Vigilance

‘There’s a deviant behind me,’ whispered Caitlin, ‘I thought they were all dead.’

She could hear it shuffling as if its feet in the broken shoes were bruised and blistered. But it was getting nearer nonetheless.

’The virus we put in the water supply killed the majority,’ Abbi answered, ‘but a few were immune. They’d die out in time, but we daren’t risk it.’

Caitlin picked up a stone. Turning to throw it, she saw that the deviant was barely alive: rags hanging from its haggard frame, a kind of pleading in its eyes as it reached for her. She dropped the stone and quickened her pace.

‘It looks so weak,’ she murmured to Abbi, ‘are you sure it can harm us? It’s starving to death. What can we do?’

‘Don’t worry. Daniel’s prepared.’

Caitlin squinted to where Abbi was pointing. On the roof opposite, a boy lay, sunshine glinting off his gunsight. A red spot briefly appeared on Caitlin’s shoulder then disappeared to her left. She moved to give Daniel a clear aim. There was a soft crack and then a thump.

Caitlin looked down on the emaciated corpse.

‘He looked nice,’ sighed Caitlin, ‘Like grandfathers in books. Whatever grandfathers were.’

‘Don’t believe their propaganda,’ snapped Abbi, ‘you know perfectly well the world is a better place now that it’s run by children who reproduce by cloning. There’s no place for teenagers and adults anymore. You know the rules.’

Caitlin was silent. She would be thirteen in two years time. She looked up at Daniel and shuddered.

vigilance

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

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

Father’s Day

I could not have asked for a better Dad; a less embarrassing one perhaps and maybe one who coughed up more pocket money. But love, acceptance, nurturing, support, guidance he had in abundance.

He didn’t believe in children contradicting their parents (even when the ‘children’ were in their forties) or in personal mental space and not much in personal physical space. This made him infuriating.

On the other hand, he had more than his fair share of hair-brained ideas and optimism. He also had much less grip on reality than he needed. This made him fun.

Here’s a true story to show you what I mean.

When my sister and I were teenagers, most of our friends had long slipped the leash and either holed up in their rooms with the radio-cassette-recorder OR if they had the bus fare, went to town. It was mostly the former, because friends were spread across several villages and the effort of getting to town wasn’t really worthwhile.

My sister and I were different. Dad felt that as long as we were still home and no matter how old we were, the family should spend all its free time together. This is probably why we both left home quite young.

Anyway, one day, I was about sixteen and my sister thirteen, Dad said we were all going to the beach.

I think it was summer, but you wouldn’t have known from the weather. It was cold and rainy. We looked at him askance.

‘And,’ he said, ‘which of you wants to do the filming?’

What did he mean? Had he resurrected the old cine camera? No. It turned out that he’d borrowed a trendy new camcorder from someone in the office. It weighed a ton but you could put a blank video tape in it and film. Then you could play it back through your TV. This was exciting. Half the people we knew didn’t even have VHS recorders to tape TV programmes, let alone the means to make their own videos. On the other hand…

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

At the time, Dad was, to us, ancient; that is, he was about forty-two. Nowadays I think that forty-two is a perfectly reasonable age to go surfing, but back then in our view, it was akin to a centenarian going base-jumping. He was also very overweight and not terribly fit.

‘But…’ said Mum.

‘I’m borrowing Dave’s wetsuit and surfboard and you can film me. It’ll be a great new hobby and when I’ve got the hang of it, we can all do it.’

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Nonsense, of course you do. Don’t be a wet blanket.’

On the beach, the rain had stopped but it was colder and the wind had got up.

We sat on the shingle in anoraks, drinking tea from a flask and wondering how long it took for pneumonia to kick in. My sister and I were given no option. While our friends were in the warm, nowhere near their parents and being trendy, we were sitting with Mum being blown to bits, watching our Dad be embarrassing. Even I, full of romantic hopes, knew the chances of looking attractive were nil. My long hair plastered my face in damp tangles and my make-up smudged. I had refused to exchange a summer skirt for jeans on the grounds of femininity. Now I feared that at any minute the goose pimples on my legs might start to ice over. If an attractive boy was about to enter my life, I hoped he wouldn’t pick today.

The rollers were worthy of Hawaii. But the weather wasn’t. And nor were Dad’s skills.

In the borrowed black wetsuit, Dad looked like an elderly orca failing to catch a youthful penguin. He appeared and disappeared in crashing waves. He got on the surf board, lay down, fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee and fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee, almost stood up and… fell off. And repeat. We took it in turns to film him, swapping when our fingers went blue and started to shake. Although given the weight of a 1980s camcorder, they were shaking anyway. We finished the tea. After a while, my sister, never one for weather of any description (hot, cold, wet, dry, even now she takes it as a personal affront) refused to film on the grounds of potential frostbite.

We really wanted Dad to succeed. At every attempt we leaned forward and tensed, the camerawoman holding the camera steady against the wind. Then he fell off again.

After what felt like about a year but was probably about two hours, Dad gave up.

He emerged from the changing area dressed normally and more buoyant than he had been in the water.

‘Did you get it all on film?’ he said.

‘Yes, but Dad,’ said my sister, ‘you never actually surfed.’

‘At least I tried,’ he said, ‘which is more than you did. You three look like MacBeth’s witches after they’ve been through a car wash. You might have left me some tea.’

He patted the camcorder.

‘Can’t wait to see the footage,’ he said, ‘but first, lunch! And I’ve been thinking…maybe we won’t take up surfing as a family. Maybe we’ll take up hang-gliding instead.’

That was Dad.

I didn’t escape this sort of thing till I got a boyfriend and even then Dad wanted to come to the cinema with us. Not, you understand, because he wanted to protect me from any improper advances, but because he thought we could all watch the film and chat about it afterwards. He was rather hurt when I said no. When my sister got to sixteen, she just quietly did her own thing regardless and he never seemed to notice. Younger sisters get away with everything.

(NB the photo below is NOT from that long lost video. These are hardy young surfers at Bournemouth in January. Dad didn’t look as svelte by a long way, but probably it’s how he visualised himself and good on him. Perhaps if we all spent less time worrying if we should or could, we’d have more fun finding out!)

SurfersWords 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

 

 

Looking Good?

I sometimes think vampires have it easy.

OK, so everyone fears and loathes them. But they always look good and never have to look in a mirror. In fact they can’t. Lucky vampires.

I tend not to look in mirrors after I’ve done my hair and make-up and checked the lumpiness factor of whatever I’m wearing (or should I say, whether my clothes disguise the lumpiness factor). After that, I do my best to avoid mirrors entirely until bed-time. That way I can preserve a mental image of myself looking neat and in control.

Of course, it can and does backfire. One year, at end of year review time, I took a train to meet my line manager. End of year reviews involve extolling one’s own virtues, justifying and analysing one’s actions etc. For an introvert, this is a fairly agonising process, but has to be done. After several years of it, I’ve got used to the drill. For a while I sat on the train reading what I’d prepared and then worked, editing some paperwork with a red pen. A young couple got on board and started looking round for seats. The train was busy and they were going to be separated. So I picked up my things and offered to move so they could sit together. Naturally, this altruistic move was accompanied by everything slipping. Rather than arising in one swift, sophisticated move, I got up in a tangle of bags, papers, coats and self. Without saying thank-you the young couple got down to canoodling while I concentrated on organising myself for the review.

At the office, I went to the loo and washed my hands etc in order to give my inner actress time to emerge for her annual performance. I purposely ignored the mirror because I didn’t want my confidence to be diminished by discovering that my hair was a mess, that I’d rubbed off half my eye make-up and that I looked podgy and vague. Imagining myself immaculate and confident, I then walked in to the room where my line manager was, primed to blow my own trumpet for ten minutes or so. ‘I have done a difficult job for several months and am finally moving forward. I am an efficient and conscientious employee. I am…’

‘Why have you drawn all over your face?’ said my line manager.

Turned out that while moving seats in the train, my red editing pen was pointing the wrong way and I had scribble all over my right cheek.

After that did I start looking in mirrors more often? No.

Is this because I’m convinced that I always look immaculate, confident and sophisticated? No.

I know what I look like really.

Do I wish I looked different? Well of course I do. I wish I looked younger, prettier, slimmer, less grey, taller. I see photographs of myself and sigh. I stand next to my lovely daughter in her trendy clothes and mourn for my long lost youthful figure.

But then I think to myself… even when I was young and slim and not grey, I still wished I looked different. The long long lost youthful figure was generally cluttered up with frumpy clothes (partly because of prevailing fashion and partly because of lack of confidence). My hair was tortured with perms (again partly because of prevailing fashion but also because I thought it was too straight). I worried about make-up. I despaired. I looked too young and too short. Bits of my figure were out of proportion. No-one noticed the tiny waist because of the full bust. No-one would ever find me attractive. I would never be successful because I didn’t look right.

Have you seen the meme that says ‘I wish I was as fat as I was when I thought I was fat’? That’s me.

But now…when I do look in the mirror and see fine lines etc I make myself remember that I loved my grandmothers’ soft faces. When I look at my hands, I see all the words they’ve written, the stitches they’ve sewn, the meals they’ve cooked. I look at my rounded stomach which (short of major surgery) will never be what it was and remember the children it carried under my heart.

And this is the thing. Most of us look in mirrors and despair because we are always looking for something that’s not there and was never there. We are looking for the perfect person we think we ought to be. Virtually none of us put as high an expectation on anyone else.

Last weekend I was bride’s helper at a wonderful wedding in the Highlands of Scotland. I have known the bride since university. The other bride’s helpers were her sister, her oldest childhood friend and a mutual university friend. I hadn’t seen the sister or the childhood friend for well over twenty years. They looked almost exactly as I remembered them. Not because they still looked twenty-ish but because they looked themselves. I wasn’t searching for the signs of age, I was scanning their faces for someone I’d once known. Talking to them, I found that like me, they were the same and yet different. We are grown up.

So I’m not going to start looking in mirrors more. I know that sometimes I’ll look tired or sad or bad-tempered but I can rise above it; sometimes (more often than not probably) my hair and make-up won’t be quite right but who will remember except me?

I’m an older woman who’s had two children. I will never look nineteen again. Why do I want to look nineteen? I don’t want to be nineteen.

I am happy to risk pen on my face if I can mostly maintain a mental image of myself as ‘looking OK’.

And as for vampires, well perhaps they’re missing out. Or maybe not. I’m still a little jealous.

looking good

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

Travelling Companions and other Small Pests

Dad always said that while a few months old, I chewed my way through a carry-cot when we travelled from Hendon to Scotland with an aunt.

This was of course, long before car safety-seats for children.

He said they placed me, safe in my carry-cot, next to the aunt. His implication was that when they arrived in Troon, I was rolling about on the back seat having eaten my way through a fair amount of synthetics, a metal frame and some bedding. He suggested that if we’ve travelled any further, I might have eaten the aunt as well.

I suspect he was exaggerating and I just chewed on a handle.

But it’s true to say that I wasn’t keen on constraint.

One of my earliest memories is about running out of the house to tell a neighbouring child I had a baby sister. Another time, I gave our dog the slip and sneaked away to look at some sheep on a hill, while Mum was nappy changing or something.

Shortly after that I went off my sister. The Young Wives came round and said she was gorgeous. As for me, I was fobbed off with a colouring book and told I looked just like my Dad. As he was rather plump, going bald and male, this was very upsetting.

And then there was the pram incident.

I should probably never ever tell a psychologist.

It was Mum’s fault really. I used to sit in a sort of chair on top of the pram. When we got to town, she did what all mothers of the time did and parked us up on the pavement while she went inside the shop. On this occasion, it was a chemist. In the window were three enormous glass bottles filled with bright coloured liquid. Deep at heart I always hoped that one day Mum would buy the blue one. She never did.

Mum was going to the chemist for rose-hip syrup and I thought maybe she’d get me one of those yummy hard fruit lollipops. But then I worried, what if she forgot? I needed to remind her. There wasn’t much time. I squirmed and wriggled and slid forwards in my seat so that I could drop to the pavement then run into the shop.

That was the plan.

It failed.

Mum came out and found me on the pavement with the pram tipped up. For a moment, she looked frantically round for the baby. Where had she gone? Had she been catapulted out? An aggrieved wail made her look under the blankets. My sister had slid down inside the covers and was making her views felt.

This may explain a lot about my sister and me. The pram incident is buried in her subconscious and she spent most of our childhood and adolescence trying to get revenge.

I sometimes worry that she may still be planning it. And we’re going on a road-trip in the Autumn.

Oh dear.

mwhah

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 Road

Is this the road to failure? Isn’t the light fading?

Nothing is clear. I want to flee the hurt, yet first I want apology, atonement, understanding. But there is silence. Have I failed?

Keep driving. Don’t slow down when tormenters whisper from alleyways. Find the lane lined with friends to help.

The sun sets, but I’ll drive on.

Day will follow night.

And the drag of the hurt will stretch and thin, from cable to rope to thread to hair to … snap… nothing.

I’ll drive on: curving with the road, healing from the jolts, bending with the camber.

Travelling home.

the road

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

 

Thin Spiral Notebook – 100 word challenge

The End of the Tunnel

Rites of passage: we’ve had a few recently. First, my younger child reached sixteen years of age. My older child is preparing for university. Last week, my naughty little sister reached a significant birthday (although she will always be nine years old to me). And today while my daughter and all English and Welsh students of her age start their GCSEs, my son and his English and Welsh peers start their A levels.

Exams. You either enjoy the frisson of them or you loathe them.

I recall the desks lined up with rigid precision in the gym. The windows were open to let in some air and perhaps dispel the underlying gym-smell of sweat and the overlying examinee-smell of fear. I remember dark green trees on the left side and the open expanse of the yard on the right as we laid out our weapons: pens, pencils, geometry sets, lucky objects etc. My over-dramatic friend performed for that day’s Oscar by pretending to pray to the heavens and cross herself (despite not being Catholic). My other friends just mouthed ‘good luck’. During the exam the slow silence was marked only by the slow tread of the invigilator walking up and down in time to passing seconds, tick tick tick. My pen exploded during one exam; my Geography teacher nearly wept when I told him I’d said the lake in question 2 was Erie when it was Michigan. That is the most excitement I recall. My O levels (GCSE equivalents) took place during two weeks in June. Once the exams were over, I was a free agent until September.

Before the exams, I revised. Well OK, I made a revision timetable. It was very pretty. I worked out mnemonics for history, one of which I can still recall, GRASP to remind me of Hitler’s rise to power. G(ermany) gaining political control thereof; R(e-arming) Germany without any of the signatories to the Treaty of Versailles noticing; A(ustria) gaining political control thereof; S(udetenland) annexation thereof; P(oland) invasion thereof. If the exam had only covered that I would have been fine. Unfortunately it covered the period 1870-1953. I did all this and then fell asleep. It was a good sleep but I did only get a C for History. To my astonishment I also got a C for Physics perhaps because I could remember formulae.

Still, that was then. Apart from work already finished for the exams (art and drama for example) my poor daughter and pals have exams stretching from today until the end of June, six weeks. She had been revising hard and I applaud the teachers who gave up holidays and weekends to help the students prepare.

My sister’s birthday party was on Saturday. Afterwards, my husband, daughter and I retreated to our hotel for the night to watch the end of the Eurovision Song Contest and digest the festive food and drink. My daughter asked if we could test her on history and belief & ethics. It was somewhat surreal to sit in a strange room watching a yodeller from Romania and listen to my daughter going through the definition of voluntary euthanasia and the causes and effects of the Vietnam war when I just wanted to doze off. Or perhaps I just ate too much cheese and am imagining it.

Exams feel like the end of an era and the start of a new one. In a way they are. They mark a point in time when you are tested about things you may never ever need to recall again and they tend to coincide with moments when you and your friends may take different paths. The results will make you rejoice, grimace or cry. You think they will define your whole future. In some ways they do of course. You may not get the results you need and will have to alter your plans. You may do better than you thought and change your mind about your future.

If you are sitting exams right now and you’re in despair, try to take a breath and give yourself a break.

You are a wonderful being.

You will never be defined by your grades, they will be part of who you are but not the whole. You may go down the path you planned and be happy but you could go down a different path and be happy. Sometimes the path you plan is not the right one and you won’t know until you step down another.

Speaking for myself, I didn’t get the grades I could have if I’d spent more time revising and less time making a revision timetable. I was disappointed in myself, but the world did not end. The adult me looks back and tells the teenage me to make different choices. I tell my teenage children to learn from my mistakes, but they’re teenagers and I’m an adult. What do I know? They have their own triumphs and mistakes to make. And despite my original disappointment, I’m happy with where I’ve ended up.

It is what I learnt after school and college: teamwork, humility, compromise, humour which have given me the ability to pick up the pieces, to accept things and move on regardless, even when the path planned had a diversion sign across it and I had to travel by a different way.

The best advice a teacher ever gave me was to focus on the point beyond the end of the exams. It will come and it will come sooner than you thought. And then you can step towards the next adventure and you can triumph because you are full of potential. No-one else can offer what you can.

I wish everyone well during the exams but if it all seems too much, here are some helplines which may assist.

Student Minds

Childline: exam stress help

How to help your child with exam stress

Radio One: exam help

University of St Andrews: exam help

Third Choice

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

tunnel_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