Timewalker

Once I ascended hills, brushing my hands through lavender or tempted by strawberries. I gathered berries along the row by the heath. I walked by rivulets and stepped over streams, feeling the clay under my feet.

When the invaders came, I walked on in the shadow of the stockade as it rose then burnt and fell then rose again over and over until the timber was replaced by stone.

I walked inside walls as they rolled outwards like ripples; one built after another to encompass the paving as it sneaked cobble by cobble across fields and mud.

The rivulets flowed on, trickling with waste from the tanners and butchers and chamber pots into the sludge and churn of the river.

Sometimes, I crossed the river’s waves in rocking boats or followed up in darkness to the watergate. On its southern shores, I walked among bawdy, gaudy folk as they spilled out of theatres and taverns. Women, painted with lead, carmine and disease called me to join them but I walked on.

They covered Tyburn Brook and I walked, tracing its invisible path with my eyes to avoid seeing my surroundings. Sometimes the blood trickled at pace with me and feet jolted feet above me, as I stepped aside from the innards on the path. But I kept my head down, never looking up in case pecked out eyes from unbodied heads should be watching.

Later, death stalked. Flea laden rats scurried across my feet but my feet did not stop. And too soon afterwards, as stone walls burnt and timbers trembled into ash and multi-coloured windows exploded, I still walked on.

I walked east. People lived like lice, huddled and swarming; boiling, roiling in dark, damp rooms. The children’s bare feet hop over filth and then drank of the river though stank and lethal. I walked west. People lived like gilded gods; demanding, beautiful, finger-clicking, bell-ringing. I was wallpaper, disposal.

Under my feet, down in the clay where once I trod, engines started run through tunnels, snake like, engorging and disgorging. And I walked on, my shoulders rubbing another generation of strangers, belongings slung over their shoulders, as they stumbled into overcrowded rooms.

The last of the rivulets were bricked up and channelled, their trickle echoed in the naming of streets above them. And some of them ran through channels of brick and bore away the waste and contagion and others seeped. I plodded on.

Sometimes, my mouth is choked with fog and I cannot see more than my feet plodding from pool to pool of filtered lamplight. The air is oily. In the east, a different death now stalked the gaudy women. Whitechapel stained red and I walked in the shadows out of sight.

And then the pyrotechnics of terror: the skies flashed and buildings fell. The earth exploded into craters under my feet so that I clambered over brick and rubble, brushing the dust from my shoes.

Now, in clear skies, above me leviathans rear from the ground into impossible monoliths of glass and steel and I walk and walk as I have always walked. Invisible.

My toes remember the squelch of the marsh. My hands recall the lavender and my tongue the strawberries although now the fields grow nothing but pavements and terraces.

No one asks me what I see, what I know. I am nothing. A shade.

I look down at my feet treading on the pavements lain over cobbles, lain over straw, lain over mud, lain over bones: hidden or forgotten, lain over dreams and forgotten faiths, lain over five thousand years. And they will remember the rich and the powerful, the bookmarks in history but they will not remember me. My feet have been every colour. I am local, incomer, foreigner, slave. I am the spirit of every servant who walked, unseen, unnoticed but seeing, noticing; head down, feet tired.

And so will I continue, going about someone else’s business; walking over hidden histories and forgotten streams as pride and empires rise and fall. Until eventually the monstrous edifices return to dust. Till the marsh reeds burst back through the paving. Till I can run my hands through lavender and pick wild strawberries once more.

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

Historical Note
This was prompted by walking up Lavender Hill near Clapham Junction and trying to imagine it when it was fields and not urban. It’s impossible to do justice to the history of London in 700 words, but here are the changes I’ve tried to reflect:

c. 4500 BC: Evidence of settlement
c.

43 AD: Roman settlement 
… c. 61 AD: Roman settlement destroyed when the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca burnt it to the ground… 
c.100 AD: Roman Londinium built to replace Colchester as the capital of the Roman Province
c. … 450 AD-950 AD decline of London after the collapse of Roman rule and during repeated Viking invasions…. 
c. 1066 AD London once again the largest town. William the conqueror builds Westminster Abbey and Tower of London… 
c. 1196- late 17th C: public executions at Tyburn
… 14th C AD: Black death – London loses a third of its population… 
16th C AD: In Southwark, William Shakespeare builds the Globe theatre. The south bank with its theatres and stews is generally disapproved of.
… 17th C AD: English civil war… 
1665 AD: Great Plague
… 1666 AD: Great Fire of London… 
1848-1866 AD: Cholera epidemics leading to building of sewers…   
1858 AD: Joseph Bazalgette was given the go ahead to start creating a system of sewers, the direct result of which was to clean up the Thames and stop the cholera outbreaks. 
… 1863: First underground railway 
… 1939-45 AD: Bombing killed over 30,000 Londoners and destroyed large tracts of land and buildings.
… 1952 AD: The Great Smog – perhaps 12,000 people died from pollution as a result of which the Clean Air Act was brought in which ended the ‘pea-souper’ fogs for which London was notorious… 
Modern day: The development of Canary Wharf, building of landmark buildings like The Shard etc

Subterranean rivers of London: as London developed, tributaries were covered over and now run in culverts. Fleet Street and Holborn for example are two streets named for the streams and brooks which run (or once ran) underneath them. If you like modern adult fantasy, there is a great series of books by Ben Aaronovitch imagining the lost rivers of London with personalities of their own and a whole world of magic in the modern day city hidden in plain sight.

Generally: the constant influx of immigration over centuries, including refugees and economic migrants, slaves and servants from Europe and beyond which make up the cultural melting pot which is a modern city.

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Missingness

I didn’t expect to feel this way.

Perhaps it’s because it’s been quite stressful recently.

Perhaps it’s because while I’ve worked for the same organisation for nearly twenty-eight years, I’ve changed teams and job roles three times in two (and twice in eight months). This has been largely by choice because the alternatives were worse. I haven’t worked with a team who are all in the same building or even the same town for the majority of the last eleven years. I’ve yet to get past acquaintanceship with the people in my new team. Three days a week, I work from home or sit in a side office, usually on my own. Twice a week I rattle along in trains full of strangers to meet face to face maybe only one or two members of my team. On those days, I work in a large office in a huge building full of people, the majority of whom I don’t know and am never likely to know. Of the work friends I’ve built over my career, many are, like me, rushing from place to place all the time. It’s hard to meet up.

Perhaps it’s because I’m under the weather. Everything has been overwhelming for ages. I feel as if I’ve been stumbling through undergrowth, step by exhausting step, not sure where the path has gone. Now, despite the fact that it’s July, I have a chest cold and virus.

Or perhaps it’s because my children are growing up. They both sat public exams this year. My eldest is eighteen today. My youngest is less than two years behind. When my son leaves home for university in the autumn, my daughter will be starting sixth form. I have washed my last item of ink stained school uniform. Sixth formers don’t wear uniform. The children can see that adult life doesn’t live up to the hype but are eager for it anyway.

I feel lonely.

I don’t feel alone. I have a lovely husband who’s my best friend. My children, when we’re all disconnected from electronic devices, still hug and chatter. They’re great company. My oldest friends and my wonderful sister, who know me best, live some distance away. But I have fantastic local friends and my mother lives nearby. It’s not the loneliness I suffered at school, alienated by bullying, nor in the first year at university, too shy to talk to anyone. I know I’m not alone.

But I still feel lonely.

Eighteen years ago, my son, my longed-for, long-awaited child was put into my arms. I was so conscious of his dependence on me that although he slept, I couldn’t for fear he’d stop breathing. Now, his dependence on me is nebulous. He can take care of himself if he has to, he definitely has his own opinions and can and does make his own decisions. (Although, somehow it’s still me doing the laundry.) We’ve encouraged his independence always: given him space within boundaries. We’ve tried to prepare him for adulthood. He is a wonderful young man.

My daughter is following right on behind. She is my lovely, lovely girl. But last night, we were looking at possible universities for her. She is flexing her wings ready to fly.

When my son leaves home, my daughter, no matter how much they fight and argue, will miss him. It’ll be just three of us for a while and then before we know it, just two of us.

Life with just my husband will certainly be more peaceful. I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to welcoming the children when they come home, looking forward to visiting them when they have homes of their own, looking forward to watching them build their own lives and traditions.

But what will my role be? Where perhaps someone else would feel their employment defined them and would be lost without its focus, I don’t think I have ever felt that way. I have my career, but truth to be told, I think the real me is writer, companion and the mother.

I never expected to feel lost when the nest started to empty but I do. I thought we had helped them mature year by year until they were ready to leave and we were ready to let them go. And we are ready. We are. And yet…

We never thought we’d have a child and then, eventually, my son came along. We thought we’d perhaps never have another, but my daughter had other ideas. I remember that after she was born and she was no longer part of me, although I could hold her in my arms, I missed the company of her in my womb. I felt lonely for something that was gone, even though it was replaced by something better. My role to protect and grow a child under my heart was over. I had to learn something new.

So perhaps it’s not loneliness exactly.

There is a word in Welsh ‘hiraeth’ which has no direct English translation. In Cornish, it is ‘hireth’ and in Breton, it is ‘hiraezh’. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are derived from the same ancient British language. The closest English explanation is an intense longing for something lost (usually a home or a person) or for the memory of them, whether real or imagined. Apparently, Portuguese and Galician have a similar word: ‘saudade’. It’s been translated as ‘missingness’.

So I don’t know exactly why I feel the way I do at the moment. Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s the virus I’m enduring, perhaps it’s work, perhaps it’s my age, but I think, in truth, it’s probably because I feel ‘hiraeth’ for the children who are now young adults and who will soon be leaving home.

One of my friends, whose daughter is the same age as mine, recently said that she felt adrift. And I thought ‘yes, that’s it exactly.’

I too feel adrift, looking back at the fading lands of their receding childhood, wondering where the breeze will take me next.

lonely 2

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

Honey

She climbed a tree and hunched.

We called: ‘please come down,’ but she stared over the rooftops to the wide world as if yearning to fly.

‘What shall we do?’ we whispered.

In the kitchen, we cut a wobbly doorstep from the fresh loaf and poured honey over.

‘It’s your favourite,’ we called, ‘just for you.’

Mummy turned. A moment passed. Then she climbed down and hugged us tight, bread and all.

She smiled a little, but tears mingling with honey, sparkled in her hair.

Under our kisses, her face was sticky and salty.

‘We’ll make it better,’ we said.

honey

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 what others have written

Vigilance

‘There’s a deviant behind me,’ whispered Caitlin, ‘I thought they were all dead.’

She could hear it shuffling as if its feet in the broken shoes were bruised and blistered. But it was getting nearer nonetheless.

’The virus we put in the water supply killed the majority,’ Abbi answered, ‘but a few were immune. They’d die out in time, but we daren’t risk it.’

Caitlin picked up a stone. Turning to throw it, she saw that the deviant was barely alive: rags hanging from its haggard frame, a kind of pleading in its eyes as it reached for her. She dropped the stone and quickened her pace.

‘It looks so weak,’ she murmured to Abbi, ‘are you sure it can harm us? It’s starving to death. What can we do?’

‘Don’t worry. Daniel’s prepared.’

Caitlin squinted to where Abbi was pointing. On the roof opposite, a boy lay, sunshine glinting off his gunsight. A red spot briefly appeared on Caitlin’s shoulder then disappeared to her left. She moved to give Daniel a clear aim. There was a soft crack and then a thump.

Caitlin looked down on the emaciated corpse.

‘He looked nice,’ sighed Caitlin, ‘Like grandfathers in books. Whatever grandfathers were.’

‘Don’t believe their propaganda,’ snapped Abbi, ‘you know perfectly well the world is a better place now that it’s run by children who reproduce by cloning. There’s no place for teenagers and adults anymore. You know the rules.’

Caitlin was silent. She would be thirteen in two years time. She looked up at Daniel and shuddered.

vigilance

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