Daisy-chains and Black Holes

If making daisy-chains and acting out what might happen as you fall into a black hole or similar were Olympic events, I might have had the chance as a sportswoman.

Or maybe not. 

I used to blame my lack of confidence at sport on childhood trauma: firstly aged five, hearing two grannies laugh at me as I tried to be placed in the egg and spoon race at school and later, aged nine or so, suffering two years of bullying which included being picked last for every team.

Looking back now, I realise not all of this is reasonable. 

I was the littlest child in my school in the youngest class. I was also extremely serious. I imagine a very small girl, running along clasping her egg and spoon (and they were the real thing in my day – none of this plastic nonsense) with a look of utter determination, socks falling down little legs, scabby knees occasionally showing as the overlong skirt flapped, mousy bunches bouncing above her shoulders. I was probably rather sweet and certainly funny. My own daughter, hampered by height in a similar manner just hammed up the whole thing as she competed with her best friend (the tallest in her class) to general hilarity including her own. I took myself far too seriously and felt quite bruised afterwards.

I recovered a bit when two years later, I went to a forward thinking junior school and was encouraged, despite my lack of stature, to learn the high jump and long jump properly. I was never going to win, but I did OK and was relatively confident in my abilities.

Then we moved again and I joined a school which had barely moved into the first half of the 20th century, let alone the last quarter. If there was any spare time, the boys got to do extra sport. The girls got to do extra needlework. If it was a very hot day, the girls got to do extra needlework while watching the boys do extra sport. My mother still has the item I embroidered that summer, every cross-stitch stabbed with boredom.

This was the school where I was comprehensively bullied for two years. On the one hand it crushed any small confidence I had that I could at least run, even if I wasn’t much good at catching or hitting a ball. It also put me off team games for life to the extent that when someone at work suggested an inter-team rounders match in St James’s Park, it took me straight back to those awful days of being jeered at and made me feel slightly sick. On the other hand, the junior school bullying – once I’d decided to stop letting people see they were hurting me – probably started me on a path of being determined to do my own thing and ultimately to stop worrying about what other people thought and worry more about whether I was meeting my own standards. 

Secondary school was a little different. Our games sessions involved four forms and therefore two groups of around sixty girls or sixty boys. How the teachers didn’t go mad I have no idea. Encouragement of women in sport was dampened by a teacher declaring in tones of despair that girls were useless once they hit puberty as women’s hips made it harder to run and busts made them more self-conscious. I’d never thought about my hips before and ever afterwards I’ve wondered if I really did run differently after the age of twelve. My bust was another matter. The last thing I was even remotely good at – running – became a torment both physical and mental as I was ‘wobbly’ very early on. 

The teachers concentrated on those who were teachable. These didn’t include me. During one year, in netball season, the teachers went off to coach girls with potential while those without were left alone – pitched in a vicious match against the goddesses of the school netball team. Imagine the Roman arena where useless specimens of humanity have been thrown to the top gladiators for a bit of light-hearted weapons practice. With no teacher watching, every rule (except bizarrely, staying in the right part of the court) was broken. Elbows, knees, and feet were employed to get the ball into the right goal. Meanwhile, even more feet were being applied to ankles within the useless girls’ team as low level feuds were played out under the guise of a match. In a vicious sort of way it was quite fun really. 

The teacher gave up trying to teach me tennis the day a cry came from the field where the boys were playing cricket: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Paula’s tennis ball.’ I thought my serves were innovative but never mind. In the sixth form I went on a course to learn squash and afterwards challenged my boyfriend – a very competent sportsman – to a match. Afterwards, this generally mild-mannered young man said if anyone tried to make him play squash with me again, he’d have to kill them and me and possibly himself. This seemed harsh. My husband (not the same man and not as mild mannered) might feel similarly about teaching me dinghy sailing or ice-skating except he’s too busy laughing. I have fortunately learnt to put my nose in the air, get a cup of tea, stalk off and read or write something which is the adult equivalent of what I did in the days when I was picked last in teams – make daisy-chains and daydream.

You see, in school, the main sport in the summer was rounders. This – for anyone who doesn’t know – is related to baseball and consists of one team taking it in turns to whack a ball and try to get round four bases without being caught out, while the other team fields and tries to catch the ball in order to get them out. I hated batting because I was genuinely rubbish at it, bullying or no bullying, but I quite liked fielding if I could be as far away as possible from any likelihood of having to try and catch a ball.

Our country school had a massive daisy-covered field. Near one edge was a sort of copse. In break-times, the copse was crucial to me and the one person who’d play with me. It formed part of the world in which we acted out a very complicated story in which we’d gone through some sort of portal made of a translucent but tangible wall (a bit like clear jelly) to another world. We spent a great deal of time acting out the sheer terror of going through this invisible wall in which were trapped various enormous insects and managing the challenges on the other side as we tried to get back. It really doesn’t bear thinking about what we must have looked like and maybe it’s no wonder we were both considered odd. 

During a game of rounders, it was too risky to sneak off into the copse as the teacher wasn’t that daft. It was however possible to lay down in the grass as far away from any action as possible and make daisy-chains. Which is pretty much what I did, while imagining myself in the middle of one of my own stories having an adventure. On the very rare occasion a ball did come my way and an exasperated roar of ‘Paula!’ was bellowed by my team, it was really annoying. The one time I managed to scramble to my feet and catch the ball I was as surprised as anyone.

My own children turned out to be both creative and good at sports. My daughter did well and was quite focussed, particularly on gymnastics. But watching my son, who had a lot of potential, struggle with the team element of sport was baffling. No-one was picking on him (or at least not until his team lost because he wasn’t concentrating), he was capable and confident, he was being given lots of encouragement. So I asked him whether, apart from his struggles with concentration there was another problem. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want there to be a story and no-one else does.’ He wasn’t really interested in playing football or swimming or learning judo for itself or for the sake of winning. He wanted it to be part of a story – a quest, a challenge, an adventure and none of the other children or the trainers understood. 

But I did. Because looking back, bullying aside, that’s exactly how I felt about sport and fundamentally still do. I want there to be a story, otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing one.

I like to think that if I ever was silly enough to agree to be on an office team playing rounders in St James’s Park, you’d be able to find me as a fielder, a long way from the action, making daisy-chains. I can still do it you know. 

As for acting out finding myself in another world, I lost touch with that friend for a long time until a few years ago. But as we caught up with each other over a series of emails, one of her first questions was ‘do you remember the jelly wall with the fly in it?’ Perhaps this is because, though we’re both now grown up and she’s not odd at all and maybe neither am I, we’re both writers and still looking for the story in every situation and wondering how best to describe what might happen if we step through a jelly wall or a black hole into another world. 

It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Beats whacking a ball in my view anyway.

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Words and photographs (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without author’s express permission.

A Letter to My Bully

Wheels on Fire

I’d prefer my husband to kill me with kindness, but no, he decided to drag me on a 22 mile cycle in temperatures hot enough to melt iron instead. 

OK so it was probably only 25°C, but I’m British of mostly North European descent. Allow me some pity. There was housework to do but there’ll always be housework to do  and the day I choose it over anything else is the day you ask ‘who is this woman masquerading as Paula?’ 

So in the absence of a proper excuse not to go, I went. 

Hard as it is for my husband to believe, I did a lot of cycling once. 

The Christmas before I was five and before anyone decided such traditions were a choking hazard, I found a sixpence in my Christmas pudding. This was very auspicious and with eyes tight shut and hand clasping the tiny coin, I wished and wished I’d get a bicycle. A few weeks later when we went to my grandparents’ for my birthday tea, there was a bicycle and it was all mine. 

That’s pretty much the only time I’ve had a wish come true but it was worth it. 

I can still recall learning to ride it without stabilisers. Dad raced behind holding onto my saddle and an excited dog ran alongside me barking its head off. And then Dad let go and I was flying along under my own steam! Me – a person who could (can) trip over her own shadow! (I think the fact I was terrified of dogs and worried about what would happen if I fell off helped a little.)

Almost all the kids in the various places I grew up had bicycles. By the time I was eight, my family had settled on the side of a small south Welsh mountain. The road which started as a 1:4 gradient with two hairpins became straight and flat after a while and beyond our house there were, in those days, very few cars. I and the girl on whom Ffion in The Cluttering Discombobulator, The Advent Calendar and Kindling is based, cycled up and down acting out one of our narrative fantasies which involved super-hero cows and a rallying cry of ‘Geronimooooo!’ If the other kids thought we were very weird already (which they did), this just confirmed it. 

Cycling sort of petered out for us girls when we reached eleven/twelve but when I went to college at eighteen, I bought an old wreck of a bike and did it up – wire wool and everything. (My husband refuses to believe I could be this practical despite photographic evidence but I was.)

Thereafter, I once cycled from Chichester to Southampton along the (terrifyingly busy) A27 to see my then boyfriend (I suspect I got the train back). I would regularly cycle from my village 11 miles down the valley to Swansea or 11 miles up the valley to visit said boyfriend and barely got out of breath. On a better bike a bit later, I undertook a cycling/camping holiday from Fishguard to Aberystwyth. 

I lost what little wild abandon I had when I flew over the handle-bars on a hill and skidded along a gravel road using my left cheek as a brake. My hideous face frightened small children for a week afterwards and a bit of gravel got permanently embedded in my shoulder. I still have the scars from that and also from several years later when my daughter, sitting in a kid’s seat on the back of a much later bicycle, tipped herself sideways pulling it over resulting in the pedal digging a trench down my heel.

Suffice to say I’m neither as keen nor as proficient a cyclist nowadays. Nor as fit. But I did manage 22 miles today and am not yet dead.

Where’s all this going you might say? Well, one of the good things about this sort of exercise from my point of view is that there was a lot of thinking time, especially when my husband shot off ahead and left me ambling along looking at the scenery.

One of my thoughts was ‘how hard would it be to learn how to cycle as an adult?’

I can’t imagine it at all. Most of what people perceive in me as confidence is actually a belligerent refusal to be told what I can or can’t do – but I have learned my limits. If someone were to have asked me as a child to unicycle or tightrope walk, I’d probably have tried it out. Nowadays I’d automatically think of the potential injuries/humilation and feel life is too short. I can’t imagine having the courage to get on a bicycle and trust myself to be able to balance enough to ride it if I didn’t already know how.

In the Caster & Fleet series, Katherine and Connie learn to ride bicycles a great deal clunkier than anything I’ve ever had, while wearing much less accommodating clothes and at a time when the whole idea of women doing such a thing was a more than a little suspect. When Liz and I wrote them, we thought about the objections they might face as two nice middle-class girls doing something quite shocking and worse – becoming so independent. What I hadn’t really thought was how hard it must have been to do something so physically difficult at the age of 25 and 23. (Book six – The Case of the Crystal Kisses comes out soon – bikes included.)

Obviously Katherine and Connie are fictional (although it doesn’t quite seem so to me and Liz) but plenty of women in their day did learn to ride bicycles as adults. It can’t have been easy, it must have caused arguments in any number of homes but how much freedom they had as a result! The bicycle, along with railways and higher education for women must have expanded worlds that were so desperately and mind-numbingly narrow.

So, on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve probably had too much sun, is there a moral to all this? 

I often meet people who are worried about doing something new – for example, sharing something they’ve created or sharing something about themselves which no-one else has realised. Often they feel too young to feel they have gravitas or they feel so old they’ve missed the boat. They’re afraid of falling or of looking stupid.

If you’re one of them – try not to feel that way. I felt exactly the same until the day I just thought – I’ll risk sharing this story and a bit later, I’ll risk reading aloud this other story.

It was infinitely more terrifying than learning to ride a bicycle but it didn’t kill me and moreover I found a whole community of people ready to hold on to the saddle and not let go until they knew I could fly. I can’t say how glad I am to have taken that risk. It may not sound big to some people, but it was big to me.

Give it a go. Whatever it is (morality, legality assumed here) give it a go.
Whether it’s showing someone something you’ve created or whether it’s doing something difficult when there’s a risk of failure or doing something you once did often but have lost confidence to do again – try it anyway.

Mostly people are much more supportive than you fear. If they aren’t – try someone else.

Meanwhile – I’m telling my aching muscles they’ll be fine tomorrow and more importantly replacing some of the 1221 calories my fitness app says I’ve used. 

After all, one doesn’t want to get scrawny, does one?

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Who Are You?

Eighteen years ago at this precise moment, I was cradling my new-born daughter while perusing the hospital’s options for dinner. Since halal chicken curry was the best it could offer, I went home for my husband’s home-made chilli con carne instead. 

My husband was aghast. He had been looking forward to one last night of peace before the baby and I came home and our 22 month old son came back from his grandparents. But then, my husband wasn’t the one looking at the menu. Nor did he have to try and sleep in a maternity ward.

The tiny bundle who completed our family was a mystery of course. She slept, fed a little, took a hazy look at her parents and decided it was better to go back to sleep.

She burst out crying at the first sight of her brother. He burst into giggles. They’ve been arguing, laughing, shouting, plotting, fighting, playing games together ever since.

My daughter, unlike my son, pretty much slept through her first two years. Then she emerged as a very individual, funny, fiery and no-nonsense little girl and hasn’t looked back.

By that time, I’d realised the character of one’s children is not really entirely under parental control. We loved our children the same, we did our best to give them the same opportunities and not gender stereotype with toys and colours. But of course, they’ve turned out to be – themselves.

It’s a lot simpler to make up a fictional character than to mould a real one. Isn’t it?

Actually it isn’t. When I started writing, I think the characters I created for the main point of view tended to be observers. I’m not entirely sure why but I suspect it was something to do with them being some aspect of myself watching things unfold. 

With my second completed manuscript, I realised what I was doing early on and decided I didn’t want the character to simply observe but to take part. Before I knew it, the story was about her and not about the person I originally intended it to be about. That story is still waiting to be edited.

By the time I started writing other things, which have since been published, I’d started finding out how important it was to know who the characters were outside of the page. When is their birthday? What’s their favourite colour? Who were their parents? Their religious views? Their politics?

Is that important? Maybe. 

What’s more important in my view, is not only who do I think they are, but who they think they are and who they want others to think they are. For some characters the last question is an irrelevance. They see the world as centring on themselves. Their view of who they are in not to be questioned. The idea that someone else may perceive them as arrogant, foolish or frightening wouldn’t cross their mind. Others are acutely aware that they are vulnerable. For all sorts of reasons they present a persona of confidence and capability when underneath they’re struggling and lonely. Others are the reverse: they appear shy and timid to others but in reality they feel quite at ease with the world.

I recently went to a workshop on characterisation run by Rosanna Ley. If you ever get the chance to go to one of her workshops, I can recommend them. 

With me, I ‘took’ the main character from the first full-length book I wrote, currently code-named LHG. I am still not happy with it. Why? Mainly because the main character is still largely an enigma to me. She is supposed to be fiery, but isn’t. She is supposed to have strong views but doesn’t. She is the only main character I’ve ever written whom I can’t ‘find’. Like my sleeping baby from eighteen years ago, I have no real idea who she actually is yet. 

The workshop made me think of some of the things that were missing about her. They may or may not be things that will ever factor in the book if I ever get it to the point when I’m happy with it, but they are part of who she is. One of the questions was ‘where is she at home?’ I had never considered that. She is a small-town woman who yearns to be elsewhere. But she’s never actually been elsewhere – so where does she feel mostly herself? It may sound like nothing, but I feel as if this may actually be a key to her. Eventually when I get there, I may even change her name.

Today has been a funny sort of day with endings and beginnings. My youngest child became an adult, another novel was finished and added to the ‘to be edited’ pile. The latter will almost certainly be ready before LHG. I feel both a little sad and a sense of completion. 

Incidentally, my daughter’s never entirely forgiven me for that decision to go home the afternoon she was born rather than stay in hospital. It was census day and all the babies born in the hospital on 29th April 2001 were given a babygro with ‘I’m a census baby’ printed on the front and individually named in the local paper – except my daughter. They forgot to give us the babygro and she’s in the paper as ‘and also another little girl.’ 

My baby is now a woman, complete with a liking for espresso. I am proud of who she is and hopeful for what she will become. How much I have moulded her I have no idea. She certainly doesn’t get the taste for coffee or cynicism from me. 

But she definitely gets her argumentative streak. 

And long may it continue for both of us. 

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Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Under the Green

It’s St Patrick’s Day today and all those pictures of leprechauns brought back a memory. You see, when I was nine, I saw a …

Well I don’t know what he was exactly. He could have been a leprechaun I suppose but that seems unlikely since I saw him sitting near a bridge in South Wales. However, he was very small and very definitely of the elven type. 

On the other hand, I lived ten miles from Banwen, where St Patrick was allegedly born, so possibly he was a leprechaun tourist doing a road-trip. 

À propos of nothing, the town and the schools I attended were named after a different saint, St Catwg, who was less worried about snakes than St Patrick. We lived off what is called the ‘Heads of the Valleys’ road, which perhaps gives you an idea of how far from the beaten track we were. Banwen was even further into the wilds and from what I recall, the Banwen kids who came to our secondary school were teased about being unsophisticated by those of us who lived closer to what we thought of as civilisation (there was a Wimpey bar three miles away). Trust me, none of the rest of us had a cosmopolitan or sophisticated leg to stand on, but that’s teenagers for you. At least the Banwen kids had a patron saint to be proud of, even if he’d emigrated. The rest of us had nothing. Even St Catwg had travelled up from Monmouthshire and thence left our place for Brittany and possibly Scotland.

Going back to my elven man – I was as I said, around nine. He was ageless. I had been communing with the river which ran along a gorge fifty yards/metres or so behind my house. This means I was troubled or unhappy or or being bullied or lonely or a mixture of all of those. I can’t remember the reasons but can remember the emotion. One of my ‘places’ was the river and I would stand on the bridge that crossed it and talk to the lights which sparkled on it under the trees. I don’t recall the sparkling ever not being there, even though I also remember it raining for months. This either means I only visited it when it was dry or there was something unusual about the place.

The path to the bridge on our side ran down the length of gardens and then a field and then there were some rather rusty railings which were designed to stop people (children) from getting to the edge of the gorge and falling into the river. Naturally, they had long since been bent so that a child could get through. It was possible to climb down to the river’s edge and stand on a sandbank. This was where I observed the river beasties, while I still had ideas of becoming a naturalist. 

That particular day however, I’d just walked down to the bridge, poured out my worries and was returning home. As I stepped from the bridge onto the path, I saw a small man, cross legged on a post, smoking a pipe. He was quite serene, saying nothing but giving me a small nod and smile as if to say ‘it’ll be all right.’

Being well brought up I said ‘hello’ and passed on. A second later, the penny dropped that this small man was actually smaller than me, smaller than my little sister, small enough to sit on a post in fact. 

I turned and he was not there. Or he was gone. Whichever one prefers to think.

I’ve never really told anyone of this, because after all, it sounds a bit bonkers. I never saw him again, nor did I ever see any other elvish type, despite feeling they were there just out of sight. Ultimately I grew out of talking to the river and trees but never quite lost the sense that there was some other world just beyond. I am an educated woman of faith but I fundamentally feel that the universe is infinitely more complex than a mere human who might live seventy years or so can ever codify. 

Those who know about Celtic mythology talk about another world which touches ours and scientists talk about alternative universes. I think of those moments under trees, I think of other moments when I clearly knew I could go one way or another and the outcome would be hugely different and I wonder. 

Of course, I could just have been bonkers. I was immensely stressed aged nine.  

On the off-chance that he really was an elf, I’ve done a bit of research into things about which I’d have known nothing then. I was an English outsider in a Welsh village but actually I doubt many of my Welsh contemporaries knew either. 

I think he was definitely Welsh. According to Wirt Sikes, ‘y Tylwyth Teg’ (Welsh for the fair folk) come in five varieties: Ellyllon (elves), Coblynau (mine fairies), Bwbachod (household fairies), Gwragedd Annwn (underwater fairies), and Gwyllion (mountain fairies).

The Ellyllon are pigmy elves who haunt the groves and valleys. They dine on poisonous toadstools and fairy butter, which they extract from deep crevices in limestone rocks. Their hands are clad in the bells of the foxglove, the leaves of which are a powerful sedative. They are sometimes kindly, sometimes menacing and almost always mischievous.’ 

So I’m going to own my elf as one of the Ellyllon – a kindly one.

It was a long, long time ago of course. I only really recall the sense of calm and an unspoken wisdom that said ‘it’ll be all right.’ So he could, depending on your view point have been an elf, an angel, a manifestation of my internal determination to win through or a manifestation of stress. 

Whichever he was, he made me feel better. I somehow knew I’d never see him again, but it didn’t matter. 

At that moment, I felt comforted.

green man

 

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Article about British Goblins (1880) by Wirt Sikes

Everything at Once

‘Yes,’ said the consultant. ‘Everything points to your son having ADHD.’

My lovely seven year old was at that point torn between prodding the consultant’s computer and running toy cars backwards up a ramp. My heart sank. Not because I thought it was the end of the world, but because I could imagine what people would say.

The ones who’d been telling me so for years would smirk. The ones who thought it but never said would sneer. Close friends and family would go into denial. My father would probably buy a book about it.

I had been in denial for a long time. My son’s playgroup had hinted it. His first school told me to take him for assessment. I wasn’t happy with the school and chose to ignore them, although terribly upset, I rang to tell a friend, leaving a message on her landline phone. She didn’t pick up the message for weeks by which time my distress had been replaced with belligerence. 

A year later, we moved a hundred miles and he’d changed schools. The new school couldn’t have been better. But as sitting still became harder, concentrating more important, my lovely happy child lost his self-esteem and confidence and finally his joy. When this school suggested an assessment, I listened. 

Is it my fault? It never ever occurred to me to blame my husband, but I certainly blamed myself.

Was it because I’d eaten red meat, shrimps, nuts and had the odd glass of wine during pregnancy? Was it because I’d craved cheese and ate it in almost any format? Was it because I had what seemed – for a first time mother – a rather traumatic if fairly quick childbirth? Was it because an hour before he was born and they said ‘the baby is getting distressed’, I thought ‘what about me? I’m distressed. Am I invisible?’ None of that made any sense. 

Was it genetic? The consultant said it was often hereditary. I am a natural fidget and daydream as is my husband. But discipline at my home and school was fairly rigid and I long ago learnt to daydream with 90% of my brain while the other 10% appears fully engaged in whatever boring thing I’m supposed to be concentrating on. I struggle in a lot of social situations because I’m trying to listen to every single conversation around me regardless of whether I’m part of it or not. I am very easily bored. I try to do everything on my to-do list at the same time but I do get through it eventually.

My son wasn’t like that. He didn’t seem able to concentrate at all, unless it was something he was absolutely absorbed by. Oddly, this wasn’t always what was deemed ‘important’ by school or society. He found it easier to listen if he wasn’t looking at someone. If he was looking at them, he was concentrating on their face, their mannerisms, their mood rather than their words. Did people understand that? No. Of course they didn’t. He just got into trouble.

Was it because I didn’t discipline him strictly enough? I was conflicted on that one. I demand good manners and an interest in knowledge but I also want openness. I don’t want my children to be hung up, to be afraid to express an opinion or afraid to be honest even when they knew I won’t like their opinions or their honesty. I want them to come to me if things go wrong without fearing I will judge them. I want them to have the space to make stupid decisions knowing I am there to catch them if they fall. 

‘Sleep when he sleeps’ my friends with children said when he was born. My son barely slept in the day and didn’t sleep through the night till he was nearly seven. I went back to work part-time when he was six months old and had to learn a new role but still found it more relaxing than managing a child who didn’t know how to rest. Changing nappies and bath time were activities easier done by two. He rolled over at six weeks, was running by nine months. Trying to get used to managing on a reduced income, I remember sitting with him on my lap trying to read a bank statement and work out where the money was going. He flipped the paper over and I started to cry – and I don’t do crying. He was utterly exhausting. Somewhere around this point, the health visitor gave me a questionnaire. She must have been worried about my mental health and she was right. It was a whole year before I woke up and realised I felt ‘normal’.

Forget all those stereotypes. We don’t eat junk food except on occasion. I was rigid about early bedtimes and a regular routine (if not for my children’s sake, for mine.) My son is not and has never been deliberately rough and rarely angry (although now, as an adult, perhaps righteously so over injustice and political stupidity). He does not always ‘get’ people but he’s sensitive and kind. If he has ever been violent it has generally been through exuberance rather than out of any desire to hurt. (Quite possibly this does not always extend to his little sister but she gives as good as she gets.) I am proud that he knows how to be polite to others and equally proud that he is honest with me and has opinions he’s not afraid to express. 

‘His brain is wired differently,’ explained the consultant. ‘We think it can’t stimulate itself, and so it’s constantly looking for external stimulus. It’s actually concentrating on everything simultaneously and can’t work out what’s important. Medication may create stimuli that his brain can’t so that he can concentrate on what’s necessary.’

I chose to accept medication for him. This involved a battle with the extended family. They said I was labelling him, drugging him, that I just needed to discipline him better. We used it for school alone. On holidays and weekends, we didn’t use the tablets at all. At school, he regained his confidence and started to do well in class again. When he was called ‘ADHD boy’ by another child, my son put his head up and said he was proud to be an ADHD boy. The one time I took both children (both under eleven) to London on my own and decided to medicate him, I regretted it. Who was this quiet child who wasn’t trying to run in three directions at once and asking a million questions? He was easier to manage but was he enjoying it as much? I still don’t really know. When he reached sixteen, the decision whether to take medication was left to him. He took it for his academic subjects but didn’t for music and drama. ‘I need my mind to be free to be creative’ he said.

My son is now an adult and he sometimes uses medication and sometimes doesn’t. What have I learned about ADHD? I realised that everyone has it to some degree, the majority only at a very low level. I look back at my own school years and wonder if some of those ‘naughty’ but intelligent children might have made something of themselves if someone had realised that their brain was wired a different way. I wonder what opportunities for them were lost. I realised my father probably had some form of Asperger’s syndrome and this helped me understand him and become less frustrated with some of things he said and did.

People say that ADHD didn’t exist before the modern western world got too soft. I think this is utter nonsense. People are just people. There have always been people who have very clear thought patterns and people who think about lots of things simultaneously. We need both. We need people who can make straightforward unemotional judgements. We need daydreamers. Perhaps in industrialised cultures there is less respect given to the dreamers. In our culture we want the output – the film or music or jet engine but don’t realise space needs to be given to the wild idea that leads to them. Our culture doesn’t always appreciate a person who walks to a different beat.

As a small child, yes, my son was exhausting. But he was fascinated by everything. He laughed, he was happy. Sleep was a waste of time when there was a whole world ready to fiddle with. He danced in my womb when I sang in a concert and as a pre-schooler, he danced in our small front room to a CD of classical (sorry – Baroque) music. He was full of joy. I bought him a tiny toy keyboard in a charity shop for £3 and all by himself he learnt how to play Silent Night at the age of three. He was the only child in playgroup who could sing in tune. He is a musician. 

He is now a delightful young man full of passion and ideas and creative energy. I don’t always agree with him but then I am his mother and older, why should I agree with him? And he is young, why should he agree with me? Hopefully there is plenty of time for both of us to find out when to bend and when to stand firm.

If I had ignored that diagnosis or tried to discipline him out of ADHD would he be as creative and have as much potential now? Or would he be frustrated, angry, rebellious, bitter? 

I suspect the latter. I know which I’d prefer.

If you’re a parent struggling right now, find someone to understand and don’t be afraid. There will be someone. If your child had asthma, no-one would query your need for help or theirs – ADHD is no different. 

If you think you may be attention deficit and/or hyperactive – it’s a good thing. But again, seek support.

If you don’t understand – do some research. Many highly successful people have ADHD. A diagnosis doesn’t mean you’re undisciplined, unnurtured, badly nourised, violent or useless.

Whoever you are, be kind to yourself. 

Whoever or ‘whatever’ you are, the world needs you.

BBC video – the joys of ADHD

A Winter Forest at Night by Matthew Harmon

The National Attention Deficit Disorder Information and Support Service

NHS information

Information for adults with ADHD

UK Support Groups

a thousand connections

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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!

 

 

 

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.