In a Spin

It was Saturday.

My husband had taken the children out on their paper round.

Monday to Friday, I work in an office, assessing risk, writing reports and meeting targets instead of being creative. All week, the housework piles up. Recently, it had been piling up for a month. On that Saturday, I needed to get a grip.

One day, I thought, if I ever finish my novel, I might get rich and famous. Then I can write all day and hire staff to do the boring stuff.

I only needed to write twenty thousand more words and I’d be finished. Then…who knew what the future might hold.

But on that Saturday, the novel had to wait.

The house was quiet but I mustn’t get side-tracked. There were chores to be done before I could write.

I went to the laundry bin. It was empty. How wonderful, the children were playing hide and seek with their dirty clothes again. Well, mostly seek. Not much effort had gone into the hiding things, they were scattered across their bedroom floors.

My fingers itched. If I just typed a few words it couldn’t hurt. Putting down the laundry, I opened up the laptop and started to write.

At the edge of my hearing, came a tiny chuckle and my vision was obscured by sparkling lights. I blinked.

‘Naughty, naughty,’ said the laptop and slammed itself shut, nearly severing my fingers. Imagining things is what I’m good at. But this was a little too much.

Shaking a little, I put the laptop aside and went back to the housework. I needed to find all the dirty crockery and glasses hidden around the childrens’ beds and desks. As I approached their rooms, I heard a clatter and some giggling. How very odd.

I entered my daughter’s room and saw the plates running away by themselves, rolling under the desk to hide in discarded homework and snigger. This was not normal, even for our house. It took me half an hour to round them up and force them, struggling, into the dishwasher. I wondered if I should ask for a day’s leave.

Not for the first time, I wondered how one small family could be so chaotic. Housework is such a depressing exercise. The place would look lovely when I finished…for all of five minutes.

I reached for the vacuum cleaner but it turned its back on me. I could hear it mumbling.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said before I could stop myself.

‘You haven’t bothered with me for a month,’ muttered the vacuum cleaner, ‘you prefer that rotten old laptop.’

I couldn’t really deny this. I patted the vacuum but he wouldn’t make friends.

‘I’m sick of eating spiders,’ he said, ‘I want to work for a PROPER housewife.’

‘Well, all you’ve got is me,’ I said and bumped him up the stairs, ignoring his complaints.

I managed to finish my chores before the family got home. I had perhaps an hour of peace to write in. But the laptop wouldn’t open. Every time I tried, it snarled and snapped at me.

‘Whatever is going on?’ I said aloud.

I heard another chuckle. It was coming from inside the airing cupboard. I waited outside for a second and then wrenched the door open.

Inside was a laundry fairy, balanced on top of the piles and piles of clean clothes which had been accumulating for weeks while I wrote my novel. It was a precarious perch because the whole family, instead of putting their clothes away without being asked, just rummaged from time to time.

‘Serves you right,’ said the laundry fairy. She was hefty (for an elf) and muscly. A clothes peg and odd sock were tattooed on each bicep. ‘You haven’t been doing your chores,’ she sneered, ’it’s no fun losing your socks when you’re such a terrible housewife anyway. So I put a spell on everything.’

‘Well, you can pack it in!’ I said. I am not a big woman, but I am bigger than a laundry fairy. I wrestled her off the clean clothes and bundled her up with the dirty ones. I’m telling you, those wings look flimsy but they’re sharp as razors. I took the whole squirming bundle to the washing machine.

‘Yum yum,’ said the washing machine, ‘I thought you’d never feed me!’

‘And you can shut up too, you gluttonous pig, I fed you three times on Wednesday!’ I snapped.

I shoved everything inside, put in extra stain remover and turned it on.

All the household goods stopped chuckling and the sparkling lights went out. I could just make out the furious face of the laundry fairy as she rotated inside the machine, covered in soap suds. She was shaking her fist but I didn’t care. I stuck my tongue out.

When the family came home they found me locked in the spare room typing. I had only managed to write twenty words of my novel and was having a little cry. But at least the laptop had returned to normal.

My husband said, ‘did you know you’ve washed the reds with the blues and now everything is purple? And how many times have I told you not to put an underwired bra in the machine? Now there’s a funny knocking noise coming from inside even though the cycle has finished. It sounds almost,’ he said, with a chuckle, ‘as if someone small and angry is trapped inside.’

I glared at him and then glanced out of the window. In our overgrown garden, something small and green was creeping up on the shed with a wand in its hand.

‘Haven’t you got stuff to do outside?’ I asked, getting up to peg the laundry fairy on the line until she was sorry.

‘Oh I don’t know if I can be bothered,’ my husband answered, ‘maybe the garden elves will do it for me.’

‘I wouldn’t take the risk if I were you,’ I said, ‘I really wouldn’t.’

wings

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

If you want to know about Laundry Fairies – read this!

And this is my excuse for being a terrible housewife

Trespassers

The old boat had tempted Ben and Joe for years but they had been too little to get aboard.

Now they were older, it was different. The old boat would make a great den and they could maybe sleep there, if they could sneak out in the night. No-one seemed to care about it. It had been just one of many abandoned to rot, scattered among the better-loved boats along the river’s edge. It would be something to tell the other kids. ‘We stayed out all night by the river. We stayed in that boat.’

Now it was late autumn. It was getting dark and the day was too unpleasant for even the most dedicated sailors to be out renovating or maintaining their boats. There was not one other person about to see Ben and Joe squelch across the mud and clamber aboard. They could stash their things and come back later when everyone was asleep.

There was a wailing around them, the wind was getting up. The clattering in the shrouds ‘clink clink clink’ might have been eerie if they hadn’t been used to it, living along the riverside as they did.

They dragged a ladder from another boat and propped it up. The old boat smelled of leaked oil and rotten wood. Shards of peeling paint scratched them as they got on board.

‘Now what?’ said Ben.

They stood on deck and ate snacks, taking it in turns to pretend to steer, to stand on the prow, to clamber up on the wheelhouse.

It started to rain.

‘Guess we’d better stash our things below,’ said Joe.

They peered down between the rotten timbers, nails rusted and exposed, ready to grab them as they descended.

‘You first.’

‘No you.’

‘You’re chicken.’

‘No you are’.

Together they dropped down inside. There was a smell. An old smell like the ghost of a smell. Joe pulled a bit of broken hand rail from the ceiling and prodded about in the dark galley. Powder from long decayed food collapsed. Beetles scurried.

‘Not sure about staying down here,’ he said. Rainwater had puddled on the floor.

‘What about the aft cabin?’ said Ben.

It was wedged shut. An old anchor was propped against it and hooked under the frame. The boys yanked, their hands slipping in rust, the smell of corrosion rising.

With a final wrench, the anchor split the wood and the door sprung open.

A skeletal hand fell through and landed on Joe’s foot…

old boat

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

Chocolate

Every day, after school, I did the breakfast dishes before my parents got in from work.

I was that shy girl who never knows what to wear and is slightly out of synch. The only boys who fancied me were shy too. When one worked up the courage to ask for a date, I said no. All I could imagine was an evening of awkward silence.

Most other boys thought my only passion was for books. Their eyes veered towards girls who could have looked attractive in a bin bag down a coal mine in the company of spiders. They told me I had mousy hair and eyes the colour of mud. And expected me to laugh.

David was different. David was good looking and kind. But he barely knew I existed and spent most of his time dodging the pushy girls as if he was a gazelle and they were a pride of lions.

After school, I went home and did the washing up. I looked out of the kitchen window and searched my mind in vain for something to say to David. But what could I talk about? Unlike me, he was into science and I knew nothing whatsoever about his interests outside school.

Then one afternoon, I stood scrubbing a plate and looked down the street for inspiration. What on earth could happen in our little village to prompt a conversation? There’s the mobile shop, late again. There’s Mrs Price crashing gears. There’s Mr Owens walking his chocolate coloured dog. I’d missed him for a few days because by some miracle my sister had done the washing up.

Something nagged at me, but try as I might, I still couldn’t think of one thing to say to David.

The next day the bell was ringing as I arrived at school. Rushing, I crashed into someone who was obviously also late, but being more dignified about it. It was David. As we collided, his bag slipped. Books, pens, lunch spewed everywhere. When a big slab of chocolate skittered across the floor, something went click. Before I could stop myself, I exclaimed:

‘I saw a ghost.’

‘What?’ said David.

I cringed, expecting mockery, but when I looked into his face, I just saw eagerness.

‘Last night. I-I saw a ghost. You won’t believe me but…’

‘Go on.’

‘Mr Owens in our village. Walks his dog every afternoon at exactly the same time. I saw him yesterday. Only… I just remembered, Mr Owens died last week.’

‘Can you…’ started David.

Before he could finish, the teacher leaned out of the classroom and said ‘sorry to interrupt your tryst, but I feel the urge to take the register.’

Blushing, we stood up to go into class.

‘Tell me at break,’ said David.

‘OK,’ I answered, handing over his book which I’d picked up from the floor. It was a book on the paranormal.

I smiled and he smiled back.

Who’d have thought doing the washing up would lead to love?

chocolate

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

Pirate Treasure

On a tropical island they captured a girl.

She was beautiful, skin and hair iridescent. She was locked up. The purer she stayed, the higher price she’d command.

From the hold the girl sang. Words unknown and yet understood: loneliness, bereavement, yearning.

Her song curled into the pirates’ minds until they wasted away, tears mingling with the sea-spray. The ship drifted on, steered by music, until reaching land.

The harbourmaster unlocked the hold, finding nothing inside but a bejewelled bird.

It filled his ears with triumphant song. Then, still singing, it flew out and disappeared southward over the waves.

PirateFrom a prompt “Music” from Thin Spiral Notebook – check out what others wrote

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

Tuesday at Seven

In a quiet side street, beneath a solicitors’ office, steps led down from the pavement to the tiny restaurant.

There were still only ten tables in this little facsimile of an imaginary Italy. It was one of the few things which had barely changed.

Tom ordered some bread and olives. His early evening had been spent walking round betrayed by memories. He felt the disoriented bereavement of returning after so many years. Road layouts were different; you had to park in different places and pay to do so. The big named places which had gone under were filled with other big named places, struggling to compete with the out of town malls. Was that where Woolworths used to be? Was that once British Home Stores? Small shops and businesses he remembered had gone and been replaced. Perhaps he’d imagined them. The town was just as pretty, with its Georgian elegance and flower displays but nothing else was the same.

He could have eaten anywhere. The Spa Hotel was now easily affordable. Once he had walked through the park outside under tasteful Christmas lights, silver in the trees. He’d watched the rich go inside and wonder whether the food and ambience was worth the cost. Then, mentally counting how much he had left in his account, he’d gone to this little Italian haunt instead.

He could have eaten anywhere, but it didn’t seem right. He took Cara’s photograph out of his pocket and studied it. At that moment, the waiter appeared with the olives and leaning over his shoulder said ‘bella! bella!’

Tom was startled, his privacy invaded. He made a meaningless response and turned the photograph face down on the table.

‘Yes!’ continued waiter, oblivious to or despite Tom’s feelings, ‘and when she comes here, this place, it lights up!’

‘Really?’ replied Tom, ‘you mean, she comes here?’ How ridiculous, why shouldn’t she? She had lived here all her life.

‘But yes!’ the waiter, with his dubious accent, seemed unable to speak without exclamation marks. Tom wondered what would happen if he asked in Italian which region the waiter was from. But then, the exaggerated accent was part of the atmosphere, always had been. The waiter continued, ‘she comes here every Tuesday evening at seven o’clock. Such a beauty! Her laugh is like a bell!’

Wondering how a bell was supposed to laugh, Tom was startled by the punctuality. Cara must have changed. Routine and pattern were his traits, hers were spontaneity and surprise.

He had blamed that discord for his departure all those years ago. Only now, picking up olive after olive, he realised that for all that, he was the one who had gone off into the unknown and she was the one who had stayed.

Cara could have gone with him of course.

‘Plenty of prestigious schools down in the South East,’ he’d said.

‘Plenty of prestigious schools here too,’ she’d said.

But she had chosen to teach in the one everyone pretended didn’t exist as disadvantaged, uncultured poverty didn’t represent the way the town wanted to portray itself.

He’d wondered aloud what good it would do them to mix with those complex families. In his mind he pigeon-holed them into stereotypes: barely literate, behind with the rent, hiding from loan sharks, breeding like rabbits.

‘You mean they won’t give you good connections,’ she’d snapped, ’I want to make a difference,’ she’d said, ‘do you?’

Her words had escalated from ‘self-serving’, to ‘snob’ and then ‘bastard’; his from ‘unambitious’, to ‘lazy’ and then ‘failure’. The names stung then slashed. She cried, he left. He left her in that cold, damp flat with its elegant but unbeatable proportions, left the untidy rooms, left the hasty marriage proposed under those sparkling trees. Clean break. No contact. Twenty years had passed.

Tom glanced at the clock. It was six. He frowned. He’d just realised it was Tuesday. Would she come here this evening? With her man-friend? Tom had only come to check the restaurant out, wondering if he could ask her to join him there for old time’s sake another evening.

He had never intended to find her again. But twenty years of promotion and order, influence, routine, predictability had passed and he’d never found anyone to share it with. And then redundancy was offered; inevitable, but worth more if you jumped before you were pushed and when someone said ‘never mind, now you can have more time for your pastimes and friends’, he realised he hadn’t really got either. During a weekend of doubt and uncertainty, he’d bumped into Cara in the National Gallery, on neutral ground. They had nearly bypassed each other, not recognising the changed faces and bodies; but over coffee they simply started to talk as if time had been suspended and could now restart.

With trepidation he had said he was thinking of spending a week back in the West Country she had never left. Would she be free? Was she free? Would she consider spending some time with him? No strings, just company.

They had walked in parks and forests, climbed hills above the river, visited theatres and museums and found that somehow while different, they were still the same and while still the same, they were somehow different. Then her hand had slipped into his and he knew he wanted to ask her to dinner in the old place, if it still existed, and that this would be the turning point. He had never been afraid of risk before, but now, it was all or nothing. If he could not win her back, he would return to the empty South East alone.

And here was the old place, still existing.

The waiter returned to take Tom’s order and prodded the photograph again. ‘Yes,’ he continued, as if the conversation had not ceased, ‘she comes every Tuesday at seven o’clock with her man-friend. What a lovely couple they make.’ He kissed his fingers. Mwah!

The olives became tasteless, the room cold. Tom said something non-committal and picked up his phone.

‘Now?’ Cara said, ‘right this second? Well, I could… but…’

‘You remember the place? Park Close. It’s barely changed.’ He named it and looked at the clock. It was nearly six fifteen. She was quiet and then spoke, anxiety in her voice.

‘Not tonight, tomorrow night. I could meet you somewhere else tonight.’

‘I’m already here. I’ve got a table. Please join me.’

‘How about nine?’

‘No, now. Now or…’ he couldn’t say it.

The silence was so long, he took his phone from his ear and checked to see if he still had a signal. Then she said, ‘oh all right.’

She walked in at six forty-five. She was beautiful but her smile was strained. Her long chestnut hair was pinned up and she wore some earrings he vaguely recalled.

‘This was our place, do you remember? Do you still come here?’ he asked.

‘Hardly ever,’ she said.

But ‘every Tuesday’, the waiter had said, ‘every Tuesday at seven with her man-friend’. Cara fiddled with a piece of bread.

Six fifty.

The waiter came back and took their order. He smiled and flirted a little with Cara and winked at Tom.

She was shaking slightly, rolling bits of bread but not eating it; swirling her wine but not drinking it.

‘Listen,’ she said, ‘there’s something I haven’t got round to telling you…’

The door of the restaurant opened. Its ringing bell made them turn. A young man and woman walked in laughing. The girl’s head was thrown back, uninhibited, long chestnut hair straightened and falling round her shoulders. Her clothes were retro, she might have walked straight out of his youth. She stopped laughing and wiping the mirth from her eyes, took in the restaurant including the middle-aged couple staring at them in silence.

The waiter returned with the starters and tapped the face down twenty year old photograph again, pointed at the girl and said ‘what did I tell you? Bella, bella! Laughs like a bell!’

Tom, his mouth open, looked at the slender young woman. He took in her hair, her mouth, hands and feet. Then he considered Cara with her fine lines and plumpness and then he turned the photograph face up.

And the girl, oblivious, stared at Cara and with the tone only a nineteen year old can emit, said seven exasperated words: ‘oh Mum! What are you doing here?’

bottle

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

Do you want more time?

When I was little, my Uncle Edgar made a time-machine.

Most people would make one so they could go back and see Stonehenge built and stop Dave from marrying that Nora or go forward and get the lottery numbers.

But Uncle Edgar didn’t.

His advert in the free paper said:

DO YOU HAVE ENOUGH TIME?
If not, call round to garage no 9
Willoughby Avenue
No charge. No catch.

Of course, aged five, I wasn’t interested. For me, there was far too much time. Holidays and Christmas and birthdays and getting to be a big girl were all taking an age to arrive.

In fact, I never would have remembered about the time-machine if I hadn’t found that box of newspapers in my parents’ attic today.

Uncle Edgar nearly made the front page. But unexpected heavy rain meant the headline was ‘April Showers Cause Car Chaos’ rather than ‘Local Man Makes Time Machine’, which was on page two. Things soon changed.

The first customer was a student. With just one week to write his dissertation, he was desperate. With help from Uncle Edgar, he managed three months’ work, several really good parties and a couple of brief romances in what was really just seven days.

Word spread. Young wives applied for more time to do housework (this was a long time ago you realise); couples applied for longer honeymoons; mothers asked for more time with their toddlers; people asked for time to sort out their incompetence before their bosses found out.

Uncle Edgar never asked a penny and everyone got exactly what they wanted. Yet it was all over in less than six months.

Reading the first article and seeing that long-forgotten face, I vaguely recall seeing him on some news programme in fuzzy black and white, in awe that someone I knew was on TV.

‘I thought people would want time to change things, to heal things…’ he kept saying

‘How do the requests seem to you, Mr Rudd?’ asked the interviewer.

‘Selfish,’ sighed Uncle Edgar, ‘just selfish.’

Flicking through the papers, I saw that the time-machine overtook politics, women’s lib, hippies and fox-hunting as the top reason for writing to the editor.

‘Sir, if I had paid any money, I would want it back. Something ought to be done about Mr Rudd. We have just returned from a week’s holiday in Spain. We saved up all year. Mr Rudd turned one week into two months. Now no-one is speaking to anyone else and I have an appointment with the divorce lawyer on Monday.’

‘Sir, an extra long honeymoon is a terrible thing. We ran out of things to say after six weeks and I’ve found out all his horrible habits. I wish I’d married the other bloke.’

‘Sir, I wanted to be with my children thirty-six waking hours a day. I am now going grey and I am only twenty-four. Don’t print my name. My husband always said they were little brats and I don’t want him to know I now realise he’s right.’

Only two letters stood out in praise.

‘Sir, having spent a weekend away from 3b which Mr Rudd had extended to a month, I now realise what objectionable little toe-rags they are. I have handed in my notice and am off to work in a country where children prize their education.’

‘Sir, I asked for extra time to improve my housewife skills. In the library looking for recipe books, I enrolled my husband on a cookery course while I learnt accountancy. We are both now much happier and about to open a hotel.’

But a final letter suggested sinister implications.

‘Sir, are Mr Rudd’s motives truly altruistic? Enemy agents are at this moment infiltrating our society with secret brain-washing machinery! How can we know that he is not central to this plot? All true Britons! For the sake of God, Queen and Country: boycott this fiendish device!’

Uncle Edgar closed down the garage in Willoughby Avenue.

I now live in a small town myself and know how scandals about nothing rumble round for what feels like forever and then blow over. In Uncle Edgar’s case, the indignation about the time-machine was overtaken when the local chip shop started offering curry sauce and ‘The Great Foreign Muck Food Poisoning’ debate began.

I realise as I wade through the yellowed newsprint, that I last saw the time-machine in 1976. Uncle Edgar used bits of it to make me a radio which he put in a 1950s vanity case. Being an unconfident teenager, I didn’t appreciate it. Already desperately uncool, I didn’t want to be seen with something so old fashioned it probably couldn’t pick up the ‘right’ station.

Putting the newspapers into a neat pile for recycling, I turn to the next set of things to sort. Deep in a battered cardboard box is the vanity case radio, covered in lovely cherry red leather. I am ashamed that I didn’t thank Uncle Edgar enough and that I was more interested in other people’s opinions than the work of art I possessed. Such is the regret of middle-age I suppose.

Clearing this attic is both sad and exhausting. I wish I could relish it more, that I didn’t have to go back to work tomorrow, that most of this stuff will go to landfill because I only have today to go through it all.

I run my hands over the case and opening it, turn those solid dials which speak of a less disposable era. My fingers find something out of kilter, a little bit of imperfection. Tucked down between the radio and its case is a tiny slip of paper.

It reads, ‘Dear Paula. Next to the left dial is a small button. One day, you’ll want more time. If so, just press the button while you tune in. Make the most of it. Love Uncle E.’

With a trembling finger, I press….

time machine2_edited-1

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

Goodbye

Ben holds one hand. Teddy holds the other. My feet are sore. Ben has a bag with some food and water. Maybe we can stop for some soon.

We had to leave everything else behind. It’s hard to wipe your eyes when a teddy’s holding your hand.

‘It’ll be a great big adventure,’ comforts Ben, ‘we can look after ourselves. I bet we’ll meet dragons and giants and aliens and everything.’

‘Will it be scary?’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll look after you.’

‘Will we never ever see home again?’

‘Never ever.’

‘Never ever?’

‘Well,’ says Ben, ‘not till dinner-time anyway.’

teddy

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 – check out the others