Maketh the Woman: The Agony of Dress Shopping

At the beginning of June, I am going to be one of the ‘bride’s helpers’ at my friend’s wedding. I’m a little old to be described as a bridesmaid and the bride thought we would prefer not to be referred to as a ‘matron’, even of ‘honour’. So ‘bride’s helper’ I am happy to be. Only I haven’t got a dress yet.

Mid July, my sixteen year old daughter is going to her prom. She hasn’t got a dress yet either.

We are both fussy, indecisive and vertically challenged. We also live in a small town with only one clothes shop. That’s not to say we haven’t got major towns within driving distance or the internet. We’ve just had other things to do than traumatise ourselves with clothes shopping.

My daughter would look good, frankly, wrapped in a duvet cover. I, on the other hand, can make a designer dress look as if it is a duvet cover with the duvet still inside. (NB my friend the bride, will now admonish me for being self-deprecating, but it’s true, honestly.)

We didn’t have proms back when I was sixteen. We had the fifth form Christmas disco (at which I found myself wearing the same outfit – long blue silky blouse with high collar and black pencil skirt – as my best friend). After O Levels, we had no kind of celebration whatsoever apart from taking off the old school tie and stuffing it in a drawer forever. After A Levels, we had a sort of impromptu party at which I decided to throw my natural sartorial inhibitions to the wind, got a perm and wore a bright pink dress with white polka dots and a ra-ra skirt. The next time I wore a fancy outfit was for our valedictory ball at college when I had a dark blue lace 1950s dress of my grandmother’s altered to fit, under which I wore an awful lot of corsetry.

Pretty much the last posh frock I had, I bought for my husband’s cousin’s wedding. I turned up at the venue and my aunt-in-law greeted me with ‘you look nicer in that dress than the other girl who’s wearing it’. ‘The other girl’ and I spent most of the rest of the day avoiding being anywhere near each other and I was glad that I’d bought the matching shoes, even though my feet were killing me. In my wardrobe is a nice dress I bought in a sale in the wrong (smaller) size in a bout of optimism about losing weight. ‘One day’ I tell myself, ‘one day, I’ll be able to get into it.’ At the rate I’m going, it’ll be back in fashion by the time I can.

So, yesterday, my daughter and I decided we’d finally brave the shops and buy a prom dress at the very least. We started with a small independent place seventeen miles away which sells wedding and prom clothes. Inside, there were four staff and no customers. One of the staff, for no apparent reason, was eating a ham salad at the sales desk. A very bored teenager (who I hope does not intend to go into sales, or if she does, gets a training course) wafted a hand at the prom dresses and ambled off. All of the dresses felt slightly sticky. It was hard not to imagine ham-salad-fingers arranging them. We made a polite but sharp exit.

Next stop the larger town a few miles further along the coast. In the first department store, we trawled two floors of ladies’ wear drawing a blank on anything that looked prom dressy. Eventually we tracked down an assistant.

‘Where is your bridesmaid and prom section please?’ I said.
‘Which one do you want?’ asked the assistant.
‘Either, both,’ I said, somewhat confused as they’re usually together.
‘For which one of you?’ asked the assistant glancing between me and my daughter.
I boggled a little, trying to imagine on what planet she thought I’d be going to a prom or indeed wearing a traditional bridesmaid’s outfit.
‘For my daughter,’ I answered.
‘Oh,’ said the assistant, ‘actually we don’t sell prom dresses or bridesmaid’s dresses. Try Debenhams.’

In the next department store, my daughter tried on a lovely etherial outfit in shell pink and grey,. She looked like Venus in an oyster shell and the style was lovely but they are not her colours. Then she tried on a dramatic skirt in black and white stripes. ‘I feel like a skunk,’ she said and she had a point. I had a surreptitious look round the non-bridesmaid/prom dresses for myself but mostly spent the time handing things in and out of the changing room and wondering how we ended up with two fewer hangers than we started.

In the third department store, Debenhams, we discovered there is no prom/bridesmaid dress section anymore. It’s in Southampton. In a last ditch attempt to show willing, my daughter picked out a possible alternative only to find it streaked with foundation and whiffing slightly of B.O.

By this time, any urge I had to seek out a dress for myself had gone. In any event, there are few things which can dent your self-confidence as badly as sharing a changing room with your teenage daughter who is at least four sizes smaller and hasn’t yet suffered the full force of gravity.

We gave up.

Today, we march forth again as it’s the last weekend we have free for a fortnight. My daughter is hoping the elusive dress (style and colour still undecided) will be somewhere in the emporia of Southampton. I am hoping the short, plump, middle-aged woman who tends to stand in front of me in changing room mirrors will have another engagement.

If we succeed, we can breathe a brief sigh of relief. Brief, because after we’ve found dresses, we have to buy shoes.

And that is a whole trauma in itself.

hangers

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

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

It doesn’t have to be “Never”

This is a post about the writing process and about perseverance. Or at least, my experience of them.

About seven years ago or thereabouts, I started a short story and then stopped after about three thousand words. It was one of many put aside because I couldn’t find the time to finish it and because the muse seemed to have upped sticks somewhere around the time I had my first baby in 1999 and she wasn’t around to tell me how to finish it.

I can’t even remember what the original inspiration was but it started as a sort of star-crossed romance as seen by the hero’s widowed sister. They have recently moved to a house in the middle of nowhere, because he has become chronically ill and she is the only one who knows what’s wrong. His illness means that he is incommunicado for twenty-four hours every month. It is during one of these periods that the sister is visited by both a sinister local busy-body who asks too many questions and by a complete (and very odd) stranger who says she’s in love with the brother but can only visit while he’s sick, which means they are never going to meet face to face and communicate again. You have probably gathered that the brother is a werewolf. I called it ‘Reverse’ for reasons which made sense at the time.

So that’s as far as I got. Along with most of my other writing, ‘Reverse’ just gathered pixel dust on the hard drive of the laptop.

In 2015, I stopped waiting until I had my perfect room and/or could give up work. I just started writing again. My muse must have been hanging out on social media, because she returned via Facebook and hasn’t left me alone since. Perhaps she didn’t like small children. She certainly doesn’t like housework as it’s pretty much a choice between it and her and so far, she’s winning. I wrote the majority of the stories for ‘Kindling’ and ‘The Advent Calendar’ in the summer and autumn of 2015 and somehow managed to complete a fifty thousand word first draft novel in November for Nanowrimo. I still don’t know how I managed it.

After getting ‘Kindling’ and ‘Advent Calendar’ ready for publishing in early 2016, I dusted off ‘Reverse’, wrote another thousand words, then put it back to one side again. Come October 2016, someone asked if I was going to do Nanowrimo again and towards the end the month I thought, ‘well I did it once, I can do it again’. I’d left it rather late, but I thought that I might as well finish ‘Reverse’ (which I thought would total twenty thousand words) and then start another project to make up the other thirty thousand words of the target.

I didn’t even get close. I started all right, but perhaps having recently begun a new role within my organisation didn’t help. By mid November I realised that (a) ‘Reverse’ was going to go beyond twenty thousand words whether I wanted it to or not and (b) I wasn’t going to even write that many by the end of the month.

I carried on through winter and early spring, writing bits and bobs when I could and when I realised that booking a week off to spend with my teenage children during their Easter holiday was pointless because they preferred sloping off with friends instead, I decided to spend the week writing instead.

To cut a long story short, I finally wrote the last of nearly one hundred thousand words at 4.50pm last Thursday. I actually shed tears. (Don’t ask me why, I’m not usually an emotional person.) My husband got home from work early to find me dewy eyed and more illogical than normal.

‘It’s finished!’ I said, ‘I feel all tearful.’

‘Why?’

‘No idea.’

‘I’ll pour you some wine.’

Despite or perhaps because of the fact that it had taken so much longer to write than I’d expected, I felt a greater sense of connection with the characters and a huge sense of loss when I’d finished than I had with the previous novel. When I finished ‘Reverse’, I felt bereavement or longing, what the Welsh call ‘hiraeth’, for a completely imaginary place and set of people which is only now starting to ebb.

My son and daughter are creative and sort of understand. My husband isn’t and thinks I’m marginally insane, but I couldn’t have done it without their support and encouragement.

For me and ‘Reverse’, I think I wasn’t in the right place (mentally) to finish it in 2010. There was a lot going on: the security of my job and my husband’s job was very uncertain, my father was very ill and I had yet to realise that I was never going to stop feeling frustrated until I started writing again. ‘Reverse’ was never supposed to be a classic werewolf story. The werewolfism was simply a means to create the inner tension and (odd as it may seem) some humour, since the story was supposed to be vaguely comic.

It started as a love story seen from the perspective of Rose, a protective third person watching from the shadows. Sometime in the last seven years, I’ve changed and so has she.

The story is now predominantly about Rose herself, about dealing with grief, about starting again, about siblings, about friendship, about rekindling dormant creativity, about ceasing to be the passive observer and choosing to control one’s own destiny, about hope and faith. The fact that her brother is a werewolf (and sometimes a bit of an idiot) is just one more thing to overcome. It’s hopefully not without humour and mystery, but I want it to convey about being caught between worlds, whether mental or metaphorical. Whether it’s any good or not, of course, is another matter.

‘Reverse’ is still in first draft and I am not sure when I’ll edit it or what it will be called. Three days after putting the final full-stop (am owning up now, I did a bit of tweaking on Friday), I am still half visualising (imaginary) Rose’s (imaginary) view from her (imaginary) house and wondering what she’s going to do today. But I have to put it to one side and let it brew. I still have November 2015’s nanowrimo to edit and that’s a completely different story in more ways than one.

Meeting a lot of local authors at a fair on Saturday was like therapy because I could tell them (even though they were all strangers) and every single one knew what I was talking about.
All of them struggle with juggling other commitments: children, work, caring responsibilities. All of them have had to put writing on hold at some point until one day, they had to pick up a pen or explode and found that the muse was waiting to whisper again.

So I’d just like to say to anyone out there who’s struggling to find the time or the energy to write or to follow any other dream for that matter: it can work out. It may not be today, but that doesn’t mean it will be never. In 2010, I thought I would never finish a story ever again, but I was wrong.

Don’t give up.

keep swimming

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

Ascension

 

I ascend
into the azure sky
resonant with rainbows
and vanishing clouds.
Flying high to reach
the trailing
fingers
of the loving sun.
I can rise,
rise beyond my dreams
with the power of wings,
feathered with awe.

Beyond the blue,
the multifaceted gemstones of the universe
sparkle and spin against
the indigo velvet of the enveloping night,
boundless unimaginable possibilities whirl
in neon galaxies.

Flying, I ascend
to reach
beyond
my dreams.

Ascent

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

Hope

April 1992.

And here we were driven past the empty presidential palace mocking in obscene opulence the high rise buildings where water only came on once or twice a day.

We went down avenues of Soviet era diplomatic mansions, their intricate gates strangled by over grown gardens, their walls a tired, old fashioned blue. We saw the bullet marked walls and lamp posts of the city streets and small queues outside shops selling luxuries: toothpaste, scented soap.

In the countryside: uneven roads, a well, two ladies in black, a bakery selling the best bread in the world for less than a penny. A scene for a photograph I was too ashamed to take. In the orphanage, children hesitated when we offered them toys. Were they theirs? Were they really? Could they keep them? Dumb for want of a common tongue, we taught them games we’d long stopped playing: skipping, catch. Swings were put up, a slide. Inside, tiny ones too sick to play, watched us, solemn, tired; or didn’t watch, looking inward, silent. While painted walls dried, we were given a tour of the orphanage grounds. The little boy, a character from Dickens, alight with cheekiness, chattered away regardless of our incomprehension and we chatted back, regardless of his. I smelt wood shavings, and looked into a shed, where in the sunlight, strips of pine curled and fell as the carpenter planed a small box. I smiled at the sight and smell until I realised he was making a coffin. So many children there, not orphans but abandoned. Some had HIV (then a death sentence) others’ parents could not afford to feed them. Later, in the sun, a little girl said “Mama?” and sat on my lap. She looked healthy enough, but you couldn’t tell.

Back in the city, an excursion into the night. The high rises glowered down onto shadowy streets. We were ushered into an informal inn straight off the pavement. Our small group half filled it, our women, the only women there. The local drinkers looked askance then shrugged. Glasses were filled and raised, hard-boiled eggs were passed round, songs were sung. Romanian songs, the melodies as foreign as the words, then Irish songs as the priest in our group stood to sing ballad and love song.

The night drew on. We started back to the flats at midnight and as we passed, the doors of the Orthodox church burst open.

The congregation bearing candles spilled down the steps in near silence until the priest on the threshold shouted “Christ is Risen!” and the congregation shouted “He is Risen Indeed!” and raised flickering light above the dark streets.

And when I went home, how could I glory in Easter chocolate and endure healthy children demanding the latest toys when I had shared the simplicity of a boiled egg and watched the astounded delight of an abandoned child cuddling a teddybear?

And what were chicks and bunnies compared to hope peppering the darkness with that exultant candlelight?

easter egg

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