Travelling Companions and other Small Pests

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then there was the pram incident.

I should probably never ever tell a psychologist.

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

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

That was the plan.

It failed.

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

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

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

Oh dear.


Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Road

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

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

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

The sun sets, but I’ll drive on.

Day will follow night.

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

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

Travelling home.

the road

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission


Thin Spiral Notebook – 100 word challenge

The End of the Tunnel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You are a wonderful being.

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

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

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

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

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

Student Minds

Childline: exam stress help

How to help your child with exam stress

Radio One: exam help

University of St Andrews: exam help

Third Choice

It doesn’t have to be “Never”


Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Unedited Notes of a Disenchanted Wine Critic

Chateauneufdusprat is a cheeky little vintage crafted by Jemima Sidesaddle from the little known Three Trolleys Vineyard.

Jemima, having lost her inheritance (including country estate and vague prospects of marrying into the aristocracy) in a calamity involving schnapps and loose elastic, scraped together the savings in her post office account and bought a selection of sunny slopes along the River Ooze (not to be confused with the River Ouse). Over the last three years she has astounded everyone by growing a vineyard entirely from planting small cuttings “obtained” from other vineyards and spitting grape seeds at the fertile banks.

Using ground breaking technology to create barrels from old oil drums and water sourced from the river itself (running as it does through the characterful towns of Scragg and Dumpe), she has developed unique wines quite unlike anything you will taste anywhere else.

This for example is a sweet white. Its aroma bears the delicate whiff of the hooves of fine fillies whose stable needs cleaning out. Holding the glass to the sun, it appears to be filled with tiny sparkles of glitter floating in the golden fluid, so magical they move of their own accord as if they are alive. This is really a wine with legs! The flavour is reminiscent of retsina if you replaced resin with the tangy, unforgettable taste of envelope glue.

A sip of Chateauneufdusprat (RRP 75p) will take you back to fond memories of seaside washrooms and the dark corners of bus-stops and telephone boxes on Saturday night.

It is truly a magical tipple. After drinking half a bottle, you will never want to drink anything else ever again.




Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Maketh the Woman: The Agony of Dress Shopping

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We gave up.

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

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

And that is a whole trauma in itself.


Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission