A Cigar Box

A cigar box.

It is quite old now. Once it smelt of tobacco. Now it smells of almond and beeswax polish.

Once it held cigars. Now it holds memories: memories which are mine and memories which are mysteries.

This box, new and full of cigars, was once a Christmas present for my father. Our family never gave big presents. Mostly Dad bought me books, mostly I bought Dad cigars. I seem to remember that it was still legal, when I was a child, for me to buy them myself from the tobacco counter in Woolworths, but I may be wrong.

I don’t know why the box itself was kept. I imagine my mother thought it was too nice to throw away. I understand that. I can never throw away a good box either. There is something hopeful about a box, perfect, with its snugly fitting lid, waiting to be filled.

Then one day, my mother sanded, polished and varnished the cigar box and gave it to me for trinkets. I have kept it ever since, popping inside odds and ends from time to time.

The newest thing inside is perhaps twelve years old. The oldest is from 1926, long before even my parents were born.

Each thing has its own story.

The things at the top remind of being a young adult: single, unattached and time-rich. My ID card from when I  volunteered in Romania in 1992; a thank-you letter from a child in a holiday club.

Lifting those aside, here are things from my teens. My Girl-Guide promise badge. My Robin patrol and three challenge badges. I ducked out of Guides quite early, never finding a kindred spirit. I wanted to build shelters and make fires. The other girls wanted to talk about pop stars. I gained my accident prevention badge, my cook’s badge and my writer’s badge. I remember the last two. I wrote a poem about washing dishes for the former and a heavily plagiarised novella uncannily similar to ‘The Secret Garden’ for the latter. Here is my fifth year* prefect badge. I loathed being a prefect and spent my duties chasing second years** out of the ‘old’ block at lunch time (which we all enjoyed) and ignoring the bad girls who were smoking in the toilets because, frankly, I preferred to stay in one piece. And here’s my ‘Young Enterprise’ badge from when I had my first ‘secretarial’ role. I learnt at seventeen that I hated taking minutes and yet, here I am, all these years later, still doing it from time to time. At least I get paid for it now.

Here are random bits of costume jewellery from my late teens and some little glass ornaments bought for me in Tenby by children (with some help from Daddy) twelve years or so ago. I want a little glass cabinet to put them in where they can mingle with the tiny glass animals my grandmother collected and which currently live in another box, wrapped individually in yellowing tissue.

Here are some 1928 German Reichbanknotes. Both sets of my grandparents married in 1929, but as far as I know, none had German connections at the time. I have absolutely no idea why I have them, why anyone in my family had them. One of them is a 100,000 mark note. In 1928, at the end of a period of hyperinflation in Germany and shortly before the Great Depression, I believe it had relatively little buying potential. I would be interested to know.

Then there is a little box with coins inside. These are all pfennigs, pre-euro German pennies. The oldest of these is from the 1950s and I assume that they were brought back by mother when she went to visit a new penfriend. My mind boggles to think of my shy mother travelling alone as a teenager, to stay with someone she’d never met before in a country which, less than ten years earlier had been enemy territory. Some of the pfennigs are ones I brought back from visiting my own German penfriend in the early 1980s, and tucked in amongst them is a letter ‘a’ from a printing press which I was given in a museum on my first visit. I can’t remember now whether I chose the ‘a’ (and if so why) or whether I was given it.

Last but not least is a box of medals and badges, none of which are mine. Many of them are my paternal grandfather’s motorcycling medals. My grandmother said he only stopped racing when he broke an arm and she begged him to stop. I think she always felt guilty afterwards, but on the other hand, after marriage, when a motor-cycle was their only means of transport, she used to sit in a side-car, knitting, completely blasé. I seem to be descended from insanely calm women, without having inherited the calmness.

One of the medals is from WWI and Canadian. For years and years, it baffled me, as I was unaware of any Canadian connection. And then, when my daughter was doing research for history, I found out. My paternal grandmother was the youngest of four children. Her eldest brother Reginald flew for the Royal Flying Corps and is on the Virtual Canadian War Memorial. I haven’t quite worked out the link, but I do know that he was in 39 Squadron and an observer in a Bristol F.2 which was shot down on 25th September 1918. He was 21. The pilot was 19. My grandmother would have been 10. My father said that one of his abiding memories was, as a small child, seeing his grandfather (Reginald’s father) sitting with a fragment of propeller, turning it over and over in his hands in silence.

This is a cigar box. It no longer holds cigars. It contains nothing of value to anyone but me. It contains memories, some of which aren’t mine.

It is a box full of treasure.

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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

*Fifth year – equivalent to year 11 now or 10th grade – the year at school when you are usually 15-16 and in UK take the first set of public exams.

**Second year – equivalent year 8 now or 7th grade (my school had the first years/year 7s in a separate building and we didn’t have a sixth form/yrs 12 & 13. Therefore the fifth years were the eldest hence being prefects. Much to my relief, when I went to another school for sixth form, I wasn’t selected as prefect).

 

 

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Pumpkins!

‘Pumpkins! I ask you – pumpkins!’

‘Woss wrong with pumpkins? They’re orange. They’re effsfetic ent they?’

‘They’re not traditional though, are they?’

‘Ent they?’

‘Nope. You know the legend doncher?’

‘Er…’

‘The one about Jack.’

‘Jack wot climbed the beanstalk?’

‘Could be… anyway…’

‘Jack wot built the ‘ouse?’

‘Maybe…anyway…’

‘Jack wot went up the ‘ill with Jill and fell down and broke ‘is crown?’

‘ANYWAY….Jack sold his soul, see?’

‘Probably needed to raise the cash to build an ‘ouse. Costs a fortune that does.’

‘Whatever, but the thing is, the thing is then he got scared of the dark.’

‘Probably behind with the ‘leccy bills what will spending all ‘is cash on building an ‘ouse and buying beans and that.’

‘Well anyway, so then he made a lamp out of a turnip.’

‘Why?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Well, that can ‘appen when you falls down and breaks your crown. You can go a bit doollally. No amount of vinegar and brown paper’s gonna sort out brain trauma.’

‘Yeah well, anyway, he roams he does, Jack, looking for his lost soul or summat. So other people started to make lamps outta turnips too.’

‘Why’d they do that? Had he started a sort of franchise?’

‘No it was reverse physicilology or summat.’

‘Wossat then?’

‘No look listen, people made lanterns out of turnips and put them outside their houses to scare Jack away.’

‘Why turnips?’

‘Takes a real man to make a lantern out of a turnip. Turnips is hard. All that digging with a teaspoon – only a real man can do that and then when they eats the innards their farts can blow the scales off a lizard.’

‘Spect Jack was used to that what with the beans from the beanstalk an all.’

‘Wot you on about?’

‘Wot YOU on about?’

‘Well the thing is – it was TURNIPS! It was turnips till a few years ago. Then suddenly, it’s pumpkins everywhere and turnips don’t get a look in. And what am I?

‘You’re a turnip.’

‘Dead right. And what are you?’

‘I’m a turnip.’

‘You certainly are. So that’s why I’m mad. Blinking pumpkins. Coming over here, taking our jobs. It’s a liberty that’s what it is. A blinking liberty.’

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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

Swordsman

I am weary.

Who would attack these cliffs? The land is rugged and untameable as if dragons’ scales stud the turf, the castle has erupted from the rocky ground as grey and cruel as winter skies.

And yet we must ever be on guard. Whenever there is something to trade, there is threat.

Behind me the seas boil. Ships come and go: traders, adventurers, thieves, invaders. The kings of Eire and princes of Cymru send envoys with marriage contracts. Strangers from unimaginable lands of heat and drought beach their ships in the icy drizzle, wrapping their silken finery up in woollen cloaks, bringing fine pots and jewellery to trade for tin and silver.

This sword – this sword is weary too.

Is this the sword which was welded in stone? That rose from a lake? That lies in hands slumbering beneath the cold English soil ready for the final battle?

Or is it the sword of the mystical adviser, stained with the blood of unearthly dragons and rusted with subterfuge?

Or is it the sword of the love-lorn betrayer, about to be cast down and exchanged for a hermit’s staff?

I am weary. Behind me is the far west, the wild sea, the setting sun, rumoured lands just beyond the horizon. The wind blows around me and the rain drives or the sun burns but I care not.

Whoever I am, whatever is my sword, I have seen enough to long for peace.

*****

I grew up on King Arthur, both in his usual medieval guises and his perhaps more plausible Romano-British or pre-Roman British personas through books like “The Sword in the Stone”, “The Crystal Cave” and “Earthfasts”. The story is endlessly fascinating, perhaps because like all good stories, with or without any magical element, it is universal. An unlikely king, a mysterious adviser, a duplicitous half-sibling, a treacherous wife, a betraying best friend, civil war, the hope that the wisest, most honourable king sleeps until his people need saving once more. It’s a sad tale but at its heart, with the exception of the last part, quite plausible.

The Arthurian legends are generally portrayed as medieval and despite no evidence of any connection, thanks to the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, the sentimental Victorians and subsequently Hollywood, King Arthur is now firmly associated with the chivalric code.

Chivalry. Nowadays we associate it with men opening doors for women and walking on the outside of the pavement. The concept of medieval chivalry however, is hogwash.

There was indeed a chivalric code in the middle ages but it really only applied to nobles and to men. Any obligation for a man to respect a woman had a number of get-out clauses. Her best hope was to be noble and/or very rich and preferably locked up. If a woman was in the wrong place at the wrong time, unprotected, argumentative or simply poor, gentlemanly obligations were lifted. A knight in shining armour might whisk her off, but his motives were unlikely to be romantic.

The chivalric code regarding the poor and the clergy only went as far as it benefitted the knight and his particular aims. Medieval history is littered with examples of sickening cruelty at home and abroad. The crusades for example: while allegedly defending a religion of love and forgiveness, they did everything to demonstrate the worship of money and power. Their brutality resounds down through the centuries leading directly to current affairs. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.

The chivalric code of brotherhood… Well, several hundred years of almost constant civil war and fratricide indicates betrayal for the sake of power was the norm. Chivalrous? I don’t think so.

In fact, almost the only part of the chivalric code which everyone followed was the call to arms. They just had to pick the ‘right’ side.

Now I prefer to think of the real King Arthur, whoever he was, as a Celt defending his realm against the Romans or a Romano-Briton defending it against the invading Anglo-Saxons. No-one will ever really know. Both of those periods of time in my view, however vicious, were marginally preferable to the Middle-ages. At least no-one pretended to be chivalrous.

Still, what has altered since the ancient times when a man with a sword might have stood on this cliff? We think of ourselves as more civilised nowadays, but as long as life is cheap and the cries of the weak unheard in a relentless drive for wealth by the powerful; as long as the ‘right’ side changes with the wind; as long as cruelty can be ‘justified’ by ideology, nothing whatsoever has changed. The once and future king should stay asleep. The final battle will be beyond a sword.

*****

There is a story behind this photograph.

The sky may look blue, but in fact it was full of frozen rain and little shards of ices were pecking my face as I tried to stand straight against the howling wind which was tangling my hair.

The figure may look solitary and lonely. In fact he had just seen off one set of tourists and another set, at the forefront of which was me, toiled up the cliffs towards him. A group of young people overtook me and stood in front of the sculpture before my mother could take a clear photograph of her own. It later transpired, when we looked at Mum’s photographs, that one of the young men had dropped his trousers at exactly the point her shutter had gone off. Chief amongst the many ‘why’ questions was ‘why would you do it when freezing cold rain was blowing horizontally looking for warm flesh to chill and crevices to enter?’

All that aside however, in case you didn’t know, this sculpture, by Rubin Eynon is on the cliffs of Tintagel. Does it represent Arthur? Is the sword Excalibur? Apparently that’s up to the observer.

And I couldn’t decide either.

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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

 

Penmanship

My dear, do you remember giving me a knife for making pens? I missed it when I pulled a feather through the bars but had only my teeth to cut a nib from its quill. But no matter. I have no ink so I write my love with tears. I knew they had destroyed you when half my heart stopped beating. I hope they were not too cruel. The executioner comes for me now, but by the time this invisible letter flutters from my lifeless hand, we will be together once more, never in all eternity, to be parted again.

IMG_2860Words and picture copyright Paula Harmon 2017 and should not be reproduced without the author’s express permission.

From a challenge on Thin Spiral Notebook – check out other what other people wrote

The Nameless Manuscript

Someone was shaking me awake.

‘Train terminates here, miss,’ said the guard.

Finding myself slumped against the grimy train window, I blinked, stood up and made my way off the train. Still half asleep, I wobbled on the step and the guard helped me down as if I were an old lady or worse: tipsy.

Alone on the platform, I ran my hand across my eyes and grimaced at the soot left on my gloves.

At the barrier, the ticket collector looked askance and outside the station, the taxi man hesitated when I gave Harriet’s address, taking me in from top to toe as if ascertaining whether I could afford the fare.

‘My word,’ said Harriet, when I finally arrived at her flat, ‘did they make you travel in the coal tender?’

‘Do I look that bad?’ I looked into the mirror over her fireplace. My clothes were crumpled from the sleep and my hat askew, hitching my curls up on one side and flattening them on the other. Soot striped my eyes as if I had applied war paint.

‘I hope whatever you were doing was good copy,’ said Harriet, after I’d tidied myself up. ‘Could you put it in “Blueprint for Thingummy”?’

She nodded at my satchel, where my just-finished manuscript hid, its pages huddled within the string, tied up as a sacrifice for the publisher who’d agreed to look at it. I imagined it whimpering with the fear of being read and laughed at. I only had until tomorrow to think of a proper title.

‘Apart from the fact that it’s finished – I think – I’m not sure how I could get time-travel into it. “Blueprint” is supposed to be a murder mystery.’

‘Time-travel?’

‘It’s what happened to me on the train.’

‘I knew it,’ said Harriet, ‘trying to be an author is sending you mad. You need to stop writing and get a proper job before you get overwhelmed by delusion. And you need a stiff drink. Whatever really happened is obviously too traumatic to be solved with a cup of tea.’

‘Anything can be solved by a cup of tea.’

‘Really – you’d rather tea to a whisky and soda?’ She poured out a generous measure and waggled it at me.

‘Well maybe not tea the way you make it.’ I took the proffered glass and sat back. ‘Seriously, I really did travel in time.’

‘You were dreaming, but tell me anyway. Which era did you go visit? I always wanted to go back to Medieval times.’

‘It wasn’t back. It was forward.’

‘Robots I guess. Rocket ships.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was on a train.’

‘Well yes. You were on a train, fast asleep.’

‘I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on and then I woke up a few minutes later. I found myself sitting at a table and all the seats were orange.’

‘Orange?’

‘And the windows were quite clean. Apart from a few rain streaks, I could see out clearly. There was no soot.’

‘That’s because it was all over your face instead.’

‘No listen, I saw the power station at Battersea.’

‘Who can see that from the train in November? The radio said there was a real pea-souper in London today.’

‘There was. Or rather there was before I fell asleep. But when I woke, the skies were completely clear. No fog, no smoke.’

‘The power station…’

‘Just a shell. With scaffolding. Everything looked both familiar and unfamiliar. I thought I saw a fisherman on the river.’

‘What could you fish out of the Thames?’

‘I dread to think. There were skyscrapers on the horizon.’

‘Like the Empire State? In London?’

‘They weren’t anything like the Empire State. I can’t even describe them.’

‘I thought you were a writer. Isn’t it your job to describe things?’

I closed my eyes and tried to remember those edifices glinting in the autumn sun. ‘They were strange shapes. One looked like a pencil with a jagged top.’

‘It was a dream.’

‘And the people in the carriage. They were different.’

‘Silver suits, ray-guns?’

‘No. They wore pretty much what we wear only not so smart. Some had suits but not many. No hats apart from two men with peaked ones a bit like schoolboys wear.’

‘Baseball caps?’

I paused, remembering staring at them, wondering whether to be affronted at the sight of men indoors who had not removed their hats. I tried to recall what a baseball player wore.

‘Maybe.’

‘So they were all scruffy, dirty?’

‘No. That’s the strange thing. They were all dressed so casually and yet they were all so clean. Apart from their shoes. Hardly anyone had polished their shoes.’

I recalled the shiny hair, the smell of laundry soap, scent; the clear skin and eyes. There had been no odour of tobacco or coal or sweat. There was a strange smell which I couldn’t place and I wondered if it came from the orange seats which were made from something like rayon or from the structure of the carriage interior itself which appeared to be made of pale Bakelite. It was not unpleasant, just odd.

‘Some of the women wore a lot of cosmetic and others none. And no-one smoked.’

‘No-one?’

‘I know. I felt a bit rattled. I was afraid I might smell and must look peculiar with my hat and red suit and shiny shoes and brown satchel. But no-one paid me any attention till I got my cigarettes out.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They frowned and tutted and one of them nodded at the window. I thought he meant I should open it or something. Then I saw a sign. It was a sort of black sketch of a smoking cigarette with a red line through it. So I put my cigarettes away and said sorry.’

‘And then…’

‘I was ignored again. They were all staring at things – oblong bits of Bakelite – all sizes. There were flat folding typewriters. People were typing away, though I couldn’t see where the paper went. Others were looking at silent movies on tiny screens – I don’t know where the projectors were and they had wires stuck in their ears. And some were reading or writing by tapping on the glass with their fingers. Oh I can’t explain.’

‘I’m telling you. You’ve been working on that novel too hard. It’s worn out your brain. Typing without paper, writing with fingers…’

‘And then the train stopped at Vauxhall (which looked very strange) and one of the girls at my table left her oblong thing behind. I stood up to try and call her, but she’d had to walk down a long aisle and I couldn’t see her. I heard a whistle and some beeping and then the train started up. I fell back in my seat and bumped my head. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by the guard down here.’

‘My dear,’ said Harriet, pouring me another whisky, ‘you’ve been watching too many scary movies.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. It was all real.’

Harriet stubbed out her cigarette and nodded towards my satchel. ‘OK. If you say so. Are you going to show me your masterpiece or not? I want to be able to say I handled it just before the publisher snapped it up.’

Unbuckling the straps. I pulled out the manuscript, and with it came the girl’s oblong Bakelite thing. It was about eight inches by five, flat, glass on one side and dull black on the other, like a picture frame without a picture. When I touched it, a sunset appeared and when I pressed a button, the image was replaced with a grid of numbers and the words ‘enter passcode’. Just to see what happened, I touched out the first number which came to mind: the year, 1932.

The numbers disappeared and words replaced them…including my name.

I read aloud, ‘“In the early thirties, my great-grandmother had a strange experience on the train out of London. She was on the way to her publisher with the manuscript we now know as the best-selling masterpiece of classic detective fiction called…”’

The glass went black but for a whirring circle and some incomprehensible words. Then they too disappeared and nothing happened when I pressed the button.

I shook the object to see if it would do anything else. It didn’t.

Harriet lit a new cigarette.

I sighed and contemplated the depleted whisky bottle.

It had been a very strange day and no matter what the oblong thing said, I still had to decide a name for my novel.

As if reading my mind, Harriet said ‘Maybe your book will turn out to be a best-selling masterpiece, but I think you should stick to the title “Blueprint for Thingummy”. I can’t imagine any kind of world in which “Battery drained, shutting down” has any kind of meaning at all. Can you?”

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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

(This story started as a prompt on a Facebook page to write 750 words including “Blue-print”, “delusion” and “fisherman”. I started writing it on a train journey and was having so much fun I doubled the word limit! – I did post an edited version though…)

The Tale of a Tale

By 2009, I had sort of given up on any ideas of writing. What with work and young children and the aftermath of a stressful house/job/school move from Gloucestershire to Dorset, there just wasn’t time.

My father however, couldn’t stop making up stories. Every few months, he’d ask me to read a new novel, in which unlikely people had unlikely adventures in futuristic worlds. They were always good fun, although Dad’s feelings towards editing was much the same as his feelings towards decluttering (unnatural and diabolical).

One day, I said ‘why don’t you write about yourself or someone like yourself?’ and he said ‘because it’s boring. If you think you could make up a story about an old fogey in a wheelchair, be my guest.’

Dad was not your archetypal old fogey really. By this time, he had chronic arthritis but it didn’t stop him. If he thought a building wasn’t sufficiently adapted for wheelchair users, he would very politely explain this at length to the owner or anyone handy. On one occasion he visited in a café in my local (Georgian) town and finding the step awkward and the doorway narrow, popped out to get an Argos catalogue to show a café proprietor what ramps were available at a reasonable sum. The café closed down a few months later. I don’t think there’s a connection. He rushed around in either a scooter or electric wheelchair, regardless of anyone else’s feet or the suitability of the pavement. If he couldn’t be doing with the pavement, he’d drive down the middle of the road instead. One day Dad drove his wheelchair round a blind corner in the middle of Weymouth at four miles an hour with me and my sister running behind, shrieking at him to slow down. On another occasion, he lowered himself out of the wheelchair onto the pavement in order to take a ‘really good photograph’ of passing cars. My mother had to explain to concerned passers-by that he hadn’t collapsed and was technically quite well. I realised then that my father would embarrass all of us for as long as he could and I might as well accept it.

So there was the challenge: write about an old fogey in a wheelchair.

I still don’t know where the idea came from, but the whole story, just as unlikely as any of his, popped into my head as I was in the supermarket and I came straight home and wrote it on the computer in the freezing cold front room. It was called ‘Coffee at Tiffany’s’.

Shortly afterwards I wrote a second story: ‘Katie is a Cat’. This was inspired from the rainy day when I crossed Westminster Bridge and saw on the other side of the road two people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. So far so normal. However, they also had a cat in a basket on the wall behind them. Trust me, that’s not usual for central London at rush-hour.

A few years passed and Dad became very ill. I decided to write another ‘old fogey’ story for his birthday, but it just wouldn’t quite come. By June 2012, Dad was in hospital undergoing tests, totally exhausted but still writing. I dug out the ‘old fogey’ story and tried again. It would be a Father’s Day present. But I couldn’t find the happiness I needed to write something silly and put it back to one side. My sister and I arranged a photograph of all four grandchildren instead but he never saw that either. Dad died two days before Father’s Day.

Well, more years passed and Mum kept saying how much she’d liked those two silly stories and I remembered the others which I’d started and not finished. And I recalled the little bits of writing I’d done as a sort of outlet for grief. And I remembered all the fun we’d had with Dad when we were children. Then I realised Mum’s 80th birthday was coming up.

It took me months and a lot of secrecy. It took a lot of asking Mum odd questions about things which happened a long time ago (without telling her why), digging out old photographs, writing on trains, getting exasperated, feeling emotional.

When I decided to illustrate the book, I asked Mum, as if from idle curiosity, whether she had any of Dad’s drawings. She dug out a story Dad had written for my sister which I’d thought was long lost. There was his sketch from all those years ago, of a startled squirrel pegging out her washing, being confronted by an eagle. As you do. Fortunately it was the typed version, as no-one could read Dad’s handwriting. Even Dad.

Somehow, pulling all these elements together, I wrote a book. The parts based on real events proved to be harder to write than any of the fantasy sequences. Life is not narrative, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion. In the end, I stopped bothering trying to make it accurate and just started having fun instead.

And finally, with a few days to spare, I had a proof copy to give to Mum for her 80th birthday as a total surprise.

And now the book is published for sale.

‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is a celebration of my father: hero, eccentric, adventurer and story-teller to the end.

Part memory, part fantasy, it’s the story of an eccentric father with hero-worshipping little daughters and the adventures he has in his imagination when those girls turn into boring middle-aged women who need to lighten up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad, ‘everything will be fine.’

And do you know what Dad? Somehow it is.

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

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Memories

 

 

 

Memories

I wrote about a childhood holiday in Wales and showed my family.

‘You’ve forgotten that the car broke down three times,’ said Mum. ‘Your dad reconnected the exhaust with bandages and glue.’

‘I thought that was in Scotland.’

‘Nope. And you’ve forgotten how you were always wandering off in a daydream and we could never find you.’

‘There was a dragon to find, but no-one helped. At least I wasn’t naughty like Julia.’

My sister objected, ‘I was as good as gold.’

‘Yeah right,’ I retorted.

‘Memories are mostly made up,’ said Mum, ‘but they’re more fun that way.’

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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 – see what other people have written

Getting to know me

I have been talking to myself for years, so I may as well do a Q & A while I’m doing it!

So, Paula – is writing all you do?

I sometimes wish it was. I sometimes feel as if my primary role is laundress, chief cook and bottle washer and completer of forms for school. I work full time for the civil service (I vowed I would never do this, when I listened to my civil servant mother quoting form numbers over dinner. But here I am veteran of 28 years working for the same organisation after applying for an interim job till the dream one came up. And I can still remember form numbers, though the ones I can remember are irrelevant in my current role.) Apart from this I am married (to someone I met in the office who was also waiting in vain for the dream job) with a son at university and a daughter in her penultimate year at school.

What was your dream job then?

Writer. But I had no idea how to make it work and at the end of the day, had bills to pay. I felt very dissatisfied for a long time, till I just decided to write anyway. The good thing about this was that by that time I had a bit of life experience to put into what I wrote. Husband’s dream job involves not having one but sailing all day instead. I prefer dry land, or at least being moored within swimming distance of it.

When do you write?

Whenever I can find the time. This doesn’t always coincide with inspiration though. If I have the time but not the inclination,  I try to make myself write something, anything, just to keep the creative muscles working. Sometimes this has led to new insights into something I was stuck on. I often write on trains and hope no one is reading over my shoulder. They often are though. Once someone made me scream out loud by commenting from the seat behind and the other day someone started a conversation about notebooks. Just to add though, I was sketching at that point, not writing.

What do you write?

Someone asked me this the other day and I never know how to answer. I write mainly fiction. There may be more or less realism, more or less fantasy, more or less humour. I am finalising two things and working on another. They are all completely different.

How?

Well (1)  I’m formatting a book which I’m hoping to publish in October. It’s a celebration of an eccentric father and is based on real people and some real events but there is also a fantastical element which sneaks in from time to time.  Watch this space…. (2) I’m finalising a short story for a charity anthology. It’s set in an alternative universe, where in a sort of Victorian London, dragons are a source of potential power and potential threat…. (3) I’m on 2nd/3rd draft of a thriller which has no mystical element whatsoever.

How real are your characters to you?

Let’s put it this way, I cried actual tears when someone died, even though I’d made her up and could have written an alternative scene. It’s very hard to explain. I feel the frustration of the main character in the thriller as her opportunities are taken one by one. I wish I had one of the dragons in the short story because he makes me laugh. On the other hand, when writing the one based on real life, I found it hard to describe myself and my sister as children without turning us into a fictional characters. In the end, it’s pretty much what I did and had great fun making my sister naughtier even than she was.

What surprises you about writing?

The way the characters take over and the way themes change. You realise a story which you planned as a love story between persons A and B is actually a story of friendship between persons B and C. It’s wonderful how supportive authors are of each other, rather than competitors. I’m a member of several groups and all anyone wants is for others to do well. Also, it’s quite satisfying killing people off in a story (unless it makes you cry). My husband is disappointed that I’ve even murdered a boat but you know. Had to be done.

Why Downes?

Downes is my maiden name. Always thought I’d write under it but am keeping it for books I’ve planned to write for children.

What are you doing right now?

Right now I’m sitting in a cafe on my lunch break writing this. Am in Croydon, which I visit for work once a week. I can’t wait to get back to Dorset later. I also can’t wait to get home to take my new shoes off. My feet are killing me.

What do you wish people knew about you?

I’m very shy but have learned to cover it up in a veneer of confidence which doesn’t exist. One day I decided to take control of the shyness instead of the other way around. The downside is that people don’t realise when you’re struggling with life.

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Messaging

Once I put a message in a bottle and dropped it in the river.

Watching it bounce along until it disappeared, I suddenly felt guilty.

Most of the guilt was about littering but some of it was about deception.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of thing. A year or so earlier, I’d drawn a detailed map of the woods alongside our village. Only it wasn’t the usual sort of map.

This is what our woods were like. For several yards, bracken grew. In spring it sprouted bright fronds, curled like babies’ hands, unfurling as they grew. In summer, the green of the waving leaves grew dusty and tall enough to hide in. In autumn, they were golden and dry.

Interspersed with deciduous trees which were good for climbing, the heathland led to huge slabs of rock from which you could look across the valley to the mountains beyond the main road and bigger river.

Below the rocks was a path. In one direction the path led back towards the village, past two caves. One was nothing more than a hollow, a shelter from rain; the other was deeper and at its back a metal grating stopped you from falling into its depths. Ignoring the caves and continuing along the path, you would pass through the churchyard of the Welsh chapel. Gravestones in curlicued Welsh, grey and upright, stared down as you emerged onto the lower part of our street, next to the chapel’s only concession to the English language – a black sign with the words ‘Whosever believeth’ in gold.

Alternatively, if you climbed down from the stones and went in the opposite direction along the path, you would end up in the old quarry, a massive hollow of mysterious green and overhanging trees.

Above all of this, larches loomed and other trees gathered in conference. There was a copse with a circle of clear ground in the middle. The grass here was different: dark and shiny, lustrous, rich. In spring, bluebells grew. There were three slab rocks protruding from the ground, fallen together forming what looked like a tomb. It was just big enough for a nine year old to huddle inside.

This copse and the river were my places. I stood on the bridge of the river and told my problems to the lights under the trees. I sat in the copse and talked to invisible listeners. I drew a map which showed all the portals into the other world which I knew was there but couldn’t reach. The main portal was the stone ‘tomb’.

This sounds mad written down, but it wasn’t. I was a lonely child and at the time. Mercilessly bullied at school, I distrusted most of my peers. I read numerous books about other worlds running alongside ours and somehow, I discovered special places where the boundary was thin and I could be heard. It was comforting to have someone listen who wouldn’t sneer when I cried. l just wanted to find out how to cross over.

One day, I put the map inside a sweet tin with a coin and a couple of other contemporary things and buried it in the ‘tomb’. It was the thing to do at the time. A few months later, I dug it up again. I possibly felt guilty about littering, probably wanted the coin and definitely didn’t want the map to fall into the wrong hands.

But at least the map told the truth.

Dropping a bottle into the river wasn’t quite the same. I had been watching dramatisations of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘The Little Princess’. Here were tales of misunderstood girls for whom life somehow came out all right without the need for any magical intervention from outside. Magic would be more fun, but it eluded me.

While writing a heavily plagiarised version of the same sort of tale for my Guides Writer’s Badge, I carefully drafted a message on some paper, which I’d tried to make look older with the use of cold tea. I made my handwriting as Victorian looking (to me) as I could, rolled the paper up and put it inside a glass bottle with a screw top.

It could have said ‘How far did this go? Please ring Paula on 45223’.

But it didn’t.

It said: ‘Help! I am imprisoned by my wicked aunt in the tower of her mansion. Please rescue me! Victoria.’

As I watched the bottle disappear, I started to worry. Our river ran down from the mountains and at our village, joined a much larger river to head down to the sea. Anything thrown into it could theoretically have come from quite a large area of South Wales.

I wasn’t naturally a liar. What if the bottle was found? Would anyone believe it had been cast into the waters by some long dead Victorian, who had never been rescued?

Then I thought a bit harder. Would felt tip pen on modern paper and a twentieth century fizzy drink bottle fool anyone into thinking the message was Victorian? What if they thought it was recent and genuine and launched a rescue for someone who didn’t exist?

In all likelihood, the bottle was smashed long before it got to the main river. Quite apart from all the stones it had to dodge on the way, our little river joined the bigger one after dropping down a waterfall onto a pile of rock. What I should have been worrying about was all the broken glass in the water as the words of my carefully penned bit of fiction dissolved into nothing.

Even now, I still feel vaguely guilty. I’m not sure why. Yet part of me still hopes after all this time, that the bottle will be found, intact, with the message still inside and triggering a delicious mystery.

And as for the map… I am still hopeful it is somewhere in the clutter of our attic. One day, I will find that portal, one day…

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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

Click here for links to my book “Kindling” which included two stories about the woods and river near where I grew up

September Acrostic

Almost equinox, afternoons dwindle early into dusk.
Under bookshelves and in corners, spiders lurk and scheme.
Term starts, treading well-worn paths towards harvest, bonfires, Diwali, Christmas.
Unpredictable skies loom, but hesitating to store my summer clothes, I think
Maybe there will be an Indian summer” and hope, shivering.
Not quite ready for winter, I leave my coat in the cupboard till October.

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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