Three Blue Moons

There once was a rich man with three sons and three daughters.

Now the lads were all much of a muchness being young and puppylike – each competing to gain their father’s approval; but the girls were quite distinct. The youngest was pretty as a wildflower and rather spoilt, the middle one was so merry, she could make a corpse laugh and the eldest was serious and wise.

Well you know how it goes, men came from far and near to court the pretty daughter and the merry one but all were unnerved by the serious, quiet eldest girl and in her turn, she couldn’t think of anything to say for all she knew so much. Once she fell in love with a likely young man, but he soon tired of her. Even if he was interested in the wonder she felt at the unfurling of a leaf or her love of music, it all tangled into dull nonsense when she spoke. And the young man turned away to laugh at her younger sister’s jokes and flirt with her littlest sister before leaving for another place and break the hearts of other girls.

Alas, at that time and in that place, it was the custom that the younger girls could not marry until the eldest married and the boys could not bring home a wife until their sisters were gone. The family chivvied the oldest girl but she grew quieter and duller and more serious by the day until the youngest sister declared she might as well be dead and the oldest brother persuaded their father that the girl must marry the first man who asked, whether he be beggar or prince.

You’d think of course that this would bring forth any number of suitors but in truth, as soon as any drew near, their heads were turned by one or other of the younger girls and the older sister grew yet quieter and more serious and more tongue tied.

Still it came to pass after many months, on the night of a blue moon, that a wealthy stranger came by and asked for shelter for himself and his retinue. The rich man welcomed him in, gave him a place of honour at his table and in exchange for hospitality demanded the stranger’s story. For surely the man was from afar, his clothes strange and bright, his hair silver as starlight, his accents smooth and rolling as the sea, and surely he had a tale to tell, for his face though young was scarred with many wounds and his left hand ever wore a fine leather glove even as he ate. 

The stranger looked round the table and perceived a rich man and his wife and three ruddy, handsome sons, and a girl pretty as a wildflower with a pout and a sidelong glance, and a girl merry as a lark, with eyes that sparkled like crystal and a girl with a serious mouth and downcast face, and a hand that crumbled her bread into her dish. 

And the stranger said. ‘I fear to disappoint you, for all that I have done for seven years is search high and low, over mountain and sea and through forest and river, for a wife who could live on a lonely hill in a quiet house and sleep beside a man who never sleeps. I have climbed towers in deserts and hacked through thorns and wrestled dragons and yet I have not found her.’ 

‘And what dowry do you demand?’ demanded the middle girl.

‘Why,’ said the stranger, ‘no dowry do I require but the girl’s own tender heart.’

‘And what riches do you offer her?’ cried the youngest girl, her head on one side.

‘Why,’ said the stranger, ‘she shall wear the finest clothes and eat the best food for as long as she stays with me. And should she ask to return to her parents, I will send her home with a casket of jewels as heavy as her tears.’

‘And why can you not sleep?’ whispered the eldest girl.

The stranger looked on her and said, ‘because I am under a spell and until it is broken, I must live on a lonely hill in a quiet house. If I marry, until she chooses otherwise, my bride will be forever bride but not wife. But if before that time she wants to go home, she will be free to do so and I will see her safely on her way with the treasure I promised.’

The two younger girls shook their heads in disdain but the eldest brother said. ‘Will you take our eldest sister? She’s quiet. A lonely house should suit her.’

And the eldest girl sighed and gazed into her wine and foresaw nothing but sadness if she remained at home and perhaps some peace if she went away and nodded.

The stranger looked kindly on her and said. ‘Will you give me your hand? If we marry tomorrow that will be the first blue moon and it is seven days travel to my house. You need then only stay two more blue moons and then you may choose whether to go or stay. And from the moment I put the ring on your finger, I vow never to touch you again until you ask me to.’

So the stranger and the eldest daughter married the next day and good to his word, from the moment he put the ring on his finger, he did not touch her. Servants helped her mount a horse behind a groom and she waved goodbye to her family and for seven days and seven nights they travelled until they reached a lonely hill and a quiet house inside a walled garden.

This was her new home. That night, she was dressed in her finest linen and laid in the bridal bed and after a while, the stranger came to lie along side her. 

Sure that he must break his promise, she lay awake as long as possible, bedclothes held tight around her. She could hear his breathing, feel the warmth of his body, knew that he was not sleeping. They did not speak. 

Yes, she lay awake as long as she could, but in the early hours her treacherous body gave into exhaustion. Yet he did not touch her and when she finally opened her eyes in the morning, still cocooned in bedclothes, he had gone.

Every night she did the same but eventually, beyond weary, she allowed herself to drift off earlier and earlier. Soon after midnight on the sixth night, she woke to find herself cold and her husband’s side of the bed already empty. She rolled herself more tightly in the covers and drifted back off into dreamless slumber.

During the daytime, they spoke politely whenever they were together. He asked about her ideas and home life but never about her hopes and dreams. She pushed the food around her plate and take tiny sips of wine, aware when his glance fell on her and when it did not. Once she looked up and saw he was hunched within himself, staring down on his uneaten food. When his eyes lifted to meet her gaze, she thought there tears in his eyes reflected hers, but perhaps it was just the candlelight sparkling. 

On the seventh night, she dreamed of wild dances and climbing trees and setting sail on silent seas. She awoke, chilled. Beyond imagining, it was another blue moon. It streamed through the window, illuminating the room and casting a broad stripe across the bed, over the slopes of her body and into the valley of the empty space where her husband should have been. After a moment, she rose and putting on a wrap, went to the window.

Below, on the garden wall, some creature, a cat or fox perhaps, sat hunched and still. She had never thought that an animal could look sad but this one did. Its head was lowered as if it didn’t care who might attack, did not care if there was prey to be caught. She leaned out and whispered to it and the creature stirred and looked up. Its face was indistinct, silver in the moonlight, its size and exact shape somehow ungaugable. Perhaps its fur was striped or perhaps it had been attacked with razor sharp claws. But its eyes, dark and unblinking gazed up at her and the starlight made them seem wet. 

‘Are you lonely?’ she whispered. 

And she heard her husband’s voice say ‘yes.’

Startled, she turned. But he was not there. She was quite alone. There was a cry from the garden and she gazed again, looking for the creature until she saw it slink over the wall, limping a little, to disappear into the lonely hills and whispering forest.

When she asked her husband of it the next day, he said nothing for a moment before telling her that the whole land was under a spell and he with it. 

‘Is it that you’d like to go home?’ he asked. 

And the girl thought of her quiet room and the fragrant garden and shook her head. ‘Not yet,’ she replied. ‘But will you not tell me why the spell was cast?’

Her husband sighed and ran his left hand over his right as if to ease its ache and then he said, ‘my father stole my mother from the forest folk. He treated her most cruelly for she wept for home and for the sweetheart she had lost and she never gave him one babe but me. When I was seven years old, he said I looked too unlike him and he treated my mother so ill she died and her people came and cursed him, casting a spell that he would be forever alone. He laughed in their faces and held up a knife of iron to deflect the curse onto me, child as I was, even as he lunged to kill me. But the spell rebounded through a shaft of strange moonlight and the knife turned in his hand and killed him and my mother’s people brought me up in their quiet ways until I was a man and they told me that the spell could only be lifted when all the hate I’d inherited had been wept away. And I have wept and wept and I been lonely and yet the spell still binds me.’

The girl sat for a moment in silence and said, ‘Let me see those scars husband, and the hand you keep covered, for I think there are herbs in the garden from which I could make a salve and ease your suffering.’

And so the days and nights passed. The girl slept, lying in the bed with him awake beside her and no longer feared that he would break his promise. She picked herbs and made salves and his wounds became less angry, his hand stronger.

On the seventh night of the second month, she saw again the strange sad creature in the garden, its markings even less distinct but its eyes still full of tears and its paw still tender. She spoke to it without hearing a reply. 

Time went by. The girl worked in the garden, nurturing herbs and flowers. She ventured into the edges of the forest and sought mushrooms and bark and spoke with respect to the listening creatures that hid from her and then she returned to the quiet house and went to work with her salves and medicines, not noticing that she sang, not noticing the paintings on the walls and the figures in the dull tapestries brighten as she did so. 

When the third month started, she was teaching the maids to read and polishing a lute to play in the evening, and the silverware sparkled and the paintings and the tapestries almost danced to the music in the air and her husband’s wounds began to heal.

On the sixth night of the third month, she stayed awake until he slipped out of bed and then followed him on tiptoe, her feet chilled by the stone floor. He paced the house for a while and finally stepped out into the garden. She lost sight of him in the shadows, distracted when the strange creature leapt onto the wall and away. Quietly she crept to the place where it had been and saw a single silver hair glisten on a leaf. And she pondered.

On the seventh evening of the third month, there was another blue moon. 

She said at supper, ‘Husband. I have stayed with you for the time you said I must and tomorrow I will decide. But I beg that you will understand if I spent tonight alone in another room.’

For a wonder, his wounds seemed to deepen again as if freshly cut and his eyes filled with tears but he nodded and said no more.

Now the girl made to yawn and casting off her maids, went to bed in another room alone and locked the door. Yet it was from the outside she locked it. And she went out into the moonlit garden and hid behind the tree where the silver hair still sparkled on a low hanging leaf. It was cold in the garden and strange voices came from beyond the wall but yet she stayed.

When the moon was at its highest, she saw her husband come into the garden and walk towards her. She tucked herself deeper into the shadow and watched his approach. He stood for a while bathed in light and then with a sob, he changed from man to a silvery creature a little like a fox or a cat or a wolf with stripes like scars. With eyes full of grief, he lifted his front right paw a little and whispered ‘so lonely’ hunching down as if he wished something might attack him and end his misery forever.

And the girl slipped out from behind the tree and put her arms around him and kissed his fur and wept and her tears and his mingled in the moonlight and as they flowed along the scars on his face, they dissolved away and the creature’s form changed again until he was a man, tall and strong and whole. Yet still he wept as his bride held him close for he dare not break his promise by putting a hand on her.

Until in wonder she reached up and wiped his eyes and said, ‘Cry no longer, my love. The spell has been wept away and soon it will be time for sleep.’

‘Soon?’ he whispered.

And then she kissed his lips and held his hands and said, ‘Yes, soon. I have made my choice. I am yours and you are mine and now I long for you to touch and hold me. We will sleep, my darling but not until the moon sets and we are one and worn out by love.’ 

 

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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The Things Wot Hold The Things Up

It’s the time of year when either one reorganises or diets. Since the former is a form of keep fit, I feel I needn’t do the latter. But as with dieting, what often starts so well can quickly fall apart.

I’ve sorted the airing cupboard, tidied my writing area and now, anticipation of a new sofa, my husband and I are moving furniture.

‘A couple of cup of tea’s job,’ we decided. ‘If that.’

We have an odd house, built by adding bits to other bits and nothing is in quite the right proportion, so we decided to move the main bookshelves from the hall to the sitting room to fill the space behind the new sofa in an effort to make the room look cosier.

The problem was while the bookshelves were in originally three sections, when we moved thirteen years ago we didn’t put up the third section because there wasn’t room in the hall, so we stored its composite parts and a lot of spare books in the attic. (Yes, yes, I daresay you agree with my father-in-law who said while shoving yet another box into the attic, ‘how many bleeping books do you need?’ But there you go. You should have seen my parents’ house in its heyday.)

Since then, it proved easier to buy new bookshelves, put those up in another room and rescued some of the books.

So going back to yesterday, my husband and I got the third section down from the attic. This involved digging it out from under thirteen years (and some) of tat and consequently doing a cathartic run to the charity shop and the dump. Pleased with ourselves on several fronts, we closed up the attic, made a cup of tea, had some lunch and then I started moving books off the shelves, trying to restrain myself from just sitting down and reading whenever I found a volume I’d forgotten.

Two minutes into this exercise, my husband said ‘you know what we haven’t got?’

‘No?’

‘The things that hold the shelves up.’

We stood there for a while and tried to think where they could be. ‘Are they in that old shortbread tin you keep little things in?’

‘Nope.’

‘Have you gone through all your DIY stuff?’

‘Yup.’

‘I know!’ I said. ‘I’m sure there’s a little bag in one of the drawers in the old desk.’ (The old desk has relics going back to ancient times, including the diary I kept when twelve and some Arthur Rackham prints my mother had from childhood which frightened both her and me and have consequently never been framed and a random bag of marbles – which may well be my lost ones.) 

Lo, there was more than one little bag of random stuff but the one I was thinking of held nothing but some bits of Lego.

‘Well we can’t put it up without the things,’ said my husband.

‘Perhaps you can buy spares.’

‘What are they called?’

‘No idea.’

Now I’ve got to hand it to the internet. While it’s a bit of a Pandora’s box, like Pandora’s box, it holds hope. I did a search for ‘things that hold shelves up’ and lo and behold it took me to exactly what I wanted.

‘I dunno,’ said my husband. ‘How will we know if they’ll fit? The shelves came from MFI in 1994. They’ve been out of business for years.’ He took a sip of tea. ‘Where could we have put the originals?’

The logical place would have been in a bag sellotaped to the shelves when we stored them, but clearly they weren’t. The next logical place would have been in one of the remaining boxes in the attic (an awful thought) or worse still, in the stuff we’d taken to the dump. 

‘The only other place I can think of is one of those kitchen drawers,’ I said.

‘Oh bleep,’ said my husband. ‘I’ll make another cup of tea.’

You know the kind of kitchen drawers I mean. We have been slowly decluttering but there were two abysses of chaos left. With trepidation, we started wading through. One was filled with paper napkins, blank Christmas cards and regrettably a bottle of bubbles (as in the ones kids blow out through a plastic hoop, not Champagne) which had leaked everywhere. The last drawer was full of children’s party paraphernalia, including old birthday cake candles, two whistles, a long confiscated hyper-bouncy ball and for no apparent reason grainy photographs processed from a very old roll of film we’d once found in another drawer showing my husband in teenage glory on a school trip. 

It also held a small bag with the bits that hold the shelves up. We would have jumped up and down with glee but we were getting rather tired. By now, all that was going through my head was the voice of the wonderful Bernard Cribbins singing Right, said Fred.

By the time we had to stop the project to go and see a Blondie tribute act, we were both shattered and had only got as far as piling up the books in categories in another room. And we’d stopped drinking tea in exchange for something else.

This morning, after a great evening including a nice meal out, a reliving of our youth followed by a good night’s sleep, we woke today, raring to get on with putting the shelves up in the other room.

‘Oh bleep,’ said my husband as I handed him his morning cuppa. ‘I’ve just realised. We haven’t got the veneered thing that goes at the back and stabilises the third section of bookcase. I don’t remember seeing it in the attic.’

I dug deep into my memories of our very traumatic house move in 2005. ‘Do you know I have an awful feeling it was damaged and we got rid of it.’

He sighed. ‘I have an awful feeling you’re right.’

So at the moment, we have a floor covered in books, a new sofa coming tomorrow and no clear plan what to do.

If you could draw a moral from all this, I suppose it might be that we all need the things what hold the things up: philosophy/religion, love, security, peace and that when one or all of these are missing or letting us down, life can feel wobbly to the point of collapse. 

And probably: don’t be as untidy and disorganised as me and my old man.

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Everything at Once

‘Yes,’ said the consultant. ‘Everything points to your son having ADHD.’

My lovely seven year old was at that point torn between prodding the consultant’s computer and running toy cars backwards up a ramp. My heart sank. Not because I thought it was the end of the world, but because I could imagine what people would say.

The ones who’d been telling me so for years would smirk. The ones who thought it but never said would sneer. Close friends and family would go into denial. My father would probably buy a book about it.

I had been in denial for a long time. My son’s playgroup had hinted it. His first school told me to take him for assessment. I wasn’t happy with the school and chose to ignore them, although terribly upset, I rang to tell a friend, leaving a message on her landline phone. She didn’t pick up the message for weeks by which time my distress had been replaced with belligerence. 

A year later, we moved a hundred miles and he’d changed schools. The new school couldn’t have been better. But as sitting still became harder, concentrating more important, my lovely happy child lost his self-esteem and confidence and finally his joy. When this school suggested an assessment, I listened. 

Is it my fault? It never ever occurred to me to blame my husband, but I certainly blamed myself.

Was it because I’d eaten red meat, shrimps, nuts and had the odd glass of wine during pregnancy? Was it because I’d craved cheese and ate it in almost any format? Was it because I had what seemed – for a first time mother – a rather traumatic if fairly quick childbirth? Was it because an hour before he was born and they said ‘the baby is getting distressed’, I thought ‘what about me? I’m distressed. Am I invisible?’ None of that made any sense. 

Was it genetic? The consultant said it was often hereditary. I am a natural fidget and daydream as is my husband. But discipline at my home and school was fairly rigid and I long ago learnt to daydream with 90% of my brain while the other 10% appears fully engaged in whatever boring thing I’m supposed to be concentrating on. I struggle in a lot of social situations because I’m trying to listen to every single conversation around me regardless of whether I’m part of it or not. I am very easily bored. I try to do everything on my to-do list at the same time but I do get through it eventually.

My son wasn’t like that. He didn’t seem able to concentrate at all, unless it was something he was absolutely absorbed by. Oddly, this wasn’t always what was deemed ‘important’ by school or society. He found it easier to listen if he wasn’t looking at someone. If he was looking at them, he was concentrating on their face, their mannerisms, their mood rather than their words. Did people understand that? No. Of course they didn’t. He just got into trouble.

Was it because I didn’t discipline him strictly enough? I was conflicted on that one. I demand good manners and an interest in knowledge but I also want openness. I don’t want my children to be hung up, to be afraid to express an opinion or afraid to be honest even when they knew I won’t like their opinions or their honesty. I want them to come to me if things go wrong without fearing I will judge them. I want them to have the space to make stupid decisions knowing I am there to catch them if they fall. 

‘Sleep when he sleeps’ my friends with children said when he was born. My son barely slept in the day and didn’t sleep through the night till he was nearly seven. I went back to work part-time when he was six months old and had to learn a new role but still found it more relaxing than managing a child who didn’t know how to rest. Changing nappies and bath time were activities easier done by two. He rolled over at six weeks, was running by nine months. Trying to get used to managing on a reduced income, I remember sitting with him on my lap trying to read a bank statement and work out where the money was going. He flipped the paper over and I started to cry – and I don’t do crying. He was utterly exhausting. Somewhere around this point, the health visitor gave me a questionnaire. She must have been worried about my mental health and she was right. It was a whole year before I woke up and realised I felt ‘normal’.

Forget all those stereotypes. We don’t eat junk food except on occasion. I was rigid about early bedtimes and a regular routine (if not for my children’s sake, for mine.) My son is not and has never been deliberately rough and rarely angry (although now, as an adult, perhaps righteously so over injustice and political stupidity). He does not always ‘get’ people but he’s sensitive and kind. If he has ever been violent it has generally been through exuberance rather than out of any desire to hurt. (Quite possibly this does not always extend to his little sister but she gives as good as she gets.) I am proud that he knows how to be polite to others and equally proud that he is honest with me and has opinions he’s not afraid to express. 

‘His brain is wired differently,’ explained the consultant. ‘We think it can’t stimulate itself, and so it’s constantly looking for external stimulus. It’s actually concentrating on everything simultaneously and can’t work out what’s important. Medication may create stimuli that his brain can’t so that he can concentrate on what’s necessary.’

I chose to accept medication for him. This involved a battle with the extended family. They said I was labelling him, drugging him, that I just needed to discipline him better. We used it for school alone. On holidays and weekends, we didn’t use the tablets at all. At school, he regained his confidence and started to do well in class again. When he was called ‘ADHD boy’ by another child, my son put his head up and said he was proud to be an ADHD boy. The one time I took both children (both under eleven) to London on my own and decided to medicate him, I regretted it. Who was this quiet child who wasn’t trying to run in three directions at once and asking a million questions? He was easier to manage but was he enjoying it as much? I still don’t really know. When he reached sixteen, the decision whether to take medication was left to him. He took it for his academic subjects but didn’t for music and drama. ‘I need my mind to be free to be creative’ he said.

My son is now an adult and he sometimes uses medication and sometimes doesn’t. What have I learned about ADHD? I realised that everyone has it to some degree, the majority only at a very low level. I look back at my own school years and wonder if some of those ‘naughty’ but intelligent children might have made something of themselves if someone had realised that their brain was wired a different way. I wonder what opportunities for them were lost. I realised my father probably had some form of Asperger’s syndrome and this helped me understand him and become less frustrated with some of things he said and did.

People say that ADHD didn’t exist before the modern western world got too soft. I think this is utter nonsense. People are just people. There have always been people who have very clear thought patterns and people who think about lots of things simultaneously. We need both. We need people who can make straightforward unemotional judgements. We need daydreamers. Perhaps in industrialised cultures there is less respect given to the dreamers. In our culture we want the output – the film or music or jet engine but don’t realise space needs to be given to the wild idea that leads to them. Our culture doesn’t always appreciate a person who walks to a different beat.

As a small child, yes, my son was exhausting. But he was fascinated by everything. He laughed, he was happy. Sleep was a waste of time when there was a whole world ready to fiddle with. He danced in my womb when I sang in a concert and as a pre-schooler, he danced in our small front room to a CD of classical (sorry – Baroque) music. He was full of joy. I bought him a tiny toy keyboard in a charity shop for £3 and all by himself he learnt how to play Silent Night at the age of three. He was the only child in playgroup who could sing in tune. He is a musician. 

He is now a delightful young man full of passion and ideas and creative energy. I don’t always agree with him but then I am his mother and older, why should I agree with him? And he is young, why should he agree with me? Hopefully there is plenty of time for both of us to find out when to bend and when to stand firm.

If I had ignored that diagnosis or tried to discipline him out of ADHD would he be as creative and have as much potential now? Or would he be frustrated, angry, rebellious, bitter? 

I suspect the latter. I know which I’d prefer.

If you’re a parent struggling right now, find someone to understand and don’t be afraid. There will be someone. If your child had asthma, no-one would query your need for help or theirs – ADHD is no different. 

If you think you may be attention deficit and/or hyperactive – it’s a good thing. But again, seek support.

If you don’t understand – do some research. Many highly successful people have ADHD. A diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re undisciplined, unnurtured, badly nourised, violent or useless.

Whoever you are, be kind to yourself. 

Whoever or ‘whatever’ you are, the world needs you.

BBC video – the joys of ADHD

A Winter Forest at Night by Matthew Harmon

The National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service

NHS information

Information for adults with ADHD

UK Support Groups

a thousand connections

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Territory Unknown?

Once upon a time Napoleon rode a dinosaur into the jungle and…

went on a resolution quest perhaps? Well these are mine:

Number One – this is the important one: Do not to try and do forty things at once all the time. (I’m thinking of my personal life. Multi-tasking is sort of what I’m paid to do it at work.)

In private however, I must not try to reorganise four bookcases, sort laundry, cook dinner, argue with teenagers/husband/self, find that thing and reorganise furniture in my head all that the same time. 

In particular, I must not try to juggle a ton of writing projects. I think there was one month last year when I was writing and/or revising four different projects. If they’d been all set in the same era it might have helped, but as one was Victorian, one in the 1950s, one in the second century and who knows what the other thing was, because I’ve forgotten, it’s no wonder I came out of that month feeling frazzled and wondering where the fun had gone.

This morning, I finished the first draft of the yet unnamed sequel to Murder Britannica. It’s set a year later (AD 191) and the action has moved from a fictional village in what is now north of Cardiff, South Wales to the very real town of Durnovaria. Dorchester, which is not far from where I live, is built on its remains but the Roman town is not terribly visible. Which then leads on to the next resolution:

Two: Do lots of research but don’t disappear down research rabbit holes. As far as MB2 (as it’s currently called) is concerned, this has involved looking up Roman recipes and realising that the majority actually look very nice and wondering if I could cook them (although probably not stuffed dormice, flamingo or barren sow’s womb). For an entirely different project, I’ve also found out that Bristol Basin in New York is actually built from actual chunks of Bristol. For a third one, I discovered that the word ‘knickers’ for female underwear was not current in 1892. Actually, I’m going to ignore resolution number two. It’s much more fun going down the rabbit-holes.

Three: Keep being brave. At some point in my past, I decided that I wouldn’t let myself be ruled by what makes me anxious or afraid. There are too many of these to mention, so I won’t. One of the things about getting back into writing as an older person is writing about people over thirty having fresh starts. While the sequel to Murder Britannica is a light hearted murder mystery, the underlying theme is, I suppose, ‘looking back versus looking forward’. The younger women (both under twenty) are on the threshold of an adult life which is likely to be restrictive unless they do something about it. But the older women (well over forty-five), have all sorts of reasons to find out if there is more to their later years than weaving. Is there? Oh yes.

Four: only keep the clutter I love. Admittedly I’ve actually obtained two ‘new’ bits of clutter since Christmas. One is a – actually I have no idea what it is, a sort of compass I think – but I like to think of it as a time-machine and the other is a 1904 folding camera. I like to think of them as prompts, or even props for my writing and they’re in a cupboard so shouldn’t get too dusty (major advantage). All the same, this year, I’m determined to finally empty the attic when it’s neither too cold nor too cold (April & October??). I know the attic is full of tat. I know there’s even got a box labelled ‘stuff from under Matt’s bed’ which we sealed up when we moved in 2004. I know, I know – I say the same thing every January but maybe this year at long last, I’ll actually do it. 

In the meantime, the long overdue decluttering has at least resulted in clearing out those kitchen drawers where everything has been stuffed for the last thirteen years. This led to the discovery of Napoleon and a dinosaur who were nestled with a gorilla in amongst a hundred dried up felt-tip pens and a few rogue Cub-Scout/gym club/swimming club badges that I’d never got round to sewing on anything. 

Sooner or later, I’ll decide what Napoleon is doing and where he’s going. In the meantime, he and T-Rex have been reprieved and are back in the drawer.

Of course, if you have some ideas about their adventures feel free…

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Hot Water

‘And this,’ said Desmond, opening a gate within the high walls and ushering his new pal Gerald through, ‘is the laundry area. It keeps everything in one place, well away from the main house so that we don’t have to look at billowing sheets or smell soap. Bertha loves it, don’t you Bertha?’

A maidservant, sleeves rolled up over muscled arms and a strand of hair stuck to her sweating face, scowled as she stirred the copper in the courtyard.

‘It’s Bessie…sir,’ she replied.

Behind her, other maids scurried across the cobbles between the laundry rooms and drying rooms under grey unforgiving skies. The steady rain which had been falling since breakfast soaked into Bessie’s cap and her boots were stained dark with wetness.

‘I call all the maids Bertha,’ Desmond said as an aside to Gerald. ‘They don’t mind, do you Bertha?’ He stroked her face.

In silence, Bessie kept stirring the boiling cauldron with a large wooden paddle, her eyes narrowed. From time to time, a fold of white linen popped up from frothing bubbles which were a brownish-pink. The smell of soft soap was less pleasant than Desmond remembered, and some small part of his small mind wondered why she was boiling laundry in the yard rather than inside the building but then – he hadn’t been interested in laundry since he was six and wanting bubbles for his toy pipe.

‘Someone had something of an accident with a tablecloth, what?’ Gerald suggested.

‘Something like that… sir,’ said Bessie.

‘By the way Bertha,’ wondered Desmond. ‘Have you seen Lord Charles this morning? He can’t resist a pretty young maid,’ he added to Gerald. ‘He’ll get himself in hot water one of these days. Ha! Ha!’

Desmond pinched Bessie’s flushed cheek and patted her backside. 

Her grip on the paddle tightened, but still she said nothing. 

She merely stared down into the copper and with a small smile watched another brownish-pink bubble explode with a malodorous ‘pop’.

laundry murder

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Looking both ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Janus

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

Christmas Eve – Journey Home

Edgar ground his shoulders into the train seat and scowled. 

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

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

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

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

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

‘Look at my train!’ said the boy.

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

‘Do you like it?’ said the boy.

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

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

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

‘Hello? Bob?’

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

He hunched the girl’s head away.

All change,’ said the old man.

***

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

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

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

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

All change,’ said the large man.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But whose ashes is he talking about?’

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

‘Me?’ said Edgar.

All change!

***

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

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

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

After a few seconds, Edgar dialled Madeleine.

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

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

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

Edgar reached over and shielded the screen.

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

All change.

48407293_226622724910961_7572623922395348992_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.

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

The Quest: Book Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Quest ebook cover

 

An Invitation

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

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

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

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

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

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But…’ started the woman.

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

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

 

RSVP

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

Author Interview with Nick Perkins

Introduction

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

QUESTIONS

How much of yourself is in your stories?

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

Why did you pick your genre?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will there be a sequel?

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

BIOGRAPHY

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

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

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

Let the words flow. 

LINKS

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/nickperkinswriter

Twitter

https://twitter.com/earlofmarl

@earlofmarl

Amazon Author Page

UK Amazon Author Page

Amazon.Com Author Page

WHERE IS MY WRITING

My books are available as ebook or paperback via Amazon.

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