Treasure Hunters

1975

Jane and I were enduring our homework. I chewed my tongue as I worked my way down a page of decimals but Jane’s struggles with history were beyond tongue-chewing. Mum came and peered over her shoulder.  

It looked simple enough.

Queen Elizabeth I was portrayed standing smugly before two windows, outside one of which the Armada stormed towards England in anticipated victory and outside the other the Armada foundered in an actual storm. Various symbols of Elizabeth’s reign, ambitions, superiority and personality were placed about the Queen herself who was stiff with brocade, jewellery and cosmetics.  

The teacher had drawn arrows pointing at various things in the picture and the aim of the homework was for Jane to complete labels to explain what they represented. So far, she had written Armada arrives,  Armada sinks and was staring at the ceiling for inspiration. Mum told Jane to stop dawdling. She only gave a cursory look at mine, having less idea where the decimal point should go than I did before she went into the kitchen to start dinner.

Jane sighed. History she could get, just about. Symbolic art she couldn’t. And if she didn’t finish soon, the cartoons on children’s TV would be replaced by something boring. Pushing the homework as far across the table as possible and laying her head on her arm, she scrawled a thought next to one of the arrows and then gave up.

Mum returned to examine progress, preparing her ‘in my day we had proper homework’ speech and looked down at the label pointing at good Queen Bess with her hand on a globe. Jane had written ‘she liked jography’.

We could almost feel the seismic response working its way through our mother’s system. The only thing stopping her from yelling immediately was the fact that she didn’t know whether to start on history, laziness or spelling. She had just worked up enough steam to open her mouth when Dad came home early from work.

‘I’ve bought another house,’ he said.

Mum’s mouth shut, opened again, shut again. After a pause she choked out, ‘what do you mean you bought another house?’

‘Well, it’s more of a holiday cottage,’ said Dad. ‘It needs a bit of doing up.’

Mum peered round at the ancient anaglypta that Dad had tried to remove and then painted over in two shades of blue (going round the furniture rather than moving it) and the bit of plastering he’d started but not quite finished and finally in the general direction of the lean-to which was leaking yet again, despite all Dad’s attempts to fix the roof. If that moment had been frozen as a picture with arrows and labels explaining things, I suspect all the comments would have been very rude.

‘Everything will be fine,’ Dad said. ‘It’ll be an investment. We can let the cottage out. Besides, it’ll be good for the girls. Fresh air, countryside, wildlife, history and -’ he added as an aside to us, ‘pirate gold.’

‘Pirate gold?’ Jane and I breathed.

‘It’s right by the beach. There are caves. It’s Cornwall. Bound to be pirate gold.’

I often wonder how my mother’s eyes never got worn out from all the rolling.

A month later, we went to Cornwall.

By the time we got there, our senses were on overload. Four hours of trailing through country lanes had made us stiff. We had taken Harlequin the cat with us and she sat on our laps in turn. When Dad cornered too sharply, she anchored herself with her claws. Dad’s efforts to install a radio meant there was a hole with a draught and lots of dodgy loose wires in the dashboard. We were thus reduced to making our own entertainment. Dad had sung his way through the entire contents of the 1956 Youth Hostellers’ Association song book about three times. We joined in to start with and then simply sat back and suffered. Dad, I should point out, was tone deaf. 

Jane and I discussed the cottage. We decided it would be white, with a thatched roof and roses round the door. The sea would be just a few yards away and when it stopped raining, we’d go down to our own private beach and swim before treasure-hunting in the caves. The sitting room would have window seats. We would each have our own bedroom with a sloping ceiling where we could pretend to be Anne of Green Gables.

Mum broke into our thoughts as the car splashed through another huge puddle. ‘It does have a functioning kitchen and bathroom, doesn’t it?’ she said as if that sort of thing was important.

Dad, as perhaps you can tell, had never got round to showing us any details.

‘Oh, it’ll be fine,’ said Dad, backing up a lane to let someone else go through for the four millionth time.

It was early evening and still pouring, when half an hour after that, we met the cottage.

‘I thought you said it needed just a bit of doing up,’ said Mum.

‘It’ll look better in the sunshine,’ said Dad.

‘Will it really?’

There are some things that whitewash can’t cover up and this was one of them. The cottage looked as if had been thrown together from grey lumps of rock without the use of a plumb line and each stone was fighting to escape back to the quarry. The windows were grimy. The roses round the door looked diseased and overgrown. They were whipping round in the wind and rain on a loose trellis as if they wanted to pull the house down on purpose. The gables were green. Or perhaps more accurately, they were mossy.

‘Chop chop,’ said Dad, handing us stuff to take inside. Jane and I exchanged glances. Most of it seemed to be camping equipment. Juggling a large box and a struggling cat, Dad unlocked the door and let us in. Harlequin jumped down and vomited on the cracked lino. 

It improved the smell of damp.

‘Right,’ said Dad, ‘this way.’ He led us into a small bright room. It had a table. Otherwise, there were just spaces where a cooker and fridge should have been. He rummaged in the box for a camping stove, a kettle and a container of water. ‘While we’re waiting for that to boil, we’ll have a look around.’

‘You said this place had a functioning kitchen,’ said Mum.

‘What’s wrong with this? It’s got a roof and walls. Don’t you remember all the fun we’ve had cooking on camp stoves? It’ll be fine.’

‘Bathroom?’

‘Weeeelll,’ he indicated my box. I opened it to find the dreaded camping bucket with the loo seat.

My mother was not a swearing woman, but I thought she might finally break her rule at that point.

We started the tour.

What seemed to be the sitting room was large but very dark: overhead lights producing less illumination than a birthday cake candle. The grubby ceiling’s black rafters seemed to get lower the longer we stayed under them. Things dropped onto our heads.

‘We’ll just pop back to the kitchen and make something to eat,’ said Dad. ‘You girls go and explore upstairs. Maybe we’ll have a nice Spanish omelette.’

Jane and I exchanged a glance. Our friends said Spain was wonderful but we’d been put off by the thought that Dad’s Spanish omelette, which comprised undercooked potato, onion with bits of peel on, eggs burnt on one side and raw on the other with the occasional bit of shell for extra crunch summed up Spanish cuisine. 

I’ll make something to eat,’ said Mum. ‘You find something to drink.’

With some foreboding, Jane and I went upstairs. A creaky flight of steps led up to four bedrooms. Sloping ceilings abounded, so did peeling floral wall paper and threadbare curtains. From the biggest room, we looked down onto the sea which crashed and slammed against the beach as if it was trying to eat its way towards us. 

We went back out onto the landing. There was some sort of pointless cupboard with a warped, vomit green door between two of the bedrooms and opposite, a much smaller, even more pointless cupboard embedded in the thick wall of the house itself. Masses of cobweb stretched right across its small brown door. A large spider sat in the middle. It was hard to be sure if the web was trembling from the draught or the spider was stamping its feet in warning.

Above us tiles rattled and a steady drip had made a puddle on the thin carpet. 

At the end of the landing was another door. Varnish had been applied in streaks and lumps, congealing as it ran down in dark trickles. As Jane reached to open the door, Harlequin, whom I’d been carrying, hissed, squirmed out of my arms and shot downstairs.

‘Shall I get Dad?’ I suggested but Jane was made of sterner stuff. She pushed at the door. Nothing happened. 

‘Come on Laura,’ she said. ‘Help me.’ She grabbed my hand and forced it onto the handle.

‘You don’t want to go in there,’ said a deep, warm voice behind us.

We both jumped and spun round. There was no-one there. 

‘Perhaps we should go back downstairs,’ whispered Jane.

A plate smashed in the kitchen followed by a muffled exchange. It sounded bad-tempered.

‘Oh don’t leave me,’ said the voice.

A breath of warm air wafting round our ankles made us look down. Out of the small, pointless, cobwebby cupboard poked a dark green snout.

‘Don’t go away just yet,’ said a dragon. ‘I haven’t had anyone to talk to for decades. Come and make friends.’

 

END OF PART ONE

26000868_910651645768393_6017106527783874142_n

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Murder Britannica – Book Launch

‘I’ve written up everything that just happened.’

Anguis scratched a long fingernail down the shorthand.

‘I think you may have misspelled that bit,’ he said, handing over two denarii. ‘I think you should have written “Today we saw a wonderful classical Greek tragedy in one act”.’

‘But I want my art to reflect truth.’

‘Very noble,’ said Anguis, ‘but I think you’ll find fiction pays better. Have another denarius.’”

OK so the ebook went live yesterday and the paperback a week ago, but as I have been away on a training course, I wasn’t able to update this website.

Murder Britannica started as a paragraph and over a couple of years and with a few rethinks turned into a book.

This could be the book for you if

  1. you like murder mysteries that don’t take themselves too seriously.
  2. want a book to make you laugh, make you gasp and make you say ‘ahh’ at the odd bit of romance (‘odd’ being the operative word).
  3. you like old-fashioned murder mysteries where there are lots of bodies but justice is done (sort of).
  4. you like a historical setting with a modern take.
  5. you like to think the Ancient Britons got more out of Rome than the Romans got out of Ancient Britain.
  6. you like strong female characters who aren’t content just to be there to support the male characters.
  7. you wonder what the area North of Cardiff just might have been like in AD190 (it probably wasn’t, so any scholars out there might need to take a deep breath and suspend their disbelief – go on – read it – it’ll be fun anyway).
  8. You want to know who Anguis is.

Why Roman Britain? Actually originally it was supposed to take place in Rome, but as the story grew, I realised it would be more fun to set it somewhere I knew, among Britons trying to eke the most benefit from being part of the Roman Empire without necessarily giving away anything of their Britishness they didn’t want to. I have always loved history in general and, perhaps because of my own heritage, the interplay of invasion and empire that is part of my own culture. But…. Murder Britannica is neither serious nor literal. If you want to know what’s recorded about life in Roman Britain don’t look at my book. If you want to imagine what could have happened if someone hadn’t tidied up the records to make them politically correct (as in the quotation above), then read my book!

For reasons which have long since escaped me, I took Latin A level (at 18 years old) when I probably should have taken History or Spanish. The actual option to do so was fairly rare in a comprehensive even then so I grabbed the chance. I was in a class of three and just about scraped a pass. My A Level Latin teacher (easily side-tracked into talking about current affairs as the two of us who were less conscientious frantically finished our homework) used to despair at my ability to have two choices in translation and unerringly pick the wrong one. (I thought of this when I sat a multiple choice paper this morning in which I had four things to choose from. Fortunately none of them were in Latin, and I managed to pass with a bit more than a scrape.)

My O Level (taken at 16 years old) Latin teacher was impossible to side-track. She once threw me out of the lesson for coughing too much and I ended up standing outside the class room in what was effectively a covered walkway looking into an open courtyard as the ‘old block’ was built in the same shape as a cathedral cloister without the charm or antiquity. All along the walkways were various ne’er-do-wells, disobedient, insolent malcontents, chucked out of English or Maths or Geography or whatever for being rude or noisy or obstructive or disruptive. They were known faces, boys (mostly) whom you avoided at all costs because it was safer that way in case they thought you were ‘looking at them funny’. (Actually the girls were more frightening.) And then there was me, one of the swots chucked out of the Latin class for coughing. Mortifying. I was especially annoyed because we had got to an interesting part of the life of a fictional man called Caecillius (I think), the son of a freed man living in Pompeii just before it erupted and I missed it.

Perhaps the roots of this story go back that far. Perhaps they don’t. At heart, Murder Britannica is about a family and I’ve got one of a family. Mine is a lot more functional than the family in Murder Britannica perhaps, but Murder Britannica has, among other characters, a mother-in-law (tick), a rather dippy sister (tick), a couple of teenagers (double tick) and a gladiator (well OK I haven’t got one of those). What’s not to like?

Check it out. See what you think. Just don’t tell my Latin teachers.

MB Cover 7

Words and photograph (book cover created using Photoshop Elements, Natanael Game Cinzo font from Fontsquirrel and Image ‘Ancient Roman Mosaic of Young Woman’ courtesy of Dreamstime Neil Harrison ) copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

Click here to buy Murder Britannica

Kindling – New Cover!

Kindling is my collection of short stories which I pulled together from the various stories that just poured out when my self-imposed writing dam burst in 2015.

Courtesy of various prompts, I recalled a spirit of place which had somehow been lost in growing up, building a career, bringing up a family and general life. I recalled places in South Wales where I’d wandered as a child and imagined going back to them (even though my childhood friend recommended not doing so) and remembered some of the stories I’d heard about the village.

I also remembered or reimagined places I’d known in Gloucestershire and know in Dorset and even one of my office blocks and a hotel I’d stayed in while on a training course in London.

From all these memories grew stories and flash fiction. Most are contemporary fiction, some are ghost stories, a few are sad although not without hope. One or two are true, most aren’t and some are frankly complete fiction (it may surprise you to know that the one in the bar in Fairyland with the Tooth Fairy bemoaning her lot is one of these).

As the title story involves a woman going into the forest at full-moon with her e-reader and what happens next, I chose a cover which to me made me think of a slightly mysterious wood where someone might be waiting. I loved the cover, but feedback mostly suggested that people thought it was a children’s book. While there’s nothing in ‘Kindling’ which would be unsuitable for a child, a lot of it would be baffling.

So I changed the cover. I thought of those woods where as a very lonely little girl I’d wandered and the river where I spoke to the sparkling waters because it was the friend who wouldn’t tell my secrets. After a long time, I found an image on Dreamstime and used it to create a cover which I hope is more representative about a book of hope, imagination, possibilities and a little bit of magic.

It would be interesting to know what you think.

Kindling is available on Amazon

kindling j7

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. Image used for cover ‘Double Exposure Portrait’ by © Lenanet | Dreamstime.com

Some Daughters (in-law) Do ‘ave ’em

I have been very lucky with my mother-in-law. She treats me exactly like the daughter she wanted but never had, loving me, spoiling me, supporting me and periodically telling me to shut up when I’m talking nonsense.

One of her best attributes is that she never ever criticises the abysmal state of my house-wifery and says as long as I provide her with lovely home-cooked meals when she visits and she has a comfortable bed to sleep in and a book or three to read, a glass of wine and some lively conversation, she is never going to complain about anything as irrelevant as dust.  I happily manage my side of the bargain.

She quite appreciates, I think, the fact that after all years living in a male dominated home, she now has an ally. In general, she’s happy to gang up on her own son in my defence, although she says his failings are now my responsibility as he’s now been with me longer than he was with her. I say that Aristotle said all the damage is done by the time a child is seven, so it’s her fault. This is the sort of moment she tells me to shut up.

Several years ago, in my lunch-break, I started writing out a scene in a Romano-British home where a daughter-in-law is enduring the insults of her loathsome mother-in-law. I thought at the time, it might form part of a novel written along the same lines as a Golden Era country house murder mystery. You know, the sort where pretty much every character is a suspect yet somehow indifferent to the mayhem around them. (‘Oh goodness Papa is dead. Does anyone else know where the key to the drinks cabinet is?’ – that sort of thing.) Well, I developed this idea eventually and now MURDER BRITANNICA is finally for sale. It has plenty of murders, a lot (I hope) of merriment and a monstrous mother/mother-in-law Lucretia. I really enjoyed writing Lucretia. I have no idea on whom she’s based, although I’ve met plenty of bullying women in my time. She’s certainly not based on my mother or mother-in-law – they are the basis of two of the other older female characters: enigmatic Tullia and practical Tryssa.

While looking for a cover picture for the book I came across the one below (although I didn’t use it in the end). I like to think that these are the three younger women who have to endure Lucretia as her schemes unfold. Seventeen year old Camilla has pinched her brother’s lyre (although she has no idea what to do with it) and is considering how awful it must be to be as old as Poppaea (who’s twenty-five) or Prisca who is thirty-something. Prisca is thinking of gladiators and Poppaea is wondering … well no-one ever quite knows what she’s wondering.

The men (and there are quite a few of them too) are probably looking for food because there’s a bit of a culinary crisis going on.

I hope if you read Murder Britannica, you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was great fun. And I’ve dedicated it to my mother-in-law because she loves murder mysteries and is NOTHING like Lucretia.

roman-women-33046_1280 copy

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

Picture from Pixabay.

A Tale of Two Trees.

This week we lost a tree.

When we bought our house twelve years ago, it came with a fair sized garden with trees all around. Planted in the lawn were a fir and a maple.

The fir is so very much in the wrong position that we often wonder if a previous owner decided to plant a Christmas Tree to see if it would survive. Boy oh boy has it exceeded expectations. It is now probably nearly as high as the ridge tiles on the roof.

That tree nearly killed me once, or more specifically, my daughter. Eleven years ago when it was a mere twenty feet tall, I brought the children back from school on a fine summer’s day and sat down to write an email. At the time, due to a storm, there was no fence between our garden and next door’s. It didn’t matter then, because my daughter and the little girl next door were good friends and this way they could visit without having to go round the front and knock on doors. 

So there I was, luxuriating in a rare moment of peace while my son (7) played in his room and my daughter (6) and the little girl from next door (5½) played in the garden.

And then I heard next door’s little girl say: ‘are you at the top yet?’

The top of what? I rushed out onto the decking and scanned our garden and what I could see of next door’s. No-one was there apart from the cat.

And then I heard her say, ‘I’m stuck.’

And my daughter answered, ‘Keep going, I’m nearly at the sky!’

I realised the fir tree was swaying and my daughter, just visible through the branches, was ten feet above the ground with next door’s little girl about three feet below her. I am, to put this in context, only 4’ 11”. Fortunately the other little girl’s father (6’ 5”) was home early from work. I ran for help. It didn’t take him long to get his own child down, but it took a little longer to persuade my daughter. She has never quite forgiven me for stopping her ascent to the top where she planned to survey the neighbourhood like one of the wood pigeons.

So anyway, I’m not fond of the fir. It’s very big, shades part of the washing line and nearly ate my daughter. It sort of smirks. I know it does.

But then there was the maple. My daughter learnt to ride a bike cycling in a big swoop round the maple. It spread big welcoming branches. In autumn, the leaves turned colour and then fell into a carpet of crisp russets and golds. (It’s easy for me to be romantic about it, my husband was the one who swept them up.) On winter days the wood pigeons huddled on its bare branches getting rained on (we have very stupid wood pigeons). Some years its sleeping form would be frosted with snow. And then in spring, just as we were wondering whether the leaves would come back, they started to bud and unfurl. Under their dappled shade bluebells and primroses flourished. In summer, the tree rustled. We heard a constant susurration as we sat on the decking in the evening, lay in bed at night, or, as I have been doing recently, worked in the kitchen with the door open during the day, my typing accompanied by the sounds of the garden. 

But the maple grew too big. Once, ten years ago, a branch fell off. We took advice and the tree was pollarded. Anxiously we waited to see if it would recover. It did. However its branches grew spindly, wild and asymmetric. When, beautiful and straggly, it became tall enough to block the satellite dish, we knew something needed to be done*. 

Again we sought advice, this time we were told that it might be best to take it down altogether. We didn’t want it to go. On Thursday, I warned our neighbour that our shared driveway would be partly blocked by the tree surgeon’s vehicle. When I explained why, I found myself dropping my voice, as if the maple could hear me. On Friday morning, my husband and I were still dithering. Should we just get it pollarded again instead? It was so pretty. The tree surgeon left it to us, but warned that there was evidence of rot getting in, that some trees never quite recover from pollarding and he couldn’t be certain how far the rot went. In the end, with heavy hearts, we decided to let it be felled.

I never feel right when I can’t see at least one tree nearby. Yet I’d never wanted to hug a tree before, not even when I was a little girl myself and spent half my time in woods talking to the spirits of the forest. But on Friday, I wanted to hug that tree and ask its forgiveness. Perhaps I read too many Narnia and Tolkein books or perhaps it was a connection with something that was so very alive and would soon be dead.

At 30℃ (86℉), it was very hot for South West England on Friday. I don’t know about where you are, but we are in the middle of a heatwave and drought, with the kind of weather British people usually have to go on holiday for. I had booked the day off work to do some writing but if it was too hot for me inside as my fingers slipped on the keyboard, I can’t imagine how unbearable it was for the tree surgeon and his assistant outside as they chain-sawed and shredded. I made them cups of tea and replenished their 5 litre bottle of water and bit by bit, I watched the maple come down: first its branches, then its trunk, until there was nothing but a stump.

‘You made the right decision,’ said the tree surgeon. ‘The rot went all the way down to the root. The tree was dying.’

There’s a metaphor in here somewhere. The tree looked lovely. It functioned perfectly well. The birds could sit on its branches, the delicate flowers could thrive in its shade. And yet, a trauma from many years ago had caused permanent scarring no-one could see. At any time, the tree could have split apart and caused who knows what harm.

This is true of all living things, including humans. Don’t be fooled by outward appearances, they might cover all sorts of internal damage.

All of which sentiment seems somewhat hypocritical as I have no urge to hug the fir. Although, to be honest, that’s a little bit because it’s too spiky, largely because I just wish it was (a lot) further down the garden and mostly because it tried to eat my daughter. 

I wonder if I speak nicely to its dryad whether it’ll just move of its own accord? Now there’s a story idea.

 

*(Little aside here, we have no TV aerial on our house as they tend to blow down, so all TV has to come via satellite. We don’t watch a lot, but it’s nice to have as an option. Up till this summer, I had no idea satellite dishes could be blocked. I thought they were magic, like electricity and engines.) 

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.

Rooftop Dragon

Aerwin called it yoga.

He could hold a pose for weeks, his gaze fixed, his breath so shallow it couldn’t disturb a feather. Through his toes, he felt hard ridged tiles and soft lead. He was aware of his stomach’s slow digestive churn, his low patient hunger, and his mind, like a diamond: sharp, sparkling, clear. 

A long way below and across the road, tourists queued to enter the Abbey, snaking along cool, hallowed paths out onto the hot, secular pavement. Never had so many people wanted to get into a place of worship at the same time without a national emergency, a royal wedding or a legal obligation. The tourists chatted in a million languages, took a billion selfies and seeped one by one in through oak doors out of Aerwin’s sight.

Some of them looked tastier than others. 

Occasionally one would notice Aerwin and take a photograph. They called him a statue of a dragon. Aerwin called himself a dragon who was expert at keeping still. 

How he missed the fogs and smogs of the past, when he could swoop down, carry someone off under cover of gloom and sit amongst chimneys to crunch them up. Everything had been ruined since they banned coal fires and leaded petrol to clear the skies. Nowadays there was no chance of snatching a meal unseen in daylight.

Aerwin contemplated the tempting line of juicy humans. He only really hungered for bullies and louts and could spot them in seconds. He argued that roosting on the Supreme Court from time to time had imparted a sense of justice but truthfully, to a dragon, the flavour of nastiness is nectar. 

Even so, his stomach ached as he peered at the potential feast. In the old days, people were scrawny. Now they were fat and shiny from constant shovelling of snacks as if preparing for famine. Delicious.

Aerwin let one drop of saliva wet his lips.

His gaze drifted south from the Abbey, over the tourists, over the commuters to the crenellated Parliament building where he normally roosted inconspicuous among the gothic carvings. Unfortunately right now, the roofs and turrets were covered for renovation. Aerwin gave a tiny sigh. Such rich pickings missed: if he wanted to munch on the tastiest bullies and louts Parliament was the place to be.

The drop of saliva fell onto a commuter scurrying along the pavement. She looked up in surprise at the dry old building under a cloudless blue sky then shrugged and rushed away, without appearing to wonder why a stone dragon nestled out of symmetry with carved muses.

With a susurration like stones slithering down slate, the Muse of Justice whispered ‘Aerwin, stop drooling. We’ve told you before: you mustn’t eat people.’

‘Don’t want people,’ muttered Aerwin, ‘want politicians.’

The Muse tutted and rolled her eyes.

Aerwin let his tongue flicker, his tail twitch. Then he and the Muse settled, still as statues again. 

The Muse called it contemplation. 

Aerwin called it waiting for dinner.

dragon

Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. Photograph of muse on the Supreme Court copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon and dragon courtesy of Pixabay. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Hold the Line, Caller

Writing novels set in the past can bring up all sorts of problems.

There are laws that haven’t been invented; there are transport issues; there are food restrictions; there are, more than anything, communication issues.

Before you know it, you’re disappearing down a research rabbit-hole and finding yourself in a warren of confusing, fascinating and baffling facts and thoughts.

Take the telephone. 

Currently I’m writing a novel set largely between 1946 and 1950. The main character, Sarah, in common with many people in 1950’s Britain, doesn’t have a telephone. Her love interest, Jim, however does. 

At the end of a long trying day Sarah goes to a telephone box to tell Jim about the long trying day and apologise for not ringing earlier. Jim, having been worried sick because she had disappeared without explanation starts off on the wrong foot by asking her where on earth she thinks she’s been, whereupon she loses her temper etc etc. Then her money runs out.
I don’t know how many of you use pay-phones now or remember using them in days of yore. It’s rare thing nowadays because most of us have a mobile. 

When I was in college, I recall queuing for some time listening to someone else’s inane conversation in the bicycle shed where the pay-phone was kept until it was my turn to use it. I’d then stuff 2p pieces into the machine and call my boyfriend (or occasionally my parents). Standing in the cold I’d be hoping the pips which sounded when more money was needed wouldn’t go off half-way through a sentence as I generally hadn’t any more money. Was it 2p pieces or 10p pieces? I can’t really remember. Actual traditional red telephone boxes were only used in times of extreme desperation due to their er… fragrance: eau d’urine. 

In contrast of course, my children can communicate (and frequently do) at all times of the day or night via mobile, app, video call, email. Admittedly not much of this is aimed at us unless they want something but then as you can see from the above, I wasn’t really interested in contacting my parents either when I was in my late teens.

Back to my character though. It’s 1950. What happens when Sarah’s money runs out? Does an operator intervene to tell her to put more money in or were there pips? 

I wasn’t around in 1950 so I don’t know. A quick internet search didn’t help. There was a button A which you pressed when you were connected which took your money and a button B which you pressed if the call didn’t connect so you had your money back. I sort of knew that much from books. 

I asked my mother but she couldn’t remember. To be fair, she was only thirteen in 1950 and it turns out her family did have a phone. She told me that she and her brother were socially embarrassed by it – an old bakelite trumpet from the 1930s: SOOOOO old-fashioned. They begged their father to buy a modern one but as good canny Scots my grandparents weren’t wasting money to replace something which functioned perfectly well. In desperation my uncle put the dart board above the phone in the hope he and Mum might ‘accidentally’ destroy it with a stray dart. It didn’t work. I think my mother and uncle grew up, married and left home before my grandmother decided to replace the telephone. It’s a shame really. I expect it would still work nowadays if you could work out how to plug it in.

Interesting as this side-light into my mother’s teenager-hood was, it didn’t help me with what happens when Sarah’s money runs out. In the end I just decided to let her slam the phone down on Jim and let him stew. 

All the same, it got me thinking about how modern phones just don’t cut the mustard sometimes: 

  1. you can’t slam them down – they will break 
  2. you can’t chuck darts at them – they will break 
  3. you can’t get them wet – they will break 
  4. they will refuse to work at precisely the moment you need them due to something petty like lack of signal or battery or simply because you’ve insulted them (I’m worried mine is reading this right now and will turn itself off for two days in a huff).
  5. They are more restrictive than freeing. 

Re (5) while on the one hand in theory a mobile means you’re contactable all the time, on the other hand…. you’re contactable all the time. There is no peace whatsoever unless you make the conscious effort to turn the thing off. There is no getting deliciously ‘lost’, people (parents, partners, work) worry because they can’t get hold of you, you worry because you can’t get hold of someone else (parents, children, partners). You feel you have to tell people where you are by text or message or social media. You photograph and film things instead of just experiencing them. I sort of miss the days when I could just disappear for a few hours.

Obviously it’s not all bad with modern phones. I remember moving from Berkshire to South Wales at the age of eight, away from the grandparents we had always seen every weekend. It was actually cheaper for us to record long chats on a cassette tape and post it to them than make a trunk call. Our village, when we moved to it, still had party lines for a year or so, which meant every conversation could potentially be listened in to. 

By the time I was sixteen and had a boyfriend, the party line thing was no longer an issue but having a phone tethered to the wall was and so was my father. He took great pleasure in passing by while I was phoned my boyfriend, making little kissing noises and on one occasion sneaking up to take a photo of me. I had been hoping my boyfriend imagined me sitting elegant and beautiful and well-coiffed in my best dress, fully made-up etc etc. In fact, I was sitting on the floor in an old jumper and scraggy skirt and fluffy slippers, bare-faced and straggly-haired. Not only did my father take that picture but… he showed it to my boyfriend next time he came round. It’s surprising he stuck around after that. So far I haven’t done anything similar to my children. Well, apart from shouting hello to their friends when they’re on video call, or once, having a conversation with my daughter’s friend’s mother during the video call the girls were having even though they’d spent all day together in school. 

I don’t miss phone boxes. The last time I used one was a couple of years ago when I drove my son to a piano lesson four miles away in midwinter. The road was shut due to an accident and the only way round was a horrible, pitch dark, rutted country road. Naturally I managed to hit an invisible pot-hole and burst a tyre. I got the car to a pub and at that point realised I didn’t have my mobile with me. My son hadn’t got his either. And I didn’t have a purse, just £15 in notes to pay the piano teacher. The landlady in the pub clearly distrusted someone who didn’t have either a phone or a purse. She said there was a phone-box somewhere along the road. Just to annoy her since she wasn’t going to help, I bought two packets of crisps to get some change and after some stumbling about in the dark, found the phone-box. Although not red it was fragrant with yes, eau d’urine… However, it didn’t take coins and having no purse with me, I didn’t have any kind of bank or credit card. Oh that was a fun evening.

And the phone in this picture? Yes it’s a good old plug-in one, useful in thunderstorms and power cuts. The black hand means nothing sinister. It hails from the days when the children had stickers and knew how to use them. It won’t come off. The phone itself was from the office where my husband and I met. When the office was upgraded, they got rid of the out-of-date telephones and we took one home out of nostalgia. It lives in the hall and only gets used in emergencies (e.g. when a teenager has ‘lost’ one of the radio-phones). If I do use it to make calls, I’m so institutionalised that because I associate it with the office I have to restrain myself from dialling 9 for an outside line.

Back to the novel, two weeks later, and I’m still none the wiser about the pips. But Sarah and Jim are just about talking to each other. Really, they have bigger things to worry about. 

Things I have to research. Sigh. Back down the rabbit hole…

IMG_0425

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.

Headstrong heroines and hansom cabs: it’s The Case of the Black Tulips!

Wordster

It’s finally happened – The Case of the Black Tulips is now LIVE on Amazon! And for its first week in the world, you can buy it for just 99c/99p (or it’s available to read in Kindle Unlimited).

See the book on Amazon

When I say ‘finally’, though, Paula Harmon and I only wrote the draft in January, so actually we’ve been quite speedy. And we plan to continue being speedy, because book 2, The Case of the Runaway Client, is already available to pre-order and will be out in July!

This is what the three books in progress look like together:

And if you’ve managed to escape all my earlier rantings about The Case of the Black Tulips, here are some of the things you can find within its pages:

  • 2 – yes 2 – female protagonists, who move between friendship and utter exasperation with each…

View original post 281 more words