Umbrella

Today I dithered.

From the screen, Dina with lowered eyes, chatted away, oblivious to my restlessness. She was doing some form of craft I think. Her hands were below the screen but occasionally, scissors and thread flashed above the edge or she leaned forward to check her work.

For all I know she was performing surgery. For all I know, she was projecting a stock image of the woman she wants me to think she is.

If she had looked up, she’d have seen the image I chose to be today. I created it about ten years ago. My skin is iridescent and my hair in silvered braids is formed into the ears and scales of a dragon.

In the evenings I like to project myself as a sleepy cat for online friends. Only for close family do I show myself as I nearly am.

I have never seen Dina in person but this morning, I agreed to meet after five years of dialogue.

She gossiped and I responded in noncommittal sounds. Putting my glare glasses on, I motored to the window and looked outside where vehicles glided, their occupants obscured behind tinted glass and robots rushed.

There are still some who choose to be in the open. There will always be some who have no choice. Here and there, those throwbacks whose lower limbs still function walked or ran, mingling with those on motor legs like me. I’ve got the impression Dina is a throwback. I will know when I meet her for the first time next week.

All the people on the pavement, legged or motorised, wore their shells like badges. Here was a rich person, here someone trying to look rich. Here someone who didn’t care what anyone thought. I have not been beyond these walls for three years.

Shells fit close but they can project a lie as easily as a digital image can.

Someone passed whose shell looked cheap and worn. Over his head, he carried one of those antique fabric structures on a stick which was designed to keep off the rain, in the days when we used to have rain. I imagine he’d bought it in a junk shop to keep the sun from penetrating his inadequate shell.

I willed it to work. Once my little sister ran outside into the sun without protection. I tried to get to her but our mother, sobbing, pulled me back. Whenever I look at the burn scar on my right arm, I hear my sister’s screams; her skin bubbling and blistering as she died.

Now I turned to motor over to my wardrobe. Inside, my collection of shells hung – the myriad possible me’s taunted. I could look rich or average, shy or confident, flamboyant or conservative. Which one? Which one?

‘How will I recognise the real you?’ said Dina, biting off a piece of thread.

I stared into my wardrobe and said nothing. I no longer knew who I was myself.

window face

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

Happy Mothers Day to My Partner in Craft xxx

You sat with infinite patience, showing me how to linocut. The tool dug out satisfying strips curling on the table. Together, our inky hands made patterns on paper. It didn’t matter if they were good. We laughed.

You copied a picture of a princess from my book, your skilful pencil drawing the neat outlines. Then from the scrap bag you cut pieces of silk and cotton into the shape of the princess’s dress and shoes and glued wool for her curling hair. I remember your fingers building the picture for me, soft and silvered by the shining brocade.

You sewed me costumes for school, the peasant’s dress, the bunny ears.

You sat and showed me how to draw, ‘the fewer lines the better,’ you said.

You showed me how to make scones, our hands floury together, rubbing in butter and sprinkling sugar.

You read my favourite story over and over when I couldn’t sleep until the words story were etched in your bored brain, yet you still read it again when I asked.

You taught me to read, I remember the word cards in your hands in the light from the window as you opened that magic world to me, letter by letter.
And now, you teach me photography and on Sunday afternoons, sometimes you sit with your sewing as I write or cook and sometimes we hunch over digital images and let the dinner sort itself out.

You taught me everything I needed to know, except housework.

You never showed me how to do housework, because we were far too busy having fun with the important things in life.

Thank you Mum. I love you.

me&mum

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

Subconscious

Sticky fingered vivid dreams
Inveigle into pockets of sleep.
Under pines scented with danger
I wait with the savant child
And patient suitor
Wondering if the unlighted house
really holds demons behind the wainscotting
or whether the man in the shadows lies
…and then…
In teenage agony I greet
another girl with grace.
My party dress is sleek and glimmers
but he doesn’t notice, his eyes
smile in friendliness and then turn
to her, even though
her dress has unfinished edges
and she is hiding rubbish
under a tablecloth
…and then…
with an underground ticket
I board a ferry with my camera laden mother
and we photograph chalky cliffs
and lonely cafes under spiralling seagulls
until bored, we are suddenly home
That old home from many years ago
to make tofu
…and then…
I wake, exhausted by adventures
in imagined and half remembered
worlds and worries.
My rest half-inched by
pickpocket dreams.

dream

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

Goodbye

Ben holds one hand. Teddy holds the other. My feet are sore. Ben has a bag with some food and water. Maybe we can stop for some soon.

We had to leave everything else behind. It’s hard to wipe your eyes when a teddy’s holding your hand.

‘It’ll be a great big adventure,’ comforts Ben, ‘we can look after ourselves. I bet we’ll meet dragons and giants and aliens and everything.’

‘Will it be scary?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.’

‘Will we never ever see home again?’

‘Never ever.’

‘Never ever?’

‘Well,’ says Ben, ‘not till dinner-time anyway.’

teddy

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 – check out the others

Whatever is in your heart, becomes your words…

How does the saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’ make you feel?

I was about five, reporting being bullied, when I first heard it.

Two adults who should have known better were the ones who said them.

One was a teacher, the first in a long line who went on to say ‘just keep away from the bullies and they’ll keep away from you’ and went off to have tea in the staff-room. Obviously, that’s exactly what bullies do, isn’t it? They would never think of pursuing you. Of course not. What she meant (I hope) was ‘don’t show them that they are getting to you.’ What I heard was ‘don’t bother me with your problems. I don’t care about you.’

The other was an adult family member, who followed it up with ‘you just have to put up with it, it makes you strong.’ I suspect she was trying to help. What she meant (I think) was ‘don’t let them get to you. Pretend you don’t care.’ What I heard was ‘don’t make a fuss. Good girls keep quiet.’

Either way, I heard, ‘you’re not important.’

Words can undermine.

As I grew up, there was more advice to keep away from the bullies so they’d keep away from me; there was the teacher that called me stupid in front of the whole class; there were the bullies themselves who taunted about short legs, puberty, old fashionedness, nationality, reading too many books, (or not reading the right books); there were great aunts who (in my hearing) compared me unfavourably with my sister and my girl-cousin; there was the grandmother who (again in my hearing) expressed her utter disappointment at all my failings to virtual strangers; there were the teenage friends who criticised my clothes, hair and make-up until I felt strange and out of kilter, leaving them to the lime-light; there were the adult friends that weedled endless favours, getting me to be the one to make a fool of herself but refused to give quite reasonable, unhumiliating favours in return and complained I was being needy by asking.

Words can be the first step to violence.

Professionally, I have had some involvement in raising awareness into domestic violence. Domestic violence almost always starts with a slow undermining of the personality of the victim. ‘You’re not … enough’ (pretty/clever/earning/interesting/sexual/supportive… whatever wounds the most). ‘Your achievements aren’t worth celebrating but let me remind you constantly of your failings.’ ‘Your family is not … your friends are not…’ In the end the victim hears ‘you are nothing. You are less than nothing. You deserve everything you get.’ The victim will end up saying ‘it was my fault I got hit, I shouldn’t have been so….’

Words can devastate.

Recently, I saw a Facebook post in which someone said that she wanted to celebrate how through running she’d had lost a significant amount of weight and got considerably fitter, yet her own mother said she was still fat and lazy. Reply after reply from complete strangers told her not to listen, often providing examples of how they’d overcome similar experiences. I have good friends virtually destroyed by things said by mothers. The words were so cruel and so wounding that they have been carved indelibly into hearts and minds as if with a poisoned dagger. The impact rebounds on the next generation and the toxin seeps into relationships that want to heal.

Many people, even if not suffering the extremes of domestic violence or mental abuse, are scarred by thoughtless or deliberately unkind words.

It is human nature to remember the bad and forget the good. We judge ourselves by the words of people who don’t deserve to be listened to rather than those said by people who love us.

I would like to be charitable to my one grandmother and think that she was trying to toughen me up as she had been. However, I could do nothing right for her. It’s probably as well that I could do nothing wrong for the other grandmother or I’d have reached adulthood with no spirit left at all.

The reality is that all the cruel words I heard, well into adulthood, made me believe that somehow or other I wasn’t worth much. There were plenty of nice things said to me too, but I don’t recall them as clearly. Many of the hurtful things were said by people who were supposed to be friends. I felt I had failed them somehow. But eventually, at some point in the last few years, I realised that I hadn’t deserve to be treated with such disregard.

My mother used to say ‘if you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say it’ but that is not always possible. There is a place for people to be honest, for constructive criticism. None of us is perfect and it doesn’t do us any favours to think we are. But the person who needs to convey that criticism has a choice as to how to express themselves.

If you’re that person, think before you speak. What are you trying to achieve? Do you want the recipient to be the best they can be or do you want to crush them? Do you want them to learn and grow or do you want to make yourself look strong and clever? Your words could make them rebellious or dangerous, broken or even suicidal. Or your words could build them up. Which result do you want to be responsible for?

If you are someone who is wounded by vicious or careless words:
Don’t judge yourself by cruel words people say but turn to the people who truly care.

Please seek help, don’t struggle with the pain on your own.

Repeat to yourself:

They are the ones who are WRONG.
I do NOT deserve to be treated badly.
I AM important.
The world needs ME.

I HAVE INFINITE WORTH.

shepherds delight

IF you are affected by any of the issues in this article, here are some helplines. Please seek help. Someone is ready to listen.

Bullied at school or work? Click here for help

Domestic Violence help

Domestic Violence against Men

NSPCC

Childline

Samaritans

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

Papers Please

They’re brown round the edges.

They remind me of the white rose petals I once pressed so carefully in a volume of poems. I forgot them for all those years and then I opened up the book one day and found them edged with brown. It was as if their life had leached out as my hope faded.

That was the day I packed my bag with a few things to remind me of you: the jewellery, the little toy, that book of verse. I walked up into the van and handed over all that cash and all those miles later they handed me my papers.

Or rather papers with someone else’s name.

And now all I have left is the book with its fading petals. The toy is safe, don’t worry. It is tight in the arms of a lost, lonely girl, just a child, who was brought to join me one morning. The jewels are long gone, paying over the odds every step of the way.

And at the last moment, they left us here. Left us with other people’s papers, a teddy, a book of verse and no hope. They told us to wait. A man would come and look after us. I had not realised I was a fool until that moment.

He put us carefully enough in the car and drove up that narrow, winding mountain pass. Was the view beautiful? I don’t know, all I could see was the ugliness of my future.

What was I thinking when I attacked him as he drove along that lonely twisting road? Did I ever think I might kill myself and this poor child as well? Perhaps I thought that would be a better fate than the one he was driving us towards.

But somehow we crawled free, limping and bruised, while he has been shredded through the car’s windscreen and crushed against the rock face. The road is still deserted.

With trembling fingers I found his lighter and ignited his jacket and the seats.

Somehow I will find you. The girl is clasping the teddy you bought me, her thumb in her mouth, silent as always. I am hugging your book with its crumbling petals.

Our false papers are left on the car seat. The edges are first brown, then black, now blooming into red flowers of flame.

We will go anonymous and nameless.

But I will find you.

 

papers-please

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