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

The Road

Is this the road to failure? Isn’t the light fading?

Nothing is clear. I want to flee the hurt, yet first I want apology, atonement, understanding. But there is silence. Have I failed?

Keep driving. Don’t slow down when tormenters whisper from alleyways. Find the lane lined with friends to help.

The sun sets, but I’ll drive on.

Day will follow night.

And the drag of the hurt will stretch and thin, from cable to rope to thread to hair to … snap… nothing.

I’ll drive on: curving with the road, healing from the jolts, bending with the camber.

Travelling home.

the road

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

 

Thin Spiral Notebook – 100 word challenge

The End of the Tunnel

Rites of passage: we’ve had a few recently. First, my younger child reached sixteen years of age. My older child is preparing for university. Last week, my naughty little sister reached a significant birthday (although she will always be nine years old to me). And today while my daughter and all English and Welsh students of her age start their GCSEs, my son and his English and Welsh peers start their A levels.

Exams. You either enjoy the frisson of them or you loathe them.

I recall the desks lined up with rigid precision in the gym. The windows were open to let in some air and perhaps dispel the underlying gym-smell of sweat and the overlying examinee-smell of fear. I remember dark green trees on the left side and the open expanse of the yard on the right as we laid out our weapons: pens, pencils, geometry sets, lucky objects etc. My over-dramatic friend performed for that day’s Oscar by pretending to pray to the heavens and cross herself (despite not being Catholic). My other friends just mouthed ‘good luck’. During the exam the slow silence was marked only by the slow tread of the invigilator walking up and down in time to passing seconds, tick tick tick. My pen exploded during one exam; my Geography teacher nearly wept when I told him I’d said the lake in question 2 was Erie when it was Michigan. That is the most excitement I recall. My O levels (GCSE equivalents) took place during two weeks in June. Once the exams were over, I was a free agent until September.

Before the exams, I revised. Well OK, I made a revision timetable. It was very pretty. I worked out mnemonics for history, one of which I can still recall, GRASP to remind me of Hitler’s rise to power. G(ermany) gaining political control thereof; R(e-arming) Germany without any of the signatories to the Treaty of Versailles noticing; A(ustria) gaining political control thereof; S(udetenland) annexation thereof; P(oland) invasion thereof. If the exam had only covered that I would have been fine. Unfortunately it covered the period 1870-1953. I did all this and then fell asleep. It was a good sleep but I did only get a C for History. To my astonishment I also got a C for Physics perhaps because I could remember formulae.

Still, that was then. Apart from work already finished for the exams (art and drama for example) my poor daughter and pals have exams stretching from today until the end of June, six weeks. She had been revising hard and I applaud the teachers who gave up holidays and weekends to help the students prepare.

My sister’s birthday party was on Saturday. Afterwards, my husband, daughter and I retreated to our hotel for the night to watch the end of the Eurovision Song Contest and digest the festive food and drink. My daughter asked if we could test her on history and belief & ethics. It was somewhat surreal to sit in a strange room watching a yodeller from Romania and listen to my daughter going through the definition of voluntary euthanasia and the causes and effects of the Vietnam war when I just wanted to doze off. Or perhaps I just ate too much cheese and am imagining it.

Exams feel like the end of an era and the start of a new one. In a way they are. They mark a point in time when you are tested about things you may never ever need to recall again and they tend to coincide with moments when you and your friends may take different paths. The results will make you rejoice, grimace or cry. You think they will define your whole future. In some ways they do of course. You may not get the results you need and will have to alter your plans. You may do better than you thought and change your mind about your future.

If you are sitting exams right now and you’re in despair, try to take a breath and give yourself a break.

You are a wonderful being.

You will never be defined by your grades, they will be part of who you are but not the whole. You may go down the path you planned and be happy but you could go down a different path and be happy. Sometimes the path you plan is not the right one and you won’t know until you step down another.

Speaking for myself, I didn’t get the grades I could have if I’d spent more time revising and less time making a revision timetable. I was disappointed in myself, but the world did not end. The adult me looks back and tells the teenage me to make different choices. I tell my teenage children to learn from my mistakes, but they’re teenagers and I’m an adult. What do I know? They have their own triumphs and mistakes to make. And despite my original disappointment, I’m happy with where I’ve ended up.

It is what I learnt after school and college: teamwork, humility, compromise, humour which have given me the ability to pick up the pieces, to accept things and move on regardless, even when the path planned had a diversion sign across it and I had to travel by a different way.

The best advice a teacher ever gave me was to focus on the point beyond the end of the exams. It will come and it will come sooner than you thought. And then you can step towards the next adventure and you can triumph because you are full of potential. No-one else can offer what you can.

I wish everyone well during the exams but if it all seems too much, here are some helplines which may assist.

Student Minds

Childline: exam stress help

How to help your child with exam stress

Radio One: exam help

University of St Andrews: exam help

Third Choice

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

tunnel_edited-1

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

The Unedited Notes of a Disenchanted Wine Critic

Chateauneufdusprat is a cheeky little vintage crafted by Jemima Sidesaddle from the little known Three Trolleys Vineyard.

Jemima, having lost her inheritance (including country estate and vague prospects of marrying into the aristocracy) in a calamity involving schnapps and loose elastic, scraped together the savings in her post office account and bought a selection of sunny slopes along the River Ooze (not to be confused with the River Ouse). Over the last three years she has astounded everyone by growing a vineyard entirely from planting small cuttings “obtained” from other vineyards and spitting grape seeds at the fertile banks.

Using ground breaking technology to create barrels from old oil drums and water sourced from the river itself (running as it does through the characterful towns of Scragg and Dumpe), she has developed unique wines quite unlike anything you will taste anywhere else.

This for example is a sweet white. Its aroma bears the delicate whiff of the hooves of fine fillies whose stable needs cleaning out. Holding the glass to the sun, it appears to be filled with tiny sparkles of glitter floating in the golden fluid, so magical they move of their own accord as if they are alive. This is really a wine with legs! The flavour is reminiscent of retsina if you replaced resin with the tangy, unforgettable taste of envelope glue.

A sip of Chateauneufdusprat (RRP 75p) will take you back to fond memories of seaside washrooms and the dark corners of bus-stops and telephone boxes on Saturday night.

It is truly a magical tipple. After drinking half a bottle, you will never want to drink anything else ever again.

Anything.

wine

 

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

Maketh the Woman: The Agony of Dress Shopping

At the beginning of June, I am going to be one of the ‘bride’s helpers’ at my friend’s wedding. I’m a little old to be described as a bridesmaid and the bride thought we would prefer not to be referred to as a ‘matron’, even of ‘honour’. So ‘bride’s helper’ I am happy to be. Only I haven’t got a dress yet.

Mid July, my sixteen year old daughter is going to her prom. She hasn’t got a dress yet either.

We are both fussy, indecisive and vertically challenged. We also live in a small town with only one clothes shop. That’s not to say we haven’t got major towns within driving distance or the internet. We’ve just had other things to do than traumatise ourselves with clothes shopping.

My daughter would look good, frankly, wrapped in a duvet cover. I, on the other hand, can make a designer dress look as if it is a duvet cover with the duvet still inside. (NB my friend the bride, will now admonish me for being self-deprecating, but it’s true, honestly.)

We didn’t have proms back when I was sixteen. We had the fifth form Christmas disco (at which I found myself wearing the same outfit – long blue silky blouse with high collar and black pencil skirt – as my best friend). After O Levels, we had no kind of celebration whatsoever apart from taking off the old school tie and stuffing it in a drawer forever. After A Levels, we had a sort of impromptu party at which I decided to throw my natural sartorial inhibitions to the wind, got a perm and wore a bright pink dress with white polka dots and a ra-ra skirt. The next time I wore a fancy outfit was for our valedictory ball at college when I had a dark blue lace 1950s dress of my grandmother’s altered to fit, under which I wore an awful lot of corsetry.

Pretty much the last posh frock I had, I bought for my husband’s cousin’s wedding. I turned up at the venue and my aunt-in-law greeted me with ‘you look nicer in that dress than the other girl who’s wearing it’. ‘The other girl’ and I spent most of the rest of the day avoiding being anywhere near each other and I was glad that I’d bought the matching shoes, even though my feet were killing me. In my wardrobe is a nice dress I bought in a sale in the wrong (smaller) size in a bout of optimism about losing weight. ‘One day’ I tell myself, ‘one day, I’ll be able to get into it.’ At the rate I’m going, it’ll be back in fashion by the time I can.

So, yesterday, my daughter and I decided we’d finally brave the shops and buy a prom dress at the very least. We started with a small independent place seventeen miles away which sells wedding and prom clothes. Inside, there were four staff and no customers. One of the staff, for no apparent reason, was eating a ham salad at the sales desk. A very bored teenager (who I hope does not intend to go into sales, or if she does, gets a training course) wafted a hand at the prom dresses and ambled off. All of the dresses felt slightly sticky. It was hard not to imagine ham-salad-fingers arranging them. We made a polite but sharp exit.

Next stop the larger town a few miles further along the coast. In the first department store, we trawled two floors of ladies’ wear drawing a blank on anything that looked prom dressy. Eventually we tracked down an assistant.

‘Where is your bridesmaid and prom section please?’ I said.
‘Which one do you want?’ asked the assistant.
‘Either, both,’ I said, somewhat confused as they’re usually together.
‘For which one of you?’ asked the assistant glancing between me and my daughter.
I boggled a little, trying to imagine on what planet she thought I’d be going to a prom or indeed wearing a traditional bridesmaid’s outfit.
‘For my daughter,’ I answered.
‘Oh,’ said the assistant, ‘actually we don’t sell prom dresses or bridesmaid’s dresses. Try Debenhams.’

In the next department store, my daughter tried on a lovely etherial outfit in shell pink and grey,. She looked like Venus in an oyster shell and the style was lovely but they are not her colours. Then she tried on a dramatic skirt in black and white stripes. ‘I feel like a skunk,’ she said and she had a point. I had a surreptitious look round the non-bridesmaid/prom dresses for myself but mostly spent the time handing things in and out of the changing room and wondering how we ended up with two fewer hangers than we started.

In the third department store, Debenhams, we discovered there is no prom/bridesmaid dress section anymore. It’s in Southampton. In a last ditch attempt to show willing, my daughter picked out a possible alternative only to find it streaked with foundation and whiffing slightly of B.O.

By this time, any urge I had to seek out a dress for myself had gone. In any event, there are few things which can dent your self-confidence as badly as sharing a changing room with your teenage daughter who is at least four sizes smaller and hasn’t yet suffered the full force of gravity.

We gave up.

Today, we march forth again as it’s the last weekend we have free for a fortnight. My daughter is hoping the elusive dress (style and colour still undecided) will be somewhere in the emporia of Southampton. I am hoping the short, plump, middle-aged woman who tends to stand in front of me in changing room mirrors will have another engagement.

If we succeed, we can breathe a brief sigh of relief. Brief, because after we’ve found dresses, we have to buy shoes.

And that is a whole trauma in itself.

hangers

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