Mind The Gap

Here I am, swaying on the inbound train.
The seat warm from someone else, tea in styrofoam, personal space invaders and noisy conversations.
Rushing from meeting to meeting.
I should be preparing but instead, I’m daydreaming, looking out
At woodlands and slumbering trees, muddy fields and blasted oaks, sheep and horses clumping in the gorsey heath.
And catching glimpses of strangers’ lives – peering into homes and gardens,
And whizzing past passengers waiting at stations, caught in the space between leaving and arriving.
I should be reading the agenda but I’m thinking back to journeys gone.
Could I have imagined myself thus all those years ahead?
I think I thought, deep down, that life stopped with marriage and babies.
What would I have thought at twenty-one?
All those train journeys we took
From Chichester to Southampton to Salisbury to Neath to Kingston to Hove.
What if I’d looked at a woman, older, a proper grown up, staring out of the window day dreaming and known it was me?
What happened to all those years?
The gaps grew between hopes and reality, between plans and fate.
The same face is reflected in the glass,
Just older, plumper, the hair coloured but not for fun,
The smart office clothes I longed for then and loathe now.
The yearning to be at home creating and the job which pays the bills.
But across the gap the linked hands reach out from those barely remembered days.
The journeys I took with Deb and Mo, laughing on the train, imagining our futures.
How could we have envisaged me in the far off middle years, sitting on a train
Messenging them in their small corners far away –
The gap traversed by magic.

mind the gap

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

Needlecraft

Colours twisted in chaos until order emerged. Whispering love, she knitted a uniquely patterned sweater. Kissing the white cotton every time she threaded her needle, she embroidered his undershirt; near invisible soaring birds and full-sailed ships to bring him swiftly home.

If only he had been faithful.

After she heard, her scissors ripped the sails and broke the wings. She crocheted a scarf to cross over his treacherous heart, her hook slippery with drowning tears.

When next he came back to her, she only recognised his water-logged body from the patterns she had woven into his sodden clothes.

knitting2

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

A Fine Mess

Clearing out a wardrobe in middle years is an exploration of hope over reality. I wish I was tidy. I quite enjoy the catharsis of taking a massive bag of clothes and books to the charity shop. I take pleasure in polishing when there’s a clear surface to dust. But I really wish someone else could magic away the clutter.

This suit, yes it made me look elegant and corporate but…. I bought it eleven years ago and haven’t been able to fit into it for eight. Why is it still there?

And the lovely party dress bought on a whim online. In the wrong size. There it hangs, six years later, forlorn and unworn waiting for me to regain my once elfin figure (and also for a party invitation).

At the bottom of the wardrobe was my dissertation, unread since it was handed in. The cover is stained from where it got damp once. It was rescued when I cleared out my parents’ shed in 2013. I try to visualise me as an earnest young undergraduate stabbing away at a typewriter. I can’t remember how her mind worked, but I can remember the agony of producing every word, even though most of them now make no sense (the average goldfish bowl is more profound). Still back in the wardrobe it goes, because the only other place to put it is an overloaded bookcase.

Somewhere in my system there must be at least one tidy gene. Unfortunately, it has been mislaid in the chaos of all the untidy ones. I do like a neat working environment for writing, drawing or sewing.  But the reality is that if necessary, I will have to turn my back on anything out of place elsewhere in the room (I’d never do anything creative otherwise) and for example right now I am tapping in my little writing corner while behind me are four piles of clean laundry and outside the room…

On the other hand, the plus side of having been brought up in a house where a clear worktop was just wasted space is that I can cook in an area the size of a side-plate if necessary; a skill which makes me able to cope with the catering side of camping with nonchalance.

Personally, I blame my parents. One of my earliest memories is of a room, floor to ceiling (or at least above my three year old head) with stuff. I can’t now recall what stuff although books featured significantly. However, I do remember a glass case with a stuffed red squirrel inside. It had fascinating shiny eyes. There was also a musical box which had real butterflies pinned to little rods which danced up and down when the music played. They were very pretty, but I was sad that something so free should be fixed so permanently. “Are they dead?” I asked. “Afraid so but just as well.” Dad answered. Sometime between then and when we moved to the next house, both the squirrel and the musical box were sold. They had come with my parents from their first home, a flat in Hendon which had previously belonged to my father’s aunt (who conveniently died sometime before the wedding). As far as I can gather, my father thus accumulated a number of her books (which covered a range of the early 20th Century equivalent of New Agism, e.g. Theosophy, British Israelitism and so on) and several odd items she had either inherited or collected, including dead animals in cases. Recently, friends took us to find that flat where my parents started their married life and where I lived until I was eighteen months old. It is fundamentally a maisonette. At the time when I was born, my parents lived in the top floor and one of my father’s other aunts lived on the ground floor. I took some exterior photographs to show my mother and then did an internet search to see whether we could find any interior shots from the last time it was sold or rented out.

“The bathroom looks a bit different,” said my mother in some surprise, slightly affronted that it hadn’t remained the same for fifty years, “and the sitting room never looked as roomy as that when we were living there.”

“That’s possibly because it’s tidy now,” I pointed out.
“You might be right,” conceded Mum.

After moving from Hendon, we moved to Dunstable, then to Wokingham, then to Winnersh then to Neath in South Wales. This was all in a space of seven years. If the proverbial rolling stone gathers moss, my rolling father gathered stuff. There is no other word for it unless you know a collective noun that covers books, half finished projects, paperwork which is in no order whatsoever and may have become irrelevant twenty years earlier, items inherited or handed down by relations who presumably didn’t want them and knew my father was a sucker for that sort of thing, random bits of china and souvenirs etc etc. Stuff. What we had most of was books of course, thousands of them. When we moved to the house in Wales, we put the majority of them up in the front room on bowed bookshelves. Some of the villagers were incredulous. “What they want all them books for?” they said, as if this was stranger than keeping baby alligators, which was what the adjoining neighbours did in their front room.

Eventually, my father and another neighbour moved the bathroom from downstairs into a bedroom upstairs and what had once been the bathroom became what we called the study. Only my father was capable of “studying” in there. Everyone else was in fear of being crushed to death by something falling off the tottering piles of books and papers. Whenever my sister or I had a birthday party, or some masochistic relation came to stay, there was a frantic shoving of clutter into the study. If you subsequently wanted anything, it was an exercise similar to finding a specific geological strata in a range of mountains and probably more dangerous. After my ninth birthday party, the bully at school made nasty comments about our disordered house which made me hate it; but on the other hand, when I reconnected with an old friend a few years ago (a girl who came round regularly, not just when we’d shovelled a room clear) she told me how refreshing it had been to visit a home where you could paint, sew, write, cook and no-one cared about the resulting chaos.

(Incidentally, the study finally became too constricting even for my father to write in, so, after trying to work in the attic but finding it too dark, he constructed a room within the airing cupboard where he could put his electric typewriter and eventually a computer. Really, you’ve just got to believe me on this.)

It’s hard to imagine how my father turned out this way. Or maybe it was a natural reaction. My paternal grandmother was the archetypal housewife and kept her home streamlined and immaculate. My paternal grandfather was a prototype minimalist and couldn’t bear mess or pictures at an angle or things on windowsills or dust or crumbs. He didn’t show any evidence that small children playing caused him any pain, but we did have to tidy up after ourselves, which we virtually never did at home. My grandmother kept some decorative, feminine, pretty ornaments in her room where they wouldn’t annoy him but they were still kept very neat.

What my mother’s excuse is, I have no idea. My maternal grandfather died before I was born but my maternal grandmother also kept a tidy, if arty, house and she too made sure my sister and I cleaned up after ourselves when we stayed. A recent TV programme showed young girls in the 1940s and 50s being chained to the home, training up as housewives. My mother just laughed. “Never happened to me!” she said cheerfully.

So I assume that my mother had either not picked up any wifey skills before her marriage at twenty-three or lost interest in the face of my father’s consequent refusal to do anything except horde and live in chaos. Possibly a combination of both. He wasn’t a man to be argued with, and I speak as one who tried. Dad regarded any sort of tidying, cataloging, organising or (heaven forbid) reducing the volume of stuff as a dark art. When I mentioned the fact that I was doing my biennial book sort, culling the ones I didn’t want and putting the remainder back into some sort of order by genre and author, he visibly shuddered, as if I was describing the slaughter of kittens with a pickaxe. Mum did try. She once took a mass of long unread science fiction books to a charity shop only for my father to buy them back a week later because “I seem to have lost the ones I thought I had.”

She didn’t pass on many home-making skills to me or my sister either. Both of us regard housework as a sort of Sisyphean task which has been set to punish us for something. On the other hand, Mum and Dad between them showed us how to be creative. There were story competitions and painting and papier-mâché and lino cutting. Every holiday Dad would try out some new craft with varying success: corn dollies, soap carving, pottery. There just wasn’t much time for nonsense like dusting or vacuuming.

Long long after my sister and I had left, my parents finally moved from the family home and into a bungalow, manfully trying to force nearly forty years of stuff into somewhere half the size of the place they were leaving and pretty nearly managing it, if you didn’t mind the fact that there wasn’t much floor. Recently, the old family home came up on the market and we looked in astonishment at the interior shots on the estate agent’s website. It was impossible to recognise anything, including my old room, where latter owners had put a spiral staircase into the attic which was now a light filled spacious room rather than a dark glory hole reminiscent of a junk shop.

In 2012, when my sister and I stayed for the last week of Dad’s life as he lay unconscious in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, we reorganised some of the stuff just so that I had somewhere to sleep and tried to create some sort of sense out of the remainder. We felt like traitors and we would have given anything for him to wake up and tell us to stop interfering and that no reasonable person needed more than six inches of horizontal surface visible at any given time.

He died without knowing that we’d started organising the mess and boxing up things for charity or to put into storage. Ruefully we laughed when we found half a five pound note in between two dusty books, saying it was our fitting inheritance. We never did find the other half. A little under a year later, my mother moved out of the bungalow to be near me and this time, the decluttering, which had been slowly progressing for nine months, had to be finished in the space of two weeks. There would be no room in the flat at the sheltered complex.

That was three years ago and I still feel scarred by the experience of disposing of so much so quickly. My mother’s flat is now tidy in an untidy sort of way and most of the retained boxes of stuff are in our garage, although periodically she kidnaps one to rummage through. She misses the clutter of fifty-one years of marriage to a hoarder.

In the process of helping her move from bungalow to flat, I unearthed a tin (yes a tin) of furniture polish from the kitchen and said to my mother, “er… isn’t this the same tin you had when I was a little girl?”

“Probably,” she said. “The thing is,” she added with much wisdom, “there’s always something much more interesting to do than housework.”

mess2

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

Aftermath

When I held you first in my arms I knew
Somewhere your brand new existence
Represented something to be destroyed.
Why?
I wanted you to grow up;
In love with variety;
To look for beauty in every genre
Of music, literature, art, humanity.
I wanted you to see a world full of
Strange faces: varying colours, headwear,
Hear different languages and be
Fascinated by difference not repulsed;
To see the person not the generalisation.
To believe or not believe yet understand belief;
Not let any man’s imperfect interpretation
Form an immovable, uncompromising view.
How can I imagine bringing you up to hate
When love is the only thing which has meaning?
Yet the world is in fear of fools who lie
And believe a lie and enforce a lie.
They do not speak for anyone’s god
They have a different master –
One who wants to divide and aims to demolish
Until there is nothing left to wipe out.
You are nearly adults now.
I am about to let you out in the world
To put you in the trust of strangers
To know that you will be on buses
And trains and planes
And sit in restaurants and theatres
Without me.
And I pray that in the end
The fear will not devour you or us but
Consume itself in the face of love.
And today, full of tears of grief and anger
I wish I could reach and touch
The mothers who feel lost and empty,
Overwhelmed by darkness and loss.
Not just the mothers;
Not just the parents and friends or lovers
Whose faces and culture I understand
Whose country I love;
But everyone everywhere who woke yesterday
Wanting nothing but to love and live
And bring up their children
In peace
But had to face the gun instead.

Reflection 6

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

Leaving Home

They married on a rainy day and honeymooned in a guest house near the sea, the window rattling in the wind as they lay whispering about the future, warm in love.

But years passed and though their family was sunny with love, the rainy days came too often for their resources.

They’d never been good at planning and then he died. The little bit of insurance was gone too soon and there wasn’t enough pension. The children were just starting out themselves. Surely, they didn’t need to be worrying about her. She walked out with all she needed in a few cases and looked for somewhere cheap. But there was nowhere. Not now, not for one person on her own.

She looked round and saw that she was a lucky one – still healthy, still sane, still with some clothes and books and precious things. She sat in the shelter overlooking the sea and wept. She couldn’t call the children – they’d be ashamed of her. They were better off without her.

It’s not impossible to sleep safe, wash surreptitiously, disappear. But slowly, she had to let things go. First books, then things from home, then most of her clothes, then the rucksack. With the last of her money she bought food, shuffling ashamed through the supermarket, cringing in case she smelt, oblivious to the posters for missing people which other shoppers were scrutinising as she passed.

As night fell, she returned to the shelter. She lay her head on the carrier bag full of her last precious things: the photos, the letters. As she closed her eyes, she heard the sea rolling relentlessly over the sand and shingle: whisper and rattle, whisper and rattle. It was not such a bad thing to listen to at the end. Sometimes spray came over the edge of the sea wall and huddled, she waited for the cold to take her, drifting into a final sleep where the letters and photos seemed to be speaking to her, seemed to reach to embrace her, his faded handwriting and blurry image trying to warm her and then she realised that the voice and the touch were real and the voice was saying: “We’ve found you at last. Wake up. It’s all right, come with us to safety and we can call your children, they have been looking so long. They love you so much.”

And as she opened her eyes, she saw past the speakers, the beach washed clean for a new day.

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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

The Promise

My daughter.  My precious girl.  You look up at me with limpid eyes, trying to focus on mine.

Baffled by the freedom of your limbs and losing the warmth of my womb, you curl on my breast, try a tiny suckle and then close those lovely eyes into sleep.

I am exhausted too and I am ready to slumber, but first I will make you a promise.  In you, I can see my mother and my grandmother and your father’s mother and his grandmother.  Already I am sure that you will be determined and funny, maybe quick to anger but loving long.

How do I know?  You are such a little scrap, your ears like little shells, your nose like a tiny bead, your little feet a miracle of craftsmanship.

You are perfect.  You are neither evil nor a disappointment nor a failure to me because you are a girl.  Do not tell me, who has just given birth, that women are weak.  We are stronger than oxen, stronger than the rain storm, stronger than the mightiest tree.   One day your work will be as necessary as your brother’s, your mind as fast, your ideas as fascinating.

Maybe you will find it hard to trust, and you will not be wrong little girl, the world is a cruel place and those who say they love you will say that they must protect you by changing you.  They will say that evil lurks in wait if they do not do that thing, that you will never marry, never carry a babe of your own, that your own body will rise up and destroy you if they do not do that thing.

But I have decided I will not let them.

If I have to run from my own family and from your father’s family, from the wise women with their rusty blades and the wise men with their threats of violence, if I have to run with you, I will run.  I don’t know where we will go my little bird, my little mouse, my precious gem.  But one day the cutting must stop.

And I make this promise to you my darling, that for you and me it stops today.

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Mooring Up

His wife didn’t like sleeping out under the stars. Things might crawl on her, it would be damp and she might wake to find something supernatural nose to nose with her.

So the day the world snapped, he knew he’d go alone.

What he really wanted was to be on a boat, moored a long way from land, never going back to work again. But never going back to work was not an option, the sea was too far away and he could only anchor himself in the garden, adrift of the house he was working to pay for.

Taking a week’s leave he traversed the lawn and swayed in the dappled shallows under the cedar, turning his back on the house. Left against the shore of the back door, a note said “Casting myself away. Don’t rescue me. Yet.”

He couldn’t sleep in the shed which was so decrepit that even the resident bat had gone; but he didn’t have to live in it, just know it was there. The July weather was set fine so he erected a standalone hammock between the tree and the shed and placed a small garden chair alongside, facing into the swell of the scrubbery.

For a few days he was marooned, eating out of tins and washing under the outside tap. He imagined the traffic sounds from the bypass were distant rollers on the edge of his lagoon. In the morning, dew sparkling in his hair and beard, he pretended the pigeons and thrushes were gulls. In the evening, he tried to ignore the wafting smells of tomatoes, garlic and chilli and refused to decode the indistinct sounds of shore: the TV; negotiations between his wife and their teenagers; the rattle of closing curtains. Later, rocking under the stars, he heard the curtains open and knew his wife was risking the supernatural to watch over him. Bathed in her love he fell asleep.

On Thursday evening, he felt a clink against the hammock-stand. Looking down, he found a note in a bottle: “permission to board?” After a moment’s pause, he turned to the house. At the back door stood his wife. He beckoned and she walked across to him, awkwardly dragging a chair and carrying a basket of fresh food and chilled wine.

“Are you running away from me?” She asked.

“No. Just adulthood.” He answered.

“I feel like that as well.” She whispered. “And I miss you.”

“There’s room in the hammock for two.” He offered.

She thought momentarily and nodded.

As the sun set, they lay cuddled in the hammock, rocking over the shallow waves of the lawn and listening to the rollers in the distance.

“No pirates in this ocean.” He reassured her. “But we’ll sail home tomorrow. Only shall we cast adrift again sometime?”

She cuddled into his shoulder, feeling the strength of his arms and the warmth of his body. In the moonlight their faces were transformed, young and carefree again. “Yes.” she said. “We will.”

Reflection 4 copyCopyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission