Trespassers

The old boat had tempted Ben and Joe for years but they had been too little to get aboard.

Now they were older, it was different. The old boat would make a great den and they could maybe sleep there, if they could sneak out in the night. No-one seemed to care about it. It had been just one of many abandoned to rot, scattered among the better-loved boats along the river’s edge. It would be something to tell the other kids. ‘We stayed out all night by the river. We stayed in that boat.’

Now it was late autumn. It was getting dark and the day was too unpleasant for even the most dedicated sailors to be out renovating or maintaining their boats. There was not one other person about to see Ben and Joe squelch across the mud and clamber aboard. They could stash their things and come back later when everyone was asleep.

There was a wailing around them, the wind was getting up. The clattering in the shrouds ‘clink clink clink’ might have been eerie if they hadn’t been used to it, living along the riverside as they did.

They dragged a ladder from another boat and propped it up. The old boat smelled of leaked oil and rotten wood. Shards of peeling paint scratched them as they got on board.

‘Now what?’ said Ben.

They stood on deck and ate snacks, taking it in turns to pretend to steer, to stand on the prow, to clamber up on the wheelhouse.

It started to rain.

‘Guess we’d better stash our things below,’ said Joe.

They peered down between the rotten timbers, nails rusted and exposed, ready to grab them as they descended.

‘You first.’

‘No you.’

‘You’re chicken.’

‘No you are’.

Together they dropped down inside. There was a smell. An old smell like the ghost of a smell. Joe pulled a bit of broken hand rail from the ceiling and prodded about in the dark galley. Powder from long decayed food collapsed. Beetles scurried.

‘Not sure about staying down here,’ he said. Rainwater had puddled on the floor.

‘What about the aft cabin?’ said Ben.

It was wedged shut. An old anchor was propped against it and hooked under the frame. The boys yanked, their hands slipping in rust, the smell of corrosion rising.

With a final wrench, the anchor split the wood and the door sprung open.

A skeletal hand fell through and landed on Joe’s foot…

old boat

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

Chocolate

Every day, after school, I did the breakfast dishes before my parents got in from work.

I was that shy girl who never knows what to wear and is slightly out of synch. The only boys who fancied me were shy too. When one worked up the courage to ask for a date, I said no. All I could imagine was an evening of awkward silence.

Most other boys thought my only passion was for books. Their eyes veered towards girls who could have looked attractive in a bin bag down a coal mine in the company of spiders. They told me I had mousy hair and eyes the colour of mud. And expected me to laugh.

David was different. David was good looking and kind. But he barely knew I existed and spent most of his time dodging the pushy girls as if he was a gazelle and they were a pride of lions.

After school, I went home and did the washing up. I looked out of the kitchen window and searched my mind in vain for something to say to David. But what could I talk about? Unlike me, he was into science and I knew nothing whatsoever about his interests outside school.

Then one afternoon, I stood scrubbing a plate and looked down the street for inspiration. What on earth could happen in our little village to prompt a conversation? There’s the mobile shop, late again. There’s Mrs Price crashing gears. There’s Mr Owens walking his chocolate coloured dog. I’d missed him for a few days because by some miracle my sister had done the washing up.

Something nagged at me, but try as I might, I still couldn’t think of one thing to say to David.

The next day the bell was ringing as I arrived at school. Rushing, I crashed into someone who was obviously also late, but being more dignified about it. It was David. As we collided, his bag slipped. Books, pens, lunch spewed everywhere. When a big slab of chocolate skittered across the floor, something went click. Before I could stop myself, I exclaimed:

‘I saw a ghost.’

‘What?’ said David.

I cringed, expecting mockery, but when I looked into his face, I just saw eagerness.

‘Last night. I-I saw a ghost. You won’t believe me but…’

‘Go on.’

‘Mr Owens in our village. Walks his dog every afternoon at exactly the same time. I saw him yesterday. Only… I just remembered, Mr Owens died last week.’

‘Can you…’ started David.

Before he could finish, the teacher leaned out of the classroom and said ‘sorry to interrupt your tryst, but I feel the urge to take the register.’

Blushing, we stood up to go into class.

‘Tell me at break,’ said David.

‘OK,’ I answered, handing over his book which I’d picked up from the floor. It was a book on the paranormal.

I smiled and he smiled back.

Who’d have thought doing the washing up would lead to love?

chocolate

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

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

This is a post about the writing process and about perseverance. Or at least, my experience of them.

About seven years ago or thereabouts, I started a short story and then stopped after about three thousand words. It was one of many put aside because I couldn’t find the time to finish it and because the muse seemed to have upped sticks somewhere around the time I had my first baby in 1999 and she wasn’t around to tell me how to finish it.

I can’t even remember what the original inspiration was but it started as a sort of star-crossed romance as seen by the hero’s widowed sister. They have recently moved to a house in the middle of nowhere, because he has become chronically ill and she is the only one who knows what’s wrong. His illness means that he is incommunicado for twenty-four hours every month. It is during one of these periods that the sister is visited by both a sinister local busy-body who asks too many questions and by a complete (and very odd) stranger who says she’s in love with the brother but can only visit while he’s sick, which means they are never going to meet face to face and communicate again. You have probably gathered that the brother is a werewolf. I called it ‘Reverse’ for reasons which made sense at the time.

So that’s as far as I got. Along with most of my other writing, ‘Reverse’ just gathered pixel dust on the hard drive of the laptop.

In 2015, I stopped waiting until I had my perfect room and/or could give up work. I just started writing again. My muse must have been hanging out on social media, because she returned via Facebook and hasn’t left me alone since. Perhaps she didn’t like small children. She certainly doesn’t like housework as it’s pretty much a choice between it and her and so far, she’s winning. I wrote the majority of the stories for ‘Kindling’ and ‘The Advent Calendar’ in the summer and autumn of 2015 and somehow managed to complete a fifty thousand word first draft novel in November for Nanowrimo. I still don’t know how I managed it.

After getting ‘Kindling’ and ‘Advent Calendar’ ready for publishing in early 2016, I dusted off ‘Reverse’, wrote another thousand words, then put it back to one side again. Come October 2016, someone asked if I was going to do Nanowrimo again and towards the end the month I thought, ‘well I did it once, I can do it again’. I’d left it rather late, but I thought that I might as well finish ‘Reverse’ (which I thought would total twenty thousand words) and then start another project to make up the other thirty thousand words of the target.

I didn’t even get close. I started all right, but perhaps having recently begun a new role within my organisation didn’t help. By mid November I realised that (a) ‘Reverse’ was going to go beyond twenty thousand words whether I wanted it to or not and (b) I wasn’t going to even write that many by the end of the month.

I carried on through winter and early spring, writing bits and bobs when I could and when I realised that booking a week off to spend with my teenage children during their Easter holiday was pointless because they preferred sloping off with friends instead, I decided to spend the week writing instead.

To cut a long story short, I finally wrote the last of nearly one hundred thousand words at 4.50pm last Thursday. I actually shed tears. (Don’t ask me why, I’m not usually an emotional person.) My husband got home from work early to find me dewy eyed and more illogical than normal.

‘It’s finished!’ I said, ‘I feel all tearful.’

‘Why?’

‘No idea.’

‘I’ll pour you some wine.’

Despite or perhaps because of the fact that it had taken so much longer to write than I’d expected, I felt a greater sense of connection with the characters and a huge sense of loss when I’d finished than I had with the previous novel. When I finished ‘Reverse’, I felt bereavement or longing, what the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, for a completely imaginary place and set of people which is only now starting to ebb.

My son and daughter are creative and sort of understand. My husband isn’t and thinks I’m marginally insane, but I couldn’t have done it without their support and encouragement.

For me and ‘Reverse’, I think I wasn’t in the right place (mentally) to finish it in 2010. There was a lot going on: the security of my job and my husband’s job was very uncertain, my father was very ill and I had yet to realise that I was never going to stop feeling frustrated until I started writing again. ‘Reverse’ was never supposed to be a classic werewolf story. The werewolfism was simply a means to create the inner tension and (odd as it may seem) some humour, since the story was supposed to be vaguely comic.

It started as a love story seen from the perspective of Rose, a protective third person watching from the shadows. Sometime in the last seven years, I’ve changed and so has she.

The story is now predominantly about Rose herself, about dealing with grief, about starting again, about siblings, about friendship, about rekindling dormant creativity, about ceasing to be the passive observer and choosing to control one’s own destiny, about hope and faith. The fact that her brother is a werewolf (and sometimes a bit of an idiot) is just one more thing to overcome. It’s hopefully not without humour and mystery, but I want it to convey about being caught between worlds, whether mental or metaphorical. Whether it’s any good or not, of course, is another matter.

‘Reverse’ is still in first draft and I am not sure when I’ll edit it or what it will be called. Three days after putting the final full-stop (am owning up now, I did a bit of tweaking on Friday), I am still half visualising (imaginary) Rose’s (imaginary) view from her (imaginary) house and wondering what she’s going to do today. But I have to put it to one side and let it brew. I still have November 2015’s nanowrimo to edit and that’s a completely different story in more ways than one.

Meeting a lot of local authors at a fair on Saturday was like therapy because I could tell them (even though they were all strangers) and every single one knew what I was talking about.
All of them struggle with juggling other commitments: children, work, caring responsibilities. All of them have had to put writing on hold at some point until one day, they had to pick up a pen or explode and found that the muse was waiting to whisper again.

So I’d just like to say to anyone out there who’s struggling to find the time or the energy to write or to follow any other dream for that matter: it can work out. It may not be today, but that doesn’t mean it will be never. In 2010, I thought I would never finish a story ever again, but I was wrong.

Don’t give up.

keep swimming

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

Ascension

 

I ascend
into the azure sky
resonant with rainbows
and vanishing clouds.
Flying high to reach
the trailing
fingers
of the loving sun.
I can rise,
rise beyond my dreams
with the power of wings,
feathered with awe.

Beyond the blue,
the multifaceted gemstones of the universe
sparkle and spin against
the indigo velvet of the enveloping night,
boundless unimaginable possibilities whirl
in neon galaxies.

Flying, I ascend
to reach
beyond
my dreams.

Ascent

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

Pirate Treasure

On a tropical island they captured a girl.

She was beautiful, skin and hair iridescent. She was locked up. The purer she stayed, the higher price she’d command.

From the hold the girl sang. Words unknown and yet understood: loneliness, bereavement, yearning.

Her song curled into the pirates’ minds until they wasted away, tears mingling with the sea-spray. The ship drifted on, steered by music, until reaching land.

The harbourmaster unlocked the hold, finding nothing inside but a bejewelled bird.

It filled his ears with triumphant song. Then, still singing, it flew out and disappeared southward over the waves.

PirateFrom a prompt “Music” from Thin Spiral Notebook – check out what others wrote

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

Hope

April 1992.

And here we were driven past the empty presidential palace mocking in obscene opulence the high rise buildings where water only came on once or twice a day.

We went down avenues of Soviet era diplomatic mansions, their intricate gates strangled by over grown gardens, their walls a tired, old fashioned blue. We saw the bullet marked walls and lamp posts of the city streets and small queues outside shops selling luxuries: toothpaste, scented soap.

In the countryside: uneven roads, a well, two ladies in black, a bakery selling the best bread in the world for less than a penny. A scene for a photograph I was too ashamed to take. In the orphanage, children hesitated when we offered them toys. Were they theirs? Were they really? Could they keep them? Dumb for want of a common tongue, we taught them games we’d long stopped playing: skipping, catch. Swings were put up, a slide. Inside, tiny ones too sick to play, watched us, solemn, tired; or didn’t watch, looking inward, silent. While painted walls dried, we were given a tour of the orphanage grounds. The little boy, a character from Dickens, alight with cheekiness, chattered away regardless of our incomprehension and we chatted back, regardless of his. I smelt wood shavings, and looked into a shed, where in the sunlight, strips of pine curled and fell as the carpenter planed a small box. I smiled at the sight and smell until I realised he was making a coffin. So many children there, not orphans but abandoned. Some had HIV (then a death sentence) others’ parents could not afford to feed them. Later, in the sun, a little girl said “Mama?” and sat on my lap. She looked healthy enough, but you couldn’t tell.

Back in the city, an excursion into the night. The high rises glowered down onto shadowy streets. We were ushered into an informal inn straight off the pavement. Our small group half filled it, our women, the only women there. The local drinkers looked askance then shrugged. Glasses were filled and raised, hard-boiled eggs were passed round, songs were sung. Romanian songs, the melodies as foreign as the words, then Irish songs as the priest in our group stood to sing ballad and love song.

The night drew on. We started back to the flats at midnight and as we passed, the doors of the Orthodox church burst open.

The congregation bearing candles spilled down the steps in near silence until the priest on the threshold shouted “Christ is Risen!” and the congregation shouted “He is Risen Indeed!” and raised flickering light above the dark streets.

And when I went home, how could I glory in Easter chocolate and endure healthy children demanding the latest toys when I had shared the simplicity of a boiled egg and watched the astounded delight of an abandoned child cuddling a teddybear?

And what were chicks and bunnies compared to hope peppering the darkness with that exultant candlelight?

easter egg

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

Tuesday at Seven

In a quiet side street, beneath a solicitors’ office, steps led down from the pavement to the tiny restaurant.

There were still only ten tables in this little facsimile of an imaginary Italy. It was one of the few things which had barely changed.

Tom ordered some bread and olives. His early evening had been spent walking round betrayed by memories. He felt the disoriented bereavement of returning after so many years. Road layouts were different; you had to park in different places and pay to do so. The big named places which had gone under were filled with other big named places, struggling to compete with the out of town malls. Was that where Woolworths used to be? Was that once British Home Stores? Small shops and businesses he remembered had gone and been replaced. Perhaps he’d imagined them. The town was just as pretty, with its Georgian elegance and flower displays but nothing else was the same.

He could have eaten anywhere. The Spa Hotel was now easily affordable. Once he had walked through the park outside under tasteful Christmas lights, silver in the trees. He’d watched the rich go inside and wonder whether the food and ambience was worth the cost. Then, mentally counting how much he had left in his account, he’d gone to this little Italian haunt instead.

He could have eaten anywhere, but it didn’t seem right. He took Cara’s photograph out of his pocket and studied it. At that moment, the waiter appeared with the olives and leaning over his shoulder said ‘bella! bella!’

Tom was startled, his privacy invaded. He made a meaningless response and turned the photograph face down on the table.

‘Yes!’ continued waiter, oblivious to or despite Tom’s feelings, ‘and when she comes here, this place, it lights up!’

‘Really?’ replied Tom, ‘you mean, she comes here?’ How ridiculous, why shouldn’t she? She had lived here all her life.

‘But yes!’ the waiter, with his dubious accent, seemed unable to speak without exclamation marks. Tom wondered what would happen if he asked in Italian which region the waiter was from. But then, the exaggerated accent was part of the atmosphere, always had been. The waiter continued, ‘she comes here every Tuesday evening at seven o’clock. Such a beauty! Her laugh is like a bell!’

Wondering how a bell was supposed to laugh, Tom was startled by the punctuality. Cara must have changed. Routine and pattern were his traits, hers were spontaneity and surprise.

He had blamed that discord for his departure all those years ago. Only now, picking up olive after olive, he realised that for all that, he was the one who had gone off into the unknown and she was the one who had stayed.

Cara could have gone with him of course.

‘Plenty of prestigious schools down in the South East,’ he’d said.

‘Plenty of prestigious schools here too,’ she’d said.

But she had chosen to teach in the one everyone pretended didn’t exist as disadvantaged, uncultured poverty didn’t represent the way the town wanted to portray itself.

He’d wondered aloud what good it would do them to mix with those complex families. In his mind he pigeon-holed them into stereotypes: barely literate, behind with the rent, hiding from loan sharks, breeding like rabbits.

‘You mean they won’t give you good connections,’ she’d snapped, ’I want to make a difference,’ she’d said, ‘do you?’

Her words had escalated from ‘self-serving’, to ‘snob’ and then ‘bastard’; his from ‘unambitious’, to ‘lazy’ and then ‘failure’. The names stung then slashed. She cried, he left. He left her in that cold, damp flat with its elegant but unbeatable proportions, left the untidy rooms, left the hasty marriage proposed under those sparkling trees. Clean break. No contact. Twenty years had passed.

Tom glanced at the clock. It was six. He frowned. He’d just realised it was Tuesday. Would she come here this evening? With her man-friend? Tom had only come to check the restaurant out, wondering if he could ask her to join him there for old time’s sake another evening.

He had never intended to find her again. But twenty years of promotion and order, influence, routine, predictability had passed and he’d never found anyone to share it with. And then redundancy was offered; inevitable, but worth more if you jumped before you were pushed and when someone said ‘never mind, now you can have more time for your pastimes and friends’, he realised he hadn’t really got either. During a weekend of doubt and uncertainty, he’d bumped into Cara in the National Gallery, on neutral ground. They had nearly bypassed each other, not recognising the changed faces and bodies; but over coffee they simply started to talk as if time had been suspended and could now restart.

With trepidation he had said he was thinking of spending a week back in the West Country she had never left. Would she be free? Was she free? Would she consider spending some time with him? No strings, just company.

They had walked in parks and forests, climbed hills above the river, visited theatres and museums and found that somehow while different, they were still the same and while still the same, they were somehow different. Then her hand had slipped into his and he knew he wanted to ask her to dinner in the old place, if it still existed, and that this would be the turning point. He had never been afraid of risk before, but now, it was all or nothing. If he could not win her back, he would return to the empty South East alone.

And here was the old place, still existing.

The waiter returned to take Tom’s order and prodded the photograph again. ‘Yes,’ he continued, as if the conversation had not ceased, ‘she comes every Tuesday at seven o’clock with her man-friend. What a lovely couple they make.’ He kissed his fingers. Mwah!

The olives became tasteless, the room cold. Tom said something non-committal and picked up his phone.

‘Now?’ Cara said, ‘right this second? Well, I could… but…’

‘You remember the place? Park Close. It’s barely changed.’ He named it and looked at the clock. It was nearly six fifteen. She was quiet and then spoke, anxiety in her voice.

‘Not tonight, tomorrow night. I could meet you somewhere else tonight.’

‘I’m already here. I’ve got a table. Please join me.’

‘How about nine?’

‘No, now. Now or…’ he couldn’t say it.

The silence was so long, he took his phone from his ear and checked to see if he still had a signal. Then she said, ‘oh all right.’

She walked in at six forty-five. She was beautiful but her smile was strained. Her long chestnut hair was pinned up and she wore some earrings he vaguely recalled.

‘This was our place, do you remember? Do you still come here?’ he asked.

‘Hardly ever,’ she said.

But ‘every Tuesday’, the waiter had said, ‘every Tuesday at seven with her man-friend’. Cara fiddled with a piece of bread.

Six fifty.

The waiter came back and took their order. He smiled and flirted a little with Cara and winked at Tom.

She was shaking slightly, rolling bits of bread but not eating it; swirling her wine but not drinking it.

‘Listen,’ she said, ‘there’s something I haven’t got round to telling you…’

The door of the restaurant opened. Its ringing bell made them turn. A young man and woman walked in laughing. The girl’s head was thrown back, uninhibited, long chestnut hair straightened and falling round her shoulders. Her clothes were retro, she might have walked straight out of his youth. She stopped laughing and wiping the mirth from her eyes, took in the restaurant including the middle-aged couple staring at them in silence.

The waiter returned with the starters and tapped the face down twenty year old photograph again, pointed at the girl and said ‘what did I tell you? Bella, bella! Laughs like a bell!’

Tom, his mouth open, looked at the slender young woman. He took in her hair, her mouth, hands and feet. Then he considered Cara with her fine lines and plumpness and then he turned the photograph face up.

And the girl, oblivious, stared at Cara and with the tone only a nineteen year old can emit, said seven exasperated words: ‘oh Mum! What are you doing here?’

bottle

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