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.

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Breaking News: a new book with Val Portelli

When I joined Facebook, my ‘friends’ were family, close friends and/or colleagues. Some of them came under the ‘long-lost’ category and it was wonderful to reconnect and keep in touch but beyond that I didn’t expect to get much out of social media.

Then I discovered one of my colleagues was a member of a writers’ page. I probably didn’t at that point, even realise such groups existed on Facebook and I didn’t even know this particular friend liked to write since apart from discussing work, we mostly discussed cookery. But I had a peek anyway.

This was all around the time when I was taking my first tentatives steps to get back into writing. I’d entered a local short story competition and to my amazement had been short-listed in the flash category with a 300 word story. So I joined one of the on-line writers’ groups and started to read things that people posted: flash fiction, dribbles, drabbles, six word stories… I was astonished at the imagination, the camaraderie, the fun people were having.

At one point, someone wrote about walking in the woods at night. Then someone else did their own take and it brought to mind how much time I’d spent in local woodland when I was a lonely child.  I imagined revisiting it, something I have not done for a very, very long time and a story formed in my head. And then another. All of a sudden, I had two short stories, one funny, one serious. Longer versions of both are in my first book ‘Kindling’.

A little after that, I joined another writers’ Facebook group and found the same welcome and encouragement.

So there I was, catapulted out of my safety zone into the world of social media and something I never expected to be the outcome happened.

I made new friends. 

Now one of them, Val Portelli (aka Voinks), was intriguing. Mythical beings and sometimes romance peppered her often gothic stories. Somehow or other we ‘clicked’ and started contributing to the same threads and sharing ideas. 

We both like a little element of the fantastic and provided each other with ‘prompts’. Over time, this developed into enough trust to make constructive comments on works-in-progress. This is the author equivalent of asking ‘does my bum look big in this?’ and bracing oneself for the actual truth. It’s very scary.

Val and I didn’t meet in person until last year. In nervous anticipation I wrote a story called ‘Penfriends’ about what might feasibly go wrong, but we got on very well indeed. And then one of us said ‘why don’t we pull all our fantasy short stories, flash fiction and drabbles into a book?’

So we did. 

‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ is out today on Amazon. 

If you like short stories which may be funny or chilling or serious but always involving magic, myth or legend, take a peek. After all, the holidays are coming up!

Link to Amazon.co.uk

Link to Amazon.com

Link to Val Portelli’s website

weird & wonderful Tales black cover 30.3.18

Biding Time

Hearing a noise as he hid from Mal in the old graveyard that night, Bod peered out. It was a week since they’d got that fifty quid note off old Miss Kane. It was her own fault she’d been unconscious ever since. She shouldn’t have held onto her bag so tight. But Mal wanted his half of the fifty and Bod had spent it.

It was just some woman taking photographs of tombstones. Weirdo.

Bod waited until he felt alone again, then stepped out from under the yew. On the ground by the nearest grave was a camera.

Removing the memory card just in case, Bod checked the camera’s make on his phone. Even if he got half its worth, he’d be laughing.

He just had to get home first. He left the graveyard onto the pavement.

‘Fancy finding you here,’ said Mal, walking out of the shadows. ‘Where’s my cash?’

‘Day after tomorrow,’ said Bod.

‘What’s this?’ Mal snatched the camera.

‘It’s mine.’

‘Not now it’s not.’

‘No! It’s not kosher.’

Mal snorted, ‘so what’s new? You owe me.’

‘It’s worth more than twenty-five quid!’

Mal looked at the camera under the streetlight. ‘It’s way out of your league. How d’you get it?’

Bod thought of the shadow of the grave and shivered.

‘Knock over another old bat for it?’ said Mal.

‘It wasn’t my fault Miss Kane got hurt. You were there too.’

‘I don’t think so and you’d better not say I was. OK?’ head down, Mal strode down the street.

Bod walked home, grunting at his mother before going upstairs to put the memory card in his computer. After all, there might be something he could use on it.

What a disappointment. Five hundred photos of out of focus gravestones, flowers and blurry faces. And one folder marked ‘do not open.’

He opened it.

Half an hour later, the police burst into his room. His laptop screen was cracked and a memory card smouldered in the slot. There was no sign of Bod.

‘I swear he was here!’ said his mother, ‘What do you want him for? What are you saying he’s done?’

Bod woke. At least, he thought he woke. He touched his eyes to make sure they were open. It was pitch dark. Something like sticks and stones stabbed his back. He was wedged between straight damp edges and a warm tense arm.

He swore and felt his bladder release.

‘Bod?’

‘Mal?’

‘I looked at the memory card…’

‘I tried to take a picture with that camera…’

‘What’s happening?’

‘I don’t know…’

No no no…

In the ancient graveyard, indistinct whispers came up from under the stones, under the earth, from a mouldering box, too small for two.

But no-one was there to hear. The only person who ever visited Emily Kane’s grave had died two hours ago from head injuries.

‘Hello lads,’ said a voice scented with earth, ‘welcome to your new home. I’m Emily Kane. I think you knew my daughter.’

know

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Vigilance

‘There’s a deviant behind me,’ whispered Caitlin, ‘I thought they were all dead.’

She could hear it shuffling as if its feet in the broken shoes were bruised and blistered. But it was getting nearer nonetheless.

’The virus we put in the water supply killed the majority,’ Abbi answered, ‘but a few were immune. They’d die out in time, but we daren’t risk it.’

Caitlin picked up a stone. Turning to throw it, she saw that the deviant was barely alive: rags hanging from its haggard frame, a kind of pleading in its eyes as it reached for her. She dropped the stone and quickened her pace.

‘It looks so weak,’ she murmured to Abbi, ‘are you sure it can harm us? It’s starving to death. What can we do?’

‘Don’t worry. Daniel’s prepared.’

Caitlin squinted to where Abbi was pointing. On the roof opposite, a boy lay, sunshine glinting off his gunsight. A red spot briefly appeared on Caitlin’s shoulder then disappeared to her left. She moved to give Daniel a clear aim. There was a soft crack and then a thump.

Caitlin looked down on the emaciated corpse.

‘He looked nice,’ sighed Caitlin, ‘Like grandfathers in books. Whatever grandfathers were.’

‘Don’t believe their propaganda,’ snapped Abbi, ‘you know perfectly well the world is a better place now that it’s run by children who reproduce by cloning. There’s no place for teenagers and adults anymore. You know the rules.’

Caitlin was silent. She would be thirteen in two years time. She looked up at Daniel and shuddered.

vigilance

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Unedited Notes of a Disenchanted Wine Critic

Chateauneufdusprat is a cheeky little vintage crafted by Jemima Sidesaddle from the little known Three Trolleys Vineyard.

Jemima, having lost her inheritance (including country estate and vague prospects of marrying into the aristocracy) in a calamity involving schnapps and loose elastic, scraped together the savings in her post office account and bought a selection of sunny slopes along the River Ooze (not to be confused with the River Ouse). Over the last three years she has astounded everyone by growing a vineyard entirely from planting small cuttings “obtained” from other vineyards and spitting grape seeds at the fertile banks.

Using ground breaking technology to create barrels from old oil drums and water sourced from the river itself (running as it does through the characterful towns of Scragg and Dumpe), she has developed unique wines quite unlike anything you will taste anywhere else.

This for example is a sweet white. Its aroma bears the delicate whiff of the hooves of fine fillies whose stable needs cleaning out. Holding the glass to the sun, it appears to be filled with tiny sparkles of glitter floating in the golden fluid, so magical they move of their own accord as if they are alive. This is really a wine with legs! The flavour is reminiscent of retsina if you replaced resin with the tangy, unforgettable taste of envelope glue.

A sip of Chateauneufdusprat (RRP 75p) will take you back to fond memories of seaside washrooms and the dark corners of bus-stops and telephone boxes on Saturday night.

It is truly a magical tipple. After drinking half a bottle, you will never want to drink anything else ever again.

Anything.

wine

 

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Trespassers

The old boat had tempted Ben and Joe for years but they had been too little to get aboard.

Now they were older, it was different. The old boat would make a great den and they could maybe sleep there, if they could sneak out in the night. No-one seemed to care about it. It had been just one of many abandoned to rot, scattered among the better-loved boats along the river’s edge. It would be something to tell the other kids. ‘We stayed out all night by the river. We stayed in that boat.’

Now it was late autumn. It was getting dark and the day was too unpleasant for even the most dedicated sailors to be out renovating or maintaining their boats. There was not one other person about to see Ben and Joe squelch across the mud and clamber aboard. They could stash their things and come back later when everyone was asleep.

There was a wailing around them, the wind was getting up. The clattering in the shrouds ‘clink clink clink’ might have been eerie if they hadn’t been used to it, living along the riverside as they did.

They dragged a ladder from another boat and propped it up. The old boat smelled of leaked oil and rotten wood. Shards of peeling paint scratched them as they got on board.

‘Now what?’ said Ben.

They stood on deck and ate snacks, taking it in turns to pretend to steer, to stand on the prow, to clamber up on the wheelhouse.

It started to rain.

‘Guess we’d better stash our things below,’ said Joe.

They peered down between the rotten timbers, nails rusted and exposed, ready to grab them as they descended.

‘You first.’

‘No you.’

‘You’re chicken.’

‘No you are’.

Together they dropped down inside. There was a smell. An old smell like the ghost of a smell. Joe pulled a bit of broken hand rail from the ceiling and prodded about in the dark galley. Powder from long decayed food collapsed. Beetles scurried.

‘Not sure about staying down here,’ he said. Rainwater had puddled on the floor.

‘What about the aft cabin?’ said Ben.

It was wedged shut. An old anchor was propped against it and hooked under the frame. The boys yanked, their hands slipping in rust, the smell of corrosion rising.

With a final wrench, the anchor split the wood and the door sprung open.

A skeletal hand fell through and landed on Joe’s foot…

old boat

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Chocolate

Every day, after school, I did the breakfast dishes before my parents got in from work.

I was that shy girl who never knows what to wear and is slightly out of synch. The only boys who fancied me were shy too. When one worked up the courage to ask for a date, I said no. All I could imagine was an evening of awkward silence.

Most other boys thought my only passion was for books. Their eyes veered towards girls who could have looked attractive in a bin bag down a coal mine in the company of spiders. They told me I had mousy hair and eyes the colour of mud. And expected me to laugh.

David was different. David was good looking and kind. But he barely knew I existed and spent most of his time dodging the pushy girls as if he was a gazelle and they were a pride of lions.

After school, I went home and did the washing up. I looked out of the kitchen window and searched my mind in vain for something to say to David. But what could I talk about? Unlike me, he was into science and I knew nothing whatsoever about his interests outside school.

Then one afternoon, I stood scrubbing a plate and looked down the street for inspiration. What on earth could happen in our little village to prompt a conversation? There’s the mobile shop, late again. There’s Mrs Price crashing gears. There’s Mr Owens walking his chocolate coloured dog. I’d missed him for a few days because by some miracle my sister had done the washing up.

Something nagged at me, but try as I might, I still couldn’t think of one thing to say to David.

The next day the bell was ringing as I arrived at school. Rushing, I crashed into someone who was obviously also late, but being more dignified about it. It was David. As we collided, his bag slipped. Books, pens, lunch spewed everywhere. When a big slab of chocolate skittered across the floor, something went click. Before I could stop myself, I exclaimed:

‘I saw a ghost.’

‘What?’ said David.

I cringed, expecting mockery, but when I looked into his face, I just saw eagerness.

‘Last night. I-I saw a ghost. You won’t believe me but…’

‘Go on.’

‘Mr Owens in our village. Walks his dog every afternoon at exactly the same time. I saw him yesterday. Only… I just remembered, Mr Owens died last week.’

‘Can you…’ started David.

Before he could finish, the teacher leaned out of the classroom and said ‘sorry to interrupt your tryst, but I feel the urge to take the register.’

Blushing, we stood up to go into class.

‘Tell me at break,’ said David.

‘OK,’ I answered, handing over his book which I’d picked up from the floor. It was a book on the paranormal.

I smiled and he smiled back.

Who’d have thought doing the washing up would lead to love?

chocolate

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Umbrella

Today I dithered.

From the screen, Dina with lowered eyes, chatted away, oblivious to my restlessness. She was doing some form of craft I think. Her hands were below the screen but occasionally, scissors and thread flashed above the edge or she leaned forward to check her work.

For all I know she was performing surgery. For all I know, she was projecting a stock image of the woman she wants me to think she is.

If she had looked up, she’d have seen the image I chose to be today. I created it about ten years ago. My skin is iridescent and my hair in silvered braids is formed into the ears and scales of a dragon.

In the evenings I like to project myself as a sleepy cat for online friends. Only for close family do I show myself as I nearly am.

I have never seen Dina in person but this morning, I agreed to meet after five years of dialogue.

She gossiped and I responded in noncommittal sounds. Putting my glare glasses on, I motored to the window and looked outside where vehicles glided, their occupants obscured behind tinted glass and robots rushed.

There are still some who choose to be in the open. There will always be some who have no choice. Here and there, those throwbacks whose lower limbs still function walked or ran, mingling with those on motor legs like me. I’ve got the impression Dina is a throwback. I will know when I meet her for the first time next week.

All the people on the pavement, legged or motorised, wore their shells like badges. Here was a rich person, here someone trying to look rich. Here someone who didn’t care what anyone thought. I have not been beyond these walls for three years.

Shells fit close but they can project a lie as easily as a digital image can.

Someone passed whose shell looked cheap and worn. Over his head, he carried one of those antique fabric structures on a stick which was designed to keep off the rain, in the days when we used to have rain. I imagine he’d bought it in a junk shop to keep the sun from penetrating his inadequate shell.

I willed it to work. Once my little sister ran outside into the sun without protection. I tried to get to her but our mother, sobbing, pulled me back. Whenever I look at the burn scar on my right arm, I hear my sister’s screams; her skin bubbling and blistering as she died.

Now I turned to motor over to my wardrobe. Inside, my collection of shells hung – the myriad possible me’s taunted. I could look rich or average, shy or confident, flamboyant or conservative. Which one? Which one?

‘How will I recognise the real you?’ said Dina, biting off a piece of thread.

I stared into my wardrobe and said nothing. I no longer knew who I was myself.

window face

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Papers Please

They’re brown round the edges.

They remind me of the white rose petals I once pressed so carefully in a volume of poems. I forgot them for all those years and then I opened up the book one day and found them edged with brown. It was as if their life had leached out as my hope faded.

That was the day I packed my bag with a few things to remind me of you: the jewellery, the little toy, that book of verse. I walked up into the van and handed over all that cash and all those miles later they handed me my papers.

Or rather papers with someone else’s name.

And now all I have left is the book with its fading petals. The toy is safe, don’t worry. It is tight in the arms of a lost, lonely girl, just a child, who was brought to join me one morning. The jewels are long gone, paying over the odds every step of the way.

And at the last moment, they left us here. Left us with other people’s papers, a teddy, a book of verse and no hope. They told us to wait. A man would come and look after us. I had not realised I was a fool until that moment.

He put us carefully enough in the car and drove up that narrow, winding mountain pass. Was the view beautiful? I don’t know, all I could see was the ugliness of my future.

What was I thinking when I attacked him as he drove along that lonely twisting road? Did I ever think I might kill myself and this poor child as well? Perhaps I thought that would be a better fate than the one he was driving us towards.

But somehow we crawled free, limping and bruised, while he has been shredded through the car’s windscreen and crushed against the rock face. The road is still deserted.

With trembling fingers I found his lighter and ignited his jacket and the seats.

Somehow I will find you. The girl is clasping the teddy you bought me, her thumb in her mouth, silent as always. I am hugging your book with its crumbling petals.

Our false papers are left on the car seat. The edges are first brown, then black, now blooming into red flowers of flame.

We will go anonymous and nameless.

But I will find you.

 

papers-please

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Ticket Dude

Wedged into the seat at the back of the carriage with my case and bag, I’ve balanced my laptop and started to write. Even on the way home there’s no rest from work but at least no-one can read over my shoulder here.

‘Tickets please!’

Ten minutes into my journey I proffer my tickets with one hand, trying to stop the laptop slipping with the other.

‘That’s fine,’ says the collector, handing the ticket back having scribbled his approval.

An hour later:

‘Tickets please!’

This time, my laptop nearly slides to the floor as I open my purse.

Scribble scribble, ticket handed back.

Half an hour on:

‘Tickets please!’

Sighing, I take my time. Let him wait.

As I rummage, he says, ‘where to?’

‘Westbury, we’re nearly there,’ I snap, bending my fingernails on the recalcitrant ticket and handing it over.

‘Westbury is what’s on the ticket. Where would you rather it said?’

I close down my laptop with its drowning emails and impossible targets and look at him in surprise. The sunshine through the window is glinting on his poised pen.

‘The Bahamas would be nice,’ I joke.

As I bend to get my things together, he scribbles something on my ticket and hands it back, moving on, just as the train pulls into Westbury.

Only as I get out of my seat and look out of the window, the White Horse is missing. In fact the hill is missing, and so is the landlocked town. Instead, the platform is on the edge of a beach and there is a table on the sand under a sunshade. I can just make out my name on a reserved label.

Astounded I get off the train and find that someone is waiting to hand me a cool drink and a sunhat. Behind me the train moves on, my briefcase and work laptop still on board. I stand there in the blazing sun with nothing but an overnight bag, a credit card and the words on my ticket obliterated but for the words:

‘Bahamas – needs never return unless she wants to.’

ticket-dude_edited-1

NB There is a real story behind this, if not two. I used to travel regularly between Warminster and Bristol. The railway line runs through Westbury and as you approach the station, you can see the White Horse, so unbelievably surreal on the hill-fort, looking down as it has done for thousands of years (admittedly it hasn’t been looking down on the railway for that long). I was once on the train with a lot of tourists from hot, dry climes who thought they were seeing things and were frantically googling as we passed through. The horse did seem especially superimposed that time, as it had been newly repainted and the grass was particularly green around it. Another time, I was on the same journey with a bunch of students and a particularly persistent guard. The students referred to him as “The Ticket Dude” and I was sitting there after a fairly stressful day at work, thinking what a cool name that was and what a real “Ticket Dude” could do for his customers. Westbury is lovely and so is the whole train journey, but that particular day, if anyone could have whisked me off to a life of leisure in the Bahamas, I would have been more than delighted. The blurry face is me reflected in a different train’s grubby winter window (Poole to Winchester I think). The photo of the White Horse is from the English Heritage site as I don’t own an aeroplane (link below). So far, I’ve never been to the Bahamas, so the photo of the bird over water is a swallow over a Spanish swimming pool! But the train ticket is all mine!

Words and photographs (save the one of the White Horse – see link) copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission Photograph of White Horse (which is quite real, even though it doesn’t look it and also ancient) from the English Heritage Site – click here for more information about the White Horse including how you can visit it.