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

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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.

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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.’

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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.

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I working alone in the spare room, shuffling paper, tapping on a laptop, making calls.

Outside, in the winter garden, the courting pigeons shift and flutter on the fence, prospective lovers trying their chances and being dodged. A crow flies down. He flexes his wings in dismissal and the pigeons scatter. He raises his head and looks around in disdain, waiting till all eyes are on him. Then he lowers his beak, and with slow deliberation, sharpens it on the edge of the fence. Even the slinking cat bides her time, hiding in next door’s cabbages. I may pause with a cup of tea to watch, then go back to work.

It has never felt lonely here. The ghost, a musical companionable presence, potters around. He plays the electric piano in the front room, wearing spectral headphones. All I can hear is the rhythm of thumping keys, which stop as I enter. He hums tunes from inside machines and knocks on radiators.

Sometimes there’s a tap on the front door. I have to stop what I’m doing to go downstairs. Who’s there? No-one. I imagine the ghost sniggering when he catches me out like that; his ghosty shoulders heaving noiselessly.

At night when the family is home, if I go to bed early, I can hear the ghost. He chats or sings with some other unbody. The voices are just too indistinct to understand and I know it’s not the TV or radio downstairs.

Other times, he thumps about in the attic, rummaging through boxes.

‘Go to sleep,’ I tell him.

My husband mutters ‘what?’ then rolls over to snore.

No-one else ever hears the ghost. Until yesterday I had never seen him.

Recently, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t stopped to chuckle or admonish him. I’ve been meeting deadlines, correcting drafts. Then I had to work away. In my hotel there was nothing to hear but city noises: buses, trains, strangers. Finally home, I went to bed too tired even to read, let alone feel charmed by voices from another world. Too tired to say ‘hello’.

Then yesterday evening, I saw him. Through a gap in the hall curtains, night pressed against the glass. Then there was a flash of movement.

‘That’s the ghost’, I thought, ‘what’s he doing outside?’

Today, I am alone in the house again. At first it was silent. Then the letter-box rattled. Now it’s silent again.

Was the rattling from inside or outside?

Where is he? It is very quiet.

I am lonely.

I get up and start down the stairs. Will I find a real person outside? Has my ghost left?

There is no-one there. My shoulders relaxing, I bound up the stairs.

‘Naughty ghost!’ I admonish.

Suddenly syncopated rhythm rattles the pipes, the dishwasher croons and someone is playing hopscotch in the attic.

Shaking my head, I turn to my work again and smile, no longer alone.

Forgiven.

piano-5

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

Dedication

Annie ran. Or rather, she tried to. Last night’s blizzard had been a surprise. The roads were blocked, the paths were clogged, drifts lay six feet deep. But Annie wouldn’t let a bit of snow stop her training. In the muffled, blinding dawn, she staggered on.

“You’re stupid to go out in this,” her husband had murmured before starting to snore again. Lazy, unsupportive pig.

Everyone said Annie was too out of shape. She ran early otherwise her children sniggered as they beheld her curves in unforgiving lycra, two support bras strapping down her chest, the bulge of her stomach unhidden. Let them call her fat: she would be fit enough to raise money at the fun-run for endangered wild-life if it killed her. At least she was doing something.

The world was silent but for the whomp whomp of her plodding feet. The trail was usually full of runners, pacing along, earphones in, competing against themselves. But today Annie was alone.

The trail started in town but was soon in the wilds. On one side meadowland sloped down to the river and on the other, stony ground clumped up to a summit hidden in trees. Annie reached the stretch where everyone ran faster. An old building was hidden by a dark forest. There were high fences and warning signs. Even the town’s older people couldn’t quite remember what it had been in the war: house, menagerie, research facility, lunatic asylum? The night runners and the early morning winter runners told of flashes of light, eyes perhaps, flickering behind the wire.

Annie was oblivious. Alone, with snow crunching under her slow feet, she hallucinated: imagining slipping back into the warm bed after thawing under a hot shower. She couldn’t have picked up pace even if she had remembered where she was. Her ankles stung, the cold air scratched her throat and dried her lips. Her heart protested with every thud thud of her throbbing feet.

Her eyes were closed, so she did not see that the fence around the forest had been brought down by snow. Creatures had emerged and stood on fallen warning signs, looking down on the trail, deserted but for one small, plump woman, red-faced, slogging along, her chest heaving.

In silent telepathy they fell into formation and streamed down the slope.

This one would be nice and juicy, once the lycra was chewed off.

Moments later, watching an inferior spit out the last support bra to expose the chest cavity, the alpha male reached in for the heart and liver.

Poor Annie, perhaps she should have listened to her husband this time.

Still, in the end, at least she could have said she’d given her all for wild-life.

Although perhaps she’d been thinking of something recognisable and maybe cute.

The pack, nourished, looked down the trail. The sun had risen. More fodder was approaching. Shoving Annie’s remains into a ditch, licking the blood from the snow, they slinked into hiding and waited…

forest

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

Somewhere Else

Jo climbed the tree fast.

“Hang on,” I said, pulling myself up after her.

The branches shuddered. Old twigs shook loose and caught in my hair.

“They won’t see us up here,” I argued, “Not in all these leaves.”

Jo paused. Her face was rippling with green light as the swaying slowed. It was hot.

“Did you know,” she said, “when you get to the top of something, right to the top, the top of the tallest something, then you can reach Somewhere Else.”

She was always saying this sort of thing, with utter certainty, dragging me in.

I made a tiny gap in the leaves. Were the boys and their snarling, slavering dog still hunting us?

“This isn’t the tallest tree in the woods.” I pointed out. Further up the ridge were larches, looming and angry even in summer.

“It’s the tallest tree in this bit of the woods.”

“Well I’ve been up the top of Bryn Cawr and didn’t find Somewhere Else. There was just rock and dirt and a dead sheep.”

Jo twisted on her branch and looked over to the mountain across the valley. It looked like a fat, lumpy sleeping giant.

“Mountains ought to be pointy,” she argued, “and anyway, Bryn Cawr isn’t the tallest mountain around here.”

“Shh,” I hissed. The bracken was moving; the boys were crouched down, sneaking. Did they know where we were?

Jo shinned up the tallest branch. There were bloody scratches on her soft legs. I looked down, it was a long way to fall.

“Come back,” I begged.

“No. I want to be Somewhere Else.”

If she fell, she’d break her neck.

The tree stopped moving. The bracken was still. Why had I climbed in the first place? Why hadn’t we just run home? Jo and her other worlds! She got me believing her fantasies and I always forgot she was making it up. I leaned back as much as I dared to glare at her.

The tallest branch was empty, leaves shimmering in the heat.

“Jo?”

She wasn’t there. I’d imagined it all, running from that dog, from those boys, wishing I wasn’t alone.

Suddenly, the bracken exploded. The dog came out with the last boy, threshing under thumps and kicks. A hand was over his muzzle and then released. All the dog’s pent up fury exploded into vicious barking. Spittle flew. Shouting, the boys raced towards the tree, throwing stones.

“We know you’re up there!”

I climbed higher until I was holding onto the slender highest branch. There was nothing over me but blue. I was higher than the mountains and as high as the distant larches.

“Psst,” said Jo.

I looked up and saw a door in the sky above my head.

“Catch hold,” Jo’s hand appeared through the door, “I was right! Come and see.”

And I reached up and wrapped my fingers round hers and let go of the tree and the bullying world below faded away and I was Somewhere Else instead.

elsewhere

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