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

And here’s the story I actually did write about The Travel Rabbit!

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Where Be Dragons?

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Words 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 2012.

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

UK readers click here for e-book

UK readers click here for paperback

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US readers click here for paperback

Memories

 

 

 

Memories

I wrote about a childhood holiday in Wales and showed my family.

‘You’ve forgotten that the car broke down three times,’ said Mum. ‘Your dad reconnected the exhaust with bandages and glue.’

‘I thought that was in Scotland.’

‘Nope. And you’ve forgotten how you were always wandering off in a daydream and we could never find you.’

‘There was a dragon to find, but no-one helped. At least I wasn’t naughty like Julia.’

My sister objected, ‘I was as good as gold.’

‘Yeah right,’ I retorted.

‘Memories are mostly made up,’ said Mum, ‘but they’re more fun that way.’

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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

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook – see what other people have written

Messaging

Once I put a message in a bottle and dropped it in the river.

Watching it bounce along until it disappeared, I suddenly felt guilty.

Most of the guilt was about littering but some of it was about deception.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of thing. A year or so earlier, I’d drawn a detailed map of the woods alongside our village. Only it wasn’t the usual sort of map.

This is what our woods were like. For several yards, bracken grew. In spring it sprouted bright fronds, curled like babies’ hands, unfurling as they grew. In summer, the green of the waving leaves grew dusty and tall enough to hide in. In autumn, they were golden and dry.

Interspersed with deciduous trees which were good for climbing, the heathland led to huge slabs of rock from which you could look across the valley to the mountains beyond the main road and bigger river.

Below the rocks was a path. In one direction the path led back towards the village, past two caves. One was nothing more than a hollow, a shelter from rain; the other was deeper and at its back a metal grating stopped you from falling into its depths. Ignoring the caves and continuing along the path, you would pass through the churchyard of the Welsh chapel. Gravestones in curlicued Welsh, grey and upright, stared down as you emerged onto the lower part of our street, next to the chapel’s only concession to the English language – a black sign with the words ‘Whosever believeth’ in gold.

Alternatively, if you climbed down from the stones and went in the opposite direction along the path, you would end up in the old quarry, a massive hollow of mysterious green and overhanging trees.

Above all of this, larches loomed and other trees gathered in conference. There was a copse with a circle of clear ground in the middle. The grass here was different: dark and shiny, lustrous, rich. In spring, bluebells grew. There were three slab rocks protruding from the ground, fallen together forming what looked like a tomb. It was just big enough for a nine year old to huddle inside.

This copse and the river were my places. I stood on the bridge of the river and told my problems to the lights under the trees. I sat in the copse and talked to invisible listeners. I drew a map which showed all the portals into the other world which I knew was there but couldn’t reach. The main portal was the stone ‘tomb’.

This sounds mad written down, but it wasn’t. I was a lonely child and at the time. Mercilessly bullied at school, I distrusted most of my peers. I read numerous books about other worlds running alongside ours and somehow, I discovered special places where the boundary was thin and I could be heard. It was comforting to have someone listen who wouldn’t sneer when I cried. l just wanted to find out how to cross over.

One day, I put the map inside a sweet tin with a coin and a couple of other contemporary things and buried it in the ‘tomb’. It was the thing to do at the time. A few months later, I dug it up again. I possibly felt guilty about littering, probably wanted the coin and definitely didn’t want the map to fall into the wrong hands.

But at least the map told the truth.

Dropping a bottle into the river wasn’t quite the same. I had been watching dramatisations of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘The Little Princess’. Here were tales of misunderstood girls for whom life somehow came out all right without the need for any magical intervention from outside. Magic would be more fun, but it eluded me.

While writing a heavily plagiarised version of the same sort of tale for my Guides Writer’s Badge, I carefully drafted a message on some paper, which I’d tried to make look older with the use of cold tea. I made my handwriting as Victorian looking (to me) as I could, rolled the paper up and put it inside a glass bottle with a screw top.

It could have said ‘How far did this go? Please ring Paula on 45223’.

But it didn’t.

It said: ‘Help! I am imprisoned by my wicked aunt in the tower of her mansion. Please rescue me! Victoria.’

As I watched the bottle disappear, I started to worry. Our river ran down from the mountains and at our village, joined a much larger river to head down to the sea. Anything thrown into it could theoretically have come from quite a large area of South Wales.

I wasn’t naturally a liar. What if the bottle was found? Would anyone believe it had been cast into the waters by some long dead Victorian, who had never been rescued?

Then I thought a bit harder. Would felt tip pen on modern paper and a twentieth century fizzy drink bottle fool anyone into thinking the message was Victorian? What if they thought it was recent and genuine and launched a rescue for someone who didn’t exist?

In all likelihood, the bottle was smashed long before it got to the main river. Quite apart from all the stones it had to dodge on the way, our little river joined the bigger one after dropping down a waterfall onto a pile of rock. What I should have been worrying about was all the broken glass in the water as the words of my carefully penned bit of fiction dissolved into nothing.

Even now, I still feel vaguely guilty. I’m not sure why. Yet part of me still hopes after all this time, that the bottle will be found, intact, with the message still inside and triggering a delicious mystery.

And as for the map… I am still hopeful it is somewhere in the clutter of our attic. One day, I will find that portal, one day…

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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

Click here for links to my book “Kindling” which included two stories about the woods and river near where I grew up

The Almost Heirloom

‘I had a lovely necklace once,’ said my grandmother. ‘It could have been yours.’

‘Was it stolen?’

‘No. In 1923, when I was fifteen, I sold it.’

‘Why?’

‘I could sit on my hair, but the fashion was for Eton bobs. When Father forbade it, I sneaked out, sold the necklace and went to my brother’s barber.’

I couldn’t imagine my grandmother, the perfect housewife, as a teenage rebel.

‘Was your father angry?’

‘Even angrier,’ she said, ‘when I started wearing skirts above the knee and pale stockings!’

She laughed, ‘keep annoying your parents, darling. It’s what youth is for.’

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Words and photograph copyright Paula Harmon 2017. Not be reproduced without the author’s express permission.

From a prompt in Thin Spiral Notebook

 

Father’s Day

I could not have asked for a better Dad; a less embarrassing one perhaps and maybe one who coughed up more pocket money. But love, acceptance, nurturing, support, guidance he had in abundance.

He didn’t believe in children contradicting their parents (even when the ‘children’ were in their forties) or in personal mental space and not much in personal physical space. This made him infuriating.

On the other hand, he had more than his fair share of hair-brained ideas and optimism. He also had much less grip on reality than he needed. This made him fun.

Here’s a true story to show you what I mean.

When my sister and I were teenagers, most of our friends had long slipped the leash and either holed up in their rooms with the radio-cassette-recorder OR if they had the bus fare, went to town. It was mostly the former, because friends were spread across several villages and the effort of getting to town wasn’t really worthwhile.

My sister and I were different. Dad felt that as long as we were still home and no matter how old we were, the family should spend all its free time together. This is probably why we both left home quite young.

Anyway, one day, I was about sixteen and my sister thirteen, Dad said we were all going to the beach.

I think it was summer, but you wouldn’t have known from the weather. It was cold and rainy. We looked at him askance.

‘And,’ he said, ‘which of you wants to do the filming?’

What did he mean? Had he resurrected the old cine camera? No. It turned out that he’d borrowed a trendy new camcorder from someone in the office. It weighed a ton but you could put a blank video tape in it and film. Then you could play it back through your TV. This was exciting. Half the people we knew didn’t even have VHS recorders to tape TV programmes, let alone the means to make their own videos. On the other hand…

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

At the time, Dad was, to us, ancient; that is, he was about forty-two. Nowadays I think that forty-two is a perfectly reasonable age to go surfing, but back then in our view, it was akin to a centenarian going base-jumping. He was also very overweight and not terribly fit.

‘But…’ said Mum.

‘I’m borrowing Dave’s wetsuit and surfboard and you can film me. It’ll be a great new hobby and when I’ve got the hang of it, we can all do it.’

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Nonsense, of course you do. Don’t be a wet blanket.’

On the beach, the rain had stopped but it was colder and the wind had got up.

We sat on the shingle in anoraks, drinking tea from a flask and wondering how long it took for pneumonia to kick in. My sister and I were given no option. While our friends were in the warm, nowhere near their parents and being trendy, we were sitting with Mum being blown to bits, watching our Dad be embarrassing. Even I, full of romantic hopes, knew the chances of looking attractive were nil. My long hair plastered my face in damp tangles and my make-up smudged. I had refused to exchange a summer skirt for jeans on the grounds of femininity. Now I feared that at any minute the goose pimples on my legs might start to ice over. If an attractive boy was about to enter my life, I hoped he wouldn’t pick today.

The rollers were worthy of Hawaii. But the weather wasn’t. And nor were Dad’s skills.

In the borrowed black wetsuit, Dad looked like an elderly orca failing to catch a youthful penguin. He appeared and disappeared in crashing waves. He got on the surf board, lay down, fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee and fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee, almost stood up and… fell off. And repeat. We took it in turns to film him, swapping when our fingers went blue and started to shake. Although given the weight of a 1980s camcorder, they were shaking anyway. We finished the tea. After a while, my sister, never one for weather of any description (hot, cold, wet, dry, even now she takes it as a personal affront) refused to film on the grounds of potential frostbite.

We really wanted Dad to succeed. At every attempt we leaned forward and tensed, the camerawoman holding the camera steady against the wind. Then he fell off again.

After what felt like about a year but was probably about two hours, Dad gave up.

He emerged from the changing area dressed normally and more buoyant than he had been in the water.

‘Did you get it all on film?’ he said.

‘Yes, but Dad,’ said my sister, ‘you never actually surfed.’

‘At least I tried,’ he said, ‘which is more than you did. You three look like MacBeth’s witches after they’ve been through a car wash. You might have left me some tea.’

He patted the camcorder.

‘Can’t wait to see the footage,’ he said, ‘but first, lunch! And I’ve been thinking…maybe we won’t take up surfing as a family. Maybe we’ll take up hang-gliding instead.’

That was Dad.

I didn’t escape this sort of thing till I got a boyfriend and even then Dad wanted to come to the cinema with us. Not, you understand, because he wanted to protect me from any improper advances, but because he thought we could all watch the film and chat about it afterwards. He was rather hurt when I said no. When my sister got to sixteen, she just quietly did her own thing regardless and he never seemed to notice. Younger sisters get away with everything.

(NB the photo below is NOT from that long lost video. These are hardy young surfers at Bournemouth in January. Dad didn’t look as svelte by a long way, but probably it’s how he visualised himself and good on him. Perhaps if we all spent less time worrying if we should or could, we’d have more fun finding out!)

SurfersWords 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

 

 

Travelling Companions and other Small Pests

Dad always said that while a few months old, I chewed my way through a carry-cot when we travelled from Hendon to Scotland with an aunt.

This was of course, long before car safety-seats for children.

He said they placed me, safe in my carry-cot, next to the aunt. His implication was that when they arrived in Troon, I was rolling about on the back seat having eaten my way through a fair amount of synthetics, a metal frame and some bedding. He suggested that if we’ve travelled any further, I might have eaten the aunt as well.

I suspect he was exaggerating and I just chewed on a handle.

But it’s true to say that I wasn’t keen on constraint.

One of my earliest memories is about running out of the house to tell a neighbouring child I had a baby sister. Another time, I gave our dog the slip and sneaked away to look at some sheep on a hill, while Mum was nappy changing or something.

Shortly after that I went off my sister. The Young Wives came round and said she was gorgeous. As for me, I was fobbed off with a colouring book and told I looked just like my Dad. As he was rather plump, going bald and male, this was very upsetting.

And then there was the pram incident.

I should probably never ever tell a psychologist.

It was Mum’s fault really. I used to sit in a sort of chair on top of the pram. When we got to town, she did what all mothers of the time did and parked us up on the pavement while she went inside the shop. On this occasion, it was a chemist. In the window were three enormous glass bottles filled with bright coloured liquid. Deep at heart I always hoped that one day Mum would buy the blue one. She never did.

Mum was going to the chemist for rose-hip syrup and I thought maybe she’d get me one of those yummy hard fruit lollipops. But then I worried, what if she forgot? I needed to remind her. There wasn’t much time. I squirmed and wriggled and slid forwards in my seat so that I could drop to the pavement then run into the shop.

That was the plan.

It failed.

Mum came out and found me on the pavement with the pram tipped up. For a moment, she looked frantically round for the baby. Where had she gone? Had she been catapulted out? An aggrieved wail made her look under the blankets. My sister had slid down inside the covers and was making her views felt.

This may explain a lot about my sister and me. The pram incident is buried in her subconscious and she spent most of our childhood and adolescence trying to get revenge.

I sometimes worry that she may still be planning it. And we’re going on a road-trip in the Autumn.

Oh dear.

mwhah

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

The End of the Tunnel

Rites of passage: we’ve had a few recently. First, my younger child reached sixteen years of age. My older child is preparing for university. Last week, my naughty little sister reached a significant birthday (although she will always be nine years old to me). And today while my daughter and all English and Welsh students of her age start their GCSEs, my son and his English and Welsh peers start their A levels.

Exams. You either enjoy the frisson of them or you loathe them.

I recall the desks lined up with rigid precision in the gym. The windows were open to let in some air and perhaps dispel the underlying gym-smell of sweat and the overlying examinee-smell of fear. I remember dark green trees on the left side and the open expanse of the yard on the right as we laid out our weapons: pens, pencils, geometry sets, lucky objects etc. My over-dramatic friend performed for that day’s Oscar by pretending to pray to the heavens and cross herself (despite not being Catholic). My other friends just mouthed ‘good luck’. During the exam the slow silence was marked only by the slow tread of the invigilator walking up and down in time to passing seconds, tick tick tick. My pen exploded during one exam; my Geography teacher nearly wept when I told him I’d said the lake in question 2 was Erie when it was Michigan. That is the most excitement I recall. My O levels (GCSE equivalents) took place during two weeks in June. Once the exams were over, I was a free agent until September.

Before the exams, I revised. Well OK, I made a revision timetable. It was very pretty. I worked out mnemonics for history, one of which I can still recall, GRASP to remind me of Hitler’s rise to power. G(ermany) gaining political control thereof; R(e-arming) Germany without any of the signatories to the Treaty of Versailles noticing; A(ustria) gaining political control thereof; S(udetenland) annexation thereof; P(oland) invasion thereof. If the exam had only covered that I would have been fine. Unfortunately it covered the period 1870-1953. I did all this and then fell asleep. It was a good sleep but I did only get a C for History. To my astonishment I also got a C for Physics perhaps because I could remember formulae.

Still, that was then. Apart from work already finished for the exams (art and drama for example) my poor daughter and pals have exams stretching from today until the end of June, six weeks. She had been revising hard and I applaud the teachers who gave up holidays and weekends to help the students prepare.

My sister’s birthday party was on Saturday. Afterwards, my husband, daughter and I retreated to our hotel for the night to watch the end of the Eurovision Song Contest and digest the festive food and drink. My daughter asked if we could test her on history and belief & ethics. It was somewhat surreal to sit in a strange room watching a yodeller from Romania and listen to my daughter going through the definition of voluntary euthanasia and the causes and effects of the Vietnam war when I just wanted to doze off. Or perhaps I just ate too much cheese and am imagining it.

Exams feel like the end of an era and the start of a new one. In a way they are. They mark a point in time when you are tested about things you may never ever need to recall again and they tend to coincide with moments when you and your friends may take different paths. The results will make you rejoice, grimace or cry. You think they will define your whole future. In some ways they do of course. You may not get the results you need and will have to alter your plans. You may do better than you thought and change your mind about your future.

If you are sitting exams right now and you’re in despair, try to take a breath and give yourself a break.

You are a wonderful being.

You will never be defined by your grades, they will be part of who you are but not the whole. You may go down the path you planned and be happy but you could go down a different path and be happy. Sometimes the path you plan is not the right one and you won’t know until you step down another.

Speaking for myself, I didn’t get the grades I could have if I’d spent more time revising and less time making a revision timetable. I was disappointed in myself, but the world did not end. The adult me looks back and tells the teenage me to make different choices. I tell my teenage children to learn from my mistakes, but they’re teenagers and I’m an adult. What do I know? They have their own triumphs and mistakes to make. And despite my original disappointment, I’m happy with where I’ve ended up.

It is what I learnt after school and college: teamwork, humility, compromise, humour which have given me the ability to pick up the pieces, to accept things and move on regardless, even when the path planned had a diversion sign across it and I had to travel by a different way.

The best advice a teacher ever gave me was to focus on the point beyond the end of the exams. It will come and it will come sooner than you thought. And then you can step towards the next adventure and you can triumph because you are full of potential. No-one else can offer what you can.

I wish everyone well during the exams but if it all seems too much, here are some helplines which may assist.

Student Minds

Childline: exam stress help

How to help your child with exam stress

Radio One: exam help

University of St Andrews: exam help

Third Choice

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

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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