Go Home!

Every nation passed laws to make everyone else to go back to where they came from.

No-one had thought this through.

Take the Americas, Caribbean and Australasia: floods of people, headed “home” to the continents from which their ancestors had travelled by choice or force. Only….great-great-grandpa was Irish and great-great-grandma was Italian so…. which country exactly?

The first nation peoples, left with their lands, wondered if their own ancestors had displaced others back in antiquity. If so, where had they travelled from to do so?

Britain, disunited, argued internally. Which was the definitive pre-union map? Were some of the Scots actually Norwegian? If so, should they go or stay? The Cornish wanted Cornwall to themselves and weren’t happy when the Bretons were sent back from France. Couldn’t Wales take them? On the other hand, if all the Anglo-Saxon and Viking descendants moved out of England then the Welsh, Cornish and Bretons could spread out. Only who was an Angle and who a Saxon? And where exactly did the Angles come from anyway? There? Really?

On mainland Europe, everyone thought they knew where everyone else should go, but most of the borders had changed more times than a politician’s promises. The oldest maps were from the Roman Empire, only…. who knew now which tribe they’d come from?
Much the same was true of Africa and Asia, confused by Imperialists’ self-serving lines in the sand.

Everyone THOUGHT they knew where they belonged. But it actually wasn’t that simple. Because nothing ever is.

Mass DNA detailed testing machines were created. What a surprise. No-one was 100% anything. Most weren’t even 50% anything.

Finally, the machines were adapted to teletransport everyone to the place where all evidence suggested MOST of their ancestors originated. Humans went in and disappeared to the place of their origin. No-one came back.

Finally it was our turn. I followed as my husband evaporated ahead of me.

I felt a fizzing sensation and then… I was in the most beautiful garden. Lions and lambs lay in the shade of trees by playful streams. I felt the sun on every inch of my body.

There were people everywhere. Every colour, every race and culture; all slightly baffled but at peace with each other. Nothing to indicate wealth or poverty.

I caught sight of my husband.

“Where are we?” I whispered.

He shrugged. As we stood there, a voice overhead said, “You all asked to go back to where your ancestors came from. So that’s what’s happened. This is Eden.”

“Eden?”

The voice continued: “Well your choices were (according to three prevailing theories on the origin of man): Eden or a bit of desert or Mars. On balance I thought you’d all prefer Eden. So you’ll get some R&R, then you’re going straight back to where you were before you started this ridiculous exercise and learn how to get along. Or…” there was an ominous pause, “next time it’ll be Mars.”

ninja

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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Soft Soap

“Milkmaids have it all their own way,” thought Marigold, plunging her sore, reddened hands back into the lye and pummelling the filth from the clothes. Her eyes filled but she shook her head in irritation at her own weakness. Tendrils of damp, bedraggled hair fell over her shiny pasty pock-marked face as she leant over the steam. “Who’d look at the village laundress?” she asked herself pointlessly. The answer was obvious: no-one. Except Giles once, when it was dark and he was drunk and there was nobody to help.

Marigold heaved the clean washing into a basket so that she could put it through the mangle outside. She visualised herself winding the handle, the muscles on her blotchy arms bulging through her damp sleeves, the messy hair, the indoors face, the slimy soap and splashed dirt on her skirts. Meanwhile, over yonder, Tansy was simpering over a fence, swinging her empty buckets as she talked to Giles. Not talking; whispering. He was having to get closer and closer to listen. Tansy was giggling and casting her eyes down. Everyone knows that milkmaids never get smallpox and her perfect skin was gently flushed with maidenly blushes. Her lovely hair was neat under her bonnet, which Giles was just now pushing back so that he could put a rose bud over her ear.

Pausing to stretch and nurse her sore back, Marigold felt a brief tinge of guilt. Perhaps she shouldn’t have gone to Granny Wormwood for that potion. Looking into the basket, she felt certain that a slight glow was coming from the laundry she’d washed.

Tansy wandered over, swaying her hips. “Hope you’ve washed my best petticoats properly Mangold?” she said sharply, no longer whispering but using her normal voice and the childhood nickname.

“Oh yes,” said Marigold calmly. “I did a special whites load just for your petticoats and stockings and oh, look, also Giles’s undershirt and stockings. It seems like they’re in a right pickle.”

Tansy sniggered, “Oh fancy! My petticoats and his undershirt all tangled up together! Could be an omen! If I play my cards right, we’ll be tied together pretty soon.”

“Reckon you’re right,” said Marigold. “And you’ll be tied together just like these garments are. Only you won’t be able to separate like these will and the stains will grow and nothing will take them out.”

“Oh Mangold, you do go on,” snapped Tansy, “You always were a dilly daydream and no-one ever knew what you were talking about. Just hurry up and get those things dry. I want to be ready this evening to meet Giles in the lane where it’s all dark. I just know it won’t take much to get him to make love to me and then…”

“And a month or so later, when he raises that veil, you’ll see each other exactly as you are. Exactly as you are. Dirt and all.” whispered Marigold.

But Tansy walked off without listening.

In the sun, the washing shimmered.

water star

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

Third Choice

To this day, I can’t remember why, after clearing, I ended up in the university which interviewed me over the phone rather than the one which interviewed me in person.

Perhaps it was a wrong number that started it; the wrong number of marks in my exams. Now Sheffield University didn’t want me after all.

Colchester had a course I really fancied; but it was so far to the east as to be almost in Belgium. I couldn’t imagine living somewhere so flat that you could see your enemies coming for miles and worry, having lived most my life in the hilly west, where you can hide from your enemies and then ambush them. So I spoke on the phone to the cheerful lady at Chichester and a couple of months later, headed south; east, but south-east, and still technically west, if only in Sussex terms. It was not flat either, although history suggests the downs and hollows weren’t much use for hiding, over-run as the area has been by Romans, then Saxons, then Normans, then Londoners.

Two weeks in, I wrote letters to my grandmothers, forgetting the first time, caught up in the newness and excitement of living away from home, and also the lonely longing for a loving familiarity to connect with, yes, forgetting the first time, that the one who was always proud of me had died two years earlier and the sudden recollection made me cry. I wrote hopefully to my beloved and cheerily to my parents and probably to my younger sister, the usurper of parental attention.

Beyond the nestling college were fields and beyond that the city. A Cathedral city, bijou and full of tea-shops. If I had got into Sheffield, I’d have been in a proper metropolis with lowering buildings, sprawling development and the constant movement of faceless strangers. Perhaps I’d have felt lost. Perhaps my little college in its little circular city, still bound by Roman walls in places, its central roads still marking a cross by the Cathedral, an easy stride from halls to the railway station, was just perfect for me. A nest for a country mouse.

I was entitled to lunch and dinner in the refectory where meals were served at set times, with grace given by the Dean at the start. The food was, in the main, pretty good, I recall with vegetarian options I’d never tried: mushroom stroganoff, ragu pomodoro and bean casserole. But I eschewed them in the main, growing thin on soup and biscuits instead, rather than face the faces I feared would turn and stare at me.

I was very lonely that first year, not finding my life-long friends till the following September; so I sat in my room a lot, listening to the radio, writing stories and poems which now make no sense. I can still see the room where I wrote them in silence, isolated and shy, first looking out of the window at Autumn leaves and then Spring snowdrops and finally hail brought by June heat to smash the roof of the greenhouse on the other side of the path.

I can see the room but not myself, not really. I read over those old stories, full of hyperbole meant to be enigmatic and actually obscure, and wonder about the serious girl who wrote them and what she really thought she was trying to say. As for the poems, well, the torture of first love, the agonies of teaching your parents to let go – they are all there, but generally, there ought to be a law against people in their late teens and early twenties writing poetry, unless of course they’re Keats.

On Monday evenings, I went to Compline at the college chapel. I wasn’t familiar with the service, coming from a non-conformist background, but the soft, late night liturgy was like cocoa for the spirit, calming and reassuring. There was nothing for me to do but absorb the comforting words: “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end…From all ill dreams defend our eyes, from nightly fears and fantasies. Tread underfoot our ghostly foe, that no pollution we may know.” Solaced and warm with the comfort of faith, I walked back to my room and slept without the nightmares which otherwise plagued me.

In lectures, I learnt about literature. The main thing I learnt was that I didn’t like studying it, I just wanted to write it. My tutor tried to encourage us to produce flash fiction. The Odyssey in fifty words? Ridiculous. Having been asked the previous term to write epic poetry, the leap from verbosity to brevity was impossible to execute.

What else did I learn? Friendship, how to cook using two gas rings only, hand washing, photography, late night debating, how to start to break down my own protective walls and venture out.

What didn’t I learn? I didn’t learn teamwork then, or compromise or how to recognise the grey fuzzy edges of my opinions, thinking myself a failure if I didn’t stick rigidly to my views, rather than realise that maybe life is just not that black and white. I certainly didn’t learn common sense, leaving with a degree and no idea what to do next.

The subsequent drift is a whole other story.

Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing now if, in the sixth form, I’d concentrated on my A levels instead of on my heart, first full, then broken. Maybe, if I’d got into Sheffield, I’d have ended up in a different career, maybe become famous, maybe rich or influential. Or maybe not. The course I’d originally chosen made sense at the time, but thinking about it now, it’s hard to dredge out from my memory what I thought I was actually going to do with that Ancient Norse and Anglo Saxon.

So here is where I am.  After all, as they say, the choices I made, in the end made me and the path I didn’t mean to take, took me to the right place anyway.

helmet

(This was written after a prompt to write something including 13 words and one phrase.  I meant to write a story but this came out instead.  I may still write the story, so I’m not going to say what the 13 word and one phrase were!)

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

The Day After

I don’t think I can remember the day after. Or the day after that. Not really. I think we said goodbye to my sister and I took Mum home with me; all the way along the motorway and then south. Who knows what we talked about. I can’t remember.

So strange to leave you behind, to put off the paperwork and the phone calls for just a few days. I think I just took Mum home for the weekend.

Home to see the husband and children I’d left on Monday thinking I’d be away for two days on a course, not five days by a hospital bed watching lines waver and dip and jump and not really knowing what they meant.

Five days watching you ebb away; knowing you were gone long before Mum realised. Reading the Bible to you; holding hands around you; sitting in the limbo of the intensive care waiting room – families huddled and separate with more or less hope, each unit a lost island of distress in a dry sea of unshed tears.

My sister and I, we knew there was no hope, but Mum hung on till the last day.

So I could tell you exactly what we did every day Dad, right up to the time when we had to leave you and we ate dinner because there was nothing else to do; nothing left to say; no tears left. It was the only thing I could organise.

I can remember that, I can remember lying awake in bed that night – all three of us awake – numb, dreamlike. And I can remember wanting to text you: “I love you, I love you…”. But I can’t remember the day after. I think I took Mum home with me.

I think the day after: I grew up.

hand

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

Just Drive

Don’t talk to me, just drive.
Drive without speaking,
into the threshold of night.
Turn up the music.
Drive out anything
other than music.
Lyrics unheard, rhythm engulfing,
Music spiralling deep in my heart,
lifting the stopper on feelings,
tuning them in and blocking out thought.
Enshroud me in metal,
in silence, in grey light.
Numb my mind with music
and let me heal.

car window

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

Assignment

The June sky outside her college room was as nearly as clear as her mind. The page was definitely as white as the solitary cloud slowly drifting along. The temperature as hot as the water she’d be in if she didn’t get her already extended assignment in on time.
Emma sat with her chin in her hand, in despair, flicking through the text for something she could quote. What could “Middlemarch” say to her broken heart? She loathed calm teenage Dorothea calmly marrying some old bloke without a care. Why? Hadn’t the blood rushed through her 19th century veins? Hadn’t she wanted to run and dance for no reason or cry or play loud music to scour her tortured soul?
Emma, looking out of the window in the hope of inspiration, caught sight of Harry and Izzy, snogging in front of the college greenhouse opposite her room. Tears welled up in Emma’s eyes, her throat ached. She hadn’t thought she could cry anymore. The two timing pig, that so called best friend.
Coming the other way, apparently straight at them was Emma’s English tutor, eyes closed, presumably quoting George Eliot to herself as she prepared to scatter any smooching students who dared to be in her way.
The room got hotter and the sky got suddenly darker, the cloud now filling the heavens before it opened in a tumult of enormous cascading hail stones. The roof on the greenhouse smashed, a massive hailstone caught the tutor on the back of her head and she skidded on the hail strewn path and fell unconscious off her bicycle, which slid sideways into Harry and Izzy who fell to the ground, the melting ice turning the path into mud smearing Izzy’s white clothes and ruining Harry’s carefully styled hair. They sat up and glared at each other, ignoring the unconscious lecturer.
Empty, the cloud dispersed and the sky was blue again, the sun beating down. The hail disappeared as if it had never been.
The only evidence, the shattered glass and the dazed trio on the ground, watched by their invisible observer.
Emma, tried not to smirk, but smirk she did and wiping the tears away opened the dreaded book again – her eyes falling on the words: “It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view.”

greenhouse

Copyright 2015 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission