Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the barn,
The rafters were festooned with fine silken yarn.
The spiders had woven their intricate lace
And fireflies like fairy lights lit up the place.
Thus the barn looked so festive yet down in the hay
A girl dressed in nothing but rags and tears lay
Cast out in the cold with no friend to stand by
She wept without hope and waited to die.
Her warmth ebbed away as the source of her shame,
She clasped to her heart, a mere babe without name.
Her lover was false and her trust he’d betrayed
And her parents had spurned her, this poor desperate maid.
So in her last hours she’d trudged through the snow
And entered the barn with its welcoming glow.
And that’s where he found them, the farmer so old,
And carried them into the house from the cold.
And called to his wife to bring blankets and tea
And said, “Here’s the wonder we long wished to see,
“We yearned for a child as months turned into years
“Till time took our hope and wasted our tears
“And now in midwinter our dreams have come true
“Not one child we’re given, for here there are two!”

twas-poster

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

I entered a competition to write a poem continuing the first line and this is the result. The prize was a poster made especially for the poem and “The Grubdale Chronicles” by Michael Williams). Much to my surprise, I won first prize !

Underground Cat

I am the underground cat.

I slink along the tube. My eyes, flashing in Stygian dark, startle drivers.

I seek comfort from travellers’ ankles. In rush-hour, they barely notice; but at night they perceive flashes of topaz in the tunnel black, then feel sleekness spiral their legs and shiver.

I am not really here. I am as insubstantial as the suck and rush of air, the squeal and moan along the tracks.

Munching on ghostly rats, I’ve been lost down here a hundred years, looking for the way above the ground, where my spirit can finally dissolve into starlight.

BALIFrom a challenge on Thin Spiral Notebook to write 100 words prompted by “Cat”

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

Justice

I don’t know whom my ancestors supported in the English civil war. Their voice, their sufferings, during the republic’s creation and dissolution are, like those of most common men lost to history. Battlefields have been reduced to tourist attractions.

I weep for ordinary people like me who send their last tweets as bombs fall after another failed ceasefire. Tourist attractions are reduced to battlefields.

The murdered, the displaced, the orphaned are hard to unsee or unhear.

When our descendants decide on this war’s  “worth”, at least there is a little justice in that the common man’s condemnation is broadcast.

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Corfe Castle – destroyed in the English Civil War, now a tourist attraction.

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

Prompted by Thin Spiral Notebook to write 100 words exactly about “Justice

And Then….

And then, she lived happily ever after.

Or did she?

Fast forward twenty years, or maybe a little more. (As they say, the longest ten years of a woman’s life are between the ages of forty and sixty.)

Behold Queen Cinderella. She is bored, but doesn’t like to say so.

She sometimes looks wistfully at that old ball dress and wonders what happened to her waist. She misses all the petticoats. The frame under her skirts these days is so broad and immobile she has to go sideways through doors, but while wigs are just the place to keep things (like quills and spare change and toothpicks) she misses her hair falling loose and unhindered. She has very firm views about footwear however, and hasn’t been able to wear heels since the heir to the throne came along. The glass slippers are on display in the portrait gallery and she blames her bunions on hours of dancing in the wretched things. Everyone thinks the slipper fell off. It didn’t. She kicked it off in temper.

The thing about having once been a maid is that you can’t help noticing when things aren’t done properly. The dusting, the seasoning in the soup, the really terrible darning on her stockings, the state of the brass and silver: poor Cinderella’s fingers itch to sort it all out, but it doesn’t do to argue with the servants, she knows only too well what sort of revenge they can take. All the same, there is only so much of sitting on a fine cushion sewing a fine seam that a reasonably intelligent woman can take. And dining on strawberries, sugar and cream all day for twenty (cough cough) years is definitely the reason why she can’t get into that old ball gown anymore.

King Charming is, frankly, an idiot. When they were first married it wasn’t so bad, even if he was a bit obsessed with women’s feet. Before she got pregnant, she would leave him sneaking glances at noblewomen’s shoes and sneak out of the palace in the dark. In disguise she’d find the places were there was all night dancing and singing but no-one cared what you were wearing or who you were. If she is honest, Cinderella, outstrips him on the brains front and would make a much better monarch. Every time he tells her about his decrees, she rolls her eyes. ‘Why don’t you just order a revolution and save everyone time,’ she says.

And then one day, when Cinderella is half-heartedly minding her sparkling sheep on the model farm, a girl in a red cloak pops out of the forest.

The girl says ‘sometimes, you just have to go with the flow and then sometimes you have to alter the direction of the flow. The key is to know the difference. If you want to change the way things turned out, twiddle this until you get the date you want to go back to and you can start again. I used it to reboot a wolf to default to sheep and saved a grandmother. And him. Shall I send him out to eat your flock before it dies of boredom? Anyway, use this wisely and pass it on.’ Handing Cinderella a strange looking device, she dashes back into the forest.

For a few seconds, Cinderella stands blinking into the pines, where she can just make out a flash of red and then turns to look at the object in her hand. Nearby, a flunky walks around behind the sheep picking up droppings and another walks around straightening bows. Tonight, there will be a dinner which is supposed to ameliorate the nobles and some of the muttering bourgeoisie. She thinks back to when it had all changed and then ….. she rewinds time.

******

The stepmother and ugly stepsisters had gone to the ball crammed into clothes that didn’t suit them or fit them and there was Cinderella sitting in the kitchen wondering why there’s always a teaspoon in the bottom of the sink after you’ve finished washing up and whether she’d accidentally put the potato peeler in the bin. Again.

To be honest, she’d given up on the ball idea long ago. She’d tried on the sisters’ dresses in secret but otherwise she knew it just wasn’t going to happen. But at least she’d have the evening to herself without people demanding snacks every five minutes. And the kitchen was a lot warmer than the drawing room.

Yes, Cinderella was feeling positive, maybe a little rebellious. She’d considered whether to get the really expensive tea out of the cupboard (the one they’d got from the smugglers to avoid paying duty) and then decided she might as well get the port out instead and top the bottle up afterwards with blackcurrant cordial. She was rummaging around in the bottom of the dresser to get at the good stuff (dislodging the dodgy looking bottles of cream liqueur, advocaat and pina colada which had been there since last Christmas) when there was a loud explosion which made her jump and bang her head on the roof of the cupboard.

For a moment she froze, thoughts tumbling through her spinning head: have the stepsisters come back? is the house being raided? did I leave something boiling? does my bum look big in this cupboard? The answer to the last question was yes; but to be fair, Cinderella was wearing a lot of petticoats and her bum was the only thing visible as the rest of her was inside the dresser.

Backing out, she stood up with a frown and found herself face to face with a strange woman who was holding a party dress in exactly the right size, some highly inappropriate shoes which came with a health warning from HM Dept of Chiropody, a pumpkin and some rodents. Like you do.

‘Cinderella!’ said the woman, brandishing what appeared to be a sparkler, ‘I am your Fairy Godmother! You will go to the ball.’

‘Where have you been up to now then?’ said Cinderella, ‘I’ve been trapped in this kitchen by my family for ten years.’

‘Because this is the pivotal moment when you can meet a handsome prince and live happily ever after!’

‘Why couldn’t I have had a pivotal moment when I was six so that I got some love and affection and maybe an education and an occasional lie-in?’

The feeling of rebellion had not receded. All these years, training up as a domestic instead of as a lady. Why hadn’t she just walked away rather than wait for someone to rescue her? After all, she could have been a servant somewhere else and been paid for it; she could have found another career entirely; she could have dressed as a boy and run off to sea or gone to live in the wilds as a wise woman or something.

And then Cinderella realised that the world was her oyster; but that it was up to her to open it in the hope of a pearl rather than a lump of gloop. And even if it was gloop, after ten years of housework, she was used to gloop. She smiled. If the Fairy Godmother had actually been paying attention all these years, she’d have recognised that smile and saved herself a lot of excuses in her annual report.

So, an hour or so later, after Cinderella had boiled up the water for a bath and used the sisters’ perfumes and with some magical assistance had put her hair up and crammed herself into the dress and found a large matching handbag, she watched as the pumpkin and rodents became coach, coachman and horses and waving goodbye to the Fairy Godmother sped round the corner towards the castle and then stuck her head out of the window and directed the coachman out of the city instead. At the gates, she put on her best pomposity:

‘Open the gates immediately!’

The guard warned: ’But it’s ten o’clock your..’ (under his breath) ‘stroppiness..’ (louder) ‘outside there are….’

‘Do you know who I am??’

The gates swung back and the coach barrelled through.

The guard, shutting them again, muttered, ‘I know who you are, you’re someone who’s going to be attacked by highwaymen or wolves. Arrogant…’

The bolts screeched.

But the moon was bright and Cinderella was fine. For two hours the coach sped along, crossing the border before skidding to a halt at the edges of a forest near a small town. A few moments later, Cinderella stepped out of the coach, asked the coachman to strip to his underwear, kissed him and patted the horses before they transformed, then shooed rodents into the undergrowth. Carefully placing the ball-dress and crystal shoes into her oversized bag and taking out a blanket, Cinderella put on the coachman’s outfit, settled her head on the pumpkin and fell asleep. A rat and four mice curled up on her lap until dawn.

In the morning, Cinderella walked into town and found herself lodgings with an old lady who needed an extra pair of hands and was happy for the first instalment of rent to be paid in pumpkin soup. After that, Cinderella set about selling the ball-dress and starting up a domestic service agency. No woman in her right mind wanted the shoes however. Without any help from anyone, Cinderella found Edward, a young man with brains, married him and expanded her business. As the years passed, she forgot about the crystal shoes and they sat in her coffer under a growing pile of coins with a strange device the purpose of which was now a blur.

One evening, Edward said over dinner, ‘those dwarves in the forest are after crystals. Not sure if the diamond mine’s run out or they just want a sideline for the financially challenged. Shame we haven’t got any to sell.’

The next day, Cinderella headed into the trees with the slippers in a nap-sack. It was a long way through the undergrowth to the cottage but every time she thought she was lost, a group of mice squeaked at her till she changed direction. They looked like mice she’d once known, but that was ridiculous. The cottage was in a clearing. She had heard dire things about the state of it and was anticipating filth and chaos, but when she arrived there was a girl standing outside under sparkling windows, putting clothes through a mangle and singing to an audience of wildlife.

‘Hello,’ said Cinderella. The girl looked up and stopped singing, her hair was black as ebony, her skin as white as snow (which was hardly surprising since there wasn’t much sunlight getting through the trees) and lips as red as blood. It was a bit unnerving to look at her.

‘I’m Cinderella. I’ve got some crystal to sell to the dwarves.’

‘I’m Snow White,’ said the girl, ‘I’ll call them.’

She shrieked into the trees and after patting all the animals, went back to the mangle, grimacing as she wound the handle.

‘I hate housework,’ she said, ‘All I want to do is run a wildlife rescue centre. I don’t know how I ended up here. One minute you’re being trained up to a future of idle luxury, eating strawberries and cream and being pregnant every year and you’re thinking how boring it all sounds and then as soon as you hit sixteen, someone takes you into the woods to kill you quickly with a dagger, then wimps out and sends you into the forest so the wolves or starvation or hypothermia can do the job much slower and more painfully, then when you think you’ve found some men to save you, turns out they live in such a mess they can’t find their own er… anyway, you can’t live like that so you find yourself cleaning up and waiting for a handsome prince to whisk you off to a life of idle luxury, eating strawberries and cream and being pregnant every year. Doesn’t seem like much of a life, does it? Where did I go wrong? Anyway, while we’re waiting, let’s have a look at the crystals.’

Cinderella pulled the slippers out of the knapsack and a strange device falls onto the ground. She picked it up and turns it over in her hand, frowning, remembering.

‘These are pretty,’ said Snow White, holding a slipper against her foot then handing it back, ‘but they look dead uncomfortable. What’s that?’

Cinderella remembered a flash of red and said, ‘sometimes, you just have to go with the flow and then sometimes you have to alter the direction of the flow. The key is to know the difference. If you want to change the way things turned out, twiddle this until you get the date you want to go back to and you can start again.’

Snow White looked at the laundry and back at the cottage, ‘how will they manage without me though? I’m very fond of them really.’

‘I run an agency that supplies domestic service. I’m sure I can sort something out for them. Anyway, use this wisely and pass it on.’

Cinderella passed over the device and Snow White took it. Her eyes sparkled, closed then opened again as she twiddled with the time-turner and disappeared. The animals scattered.

Cinderella was left on her own with the laundry in the clearing. After a few moments, seven dwarves rounded the cottage and fourteen eyes sized up the value of the slippers.

‘Hello lads,’ said Cinderella, ‘I’ve got a business proposition.’

And then they all lived happily ever after.

Probably.

device

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

Feeling Failure

We rarely used our ancient microwave. Its main purpose was cooking peas and porridge (not together). Nevertheless it caught fire last week when all I was doing was heating up a little water in a dish to warm the dish. (Don’t ask me why I didn’t just use water from the kettle, but it may indicate my current state of mine. Plus the house was very cold, hence warming the plate.)

A couple of days after this, the internet router went into death spasms and finally croaked on Friday evening, just in time for a weekend when having access to the web was actually essential rather than simply desirable.

This seemed a fitting end to a stressful November and I’m trying to restrain the illogical superstitious nagging voice which sneers “things come in threes – it’ll be the washing machine next. Mwah-ha-ha!”

This time two years ago, everything I had ever written was for family viewing only because I was too shy to let anyone else see it. In 2015, with some prompting, I entered a local competition and then joined some Facebook writing groups and by the end of November, had managed to complete my first Nanowrimo with a thriller (completely different sort of genre for me), had written a piece of flash every day for Flashnano, had joined a local writers’ group and was, having enjoyed this experience so much, was about to launch into writing a piece of flash every day for advent too. These two sets of flash ended up as the basis of two collections of short stories: “Kindling” and “The Advent Calendar”.

So having got to the end of 2015, my plans for 2016 included: finding a new job or new role within my current organisation; self-publishing “Kindling” before June and “The Advent Calendar” in September; revising last year’s Nanowrimo novel and finding an agent with a view to maybe getting it published; finishing a novella I started a few years ago and maybe (when feeling at my most optimistic) losing two stone (twenty-eight pounds), getting fit, getting/keeping the house straight and increasing our family intake of vegetables.

Things started ok. I went running after work in January and used my Christmas money to book onto a “how to self-publish your book” course at an arts centre which counts as local if seventeen miles is local. In February, I finally braced myself to actually read my 2015 Nanowrimo novel and found it was not too terrible. I started to read bits of it out at my Writers’ Group and got some good, useful feedback.

The actual slog of revising the novel however, was put to one side as I revised “Kindling” and “The Advent Calendar” and found volunteers to be my reviewers/proof readers and tried to work out what to do about covers. Meanwhile, the “how to self-publish your book” course was cancelled. The urge to exercise waxed and waned with the outside temperatures/weather fronts and inside stress levels. All the other things were a non-starter as they had been every year beforehand.

Then again, with the help of old friends, new friends, internet friends and books by Jo Roderick (“Publish it Yourself” and “Format it Yourself”) and Rick Smith (“How to Publish your Paperback with Createspace”), I published “Kindling” at the end of September. I agonised over the design of a cover and in the end, bought one. “The Advent Calendar”, with a cover I designed myself, came out just in time for Christmas and the leader of my writers’ group organised a story evening when I would get the chance to showcase my work and maybe sell some copies of both books. I decided I would do Nanowrimo again and maybe actually finish that novella after all and should it finish short of 50k, start something else to make up the words.

Meanwhile, after seven internal applications, I finally obtained another role within my own organisation and this started on 1st November, with two days of travelling to London and back from country-mouse territory, just in time for Nano and Flashnano. All started well. But, to cut a long story short, what with work and a number of other things, I gave up on Flashnano after 11th November and on Nanowrimo on 20th (having reached 25k and knowing it would be impossible to get any further).

The day of the story evening loomed. I was immensely nervous. “Tell us something about yourself” I was advised. What’s there to say about myself? I’m just a working mother who juggles work, teenagers, husband, housework, writing despite the fact I can’t juggle. In the end, on the way to a meeting the morning of the event, I sat on the train and jotted down a plan to “tell my story” using my actual stories. The day at work then deteriorated into one of those where you end up just wanting to crawl in a hole and lick your self-confidence back from minus ten to maybe zero. From this, I had to force myself into actress mode and be a story teller, make people laugh, make people think, make people go “aah”.

Do you know what? It went well. It went really well. I should have an Oscar for that performance. I sold some books. People said nice things. They wrote even nicer things. I came home high as a kite. But at four a.m. what woke me up was the bad day at work, churning over and over and over, obliterating all the positives. And although I had already resigned myself to not finishing Nano, I still felt disappointed that I hadn’t managed to do half of what I’d done the year before.

I’m not naturally a pessimist, so what’s wrong? Why is my default to think about the things which haven’t worked out rather than the things which have? My whole life has been a series of changes of direction resulting from bad choices or bad grades or just taking different routes from the ones I meant to take or simply life getting in the way of plans as it tends to do. (For example, if I’d followed the plan I’d set at eighteen, I’d have married my first love, would now have four grown up children and be a long established, award winning novelist. Instead I married a later love, have two teenage children (aargh), am still employed and only just starting on my published journey.)

Of the many management courses I’ve been on in a long (some days it feels longer than others) career, the one which I found most useful was about coping with change. Reference was made to “the change curve”. This was established from research into grieving, when it was discovered that the same pattern of behaviour applies to major change as it does to grief. Understanding this helped me immensely a few years later when my father died. I knew I was feeling positive because I needed to do a lot of coping for myself and my mother and also knew that shortly, the grief and disbelief would kick in, followed by a period of depression and/or utter weariness, followed by picking up the pieces once more.

In November this year, I started a new job and launched two books to an audience of strangers. These two things were good but stressful. The two books were the result of a year of work and emotion.

It is now wintertime, getting darker and darker, colder and colder, a season which drains me. My daughter is about to do her GSCEs and my son, about to do his A Levels, has his first university interview next week. They are on the threshold of adulthood. It seems like a hundred years since I was at that stage of life. There was bound to be a reaction.

Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, the ability to feel positive, however illogically, is overwhelmed by negative events. I need to give myself a break. It’s just the way I feel right now.

And if you’re feeling as down as I am, you need to give yourself a break too.

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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

Four a.m.

Yet again, despairing, I wake at four
Hoping this time the lava of oblivion
Will overwhelm the vortex of my thoughts
Spinning in chaos at this burgling hour.

Outside from house to house invaders peak
Easing open windows, doors
Armed with picks, crowbars and ill-intent
Burglars sneak.

In nurseries, dream-fogged people creep
Feeding, rocking, soothing
Those soft and milky balls of want and fear
Burgling sleep.

Elsewhere, people pause in jaws of death
Frail pulses beat, hands clasp, tears run
Exhaustion flutters in vain against the foe
Who burgles breath.

And in my mind, these thoughts won’t cease
Fears, anger, confusion whirl with draining force
Worry forces entry into sleep
Burgling peace.

vortex

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