War Games

Children are a blood-thirsty lot. In my early years of primary school, the playground was just as likely to be a battle-field with one group attacking another as it was to be scene of kiss chase, which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same thing.

Boys games were simple. There were two sides. You shot at each other with imaginary guns. Consequently you were either heroically victorious or heroically dead, having expired with magnificent sound effects. After a short period of lying around frozen in the moment of death, you came back to life to do a bit more shooting until the bell went when friend and foe marched arm in arm to the refrain: “We won the war, in 1964!”

Girls games: There was a lot of emphasis on dolls, kiss-chase or kidnapping boys to be your husband while you kept house. I didn’t mind the kissing or kidnapping but had a hate-hate relationship with both dolls and housework. So until I was seven, my playtime, depending on my school and social status at the time, was spent either acting out fantasy stories (alone or with my equally weird friend Joanna and a unicorn), being bullied or playing war games with the boys.

Even though, or perhaps because, all the other girls had long since caved in to gender stereotyping and sidled off to find a skipping rope, Joanna and I stuck to the war-games as long as we could. But tragically, the boys eventually decided they didn’t really want girls involved anymore. Was this because the boys were challenged by our ability to look more dead than they could (I practised quite a lot in readiness for an acting career) or because Joanna and I not only wanted to a story to explain the battle but also include the unicorn? In the end we were sent off the battlefield to be nurses purely so that periodically we could touch the fallen and make them come back to life.

When I was eight we moved from England to Wales. I found that while terminology changed, the fundamental rules of playground engagement were roughly the same including bullying, which, it turned out, is truly a game without frontiers.

Whether because of our age or local custom, there was definitely no mixing of the sexes in the playground. Now I had to arm myself for a darker kind of conflict: big girls’ games. On the face of it, these simply involved skipping ropes and elastics, learning nonsensical complicated rhymes, avoiding falling on one’s face and talking about the fashion credentials of each other’s clothes. But in truth it was a cold warfare of double-talk with a constant undercurrent of oneupwomanship. I never ever learnt how to crack the secret code, but nevertheless learnt early on that undercover negotiations worthy of Le Carre meant that the girl with the power was not necessarily the girl who won the game and the girl you needed to keep on your side was almost certainly your deadliest enemy.

Outside of school, in long hot summer evenings, all the village children played one massive game of Cowboys and Indians. This involved running around in the bracken and climbing trees, ambushing each other, generally without a clear idea who was which. Although I’d left the unicorn in Berkshire, I was still desperate for a storyline and in my head I was a beautiful, mysterious Indian princess, outlined against the sunset sky waiting for her hero. (Fortunately – my new friend, despite understanding the yearning for a story, could be relied on to get me down out of the line of sight when I was about to be shot by a Cowboy with no romance in his soul.)

The point is, there was always an enemy. We just weren’t sure who they were or whose side we were on. Brought up at a time when TV consisted of three channels and only showed Westerns and World War II films, it’s perhaps not surprising that in the playground we wondered whether we were still at war with Germany if not the Apache. We sort of knew we weren’t. We were pretty certain the war had finished some time before 1964, but it was all a bit foggy. Our grandparents talked about the war, our parents referred to it. On TV it filtered into dramas, comedies, films. It was as if it had never ended. Or as if people were sorry it had.

My father had a great deal of imagination but little sensitivity, so that on the one hand he told stories which made us certain that it was just a matter of time before we met a dragon, on the other hand he didn’t wonder whether an inquisitive little girl should listen to quite so much news. I remember very clearly hearing about battles in Israel, firmly convinced it was all to do with the crucifixion because when you’re three, the difference between last Easter and two thousand years ago is negligible. Then there was the reporting of the Prague Spring, which took place on my father’s thirtieth birthday. I recall asking where Czechoslovakia was and worried when they said it was where our car, a Skoda, came from. What if the people with tanks came to get it back?

Anxiety about war, therefore, started very early on. I felt conscious in some background way, that someone was out to get me. I just didn’t know who.

The IRA seemed to be the most likely. My parents both worked in the public sector. Letter bombs were delivered to my mother’s office and my father’s scruffy old briefcase, left on an office landing, was partially dismantled by security staff as a suspect package. If it looked disreputable beforehand, it looked a lot worse afterwards but national security had been threatened by nothing worse than a couple of science fiction novels, his own scribblings and an empty tupperware (my father was never known to leave a lunch uneaten.)

Initially the only conflict I thought the Soviet Union could trigger was a recurring argument between socialist Dad and his Conservative father. I think they thought that Communism and by association, socialism, undermined the whole calm conformity of the British way of life and was the unlocking of the gate to general chaos and anarchy. This possibility so terrified my grandmother that she refused to shop in the Co-op. To my father’s teenage shame, my grandfather had once refused to give water to a passing member of one of the Aldermaston marches on the grounds that he disapproved of any challenge to the status quo.

By the time I was the teenager, a pacifist, I more anxious than ever about conflict. I was no longer worried about the Germans. I had a German pen friend. My grandfather was vaguely worried that through her I would marry a foreigner (the irony of this is that one of his own grandfathers was from what is now the Ukraine.) But I wasn’t sure that a ecologically, community minded German wasn’t preferable to a miserable Briton. Inner city discontent, industrial action, high unemployment, apartheid, IRA bombings, race riots, women’s rights all wove themselves into the flag waving, petrol bombing, picket line fires-in-oil-drums tapestry of my teens. Meanwhile on TV archetypal stereotypes with their casual racism: the dolly birds and frigid wives, the lazy workers, stupid Irish, singing Welsh, mean Scots, class-obsessed English, were starting to flicker and fade. Television had become a distorted mirror of a society which was fracturing and reforming.

In 1980, the BBC started to teach Russian. I only learnt how to say thank-you and goodbye before the programme was hastily withdrawn when the USSR had invaded Afghanistan.

The sabre rattling started in earnest shortly after. Or at least, that’s when I noticed it. In the sixth form, we endlessly discussed our fears about the bickering between the Soviet Union and the USA. Could the Falklands War escalate with interference from outside? Would the boys I’d known since childhood eventually be conscripted to die for places we hadn’t known existed? The Falklands War ended but the tension remained. We learned how to prepare for a nuclear attack. Someone said that someone had told them that someone had said that in the event of a nuclear threat both America and Russia would destroy the whole of Western Europe to save it from being annexed by the other side. This was cheering. Our morbid discussions tended to veer towards what we’d do if we heard the four minute warning. Would you have sex with the first person available just in case it was your last chance or indeed first and only chance – even if that meant doing it with HIM? Would four minutes be long enough to do so? If not, would you commit suicide? If you didn’t kill yourself, then was it your responsibility to start a new generation in the post apocalyptic world? And if so, would you reproduce with the first person available – even if it was HIM? (We were teenagers – it was hard to keep focussed on the right things sometimes.)

I was genuinely convinced that I was not going to live to adulthood. That some idiot would press the big red button and wipe out everything and all the people – faulty yes, failed yes, but just people. I can remember feeling depressed and angry and hurt and cheated by the leaders of the world who just couldn’t work out some way of making peace. It seemed like five minutes since an adult was telling me to play nicely with my sister and here were the adults incapable of doing the same on a larger scale. I talked to my father about it and he said he remembered feeling the same about the Cuban missile crisis when he was young. It wasn’t comforting to know that in the intervening time, no-one had learned anything.

I went to a few CND meetings but the earnestness made me a little nervous and while I admired the brave conviction of the Greenham Common women I was even more nervous of them (and also, to be honest, didn’t fancy being that grubby). I miserably concluded that I was not an activist. I was going to die angry but unheard (albeit clean.)

In 1981, my German penfriend invited me to stay with her family and they took me to see the fence.

It was a beautiful summer’s day and we were in the middle of nowhere. We had climbed up a small mountain and passed a life size Calvary. Suddenly we were in a field with a waist high hand rail and maybe fifty yards away across some longer grass, there was a tall wire fence with watch towers and high walkways patrolled by armed soldiers.

“Be careful,” said my pen friend’s father, “That’s a mine field. And don’t take photographs.”

I remember staring at it, not quite believing it was real, watching as one of the soldiers stopped his restless walking back and forth and turned to stare back at us. Impossible to tell at that distance what age he was. Impossible to know what lies he has been told about my culture and what lies I’d been told about his.

Under the lazy blue sky and across the waving treacherous grass, I just knew that I didn’t want to kill him and I didn’t want to be dead.

Eight years later, I was watching TV film of the Berlin wall being broken down, three years after that, I was standing on a street in Bucharest looking at bullet holes and an empty presidential palace, twenty years after that, my next door neighbour was from Belarus.

In 2013, we took our son to his GCSE options evening and were told that the history course covered the Cold War. I looked at the teacher and realised that she would have been too young to have remembered it, that it was history to her, whereas to me, it was a backdrop; that it coloured my teenage and early adult years with an underlying dread I have never quite shaken off.

Now, the anxiety felt by my teenage son and daughter is the fear that there just might be a terrorist in their midst. Does it comes to the same thing? They feel depressed and angry and cheated by people wanting to destroy something for reasons which miss the point of humanity, which is that the person beside you or across the border, or on the other side of the world is ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a beautiful creation, faulty yes, failed yes, but just another person with hopes and dreams and loves, who wants to grow up and leave in peace.

And yet here we are, still squaring up to each other, like boys in a playground. Like girls in a playground, still making secret deals and whispering behind each other’s backs. And still not really certain who or what we’re fighting and whose side we should be on.

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

Marta

There are sisters and sisters.

Marta was the good girl and no-one ever noticed her except to tell her what she was doing wrong. Doing things right was the expectation. Marta was the oil in the machine of life, keeping things going, people fed and clothed. She knew where things were or might be or should be. She remembered special occasions. She wiped tears and held hands and gave advice when asked and tried not to mind when the advice was ignored. f she got angry or miserable, she was accused of moodiness. It disturbed people when the machine didn’t run properly. No-one ever said “you look tired or sad or lonely.” They just told her to pull herself together and stop being selfish. So Marta just got on with things. When she had been little, she used to lie out in the sun and watch the clouds or the sun playing through the leaves of the olive trees. Now she was always looking down – into the basin, into the fire, onto the floor.

Miryam on the other hand was fun. She could be scatterbrained and she could be untidy. She sang and laughed and cried and shouted in equal measure but no-one minded. If Marta was the oil in the machine of life, Miryam was the decoration on the machine and the spice in the sauce. People thanked her when did her duties, and excused her when she didn’t. Miryam was grown up yet still sat about outside whenever she could, grinding the wheat and singing, or just singing; taking her temper out on the laundry; playing tag with the children. Even when she was looking down, she restlessly wondered where the answers were. If Marta sat on her own, chances are she’d stay that way. If Miryam sat on her own, people swarmed round her. It was as if the light inside her warmed them up and just her presence brought them to life. Sometimes she wished that they would all leave her alone and stop trying to drain the energy out of her.

Eleazar didn’t really seem to care who was doing what as long as he had meals and clean clothes and a reasonable level of harmony in his home. But he did worry about things. How would he marry if he had two unmarried sisters snapping at each other in the house? How would his sisters marry if there was no money for dowries? How would Marta marry if she didn’t smile more? How would Miryam marry if she didn’t become more submissive?

On the Sabbath, when she was not allowed to cook or clean or sew, Marta sat with the other women and watched them. Miryam as usual was talking nineteen to the dozen to her friends, playing hide and seek with their babies. Marta wondered whether there was anything in Miryam’s head except silliness, if she ever thought a deep thought or pondered the heavens or worried about the future. Marta looked at the babies and small children and felt the ache in her spread from her empty womb to clasp her throat. She could feel her face hardening into a grimace, her lips thinning against the sob and her eyes stung. How could you grieve for something you had never had? But she felt a longing for a child even stronger than the longing for her dead parents whom she’d loved so much. Didn’t Miryam feel like that too? What if they never married? What if their lot was to stay with Eleazar until they wizened away? Marta longed for the Sabbath to be over so that she could get back to work and drive her sadness out with the dust on the floor.

Using her veil, Miryam hid her face from Adina’s baby and then peeped out feigning surprise. The baby gurgled in delight. There was no sound like it. Adina handed the child over to rest her arms and Miryam smelled the milky scent of his curly head. She wondered what she would call her own. Things would work out somehow. She looked over to Marta and watched her face closing down. Who knew what was going on in her head, but she’d be snapping at them all later. Miryam wished Marta would just smile a bit more. She wished they were allowed to go out and wander about like they had when they were little, hiding from the chores in the olive grove, making up stories, lying hand in hand on the wild thyme staring up at the sky in companionable silence, wondering if there was more to life than growing up, marrying, having children, working, working, working and then dying. Miryam longed for the Sabbath to be over so that she didn’t have to sit still so much and think. What if people stopped liking her? What if she got miserable like Marta? What if this was all there was to life?

The following day Eleazar’s friend Yeshua came to visit. Marta woke early and started to work, anger building and building. She turned over conversations in her head. Over and over: why am I the only one doing this? What would you do if I wasn’t here? I feel like running away. Where to? Where to? There was so much to do. Food to prepare and then clear away, the house looked untidy or maybe not untidy, but boring and drab. Marta moved things about and rearranged pots. She started work on the feast and put the bread to rise.

Miryam got up and started putting things back to where they’d been before and Marta snapped at her. Miryam rolled her eyes and walked out to get some water. Clearly she wasn’t going to be able to do anything right today.

By the time she’d got back, Yeshua had arrived and was sitting outside with Eleazar. They were talking. Talking about worry. Miryam slowed down and leant against the doorway, the water jar against her hip. Here was Eleazar pouring his heart out, how hard it had been to manage when their father died, how much he wanted his sisters to marry decent men, how much he wanted a loving wife of his own. He paused and spoke more quietly, more hesitantly: how he worried about what would happen if he died young, died before he’d found husbands for Marta and Miryam.

She had never thought about whether Eleazar worried, he was the calm, sensible one. Not brooding over fury like Marta, not stamping like herself, but just sitting quietly worrying.

Yeshua listened, scribbling in the dust with a stick, waited till Eleazar went quiet and spoke gently. “Take your worry to God. He cares about you. Imagine you are a child with a broken toy, wouldn’t you take it to your loving father to mend and then stop fretting because you know that he will fix it for you?”

Miryam looked closely at her brother. She could see the thoughts fighting for words – but He let our parents die, He left us to struggle, it must be something we’re doing wrong, He’s left us to sort it out ourselves.

In the end, Eleazar simply said: “some toys can’t be fixed.”

“That’s true” Yeshua answered, “sometimes you have to let go and let your father comfort you. But you have to go to him for that comfort, he cannot force it on you.”

Inside the house, Marta was banging things about. This meant that she was angry and fed up of working on her own. Miryam hesitated then put the water jar down and sat by her brother’s feet. She cleared her throat and said “But they say we must do more sacrifices if we want God to look after us but it seems nothing we can do is enough.”

She thought he would look angry at being addressed by a woman, but he just smiled reassuringly, “He demands mercy not sacrifice, it is a matter of faith. Trusting that in the end, everything will make a sense you cannot now see; looking to Him for comfort rather than to yourself for a solution.”

“How can we..” she started but Marta had appeared at the door, nearly crying from frustration.

“Teacher,” Marta stammered, “I am working all alone and my sister isn’t helping me. There is so much to do, so many of you to feed.” Her lip was trembling. “I can’t do it anymore. I am…”

Yeshua gestured to her to sit down next to Miryam and finished her sentence “You are at the end of yourself?”

Marta nodded and put her head in her hands. Miryam reached out to gently touch her, whispering, “I’m sorry, I just want to listen some more.” But Marta pulled away and started to go inside.

“No” said Yeshua firmly, “you must be still. You must all be still.”

More gently, he said, “Sit down Marta. Sit back Eleazar. Just be still for a little while. Don’t be afraid of the silence, of the sound of your heart. Let your thoughts stop. Listen. Worrying changes nothing. It just boils your mind.”

The meal was over, Yeshua had gone and the sisters had cleared up. Eleazar had gone to sit with the other men of the village. The afternoon was hot and the house was cool. Marta restlessly moved about in the shade, rearranging things again, wondering what job to start next, weaving or grinding or preparing the evening meal. She looked up and saw Miryam watching her and smiled. Little sister. When did we stop being friends?

“Let’s leave it,” she said after a moment, holding out her hand to Miryam “come and lie under the olives like we used to. It would be nice to be still for a while.”

olives

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

Retro

The world had ended. Or perhaps it only Susan’s world which had ended, but if that wasn’t bad enough, though she might have staggered on as a husk in the real world, that too seemed on the verge of destruction. It only need the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan to get involved in the Falklands War and all that would be left would be two red buttons.

She had talked her mother into the bleach and the perm and the bright pink polka dot dress with the short ra-ra skirt and it had made no difference at the end of term party. Andrew hadn’t noticed her properly. Or maybe it was just that Tracey had upstaged her again with her flirting and her innuendo. To Andrew, Susan was obviously still an awkward little girl and not a woman with a heart full of love. She had been crying silently all through Friday and into Saturday and for once her father was sensitive enough to recognise heart break when he saw it and had ushered the rest of the family out on a shopping trip.

Susan sat on the seat of the telephone table in the hall just on the off chance that Andrew would realise that he’d gone off with the wrong girl at the party, find a phone box so that he could ring Susan and beg her to go out with him instead. That’s if he had the necessary 2ps to ring directory enquiries and call her.

The sun slanting through the front door onto the telephone was suddenly obscured and Susan realised someone was outside. For a moment, hope flared, but then she realised that whoever it was, wasn’t Andrew. It was a girl, who was looking around in some confusion as if the doorbell wasn’t blindingly obvious. Wiping her eyes, Susan opened door and asked if she could help.

The strange girl brightened up immediately and said cheerfully: “Hi, I’m from the future and I really need your help. I’m your great grand-daughter Kezia.”

Susan stared at her and before she could stop herself said: “Hang on, I’m only seventeen and I haven’t even got a baby, I haven’t even er….”

Blushing, she looked closer at the other girl. It was really odd, but actually there was something about her which felt as if she was looking into a mirror. Her eyes and mouth were the same. Otherwise, the other girl had much darker skin and was taller. Her hair was a different texture as far as Susan could tell. It didn’t look as if it would naturally be straight and mousy anyway, although right now it was a sort of bright green with sparkly bits which seemed to be turning themselves on and off. Her clothes were a sort of mishmash of every current fashion going, as if she hadn’t decided if she wanted to look like Madonna or or Kim Wilde or Lady Di.

Kezia grinned apologetically. “Yeah about that, I guess it’s a bit confusing. I looked it up and you don’t have time travel yet do you?”

“Er, no” said Susan carefully, wondering how quickly she could close the door and if you could get men in white coats by dialling 999.

“Only cos like for me, I can, like, I think I’ve got the old fashioned terminology right: I can download an app on my mobile.”

“You can what a what on your what?”

“Oh, maybe that’s a bit later. Anyway let me prove it, cos I really need your help.”

Susan snorted. “Go on then.”

Kezia got something out of her pocket. It was very small and flat and was glowing slightly. “Right – ok. You can’t be in the same place as yourself at the same time. So… pick a day last week when you weren’t here but someone else was and you think you know what they were doing. It’s got to be here in this house mind you, I haven’t got the latest upgrade with the teleport option.”

Susan rolled her eyes and said. “OK – last Tuesday at 4pm. I went to Tracey’s for tea. That was before… anyway, my little sister was here on her own.”

Kezia fiddled about with the flat object, stepped into the hall, grabbed Susan’s arm before she could say anything and pressed a button. The world blurred like it does when you’ve had too many Cinzanos and then righted itself. Kezia pulled Susan back out of sight under the stairs. Outside, it was raining. They could hear the TV on in the sitting room, showing some kids’ programme. Suddenly, ten year old Angie came down the stairs, tottering on Susan’s high heels and pursing her lips which were plastered in Susan’s best lipstick.

“I knew it!” hissed Susan, “it’s all blunt….”

Just as Angie turned to find out who had spoken, Kezia pressed something again and they were back to Saturday and a sun filled but otherwise empty house.

“I’ve got some more proof” said Kezia, fiddling about with her device and showing it to Susan. On the screen was a photograph – so it must be some sort of slide viewer too. The photograph was of Susan in a graduation gown, a little older and more confident.

“So they didn’t press the big red button?” Susan said.

“Didn’t what the what?” asked Kezia in bafflement. “Anyway, I really do need your help.”

Susan gave up. Whatever was going on, she might as well find out what this weirdo wanted. “Go on then, how do you think I can help you?”

“I want to borrow this dress.” said Kezia firmly, and showed her another photo on the slide viewer. It was a picture of Susan at the party on Thursday night, before Andrew went off with Tracey. She was standing still looking slightly wistful and very pale, but quite happy, her newly permed, newly bleached hair barely tamed by the white silk scarf, the pink polka dot dress close fitting and pretty to her waist and then standing out in mad frills above her knees in the pink tights and the high heeled pink stilettos.

“Why?”

“Because the 1980s are really really, what’s the word… retro right now.”

“Retro?”

“Yes and I’ve got this party and there’s this boy and I want to look really authentic and that dress is so pretty.”

Susan rolled her eyes and went and got the dress, which her mother had washed and ironed the day after its one and only outing.

“Here you go,” she said, “I don’t want it – just looking at it makes me feel miserable”. She watched as Kezia held it up to her dark skin and felt a lump coming to her throat. Whether this girl was mad or really from the future, she was going to look better in the dress than Susan had. Her legs were longer for a start.

Kezia sighed ecstatically. “It’s perfect.” she said, “You’ve no idea how rare the real thing is. He’s got to notice me in this.”

“Don’t bank on it,” said Susan bitterly, “it didn’t work for me.”

Kezia carefully folded the pink dress over her arm and started fiddling with her gadget. She looked up and grinned, “I wouldn’t be so sure” she said, “It was great grandpa who gave me this photo of you – he noticed you in this dress at that party and it was love at first sight. See you again in sixty years!” and she disappeared.

polka3

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

Raining all over the World

Rain – comforting, devasting, longed for. To me, there’s nothing quite like lying in a cosy bed in my dry bedroom listening rain on the roof to make me feel warm and safe. Perhaps it takes me back to listening to the steady breathing or heartbeat of my mother while I nestled in the womb. Or maybe the drumming of her fingers on her stomach as she tried to work out whether it was possible to get any bigger. Who knows.

Listening to the rain on roofs of holiday caravans and tents and boats is even more comforting (provided it’s relatively gentle and there’s no wind). I think it’s the smugness of being undercover while yet still somehow in the wild. Your only concern is the hope that it will have miraculously dried up by morning.

In reality this is a feeble hope. I recall damp midnight treks to the loo on a French campsite to find it full of amphibians apparently taking a rain check from the weather. Further back I recall terrifying night-time manoeuvres with the family caravan which had been parked by my ever optimistic father on a cliff top shortly before a storm hit. Even further back than that I recall being bundled into the car during what seemed to be an apocalypse while the tent borrowed from my father’s cousin collapsed in hail and gale force winds (my ever optimistic father had been convinced the weather would hold for one more night). Admittedly I wasn’t bothered about the tent and it was only later that I found out my father’s cousin never quite forgave him for its destruction. I was mostly terrified by the fact that I could not see my parents, or indeed anything outside the car because of the deluge and it seemed as if I was trapped, possibly forever, in a small metal container being rattled by the wind and drowned in rain with my little sister who was howling to ensure she’d get the maximum attention should we ever see our parents again, while I was crying because in his hurry, ever optimistic dad had shut my foot in the door.

Much more recently, I remember being woken as the rocking of the boat we were on stopped being cradle like and started being brain rattling. Listening to the ominously increasing thud of waves and the way the tinkling in the shrouds had turned into to a war dance as the boat turned into a wind which husband (otherwise known as ancient mariner) had promised wasn’t coming until late afternoon, giving us plenty of time to get ashore and home. What made the whole experience more bizarre was that we had to sail back to a mooring then get from the mooring to the shore in a dinghy while being dumped on in all directions by sea and rain. Trying to encourage the children not to be afraid even though I was, I suggested they sang a song. The only thing they could come up with under duress was the one they’d been learning for the school play “Wind in the Willows”. The song? “Messing about in Boats” oh how we laughed. Finally ashore, we realised the water had got inside our very underwear. When we got home, the washing that I’d put out the previous afternoon, assured by ancient mariner that we’d be back in plenty of time to get it in before the weather changed, was wetter than when I’d taken it out of the washing machine. I should point out that this was June.

Rain. I think of myself as a western girl (western in the British sense, I wouldn’t look good in a stetson). This westerly sense of self is based on very little. Twenty-five percent of my genes come from Kent and London.  Born in Edgware, I am technically a Londoner myself, and there is one thin ancestral strand from a long way the other side of the channel. Another twenty-five percent is Irish (which, albeit eastern Irish is still in the West from where I’m sitting right now). But having said that, the remaining set of genes are from the West coast of Scotland and since the age of eight with the exception of three college years in Sussex, I have lived in the West – South West Wales then South West England.

It feels like home, facing the sunset – the unknowable possibilities beyond the horizon – the wilds, the mystery, the distant half visible lands. OK, I know it’s Ireland and the Americas but I prefer to think it’s Tír na nÓg. And while equally I know that beyond the West is the East coming to meet it over the Bering Strait, I prefer to think of the sea cascading over the edge of the world into the … anyway the point is, the West feels like home. It has hills to hide in, sea to stare off into and, let’s be honest: a fair amount of rain.

It doesn’t rain as much as people from outside Britain think. It doesn’t rain all the time. It does stop. It even stops in Wales. People never believe me when I describe a childhood and middle teens of getting sunburnt on the beach and summers so hot the bracken was tinder dry and the local bad boys set fire to it threatening the woods in which we played sunset games of cowboys and Indians. My first summer in Wales was spent in glorious sunshine happily cooling off in a forest or watching water beetles in a small pond under the trees. Admittedly, it was followed by a terrible autumn in our new house when the whole world appeared to turn grey. In October, ever optimistic dad having gone away for the weekend on some sort of training course convinced quietly realistic mum that the dodgy looking extension would be just fine. I remember mum crying quietly as she ran out of saucepans to catch the rain. (The subsequent tarring of the roof leaks was done by me as the only person small enough to climb out of the bathroom window onto the extension roof, apart from my little sister who was deemed perhaps too young. This is the sort of thing only my dad could think of.) And yes, after that, my Welsh teenage years included walking to school down our hill with its double hairpin bend, which turned into a cataract of water chicaning round the bends, the drains unable to cope. At school, we wandered around in breaks with no shelter in the days when you weren’t allowed inside when it rained unless you were a prefect. At the time there was a fashion for duffle coats and fish tail parkas, so that classrooms after a wet break smelt of numerous wet mongrels as we all steamed dry over Shakespeare or quadratic equations. Serves the teachers right, we thought.

Right now sleety rain is being hurled at the windows by a trainee gale. I don’t want to drive in it let alone walk in it. I live in allegedly the sunniest part of England and it still seems to have been raining for pretty much five months. Which is unusual. I am not qualified to argue about global warming. I would only say that my view is that while the climate has changed constantly since the beginning of time, if the steam in the bathroom after a teenager has been showering for forty-five minutes or the smoke in the kitchen when you boil a saucepan dry is anything to go by, then the unprecedented increase in carbon emissions since the industrial revolution must have some sort of impact.

Rain: song lyrics are full of rain, usually representing pain or loneliness or despair, but sometimes it represents something essentialAnd sometimes, it’s just fun. A smirking (male) friend once said that “It’s raining men, hallelujah” should have been our college anthem since at the time the ratio of women to men was five to one.

Rain. It’s a double edged sword. Even in a country used to rain, homes and livelihoods are destroyed by floods. Where there is poverty, damp houses create disease and misery. And while I’m lying in bed lulled to sleep by the pattering on the roof, people, not so many miles away, other human beings, some of whom have trekked in desperation from countries where water is a luxury, are sitting in mud, listening to the rain on makeshift shelters wondering if anything will ever change.

I have, I suppose, a typically British ambivalence to rain. Probably like the apocryphal Inuit and snow, we have a hundred ways to describe rain and can talk about it for hours. There’s the rain which is fine and misty and makes your hair curl and there’s the sudden localised downpour which can drench you to the point you have to strip off immediately inside the front door to avoid soaking the carpets. And like most British people, my definition of a nice summer’s day is one where I don’t need to worry about taking an umbrella. On the other hand, rain in summer is sometimes a miraculous thing: the smell of the drops hitting the parched earth, the sound of them pattering on the hard ground outside the window flung open to catch the tiniest breeze.

I often wish it would go away, yet if we haven’t had it for a while, I am glad when it returns.

Right now, I wish it would go away. I want to see a blue sky for more than a day and I want to feel the sun on my skin. I feel for the homeless and the people on the other side of the channel and the farmers and the businesses and the people in inadequate housing with leaking roofs and damp walls.  But yesterday I took a taxi and said so to the driver and he said “in East Africa where I come from, it hasn’t rained for three years. And you must remember, this country is beautiful because of rain.”

So writing this, and listening to the wind in the chimney and the rain against the glass, I try to think of what it would be like without it. How different we’d be as a nation, how my garden would look without the millions of different greens (all somewhat sodden at the moment) and how much I’d miss the sound of rain on the roof at night to make me feel warm and safe.

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

Temperate

Do I reflect the island of my birth
Do seas of reserve bind my own extremes
Restrain my storms of wrath and frivolous mirth
Becalm with blue and grey and dappled green?

No. Under my stillness, my features shut
Betrayal starves my broken heart with cold
Loving scorches my heart with brands so hot
Anger storms grumble, rolling round my soul

My land’s not calm: its sun burns, its seas race
And passion lies neath the placidness of my face.

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

Assumptions

“Got any dragons want killing?” The Hero swung his jewelled sword.

“Not so’s you’d notice” The Landlord eyed gilt runes on the silver blade.

“Heard you did”

“Not one that wants killing. He looks after us, we looks after him.”

Yokels. Nice town though. Underfloor heating even in the street. The cellar’s trap door was warm under his boots. Its handle glowed.

“What about when he’s hungry?”

“We feeds him.”

“Many virgins here?” sniggered the hero.

“Don’t eat virgins.”

The hero was surprised: “What does he eat?”

“Nasty folk with treasure” said the Landlord, pulling the lever behind the bar.

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