Cold

At nightfall, she lay down on the pier, her head on a carrier bag full of her last precious things: photos, letters.

Eyes closed, she listened to the sea wash the sand and shingle: whisper, rattle, whisper, rattle.

She waited for cold and hunger to take her, drifting into a sleep where the letters and photos seemed to be speaking to her, seemed to embrace her and then she realised that the voice and the touch were real and the voice was saying:

“We’ve found you! Wake up. Your family has been looking so long. They love you so much.”

shadow

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

Thin Spiral Notebook: Hunger

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Ticket Dude

Wedged into the seat at the back of the carriage with my case and bag, I’ve balanced my laptop and started to write. Even on the way home there’s no rest from work but at least no-one can read over my shoulder here.

‘Tickets please!’

Ten minutes into my journey I proffer my tickets with one hand, trying to stop the laptop slipping with the other.

‘That’s fine,’ says the collector, handing the ticket back having scribbled his approval.

An hour later:

‘Tickets please!’

This time, my laptop nearly slides to the floor as I open my purse.

Scribble scribble, ticket handed back.

Half an hour on:

‘Tickets please!’

Sighing, I take my time. Let him wait.

As I rummage, he says, ‘where to?’

‘Westbury, we’re nearly there,’ I snap, bending my fingernails on the recalcitrant ticket and handing it over.

‘Westbury is what’s on the ticket. Where would you rather it said?’

I close down my laptop with its drowning emails and impossible targets and look at him in surprise. The sunshine through the window is glinting on his poised pen.

‘The Bahamas would be nice,’ I joke.

As I bend to get my things together, he scribbles something on my ticket and hands it back, moving on, just as the train pulls into Westbury.

Only as I get out of my seat and look out of the window, the White Horse is missing. In fact the hill is missing, and so is the landlocked town. Instead, the platform is on the edge of a beach and there is a table on the sand under a sunshade. I can just make out my name on a reserved label.

Astounded I get off the train and find that someone is waiting to hand me a cool drink and a sunhat. Behind me the train moves on, my briefcase and work laptop still on board. I stand there in the blazing sun with nothing but an overnight bag, a credit card and the words on my ticket obliterated but for the words:

‘Bahamas – needs never return unless she wants to.’

ticket-dude_edited-1

NB There is a real story behind this, if not two. I used to travel regularly between Warminster and Bristol. The railway line runs through Westbury and as you approach the station, you can see the White Horse, so unbelievably surreal on the hill-fort, looking down as it has done for thousands of years (admittedly it hasn’t been looking down on the railway for that long). I was once on the train with a lot of tourists from hot, dry climes who thought they were seeing things and were frantically googling as we passed through. The horse did seem especially superimposed that time, as it had been newly repainted and the grass was particularly green around it. Another time, I was on the same journey with a bunch of students and a particularly persistent guard. The students referred to him as “The Ticket Dude” and I was sitting there after a fairly stressful day at work, thinking what a cool name that was and what a real “Ticket Dude” could do for his customers. Westbury is lovely and so is the whole train journey, but that particular day, if anyone could have whisked me off to a life of leisure in the Bahamas, I would have been more than delighted. The blurry face is me reflected in a different train’s grubby winter window (Poole to Winchester I think). The photo of the White Horse is from the English Heritage site as I don’t own an aeroplane (link below). So far, I’ve never been to the Bahamas, so the photo of the bird over water is a swallow over a Spanish swimming pool! But the train ticket is all mine!

Words and photographs (save the one of the White Horse – see link) copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission Photograph of White Horse (which is quite real, even though it doesn’t look it and also ancient) from the English Heritage Site – click here for more information about the White Horse including how you can visit it.

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I working alone in the spare room, shuffling paper, tapping on a laptop, making calls.

Outside, in the winter garden, the courting pigeons shift and flutter on the fence, prospective lovers trying their chances and being dodged. A crow flies down. He flexes his wings in dismissal and the pigeons scatter. He raises his head and looks around in disdain, waiting till all eyes are on him. Then he lowers his beak, and with slow deliberation, sharpens it on the edge of the fence. Even the slinking cat bides her time, hiding in next door’s cabbages. I may pause with a cup of tea to watch, then go back to work.

It has never felt lonely here. The ghost, a musical companionable presence, potters around. He plays the electric piano in the front room, wearing spectral headphones. All I can hear is the rhythm of thumping keys, which stop as I enter. He hums tunes from inside machines and knocks on radiators.

Sometimes there’s a tap on the front door. I have to stop what I’m doing to go downstairs. Who’s there? No-one. I imagine the ghost sniggering when he catches me out like that; his ghosty shoulders heaving noiselessly.

At night when the family is home, if I go to bed early, I can hear the ghost. He chats or sings with some other unbody. The voices are just too indistinct to understand and I know it’s not the TV or radio downstairs.

Other times, he thumps about in the attic, rummaging through boxes.

‘Go to sleep,’ I tell him.

My husband mutters ‘what?’ then rolls over to snore.

No-one else ever hears the ghost. Until yesterday I had never seen him.

Recently, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t stopped to chuckle or admonish him. I’ve been meeting deadlines, correcting drafts. Then I had to work away. In my hotel there was nothing to hear but city noises: buses, trains, strangers. Finally home, I went to bed too tired even to read, let alone feel charmed by voices from another world. Too tired to say ‘hello’.

Then yesterday evening, I saw him. Through a gap in the hall curtains, night pressed against the glass. Then there was a flash of movement.

‘That’s the ghost’, I thought, ‘what’s he doing outside?’

Today, I am alone in the house again. At first it was silent. Then the letter-box rattled. Now it’s silent again.

Was the rattling from inside or outside?

Where is he? It is very quiet.

I am lonely.

I get up and start down the stairs. Will I find a real person outside? Has my ghost left?

There is no-one there. My shoulders relaxing, I bound up the stairs.

‘Naughty ghost!’ I admonish.

Suddenly syncopated rhythm rattles the pipes, the dishwasher croons and someone is playing hopscotch in the attic.

Shaking my head, I turn to my work again and smile, no longer alone.

Forgiven.

piano-5

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

My Husband’s Winter Song

I want to go down to Poole again
To the Sandbanks shore and the sky
To my dinghy grey and my sailing boat blue
And brisk breezes to sail her by.
To the ice cream boat and oyster man
Who trade in Swanage Bay
Or Sammy Jo’s at Studland Beach
(If the cruisers keep away).
Or sail up the river to Wareham Quay
Or anchor off Arne for a night
Or take a picnic to Pottery Pier
Or tack to the Isle of Wight
I will go down to Poole again
And sail at last in peace
If only at last the summer comes
And if the rain would finally cease

yacht

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon (with apologies to John Masefield’s “Sea Fever”). All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Instructions for turning a teenager into an adult

The Dream

  1. Find Teenager hard at work, studying.
  2. Show him/her how to load a washing machine
  3. Show him/her how to unload a washing machine and hang/dry the contents
  4. Show him/her a cookbook. Discuss a nutritious menu covering all food groups with healthy ingredients.
  5. Send him/her to shop with sufficient money to buy ingredients.
  6. Oversee cooking and serving of food.
  7. Discuss how to decide what to do with the change. How much to save, how much to spend, how much to give to charity.
  8. Have a cheerful conversation.
  9. Send him/her to room to study.
  10. Say goodnight as they turn out the light ready for at least eight hours’ sleep

The Reality

  1. Find Teenager. (NB This may involve forcing door open, wedged shut by dirty clothes. Teenager may be found in one of several places: in bed, glued to computer, under the clothes, in another room on a gaming device, in someone else’s house.)
  2. Argue with teenager about clothes. Spend half an hour creating a Ven diagram with the clothes on the floor – some definitely clean, some definitely dirty, an intersection including ones which teenager is not sure about. (NB the easiest way to make them define the status of those in the intersection is to make them smell each item.)
  3. Ask teenager to sort clothes into colours. Go and have a cup of tea to calm nerves.
  4. Go back and explain colours. Wonder why this was more fun when he/she was a toddler.
  5. Show him/her how to load washing machine.
  6. Look for teenager in order to teach them how to unload machine and hang/dry the contents (NB see point one)
  7. Give up and dry/hang clothes oneself.
  8. Show him/her cookbook. Discuss a nutritious menu covering all food groups with healthy ingredients.
  9. Buy pizza
  10. Have a glass of wine to calm nerves
  11. Explain at length why studying is more important than playing video games
  12. Explain at length why not everyone becomes a millionaire by playing video games
  13. Remember all the things your parents said which you said you’d never say and then repeat them.
  14. Wonder if the door hinges will withstand all that slamming.
  15. Have another glass of wine
  16. Go to bed, saying goodnight through the teenager’s door and asking them to keep the noise down.

teenagers

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

Dedication

Annie ran. Or rather, she tried to. Last night’s blizzard had been a surprise. The roads were blocked, the paths were clogged, drifts lay six feet deep. But Annie wouldn’t let a bit of snow stop her training. In the muffled, blinding dawn, she staggered on.

“You’re stupid to go out in this,” her husband had murmured before starting to snore again. Lazy, unsupportive pig.

Everyone said Annie was too out of shape. She ran early otherwise her children sniggered as they beheld her curves in unforgiving lycra, two support bras strapping down her chest, the bulge of her stomach unhidden. Let them call her fat: she would be fit enough to raise money at the fun-run for endangered wild-life if it killed her. At least she was doing something.

The world was silent but for the whomp whomp of her plodding feet. The trail was usually full of runners, pacing along, earphones in, competing against themselves. But today Annie was alone.

The trail started in town but was soon in the wilds. On one side meadowland sloped down to the river and on the other, stony ground clumped up to a summit hidden in trees. Annie reached the stretch where everyone ran faster. An old building was hidden by a dark forest. There were high fences and warning signs. Even the town’s older people couldn’t quite remember what it had been in the war: house, menagerie, research facility, lunatic asylum? The night runners and the early morning winter runners told of flashes of light, eyes perhaps, flickering behind the wire.

Annie was oblivious. Alone, with snow crunching under her slow feet, she hallucinated: imagining slipping back into the warm bed after thawing under a hot shower. She couldn’t have picked up pace even if she had remembered where she was. Her ankles stung, the cold air scratched her throat and dried her lips. Her heart protested with every thud thud of her throbbing feet.

Her eyes were closed, so she did not see that the fence around the forest had been brought down by snow. Creatures had emerged and stood on fallen warning signs, looking down on the trail, deserted but for one small, plump woman, red-faced, slogging along, her chest heaving.

In silent telepathy they fell into formation and streamed down the slope.

This one would be nice and juicy, once the lycra was chewed off.

Moments later, watching an inferior spit out the last support bra to expose the chest cavity, the alpha male reached in for the heart and liver.

Poor Annie, perhaps she should have listened to her husband this time.

Still, in the end, at least she could have said she’d given her all for wild-life.

Although perhaps she’d been thinking of something recognisable and maybe cute.

The pack, nourished, looked down the trail. The sun had risen. More fodder was approaching. Shoving Annie’s remains into a ditch, licking the blood from the snow, they slinked into hiding and waited…

forest

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

Contraband

I smuggled her home in a basket. The girl said I was saving her from drowning.

In my bedroom she emerged: little more than a kitten, silky black but for one white star.

I called her Magic.

Outside, the family cat growled.

I confessed to my animal-loving parents. They wouldn’t mind.

“We can’t keep her,” said Dad.

Days later, I overheard him: “So sad. Full of kittens. They put her down. Couldn’t re-home them all.”

Oh Magic, all these years later I remember your trusting eyes and know that by rescuing you, in the end, I betrayed you.

magic-cat

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

This is a true story. Many years have passed but it still makes me sad. Prompted to write it down by this week’s Thin Spiral Notebook prompt.

Tripoli 1986

Wednesday 16th April 1986

Waiting, half consciously
for the next harsh sounds of fighter
to cross my sky,
a speck of black, slow moving,
catches the corner of my eye.
I, shuddered to sudden movement, see
a blackbird gently winging,
faster than seemed possible
to leafless trees, jaggedly finger-streaked on grey.
The bird alighting like a smudge,
so still and yet..
Is this the tight silence before the storm?
The blind, drugged blackness before the dawn?

Somewhere people weep
while others serve up a dish
made of retribution and revenge,
saying as their grace:
“it was the right thing to do,
we’d do it again. Amen.”
In the name of the many
the few decide to line us up
on the crumbling edge of war;
shaping us into an entity for the history books.
A few thousand miles away
eighty percent agree and thank us
for our co-operation;
while we enumerate the targets:
Freedom’s fodder
and wait.

Yesterday we shivered as we spoke.
Today, loosening our fingers we say
“Yesterday was terrifying”
but tighten our fingers again
as, hidden by clouds,
invisible machines
test their wings in waiting.

flaming

I wrote this nearly 31 years ago, the day after the bombing of Tripoli. I can remember what triggered this, as I looked up from washing up in a cafe and out of the window, afraid that the bombing in Libya would escalate. I’d like to pretend 31 years was before I was born but actually I was a very young adult starting out in life, despairing at what was happening in my world and potentially in my name. This may not be the best written poem but it was heartfelt. How sad that as my children enter adulthood, nothing whatsoever has changed and the threats they face in fact may be directly connected.

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

The Unhidden Room

Do you dream?

I am a vivid dreamer. If I don’t quite remember a dream, I can still ‘taste’ it for hours. Wonder, panic, laughter, fear, anticipation, guilt, joy, anger, pleasure, mourning; sensations seep into my consciousness and colour my day.

Mostly I remember dreams. I have made stories out of some. Other times when I feel as if I’ve dreamt the perfect plot, either it dissipates before I can write it down or I start to write it down and realise it is total nonsense. Mostly, I put off transcribing, thinking the dream will be impossible to forget and then… forget.

As a teenager, I was fascinated with dream interpretation, but the book I got tended towards prophecy. It said that dreaming about bras meant I’d be coming in to money. I’m still waiting.

So it was with some scepticism that I half-listened to something on the radio when driving home one day. I had left work earlier than usual and the person was dream-interpreting. A caller rang in to say that they frequently dreamt of finding a room they didn’t know they had.

My ears pricked up. This was a dream which I had so often, I frequently woke up convinced the room actually existed. Sometimes, the room was off the attic, sometimes off a downstairs room. I usually had to crawl through some narrow opening to get to it. Sometimes a room, sometimes two floors, sometimes virtually a whole other house was hidden beyond the chute or corridor or hole. Sometimes the rooms were in disrepair, sometimes they were sumptuous and elegant. “Come on then,” I said to the radio, “tell me something ridiculous, I could do with a laugh.”

The dream interpreter said simply that the house represents the self and that finding a room which is hidden means there is something about yourself which is not being expressed. Usually, it means your creativity is suppressed and the dream is an expression of frustration.

I think hearing this was a sort of turning point for me. At the time, I was mother to two children still in primary school. I was also working part-time. My life seemed to consist of being late, running between school, work, clubs, swimming lessons etc. When I wasn’t doing that, I tackled the Sisyphean task of trying to keep on top of housework, laundry, shopping etc. At work, my husband and I, having signed up several years earlier into a career in a “job for life if you want it” organisation, were both having to reapply for our own jobs or similar jobs as that organisation restructured into something where a “job for life” was a distant memory. (This exercise has repeated itself almost every eighteen months since.) In terms of creativity, pretty much all my outlets had dried up. My watercolours were lost in the attic; sewing was restricted to responding to emergency requests for costumes (“oh, didn’t I tell you that I have to be the Queen of Sheba tomorrow?”); writing was reduced to emails which intending to be funny, mostly indicated a high level of stress and encroaching depression. OK I still cooked, but cooking for children is always more about the anticipation of rejection than applause.

So my hidden room dreams meant I had submerged my creativity? Was this the root cause of my fundamental unhappiness? If I found time to paint, sew and most importantly write again, would the feeling of frustration and dissatisfaction recede? Would I be a nicer person to know?

It was a slow process from then. I still didn’t have much time. I was afraid I had no ideas any more. But I got some new watercolours and painted a picture of our son and daughter gathering shells for my husband’s birthday. My husband bought me a laptop and I started to write again. What if I had no ideas? I started to write anyway: a story about two children who discover only their grandmother can save the world. I challenged my father to writing competitions. (Dad never let anything stop him from writing and was even doing it in hospital the day before he died, when too weak to do much else). Little by little, I widened the entrance to that hidden room.

It’s been a long time since then. Now I work full-time and chase round after teenagers. I am still running slightly ahead of the redundancy monster. In the story about the alien grandmother (not finished) the children are eight and six. How strange: mine were that age at the time I was reading it to them. They are now nearly eighteen and sixteen. I have learnt a lot about writing and a lot more about giving myself permission to be creative and let the housework pile up. I am happier, less frustrated. I hardly ever dream about hidden rooms and when I do, I know it’s because I’ve got the balance wrong again.

But this doesn’t stop me from dreaming vivid, often narrative dreams. Certain people appear when I feel a certain way. Sometimes I dream something awful has happened to someone I love and I have to ring them to check they’re all right. Someone used to turn up when I felt guilty, until it occurred to me that they didn’t deserve to be put into position of judge by my subconscious. More to the point, it occurred to me that because I might be contemplating something that one person would not approve of, didn’t mean it was actually wrong. In fact, worrying about certain people’s approval was one of the things which had been holding back my writing for years.

I got a more sensible dream interpretation book. This makes a lot more sense. The house represents the self. Animals represents emotions. Exposure represents anxiety.

One night I dreamt about teeth. In fact I was dreaming that two fillings (one which doesn’t exist) fell out. I looked in “The Top One Hundred Dreams and What They Mean” by Ian Wallace and it said “losing your teeth indicates something is challenging you and causing you to lose confidence in your ability to deal with it…. a loose filling suggests you are no longer filled with confidence.”

This part of the dream followed on from one where I had to find a toilet at an event I was going to be running the following week next (and, you’ve guessed it, about which I felt zero confidence). Apparently “searching for a toilet shows you are looking for some way to tell someone what you really need”. (What I really wanted to tell everyone was that I needed another job).

I’m not sure it means to have to use the toilet once found (even though the door is inadequate and you’re about to be discovered) but I think it’s fairly obvious. The toilet dream is fairly recurring and is my equivalent of dreaming about being naked in public. I dream it when I’m feeling unconfident and fed up. I am not sure why my subconscious needs to reinforce this. Similarly, I don’t need a book to know that dreaming about reversing a car which turns into a bicycle, with no lights or brakes in a snow storm onto a motorway at night means I’m feeling just a little stressed.

Occasionally I dream about my Dad, who died a few years ago. He is usually bringing lots of clutter and a certain amount of chaos (which was pretty much what he did). He is usually silent (which is uncharacteristic. Ask my mother: he couldn’t even sleep in silence.) I don’t know what this means for me. It quite possibly means I need to dig out all his writings (which he left to me, only fifty percent in digital format) and do something with them.

On the other hand, you can only interpret things so far.

The other morning I dreamt I met a demon sharpening his teeth on a road name sign. That’s not in the dream book. I have no idea what that might mean.

It’s nice to know there are bits of my subconscious that is unfathomable. It makes me feel enigmatic.

hidden-room

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