Fran and Mrs de Winter

In my first year of secondary school, my best friend was a girl called Nira. Nira had thick, auburn (not red) hair, a flawless complexion, brown eyes (that were also reddish and seemed to match her hair) and a smattering of freckles that, in my childish imagination, I envisioned Tinkerbell sprinkling, sparingly, onto her nose whilst she slept. I think Nira may be responsible for my lifelong adoration of red hair. It is no wonder that my eldest child is a redhead, as I am, most definitely a redhead on the inside. Just like my subsequent best friend, who claimed to be a ‘punk on the inside’. (And back then there was none of this nasty prejudice against those fortunate enough to sport the striking and unusual hair colour.) But anyway, Nira said that she chose me to be her best friend because I was ‘the prettiest girl in the form’, which I doubted, as I had never considered myself to be a pretty child and I felt seriously wanting in the early days of secondary school . . . wanting inches, wanting curves, wanting some sort of fashion sense.

There were three forms in each year group, each form comprising approximately 30 girls (considering it was a public school, they really packed us in) split according to where the initial letter of your surname fell in the alphabet. Nira bemoaned our placement in ‘Upper III M’ as she had a strange fascination with the nerds (meant in the nicest possible way) in another form. I use the word ‘strange’ wisely; she did not present as a nerd. This was a girl whose uniform fitted where it touched, whose hair always looked freshly coiffed, who was so keen to show off the minuteness of her waist that she wore her purse-belt (yes, we had purse-belts) outside her jumper. But the nerds were quite happy consorting in their own nerdiness and made it clear that the group was closed to potential members. So, seeing as Nira didn’t care for the other girls in our form, we found ourselves in a rather exclusive little friendship of just the two of us. At break-times, we performed our own little comedy sketches which no-one else found funny but we would sometimes cry, we laughed so much at our own jokes. Some of our sketches were pretty dark . . . I remember one based on the problems at the time with DC-10 aeroplanes, only our plane was an EF-11. We were still sniggering in the next lesson; we only had to catch each other’s eyes and ridiculous snorting sounds were finding ways to escape from our mouths and noses. No-one else knew the source of our jollity and as we didn’t really socialise much with the other girls, I don’t think anyone else much cared. But the teacher did and we actually got told off; just to clarify, we were proper goodie-goodies, so this was new territory. We did typical girls’ school stuff, like inventing our own little language so we could pass notes in class and no-one else could read them. The fact that we couldn’t read them either, half the time, as they took so long to decipher, didn’t matter – we felt like spies which seemed of utmost importance at the time.
Nira left after the first year and returned to London, but we wrote to each other for years and she would always sign off with ‘Your best friend Nira’. Maintaining the friendship was difficult, as my parents were not enamoured with the notion of my joining Nira in her busy, dizzy, socialite world. I was, of course, but while Nira was making her debut in The Big Smoke, I was probably still building sandcastles on the beach in Gower (which, by the way, I was very fond of doing. It is possible to want to be a debutante and to enjoy building sandcastles). But we did meet up from time-to-time and her last letter to me was to congratulate me on my engagement. She told me that she was moving into a flat with an old friend called Simon. And then we lost touch.
I tried to regain contact with my funny friend – we’d had quite an intense year at school together and did all that ‘best friends for life’ stuff and had stayed friends for the rest of our childhood – but to no avail. Then, years later, (soon-to-be-ex) hubby insisted upon sharing one of his favourite sitcoms with me (which I have stolen as possibly my absolute favourite sitcom): ‘Spaced’. He was in disbelief that I’d never watched it and so was I, after I’d watched the first episode. It was pure brilliance. If you’ve watched it, you’ll understand. If you haven’t, stop reading my blog and find it somewhere to watch it. Especially if you grew up somewhere between the ’70s and the ’90s. And especially if you embrace the geek in you (go on – admit it – even if it’s very insignificant, like being partial to the odd Star Wars movie).
But it got better: there, at the end of the credits, was my funny friend’s name as the producer! Turned out she was also the producer of some great movies like Shaun of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim, to name a couple. I was glad I already liked her work whilst being unaware of her involvement. What with her being a bit of a name and all, she was quite easy to track down and so we were back in touch. On recounting the anecdote to my sister, she pointed out that she must be the producer of the award-winning Black Books and to my shame, I had not watched a single episode. So, my sister very kindly provided me with every single episode on DVD, the following Christmas which leads me onto the next instalment of the debacle that was my relationship with the Rastafarian . . .
‘Honey,’ he said, looking at me directly in the eyes. This was familiar . . . this was the look and the sound preceding an awkward request.
‘My sister is coming here.’
‘That’s great!’ I enthused, ‘I’d love to meet one of your family.’
I knew there was going to be so much more to this conversation than just being told that his sister was arriving, by his serious countenance and grave tone to his voice, but until things became heavy with complications, I would treat the news at face value.
‘Maybe we can arrange that,’ was his reaction to my enthusiasm. I noted the coolness of his comment.
‘Could you collect her from the airport?’ he continued.
‘Sure,’ I replied, thinking that this must be the complication, ‘as long as you could recompense me for petrol,’ I clarified. My funds were running low and I knew that I couldn’t afford any extra expense.
‘She will fly into Heathrow,’ he elaborated.
‘Whoa – wait a minute – Heathrow? That’s quite a drive – can’t she make other arrangements?’
‘Honeeee,’ he whined, ‘this is my sister!’ he seemed offended at the suggestion that his sister should slum it on public transport like the rest of us.
‘Ok – ok! It’s fine!’ I reassured him, ‘But like I say, I have to have petrol money and obviously, only if I’m not busy.’
‘Of course, of course,’ he affirmed, ‘but if it is in the week, then you will have to take the day off work.’
This is where Fran – the hapless female in Black Books – and I become synonymous with one another.
In Series 2 there is an episode entitled ‘Blood’ where Fran seeks out her Eastern European roots and finds herself a whole new extended family. The feelings she experiences on becoming united with her new-found relatives are as deep as their feelings for her are shallow. While she struggles to contain her glee at getting to know her family and their cultural differences, they seem fixated on her Astra and before she can say ‘poliknish’ three times, they’re plotting, shamelessly to use her as an unpaid chauffer.
I won’t spoil it for Black Books novices, but you can see the similarity, I’m sure.
‘Take the day off work? I can’t take the day off work to collect a capable person whom I’ve never met before from the airport!’ I ranted some more, to be fair, because the Rastafarian was unresponsive. He didn’t argue but he didn’t seem to understand, either. Even though I had made myself clear and I had no intention of granting his request, I felt wholly unsatisfied that I had not managed to impart any understanding to him concerning the cheek of his request.
It worsened, though. Shortly before her arrival, he asked me to remove anything of mine from his place. There wasn’t much but the request was unacceptable. His excuse was that she was close to The Ex and he didn’t want her gossiping about him to this ghost that was haunting our relationship. The only reason I stopped feeling like Fran was because I was starting to feel like the new Mrs de Winter . . .
The airport collection issue ceased to be an issue when it turned out that she was flying into Birmingham and staying here and there with friends, apparently, before descending upon the Rastafarian. The only time I met her was when I went round to give him a lift to work one night (despite his unfair proportion of musical talent, he was lazy and had let his band slip away, so he played, alone, for nothing at Open Mic nights and work had become providing security on doors of pubs). He rang me when I was on my way to ask if I could take her to church. Back to being Fran then. The rain was of biblical proportions that night, I was already behind schedule and if I’m blunt, I thought it was rude of him to call a favour for someone I hadn’t met at the last minute, especially as I was already doing him a favour. The weather had been grim all day, so the heavenly outpouring was no surprise. I said I’d do my best but by the time I arrived, it was too late. She was sitting, looking glum, on a hard-backed chair.
‘I guess I’m too late,’ I said apologetically, without actually apologising because I didn’t feel the need, while rain trickled, uncomfortably, down my face.
She was terse with her reply which was something along the lines of ‘it’s ok’ but I sensed that it wasn’t ok. She mentioned that she didn’t want to walk in late and I agreed, trying to find some common ground and ‘church’ seemed like it would suffice. She was the most interested I witnessed during the hour or so that I was with her, when she realised that I was a church-goer. I knew that she had been raised a catholic, like me, but she almost seemed affronted with this new knowledge about me. There was no comment; just a hard look.
She ended the interchange by turning to her phone and seemingly preferring to interact with that.
Then, she cooked me a meal, which was unexpected. I gave her the benefit of the doubt and accepted the gesture in the spirit in which I felt it had been given. It was a meat dish, so I had to avoid the meaty bits and she noticed. I couldn’t confess to vegetarianism; she’d progressed from grumpy to giving, so I didn’t want to risk her mood sliding back down the scale, even halfway towards grumpy. So I said I didn’t really eat much meat. There was an awkwardness about the meal and when the Rastafarian spontaneously referred to me as his ‘good friend’ and his ‘angel’ who had helped him, I realised that she was not aware of the nature of our relationship . . .


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