Somewhere Else

Jo climbed the tree fast.

“Hang on,” I said, pulling myself up after her.

The branches shuddered. Old twigs shook loose and caught in my hair.

“They won’t see us up here,” I argued, “Not in all these leaves.”

Jo paused. Her face was rippling with green light as the swaying slowed. It was hot.

“Did you know,” she said, “when you get to the top of something, right to the top, the top of the tallest something, then you can reach Somewhere Else.”

She was always saying this sort of thing, with utter certainty, dragging me in.

I made a tiny gap in the leaves. Were the boys and their snarling, slavering dog still hunting us?

“This isn’t the tallest tree in the woods.” I pointed out. Further up the ridge were larches, looming and angry even in summer.

“It’s the tallest tree in this bit of the woods.”

“Well I’ve been up the top of Bryn Cawr and didn’t find Somewhere Else. There was just rock and dirt and a dead sheep.”

Jo twisted on her branch and looked over to the mountain across the valley. It looked like a fat, lumpy sleeping giant.

“Mountains ought to be pointy,” she argued, “and anyway, Bryn Cawr isn’t the tallest mountain around here.”

“Shh,” I hissed. The bracken was moving; the boys were crouched down, sneaking. Did they know where we were?

Jo shinned up the tallest branch. There were bloody scratches on her soft legs. I looked down, it was a long way to fall.

“Come back,” I begged.

“No. I want to be Somewhere Else.”

If she fell, she’d break her neck.

The tree stopped moving. The bracken was still. Why had I climbed in the first place? Why hadn’t we just run home? Jo and her other worlds! She got me believing her fantasies and I always forgot she was making it up. I leaned back as much as I dared to glare at her.

The tallest branch was empty, leaves shimmering in the heat.

“Jo?”

She wasn’t there. I’d imagined it all, running from that dog, from those boys, wishing I wasn’t alone.

Suddenly, the bracken exploded. The dog came out with the last boy, threshing under thumps and kicks. A hand was over his muzzle and then released. All the dog’s pent up fury exploded into vicious barking. Spittle flew. Shouting, the boys raced towards the tree, throwing stones.

“We know you’re up there!”

I climbed higher until I was holding onto the slender highest branch. There was nothing over me but blue. I was higher than the mountains and as high as the distant larches.

“Psst,” said Jo.

I looked up and saw a door in the sky above my head.

“Catch hold,” Jo’s hand appeared through the door, “I was right! Come and see.”

And I reached up and wrapped my fingers round hers and let go of the tree and the bullying world below faded away and I was Somewhere Else instead.

elsewhere

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Ghost Coin

My husband removed the 1980s bath-panel and found something bizarre.

A 1914 penny under an upstairs bath in a 1950s house.

We put it safe and ‘Googled’. In 1914, a penny bought half a pint of beer or loaf of bread or pint of milk.

The penny’s since disappeared.

Our friendly ghost’s playing tricks again. It often plays piano or rattles pipes. Bet that’s who put the coin where it shouldn’t have been.

No doubt it’s now sloped off with phantom mates to buy spectral beer at The Headless Spook Inn, which I suspect is in our attic.

Typical.

ghost-pint

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook

My Father’s Eyes

They changed as you read; narrowed for villains, opened wide for victims and frowned for determined heroes.

You made us giggle by waggling your glasses and eyebrows.

You blinked as you marched us on sunny fossil-hunts, you peered into books and squinted at handicrafts you’d start but never finish.

Your eyes grew tired, old. One day, your eyes smiled love as we said goodbye but two days later, though they blinked, you were no longer there. Then they closed forever.

But I will only remember your eyes, sparkling as you told stories, bringing the characters alive, twinkling with love.

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 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

Hiding Places

Two years ago, I started a story about a little girl hiding in a house.

I am fascinated by houses. Perhaps because I moved a lot as a child, perhaps because I see how they reflect the personalities of the people who live in them, perhaps because in my early childhood I knew several homes with rooms and attics full of potential treasure: stuffed animals, old gramophones, books, stacked photographs.

Homes seem to me to have a personality of their own. When my husband and I were house hunting twelve years ago, we would walk out of a property and say “that’s a happy house” or “that’s an unhappy house” even though there was nothing visible to indicate a difference between them.

My story started innocently enough but as it wound its way from muse to keyboard, the child in the story stopped being carefree. She became someone desperate, unhappy, lonely; hiding in a perfect, neat, cold house. I wrote it for a competition and hadn’t quite finished it when a friend told me a story about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany and somehow a little of that was woven in too. My story is set in an unspecified world in which there is persecution for being different. I’m not publishing it here for the moment as I hope to publish it elsewhere but this is about what happened after it had been written.

Once I’d finished and refined it, I entered the story into a local competition run by the Rotary Club and it was short-listed for the Mayor’s prize. In October 2016, I went to the Corn Exchange (our local equivalent of a town hall) to read it out.

Odd as it may sound (since I was the one who’d written it) I found it hard to read aloud because although I knew what was happening, I still got choked up. I tend to speak quietly and quickly even when I’m not nervous. The acoustics in the building are not very good and I had to read while holding a microphone and also conscious of the fact that I would then have to clamber back down some steep steps without a handrail in heels and somehow try not to fall (give me a staircase and I will fall down it). I could feel myself getting angry on behalf of this imaginary little girl, caught up in the political machinations of adults and my voice started to crack. I ended with tears in my eyes. There was applause, I got down the steps without making a fool of myself and then found I had to climb back up because I’d won.

After all the prizes had been handed out and I was safely back on ground level again, a lady in her late seventies or early eighties came up. She said her hearing was poor and she’d been sitting at the back and not quite been able to make out everything I’d said. She asked if I could drop round to her house and give her a printed copy of some of my stories so that she could read them for herself.

The following weekend, I found her house (which had a wonderful door as if it would lead into a magic realm) and as she wasn’t in, popped the stories through the letterbox, leaving my address but forgetting to leave my phone number, meaning to go back a few days later.

Life was busy and it went out of my head.

A week or so afterwards, as I was in the kitchen editing photographs one Sunday and my mother, who’d come round for the afternoon was sitting with me doing embroidery while dinner burbled away in the oven, the lady arrived at my front door, having walked maybe a mile across town to do so. I invited her in for a rest and something to drink before driving her home. She said some lovely things about the stories I’d given her but then she asked about the inspiration for the one about the hiding little girl.

I explained that part of it was imaginary and the other part was inspired by stories friends of Polish and German descent had told of hiding Jewish fugitives and from reading a book called “My Hundred Children” by Lena Kuchler-Silberman and books by Corrie Ten Boom.

Over a cup of tea, the lady explained that she was Jewish. In 1938, while she was still a baby, her parents had escaped Austria but her grandparents, uncles and aunt had not been able to leave. There is now barely a trace of them.

She knows one uncle died in Dachau and one grandfather was beaten to death before even getting to a camp (the Viennese Nazi authorities kept good death records – don’t you love bureaucracy?). Her parents told of people just getting a knock on the door and being given half an hour to get themselves down to the town hall.

“Can you imagine, the Corn Exchange is our town hall,” she said, “so they come to your house and they pick on you because you’re Jewish, or Catholic, or Protestant or Muslim or immigrant or you name it, and you have half an hour to get to the Corn Exchange and you don’t know what will happen to you and maybe no-one will ever find out.”

The lady who took the trouble to bring me back my story now lives in a nice town in a peaceful country with children and grand-children of her own living in other nice towns. She sat, telling me her life, drinking tea with my mother, calm and friendly.

My mother is just a few years younger. The only separation she experienced during the war, was when my grandmother moved to be near family in Scotland with her two small children, away from the risk of bombing. They left my grandfather (too old to join up and in a reserved occupation) to carry on working in London and living in the empty family home. My mother’s family tree has all its branches in the last century at least.

The other lady’s family tree, like so many, had branches hacked off and destroyed.

All that potential, all those nearly people. All those children who maybe couldn’t hide quite safely enough. Her life now may be pleasant and safe, but her parents’ desperate flight, the loss of their loved ones are engraved on her.

I know her story is not news. I know, even worse that that, it’s not old news. The Nazis weren’t the first to do it and they weren’t the last.

It is going on right now, somewhere in the world, as I type this.

Religious grounds, ethnic grounds, racial grounds, political grounds, gender identity, sexuality, how many generations your ancestors arrived – somewhere someone is justifying a reason for the humiliation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, dehumanisation, persecution and death of other human beings just because they are different.

I wish it wasn’t true. More than anything, I wish I didn’t know there are people in “civilised” countries who are right this moment looking forward to starting it up again.

God forgive us for never learning and for the capacity for hatred in the human heart.

The evidence is right in front of us. And don’t assume you could be safe because we may not know the criteria. Watch out, because any one of us may be summonsed to the town hall one day and the hiding places may yet run out.

hiding

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

How the Dragon got his Flame

When the world was new: forming and reforming, heaving and twisting, spewing fire and splitting earth, the first men shivered under endless days of cloud and dust.

The wisest person guarded a captured flame. At night, they worshipped the flame which kept back the wild beasts and the bitter dark. In day, they worshipped the flame which dried their clothes and warmed their food.

But they were still cold. And wild beasts circled in the relentless night.

Only beast befriended them. They shared their hunting with the dragon and the dragon curved around the camp and the fire and the people leant against his soft hide. Purring, he told them about the worlds beyond their valley, their mountains. They begged him to carry them flying above the trees, above the cloud. They thought it would be warm, closer to the sun and they did not believe it when he told them of the coldness of the blue.

The dragon felt sorry for the people, shivering and huddling round their fire yearning for the sun. So he taught them to lighten the dark by treasuring friendship and laughter and song.

And he worked his magic. Flying above the forest, above the mountains, above the cloud, he hunted and captured rays of sunlight, carrying them into his mouth and thrusting them into the frigid rock and frosty streams until they froze into gold.

And he said, “come and look, people, here is a little of the sun for you to behold. It is cold but it will not rot or fade. It will sparkle in the waters and it will glint in the rock faces. It serves no purpose but for its beauty to make you feel warm.”

The people asked, “what do want in return?”

The dragon replied, “nothing, my friends. Nothing but that you do not disturb the gold and that you share the knowledge of this magic without destruction. It is enough for you to know that it is beautiful, mostly hidden under your feet. If you seek to possess it, evil will befall you.”

But time passed and the people became numerous. They learnt not just to hoard flame but how to create it. They rarely called on the dragon as they sought mountain passes to other worlds. They learnt to make shelters and weapons. And as they multiplied, so they divided.

And soon it was not enough to have the strongest bow or the sharpest blade or the most beautiful features. Soon, a man’s value was dependent on the number of things he possessed which he did not need. And the people looked for something which would shine and not rust or dim and they remembered the frozen sunlight and took flakes from the streams and fashioned them into jewellery for the most important people.

And the dragon was angry. “Did I not warn you!” he cried, “Did I not say that evil would befall you if you sought to possess this gift and keep it from each other?”

And the people said “we’re not afraid of you! You who live alone in the mountains and fly alone in the sky. Your hide is soft, your claws are small and you purr behind teeth like bone needles.”

And the dragon said, “Feel my hide – it has grown hard with time and neglect! Look at my teeth – they have grown as large and sharp as flint daggers!”

And he slashed the gold from the chieftain’s head and arms with a swipe of his wing and he reached forward with his scaly snout and swallowed the blazing fire around which they stood and the camp became cold and the wild beasts came closer and for a while they huddled in silence, waiting for the dragon to die but he did not die.

The dragon’s eyes grew red and narrowed. Then he opened his mouth and with the sound of volcanoes, of hurricanes, of thunder, he roared: “Is it not enough to be warm and safe and happy? I was the one who captured the gold! If it is anyone’s it is mine! And I will bury it deeper and I will guard it and from this day forward, we are enemies and I curse you with greed. Forever more you will dig and destroy and sift and fight and die for the sake of things you do not need; for things with no purpose or function except to be beautiful and forever more, you will measure your value by possessions yet will never have enough!”

The people cried, “give us back our fire!”

And the dragon roared again and flame came from his belly and he swung his head from side to side and burnt down the camp and the trees behind them and swallowing the flame once more, his flexed his wings and flew back into the mountains.

And ever since, gold has been harder and more deadly to find and the dragon has been at enmity with man, the fire growing in his belly ready to destroy and overwhelm the greedy and the proud and the exploiter. And he lies in wait for the day when they dig too deep for treasures they do not need.

And he will consume them.

flame

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Jane, Sarah-Jane and Susan – a tale of jealousy, blindness and knitted knickers

I never really understood dolls.

I was neither a tom-boy nor a girly girl. I liked hand-crafts, skirts and being fairly clean but I also liked climbing trees, making shelters, building things, doing experiments. I yearned for a train set and chemistry set. But I was a girl so I was given dolls.

The first one was called Tilly, with a soft body but plastic hands, feet and head. Tilly with her mocking eyes and snarky grin (as if she’d laugh at you and then bite you) was discarded quite early. But never mind, her real-life manifestation has popped into my life at regular intervals ever since.

By the time I was six or so, I had accumulated three archetypal little girls’ dolls of the era. Mine were called Jane, Sarah-Jane and Susan.

Jane had a no nonsense mouth, dark brown eyes and long curly dark brown shiny hair; definite, determined. No-one would push Jane around. Everything about me was indeterminate. My own grandmother thought my eyes were green until I was twelve and my hair colour slowly darkened from light mousy to dark mousy. Most people pushed me around.

I was jealous of Jane, she was exactly how I wanted to look and be.

I wasn’t jealous of Sarah-Jane. She had short blondish curly hair and blue eyes and looked very ordinary and a bit dull.

Susan’s skin was brown, her eyes dark and friendly, her short curled hair lusciously black. I don’t know why I called her Susan. It’s my middle name but then, at the time, every second girl was called Susan too. All the same, she was my favourite.

Being a little unnerved by Jane and feeling that somehow it would not bode well for me if I treated her with less than respect, I took good care of her and smoothed her lovely hair and sat her in the nicest places.

I used felt-tip pens to draw eye shadow on Sarah-Jane. But all attempts to make her a femme fatale failed exactly as they did when I tried on myself later. Perhaps because both of us were shy and a little bit prim, no amount of make-up can stop those two things from shining through any attempts at glamour.

Poor Susan. I loved her so much but one of her eyes fell inside. I heard about a dolls’ hospital and begged for her to be taken there but it was too expensive they said, not worth it they said. So she remained half blind but lovely.

My little sister felt quite differently about her dolls and was devoted to them. Here I have to admit that I was perhaps a tiny bit mean to her. If we played hospitals, my little sister’s dolls were the ones who got wounds drawn on them with felt tip, whose heads were bandaged, who accidentally fell down staircases.

My grandmother knitted clothes for all our dolls, including knickers. I swear she once knitted us some knickers too but my mother says I’m wrong. False memory or not, I can still feel the scratchy lumpy sensation of garter stitch on buttock. If Mum is right, then perhaps it is the only time I connected with the dolls themselves – felt their discomfort, personified them.

Because I really wasn’t a dolly person. I didn’t have tea parties for them or talk to them or make up stories involving them. The dolls were no more alive to me than a chair was. I didn’t really know what to do with them, although admittedly, I knew what to do with my sister’s.

As a child, I confided in trees and the river and wrote poems. As a teenager, I poured my heart out on the cat (who was unimpressed and ran off if there were too many tears) and into an angst ridden set of diaries. I wrote even worse poems.

So I grew up and forgot the dolls. When I had children of my own, times, if not marketing had changed. My son and my daughter both played equally with dolls and cars and train sets and made cakes. But I don’t think their toys were alive for them either.

I write and my son composes music and my daughter makes art. Perhaps we don’t need to personify objects because we have minds full of other worlds.

And then…

Many years ago, my parents downsized from the family home to a bungalow. When I say “downsized”, it was only in the sense of available capacity not actual stuff (to read more about this, read A Fine Mess). When later, my widowed mother moved to live near me, the “stuff” had to be drastically reduced. Aware of my father’s shade tutting as we sorted, I found a box. On its end was a picture of its contents: loathed school shoes. I opened up the box with trepidation. There was really no telling what my father could have stashed in it. This was a man who managed to get half a five pound note stuck in between two books and who had preserved in perspex surgical stitches taken out of my chin and had wanted to do the same with my tonsils.

The lid came off. Staring up at me was Jane. She lay, stark naked, on a pile of tissue. As beautiful as ever, with long dark curls and determined eyes, she glanced at my hair as if to say “Ha! You’ve got to colour yours now.” But despite her eternal youth, she didn’t look pleased.

“How could you leave me here alone all these years?” she telepathed.

I closed the lid and put it on the charity shop pile. She could make some other little girl feel inadequate.

No, I never understood the personification of dolls, but I swear, as I handed Jane over to the shop the next day, a little voice snapped through the cardboard: “you could at least have put some knitted knickers on me first.”

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Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Resolutions

Day one: 1st January 8.30am.

Determined, I crunch through the frosty grass to the shed where my husband has put the exercise bike.

“Peddling will warm you up.” he calls cheerfully from the bedroom window, then gets back into bed with a hot cup of tea.

It is nice in the shed. Or it can be. The sun angles onto the pine walls as I peruse the resolutions I’d pinned the day before:

  • Lose two stone. Do not lose six pounds in two weeks then nothing in the third then give up. Eat more vegetables. Make everyone else eat more vegetables.
    Do more exercise. Walk, don’t drive. Use exercise bike every day for at least half an hour, come rain or shine. Look for second hand rowing machine. Don’t let the family laughing get you down.
    Be more creative and frugal. Adapt charity shop clothes or make own with massive stash of hoarded fabric in attic. (Do NOT buy a size too small because you’re in denial.)
    Declutter. Start with attic. (Maybe exercise bike could then move indoors.)
    Drink less wine and less tea.
    Read more intellectual stuff.
    Be more positive.
    Be more patient.
    Have faith.
    Laugh more.
    Stop biting nails.

At the bottom of the page is a scanned in honest photograph of myself in all my podgy glory; plump cheeked, muffin-topped, oozing, wearing my husband’s wedding ring because mine won’t fit (and his no longer fits him either).

OK so the biting nails one has been on my resolutions list since I was twelve, but one year I’ll manage it.

My daughter must have sneaked in sometime on New Year’s Eve, because between the typescript and the photograph, she has scrawled “Believe in yourself. You are awesome! XXX”

After half an hour of pedalling, I get down from the bike and try to work out the optimum time I can spend in the freezing shed, getting my breathing back to a rate which wouldn’t have smug-guts laughing his dressing-gown off but not cooling down so much I’ll get hypothermia.

Day two: 2nd January 8.30am

Fifteen minutes into pedalling: It’s boring out here, even with the smugness of self-satisfaction to keep me company. I’ll have to download some audio books or podcasts and listen to them while I cycle (that could tick off the intellectual reading resolution too). Maybe I could get some posters on the walls. Maybe I could get my son to make some kind of film that could be projected on the wall so I could pretend I was cycling somewhere exciting. Smug-guts is in the kitchen making bacon sandwiches. Every time. Every single time I try to lose weight he finds an insatiable urge for bacon, belly-pork, roast duck… How can you eat salad in the face of that?

Day three: 3rd January 7pm
It’s really not the same after a day at work. I can pretend I’m slamming down on the emails with each pedal, but doesn’t really work. It’s dark too. The big battery operated lantern doesn’t really fill the corners. Spiders are sniggering I expect. I got on the scales this morning. I hadn’t lost any weight. Still, my hair was wet. It’s amazing how heavy wet hair is.

Day four: Look it was a bad day at the office OK?

Day five: 4th January
7pm
Those spiders have brought mates in to snigger, I swear. Mind you it’s hot in here this evening. Next door had too much paper and cardboard after Christmas and the recycling van wouldn’t take it. He’s too lazy to take it to the dump and he’s made a bonfire on the other side of the fence. Isn’t there a law about when you’re allowed to light bonfires? Is it before or after 7pm? Something about washing on the line. There certainly ought to be a law about lighting them near a fence in a small garden next to another small garden with a shed in it. The smoke is getting to me and it’s boring out here anyway. I’m going in to see how my son is getting on with that video.

9pm
Well that’s an evening we’re never going to forget. It was a nice shed. I wonder if the insurance will pay out for the melted exercise bike too. I could buy a nice new outfit with that money. The firefighters were nice though. Good to see a man in action. Men. Admittedly they were more interesting in flirting with my daughter than me but then she’d made them all a cuppa once the fire was out.

Walking back to the house I pick up a scrap of scorched paper from the grass. It has a picture of a woman on it. The kind you can cuddle. Above her are the words:

Be more positive.
Be more patient.
Have faith
Laugh more.
Stop biting nails.

Beneath, written in teenage scrawl: “Believe in yourself. You are awesome! XXX”

I take a glass of wine from beloved and smile. I think I can succeed with those resolutions.

Well, maybe except the one about biting nails.

awesome

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission