Branch Lines

That winter was the coldest on record.

Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.

One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.

There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.

Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.

He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.

‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.

On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.

I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.

On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.

Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.

One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.

As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.

‘I often catch this train,’ I said.

‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.

She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.

‘Your young man?’

I nodded.

‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’

She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.

‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.

Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.

A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.

At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped: ‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’

At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.

‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’

There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.

That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.

The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.

After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’

‘I’m often on this train.’

‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’

She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.

‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.

I nodded.

‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’

I shook my head.

‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’

I caught the old lady’s eyes.

‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’

And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.

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

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A Letter to Father Christmas

Susie never forgot the Christmas Eve when she was three and couldn’t sleep. Peeking over the bannister, she saw a plump man hiding something large and flat. The next day, under the tree was a large flat present for her and it was a big blackboard easel.

‘I saw Father Christmas put it in the cupboard under the stairs!’ said Susie. There was no doubt in her mind after that.

Sometimes Christmas presents were good, like the easel, and sometimes they were all right, like books and sometimes they were boring, like dresses, jumpers and dolls. When she was four, Susie’s mother told her that she now she could write, a good way to tell Father Christmas what you wanted was to put a letter up the chimney.

Luckily Susie had a good fireplace. She watched Mummy light the coals and when the flames were high, she popped her letter in and watched it fly up the chimney and off to the North Pole.

The only thing was, that it must have got lost on the way, because the one thing she wanted more than anything was a train set and Christmas Day came and Father Christmas left lovely presents but none of them was a train set.

In Spring, Susie and her family moved to another town. Now they had central heating so there was no chimney to send a note up. For two years Susie’s presents were nice, but never quite what she really really wanted. Then, one rainy Autumn when Susie was seven they moved a long way. The new house was rather dark and a tiny bit scary.
There were fireplaces in each room but every single one had been bricked up. The only fire was a rayburn in the sitting room, a kind of sealed metal box where you could see the coals trapped and burning behind glowing glass. Susie didn’t bother telling her little sister about putting notes up the chimney because Mum wouldn’t let them touch it.

One breakfast time in late December, Susie heard a horrible scrabbling, flapping sound behind the part of wall in the dining room which had once been a fireplace.

‘A bird’s fallen down the chimney.’ said Dad ‘It’ll die if we don’t get it out.’

Susie and her little sister watched anxiously until eventually Dad pulled out enough bricks so they could see into the dark hollow which had once been a hearth.

There was a lot of dust. Susie’s little sister held her hand tight as the scrabbling started again, louder now that the space was open. Suddenly a robin hopped out, something in his beak. He flew up to Susie, dropped a sooty piece of paper on her outstretched hand and then flew to sit chirping by the window until Susie’s Mum opened it for him to fly out.

Susie opened the piece of paper.

‘Look Mum!’ she exclaimed, ‘It’s that note I put up the chimney for Father Christmas when I was four!’

‘It can’t be!’ said her Mum coming to look, ‘that house is two hundred miles away!’

But it really was the letter she had written three years before.

‘Tell you what’ Mum suggested, ‘this time why don’t we just pop it in the post to the North Pole. It might be safer.’
So they did. And that Christmas, under the tree was a long thin package for Susie and inside was a train set at last.

After lunch while Dad was helping set up the train set on the dining table, Susie looked out of the window into the front garden.

There was the robin, hopping about on the front wall and chirping away. Then he stopped to look at her. And Susie could have sworn he gave her a little wink.

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

Beyond the Dark

One midwinter evening, we left the dark city by train, feeling that daylight might never return.

A sombre bearded man whispered, ‘it was bearable when December was crazy bright.’

I sighed. The new regime disdained foolish colour in our monotone, efficient world.

Then, a robin red-breast appeared, singing.

Were we mad? In that moment, hope overcame fear.

The robin’s wings showered sparkles, the bearded man was suddenly jolly in red and I, garbed in silver, finding a song of love, flew on feathers of joy.

And outside, one by one, the dull world blazoned once more with rainbow lights.

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

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Click here to check out what other people wrote.

Pumpkins!

‘Pumpkins! I ask you – pumpkins!’

‘Woss wrong with pumpkins? They’re orange. They’re effsfetic ent they?’

‘They’re not traditional though, are they?’

‘Ent they?’

‘Nope. You know the legend doncher?’

‘Er…’

‘The one about Jack.’

‘Jack wot climbed the beanstalk?’

‘Could be… anyway…’

‘Jack wot built the ‘ouse?’

‘Maybe…anyway…’

‘Jack wot went up the ‘ill with Jill and fell down and broke ‘is crown?’

‘ANYWAY….Jack sold his soul, see?’

‘Probably needed to raise the cash to build an ‘ouse. Costs a fortune that does.’

‘Whatever, but the thing is, the thing is then he got scared of the dark.’

‘Probably behind with the ‘leccy bills what will spending all ‘is cash on building an ‘ouse and buying beans and that.’

‘Well anyway, so then he made a lamp out of a turnip.’

‘Why?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Well, that can ‘appen when you falls down and breaks your crown. You can go a bit doollally. No amount of vinegar and brown paper’s gonna sort out brain trauma.’

‘Yeah well, anyway, he roams he does, Jack, looking for his lost soul or summat. So other people started to make lamps outta turnips too.’

‘Why’d they do that? Had he started a sort of franchise?’

‘No it was reverse physicilology or summat.’

‘Wossat then?’

‘No look listen, people made lanterns out of turnips and put them outside their houses to scare Jack away.’

‘Why turnips?’

‘Takes a real man to make a lantern out of a turnip. Turnips is hard. All that digging with a teaspoon – only a real man can do that and then when they eats the innards their farts can blow the scales off a lizard.’

‘Spect Jack was used to that what with the beans from the beanstalk an all.’

‘Wot you on about?’

‘Wot YOU on about?’

‘Well the thing is – it was TURNIPS! It was turnips till a few years ago. Then suddenly, it’s pumpkins everywhere and turnips don’t get a look in. And what am I?

‘You’re a turnip.’

‘Dead right. And what are you?’

‘I’m a turnip.’

‘You certainly are. So that’s why I’m mad. Blinking pumpkins. Coming over here, taking our jobs. It’s a liberty that’s what it is. A blinking liberty.’

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

The Nameless Manuscript

Someone was shaking me awake.

‘Train terminates here, miss,’ said the guard.

Finding myself slumped against the grimy train window, I blinked, stood up and made my way off the train. Still half asleep, I wobbled on the step and the guard helped me down as if I were an old lady or worse: tipsy.

Alone on the platform, I ran my hand across my eyes and grimaced at the soot left on my gloves.

At the barrier, the ticket collector looked askance and outside the station, the taxi man hesitated when I gave Harriet’s address, taking me in from top to toe as if ascertaining whether I could afford the fare.

‘My word,’ said Harriet, when I finally arrived at her flat, ‘did they make you travel in the coal tender?’

‘Do I look that bad?’ I looked into the mirror over her fireplace. My clothes were crumpled from the sleep and my hat askew, hitching my curls up on one side and flattening them on the other. Soot striped my eyes as if I had applied war paint.

‘I hope whatever you were doing was good copy,’ said Harriet, after I’d tidied myself up. ‘Could you put it in “Blueprint for Thingummy”?’

She nodded at my satchel, where my just-finished manuscript hid, its pages huddled within the string, tied up as a sacrifice for the publisher who’d agreed to look at it. I imagined it whimpering with the fear of being read and laughed at. I only had until tomorrow to think of a proper title.

‘Apart from the fact that it’s finished – I think – I’m not sure how I could get time-travel into it. “Blueprint” is supposed to be a murder mystery.’

‘Time-travel?’

‘It’s what happened to me on the train.’

‘I knew it,’ said Harriet, ‘trying to be an author is sending you mad. You need to stop writing and get a proper job before you get overwhelmed by delusion. And you need a stiff drink. Whatever really happened is obviously too traumatic to be solved with a cup of tea.’

‘Anything can be solved by a cup of tea.’

‘Really – you’d rather tea to a whisky and soda?’ She poured out a generous measure and waggled it at me.

‘Well maybe not tea the way you make it.’ I took the proffered glass and sat back. ‘Seriously, I really did travel in time.’

‘You were dreaming, but tell me anyway. Which era did you go visit? I always wanted to go back to Medieval times.’

‘It wasn’t back. It was forward.’

‘Robots I guess. Rocket ships.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was on a train.’

‘Well yes. You were on a train, fast asleep.’

‘I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on and then I woke up a few minutes later. I found myself sitting at a table and all the seats were orange.’

‘Orange?’

‘And the windows were quite clean. Apart from a few rain streaks, I could see out clearly. There was no soot.’

‘That’s because it was all over your face instead.’

‘No listen, I saw the power station at Battersea.’

‘Who can see that from the train in November? The radio said there was a real pea-souper in London today.’

‘There was. Or rather there was before I fell asleep. But when I woke, the skies were completely clear. No fog, no smoke.’

‘The power station…’

‘Just a shell. With scaffolding. Everything looked both familiar and unfamiliar. I thought I saw a fisherman on the river.’

‘What could you fish out of the Thames?’

‘I dread to think. There were skyscrapers on the horizon.’

‘Like the Empire State? In London?’

‘They weren’t anything like the Empire State. I can’t even describe them.’

‘I thought you were a writer. Isn’t it your job to describe things?’

I closed my eyes and tried to remember those edifices glinting in the autumn sun. ‘They were strange shapes. One looked like a pencil with a jagged top.’

‘It was a dream.’

‘And the people in the carriage. They were different.’

‘Silver suits, ray-guns?’

‘No. They wore pretty much what we wear only not so smart. Some had suits but not many. No hats apart from two men with peaked ones a bit like schoolboys wear.’

‘Baseball caps?’

I paused, remembering staring at them, wondering whether to be affronted at the sight of men indoors who had not removed their hats. I tried to recall what a baseball player wore.

‘Maybe.’

‘So they were all scruffy, dirty?’

‘No. That’s the strange thing. They were all dressed so casually and yet they were all so clean. Apart from their shoes. Hardly anyone had polished their shoes.’

I recalled the shiny hair, the smell of laundry soap, scent; the clear skin and eyes. There had been no odour of tobacco or coal or sweat. There was a strange smell which I couldn’t place and I wondered if it came from the orange seats which were made from something like rayon or from the structure of the carriage interior itself which appeared to be made of pale Bakelite. It was not unpleasant, just odd.

‘Some of the women wore a lot of cosmetic and others none. And no-one smoked.’

‘No-one?’

‘I know. I felt a bit rattled. I was afraid I might smell and must look peculiar with my hat and red suit and shiny shoes and brown satchel. But no-one paid me any attention till I got my cigarettes out.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They frowned and tutted and one of them nodded at the window. I thought he meant I should open it or something. Then I saw a sign. It was a sort of black sketch of a smoking cigarette with a red line through it. So I put my cigarettes away and said sorry.’

‘And then…’

‘I was ignored again. They were all staring at things – oblong bits of Bakelite – all sizes. There were flat folding typewriters. People were typing away, though I couldn’t see where the paper went. Others were looking at silent movies on tiny screens – I don’t know where the projectors were and they had wires stuck in their ears. And some were reading or writing by tapping on the glass with their fingers. Oh I can’t explain.’

‘I’m telling you. You’ve been working on that novel too hard. It’s worn out your brain. Typing without paper, writing with fingers…’

‘And then the train stopped at Vauxhall (which looked very strange) and one of the girls at my table left her oblong thing behind. I stood up to try and call her, but she’d had to walk down a long aisle and I couldn’t see her. I heard a whistle and some beeping and then the train started up. I fell back in my seat and bumped my head. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by the guard down here.’

‘My dear,’ said Harriet, pouring me another whisky, ‘you’ve been watching too many scary movies.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. It was all real.’

Harriet stubbed out her cigarette and nodded towards my satchel. ‘OK. If you say so. Are you going to show me your masterpiece or not? I want to be able to say I handled it just before the publisher snapped it up.’

Unbuckling the straps. I pulled out the manuscript, and with it came the girl’s oblong Bakelite thing. It was about eight inches by five, flat, glass on one side and dull black on the other, like a picture frame without a picture. When I touched it, a sunset appeared and when I pressed a button, the image was replaced with a grid of numbers and the words ‘enter passcode’. Just to see what happened, I touched out the first number which came to mind: the year, 1932.

The numbers disappeared and words replaced them…including my name.

I read aloud, ‘“In the early thirties, my great-grandmother had a strange experience on the train out of London. She was on the way to her publisher with the manuscript we now know as the best-selling masterpiece of classic detective fiction called…”’

The glass went black but for a whirring circle and some incomprehensible words. Then they too disappeared and nothing happened when I pressed the button.

I shook the object to see if it would do anything else. It didn’t.

Harriet lit a new cigarette.

I sighed and contemplated the depleted whisky bottle.

It had been a very strange day and no matter what the oblong thing said, I still had to decide a name for my novel.

As if reading my mind, Harriet said ‘Maybe your book will turn out to be a best-selling masterpiece, but I think you should stick to the title “Blueprint for Thingummy”. I can’t imagine any kind of world in which “Battery drained, shutting down” has any kind of meaning at all. Can you?”

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

(This story started as a prompt on a Facebook page to write 750 words including “Blue-print”, “delusion” and “fisherman”. I started writing it on a train journey and was having so much fun I doubled the word limit! – I did post an edited version though…)

The Song (part one)

From the darkness came singing. It inveigled into my sleeping sensation of floating in green light.

I woke. For a while, within closed lids, I tried to restrain that fading dream which had left me smiling. But it had gone. I opened my eyes but the darkness was no less. I was not used to real night. In the city, all I had ever known, the day never truly ends. But here, now, for miles, there was nothing but fields and sky and distant mountains. A few scattered homes, long slumbering, dotted the countryside. My eyes adjusted and through the open curtains, I saw white random stars in a pigment beyond black and deeper than imagining.

I listened. I was not used to real night. In the city, noise never reduces, its rhythms ebb and flow. Nighttime brings sharper definition to each sound. But here, now, there was nothing but a throbbing silence. There was no flowing traffic, no predictable siren or anticipated shouting. The only sounds I recognised were in the room with me. My husband Stephen, deep in sleep, breathed soft and slow. I reached to touch him, my invisible, unconscious guardian in the shadows. Our baby stirred next to me, her mouth suckling as she dreamt of being nursed perhaps, but she did not wake. Somewhere in the distance a dog, or something, yelped. Somewhere nearer by an owl, or something, screeched. With a tiny squeak, a scrap of night shot past the window: a bat. Maybe.

‘Don’t go into the country. It’s not for you.’ That’s what Mamma had always said as we endured those scorching, heart-straining summer days in the city. The traffic was angry with the heat, sweating into the smog. Voices shouted from streets and open windows, impatient, risky. My friends went away, offered to take me with them, but she kept me home. School arranged trips, the cost waived for people like us but she said no.

Mamma had brought me up with a protective fury. I thought it was because I was different. Everyone said I must be delicate but appearances deceive. Mamma’s skin tanned, even in the city. Her working hands were hard and a little rough, her knuckles lumpy, her muscles knotted. She was tiny but could lift a bully twice her size by the scruff and shake him. She was tiny but I was tinier. My bones were so small, the bullies tried to snap my fingers like candy sticks, but never could. My skin seemed so thin, they called me porcelain girl as they traced my veins, tinging my whiteness with a subtle jade. They said my blood was green and that it had pooled into my eyes. They said I must be adopted or my father had been a ghost. I was different.

‘Who was my father?’

‘Never mind him.’

‘Am I really yours?’

‘Always and ever. Let them try to take you away,’ she’d say.

‘Who wants to take me away?’ I’d say.

‘No-one,’ she’d answer, ‘but just let them try.’

And I remembered then, a long ago remembrance of a knock on the door in the night and Mamma tense. In my memory, I see us like mice, backed into a corner. Me, no more than two years old, tucked behind Mamma and Mamma shielding me with her tiny frame, hiding me behind her skirts, armed with… what? A wooden spoon? A saucepan? What else would there have been? And after a long time, footsteps retreating and Mamma relaxing and gathering me into one of her enveloping hugs before we went back to sleep in the bed with the rose patterned quilt. Is that a real memory? Or another dream?

‘Don’t let them take her,’ she’d said to Stephen at the end, ‘if I’m not here to protect her.’

‘Who’d want to take her?’ said Stephen.

‘No-one,’ she’d said. ‘And the baby,’ she’d said, ‘keep her safe like I kept Tara safe.’

‘I will always be with you,’ she said, ‘I’ll never leave you.’

But you did Mamma, you did leave me. Your hand was still clasping mine long after you’d lost the strength to breathe, tears dried in trails running from your tired eyes, still fixed on mine but empty.

And when Mamma was gone, after all those necessary things had been done and the last thing had been organised and it was all over and everyone but me had filed her death away, I could not sleep. And I could not cry. And Stephen brought us out of the city.

‘It’ll do you good,’ he said, ‘the peace and fresh air.’

‘Mamma said I didn’t belong in the country.’

‘She had run away from it,’ said Stephen. ‘Perhaps you and she left in disgrace. It’s a shame we couldn’t have brought her and shown her there was nothing to fear anymore.’

I had slept for the best part of four days, waking to feed the baby, to eat and wash, to talk a little. Now I thought of Mamma and, in the darkness, the tears came. I longed for Stephen to wake but he slept on and the baby snuffled but did not stir. The noises of the strange countryside studded the night, unpredictable and startling. Another dog, another owl, the bat. And singing. A song both distant and near, both inaudible and deafening, both wordless and full of meaning, both enticing and…

I knew the song.

I rose and went to the window. There was nothing to be seen apart from stars and the shadowy garden. I tiptoed downstairs and opened the back door looking into shrubbery monotone and indecipherable. The song was louder and yet still distant. It created an image beyond myself as a small girl hidden from a knock at the door; beyond my first steps towards Mamma; beyond my tiny finger curling round Mamma’s finger. Before that, there had been the same song.

I recalled floating, curled in emerald waters. I remembered viridian eyes and jade skin, suckling something sweeter than milk.

The song ceased. A voice from the shadows, strange and yet known, said:

‘Stolen Daughter, you have returned.’

[to be continued]

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Words and photograph 2017 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without the author’s express permission.

 

 

Jasmine Tea

Holidays still felt wrong. Over the years, Diana had adapted to everything else. She had been independent and capable before she married, she was independent and capable after he’d gone. She reverted. The bed felt wider, the bills were harder. Otherwise the only things that mattered were the two daughters to bring up alone and a heart which felt as if it was made of cogs and gears running on oil, rather than flesh and blood powered by love.

But holidays were hard. When the girls were still little, there was no-one to plan the day with, argue over directions with, choose a restaurant with, count the pounds/pesetas/drachmas/euros with, sit up in the evening over a glass of wine and watch the sun go down with. As the girls grew, there was no-one to help them jump waves, to play jokes on silly, serious mummy; no-one to help kiss those sun drenched faces as they slept under strange skies, exhausted by new experiences. But she kept on anyway. At first, she decided where they would go and as years passed, she invited her daughters’ input and through their eyes, experienced the world anew.

Now they were nearly grown. Diana was no longer alone in the hot cicada evenings, one daughter would share a little of the wine and the other filled the evening with guitar music. But her bed was still cold on one side. And soon, the girls would fly the nest and she would vacation alone.

In the first week of their holiday, Diana took the girls a few miles upstream of the pretty town and watched as her confident, independent daughters, eschewing her help, phrase-book-Frenched themselves a canoe trip down the river. She saw them push off from the bank, all orange and yellow and red, insulting each other and arguing over paddling techniques as they disappeared under the trees; then she drove back to wait for them.

She had two hours to kill. This was the first time she had been abroad, totally on her own, since she had been in her twenties. There was no sticky hand to hold, no arm hooked through hers, no squabble to referee, no groans of boredom to contend with. To start, she walked the shaded streets along edges, peeking in windows, wondering who was watching her progress. She was the only person alone, washed along in a tide of families and couples.

Diana walked into a few shops and turned over the bright ceramics and lavender scented linen. She considered preserved delicacies and unusual jewellery. Under flapping awnings, waiters rushed to prepare tables for lunch, placing table mats and cutlery and reservation markers.

It was too early for lunch and besides, they would eat it together when the girls had finished their trip and handed the canoe back. But she was thirsty.

Going down a quieter side street, Diana found little businesses more unique than those in the main tourist area and among them, a shop selling English second hand books with a salon de thé attached. Diana could never resist a bookshop. She was pleasantly surprised with the selection, expecting tattered forty year old Penguins and musky hardbacks. The books were good quality and varied, the shop light and airy, with gentle piano music in the background. She could see through into the rear where a few tables stood neat with lace tablecloths and beyond them the light green of a narrow garden which must lead down to the river.

Diana chose three books and approached the till which stood between the open door and the empty tables. The music stopped and turning, she realised the piano was behind her and a tall man had risen to serve her. What nationality was he? After all, he was selling books in English. But his ‘Bonjour madame,’ was definitely French.

‘Bonjour monsieur,’ she said, handing over the books. The sounds of birds came in through the door and she could hear the laughter of people on the river and commentary on a passing tourist boat. She still had an hour to kill. Looking out into the garden, Diana noticed there tables were set up in the shade, a little vase of flowers on each one.

‘Et du thé aussi, s’il vous plaît?’ she asked.

The man smiled and handed her a menu. The range of teas was, like the selection of books, wide and varied. Diana’s desire for a taste of home was lost in the options. The day was very hot. It was too hot for English breakfast tea and milk.

‘Jasmin, s’il vous plaît,’ she said, struggling to remember in time to soften the J to make it sound French.
‘À l’intérieur ou..?’ he queried, indicating the cool of the interior.

‘Dans le jardin,’ she said firmly. She was pleased that although he knew she was an English speaker, although her accent was terrible, he continued to speak to her in French as he asked her to take a seat and said that he would bring the tea out to her.

Diana sat in the garden for a while, and then leaving her things on one of the spare seats, wandered down the length of the garden to enjoy its peaceful greenness and its slightly overblown flowers and herbs. She trailed her hands through lavender as she made her way to the end, where a little roofed store held spare tables and rusted garden tools. A small glass-less window looked down onto the river. Turning, she looked at the narrow back of the bookshop and its upper rooms and the stone walls enclosing this secret place of sun and tranquility. She ambled back to the table and took out her book.

‘Et voilà, Madame,’ said the man, putting a teapot and cup before her.

‘Merci beaucoup,’ Diana said, then, waving her hand added, ‘C’est très joli, ce jardin.’

Was that good French? She couldn’t remember. It sounded right.

The man paused and smiled, shrugging a little. He continued to speak in French, slowly but nevertheless in French: ‘it’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid, I’d like to make to more appealing.’

Diana understood him. Every word. Well, not every word. But she understood what he was saying to her. She started to formulate a reply and then decided just to talk and hope that what she said made sense.

‘No. It’s good it looks at this time,’ she replied, knowing the French was wrong. But if she stopped to work it out, she might as well not speak at all.

‘You’re very kind. Do you think it would be nice to have a tea garden?’

‘Yes,’ Diana could not remember the subjunctive, how to say ‘I’m sure it would’. She plumped for: ‘It’s very polite, gentle, tranquil… I’m sorry – my French is very bad.’

The man smiled. ‘Not so bad,’ he said.

‘I’m not at school during many years,’ Diana winced, imagining her A level teacher sobbing into her text books. ‘Depuis’ not ‘pendant’. Too late.

‘Are you holidaying alone?’ asked the man. Somehow it felt neither intrusive or creepy. It was just a question.

‘No, my daughters are with me too. They promenade on the river in a canoe.’ What a ridiculous thing to say. And what must he think of her, leaving them to do it on their own? ‘They’re eighteen and sixteen,’ she added. Although now she thought about it, he couldn’t possibly think they were little children, she was no longer a young woman. She was sitting in front of him. The sun shone on her fine lines and anyone, even a man, could almost certainly tell that her hair was coloured and spot the reading glasses on the table. For a second she felt silly but he didn’t seem to be appraising her. He was just chatting.

‘Your daughters – do they speak French too?’

Diana was ashamed, not for the first time, of the linguistic indifference of her nationality. ‘One – she learns Spanish only. The other loves music alone.’

‘Ah,’ he nodded as if in approval, ‘does she play an instrument?’

‘Yes, the guitar. She’s in a team…er… gang.. er…band.’

‘And you?’

‘Yes, I play a bit on the …..’ what on earth was the word for piano? She pointed at the instrument inside.

‘Piano,’ the man told her without reproach.

Diana pulled a face in apology, ‘Sometimes …. when we’re on holiday, I ….’ (what’s the word for ‘miss’?) ‘want to play…I’m sorry. I forget more than I learned.’

‘Don’t be sorry, it’s nice for me to speak to a customer in French,’ he answered.

There was a silence but it was comfortable. Diana poured her tea and wondered how to ask what had made him start this business. He was looking down the garden as if envisaging it with more tables, filled with customers. Perhaps he preferred it as it was now, quiet, with just a few people dropping in from time to time, so that most of the time, he could play piano to his audience of pre-loved books. He was, like her, neither young nor old either. Just himself.

‘Monsieur, pourquoi…’ she started but then a voice called from the interior:

‘Yoohoo! Jacques! It’s us!’

The man bowed to Diana and smiled, ‘Pardon, madame,’ he said, ‘… et merci.’

‘Merci aussi,’ she replied as he turned to his other customers.

Thank you? What for?

She heard him inside, still courteous but now speaking impeccable English, ‘good morning Mr and Mrs Smith, how are you both today? What tea would you like? I have some green tea or lapsang souchong? Or orange blossom perhaps?’

‘Oh away with you and your teas!’ laughed Mrs Smith, ‘you know we don’t like that sort of thing. Just the usual, same as always.’

‘Inside or outside?’ asked Jacques.

‘Inside’s cooler I reckon,’ decided Mr Smith, ‘and no insects.’

In the garden, in the breezy shade, Diana finished her tea and carefully carried her things back to the counter. She paid Jacques and smiled, seeing him glance at the piano. 

’Come again, even if you don’t want books or tea,’ he said in French, ‘just to play the piano. If you’d like to, that is.’

‘Thank you, I think on the subject of it.’

Outside in the street, Diana made her way to the canoe landing place, slowly. When she arrived, the girls were waiting.
‘What have you been up to?’ asked her youngest, ‘you’re all smiley.’

‘Aren’t I allowed to smile?’ argued Diana, ‘I’m so proud of you both, you’ll give anything a go. Daddy would have been so pleased to know that you grew up willing to try. He was never scared of anything.’

Her eldest gave her a hug damp with river water. It was eleven years since his death but she could remember him, just about, ‘Or maybe, he was scared but he tried anyway,’ she said, ‘just like you.’

Just like me, thought Diana.

‘So really, what were you up to?’ asked her eldest.

‘Bought some books, had a cup of tea.’

Her youngest looked unimpressed. ‘Can we go canoeing again, Mum?’

‘If you like,’ said Diana.

‘What will you do? More tea?’

Diana thought about it. ‘

Yes, why not,’ she said, ‘and maybe find a piano to play. I’m going to try something new.’

salon de the

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

Timewalker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

c. 4500 BC: Evidence of settlement
c.

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

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

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

Honey

She climbed a tree and hunched.

We called: ‘please come down,’ but she stared over the rooftops to the wide world as if yearning to fly.

‘What shall we do?’ we whispered.

In the kitchen, we cut a wobbly doorstep from the fresh loaf and poured honey over.

‘It’s your favourite,’ we called, ‘just for you.’

Mummy turned. A moment passed. Then she climbed down and hugged us tight, bread and all.

She smiled a little, but tears mingling with honey, sparkled in her hair.

Under our kisses, her face was sticky and salty.

‘We’ll make it better,’ we said.

honey

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

 

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