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

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.