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”

tunnel_edited-1

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

Hope

April 1992.

And here we were driven past the empty presidential palace mocking in obscene opulence the high rise buildings where water only came on once or twice a day.

We went down avenues of Soviet era diplomatic mansions, their intricate gates strangled by over grown gardens, their walls a tired, old fashioned blue. We saw the bullet marked walls and lamp posts of the city streets and small queues outside shops selling luxuries: toothpaste, scented soap.

In the countryside: uneven roads, a well, two ladies in black, a bakery selling the best bread in the world for less than a penny. A scene for a photograph I was too ashamed to take. In the orphanage, children hesitated when we offered them toys. Were they theirs? Were they really? Could they keep them? Dumb for want of a common tongue, we taught them games we’d long stopped playing: skipping, catch. Swings were put up, a slide. Inside, tiny ones too sick to play, watched us, solemn, tired; or didn’t watch, looking inward, silent. While painted walls dried, we were given a tour of the orphanage grounds. The little boy, a character from Dickens, alight with cheekiness, chattered away regardless of our incomprehension and we chatted back, regardless of his. I smelt wood shavings, and looked into a shed, where in the sunlight, strips of pine curled and fell as the carpenter planed a small box. I smiled at the sight and smell until I realised he was making a coffin. So many children there, not orphans but abandoned. Some had HIV (then a death sentence) others’ parents could not afford to feed them. Later, in the sun, a little girl said “Mama?” and sat on my lap. She looked healthy enough, but you couldn’t tell.

Back in the city, an excursion into the night. The high rises glowered down onto shadowy streets. We were ushered into an informal inn straight off the pavement. Our small group half filled it, our women, the only women there. The local drinkers looked askance then shrugged. Glasses were filled and raised, hard-boiled eggs were passed round, songs were sung. Romanian songs, the melodies as foreign as the words, then Irish songs as the priest in our group stood to sing ballad and love song.

The night drew on. We started back to the flats at midnight and as we passed, the doors of the Orthodox church burst open.

The congregation bearing candles spilled down the steps in near silence until the priest on the threshold shouted “Christ is Risen!” and the congregation shouted “He is Risen Indeed!” and raised flickering light above the dark streets.

And when I went home, how could I glory in Easter chocolate and endure healthy children demanding the latest toys when I had shared the simplicity of a boiled egg and watched the astounded delight of an abandoned child cuddling a teddybear?

And what were chicks and bunnies compared to hope peppering the darkness with that exultant candlelight?

easter egg

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

Do you want more time?

When I was little, my Uncle Edgar made a time-machine.

Most people would make one so they could go back and see Stonehenge built and stop Dave from marrying that Nora or go forward and get the lottery numbers.

But Uncle Edgar didn’t.

His advert in the free paper said:

DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME?
If not, call round to garage no 9
Willoughby Avenue
No charge. No catch.

Of course, aged five, I wasn’t interested. For me, there was far too much time. Holidays and Christmas and birthdays and getting to be a big girl were all taking an age to arrive.

In fact, I never would have remembered about the time-machine if I hadn’t found that box of newspapers in my parents’ attic today.

Uncle Edgar nearly made the front page. But unexpected heavy rain meant the headline was ‘April Showers Cause Car Chaos’ rather than ‘Local Man Makes Time Machine’, which was on page two. Things soon changed.

The first customer was a student. With just one week to write his dissertation, he was desperate. With help from Uncle Edgar, he managed three months’ work, several really good parties and a couple of brief romances in what was really just seven days.

Word spread. Young wives applied for more time to do housework (this was a long time ago you realise); couples applied for longer honeymoons; mothers asked for more time with their toddlers; people asked for time to sort out their incompetence before their bosses found out.

Uncle Edgar never asked a penny and everyone got exactly what they wanted. Yet it was all over in less than six months.

Reading the first article and seeing that long-forgotten face, I vaguely recall seeing him on some news programme in fuzzy black and white, in awe that someone I knew was on TV.

‘I thought people would want time to change things, to heal things…’ he kept saying

‘How do the requests seem to you, Mr Rudd?’ asked the interviewer.

‘Selfish,’ sighed Uncle Edgar, ‘just selfish.’

Flicking through the papers, I saw that the time-machine overtook politics, women’s lib, hippies and fox-hunting as the top reason for writing to the editor.

‘Sir, if I had paid any money, I would want it back. Something ought to be done about Mr Rudd. We have just returned from a week’s holiday in Spain. We saved up all year. Mr Rudd turned one week into two months. Now no-one is speaking to anyone else and I have an appointment with the divorce lawyer on Monday.’

‘Sir, an extra long honeymoon is a terrible thing. We ran out of things to say after six weeks and I’ve found out all his horrible habits. I wish I’d married the other bloke.’

‘Sir, I wanted to be with my children thirty-six waking hours a day. I am now going grey and I am only twenty-four. Don’t print my name. My husband always said they were little brats and I don’t want him to know I now realise he’s right.’

Only two letters stood out in praise.

‘Sir, having spent a weekend away from 3b which Mr Rudd had extended to a month, I now realise what objectionable little toe-rags they are. I have handed in my notice and am off to work in a country where children prize their education.’

‘Sir, I asked for extra time to improve my housewife skills. In the library looking for recipe books, I enrolled my husband on a cookery course while I learnt accountancy. We are both now much happier and about to open a hotel.’

But a final letter suggested sinister implications.

‘Sir, are Mr Rudd’s motives truly altruistic? Enemy agents are at this moment infiltrating our society with secret brain-washing machinery! How can we know that he is not central to this plot? All true Britons! For the sake of God, Queen and Country: boycott this fiendish device!’

Uncle Edgar closed down the garage in Willoughby Avenue.

I now live in a small town myself and know how scandals about nothing rumble round for what feels like forever and then blow over. In Uncle Edgar’s case, the indignation about the time-machine was overtaken when the local chip shop started offering curry sauce and ‘The Great Foreign Muck Food Poisoning’ debate began.

I realise as I wade through the yellowed newsprint, that I last saw the time-machine in 1976. Uncle Edgar used bits of it to make me a radio which he put in a 1950s vanity case. Being an unconfident teenager, I didn’t appreciate it. Already desperately uncool, I didn’t want to be seen with something so old fashioned it probably couldn’t pick up the ‘right’ station.

Putting the newspapers into a neat pile for recycling, I turn to the next set of things to sort. Deep in a battered cardboard box is the vanity case radio, covered in lovely cherry red leather. I am ashamed that I didn’t thank Uncle Edgar enough and that I was more interested in other people’s opinions than the work of art I possessed. Such is the regret of middle-age I suppose.

Clearing this attic is both sad and exhausting. I wish I could relish it more, that I didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow, that most of this stuff will go to landfill because I only have today to go through it all.

I run my hands over the case and opening it, turn those solid dials which speak of a less disposable era. My fingers find something out of kilter, a little bit of imperfection. Tucked down between the radio and its case is a tiny slip of paper.

It reads, ‘Dear Paula. Next to the left dial is a small button. One day, you’ll want more time. If so, just press the button while you tune in. Make the most of it. Love Uncle E.’

With a trembling finger, I press….

time machine2_edited-1

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

Happy Mothers Day to My Partner in Craft xxx

You sat with infinite patience, showing me how to linocut. The tool dug out satisfying strips curling on the table. Together, our inky hands made patterns on paper. It didn’t matter if they were good. We laughed.

You copied a picture of a princess from my book, your skilful pencil drawing the neat outlines. Then from the scrap bag you cut pieces of silk and cotton into the shape of the princess’s dress and shoes and glued wool for her curling hair. I remember your fingers building the picture for me, soft and silvered by the shining brocade.

You sewed me costumes for school, the peasant’s dress, the bunny ears.

You sat and showed me how to draw, ‘the fewer lines the better,’ you said.

You showed me how to make scones, our hands floury together, rubbing in butter and sprinkling sugar.

You read my favourite story over and over when I couldn’t sleep until the words story were etched in your bored brain, yet you still read it again when I asked.

You taught me to read, I remember the word cards in your hands in the light from the window as you opened that magic world to me, letter by letter.
And now, you teach me photography and on Sunday afternoons, sometimes you sit with your sewing as I write or cook and sometimes we hunch over digital images and let the dinner sort itself out.

You taught me everything I needed to know, except housework.

You never showed me how to do housework, because we were far too busy having fun with the important things in life.

Thank you Mum. I love you.

me&mum

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

Contraband

I smuggled her home in a basket. The girl said I was saving her from drowning.

In my bedroom she emerged: little more than a kitten, silky black but for one white star.

I called her Magic.

Outside, the family cat growled.

I confessed to my animal-loving parents. They wouldn’t mind.

“We can’t keep her,” said Dad.

Days later, I overheard him: “So sad. Full of kittens. They put her down. Couldn’t re-home them all.”

Oh Magic, all these years later I remember your trusting eyes and know that by rescuing you, in the end, I betrayed you.

magic-cat

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

This is a true story. Many years have passed but it still makes me sad. Prompted to write it down by this week’s Thin Spiral Notebook prompt.