Over the Bridge

It’s a slow amble down the slope.

The railings on either side are a little wonky. One set appears to be held up by brambles and on the edge bordering the big green field with the sad horse tethered in his small brown circle, the railings slope idly as if no-one ever told them to stand up straight. They were painted black once, but now they’re dull rust colour. You can taste the iron just by looking at them. Right at the end, just before the bridge the bars have been bent apart so that someone small can squeeze through.

The start of the bridge is overhung with trees.  Trees overhang the river on both sides. The railings of the bridge are still black, mostly, and the paint is smooth and lumpy under my hands as I look over.

Upstream, the river curves away but the depths still sparkle under the trees and little droplets of light and dust shine and spin and dart – appearing and disappearing. The water is darkest as it disappears around the bend but the spots of sunshine on the waves and in the air make it friendly and welcoming. I open my mouth to speak to the flashes of brightness but find I am dumb.

Turning, I look over the other side of the bridge. You can see further downstream and it is not so overhung. For a few metres, the water runs swiftly, weed straggling with the flow. Deceptively it plays over hidden deeps and stony shallows.  It will speed up and deepen as it bends away, as it nears the waterfall at the other end, before it pours out into the bigger river and on to the sea.

The black bars of the bridge are hot under my hands, even under the trees and when I step on the bottom bar with my feet between the balusters so that I can lean over, the metal is hot on my toes as well.

Just out from under the bridge is a small sandbank, dry enough to stand on. A little girl is there alone, crouched down, intently staring at something. She is around nine and her feet in white sandals are planted firmly on the edge of the lapping water. Her cotton dress is short and floral and her brown hair is clipped back from a face which is turned from me. She is carefully picking out stones and examining them. A little pile has built up and I can see that some are smooth and pretty and some are like black glass, jagged and sparkly. After a while, she stops picking out stones and just hunches, elbows on her knees, chin on her hands, staring into the water. It is shallow enough here for her to make out all the little lives going about their business in the lee of the main flow. Sometimes, she looks upstream and downstream and then returns to her observations or her foraging.

If she has any doubts and fears, it seems they are forgotten. Now she appears totally content and safe and full of hope and peacefully alone.

In a while, she will go home, taking some of her finds; she will say goodbye to the river and the sparkling lights who listen to her secrets and her worries; she will take one last look at the nymph, busily marching round its underwater kingdom and hope that she will be there when it emerges and transforms.

I look at her and wish I could remember the words the river understands, wish I knew how to find the pretty stones, still feel sad that the next time she comes the nymph will be gone and a myriad dragonflies will fly around but none will recognise her.

If she looks up, she will not see me because I do not exist yet. She will see nothing but a bridge, going home in one direction and going away from home in another.

She will grow up and stop visiting the sand bank. Some of her worries will come true and others won’t. She will forget how to talk to the wild, but the wild will not forget how to speak to her.

The river will flow on, the waterfall will carry her away, the big river will swallow her up, the sea will engulf her, but she will be all right. In the end, she will be all right. The light sparkling under the trees will always be there.  She will be all right.

river

Copyright 2016 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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Catching the Post

ALIX
Alix decided if she was going to go to the postbox, she might as well put her running gear on and run there. Or at least pretend to. David asked her what she thought she was doing.

“Have you seen the fog?” he argued, “It was hell driving home. What on earth makes you want to go out in it? You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You’ll fall off the pavement and get run over or someone will attack you or something.”

Alix hadn’t noticed the fog. She’d been stuck indoors all day with the laptop and her thoughts, tackling bureaucracy and sorting out the old letters and diaries discovered when her mother went into the hospital. And then somehow she’d felt the desperate urge to try once more with Amy.

“I need to get out” she said, “if it’s that bad, I’ll just go to the post box and back. If I don’t go now it won’t catch the first post.”

David looked at the letter and scowled. “I don’t know why you’re wasting your time. She won’t come.”

Alix looked at her husband – the stubborn set to his jaw masking the hurt pride, a characteristic he had passed down to their daughter. She swallowed the words she wanted to say. They had been said over and over. Someone had to give in and she was tired of it being her.

She pretended to do some stretches and opened the door.

“Won’t be long” she said.

She had never seen fog like it. It pressed against the walls like a pillow, as if it was trying to smother the house.

Still, the post box was so near she could have run there blind-fold and she really needed to get out. Maybe she’d just post the letter and come back, maybe she’d post the letter and run round the block. Maybe she’d just post the letter and go to the shops, just to clear her head.
JENNY
“Where do you think you’re going?” said Jenny’s mother, “have you seen the fog?”

“I don’t care” said Jenny, pulling on her hat and buttoning her jacket, “I’ve got to post this letter – it’s got to get to Bill before he sails.”

“They won’t let him have that leave you know. Anyway, for all you know he’s sailed already. Don’t you….”

Jenny opened the door and slammed it behind her before Mother asked her if she didn’t know there was a war on. Again.

Mother opened the door and continued regardless, “look at it – it’s thicker than porridge. It’s uncanny that’s what it is. That’s what your gran would say and she had the second sight. You go out in this you’ll get run over, mark my words. And I’ve got a nice Woolton pie in the oven and it’ll go to waste.”

Jenny took a breath and dug into the fog, it felt like mining. “If I get run over, Arthur can have my portion. In fact, he can have it anyway, I’m not hungry.”

She stormed off. It was true, she wasn’t hungry. Even if Woolton pie wasn’t the most revolting thing made worse by a mother who could ruin even the blandest foods, she was aching from missing Bill. And she didn’t know why she needed to have this weekend with him, maybe just a night, maybe an hour, even in some dingy little boarding house near the docks, but she did.

Distantly she could still hear her mother still moaning: “it’s not proper chasing after a man, even when he’s your husband. Especially when he’s your husband. Only fools marry when there’s a war on.” Her voice faded away.

Even in the blackout Jenny could have walked to the post box in her sleep but she felt disorientated in the sheer darkness of the fog. It felt as if she in some horrible game of blind man’s bluff. She kept slipping off the pavement into the road. It wasn’t far now.
CHARLOTTE
Charlotte waited until Father fell asleep and carefully let herself out. The post box was set into the wall five houses away. She left the door on the latch and pulled it to. If she hurried she’d just about have enough time to catch the post.

She was so ashamed it hurt. How stupid she had been, how miserable she was. A whole day of weeping silently. What if he wouldn’t forgive her? What if he thought she wasn’t worth it? What if he didn’t understand the fear that she felt? What if he didn’t come back for her and she was stuck with Father forever, desiccating into a mad old maid.

Charlotte kept her head down and her coat wrapped tight round her. She had forgotten her hat in her haste and felt vaguely wanton. She couldn’t even see the hem of her skirt, let alone the tips of her shoes as she rushed along. She tried to take a deep breath and realised it was not just the corset which stopped her from filling her lungs, it was the fog, impenetrable and almost edible.

She looked up to see if she could make out the the post box, which was right next to a street lamp, but it was hard to make out whether the dim glimmer she could see was the lamp or light from an upstairs window.

Yes – here it was. How strange, it was glowing slightly, the only item of colour in the swirling grey.

Two other people were nearing it. Charlotte tried to make herself small. They looked very strange. Making out the shapes, she could tell that one was clearly a woman, but her skirts were short like a girl’s. On the other hand, she was wearing a hat and Charlotte self-consciously touched her damp uncovered hair. The other person – it was hard to tell, but it also seemed to be a woman, although it was hard to make out what she was wearing. Some sort of trousers and some sort of shapeless jacket. And she was also hatless, her longish hair pulled back into a sort of tail like a horse.

Charlotte slowed. She didn’t know what to do.
ALIX
The post box was glowing. That was the first thing Alix noticed. The next thing she noticed was that two other women were approaching. One was in a ridiculous long dress, creeping along apparently poised to run at the first threat and the other was dressed up in a dowdy suit with a rabbit’s foot pinned on as a brooch. She was even wearing a hat. Alix suddenly felt conscious of her running gear and immensely unfeminine.
JENNY
Jenny could see the postbox gleaming redly which was very odd. Then she realised that two others were approaching the box. One was dressed forty years or so out of date and the other looked as if she was in pyjamas. Were they ghosts? Her mother’s words echoed in her mind: “it’s uncanny, that’s what it is.”
Well nothing was going to stop her posting the letter. Once she’d done that she’d run.

“It’s got to catch the post,” she said urgently, her voice shaking, “whoever you are – please don’t stop me.”
ALIX
“Why would I stop you?” Alix protested, taken aback, “Mine needs to catch the post too. Why are you frightened of me?”

“Because you’re ghosts.”

“I’m not a ghost,” Alix said, “I’m from round the corner” as if that precluded the supernatural. “I just need to send a letter to my daughter.” She looked round at Charlotte hovering at the edge of what little light there was. If anyone was a ghost it was this young woman in Edwardian clothes, timid, a little older than the one in the old fashioned tweed suit. Maybe the one in tweed was a ghost too. Yet they both seemed very much alive with emotion.

CHARLOTTE
Charlotte took a breath. She really hadn’t much time, if Father came after her, he’d stop the letter being posted and that would be the end. Gerald would never know she’d changed her mind, that she was brave enough to go away with him after all.

“I need to post mine – if I don’t.” Charlotte’s voice petered out but she darted forward anyway. How strange, the panel on the front of the post box kept blurring – but she had to take the risk. The letter in her gloved hand slipped into the slot and as she let go, the two other women disappeared and she was on her own in the familiar street just a few doors away from her house. The fog was receding slightly and she ran for home to creep in through the door and close it gently. Now it was just a matter of waiting.
JENNY
Jenny looked at Alix nervously. Charlotte had posted her letter and instantly dissolved into the fog which was now thicker than ever, sucking at their faces.

Tears filled Jenny’s eyes. “I’ve got to post it.” she said, “I don’t know why, but I just know I have to post it. Whoever you are, please don’t stop it getting through.” She took a firm step forward and pushed her letter into the box. As she let go, the woman in the pyjamas disappeared and she could hear her brother’s voice calling her. She started back up the hill wondering why she had been so unnerved by the fog. It wasn’t so bad. Jenny turned to look at the post box, dull and barely visible in the blacked out street. All she had to do now was wait.
ALIX
Alix stood in the gloom alone. The fog was now so dense she could feel it in her lungs and ears and filling up her eyes. The postbox continued to glow. What was the point in posting the letter? Maybe David was right. Maybe it was a waste of time. It was certainly old fashioned. Who wrote letters nowadays? It might not even get to Amy for days. But somehow, somehow it made sense. The calls and texts and messages and emails had gone unanswered, maybe it would take a letter to get their daughter to come home.

It seemed as if the fog had formed a barrier in front of the box. Alix hesitated. What was she afraid of? Failure? Humiliation? Disappointment? What did any of those things matter really? With a sense of forcing her way through cobweb, she posted the letter to Amy and stood back, waiting to disappear.

Nothing happened. She shook her head, damp with the fog which suddenly didn’t seem much worse than usual. She could just make out the orange streetlights blurring but otherwise visible, marking her way home.

She let herself into the hall. Her hair was curling from the damp air and she suddenly felt grief overwhelm her. Mum would soon be gone, was nearly gone, just a frail shell of patient endurance; a softly held hand and barely audible words. And Amy didn’t know. Amy, who had stormed out after that row with her father all those months ago, wouldn’t contact her, didn’t know how little time was left to see her grandmother alive. There were things you couldn’t put in texts or leave on answer phones – you just needed to say them face to face.

Alix pulled herself together as much as she could and walked into the kitchen. David was sitting at the table with the bundles of letters and diaries.

“Did you know your great great grandmother eloped?” he said, passing her a picture of a shy girl in Edwardian clothes.

“Yes I knew that.” said Alix, “It worked out in the end. A year or so later they came back home and made peace with her father.” She tried not to say this pointedly as she took the photograph, frowning as she looked at it, the timid stranger somehow familiar, “and he left them the house when he died. I think it was just round the corner, near the….”

She stopped. David didn’t notice, now flicking through an 1940 diary. He frowned and rummaged in the box until he found the one for 1941, and a telegram, yellowed with age.

“Did you know your mother never met her own father?” he asked, “In fact, it looks as if your mother might easily not have existed at all. Listen to your grandmother’s diary: ‘thank goodness my letter caught the post and they let Bill have that weekend leave before he sailed, who knows when I’ll see him again.’ That was November 1940 and as far as I can tell she never did see him again. Look, here’s your mum being born August 1941 and then see this telegram came a few weeks later to say his ship had been torpedoed.”

He was silent. Alix leaned over and picked up a dusty rabbit’s foot brooch half hidden by old letters and turned it over in her hands.

David was still looking at the diary. His voice was quiet. “Makes you think doesn’t it? All those moments when one small thing made all the difference.” He paused. “Did you post that letter?”

“Yes” said Alix, “I nearly didn’t but in the end it suddenly seemed the most important thing in the world.”

David took back the photo of Alix’s great great grandmother and stared at it for a while. “I think there’s some dust in my eye.” he said, rubbing the corner and leaving the room. He didn’t come back and after a while Alix went to look for him. The sitting room door was ajar and she was about to open it when she heard his voice low, tearful and insistent.

“Amy: don’t hang up,” he was saying, “Don’t hang up please. I’m sorry for what I said, please listen, come home, your mum needs you. I need you. I’m sorry – Amy, please just come home.”

postbox_edited-2

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Mystery

Do I know everything about you?
No, thank goodness
You are still a mystery some of the time.
Do you know everything about me?
No, thank goodness
I still don’t know myself.
We can sit in silence
In our own worlds
But not feel alone.
I suspect…
you are thinking of sailing
or
how to tackle that repair
or
wondering if you should buy a motorbike again
You suspect…
I am thinking of other worlds
Words tumbling over themselves
Knitting into stories or poems.
And we’d both be right.
In the midst of this
We can touch hands,
We can share a kiss.
I love you because
we don’t always have to talk, to do, to be.
When we need to
we can live in our private worlds
Together.

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permissionrose

Inside

The sudden downpour took them by surprise as they lolled on the grass outside the cathedral. “Quick, inside” said Izzy, grabbing Em’s arm. She avoided the neat pensioners trying to encourage a donation and sat them down close to the door so they could get out as soon as possible.

You couldn’t hear the rain. In fact you could hear very little, just the tourists wandering about taking photos, passing on the stone floor: click click click tap tap tap.

A long way down towards the other end people were just sitting.

“How boring” said Izzy, leaning awkwardly to get a selfie of herself with the vaulted ceiling looming above her.

Em suddenly felt tired. Not from the holiday or late nights, but just tired. It was like being in a car that had been rushing along and suddenly stopped so that all the things in the back crashed into you. All the things in the back of Em’s mind were crashing into her.

She thought about how she’d started to write a postcard to Grandma and was just about to sign her name when she remembered Grandma had died. She saw her future opening up in front of her: no longer at college, no longer supported by her parents, just her – responsible. She wondered if she would be loved, if life would make sense, if she would be worthwhile.

Em felt panic rising and tuned Izzy out, staring towards the brilliant stained glass window, sparkling even with a rain storm outside; and she looked at the people just sitting. Were they communing? Or just being still?

Tears filled Em’s eyes, as she sat there feeling lost. Was this praying? She wasn’t religious. She didn’t have any words to say, so could it be praying – just laying your hurt and worry out?

She felt a hum in the air, like someone saying “don’t be afraid, be at peace” and in her mind’s eye, saw herself enveloped in comforting arms. And the things crashing into her fell and dissolved.

window

Harbour Mouth

As usual, dinner choked her and she ate barely anything. Sam didn’t notice but poured her more wine. She drunk some white. Then some red. As usual, she went to bed drained, pincers at her temples and took paracetamol and ibruprofen, and valerian because otherwise how would she sleep? Sam was still watching TV. What was on TV tonight? Nothing. She quietly packed a bag and wrote him a note. 4.40am every day and she was wide awake, mind churning churning, options like the doors off one of those unending corridors – is the answer here? or here? What even was the question? When the alarm goes off her body ached, her eyes leaden. One foot in front of the other, shower, wake the kids, make breakfast, put on the face, do the hair, say goodbye to Sam, take the kids to school, late again, tutting stay-at-home mums watching her as they gossip before going for coffee or to walk the dog or clean their clean houses. Go to work. Endless emails, like the fairytale with the self-filling purse only with the opposite effect. The fuller the inbox, the more drained she felt. Rushing to get the task done for the vague thanks she’d get, providing data so that someone else would get the praise. What did it all mean anyway? Who wanted those endless stats? What did I do in work today? Nothing. Rushing to get back for school pick-up. Late again. Angry teacher talking to her as if she was six. Driving home with the kids, “what did you do in school today?” “Nothing – what’s for tea?” At home, the overflowing laundry, the pointless cooking of tea – prodding of broccoli, shovelling of pasta. What did I do at home today?  Nothing.  She tried to put all this in the note, waiting for the valerian to kick in and took more painkillers. When she left, who would even miss her really? Exemplary employee, caring wife and mother – just functions. They’d miss the functions. How could they miss her? She had been lost a long long time. She tried to put it in the note, but it was hard to put it into words. She wasn’t sure what she was writing. The next day at 4.40am, she slipped out of bed and out of the house. She got to the coast and wondered vaguely if she’d shut the front door. She imagined the house – wide open, wondering where she’d gone – the overflowing laundry, the untidy rooms, the toys crying “organise us!” and the fresh air blowing in whispering “she’s gone, she’s gone” and the children and Sam sleeping on and on until they woke and tried to remember what she looked like and life going on without her. She got to the coast and looked at the harbour bridge shiny in the dawn.She didn’t remember it being so long, the end was barely visible, the other side of the harbour mouth hazy and clean. She didn’t remember it being so narrow, only room for her.  Weren’t there buildings on the other side? Where was the traffic? Maybe it was always this quiet at 4.40am. Was it still 4.40am? No it must be later, time for the alarm to go off. Surprising there is no traffic. She starts to walk across the bridge. Why am I walking? Didn’t I bring the car? Never mind. It’s peaceful here but looks even more peaceful there. The buzzing, the humming, the relentless noise of her mind is silent. Nothing can be heard, not the sea, nor the wind, nor the town behind her. Is the town behind her? She doesn’t want to turn and look – the other side of the bridge is more inviting. There is a person coming towards her, as vague as the bridge, it is calling to her. It must be shouting because it’s so far away she can’t tell if it’s male or female, but the voice is like a whisper, she closes her eyes to hear better. “Not yet,” it says, “Go back, go back, here is some strength, go back, go back” and rain starts to fall on her from the clear blue sky, “come back come back” and she opens her eyes and Sam is holding her, his tears falling on her face, and she is in her bed and he is holding her and he has her letter in his hand, crushed against her, and he has her letter in his hand, crushed against her with its scrawled words: “I’m lost. I’m so tired. I want to sleep forever. Find me.” And he is whispering “you didn’t wake when the alarm went off, I didn’t know, I didn’t know” and he pulls her up to himself, crying into her hair and she steps back off the bridge and into his arms.

bridge 2Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

BOOK REVIEW: Chickens Eat Pasta by Clare Pedrick

How often do you look out of the window when everything is going wrong and wish you could start all over again? And then you sigh and decide it’s impossible and you’ll just have to keep on going.

At 26, Clare Pedrick was a successful Sussex journalist with plans for a career in London. But the death of her parents and the end of a long term relationship left her wondering if that was enough anymore. When she saw an advert for a “house for sale in Umbria”, Clare started on a journey which would lead her to resigning from her job and buying an old house in a small village in Italy, against the advice of friends, family and colleagues.
“Chickens Eat Pasta” is a wonderful book. Clare’s love of Italy and the new friends she makes there fill the pages with warmth. The author skilfully demonstrates some of the culture clashes between British and Italian cuisine and customs, but unlike some similar books, there is no sense that the author feels either superior or inferior to her new compatriots. You can sense that real, lasting friendships were formed while Clare learned to fit into her new surroundings without relinquishing her own personality.

In this book, Clare interweaves love stories, her own and those of others around her, locals and ex pats, funny and tragic with the constant thread of her love affair with her new home -the purchase and renovation of the house which “towered imposingly from its position on a knoll overlooking an endless vista of hills and valleys”. She describes how her new friends help protect her against bureaucracy and menace and how she manages against technological odds, to continue her journalistic career in a different way.

I thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who loves travel, humour and a little romance. For anyone who is looking out of that window and wondering what would happen if you started again – this book shows how it worked out for one woman brave enough to find out.

Clare’s book can be found by following this link 

http://www.troubador.co.uk/book_info.asp?bookid=3313FRONT COVER IN JPG