Insight

Dear Niamh,

I blame you. 

Rhys doesn’t believe me but I just know it’s your fault that he and I are invisible. You’ve always stared at me as if I’m something nasty on your shoe. I hate that. I used to try and wind you up but it was a waste of time. Nothing gets to you. Nothing. I’ve never seen you cry and you don’t laugh at my jokes. You’re the only girl who doesn’t think I’m funny. Apart from Freya of course. Freya doesn’t laugh at anything at all. She just cries.

It really gets to me how you don’t like me,Niamh. You and me, we could make a good team. You’re brighter than the rest of these trolls. You read the same books, watch the same movies. To be honest, I even think you’re almost as pretty as me. We could run this school between us but you’re just not interested. You just hang out with Lauren and ignore me. Or I thought you did. But look at you now: you’re the only one who can see us and you’re grinning. So I know it’s all your fault.

I’ve been thinking about it and reckon it all started the day Freya went to Mrs Jones after break and said I was picking on her. Rhys sat there looking smug (made a change for him to be out of the limelight didn’t it?). He was just sniggering at me and nudging those thugs he hangs out with.  Charlie was looking gutted. Everyone could see the marks on Charlie’s neck but Rhys had got away with it again. Mrs Jones’s eyes rolled as she listened to Freya drivel on and then you stood up for her. You know how Mrs Jones thins her lips and stares at us as if she’s thinking how dare you interrupt my day with your pathetic little lives? Well she looked at Freya like that and then she looked at me like that. Me. I mean, Rhys, he’s a bully. Everyone knows he’s a bully. He chases people and thumps them. That’s bullying isn’t it? He even tries to thump Freya, when Charlie isn’t around, only she can outrun him – the lard arse. But me? I’m not a bully. I just tell it like it is.  

Freya is boring. She is gangly. She does have a funny accent. She does cry all the time. She is good at boring things like history. Her Dad is fat. Her house is a mess. 

Do you remember when Freya moved to this school from whatever God awful place she came from? She tried to make friends by inviting all us girls round to her house for a party. I mean, don’t you remember Freya’s home? Her parents are so weird and old fashioned they’ve only just about got a CD player and put on total crap music that even my mum wouldn’t listen to. Her Dad kept bleating on about stuff from about fifty years ago and Freya just hung on his words if he’s God or something. He didn’t even know how to do an internet search. I’m not sure he even had a smart phone. He just kept proving his point by digging out one of those dusty old books he’d got piled up everywhere because he’d run out of space in his stupid shop. I don’t think half of them were less than a hundred years old and there were about a million. There were cats asleep on them, her Dad was putting plates down on them. They were all over the place. Is that your idea of a party? So yeah, she’s weird. She can’t help it. It’s how she is. And it’s not my fault if I point it out to the other kids and they laugh. I’ve just got a good sense of humour and she hasn’t. It’s no good me pretending to everyone that she’d be any good on their team, she’d fall over her feet or cry or something.  It’s obvious.

I’m not like Rhys. He’s a bully. I’m just honest. He pushes Charlie around to get money and to make himself look scary. I just want Freya to face up to facts. If she laughed at my jokes I wouldn’t get so irritated with her. Not as much anyway.

The day when you told on me, good old Mrs Jones wasn’t putting up with all that soppy crap. She said ‘Just keep away from her then’ to Freya, just like she says to Charlie about Rhys, ‘just keep away from him then.’ See, she understands. If you don’t want people to get annoyed, don’t be annoying. 

People were a bit fidgety that afternoon. Well the girls were. The boys were just morons same as ever. Some of the girls wouldn’t look at me. But it was ok. It gave me time to remind Abbie about how Ellen’s Mum drinks like a fish and how it couldn’t be true about Georgia’s dad and then I wondered out loud why Chelsea is so short. After lunch, things were back to normal. Except you kept staring at me.

I decided to ignore Freya. It was the best thing to do, ignore her.

I thought, I’ll keep away from Freya, then she doesn’t need to keep away from me and I’ll make sure everyone else keeps away from her too. No-one has anything to complain about then. So I just mentioned to the rest of the girls how I’d heard that Freya had fleas and cockroaches in that slum she lived in and that was why she was so good at biology. I said it a bit loudly but it got a couple of the girls laughing anyway and they moved away from Freya and pretended to scratch. The ones that looked awkward probably didn’t understand the joke.   

Now I reckon that was the trigger point. You gave me evils while Lauren took Freya away with her arm round Freya’s shoulder. Freya was crying again: the big wet cabbage. That’s when you decided. I remember you asking Freya really loudly if you could go round hers that evening. It was after that.

Yes, I know it didn’t happen the next day or the day after, but I reckon that evening at Freya’s house, you found something in one of her dad’s disgusting old books.  

So everything was fine for a couple of days and then on Monday, I overslept. Mum didn’t wake me. She’d gone to work without dropping me off, which she does sometimes, but this time, she hadn’t found someone else to take me. So I just had to walk there on my own. I was a bit late so the only person arriving at the same time was Chelsea and she just ignored me. Didn’t even look at me. It was as if I wasn’t there. It was the same with everyone. They all ignored me. The bell rang and I went into the classroom and Mrs Jones took the register and when she got to my name she said ‘absent’ and that was that. It was the same all day. I put my hand up, no-one noticed. I kicked Sam under the table. He didn’t flinch. At break, no-one heard me. After lunch, Mrs Jones got to my name on the register again, looked a bit confused and said ‘why’s her name still on here?’ At the end of the day, she said ‘Chelsea, tomorrow, come and sit in that empty seat.’ and pointed where I was sitting. I looked round the class and no-one looked surprised or anything. Except you. You were looking straight at me and smiling in that quiet way of yours. God I was mad. I went up to Rhys and punched him really hard, just to prove I was there. I got up out of my seat and did it right in front of everyone, but no-one said a thing and Rhys, that great oaf, he just waved his hand a bit as if there was a fly around him.

I went home and Mum couldn’t see me either. She made enough supper for two but looked a bit confused and put the second plate in the fridge. I ate it cold when she’d left the kitchen. I sat down with her to watch TV but it wasn’t the same without her telling me to go to bed and me telling her how useless she is. 

I’ve kept coming to school. What else was there to do? I just thought it was some kind of seriously unfunny joke. A day after it happened to me, when I was sitting at the back of the class in Chelsea’s old seat, I saw Charlie come in crying. He wasn’t even pretending not to. He had gravel burn all down his cheek and his jumper was all ripped. The other boys squirmed a bit but everyone knew Rhys would come sauntering in next, on the look out for someone else to thump. Mrs Jones  told everyone to settle down and asked Charlie what had happened. 

‘Fell down,’ he said.

She didn’t believe it but shrugged. She scowled at Rhys, but Rhys just looked as innocent as it’s possible for Rhys to look. And thinking about it now, you glared at Rhys then while everyone else found something else to be interested in.

On Wednesday, Rhys came in to class but when Mrs Jones got to his name on the register, she marked him absent though he said ‘yes miss’. 

She’d stopped calling out my name the previous day. 

Rhys was angry. He started throwing things about, only nothing actually moved. It looked like they’d moved but at the same time it looked as if they were still where they were supposed to be. It was really weird. Everyone just got on with their work. Rhys got up and walked about thumping people. No-one noticed. Then he got to me, said ‘where’ve you been hiding?’ and punched me in the arm and I said ‘Ow!  Stop it you prat!’ and punched him back. It’s not really my style but I had to do something.

So there we were. I could see him and he could see me but we were both invisible to everyone else.  And after a while Mrs Jones just referred to me as ‘that girl who used to be here’ but said it as if saying my name made her mouth taste bad and talked about Rhys as if he were a particularly stupid pile of manure.

I thought Rhys only came to school to beat Charlie up, so I expected him to bunk off once no-one would notice. But he’s still here. I guess even he has enough brain cells to get fed up with hanging out at home. All the same, he’s worried because Ben’s taking Charlie to judo with him now.  Let’s face it, if he’d known how to, Charlie always could have got the better of Rhys. Now I bet Rhys is almost hoping to stay invisible.  

Me, I actually want to learn stuff, so it’s a bit frustrating when I know the answer and no-one’s listening. The only thing that made school bearable until this morning was that Mrs Jones was good for entertainment. I liked it when she made Chelsea finish that problem on the white board only made sure it was so high up that Chelsea had to stand on a chair and it was such a laugh when she got Tim to read out that long poem then mimicked his lisp. Yesterday, I thought it was hysterical when she laughed in front of everyone at Freya’s bit of creative writing about her father’s magic books. 

I’ve only just clicked it wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t a story.

I’m normally so bright, I can’t believe I didn’t realise the truth till you did it to Mrs Jones too. She came in late this morning, in a foul mood and bellowed like a cow, but no-one paid any attention. She banged on the desk till it nearly broke, but no-one calmed down. 

I actually felt a little scared of her, but I thought at least she can’t see me. Then I realised she  could. She was staring at me and Rhys while the class was laughing and chucking things around her. 

When the head came in to see what was going on and totally ignored her, Mrs Jones just slammed her way out of the classroom. And I looked over to you, Niamh, and you were laughing your head off.

So Niamh, I’ve worked out it’s all your fault. I know it is. I don’t know how but you’re staring at us with that smug grin. I thought nothing got to you, but obviously something does. I’ve never done anything to you, yet you’ve played this trick on me. I don’t know why, but if you can see us. I’m hoping you can read this and can reverse the spell or whatever you need to do.

Cos you know what I hate. What I really hate? I hate how they all forgot me and Rhys so fast.  Or not forgot, but how those kids I thought were my friends are all so catty about me now. I was the one that made things interesting and now they talk about me like they hated me. Some of them even hang out with Freya and say they were frightened of me. Me? I wasn’t like Rhys – I never hit anyone. I just like a good laugh. What’s scary about that? What’s wrong with them all? Turns out Freya has a sense of humour too and can smile. Who knew? I’ve heard some of the kids say even though she’s weird and boring, she’s funny and nice all the same so they just roll their eyes a bit and talk to her as if she was normal. 

And I miss my mum who just sits quietly at home in the evening and looks at my photo as if she’s trying to remember who I am.  

I don’t know what you think I’ve done to annoy you, but maybe you can tell me and then you can make things go back to normal. Maybe I’ll even try to work out what you all like about Freya. 

Niamh, please reverse that spell. 

It’s lonely when you’re invisible, Niamh.  

And it’s sooo boring.  

grey zoe

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

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Breaking News: a new book with Val Portelli

When I joined Facebook, my ‘friends’ were family, close friends and/or colleagues. Some of them came under the ‘long-lost’ category and it was wonderful to reconnect and keep in touch but beyond that I didn’t expect to get much out of social media.

Then I discovered one of my colleagues was a member of a writers’ page. I probably didn’t at that point, even realise such groups existed on Facebook and I didn’t even know this particular friend liked to write since apart from discussing work, we mostly discussed cookery. But I had a peek anyway.

This was all around the time when I was taking my first tentatives steps to get back into writing. I’d entered a local short story competition and to my amazement had been short-listed in the flash category with a 300 word story. So I joined one of the on-line writers’ groups and started to read things that people posted: flash fiction, dribbles, drabbles, six word stories… I was astonished at the imagination, the camaraderie, the fun people were having.

At one point, someone wrote about walking in the woods at night. Then someone else did their own take and it brought to mind how much time I’d spent in local woodland when I was a lonely child.  I imagined revisiting it, something I have not done for a very, very long time and a story formed in my head. And then another. All of a sudden, I had two short stories, one funny, one serious. Longer versions of both are in my first book ‘Kindling’.

A little after that, I joined another writers’ Facebook group and found the same welcome and encouragement.

So there I was, catapulted out of my safety zone into the world of social media and something I never expected to be the outcome happened.

I made new friends. 

Now one of them, Val Portelli (aka Voinks), was intriguing. Mythical beings and sometimes romance peppered her often gothic stories. Somehow or other we ‘clicked’ and started contributing to the same threads and sharing ideas. 

We both like a little element of the fantastic and provided each other with ‘prompts’. Over time, this developed into enough trust to make constructive comments on works-in-progress. This is the author equivalent of asking ‘does my bum look big in this?’ and bracing oneself for the actual truth. It’s very scary.

Val and I didn’t meet in person until last year. In nervous anticipation I wrote a story called ‘Penfriends’ about what might feasibly go wrong, but we got on very well indeed. And then one of us said ‘why don’t we pull all our fantasy short stories, flash fiction and drabbles into a book?’

So we did. 

‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ is out today on Amazon. 

If you like short stories which may be funny or chilling or serious but always involving magic, myth or legend, take a peek. After all, the holidays are coming up!

Link to Amazon.co.uk

Link to Amazon.com

Link to Val Portelli’s website

weird & wonderful Tales black cover 30.3.18

The Start of the Bridge

The girl sped up, her heels clicking on the wet pavement. She was unsteady in her haste, or perhaps she was staggering because of what had been in her drink. Maybe it was both. Drizzle made her hair unstraighten. He liked it that way. And when she passed under the streetlight, raindrops sparkled in the curls like tiny translucent pearls. He smiled.

Just at the start of the bridge, her right heel caught in a crack and her foot twisted. She cried out, stopped, half turned and looked at him. Her eyes widened. His smile became a grin and he continued his nonchalant approach. The path along the river was just to their right, the scent of wet summer hedgerows drifted from the darkness. Her thin top was nearly soaked through, clinging to her body. He imagined the taste of the water on her skin, the softness under the wet fabric. She would be like a mermaid. It would be wonderful. 

The girl started to cry. She pulled at the shoe caught in the pavement and then wrenched at the strap to take it off. He smiled. He only had to walk three strides and he’d have reached her. As long as she didn’t get across the bridge, he could take her down the path and show her what she was missing.

With one more stride he passed the funny little ruin at the start of the bridge. The girl was an arm’s length away now, still struggling with the buckle, tears mingling with rain.

Before he could touch her, something grabbed his arm and the world went black.

*****

His nostrils filled with a stench which made him retch: fungus, sodden straw, smoky, filthy clothes, human waste and body odours so layered in tone and undertone he wondered how mere sweat could create them. He reached out his arms in the darkness and touched, on one side wet stone and on the other softness restrained under slimy cloth. A breast. His wrist was gripped.

‘Oh no you don’t.’

The voice was hoarse, as if the whisper was dragged through smoke and throat-dissolving gin. The words stank of rotten meat. 

‘Let me go!’

‘What if I don’t want to?’

‘Let me go you…’

What was she this woman? She was short, that was all he knew. But he couldn’t work out if she was old or young, fat or thin. There was no light whatsoever. She spoke again.

‘What were you gonna to do that girl?’

’N…Nothing. I just wanted a bit of a cuddle.’

‘Didn’t look like she was interested.’

‘She never gave me the chance.’

He squirmed in her grip but the hand, though small, was strong. It tightened round his wrist.

‘Let me go!’

‘And if she’d ask you to let her go? Would you have? The truth now. I’ll know if you’re lying.’

He swallowed. He still couldn’t see, just smell the cold, damp of the room or whatever it was, feel her foul breath, taste the mould on the damp walls, hear the trickle of water somewhere outside. Was it the river? He thought of the river-bank, of holding the girl down in the undergrowth squirming like an eel. The grip on his wrist tightened even more. He pulled at it with his other hand but could not unpeel the woman’s small fingers. He flailed in the darkness for her face, for a door, for a weapon. Failing, he felt his bowels loosen.

‘Where is this?’ he said.

‘The jail.’

‘What jail? There’s no jail in this town anymore. They moved it to… I don’t know where, but we haven’t got one.’ He snorted. She was just a filthy idiot. He tried to wrench his arm away but her grip tightened evermore. 

‘Oh yes there is,’ she said. ‘You were standing right by it.’

He remembered. The funny little ruin at the end of the bridge: there were handcuffs carved into the old stone. 

‘Now in my day,’ the woman said calmly, her jagged nails digging into the soft flesh of his wrist, cutting the skin, ‘in my day, this was just for petty criminals to cool them down overnight. Pickpockets, drunks, brawlers. People like me. In my day, they never worried about men like you. “Fair game” they used to say about girls like her, out late, all alone. Times change.’

‘What do you mean “in your day”? Let me go! A girl like that’s still fair game. What’s she to you?’

‘Oh she’s my … let me see… great great great grand-daughter or something. Maybe a few more greats.’

He swallowed, this woman was filthy and mad. And then he was aware of the coldness of her small hand, how hard and tiny the fingers round his wrist, the way her breath was fading, the smells receding into nothing but damp stone. He could hear the river again, a car passing in the rain. He could hear people talking: a panicked girl, someone else comforting her. He could make out the orange glow of street lights through cracks in the old padlocked door. 

‘How can you know that girl was your anything?’ he whispered.

A voice, fading and cold, murmured, ‘any girl in trouble is my something.’

*****

The stench told them where he was.

‘Been dead a week I reckon,’ said the pathologist.

‘Beats me how his body got here,’ said the detective. ‘It took us an hour to break in. The lock’s been rusted solid for over fifty years and there’s no other entrance. What killed him?’

‘No obvious cause of death. There’s not a mark on him but some scratches on his wrist which … it’s hard to tell but … they seem to be words…’ 

The detective held the torch closer, covering his face from the stench and flies.

‘What do they say?’

The pathologist peered closer, twisting the wrist in the beam of light.

‘What do you reckon? To me it looks like “fair game”.’

 

bridge

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

Fancy

The story never tells, but I was there too: lady’s maid at the ball.

Watching the whirling glamorous dancers, awkward in my pretty dress, I yearned for our kitchen’s dark corners.

The shy, fine-liveried footman gave me a bright flower. In quiet shadows, we danced in each others’ arms, stealing kisses.

At midnight, she ran. We followed. Her crystal slipper fell into the snow, then my flower. She rushed on, but we stopped…

The carriage rattled away without us: two mice again, furred not clothed, scampering together from the frozen petals towards shelter, glad not to be fancy anymore.

f1

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

 

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook. Check it out. Lots of lovely stories in just 100 words.

Into the Blue

Southern England Summer 1940

‘Nice of your mother to lend us the blanket,’ said Tom, lying back and pulling Nancy down into his arms.

She giggled, relaxing into his embrace and then squirmed upright to light a cigarette.

‘Come back here,’ Tom coaxed, stroking her back. The thin cotton dress was warm from her skin. He could trace her backbone and the softness below her ribs. He ran his fingers up the edge of her brassiere and wondered if he could undo it without sitting up.

Nancy twisted and looked down on him.

‘Stop it,’ she said.

She put her head on one side, blew a kiss and offered him the cigarette. With a sigh, Tom sat up and lit his own.

‘What’s the harm, Nancy? You know I love you. I’d be careful, I promise.’

‘Things go wrong, Tom.’

‘Well if they did, I’d marry you. I’d do that tomorrow, anyway. Come on Nancy, it’s not as if you don’t want to.’

‘I don’t want a baby.’

‘What, ever?’

‘One day, but not now. I’m only eighteen, you’re only twenty. We hardly know each other.’

It seemed like five minutes since he’d joined up.

‘But you were in a reserved occupation,’ Mother had sobbed, ‘you’d have been safe.’

Dad had said nothing. His face had been hidden behind the paper, his eyes turned inward as they had been since war was declared, revisiting memories never shared.

How could Tom have explained? He had looked down at those ledgers, the heavy downstrokes, the light upstrokes, the o’s like chains, the a’s shackled to an invisible line, the g’s anchored, the p’s spiked down. Office work wasn’t for him, war or no war. Handing in his notice, he’d walked out and down to the recruiting office.

His brisk stride had slowed to a pause. Which of the forces? Mud, boredom, blood, that’s how Uncle Sid had described his army experiences with Dad twenty-three years ago. Tom associated the sea with day trips and sand between the toes and pushing girls off hired dinghies. He couldn’t imagine being stuck in a ship for months. He lit a cigarette and stared up into the sky. Above the roofs and chimneys, it was endless. Birds swooped and soared. They weren’t pinned down to desks or pages or inside walls.

And then there was the girl. She’d burst out of the recruitment office and flung her arms about him, dancing him round on the pavement.

‘They’ve let me into the Air Transport Auxiliary! I’ll get to fly planes!’

‘Can girls fly planes?’

‘Girls transport training planes to airfields! Didn’t you know?’

‘Will you transport one to me?’ he asked.

‘Maybe!’ She blew him a kiss and danced off.

Nancy.

Now, she lay back down and looked up at the sky. It was deep blue, cloudless. Around them the countryside rolled and dipped. Above them, skylarks soared and sung.

Tom lay down next to her and she cuddled into his arms.

‘When the sky is always like this, we’ll get married and have a baby.’ she said.

‘When the sky is always blue? This is England!’

‘You know what I mean. When it’s always empty of everything but birds and clouds and when planes are just for fun. I’d like to fly just for fun. Wouldn’t you?’

Tom took a drag of the cigarette. His training was complete; he’d had ten hours of skirmishes. Other lads had flown with him and never come back. Every time he felt as if he was about to step out onto a high wire, his stomach churning. Perhaps making love might give him some peace. He didn’t know, but he’d like to know. Below them on the slopes, little boys ran and swooped with model planes, their voices screeching like engines and crashing like explosions. The children fell down dead, laughing, got up and started again. If only it was so simple.

‘Come on Nancy,’ he coaxed, stroking her hair, ‘maybe today’s all I’ve got.’

‘Don’t talk like that, Tom,’ she sat up again, ‘you’ll be fine.’

‘What if I’m unlucky?’

‘Why don’t you talk to Bernard? He knows the ropes.’

‘I sometimes wonder if Bernard’s quite human. It’s like he’s doing aerobatics for fun. He goes up with a whole squadron, comes back with half a squadron, then makes tea and cracks jokes as if nothing has happened. He’s got to be the luckiest person alive. Do you reckon it could rub off on me?’

‘Bernard’s all right. Maybe he just doesn’t have any imagination.’

‘Do you reckon he’s lucky in love too?’

Nancy giggled and stood up. ‘The answer’s still no. Besides, those kids are heading this way and Mum’ll kill me if I get this blanket grubby. Come on, there’s a dance on tonight. Let’s enjoy today and forget about tomorrow.’

‘I would,’ groaned Tom, ‘only you won’t let me.’

 

*****

Bernard came up from the tube and lit his pipe. Before the war he’d loved this walk, watching the street open up in the morning and close down in the evening as he travelled to work and back.

The road ran north to south. On nice days, the sun had sparkled from windows, glinted off gloss paintwork and brightened the stripes in the awnings. In peacetime, the shop-keepers had sometimes stood outside and turned their faces into the warmth; the housewives sang to their children; the delivery boys whistled as they swerved their bicycles around vans and pedestrians, earning curses. Half a mile along and he would turn into his street and see his house, number twelve. Sometimes Ginny would be waiting, sitting on the garden wall swinging her feet like a little girl, scandalising the neighbours by smoking in the street and not wearing a hat.

But it was no longer like that. Now, some of the shops were gone or closed up, the rest had reinforced windows. Even on sunny days, no-one wasted time soaking up the sun. Housewives with baskets and bored children fidgeted in queues along the pavements. In the evening, the shops shut early. People eyed up the distance to the tube, their ears alert for the siren. Today, Bernard paused at the entrance to his street and looked down it. He walked past the houses with their taped up windows. He raised his hat to Mrs Hodgson in number two and said hello to Old Mr Bailey standing on the step of number four. Old Mr Bailey grinned at the uniform, stood to attention and saluted. Old Mrs Bailey came out and dragged her husband inside, ‘sorry love,’ she said to Bernard.

Number six was abandoned. Now there was nothing but rubble from there until number twenty. Somehow, the low garden wall of number twelve remained to taunt him. It stood at a slight angle, the mortar cracked, making the bricks unstable, and Ginny would never sit on it again.

At least they’d found her body. She hadn’t been left to moulder under dust and debris.

Bernard didn’t know why he had come back again. He stood for a while on the bits of blackened masonry. Picking up a brick here and there he found an old clock, its face smashed, half a china dog, a saucepan. He rummaged where the hall had once been. Doubtless others had been here under cover of the blackout, sifting through for any valuables. He didn’t care. The one thing of real value had been crushed, dirt smearing the gold of her hair, alabaster lids closed forever on the sapphire eyes. Moving the rubble, he realised part of a hall cupboard was intact and opened it. Inside was a soft beret and a blue silk scarf. He tucked the scarf in his pocket and held the beret, letting the evening light catch the gold hairs caught in the wool.

‘’ere, what you doing?’

Bernard turned.

‘Oh, sorry,’ said the warden, lowering his whistle, ‘didn’t realise it was you. Thought it was a looter. Don’t even wait till it’s dark, some of them. You wouldn’t think they’d be so brazen, but they are. Got no respect.’

Bernard clambered back to the pavement.

‘Can’t think they’ll have much luck looting our house.’

‘Ought to be fighting for King and country not thieving. That’s what I say.’

‘Not sure I’d want a thief in my squadron. I’d prefer people I can trust.’

‘Least you’re getting your own back,’ said the warden, nodding towards the rubble.

Bernard looked up into the sky. ‘Maybe.’

He turned to go, unsure what to do with the beret. The scent of Ginny was gone, replaced by dust.

‘Do you know anyone who needs a hat?’ he asked.

‘I’ll give it to the WVS, they’re always after things for people who’ve been bombed out. Sure you don’t want to keep it?’

‘Not my style,’ said Bernard, handing it over with a smile which didn’t reach his eyes.

The warden opened his mouth to say something, but Bernard turned away and walked back to the tube. Tonight he’d be back with the squadron, careful to arrive too late for the dance. He didn’t want to hold a woman in his arms when she wasn’t Ginny. Not today. Not tomorrow. Maybe never. Tomorrow he could put on his smile again, cheer up the new lads. Make them think everything would be fine.

He hoped it would work for Tom, but Bernard worried about him. Tom was only a kid and jumpy as a cat for all the bravado. The sooner he admitted being scared and threw up, the better for everyone.

Bernard headed down into the underground. It was rank with the smell of the humanity which sheltered here during the raids. He drew on his pipe to obliterate the stink. He thought about Tom, always showing off for that ATA girl, Nancy. Truth was, Nancy was the better pilot than most of the lads. She kept her nerve, had guts of steel. If women were allowed in combat he’d pick her any day. Still, Tom was what he’d got and Tom needed something to give him confidence.

Half the time, a pilot just needed to convince himself it wasn’t his turn to die. It just came down to feeling lucky.

Reaching in his pocket for his tobacco, Bernard felt the dusty softness of Ginny’s silk scarf and pulled it out.

‘I’ve got a job for your scarf, Ginny,’ he said in his mind. ‘It survived that bomb. I’ll give it to Tom, tell him it’s lucky. Maybe it’ll do the trick. Something has to. We need all the help we can get.’

out of the blue

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

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.

branch lines

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

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.

what's this.jpg

 

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.

robin 2

 

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

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.’

pumpkins_edited-2

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