Branch Lines

That winter was the coldest on record.

Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.

One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.

There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.

Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.

He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.

‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.

On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.

I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.

On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.

Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.

One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.

As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.

‘I often catch this train,’ I said.

‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.

She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.

‘Your young man?’

I nodded.

‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’

She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.

‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.

Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.

A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.

At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped: ‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’

At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.

‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’

There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.

That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.

The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.

After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’

‘I’m often on this train.’

‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’

She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.

‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.

I nodded.

‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’

I shook my head.

‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’

I caught the old lady’s eyes.

‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’

And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.

branch lines

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

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A Letter to Father Christmas

Susie never forgot the Christmas Eve when she was three and couldn’t sleep. Peeking over the bannister, she saw a plump man hiding something large and flat. The next day, under the tree was a large flat present for her and it was a big blackboard easel.

‘I saw Father Christmas put it in the cupboard under the stairs!’ said Susie. There was no doubt in her mind after that.

Sometimes Christmas presents were good, like the easel, and sometimes they were all right, like books and sometimes they were boring, like dresses, jumpers and dolls. When she was four, Susie’s mother told her that she now she could write, a good way to tell Father Christmas what you wanted was to put a letter up the chimney.

Luckily Susie had a good fireplace. She watched Mummy light the coals and when the flames were high, she popped her letter in and watched it fly up the chimney and off to the North Pole.

The only thing was, that it must have got lost on the way, because the one thing she wanted more than anything was a train set and Christmas Day came and Father Christmas left lovely presents but none of them was a train set.

In Spring, Susie and her family moved to another town. Now they had central heating so there was no chimney to send a note up. For two years Susie’s presents were nice, but never quite what she really really wanted. Then, one rainy Autumn when Susie was seven they moved a long way. The new house was rather dark and a tiny bit scary.
There were fireplaces in each room but every single one had been bricked up. The only fire was a rayburn in the sitting room, a kind of sealed metal box where you could see the coals trapped and burning behind glowing glass. Susie didn’t bother telling her little sister about putting notes up the chimney because Mum wouldn’t let them touch it.

One breakfast time in late December, Susie heard a horrible scrabbling, flapping sound behind the part of wall in the dining room which had once been a fireplace.

‘A bird’s fallen down the chimney.’ said Dad ‘It’ll die if we don’t get it out.’

Susie and her little sister watched anxiously until eventually Dad pulled out enough bricks so they could see into the dark hollow which had once been a hearth.

There was a lot of dust. Susie’s little sister held her hand tight as the scrabbling started again, louder now that the space was open. Suddenly a robin hopped out, something in his beak. He flew up to Susie, dropped a sooty piece of paper on her outstretched hand and then flew to sit chirping by the window until Susie’s Mum opened it for him to fly out.

Susie opened the piece of paper.

‘Look Mum!’ she exclaimed, ‘It’s that note I put up the chimney for Father Christmas when I was four!’

‘It can’t be!’ said her Mum coming to look, ‘that house is two hundred miles away!’

But it really was the letter she had written three years before.

‘Tell you what’ Mum suggested, ‘this time why don’t we just pop it in the post to the North Pole. It might be safer.’
So they did. And that Christmas, under the tree was a long thin package for Susie and inside was a train set at last.

After lunch while Dad was helping set up the train set on the dining table, Susie looked out of the window into the front garden.

There was the robin, hopping about on the front wall and chirping away. Then he stopped to look at her. And Susie could have sworn he gave her a little wink.

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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

Biding Time

Hearing a noise as he hid from Mal in the old graveyard that night, Bod peered out. It was a week since they’d got that fifty quid note off old Miss Kane. It was her own fault she’d been unconscious ever since. She shouldn’t have held onto her bag so tight. But Mal wanted his half of the fifty and Bod had spent it.

It was just some woman taking photographs of tombstones. Weirdo.

Bod waited until he felt alone again, then stepped out from under the yew. On the ground by the nearest grave was a camera.

Removing the memory card just in case, Bod checked the camera’s make on his phone. Even if he got half its worth, he’d be laughing.

He just had to get home first. He left the graveyard onto the pavement.

‘Fancy finding you here,’ said Mal, walking out of the shadows. ‘Where’s my cash?’

‘Day after tomorrow,’ said Bod.

‘What’s this?’ Mal snatched the camera.

‘It’s mine.’

‘Not now it’s not.’

‘No! It’s not kosher.’

Mal snorted, ‘so what’s new? You owe me.’

‘It’s worth more than twenty-five quid!’

Mal looked at the camera under the streetlight. ‘It’s way out of your league. How d’you get it?’

Bod thought of the shadow of the grave and shivered.

‘Knock over another old bat for it?’ said Mal.

‘It wasn’t my fault Miss Kane got hurt. You were there too.’

‘I don’t think so and you’d better not say I was. OK?’ head down, Mal strode down the street.

Bod walked home, grunting at his mother before going upstairs to put the memory card in his computer. After all, there might be something he could use on it.

What a disappointment. Five hundred photos of out of focus gravestones, flowers and blurry faces. And one folder marked ‘do not open.’

He opened it.

Half an hour later, the police burst into his room. His laptop screen was cracked and a memory card smouldered in the slot. There was no sign of Bod.

‘I swear he was here!’ said his mother, ‘What do you want him for? What are you saying he’s done?’

Bod woke. At least, he thought he woke. He touched his eyes to make sure they were open. It was pitch dark. Something like sticks and stones stabbed his back. He was wedged between straight damp edges and a warm tense arm.

He swore and felt his bladder release.

‘Bod?’

‘Mal?’

‘I looked at the memory card…’

‘I tried to take a picture with that camera…’

‘What’s happening?’

‘I don’t know…’

No no no…

In the ancient graveyard, indistinct whispers came up from under the stones, under the earth, from a mouldering box, too small for two.

But no-one was there to hear. The only person who ever visited Emily Kane’s grave had died two hours ago from head injuries.

‘Hello lads,’ said a voice scented with earth, ‘welcome to your new home. I’m Emily Kane. I think you knew my daughter.’

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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

Music

My husband and I don’t quite see eye to eye on music.

It’s not so much about taste. We like a lot of the same stuff. There’s this theory that if you want to target an advertisement at a particular generation, you pick backing music from when they were 16-18. I think they’re probably right. Anything with music from the 80s will get our interest whether it’s to wallow in nostalgia and memories of slender waists (both of us), white jeans (him), permed hair (me) and that general restlessness and energy of youth is briefly remembered as we slob on the sofa with a glass of wine.

‘I used to dance for hours in shoes like those,’ I’ll say, ‘but I never quite had the nerve to wear the ra-ra skirt and my hair reverted to straight in two minutes.’

We sigh until the kids come in and ask what rubbish we’re watching now. 

On the other hand, if advertisers use a song we both love for something stupid (naming no high street banks here) we will both mutter and grumble. Fortunately for the bank, it already has our money. (Well, we put our salaries into it, then the money drains out on mortgage, bills and shopping, but you know what I mean.)

No the difference we have about music is volume and venue. My husband loves to turn up music loud in the house. As loud as he can get it. I can’t bear it. If for any reason, I can’t bear it to the extent that I’ll say so, he puts earphones in and blasts his ears to a volume that I can nevertheless still hear.

If I’m writing, I can’t stand this. I can’t tune into whatever wavelength my creativity plays through if there is music of any description in the background. If there are lyrics, they get into my words, if there is a rhythm, it’ll interfere with the rhythm of what I’m writing. One particularly difficult afternoon, I had not only my husband playing music, but my daughter playing (a totally different) music and my son playing online video games which seems to involve a lot of shouting. My son eventually hooked me up to a natural sounds website and I head-phoned into that, turned up the thunder and rainforest frogs, got back into my writing and became so lost in what I was doing that I kept looking up surprised to see no rain even though my ears could hear a positive downpour.

That’s not to say I don’t like loud music. I do. But I like it in the car when I’m driving to or from work or the station. I tune into a vibe or a memory or a mood and somehow the things that are worrying me lift for the journey. I actually feel a little put out if I have to share my journey to work with someone I actually have to talk to.

But a word to anyone who needs to know: if I make a point of going for a drive with loud music playing when I have no reason to go out, or I have music playing loudly in the house, it’s not a good sign. It’s because I am very very low. I’m still tuning into a vibe or a memory or a mood, but it’s not a good one. If I feel the need to do it at home, which is my safe little nest, there’s something wrong.

The music may be the same in both instances. It’s how I respond which is different. I’m either defiant or defeated. The words (and I love good lyrics, often more than the music itself) either resonate or betray.

My father had been told by a teacher that as he was tone deaf, he’d never appreciate music. He spent the rest of his life building up a taste so eclectic it’s impossible to categorise. I grew up listening to The Goons, Beethoven, Bach, Grieg, Louis Armstrong, Lonnie Donnegan, Val Doonican, musical soundtracks from ‘The Sound of Music’ and ‘Oliver’ etc, Hawkwind and Mike Oldfield. We just never ever listened to whatever was popular at the time and it took me a while to catch up. The first pop song I heard (on a funny little radio a sort of relation had made for me) was ‘It’s a Rich Man’s World’ by Abba, after which I didn’t look back.

But otherwise, what songs am I talking about? OK so this is the divisive part, so sorry if I’ll now make you squirm, but these are the songs which still resonate no matter how many years have passed.

My first boyfriend introduced me to Genesis when I was sixteen. I probably couldn’t have been more square if I’d tried but I loved songs which seemed to have a hidden story in them like ‘Carpet Creepers’, ‘Trick of the Tail’. ‘Abacab’ takes me back to driving across the heathlands of the Gower on summer evenings.

A few years later, single, I sang along to ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler as clearly ‘the best of all the years had gone by.’ I was twenty. Sigh. It was very real then.

A particularly bad period in my life some twenty years after that, had a soundtrack all of its own. One day I came home from work a little early. I was working part-time and it wasn’t quite time to pick the children up from school. I thought of going home to my chaotic home, the laundry, the housework, the cooking, the trying to get the children to eat something healthy and drove round and round with the CD player blasting at full volume. The songs which at that point seemed to sum up what was going on in my head were:
‘Cappucino Girls’ – Nia ‘Talking Far too loud, laughing with each other, like the days before we were someone else’s mother’
‘Another Place to Fall’ – KT Tunstall (one section of lyrics translated themselves as ‘find yourself another place to fall; bang your head against another brick wall’)
‘Crazy’ – Gnarls Barkley (the title speaks for itself)
I still can’t quite hear any of them without remembering that utter despair at a life which seemed to have run away and left me behind not knowing quite who I was or what I was for.

When my Dad died, he had set down everything he wanted for his funeral except what to play as the coffin was going up the aisle in the crematorium. Asked what to play by the funeral director, my mind went totally blank. All I could hear going through my head was ‘Right Said Fred, Better Get a Move on.’ Dad would probably have appreciated it, but I’m not sure anyone else would have. I left it to the Funeral Director and now couldn’t tell you what was played. I realised two weeks later that I’d wanted ‘You Raise Me Up’ (Secret Garden).

Well time has passed since either of those periods of awful misery. A lot of tears, some heartbreak and a great deal of talking later, I am in a different place. I still love older songs, I find new songs all the time. But here are some of the older ones which make me smile or dream whether I’m high or low.

‘Songbird’ – Fleetwood Mac
‘Fields of Gold’ – (Sting) – sung by Eva Cassidy
‘Fix You’ – Coldplay
‘How Long Will I Love You’ – Ellie Goulding
‘Perfect Day’ – Lou Reed
‘Solsbury Hill’ – Peter Gabriel

And there is a song ‘Ride On’ by Christy Moore which reminds me of sitting in the kitchen with my husband on Sunday afternoons, soon after we were married. It is on an album of Celtic Music and one day, one day, I am going to write the story it sparked in my subconscious. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be.

And finally, at my funeral, I want them to play ‘I Hope You Dance’ by Lee Ann Womack. Read the lyrics – it sums up everything I hope for everyone.

 

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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

Beyond the Dark

One midwinter evening, we left the dark city by train, feeling that daylight might never return.

A sombre bearded man whispered, ‘it was bearable when December was crazy bright.’

I sighed. The new regime disdained foolish colour in our monotone, efficient world.

Then, a robin red-breast appeared, singing.

Were we mad? In that moment, hope overcame fear.

The robin’s wings showered sparkles, the bearded man was suddenly jolly in red and I, garbed in silver, finding a song of love, flew on feathers of joy.

And outside, one by one, the dull world blazoned once more with rainbow lights.

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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. Click here to check out what other people wrote.