Nest Emptying

My girl has gone.

Well, ok, my daughter – my younger child – has gone to university and will no doubt be back before we know it, but at the moment, it feels very strange.

For the first time in twenty years, my husband and I are on our own in the house with the prospect of it being this way for several weeks rather than a few days.

I know I’m not the only one right now, wondering where all those years went (apart from into grey hair). It’s odd isn’t it? I’m proud my daughter is able to go, able to stretch her wings, proud of the young woman she has grown into, excited for her to be meeting new people and hearing new ideas – to be living in a completely different environment to the one she’s grown up in. But it’s weird.

Admittedly, before she left, we hadn’t seen a lot of her since she passed her driving test. Either at school or working or socialising, our daughter was generally somewhere less dull than at home with her parents. All the same, she was around some of the time and we knew roughly what was going on.

Now, if she stays out till 4am, we won’t know. So we won’t be worrying, we will be assuming she’s been tucked up with cocoa and an improving book since 8pm. That’s the theory anyway. Of course in reality, we’re still wondering if she’s all right – happy, eating properly, safe – in just the same way as we do about our son.

As my daughter and I were going round a hypermarket buying her last groceries before she left, she was quite excited until for the first time she had to pay attention in the detergent aisle. She said ‘I’m dreading doing my own washing’. ‘Dreading’ seems like a heavy word. I’m now afraid I may have passed my laundry obsession on to her. (But I admit to breathing a sigh of relief that I won’t have mountains of the stuff till they come home.)

My lovely girl has always been the independent sort. She fooled us for a total of twenty-three months by being the perfect baby. This was quite a relief given that her brother, less than two years older, is hyperactive. She slept… well pretty much all she did was sleep and smile. She would sit and ‘read’ to her toys before she could form proper words, showing them the pictures and pointing at the writing but using a language all of her own. She looked no more than slightly surprised the time I wheeled her about in the pushchair in the snow without strapping her in and hitting a hidden kerb sent her flying in her snowsuit face down into a snowdrift like a padded starfish. We probably should have taken note when her wicked sense of humour started to emerge at 14 months when she sniggered after shutting her big brother’s fingers in the door of the cupboard where she was ‘hiding’. 

At just under two, she shoved aside all the perfect baby nonsense and she emerged as funny, bright, independent, fiery, creative and lovely. She hasn’t looked back since. If she doesn’t fancy what’s planned for dinner, she’ll cook her own – much preferring vegetarian food to any other. Like me, her grandmothers and her great grandmothers, she makes recipes up to see what happens. Arguing with her is reasonably pointless but as she gets the belligerence from me naturally I do it anyway. 

She could draw recognisable characters with unique expressions before she could write properly. I still treasure the sketch she drew aged 4 on my Christmas wish list. I had put on it jewellery and art but she drew a picture of me grinning and loading a tumble dryer – something I didn’t possess but could have done with. I’ve also kept a copy of a diptych of a sad little girl faced with carrots and peas and a happy little girl faced with a Christmas present. This pretty much summed up her view of the injustices she faced at the time.

Just like my son with music, there was little doubt when she was small that art was where her heart lay.

Well now she’s flown the nest. She may be back (as will our son be) but she’s started adult life with a ton of grown up household setting up stuff (photo is a fraction of it) and sooner or later, they’ll both be gone for good.

How do my husband and I feel? I’m not sure it’s quite sunk in yet. I think yesterday we started to realise those two unnaturally tidy bedrooms were going to be tidy for some time and it felt very strange. I missed being able to just go and chat to her without having to go through some IT channel. Not because I was chasing up on her, just because I suddenly missed her very much.

I think of how it was when I went to university and communicating with my parents involved letters and a weekly phone call if I could face standing in the freezing campus phone box. It’s never occurred to me until now to ask my mother how she felt when I went to university. She says ‘it was so quiet. I missed you so much.’ Which is nice to know. My sister left home some years later and I remember Dad saying that he was still defaulting to cooking for four for some time afterwards. 

Although admittedly, knowing Dad, that was just because he liked food.

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Words and picture copyright (c) Paula Harmon 2019. Please do not use without the author’s express permission.

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Writing Between the Fine Lines

Books for Older Readers?

How is an older reader any different from a younger one? We aren’t of course – except for the level of irritation we may feel when reading how we’re portrayed.

A great many industries have fallen foul of this (retailers – you know who you are) and the writing industry is one of them. 

Things some authors forget about people over fifty and indeed over seventy:

  • We don’t usually wear clothes from before WWII unless we’re going to a fancy dress party. 
  • In our teens we danced to anything from rock ’n’ roll to hip-hop – therefore it’s unlikely our favourite tunes are from the 1930s or before.
  • We grew up in a society which was described as ‘permissive’ and some of us were hippies. Whether we are/were permissive or not, whether we want to read about it or not, few of us find sex shocking or dirty. 
  • Apart from in a professional context, we prefer (or at least I prefer) not to be addressed formally. I find the words ‘Mrs Harmon…’ tend to precede bad news.
  • The menopause is not the morphopause. A woman on the far side of it is no different from the woman on the near side only except that she has one less thing on her shopping list every month.
  • Regardless of gender, we’re probably still working or have worked most of our adult lives.
  • We understand more of what teenagers and twenty-somethings say than we let on.

Under the spare bed I’ve stored various story segments written between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Whether I’ll ever do anything with them I don’t know. 

In my teenage jottings, all the main characters are under eighteen. Anyone over twenty is of doubtful interest since their sole function is to do what the adults around me seemed to be doing: boss people about and mess things up for the next generation. 

Back then, older people said if we worried about the future we were naïve and if we didn’t we were frivolous. ‘All you care about,’ they said, ‘is sex, awful so-called music, ridiculous fashions and avoiding settling down.’ (From what I recall we were interested in all those things – as are young people in every generation – but also the fairly major risk of being blown up in a nuclear war because of sabre-shaking adults.)

At twenty-one, I graduated and started working. The characters in my stories then were also in their twenties, torn between having to earn a living, wanting to do something interesting instead, wondering if they would ever find The One and fundamentally feeling that adult life was frankly not worth the bother.

After I hit thirty, there was a long gap when I didn’t write much at all, because earning a living turned into a career, The One finally turned up (albeit not to the timetable I had in mind as a teenager) and consequently I had two children. Adult life, whether worth the bother or not, got in the way.

By the time I got round to writing properly again I was, of course, older. 

Things that I’d discovered in the meantime included:

  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change the world for the better.
  • Some people have lots of energy and want to change it for the worse.
  • Some people are tired, busy, ill, disillusioned.
  • Some people just want to have some fun. 
  • Some people just don’t care.
  • People can be insecure, worried, want to love and be loved, want sex or not want sex, be angry, happy, spiritual, a-spiritual, confused, hopeful, dangerous. 
  • They can be all these things at the same time or at different times.
  • Crucially, they can be all these things whatever age they are.

The only difference between a younger person and an older one is that the younger one looks at the older and thinks it’ll never happen to me and the older looks at the younger and thinks when did I stop being you?

By the time I started writing again, I realised that whatever age my characters were they had to be as multi-faceted as real people. 

How have I tried to reflect that in my own stories? 

Murder Britannica is a humorous murder-mystery set in 2nd Century south-east Wales. Its main characters Lucretia and Tryssa are two British women in their fifties who have loathed and subsequently avoided each other since since their teens. While the self-absorbed Lucretia is the richest woman in the area, suddenly she has to rely on Tryssa, the wisest woman in the area, to stop a string of mysterious deaths from really getting out of hand. I had great fun writing about them. Lucretia doesn’t think she’s too old for anything, whether it’s getting even richer or flirting with eligible (e.g. rich) men and thinks Tryssa is dull and possibly sneaky. Tryssa feels maturity should equal wisdom and equanimity and thinks Lucretia is ridiculous. A second book about them will hopefully be out in Spring 2020. It’s set in Durnovaria (modern day Dorchester) and while Lucretia’s visit to an old flame uncovers more than a plot to defraud her of money, Tryssa finds not just answers to a buried secret but also unexpected love.

The Cluttering Discombobulator is a fictionalised memoir about my father. It flips between memories of being a child in the 1970s and being the forty-something daughter of an elderly man who runs amok with a mobility scooter. The book started when my father challenged me to write an interesting short story about a retired couple, one of whom is in a wheelchair. Over time and circumstance, it morphed into something else entirely. 

Kindling and The Advent Calendar (collections of short stories, many of which are based on real events and/or places) have plenty of young people on the edge of adulthood or adolescence but also several older people revisiting their youth to close a circle.

Weird and Peculiar Tales (co-written with Val Portelli) features several older people either on the wrong side of things that go bump in the night or being the thing that goes bump in the night.

Starting with The Case of the Black Tulips, the Caster & Fleet series (co-written with Liz Hedgecock) is set in 1890s London. Katherine (25) and Connie (22) team up to solve one mystery and end up solving several. There’s romance, humour, dark deeds and plenty of tea. Where are the older characters? Well in an era when a nice girl (even aged 25) was still largely under someone’s supervision a lot of the time, Katherine has Aunt Alice and Aunt Alice’s friend Mina to chaperone her (assuming she doesn’t climb out of a window or something). Aunt Alice has been trying to bring up Katherine and Katherine’s sister Margaret since their mother’s death. She’s loving, shy, unworldly and doesn’t really feel equal to her nieces’ fire. She’s quietly horrified that Katherine’s working – even in a job suitable for a nice middle-class girl – and would rather live in genteel poverty. Her quiet and somewhat secretive friend Mina is more inclined to turn a blind eye to Katherine’s activities. Alice and Mina are both in their late forties, perhaps considered old maids. Has life passed them by? Perhaps it hasn’t. There are also two much less retiring women. One is Connie’s mother who could turn a disappointing jelly to stone with one glare and whose efforts to marry her daughter off to any suitable young man are the main reason Connie escapes to a side-street restaurant one rainy lunch-time and meets Katherine. The other is Penelope, the aunt of the young man who may or may not be on Katherine’s side. If anyone would swing from Tower Bridge the minute it’s built, it would be Penelope. As the bridge isn’t quite finished when we meet her, she settles for a different adventure altogether. There are older men too – enigmatic Mr Maynard, the senior civil servant and entrepreneurial Mr Templeton, the manager of a music-hall.

As a reader, I’ll read anything. I like old classics, I like new finds. I like mainstream fiction, genre fiction, young adult fiction and children’s fiction. I don’t care if the main characters are six or a hundred. The key thing is they need to be interesting and roundly authentic. 

As a writer, I find my characters tell me how old they are and I go from there. I myself haven’t got to sixty yet, let alone eighty or a hundred. Will that stop me writing about someone who tells me that’s how old they are? No. But I’ll do my best to make them real.

Before you make assumptions, have a look at the Books for Older Readers website and see what’s there. You’ll find quite a range. 

There may even be a few that older readers are apparently too old to understand. 

Who’d have thought it? 

Shocking.

The Books for Older Readers Facebook group and website was established in October 2017 to promote books (mainly fiction) with older protagonists or themes such as ‘second chances’, which tend to appeal to readers in mid-life or beyond.

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

My Glass is…

They say there are three types of people: one who thinks their glass is half-full, one who thinks it’s half-empty and one who says ‘beer? I never ordered beer!’

There’s actually a fourth type. 

Dad would say: ‘despite all evidence to the contrary, my glass is not simply full, it’s overflowing and while you’re asking silly questions can you buy me a doughnut to eat with my drink?’

Dad’s enthusiastic plans and reality were not so much loosely connected as operating on parallel lines that would never actually meet.

He had many schemes: 

  1. we’d move to a fancy house by the sea; 
  2. I’d have lots of fashionable clothes; 
  3. I’d go to a posh school (akin to the ‘Chalet School’ where everyone was extremely nice to each other and they had lots of adventures); 
  4. we’d go on holiday to a French gîte (a new trend at the time); 
  5. he’d buy a brand new fancy car like one on ‘Top Gear’. (At the time, I should point out, ’Top Gear’ featured cars affordable by ordinary people.)

What I actually got was: 

  1. the dark house we already had, which was possibly haunted (or at least the cat and I thought a corner of my bedroom was); 
  2. hand-me-downs from various richer cousins; 
  3. the school I was already at where I was bullied and the main adventure was hiding from them; 
  4. Maybe a crumbling holiday let in Britain, one of which had a hole in the ceiling from which I was fairly sure a massive spider peeked when I was in bed 
  5. a car which was pretty much a tin-can held together with duct tape. And I really mean mostly held together provided you factored in several pit-stops on a long journey to patch it up again.

Sometimes Dad did get frustrated when life didn’t go to plan but generally he simply ignored things going awry and everyone else got frustrated instead (mainly with Dad).

I’m not even going to pretend I’m like him in this respect. While my glass is probably half-full in general, I find plans going to pieces overwhelmingly stressful until I get to the point when I give myself a shake, which is sort of where I am at the moment.

One of my friends posted an image today – many are available – which is about what is or out of your control. In brief:

  • In my control are my thoughts, my words, my deeds, my reactions. 
  • Out of my control is pretty much everything else. 

It made me feel a bit better because it made me reflect on what I can and can’t do and what I should or shouldn’t let get to me.

When asking me about writing on top of working full-time and having a family and all the other stuff, people often ask ‘how do you manage?’ and usually I just answer ‘it’s difficult but I fit it all in somehow’. The second half of this year, I have to be honest, the answer is more realistically ‘I’m not managing’. 

Don’t read this as a complaint. I’m overjoyed with all that I have, including good health, an interesting (if sometime exasperating) job, a lovely family and all the other stuff even though this year has been stressful on most of those fronts for one reason or another. 

Creativity whether cooking, photography, painting, sewing or more usually writing generally keeps me sane and lets me channel something else for a bit to reboot my energy. 

In the second half of this year however, work plans haven’t gone to plan and since this impacts on my time and energy for creativity, I’m in a bit of a vortex of frustration.

With work, obviously one of the things that keeps me going is that it pays the bills but I’m also fortunate to be working towards a worthwhile goal in a great team with people I consider to be good friends.

Writing of course, I could stop at any time. Only I don’t want to largely because I know I’d be utterly miserable without it – even the difficult aspects of it (e.g. when something won’t come out right, or editing chapters is like wrangling thirty cats into a cat-carrier built for one). 

I can’t do anything about some of the things that have gone awry with work – they are well and truly out of my control. I can’t therefore do much about the lack of time I have at the moment. I can simply make the best use of the time I do have and focussing on what I can do, rather than fretting about what I can’t is a great release. 

Something that keeps me going rather than giving up is knowing I’m not alone. 

I have a number of writer friends. Some I’ve known for years, some for a short while. Some I’ve never even met in person and will probably never meet. But at one point or another, each of them has found their writing targets going to pot. Illness has meant one took longer than she’d have liked to finish her project. Another is struggling with ‘blocks’ of various kinds – perhaps caused by doubts in their (considerable abilities) put in their minds by other people. Another, like me, thought they’d have ‘finished’ something by now but reviewing and revising has taken much longer than they thought. Another finds they can’t find an audience for a book which is just as good if not better than many that sell in the thousands. 

It’s hard not to get discouraged and feel out of control but I’ve been encouraged by others who understood when things are a struggle. Just a few words here and there have helped immensely. 

So just in case you need it too, whatever the thing is that you’re facing at the moment – try to focus on what you can do and how you react and have a virtual hug from me.

 

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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.

Wild Life

People often look to nature for calm, balance or for lessons in life. Unfortunately no-one seems to have told wildlife it’s their job to provide this. 

The ones round my way have no desire to be cosy and inspirational. In fact I suspect them guilty of pre-meditated mischief.

For a start, there are the otters. My son saw one on the January day when I took a photo of a man staring down the river, camera at the ready, waiting for an otter to appear. I took a photograph of the photographer at exactly the moment that my son yelled ‘beaver!’ Somewhat startled (since they haven’t reintroduced beavers in Dorset yet as far as I’m aware) I asked my son what he meant and established that he – clearly zoologically challenged –  had just seen an otter pop up from the river a few yards behind the photographer, smirk and then dive back under the surface.

There are the sparrows. We started with two pairs who made nests under the eaves of our house a few years ago. They raised a sweet little brood and we took great delight watching them sit in a row on the edge of the guttering waiting for their parents to feed them in the early evening until it was apparently bedtime and they were ushered back under the tiles. We saw them take their first flights across the garden. It was lovely. The following year, we realised the babies had grown up and were setting up home in our eaves too. Several years later it seems at least one of the families is trying to peck its way into the attic from outside. They seem determined to do it. One day I heard something drop on the decking. I couldn’t see anything, but then after watching for a while, I saw something that looked like a nail land in front of me to join several others, looked up and realised the little so-and-sos were pulling tile nails out of the roof. We’ve lost count of how many sparrows there are now, but I can tell you that they bicker from first light to night-fall. They’re worse than children.

Then there are the wood pigeons. They’re the last birds to wake up and somehow sound as if they’re trying to say something that we can’t quite make out, but we suspect might be very insulting. They have a tendency to sit directly outside our bedroom and coo at high volume through the open window. Coo-COO-coo, Coo-COO-coo sounds You’re-UG-ly You’re-UG-ly (or worse). At 5am one recent morning one of the pigeons was so loud I was afraid to open my eyes in case it was actually sitting on the end of the bed. 

I’m sure they all do this sort of thing on purpose just to annoy.

The other evening, we went for a walk and as usual crossed a bridge and looked down on the river. You can’t tell in the photograph below, because I was afraid if I leaned over the bridge I’d drop my phone in the river, but just below us is the weir and below that, the swans were showing off their large brood of cygnets. 

At the top of the weir, two mother ducks were shrieking at three ducklings messing about on the weir itself. Occasionally the ducklings would fall to the next level. They seemed to be enjoying winding their mothers up.

You could imagine one mother duck yelling ‘Kevin! Stop right there! Don’t get any closer to the edge— Kevin! Why won’t you listen? Nigel – now you’re at the bottom, you’ll never get back up – wait till I tell your dad.’ 

And the other mother duck yelling ‘Muriel – I’m just so ashamed. Look at the cygnets – why can’t you behave like that, all serene, instead of jumping about like a hooligan?’ 

While of course Kevin, Nigel and Muriel were shrieking ‘wheee! Here we go again! See you at the bottom! Sucks boo to you cygnets – you don’t know how to have fun!’ 

Ignoring all this, a little egret was walking very slowly and deliberately just inside the top of the weir, wiggling a yellow foot in the water from time to time as it waded, before stabbing down into the weed and coming up with a minnow in triumph.

Slightly to the side, apparently oblivious, a solitary black-headed gull sat in the water doing nothing and minding its own business.

It was all quite delightful. And then everything kicked off. A littler little egret appeared. It landed a few feet away from the first one who took great dudgeon and rushed to chase it off, booting the mother ducks off the edge of the weir in the process. The two egrets then chased each other up and down trying to get control of the feeding ground.

Back on top of the weir, one of the mother ducks spotted the black-headed gull and took out her indignation on it. Gulls of course, snack on ducklings although I’m not sure if black-headed gulls do and certainly the Kevin, Nigel and Muriel are too big to be picked off now, but mother duck didn’t care. She jumped on top of the gull and started beating it up. No – she wasn’t doing anything else, she was whacking it with her wings, smacking it round the head with her bill and kicking it with her feet.

Spotting that the ducklings had made their way back to the top of the weir ready to start ‘falling’ down again, she gave the gull one last biff and went back to her normal motherly duties. The gull moved sideways one step and settled back into melancholy.

Then the larger little egret, having banished the potential usurper down river, spotted the gull too. His approach was less gentle. He went up to the gull and stabbed its head repeatedly with his beak. 

The gull moved sideways again. 

It was clear now that it was injured in some way and could barely walk. It made no effort to fly either. Its whole body language suggested it just wanted to be left alone. 

The little egret didn’t care what the gull wanted. He just went in for another attack. After watching this for a couple of minutes, we couldn’t bear it any longer and went home. 

‘This is precisely the reason I’ve gone off wildlife shows,’ said my husband. ‘It’s like watching the horrible things humans do to each other on the news only with more arty photography.’

I have to admit I sort of understand.

The following day we went for the same walk. The river was peaceful, all visible creatures co-existing in apparent friendly calm.

But a tiny bit of my brain wondered if tucked under the reeds wasn’t the body of a small black-headed gull done to death by the other birds. 

Murder, in fact, most fowl.

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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.

Wheels on Fire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pruning

In my head, I could design a garden to make Capability Brown swoon. 

In reality, my gardening skills are worse than my housework skills. Nature fights back more than dust does, seeding things in the wrong places to thrive while I plant them in the right places to die. 

I reckon ivy, brambles and briar rose feature so much in song and story because they get everywhere. And as far as my garden is concerned, buddleia sprouts all over the place, regenerating like a Hydra the moment you cut a bit down.

Tidying up what we like to think of it as a wildlife haven isn’t my favourite activity. But my husband and I, having been busy for several weeks, realised we had to tackle some of it before the house disappeared behind greenery like Sleeping Beauty’s castle behind thorns. Brambles have assaulted my husband and briar rose has attacked me. Shame our tetanus jabs aren’t up to date.

In the wrong place, I found a purple flower which had somehow managed to grow on a plank of wood, a carpet of forget-me-nots and a mass of wild strawberries. Prettiness notwithstanding, I’ve pulled out and cut down everything bar the latter. If we don’t eat them, the birds will.

If I weren’t gardening I’d be editing, even though I feel like I’ve been doing nothing else for months. With three creative projects to complete this year (one now with beta readers so at least that one will get there), I feel rather weary. I miss writing anything original that isn’t work related. 

During editing, nothing has been salvaged like the strawberries. I’ve been pulling out the ‘forget-me-nots’ and pruning the ‘buddleia’. Do I need this character? No. Is this scene working? No. Slash. Chop.

I was fond of the things I’ve cut out and feel an odd sense of guilt telling them they don’t fit. Some will perhaps turn up in something else another time, some may never reappear anywhere. It’s rather depressing. 

At least it’s possible to prune fiction. Real life, no matter how much I’d like it to be, can’t be pruned. Things happen that no-one would believe in a novel and you can’t alter events to make a coherent narrative. That’s probably why paintings, music and stories are important – in them worlds have a pattern on a small, manageable scale, when any pattern in real life is on too large a scale for anyone to see. 

Anyway, pruning, tidying, editing – I’m always pleased at the end but the process itself is hard work and often painful. 

But the hope is that I may find unexpected strawberries in the garden, a lost ‘treasure’ doing housework and in my books create something people will enjoy. 

At least I needn’t put my edited characters through a shredder or on a compost heap. So at least none of them can attack me to get their own back. Because they’re not real. Are they? 

Are they? 

Gulp.

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

Who Are You?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is that important? Maybe. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she definitely gets her argumentative streak. 

And long may it continue for both of us. 

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

Under the Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At that moment, I felt comforted.

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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.

Article about British Goblins (1880) by Wirt Sikes

Book Bereavement

I’m suffering book bereavement.

There’s probably an equivalent for artists and musicians and it hurts.

Book bereavement is when a piece of writing is complete, leaving a gap in your life you don’t know how to fill. (Readers can feel much the same when a good book ends.)

In my case, I’ve just finished writing a novel and I’m missing my main characters so much I don’t know how to stop thinking about them. It’s a really odd sensation to have about people who, let’s be honest *whispers* don’t really exist at all. The thing is, they feel real to me. 

This sensation may be intensified by the fact that I took last week off work purely to write and wrote nearly 36,000 words. Fundamentally, except for a few hours spent eating and having to live in the real world, I was imagining, dreaming, writing and living in my novel for nine days and nights.

For those of you who’ve stuck with me so far: who are these people who are still hovering about and what’s their story?

The main character is Margaret Demeray, the younger sister of Katherine from the Caster & Fleet series.

Liz Hedgecock and I decided we’d do spin-offs which we would write singly, rather than as a collaboration and I chose to see what happened to Margaret when she grew up. (You’ll have to wait and see what Liz comes up with.)

The book is set in 1910. 

I picked the year partly because the fashions – with the possible exception of hats – were lovely (which is perhaps not very rational) and partly because it was a kind of tipping point historically. King Edward VII has just died, the women’s suffrage movement is gaining momentum, the old monarchies and empires of Europe, including Britain’s, are quietly sabre-rattling as they struggle for dominance.

Margaret is thirty-six, the age when a woman is supposed to be in her prime. (I can’t really remember because at that age I had baby well under two and was expecting a second.)

Margaret’s life is much more interesting. She is medically qualified and working in a teaching hospital. She has been asked to speak at a scientific symposium, the only woman to do so. She has great women-friends, equally determined not to be overshadowed by men, and has maintained her independence. But somehow she has also become engaged to a man so hung-up, he appears to find kissing her a chore. Perhaps if he were a little more passionate, she wouldn’t keep putting off the wedding. But as it is…

Then a stranger asks about the nameless subject of Margaret’s most recent post-mortem and her world turns upside down.

Obviously, the first draft being hot off the fingertips so to speak, it’s too close to read through and see what works, what doesn’t and which loose ends are still flapping. And it doesn’t have a name either. 

Oh well, I’m sure my subconscious will tell me at 4 a.m. or during a business meeting sometime soon. 

Today I’m back at my day job (the one that pays the bills) where there is regrettably very little scope for creativity, unless you count obtaining statistics and then turning them into a pretty graph. So perhaps to distract myself from having left my main characters wondering what they’re supposed to do next, I did a bit of number-crunching of my own.

My husband and I have recently started counting steps and we have been making ourselves do a circuit of our town pretty much every day to reach our 10k. 

So I’ve created a graph to show how many words I wrote each day last week against how many steps I walked. On the basis that statistics are supposed to prove something, these seem to prove nothing except it is possible to write words and do exercise, even if your husband has to drag you out of the house and put up with your mind being somewhere else entirely as you walk. (For the record, it rained all day on Friday 8th, he wasn’t home till late and it was more appealing to stick at writing rather than waste time walking round town getting drenched. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.)

For anyone who actually cares about the words side of it, an average under 4,000 words a day may not seem a lot given that I was writing for around 8 hours a day and I’ve been known to write 1,500 on an hour and half train journey. Every writer has their own way of doing things. Some people write to a strict plan, some to no plan at all; some pour everything out and worry about it afterwards, some do a bit of editing as they go along. 

I start with an outline, some idea of who’s who, what they’re up to and where they’ll end up, but let the rest fall in place as it comes to me – which as I said above sometimes occurs at 4 a.m or in the middle of a business meeting. My process last week was: get up, review the previous day’s writing, tweak it, often move it about or hold it back, and then crack on with the next part. I think there was one day I did more tweaking than writing.

For now as I write this, I must put Margaret, her friends and her enemies firmly to one side, because it’s lunchtime and I’m going to do some steps. 

Only 7,353 more to do. Sigh. I’d rather be writing.

 

 

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

Charming Gowns:www.designrush.com

Graph: my own with dodgy stats

Cat: www.pixabay.com

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.