An Aching World

I have yearned to step into another world all my life.

Growing up devouring books, I longed to travel to Narnia where trees came alive and animals talked; to Olympus to watch the bickering gods; to wander Moomin Valley with Snufkin; to go to the Chalet School where there were no bullies and it was all right to be a bookworm; to the clean open prairies and simple life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, to the ordered drawing rooms of Agatha Christie, where justice always prevailed.

I wrote about fantasy worlds filled with mystical beasts or a facsimile of the real world in which, less likely than unicorns and dragons, people were kind to one another and learnt their lesson.

I can’t really remember a time when another world didn’t often look more appealing than the one I lived in. My father introduced me to current affairs when I was very small (probably far too small). I didn’t know what it was all about, simply that people were killing each other and suffering for reasons which no-one could adequately explain. Perhaps adults should bear this in mind: if you can’t justify something to a four year old, it may be because that something is completely unjustifiable.

By the time I was eighteen, I feared that I would never see adulthood because the people in charge all seemed to want to start a nuclear war. I was furious that all those “old” men (with the support of at least one “old” woman) wanted to destroy the world before we, the young, had had a chance to show how things should be done.

When I was growing up, female role models were confusing: dolly bird (probably promiscuous – good for a dirty weekend but not wife material), frustrated spinster (ugly but filled with ludicrous desire – a figure of fun), career woman/possible lesbian (all she needed to do was meet the right man), or of course the pinnacle: good wife and mother. Similar stereotypes applied to different ethnic or national groups, people of different sexual orientations, people of different religions. It didn’t seem possible to be just a human being.

When I was fifteen, I started writing a novel and created a country run on matriarchal grounds. I believed that women would run things better than men. I thought it would be more equal, fairer; that compassion would hold greater value than power. Then I discovered that women in politics can be just as ruthless and cruel as men; not simply to keep their end up, but because women are capable of cruelty and indifference in the same way that men can be gentle and nurturing. It’s not a gender thing. It never was a gender thing. Some people are kind and others cruel. Even when the cultural norm is for a distant father and an indulgent mother, the reality is something else entirely. People are just people.

And right now, people make me cry. Discrimination and racism makes no sense at all and yet people are marching in support of it. How can anyone say “we’ll look after our people according to our needs, and you look after yours according to yours” when everyone’s needs are the same: food, shelter, respect, purpose, love. Our skins protect our insides; our skull is supposed to be where we keep a brain. The shape and colour are irrelevant. Our cultural heritage is often a red herring. Most, if not all of us are descendants of populations which have been over-run, invaded, enslaved for centuries. (I wish, I wish every racist could be DNA tested.) Politics and religion can create an ethical framework, they need not be an excuse for prejudice, murder, cruelty and stupidity.

Over the years, I have often wished I could get off the world and step into somewhere that made more sense. Sometimes, it was because I was depressed or bereaved. Nowadays, it’s because I’m angry. I cannot believe what has been happening in the last few years, what deep-rooted hatreds and divisions have been exposed and are being excused as reasonable in my own country and countries where I thought people were moving forward not backward.

When I was a teenager, I thought that the majority of my generation, if given the opportunity, would create a world without man-made suffering or inequalities; would heal the environment and that people would no longer be discriminated against on the grounds of… well, anything.

Well guess what, now I’m no longer a teenager. The “old men” in politics are my own generation give or take a decade. Some of them are younger.

What happened to us? What happened to the great democracies who prided themselves on being fair? Was the move towards equity just a thin veneer over underlying hatred?

I despair. I feel beyond horrified, that another person was capable of driving into a group of other people, prepared to kill; that not just leaders but members of the public are talking about nuclear war as if it’s excusable.

People are still prepared to stand up for what’s good and true. There are many of us, hopefully the majority, who want the world to be a better place, not just for others like ourselves but for everyone. These days seem an unpleasant reflection of the 1930s. I hope that we retain the freedom to pass on the baton to the next generation and that they will continue driving forward towards a fairer future.

Yes I sometimes long to step away, to set foot in an imaginary world where everything is all right. I want to read or write about it. But it is only for a while, because I also love the world I’m in. I love its beauty, I love the creative and compassionate potential of every human. Perhaps this is why writers and artists and musicians make alternative worlds – because they want to hold up a mirror to what is and show a vision of what could be.

I just want the world to pause in joy, peace and awe, rather than spiral into destruction at the hands of those who are so stupid, so full of hate, they cannot see the wonder and potential of everyone and everything around them.

vortex

 

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

War Games

Go Home!

Timewalker

Once I ascended hills, brushing my hands through lavender or tempted by strawberries. I gathered berries along the row by the heath. I walked by rivulets and stepped over streams, feeling the clay under my feet.

When the invaders came, I walked on in the shadow of the stockade as it rose then burnt and fell then rose again over and over until the timber was replaced by stone.

I walked inside walls as they rolled outwards like ripples; one built after another to encompass the paving as it sneaked cobble by cobble across fields and mud.

The rivulets flowed on, trickling with waste from the tanners and butchers and chamber pots into the sludge and churn of the river.

Sometimes, I crossed the river’s waves in rocking boats or followed up in darkness to the watergate. On its southern shores, I walked among bawdy, gaudy folk as they spilled out of theatres and taverns. Women, painted with lead, carmine and disease called me to join them but I walked on.

They covered Tyburn Brook and I walked, tracing its invisible path with my eyes to avoid seeing my surroundings. Sometimes the blood trickled at pace with me and feet jolted feet above me, as I stepped aside from the innards on the path. But I kept my head down, never looking up in case pecked out eyes from unbodied heads should be watching.

Later, death stalked. Flea laden rats scurried across my feet but my feet did not stop. And too soon afterwards, as stone walls burnt and timbers trembled into ash and multi-coloured windows exploded, I still walked on.

I walked east. People lived like lice, huddled and swarming; boiling, roiling in dark, damp rooms. The children’s bare feet hop over filth and then drank of the river though stank and lethal. I walked west. People lived like gilded gods; demanding, beautiful, finger-clicking, bell-ringing. I was wallpaper, disposal.

Under my feet, down in the clay where once I trod, engines started run through tunnels, snake like, engorging and disgorging. And I walked on, my shoulders rubbing another generation of strangers, belongings slung over their shoulders, as they stumbled into overcrowded rooms.

The last of the rivulets were bricked up and channelled, their trickle echoed in the naming of streets above them. And some of them ran through channels of brick and bore away the waste and contagion and others seeped. I plodded on.

Sometimes, my mouth is choked with fog and I cannot see more than my feet plodding from pool to pool of filtered lamplight. The air is oily. In the east, a different death now stalked the gaudy women. Whitechapel stained red and I walked in the shadows out of sight.

And then the pyrotechnics of terror: the skies flashed and buildings fell. The earth exploded into craters under my feet so that I clambered over brick and rubble, brushing the dust from my shoes.

Now, in clear skies, above me leviathans rear from the ground into impossible monoliths of glass and steel and I walk and walk as I have always walked. Invisible.

My toes remember the squelch of the marsh. My hands recall the lavender and my tongue the strawberries although now the fields grow nothing but pavements and terraces.

No one asks me what I see, what I know. I am nothing. A shade.

I look down at my feet treading on the pavements lain over cobbles, lain over straw, lain over mud, lain over bones: hidden or forgotten, lain over dreams and forgotten faiths, lain over five thousand years. And they will remember the rich and the powerful, the bookmarks in history but they will not remember me. My feet have been every colour. I am local, incomer, foreigner, slave. I am the spirit of every servant who walked, unseen, unnoticed but seeing, noticing; head down, feet tired.

And so will I continue, going about someone else’s business; walking over hidden histories and forgotten streams as pride and empires rise and fall. Until eventually the monstrous edifices return to dust. Till the marsh reeds burst back through the paving. Till I can run my hands through lavender and pick wild strawberries once more.

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

Historical Note
This was prompted by walking up Lavender Hill near Clapham Junction and trying to imagine it when it was fields and not urban. It’s impossible to do justice to the history of London in 700 words, but here are the changes I’ve tried to reflect:

c. 4500 BC: Evidence of settlement
c.

43 AD: Roman settlement 
… c. 61 AD: Roman settlement destroyed when the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca burnt it to the ground… 
c.100 AD: Roman Londinium built to replace Colchester as the capital of the Roman Province
c. … 450 AD-950 AD decline of London after the collapse of Roman rule and during repeated Viking invasions…. 
c. 1066 AD London once again the largest town. William the conqueror builds Westminster Abbey and Tower of London… 
c. 1196- late 17th C: public executions at Tyburn
… 14th C AD: Black death – London loses a third of its population… 
16th C AD: In Southwark, William Shakespeare builds the Globe theatre. The south bank with its theatres and stews is generally disapproved of.
… 17th C AD: English civil war… 
1665 AD: Great Plague
… 1666 AD: Great Fire of London… 
1848-1866 AD: Cholera epidemics leading to building of sewers…   
1858 AD: Joseph Bazalgette was given the go ahead to start creating a system of sewers, the direct result of which was to clean up the Thames and stop the cholera outbreaks. 
… 1863: First underground railway 
… 1939-45 AD: Bombing killed over 30,000 Londoners and destroyed large tracts of land and buildings.
… 1952 AD: The Great Smog – perhaps 12,000 people died from pollution as a result of which the Clean Air Act was brought in which ended the ‘pea-souper’ fogs for which London was notorious… 
Modern day: The development of Canary Wharf, building of landmark buildings like The Shard etc

Subterranean rivers of London: as London developed, tributaries were covered over and now run in culverts. Fleet Street and Holborn for example are two streets named for the streams and brooks which run (or once ran) underneath them. If you like modern adult fantasy, there is a great series of books by Ben Aaronovitch imagining the lost rivers of London with personalities of their own and a whole world of magic in the modern day city hidden in plain sight.

Generally: the constant influx of immigration over centuries, including refugees and economic migrants, slaves and servants from Europe and beyond which make up the cultural melting pot which is a modern city.

Missingness

I didn’t expect to feel this way.

Perhaps it’s because it’s been quite stressful recently.

Perhaps it’s because while I’ve worked for the same organisation for nearly twenty-eight years, I’ve changed teams and job roles three times in two (and twice in eight months). This has been largely by choice because the alternatives were worse. I haven’t worked with a team who are all in the same building or even the same town for the majority of the last eleven years. I’ve yet to get past acquaintanceship with the people in my new team. Three days a week, I work from home or sit in a side office, usually on my own. Twice a week I rattle along in trains full of strangers to meet face to face maybe only one or two members of my team. On those days, I work in a large office in a huge building full of people, the majority of whom I don’t know and am never likely to know. Of the work friends I’ve built over my career, many are, like me, rushing from place to place all the time. It’s hard to meet up.

Perhaps it’s because I’m under the weather. Everything has been overwhelming for ages. I feel as if I’ve been stumbling through undergrowth, step by exhausting step, not sure where the path has gone. Now, despite the fact that it’s July, I have a chest cold and virus.

Or perhaps it’s because my children are growing up. They both sat public exams this year. My eldest is eighteen today. My youngest is less than two years behind. When my son leaves home for university in the autumn, my daughter will be starting sixth form. I have washed my last item of ink stained school uniform. Sixth formers don’t wear uniform. The children can see that adult life doesn’t live up to the hype but are eager for it anyway.

I feel lonely.

I don’t feel alone. I have a lovely husband who’s my best friend. My children, when we’re all disconnected from electronic devices, still hug and chatter. They’re great company. My oldest friends and my wonderful sister, who know me best, live some distance away. But I have fantastic local friends and my mother lives nearby. It’s not the loneliness I suffered at school, alienated by bullying, nor in the first year at university, too shy to talk to anyone. I know I’m not alone.

But I still feel lonely.

Eighteen years ago, my son, my longed-for, long-awaited child was put into my arms. I was so conscious of his dependence on me that although he slept, I couldn’t for fear he’d stop breathing. Now, his dependence on me is nebulous. He can take care of himself if he has to, he definitely has his own opinions and can and does make his own decisions. (Although, somehow it’s still me doing the laundry.) We’ve encouraged his independence always: given him space within boundaries. We’ve tried to prepare him for adulthood. He is a wonderful young man.

My daughter is following right on behind. She is my lovely, lovely girl. But last night, we were looking at possible universities for her. She is flexing her wings ready to fly.

When my son leaves home, my daughter, no matter how much they fight and argue, will miss him. It’ll be just three of us for a while and then before we know it, just two of us.

Life with just my husband will certainly be more peaceful. I am looking forward to it. I am looking forward to welcoming the children when they come home, looking forward to visiting them when they have homes of their own, looking forward to watching them build their own lives and traditions.

But what will my role be? Where perhaps someone else would feel their employment defined them and would be lost without its focus, I don’t think I have ever felt that way. I have my career, but truth to be told, I think the real me is writer, companion and the mother.

I never expected to feel lost when the nest started to empty but I do. I thought we had helped them mature year by year until they were ready to leave and we were ready to let them go. And we are ready. We are. And yet…

We never thought we’d have a child and then, eventually, my son came along. We thought we’d perhaps never have another, but my daughter had other ideas. I remember that after she was born and she was no longer part of me, although I could hold her in my arms, I missed the company of her in my womb. I felt lonely for something that was gone, even though it was replaced by something better. My role to protect and grow a child under my heart was over. I had to learn something new.

So perhaps it’s not loneliness exactly.

There is a word in Welsh ‘hiraeth’ which has no direct English translation. In Cornish, it is ‘hireth’ and in Breton, it is ‘hiraezh’. Welsh, Cornish and Breton are derived from the same ancient British language. The closest English explanation is an intense longing for something lost (usually a home or a person) or for the memory of them, whether real or imagined. Apparently, Portuguese and Galician have a similar word: ‘saudade’. It’s been translated as ‘missingness’.

So I don’t know exactly why I feel the way I do at the moment. Perhaps it’s the weather, perhaps it’s the virus I’m enduring, perhaps it’s work, perhaps it’s my age, but I think, in truth, it’s probably because I feel ‘hiraeth’ for the children who are now young adults and who will soon be leaving home.

One of my friends, whose daughter is the same age as mine, recently said that she felt adrift. And I thought ‘yes, that’s it exactly.’

I too feel adrift, looking back at the fading lands of their receding childhood, wondering where the breeze will take me next.

lonely 2

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

Father’s Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

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

‘But…’ said Mum.

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

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He patted the camcorder.

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

That was Dad.

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

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

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

 

 

Looking Good?

I sometimes think vampires have it easy.

OK, so everyone fears and loathes them. But they always look good and never have to look in a mirror. In fact they can’t. Lucky vampires.

I tend not to look in mirrors after I’ve done my hair and make-up and checked the lumpiness factor of whatever I’m wearing (or should I say, whether my clothes disguise the lumpiness factor). After that, I do my best to avoid mirrors entirely until bed-time. That way I can preserve a mental image of myself looking neat and in control.

Of course, it can and does backfire. One year, at end of year review time, I took a train to meet my line manager. End of year reviews involve extolling one’s own virtues, justifying and analysing one’s actions etc. For an introvert, this is a fairly agonising process, but has to be done. After several years of it, I’ve got used to the drill. For a while I sat on the train reading what I’d prepared and then worked, editing some paperwork with a red pen. A young couple got on board and started looking round for seats. The train was busy and they were going to be separated. So I picked up my things and offered to move so they could sit together. Naturally, this altruistic move was accompanied by everything slipping. Rather than arising in one swift, sophisticated move, I got up in a tangle of bags, papers, coats and self. Without saying thank-you the young couple got down to canoodling while I concentrated on organising myself for the review.

At the office, I went to the loo and washed my hands etc in order to give my inner actress time to emerge for her annual performance. I purposely ignored the mirror because I didn’t want my confidence to be diminished by discovering that my hair was a mess, that I’d rubbed off half my eye make-up and that I looked podgy and vague. Imagining myself immaculate and confident, I then walked in to the room where my line manager was, primed to blow my own trumpet for ten minutes or so. ‘I have done a difficult job for several months and am finally moving forward. I am an efficient and conscientious employee. I am…’

‘Why have you drawn all over your face?’ said my line manager.

Turned out that while moving seats in the train, my red editing pen was pointing the wrong way and I had scribble all over my right cheek.

After that did I start looking in mirrors more often? No.

Is this because I’m convinced that I always look immaculate, confident and sophisticated? No.

I know what I look like really.

Do I wish I looked different? Well of course I do. I wish I looked younger, prettier, slimmer, less grey, taller. I see photographs of myself and sigh. I stand next to my lovely daughter in her trendy clothes and mourn for my long lost youthful figure.

But then I think to myself… even when I was young and slim and not grey, I still wished I looked different. The long long lost youthful figure was generally cluttered up with frumpy clothes (partly because of prevailing fashion and partly because of lack of confidence). My hair was tortured with perms (again partly because of prevailing fashion but also because I thought it was too straight). I worried about make-up. I despaired. I looked too young and too short. Bits of my figure were out of proportion. No-one noticed the tiny waist because of the full bust. No-one would ever find me attractive. I would never be successful because I didn’t look right.

Have you seen the meme that says ‘I wish I was as fat as I was when I thought I was fat’? That’s me.

But now…when I do look in the mirror and see fine lines etc I make myself remember that I loved my grandmothers’ soft faces. When I look at my hands, I see all the words they’ve written, the stitches they’ve sewn, the meals they’ve cooked. I look at my rounded stomach which (short of major surgery) will never be what it was and remember the children it carried under my heart.

And this is the thing. Most of us look in mirrors and despair because we are always looking for something that’s not there and was never there. We are looking for the perfect person we think we ought to be. Virtually none of us put as high an expectation on anyone else.

Last weekend I was bride’s helper at a wonderful wedding in the Highlands of Scotland. I have known the bride since university. The other bride’s helpers were her sister, her oldest childhood friend and a mutual university friend. I hadn’t seen the sister or the childhood friend for well over twenty years. They looked almost exactly as I remembered them. Not because they still looked twenty-ish but because they looked themselves. I wasn’t searching for the signs of age, I was scanning their faces for someone I’d once known. Talking to them, I found that like me, they were the same and yet different. We are grown up.

So I’m not going to start looking in mirrors more. I know that sometimes I’ll look tired or sad or bad-tempered but I can rise above it; sometimes (more often than not probably) my hair and make-up won’t be quite right but who will remember except me?

I’m an older woman who’s had two children. I will never look nineteen again. Why do I want to look nineteen? I don’t want to be nineteen.

I am happy to risk pen on my face if I can mostly maintain a mental image of myself as ‘looking OK’.

And as for vampires, well perhaps they’re missing out. Or maybe not. I’m still a little jealous.

looking good

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

The Road

Is this the road to failure? Isn’t the light fading?

Nothing is clear. I want to flee the hurt, yet first I want apology, atonement, understanding. But there is silence. Have I failed?

Keep driving. Don’t slow down when tormenters whisper from alleyways. Find the lane lined with friends to help.

The sun sets, but I’ll drive on.

Day will follow night.

And the drag of the hurt will stretch and thin, from cable to rope to thread to hair to … snap… nothing.

I’ll drive on: curving with the road, healing from the jolts, bending with the camber.

Travelling home.

the road

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

 

Thin Spiral Notebook – 100 word challenge

The End of the Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are a wonderful being.

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

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

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

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

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

Student Minds

Childline: exam stress help

How to help your child with exam stress

Radio One: exam help

University of St Andrews: exam help

Third Choice

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

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