Sail Away…

My husband doesn’t believe me, but I like the idea of sailing. It’s just that I’m not sure sailing likes the idea of me.

I loved books about sea voyages. Voyage of the Dawn Treader was one of my favourites. My uncle had a painting with a sea-scape so real I used to stare at it in the hope I would somehow be transported through it to Narnia. I imagined myself like brave Lucy, kitted out in cabin boy garb, standing on deck watching mermaids and dolphins, soaking up the sun and never wanting land to be found.

This is how my husband feels I think, although he’d probably refuse to wear the cabin-boy outfit. 

Sailing is where he feels utterly at peace (apart from when something crucial jams in which case he turns the air blue). He was introduced to it as a child and never looked back. But all his attempts to make me and sailing to get along haven’t quite worked.

He started with taking me to watch him dinghy sailing in Llangorse Lake when we were dating. There are several activities I can’t understand as spectator sports, golf is one and sailing is another. My experience of these days can be summed up thus: 

  • Preparing to sail and packing up after sailing took three times as long as the sailing itself and was even duller to watch.
  • It was quite entertaining watching someone get into a wetsuit. 
  • The skies were generally grey.
  • It was usually cold.
  • It was often raining.
  • The tea on offer in the little tea-shack was very weak.
  • It proved possible to read the whole of a very odd science fiction book while sitting in the car over a series of weekends, bored and with insufficient good tea but afterwards I couldn’t remember the plot or even the title.
  • It was even more entertaining watching someone get out of a wetsuit but not quite enough to make me want to watch it every Saturday.

Naturally, after a few months he then decided that I might be more enthusiastic if I joined him. We finally found a wetsuit that was short enough and small enough for most of my body yet still zipped up across a bust that hadn’t got the instructions about being in proportion to everything else. It was the only time I’d been flat chested since the aged of nine. That was the best bit. 

My in-laws still recall with sniggers the day when they sat inside a nice warm café overlooking a lake in North Wales watching him teach me how to dinghy sail. He had me on trapeze. This wasn’t as exciting as it sounds. I was not flying through the air in a sparkly costume. I was standing on the edge of the dinghy in a yellow and black wetsuit holding a line and counterbalancing the angle of the dinghy to stop us from capsizing. The difficulties with this were: at the time I was very light so it was quite an effort; my right knee kept locking and then suddenly unlocking; sometimes the boat would stop tilting and dip my backside in the water and despite my grim-faced best efforts we quite often capsized anyway. And even then – to this day I don’t know how he managed it – my husband would barely touch the water and would be sitting atop the upturned hull while I was floundering about underneath the dinghy. My mother-in-law says she’s never seen anyone look as cold and murderous as I did that day as I was finally allowed to return to dry land.

You may think it odd that less than a year later I married this aquatic maniac and agreed to a honeymoon sailing in the Ionian. It was lovely however, largely because I didn’t have to wear a wetsuit or go on a trapeze and it was warm enough to clamber about the boat in shorts pretending I knew what I was doing. I did feel vaguely queasy most of the time but wasn’t sure if this was sea-sickness, the retsina we were consuming or the realisation that I’d married someone I’d only known for eighteen months. 

Ah yes, sea-sickness. My beloved is convinced it’s is all in one’s head. As one’s inner ear – which is the key body part – is in one’s head, he’s technically correct. My only conclusion is that his inner ear must be highly insensitive or superglued because while his can cope with any amount of lolloping and bouncing about mine feels as if it’s in a concrete mixer. 

A year or so after the wedding, my husband’s friend borrowed a yacht and asked us to sail with him from Lymington to Dartmouth and back. My husband agreed with alacrity and grew positively lyrical as he described how wonderful it would be. ‘But,’ he added nonchalantly as an aside, ‘it may be a little chilly, so you’d best buy some thermal underwear. Including long-johns.’ Long-johns? Up until that point I didn’t even know you could still buy then. Well dear reader, suffice to say, that April weekend was the first warm sunny one for about six months. Warm that is, if you were doing something nice like amble on land. We rounded St Aldhelm’s head in blazing sunshine, bouncing against the current (or something) like ping-pong balls in a washing machine. Along the cliffs, people walked in t-shirts and shorts. From the cockpit, dressed in four layers of clothes including the loathed long-johns, I glared at them until nausea got the better of me and I went below to lie down in the dark and pretend I was somewhere else until we got to Dartmouth. For technical nautical reasons which I can’t recall but included questionable forward planning, ‘we’ll be there for dinner’ turned into ‘we might just about arrive in time to get something to eat’. We finally staggered into a dining room at ten p.m. overheating in our thermals and looking as if we’d been keelhauled. I’m surprised they served us. If I had had any money I’d have got a train home the following day. Sadly I didn’t.

Some more years passed. My husband had always wanted a small yacht of his own and when shortly after we’d moved to the south coast something happened to a friend that made him realise life was short, he bought one. Summer Saturdays often involved short sails, picnics, the occasional night on board. In general, these are happy days, although don’t talk to me about tacking – a zigzagging form of forward motion which makes me think of Alice in Through the Looking Glass when she can see where she’s heading but never seems to get there.

And then there was the weekend of the picnic off the Arne Peninsula. 

‘We’ll anchor up and stay over,’ said my husband. ‘We’ll leave early in the morning and be home by ten, have a lazy Sunday at home.’

My life being fairly ruled by laundry, I asked if it was safe to do the washing and leave it out till we got back.

‘Of course,’ he assured me. ‘The bad weather’s not forecast till the afternoon.’

Well, you can guess the rest. We had a lovely evening, warm and sultry. We went to bed in dead calm. 

The force seven storm hit at six a.m.

The trip back to the boat’s usual mooring gave us an insight into how fruit feels in a blender when they’re turning into a smoothie. My husband pretty much lashed himself to the tiller while the children and I stayed below, our legs hooked round anything that might stop us from being flung about. Unfortunately our mooring when we got there, was a long way from actual land. We had to get out of the boat into a dinghy and motor to shore. I seem to have obliterated the memory of how we managed the first part without falling into the sea. The second part felt as if it would never be over. The children (then 10 and 12 years old) and I sat in the bottom of the dinghy, up to our hips in rain and seawater. When my daughter said she was scared, my son suggested singing a song. The trouble was that the only one which came to mind was something she’d been learning at school for the performance of Wind in the Willows. The song was … ‘Messing About in Boats’. Oh the irony. When we finally reached land, drenched to the skin, we found that the bag we’d put dry clothes in wasn’t quite closed and most of the clothes were soaked. Half an hour later I went into a shop to get bacon and bread wearing my husband’s track suit bottoms and one of his t-shirts, my hair in rats-tails. I felt even less glamorous than the day I’d worn long-johns.

And then I had to go home and retrieve the washing from the line… or rather from various parts of the garden.

Yes, sailing. I love the idea but it never seems to be like The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. 

My poor husband, he does so want me and the boat to be friends. He was quite pleased when I asked him lots of questions about tides and sailing for a book I’m writing and then he grew suspicious.

‘Can I ask what happens to the boat?’ He said.

‘Er… it sinks.’ I replied.

‘Murderer,’ he said in disgust. ‘Boat-killer.’

I haven’t yet told him what I do to the sailor.

 

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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.

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Murder Britannica – Book Launch

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

Anguis scratched a long fingernail down the shorthand.

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

‘But I want my art to reflect truth.’

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

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

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

This could be the book for you if

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

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

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

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

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

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

MB Cover 7

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

Click here to buy Murder Britannica

A Tale of Two Trees.

This week we lost a tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hold the Line, Caller

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

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

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

Take the telephone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_0425

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

Old Cat

Old Cat 2

In loving memory of Murray the cat 1994-2012

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. (Background from Photoshop Elements.)

Obedience versus Wisdom

I was girly. My sister was a tomboy. 

But when our family got locked out, guess who said agreed to being shoved up onto an extension roof and then breaking in through the upstairs bathroom? Yes, me.

If it had been safe to look, I guess I’d have seen seen my sister smirking as I hung from a window fifty feet from the ground. 

‘More fool her,’ she’d have been thinking.

Nowadays, she always says I’m brave for trying things even when I’m terrified. Secretly, I suspect she still thinks I’m fundamentally an idiot.

I fear she may be right.

window

(N.B. This is quite true and the upper window (before it was double-glazed etc and therefore 12 year old proof) is the one I climbed in through. My dad shoved me up onto the extension roof at the end closest in this photograph. No longer our house, therefore blurred!)

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.

Check out what other people wrote about their siblings from the same prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook

Memories (my sister pops up again)

Travelling Companions (although this might explain her point of view)

 

Dear Travel Journal

It’s day three and I’m not sure future generations will ever believe my record of commuting in 2018. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind but it’s just making me lose mine.

Today is typical. I drove to catch the 6:45am train and I came across a group or (to use the proper collective noun) ‘murder’ of crows in the middle of the country road. One which was too idle to take off in time met its maker at 60 mph, showering my car in sinister feathers. My question is: if I’ve murdered a crow in a murder of crows am I a double murderer?

Somewhat rattled, I got to the station in time but to no avail. I know I live in the country but it’s still absurd when your train has been cancelled due to bird strike on the driver’s window. And that bird was a pheasant.

The 6.45 being out of action, the next departure was also delayed because, according to a weary announcement, there were ‘two lads who are refusing to pay for their tickets and until we get them off the train, we’re not leaving.’ Wherever the excitement was, it wasn’t in my carriage and despite everyone craning over each other to look out of the window, we never saw the miscreants being hauled off which was a shame as it would have livened things up. Perhaps it was no wonder that after that, when we finally got moving, the person in charge of the train wasn’t sure where we were. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this train will shortly be arriving at …….’ Very long pause…Eventually an automated tannoy announcement came on. I wasn’t really listening to the destination list until it said ‘next station Axminster’ which is in the wrong direction. No one else in the carriage seemed to notice (probably, like me, busy trying to get the free wifi to connect). I looked up and the information doodah screen definitely said the next station was Andover. I spent the next half an hour in a state of mild anxiety but eventually Andover rolled into view. After that, they seemed to have changed the tape.

I got a drink from the trolley to calm my nerves, took a swig of tea and discovered it was coffee. Yuk. The next unpleasant thing was realising someone in the carriage was constantly but silently breaking wind and knowing they might be doing it all the way to London. Luckily, he seemed to get off at the next stop, or else just ran out of methane. But when I got up to put my tea, or rather, coffee container in the bin, I got back to witness an otherwise attractive young man picking his nose. He then ate it. Perhaps he considered it to be breakfast.

A bit later, a glamorous young woman got on. She started by fixing her enormous pseudo beehive with hairspray. Yes. In the carriage full of people. Shortly after that, she sharpened her talons with an emery board. It sounds like nails on blackboard and bits of shavings went everywhere.

I averted my eyes to the view out of the window but when at the next stop, a man sat next to me and started crocheting, I ended up mesmerised by his creation. So I was still looking when he put the wool down and started scrawling a list instead. It appeared to say:

  1. Cheese
  2. Fluffy PJs
  3. Bedsocks
  4. Pillows
  5. Travel rabbit

Now, I’m fairly sure that the last item was travel tablets scribed in bad handwriting, but you never know. I wonder (apart from anything obvious) what a travel rabbit could be. I may have to write a story.

Oh but the joys of an early morning commute in midwinter. The squelchy sneezes, the coughs full of enough catarrh to coat the back of a spoon, the sniffs, all the germs joyfully mingling when it turned out the train was three carriages short and the virus laden bodies were crammed up against each other in a proximity British people abhor unless newly in love. Ah the joys of finding the train journey will take an extra 40 mins due to a sick person in another train at Clapham Junction. I mean why? What could we do about it?

And then the journey stopped completely due to signalling problems. Apparently trains were being signalled through one by one by hand. I am not sure what this means but had visions of The Railway Children waving a petticoat. I suppose it can’t be the same as the average modern petticoat is too flimsy to re-direct a train.

So that was then. Somewhere in between there was a day at work (same old same old) and then I started home.

I was slightly worried to start with because the announcer on the train sounded French. Initially I wondered if I had been transported, without noticing, from London to Paris or, in fact, to the other Waterloo? (Is the other Waterloo French speaking? Quick internet search…. Yes I think it is). Anyway, I was ALMOST sure I heard Salisbury being mentioned as a destination, so I thought I should be safe. Bit of a shame really, I wouldn’t mind finding myself in Belgium instead and from thence, after a bit of sight-seeing, on a south-bound train to the Côte d’Azur.

At the beginning of the journey, I sat next to a dainty looking young woman who turned out to be eating a burger bigger than her head. It was a bit grim to watch and worse to smell but I managed to move across the aisle to give her elbow room while she shoved it down. I thought her jaw might dislocate at one point. Meanwhile some loud man was holding forth about politics. He sounded like someone from a thirties gangster movie and was trying to get the postal address and photo of another passenger who managed to escape at the next stop (and I have a feeling he didn’t even really want to get off there). As the train pulled off again, the burger-girl dropped the last bits of fast food on her black trousers. I was so glad I’d moved. My dress wouldn’t have been improved by ground beef, ketchup and mayo.

For the next half hour our carriage was invaded by a loud group who had been chucked, effing and blinding out of the ‘quiet’ carriage. The loudest one yelled ‘I’m gonna complain to the train company! What’s the point of quiet carriages? Who wants to be quiet on a train?’ It sums up the average Briton’s sang-froid (or distaste for confrontation) that despite the fact everyone else was thinking ‘me – I want to be quiet’, all anyone did was tut and roll eyes at each other.

Meanwhile, burger-girl was replaced by a series of quiet but revolting people. Taking her place across the aisle was someone scratching and scraping flakes of skin onto the seat next to him. Someone somewhere else was breaking wind. Then a small man sat down beside me and stuck his elbows out. Shortly thereafter, he ate crisps and a ripe egg mayo sandwich loudly WITH HIS MOUTH OPEN and drank tea with slurps worthy of a drain clearing machine. The phantom farter upped his or her game and this added to the effluence of the egg sarnies. I would have been sick, but there wasn’t enough room. When the passengers thinned out, the mouth-open-slurper did go off to another seat, but not before kicking most of his rubbish onto the floor. Lovely.

I might have relaxed then but was busy restraining myself from standing up, leaning over the seat behind and telling the girl sitting there that if she persisted in saying “like” every third word I might have to kill her. I imagined that if I did, she’d just say “so I’m just like sitting here and you’re like being so like aggressive and like I think like killing me is like illegal or like something”. And it was all too exhausting, so I didn’t.

And now, with just 40 minutes to go, the train has just stopped in middle of nowhere. Apparently there is a cow on the line. We have to wait while a railway manager with herding experience gets her back into the field and stands guard at the side of the railway to keep her from being turned into mincemeat. Although quite possible burger-girl would lick the tracks.

Dear Travel Journal. As I say, no-one would ever believe this. I think I may have to change your function and turn you into a fantasy novel in which all the heroine wants to do is get home and is thwarted in every chapter by almost insurmountable challenges and drooling monsters.

It would probably seem more plausible than anything that’s happened today.

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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

If you want to read the story I wrote about ‘The Travel Rabbit’ you’ll have to check out this book!

A Cigar Box

A cigar box.

It is quite old now. Once it smelt of tobacco. Now it smells of almond and beeswax polish.

Once it held cigars. Now it holds memories: memories which are mine and memories which are mysteries.

This box, new and full of cigars, was once a Christmas present for my father. Our family never gave big presents. Mostly Dad bought me books, mostly I bought Dad cigars. I seem to remember that it was still legal, when I was a child, for me to buy them myself from the tobacco counter in Woolworths, but I may be wrong.

I don’t know why the box itself was kept. I imagine my mother thought it was too nice to throw away. I understand that. I can never throw away a good box either. There is something hopeful about a box, perfect, with its snugly fitting lid, waiting to be filled.

Then one day, my mother sanded, polished and varnished the cigar box and gave it to me for trinkets. I have kept it ever since, popping inside odds and ends from time to time.

The newest thing inside is perhaps twelve years old. The oldest is from 1926, long before even my parents were born.

Each thing has its own story.

The things at the top remind of being a young adult: single, unattached and time-rich. My ID card from when I  volunteered in Romania in 1992; a thank-you letter from a child in a holiday club.

Lifting those aside, here are things from my teens. My Girl-Guide promise badge. My Robin patrol and three challenge badges. I ducked out of Guides quite early, never finding a kindred spirit. I wanted to build shelters and make fires. The other girls wanted to talk about pop stars. I gained my accident prevention badge, my cook’s badge and my writer’s badge. I remember the last two. I wrote a poem about washing dishes for the former and a heavily plagiarised novella uncannily similar to ‘The Secret Garden’ for the latter. Here is my fifth year* prefect badge. I loathed being a prefect and spent my duties chasing second years** out of the ‘old’ block at lunch time (which we all enjoyed) and ignoring the bad girls who were smoking in the toilets because, frankly, I preferred to stay in one piece. And here’s my ‘Young Enterprise’ badge from when I had my first ‘secretarial’ role. I learnt at seventeen that I hated taking minutes and yet, here I am, all these years later, still doing it from time to time. At least I get paid for it now.

Here are random bits of costume jewellery from my late teens and some little glass ornaments bought for me in Tenby by children (with some help from Daddy) twelve years or so ago. I want a little glass cabinet to put them in where they can mingle with the tiny glass animals my grandmother collected and which currently live in another box, wrapped individually in yellowing tissue.

Here are some 1928 German Reichbanknotes. Both sets of my grandparents married in 1929, but as far as I know, none had German connections at the time. I have absolutely no idea why I have them, why anyone in my family had them. One of them is a 100,000 mark note. In 1928, at the end of a period of hyperinflation in Germany and shortly before the Great Depression, I believe it had relatively little buying potential. I would be interested to know.

Then there is a little box with coins inside. These are all pfennigs, pre-euro German pennies. The oldest of these is from the 1950s and I assume that they were brought back by mother when she went to visit a new penfriend. My mind boggles to think of my shy mother travelling alone as a teenager, to stay with someone she’d never met before in a country which, less than ten years earlier had been enemy territory. Some of the pfennigs are ones I brought back from visiting my own German penfriend in the early 1980s, and tucked in amongst them is a letter ‘a’ from a printing press which I was given in a museum on my first visit. I can’t remember now whether I chose the ‘a’ (and if so why) or whether I was given it.

Last but not least is a box of medals and badges, none of which are mine. Many of them are my paternal grandfather’s motorcycling medals. My grandmother said he only stopped racing when he broke an arm and she begged him to stop. I think she always felt guilty afterwards, but on the other hand, after marriage, when a motor-cycle was their only means of transport, she used to sit in a side-car, knitting, completely blasé. I seem to be descended from insanely calm women, without having inherited the calmness.

One of the medals is from WWI and Canadian. For years and years, it baffled me, as I was unaware of any Canadian connection. And then, when my daughter was doing research for history, I found out. My paternal grandmother was the youngest of four children. Her eldest brother Reginald flew for the Royal Flying Corps and is on the Virtual Canadian War Memorial. I haven’t quite worked out the link, but I do know that he was in 39 Squadron and an observer in a Bristol F.2 which was shot down on 25th September 1918. He was 21. The pilot was 19. My grandmother would have been 10. My father said that one of his abiding memories was, as a small child, seeing his grandfather (Reginald’s father) sitting with a fragment of propeller, turning it over and over in his hands in silence.

This is a cigar box. It no longer holds cigars. It contains nothing of value to anyone but me. It contains memories, some of which aren’t mine.

It is a box full of treasure.

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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

*Fifth year – equivalent to year 11 now or 10th grade – the year at school when you are usually 15-16 and in UK take the first set of public exams.

**Second year – equivalent year 8 now or 7th grade (my school had the first years/year 7s in a separate building and we didn’t have a sixth form/yrs 12 & 13. Therefore the fifth years were the eldest hence being prefects. Much to my relief, when I went to another school for sixth form, I wasn’t selected as prefect).

 

 

The Tale of a Tale

By 2009, I had sort of given up on any ideas of writing. What with work and young children and the aftermath of a stressful house/job/school move from Gloucestershire to Dorset, there just wasn’t time.

My father however, couldn’t stop making up stories. Every few months, he’d ask me to read a new novel, in which unlikely people had unlikely adventures in futuristic worlds. They were always good fun, although Dad’s feelings towards editing was much the same as his feelings towards decluttering (unnatural and diabolical).

One day, I said ‘why don’t you write about yourself or someone like yourself?’ and he said ‘because it’s boring. If you think you could make up a story about an old fogey in a wheelchair, be my guest.’

Dad was not your archetypal old fogey really. By this time, he had chronic arthritis but it didn’t stop him. If he thought a building wasn’t sufficiently adapted for wheelchair users, he would very politely explain this at length to the owner or anyone handy. On one occasion he visited in a café in my local (Georgian) town and finding the step awkward and the doorway narrow, popped out to get an Argos catalogue to show a café proprietor what ramps were available at a reasonable sum. The café closed down a few months later. I don’t think there’s a connection. He rushed around in either a scooter or electric wheelchair, regardless of anyone else’s feet or the suitability of the pavement. If he couldn’t be doing with the pavement, he’d drive down the middle of the road instead. One day Dad drove his wheelchair round a blind corner in the middle of Weymouth at four miles an hour with me and my sister running behind, shrieking at him to slow down. On another occasion, he lowered himself out of the wheelchair onto the pavement in order to take a ‘really good photograph’ of passing cars. My mother had to explain to concerned passers-by that he hadn’t collapsed and was technically quite well. I realised then that my father would embarrass all of us for as long as he could and I might as well accept it.

So there was the challenge: write about an old fogey in a wheelchair.

I still don’t know where the idea came from, but the whole story, just as unlikely as any of his, popped into my head as I was in the supermarket and I came straight home and wrote it on the computer in the freezing cold front room. It was called ‘Coffee at Tiffany’s’.

Shortly afterwards I wrote a second story: ‘Katie is a Cat’. This was inspired from the rainy day when I crossed Westminster Bridge and saw on the other side of the road two people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. So far so normal. However, they also had a cat in a basket on the wall behind them. Trust me, that’s not usual for central London at rush-hour.

A few years passed and Dad became very ill. I decided to write another ‘old fogey’ story for his birthday, but it just wouldn’t quite come. By June 2012, Dad was in hospital undergoing tests, totally exhausted but still writing. I dug out the ‘old fogey’ story and tried again. It would be a Father’s Day present. But I couldn’t find the happiness I needed to write something silly and put it back to one side. My sister and I arranged a photograph of all four grandchildren instead but he never saw that either. Dad died two days before Father’s Day.

Well, more years passed and Mum kept saying how much she’d liked those two silly stories and I remembered the others which I’d started and not finished. And I recalled the little bits of writing I’d done as a sort of outlet for grief. And I remembered all the fun we’d had with Dad when we were children. Then I realised Mum’s 80th birthday was coming up.

It took me months and a lot of secrecy. It took a lot of asking Mum odd questions about things which happened a long time ago (without telling her why), digging out old photographs, writing on trains, getting exasperated, feeling emotional.

When I decided to illustrate the book, I asked Mum, as if from idle curiosity, whether she had any of Dad’s drawings. She dug out a story Dad had written for my sister which I’d thought was long lost. There was his sketch from all those years ago, of a startled squirrel pegging out her washing, being confronted by an eagle. As you do. Fortunately it was the typed version, as no-one could read Dad’s handwriting. Even Dad.

Somehow, pulling all these elements together, I wrote a book. The parts based on real events proved to be harder to write than any of the fantasy sequences. Life is not narrative, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion. In the end, I stopped bothering trying to make it accurate and just started having fun instead.

And finally, with a few days to spare, I had a proof copy to give to Mum for her 80th birthday as a total surprise.

And now the book is published for sale.

‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is a celebration of my father: hero, eccentric, adventurer and story-teller to the end.

Part memory, part fantasy, it’s the story of an eccentric father with hero-worshipping little daughters and the adventures he has in his imagination when those girls turn into boring middle-aged women who need to lighten up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad, ‘everything will be fine.’

And do you know what Dad? Somehow it is.

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Words and illustration 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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Memories