Masked Mayhem

As a child I loved dressing up. Romantic ideas of being elegant and majestic were forever thwarted as anyone who has read the first story in The Advent Calendar will know but that didn’t stop me hoping. As a young adult, still intent on looking sophisticated or at least cute, I usually attended fancy dress parties dressed as a cat or Cleopatra (plenty of excess black eye make-up) and once as Little Miss Muffet (hence picture below). Since then, apart from a period in my career which required wearing a combination of eighteenth century and medieval clothes, the last time I dressed up was as Madonna in her Like Prayer era to go to a fund raising disco and no, I’m not sharing that picture.

So naturally, when Liz Hedgecock said ‘what about having some masquerade balls in book 4 of The Caster and Fleet Mysteries?’ I rubbed my hands in glee.

Speaking for myself, the closest to dressing up I’ve done since making that decision is wearing a new outfit to meet Liz and discuss editing but it was great fun deciding the themes for the balls and imagining the characters’ costumes.

But of course the book is not just about Connie and Katherine’s clothes and dancing skills. 

In the year that has passed since The Case of the Deceased Clerk, their lives have changed immensely and there’s a possibility that their days of solving mysteries together may be over. Connie is bucking the trend for women of her class and has become a hands-on mother – complicated as that is in 1893. Katherine, meanwhile is looking forward to finally having a home of her own and has been managing assignments alone for some months. A night out at a ball will simply be a break from routine, won’t it? 

Well of course not. 

Before they know it, Connie and Katherine are tangled up in secrets and scandal which threaten not only their reputations but their friendship. Only some determined investigations, baby notwithstanding, will uncover the truth. 

The Case of The Masquerade Mob is available now for pre-order on Amazon as an ebook. Paperback to follow.

 

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.

Books by Paula Harmon & Liz Hedgecock

Katherine and Connie are back on the case!

 

 

 

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Splinters

My great uncle Reginald was killed less than two months before the end of the first world war. 

His father Frederick – my great-grandfather – was his mid seventies when my own father was born. Dad told me that he remembered Frederick sitting in his study turning over a piece of propeller, the only thing he had left of the young man who had died. 

I could never quite work this out because I couldn’t imagine how he’d have any part of an aeroplane shot down in Flanders. I knew my father must have been quite small when he saw it and wondered if it had all become muddled.

And then when my daughter had some homework about the First World War, I started doing some digging. 

I discovered that my great-uncle was not killed in Flanders. He was second lieutenant in No. 39 Squadron of the Royal Air Force defending London against zeppelins and day time bombing raids. He died in England when the plane in which he was navigator crashed on 25th September 1918. I don’t know yet what circumstances led to his death. He was just twenty-one, the second of four children. My grandmother was the youngest child. When he died, she would have been about nine or ten. The pilot of the plane was just nineteen. 

A few years ago, I took the opportunity to go to the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon and looked at the kind of plane he’d have been flying in, a Bristol F.2 fighter. The plane was fundamentally wooden and the crew sat in leather slings. I can’t imagine wanting to go for a leisurely drive in it, let alone fly and engage in battle, and that’s nowadays when aeroplanes are a normal part of everyday life and not brand new, terrifyingly implausible technology.

My great-grandfather would have been around fifty-one and my great-grandmother forty-two when they lost their eldest son, younger than I am now. I can’t imagine the struggle they and their eldest daughter must have borne keeping a brave face for the youngest children. They were patriotic people, themselves born when the British Empire was at its height. They were sustained by their faiths. But they probably could not conceive in 1914 what the realities of that terrible war would be or what might happen and by 1918, must have been horrified. I’m sure they were proud of Reginald but I know that this was a loving family and any pride they must have forever jarred with grief and pain.

A hundred years ago today, the armistice came. How hard it must have been for that family, as for so many others, not to think that if it had only come six weeks, six months, four years earlier, they would not have an empty place at the table.

My parents’ families were more fortunate than many. My great-uncle was the only close relation who did not survive the two world wars. 

But another thought struck me today. I don’t know why, because it’s not based on much, but I have always imagined my father as a five year old boy, peeking round the door of my great-grandfather’s study, watching the old man fiddling with a piece of wood in a shaft of sunlight. I imagine Frederick’s kindly face sad with memories. I imagine that this man so full of stories and poetry, wordless in his grief. And then it occurred to me. When my father was five, it was 1943. What must Frederick have thought?

There he was, turning over a piece of propeller from the ‘War to end all Wars’. 

But all around, the Second World War raged and the London he knew and loved was devastated.

How much he must have hoped that this time, people would learn their lesson; that the futility of war would not be repeated and that his descendants would live in peace.

Bristol F2

 

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.

A Cigar Box

Memorial Page

No 39 Squadron

Bristol F2

 

A Staircase

The old court building stands on a corner in Victorian elegance. Although relatively small for a civic building, from outside it is rather grand. Once, it must have been modern. No doubt, it was there were complaints in 1882 when it was built in the midst of the surrounding Georgian splendour. 

I started working there in 1989, an incomer with no connection – or so I thought – to the town or county. I was startled to discover many later that one of my great-grandfathers had been born maybe a hundred yards away and the office was probably being built just as he was setting out into the wide world beyond his little country town.

I met my husband in that office and worked there on and off for ten years.

On hot summer days, diagonal shafts of sun could just about reach through the railings on the pavement to slant into the staff-room in the front part of the basement. Little light could penetrate into the ground floor office where we actually worked. High filing cabinets ganged up in lumpy, grey, bureaucratic hostility to block the peeling cobwebbed frosted Victorian windows, and in a pre-clear-desk-policy, pre-digital era, on top of the cabinets was filing. There was filing everywhere: under desks, on shelves and piles of out-of-target work toppled from towers of files inside the walk-in safe. I swear we spent more time rifling through them looking for things and getting filthy in the process than actually working.

On wet winter days, the paper curled up in the photocopier.

There was a small door for staff at the side of the building and a grand set of double doors up a wide staircase at the front for the public and professionals. It took them into a tiled foyer from where they could go straight ahead to powder their noses or, if they had the means to open it, access the stationery cupboard. More normally, they would turn right to hassle us at the public counter or turn left and ascend a wide, sweeping staircase to the courtroom upstairs. 

Everything was solid and oaken. The Victorian office keys were heavy enough to kill someone with. 

Inside our filing cupboards there was a ledger going back to 1882. Other old ledgers were in the basement archives but this one was still in use, commencing in perfect elegant copper-plate and ending with my best efforts in biro and my colleague’s felt-tip scrawl.

The interior of the building was grubby and tired. The oak finishings were dusty and dented, the coloured floor tiles chipped and dull. The beige carpet in the office was unimproved by spilt tea and we sat on unergonomic chairs covered in flowered nylon.

Then there was the basement. 

We got there down a twisty narrow staircase near the staff entrance. It was so awkward that when it was your turn to make tea, you carried the mugs in a basin rather than on a tray because you were less likely to spill anything. The staff-room and kitchen had windows from which you could look up onto the pavement. There was a filing room across the corridor with windows onto a pointless sort of courtyard.

But the back part of the basement had no windows.

Another door off the corridor opened into a sort of cave in which the archived filing and ledgers dwelt. Public sector spending did not extend to adequate lighting for it. A couple of spider encrusted 40 watt bulbs cast circles of yellow gloom. Right at the back of the cave lurked a locked room in which the really, really confidential files were kept. That was even darker and danker. Fungi grew on ledgers in the corners. I have never smelled as bad as when three of us had to do a file audit in that room, breathing in goodness knows what spores and miasma.

The staff was divided about the basement. Half of us thought it was dark, horrible and damp. The other half thought it was dark, horrible, damp and haunted. Despite the fact that my husband is sensible and cynical and I write stories about the fairy who mangles my laundry, I was in the ‘don’t be silly’ camp and he in the ‘haunted’ camp. Some people refused point blank to go down for an old file unless someone went with them. One or two wouldn’t even go into the staff-room kitchen on their own. A story circulated that when it had been refitted, one of the workmen walked off site when he left it neat and tidy for five minutes one evening and came back in to find all the cupboard doors and drawers open. Even I, who didn’t think it was haunted, propped the door of that dark room open, telling myself it let in more light and I don’t think I ever went into the cupboard at the back alone, on the grounds that the main door might slam and lock me inside.

Although the basement had once been the home of a series of caretakers, as far as we know none of them had died there. It wasn’t the kind of court which had ever had cells. There were no old legends about it. So who was supposed to be haunting it, no-one knew. 

It just, in the words of Terry Pratchett, ‘boded’.

Eventually, long after my husband and I had moved elsewhere, the staff and the work were moved out to merge with another, more modern court. I have no idea what happened to the mouldy files from the lurking cupboard but hope if they weren’t burned, they were put in some kind of bio hazard facility. 

The beautiful if neglected old building lay empty. And then it was bought up, refurbished completely and turned into a restaurant. My husband and I went to a small reunion there a month ago with a few of our old colleagues. It was quite jaw-dropping. All the oak was polished and gleaming, the rooms were full of soft light, the tiles on the floors shone. The courtroom, which had been dull and cold, was glorious, almost golden. It was all beautiful.

We walked around pointing at things, to the bafflement of the other diners.

‘Wasn’t that where you used to sit?’ 

‘Did this room really have a fireplace in it?’ 

‘I hear the restaurant workers think the kitchen’s haunted.’

‘Honestly?’

‘Who knew the windows were that big?’ 

‘Shame it didn’t have a bar in it when we were here.’

‘Where was the counter/little interview room/safe?’ 

‘Have you seen the other staircase?’

‘What other staircase?’

‘The other staircase to the basement.’

It was true. In the foyer, where the public loos and stationary cupboard had once been, builders had uncovered a long forgotten staircase. It followed the curve of the one leading to the courtroom and descended into the basement – into the dark part of the basement. But it was no longer gloomy and creepy. Instead there were modern restrooms: clean, airy and stylish. There was no trace of that dimly remembered archive room whatsoever.

My husband and I took photos galore and reminisced with our friends over an excellent meal in Victorian opulence. The old building seemed to be saying ‘see what I look like when someone loves me?’

A few weeks later, he and I were still arguing over what the basement had looked like back when the two of us were working there. Eventually the other Sunday afternoon, we sketched it out on a piece of paper.

‘Here was the staff staircase.’

‘Yes.’

‘And this is where the staff loos were.’

‘Yes.’

‘And this was the staff-room and the kitchen bit was round here.’

‘Yes.’

‘And then there was a sort of side corridor that went to the filing room with the window.’

‘Was it like that? Wasn’t it like this?’

‘Not sure. Was it? Anyway, what about the other room? The haunted one.’

We drew and redrew and bickered for a bit and then when we thought it was just about right, tried to work out where the ‘new’ staircase came down and how the refurbished layout related to what had been there before. This discussion (argument) lasted quite a while. In the end, we both got our phones out to compare photographs.

Neither of us had any.

‘But that’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘I’m sure I took some.’

‘So did I,’ said my husband.

We scrolled through and compared photos we’d taken of the staircase itself, the courtroom, our colleagues, paintings on the walls. But there were none of the basement. Not one.

So the question is, did we think we’d taken photos which we hadn’t, busy catching up with old friends or did the ghost of the basement wipe them from our phones?

And if so – what, after all this time, is he hiding?

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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.

Left Luggage

Memory is a funny thing.

I’m just back from my silver wedding anniversary trip to an island we visited on our honeymoon, Kefalonia (Κεφαλονιά).

Work, not to mention life in general, had been pretty hectic for both of us on the run up to our break, so it wasn’t until we were flying out that we realised we should have looked at our honeymoon snaps to see what had changed since we couldn’t remember very much of how the Ionian Islands had been back then. We also realised we’d forgotten any Greek we might have known with the exception of a few words kalimera, kalispera, oxi, thalassa (καλημέρα, καλησπέρα, όχι, θάλασσα e.g. good morning, good evening, no, sea) a combination of which isn’t likely to lead to much of a conversation. Thank goodness for smart phones, 3G and translation websites.

I’m glad to say that despite our forward planning, we had a really lovely time on an island which is breathtakingly beautiful and full of the friendliest people. But memory, as I say, is a funny thing. A visit to Fiskardo where we had definitely been twenty-five years ago, didn’t ring any bells. ‘I sort of remember that bit of the quay’ I said. ‘That restaurant was definitely there,’ said my husband. But it was impossible to work out what had changed. I’ve since come home, looked at the honeymoon photos and it’s all still a blank. Back in 1993, we didn’t actually take photographs of ‘that bit of quay’ or ‘that restaurant’ so we have nothing to compare. 

Memory is like a suitcase we carry around with us, discarding and adding things as time passes, losing things, sometimes even accidentally packing other people’s things and thinking they’re ours.  We so often get all the priorities wrong: it’s like leaving a flattering shirt behind, yet for no good reason keeping the shoes that rub your feet raw.

I’m as bad as anyone. The things that hurt, wounded and damaged in my life embedded themselves deeper in my memory than many moments of love or laughter. I don’t know why that is, or why I let them. Some memories can still make me cry if I’m in the wrong frame of mind. Worse still, focussing on the bad memories can obliterate the good ones. Words from the reading at our wedding ‘love keeps no record of wrongs’ is something which should be tattooed to my eyeballs so I remember them.

One of the revelations I had when I started writing seriously again was mentally revisiting my childhood in South Wales. We moved there when I was eight and I was deeply unhappy about the whole thing. I remained deeply unhappy about it until I went to university. In the years after that, the negative impression grew into something monstrous. I focussed entirely on how I’d missed my grandparents whom I was used to seeing every weekend; missed the kind of school I’d wanted to go to; missed the soft rolling pasturelands and pretty villages of Berkshire; missed the friends I’d left behind and would never see again and having them replaced by bullies worse than any I’d encountered before. And then one day in 2015, I saw a writing prompt about a walk in a wood at midnight. I hadn’t long received an email from an old school friend. She’d revisited the South Welsh village where we’d lived on a whim, perused both our houses as much as she could without getting arrested and had a look around our old haunts. ‘Whatever you do,’ she said. ‘Don’t go back. It’ll ruin all your memories.’ But I’d forgotten my memories. The prompt changed everything. I recalled walking by the river, playing on a sandbank, observing wildlife, talking to the trees, imagining in the dell. Most often I used to do this alone (especially the talking to trees part) but I had drawn a detailed map showing where all the magic places were. My friend was the only one I had ever shown it to. Writing a story about that feeling of connection with the beautiful Welsh countryside and the friend who had been the only person who understood, somehow unlocked all lovely things I’d packed up, the way my map must have been packed up with my discarded belongings by my parents after I left home. For the first time, I started to forget the sense of loss for a place which had never been as perfect as I’d remembered and for things that might never have been, I forgot the loneliness and the bullying. I remembered the wild mountains and mysterious streams, the heathery slopes and the wild seas. A great many of the stories in Kindling came from that unlocked suitcase of memories, even more went into The Cluttering Discombobulator.

I know that I’m fortunate in that the bad memories I have are very much what a great many people, if not the majority suffer at some point or other, even though it didn’t seem so at the time. I was bullied, I had my heart broken, I broke a heart, I’ve been so lonely I thought I would shatter into pieces and dissolve into dust, I’ve been betrayed and lied about, I’ve been bereaved. At the time those seemed too enormous to bear. And I still don’t know why I let those memories haunt me rather than remember why a smell or an expression makes me laugh when it must connect to something lovely. 

I haven’t suffered the appalling abuse mental and physical of many I know and grieve for. They have much more to forgive, much more to forget. I hope I don’t underestimate that. But I also hope that one day each of them will be able to forgive and move on since forgiveness is not for the person forgiven but for the forgiver. It’s their chance to say – no matter what you did, I will not let you ruin my life any more.

Yes memory is a funny thing. Painful remembrances can make that suitcase heavy with anguish whereas happy ones can make feel as if it’s full of feathers. It doesn’t hurt to go through our luggage from time to time and chuck out the things we don’t need so that we can travel light with joy, leaving behind the people who don’t and never did deserve our attention and concentrating instead on those who do; including ourselves.

So much for the introspection. Going back to trying to remember our honeymoon. Now of course, as well as being a long time ago, we were sailing from island to island. Most of our photographs are of harbours, sea, other boats, the life-long friends we made and of course each other looking young, thin and nimble. We can recall eating in tavernas under starlit skies, walking through wild thyme on the abandoned island of Kalamos, feeding the fish with bits of tiropitakia (τυροπιτακια – a kind of pastry filled with feta cheese), the phosphorescence in the sea when we swam at night and my husband’s somewhat frenzied (and ultimately futile) battles with mosquitoes. 

Obviously we were too busy being romantic to notice much. Or something.

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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.

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.

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)