“Mary Ellen, You come back here, you little … ! Don’t let me have to chase after you!” I was in trouble; my mother, who loved me to distraction, only called me ‘Mary Ellen’, when I was in trouble. I didn’t care. I let the wind carry her protest away, and left her to do as she pleased.
I recall this as the first day back at home, back on my feet , after a spell in hospital. I was five years old. I didn’t know that the cerebral hemorrhage I suffered, following a fall, had nearly killed me; I didn’t know the long sleep I had enjoyed had been a coma; I didn’t know the reason I limped, was because my left side had suffered paralysis. I only knew that the sun was on my face, there was grass beneath my feet, and I could RUN!
I have slowed down considerably over the years, due, in part, to a love of flowers. It’s not possible to study plants at speed, so now I potter, meander, ramble , and dart about between clumps of greenery with a field guide and a camera. An activity that barely looks like activity, and drives all my walking companions, but one, to distraction.
A chocolate box 1950’s childhood, which mine was, was an endless exploration of the capacity of the juvenile human body to walk, run, climb, wade, swim and swing, in and out of trouble. My mother stopped chasing after me when I was about seven. She opened the doors of our council house at the foot at Robinswood Hill, on the outskirts of the City of Gloucester, and let me go:
“Look after Adrian mind! And be home for tea!” My brother Adrian, was twenty months younger than me, and like me , a pirate, an astronaut a cowboy and a smuggler.
I recall in particular, a warm day in early May in 1959. I can pinpoint the time, because late primroses and early bluebells were scenting the woods and hedgerows, and, with Queen Anne’s Lace, in a haphazard bouquet I had picked to take home. By now, Adrian and I had explored ‘The Hill’ from base to summit; a gentle ascent of just over 600 feet. We were investigating a disused reservoir that we had recently discovered. It was hidden in plain sight, next to St Katharine’s Church, Matson, and a stone’s throw from Matson Lane.
The object of our attention had been abandoned many years ago; it was a tangle of hawthorn, bramble and nettle, so overgrown, that it was only our persistence in conquering the rusting defences, that had led to us finding the water at all. The reservoir seemed huge to us, though it was probably less than thirty feet in diameter. The temptation to sail across it was irresistible; we were, after all, pirates.
This was the day Adrian nearly drowned. Naturally, we told our parents nothing of this. A tale we decided that he had lived NOT to tell, in case our misadventure lead to us both being permanently grounded.
It seemed that fate was lending a hand in our aquatic enterprise. An old zinc bath lay half-in, half-out , of the water close to the ‘shore’. It wasn’t easy to free it, but, eventually, we pulled it clear. It must have been filthy, but we were too excited to notice, and probably wouldn’t have cared anyway. Adrian, as pirate chief, took to the water first, and paddled confidently to the middle of the reservoir. At the point furthest from safety, the bath began to sink.
I was nine years old, and really didn’t know how to panic. Neither did Adrian. He paddled faster and faster, out-distancing the incoming water by a few feet, sufficient distance to sink the bath in water shallow enough for him to scramble to safety.
For many years afterwards, mother recalled with fondness , the afternoon when her two oldest children squelched up the garden path, a rusting zinc bath oozing mud, and smelling of the ditch, roofing their heads. Two pairs of wellington boots protruded from beneath it, propelling it unsteadily forward. The story the mucky pair told to explain the fact that Adrian was soaked from head to foot, came nowhere close to the truth.
My turn to take to the water came eight years later, when in the Sixth Form at Ribston Hall High School For Girls. I was offered the opportunity to exchange hockey, which I loathed, for rowing, which I was willing to give a go. A short cycle ride to the canal, eight swift strokes forward, and, freedom!
My sporting achievements at school , up to September 1968, aspired to modest. I specialised in coming third in events that the House Captain couldn't get anyone else to enter, and I was easily persuaded . In 1965, I streaked away in the 100m hurdles shattering a personal best (never having hurdled before in my life). My proudest moment, however, was achieving 3rd in heaving this huge weight down the field; an activity that, to this day, I have to work hard at remembering if it's called 'shotting the put' or 'putting the shot'. Both work for me.
In 1967, I missed a place in the School Swimming Gala by not paying full attention during the, 'Someone's got to do it', plea and diving in to swim a length in the wrong stroke. I thought at the time, and still do, that my willingness to take part, so vaunted in British sportmanship, should have been rewarded, at the very least, by an, 'Oh, I say, well done!'. But no, I was disqualified.
I was not always an ‘also-ran’. Indeed, records show, that in July 1969, I was in the shell that beat Stourport in the final heat of 'The Ladies' Coxed Four' at Gloucester Regatta. I was ‘bow’, that is, position number one; rowing backwards at the front of the boat.
Records LIE. Stourport Ladies beat us by a canvas. (If we were horses, that would be ‘by a nose’.) The referee was either biased or blind. One of the Gloucester Men's Eight compounded the deception when he misdirected The Citizen sports reporter. This was almost certainly deliberately, because the Gloucester ladies' captain had chosen to row for Stourport , and there was, in consequence, a general feeling of miff around the boathouse.
I have a photograph mother cut from the newspaper. I am leaning on an oar clutching my ill-gotten gain, a Prinknash Potttery tankard. I cherished it for years, until the day I said, “Where’s the pot I won rowing?” and nobody knew.
I married Ray Francis, a football fan, from choice, and have never regretted it, but I have had to fake 'sportgasms' on numerous occasions since our first date. March, 1970. We were huddled over a tinny transistor radio in Ray's lodgings in Warrington. The blessed Sunderland were playing against the mighty Liverpool. Sunderland scored, probably, as usual, in the last minute , where all this team's games are won or lost. Ray yelled with excitement and leaned over...
Our first kiss!
In April 1971, the year Sunderland was demoted to the Second Division, we married. My sympathy for the demoted endures to this day.
Some time ago, around about the turn of the Millennium, I decided it would be a good idea for Ray and I to share an interest. I quickly realised that flowers would never be his thing, and I was not going to want to spend time checking out the railways. So footie it had to be. I joined a 'Fantasy Football League' and, with some help from experts, and a little studying of form, I managed to pick a squad that sank without trace within minutes of going online.
There is a rider to this story that proves, beyond doubt, that no experience is ever wasted. I was attending a Head Teachers’ Conference in Oxford in 2001, and happened on a table at dinner with four boy heads and one other girl. The topic soon turned from education to football. To my utter amazement I found myself hogging the conversation:
“Oh no! Don't talk to me about Babayaro! He's in my Fantasy League team and he's been; on the bench... , sent off … , fouled …, x number of times, in the past month alone!” With a few judicious open-ended questions, and a lot of tut-tutting, I held my own for twenty minutes! I was SO proud. And the boys! Thrilled!
One offered to show me a ’ Chelsea’ programme from the previous Saturday, that he happened to have brought with him, and was sitting on his bedside table. An invitation I politely declined.
To spice up my sports-life, I decided, within a year, to ditch Fantasy Football and enter the real world. I became a highly inactive fan of Newcastle United Football Club, then just demoted to the First Division. As a ‘Teaching Head’, I shared responsibility for a Key Stage Two Class at Pauntley Primary School , ten minutes away from where I live, in Newent. My new-found passion for the beautiful game was a big hit with some of my students. Floyd , ten years old and a fellow ‘Magpies’ fan, was keen to know why I supported Newcastle:
“ Because,” I smiled, “ Mr Francis supports Sunderland.” Clever boy, he got it at once.