Dear Travel Journal

It’s day three and I’m not sure future generations will ever believe my record of commuting in 2018. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind but it’s just making me lose mine.

Today is typical. I drove to catch the 6:45am train and I came across a group or (to use the proper collective noun) ‘murder’ of crows in the middle of the country road. One which was too idle to take off in time met its maker at 60 mph, showering my car in sinister feathers. My question is: if I’ve murdered a crow in a murder of crows am I a double murderer?

Somewhat rattled, I got to the station in time but to no avail. I know I live in the country but it’s still absurd when your train has been cancelled due to bird strike on the driver’s window. And that bird was a pheasant.

The 6.45 being out of action, the next departure was also delayed because, according to a weary announcement, there were ‘two lads who are refusing to pay for their tickets and until we get them off the train, we’re not leaving.’ Wherever the excitement was, it wasn’t in my carriage and despite everyone craning over each other to look out of the window, we never saw the miscreants being hauled off which was a shame as it would have livened things up. Perhaps it was no wonder that after that, when we finally got moving, the person in charge of the train wasn’t sure where we were. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this train will shortly be arriving at …….’ Very long pause…Eventually an automated tannoy announcement came on. I wasn’t really listening to the destination list until it said ‘next station Axminster’ which is in the wrong direction. No one else in the carriage seemed to notice (probably, like me, busy trying to get the free wifi to connect). I looked up and the information doodah screen definitely said the next station was Andover. I spent the next half an hour in a state of mild anxiety but eventually Andover rolled into view. After that, they seemed to have changed the tape.

I got a drink from the trolley to calm my nerves, took a swig of tea and discovered it was coffee. Yuk. The next unpleasant thing was realising someone in the carriage was constantly but silently breaking wind and knowing they might be doing it all the way to London. Luckily, he seemed to get off at the next stop, or else just ran out of methane. But when I got up to put my tea, or rather, coffee container in the bin, I got back to witness an otherwise attractive young man picking his nose. He then ate it. Perhaps he considered it to be breakfast.

A bit later, a glamorous young woman got on. She started by fixing her enormous pseudo beehive with hairspray. Yes. In the carriage full of people. Shortly after that, she sharpened her talons with an emery board. It sounds like nails on blackboard and bits of shavings went everywhere.

I averted my eyes to the view out of the window but when at the next stop, a man sat next to me and started crocheting, I ended up mesmerised by his creation. So I was still looking when he put the wool down and started scrawling a list instead. It appeared to say:

  1. Cheese
  2. Fluffy PJs
  3. Bedsocks
  4. Pillows
  5. Travel rabbit

Now, I’m fairly sure that the last item was travel tablets scribed in bad handwriting, but you never know. I wonder (apart from anything obvious) what a travel rabbit could be. I may have to write a story.

Oh but the joys of an early morning commute in midwinter. The squelchy sneezes, the coughs full of enough catarrh to coat the back of a spoon, the sniffs, all the germs joyfully mingling when it turned out the train was three carriages short and the virus laden bodies were crammed up against each other in a proximity British people abhor unless newly in love. Ah the joys of finding the train journey will take an extra 40 mins due to a sick person in another train at Clapham Junction. I mean why? What could we do about it?

And then the journey stopped completely due to signalling problems. Apparently trains were being signalled through one by one by hand. I am not sure what this means but had visions of The Railway Children waving a petticoat. I suppose it can’t be the same as the average modern petticoat is too flimsy to re-direct a train.

So that was then. Somewhere in between there was a day at work (same old same old) and then I started home.

I was slightly worried to start with because the announcer on the train sounded French. Initially I wondered if I had been transported, without noticing, from London to Paris or, in fact, to the other Waterloo? (Is the other Waterloo French speaking? Quick internet search…. Yes I think it is). Anyway, I was ALMOST sure I heard Salisbury being mentioned as a destination, so I thought I should be safe. Bit of a shame really, I wouldn’t mind finding myself in Belgium instead and from thence, after a bit of sight-seeing, on a south-bound train to the Côte d’Azur.

At the beginning of the journey, I sat next to a dainty looking young woman who turned out to be eating a burger bigger than her head. It was a bit grim to watch and worse to smell but I managed to move across the aisle to give her elbow room while she shoved it down. I thought her jaw might dislocate at one point. Meanwhile some loud man was holding forth about politics. He sounded like someone from a thirties gangster movie and was trying to get the postal address and photo of another passenger who managed to escape at the next stop (and I have a feeling he didn’t even really want to get off there). As the train pulled off again, the burger-girl dropped the last bits of fast food on her black trousers. I was so glad I’d moved. My dress wouldn’t have been improved by ground beef, ketchup and mayo.

For the next half hour our carriage was invaded by a loud group who had been chucked, effing and blinding out of the ‘quiet’ carriage. The loudest one yelled ‘I’m gonna complain to the train company! What’s the point of quiet carriages? Who wants to be quiet on a train?’ It sums up the average Briton’s sang-froid (or distaste for confrontation) that despite the fact everyone else was thinking ‘me – I want to be quiet’, all anyone did was tut and roll eyes at each other.

Meanwhile, burger-girl was replaced by a series of quiet but revolting people. Taking her place across the aisle was someone scratching and scraping flakes of skin onto the seat next to him. Someone somewhere else was breaking wind. Then a small man sat down beside me and stuck his elbows out. Shortly thereafter, he ate crisps and a ripe egg mayo sandwich loudly WITH HIS MOUTH OPEN and drank tea with slurps worthy of a drain clearing machine. The phantom farter upped his or her game and this added to the effluence of the egg sarnies. I would have been sick, but there wasn’t enough room. When the passengers thinned out, the mouth-open-slurper did go off to another seat, but not before kicking most of his rubbish onto the floor. Lovely.

I might have relaxed then but was busy restraining myself from standing up, leaning over the seat behind and telling the girl sitting there that if she persisted in saying “like” every third word I might have to kill her. I imagined that if I did, she’d just say “so I’m just like sitting here and you’re like being so like aggressive and like I think like killing me is like illegal or like something”. And it was all too exhausting, so I didn’t.

And now, with just 40 minutes to go, the train has just stopped in middle of nowhere. Apparently there is a cow on the line. We have to wait while a railway manager with herding experience gets her back into the field and stands guard at the side of the railway to keep her from being turned into mincemeat. Although quite possible burger-girl would lick the tracks.

Dear Travel Journal. As I say, no-one would ever believe this. I think I may have to change your function and turn you into a fantasy novel in which all the heroine wants to do is get home and is thwarted in every chapter by almost insurmountable challenges and drooling monsters.

It would probably seem more plausible than anything that’s happened today.

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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

And here’s the story I actually did write about The Travel Rabbit!

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Fancy

The story never tells, but I was there too: lady’s maid at the ball.

Watching the whirling glamorous dancers, awkward in my pretty dress, I yearned for our kitchen’s dark corners.

The shy, fine-liveried footman gave me a bright flower. In quiet shadows, we danced in each others’ arms, stealing kisses.

At midnight, she ran. We followed. Her crystal slipper fell into the snow, then my flower. She rushed on, but we stopped…

The carriage rattled away without us: two mice again, furred not clothed, scampering together from the frozen petals towards shelter, glad not to be fancy anymore.

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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

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Check it out. Lots of lovely stories in just 100 words.

Avalanche – words complete!

It’s been a wonderful experience. Here’s to the next adventure!

Wordster

Um, you remember that last post I wrote, about a week ago? The one where I said I was co-writing a book?

WE’VE FINISHED THE DRAFT!!!

Yes, I am rather excited. The Case of the Black Tulip(s) – still haven’t decided how many tulips there will be – is a THING!

Here are some stats:

  • From start to finish, the first draft took us 20 days
  • The draft is 27 chapters and just over 54,000 words long (we aimed for 50-55K so that’s great)
  • My co-author Paula Harmon wrote 14 chapters (she did the first and last) and I did 13. We alternated throughout
  • The last chapter sets things up VERY nicely for book 2…
  • My biscuit and crisp consumption has been remarkably low, considering. I have eaten 2 caramel wafers, NO Viscounts (even though I have some in) and NO crisps in the course of writing! Then again, I’ve…

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Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

What an experience my first writing collaboration has been.

We started on 19th January thinking we’d be finished by the end of March but we got carried away and the last words of just under 54k were written yesterday (10th February) at 5pm.

‘The Case of the Black Tulips’ (still a working title) is now closed. The protagonists are having a day off in the sun. Liz Hedgecock and I are putting our feet up having toasted each other in a virtual sense from opposite ends of the country.

We started with a series of messages and a woolly idea. I sent Liz a photograph of some notes I’d scribbled on the back of something else (see scrawl below) and she still wanted to continue. We both work on the ‘write first, research as you go along’ principle which meant that periodically one of us would disappear down a research rabbit hole and pop back up not necessarily with a rabbit but something else entirely to drop into the stew.

Our book starts in 1890 or thereabouts, so there was a lot of background detail to investigate and I’ve put some links below which may or may not be included in the book but certainly kept us entertained, amazed and sometimes shocked.

Still, our protagonists are not women who let conventions get in the way of adventure, and perhaps in a different sort of way neither did we.

I presume that script-writers etc who work together on projects usually actually tell each other what they’re planning to do next. We took another approach. We weren’t going to spoil the fun with common sense when we could have shenanigans instead.

I wrote chapter one and Liz wrote chapter two and so on. Given the pace we were writing at (at least one chapter a day each) and the fact that boring things like work and family kept getting in the way, there wasn’t a lot of time to tell the other what we were planning to do next. Consequently in chapter nine I introduced an object, planning to utilise it in chapter eleven but then Liz ‘lost’ it in chapter ten. Liz introduced a character in chapter twenty but in chapter twenty-three I… nope, not telling you any more, you’ll have to read it to find out.

If you’re wondering why there’s a photograph of people rushing about, it’s because on Tuesday 6th February, I had been writing that day’s chapter on the morning train and hadn’t quite finished it. Liz was waiting. Before I disappeared into the underground on the way to work, I sat in the concourse of Waterloo, sat on a bench outside WH Smiths, frantically wrote the last words and emailed them off. It’s been that kind of experience.

Doing it again? I really hope so. It’s been great fun and I hope readers will enjoy the end result.

The painful part (editing) is yet to come, but the characters are itching to get their sleeves rolled up and sort out another mystery. Who knows what they’ll be up against next.

I can see some more research rabbit holes opening up as I type.

Better get my notebook out.

Why were women employed in the Victorian civil service? Small fingers, brains and lower pay…

Interactive map of gas lamps still in London

What did the creation of sewing machines mean to women?

How much could you earn as a servant in a big country house in 1890?

Women’s cycling – a revolution

A Victorian list of do’s & don’t’s for women cyclists!

Lighting in the Victorian home

Venturing Out

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.

Venturing Out

Often wondered how scriptwriters and comedians work on scripts together? Me too. Who gets to decide whose joke or line goes where and has an equal voice?

I think I was six years old the last time I collaborated creatively outside work.

Two of us drew a mouse. We decided to do half each. This way we could be proud of our part yet share in the glory of the overall effect. I drew a lustrous tail and beautiful furry haunches. He got the eyes and whiskers. Or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, no one could see the join (although if that mouse had ever come to life there might have been trouble).

Well that was a long time ago and I never expected to collaborate creatively outside work again.

Then I met other writers on Facebook and a strange thing happened. I started to discuss writing with people I’ve never met and share ideas which up till then were hidden in my head.

One day, during a message exchange, one of them mentioned collaboration.

Liz Hedgecock is author of a number of mysteries, many set in Victorian London. I love her stories and was flattered to be approached.

Both of us work and have families. We live a fair distance apart. A hazy plan to do something in Autumn 2017 came apart when we both decided to do NaNoWriMo in November. With the best will in the world we realised it was impossible to start something new before Christmas.

Nevertheless, we sketched out via messenger and email two unlikely Victorian female detectives: young women determined not to let the restrictions of corsets and decorum stop them from solving a crime.

We set a date to discuss the logistics on 19th January. If this all sounds very formal, it’s because we’ve never actually met in person. I shuddered at the thought of a video call, but fortunately so did Liz.

So we talked via cyberspace and plotted.

I had been nervous. What if we didn’t get on?

But it was fine. We were chatting like old friends in no time.

With a working title of The Case of The Black Tulips, our story was born.

So how are we collaborating? We decided on an approach which gives us equal input and voice. We have a character each and tell the story through ‘our’ person alone. It is like a very complex game of consequences, especially when Liz changes tack and I have to alter direction myself. Are we mad? Probably, but it is tremendous fun.

We’ve got so caught up in it that we are nearly half way through the first draft already with ideas of sequels forming. Watch this space if you like mysteries and feisty female leads because we hope to publish later this year.

I often tell people that I started writing stories because I wanted to have adventures like children in books and it was the only way to do it. I’m still writing for the same reason. My new character has found a friend and is having a wonderful adventure.

And the same is true for me.

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

Into the Blue

Southern England Summer 1940

‘Nice of your mother to lend us the blanket,’ said Tom, lying back and pulling Nancy down into his arms.

She giggled, relaxing into his embrace and then squirmed upright to light a cigarette.

‘Come back here,’ Tom coaxed, stroking her back. The thin cotton dress was warm from her skin. He could trace her backbone and the softness below her ribs. He ran his fingers up the edge of her brassiere and wondered if he could undo it without sitting up.

Nancy twisted and looked down on him.

‘Stop it,’ she said.

She put her head on one side, blew a kiss and offered him the cigarette. With a sigh, Tom sat up and lit his own.

‘What’s the harm, Nancy? You know I love you. I’d be careful, I promise.’

‘Things go wrong, Tom.’

‘Well if they did, I’d marry you. I’d do that tomorrow, anyway. Come on Nancy, it’s not as if you don’t want to.’

‘I don’t want a baby.’

‘What, ever?’

‘One day, but not now. I’m only eighteen, you’re only twenty. We hardly know each other.’

It seemed like five minutes since he’d joined up.

‘But you were in a reserved occupation,’ Mother had sobbed, ‘you’d have been safe.’

Dad had said nothing. His face had been hidden behind the paper, his eyes turned inward as they had been since war was declared, revisiting memories never shared.

How could Tom have explained? He had looked down at those ledgers, the heavy downstrokes, the light upstrokes, the o’s like chains, the a’s shackled to an invisible line, the g’s anchored, the p’s spiked down. Office work wasn’t for him, war or no war. Handing in his notice, he’d walked out and down to the recruiting office.

His brisk stride had slowed to a pause. Which of the forces? Mud, boredom, blood, that’s how Uncle Sid had described his army experiences with Dad twenty-three years ago. Tom associated the sea with day trips and sand between the toes and pushing girls off hired dinghies. He couldn’t imagine being stuck in a ship for months. He lit a cigarette and stared up into the sky. Above the roofs and chimneys, it was endless. Birds swooped and soared. They weren’t pinned down to desks or pages or inside walls.

And then there was the girl. She’d burst out of the recruitment office and flung her arms about him, dancing him round on the pavement.

‘They’ve let me into the Air Transport Auxiliary! I’ll get to fly planes!’

‘Can girls fly planes?’

‘Girls transport training planes to airfields! Didn’t you know?’

‘Will you transport one to me?’ he asked.

‘Maybe!’ She blew him a kiss and danced off.

Nancy.

Now, she lay back down and looked up at the sky. It was deep blue, cloudless. Around them the countryside rolled and dipped. Above them, skylarks soared and sung.

Tom lay down next to her and she cuddled into his arms.

‘When the sky is always like this, we’ll get married and have a baby.’ she said.

‘When the sky is always blue? This is England!’

‘You know what I mean. When it’s always empty of everything but birds and clouds and when planes are just for fun. I’d like to fly just for fun. Wouldn’t you?’

Tom took a drag of the cigarette. His training was complete; he’d had ten hours of skirmishes. Other lads had flown with him and never come back. Every time he felt as if he was about to step out onto a high wire, his stomach churning. Perhaps making love might give him some peace. He didn’t know, but he’d like to know. Below them on the slopes, little boys ran and swooped with model planes, their voices screeching like engines and crashing like explosions. The children fell down dead, laughing, got up and started again. If only it was so simple.

‘Come on Nancy,’ he coaxed, stroking her hair, ‘maybe today’s all I’ve got.’

‘Don’t talk like that, Tom,’ she sat up again, ‘you’ll be fine.’

‘What if I’m unlucky?’

‘Why don’t you talk to Bernard? He knows the ropes.’

‘I sometimes wonder if Bernard’s quite human. It’s like he’s doing aerobatics for fun. He goes up with a whole squadron, comes back with half a squadron, then makes tea and cracks jokes as if nothing has happened. He’s got to be the luckiest person alive. Do you reckon it could rub off on me?’

‘Bernard’s all right. Maybe he just doesn’t have any imagination.’

‘Do you reckon he’s lucky in love too?’

Nancy giggled and stood up. ‘The answer’s still no. Besides, those kids are heading this way and Mum’ll kill me if I get this blanket grubby. Come on, there’s a dance on tonight. Let’s enjoy today and forget about tomorrow.’

‘I would,’ groaned Tom, ‘only you won’t let me.’

 

*****

Bernard came up from the tube and lit his pipe. Before the war he’d loved this walk, watching the street open up in the morning and close down in the evening as he travelled to work and back.

The road ran north to south. On nice days, the sun had sparkled from windows, glinted off gloss paintwork and brightened the stripes in the awnings. In peacetime, the shop-keepers had sometimes stood outside and turned their faces into the warmth; the housewives sang to their children; the delivery boys whistled as they swerved their bicycles around vans and pedestrians, earning curses. Half a mile along and he would turn into his street and see his house, number twelve. Sometimes Ginny would be waiting, sitting on the garden wall swinging her feet like a little girl, scandalising the neighbours by smoking in the street and not wearing a hat.

But it was no longer like that. Now, some of the shops were gone or closed up, the rest had reinforced windows. Even on sunny days, no-one wasted time soaking up the sun. Housewives with baskets and bored children fidgeted in queues along the pavements. In the evening, the shops shut early. People eyed up the distance to the tube, their ears alert for the siren. Today, Bernard paused at the entrance to his street and looked down it. He walked past the houses with their taped up windows. He raised his hat to Mrs Hodgson in number two and said hello to Old Mr Bailey standing on the step of number four. Old Mr Bailey grinned at the uniform, stood to attention and saluted. Old Mrs Bailey came out and dragged her husband inside, ‘sorry love,’ she said to Bernard.

Number six was abandoned. Now there was nothing but rubble from there until number twenty. Somehow, the low garden wall of number twelve remained to taunt him. It stood at a slight angle, the mortar cracked, making the bricks unstable, and Ginny would never sit on it again.

At least they’d found her body. She hadn’t been left to moulder under dust and debris.

Bernard didn’t know why he had come back again. He stood for a while on the bits of blackened masonry. Picking up a brick here and there he found an old clock, its face smashed, half a china dog, a saucepan. He rummaged where the hall had once been. Doubtless others had been here under cover of the blackout, sifting through for any valuables. He didn’t care. The one thing of real value had been crushed, dirt smearing the gold of her hair, alabaster lids closed forever on the sapphire eyes. Moving the rubble, he realised part of a hall cupboard was intact and opened it. Inside was a soft beret and a blue silk scarf. He tucked the scarf in his pocket and held the beret, letting the evening light catch the gold hairs caught in the wool.

‘’ere, what you doing?’

Bernard turned.

‘Oh, sorry,’ said the warden, lowering his whistle, ‘didn’t realise it was you. Thought it was a looter. Don’t even wait till it’s dark, some of them. You wouldn’t think they’d be so brazen, but they are. Got no respect.’

Bernard clambered back to the pavement.

‘Can’t think they’ll have much luck looting our house.’

‘Ought to be fighting for King and country not thieving. That’s what I say.’

‘Not sure I’d want a thief in my squadron. I’d prefer people I can trust.’

‘Least you’re getting your own back,’ said the warden, nodding towards the rubble.

Bernard looked up into the sky. ‘Maybe.’

He turned to go, unsure what to do with the beret. The scent of Ginny was gone, replaced by dust.

‘Do you know anyone who needs a hat?’ he asked.

‘I’ll give it to the WVS, they’re always after things for people who’ve been bombed out. Sure you don’t want to keep it?’

‘Not my style,’ said Bernard, handing it over with a smile which didn’t reach his eyes.

The warden opened his mouth to say something, but Bernard turned away and walked back to the tube. Tonight he’d be back with the squadron, careful to arrive too late for the dance. He didn’t want to hold a woman in his arms when she wasn’t Ginny. Not today. Not tomorrow. Maybe never. Tomorrow he could put on his smile again, cheer up the new lads. Make them think everything would be fine.

He hoped it would work for Tom, but Bernard worried about him. Tom was only a kid and jumpy as a cat for all the bravado. The sooner he admitted being scared and threw up, the better for everyone.

Bernard headed down into the underground. It was rank with the smell of the humanity which sheltered here during the raids. He drew on his pipe to obliterate the stink. He thought about Tom, always showing off for that ATA girl, Nancy. Truth was, Nancy was the better pilot than most of the lads. She kept her nerve, had guts of steel. If women were allowed in combat he’d pick her any day. Still, Tom was what he’d got and Tom needed something to give him confidence.

Half the time, a pilot just needed to convince himself it wasn’t his turn to die. It just came down to feeling lucky.

Reaching in his pocket for his tobacco, Bernard felt the dusty softness of Ginny’s silk scarf and pulled it out.

‘I’ve got a job for your scarf, Ginny,’ he said in his mind. ‘It survived that bomb. I’ll give it to Tom, tell him it’s lucky. Maybe it’ll do the trick. Something has to. We need all the help we can get.’

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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

Another Step

New Year’s Day. What resolutions have you made?

Yesterday, I resolved not to make any. Yet today, as I chewed my nails (must stop doing that) I realised I would have to revisit one of last year’s: tidy the loft.

There are three reasons for this:

  1. I was looking for something this time last year. Now I am looking for two things. Neither are terribly important, but I want them.
  2. The household ghost has gone very quiet, and this is either because he’s hiding from all the Christmas and New Year friends and relations or because he’s got stuck between all the additional boxes which have appeared in the last twelve months.
  3. The loft is now more chaotic than it was last year for reasons which defy explanation and despite my untidy genes, it is doing my head in.

Our home is, as I might have said before, something of a ‘house that Jack built’. It started as a bungalow and had various parts added at various times since the 1950s and we have yet to find a right angle. Anyway, all that aside, one of the previous owners must have had plans to turn the loft into another room because they put a window in one of the gable ends. They didn’t quite finish the job – you can still see breeze blocks and there is no sill – but the point is, subject to building regulations, an additional staircase and a chunk of cash, if I could only clear it out, we could have a loft room.

For years, this was my dream. I yearned for a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, the washing machine, the TV. But it wasn’t financially feasible, so I turned my attention to the corner of the garden which had foundations from an old shed and longed for a new one. Not a dusty wooden box but a fancy garden-room: a place where I could hide away from the family and write, beyond the playstation, the kitchen, blah-blah-blah. The trouble was, even if I’d been able to find the money, I had better things to spend it on.

In the end, one day in Autumn 2015, I decided that it wasn’t the lack of a silent room of my own which was holding me back. It was myself. A year later, having got used to writing on my lap, on trains, in the kitchen, in whatever quietish corner I could find, I published ‘Kindling’.

What has any of this to do with New Year?

Well I still want to clear the loft, or at least get it organised. But the need to convert it, or have a garden-room is pretty much gone. My children are eighteen and sixteen. In a year or two, I will have more empty rooms and more quiet than I will know what to do with.

Now I feel slightly richer for the things I haven’t got because I’ve realised I didn’t need them in the first place. Ask me what I want for my birthday – go on ask me… I want nothing but a nice day out to make memories. I am fortunate enough to have the material things I need and the things I’d like for myself and others: health, world peace, freedom from anger, grief and fear cannot be purchased no matter how rich you are.

The only thing that I do lack is determination and you can’t buy me that either. I have to find it myself and I am inspired by others who, with much bigger things to worry about, demonstrate it.

Last year, I wept for many friends. For some of them, 2017 was the continuation of previous miserable years. For others, sickness, bereavement or betrayal came out of nowhere as the year unfolded. And then there were those who suffer ongoing chronic pain and/or fatigue. I know some of you will read this. I want to say to you – be proud of yourself, I am in awe of you.

You did amazing things: a writing group was started in the face of resistance; despite physical pain and exhaustion, a joyous wedding was prepared and celebrated; some of you are still bruised and damaged from your own childhoods, yet you are determined history will not repeat itself as you pour out love and provide guidance to your own children.

I know you are looking at another year and wondering how to keep going. I hope it helps a little to know that your true friends have cheered each tiny step you’ve taken against the odds and are urging you onward.

So yes, I do have plans for this year. Some of them are writing plans, some of them are not. Some of them involve getting fitter (yes, I know, I say this every year). All of them require determination. And of course, I don’t know what may happen which may make one or all of them difficult or impossible.

A tip I saw recently on Facebook (a tip which appears to have been doing the rounds since 2008) is to have a jar and inside it drop a note of each positive thing that happens whether it’s something big like the passing of an exam or simply the only thing you could find that day to make you smile or give you hope: the sun on a flower, the glow of the moon, a small kindness. This way, at the end of the year, you have a jar of happiness to read through and rejoice in.

So those are my resolutions: clear the loft, get fitter, note down every little joy which comes my way. I am determined to do at least the last one.

So whatever you plan for 2018, whatever the barriers you face, I hope you find the determination you need and can celebrate each triumph, big or small as it appears so that this time next year, you can open a jar of happiness…

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Photograph is from the inside of Somerset House.

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.

 

 

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