byronic cads.

Rochester: (laughing) Going back to the room, you were walking as perfectly erect as ever, but you were zig zagging from one side of the corridor to the other.  You were actually bouncing off the walls.

Miss Underscore:  Well, I only really drink when I meet you. I am not quite used to it.  There was champagne, wine, gin. . .it was such a nice night though.

Rochester: (reaching out and taking her hand)  This is all very lovely, don't you think?  Feels OK?

Miss Underscore:  Yes.  It's all lovely.

Rochester:  So, you'd do it again. Meet up like this?  (silence),  Miss Underscore?

Miss Underscore: (pause)  I don't know.

Rochester: (surprised) Are you serious?  Why wouldn't you?

Miss Underscore:  I. . . I just don't think we want the same things.  I don't think we're on the same page.

Rochester: (frowning) What the fuck do you mean, flower?

Miss Underscore:  This seems fine for you.  Intermittent texting and calls.  Meeting every 4 - 6 months.  Then nothing.  Nothing for months on end. I can't cope with it.  I just don't cope with that at all. That's the part you don't see.

Rochester:  But, you'd be fucking crazy not to do this again.  Howay, pet.

Miss Underscore:  It's not very flattering, you know.  To be the woman you can only be arsed to spend time with twice a year.

Rochester:   That's bullshit.  (silence) That IS bullshit.  You mean, you want more?  We could do that.  We could meet more often.  You could come south.  I could come north more often.  I don't think we are on different pages, pet. We're not, you know.

Miss Underscore:  But you haven't come north more often.  We both know that if you wanted to see more of me, you would have done it. I always hope we'll meet up and finally get things on the table.  Finally sort things out.  We never do.  We're forever skirting around the issue.  . . Would it bother you if I met someone else?

Rochester:  That's an interesting question . . . yes. . .yes. . .  it would.  It would bother me, quite a cunting bit, I expect.

Miss Underscore: (looking out of the window)  Look.  Here's the rain again.  I don't think we're going to get to Valley Gardens for brass bands and ice creams.

Rochester:  So, what shall we do after this?

Miss Underscore:  Find a pub.  Drink gin?

Rochester:  Yup.  Good call.

Miss Underscore:  And tonight, tonight I fancy a proper, old-school Italian restaurant: checked tablecloths, candles stuck in wine bottles, chicken liver pate, carbonara, e-coli, that kind of thing.  Cancel that swanky place you booked.  We both know that neither one of us is a 'textures of beetroot' kind of person.

Rochester:  Ok.  That sounds good. I'll ask around and find a good place.  You're quite a cheap date, you know.

Miss Underscore:  Ooooh.  Here's breakfast. How lovely does this look?

Rochester:  (digging in to breakfast) So, after the Italian, here's what I think we should do tonight.  It involves the chaise in the hotel room.  And you in your reading glasses.

Miss Underscore: The same as last night then?

Rochester:  Nope.  You are going to lie on the chaise.  In your Annie Hall specs.  I am going to ask you probing questions.  I am going to analyse you.

Miss Underscore:  Ok.  Ok.

Rochester: You agree?  Really?

Miss Underscore: (smiling) Yes.  With conditions.

Rochester:  Which are?

Miss Underscore:  (pouring tea) Let me think. Ok.  One - you only get five questions.

Rochester: Five?  That's pretty generous.  That's more than I thought.

Miss Underscore:  Only five.  No supplementary questions.  You must choose your questions wisely.

Rochester:   Five.  Agreed.

Miss Underscore:  Two:  I have the right not to answer.

Rochester:  Of course.  Agreed.

Miss Underscore:  Three:  don't ask anything you can't handle the answer to.

Rochester:  Fascinating. Like what?

Miss Underscore:  I don't know, like. . . .  Oh, I don't know. Just be mindful.  What with the whole brother narrative, this already has shades of Greek mythology. I don't want this to be like Pandora's box.  

Rochester:  And, you get one question yourself.  OK?  This breakfast is fucking good. I approve of Betty's.  Are you going to be honest tonight, flower? Totally honest?

Miss Underscore:  Of course. Of course I am.  I think the intriguing thing is going to be, not my answers, but what you choose to ask.  Heavens.  I am going to be penetrated on the chaise of truth!  How thrilling!


  1. You got rid of Magda? Impressive. And you're Union Rep now? No wonder your postings have been sparse.

    Anyway this was a good one, despite the lack of corned beef recipes. I'm sure you haven't really seen the last of Rochester though.

  2. I do so enjoy your writing, but it's tinged with guilt that what I enjoy is for you, your life. Ach, that wasn't well put.

    Congratulations on seeing off two bullying HTs. Why don't you do the job? You'd be magnificent!

    And I've been there with someone like Rochester. It wasn't happily ever after for me, but I can't write like you. But his hypocrisy is breathtaking.

  3. I love your blog. I have loved it for a couple of years now and have very recently reread it in its entirety. You truly have a gift for writing.

    It won't be the last you hear from Rochester. It makes me sad, because you deserve so much more than what he offers you.

  4. Well done you -- I agree with Redbookish. I want you to be HT. You've done so much at that school.

    "Would it bother you if I met someone else?" I'm in the midst of arguing this with someone. I'd almost prefer it if my sort-of girlf went off with someone else. It'd lessen the amount of work I have to do in a relationship in which there is such a disparity of feeling. But definitely, I wouldn;t want to be with a woman who only picked me up when it suited her.

  5. Two years ago, I would have said that I absolutely wanted to be a head teacher. However, I don't think I'm cut out for it really. It's all budget spreadsheets, data analysis, swearing parents and government inspection. Both Magda I and II have demonstrated it is possible to be a head and show absolutely no interest in children. I'd miss the kids; I'd miss having my own classroom to decorate in Clarice Cliff paper plate designs and paper mache horse heads. I'd miss reading great books to them - like Carrie's War (which we're doing now). I'd quite like the money though. If I could go back and be a head teacher in the 1970s, pre-National Curriculum, pre-Ofsted, then maybe I'd do it.

    Thank you for your comments, as always. They mean a lot. xxx

  6. The old unreconstructed non-feminist romantic in me wants a happy ending for you and Rochester. But I think that the proper happy ending s you telling him to fuck ff, and finding a really lovely man who properly adores you and wants to be with you -- although good men like that are like unicorns, frankly. Most of them are emotionally irresponsible Peter Pans, who think it's perfectly OK to pick up really lovely women, grab all the emotional succour those women offer, give dribs and drabs back, and then move on. He's a ratty dog in the manger: he wouldn't like you to see anyone else, yet he does. And only makes the effort to see you twice a year. From what you write, he obviously really likes you, and needs you in a way he won't admit. But he couldn't be bothered to make the effort of commitment.

    Yet it's women who are called selfish for being single!

    And I hope he's reading this. I'm getting sick of good women being treated appallingly by cowardly, immature men who see relationships as somehow diminishing of their independence or some such crap.

  7. You are a gifted writer, the Miss Read of our day. Stop wasting time and get a book out there.

  8. Oh - thank you. How lovely. I adore the idea of being Miss Read. xxx

  9. Oh god I hate Rochester and I adore you, and I just don't know what to say beyond that. You are wonderful. And you are Miss Read, to me, anyway.

  10. You are settled into his groove. Fate must intervene. Wrap your cashmere cardi around you, apply a little more lipstick, shoulders and chin up and watch the horizon for the future.

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