Lost Sometimes

I remember when the sky was always an impossible blue.

The days when I left home after breakfast not to return till evening.

When with a friend, I’d lie in fields of barley or under larches or hide from little sisters among the bracken or in hawthorn trees or walk among plants taller than our heads …

or more often than not… 

I’d sit alone in the quiet copse or by the whispering river, deep in my own thoughts and worries and dreams and ideas: lost.

Lost in the waiting room between worlds: the one which was and the one which might be, the one which I feared and the one which I hoped for.

There was sometimes a joy in feeling lost, caught between a range of possibles none of them yet real.

Sometimes of course, lostness meant fear. 

Turning the wrong way on an unfamiliar road, walking further and further hoping for something I recognised. Too terrified to turn around. Fearing I’d never see anything I knew again. Feeling guilt in trusting a stranger’s hand …

Or falling into the fast-flowing river all alone, tumbling toward the not-so-distant waterfall, catching at last on branches till I could drag myself out and dry in the sun so that no-one would ever know…

Or older now, driving in fog or heavy snow, too fearful to stop. Has my turning been missed? Am I too close to the edge? Will I drive like this forever?

And in the end the heart-calming, velvet warmth of being no longer lost but safely home.

Yesterday I felt lost and I feel lost today and tomorrow I will doubtless feel lost as well. It’s the way things are right now.

I’ll be feeling lost for a while, caught in the space between what is and what might be, between knowledge and doubt and possibility, on the edge of the cliff contemplating tumbling down or the possibility of flight.

Yes, there is a little fear, but just now…

the sky is that impossible childhood blue again.

I accept the lostness. Not abandoned, not angry nor terrified but in a waiting room between worlds: the one which was, the one which is, the one which might be, the one which I fear and the one which I hope for.

I hesitate under tall trees on a path which forks into side-trails and copses, hesitate on the edge of a river which twists out of sight and dithers towards side-brooks and weirs.

I feel lost but I’m all right. I will own the lostness and I’ll wait until the unknown is known and the possibles become probables.

And today I am content under this impossibly clear sky, closing my eyes and imagining all those unknown worlds around me as blue – from opal to indigo – each as beautiful and embraceable in its own way. 

Sometimes it’s all right to feel lost. 

I don’t know quite where I am today, but I am all right.

Lost Sometimes – music by Dissimulated

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

 

 

Broadening the Mind

I love research. It provides the best excuse to get side-tracked I can think of.

At the moment, because I’ve been writing or plotting two historical mysteries set over 1,700 years apart, I’m surrounded by books about Roman-Britain, Roman cookery and Celtic traditions as well as ones on Victorian/Edwardian slang and dialect, maps of late 19th Century London, pre-WWI politics and (much as it would amaze any of my poor suffering science teachers) forensics and biology. I confess that I find dabbling in the dialect, slang and cook-books the most fascinating. 

Waiting their turn in terms of having the accompanying novels written, I also have books about the home-front in WWII and everyday Tudor life. One of the latter is called ‘Delightes for Ladies – to adorn their Perſons, Tables, Cloſets, and Diſtillories: with Beauties, Banquets, Perfumes and Waters’ by Sir Hugh Plat. It includes fascinating recipes for everything from marchpane (marzipan) to hair dye. 

If you’re in the same boat as me after several weeks of lockdown and missing the hairdresser, you might be interested in the hair dye recipes but I’m not going to quote them for fear someone will try them. In brief, the one for blonde dye includes honey, turmeric, rhubarb and alum among other things. The one for brunette dye includes sulphur as one of its less toxic ingredients. Apparently it wouldn’t stain the skin but I’m not convinced. Maybe it doesn’t stain it, but I’d have thought at least one of the other components might dissolve it.

Of all the research books I have, there’s one which would have been really useful for my new release if I’d remembered I had it.

“The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel – A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912’ is one of the books I’d snaffled from Dad at some point but forgotten I owned until I was featured on the Jaffareadstoo Sunday Brunch Blogspot.

It originally cost 2/6 (e.g. two shillings and sixpence). In post decimalisation terms that’s 12.5p which doesn’t sound like a lot, but putting it into context, inside the book itself are how much it cost to sail anywhere in the world (£55 first class to Bombay) and advertisements for a nice watch or a nice vanity case (£25 each). 

The book tells you what to pack in terms of clothes for a round the world trip, what to anticipate in terms of local hotels, the speed limit for your motor car, how much it cost to send a letter etc.

In India for example, regardless of climate, ‘one should wear flannel or wool next the skin’ and preferably have a flannel waistband otherwise known as a cholera belt. (Apparently it was called this as well after the cause for cholera was discovered, it was thought that stopping your waist from becoming cold would prevent cholera. I wouldn’t have thought the average Briton of Celtic/Anglo-Saxon descent in 1912 would have found their midriff cold in India but there you go.)

Other advice includes: ‘don’t take alcohol merely as a beverage’ and ‘don’t treat constipation lightly, it is as dangerous as relaxation in a tropical climate’. 

I’m sort of assuming ‘relaxation’ isn’t a reference to slobbing about in your cholera belt drinking nothing but alcohol as a beverage.

The most startling piece of advice is what to do about undies when on a long voyage (in context, I presume the underwear referred to was knickers/panties). 

It boils down to ‘I found four or five of everything quite enough for use on shore, and for the voyage I always take old things, and give them to the stewardess or throw them overboard, so that I had no need for my soiled linen bag on board ship, never having anything to put in it. I am sure this is the best way. It is often exceedingly troublesome to get washing done at the port of debarkation, and it is always expensive, and on every account it is better to keep one’s cabin fresh and empty. Even if the things are rather good to throw away, it makes little difference in the cost of a long trip, and they aren’t wasted, for the stewardess gets them.’

I’m not entirely sure which is the odder image – a stream of substantial early 20th century knickers floating down the Suez Canal behind a steamer or the stewardess’s face as she’s handed armfuls of grubby undies at the end of the trip.

As I say, I didn’t realise I had A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts 1912 till well after I’d finished writing ‘The Wrong Sort To Die’.

In case you’re wondering what this new novel is about, it’s a spin-off from the Caster and Fleet series which I wrote with Liz Hedgecock. 

Written by me alone, it’s set in 1910. The main character is Margaret Demeray (the younger sister of Katherine of the Caster and Fleet books). Margaret is thirty-six and a pathologist at a London hospital for the poor. She has a thirst for justice and equality. She’s very independent, has a short fuse, is irritated by having to fight her corner in a man’s world, but perhaps just a little vulnerable too.

Here’s a brief blurb:

Dr Margaret Demeray is approached by a stranger called Fox to help find out what’s killed two impoverished men. How can a memory she’d buried possibly be linked to the deaths? And how come the closer she gets to Fox the more danger she faces herself? 

I’m looking forward to swotting up on ‘A guide to Home and Foreign Resorts’ for the sequel, when Margaret will definitely leave the British Isles, although not on a long enough voyage to be tempted to throw her underwear overboard. 

Or maybe she will. I’ll have to see.

The Wrong Sort To Die’ is available for pre-order with a publication date of 30th June 2020.

Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photographs from “The Queen” Newspaper Book of Travel 1912

 

Lockdown (Tall) Tales

It’s time for the evening lockdown video call between me, my sister and my mother.

First crucial question of course is: 

‘What’s for dinner?’

I’m planning a concoction made from odds and ends which I’ll pretend is a proper recipe (again). My mother is having fish and potatoes (again). My sister is smug because her husband is a trained chef and she doesn’t know and doesn’t care because she doesn’t have to cook.

Leaving coronavirus concerns to chew over later (you don’t want to rush eating the elephant in the room all at once), the next question is: 

‘What happened today?’

Usually of course, there is no answer but for the distant sound of tumbling tumble-weeds.

Today however is different. 

My mother starts:

‘Funny you should ask. 

‘I looked out of my window today expecting it to be as quiet and boring as usual with nothing but a few birds poking about, and the first thing I saw was that all the squirrels had lined up on the branches of the trees and were not only looking down but were holding paws and jumping about. Some of them were waving leaves. 

‘I followed their gaze and saw what appeared to be an animal sports day happening on the lawn with squirrels, hedgehogs, and rabbits as contestants and robins as marshals. 

‘There was what looked like a wheelbarrow race, a three-pawed race, an acorn cup-and-pebble race and a sack race using odd socks they must have pinched from the laundry. 

‘There was a kerfuffle at the end when the rabbits complained that they and the sacks had been punctured by the hedgehogs and the hedgehogs countered this by accusing the rabbits of having an unfair advantage in the sack race. Fortunately the squirrels diffused it all by doing an aerial display with the robins.

‘Everything happened so fast though, that I couldn’t quite get the camera to focus.’

My sister is next:

‘Strange you should mention rabbits. I was on my daily run when I saw a very large rabbit. He seemed to be waiting for me. “You’re late,” he said, looking at his fitness tracker watch, “and slow. Come on, the Queen is waiting.” 

‘“Oooh” I said. “Would going all the way to Windsor castle for a dame-hood count as essential travel?”

‘“Tsk,” said the rabbit. “Not that Queen. The Red Queen. Come on, here’s the rabbit-hole. When you’re falling, try and keep two metres ahead if you please.”

‘Well down we went and off we jogged. The rabbit went far too fast. 

‘So I paused for a breather at a strange table covered with what looked like a range of trendy gins labelled “drink me” but before I could do anything about it, the rabbit came back and dragged me away. He said that the last girl who stopped at that table got into a right pickle and I wasn’t allowed to try any. To be honest it was a bit early for gin and I chirped up when I saw a sign to a tea-party but the rabbit said it had been postponed until lockdown is over. Apparently some dormouse is very happy about this. Before I could ask for coffee instead, he led me into a court-room. 

‘A few people – including an angry looking large woman in a rather stiff dress – were standing as far away from each other as possible. Jurors had been suspended from the ceiling in harnesses to enable them to socially distance. It turned out that I was supposed to be judging who’d stolen the Queen of Hearts’ tarts. 

‘As you know I don’t like making decisions, except about food. So I decided to eat the evidence. 

‘It was delicious. 

‘While the Queen was busy working out how to have my head chopped off from a distance of two metres, I legged it. Fortunately the tarts had given me enough energy to outrun everyone and I managed to grab one of the bottles of fancy gin on the way past, which I’ll try later to see what happens. 

‘What a shame I’d left my phone at home and couldn’t take photos.’

Now it’s my turn:

‘You know how everywhere has animals taking over the towns because all the people are staying home? And you know how the jurassic coast isn’t too far away from here. Well, I went on my walk today and you’ll never guess what I saw emerging from the lake on the meadows? A brontosaurus!

‘A small herd of tricerotopses was peeking from the trees and a velociraptor was hunting down a jogger. It had nearly succeeded when a pterodactyl swooped down, grabbed it and dropped it in the river, where it was eaten by a plesiosaur. Then the police helicopter turned up and began to pursue the pterodactyl. A T-Rex followed, trying to swipe them both out of the sky but of course, its arms were too short to reach.

‘As I watched them disappear into the distance, a herd of woolly mammoth appeared, lumbering along the bypass. There might or might not have been cavemen riding them. It was hard to say because of all the hair. Plus they might just have been people from the next village. You know what they’re like. 

‘While I was trying to work it out, I felt a cat rub itself against my leg. I was about to stroke its head when I realised it wasn’t a cat but a baby sabre-tooth tiger. That was when I decided I probably ought to walk home. 

‘I did have my phone – but a woolly rhino in the car-park knocked it out of my hand then trod on it so I couldn’t take photos either.’

We all fall silent.

‘What really happened today?’ says my sister. ‘Most interesting thing I did was find a matching pair of socks and plant some sweet-peas. What about you?’

I consider, running my mind over the day. ‘I cut my finger on some tin-foil simply wrapping something up. What about you Mum?’

Mum scratches her head. ‘Let’s see,’ she says. ‘My windows were cleaned and I had to pay the window cleaner by putting the money on the doorstep and backing away so he could take it from a social distance.’

‘Wild times,’ says my sister. ‘Let’s take it easy tomorrow.’

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Make Do and Bend

Thanks to my father’s eccentric views on store cupboard necessities and general tidiness, I can make a meal out of pretty much anything using a workspace barely big enough for a dinner plate.

He taught me to experiment with recipes and cuisines, while my mother taught me to cook from scratch. So all in all, I’m well set for making edible, if sometimes odd, meals out of whatever I’ve got to hand.

But – that’s not to say I always want to. 

Last Thursday was one of those days. In fact last Thursday was one of those days when I didn’t want to do anything at all. 

Feeling positive and upbeat in the coronavirus world seemed as impossible a task as putting ten people in a lift and telling them to socially distance themselves.

Things that pushed me over the edge:

  • Waiting for ages in the pharmacy
  • An irritating working day when the work laptop kept crashing
  • Knowing it would be the weekend before I could get on with editing my novel which had been in the process thereof forever
  • Missing my son who’s fifty miles away
  • Worrying about my sister and niece who are both in the nursing profession.

On Thursday, I just had enough of feeling positive. What I wanted to do was throw the work laptop out of the window and delete my novel. What I most didn’t want to do was make another wretched meal. What I really wanted to do was stomp to the hotel and order one instead. 

Only of course, the hotel and every other eating establishment in the country is shut for the duration. 

Perhaps I’d burnt out my cooking mojo over the previous seven days. I’d made some very inauthentic but tasty ‘pakoras’. I’d made some even less authentic but tasty ‘samosas’ (they were more sort of curried vegetable pasties really). I’d made some successful flatbreads despite having only half the right ingredients. I could argue that I’d had no imagination left to put into anything, but actually I’d just had enough.

I suggested we ordered an Indian take-away. My husband pulled a face. ‘What were we going to have if we don’t get a take-away?’ he said. 

‘Stir-fried pork and stir-fried whatever veg is in the bottom of the fridge and egg-fried rice,’ I said.

‘Yum,’ he said. ‘That sounds much nicer than take-away. We’ll have that.’

‘But it takes longer to prepare than it takes to cook and eat,’ I argued. ‘And there are always so many cooking utensils involved in stir-fries.’

I’ll cook it then,’ he said. 

The thought of that was even worse. Where I can use three utensils, he can use ten. Plus he puts enough extra chilli and soy-sauce in his stir-fries to fill the kitchen with high-blood-pressure-inducing toxic fumes.

In the end, I said I’d cook it after all and sent him off on his daily walk while I sliced the living daylights out of some rather limp vegetables until I felt marginally better.

These are peculiar times when the whole structure of the normal lives of most of the world’s population utterly changed more or less simultaneously (give or take some governments’ prompt responses to the situation or lack thereof). 

The skies are now clearer than they’ve been for decades, maybe in some parts of the world, for over a century. And yet none of us knows if at any time, we might catch somehow the virus, whether or not we’ll be badly affected and either way, whether we’ll unwittingly pass it on to someone else who might subsequently die. 

Not being able to eat out, not being able to buy a specific ingredient aren’t really very important in themselves, many people can’t usually – but they’re reminders that life is not normal, that hospital staff like my sister and niece have to dress up like spacemen to work, that there’s nowhere anyone can go to ‘get away from it all’, that no-one has the least idea when we’ll be back to normal or even what normal will look like when it’s all over.

Sometimes, all that is overwhelming. 

On Thursday, I felt overwhelmed and in the end I told myself that that was ok. I decided to give myself space to feel overwhelmed and then start afresh the next day. Which I did. Then, I spent the weekend getting to grips with my novel. 

I’m glad I didn’t delete it. I’m not quite so sure whether I’m glad I didn’t throw the work laptop out of the window.

Somewhat less overwhelmed today, I’m feeling more cheerful about making tonight’s dinner out of what’s available. It’s not as if we can’t get nice food, and enough of it. We just can’t get it as often or as easily as we could a month or so ago. 

I thought of those memes that refer to WWII rationing and remind us that things could be worse. Out of curiosity, I extracted my research copy of ‘The Victory Cookbook’ . Flicking through to see what sort of things were suggested to British housewives during the war, I found a recipe for Pilchard Layer Loaf which was apparently ‘new and very exciting’. It involves, basically, layers of bread and tinned pilchards with a sort of mustardy béchamel poured over and then baked in the oven. Well, I have bread, I have tinned mackerel, I have the makings of a mustardy béchamel…. Could I? Should I?

I also have some poultry, some rather wizened tomatoes, some garlic, some grapes and some olives. A sort of cacciatore I think, only perhaps with a little chilli to keep my husband happy.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all this, that’s ok. None of us have to feel upbeat all the time, including you dear reader. But this will be over one day and we have to hold on to that even if we can’t hold on to each other.

In the meantime though, I’m sort of hoping things’ll never be so bad that I try making Pilchard Layer Loaf. 

It sounds utterly disgusting.

 

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

10 Tips to help if you’re worried about coronavirus

 

Personal Grooming

‘Listen,’ says the Grooming Fairy. ‘She’s a lost cause.’

‘I know but…’ says Aelfnod, ‘Look at her, all proud of her nails – painting them with cheap nail-polish and all. She’s had that bottle for five years at least.’

‘Five years? I bet there’s dinosaur claws with that stuff on waiting to be dug up.’

‘Go on.’

The Grooming Fairy rolls her eyes. ‘Look – she’s – I dunno how old and she’s been biting her nails from the age of ten to the Dawn of Coronavirus and now she’s proud of herself cos she’s stopped cos Boris Johnson’s told her to stop.’

‘I don’t think she’s ever listened to Boris Johnson.’

The Grooming Fairy shrugs and makes a W sign on her forehead. ‘Whateverrrr. How come it’s taken a pandemic to stop her biting her nails? What sort of self-discipline is that?’

‘This isn’t about her nails, it’s about her general self-esteem.’

‘Huh!’ says the Grooming Fairy. ‘She should have learnt to do her hair and make-up and all that when she was a teenager.’

Aelfnod coughed. ‘I live in the attic remember. She has a whole box of scrapbooks full of Jackie Magazine cuttings telling her how to do her hair and make-up. AND I’ve seen the photo-albums with all that mad hair she had in her twenties.’

‘Ah -the 1980s.’ The Grooming Fairy’s face softens into nostalgia. ‘It must be time for it to come back into style. I can’t wait for a new batch of teenagers to fill my nostrils with the sweet scents of home-perming solution.’

‘I don’t think she’ll be doing that again.’

‘It could hardly make her hair any worse. She should been to the hair-dresser before the lock-down.’

‘Half the country is thinking that.’

‘Yeah but look at her. The grey’s coming through and her fringe is getting long enough to braid. She’s like a hippy badger.’

‘Shhh – she’ll hear you. Anyway, she’s bought two home-dyeing kits just in case lock-down’s extended. She just can’t decide between sensible brown and insane blue. She’s trying to talk her daughter into helping. But … her daughter’s a bit dippy at the moment herself. I thought maybe you could help instead.’

‘Look Aelfnod – what do you expect me to do? The woman’s been rubbish at what she calls the “girly stuff” since the beginning of time. She starts off ok, but then she rubs her face or runs her hands through her hair in exasperation when she’s annoyed or thinking or both and before you know it she looks like a miniature Giant Panda with a wig made out of rat’s nests. And that’s in normal circumstances. She’s not even good at clothes – did you see she went through her underwear drawer in a fit of boredom the other day and discovered she’s kept nine bras that don’t fit. I mean they’re pretty and all but what did she keep them for? I suppose right now she could offer them as face-masks – but whose face is THAT shape. Although, I suppose right now, I’m impressed she’s brushing her hair and getting out of her nightclothes every day – you should hear the tales I’ve heard from some of the household elves round here.’

‘I know.’ Aelfnod heaves a sigh. ‘These are strange times. But she’s doing her best. And she may not feel very confident about the “girly stuff” but she is trying her best to feel normal. She’s even on top of the laundry. (The cobwebs not so much.) And she’s being traumatised by having to go round a supermarket via a one way system rather than like a random particle. And doing it when she’s allowed to rather than when she feels like it. And she’s missing staring out of the window of a train pretending she’s thinking intellectual thoughts when really she’s just wondering whether to cook tea or get a ready-meal or takeaway instead of staring out of the windows at home wondering when she can go somewhere else (and what to cook for tea out of what’s in the house). I just think she – like everyone really – could do with a boost. I don’t think she’d realised how much all those little things like having her hair and nails and eyebrows done could make her feel like she had an element of control on a mad situation. Isn’t there anyway you can do her hair magically?’

The Grooming Fairy ponders. ‘I likes a challenge, I does. Now where’’s that list of questions I’ve got to ask, like where she’s going for her next holiday?’

‘You can’t ask that! No-one’s allowed to go anywhere at the moment.’

‘Meh,’ said the Grooming Fairy. ‘Then she’ll have to make it up. Just like I’ll be doing. This is going to cheer us both up no end.’ She cracks her knuckles and grins. 

 Aeflnod has a sudden thought. ‘Oh bother. I forgot about social distancing? You can’t do hair from two metres away. Forget I mentioned it.’

The Grooming Fairy ponders again. ‘Meh. You says she needs cheering up. I could do it while she’s asleep. Like I said. I likes a challenge. Now. Where are those long-handled hedge-trimmers and the ceiling painting brush with the extendable handle?’

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

 

In Sync

On day three of having to work from home, my team gave up video-Skyping in favour of audio-Skyping. The argument was that everyone’s broadband was struggling but I suspect most of us preferred to talk from behind our smart profile pictures rather than reveal what we really look like in our spare rooms or at our kitchen tables. This is fine by me as I’m approximately six years younger and half a stone lighter in my profile picture than in real life, and in real life, my hair is about to go out of control so I’m on the verge of looking like Captain Caveman or Cousin Itt. 

The risk of being seen less than groomed is only one problem for current video-Skyping. The other is when the team-member has young offspring, since all the schools are shut. A child suddenly appears with something which to them is far more important than any coronavirus-related crisis which their parent is trying to deal with and then, faced with the horror of complete strangers cooing at them from their parent’s laptop screen, go very shy and lip-wobbly. 

Life is very peculiar just now isn’t it?

I’m lucky that I can work from home and maintain some sort of structure to my week. 

I’m sort of glad I’m not also home-schooling my children as I’m sure that I’d be going quietly bonkers by now, but all the same I’m sad that mine aren’t still small enough for me to be doing keep-fit or making dens or playing games or doing craft everyday as some of my colleagues are. 

When my own children were little, although I did those sorts of thing, it didn’t always work out the way I intended of course. Once, my three-year-old son and I copied art from TV using paint and old toothbrushes. We were disappointed at the result until we looked up and realised that while the paper was nearly blank, we’d made a lovely spatter pattern on the wall and … also on my baby daughter who was asleep nearby.

They’re now no longer small enough to want or need me to entertain them and I’m not sure either would want to make a big creative mess like we did when they were small even if I asked them.

But there are advantages to them being older now.

Last weekend, when the impact of coronavirus was making me feel disinclined to try anything new, or indeed, do anything at all, I was invited to join an online group in which members were encouraged to live-stream themselves reading a story.

 I thought ‘Blimey.’

Now: I’m capable of talking (as many will testify) and I’m more than skilled at making a fool of myself, but I don’t usually record myself doing either.

I thought about it for a bit and asked my son for advice. Most of what he said went over my head but having got the general drift, I chose a story and practised videoing myself.

I observed a number of things:

  • Everyone is right about me talking too fast and too quietly.
  • My face is even more asymmetrical than I’d realised.
  • I need to do my hair.

The following day, I decided to be brave.

I did my hair to the best of my somewhat inadequate abilities and I read ‘Dust’ from ‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ as a live-stream, even remembering to have a piece of vacuum cleaner as a prop. Immediately after, while I was in the ‘zone’ I live-streamed it on my author Facebook page too (although I forgot the piece of vacuum cleaner). My face didn’t really stop burning for an hour afterwards.

I definitely got a real buzz from doing it even though I found my lips weren’t quite in synch with my speech. (I sort of assume that was my technical incompetence rather than that’s what I’m like anyway.) And so naturally, going off at a tangent, I then pondered about whether I should start a YouTube channel (with videos rather than my face) or do pod-casting (which wouldn’t require anything to replace my face). 

All of this of course, took my mind off the fact what I’m supposed to be doing in my free time, which is edit a book. What with one thing and another, most of it out of my control, I’m a long way behind and having decided I needed to re-write some of it hasn’t helped. 

But this weekend, my daughter came into her own. In a general chat about creativity and the psychological impact of the current situation, I told her I was finding it hard to get on with the edit and she said she’d been blogging about PROCRASTINATION and shared her conclusions to me. They made a lot of sense. 

She put up with me making one more excuse, then repeated the key bit of advice and sent me went off to get on with the editing. I’m still not there, but I’m near enough to feel like I’m getting somewhere at last.

And going off at a tangent again – I intending to write this blog about something else entirely but writing about doing the live-stream made more sense somehow.  And while my consciousness was streaming as I wrote, I thought – why do you need a small child to do messy craft with? If the weather’s good enough and you can find some paper and some paints – go in the garden and make a fool of yourself. No-one need ever see the result but you’ll feel a lot better and maybe your daughter will come and join you.  

So do you know what, I think I shall.

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. Image copyright 2020 Zoe Harmon. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

If you’re looking for things to do while socially distancing, here are some links:

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Paint with Alice May

Perspective

‘So many knobs,’ I say, sighing into my mug.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Aelfnod splutters on his tea.

‘Door knobs, cupboard knobs, handles, things for opening lids with, taps, letter-boxes. You know. Things that need extra bleaching just now.’

‘Ah.’ Aelfnod settles back and a dreamy look crosses his face as he contemplates the joys of housework, clearly feeling that I have all the fun. ‘I was worried there for a minute.’

Aelfnod, despite the fact that we have differing views on dust, is a kindred spirit.

He knows when to talk and when to be quiet. He knows when a shared pot of tea in silence is the only thing that makes sense. He understands what it’s like to need space and time to re-boot your mind with something completely disconnected from everything else that’s going on.

In my case, it’s by being alone – driving with the radio on loud, tapping into whatever the music triggers, or being on a train with my brain rocking down new tracks or on a station platform, anonymous among all the commuters rushing pointlessly about – observing, listening and invigorated (if sometimes also cross, cold and late).

For Aelfnod, his reset process appears to be rummaging through the cookery books. (If it’s not him – then who else is reordering them so I can never find the one I want?)

Life has all been a bit trying over the last week. We’re on lockdown, working from home and all of a sudden the only people I’m allowed to be with seem noisier and messier than usual and I can only get out of the house once a day.

Nerves are being trodden on like cowpats round a water trough.

Mingled with personal anxiety caused by coronavirus, the day-job is absorbed in mitigating its impact. So it’s impossible to tune out from the crisis. The most creative decisions of the day are what to cook with what’s in store and when to go for my one walk. All in all, my reset time and my creative time seems to have seeped away and I’ve been feeling grumpy.

It really does come to something when I’m missing a five a.m. start and squeezing past strangers at Clapham Junction.

In case you didn’t know, Aelfnod is one of my invisible household elves. And the thing about invisible household elves is that they’re not exactly real (shh don’t tell them that), so they don’t turn up for a chat unless I want them to.  But they often come to mind when I’m being domestic and self-reflective.

So this afternoon, after some vigorous bleaching of the aforesaid knobs, handles etc, and despite the fact that I ought to be getting to grips with a novel plot, I decided to get a grip on my own plot and turned to Aelfnod for his views on being in lock-down which already feels like it’s been going on for a year when it’s only been a few days.

‘Does it bother you?’ I say.

Aelfnod shrugs and holds out his doll’s tea-cup for more tea. ‘It’s a bit dusty and the airing cupboard is full of out-of-control laundry fairies but this is a nice home.’

‘I know, but I’m used to being pretty much able to go out when I want to do what I want and see what I want.’

‘Then you’re luckier than many. And the things you really like best are indoorsy things anyway – writing, reading, cooking, sewing, painting – and you haven’t done the last two for years. Perhaps now’s the time to start again.’

‘I thought you didn’t like mess.’

‘I don’t like you slamming doors because you’ve got to the point where you’re getting on your own nerves.’

‘I only slammed one door,’ I say huffily.

‘Only because the other one gets caught on the carpet.’ Aelfnod takes another sip of tea and frowns. I feel that in another decade, he’d be puffing a pipe in an admonishing manner. ‘Look on the positive,’ he says. ‘All the news does is focus on the negative. You know that.’

‘It’s true,’ I admit. ‘It’s just that people…’

‘Ah people. None of us know why humans think they’re the most intelligent creatures on earth. You buy stuff you don’t need, rush to go to places which are no nicer than where you’re from, complain when there’s too much to do, complain when there’s nothing to do, never really know what you want. You always look at stuff the wrong way. Instead of looking at the fear, look for the bit of hope. You being stuck indoors right now might save a life. Maybe a life you’ll never know about.’

‘You’re right. And I keep thinking of Anne Frank and knowing I’ve nothing to complain about. And I don’t live alone and I do love the people I’m with.’

‘Exactly. Plus you might discover something. Think about it – what have you noticed?’

I sit back and consider. After a pause I say, ‘There’s less traffic so it’s quieter, I can hear the birds better and the air seems clearer.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s good to be mindful of food, supplies, travel, little freedoms and not take them for granted. You appreciate nature more when you treasure time outside. Everyone is sharing pictures of buds, and sparrows and even mini-beasts which we might not have noticed before.’

‘And…’

‘Community groups are springing up all over the place. People are falling over themselves to shop or get prescriptions for isolated neighbours, even ones they don’t know. Someone posted a desperate message in our local group and within two hours, the group – without anyone leaving home – had tracked down his family and got him help.’

‘There you go. What else?’

I’m starting to cheer up. ‘And if it weren’t for modern technology I couldn’t meet with the rest of my family by video every day so I don’t have to worry so much.’

‘Oh yes,’ says Aelfnod, with a disapproving frown. ‘I’ve listened into your conversations. They’re not very intelligent. Far too much giggling.’

‘Well sorry,’ I say. ‘There’s only so much news to share when you’re all stuck indoors and there’s one thing on everyone’s mind. You can only discuss what everyone is having for dinner for so long. It’s more fun to do something silly. But now I think of it, it’s not just connecting with family. It’s everyone. Colleagues, friends, Facebook contacts, all sorts of people who can’t meet in person have found ways to do it via the internet.’

‘Like what?’

‘Online book clubs, book readings, virtual gigs and poetry slams, interactive quizzes. In fact if I joined in everything I could, I’d never do anything else.’

‘Sounds better than anything on TV.’

I’m feeling a lot brighter. ‘And museums and art galleries and theatres are providing links to all sorts of exhibitions and plays you couldn’t easily see otherwise.’

Aelfnod sits up straight. ‘Is Midsummer Night’s Dream one of them? I’d love to see that. My ancestor’s one of the main characters.’

‘Yes but how will you get online?’

‘Tsk. What a silly question,’ Aelfnod dunks a cookie-crumb in his tea and gives me a grin. ‘I do it all the time. Why else do you think your phone is always fully charged at night and flat as a goblin’s flip-flop in the morning?

***

If you want to read about how I first met Aelfnod check out Weird and Peculiar Tales  a collection of short stories by Paula Harmon and Val Portelli. It’s on special offer until 2nd April 2020.

If you want to know about the household elves’ view of me (well one of them anyway) you might want to read An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

If you want to know about any of the links mentioned above check these out:

From Clapping to Kindness: Five Reasons to be Hopeful

Community Support Links in the UK

Watch Royal Shakespeare Company Shows from home

The Guardian: 10 of the world’s best museum and art gallery tours

Good Housekeeping: best virtual tours

How to visit Paris catacombs and Disney theme park rides online

https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image of tea-pot by Trang Le from Pixabay

To Hamster or Not To Hamster…

Meeting a good friend the other day and having to elbow bump when normally she’d drag me into an engulfing embrace felt rather surreal and very sad. I never knew until social distancing became advisable how much I’d miss hugging. Being unable to hug my mother and having to keep a two metre distance at closest, is just awful, especially as it was Mothering Sunday yesterday.

Who could imagine I’d also be missing the twice weekly commute to London? I always knew it was unhealthy. I never thought it could kill me. But I do miss the routine and I do miss meeting my colleagues face to face rather than just by video conferencing.

At the point of writing, the UK is not yet in lockdown. In my town, awareness of the seriousness of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation seems only just to have sunk in. I went for a walk at lunch-time and not only were more than 95% of the shops/businesses shut but I only saw about ten people. One of them, forced to pass me on a narrow pavement, nearly fell into the gutter trying to put as much space as possible between us. I felt like saying ‘I am holding my breath you know’ but of course that wasn’t physically possible since I’m not a ventriloquist.

Until today, the clearest sign that some people did know there was an issue was the panic-buying. Last Friday, a plague of ‘locusts’ apparently stripped almost every shop of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m still completely baffled as to what they planned to do with them. You can only store that sort of stuff for so long. I’m not convinced that so many people know how to make edible soup any more than they know how to make edible bread with the yeast that’s long disappeared from the shelves. I dread to imagine the size of the hoarders’ next credit card bills.

I’m also angry. This behaviour impacts on shift-workers, the vulnerable and anyone who can only buy what they have money for on any given day. And the likelihood that a lot of that hoarded food will ultimately go to waste is shameful when people go hungry even in rich countries. 

When my mother took me to the shops as a little girl, she did it on foot with a fixed sum of cash, This meant that she only bought what she could carry. Perhaps that’s a simple solution to panic-shopping: no-one can buy more than can be put in a basket. 

I doubt I’m alone in feeling like Coronavirus has thrown me into a whirlpool of emotions:

  • Anger – see above. Why can’t people look out for each other instead of themselves for once?
  • Anxiety – have I got coronavirus unwittingly and am passing it on to others despite being very largely social distancing for the last two weeks? 
  • Disbelief – How can this be happening when the sun is finally shining and everything appears so normal till I go into a shop or turn on the news? Is this really happening on a global scale?
  • Confliction – What can I trust in the news and social media? Do I really want the country to go into lock-down when this will mean being stuck indoors for weeks?

Oddly on a writing/creative front, while I couldn’t concentrate when Mum was ill, I could easily concentrate on it now as even the most unlikely of my plots seems more believable than the current state of the world. Having said that, although my ‘book-in-edits’ is set in 1910 and not about any sort of virus, I do find that I keep worrying every time a character shakes hands, hugs or kisses – which would rather spoil some of the plot. I really need to get a grip.

It’s hard to think of positives sometimes, particularly when the media tends to focus on nothing but the bad, but there are a few things in links below which I hope you find helpful whether you’re self-isolating on lock-down or just generally looking for something positive to read. And while every single person who’s unexpectedly at home (whether also trying to work or not) with a child/teenager (or partner who’s like a caged animal when stuck indoors) has my sympathy – I hope this will turn out to be a time of bonding rather than discord. Time to break out the board games perhaps? 

One thing that did make me chuckle this week was finding out that the German expression for panic-buying was Hamsterkauf – I can’t think of a better word.

I hope that’s cheered you up too if you didn’t know it already and if you’re going to hamster anything – I hope it’s good memories, shared experiences, appreciation of the important things, creativity and of course – books! 

So as promised, here are more offers:

The Case of the Black Tulips the first book in the Caster & Fleet Victorian mystery series written by Liz Hedgecock and me is currently (23rd March) 99p/99c instead of the usual £2.99/$2.99. A frustrated typist, a bored socialite, an anonymous letter…

Murder Britannica is currently £2.99/$1.99 before returning to normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. A self-centred rich woman, a plot to get rich only ruined by a series of unexpected deaths…

Weird and Peculiar Tales a collection of short stories by me and Val Portelli will be on a countdown deal from 26th March starting at 99p/99c. An anthology that contains exactly what the title implies.

In case you’re wondering about the photos, they’re pictures of my daughter’s erstwhile hamsters Frodo and Pip, to remind everyone that you’re lot cuter when you aren’t hoarding more than you need – apart from books of course – you can hoard those as much as you like!

Apologies for the blurriness but hey – they’re still nicer to look at than a virus.

As ever: keep well.

 

 

10 Nature Activities for children while self-isolating

Activity Ideas for children of all ages while self-isolating

Coronavirus: Hope Amid Outbreak

The Volunteer Army Helping Self-Isolating Neighbours

Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon.  All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

How Are You?

Never has an innocuous phrase had so much meaning than it does at the moment.

It’s usually a throw-away expression that usually means little more than ‘hello’ and doesn’t expect much of a response other than ‘not bad’, ‘a bit under the weather but soldiering on’, ‘could be better’ or more usually ‘fine thanks’ (whether or not the speaker actually is).

Now people are asking the question and really saying: ‘are you safe? Are your loved ones safe? I care about you.’

So here I am saying ‘how are you?’ and hoping that you and your loved ones are and stay healthy. I know that some of you are under more or less restriction and that it seems everyone, everywhere is living in anxiety. For myself, my mother is of course very vulnerable and I’m visiting her for as long as I’m well and healthy and otherwise trying to socially distance myself as much as possible. But my children are due home from university prematurely so quite how it’s going to work out I don’t know. At the moment, we’re all otherwise all right, but it’s hard not to be able to hug my mum in case I pass anything on.

Knowing that some people are already self-isolating whether by choice or mandate, I just wanted to let you know that I will be changing the pricing on some of my books over the next few weeks to help anyone who could do with something to read. These will change from time to time but here are the current and upcoming ebook offers:

Kindling is free until midnight on Saturday 21st March. This is a collection of short stories ranging across mood and genre. They’re mostly set in South Wales or South West England and one or two may be true. A few patently aren’t set in a real place and are definitely not true!

Murder Britannica is on a countdown deal until 25/3. 99p/99c today, £1.99/$1.99 from 20/3, £2.99/$1.99 from 22/3 and normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. It’s AD190 in an obscure part of Roman Britain. All Lucretia wants to get even richer than she already is by ‘rediscovering’ a local goddess and building a bath-house to rival the one at Aquae Sulis. It’s a bit annoying when her husband drops dead unexpectedly, but even more annoying when his death is followed by others and an old adversary Tryssa starts to ask awkward questions.

As for my Caster & Fleet co-author, Liz Hedgecock, she has a deal running this week on on of her books A House of Mirrors . It’s now available for 99p/99c instead of the usual £3.99/$3.99. When Nell Villiers’ policeman husband vanishes on a routine case, her life is wrecked. Placed under protection by Inspector Lestrade, Nell is ripped from her old life and her own secret police work. Instead she must live as a widow, Mrs Hudson, in a safe house: 221B Baker Street.

There will be more offers coming up and I’ll post again on Saturday.

In the meantime, I hope you keep safe and well in these anxious times. If a book helps you or someone else – please do browse.

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

 

Room

I am tired.  

Lying in the bath, I let the steam envelop me. I massage round and round my eyes. They want to stay shut and slide into sleep. I am so tired. It’s been a long day and I wash off the travelling and the negotiating and the business smiles. The water is no dirtier as I leave the bath than it was to start with, but so many necessary politenesses needed to be strigilled from my skin.  

I’d prefer to stay in my room. I’d prefer not to join my colleagues for a sociable evening and have their forensic words try to scalpel through my façade to see what lies beneath. I’ll drink just enough wine to oil the conversation but not so much as to expose my soul. Colleagues. I’ve known them a great many years and know them not at all. Nor they I. Shortly I must dress again and slot my smile back in place.  

And I am too tired for what awaits me before I go out, but I have no choice tonight anymore than any other night when I’m in a strange place.  It’s what happens. 

Always.

Rising from the water, I wrap myself in a towel and leave the en-suite to step into the bedroom. I haven’t had time to familiarise myself with all the switches. Light blares from all corners and the ceiling. The TV – put on as part of my ritual – burbles with early evening inanities beside the portable kettle and the insufficient tea-bags. I try to avoid the mirrors and keep my back to the bed as I walk around to change the lighting and find clean clothes from my case.  

But in the end I have to face the girl.  

She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, bolt upright. Her hands are in her lap, clasped into a sledgehammer. Her feet dangle. They are almost bare. Despite this cold evening, slender strips of leather form delicate sandals resting against the plump duvet. Her large eyes are following me as I adjust the lamps. Her head turns as I move about, so as not to lose sight of me for a second and there are shadows under the eyes and red blotches on her white skin. Her clothes are flimsy. Through them I can see the bones of her collar-bone and the thinness of her wrists and ankles.

I swear I didn’t call her here. I never call them, but yet I find them every time in every hotel room. 

I attempt a smile but the girl doesn’t smile back. Taking my clothes, I change in the bathroom hoping my room will be empty when I return. But she’s still there, following me with her eyes as I cross the room to sit in front of the flickering TV.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask. 

It’s pointless. They never answer. Over all these years, in all these hotel bedrooms, not one of these girls has ever spoken. They just look at me, unsmiling, waiting for me to work out what to do.

I recall the first one. 

The hotel was Georgian, my bedroom in the attic: a bijou ensuite room fit for the business traveller. It was clean and pleasant, effort had gone into every aspect, simple as it was.  

I turned on the TV and went to run a bath. When I returned to the bedroom there was a strange girl in a seventeenth century clothes sitting on the edge of the bed. 

She was huddled, legs bound by her arms and her head on her knees. I couldn’t see her mouth but from behind straggling hair exhausted eyes observed me. Her figure was small but she had that pinched look of malnourishment and an expression of one who looked up from an abyss, wary and tensed.  She might have been any age from nine to sixteen, it was hard to say.  

That time, that first time, I was in no doubt seeing her had been brought on by stress. A ghostly servant made sense in that old building after the day I’d had. I had nowhere to go that evening and I watched TV as tense as a mouse unsure if a cat has seen it. I hoped that with every sip of cheap wine, the ghost would become less visible but she didn’t.  

After a while, she unfolded herself and came to stand next to me, as if about to take an order. In the end, I tried to make her disperse by speaking aloud.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked. 

She blinked and shifted from foot to foot. I looked down and saw that the worn shoes were too big. I thought: her feet must be sore. Then I realised what I fool I was. She’d been dead for three hundred years. The ruin of her feet was well beyond bunions and corns and blisters. I shook my head at my own folly. She didn’t exist and yet she was there and she wouldn’t leave.

‘What do you want?’ I asked.  

The girl frowned. 

It occurred to me that perhaps she thought I was the ghost, an apparition in her attic room, strangely garbed but undemanding. Yet she didn’t seem afraid of me. After a moment’s hesitation she leaned her head on my shoulder. I could feel nothing of course because either she wasn’t there, or I wasn’t there. I say I could felt nothing, but in truth, for a few seconds I felt something transfer between us. 

My eyes closed and I saw the room as it must once have been: cold and spare and dark, crammed with damp beds for lonely girls a long way from home, and saw in the corner, one frail figure curled up under thin blankets, coughing and rattling, all alone and uncomforted. The pain of her loneliness skewered my heart and her cold tears burned on my shoulder.  

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered, ‘I’m here. I wish I could help.’

The imagined weight of her head evaporated and I opened my eyes. The girl had gone and the room was as it had been before, cheerful, anonymous: a stopping place. But I was not as I had been. I was drained. 

I had felt lonely before. I was used to my own silence in indifferent hotels after a day of travel and talking business. But now that loneliness had increased, augmented by the misery of a long-dead stranger. Exhausted, I went to bed early, blaming the cheap wine and a stressful day.

The next time there was a strange girl sitting on my bed, I was surprised. I wondered if I should seek help. It was another strange room, another ghost. 

The third time, I was scared. 

The fourth, resigned. 

Again and again. Each time in every hotel, those ghosts drained me, as something of their sadness transferred to me and something of my pity transferred to them. I tried to find out who they were, but I needed time I didn’t have and anyway, they had all been underlings; the sort of people who die forgotten and unmarked. 

Sometimes the girl just wanted my empathy. Sometimes she seemed to crave my blessing. Once, following an insistent finger, I pulled back the corner of a carpet and under a floor board found an old letter. I read aloud to the best of my ability those misspelled words of love written in faded ink on dirty paper and when I stopped reading I saw a fleeting smile on the ghost’s face before she disappeared and left me wondering how to hide the damage to the carpet. 

Booking a modern chain hotel made no difference. 

These are ancient lands. People have built on the same spot for generations. New buildings have been constructed on fields where once someone died in a ditch or in battle or at the cruel hand of another. Even in the clinical plastic perfection of a generic motel, a child waited for my comfort and replaced it with the weight of their sorrow.

But this evening I am too tired. 

I never wanted children of my own; never wanted the responsibility of caring and supporting, but somehow I have been absorbing centuries of pain and cannot do it any longer.  

‘Who are you?’ I try again. The girl in her thin dress and sandals says nothing. I can’t work out the era of her clothes. A long time ago I think.

I look out of the window. This modern hotel is next to an old pub. Less than a mile away is a hill which was once an Iron Age fort and nearby are the ruins of a Roman Villa. This girl could be from those times – a slave perhaps, or a nobleman’s neglected daughter. She is thin and unhealthy but not dirty or unkempt. Unhealthy!  What am I saying?  This one has been dead for maybe two thousand years. Did she die around here in some long lost dwelling, staring onto mosaic floors and frescoed walls? Was there no parent to smooth that consumptive brow? Is she another one reaching out for a comfort no-one gave her when she needed it? 

Or she doing the opposite? 

I look harder. She is restraining a cough. Is it because she is afraid to irritate someone? She’s tense and her head is down.Is she keeping small so as not to annoy someone?  

It is too much. I have nothing left to give. I remember doing the same thing. No-one was ever there for me and I am drained dry.

I close my eyes and pull my legs up onto the chair, hugging them and putting my forehead down onto my knees just like I used to.

If I sit like this, still as a statue, Father won’t notice me. If I ball myself tight, the blows will hurt less. If I don’t look at Mother, I won’t see her turn away from me when he approaches. 

I am too old and too tired to cry, but tears are in my eyes and my throat hurts. Curled up, my muscles protest. I am not a child anymore. 

But then… 

A hand is on my shoulder, a small arm embraces me. A small head has lain itself on my head. They are soft as cobwebs, unreal as dreams but stronger than iron. 

I struggle in the embrace, but it hugs me tighter. 

More arms surround me, all small, all feather-light yet stronger than steel. I am enveloped in a web of comfort. I open my eyes and peek and find myself surrounded. All of those hotel ghosts link arms around me, all of them, from the eighteenth century maid, through the lonely lover to the Roman slave.

A susurration ripples in my ears, ‘we’re sorry, we’re here. We won’t turn away.’

My soul fills with warmth.

The pain lessens. 

The misery I absorbed to mix with my own, disperses.  

Someone, at last, has come to help.

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.