Missingness

I didn’t expect to feel this way.

Perhaps it’s because it’s been quite stressful recently.

Perhaps it’s because while I’ve worked for the same organisation for nearly twenty-eight years, I’ve changed teams and job roles three times in two (and twice in eight months). This has been largely by choice because the alternatives were worse. I haven’t worked with a team who are all in the same building or even the same town for the majority of the last eleven years. I’ve yet to get past acquaintanceship with the people in my new team. Three days a week, I work from home or sit in a side office, usually on my own. Twice a week I rattle along in trains full of strangers to meet face to face maybe only one or two members of my team. On those days, I work in a large office in a huge building full of people, the majority of whom I don’t know and am never likely to know. Of the work friends I’ve built over my career, many are, like me, rushing from place to place all the time. It’s hard to meet up.

Perhaps it’s because I’m under the weather. Everything has been overwhelming for ages. I feel as if I’ve been stumbling through undergrowth, step by exhausting step, not sure where the path has gone. Now, despite the fact that it’s July, I have a chest cold and virus.

Or perhaps it’s because my children are growing up. They both sat public exams this year. My eldest is eighteen today. My youngest is less than two years behind. When my son leaves home for university in the autumn, my daughter will be starting sixth form. I have washed my last item of ink stained school uniform. Sixth formers don’t wear uniform. The children can see that adult life doesn’t live up to the hype but are eager for it anyway.

I feel lonely.

I don’t feel alone. I have a lovely husband who’s my best friend. My children, when we’re all disconnected from electronic devices, still hug and chatter. They’re great company. My oldest friends and my wonderful sister, who know me best, live some distance away. But I have fantastic local friends and my mother lives nearby. It’s not the loneliness I suffered at school, alienated by bullying, nor in the first year at university, too shy to talk to anyone. I know I’m not alone.

But I still feel lonely.

Eighteen years ago, my son, my longed-for, long-awaited child was put into my arms. I was so conscious of his dependence on me that although he slept, I couldn’t for fear he’d stop breathing. Now, his dependence on me is nebulous. He can take care of himself if he has to, he definitely has his own opinions and can and does make his own decisions. (Although, somehow it’s still me doing the laundry.) We’ve encouraged his independence always: given him space within boundaries. We’ve tried to prepare him for adulthood. He is a wonderful young man.

My daughter is following right on behind. She is my lovely, lovely girl. But last night, we were looking at possible universities for her. She is flexing her wings ready to fly.

When my son leaves home, my daughter, no matter how much they fight and argue, will miss him. It’ll be just three of us for a while and then before we know it, just two of us.

Life with just my husband will certainly be more peaceful. I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to welcoming the children when they come home, looking forward to visiting them when they have homes of their own, looking forward to watching them build their own lives and traditions.

But what will my role be? Where perhaps someone else would feel their employment defined them and would be lost without its focus, I don’t think I have ever felt that way. I have my career, but truth to be told, I think the real me is writer, companion and the mother.

I never expected to feel lost when the nest started to empty but I do. I thought we had helped them mature year by year until they were ready to leave and we were ready to let them go. And we are ready. We are. And yet…

We never thought we’d have a child and then, eventually, my son came along. We thought we’d perhaps never have another, but my daughter had other ideas. I remember that after she was born and she was no longer part of me, although I could hold her in my arms, I missed the company of her in my womb. I felt lonely for something that was gone, even though it was replaced by something better. My role to protect and grow a child under my heart was over. I had to learn something new.

So perhaps it’s not loneliness exactly.

There is a word in Welsh ‘hiraeth’ which has no direct English translation. In Cornish, it is ‘hireth’ and in Breton, it is ‘hiraezh’. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are derived from the same ancient British language. The closest English explanation is an intense longing for something lost (usually a home or a person) or for the memory of them, whether real or imagined. Apparently, Portuguese and Galician have a similar word: ‘saudade’. It’s been translated as ‘missingness’.

So I don’t know exactly why I feel the way I do at the moment. Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s the virus I’m enduring, perhaps it’s work, perhaps it’s my age, but I think, in truth, it’s probably because I feel ‘hiraeth’ for the children who are now young adults and who will soon be leaving home.

One of my friends, whose daughter is the same age as mine, recently said that she felt adrift. And I thought ‘yes, that’s it exactly.’

I too feel adrift, looking back at the fading lands of their receding childhood, wondering where the breeze will take me next.

lonely 2

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Honey

She climbed a tree and hunched.

We called: ‘please come down,’ but she stared over the rooftops to the wide world as if yearning to fly.

‘What shall we do?’ we whispered.

In the kitchen, we cut a wobbly doorstep from the fresh loaf and poured honey over.

‘It’s your favourite,’ we called, ‘just for you.’

Mummy turned. A moment passed. Then she climbed down and hugged us tight, bread and all.

She smiled a little, but tears mingling with honey, sparkled in her hair.

Under our kisses, her face was sticky and salty.

‘We’ll make it better,’ we said.

honey

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook – check out what others have written

Vigilance

‘There’s a deviant behind me,’ whispered Caitlin, ‘I thought they were all dead.’

She could hear it shuffling as if its feet in the broken shoes were bruised and blistered. But it was getting nearer nonetheless.

’The virus we put in the water supply killed the majority,’ Abbi answered, ‘but a few were immune. They’d die out in time, but we daren’t risk it.’

Caitlin picked up a stone. Turning to throw it, she saw that the deviant was barely alive: rags hanging from its haggard frame, a kind of pleading in its eyes as it reached for her. She dropped the stone and quickened her pace.

‘It looks so weak,’ she murmured to Abbi, ‘are you sure it can harm us? It’s starving to death. What can we do?’

‘Don’t worry. Daniel’s prepared.’

Caitlin squinted to where Abbi was pointing. On the roof opposite, a boy lay, sunshine glinting off his gunsight. A red spot briefly appeared on Caitlin’s shoulder then disappeared to her left. She moved to give Daniel a clear aim. There was a soft crack and then a thump.

Caitlin looked down on the emaciated corpse.

‘He looked nice,’ sighed Caitlin, ‘Like grandfathers in books. Whatever grandfathers were.’

‘Don’t believe their propaganda,’ snapped Abbi, ‘you know perfectly well the world is a better place now that it’s run by children who reproduce by cloning. There’s no place for teenagers and adults anymore. You know the rules.’

Caitlin was silent. She would be thirteen in two years time. She looked up at Daniel and shuddered.

vigilance

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

In a Spin

It was Saturday.

My husband had taken the children out on their paper round.

Monday to Friday, I work in an office, assessing risk, writing reports and meeting targets instead of being creative. All week, the housework piles up. Recently, it had been piling up for a month. On that Saturday, I needed to get a grip.

One day, I thought, if I ever finish my novel, I might get rich and famous. Then I can write all day and hire staff to do the boring stuff.

I only needed to write twenty thousand more words and I’d be finished. Then…who knew what the future might hold.

But on that Saturday, the novel had to wait.

The house was quiet but I mustn’t get side-tracked. There were chores to be done before I could write.

I went to the laundry bin. It was empty. How wonderful, the children were playing hide and seek with their dirty clothes again. Well, mostly seek. Not much effort had gone into the hiding things, they were scattered across their bedroom floors.

My fingers itched. If I just typed a few words it couldn’t hurt. Putting down the laundry, I opened up the laptop and started to write.

At the edge of my hearing, came a tiny chuckle and my vision was obscured by sparkling lights. I blinked.

‘Naughty, naughty,’ said the laptop and slammed itself shut, nearly severing my fingers. Imagining things is what I’m good at. But this was a little too much.

Shaking a little, I put the laptop aside and went back to the housework. I needed to find all the dirty crockery and glasses hidden around the childrens’ beds and desks. As I approached their rooms, I heard a clatter and some giggling. How very odd.

I entered my daughter’s room and saw the plates running away by themselves, rolling under the desk to hide in discarded homework and snigger. This was not normal, even for our house. It took me half an hour to round them up and force them, struggling, into the dishwasher. I wondered if I should ask for a day’s leave.

Not for the first time, I wondered how one small family could be so chaotic. Housework is such a depressing exercise. The place would look lovely when I finished…for all of five minutes.

I reached for the vacuum cleaner but it turned its back on me. I could hear it mumbling.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said before I could stop myself.

‘You haven’t bothered with me for a month,’ muttered the vacuum cleaner, ‘you prefer that rotten old laptop.’

I couldn’t really deny this. I patted the vacuum but he wouldn’t make friends.

‘I’m sick of eating spiders,’ he said, ‘I want to work for a PROPER housewife.’

‘Well, all you’ve got is me,’ I said and bumped him up the stairs, ignoring his complaints.

I managed to finish my chores before the family got home. I had perhaps an hour of peace to write in. But the laptop wouldn’t open. Every time I tried, it snarled and snapped at me.

‘Whatever is going on?’ I said aloud.

I heard another chuckle. It was coming from inside the airing cupboard. I waited outside for a second and then wrenched the door open.

Inside was a laundry fairy, balanced on top of the piles and piles of clean clothes which had been accumulating for weeks while I wrote my novel. It was a precarious perch because the whole family, instead of putting their clothes away without being asked, just rummaged from time to time.

‘Serves you right,’ said the laundry fairy. She was hefty (for an elf) and muscly. A clothes peg and odd sock were tattooed on each bicep. ‘You haven’t been doing your chores,’ she sneered, ’it’s no fun losing your socks when you’re such a terrible housewife anyway. So I put a spell on everything.’

‘Well, you can pack it in!’ I said. I am not a big woman, but I am bigger than a laundry fairy. I wrestled her off the clean clothes and bundled her up with the dirty ones. I’m telling you, those wings look flimsy but they’re sharp as razors. I took the whole squirming bundle to the washing machine.

‘Yum yum,’ said the washing machine, ‘I thought you’d never feed me!’

‘And you can shut up too, you gluttonous pig, I fed you three times on Wednesday!’ I snapped.

I shoved everything inside, put in extra stain remover and turned it on.

All the household goods stopped chuckling and the sparkling lights went out. I could just make out the furious face of the laundry fairy as she rotated inside the machine, covered in soap suds. She was shaking her fist but I didn’t care. I stuck my tongue out.

When the family came home they found me locked in the spare room typing. I had only managed to write twenty words of my novel and was having a little cry. But at least the laptop had returned to normal.

My husband said, ‘did you know you’ve washed the reds with the blues and now everything is purple? And how many times have I told you not to put an underwired bra in the machine? Now there’s a funny knocking noise coming from inside even though the cycle has finished. It sounds almost,’ he said, with a chuckle, ‘as if someone small and angry is trapped inside.’

I glared at him and then glanced out of the window. In our overgrown garden, something small and green was creeping up on the shed with a wand in its hand.

‘Haven’t you got stuff to do outside?’ I asked, getting up to peg the laundry fairy on the line until she was sorry.

‘Oh I don’t know if I can be bothered,’ my husband answered, ‘maybe the garden elves will do it for me.’

‘I wouldn’t take the risk if I were you,’ I said, ‘I really wouldn’t.’

wings

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

If you want to know about Laundry Fairies – read this!

And this is my excuse for being a terrible housewife

Father’s Day

I could not have asked for a better Dad; a less embarrassing one perhaps and maybe one who coughed up more pocket money. But love, acceptance, nurturing, support, guidance he had in abundance.

He didn’t believe in children contradicting their parents (even when the ‘children’ were in their forties) or in personal mental space and not much in personal physical space. This made him infuriating.

On the other hand, he had more than his fair share of hair-brained ideas and optimism. He also had much less grip on reality than he needed. This made him fun.

Here’s a true story to show you what I mean.

When my sister and I were teenagers, most of our friends had long slipped the leash and either holed up in their rooms with the radio-cassette-recorder OR if they had the bus fare, went to town. It was mostly the former, because friends were spread across several villages and the effort of getting to town wasn’t really worthwhile.

My sister and I were different. Dad felt that as long as we were still home and no matter how old we were, the family should spend all its free time together. This is probably why we both left home quite young.

Anyway, one day, I was about sixteen and my sister thirteen, Dad said we were all going to the beach.

I think it was summer, but you wouldn’t have known from the weather. It was cold and rainy. We looked at him askance.

‘And,’ he said, ‘which of you wants to do the filming?’

What did he mean? Had he resurrected the old cine camera? No. It turned out that he’d borrowed a trendy new camcorder from someone in the office. It weighed a ton but you could put a blank video tape in it and film. Then you could play it back through your TV. This was exciting. Half the people we knew didn’t even have VHS recorders to tape TV programmes, let alone the means to make their own videos. On the other hand…

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

At the time, Dad was, to us, ancient; that is, he was about forty-two. Nowadays I think that forty-two is a perfectly reasonable age to go surfing, but back then in our view, it was akin to a centenarian going base-jumping. He was also very overweight and not terribly fit.

‘But…’ said Mum.

‘I’m borrowing Dave’s wetsuit and surfboard and you can film me. It’ll be a great new hobby and when I’ve got the hang of it, we can all do it.’

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Nonsense, of course you do. Don’t be a wet blanket.’

On the beach, the rain had stopped but it was colder and the wind had got up.

We sat on the shingle in anoraks, drinking tea from a flask and wondering how long it took for pneumonia to kick in. My sister and I were given no option. While our friends were in the warm, nowhere near their parents and being trendy, we were sitting with Mum being blown to bits, watching our Dad be embarrassing. Even I, full of romantic hopes, knew the chances of looking attractive were nil. My long hair plastered my face in damp tangles and my make-up smudged. I had refused to exchange a summer skirt for jeans on the grounds of femininity. Now I feared that at any minute the goose pimples on my legs might start to ice over. If an attractive boy was about to enter my life, I hoped he wouldn’t pick today.

The rollers were worthy of Hawaii. But the weather wasn’t. And nor were Dad’s skills.

In the borrowed black wetsuit, Dad looked like an elderly orca failing to catch a youthful penguin. He appeared and disappeared in crashing waves. He got on the surf board, lay down, fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee and fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee, almost stood up and… fell off. And repeat. We took it in turns to film him, swapping when our fingers went blue and started to shake. Although given the weight of a 1980s camcorder, they were shaking anyway. We finished the tea. After a while, my sister, never one for weather of any description (hot, cold, wet, dry, even now she takes it as a personal affront) refused to film on the grounds of potential frostbite.

We really wanted Dad to succeed. At every attempt we leaned forward and tensed, the camerawoman holding the camera steady against the wind. Then he fell off again.

After what felt like about a year but was probably about two hours, Dad gave up.

He emerged from the changing area dressed normally and more buoyant than he had been in the water.

‘Did you get it all on film?’ he said.

‘Yes, but Dad,’ said my sister, ‘you never actually surfed.’

‘At least I tried,’ he said, ‘which is more than you did. You three look like MacBeth’s witches after they’ve been through a car wash. You might have left me some tea.’

He patted the camcorder.

‘Can’t wait to see the footage,’ he said, ‘but first, lunch! And I’ve been thinking…maybe we won’t take up surfing as a family. Maybe we’ll take up hang-gliding instead.’

That was Dad.

I didn’t escape this sort of thing till I got a boyfriend and even then Dad wanted to come to the cinema with us. Not, you understand, because he wanted to protect me from any improper advances, but because he thought we could all watch the film and chat about it afterwards. He was rather hurt when I said no. When my sister got to sixteen, she just quietly did her own thing regardless and he never seemed to notice. Younger sisters get away with everything.

(NB the photo below is NOT from that long lost video. These are hardy young surfers at Bournemouth in January. Dad didn’t look as svelte by a long way, but probably it’s how he visualised himself and good on him. Perhaps if we all spent less time worrying if we should or could, we’d have more fun finding out!)

SurfersWords and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

 

 

Looking Good?

I sometimes think vampires have it easy.

OK, so everyone fears and loathes them. But they always look good and never have to look in a mirror. In fact they can’t. Lucky vampires.

I tend not to look in mirrors after I’ve done my hair and make-up and checked the lumpiness factor of whatever I’m wearing (or should I say, whether my clothes disguise the lumpiness factor). After that, I do my best to avoid mirrors entirely until bed-time. That way I can preserve a mental image of myself looking neat and in control.

Of course, it can and does backfire. One year, at end of year review time, I took a train to meet my line manager. End of year reviews involve extolling one’s own virtues, justifying and analysing one’s actions etc. For an introvert, this is a fairly agonising process, but has to be done. After several years of it, I’ve got used to the drill. For a while I sat on the train reading what I’d prepared and then worked, editing some paperwork with a red pen. A young couple got on board and started looking round for seats. The train was busy and they were going to be separated. So I picked up my things and offered to move so they could sit together. Naturally, this altruistic move was accompanied by everything slipping. Rather than arising in one swift, sophisticated move, I got up in a tangle of bags, papers, coats and self. Without saying thank-you the young couple got down to canoodling while I concentrated on organising myself for the review.

At the office, I went to the loo and washed my hands etc in order to give my inner actress time to emerge for her annual performance. I purposely ignored the mirror because I didn’t want my confidence to be diminished by discovering that my hair was a mess, that I’d rubbed off half my eye make-up and that I looked podgy and vague. Imagining myself immaculate and confident, I then walked in to the room where my line manager was, primed to blow my own trumpet for ten minutes or so. ‘I have done a difficult job for several months and am finally moving forward. I am an efficient and conscientious employee. I am…’

‘Why have you drawn all over your face?’ said my line manager.

Turned out that while moving seats in the train, my red editing pen was pointing the wrong way and I had scribble all over my right cheek.

After that did I start looking in mirrors more often? No.

Is this because I’m convinced that I always look immaculate, confident and sophisticated? No.

I know what I look like really.

Do I wish I looked different? Well of course I do. I wish I looked younger, prettier, slimmer, less grey, taller. I see photographs of myself and sigh. I stand next to my lovely daughter in her trendy clothes and mourn for my long lost youthful figure.

But then I think to myself… even when I was young and slim and not grey, I still wished I looked different. The long long lost youthful figure was generally cluttered up with frumpy clothes (partly because of prevailing fashion and partly because of lack of confidence). My hair was tortured with perms (again partly because of prevailing fashion but also because I thought it was too straight). I worried about make-up. I despaired. I looked too young and too short. Bits of my figure were out of proportion. No-one noticed the tiny waist because of the full bust. No-one would ever find me attractive. I would never be successful because I didn’t look right.

Have you seen the meme that says ‘I wish I was as fat as I was when I thought I was fat’? That’s me.

But now…when I do look in the mirror and see fine lines etc I make myself remember that I loved my grandmothers’ soft faces. When I look at my hands, I see all the words they’ve written, the stitches they’ve sewn, the meals they’ve cooked. I look at my rounded stomach which (short of major surgery) will never be what it was and remember the children it carried under my heart.

And this is the thing. Most of us look in mirrors and despair because we are always looking for something that’s not there and was never there. We are looking for the perfect person we think we ought to be. Virtually none of us put as high an expectation on anyone else.

Last weekend I was bride’s helper at a wonderful wedding in the Highlands of Scotland. I have known the bride since university. The other bride’s helpers were her sister, her oldest childhood friend and a mutual university friend. I hadn’t seen the sister or the childhood friend for well over twenty years. They looked almost exactly as I remembered them. Not because they still looked twenty-ish but because they looked themselves. I wasn’t searching for the signs of age, I was scanning their faces for someone I’d once known. Talking to them, I found that like me, they were the same and yet different. We are grown up.

So I’m not going to start looking in mirrors more. I know that sometimes I’ll look tired or sad or bad-tempered but I can rise above it; sometimes (more often than not probably) my hair and make-up won’t be quite right but who will remember except me?

I’m an older woman who’s had two children. I will never look nineteen again. Why do I want to look nineteen? I don’t want to be nineteen.

I am happy to risk pen on my face if I can mostly maintain a mental image of myself as ‘looking OK’.

And as for vampires, well perhaps they’re missing out. Or maybe not. I’m still a little jealous.

looking good

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Travelling Companions and other Small Pests

Dad always said that while a few months old, I chewed my way through a carry-cot when we travelled from Hendon to Scotland with an aunt.

This was of course, long before car safety-seats for children.

He said they placed me, safe in my carry-cot, next to the aunt. His implication was that when they arrived in Troon, I was rolling about on the back seat having eaten my way through a fair amount of synthetics, a metal frame and some bedding. He suggested that if we’ve travelled any further, I might have eaten the aunt as well.

I suspect he was exaggerating and I just chewed on a handle.

But it’s true to say that I wasn’t keen on constraint.

One of my earliest memories is about running out of the house to tell a neighbouring child I had a baby sister. Another time, I gave our dog the slip and sneaked away to look at some sheep on a hill, while Mum was nappy changing or something.

Shortly after that I went off my sister. The Young Wives came round and said she was gorgeous. As for me, I was fobbed off with a colouring book and told I looked just like my Dad. As he was rather plump, going bald and male, this was very upsetting.

And then there was the pram incident.

I should probably never ever tell a psychologist.

It was Mum’s fault really. I used to sit in a sort of chair on top of the pram. When we got to town, she did what all mothers of the time did and parked us up on the pavement while she went inside the shop. On this occasion, it was a chemist. In the window were three enormous glass bottles filled with bright coloured liquid. Deep at heart I always hoped that one day Mum would buy the blue one. She never did.

Mum was going to the chemist for rose-hip syrup and I thought maybe she’d get me one of those yummy hard fruit lollipops. But then I worried, what if she forgot? I needed to remind her. There wasn’t much time. I squirmed and wriggled and slid forwards in my seat so that I could drop to the pavement then run into the shop.

That was the plan.

It failed.

Mum came out and found me on the pavement with the pram tipped up. For a moment, she looked frantically round for the baby. Where had she gone? Had she been catapulted out? An aggrieved wail made her look under the blankets. My sister had slid down inside the covers and was making her views felt.

This may explain a lot about my sister and me. The pram incident is buried in her subconscious and she spent most of our childhood and adolescence trying to get revenge.

I sometimes worry that she may still be planning it. And we’re going on a road-trip in the Autumn.

Oh dear.

mwhah

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission