Merry Go Round

Christmas lights brightened January until twelfth night, the day after my father’s birthday. My birthday a week later was then and almost always has since taken place in a damp, grey gloom. The cheer of Christmas was over and now we faced just the long, muddy, dismal slog to Spring.

But that year, for my seventh birthday, Dad took me and my cousin to see a new live action version of “Alice in Wonderland” in Leicester Square. It is a long time ago now. I think I was a little disappointed in the film. Alice was, after all, supposed to be my age, but the actress was clearly a teenager and some of the magic was lost. There is nothing magical about teenagers, especially when you’re seven. However, London, coming as I did from a small country village, did not disappoint. The buildings were immense and grey, the sky in mid afternoon was darkening; but while my little village would be battening down the hatches and preparing to shut its curtains and doors dead on five p.m., London was still bustling.

You could feel its heart still racing, wired for a night on the tiles, rather than starting to doze towards an early bedtime. Holding Dad’s hand, tripping along in my best dress, I wondered if anyone ever slept. When we came out of the cinema, Leicester Square was a mass of bright lights. The Christmas ones may have been turned off, but that didn’t stop Leicester Square from blaring out its enticements: “watch watch watch”. And he took us to see Piccadilly Circus too, with adverts flashing in technicolor neon: “buy buy buy”. And I remember men in the gloom roasting chestnuts over barrels, the glow of the coals lighting their chins and mouths but throwing their eyes and hair into darkness.

That year, I remember walking to school in February and picking up a perfect, perfect piece of ice crystal. I thought it was a huge snowflake and carried it carefully to show my teacher on my mitten. I held it out to show her but it had started to melt, the geometric pattern blurred. She thought I was crying because my hands were cold and I couldn’t explain that I didn’t care about the cold, I was just heartbroken because the perfection was gone.

We had moved to that village only the September before. It was my third moved and my second school and I’d struggled to make friends. It had been hard enough at my first school but this time had been a terrible, lonely, miserable battle to find my place and shake off the bullies.

Somehow, despite everything, I’d made a good friend who understood about unicorns and Pegasuses and imagination. And somehow or other I had fallen in love with a boy who had fallen in love with me, instead of with Charlotte with the beautiful curls and lovely blue eyes. Sometimes I played with my friend, making up stories about winged unicorns in my room which looked out over rolling fields of ripening barley. Sometimes I watched TV with my boyfriend and I wondered if he would ever hold my hand or kiss me.

That summer, my family went to Cornwall and I looked for dragons in the caves at St Austell and Dad read to us in the caravan while we sipped Nesquik and listened to the hiss of the gas mantles.

That autumn, I read the last book on the primary school reading plan and the last book in the school library and was told to bring my own from now on.

That Christmas we went to my great aunt’s house as usual and nineteen or so ate a wonderful dinner and my sister and I chased round with our five cousins and I saw that my girl cousin had lost a shoe and spotted it on top of an empty crystal vase on the dining table and got it for her. Then my uncle chased me because he’d been sketching it as part of a composition.

That winter, my father said that we might be moving again. He said he was applying for jobs somewhere else entirely. Maybe we would go right round the world to the Solomon Islands. Maybe we would move to Wales. He said he’d applied for a job in Mold and a job in Neath. I didn’t want to live anywhere called Mold. I sort of fancied living in a Pacific Island, always sunny. I wondered if there would be palm trees and castaways.

But under under Christmas lights, in the last days of December, my father spread out a map of a village in South Wales, nestling on the edge of a mountain, with the word “FFOREST” in Welsh drawn across it just behind the house where we were going to live.
I wondered if it was a magic forest. But even if it was, that meant nothing without my grandparents or my friends.

I didn’t want to move again.

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

The Prize

And that autumn, my father, our chieftain, owing them tribute for keeping our hunters safe through the summer, invited the folk from the forest to a feast in our hill fort and we ate the lean fresh game hunted that day and we drank deep of mead and barley beer.

And then my father challenged their chief to a game and put up a prize of a box of fine pots and silver and jewels from the eastern traders as a prize and their chief who was by far the better player, put as his prize, the hand of his dryad daughter to be my bride, safe in the knowledge that he could not lose.

And yet he lost.

And in Spring, he brought her to me as a bride and she was beautiful. Her skin was the silver of birch and her hair the brown of oak and her lips the red of berries and her eyes the green gold of beech and he placed her hand in mine and she looked at me.

But oh, then I saw her look out into the hills and meadows open to the sky, without refuge or sanctity of trees and I saw the lips quiver and the eyes fill and I could not take her as my bride. With a kiss to her lovely hand I bowed to her father and said that I could not take his sapling and plant it in the hills for I loved her too much to see her thrown and spun by storms and gales. And she kissed my cheek and smiled and her father smiled too and promised us safety from wolves through the winter and took her away.

Often, when I hunt, I wonder if she watches me from the undergrowth. I wonder if she could have loved me too one day.

But I am not sad, not really, for it is no prize if the prize did not wish to be won.

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

Shopping for Comfort

Alice Thompson walked briskly towards the shop. She felt as if she ought to have a basket to swing. It wasn’t the same with a squishy cloth bag. She chuckled, remembering doing this walk with her mother all those many, many years ago. One hand would be holding Mummy’s hand and the other would be swinging the basket and somehow she always managed to hit the grumpiest people with it rather than the ones who would laugh it off. Like sour old Mrs Higgins for example who would rub her elbow and mutter about children nowadays and stomp off with a face like a prune and her stockings sagging at the ankles and Alice would look up at Mummy and Mummy would wink and grin and sometimes they’d both skip to the shop together. It was strange how Mummy’s face was remembered so clearly, those laughing dark brown eyes, that lovely dark hair in a roll round her head. When they went out, she’d wear a bright headscarf. “Hitler’s not going to stop us from looking pretty,” she’d say.

Alice paused to peruse her shopping list, there was always something she’d forgotten. “Mustard, Custard, Beef Extract.” Had she really run out of nothing else? She looked back towards home and frowned. There were so many cars whizzing about these days. There only used to be one or two. Still plenty of grumpy people about though. She looked for Mrs Higgins but couldn’t see her, perhaps she’d done her shopping earlier. Turning back, Alice was surprised that the baker had changed his paint scheme and the goods inside the window looked impossibly tempting. Must have been up all night making those things out of cardboard: cakes and whatnot.
She blinked, looked back at her list and shrugged, speaking to the inner disquiet, “Mummy always said a hot cup of beef extract will comfort you when there’s not much in the cupboard and custard’s a real treat and mustard…” Why did she want mustard? She visualised the little yellow tin with the red writing and the bull’s head and the royal crest. Why did mustard have a bull on it? Was it because it was nice with beef? A bit cruel to the bull, that is, sticking its head on the tin of something you’re going to eat with it.

She walked more slowly now until she arrived at the shop. It too had transformed, very gaudy, and the name of the grocer had gone and was replaced by a big bright nonsensical word: “Costbeater”. Alice’s hand shook as she pushed the door open. Inside the place was full of shelves and goods, floor to ceiling: goods of all kinds, bright and jolly and meaningless. She picked things up at random. What were noodles? What was ravioli? What was soy sauce? Alice’s legs felt weak. She must be in a dream. There shouldn’t be this much stuff here. There should be a brown counter and all the goods behind it; all the goods Mr Perkins could obtain anyway. And she and Mummy would read out their list and give up their coupons…

Oh no, she’d left the coupons behind. What was she going to do? She could feel her eyes fill. Then a voice said, “hello Mrs Thompson, are you O.K? Oh dear, you look a bit upset. Come and sit down, come on, here’s the chair. Take a deep breath and let me look at your list.”

Alice let herself be led to a chair and sat, shaking, wondering who Mrs Thompson was. She wiped her eyes and looked up at the girl who had helped her. She was very brown. Maybe she’d been out in the sun a lot, or more likely she was one of those evacuees. People from London looked different didn’t they? She was kind though, the brown girl. Alice smiled and wondered if they could make friends. She handed over the list and the girl smiled. “Ah yes,” she said, “I’ll get these for you, just you sit there.”

“We’ve forgotten our coupons,” said Alice. She looked round, “where’s Mummy?” she asked.

The brown girl’s smile dropped a little. Then she brightened, turning to beckon someone from the back of the shop.

Alice tucked her handkerchief back into her sleeve, then looked up into her mother’s eyes. Big brown eyes smiled down at her. Her mother’s hair was darker than usual but the headscarf was so pretty, blue and pink today with bits of gold. Her skin was browner than usual too. Still she’d been out in the garden a lot recently. But her eyes were the same: kind and happy.

“Don’t worry about the coupons,” said Mummy, “bring them next time.”

Alice looked at the list again. She felt like she had just woken up and frowned, “I can’t think why I put these things on there,” she said, “it’s cheese, bread and milk I need.”

“I thought as much,” said Mrs Patel, “But don’t worry, just sit there while we get your shopping and then I’ll see you home safe and sound. I’ll just ring your daughter so she’s there waiting for you.”

“Maybe the beef extract too, then,” said Alice, “I can make her some when I’m home. She seems a bit sad these days. There’s nothing like a cup of beef extract to cheer you up. Liquid comfort, my mother used to say. Liquid comfort.”

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

Threshold

On the cliff, the girl spun.

The sheep behind her bleated and turned their backs. Below her, the sea was mesmerisingly far and heavenly blue.

Can you look down into heaven? she thought, Is that what’s calling me?

She turned again to catch the voice. If the sea was not calling, then was it a shepherd? But the sheep were masterless.

Beyond the fields was the indifferent road. Cars flashed east to west, west to east, ignorant of all but direction.

“This way, this way.”

The voice bounced from ridges to terraces, ancient and nameless on the windswept land.

The girl took another step to the cliff-edge. Flakes of orange earth crumbled under her toes, disappearing into the space where the seagulls whirled above the waves in their intricate aerial ballet and down onto the distant shingle.

Would it hurt to fall? she wondered.

Would the seagulls part or would their beaks and feet slash as she dived? Would the air sting as it rushed past her face? Would the sea be at last, a pillow to engulf her? Or would she, as delicate as a fern or shell, smash into a thousand fragments yet become imprinted on the rocks, encapsulated forever.

“This way, this way.”

It was not the sea calling her to its turbulent heaven. It was the peaceful land.

Falling to her knees, she crawled back from the edge, the wind whipping her tear-drowned hair.

“Not yet,” she heard, “turn this way. Try once more.”

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