Looking both ways

It’s New Year’s Eve. I’m not really a fan.

Our culture sees New Year as a watershed moment in which we look back at what we have achieved in the last twelve months and forward to what we want to in the next. It always makes me feel miserable.

Perhaps it’s because setting deadlines is too much like being at work and makes me anxious. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a closed door person – I like to think there’s always a second chance. Perhaps it’s because my personal vague aims and hopeful goals are on a rolling conveyer. If I don’t get there this year, I might sometime. That sort of thing. 

Every year my organisation issues a staff engagement survey. One of the stupider questions is ‘on a scale of one to ten, are you happier today than you were yesterday?’ My answer is largely dependent on whether I’m completing my survey on a Monday. That aside, my level of happiness is not just about work, but my home-life, my creative life, world events. So what’s the point of the question? 

The New Year’s question seems as meaningless: did I achieve everything I wanted to in 2018? 

I can say I achieved many things. In fact I achieved things I hadn’t even anticipated (one of the bonuses about not planning too much ahead). Some things, however, are still on the conveyor belt. (I suspect one will be trundling on until I no longer care about anything.) 

Did I achieve them through hard work or luck? Probably a bit of both. I am fortunate to have been healthy all year. While sad things have happened including a completely unanticipated bereavement, there have been moments of joy and laughter too. And when I knew I’d get next to no writing done in November due to other commitments, I decided to accept it rather than feel a failure.

Does it matter if I failed to tick some things off? In the scheme of things, not really. The wounds of disappointment heal if I don’t pick at them. And there’s the question of timing. I’ve learned that sometimes, the fruit is under-ripe, the wine has not matured – waiting brings the best results. 

As for 2019, I have only a very broad idea of what I hope to achieve. It’s manageable, assuming I put some effort in and the unforeseen doesn’t scupper it. But who knows?

Time is a very human, actually very modern concept. Our ancestors knew when it was time to get up, go to bed, plant, harvest, hunt etc and the rest just happened when it happened – good or bad. 

We have made the boundaries of our lives so much more complex and demanding than they need to be.

Perhaps this New Year, I’ll simply stop letting it worry me, enjoy the good things as they turn up and accept that you can heal from the sad things with time and help. And if you feel the same, I hope you can too.

Janus

Words and photograph copyright 2018 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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Christmas Eve – Journey Home

Edgar ground his shoulders into the train seat and scowled. 

There was insufficient leg-room and the arm-rest was at the wrong level, but he could have put up with that. It was the stifling heat of the carriage which really got to him. It was a complete waste of money. No wonder tickets were so expensive. They had been waiting on the cold platform in the rain for ages, so every single passenger was steaming and somehow smelt of old dog. Edgar wondered if compensation was due for the delay. It lifted his spirits to think so.

Across the aisle, a damp youth was dozing, his knees splayed, an irritating beat coming from his earphones and a slight dribble trickling through his stubble. He looked wet in more senses than one.

Edgar thought of his employee Bob. They had left the office together when the cleaner, another person without commitment, had threatened to resign if she had to work another evening beyond her contracted offices and on Christmas Eve too.

Last seen, Bob had been on the bus-stop, sodden. His cheap umbrella was being turned inside out by the wind and ripped from its spokes. Struggling with it, he had stared up into the rain, his mouth downturned and his eyes half-closed. He and Edgar had worked through lunch and now the shops were shut. Edgar had caught him making a call in office hours earlier: ‘yes, I promise, I won’t be late.’  Judging by the bus which was driving through puddles towards him, crammed to the point of bulging, the promise would be broken.

Well, it was nothing to do with Edgar. Just as he thought he might have space to stretch out his legs, a small boy and his mother appeared. There were only two seats left, one on either side of the aisle. If Edgar moved, they could sit together. On the other hand, he would then be next to the damp youth with thumping ear-phones. Edgar averted his eyes and stayed put. As the train pulled off, he felt someone prodding him and turned to find the small boy next to him, grinning and pushing some scribble under his nose.

‘Look at my train!’ said the boy.

Adjusting his glasses, Edgar glared first at the child and then at the paper. There was something like a wobbly rectangle with smiling faces on the side, several misshapen circles and clouds of what was presumably smoke billowing from a red shape which defied geometric description.

‘Do you like it?’ said the boy.

’Those wheels would cause a serious derailment and steam trains stopped running before I was your age except for special trips,’ said Edgar, turning to glare out at the sodden landscape beyond the smeared window. Something vibrated in the case he held clasped to his chest and he rummaged inside until he found a mobile phone. He stared at it in confusion.

The name Madeleine was displayed above a picture of a pretty young woman.

‘Swipe the green thing,’ said the boy, reaching over and doing it before Edgar could stop him.

‘Hello? Bob?’

Edgar remembered. When his plan to work late had been thwarted by the cleaner, Bob had rushed off without a backward glance and Edgar had swept everything left on the table into his case in disgust. It must have included Bob’s mobile.

The little boy’s mother leaned across to her son and said ‘are you all right darling? Do you want a cuddle?’

‘Who’s that Bob?’ said the phone. Then the battery died.

‘Train!’ said the boy, shoving a scribbled his drawing of shapes and billowing smoke back under Edgar’s nose.

‘I told you: trains don’t run on steam anymore,’ said Edgar and turning from the child, settled down to doze.

***

He awoke, startled to find the carriage very different. Two banks of seats faced each other with a corridor to the side. A different small boy was jiggling as his mother pulled down the window, letting in cold air and smuts.

Happy, weren’t you? Knew how to appreciate the small things in life.’ 

Edgar turned to find an old man next to him. Edgar looked closer at the child who wore a badly created sweater with a train on the front. He remembered his mother with her knitting needles, tongue stuck out, dropping stitches and tangling colours with more love than skill. He stared at the woman who had been more beautiful even than he remembered. His vision blurred.

When it cleared, the train was different. He and the old man sat at a table. Across it, a girl had her curly head on a boy’s shoulder, pointing at an article.

‘Just a year, Ed, travelling the world. Let’s do it!’

‘Not now,’ the boy replied, ‘I want to get money in the bank first. Buy a house. I’m not wasting time now.’

He hunched the girl’s head away.

All change,’ said the old man.

***

Edgar opened his eyes, feeling disturbed. He’d dreamed of his mother, who’d died when he was in his teens and of his one time girlfriend Jennie, last seen dwarfed by a backpack at Dover, heading out to have adventures alone.

The little boy and old steam train had gone. Now a young woman sat next to him. Across the aisle, a large man pointed at the young woman. Tears were running down her face and she bit her lip, looked at the suitcase in the rack above, then dialled on her mobile. The name Bob appeared and then cut out. Edgar looked closer at the woman and remembered the image of Madeleine on Bob’s phone. He started to speak.

Don’t bother,’ said the large man, ‘you’re not really on the same train.’

Edgar gawped. What could he mean? He turned to look out of the window but it was too dark to tell where he was. When he turned back, the young woman had been replaced by one in her fifties, who was looking at a website on a tablet. On her lap was a tatty, discoloured photograph of a young man hugging a curly haired girl. On the tablet’s screen was Edgar on his company website, scowling. The woman sighed. She turned the screen of her tablet off, tucked a stray curl behind her ears and the photograph into her bag, and muttered to herself, ‘don’t be silly.’

All change,’ said the large man.

***

Edgar woke. Now he’d had dreams within dreams. It was so disconcerting.

He hoped he hadn’t slept through his stop. Blinking, he looked out of the window and recognised nothing, because it was a blur.

The train was unlike anything he’d seen outside a science-fiction film. The passengers around him were arranged in rows watching holographic Christmas movies or making holographic video calls. A few, festooned with tinsel, were snoring. Next to Edgar was a person bundled in a cloak, face and hands invisible.

Nearby, an old lady sat, rearranging white curls. She was talking to a middle-aged man but the man wasn’t paying attention, he was too busy talking via a headset to a hologram of another man who was waving his arms.

The old lady was saying ‘I wanted to make up with him, but I can’t track him down. Do you know anyone who could help? I used to try every year, but never had the courage to do anything. I’d like to see him before it’s too late. If it’s not already too late…’

The middle-aged man ignored her, snapping at the hologram. ‘He left the company to me, not himself. I’m not responsible for his ashes…. we were not related. I really don’t care what you do with the them, Mr Murgatroyd. Goodbye.’

Edgar stared. ‘That’s Bob!’ He said. Gone was Bob’s cheerful face. It had been replaced with one like that in Edgar’s mirror: cold, empty. The bundled figure nodded.

‘But whose ashes is he talking about?’

The bundled figure moved and a skeletal hand pointed at the fading hologram. Mr Murgatroyd was holding an urn with the name…

‘Me?’ said Edgar.

All change!

***

Edgar woke with a jolt. The original small boy was beside him, lip wobbling, looking at his crumpled drawing.

Edgar took a breath, ‘I’m sorry, son, that all came out wrong, it’s a lovely picture. I went on a special train like that when I was your age. I remember it looking just the same.’

The child’s mother smiled. She nodded at the phone. ‘Is the battery flat? I’ve got an emergency charger here.’

After a few seconds, Edgar dialled Madeleine.

‘Bob left his phone behind. I’m his boss… yes, er, yes, I’m the one who makes him work late all the time… anyway, don’t dial off, he’s on his way. And tell him… he can have an extra few days off. And ..er.. his bonus is overdue. For the last … er… five years. Happy…er…Christmas.’

He handed back the charger. At the next stop, the mother and little boy left. The passengers started to thin out and Edgar started to stretch, looking forward to some leg room and then someone else sat next to him. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that it was a woman his own age, taking a faded photograph out of a bag and opening a search-engine on her tablet. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear…

Edgar reached over and shielded the screen.

‘Stop searching Jennie,’ he said, ‘here I am. I’m sorry for everything. Happy Christmas.’

All change.

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

(Photograph taken in the Apple Market at Covent Garden, London.)

The Quest: Book Release

If you fancy something different for a short Christmas read, have a look at The Quest.

A few years ago, I wrote a few hundred words about a distant and hidden kingdom where dragons lived alongside the humans who understood them. They were trying to keep the outside world at bay, fearful that their secrets and delicate relationship would be destroyed.

A year ago, I was asked to contribute to a collection of short stories on the theme of The Twelve Days of Christmas. I revisited the world I’d been creating and set my 10,000 word story in a parallel universe during their equivalent of the Victorian-era period.

The safe world of the dragon people has long since been breached and the industrial revolution has well and truly taken control of the dragons who can fuel the machines and engines of progress. But the people who understand the dragons are reviled and driven to hide their knowledge.

Against this background, two estranged sisters – one of whom has decided to conceal her identity and one of whom refuses to do so – have to work together in bitter midwinter to find their younger brother who has run away to the city. But they are thwarted by demands to solve a riddle which the mysterious Mr Beringer says is a key to fighting the anarchy which threatens the nation.

The Quest is the first in a series of four in which the Drethic family seek to prove their loyalty to their country and find the missing Queen.

Available as an ebook at 99p or 99c (US) and also in paperback at £2.99 – a different tale for midwinter.

The Quest ebook cover

 

An Invitation

Once upon a time there was a kind woman who lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses on the edges of a city.

Her garden was the prettiest in the row of gardens and the most welcoming. Every night, foxes came and knocked on the patio door for food. Sometimes they brought cubs. In summer they frolicked in the sun. In winter, the one with the limp tried to sneak inside. She fed them and talked to them, getting to know their characters and foibles.

The house was always warm and full of real treasures: books and photographs, souvenirs and memories. She was not old, but ailments meant the woman could no longer go out a great deal. When she had to, her town now seemed noisy and frustrating with detours and indifferent strangers misdirecting. But from her home, she could talk to the world on her computer and the world talked back. She was funny and thoughtful, offering wise or cheering words. It was impossible to feel sad when friends received her messages. She much loved, but sometimes the electronic messages were not enough. She yearned for someone to raise a glass with and have a good chin-wag. She longed for worlds without frustration and indifference.

One Christmas she sent out invitations for Christmas dinner, but no-one answered. She had checked the doormat, her phone, her computer every five minutes but no-one confirmed whether or not they’d be coming. 

After a while, on the ‘watched pot never boils’ principle, she went round the house, trying to look at it objectively. The decorations were bright and pretty, her home welcoming. The fridge and cupboards were bursting with food.

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

In her best coat and hat, the woman went to the community centre and looked at the bookclub ladies. They all seemed to be dressed the same and were talking over the top of each other. When she listened, they didn’t seem to be discussing a book but gossiping. The woman was not a gossip. She shook her head. 

Then she looked at the toddler group. This was a possibility – some of the mothers looked rather lost and the children were sweet – but then the woman realised all her ornaments were choking hazards and decided ‘maybe next year’ when she’d had a chance to change the decor. 

The next room held a club for pensioners. The woman was only in her middle years and nowhere near a pensioner. She was surprised to find that they were making more noise and having more fun than either the bookclub or toddlers. But then she noticed an old man sitting alone, hands on his walking stick, watching the others but not joining in. Their eyes met. His were bright and twinkling. There was still a little ginger in his neat beard. 

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman went over to speak with him. 

On Christmas Day, a taxi brought the old man round for dinner. The woman had a feast for eight in the oven but still had no idea whether anyone else would come. She poured two glasses of wine and expected the old man to settle down in an armchair but instead, leaning on his stick, he made his way through to the back of the house and into the garden. 

From his pocket the old man withdrew a small package wrapped in silver paper and handed it over.

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

Inside was a key made of glass. The woman held it up in the weak sunlight and it seemed to spark with fire. It was cleverly made to look like crystal or even opal. She stared at the old man in surprise.

‘It’s exactly what you want,’ said the man.

‘It’s very pretty,’ said the woman, wondering where she’d put it and how much dust it would gather. 

‘Really,’ persisted the old man, ‘it’s what you want. Care to join me in another world?’

She laughed, but looking at him again, she saw that his twinkling eyes were serious and his mouth held a secret smile. ‘What does it open?’ she asked to humour him.

‘Close your eyes and turn it,’ said the old man. 

The woman felt silly, standing there in the cold garden with her eyes closed, turning a glass key in the air. For a brief second she wondered if it was all a ploy and whether she’d been a fool and would discover her house burgled when she woke from being clubbed over the head with a walking stick, but then she felt warmth on her face and the sounds of the city replaced by birdsong. 

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow near a tree bursting with fruit. The man standing before her was not old, but in his prime, red-headed, sparkly eyed, holding the bridle of a golden unicorn. She herself was young too, her limbs supple and she was wearing a riding outfit in rainbow silks. Something soft nuzzled her face and when she turned, another unicorn, silver, stood at her side. 

‘But…’ started the woman.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the foxy man. ‘We’ll return when dinner is cooked and just before your guests arrive. The key will be yours for whenever you need it and who knows where it will take you next. But for here and now – let’s ride. Shall we walk them down to the river?’

‘Nothing so slow!’ said the woman. ‘Let’s gallop! And I have a feeling these creatures can do more than that. Let’s fly! And if we’re late and the guests really do come – they can serve up the meal themselves!’

 

RSVP

Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Author Interview with Nick Perkins

Introduction

A tortured soul, who writes as a way of expressing things that cannot be said out loud.

QUESTIONS

How much of yourself is in your stories?

A few people have asked me this question over the years and I have never been quite sure how to answer it. The way I write it is impossible to keep myself out of my stories, because they basically all come from within me. I started to write because I found it hard to express how I was feeling. My characters are therefore a mouth piece to say and feel things that I am unable to express. Those who know me well see me running through my stories, those who do not know me hopefully see characters with real feelings and emotions, because they are, at source, mine.

Why did you pick your genre?

I don’t think I really have a genre. When I get asked what genre my stories are I say psychological science fiction romantic horror thriller, because in honesty I think they are all of these things or I may be wrong and they are none of them. I didn’t pick the genre, the stories just arrived, and in some cases different readers have gained different things from them, so I think I will let the reader decide what genre they are. 

If you could go anywhere (real or fictional) – where and why?

I would go back to a hospital room in early September 1994 and tell my dad all the things I could say now, that I couldn’t say then. I lost him on 09/09/94 and there is still a hole in my life because I couldn’t tell him how I felt. 

Who are your main characters in your book(s): can you tell us something about them?

Jack, one of two main characters in my first novel Fade, is a writer troubled by his past and trying to come to terms with the loss of his first wife. He has come back from looking over the edge of his personal abyss with the help of Alice. He loves her more than life itself, but is at the same time scared because she has come to know him more than anyone ever has.

Alice has struggled to find her place in the world. She has never felt like she fitted in, felt different but never knew why. She expresses herself through her photography, because it is the only way she knows how to express herself, until she meets Jack. In helping Jack unlock his emotions she unlocks her own, but it is only later that they both learn her true nature.

Domino is Jack and Alice’s daughter. A typical 14 year old when we meet her in Fader, an extraordinary 16 year old by the end of the trilogy in Faded. If I tell you much more it would ruin the surprise so you will have to read the books to find out more, but I will tell you she almost saves the world.

Will there be a sequel?

I think I may have given that away in my character descriptions. Fade and Fader were the first two parts of a trilogy. Faded will be the concluding part, but that is not the end of the story. A separate tale starts with Phase IV and is already drafted, and a fifth novel, hinted at in Fader, is already coalescing in my head. But those are for another day. 

BIOGRAPHY

I am Project Manager in the construction industry, currently working on one of the biggest construction projects in Europe. I write when I can, when work, family, and life, allow it. I started writing originally shortly after the death of my father, but the arrival of two daughters took away my free time. Now they are grown I use writing as a form of therapy against anxiety and depression.

To date I have written and self-published two novels, and two collections of short stories. The third novel will be published in 2019, with hopefully more to follow in the years to come.

Like many others in my position, I don’t often say I am a writer when people ask me what I do. It’s definitely a part time thing, and I don’t think it will ever mean I can retire and live off my writing. Writing is, however, something I do and I will continue to do as long as my brain continues to push out stories.

Let the words flow. 

LINKS

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/nickperkinswriter

Twitter

https://twitter.com/earlofmarl

@earlofmarl

Amazon Author Page

UK Amazon Author Page

Amazon.Com Author Page

WHERE IS MY WRITING

My books are available as ebook or paperback via Amazon.

Also available at Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Ibooks.