Lunchtime (or “to see ourselves as others see us”)

Carlos breathed out and started to put things away. The morning was over and the boats were pulled back up onto the shore ready for the afternoon trade.  Now it was too hot to be out on the lake.  Too hot to do anything.  He could hear his wife getting the table laid on the balcony above and smell lunch being prepared.  There would be salad and good bread, hearty wine, cheese and ham and she had gone down early and got prawns from the market, prawns fresh up from the coast – and she would be cooking them with garlic.

Carlos’s mouth watered.  He reached up to the sign, ready to flip from “Abierto” to “Cerrado” when he spotted them.

Oh no, talking of prawns.  Here they came – two families who looked like prawns – both types – the raw and the overcooked.  Why did they always choose to ignore the big notice which said 12:00-14:00 CERRADO?

The family who looked like raw prawns came inelegantly down the slope.  They were even paler than usual.  The parents wore matching polo shirts of some depressed greyish sky colour and droopy jersey shorts of a slightly darker bilberry hue.  They had flat sensible sandals which let plenty of air in and let feet spread out.  The parents had sad little beanie hats in washed out cotton; the type that are really useful because they fold up to be stashed in bags.  (And in Carlos’s view should stay there.)  The father had socks on.  The mother looked so slopey shouldered, so bosom-less and her hair was pulled back into some sort of stringy bun, that it was hard to imagine that she had ever been desirable enough to breed with.  On the other hand, she had married a man who wore socks with sandals. The teenage daughter looked as if she was in training to be her mother but was young enough for her to have made some sort of effort with clothes and hair and to look as if the baseball cap she wore was only on because her mother had nailed it on.  All of them were pasty white to the point of blueness – enough sun screen on to withstand the heat from the gates of hell no doubt.  They were lugging a huge bag of food.  It included a flask of (probably) tea.

The family who looked like over cooked prawns were bouncing down the slope. Bouncing in all senses.  Where the raw prawns were scrawny and/or saggy and devoid of sex appeal, the cooked prawns looked as if they had once had too much sex appeal and were now like overblown roses.  The father was bursting over his shorts and the mother was oozing out of her bikini top and despite the fact that her belly was now pillowy, a navel piercing sparkled from the cosy maternal flab.  Their son, still young enough to have a flat stomach and firm arms, was bouncing behind them in indignation, glaring at his phone/ipod/whoknowswhat.  The parents were both beyond bright pink.  Hatless, they looked as if they were frankfurters which had been boiled for slightly too long and with any more sun, they would burst.  The son was not quite as bad, presumably because he spent more time indoors on his electronic device.  They had a huge bag of food too.  It included a bottle of (probably) beer.

All of them arrived at the door at the same time.  They looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes.  Carlos had noticed similar exchanges before.   The pale family thought the others were crass and foolish; the sunburnt family thought the others were boring and didn’t know how to have a good time.  You’d never know they came from the same country.

“Cerrado,” said Carlos firmly.

“We just want to hire some boats, mate,” said Cooked Father, “then we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Cerrado,” repeated Carlos.  “Abierto TWO O’CLOCK.”

“Tell him we just want to hire some boats” whispered Pale Mother, “tell him it won’t take him long.  We just want to take the boats out and find somewhere to have lunch.”

“I can’t say all that in Spanish dear” Pale Father complained, “Er, quiero er, bateau, no that’s French… Emily, can you help?”

His daughter rolled her eyes, caught the smirking glance of the sunburnt boy and blushed.  “No Dad. I do German remember.”

“Cerrado,” Carlos stated.  He could speak perfectly good English and French and German, but not at lunchtime.  He turned the sign over, locked the door and went up to the balcony to join his family.

The two families stood there for a while.  On the other side of a thin bit of chain was the beach and the boats and the view.

“We could just climb over,” said Pale Father.

“We could pay when we get back,” agreed Burnt Mother.

Her son rolled his eyes. “There’s probably some boring safety talk he’s got to give us.  Anyway, looks as if they’re chained up.”

The girl chose the moment when everyone was looking at the boats to haul her cap off and puff up her hair.  She looked down at her feet and tried to will them to look smaller.  She pulled her iPod out so that she could check herself out in selfie mode.

Tomorrow she would buy some lower factor suntan stuff.  Surely she wouldn’t die of cancer if she was just a little bit brown.

The boy asked her: “have you got a signal?”

She jumped.  “No, have you?  I’ve just been listening to stuff and watching things I downloaded.”

The boy said, “me too.  What you got then?”

They wandered off under the trees where it was cooler and they could see their screens more easily.

The parents stood around in silence for a while.  After a bit, Burnt Mother said “we could sit under the trees and have our picnic.”

Pale Mother said “yes I suppose we could.”

There was a pause and both said “what have you got for your lunch then?”

Carlos on his balcony sipped his glass of tinto and looked down on them through the railings.  The two teenagers were sharing earphones and laughing at something on a tiny screen, their shoulders nearly touching.  The two sets of parents had settled down and were sharing things out between them, starting with two bottles of wine, one white brought in a flask to keep it cool, one red at slightly more than room temperature. They would all be firm friends by two p.m.

He dipped his bread in the garlicky oil in satisfaction and smirked.  Social Engineer. That’s what he was.  Social Engineer.

canoes on the lake

Copyright 2015 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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A link to “Chickens Eat Pasta” – Claire Pedrick the Author is raising money for the fund for the Earthquake in Central Italy

 

“Chickens Eat Pasta” is an excellent book which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who likes books about settling in a different culture and about community and love.

The author is donating one month’s royalties to the to the fund for the earthquake that struck her part of central Italy a few days ago.

And in tribute to Amatrice, which was almost demolished along with tragic loss of life, here again is a post from her blog about this beautiful mountain town’s symbolic dish, bucatini all’amatriciana, and the role it played in her own story in Italy.  Please click on the link or visit:

http://www.chickenseatpasta.wordpress.com/2016/02/03/a-pasta-dish-from-the-heart/

 

 

 

At the Book-Signing

“I don’t really read.”
“Oh”
“But I came cos your name reminded me of someone I knew at school. In fact it’s weird. You look just like her.”
“That’s because I AM her.”
“No you can’t be.”
“I am. And I recognise you too.”
“No you’re not her. She was a weirdo. And a swot.”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Yeah but you look normal.”
“I did then too.”
“And see, it says here on the front cover ‘humour’. She didn’t have a sense of humour at all. Trust me.”
“It’s hard to laugh when someone’s hidden your stuff, beaten you up and isolated you from the rest of the class.”
“She was good at those boring things like history and English. She liked reading. She’d probably have read your book.”
“I have.”
“I always wanted to be in a book.”
“You are. Fourth story in. The one called ‘Revenge’.”
….
“That’s gross. Is that even physically possible?”
“Tell you what, take a book home with my compliments before I’m tempted to find out.”
“Nah. Like I said, I don’t really read.”

pen

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

(This was written in response to a prompt “Imagine you’re at a book signing – what happens?”)

Nightstalker

After William abandoned my bed, night tormented me. First sleeplessness, then nightmare possessed me: a driver-less carriage, raced in dimming light or terrifying images whirled insanely. When day came, I was too exhausted to rise.

In a distant pharmacy, candles struggled against the oak interior and the fog pressing against the window. The chemist listened, his features changing in the flickering light. Eventually, he made me a draught.

“Follow the dosage closely,” he advised.

It didn’t work. So I doubled the amount and fell into a nightmare-filled sleep, waking past midnight. To my terror, through a faint miasma, I saw a man closing a bag at the foot of the bed. He went to draw breath but then saw me watching. Frowning, he sprang for the door and passed through without opening it.

Despite my fear and hampered by my nightgown I followed him. He passed through the closed front door as I reached the bottom stair. While I hesitated, the door opened, William came in and the clock struck one.

“Amelia!” he exclaimed.

“I thought I heard an intruder,” I answered, “Where have you been?”

“You’ve been dreaming,” he answered, bolting the door. “Go back to bed.”

The following evening I increased the dose. No nightmares but little sleep. Night after night the same.

It was unbearable. I took to walking the streets in William’s clothes.

Another world: gas light, unknown others, unknown business, smoke, dung, tobacco, alcohol, sweat. Painted women: unobserved, lolling; observed, enticing. If rejected, they slumped. If chosen, fear under painted smiles.

Then I saw my intruder again. Carrying his bag, he sprang up steps, disappeared through closed doors and reappeared, his bag lighter, his grin broader. He bounced past the tawdry women, past the slithering men. Visible only to me.

Then I caught him.

“Who are you?” I whispered.

“I am Nightmare,” he hissed. Something fell from his bag as he wrenched free. It rolled towards a tramp sleeping in a doorway and broke open, engulfing him in a glistening miasma. The tramp started to twitch and then screamed himself awake.

After that, I stayed at home.

Then last night I awoke with foreboding. I crept to my husband’s room and found him asleep. Nightmare stood at the foot of the bed, opening his bag and leering.

Once, William had loved me and I slept in his arms. I still loved him. I rushed at Nightmare and tried to shut the bag but he fought me. The bag burst open and its contents crashed down onto William, exploding as they struck him.

William sat up, his eyes opened wide. Whatever he saw made him flail and his mouth opened in a soundless scream before he fell back, horror still frozen on his lifeless face.

Nightmare threw his head back and smiling, breathed the miasma in. Then he disappeared.

The doctor says it was a stroke.

But all I can hear is Nightmare hissing as he left: “you did that” and know I will never sleep again.

night mare

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

An Empty Vessel

I wanted a gift to remind my friend, landlocked in Switzerland, of the sea she missed so much; something unique but small enough to take in hand luggage. Arriving late at a remote craft shop when it was about to shut, I found a sculpture like a wave, curved and irregular; iridescent blue edged with a froth of white. I thought it was a small vase but it was filled in just below the edge.

The vendor came over and said “I’m fond of that even though it’s not quite right.”

He paused, “Business was bad. I’d come in to find things smashed, clay dried out, once even a dead cat. The day this pot sealed itself up in the kiln, things started turning around. So I think of it as a lucky piece.”

Good bit of spiel I thought. It would entertain my friend. I pulled a dubious face, he knocked off a few quid and I took it home to put in my suitcase.

*****

The flight was not busy, but I stowed my bag carefully overhead. I sat in my aisle seat, wincing when an inebriated passenger squashed his case next to mine and then, tripping over my legs, fell into the window seat and started to peruse the drinks menu. Cabin crew followed, subduing bags and forcing the bulging lockers shut. Halfway through the journey, everything started to shake. I could hear luggage shifting above me and when the plane lurched, all the lockers popped open.

As quickly as it had started, the turbulence ceased. A crew member came to reorganise things, sooth nerves, and remind the person between me and the drunk that his seat-belt should be on. The person who hadn’t been there before. We looked at each other.

“Thank you,” he said, his voice musical. His aftershave was richly spicy and his clothes were made of a clinging silk which didn’t look suitable for a Swiss November. His eyes had the depth of universes. I blinked.

“I am in your service,” he intoned.

“Who’re you?” slurred the drunk, “Where you from?”

“I’m a djinn.”

“I’m a bourbon if you’re buying,” sniggered the inebriate.

The djinn repeated, “I am in your service. I will grant you up to three wishes, for I was cruelly imprisoned and you have released me.”

“I wish you had warmer clothes on,” I said before I could stop myself and boggled as the silks were replaced by tweeds. The drunk stared and turned to the coffee options on the menu.

“I will stay with you, master, and watch over you every day.”

“Honestly you don’t need to bother.”

I definitely need this break, I thought.

“But master, two more wishes…”

“I wish you’d leave me alone,” I said, closing my eyes and putting my earphones in to block him out.

*****

I lost him in customs then forgot him entirely. As ever, my heart leapt when I saw my friend waiting for me, achingly lovely. I dug about in my bag for the gift and found that it had a hairline crack and the lid was detached.

“Never mind,” she said, “it’s beautiful anyway.”

She flung her arms around me and I mouthed my longing into her hair.

With a soft chime and the scent of cinnamon, shimmering lights appeared then faded.

My friend looked up. “I didn’t realise it until now, but I’ve always loved you. Could you love me?” she said.

Out of the corner of my eye, a man in tweeds with a shimmering silk cravat and eyes like universes, raised a hand, smiled and disappeared.

waves drop

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

Travel Rabbit

Stanley abandoned sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.

It was difficult. He was, after all, a rabbit. But he wanted monogamy and Mildred wouldn’t stand for deviance. She moved on to Bob, Dave and Harry three minutes after rejecting him.

Devastated, he became a travel rabbit. You may think you’ve never heard of this ancient vocation but surely you’ve read about the one who told someone she was late? You know, white fur, top hat, pocket-watch…

Now you’re torn aren’t you? Do you ask what a travel rabbit does or find out what a rabbit knows about drugs and rock ’n’ roll?

Drugs is easy. Rabbits know more about hallucinogenic plants than a festival goer with a botany degree. That’s why bunnies lollop within three inches of a stream of cars doing sixty. They’re looking at the pretty fairies, man.

Rock n Roll? Rabbits have rhythm but not opposable thumbs: excellent drummers but really bad guitarists. And did you know that a certain very famous person based his moves on a rabbit called Elfin Perflee from Memphis, Tennessee?

Stanley was more of a balladeer than a rocker, but he considered ending his days in the lettuce patch which is the rabbit equivalent of drowning your sorrows. Only he didn’t seek oblivion, he wanted love.

So travel rabbit it was. They go by public transport and they’re invisible. The chap with the watch was breaking the first rule of the profession. (The girl was travelling by omnibus and fell down an unfilled pothole but this was edited out of the final draft.)

Travel rabbits are there to help by whispering things like “you’re late” or “it’ll be fine” or “I’ll wake you at Woking” and occasionally “stop shouting into your mobile.” They’ve learnt to levitate at rush hour – it’s that or be crushed.

After three months travelling the Waterloo to Exeter line, Stanley forgot Mildred. He needed all his strength to support the lonely, nervous, weary, disappointed and bankrupt.

One busy night, Stanley hovered, millimetres from the ceiling, barely able to breathe. When the doors opened at Basingstoke, people swarmed on. Swept in was another travel rabbit, squashed between travellers, slipping towards certain death. Stanley, breaking the second law of travel rabbits, stood on a commuter’s head and pulled her up just in time. He levitated her into the luggage rack where her slight frame trembled, her fur tousled, her eyes big with terror. He smoothed her ears and breathed words of comfort.

Station by station the train emptied. Stanley didn’t notice. He was holding the most beautiful bunny in the world.

“I’m Peronelle,” she whispered.

“Marry me,” Stanley mumbled, his heart thudding in his ears.

There was not even a pause.

“Just me?” murmured Peronnelle, “Oh yes! At last, I’ve found my soul mate. Of course I will!”

And they knew not why, but the last few weary passengers, rocking with the train on the final leg of their long journey, heard whispers of love and their hearts warmed.

bunny

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

Loquacious

My lecture was so dull I bored myself, tailing off down an alley of inconsequence to the dead end of momentary silence until, with rising excitement, I found the side alley of potential controversy and entered it with brief anticipation of provoking interest; the eyes of the older members of the assembled teenagers coming back to life for the few seconds it took for my stress addled brain to note the teachers’ anxious tension as they braced for any risk my words might pose, whereupon I stepped off a metaphorical pavement into the path of an oncoming bus – destination: failure.

pink

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

From a prompt from Thin Spiral Notebook: a story in 100 words in 1 sentence.

Moving Forward

“Laptops?”

“Check.”

“Mobiles?”

“Check”

“Credit Cards?”

“Check”

“Tablets, wifi passwords, address books?”

“Check”

“Sat Nav?”

“Check”

“Have you packed your smart suits and shiny shoes?”

“Yup”

“Right come on, let’s get on board”

Mary, Steve, Rob and Jenny hefted their rucksacks and waited for the commuters to climb onto the train and settle down, juggling their cases and newspapers and styrofoam coffees.

There was no room to sit: all the seats and aisles were packed with people trying to get to work, trying to prepare for work, wishing they’d prepared for work, or loudly discussing work on mobiles so that the rest of world could see how important they were.

Mary, Steve, Rob and Jenny didn’t mind. They stood, balancing between swaying carriages as the wheels rattled over the smooth rails. The refreshments trolley squeezed through and ran over their booted feet. The ticket collector raised his eyebrows at their destinations and scribbled random symbols.

Town by city by town, the commuters got off, leaving room to breathe at last.

Mary, Steve, Rob and Jenny moved into an empty carriage, opening the tiny window to let some air in and blow out the odours of perfume, panic and depression; watching the buildings recede as connurbations gave way to country side.

The train slowed as it started to describe a slow bend on top of a steep embankment. Below was a wide stretch of water, splendid in unvisited isolation.

“Laptop?”

“Check.”

“Mobile?”

“Check”

“Credit Card?”

“Check”

“Tablet, wifi passwords, address books?”

“Check”

“Sat Nav?”

“Check”

“Have you packed your smart suits and shiny shoes?”

“Yup”

“Right come on, shove them all out the window quick while we go round this bend before the ticket inspector comes back – we’re leaving it all behind and starting from scratch.”

 

train travellers

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

Kitchen Haiku

Hungry teenagers:
Spurn gourmet, demand junk food.
I weep as I cook.

Keep your head down low
Get outside quick and breathe deep
Dad’s frying chillies

Would it count towards
My five a day, if I ate
Vegetarians?

Dishwasher broken!
Husband! Disembowel it!
Mend it or wash up!

[2 hours later]

Bother Drat Bother
Dishwasher completely dead
Guests come tomorrow

Exotic cuisine
Without right ingredients:
Optimistic Dad

The scent of orange,
Cherries and almond essence
Recall Gran’s kitchen

Tell me to do it
To cook just like your mother
And I’ll add hemlock

bowl

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

Big Sister

Hold my hand, hold it tight.

Don’t walk too fast, just saunter along as if we’re going to the market. Don’t look back, keep looking up at me and smiling. Laugh – pretend I’ve said something funny. That’s a girl.

Don’t worry, keep hold of my hand. Let’s skip for a bit as if I’m playing with you. No we can’t run – people will notice.

You’d think we’d be invisible wouldn’t you? All these crowds, all these twisting alleyways. But there’s always someone watching, always someone who will remember. Don’t worry, here, I’ll put my arm round your shoulder.

Let’s go this way and then we’ll double back a little bit along. Come on.

Don’t look down at the shadows and the dirt, look up at me. Look up at the sky. Can you see how blue it is? Isn’t it lovely?

Here, let’s slip through this way, we’re not so far from the edge of the settlement. Don’t tremble sweetheart, don’t look back. No-one is following now. We just keep walking.

Look! Can you see through that gap? Can you see the mountains? Look at the sun on them, turning them golden. Let’s pretend it’s a friendly dragon waiting to protect us. It’s not so far.

I know your feet are tired lovely, but you can walk a little further. We’ll be safe there, I promise. There’s a place on the mountain side and they’re waiting for us. Hold my hand, we just need to slip out through here and into the shadows again.

I promised I’d save us, little sister, I promised we’d get free. We’re nearly there… hold my hand. Soon your smile won’t be pretend anymore.

dawn

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