The Things Wot Hold The Things Up

It’s the time of year when either one reorganises or diets. Since the former is a form of keep fit, I feel I needn’t do the latter. But as with dieting, what often starts so well can quickly fall apart.

I’ve sorted the airing cupboard, tidied my writing area and now, anticipation of a new sofa, my husband and I are moving furniture.

‘A couple of cup of tea’s job,’ we decided. ‘If that.’

We have an odd house, built by adding bits to other bits and nothing is in quite the right proportion, so we decided to move the main bookshelves from the hall to the sitting room to fill the space behind the new sofa in an effort to make the room look cosier.

The problem was while the bookshelves were in originally three sections, when we moved thirteen years ago we didn’t put up the third section because there wasn’t room in the hall, so we stored its composite parts and a lot of spare books in the attic. (Yes, yes, I daresay you agree with my father-in-law who said while shoving yet another box into the attic, ‘how many bleeping books do you need?’ But there you go. You should have seen my parents’ house in its heyday.)

Since then, it proved easier to buy new bookshelves, put those up in another room and rescued some of the books.

So going back to yesterday, my husband and I got the third section down from the attic. This involved digging it out from under thirteen years (and some) of tat and consequently doing a cathartic run to the charity shop and the dump. Pleased with ourselves on several fronts, we closed up the attic, made a cup of tea, had some lunch and then I started moving books off the shelves, trying to restrain myself from just sitting down and reading whenever I found a volume I’d forgotten.

Two minutes into this exercise, my husband said ‘you know what we haven’t got?’

‘No?’

‘The things that hold the shelves up.’

We stood there for a while and tried to think where they could be. ‘Are they in that old shortbread tin you keep little things in?’

‘Nope.’

‘Have you gone through all your DIY stuff?’

‘Yup.’

‘I know!’ I said. ‘I’m sure there’s a little bag in one of the drawers in the old desk.’ (The old desk has relics going back to ancient times, including the diary I kept when twelve and some Arthur Rackham prints my mother had from childhood which frightened both her and me and have consequently never been framed and a random bag of marbles – which may well be my lost ones.) 

Lo, there was more than one little bag of random stuff but the one I was thinking of held nothing but some bits of Lego.

‘Well we can’t put it up without the things,’ said my husband.

‘Perhaps you can buy spares.’

‘What are they called?’

‘No idea.’

Now I’ve got to hand it to the internet. While it’s a bit of a Pandora’s box, like Pandora’s box, it holds hope. I did a search for ‘things that hold shelves up’ and lo and behold it took me to exactly what I wanted.

‘I dunno,’ said my husband. ‘How will we know if they’ll fit? The shelves came from MFI in 1994. They’ve been out of business for years.’ He took a sip of tea. ‘Where could we have put the originals?’

The logical place would have been in a bag sellotaped to the shelves when we stored them, but clearly they weren’t. The next logical place would have been in one of the remaining boxes in the attic (an awful thought) or worse still, in the stuff we’d taken to the dump. 

‘The only other place I can think of is one of those kitchen drawers,’ I said.

‘Oh bleep,’ said my husband. ‘I’ll make another cup of tea.’

You know the kind of kitchen drawers I mean. We have been slowly decluttering but there were two abysses of chaos left. With trepidation, we started wading through. One was filled with paper napkins, blank Christmas cards and regrettably a bottle of bubbles (as in the ones kids blow out through a plastic hoop, not Champagne) which had leaked everywhere. The last drawer was full of children’s party paraphernalia, including old birthday cake candles, two whistles, a long confiscated hyper-bouncy ball and for no apparent reason grainy photographs processed from a very old roll of film we’d once found in another drawer showing my husband in teenage glory on a school trip. 

It also held a small bag with the bits that hold the shelves up. We would have jumped up and down with glee but we were getting rather tired. By now, all that was going through my head was the voice of the wonderful Bernard Cribbins singing Right, said Fred.

By the time we had to stop the project to go and see a Blondie tribute act, we were both shattered and had only got as far as piling up the books in categories in another room. And we’d stopped drinking tea in exchange for something else.

This morning, after a great evening including a nice meal out, a reliving of our youth followed by a good night’s sleep, we woke today, raring to get on with putting the shelves up in the other room.

‘Oh bleep,’ said my husband as I handed him his morning cuppa. ‘I’ve just realised. We haven’t got the veneered thing that goes at the back and stabilises the third section of bookcase. I don’t remember seeing it in the attic.’

I dug deep into my memories of our very traumatic house move in 2005. ‘Do you know I have an awful feeling it was damaged and we got rid of it.’

He sighed. ‘I have an awful feeling you’re right.’

So at the moment, we have a floor covered in books, a new sofa coming tomorrow and no clear plan what to do.

If you could draw a moral from all this, I suppose it might be that we all need the things what hold the things up: philosophy/religion, love, security, peace and that when one or all of these are missing or letting us down, life can feel wobbly to the point of collapse. 

And probably: don’t be as untidy and disorganised as me and my old man.

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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.

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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.

Territory Unknown?

Once upon a time Napoleon rode a dinosaur into the jungle and…

went on a resolution quest perhaps? Well these are mine:

Number One – this is the important one: Do not to try and do forty things at once all the time. (I’m thinking of my personal life. Multi-tasking is sort of what I’m paid to do it at work.)

In private however, I must not try to reorganise four bookcases, sort laundry, cook dinner, argue with teenagers/husband/self, find that thing and reorganise furniture in my head all that the same time. 

In particular, I must not try to juggle a ton of writing projects. I think there was one month last year when I was writing and/or revising four different projects. If they’d been all set in the same era it might have helped, but as one was Victorian, one in the 1950s, one in the second century and who knows what the other thing was, because I’ve forgotten, it’s no wonder I came out of that month feeling frazzled and wondering where the fun had gone.

This morning, I finished the first draft of the yet unnamed sequel to Murder Britannica. It’s set a year later (AD 191) and the action has moved from a fictional village in what is now north of Cardiff, South Wales to the very real town of Durnovaria. Dorchester, which is not far from where I live, is built on its remains but the Roman town is not terribly visible. Which then leads on to the next resolution:

Two: Do lots of research but don’t disappear down research rabbit holes. As far as MB2 (as it’s currently called) is concerned, this has involved looking up Roman recipes and realising that the majority actually look very nice and wondering if I could cook them (although probably not stuffed dormice, flamingo or barren sow’s womb). For an entirely different project, I’ve also found out that Bristol Basin in New York is actually built from actual chunks of Bristol. For a third one, I discovered that the word ‘knickers’ for female underwear was not current in 1892. Actually, I’m going to ignore resolution number two. It’s much more fun going down the rabbit-holes.

Three: Keep being brave. At some point in my past, I decided that I wouldn’t let myself be ruled by what makes me anxious or afraid. There are too many of these to mention, so I won’t. One of the things about getting back into writing as an older person is writing about people over thirty having fresh starts. While the sequel to Murder Britannica is a light hearted murder mystery, the underlying theme is, I suppose, ‘looking back versus looking forward’. The younger women (both under twenty) are on the threshold of an adult life which is likely to be restrictive unless they do something about it. But the older women (well over forty-five), have all sorts of reasons to find out if there is more to their later years than weaving. Is there? Oh yes.

Four: only keep the clutter I love. Admittedly I’ve actually obtained two ‘new’ bits of clutter since Christmas. One is a – actually I have no idea what it is, a sort of compass I think – but I like to think of it as a time-machine and the other is a 1904 folding camera. I like to think of them as prompts, or even props for my writing and they’re in a cupboard so shouldn’t get too dusty (major advantage). All the same, this year, I’m determined to finally empty the attic when it’s neither too cold nor too cold (April & October??). I know the attic is full of tat. I know there’s even got a box labelled ‘stuff from under Matt’s bed’ which we sealed up when we moved in 2004. I know, I know – I say the same thing every January but maybe this year at long last, I’ll actually do it. 

In the meantime, the long overdue decluttering has at least resulted in clearing out those kitchen drawers where everything has been stuffed for the last thirteen years. This led to the discovery of Napoleon and a dinosaur who were nestled with a gorilla in amongst a hundred dried up felt-tip pens and a few rogue Cub-Scout/gym club/swimming club badges that I’d never got round to sewing on anything. 

Sooner or later, I’ll decide what Napoleon is doing and where he’s going. In the meantime, he and T-Rex have been reprieved and are back in the drawer.

Of course, if you have some ideas about their adventures feel free…

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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.

Looking both ways

It’s New Year’s Eve. I’m not really a fan.

Our culture sees New Year as a watershed moment in which we look back at what we have achieved in the last twelve months and forward to what we want to in the next. It always makes me feel miserable.

Perhaps it’s because setting deadlines is too much like being at work and makes me anxious. Perhaps it’s because I’m not a closed door person – I like to think there’s always a second chance. Perhaps it’s because my personal vague aims and hopeful goals are on a rolling conveyer. If I don’t get there this year, I might sometime. That sort of thing. 

Every year my organisation issues a staff engagement survey. One of the stupider questions is ‘on a scale of one to ten, are you happier today than you were yesterday?’ My answer is largely dependent on whether I’m completing my survey on a Monday. That aside, my level of happiness is not just about work, but my home-life, my creative life, world events. So what’s the point of the question? 

The New Year’s question seems as meaningless: did I achieve everything I wanted to in 2018? 

I can say I achieved many things. In fact I achieved things I hadn’t even anticipated (one of the bonuses about not planning too much ahead). Some things, however, are still on the conveyor belt. (I suspect one will be trundling on until I no longer care about anything.) 

Did I achieve them through hard work or luck? Probably a bit of both. I am fortunate to have been healthy all year. While sad things have happened including a completely unanticipated bereavement, there have been moments of joy and laughter too. And when I knew I’d get next to no writing done in November due to other commitments, I decided to accept it rather than feel a failure.

Does it matter if I failed to tick some things off? In the scheme of things, not really. The wounds of disappointment heal if I don’t pick at them. And there’s the question of timing. I’ve learned that sometimes, the fruit is under-ripe, the wine has not matured – waiting brings the best results. 

As for 2019, I have only a very broad idea of what I hope to achieve. It’s manageable, assuming I put some effort in and the unforeseen doesn’t scupper it. But who knows?

Time is a very human, actually very modern concept. Our ancestors knew when it was time to get up, go to bed, plant, harvest, hunt etc and the rest just happened when it happened – good or bad. 

We have made the boundaries of our lives so much more complex and demanding than they need to be.

Perhaps this New Year, I’ll simply stop letting it worry me, enjoy the good things as they turn up and accept that you can heal from the sad things with time and help. And if you feel the same, I hope you can too.

Janus

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.

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.

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.

 

 

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