Perspective

‘So many knobs,’ I say, sighing into my mug.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Aelfnod splutters on his tea.

‘Door knobs, cupboard knobs, handles, things for opening lids with, taps, letter-boxes. You know. Things that need extra bleaching just now.’

‘Ah.’ Aelfnod settles back and a dreamy look crosses his face as he contemplates the joys of housework, clearly feeling that I have all the fun. ‘I was worried there for a minute.’

Aelfnod, despite the fact that we have differing views on dust, is a kindred spirit.

He knows when to talk and when to be quiet. He knows when a shared pot of tea in silence is the only thing that makes sense. He understands what it’s like to need space and time to re-boot your mind with something completely disconnected from everything else that’s going on.

In my case, it’s by being alone – driving with the radio on loud, tapping into whatever the music triggers, or being on a train with my brain rocking down new tracks or on a station platform, anonymous among all the commuters rushing pointlessly about – observing, listening and invigorated (if sometimes also cross, cold and late).

For Aelfnod, his reset process appears to be rummaging through the cookery books. (If it’s not him – then who else is reordering them so I can never find the one I want?)

Life has all been a bit trying over the last week. We’re on lockdown, working from home and all of a sudden the only people I’m allowed to be with seem noisier and messier than usual and I can only get out of the house once a day.

Nerves are being trodden on like cowpats round a water trough.

Mingled with personal anxiety caused by coronavirus, the day-job is absorbed in mitigating its impact. So it’s impossible to tune out from the crisis. The most creative decisions of the day are what to cook with what’s in store and when to go for my one walk. All in all, my reset time and my creative time seems to have seeped away and I’ve been feeling grumpy.

It really does come to something when I’m missing a five a.m. start and squeezing past strangers at Clapham Junction.

In case you didn’t know, Aelfnod is one of my invisible household elves. And the thing about invisible household elves is that they’re not exactly real (shh don’t tell them that), so they don’t turn up for a chat unless I want them to.  But they often come to mind when I’m being domestic and self-reflective.

So this afternoon, after some vigorous bleaching of the aforesaid knobs, handles etc, and despite the fact that I ought to be getting to grips with a novel plot, I decided to get a grip on my own plot and turned to Aelfnod for his views on being in lock-down which already feels like it’s been going on for a year when it’s only been a few days.

‘Does it bother you?’ I say.

Aelfnod shrugs and holds out his doll’s tea-cup for more tea. ‘It’s a bit dusty and the airing cupboard is full of out-of-control laundry fairies but this is a nice home.’

‘I know, but I’m used to being pretty much able to go out when I want to do what I want and see what I want.’

‘Then you’re luckier than many. And the things you really like best are indoorsy things anyway – writing, reading, cooking, sewing, painting – and you haven’t done the last two for years. Perhaps now’s the time to start again.’

‘I thought you didn’t like mess.’

‘I don’t like you slamming doors because you’ve got to the point where you’re getting on your own nerves.’

‘I only slammed one door,’ I say huffily.

‘Only because the other one gets caught on the carpet.’ Aelfnod takes another sip of tea and frowns. I feel that in another decade, he’d be puffing a pipe in an admonishing manner. ‘Look on the positive,’ he says. ‘All the news does is focus on the negative. You know that.’

‘It’s true,’ I admit. ‘It’s just that people…’

‘Ah people. None of us know why humans think they’re the most intelligent creatures on earth. You buy stuff you don’t need, rush to go to places which are no nicer than where you’re from, complain when there’s too much to do, complain when there’s nothing to do, never really know what you want. You always look at stuff the wrong way. Instead of looking at the fear, look for the bit of hope. You being stuck indoors right now might save a life. Maybe a life you’ll never know about.’

‘You’re right. And I keep thinking of Anne Frank and knowing I’ve nothing to complain about. And I don’t live alone and I do love the people I’m with.’

‘Exactly. Plus you might discover something. Think about it – what have you noticed?’

I sit back and consider. After a pause I say, ‘There’s less traffic so it’s quieter, I can hear the birds better and the air seems clearer.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s good to be mindful of food, supplies, travel, little freedoms and not take them for granted. You appreciate nature more when you treasure time outside. Everyone is sharing pictures of buds, and sparrows and even mini-beasts which we might not have noticed before.’

‘And…’

‘Community groups are springing up all over the place. People are falling over themselves to shop or get prescriptions for isolated neighbours, even ones they don’t know. Someone posted a desperate message in our local group and within two hours, the group – without anyone leaving home – had tracked down his family and got him help.’

‘There you go. What else?’

I’m starting to cheer up. ‘And if it weren’t for modern technology I couldn’t meet with the rest of my family by video every day so I don’t have to worry so much.’

‘Oh yes,’ says Aelfnod, with a disapproving frown. ‘I’ve listened into your conversations. They’re not very intelligent. Far too much giggling.’

‘Well sorry,’ I say. ‘There’s only so much news to share when you’re all stuck indoors and there’s one thing on everyone’s mind. You can only discuss what everyone is having for dinner for so long. It’s more fun to do something silly. But now I think of it, it’s not just connecting with family. It’s everyone. Colleagues, friends, Facebook contacts, all sorts of people who can’t meet in person have found ways to do it via the internet.’

‘Like what?’

‘Online book clubs, book readings, virtual gigs and poetry slams, interactive quizzes. In fact if I joined in everything I could, I’d never do anything else.’

‘Sounds better than anything on TV.’

I’m feeling a lot brighter. ‘And museums and art galleries and theatres are providing links to all sorts of exhibitions and plays you couldn’t easily see otherwise.’

Aelfnod sits up straight. ‘Is Midsummer Night’s Dream one of them? I’d love to see that. My ancestor’s one of the main characters.’

‘Yes but how will you get online?’

‘Tsk. What a silly question,’ Aelfnod dunks a cookie-crumb in his tea and gives me a grin. ‘I do it all the time. Why else do you think your phone is always fully charged at night and flat as a goblin’s flip-flop in the morning?

***

If you want to read about how I first met Aelfnod check out Weird and Peculiar Tales  a collection of short stories by Paula Harmon and Val Portelli. It’s on special offer until 2nd April 2020.

If you want to know about the household elves’ view of me (well one of them anyway) you might want to read An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

If you want to know about any of the links mentioned above check these out:

From Clapping to Kindness: Five Reasons to be Hopeful

Community Support Links in the UK

Watch Royal Shakespeare Company Shows from home

The Guardian: 10 of the world’s best museum and art gallery tours

Good Housekeeping: best virtual tours

How to visit Paris catacombs and Disney theme park rides online

https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image of tea-pot by Trang Le from Pixabay

To Hamster or Not To Hamster…

Meeting a good friend the other day and having to elbow bump when normally she’d drag me into an engulfing embrace felt rather surreal and very sad. I never knew until social distancing became advisable how much I’d miss hugging. Being unable to hug my mother and having to keep a two metre distance at closest, is just awful, especially as it was Mothering Sunday yesterday.

Who could imagine I’d also be missing the twice weekly commute to London? I always knew it was unhealthy. I never thought it could kill me. But I do miss the routine and I do miss meeting my colleagues face to face rather than just by video conferencing.

At the point of writing, the UK is not yet in lockdown. In my town, awareness of the seriousness of the Coronavirus (Covid-19) situation seems only just to have sunk in. I went for a walk at lunch-time and not only were more than 95% of the shops/businesses shut but I only saw about ten people. One of them, forced to pass me on a narrow pavement, nearly fell into the gutter trying to put as much space as possible between us. I felt like saying ‘I am holding my breath you know’ but of course that wasn’t physically possible since I’m not a ventriloquist.

Until today, the clearest sign that some people did know there was an issue was the panic-buying. Last Friday, a plague of ‘locusts’ apparently stripped almost every shop of fresh fruit and vegetables. I’m still completely baffled as to what they planned to do with them. You can only store that sort of stuff for so long. I’m not convinced that so many people know how to make edible soup any more than they know how to make edible bread with the yeast that’s long disappeared from the shelves. I dread to imagine the size of the hoarders’ next credit card bills.

I’m also angry. This behaviour impacts on shift-workers, the vulnerable and anyone who can only buy what they have money for on any given day. And the likelihood that a lot of that hoarded food will ultimately go to waste is shameful when people go hungry even in rich countries. 

When my mother took me to the shops as a little girl, she did it on foot with a fixed sum of cash, This meant that she only bought what she could carry. Perhaps that’s a simple solution to panic-shopping: no-one can buy more than can be put in a basket. 

I doubt I’m alone in feeling like Coronavirus has thrown me into a whirlpool of emotions:

  • Anger – see above. Why can’t people look out for each other instead of themselves for once?
  • Anxiety – have I got coronavirus unwittingly and am passing it on to others despite being very largely social distancing for the last two weeks? 
  • Disbelief – How can this be happening when the sun is finally shining and everything appears so normal till I go into a shop or turn on the news? Is this really happening on a global scale?
  • Confliction – What can I trust in the news and social media? Do I really want the country to go into lock-down when this will mean being stuck indoors for weeks?

Oddly on a writing/creative front, while I couldn’t concentrate when Mum was ill, I could easily concentrate on it now as even the most unlikely of my plots seems more believable than the current state of the world. Having said that, although my ‘book-in-edits’ is set in 1910 and not about any sort of virus, I do find that I keep worrying every time a character shakes hands, hugs or kisses – which would rather spoil some of the plot. I really need to get a grip.

It’s hard to think of positives sometimes, particularly when the media tends to focus on nothing but the bad, but there are a few things in links below which I hope you find helpful whether you’re self-isolating on lock-down or just generally looking for something positive to read. And while every single person who’s unexpectedly at home (whether also trying to work or not) with a child/teenager (or partner who’s like a caged animal when stuck indoors) has my sympathy – I hope this will turn out to be a time of bonding rather than discord. Time to break out the board games perhaps? 

One thing that did make me chuckle this week was finding out that the German expression for panic-buying was Hamsterkauf – I can’t think of a better word.

I hope that’s cheered you up too if you didn’t know it already and if you’re going to hamster anything – I hope it’s good memories, shared experiences, appreciation of the important things, creativity and of course – books! 

So as promised, here are more offers:

The Case of the Black Tulips the first book in the Caster & Fleet Victorian mystery series written by Liz Hedgecock and me is currently (23rd March) 99p/99c instead of the usual £2.99/$2.99. A frustrated typist, a bored socialite, an anonymous letter…

Murder Britannica is currently £2.99/$1.99 before returning to normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. A self-centred rich woman, a plot to get rich only ruined by a series of unexpected deaths…

Weird and Peculiar Tales a collection of short stories by me and Val Portelli will be on a countdown deal from 26th March starting at 99p/99c. An anthology that contains exactly what the title implies.

In case you’re wondering about the photos, they’re pictures of my daughter’s erstwhile hamsters Frodo and Pip, to remind everyone that you’re lot cuter when you aren’t hoarding more than you need – apart from books of course – you can hoard those as much as you like!

Apologies for the blurriness but hey – they’re still nicer to look at than a virus.

As ever: keep well.

 

 

10 Nature Activities for children while self-isolating

Activity Ideas for children of all ages while self-isolating

Coronavirus: Hope Amid Outbreak

The Volunteer Army Helping Self-Isolating Neighbours

Looking after your mental health during the coronavirus pandemic

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon.  All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

How Are You?

Never has an innocuous phrase had so much meaning than it does at the moment.

It’s usually a throw-away expression that usually means little more than ‘hello’ and doesn’t expect much of a response other than ‘not bad’, ‘a bit under the weather but soldiering on’, ‘could be better’ or more usually ‘fine thanks’ (whether or not the speaker actually is).

Now people are asking the question and really saying: ‘are you safe? Are your loved ones safe? I care about you.’

So here I am saying ‘how are you?’ and hoping that you and your loved ones are and stay healthy. I know that some of you are under more or less restriction and that it seems everyone, everywhere is living in anxiety. For myself, my mother is of course very vulnerable and I’m visiting her for as long as I’m well and healthy and otherwise trying to socially distance myself as much as possible. But my children are due home from university prematurely so quite how it’s going to work out I don’t know. At the moment, we’re all otherwise all right, but it’s hard not to be able to hug my mum in case I pass anything on.

Knowing that some people are already self-isolating whether by choice or mandate, I just wanted to let you know that I will be changing the pricing on some of my books over the next few weeks to help anyone who could do with something to read. These will change from time to time but here are the current and upcoming ebook offers:

Kindling is free until midnight on Saturday 21st March. This is a collection of short stories ranging across mood and genre. They’re mostly set in South Wales or South West England and one or two may be true. A few patently aren’t set in a real place and are definitely not true!

Murder Britannica is on a countdown deal until 25/3. 99p/99c today, £1.99/$1.99 from 20/3, £2.99/$1.99 from 22/3 and normal price of £3.50/$2.99 on 25/3. It’s AD190 in an obscure part of Roman Britain. All Lucretia wants to get even richer than she already is by ‘rediscovering’ a local goddess and building a bath-house to rival the one at Aquae Sulis. It’s a bit annoying when her husband drops dead unexpectedly, but even more annoying when his death is followed by others and an old adversary Tryssa starts to ask awkward questions.

As for my Caster & Fleet co-author, Liz Hedgecock, she has a deal running this week on on of her books A House of Mirrors . It’s now available for 99p/99c instead of the usual £3.99/$3.99. When Nell Villiers’ policeman husband vanishes on a routine case, her life is wrecked. Placed under protection by Inspector Lestrade, Nell is ripped from her old life and her own secret police work. Instead she must live as a widow, Mrs Hudson, in a safe house: 221B Baker Street.

There will be more offers coming up and I’ll post again on Saturday.

In the meantime, I hope you keep safe and well in these anxious times. If a book helps you or someone else – please do browse.

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

 

 

Room

I am tired.  

Lying in the bath, I let the steam envelop me. I massage round and round my eyes. They want to stay shut and slide into sleep. I am so tired. It’s been a long day and I wash off the travelling and the negotiating and the business smiles. The water is no dirtier as I leave the bath than it was to start with, but so many necessary politenesses needed to be strigilled from my skin.  

I’d prefer to stay in my room. I’d prefer not to join my colleagues for a sociable evening and have their forensic words try to scalpel through my façade to see what lies beneath. I’ll drink just enough wine to oil the conversation but not so much as to expose my soul. Colleagues. I’ve known them a great many years and know them not at all. Nor they I. Shortly I must dress again and slot my smile back in place.  

And I am too tired for what awaits me before I go out, but I have no choice tonight anymore than any other night when I’m in a strange place.  It’s what happens. 

Always.

Rising from the water, I wrap myself in a towel and leave the en-suite to step into the bedroom. I haven’t had time to familiarise myself with all the switches. Light blares from all corners and the ceiling. The TV – put on as part of my ritual – burbles with early evening inanities beside the portable kettle and the insufficient tea-bags. I try to avoid the mirrors and keep my back to the bed as I walk around to change the lighting and find clean clothes from my case.  

But in the end I have to face the girl.  

She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, bolt upright. Her hands are in her lap, clasped into a sledgehammer. Her feet dangle. They are almost bare. Despite this cold evening, slender strips of leather form delicate sandals resting against the plump duvet. Her large eyes are following me as I adjust the lamps. Her head turns as I move about, so as not to lose sight of me for a second and there are shadows under the eyes and red blotches on her white skin. Her clothes are flimsy. Through them I can see the bones of her collar-bone and the thinness of her wrists and ankles.

I swear I didn’t call her here. I never call them, but yet I find them every time in every hotel room. 

I attempt a smile but the girl doesn’t smile back. Taking my clothes, I change in the bathroom hoping my room will be empty when I return. But she’s still there, following me with her eyes as I cross the room to sit in front of the flickering TV.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask. 

It’s pointless. They never answer. Over all these years, in all these hotel bedrooms, not one of these girls has ever spoken. They just look at me, unsmiling, waiting for me to work out what to do.

I recall the first one. 

The hotel was Georgian, my bedroom in the attic: a bijou ensuite room fit for the business traveller. It was clean and pleasant, effort had gone into every aspect, simple as it was.  

I turned on the TV and went to run a bath. When I returned to the bedroom there was a strange girl in a seventeenth century clothes sitting on the edge of the bed. 

She was huddled, legs bound by her arms and her head on her knees. I couldn’t see her mouth but from behind straggling hair exhausted eyes observed me. Her figure was small but she had that pinched look of malnourishment and an expression of one who looked up from an abyss, wary and tensed.  She might have been any age from nine to sixteen, it was hard to say.  

That time, that first time, I was in no doubt seeing her had been brought on by stress. A ghostly servant made sense in that old building after the day I’d had. I had nowhere to go that evening and I watched TV as tense as a mouse unsure if a cat has seen it. I hoped that with every sip of cheap wine, the ghost would become less visible but she didn’t.  

After a while, she unfolded herself and came to stand next to me, as if about to take an order. In the end, I tried to make her disperse by speaking aloud.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked. 

She blinked and shifted from foot to foot. I looked down and saw that the worn shoes were too big. I thought: her feet must be sore. Then I realised what I fool I was. She’d been dead for three hundred years. The ruin of her feet was well beyond bunions and corns and blisters. I shook my head at my own folly. She didn’t exist and yet she was there and she wouldn’t leave.

‘What do you want?’ I asked.  

The girl frowned. 

It occurred to me that perhaps she thought I was the ghost, an apparition in her attic room, strangely garbed but undemanding. Yet she didn’t seem afraid of me. After a moment’s hesitation she leaned her head on my shoulder. I could feel nothing of course because either she wasn’t there, or I wasn’t there. I say I could felt nothing, but in truth, for a few seconds I felt something transfer between us. 

My eyes closed and I saw the room as it must once have been: cold and spare and dark, crammed with damp beds for lonely girls a long way from home, and saw in the corner, one frail figure curled up under thin blankets, coughing and rattling, all alone and uncomforted. The pain of her loneliness skewered my heart and her cold tears burned on my shoulder.  

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered, ‘I’m here. I wish I could help.’

The imagined weight of her head evaporated and I opened my eyes. The girl had gone and the room was as it had been before, cheerful, anonymous: a stopping place. But I was not as I had been. I was drained. 

I had felt lonely before. I was used to my own silence in indifferent hotels after a day of travel and talking business. But now that loneliness had increased, augmented by the misery of a long-dead stranger. Exhausted, I went to bed early, blaming the cheap wine and a stressful day.

The next time there was a strange girl sitting on my bed, I was surprised. I wondered if I should seek help. It was another strange room, another ghost. 

The third time, I was scared. 

The fourth, resigned. 

Again and again. Each time in every hotel, those ghosts drained me, as something of their sadness transferred to me and something of my pity transferred to them. I tried to find out who they were, but I needed time I didn’t have and anyway, they had all been underlings; the sort of people who die forgotten and unmarked. 

Sometimes the girl just wanted my empathy. Sometimes she seemed to crave my blessing. Once, following an insistent finger, I pulled back the corner of a carpet and under a floor board found an old letter. I read aloud to the best of my ability those misspelled words of love written in faded ink on dirty paper and when I stopped reading I saw a fleeting smile on the ghost’s face before she disappeared and left me wondering how to hide the damage to the carpet. 

Booking a modern chain hotel made no difference. 

These are ancient lands. People have built on the same spot for generations. New buildings have been constructed on fields where once someone died in a ditch or in battle or at the cruel hand of another. Even in the clinical plastic perfection of a generic motel, a child waited for my comfort and replaced it with the weight of their sorrow.

But this evening I am too tired. 

I never wanted children of my own; never wanted the responsibility of caring and supporting, but somehow I have been absorbing centuries of pain and cannot do it any longer.  

‘Who are you?’ I try again. The girl in her thin dress and sandals says nothing. I can’t work out the era of her clothes. A long time ago I think.

I look out of the window. This modern hotel is next to an old pub. Less than a mile away is a hill which was once an Iron Age fort and nearby are the ruins of a Roman Villa. This girl could be from those times – a slave perhaps, or a nobleman’s neglected daughter. She is thin and unhealthy but not dirty or unkempt. Unhealthy!  What am I saying?  This one has been dead for maybe two thousand years. Did she die around here in some long lost dwelling, staring onto mosaic floors and frescoed walls? Was there no parent to smooth that consumptive brow? Is she another one reaching out for a comfort no-one gave her when she needed it? 

Or she doing the opposite? 

I look harder. She is restraining a cough. Is it because she is afraid to irritate someone? She’s tense and her head is down.Is she keeping small so as not to annoy someone?  

It is too much. I have nothing left to give. I remember doing the same thing. No-one was ever there for me and I am drained dry.

I close my eyes and pull my legs up onto the chair, hugging them and putting my forehead down onto my knees just like I used to.

If I sit like this, still as a statue, Father won’t notice me. If I ball myself tight, the blows will hurt less. If I don’t look at Mother, I won’t see her turn away from me when he approaches. 

I am too old and too tired to cry, but tears are in my eyes and my throat hurts. Curled up, my muscles protest. I am not a child anymore. 

But then… 

A hand is on my shoulder, a small arm embraces me. A small head has lain itself on my head. They are soft as cobwebs, unreal as dreams but stronger than iron. 

I struggle in the embrace, but it hugs me tighter. 

More arms surround me, all small, all feather-light yet stronger than steel. I am enveloped in a web of comfort. I open my eyes and peek and find myself surrounded. All of those hotel ghosts link arms around me, all of them, from the eighteenth century maid, through the lonely lover to the Roman slave.

A susurration ripples in my ears, ‘we’re sorry, we’re here. We won’t turn away.’

My soul fills with warmth.

The pain lessens. 

The misery I absorbed to mix with my own, disperses.  

Someone, at last, has come to help.

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Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

World Book Day – some ideas!

#Worldbookday some authors to check out on facebook (too many to tag everyone so I’ll do it again soon)

For fiction from mystery to children’s Paula Harmon

For historical and contemporary mysteries and children’s fiction Liz Hedgecock

For romance and fantasy  Val Portelli

For poetry and cookery books (you know you need both!) Debbie Ross

For historical fiction Catherine Kullmann

For YA fiction Chantelle Atkins

And also Tom Simons

And also N J Simmonds

For spooky shorts Sim Sansford

For ghost hunting Leta Hawk

For wonderful stories Julie Eger

For an animal story with a strong message Jan McCulloch

For science fiction Nick Perkins

For something completely out of the ordinary Gary Bonn

And also Kathy Sharp 

For women with attitude (and magic) in Edwardian England Michael Williams

For sunshine and romance Rosanna Ley

For romance with a twist Natalina Reis 

For thought provoking coming of age Gail Aldwin 

And also Maria Donovan

For golden age mysteries Vicki Goldie

For modern crime Gail Williams 

And also Lisa Sell

For noir Helen Matthews

For non-fiction glimpses into the past Helen Baggott

For drabbles and short fiction Rick Haynes

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