An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

I am sitting opposite Paula’s laundry fairy and she..

Excuse me, I’m not her fairy. She is my person.

Aw that’s sweet, you look on her as family.

No, I mean she belongs to me not the other way around.

A bit like a pet?

More like an experimental subject to be honest.

Ah. Well to continue. You… may I know your name?

Only if you want to die horribly.

Oh. Ahem. Well may I say you’re looking resplendent in an outfit which … may I call it unique?

Call it what you like. It’s the best I can do using the stuff I find in Paula’s cupboards. Some of her clothes are that old they need carbon dating.

You mean you’ve woven it yourself out of her cast-offs?

Ha! Me? Weave? Nah, I got someone to do it for me. And they’re not exactly cast-offs, more stuff she didn’t keep an eye on.

Things she’d put in storage?

Where would be the fun in that? No. Things she put down for five minutes. Watching her pull her hair out thinking she’s gone doollally and trying to find stuff I’ve magicked off when she’s in a hurry is almost as much of a laugh as moving her keys.

I see. Anyway, I must say you look a little more robust than I thought a fairy would.

Are you saying I look fat?

No, no – you can put the sink plunger down – not fat at all, far from it. More… athletic. You must work out a lot. And those tattoos, dead impressive. What are they again?

Crossed odd socks on one arm and a mangle-in-a-tangle on the other. Do you want to see the one on my…

Er, another time perhaps. Shall we get on with the questions sent in by our readers? 

If you must.

Do you do your own dishes after meals?

What sort of question is that? What do you think dishwasher fairies are for?

There are dishwasher fairies?

Of course there are. It’s a modern thing. They’re sort of a cross between a brownie-gone-bad mixed with a laundry fairy. Brill combination. They’re either so efficient they dissolve the pattern off the plates or they save up the gunk in the filter and spew it out over everything and then break the machine. If they time it right, they can do it just before a public holiday or when guests are coming. It’s ace.

Apart from the humans, are you all alone here? Well obviously not, you’ve already mentioned the dishwasher fairy.

She’s a sort of second cousin. If you think my tattoos are impressive, you should see her piercings. Then there’s the garden gnomes. They’re sort of relations on the other side. They lie in the grass and shove things in the lawnmower. They also go slug-racing, stamp on flowers and encourage the weeds. Or at least they do in this garden. The only thing they won’t mess with is Paula’s husband’s chilli plants. My word. Uncle Joe took a bite out of one and burst into flames. Had to tip a pint of milk over his head to put him out. I suppose I ought to mention the book imps. They’re a bit useless as they tend to get sidetracked with reading things, but they erase things from diaries and calendars, and they move books, office projects and homework about when they’re bored. Usually on Sunday night or before a deadline. And then there’s the goodie two-shoe brownies. Well there used to be. Now there’s only one brownie left. He’s called Aelfnod and I had him nicely under control till she met him and gave him a home in the attic. The others moved out in disgust. This is one terribly untidy family. Even the spiders don’t think this house is much of a challenge.

Do you put both socks on first, or one sock, one shoe?

What kind of weirdo puts on one sock, one shoe? And you’re talking like you only need two socks. I put all the socks on at the same time. And they’re all odd.

Do you have any pets?

I’ve got Aelfnod. Or I will when I can work out how to get in the attic.

Who does your laundry?

Paula does of course. And then I nabs it after. Just when she thinks she’s found the missing socks and goes to find their partners, I nips in and grabs them. And anything else I fancy the look of.

Are those your real teeth?

Excuse me? What sort of people are your readers? Of course they’re not my own teeth. That would be weird. They’re dentures made from the ones the tooth fairy gets. Not that the tooth fairy’s been round for a few years. And I never did get a full set of 56, cos the littlest human went all cynical on the tooth-fairy and tried to trick her. Never saw another penny for her teeth after that. Hah. But then I didn’t get the teeth either.

Do you recycle?

Well here I am wearing an outfit made from odd socks. And you won’t believe what the dishwasher fairy can make with the odd teaspoons, apart from use them as earrings that is. Mind blowing, I’m telling ya. Last time we managed to break both the washing machine and dishwasher at the same time, we took a weekend break sailing in a boat made from odd bits of plastic container, odd socks and odd teaspoons. Lost them afterwards but hey.

Would you take chicken soup to your neighbour if he was sick?

Aelfnod the brownie? Huh. Only so I could dunk him in it.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

Two Saturdays ago when I managed to sneak a ball point pen into the shirt wash. Oh the wailing when the washing machine stopped working as the pen disembowelled itself and bit of it slipped into the drum and oh you should have seen the pretty blue patterns on those lovely cotton garments! Lovely splodges just where they could be seen by everyone! And then the arguing over who’d put the pen in the washing machine and whose fault it was and the researching for stain removers and the soakings in vinegar and bicarbonate of soda and all in vain. Oh that was a happy day.

If you could get rid of one disease, what would it be?

Lady writers. Paula put me in a book she wrote with Val Portelli called Weird and Peculiar Tales.

Did she write libellous things about you?

Oh no, it was all true. But she made it look like I was the bad guy. Me? I just like a bit of a laugh. Anyway, gotta go, I’ve got a tissue to put in the pocket of some black trousers before the dark wash is put in. And I’m feeding up one of the spiders so he can chew his way into the attic. I’m sure Aelfnod must be all lonely up there. See ya round. Nice socks by the way. I’d keep an eye on them if I were you.  I likes them.

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Book by Paula Harmon & Val Portelli

Breaking News: a new book with Val Portelli

(c) Paula Harmon 2018.  Words and photograph copywrite Paula Harmon and not to be reproduced without her express permission or without credit given.

 

 

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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.

Kindling – New Cover!

Kindling is my collection of short stories which I pulled together from the various stories that just poured out when my self-imposed writing dam burst in 2015.

Courtesy of various prompts, I recalled a spirit of place which had somehow been lost in growing up, building a career, bringing up a family and general life. I recalled places in South Wales where I’d wandered as a child and imagined going back to them (even though my childhood friend recommended not doing so) and remembered some of the stories I’d heard about the village.

I also remembered or reimagined places I’d known in Gloucestershire and know in Dorset and even one of my office blocks and a hotel I’d stayed in while on a training course in London.

From all these memories grew stories and flash fiction. Most are contemporary fiction, some are ghost stories, a few are sad although not without hope. One or two are true, most aren’t and some are frankly complete fiction (it may surprise you to know that the one in the bar in Fairyland with the Tooth Fairy bemoaning her lot is one of these).

As the title story involves a woman going into the forest at full-moon with her e-reader and what happens next, I chose a cover which to me made me think of a slightly mysterious wood where someone might be waiting. I loved the cover, but feedback mostly suggested that people thought it was a children’s book. While there’s nothing in ‘Kindling’ which would be unsuitable for a child, a lot of it would be baffling.

So I changed the cover. I thought of those woods where as a very lonely little girl I’d wandered and the river where I spoke to the sparkling waters because it was the friend who wouldn’t tell my secrets. After a long time, I found an image on Dreamstime and used it to create a cover which I hope is more representative about a book of hope, imagination, possibilities and a little bit of magic.

It would be interesting to know what you think.

Kindling is available on Amazon

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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. Image used for cover ‘Double Exposure Portrait’ by © Lenanet | Dreamstime.com

Some Daughters (in-law) Do ‘ave ’em

I have been very lucky with my mother-in-law. She treats me exactly like the daughter she wanted but never had, loving me, spoiling me, supporting me and periodically telling me to shut up when I’m talking nonsense.

One of her best attributes is that she never ever criticises the abysmal state of my house-wifery and says as long as I provide her with lovely home-cooked meals when she visits and she has a comfortable bed to sleep in and a book or three to read, a glass of wine and some lively conversation, she is never going to complain about anything as irrelevant as dust.  I happily manage my side of the bargain.

She quite appreciates, I think, the fact that after all years living in a male dominated home, she now has an ally. In general, she’s happy to gang up on her own son in my defence, although she says his failings are now my responsibility as he’s now been with me longer than he was with her. I say that Aristotle said all the damage is done by the time a child is seven, so it’s her fault. This is the sort of moment she tells me to shut up.

Several years ago, in my lunch-break, I started writing out a scene in a Romano-British home where a daughter-in-law is enduring the insults of her loathsome mother-in-law. I thought at the time, it might form part of a novel written along the same lines as a Golden Era country house murder mystery. You know, the sort where pretty much every character is a suspect yet somehow indifferent to the mayhem around them. (‘Oh goodness Papa is dead. Does anyone else know where the key to the drinks cabinet is?’ – that sort of thing.) Well, I developed this idea eventually and now MURDER BRITANNICA is finally for sale. It has plenty of murders, a lot (I hope) of merriment and a monstrous mother/mother-in-law Lucretia. I really enjoyed writing Lucretia. I have no idea on whom she’s based, although I’ve met plenty of bullying women in my time. She’s certainly not based on my mother or mother-in-law – they are the basis of two of the other older female characters: enigmatic Tullia and practical Tryssa.

While looking for a cover picture for the book I came across the one below (although I didn’t use it in the end). I like to think that these are the three younger women who have to endure Lucretia as her schemes unfold. Seventeen year old Camilla has pinched her brother’s lyre (although she has no idea what to do with it) and is considering how awful it must be to be as old as Poppaea (who’s twenty-five) or Prisca who is thirty-something. Prisca is thinking of gladiators and Poppaea is wondering … well no-one ever quite knows what she’s wondering.

The men (and there are quite a few of them too) are probably looking for food because there’s a bit of a culinary crisis going on.

I hope if you read Murder Britannica, you’ll enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it. It was great fun. And I’ve dedicated it to my mother-in-law because she loves murder mysteries and is NOTHING like Lucretia.

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

Picture from Pixabay.

A Tale of Two Trees.

This week we lost a tree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Hold the Line, Caller

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

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

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

Take the telephone. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Dear Travel Journal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

What an experience my first writing collaboration has been.

We started on 19th January thinking we’d be finished by the end of March but we got carried away and the last words of just under 54k were written yesterday (10th February) at 5pm.

The Case of the Black Tulips’  is now closed. The protagonists are having a day off in the sun. Liz Hedgecock and I are putting our feet up having toasted each other in a virtual sense from opposite ends of the country.

We started with a series of messages and a woolly idea. I sent Liz a photograph of some notes I’d scribbled on the back of something else (see scrawl below) and she still wanted to continue. We both work on the ‘write first, research as you go along’ principle which meant that periodically one of us would disappear down a research rabbit hole and pop back up not necessarily with a rabbit but something else entirely to drop into the stew.

Our book starts in 1890 or thereabouts, so there was a lot of background detail to investigate and I’ve put some links below which may or may not be included in the book but certainly kept us entertained, amazed and sometimes shocked.

Still, our protagonists are not women who let conventions get in the way of adventure, and perhaps in a different sort of way neither did we.

I presume that script-writers etc who work together on projects usually actually tell each other what they’re planning to do next. We took another approach. We weren’t going to spoil the fun with common sense when we could have shenanigans instead.

I wrote chapter one and Liz wrote chapter two and so on. Given the pace we were writing at (at least one chapter a day each) and the fact that boring things like work and family kept getting in the way, there wasn’t a lot of time to tell the other what we were planning to do next. Consequently in chapter nine I introduced an object, planning to utilise it in chapter eleven but then Liz ‘lost’ it in chapter ten. Liz introduced a character in chapter twenty but in chapter twenty-three I… nope, not telling you any more, you’ll have to read it to find out.

If you’re wondering why there’s a photograph of people rushing about, it’s because on Tuesday 6th February, I had been writing that day’s chapter on the morning train and hadn’t quite finished it. Liz was waiting. Before I disappeared into the underground on the way to work, I sat in the concourse of Waterloo, sat on a bench outside WH Smiths, frantically wrote the last words and emailed them off. It’s been that kind of experience.

Doing it again? I really hope so. It’s been great fun and I hope readers will enjoy the end result.

The painful part (editing) is yet to come, but the characters are itching to get their sleeves rolled up and sort out another mystery. Who knows what they’ll be up against next.

I can see some more research rabbit holes opening up as I type.

Better get my notebook out.

Why were women employed in the Victorian civil service? Small fingers, brains and lower pay…

Interactive map of gas lamps still in London

What did the creation of sewing machines mean to women?

How much could you earn as a servant in a big country house in 1890?

Women’s cycling – a revolution

A Victorian list of do’s & don’t’s for women cyclists!

Lighting in the Victorian home

Venturing Out

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

 

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.

Venturing Out

Often wondered how scriptwriters and comedians work on scripts together? Me too. Who gets to decide whose joke or line goes where and has an equal voice?

I think I was six years old the last time I collaborated creatively outside work.

Two of us drew a mouse. We decided to do half each. This way we could be proud of our part yet share in the glory of the overall effect. I drew a lustrous tail and beautiful furry haunches. He got the eyes and whiskers. Or maybe it was the other way round. Either way, no one could see the join (although if that mouse had ever come to life there might have been trouble).

Well that was a long time ago and I never expected to collaborate creatively outside work again.

Then I met other writers on Facebook and a strange thing happened. I started to discuss writing with people I’ve never met and share ideas which up till then were hidden in my head.

One day, during a message exchange, one of them mentioned collaboration.

Liz Hedgecock is author of a number of mysteries, many set in Victorian London. I love her stories and was flattered to be approached.

Both of us work and have families. We live a fair distance apart. A hazy plan to do something in Autumn 2017 came apart when we both decided to do NaNoWriMo in November. With the best will in the world we realised it was impossible to start something new before Christmas.

Nevertheless, we sketched out via messenger and email two unlikely Victorian female detectives: young women determined not to let the restrictions of corsets and decorum stop them from solving a crime.

We set a date to discuss the logistics on 19th January. If this all sounds very formal, it’s because we’ve never actually met in person. I shuddered at the thought of a video call, but fortunately so did Liz.

So we talked via cyberspace and plotted.

I had been nervous. What if we didn’t get on?

But it was fine. We were chatting like old friends in no time.

With a working title of The Case of The Black Tulips, our story was born.

So how are we collaborating? We decided on an approach which gives us equal input and voice. We have a character each and tell the story through ‘our’ person alone. It is like a very complex game of consequences, especially when Liz changes tack and I have to alter direction myself. Are we mad? Probably, but it is tremendous fun.

We’ve got so caught up in it that we are nearly half way through the first draft already with ideas of sequels forming. Watch this space if you like mysteries and feisty female leads because we hope to publish later this year.

I often tell people that I started writing stories because I wanted to have adventures like children in books and it was the only way to do it. I’m still writing for the same reason. My new character has found a friend and is having a wonderful adventure.

And the same is true for me.

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

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