I met the wonderful Janey Fraser (aka Sophie King) at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera last year. Four of us–Beth Barany, a book promoter, my traveling companion Laura Mills, Janey and I shared several wonderful dinners together. At the time, another of Jane’s books was on the Italian bestseller list, which she was incredibly modest about. I would have been jumping up and down and freaking out all over everyone had that happened to me.
She’s got another book out–in English this time–and her launch party is on Monday at The Players’ Rehearsal & Club Rooms Basement, 10 Craven Street WC2N 5PE in London from 6pm – 8pm.
Fay Weldon said: I read it without stopping all the way home. Sincerely meant. Rings true, and homey. Unputdownable.
From Katie Fforde: A must read for anyone who has small children or knows them. Hugely enjoyable.
A lovely book. I really, really enjoyed it. It has a sparkle, a lightness of touch and a deep, true charm. Written from the heart. (Elizabeth Buchan)
Just coming to the end of The Playgroup and loved it. Terrific story and enormous fun. Also the characters were all great. (Judy Astley)
From Trisha Astley: Warmly and engagingly written and with an engaging cast of characters, The Playgroup captivated me from the very first page.
Here’s an excerpt:
from CHAPTER 1
‘Mrs Merryfield, Mrs Merryfield. We went to More-ishus. And it rained.’
‘Hi, Gemma! Nice tan! Listen, I’m pretty certain Molly is dry now but just in case she’s not, there’s a spare pair of pants in her sandwich box. That’s the one with the picture of a giraffe on it – sorry I didn’t have time to label it.’
‘Morning, Miss Merryfield. Had a good break? Darren, have you said hello to your playgroup leader?’
‘Gemma, I’m so sorry. But we’ve just had Beth checked again and it turns out she’s allergic to wheat as well as salt, sugar, any kind of additives and – get this – any food that’s yellow. Weird, isn’t it? So can you make sure she doesn’t have any biscuits at breaktime?’
The stream of traffic on the first day of term was always hectic with the children running up to swing on her arms, wrap their small, warm bodies round her legs, bobbing up and down, unable to stand still for a second and announcing in breathy excited voices exactly what they’d been up to in the holidays. It was like lots of different hands playing piano notes at the same time.
The parents too would understandably want to chat, some calling her Gemma because they felt they knew her while others preferred a more formal address. As for the children, well, she’d given up explaining that she was a Miss. In their minds, any woman like their mum had to have a Mrs in front of their name.
Yes! You got a real mixture of tiny feet and parents here at Puddleducks Playgroup. For a start, there was Darren’s mum squatting down by the playdough table to settle in her three year old, who was nervous about coming back after a whole summer off.
Then there were mums like Kyle’s who arrived in skinny tops and casual jogging bottoms (so casual that they looked as though they’d just rolled out of bed and were going back to watch daytime tv) and just waved goodbye to their children without a second glance. Kyle’s mother always dressed her son in a skimpy Power Rangers t-shirt, winter and summer even though Gemma kept asking her to bring in something warmer. It had got to the point now when she just lent Kyle something from the Lost Property box when his arms went blue.
And of course there were the one-offs like Clemmie’s mum, who used to be a model, and arrived every day in beautifully cut trousers, earrings and flawless foundation complete with lip liner. ‘Don’t forget your handbag, Clemmie darling. It’s got your oatmeal snack in it so we can keep an eye on those naughty calories.’
Some parents – although they had grandparents on the playgroup run too – came from the council flats down by the bottom end of the canal. A good smattering came from the smart houses up at the top end where house prices had been known to go into seven figures. There were also a lot of in-betweeners from roads where you could park your car in the drive and those where you couldn’t. It was a testament to Puddleducks that families who could have afforded to go private, were actually keen to send their under-fives to a state playgroup like this one.
Mind you, there were times when she felt she did run a private one- to- one service.
‘I’m reely sorry to bother you, Gemma. But Mikey’s lost his favourite sweat shirt and we think he might have left it behind here last term. Could you have a look for it when you have a second? You can’t miss it. It says ‘Granny went to Adelaide and came back with a new Grandad.’ Not very funny, actually, under the circumstances but I’ll tell you about that one later.’
‘Miss Merryfield? Could I have a word? Poppy is rather upset because she only got three gold stars at the end of last term for her letter outlines and Alex got four even though Poppy can do lovely p’s and q’s whereas Alex, I couldn’t help noticing from his work sheet over there, still gets his ‘b’s back to front. We did a teeny bit of practice during the holidays. So I wondered if you could bear this in mind because it does make a difference to her confidence, don’t you think?’
‘Morning, Mrs Mayfold. Did you have a good holiday? Lucky you, having eight whole weeks off.’
Merryfield, she tried to say to Sienna’s mum who was always getting her name wrong, partly because she usually conducted a conversation while checking her iPhone for emails at the same time. As for the long holidays, like most teachers, Gemma was used to digs like that. She’d actually spent quite a lot of time preparing for the new term. Besides, as Miriam had warned her before going on maternity leave, you couldn’t win with Sienna’s mum who always criticised everything. She was already complaining about someone’s parking outside to the father behind her.
Gemma’s eyes softened. She liked Toby’s dad although he was married so of course, she didn’t like him that way. No, it was because he was one of that increasingly common breed of fathers who looked after their children while their wives went out to work. It wasn’t, they had both told her confidentially, at the last parents’ evening, what they had intended but redundancy and the cost of child care had made it work out that way and actually it was panning out quite nicely because it meant he had more time to be with the children.
‘Sorry to bother you.’ Toby’s dad, always polite, was pushing a packet of tablets into her hand. ‘It’s the last of Toby’s antibiotic course. It was just a chesty bug and he’s not infectious any more but he does keep making some rather bad smells because of the medicine and …’
There was a squeal behind him. ‘Chesty bug? Are children allowed into playgroup if they’re sick?’
Gemma’s heart sank. When it came to going back to playgroup after an illness, there was always a fine line between ‘almost better’ and ‘completely better’. The mother who had squealed, in what sounded like an American twang, was new. Poor thing. She’d need reassuring.
‘Have you got a letter from the doctor to say that he is fit for playgroup?’ Gemma smiled apologetically. ‘You might remember that we need that now.’
Toby’s father nodded enthusiastically, delving into his jeans pocket and bringing out a scruffy envelope along with a nappy wipe, a black dog poo bag (clean), a tissue (not so clean). and a smattering of small change which then scattered all over the floor.
‘Oh my word!’ The alarm was evident in the twang. ‘Danny might try to eat those coins. He’s always putting things in his mouth.’
Danny! It was coming together now. This was the American mother who had already rung her twice with all kinds of questions. Were the Puddleduck sweat shirts optional because polyester made Danny’s skin itch? Did the staff ratio conform to the current guidelines here in the UK?
‘Please don’t worry, Mrs Wright,’ soothed Gemma looking past her to where Danny had already shot off to the Messy Corner where one of her helpers was introducing the new intake to the joys of splashing in bowls of soapy water and measuring containers.
The painfully-skinny woman with the short, spikey haircut and a worry-groove on her forehead, frowned. ‘It’s Carter Wright without a hypen. Not just Wright.’
‘Sorry.’ Gemma smiled, mentally kicking herself for not having memorised the register properly. ‘I do understand it’s difficult leaving your son for the first time. All our parents find that at first. But we do take great care of the children. I promise.’
Toby’s dad, bless him, was nodding enthusiastically. ‘Honest. Toby’s our baby and I didn’t know what to do with myself when he started here – only two and a half, he was - so we got a dog. I know, crazy isn’t it. By the way, congratulations.’
Gemma’s heart threatened to stop. ‘I’m sorry?’
‘Congratulations!’ repeated Toby’s dad, beaming. ‘I gather you’re our new pre-school leader while Miriam is on maternity leave. What did she have?’
Gemma’s heart began beating again. ‘A boy. Nicolas. That’s Nicolas without an ‘h’.’
‘Great news! Did you hear that everyone? Miriam had a healthy baby boy! We ought to rustle up a parent collection.’
Gemma watched Toby’s dad springing into action and already wheedling donations from some of the other parents as they finally drifted out of the exit door, through the enclosed outdoor play area and on with their own lives until 11.30 pick up time. Some of them were, at the same time, reading spare copies of the playgroup newsletter she’d brought in. Miriam had said that was a great idea although at the moment, Miriam thought everything was a good idea apart from giving birth again!
Trailing behind them was the American mother with the spikey haircut, reluctantly looking back at her son who was now blowing bubbles. ‘You don’t think he’ll try to eat that stuff, do you?’ she asked Gemma plaintively.
It was all she could do not to give the poor woman a hug. ‘He’ll be fine. Please don’t worry. We’ll take good care of him.’
‘DON’T WANT TO STAY ! DON’T WANT TO STAY!’
Oh dear. By the door was a screaming human tourniquet of Gap meets Boden as Daisy, who had just been presented with twin baby sisters, entwined herself around her mother’s legs. The American woman gave her a look that said ‘Is this what they do when we’re not here?’ and headed back, head bowed towards the car park.
‘She’s been really clingy ever since these two came along.’ Daisy’s mother’s watery brown eyes appealed to her. ‘I can’t leave her like this!’
Gemma could have said the usual stuff about not worrying because most children stopped crying once their mothers had gone. But she also knew that if she was a mother herself, that wouldn’t really help.
So instead she had another trick up her sleeve.
Gemma pretended to be surprised by the voice which came from the back of her throat so that her lips hardly moved. It was an action she’d been working on over the summer, much to her landlady’s amusement.
‘Daisy? It’s me. Mouse.’
Daisy opened her eyes a fraction as Gemma knelt down with her hand inside the hand puppet made out of an oven glove, felt scraps and sequins. Mouse was the class’ favourite toy! When they had ‘Quiet Talk Time’, during which the children would sit in a circle and take it in turns to say something about the day, it was tradition that Mouse would be passed around at the same time and they were only allowed to talk if they were holding him. It worked brilliantly in stopping other children – even Billy – from interrupting another.
Animal distraction had been a trick that her grandmother had taught her. ‘Give them something to look after, dear, and they forget getting upset about themselves.’
So far, it hadn’t failed to work.
‘Hello, Daisy.’ Gemma crouched down so she was on the same level. ‘I wonder if you can help me. There’s something very tiny inside my pocket and it’s trying to get out.’
The yelling got louder. Daisy’s puce face was now firmly buried into her mother’s feet so she was in danger of falling over, complete with twin slings.
‘Oh no!’ Gemma somehow managed to make her voice loudly authoritative and yet calm at the same time. ‘Mouse says he’s got a terrible headache from all this noise. He wants you to stop and see what he’s been getting up to in the holidays.’
Slowly, she pulled out the felt finger mouse she had made: a smaller version of the glove puppet made from fabric remnants sold by the craft shop on the high street. Bending her finger up and down to indicate distress, she made whining noises so it seemed that miniature mouse, with his red sequinned eyes, was crying. Daisy lifted her head very slightly in concern.
‘It’s Mouse’s new baby and it’s his first day at Puddleducks Playgroup,’ explained Gemma. ‘ Poor baby mouse is feeling a bit scared and wants you to help him make a pasta calendar with the rest of us or may be some leaf printing . By the way, he says he loves your daisy tights!’
There was a sudden knock on her shoulder. Ouch! ‘Me! I want to hold Mouse. Me. Me.’
Gemma liked to think of herself as a patient teacher but Billy would have tested the fortitude of St Trinian. Last term, she’d had to see his parents again when Billy had given another child an impromptu bowl-shape hair cut with the aid of a plastic Christmas pudding dish from the play box and a pair of so-called safety cutting scissors.
‘You can hold another baby mouse,’ said Gemma, delving in her other pocket for the spare she’d made in case this happened. Daisy had stopped crying now and was tenderly stroking Mouse’s whiskers which were loosely sewn on with large tacking stitches in brown thread. Sewing had never been one of Gemma’s strong points.
‘No!’ Billy had grabbed a plastic hammer from the toy tool box now and was banging it against the wendy house with huge, angry thwacks. ‘I want the big proper Mouse.’ He pointed to Daisy’s. ‘Not this stupid one.’
If Billy’s mother hadn’t already dumped him and left in indecent haste without even an anorak for break time, she might have felt tempted to have called her back.
‘Tell you what, Billy,’ said Gemma suddenly. ‘Remember how you promised not to cut anyone’s hair any more?’Billy’s hammer banging intensified and was now to the count of four instead of two. ‘Supposing I said you could give Mouse a trim?’
For a four year old, his tone of voice was more suited to one of those rough police dramas in which her friend Kitty had once been an extra as a singer in a sleezy nightclub. ‘Well, maybe after Music Mania, I could show you how to tidy up Mouse’s whiskers. We might make him a new outfit too.’
Billy was very keen on dressing dolls, something that his dad, a 6ft 2in builder, had raised at the last parents’ evening.
‘All roight then.’
Fantastic! She hadn’t expected him to cave in quite so fast.
‘Would someone please take that child’s batteries out!’ said a voice behind her with a definite fed-up edge. It was Bella, her young assistant who was, as usual, dressed in clothes more suited to a catwalk than a playgroup with those high heels and skinny short stretchy black skirt that had attracted the eye of that Scandinavian au pair. ‘By the way,’ sniffed Bella, checking her register, ‘everyone’s here apart from someone called Lily without a surname. She’s one of the new ones, isn’t she?’
Gemma tried to sound normal but Beryl, the headmistress’ words were still ringing round her head from their meeting last term ‘There’s something very important I need to tell you. It’s about one of the new children who will be starting in September’.
‘Yes, she is. Maybe she’s not coming. I gather there was a bit of a question mark over her.’
Bella’s voice had an irritated click in it that matched the sound of her smart red kitten heels which had, she’d informed Gemma earlier, cost her nearly a month’s wages. ‘Well if there was any doubt, she ought to have given up her place. There are enough people on the waiting list.’
‘Actually,’ said Gemma in a low voice, ‘there aren’t. Not now. Beryl says that the Ofsted report on the main school, has put parents off sending their children to Puddleducks.’
Bella’s beautifully- threaded eyebrows rose in consternation. ‘But that’s outrageous.’
‘I know.’ Gemma glanced up to check that Jean had sat all the children round in a circle with their various tambourines and shakers made out of plastic washing up bottles and beans, ready for Music Mania. ‘So we have to prove that we’re the best playgroup in the area if we want to keep going.’
‘It’s that serious?’
She nodded. ‘There’s something else too.’
But before she could say anything, there was a ping, indicating that someone was at the door. She’d been waiting for this! ‘I’ll go,’ said Gemma leaping up, her heart thudding in her throat.
This was ridiculous, just as she had told Beryl. She treated all the children the same, whatever their backgrounds. Even so…
She nodded, transfixed by the husky voice that was coming out from this tall, elegant, wafer thin vision in sparkly jeans, black satin jacket that looked more like a man’s DJ and beautiful, soft-looking pale pink cashmere scarf that was entwined round the woman’s neck, partly shrouding what little face there was on show thanks to the huge dark sunglasses which were so shiny that they reflected back Gemma’s startled expression. There was also the overpowering smell of the woman’s trademark perfume that she’d read about in Kitty’s well-thumbed copies of OK and Hello.
‘This is Lily.’
Only then, to her shame, did Gemma glance down at the small girl who was standing between them. Her mother’s beautiful pale white hands were on her shoulders; the two of them looked like flowers in a vase, one tall and the other short but each a mirror image of the other. The child had the same chalky white complexion but it was one which seemed effortlessly beautiful like a fine china. In contrast, her dark straight hair, cut in a precise bob, made her startling bright blue eyes appear like a Siamese kitten’s.
‘Be good.’ For a minute, the stranger’s gravelly yet somehow feminine voice was so bewitching that Gemma almost thought she was addressing her. ‘Someone will be here at lunchtime to pick you up.’
The beautiful woman glanced at her. ‘I won’t be here in person very often.. You understand, don’t you?’
Gemma nodded. My boss has already explained, she tried to say but too late. The woman had slipped out and in the distance, she could see a huge, black, highly polished car waiting. Gently, she bent down towards Lily. ‘Do you like music like your mummy?’
The little girl nodded.
‘ We’ve got a xylophone over here. Shall I show you?’
They turned round and almost went smack into Bella who had come up to see what was happening. ‘Was that who I think it was?’ she breathed, glancing out of the window at the blacked out limo pulling away.
‘Shhh,’ said Gemma fiercely. No one, her grandmother used to say, was more placid than Gemma except when it came to defending others. ‘You can’t tell anyone. Or else we’ll all be out of our jobs. Even more important, we could be putting this child’s safety at risk. And no, I’m sorry. I can’t tell you why.’
Who knew so much could go on in a toddler playgroup?
If you want to read more, buy the book It’s at: http://www.amazon.com/Playgroup-Janey-Fraser/dp/009955819X/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1328987499&sr=1-1
And check out Janey’s site: www.janeyfraser.co.uk