Christmas Eve – Journey Home

Edgar ground his shoulders into the train seat and scowled. 

There was insufficient leg-room and the arm-rest was at the wrong level, but he could have put up with that. It was the stifling heat of the carriage which really got to him. It was a complete waste of money. No wonder tickets were so expensive. They had been waiting on the cold platform in the rain for ages, so every single passenger was steaming and somehow smelt of old dog. Edgar wondered if compensation was due for the delay. It lifted his spirits to think so.

Across the aisle, a damp youth was dozing, his knees splayed, an irritating beat coming from his earphones and a slight dribble trickling through his stubble. He looked wet in more senses than one.

Edgar thought of his employee Bob. They had left the office together when the cleaner, another person without commitment, had threatened to resign if she had to work another evening beyond her contracted offices and on Christmas Eve too.

Last seen, Bob had been on the bus-stop, sodden. His cheap umbrella was being turned inside out by the wind and ripped from its spokes. Struggling with it, he had stared up into the rain, his mouth downturned and his eyes half-closed. He and Edgar had worked through lunch and now the shops were shut. Edgar had caught him making a call in office hours earlier: ‘yes, I promise, I won’t be late.’  Judging by the bus which was driving through puddles towards him, crammed to the point of bulging, the promise would be broken.

Well, it was nothing to do with Edgar. Just as he thought he might have space to stretch out his legs, a small boy and his mother appeared. There were only two seats left, one on either side of the aisle. If Edgar moved, they could sit together. On the other hand, he would then be next to the damp youth with thumping ear-phones. Edgar averted his eyes and stayed put. As the train pulled off, he felt someone prodding him and turned to find the small boy next to him, grinning and pushing some scribble under his nose.

‘Look at my train!’ said the boy.

Adjusting his glasses, Edgar glared first at the child and then at the paper. There was something like a wobbly rectangle with smiling faces on the side, several misshapen circles and clouds of what was presumably smoke billowing from a red shape which defied geometric description.

‘Do you like it?’ said the boy.

’Those wheels would cause a serious derailment and steam trains stopped running before I was your age except for special trips,’ said Edgar, turning to glare out at the sodden landscape beyond the smeared window. Something vibrated in the case he held clasped to his chest and he rummaged inside until he found a mobile phone. He stared at it in confusion.

The name Madeleine was displayed above a picture of a pretty young woman.

‘Swipe the green thing,’ said the boy, reaching over and doing it before Edgar could stop him.

‘Hello? Bob?’

Edgar remembered. When his plan to work late had been thwarted by the cleaner, Bob had rushed off without a backward glance and Edgar had swept everything left on the table into his case in disgust. It must have included Bob’s mobile.

The little boy’s mother leaned across to her son and said ‘are you all right darling? Do you want a cuddle?’

‘Who’s that Bob?’ said the phone. Then the battery died.

‘Train!’ said the boy, shoving a scribbled his drawing of shapes and billowing smoke back under Edgar’s nose.

‘I told you: trains don’t run on steam anymore,’ said Edgar and turning from the child, settled down to doze.

***

He awoke, startled to find the carriage very different. Two banks of seats faced each other with a corridor to the side. A different small boy was jiggling as his mother pulled down the window, letting in cold air and smuts.

Happy, weren’t you? Knew how to appreciate the small things in life.’ 

Edgar turned to find an old man next to him. Edgar looked closer at the child who wore a badly created sweater with a train on the front. He remembered his mother with her knitting needles, tongue stuck out, dropping stitches and tangling colours with more love than skill. He stared at the woman who had been more beautiful even than he remembered. His vision blurred.

When it cleared, the train was different. He and the old man sat at a table. Across it, a girl had her curly head on a boy’s shoulder, pointing at an article.

‘Just a year, Ed, travelling the world. Let’s do it!’

‘Not now,’ the boy replied, ‘I want to get money in the bank first. Buy a house. I’m not wasting time now.’

He hunched the girl’s head away.

All change,’ said the old man.

***

Edgar opened his eyes, feeling disturbed. He’d dreamed of his mother, who’d died when he was in his teens and of his one time girlfriend Jennie, last seen dwarfed by a backpack at Dover, heading out to have adventures alone.

The little boy and old steam train had gone. Now a young woman sat next to him. Across the aisle, a large man pointed at the young woman. Tears were running down her face and she bit her lip, looked at the suitcase in the rack above, then dialled on her mobile. The name Bob appeared and then cut out. Edgar looked closer at the woman and remembered the image of Madeleine on Bob’s phone. He started to speak.

Don’t bother,’ said the large man, ‘you’re not really on the same train.’

Edgar gawped. What could he mean? He turned to look out of the window but it was too dark to tell where he was. When he turned back, the young woman had been replaced by one in her fifties, who was looking at a website on a tablet. On her lap was a tatty, discoloured photograph of a young man hugging a curly haired girl. On the tablet’s screen was Edgar on his company website, scowling. The woman sighed. She turned the screen of her tablet off, tucked a stray curl behind her ears and the photograph into her bag, and muttered to herself, ‘don’t be silly.’

All change,’ said the large man.

***

Edgar woke. Now he’d had dreams within dreams. It was so disconcerting.

He hoped he hadn’t slept through his stop. Blinking, he looked out of the window and recognised nothing, because it was a blur.

The train was unlike anything he’d seen outside a science-fiction film. The passengers around him were arranged in rows watching holographic Christmas movies or making holographic video calls. A few, festooned with tinsel, were snoring. Next to Edgar was a person bundled in a cloak, face and hands invisible.

Nearby, an old lady sat, rearranging white curls. She was talking to a middle-aged man but the man wasn’t paying attention, he was too busy talking via a headset to a hologram of another man who was waving his arms.

The old lady was saying ‘I wanted to make up with him, but I can’t track him down. Do you know anyone who could help? I used to try every year, but never had the courage to do anything. I’d like to see him before it’s too late. If it’s not already too late…’

The middle-aged man ignored her, snapping at the hologram. ‘He left the company to me, not himself. I’m not responsible for his ashes…. we were not related. I really don’t care what you do with the them, Mr Murgatroyd. Goodbye.’

Edgar stared. ‘That’s Bob!’ He said. Gone was Bob’s cheerful face. It had been replaced with one like that in Edgar’s mirror: cold, empty. The bundled figure nodded.

‘But whose ashes is he talking about?’

The bundled figure moved and a skeletal hand pointed at the fading hologram. Mr Murgatroyd was holding an urn with the name…

‘Me?’ said Edgar.

All change!

***

Edgar woke with a jolt. The original small boy was beside him, lip wobbling, looking at his crumpled drawing.

Edgar took a breath, ‘I’m sorry, son, that all came out wrong, it’s a lovely picture. I went on a special train like that when I was your age. I remember it looking just the same.’

The child’s mother smiled. She nodded at the phone. ‘Is the battery flat? I’ve got an emergency charger here.’

After a few seconds, Edgar dialled Madeleine.

‘Bob left his phone behind. I’m his boss… yes, er, yes, I’m the one who makes him work late all the time… anyway, don’t dial off, he’s on his way. And tell him… he can have an extra few days off. And ..er.. his bonus is overdue. For the last … er… five years. Happy…er…Christmas.’

He handed back the charger. At the next stop, the mother and little boy left. The passengers started to thin out and Edgar started to stretch, looking forward to some leg room and then someone else sat next to him. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw that it was a woman his own age, taking a faded photograph out of a bag and opening a search-engine on her tablet. She tucked a stray curl behind her ear…

Edgar reached over and shielded the screen.

‘Stop searching Jennie,’ he said, ‘here I am. I’m sorry for everything. Happy Christmas.’

All change.

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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.

(Photograph taken in the Apple Market at Covent Garden, London.)

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The Quest: Book Release

If you fancy something different for a short Christmas read, have a look at The Quest.

A few years ago, I wrote a few hundred words about a distant and hidden kingdom where dragons lived alongside the humans who understood them. They were trying to keep the outside world at bay, fearful that their secrets and delicate relationship would be destroyed.

A year ago, I was asked to contribute to a collection of short stories on the theme of The Twelve Days of Christmas. I revisited the world I’d been creating and set my 10,000 word story in a parallel universe during their equivalent of the Victorian-era period.

The safe world of the dragon people has long since been breached and the industrial revolution has well and truly taken control of the dragons who can fuel the machines and engines of progress. But the people who understand the dragons are reviled and driven to hide their knowledge.

Against this background, two estranged sisters – one of whom has decided to conceal her identity and one of whom refuses to do so – have to work together in bitter midwinter to find their younger brother who has run away to the city. But they are thwarted by demands to solve a riddle which the mysterious Mr Beringer says is a key to fighting the anarchy which threatens the nation.

The Quest is the first in a series of four in which the Drethic family seek to prove their loyalty to their country and find the missing Queen.

Available as an ebook at 99p or 99c (US) and also in paperback at £2.99 – a different tale for midwinter.

The Quest ebook cover

 

An Invitation

Once upon a time there was a kind woman who lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses on the edges of a city.

Her garden was the prettiest in the row of gardens and the most welcoming. Every night, foxes came and knocked on the patio door for food. Sometimes they brought cubs. In summer they frolicked in the sun. In winter, the one with the limp tried to sneak inside. She fed them and talked to them, getting to know their characters and foibles.

The house was always warm and full of real treasures: books and photographs, souvenirs and memories. She was not old, but ailments meant the woman could no longer go out a great deal. When she had to, her town now seemed noisy and frustrating with detours and indifferent strangers misdirecting. But from her home, she could talk to the world on her computer and the world talked back. She was funny and thoughtful, offering wise or cheering words. It was impossible to feel sad when friends received her messages. She much loved, but sometimes the electronic messages were not enough. She yearned for someone to raise a glass with and have a good chin-wag. She longed for worlds without frustration and indifference.

One Christmas she sent out invitations for Christmas dinner, but no-one answered. She had checked the doormat, her phone, her computer every five minutes but no-one confirmed whether or not they’d be coming. 

After a while, on the ‘watched pot never boils’ principle, she went round the house, trying to look at it objectively. The decorations were bright and pretty, her home welcoming. The fridge and cupboards were bursting with food.

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

In her best coat and hat, the woman went to the community centre and looked at the bookclub ladies. They all seemed to be dressed the same and were talking over the top of each other. When she listened, they didn’t seem to be discussing a book but gossiping. The woman was not a gossip. She shook her head. 

Then she looked at the toddler group. This was a possibility – some of the mothers looked rather lost and the children were sweet – but then the woman realised all her ornaments were choking hazards and decided ‘maybe next year’ when she’d had a chance to change the decor. 

The next room held a club for pensioners. The woman was only in her middle years and nowhere near a pensioner. She was surprised to find that they were making more noise and having more fun than either the bookclub or toddlers. But then she noticed an old man sitting alone, hands on his walking stick, watching the others but not joining in. Their eyes met. His were bright and twinkling. There was still a little ginger in his neat beard. 

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman went over to speak with him. 

On Christmas Day, a taxi brought the old man round for dinner. The woman had a feast for eight in the oven but still had no idea whether anyone else would come. She poured two glasses of wine and expected the old man to settle down in an armchair but instead, leaning on his stick, he made his way through to the back of the house and into the garden. 

From his pocket the old man withdrew a small package wrapped in silver paper and handed it over.

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

Inside was a key made of glass. The woman held it up in the weak sunlight and it seemed to spark with fire. It was cleverly made to look like crystal or even opal. She stared at the old man in surprise.

‘It’s exactly what you want,’ said the man.

‘It’s very pretty,’ said the woman, wondering where she’d put it and how much dust it would gather. 

‘Really,’ persisted the old man, ‘it’s what you want. Care to join me in another world?’

She laughed, but looking at him again, she saw that his twinkling eyes were serious and his mouth held a secret smile. ‘What does it open?’ she asked to humour him.

‘Close your eyes and turn it,’ said the old man. 

The woman felt silly, standing there in the cold garden with her eyes closed, turning a glass key in the air. For a brief second she wondered if it was all a ploy and whether she’d been a fool and would discover her house burgled when she woke from being clubbed over the head with a walking stick, but then she felt warmth on her face and the sounds of the city replaced by birdsong. 

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow near a tree bursting with fruit. The man standing before her was not old, but in his prime, red-headed, sparkly eyed, holding the bridle of a golden unicorn. She herself was young too, her limbs supple and she was wearing a riding outfit in rainbow silks. Something soft nuzzled her face and when she turned, another unicorn, silver, stood at her side. 

‘But…’ started the woman.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the foxy man. ‘We’ll return when dinner is cooked and just before your guests arrive. The key will be yours for whenever you need it and who knows where it will take you next. But for here and now – let’s ride. Shall we walk them down to the river?’

‘Nothing so slow!’ said the woman. ‘Let’s gallop! And I have a feeling these creatures can do more than that. Let’s fly! And if we’re late and the guests really do come – they can serve up the meal themselves!’

 

RSVP

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.

Author Interview with Nick Perkins

Introduction

A tortured soul, who writes as a way of expressing things that cannot be said out loud.

QUESTIONS

How much of yourself is in your stories?

A few people have asked me this question over the years and I have never been quite sure how to answer it. The way I write it is impossible to keep myself out of my stories, because they basically all come from within me. I started to write because I found it hard to express how I was feeling. My characters are therefore a mouth piece to say and feel things that I am unable to express. Those who know me well see me running through my stories, those who do not know me hopefully see characters with real feelings and emotions, because they are, at source, mine.

Why did you pick your genre?

I don’t think I really have a genre. When I get asked what genre my stories are I say psychological science fiction romantic horror thriller, because in honesty I think they are all of these things or I may be wrong and they are none of them. I didn’t pick the genre, the stories just arrived, and in some cases different readers have gained different things from them, so I think I will let the reader decide what genre they are. 

If you could go anywhere (real or fictional) – where and why?

I would go back to a hospital room in early September 1994 and tell my dad all the things I could say now, that I couldn’t say then. I lost him on 09/09/94 and there is still a hole in my life because I couldn’t tell him how I felt. 

Who are your main characters in your book(s): can you tell us something about them?

Jack, one of two main characters in my first novel Fade, is a writer troubled by his past and trying to come to terms with the loss of his first wife. He has come back from looking over the edge of his personal abyss with the help of Alice. He loves her more than life itself, but is at the same time scared because she has come to know him more than anyone ever has.

Alice has struggled to find her place in the world. She has never felt like she fitted in, felt different but never knew why. She expresses herself through her photography, because it is the only way she knows how to express herself, until she meets Jack. In helping Jack unlock his emotions she unlocks her own, but it is only later that they both learn her true nature.

Domino is Jack and Alice’s daughter. A typical 14 year old when we meet her in Fader, an extraordinary 16 year old by the end of the trilogy in Faded. If I tell you much more it would ruin the surprise so you will have to read the books to find out more, but I will tell you she almost saves the world.

Will there be a sequel?

I think I may have given that away in my character descriptions. Fade and Fader were the first two parts of a trilogy. Faded will be the concluding part, but that is not the end of the story. A separate tale starts with Phase IV and is already drafted, and a fifth novel, hinted at in Fader, is already coalescing in my head. But those are for another day. 

BIOGRAPHY

I am Project Manager in the construction industry, currently working on one of the biggest construction projects in Europe. I write when I can, when work, family, and life, allow it. I started writing originally shortly after the death of my father, but the arrival of two daughters took away my free time. Now they are grown I use writing as a form of therapy against anxiety and depression.

To date I have written and self-published two novels, and two collections of short stories. The third novel will be published in 2019, with hopefully more to follow in the years to come.

Like many others in my position, I don’t often say I am a writer when people ask me what I do. It’s definitely a part time thing, and I don’t think it will ever mean I can retire and live off my writing. Writing is, however, something I do and I will continue to do as long as my brain continues to push out stories.

Let the words flow. 

LINKS

Facebook

https://www.facebook.com/nickperkinswriter

Twitter

https://twitter.com/earlofmarl

@earlofmarl

Amazon Author Page

UK Amazon Author Page

Amazon.Com Author Page

WHERE IS MY WRITING

My books are available as ebook or paperback via Amazon.

Also available at Smashwords, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and Ibooks.

 

Masked Mayhem

As a child I loved dressing up. Romantic ideas of being elegant and majestic were forever thwarted as anyone who has read the first story in The Advent Calendar will know but that didn’t stop me hoping. As a young adult, still intent on looking sophisticated or at least cute, I usually attended fancy dress parties dressed as a cat or Cleopatra (plenty of excess black eye make-up) and once as Little Miss Muffet (hence picture below). Since then, apart from a period in my career which required wearing a combination of eighteenth century and medieval clothes, the last time I dressed up was as Madonna in her Like Prayer era to go to a fund raising disco and no, I’m not sharing that picture.

So naturally, when Liz Hedgecock said ‘what about having some masquerade balls in book 4 of The Caster and Fleet Mysteries?’ I rubbed my hands in glee.

Speaking for myself, the closest to dressing up I’ve done since making that decision is wearing a new outfit to meet Liz and discuss editing but it was great fun deciding the themes for the balls and imagining the characters’ costumes.

But of course the book is not just about Connie and Katherine’s clothes and dancing skills. 

In the year that has passed since The Case of the Deceased Clerk, their lives have changed immensely and there’s a possibility that their days of solving mysteries together may be over. Connie is bucking the trend for women of her class and has become a hands-on mother – complicated as that is in 1893. Katherine, meanwhile is looking forward to finally having a home of her own and has been managing assignments alone for some months. A night out at a ball will simply be a break from routine, won’t it? 

Well of course not. 

Before they know it, Connie and Katherine are tangled up in secrets and scandal which threaten not only their reputations but their friendship. Only some determined investigations, baby notwithstanding, will uncover the truth. 

The Case of The Masquerade Mob is available now for pre-order on Amazon as an ebook. Paperback to follow.

 

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.

Books by Paula Harmon & Liz Hedgecock

Katherine and Connie are back on the case!

 

 

 

Dog’s Diary: a Day in the Life

7am.
Waking the Idiot was more fun than usual this morning. All the extra weight I’ve gained made a lot of difference when I jumped on her and then sat on her chest. Her face went an odd shade of grey. It was a shame to find that my tongue is now too fat to get in her ear to extract the wax, but it was fun finding out. For me.

7.15am.
The Idiot is mad. Did she really think I was going out in that rain just because she wanted me to? And on a lead. Per-lease. I’m sure there’s a pile of paper somewhere if I need to do anything private. I’m certainly not doing it with an audience.

7:30am
What was this stuff she expected me to eat? (It smelt quite nice, but I ignored it on principle. She should have shared her bacon sandwich.)

7.45am
BOOOOOOOORED. Need to recharge.

1pm.
Exhausted. My sleep was constantly interrupted by her waking me to ask if I wanted walkies. It’s still raining. I thought perhaps she was lonely and sat on her computer keyboard. I hope she washes her mouth out with soap after she called me all those names. 

4pm.
The Fool was chucked out first thing this morning but clearly didn’t know what to do. Could have sat under a bush, could have gone to ‘Mrs Cake’ three doors down and eaten treats, but noooo, don’t let’s use our brains, let’s just sit in the rain looking confused for hours. He looks like a dead rat. The Idiot finally realised and brought him in and is now trying to dry him with a towel. I never get that kind of treatment. Although there’d be trouble if she tried. 

5pm.
OK so I’m now a bit desperate and I can’t find any paper except for the pile next to her keyboard. I’ve tried sneaking up on top when she slopes off to make more tea, but all this extra weight meant I couldn’t heave myself up properly. Now there is paper all over the floor, the Idiot’s probably using more bad language, but it’s hard to tell because she’s crying too. I would hide under the sofa but I have a sneaky feeling my bum would stick out. I miss my old figure. The Fool is eating my food as well as his. Gutbucket. I want it now. It’s not fair. Just because I’ve ignored it all day doesn’t mean I didn’t want it eventually.

7pm.
Bored again. Need something to do.

7.05pm.
Well that was rubbish. She doesn’t usually mind when I rush round the furniture and up the curtains. Usually she films it and puts it online. She’s NEVER chucked me into the back garden in the rain. And I can’t get under a bush with this body. And now the curtains have been pulled off the wall I can see right into the sitting room and the Fool has finally got the hang of things and is curled up all smug on the Idiot’s lap. 

7.30pm.
The Idiot has relented and brought me indoors but if she thinks she’s getting me rolled up in towel, she’s got another think coming. I’ve got more important things to do. I hate being a dog and the Fool is rubbish at being a cat.
Where’s that spell book?
Time to reverse the body swap.

dog&book

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

Photograph a composite of two from Pixabay.

Splinters

My great uncle Reginald was killed less than two months before the end of the first world war. 

His father Frederick – my great-grandfather – was his mid seventies when my own father was born. Dad told me that he remembered Frederick sitting in his study turning over a piece of propeller, the only thing he had left of the young man who had died. 

I could never quite work this out because I couldn’t imagine how he’d have any part of an aeroplane shot down in Flanders. I knew my father must have been quite small when he saw it and wondered if it had all become muddled.

And then when my daughter had some homework about the First World War, I started doing some digging. 

I discovered that my great-uncle was not killed in Flanders. He was second lieutenant in No. 39 Squadron of the Royal Air Force defending London against zeppelins and day time bombing raids. He died in England when the plane in which he was navigator crashed on 25th September 1918. I don’t know yet what circumstances led to his death. He was just twenty-one, the second of four children. My grandmother was the youngest child. When he died, she would have been about nine or ten. The pilot of the plane was just nineteen. 

A few years ago, I took the opportunity to go to the Royal Air Force Museum in Hendon and looked at the kind of plane he’d have been flying in, a Bristol F.2 fighter. The plane was fundamentally wooden and the crew sat in leather slings. I can’t imagine wanting to go for a leisurely drive in it, let alone fly and engage in battle, and that’s nowadays when aeroplanes are a normal part of everyday life and not brand new, terrifyingly implausible technology.

My great-grandfather would have been around fifty-one and my great-grandmother forty-two when they lost their eldest son, younger than I am now. I can’t imagine the struggle they and their eldest daughter must have borne keeping a brave face for the youngest children. They were patriotic people, themselves born when the British Empire was at its height. They were sustained by their faiths. But they probably could not conceive in 1914 what the realities of that terrible war would be or what might happen and by 1918, must have been horrified. I’m sure they were proud of Reginald but I know that this was a loving family and any pride they must have forever jarred with grief and pain.

A hundred years ago today, the armistice came. How hard it must have been for that family, as for so many others, not to think that if it had only come six weeks, six months, four years earlier, they would not have an empty place at the table.

My parents’ families were more fortunate than many. My great-uncle was the only close relation who did not survive the two world wars. 

But another thought struck me today. I don’t know why, because it’s not based on much, but I have always imagined my father as a five year old boy, peeking round the door of my great-grandfather’s study, watching the old man fiddling with a piece of wood in a shaft of sunlight. I imagine Frederick’s kindly face sad with memories. I imagine that this man so full of stories and poetry, wordless in his grief. And then it occurred to me. When my father was five, it was 1943. What must Frederick have thought?

There he was, turning over a piece of propeller from the ‘War to end all Wars’. 

But all around, the Second World War raged and the London he knew and loved was devastated.

How much he must have hoped that this time, people would learn their lesson; that the futility of war would not be repeated and that his descendants would live in peace.

Bristol F2

 

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.

A Cigar Box

Memorial Page

No 39 Squadron

Bristol F2

 

A Magical Day in an Author’s Life

The Purple Pen

Hello everyone,

Today is a magical day in Paula Harmon’s life. Get ready to get immersed into her personal and writer’s life.

Here we go:

1. Can you please tells us about yourself?

I’m Paula Harmon. I live in the UK, south-west England in Dorset which is one of the loveliest places in the world: sea, ancient hill-forts, castles, beautiful countryside, pretty towns. I am married with two children aged 19 and 17. Although I have written stories for as long as I can remember, I only started to do it seriously from about 2015.

2. What was your favourite book from childhood?

I’m not sure I could pick one! My father read us the Narnia books and I so wanted to go there. In fact I still do really. I also loved the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, historical fiction by Henry Treece and Geoffrey Trease and fantasy works by…

View original post 2,174 more words

A Staircase

The old court building stands on a corner in Victorian elegance. Although relatively small for a civic building, from outside it is rather grand. Once, it must have been modern. No doubt, it was there were complaints in 1882 when it was built in the midst of the surrounding Georgian splendour. 

I started working there in 1989, an incomer with no connection – or so I thought – to the town or county. I was startled to discover many later that one of my great-grandfathers had been born maybe a hundred yards away and the office was probably being built just as he was setting out into the wide world beyond his little country town.

I met my husband in that office and worked there on and off for ten years.

On hot summer days, diagonal shafts of sun could just about reach through the railings on the pavement to slant into the staff-room in the front part of the basement. Little light could penetrate into the ground floor office where we actually worked. High filing cabinets ganged up in lumpy, grey, bureaucratic hostility to block the peeling cobwebbed frosted Victorian windows, and in a pre-clear-desk-policy, pre-digital era, on top of the cabinets was filing. There was filing everywhere: under desks, on shelves and piles of out-of-target work toppled from towers of files inside the walk-in safe. I swear we spent more time rifling through them looking for things and getting filthy in the process than actually working.

On wet winter days, the paper curled up in the photocopier.

There was a small door for staff at the side of the building and a grand set of double doors up a wide staircase at the front for the public and professionals. It took them into a tiled foyer from where they could go straight ahead to powder their noses or, if they had the means to open it, access the stationery cupboard. More normally, they would turn right to hassle us at the public counter or turn left and ascend a wide, sweeping staircase to the courtroom upstairs. 

Everything was solid and oaken. The Victorian office keys were heavy enough to kill someone with. 

Inside our filing cupboards there was a ledger going back to 1882. Other old ledgers were in the basement archives but this one was still in use, commencing in perfect elegant copper-plate and ending with my best efforts in biro and my colleague’s felt-tip scrawl.

The interior of the building was grubby and tired. The oak finishings were dusty and dented, the coloured floor tiles chipped and dull. The beige carpet in the office was unimproved by spilt tea and we sat on unergonomic chairs covered in flowered nylon.

Then there was the basement. 

We got there down a twisty narrow staircase near the staff entrance. It was so awkward that when it was your turn to make tea, you carried the mugs in a basin rather than on a tray because you were less likely to spill anything. The staff-room and kitchen had windows from which you could look up onto the pavement. There was a filing room across the corridor with windows onto a pointless sort of courtyard.

But the back part of the basement had no windows.

Another door off the corridor opened into a sort of cave in which the archived filing and ledgers dwelt. Public sector spending did not extend to adequate lighting for it. A couple of spider encrusted 40 watt bulbs cast circles of yellow gloom. Right at the back of the cave lurked a locked room in which the really, really confidential files were kept. That was even darker and danker. Fungi grew on ledgers in the corners. I have never smelled as bad as when three of us had to do a file audit in that room, breathing in goodness knows what spores and miasma.

The staff was divided about the basement. Half of us thought it was dark, horrible and damp. The other half thought it was dark, horrible, damp and haunted. Despite the fact that my husband is sensible and cynical and I write stories about the fairy who mangles my laundry, I was in the ‘don’t be silly’ camp and he in the ‘haunted’ camp. Some people refused point blank to go down for an old file unless someone went with them. One or two wouldn’t even go into the staff-room kitchen on their own. A story circulated that when it had been refitted, one of the workmen walked off site when he left it neat and tidy for five minutes one evening and came back in to find all the cupboard doors and drawers open. Even I, who didn’t think it was haunted, propped the door of that dark room open, telling myself it let in more light and I don’t think I ever went into the cupboard at the back alone, on the grounds that the main door might slam and lock me inside.

Although the basement had once been the home of a series of caretakers, as far as we know none of them had died there. It wasn’t the kind of court which had ever had cells. There were no old legends about it. So who was supposed to be haunting it, no-one knew. 

It just, in the words of Terry Pratchett, ‘boded’.

Eventually, long after my husband and I had moved elsewhere, the staff and the work were moved out to merge with another, more modern court. I have no idea what happened to the mouldy files from the lurking cupboard but hope if they weren’t burned, they were put in some kind of bio hazard facility. 

The beautiful if neglected old building lay empty. And then it was bought up, refurbished completely and turned into a restaurant. My husband and I went to a small reunion there a month ago with a few of our old colleagues. It was quite jaw-dropping. All the oak was polished and gleaming, the rooms were full of soft light, the tiles on the floors shone. The courtroom, which had been dull and cold, was glorious, almost golden. It was all beautiful.

We walked around pointing at things, to the bafflement of the other diners.

‘Wasn’t that where you used to sit?’ 

‘Did this room really have a fireplace in it?’ 

‘I hear the restaurant workers think the kitchen’s haunted.’

‘Honestly?’

‘Who knew the windows were that big?’ 

‘Shame it didn’t have a bar in it when we were here.’

‘Where was the counter/little interview room/safe?’ 

‘Have you seen the other staircase?’

‘What other staircase?’

‘The other staircase to the basement.’

It was true. In the foyer, where the public loos and stationary cupboard had once been, builders had uncovered a long forgotten staircase. It followed the curve of the one leading to the courtroom and descended into the basement – into the dark part of the basement. But it was no longer gloomy and creepy. Instead there were modern restrooms: clean, airy and stylish. There was no trace of that dimly remembered archive room whatsoever.

My husband and I took photos galore and reminisced with our friends over an excellent meal in Victorian opulence. The old building seemed to be saying ‘see what I look like when someone loves me?’

A few weeks later, he and I were still arguing over what the basement had looked like back when the two of us were working there. Eventually the other Sunday afternoon, we sketched it out on a piece of paper.

‘Here was the staff staircase.’

‘Yes.’

‘And this is where the staff loos were.’

‘Yes.’

‘And this was the staff-room and the kitchen bit was round here.’

‘Yes.’

‘And then there was a sort of side corridor that went to the filing room with the window.’

‘Was it like that? Wasn’t it like this?’

‘Not sure. Was it? Anyway, what about the other room? The haunted one.’

We drew and redrew and bickered for a bit and then when we thought it was just about right, tried to work out where the ‘new’ staircase came down and how the refurbished layout related to what had been there before. This discussion (argument) lasted quite a while. In the end, we both got our phones out to compare photographs.

Neither of us had any.

‘But that’s ridiculous,’ I said. ‘I’m sure I took some.’

‘So did I,’ said my husband.

We scrolled through and compared photos we’d taken of the staircase itself, the courtroom, our colleagues, paintings on the walls. But there were none of the basement. Not one.

So the question is, did we think we’d taken photos which we hadn’t, busy catching up with old friends or did the ghost of the basement wipe them from our phones?

And if so – what, after all this time, is he hiding?

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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.

Interview With Val Portelli

Welcome to the first interview with a fellow author. This will be an occasional series and today, I’m really happy to welcome Val Portelli.

Hi Val. 

Let’s find out a bit more about you.

Introduce yourself in no more than 20 words.
I am a young, ravishingly beautiful author who breeds unicorns. Whoops, I forgot you’ve met me. At least the unicorn bit is true.

What could you not live without?
Coffee, chocolate, unicorn sparkles, readers and Google for research.

How do you keep yourself motivated when your writing doesn’t flow?
Browse Facebook, whinge to friends, and threaten to kill off my characters until they learn to behave. Using Find for their name and hovering a finger over the delete button usually does the trick.

How much of yourself is in your stories?
I would have said not much, but people who know me disagree. Being an author involves putting your soul up for public view, which can be difficult for an introvert. Okay. You can stop having hysterics now, or I’ll have to run away and hide.

Why did you pick your genre?
In a way the genres picked me. I started off with romance, then realised fantasy was taking over and gradually extended my range to include mystery and murder. When I asked my late mother about my style, she thought for a moment, then responded ‘Quirky,’ which is probably the most accurate.

If you had to pick five pieces of music to sum you and/or your life up – what would they be and why?
Great question. When I think music, I think Elvis. My usual ‘Go-to’ music would be Rock and Roll to get me bouncing and put a smile on my face, but some more relative to my life would be –
Memories,’ for a wonderful man who died of cancer at a very young age.
‘Clean up your own backyard,’ for the people who love to throw stones before they look in the mirror.
Rainbow,’ for the freak accident which changed my whole life, but opened up an entirely new authorish one, which I love.
‘Walk a mile in my shoes, as a tribute to both people I know personally, and cyber friends from social media. Recently they’ve revealed manic lives with no time to think, mental breakdowns, struggles with cancer, existing daily with Fibromyalgia, homelessness and a myriad of other problems which are hidden behind a brave face. It makes me realise how unimportant my personal little inconveniences are in comparison.
‘Follow that Dream. This one is self-explanatory.
And finally, (yes, I know that’s six, but I came across this one when I was browsing and couldn’t resist,) ‘The Title will tell. 

Author Bio
A few years ago a freak accident left me hospitalised, housebound, gazing at the ceiling and going stir crazy after being accustomed to a hectic lifestyle.
Unable to pursue my 9-5 job, I resumed writing which I had always loved, but which had been on the back burner while I earned a normal living.

Where can we find out more about you and your writing?

Facebook: Voinks Writer Author Page
Website: https://Voinks.Wordpress.com
Goodreads: you can find me via this link or under Val Portelli.
 UK Readers click here for my amazon.co.uk book links
 US Readers click here for my Amazon.com book links

Weird and Peculiar Tales – co-written with Paula Harmon