When my daughter was born, we thought of calling her Sabrina. At the time, we lived in Gloucestershire, and I worked in a building that looked down onto the canal basin off the River Severn. Sabrina, in case you don’t know, was the name of the goddess of the Severn.
Well, among other reasons, at the end, we did wonder if she wanted to be linked (theoretically) to Sabrina the Teenage Witch and decided against the idea. But for the next four years, we continued to live in Gloucestershire and every day I crossed the Severn to go to work and on weekends, we regularly visited places like Upton-on-Severn and Worcester and kept thinking that one day we’d go back to Shrewsbury which is pretty much looped by the river.
I suppose the alternative was the Wye, which was just as close, but Sabrina sounded a bit more spellable/pronouncable as a girl’s name in England than Gwy.
I’ve always felt I had a strong connection with the river. I have a vague memory of being a child in a caravan which had been on tour to perhaps the Forest of Dean, which my parents had parked for the night in maybe Broadoak or Newnham, and waking to find that the river – during the Severn Bore had burst its banks and was at the bottom of the steps outside. (This was the sort of lack of planning my father was famed for.) And when I was a teenager, my parents hired some sort of riverboat for a holiday on the Severn which encompassed Tewkesbury and Ironbridge. We even took the cat (who spent most of the time hiding under the sink) and the hamster (who was unbothered by the cat because the cat was scared). As I was a teenager of course, the whole thing was mortifying. There I was with my parents and annoying little sister with almost zero chance of meeting an interesting boy (unless he was also lumbered with ‘ancient parents’ and operating a lock). My mother has a photo album which includes a photo of me looking rebellious and sulky while on bilge pump watch duty. (I still have no idea what I was supposed to be looking for and I’m married to a keen sailor).
But parents and embarrassment aside, I loved the river.
While we lived in Gloucestershire my boat-loving husband and I had vague ideas that one day we’d get some sort of canal boat but then we moved to Dorset where it’s seaworthy boat or canoe territory. The Severn only got a mention when a Gloucestershire saint, St Kynaburga, under her more modern name of Kimbrose after whom Kimrbose Road in Gloucester is named, became the name of a fictional hospital that one of my characters trained in.
Roll on rather more years than I want to think about and I’m planning a new series with Liz Hedgecock. We’ve visited a book barge in London. We’ve visited Worcester a couple of times. We’ve even stayed in an Airbnb which is a dutch barge. We have two characters in a contemporary mystery to create…
And there’s a river in my head. A major, navigable river, with lots of pretty towns on its banks.
And a few conversations later, I have a character: Fi Booker who’s ditched a corporate career to run a book barge on the river Wyvern….
I wonder what the inspiration was?
If you want to know more, here’s the blurb.
As soon as they meet, it’s murder.
When Jade Fitch opens a new-age shop in the picturesque market town of Hazeby-on-Wyvern, she’s hoping for a fresh start. Meanwhile, Fi Booker is trying to make a living from her floating bookshop as well as deal with her teenage son.
It’s just coincidence that they’re the only two people on the boat when local antiques dealer Freddy Stott drops dead while turning the pages of a book. Or is it?
After a grilling from the unfriendly neighbourhood policeman, Jade and Fi are left shaken. Can they prove they didn’t kill Freddy Stott? Was he even the intended victim? And can they trust each other?
Local gossip reveals a host of suspects, but with the police taking their time and hostility towards them growing in the town, Jade and Fi decide to investigate. Will that make things better, or much, much worse?
Murder for Beginners is the first book in the Booker and Fitch cozy mystery series, set in and around the English market town of Hazeby-on-Wyvern.
To buy or borrow (via Kindle Unlimited) Murder for Beginners on Amazon – click here.
I’ve just undertaken the annual calendar ritual. The old calendars are in the recycling and the new ones are ready for action. Though the concept of new year (and its date) is a human/cultural construct, there’s always the hope that like shedding a skin, as we say goodbye to the old and hello to the new, things might change.
Even if just now, the shadows of war, unrest, financial crises and political shenanigans persist, any reasonable person must hope that something lovely will be in the offing for everyone in 2023, or at the very least, something better.
As I’ve said before, I’m not terribly keen on looking back and beating myself up about things I haven’t achieved, or patting myself on the back about things I have. Nor am I keen on making pledges or resolutions. After thirty odd years of working in a target-driven environment – with aims, objectives, service level agreements, milestones and so on – I’m not desperately keen to tie myself down too much in the rest of my existence too.
But all the same, here are some of things that went as planned plus an unexpected bonus:
I went on a short break with my adult daughter to Barcelona, which was just lovely. We spent a few days walking miles, visiting Gaudi sites, eating lots of lovely food and otherwise just relaxing.
Two of my books became available as audiobooks and over the next year or so, I intend that others will be too.
And the bonus? Liz Hedgecock and I decided to start writing a new series – contemporary cosy/cozy murder mysteries set in the sort of English town where nothing ever happens (or does it?) The first is out later in January, and if you want to know more about the series look no further than The Booker & Fitch Series.
Things that were mixed blessings (and out of my control):
My team returned to working in the office in Croydon two days a week. In some ways was hard to adjust to after two years of home-working. After the quiet of my own space, it was odd to be in a noisy office again, especially as most of our meetings are still online (even with each other), so it’s often very noisy. But it’s great to see my colleagues in person again and go out with them after work. And the other plus side of commuting to and staying in the outskirts of London is that I’m able to visit Val Portelli, after a few years when it hasn’t been possible.
Later in the year, my team moved from the Croydon office back to the central London one, which was another shift again. This coincided with the death of the Queen, so I was able to go and see the floral tributes in Green Park, though I didn’t queue to view the coffin. We’re not a monarchist family, but even the children were moved that someone who has been there in the background all our lives has gone.
Both my children have now ‘moved out’ (though they do keep coming back). It’s lovely to see them be independent and start carving their own creative furrows, and it’s great to have a tidy(ish) house, but… yup I admit it, I miss them. Thank goodness for modern communication methods – family group chats and video calls.
My writing shed came into its own, even if I do have a tendency to want to fall asleep rather than write when I go in there as I’m so relaxed!
And then, here are my ‘failures’:
I planned to read a lot of specific books in 2022. I didn’t even get close. I read a lot of books. They just turned out to be different ones. Some were serious, some silly, mostly novels, a few non fiction. So I’m just moving that particular goalpost.
I planned to publish two books. As above, I published one, but due to some of the international politics of 2022, I decided to change some of the themes relating to a specific country, and also contracted a relatively mild bout of covid, so this took longer than expected. The other book is part written and I hope to get back to it in 2023.
I planned to take early retirement in September so I could concentrate on writing. The current cost-of-living situation meant this was adjusted to partial-retirement, so I’m still working part-time and yet to get into the routine I need. But I’m getting there.
I went to buy a calendar on the internet for the kitchen, large enough to write on and didn’t check the dimensions. Shame I don’t have a dolls house handy and some dolls who have pressing appointments to record….
Are these failures? I refuse to think so. (Except maybe the calendar.)
For me, family life, mental health, my friendships and marriage will always be more important than anything else.
The day-job even (or perhaps especially) now being part-time remains pressurised, and added into that are now the challenges of the commute.
(Of course, there’s the fact that I am very easily distracted and side-tracked, but we won’t talk about that.)
I’ve spend the last ten years in project work, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned is how to accept ‘slippage’: shifting goalposts and milestones with the mile number crossed out. Targets and milestones can be inspiring and motivating. They can be stressful, depressing. There’s nothing wrong with them in themselves. The important thing is to know when to move them.
So Happy New Year. And may 2023 for all of us involve more joy, more calm, more knowing when to move a target and more time to sit down and enjoy a treat or two.
Words copyright 2023 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
And then there was the year when Christmas went wrong.
In my part of the world and in my family, Christmas involves a house decorated with bright colours. It’s a time of secrets and excitement as presents are bought or made and then hidden; for the wider family to get together, exchange gifts, play boardgames, eat a lot of very rich food for twenty-four hours followed by leftovers for what feels like twenty-four days. For some of us it might include one or more church services, for others not. It’s a few days of switching off from the normal world, being a little self-indulgent, and having fun.
It’s nice and cosy.
I was lucky perhaps to get to my mid teens before I first experienced one where it wasn’t.
That Christmas my parents had decided we’d have Christmas Day at home in South Wales and not visit my paternal grandparents in Reading till Boxing Day. It was possibly because my grandfather, then aged about seventy-two, had been ill with a bad cold and didn’t want visitors or any of the fuss.
Early on Christmas Eve – a bitter cold day with biting rain – my parents, sister and I went to do last minute Christmas shopping. I watched my parents amble in the direction of the stationery section of Woolworths suspecting that they were going to buy me the calculator I’d asked for and fearing that they’d forget I wanted one with a square-root function to save checking my maths homework against a log table. (If you don’t know what log tables are, you don’t know what you’ve missed.)
Aged fourteen, the fact that I’d be disappointed if my parents forgot the square root function (which they did) was about the worst thing that I thought could happen in my Christmas world. Then we went home and just as we were settling down to watch TV, the telephone rang. It was my father’s cousin who’d been trying to get through all day, saying that my paternal grandfather had died. She was caring for my grandmother who was distraught at the loss of the man she’d adored for over fifty years.
Why we didn’t go to Reading then and there, I also don’t know. It’s possible my grandmother said not to, it’s possible that my father, who always struggled with knowing how to express emotion or comfort in the right way, was too distraught. I can’t recall. On Christmas Day we went through the motions I guess and ate a meal that tasted of grief. I can’t really recall that either.
We travelled to Reading the next day. Late afternoon, it started to snow heavily. My grandmother begged us to stay, my father refused. I’m sure he was simply overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t know how to deal with, but it was a downright stupid decision. He drove the hundred and forty two miles home in a blizzard, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (as she was inclined to). He could see virtually nothing. He drove along the motorway in the outside (‘fast’) lane using the central reservation barriers as a guide.
We were half-frozen, because a windscreen wiper kept getting stuck meaning that my mother had to keep winding down the window to give it a shove. On the radio was a play about someone contemplating jumping off a foggy cliff. My sister and I remember it as a sort of dreamlike nightmare of a journey which can never be a funny recollection because of the context.
When we finally did get to our village, Dad couldn’t drive up the steep hairpin bends to our house as they were clogged with snow. We had to go the back way which involved a narrow, twisty lane without much in the way of hedges or fences between us and a steep slope down to the river on one side. They were, in any event, invisible.
No amount of pretty decorations or colourful lights could make up for the misery of that Christmas.
The following Christmas wasn’t a great deal better. My grandmother seemed constantly half-asleep. She died two months later. Although the medical cause was stroke, we were always sure it was actually a broken heart.
Even after rather more years that I care to count, it chokes me up to write this. Several years passed before those shadows receded.
Illogical it is, people will often say ‘how much worse that XYZ happened at Christmas.’ There’s an expectation that everything at Christmastime should be happy and perfect and when it’s not that seems to be a travesty.
In the grand scheme of things, I know that losing a beloved elderly grandparent to natural causes is not a tragedy, it’s just sad. I haven’t had to endure the kind of horror that people had suffered in the last few weeks – losing loved ones in situations which should never happen. My heart goes out to the bereaved families of the children who were playing on ice, those crushed at a concert, victims of car accidents, violence and of course war. I’m not trying to make a comparison. But that particular Christmas was when I realised for myself that the realities of life do not pause for manmade red letter days.
And I know that there are other reasons apart from grief why Christmas can be hard going. It can be boring if you aren’t interested but everyone else is, and the whole commercial nonsense is constantly bombarding you. It can be lonely when everyone is in family groups and for whatever reason you’re not, or you don’t want to be or your family life is toxic.
I’ve been lucky with family, but even so I’ve had times when I’ve been sad or lonely; wondering how to make ends meet; wondering if I’d ever have a family of my own to start traditions with; worrying about whether someone would survive the sickness they were suffering.
This is not about my books (I’ll post about that another day). But when I wrote the short stories for The Advent Calendar seven years ago, I wanted to reflect the true experiences of Christmas, even in the less serious stories: the expectations versus the reality. In it there are nativity plays and carol singers and office parties, but also neglected lonely relations, homeless people, and refugees. Nothing, including the refugee situation, has really changed since (including, just to lighten the mood – the possibility of my sister dressing up in a tutu and embarrassing me in public). But I also wanted to reflect that stripping away the nonsense, the commerciality, the hype – there can be the tiniest flicker of hope that things can change.
This can be a hard time of year, it can be a lovely time of year, sometimes it can be a mixture of both. I hope that for you, it is what you want it to be and that you have what you need. But if for any who need support, or who want to give to organisations who help others – please see the links below (these are UK charities – but if you have equivalent links elsewhere please let me know and I’ll add them).
When we decorate the Christmas tree this year (some time this week), there will be something missing.
Several things in fact.
When my son started primary school aged four, there was a fundraising fair towards the end of the Christmas term, which included a stall selling decorations. I bought two for the children: each with a teddy-bear riding a rocking horse. One was behaving in a proper manner and the other was lying on its back being silly. I decided at that point that these would be the start of a collection for each of my children. The good teddy was for my daughter and the naughty teddy was for my son, because at the time this is precisely how both of them would have behaved when faced with a rocking horse or in fact in any situation you could think of. Nowadays however, I suspect my daughter would be standing in the saddle and my son (who has been sky-diving in his time) would be eyeing the rocking horse with deep suspicion.
Over the following eighteen years, we and the children’s grandparents added to the boxes. Every Christmas, the children would decide where their own decorations should go on the tree and put them there. The idea was that ultimately, when they had homes of their own, they’d have their own little box of decorations which would be a little bit of their ‘home-home’ that they’d be take with them to put on their own trees.
A couple of weeks ago, I handed my son’s box of decorations to him, because now – at last – he does have his own place. It felt like a bit of a watershed. The little boy who’d have caused havoc with a rocking horse, is now a young adult with a grown up job and the sort of tenancy that needs you to have a grown up job.
I’m not sure where the time has gone. Once – just over twenty-nine years ago – there was just me and my husband with an artificial Christmas tree that my in-laws had given us (it was then about ten years old) about to celebrate our first married Christmas.
I bought what were the latest tasteful 1990s decorations and spent ages placing them evenly, but my husband ‘wrecked’ the effect by adding some multi-coloured lights which clashed completely as I’d made the tree ‘too serious and sensible’. (This sort of summed our differences in personality at marriage which is to some extent which is why a good many people thought we’d never get past that first Christmas, let alone our first year.)
Then years passed and there were first three of us and then four of us, with the same old tree. Apart from a few rather expensive (for a mum of two small children working part-time) baubles I bought out of social embarrassment (long story), the decoration collection grew steadily more eclectic. When they were being randomly placed by little hands, all attempts at symmetry, co-ordination (and to some extent taste) went out of the window and never came back. By Christmas Eve everything would be done, and all four of us would be waiting for the grandparents to arrive.
This Christmas it’s all change again. There will be the same old tree (now nearly forty years of age and still going strong), but there will be just two of us decorating it, and this year, even the children and my son’s partner won’t arrive until Christmas Eve only an hour or so before the grandparents. It’s one of the oddest things to get our heads round: the children coming home almost as if they’re guests. (The novelty wears off quite quickly as they revert straight back into the nest in baby-bird mode – ‘Feed me! Feed me!’ while bickering and playing video games and leaving doors open despite the cost of heating.)
I didn’t think to take a photograph of my son’s box before I handed it over. The picture below is of my daughter’s. She has technically left home too, but she’s still living in her student digs with a lot of other people, so it’s not quite her own place yet and she’s not ready to take the box away with her.
Perhaps it’s time for me and my husband to start making our own little collection of special decorations to replace the ones that are in the children’s boxes.
But I don’t think I’ll waste time worrying if they’re tasteful or in vogue, or co-ordinate. I’ll just embrace the joyous, colourful silliness of Christmas decorating – that bit of brightness in the miserable dark of midwinter. There’s enough to be worrying about in life – I’ve long learned that trying to be sensible really isn’t one that’s worth the effort.
A hollow clatter made Margaret look round. Juniper was batting a red and white glass ball towards the wall. She snatched it away and held it in her palm. ‘Mother gave this to me to put on the Christmas tree. Katherine had a blue one. I’d forgotten. How lovely.’
Fox had fallen silent but Margaret wasn’t paying attention. The bauble brought a sudden, sharp image of her mother: the face of a woman younger than Margaret was now, with much redder hair dressed in curls and ringlets. As the image faded, other memories took over: scents of lavender and cinnamon, pine and candles; the swish of a silk dress and the crackle of a winter fire; pine needles pricking as Margaret was lifted in warm arms to hang the glass ball in a Christmas tree’s branches.
‘Perhaps you should deal with the rest,’ said Fox. His face was pale. A bundle of letters tied in pink ribbon had risen to the top. ‘Who are these from? Or don’t I want to know?’
Margaret took the letters. ‘Honestly, Fox, look at their age and the address.’ Pink dye stained the envelopes where it had touched them. The paper was yellowed, the address her sister Katherine’s. ‘These are twelve years old. They were from someone called Joel Gifford. He was a doctor.’
‘He died in Kimberley aged twenty-six.’
‘Oh,’ said Fox. ‘Kimberley, South Africa? Boer War?’
‘Yes. He was an army medic and he died during the siege.’ Margaret tried to picture Joel and failed. She had no photographs: just his letters and a memory of pleasant evenings in quiet restaurants. ‘We were friends.’
Margaret touched the letters. ‘Perhaps if he’d lived it might have become something more, but he didn’t. These aren’t love letters. They’re descriptions of South Africa, his cases, his opinions and his responses to my ideas and attempts to get a good job. I haven’t looked at them for years.’ She put them on the floor. ‘I should have burnt them when I married Owen, but I didn’t. I suppose I should have done it when I fell in love with you, but I’d forgotten them. I’ll do it now.’
‘Why?’ Fox reached for her hand. ‘I still have Cynthia’s letters. I haven’t read those since 1896, but she’s part of who I am. Do you want me to burn those?’
‘Of course not, Fox! She was your wife.’
Fox returned Joel’s letters to the box, tucking the mantilla over the top. ‘Memories of people we loved are things we should keep. It’s the bad memories we should burn.’
They sat in silence, staring at the box. A movement alerted Margaret to Juniper reaching for the bauble again. ‘Good grief,’ she said. ‘This is rather maudlin. It’s quite unlike us.’
‘I’ve been away too long.’ Fox pulled her into a hug and kissed her slowly. ‘We need to stop tidying and get reacquainted. Then we’ll be in a fit state to start arguing again.’
[The Treacherous Dead will be published as an ebook on 29th December 2022. The paperback will be out sooner. The decoration may not be relevant, but it’s just possible the rest is…]
Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
Several years ago, my then line manager sent me on an assertiveness course for female managers.
I’d recently just taken on a role which involved liaising with outside agencies. I actually very much enjoyed that part of the job but my need for assertiveness was/is perhaps in other areas. Moreover, I appreciated the intent, as the line manager who’d preceded her had told me I’d never get anywhere because I did everything by conciliation and collaboration.
(For the record, I was/am quite happy with being conciliatory and collaborative and, to cut a long story short, I proved that particular person wrong a long time ago.)
But anyway, going back to the assertiveness course.
I was nervous and sceptical. I’d be meeting women who worked in the same sort of field as me, though not the same organisation. Some of them had quite scary roles. I anticipated sitting in the corner unable to get a word in (yes it does happen) and coming across as a mousy wallflower.
But… I met a room full of women who like me, could put on a face of confidence, but for various reasons, didn’t feel confident. It was a week of discovering what made us who we were and learning how to counter the things blocking us.
The many exercises included visualisations.
I’m a little dubious about visualisation as a means to manifesting change, and the first one on the assertiveness course reinforced this:
‘Imagine you’re behind a closed door.’
‘You’re in your best dress.’
[Mentally panic as I try to decide what to wear in this imaginary scenario.]
‘Your prettiest party dress.’
Party? Hang on…
‘The door opens… and every single person you know is there…’
‘And they’re looking up at you, because YOU are the centre of attention. YOU are the belle of the ball. EVERYONE is waiting to see what you’ll say or do next!’
What? Yell ‘Lemme outta here’ while running off like Cinderella? That’s an absolute nightmare scenario.
You can see why I was wary when another visualisation was mooted towards the end of the course.
By this point we’d blue-sky-thought our way through what our personal work aims and objectives were and what we needed to achieve. But we’d also talked about where we got our energy from, what made us happy in our inner selves and touched on what we wanted to achieve outside work. It was at this point that I realised that what I was learning from the course, was not just about assertiveness. It was also that due to work and motherhood etc etc, I had completely neglected my creative side to the detriment of my own joy.
The visualisation started:
‘Imagine something achievable which has your stamp on it.’
I was supposed to be thinking of the successful conclusion of my project, but the first thing that popped into my head was not work related. It was I want a room of my own.
‘Imagine it as a colour,’ said the facilitator, ‘what would it be?’
Teal, I thought, or aqua and silver. It would be like being under the sea.
‘If it had a mood, what would it be?’
Dreamy, creative, calm.
‘What will you be doing?’
Writing, sewing, painting…
‘How will success make you feel?’
‘What’s the first step you need to take?’
Tell my husband that I want the cold, neglected front room redecorated just for me. That’s not expensive – just paint and wallpaper.
‘And the next?’
Move the old desk from upstairs in there. Move a lamp.
‘And the next?’
Save up for a little sofa, but that can wait. It’s doable. It really is doable.
Out of everything I learned on the course, that’s the one thing I never forgot.
My family is lucky to have two sitting rooms (created by splitting a bigger room in half). I claimed the front one. My husband, very doubtful about the colours (though he loved them afterwards), redecorated and we eventually purchased a sofa in the right shade of blue. For a while, it was my space, even if, at the time I did little actual creating in it.
Then almost immediately the children got older and sort of annexed it as a music room/games room. I learned over the next couple of years to do my writing anywhere and because the space was handy for teenagers to go and chill and get out of my hair, I didn’t really mind.
Things were looking hopeful for a reconquest when my daughter (the youngest child) went to university. Then courtesy of Covid 19, my graduate son returned to live with us and needed the front room as his own office/studio/sitting room. But finally, he’s moved into his own place, taking desks, game consoles, random bits of audio editing equipment etc away with him and my room is now mine again.
It’s a re-work in progress, but it’s nearly my calm, under the sea creative place once more and as I was starting the process of getting that room back in order this weekend, I was reminded of that course from all those years ago.
Did I come out of it more assertive? Probably not much. But possibly I came out more self aware, more able to recognise blockers and be brave enough to move them and more conscious that I had a right to be heard. And I definitely came out determined that I had a right to express my creative self.
I don’t really think that visualising something will necessarily make it come true, but I think it can help focus the mind. And the other thing that helps is to break the path to the goal into manageable chunks.
Or, as someone in a meeting I was at once said ‘You can do it. But just don’t try to eat the elephant in the room all at once.’
Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
My first recollection of stories on audio was listening to my father’s recordings of The Goon Show via reel-to-reel tape. Incomprehensible as the humour was to a three year old, it was hard not to enjoy songs called I’m Walking Backwards to Christmas and The Ying Tong Song.
Then there were records with a story combined with classical music: Peter and the Wolf and Carnival of the Animals, being the two I most remember. No matter how often I heard the first, the dramatic voice of the narrator never ceased to thrill me. Would Peter capture the wolf? Would his pet duck survive? In contrast, the beautiful soft narration in a French accent of Carnival of the Animals was relaxing. It created forever an understanding of the power of music and words combined (and a deep but unfulfilled longing to play the cello).
But the first audio books that were just for me were the Ponder and William stories by Barbara Softly, in which a little boy’s panda pyjama case comes alive to have adventure with him. These stories were not only on records, but on brightly coloured records – red and green I seem to recall. I would sit with my mother and listen to them over and over. ‘“Away sea! Away!” cried Ponder’ is the only thing I can remember (forever making me associate a panda pyjama case with King Canute).
After that, I could read to myself, but to help me, I had some of the Disney stories in little books with accompanying records. As I followed the words, I had to turn the page whenever Tinkerbell ‘tinkled her little bell’. I don’t remember anything similar for a while after that. I could read well and borrowed voraciously from the library, but there were (as far I can recall) no audiobooks available. The thought of listening to a story other than on the radio, sort of slipped my mind until…
The early 1990s:
Pre-children, my husband and I did a lot of touring/camping in France. We rarely reserved a pitch but found out of the way places via a Michelin camping guide published in French, decided whether we liked them on arrival and then established whether they had any ‘emplacements’ available (this mostly worked… however that’s another story).
The journey was around 820 mile from home in Gloucestershire via the ferry in Portsmouth down to the Perigord. To while away the long driving time, I borrowed audio books (in cassette form) from the library to listen to en route. There was one which I will forever associate with being slightly lost in a mountainous, forested region of central France.
After nearly thirty years, neither of us can now recall much (this is true of more than audiobooks). My husband was concentrating on negotiating ever narrowing roads in a car that had broken down twice by that point, and I was working out where we were on the map, comparing it with the campsite guide and practising my abysmal French for when we arrived and I had to book us in.
What we can recall is that the story was a thriller with a luscious sort of femme fatale as one of the villains and also, I think, a volcano which was threatening to erupt before the hero could save the day. We lost count of how many times this wicked woman’s sexy figure-hugging dresses, long legs, rich red lipstick and glossy red nails were described, not to mention her mesmerising green eyes and long, silky dark hair, but somehow she got us to the campsite safely, without anything or anyone blowing up.
A decade later, I borrowed children’s audio books in CD format for long journeys from our home (now in Dorset) to visit my children’s grandparents in Wales or my sister in the Midlands. They were either thrilling stories for my son (the Shapeshifter series by Ali Sparkes for example) – reminding me of how good and gripping children’s fiction can be or silly ones for my daughter (Diary of a Wimpy Kid for example) – reminding me of how simply funny children’s fiction can be.
Now of course, audiobooks are available on apps and I often listen on long journeys by train or plane.
For me at least, the process of listening to a story rather than reading a story is quite different. When reading, my eyes are concentrating on the words which convert into images. When listening, my eyes are free to look elsewhere.
So my perceptions of listening to a story include the surroundings as the tale. This goes back to childhood when my parents read to me. The Narnia books and Alice in Wonderland are inextricably connected to the big red chair that my father sat in while reading. Watership Down is associated with the vaguely orange glow of the interior of a 1970s touring caravan lit by gas mantles.
Nowadays, audio books listened to while travelling links to the sense of motion and adventure. The story still goes into my head, it just goes in differently. And somehow I never lose the thrill of the story or the comfort of being read to.
There are some that say listening to an audiobook is not the same as reading. I disagree. Your brain processes it differently (or at least mine does), but oral story telling existed for centuries before the written word. Without those ancestors who passed down tales and sagas and myths from generation to generation round a fire, no one would ever have thought about writing or printing them when written language came into being. And so many of the same old stories appear in cultures and communities all over the world. The Flood story for example, versions of Cinderella and Snow White. (If you don’t believe me, read Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales).
Audiobooks are a boon: for those with sight impairment; for those who want to listen while doing something else – a craft, sewing, cooking, ironing etc; for those whose personalities or abilities make it hard for them to concentrate on a looking at a page, but who can and often do listen better while doing something else (my son, who has ADHD, for example recently listened to Dune, knowing he would never get round to reading it but really wanting to know the novel as it was written before seeing the film).
A story at the end of the day is a story. The enjoyment of a good tale, whether told in a book, a song, a film, a play or just told by someone sitting and speaking is an integral part of the human experience.
So without rambling on any further, here’s my news in case you don’t know. I have been really keen to get my own books turned into audio books and I’m pleased to say that the process has started. The Wrong Sort To Die, is now in audio book form and available from Amazon, Audible and iTunes.
In case you’re wondering how the process works for an indie author, in brief, I created a document of extracts from the book and ‘auditioned’ those interested in being the narrator. It took some time to whittle down to the one I chose as there are, frankly, so many excellent narrators out there. I am delighted in the one I chose, Madeleine Brolly who narrates beautifully, managing the various accents and characters.
Once she’d completed her narration, I then had to ‘proof-listen’. It is very odd listening to your own words read back to you and odder when you’re listening while reading your own book at the same time. What pleased me was how caught up I got in it myself, even though I had written it. I am looking forward to working with Madeline on Death In The Last Reel soon.
For anyone who’s interested in hearing for yourself here are some links.
For audible in US, UK, France and Germany click on the relevant link below:
It’s apple season and also, after ten days of being banned from cooking due to having covid, time for me to do some cooking ‘archaeology’!
I have a project in hand, adapting the sort of recipes my characters might eat, into something that’s easy to cook in a modern kitchen with modern ingredients, and mindful of modern tastes (specially not boiling vegetables and pasta forever, and being less likely to want to eat brains). So yesterday, I made a Roman/Victorian dinner and the recipes are below.
For recipes which Lucretia in the Murder Britannica series might eat, I refer to Apicius’s Roman Cookery Book (my copy is translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum and published by Martino Publishing). My Latin is extremely rusty and the recipes themselves are more guidelines for someone who obviously knows what the normal methods are and another place I visit is the Tavola Mediterranea website where they have worked out ancient recipes from similar instruction and from which I’ve cooked some delicious food. It’s a fascinating website and well worth a visit.
For Margaret and Katherine of the Margaret Demeray and Caster & Fleet series, I use old cookery books, some facsimile, some original, with recipes that an ordinary woman of the late 19th/early 20th century might cook.
Of course their experiences would be quite different.
Lucretia is rich and thoroughly enjoys as much imported food she can get her hands on, but she hasn’t actually cooked anything herself since she was a very young girl, so would relegate any cooking to an enslaved person, or send an enslaved person to buy ready cooked delicacies from a street trader. A Roman era kitchen was small and full of earthenware. It might have looked like this. I imagined street stalls like the one in the image below (excavated in Pompeii) in the forum in Durnovaria, selling hot pastries, sizzling meat, hot spiced wine and cider in my books. Lucretia wouldn’t have had potatoes, tomatoes, sweet (bell) peppers, chillies etc – all of which we take for granted. But that’s not to say she didn’t like spicy food – there’s ample pepper and fragrant spices in most recipes. Modern tastes of course don’t particularly fancy seasoning food with fermented fish (garum) but you can use modern fish sauce (e.g. the sort for Thai cooking), soy sauce or just salt in its place.
Meanwhile Margaret and Katherine are both middle-class and while both have domestic help (Margaret’s only coming in a few days a week in books one and two), they can both cook – Margaret with significantly more enthusiasm than Katherine. They have kitchens that we’d recognise – with a gas stove and metal pans. A refrigerator is a luxury item, so certainly in the first two Margaret Demeray books, Margaret doesn’t have one, relying instead of a cool pantry and shopping more regularly for perishable goods. It’s perhaps no wonder that the cookery books of the time rely a lot on canned and dried goods like tomatoes and fruit, and are heavily egg and cheese based. Chicken, which we think of as cheap now, was a luxury in Edwardian times (and in fact my parents both considered it a special Sunday food until the 1960s), so recipes for meat dishes tend towards mutton and pork.
Margaret’s potential recipes look a lot more familiar than Lucretia’s and include curries and pasta dishes and vegetarian cuisine. But you can’t rely on them for timings – half an hour to cook spaghetti? (Was it a different construction then, or did Edwardians just not trust it?) And there’s advice which both agrees and conflicts modern ideas: cook potatoes with skin on but don’t cook vegetables too rapidly or you’ll spoil their colour.
So going back to yesterday’s Sunday dinner. I experimented on my family with an adaptation of a Roman recipe for main course and a Victorian recipe for dessert. One which Lucretia might have ordered someone make for her and one which even Katherine could cook herself. NB – the pork dish is a good use of leftovers from a pork roast! They were both delicious and went down a treat.
And without further ado, here are the recipes:
PORK WITH MATIAN GRANNY SMITH APPLES
Adapted from Minutal Matianum by Apicius as translated by Barbara Flower and Elisabeth Rosenbaum
500 g (1lb) cooked pork, chopped into large chunks ½ cup chicken stock
1½ tablespoons fish sauce* 2 large firm eating apples, peeled, cored and diced 3 teaspoons coarsely ground black pepper 3 teaspoons ground cumin 3 teaspoons ground coriander
Handful of fresh mint leaves 2 garlic cloves 1/3 – ½ cup white vinegar 2 tablespoons honey ¼ cup pomegranate molasses 1 teaspoon cracked pepper for garnish
*(I used the sort you use for Thai cooking but you could use soy sauce or just season with salt to taste.)
Saute pork mince till brown, add leeks and coriander.
Add chopped cooked pork.
Add stock and 1 tablespoon of fish sauce and warm through.
Add chopped apples.
Pound together in a pestle or blend: pepper, cumin, coriander, fresh mint, garlic and add this to the pan.
Mix vinegar, honey, pomegranate molasses and remainder of the fish sauce in a cup and add that.
Heat through and thicken with cornflour or beurre manié.
Serve with barley (Roman) or rice (borderline Roman) or potatoes (not Roman at all). I also served it with peas into which I’d mixed crispy bacon and spring onions (scallions).
(For a version which looks more like a hedgehog and includes another ingredient, check out Mrs Crocombe’s demonstration here.)
1 kg/ 2lb Cooking Apples (about 5)
75g, 3 oz sugar
2 egg whites.
Two handfuls of slices almonds
A few raisins or sultanas or currants
A glacé cherry
Preheat an oven to 180°C or 350°F or gas 4.
Peel, quarter and core the apples, put in a saucepan with a little water and 25 g/1oz sugar. Heat gently until just cooked (although if you overcook them a little, as I did, it’s not the end of the world. You just want them to retain some structure and not be mush).
Put into an ovenproof dish and shape into a sort of hedgehog (a large mound of apples, with a smaller bit at the front for a head.
While it’s cooling somewhat, whisk the egg whites into soft peaks, then fold in the remaining sugar.
Cover the apples with the meringue mixture and decorate the ‘body’ part with flaked almonds.
Put in the oven for about 20 minutes till the meringue is golden and the almonds just a little brown (keep an eye on it to make sure the almonds don’t burn).
Decorate the face with a glacé cherry for a nose and raisins/sultanas/currants for eyes.
Words and photographs* copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
When I was a teenager, in the days before mobile phones (or at least before anyone normal had one) and emails and social media, I started filling a postcard album.
To start with, I added postcards from schoolfriends, relations and my penfriend in Germany, who sent them from holidays taken in places as exotically distant from each other as the Isle of Wight to the Island of Zakynthos. Later, as a student, I added arty postcards bought from the likes of the shop called Athena (anyone remember Athena?).
And then, of course, I left university and left home and left the postcard album behind with my parents with the majority of the books I’d loved as a child and teenager.
Eventually, my parents downsized from a fair-sized three-bedroomed semi-detached house to a small two-bedroomed bungalow. Even Dad realised that taking everything would be like trying to pour a jeroboam of champagne into a sherry glass. He asked if I’d mind him getting rid of my old books and like a fool I said no. Somehow though, the long-forgotten postcard album survived and went off with my parents in a large box along with some photographs going back to at least 1910 where my grandmother sat with her sisters, resplendent in auburn ringlets and starched pinafores.
My father only got rid of a fraction of the stuff he needed to before they’d moved and originally shoved what he could into the attic of the little bungalow. When the loft was insulated however, there wasn’t room and the contents were scattered in true hoarder fashion around the place. Inexplicably, various things which didn’t matter were inside the bungalow, while some irreplaceable things were put in an outside shed. I have no idea why. But that’s where they went.
I didn’t realise this until 2013, my mother, now widowed, moved from the bungalow to an even smaller place near me and I had to go through the agonising process of reducing her belongings.
At some point in the time they’d lived in the bungalow, a hole formed in the roof of the shed. This is not something you want in South Wales, unless you want things to be rain-damaged.
The cine film my grandfather had taken of my father as a child (for example looking at planes on what was then a little airfield called Heathrow) and later films my father had taken of me and my sister as children, were destroyed by water. Maybe something could have been salvaged, but my mother had thrown them out before I knew anything about it. However there I was, on the last day before she had to move, trying to clear out what was left in the shed feeling despair. Among all the water-damaged things that should have been kept safe and dry, I found photographs that could not be salvaged and my old, forgotten postcard album with its pages all stuck together. They had to go.
Fast forward to 2018, by which time I’d forgotten the album if not the photographs, when I was researching for the Caster and Fleet series, in which Katherine Demeray is an 1890s Victorian typist.
Procrastinating, I looked at a lovely old desk I have and thought how nice it would look with an old typewriter on top, even if I’d be too feeble to actually use it. I did an online search and found exactly what I was looking for… only it was well outside my budget for impulse buys.
Well within my budget, however, was a sweet postcard with a female typist on it.
It felt serendipitous and inspiring, so I bought it and later asked a local writer friend Helen Baggott (author of ‘Posted in the Past’ and ‘Second Delivery’) who researches old postcards, if she had any tips. (To find out the fascinating stories Helen has unearthed and about her books, visit her blog here.) It might be hard, she told me, since the date was obscured and the recipient had been at a ‘care of’ address. So… I propped the postcard up on the bookshelf and decided it was a project for another day .
Fast forward once more to this year. I was trying to visualise the sort of postcard which might have been sent in 1912 to Katherine’s younger sister Margaret by her friend Maude during the third book in the series, so I did another search. A lovely postcard of an Edwardian woman with a horse tempted me, but coming from the US, with shipping trebling the overall cost, it was well outside my budget. Then I found something similar in the UK, originally posted to someone living in the next county to where I live now. This time, I decided not only would I purchase it, but discovering that you can still get postcard albums, I bought one of those too.
A few evenings later, I put the postcard of the typist with the missing year and the postcard of the horsewoman from 1910 into their new album. Then, I decided to do a little digging just to see whether I could glean anything about the recipients of the postcards at all. Since I subscribe to both an ancestry site and the British Newspaper Archives, I thought that between them, I might find something out. And I sort of did!
I anticipated that the one with the Edwardian horsewoman and clear postmark of 1910 might be easiest, but it has so far proved hard to get very far. From the 1901 and 1911 censuses, I could work out who the recipient was likely to have been, but I haven’t so far established what might have happened to her before or after it was sent. She was, I think, either Lilian or Florence Stone (the writing makes it hard to know if it’s an L or an F), one of two sisters then in their early twenties, but after that I drew a blank except for a possible date of death many many years later of someone with the same name.
But the one with the typist and obscured date has proved unexpectedly more serendipitous than I’d imagined it could do.
After some squinting at the writing to work out what both the recipient and the person she was staying with were called, followed by a lot of rooting in censuses, birth and marriage records of people with the unusual to me (but apparently not in Yorkshire) name Dungworth, I worked that the recipient of the postcard was likely to be a Dorothy Dungworth born in Yorkshire who, at whatever date the card was sent, was staying with her maternal aunt in Kent.
A little more rooting in the 1939 register, revealed someone with the right name and of the right age (then 40), living in Cardiff and registered as a journalist. Was it the same person? In the 1901 census, Dorothy’s father was recorded as a cycle maker (?). In 1911, her widowed mother was recorded as head of the household, earning her living as a stay maker. Could a girl from a humble background in Yorkshire really end up as a journalist in Cardiff?
This is where the British Newspaper Archives came into their own. It seemed as if Dorothy had started her writing career by having a fairy story printed in a Yorkshire paper while still in her teens during the First World War. Was this perhaps how she helped her widowed mother with the household finances? Perhaps she was already out of school and working for the paper.
Ultimately, it seemed she did indeed settle in South Wales and wrote for various papers from the late 1920s, throughout World War II and beyond, winning awards and writing about subjects from women’s and workers’ rights to archaeology.
That evening digging about in records was a good deal more fun than watching the TV or scrolling through social media. But it was exhausting. I haven’t managed to find time or energy to do any more digging since, but I will.
However, the really curious coincidence is this. In the second Margaret Demeray book Death in the Last Reel, which I wrote after buying the postcard, but before I even thought about finding out about it, one of the characters is a girl from a humble background who wants to be a writer and starts by having a fairy story printed in the local newspaper.
I don’t know why that particular character came into being (she came fully formed and remains very vivid to me), any more than I really know why any of my characters do. I don’t know why she wanted to be a writer (although it helped with the plot of course), and I certainly don’t know why it was a fairy story that she had published.
The postcard to Dorothy Dungworth was watching over me while I pondered, plotted and wrote that book. Did something of her, whose story I didn’t even know then, filter through some creative ether?
It seems unlikely of course, but I do know something – I intend to find out more about Dorothy. And one way or another, I think she’ll end up the inspiration for a new character.
I think she might even deserve a book of her own. What do you think?
(Oh and if you know anything about either Lilian/Florence Stone or Dorothy Dungworth – let me know!)
Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.
In March I was involved in a literary festival, both as an organiser and as a contributor. One of the things I did was to talk about suspense fiction with Helen Matthews and Katharine Johnson. At the end, we opened the floor to the audience. Here are some of the questions, and some of the answers I gave. Feel free to ask me more!
Why choose a woman as a main character in eras when women couldn’t do much? Wouldn’t a man’s life be more exciting?
Who says? Just because until fairly recently, history portrays women (if mentioned at all ) as weak, ineffectual, sentimental, irrational, puppets or playthings, the epitome of purity or full of evil intent, does that mean they really were? History may record queens who changed the destinies of whole countries for good or ill, but there were other women, whose names tend to be forgotten, who made strides in science and arts (see list below), many of these came from very humble beginnings. They climbed mountains and traversed deserts, unhindered by long skirts and corsets. They were private detectives, social reformers, physicians. Why don’t we hear about them from contemporary writers? Perhaps because the writers were mostly men. Maybe those men feared or reviled powerful women or perhaps just simply weren’t interested in writing adventures involving them. Weak? Ineffectual? Not a bit of it. I want to celebrate the sort of women who really existed – not especially important in the greater scheme of things but full of life, intelligence, spirit and determination – and give them something more exciting to do than wait for their menfolk to come home from an adventure.
Why did you decide to write about particular eras?
Partly there’s so much potential. By the late second century in Britain of the Murder Britannica series, the Britons in my books have a degree of political control, and are undoubtedly enjoying everything the Empire has to offer: new foods, easier trade routes, the chance for their sons to join the army and travel and come back with citizenship and wealth. The Empire isn’t as rotten as it will be, even if the Emperor is bonkers. And in Western Britain there’s a reasonable chance you can get away with a little more (and have some fun) if you keep your head down a little.
The late Victorian era of Caster and Fleet is one where women are starting to flex muscles of independence. Careers are starting to open up Nursing has become respectable. A university education (if not a degree) is possible. The bicycle has revolutionised the lives of anyone who can afford one and train travel is affordable for many, opening up the country to people whose ancestors had barely moved five miles for generations. So what does that mean for two young women who can maybe get away from chaperones long enough to investigate crime? Will they rise to the challenge or be held back by convention?
By the late Edwardian era of the Margaret Demeray series, things have moved on again, the old age pension, national insurance and paid holidays are being introduced. But the popular images of the times (often called the Golden Era), full of glamorous elegant clothes and bright parties and rapidly developing innovations like aeroplanes and cinema, contrast violently with a dark underbelly of misery and discord among the poor, the increasing militancy of the suffrage movement, discontent about immigration and working conditions, so there’s a lot to throw at a woman who’s neither rich nor poor, who knows rich people and works among poor people, who wants the vote and social reform but has to decide what price she’ll pay to get it.
Do you ever feel conflicted about what’s going on in an era you’re writing about?
Yes it’s difficult not to be anachronistic about things which sit uncomfortably.
Slavery. Slavery in Roman times was an economic normality – no one would have questioned it at all. It was not a matter of race, but of conquest and also occurred among many of the local peoples of the Empire whether the Romans were there or not. It was unfair and mostly cruel, and a slave was without any form of basic human rights. It was a different sort of slavery to the kind which we tend to think of now. If a slave was freed, there was no social barrier to getting on in life. It was quite possible (and happened) for the grandson of a freed slave to become Emperor regardless of ancestry. However it was still slavery.
The British Empire in the later books. The Caster & Fleet series is set at perhaps the Empire’s heyday, in the Margaret Demeray series, twenty years later, cracks are starting to show, but an average subject in Great Britain might not have noticed. British actions in the Boer War were internationally condemned though how much of this filtered down to the general public is uncertain. The Indian independence movement was gaining ground, and of course the Irish Question was still waiting for an answer. As a modern person, it’s impossible not to feel an abhorrence for the jingoism of the late 19th/early 20th century, lauding the glories of an Empire the wealth of which was built on the suffering of people from across its many nations and which treated native peoples as second or even third class citizens in their own countries. It’s also hard to stomach the way the British government played cat and mouse with the Irish people less than a hundred years after the potato famine had been so woefully handled and probably in living memory of some of the survivors. Margaret and her sister Katherine can see a lot of this for themselves, but it’s unlikely that they’d have viewed it with exactly the same disdain that I do nowadays.
Are your characters’ conflicts ones you recognise for yourself?
Lucretia’s aren’t. She’s stinking rich and I’m not sure she’d recognise an internal conflict unless it hit her on the head and robbed her of her money. She had one once, but she’s long buried it. Or maybe she had two… Tryssa perhaps – having to decide whether to tackle Lucretia and rake up old memories for the sake of the truth, and then having to decide whether or not to move away from the only home she’s known – I can relate to that.
Margaret’s situation is much more relatable. She’s a career woman who in the third book has also recently become a mother. Combining a job she wants to excel at with a family she loves and never quite feeling like she’s giving her best to either, is something I remember very well.
Which character is most like you?
As other authors will say, most of my characters contain aspects of myself. But in terms of who’s most like me, in personality Katherine probably is – she’s a coper whom everyone thinks is confidant but who actually isn’t and who wishes people noticed when she’s struggling. In terms of size, shape and looks, I’m like Lucretia – short, plump, middle-aged. On the other hand, Lucretia wears three inches of make-up and is completely self-deluded. Sometimes, I think it would be quite nice to be self-deluded! But I couldn’t be doing with the make-up.
If you’d been there, what questions would you have asked about my books?
A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb.
Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.
Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us.
‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’
In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven.
But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife.
So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.
And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.
Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.
On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.
That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life.
Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.
She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin.
Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking.
‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her.
May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.
I beckoned. ‘Of course.’
And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled.
I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed.
I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled.
I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.
But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.
Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.
The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.
At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled.
But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant.
It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.
‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’
The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.
I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later.
Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.
‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’
Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’
If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.
And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.
‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’
The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.
‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’
She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.
And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold.
For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring.
It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.
I lost everything.
A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.