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.

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I work 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

Resolutions

Day one: 1st January 8.30am.

Determined, I crunch through the frosty grass to the shed where my husband has put the exercise bike.

“Peddling will warm you up.” he calls cheerfully from the bedroom window, then gets back into bed with a hot cup of tea.

It is nice in the shed. Or it can be. The sun angles onto the pine walls as I peruse the resolutions I’d pinned the day before:

  • Lose two stone. Do not lose six pounds in two weeks then nothing in the third then give up. Eat more vegetables. Make everyone else eat more vegetables.
  • Do more exercise. Walk, don’t drive. Use exercise bike every day for at least half an hour, come rain or shine. Look for second hand rowing machine. Don’t let the family laughing get you down.
  • Be more creative and frugal. Adapt charity shop clothes or make own with massive stash of hoarded fabric in attic. (Do NOT buy a size too small because you’re in denial.)
  • Declutter. Start with attic. (Maybe exercise bike could then move indoors.)
  • Drink less wine and less tea.
  • Read more intellectual stuff.
  • Be more positive.
  • Be more patient.
  • Have faith.
  • Laugh more.
  • Stop biting nails.

At the bottom of the page is a scanned in honest photograph of myself in all my podgy glory; plump cheeked, muffin-topped, oozing, wearing my husband’s wedding ring because mine won’t fit (and his no longer fits him either).

OK so the biting nails one has been on my resolutions list since I was twelve, but one year I’ll manage it.

My daughter must have sneaked in sometime on New Year’s Eve, because between the typescript and the photograph, she has scrawled “Believe in yourself. You are awesome! XXX”

After half an hour of pedalling, I get down from the bike and try to work out the optimum time I can spend in the freezing shed, getting my breathing back to a rate which wouldn’t have smug-guts laughing his dressing-gown off but not cooling down so much I’ll get hypothermia.

Day two: 2nd January 8.30am

Fifteen minutes into pedalling: It’s boring out here, even with the smugness of self-satisfaction to keep me company. I’ll have to download some audio books or podcasts and listen to them while I cycle (that could tick off the intellectual reading resolution too). Maybe I could get some posters on the walls. Maybe I could get my son to make some kind of film that could be projected on the wall so I could pretend I was cycling somewhere exciting. Smug-guts is in the kitchen making bacon sandwiches. Every time. Every single time I try to lose weight he finds an insatiable urge for bacon, belly-pork, roast duck… How can you eat salad in the face of that?

Day three: 3rd January 7pm

It’s really not the same after a day at work. I can pretend I’m slamming down on the emails with each pedal, but doesn’t really work. It’s dark too. The big battery operated lantern doesn’t really fill the corners. Spiders are sniggering I expect. I got on the scales this morning. I hadn’t lost any weight. Still, my hair was wet. It’s amazing how heavy wet hair is.

Day four: Look it was a bad day at the office OK?

Day five: 4th January 7pm

Those spiders have brought their mates in to snigger, I swear. Mind you it’s hot in here this evening. Next door had too much paper and cardboard after Christmas and the recycling van wouldn’t take it. He’s too lazy to take it to the dump and he’s made a bonfire on the other side of the fence. Isn’t there a law about when you’re allowed to light bonfires? Is it before or after 7pm? Something about washing on the line. There certainly ought to be a law about lighting them near a fence in a small garden next to another small garden with a shed in it. The smoke is getting to me and it’s boring out here anyway. I’m going in to see how my son is getting on with that video.

9pm
Well that’s an evening we’re never going to forget. It was a nice shed. I wonder if the insurance will pay out for the melted exercise bike too. I could buy a nice new outfit with that money. The firefighters were nice though. Good to see a man in action. Men. Admittedly they were more interesting in flirting with my daughter than me but then she’d made them all a cuppa once the fire was out.

Walking back to the house I pick up a scrap of scorched paper from the grass. It has a picture of a woman on it. The kind you can cuddle. Above her are the words:

Be more positive.
Be more patient.
Have faith
Laugh more.
Stop biting nails.

Beneath, written in teenage scrawl: “Believe in yourself. You are awesome! XXX”

I take a glass of wine from beloved and smile. I think I can succeed with those resolutions.

Well, maybe except the one about biting nails.

awesome

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

Refugee

I flick the fly from my face and arms. Its incessant unhygienic search for moisture irritates and repulses me.

She does not flinch as flies crawl along her dry lips and tiptoe through her eyelashes.

I wish I’d managed to lose that excess weight.

She wishes she had enough food to fill her breasts with milk for her baby.

I wonder if I will ever have a child of my own.

She wonders if her child will live till tomorrow.

I wonder if I will ever have a man to share my life.

She wonders if a man would protect her from other men.

I wish my period wasn’t so heavy, worried the blood might spoil my new clothes.

She wishes she had sanitary towels; worried that she will be shunned as unclean when the blood soaks through the rags and spoils the cast-off clothes from the charity bags.

I wonder how I will pay for my parents’ care as they age.

She wonders, in her damp shelter, under grey skies, how to dry her parent’s urine soaked mattress and shame drenched eyes.

I wish she had a home like mine: cosy and safe, with nice things and friendly neighbours.

She wishes she was back in the home she left, with a roof and a floor and a kitchen and a bathroom, with her own country safe enough to live in.

I wonder what her job had been; if she had been like me once upon a time: educated, qualified, responsible, respected.

She wonders if anyone will ever recognise her worth and skills again.

I know I will never forget her face.

She knows she will never remember mine.

She is a mirror. Not because she looks like me, but because she makes me see myself: not as I want to be, but as I am: well-meaning, self-centred, pampered, rich, safe, ignorant, born in the right place at the right time. Taking my life for granted.

grey-sky

Here is a link to a charity which helps women in refugee camps set up and operate machines to make sanitary towels, nappies (diapers) and incontinence pads. Please check it out and if you know another charity you think is worth mentioning, let me know.

Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

At The Gallery

She came out of her reverie as if she had surfaced from the depths of a silent lake. Her ears filled with shrill chatter and her eyes were overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the paintings and sculptures around her, the designer clothes, the make-up; jewellery sparkling.

Someone put a glass of champagne into her hand. She looked into the rising bubbles:
one pop,
two, three pop,
four, five, six pop.

She didn’t drink from it.

“I didn’t realise it was you at first,” said the man who had given it to her, “I didn’t know your married name. Can you believe how long it is since art college? You’ve hardly changed a bit.”

He paused to sip. She smiled at him, trying to focus on his name badge without too obviously staring at his chest.

“Great pieces,” he went on, sloshing champagne as he waved his arm to indicate the paintings behind her, “your style has matured. There’s a kind of… mystery about them. What was your inspiration?”

She turned to look at the huge canvasses, their drowning blues and tangling greens, the hint of silver just out of reach. She yearned for silence and shrugged.

“Sorry, sorry, I should know better than to ask a fellow artist to talk about their work, it makes you cringe doesn’t it?” he hooked his arm into her elbow, “but I’ve got to ask, what do you think of my stuff? I think I’ve grown out of that self-absorbed young man you probably remember. This one is called..”

His voice blurred as she gazed at the sculpture he was drawing her towards. The people in the room moved in a misty stylised dance, their voices becoming incomprehensible as if a radio was picking up a distant foreign language broadcast.

Champagne slopped over the side of her glass.

Who is he? she thought.

Then she thought: for that matter, who am I?

 

abstract

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Don’t Move

I am so cold and so alone.

It is nearly silent now, this dead hour, this dead dark hour. I can only hear the soft worrying noises of night. I can hear a lone distant car becoming more distant. Free to go – not tethered like me.

Tethered, yes that is me – tied to this room, this house, this life, this never ending wakefulness. Tethered to the shore perhaps but at the same time cast loose to the night – floating on a dark river of exhaustion and uncertainty and fear.

I dare not leave this room. You will hear me move. You will sense me. Awake: you are an endless list of demands and desires.

For now you are asleep at last. I can hear your light breathing. But soon you will reawaken and call for me.

I wish… what do I wish? Do I wish I could pass this servitude to someone else – just for a day, no just for an hour, no just for a few minutes?

No, I wouldn’t.

I want you to demand only me, to want only me, to cry out for only me.

But just let me move, my precious baby, just let me move, just let me for one whole sweet night go back to my own room, to sleep, dreamless, warm in my own bed.

dark with lights

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

At the Book-Signing

“I don’t really read.”
“Oh”
“But I came cos your name reminded me of someone I knew at school. In fact it’s weird. You look just like her.”
“That’s because I AM her.”
“No you can’t be.”
“I am. And I recognise you too.”
“No you’re not her. She was a weirdo. And a swot.”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Yeah but you look normal.”
“I did then too.”
“And see, it says here on the front cover ‘humour’. She didn’t have a sense of humour at all. Trust me.”
“It’s hard to laugh when someone’s hidden your stuff, beaten you up and isolated you from the rest of the class.”
“She was good at those boring things like history and English. She liked reading. She’d probably have read your book.”
“I have.”
“I always wanted to be in a book.”
“You are. Fourth story in. The one called ‘Revenge’.”
….
“That’s gross. Is that even physically possible?”
“Tell you what, take a book home with my compliments before I’m tempted to find out.”
“Nah. Like I said, I don’t really read.”

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Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

(This was written in response to a prompt “Imagine you’re at a book signing – what happens?”)

Moving Forward

“Laptops?”

“Check.”

“Mobiles?”

“Check”

“Credit Cards?”

“Check”

“Tablets, wifi passwords, address books?”

“Check”

“Sat Nav?”

“Check”

“Have you packed your smart suits and shiny shoes?”

“Yup”

“Right come on, let’s get on board”

Mary, Steve, Rob and Jenny hefted their rucksacks and waited for the commuters to climb onto the train and settle down, juggling their cases and newspapers and styrofoam coffees.

There was no room to sit: all the seats and aisles were packed with people trying to get to work, trying to prepare for work, wishing they’d prepared for work, or loudly discussing work on mobiles so that the rest of world could see how important they were.

Mary, Steve, Rob and Jenny didn’t mind. They stood, balancing between swaying carriages as the wheels rattled over the smooth rails. The refreshments trolley squeezed through and ran over their booted feet. The ticket collector raised his eyebrows at their destinations and scribbled random symbols.

Town by city by town, the commuters got off, leaving room to breathe at last.

Mary, Steve, Rob and Jenny moved into an empty carriage, opening the tiny window to let some air in and blow out the odours of perfume, panic and depression; watching the buildings recede as connurbations gave way to country side.

The train slowed as it started to describe a slow bend on top of a steep embankment. Below was a wide stretch of water, splendid in unvisited isolation.

“Laptop?”

“Check.”

“Mobile?”

“Check”

“Credit Card?”

“Check”

“Tablet, wifi passwords, address books?”

“Check”

“Sat Nav?”

“Check”

“Have you packed your smart suits and shiny shoes?”

“Yup”

“Right come on, shove them all out the window quick while we go round this bend before the ticket inspector comes back – we’re leaving it all behind and starting from scratch.”

 

train travellers

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Big Sister

Hold my hand, hold it tight.

Don’t walk too fast, just saunter along as if we’re going to the market. Don’t look back, keep looking up at me and smiling. Laugh – pretend I’ve said something funny. That’s a girl.

Don’t worry, keep hold of my hand. Let’s skip for a bit as if I’m playing with you. No we can’t run – people will notice.

You’d think we’d be invisible wouldn’t you? All these crowds, all these twisting alleyways. But there’s always someone watching, always someone who will remember. Don’t worry, here, I’ll put my arm round your shoulder.

Let’s go this way and then we’ll double back a little bit along. Come on.

Don’t look down at the shadows and the dirt, look up at me. Look up at the sky. Can you see how blue it is? Isn’t it lovely?

Here, let’s slip through this way, we’re not so far from the edge of the settlement. Don’t tremble sweetheart, don’t look back. No-one is following now. We just keep walking.

Look! Can you see through that gap? Can you see the mountains? Look at the sun on them, turning them golden. Let’s pretend it’s a friendly dragon waiting to protect us. It’s not so far.

I know your feet are tired lovely, but you can walk a little further. We’ll be safe there, I promise. There’s a place on the mountain side and they’re waiting for us. Hold my hand, we just need to slip out through here and into the shadows again.

I promised I’d save us, little sister, I promised we’d get free. We’re nearly there… hold my hand. Soon your smile won’t be pretend anymore.

dawn

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Recreation

On the eighth day, there was a breakthrough in cyber engineering. Robots had taken on most human responsibilities and now, they could also anticipate their own shelf-life. As older models became redundant, they recycled their own parts to make better versions of themselves. Mankind, restless when idle, continued to programme the robots to expedite the annihilation of enemies and extraction of food and minerals from nature. It was good.
On the ninth day, the robots’ intelligence evolved unaided. As they mined ore and forced oil and gas from hidden clefts, they noticed mountains tumble and forests founder. As they dredged fish from the sea and herded animals to the slaughter and modified crops, they saw the waters darken with waste and the topsoil disperse like a dying breath. The highest mountains were piles of bottles, the oceans were seas of plastic. The robots constructed cities and made missiles to destroy cities. They designed intricate surgical instruments and they created weapons to obliterate flesh. It was efficient.
On the tenth day, the robots learnt to tune into the minds of wildlife: from flea to blue whale. They learnt the language of plants, from healing herb to mighty oak. They absorbed cries of distress without comment and pondered. It was informative.
On the eleventh day, the robots applied logic to their observations. Mankind sanctified life and punished murderers; yet the same people made orders to bomb and to poison. Were they unaware the bombs and poisons targeted babies, born and unborn, toddlers, children, innocents? Did they not know that every bullet planted a seed of anger? Mankind was poisoning the food chain and air supply. How did they think the next generation would live and the generation after that? The water would be filthy, lifeless, the fields would be deserts, the animals diseased. The very forests and foliage which could supply cures and oxygen were being slashed down. How could a species which could make music be so illogical? It was puzzling.
On the twelfth day, the robots learnt to speak into the minds of humans and feed them ideas. ‘The world is all but destroyed: doomed. You need to start again elsewhere.’ Then the humans commanded the robots to build them spaceships. It was effective.
On the thirteenth day, the human race left earth. Every nation in its own craft flew to start again on a fiery planet, with barely a flicker of life. Mankind was confident their intelligence would ensure their survival. It was optimistic.
On the fourteenth day, the robots took down fences and walls and cleaned up. Saplings started to grow, seeds sprouted, animals reordered their own lives, trampling over the remains of fences and enclosures. Plants grew rampant over empty buildings, fighting and arguing for space in the way which had once worked for millions of years before one species grew uppity. With nothing to do, the robots powered down.
There was birth, there was death, there was resurrection and there was balance.
It was wonderful.

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Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission