In Two Minds

I was one of those weirdos at school who was good at both English and maths.

I craved both pretty things and books. I liked to be girly and have adventures. I loathed wearing trousers but despite always wearing a skirt, I could climb trees, could go exploring and when necessary, could slap a trouser-wearing bully in the face.

I’m still that girl really. My mind has two distinct paths of travel.

My day-job is project-based and I plan, process-map, analyse and present data etc etc in meticulous detail. But when it comes to writing….

I really do try. The plans for my first two novels (neither of which have seen the light of day) were intricate. But one is convoluted and illogical and the other is miles too long. The thought of all the editing required to make either of them readable is enough to make a statue weep.

I’ve since learnt a lot. I’ve accepted that creatively, I’m more of a panster than a detailed plotter. (That’s a writer flying by the seat of their pants. Perhaps I should I say I’m a skirtster.) I’ve stopped shoe-horning characters into a plot and instead let the characters decide what to do with the situation chucked at them.

So if they do something stupid, it’s not my fault, it’s because of the contradictions in their personality. Margaret while analytical and scientific, relaxes by sketching. She’s independent, capable and brave, but underneath afraid of letting people close enough to let her down. How rationally she behaves depends on which aspect of her personality is predominant at any given moment.

In the ‘novel in progress’ (set around 14 months after Murder Durnovaria), the main character Fabio (last seen in Murder Britannica) wants to be left alone to create music. To do that, he needs to tune out of what’s going on around him. But he’s also an excellent hunter for which of course, he needs to tune into what’s going on around him. At the point I’ve got to in writing, he’s got things the wrong way round and hasn’t noticed the pack of wolves watching his every move…

So depending on how they respond, Margaret might end up in even deeper trouble or equally she might gain something important. And Fabio might end up as a tasty meal  unless the wolves want something else and he needs to react emotionally rather than logically.

Meanwhile, I’m trying to balance opposing things like: writing about a bitter winter when for me, it’s midsummer, and describing busy taverns when pubs have been shut for over three months.

The bird in the picture below clearly thought being in two minds gave her options. In a pub garden last year, she risked getting close enough to snaffle a piece of ready-salted crisp to add to her nutritious beakful.

My analytical mind wonders whether crisps are a good accompaniment to earthworms.

My creative mind says ‘yuk’.

I know which I’m listening to this time.

junkfoodbird

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Bus-stop on a Rainy Day

The zip broke and Jake’s portfolio exploded just as some swine swerved to speed through the puddle near the bus queue.

Rain had already leaked through the gaps and soaked into the cheap seams. Muddy, grimy road-water just added an extra patination to his paintings. The handles slipped as he struggled to hold the portfolio closed and save his work. With rain pouring, no-one could realise that all the tears Jake had dammed up since the tutorial had finally burst their banks and were running down his face.

‘You kids think you know everything,’ said a damp old man ahead of him in the queue. ‘Anyone with half a brain would’ve brought an umbrella.’ He leaned forward, water dripping off a massive, ancient green contraption as he stared into the portfolio. ‘What’s that? Modern art? Bit of rain might improve it.’ He snorted at his own joke, shoulders heaving and more water dislodged in lumps, tipping onto the paintings and sketches. He looked beyond Jake to whoever was behind him. ‘And here’s another one. Umbrella’d spoil what you call your style would it? What are those badges you got pinned on? Save the rainforest? Save the monkeys? They should save you. Even monkeys have got the sense to hold leaves over their heads when it’s raining.’ 

Jake turned so see Cait from college. Cait, who’d glared at his exhibition as if wanting to set it alight with her eyes. He’d wanted to ask why his work annoyed her but as she stood scowling on the slick pavement with her arms akimbo, he knew she must feel like his tutor did. That his art was ‘Too nice. Too hopeful. Not despairing enough.’  Her glare encompassed him and the old man in disparagement of the male sex or possibly the entire human race, then she shoved her hands in her pockets.

Cait hunched in her jacket. The rain had long since soaked all the way through the cloth and she was aware of damp skin cooling. She was unable to suppress a shiver. Even the fortress of her boots had been breached when the motorist went through the puddle. She’d reached out to help with Jake’s portfolio, her hands mottled and blue, but the old man’s words stung. What you call your style…even monkeys have got sense… Why couldn’t people understand? There was so much to sort out – the mess former generations had left through arrogance, ignorance, selfish disregard for the world. The issues were a drowning flood. Cait lay half-awake most nights nearly engulfed by them, trying to dam and steer and navigate those tumbling waters. But she had to push off from the shore and do something, not just drink and eat and sleep her way through life in blind hedonism while the world disintegrated around her. She wanted to save it all – the clean air and the oceans and the animals and even the people who mocked her. She wished she could express what she felt – be kind, be gentle, embrace the sun and the rain and the moon and the sea and the being alive – but her thoughts just came out as furious nonsense. Not like Jake – his art summed up everything she thought. When she’d seen his exhibition she’d wanted to lose herself in his pictures: beauty, joy, hope. She’d wanted to tell him but the words just wouldn’t come. He’d just think her stupid.

Bill had turned to look up the road. He was cold, jealous of the young blood of the two kids who would dry out and forget the rain in no time. Bill was warmed only by thinking of Judith. He was like someone who’d lost a limb but could still feel it aching. Judith wasn’t there but he knew what she’d say, could sense the weight of her arm hooked through his.

But her voice in his mind was disappointed. That was unkind. 

‘Kids should make more of an effort,’ he whispered. ‘Like we used to. Nowadays they’re proud to wear secondhand clothes and have rat-tail hair. Not like you. You were never less than immaculate. Right …. up to the end.’ He swallowed. 

Go on with you, Judith giggled. Remember what the old folk said about our fashions when we were their age? And the girl cares about things. Just like we do.

‘It’s a waste of time. Nothing changes.’

We said we’d never give up hope.

They’d met in the rain on a nuclear disarmament march in 1958. Her umbrella had blown out of her hands as she struggled with a banner and a pet dog sheltering inside her jacket. Dead soft, was Judith. Fierce as a lioness but underneath…

Bill remembered a holiday in the 1960s. Walking along some promenade, they’d passed a hurdy-gurdy man with a dancing monkey, its puckered woebegone face sucking any joy from the tune. 

‘Poor little thing,’ Judith had said. ‘It’s cruel, that’s what it is.’ She’d cried a little and in the middle of the night, Bill agreed to buy the creature and keep it for a pet. But next day, the hurdy-gurdy man and monkey were not to be found.

Perhaps the angry girl was just another Judith. And when had it ever been more important to look right than to do right? 

Umbrella, Judith whispered. 

‘What?’

We always kept a spare folding one in the shopping bag. Give them the old one – you don’t need anything that big anymore.

Bill swallowed, then straightened his shoulders before turning.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Just lost my wife, but it’s no excuse.’ He held out the old battered umbrella he’d had since 1958 and nodded at the portfolio. ‘Take this – protect some of that art.’ Then he gave Cait a trembling smile. ‘Forget what I said. There’s always hope. This umbrella’s big enough for two. Perhaps you’ve got ideas to share. Someone’s got to save the world. It wasn’t me and Judith. But maybe it’ll be you.’

rainy bus stop

Words and art copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Fresh Fruit and Little Monkeys

When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo. 

It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.

Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.

Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.

So I took the job.

My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages. 

It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.

The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since. 

My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.

I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.

I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it. 

The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley. 

A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.

But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.

‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes.’

‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’ 

‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’

But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.

‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’ 

She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.  

A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.

In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.

Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?

Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.

I like to think so. 

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon and photograph ID 58034269 © Makar | Dreamstime.com. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

Between

I exist in the impossible land of the folksong, the acre between foam and strand.

Liminal space. Interstitial.

I’m waiting on the foggy threshold between two months ago and next week. A nowhere place.

They say one should seize each day, not worry about tomorrow or beyond tomorrow but I’m not good at these in-between times. I feel so healthy but know I’m not. The betrayal of my own body confuses me. How could I not have known there was something wrong? And now I have to wait to be put right.

Just like those days before childbirth, I pad awkwardly from project to project, unable to settle to things that normally calm me but instead doing thing I normally put off: cleaning, dusting, rearranging, hopeful, excited, fearful, disbelieving, confused and above all anxious to the point of nausea.

Fidgety, I excavate the strata of my jewellery box – the nearly oldest items are from my teens – some no longer fit, others no longer appeal. Older still are two rings that were once my grandmother’s. Each piece reminds me of moments, emotions, people. Each was once a loving gift or spontaneous purchase. Whyever do I have so many earrings? The light catches on tiny facets of colour. I shall clean these neglected sparkles and wear them again if only for the memories they recall. After this is all over, I shall give most of them away.

Cooking is the only other thing I can sometimes concentrate on.

I find a recipe for my husband’s birthday – a special dish but tricky. It has so many fiddly, unfamiliar steps but my mind stops whirring while under knife, then pestle, then spoon, rich colours merge and flavours blend.

As it slowly cooks, I put the spice jars away. Their shelf is full and chaotic, it had taken me a while to find what I’d required. I must sort that cupboard out – empty the old, out-of-date bottles then check to see what I need to replace.

A jar of paprika tumbles off the shelf as I rummage and the lid pops off. Powder red as dragon’s blood spills everywhere. How ridiculous that something so silly makes me want to cry. But I don’t. I rescue what I can and replace the lid firmly. Then I start my inventory, extracting every other bottle to check its age.

Whyever do we have so many jars of mustard seeds?

I tip the bottles and watch the seeds roll and tumble, trying to remember through the fog of anxiety what they traditionally represent. Is each orb a worry or a grain of faith?

I tip the out-of-date ones away. They trickle down a mountain of out-of-date spices. The chaos of reds and browns smell and look like expired magic. I decide that the discarded mustard represents seeds of worry.

I retain just one jar. But its contents represent tiny seeds of faith to help me cross the space between sea and shore.

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Of Rags and Richness

I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.

In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.

I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.

As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.

Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to  support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.

Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century.  She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.

Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)

Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.

Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.

I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.

Welsh costume

(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.