Sisters, Sisters (chatting with the Demerays)

My own sister was born when I was three and a half. My delight wore off when I realised she was getting more attention than I was.

She had dark brown hair and big brown soulful eyes. I was mousy and sulky looking. She seemed good at making friends, I was rubbish at it. She, despite being a tomboy, was given pretty frilly clothes. I, despite being a romantic daydream, was given practical ones. Was I jealous of her? Yes. Were we close as children? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Whenever we shared a bedroom, I’d tell her or read her stories. When there was a thunderstorm, she’d climb into bed with me. When bullies picked on me, she’d offer to beat them up. Otherwise, except in the holidays, the gap was too large to cross for us to be close.

It wasn’t until we were twenty-two and nineteen, when she moved from the family home to start her first job, that we ended up sharing a house and became closer. We could argue without anyone going off in a sulk or feeling misunderstood – they were honest, open arguments which we worked through until we had a win-win resolution.

I think she’s dippy. She thinks I’m bossy. But it doesn’t matter.

I know we’re both extremely lucky in this regard. I know plenty of siblings who can’t say the same. But as for us, my sister is one of my very best friends. One day, we’ll go on a mad-old-lady road trip together. Although I’m not entirely sure which I trust least: her driving or her navigating…

All this got me thinking about two of my characters who are sisters. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die at the moment which will be called Death in the Last Reel. The main character, Margaret Demeray ‘started out’ (in a book sense), as the annoying younger sister of Katherine Demeray in The Case of the Black Tulips which I co-wrote with Liz Hedgecock. The gap between these two sisters is nearly nine years. By the time it’s 1911, they are very close but maybe it wasn’t always so. The following is a bit that didn’t make it past the editing for book 2 though it may get into book 3, where something Fox says reminds Margaret of a moment from her childhood:

***

When Margaret had been aged seven, the family went on holiday in the New Forest. Running off on her own, she’d found a perfect, climbable young oak, just waiting for her. She removed her shoes and stockings, knowing any damage to them might give her away afterwards, then climbed.

Thirty years later, she recalled the bark scraping her bare legs, the ache in her arms and the freedom of feeling hidden in the leaves with no one to tell her what to do. She saw Aunt Alice and Katherine hunt for her, their voices anxious and strained. ‘Meg! Meg! Where are you?’

It was Katherine who spotted the shoes and stockings at the bottom of the tree and peered up into the branches. ‘Come down this instant!’

‘No!’

‘Come down!’

‘Oh Kitty, you come up. It’s marvellous!’

But Katherine refused. She’d stood there hands on hips, with the all the dignity a sixteen year old can manage, looking snippy.

At the time, Margaret had been convinced that her big sister had wanted to climb the tree but was too boringly absorbed in being nearly grown-up to let herself try.

But now that Margaret thought back with an adult mind, Katherine’s remembered face was not so much angry as hurt and terrified.

***

So, thinking about this and because I’ve got a small request at the end, I thought I’d interview both Katherine and Margaret to see how they’re similar or different, and what they both remember of the incident in the New Forest.

It’s January 1911

What is your full name? Do you have a nickname (if so, who calls you this)?

Katherine: Katherine Mathilda King née Demeray. My immediate family call me Kitty sometimes. Not my husband though.

Margaret: Margaret – I’m not telling anyone till I have to – Demeray. Only my father, sister and aunt call me Meg. 

Where and when were you born?

Katherine: Fulham, 4th May 1865

Margaret: Fulham, 16th January 1874

Where do you live now, and with whom?

Katherine: In a house in Bayswater with my husband James, 16 year old son Ed and four domestic staff.

Margaret: In a flat in Bayswater with my cat Juniper.

What is your occupation?

Katherine: I’m a private investigator working with Connie Lamont.

Margaret: I’m a pathologist in St Julia’s Chest Hospital for the Poor.

How would you describe your childhood? How much schooling have you had?

Katherine: Our mother died when I was fifteen. Until then everything was very happy. But then our father took me out of school on the grounds that a middle-class girl didn’t need a formal education as she’d never need to work, she just needed to find a husband. He continued teaching me at home but it was very eclectic and patchy as he tended to go off for months on his travels. Aunt Alice took over as much of our nurture as she could. She was only in her early thirties and I now realise she set aside any matrimonial hopes to help raise us. I fear I gave her a hard time but I was heartbroken about losing Mother and bitter about leaving school. 

Margaret: I was six when Mother died and I barely remember her. Father, while good fun sometimes, always seemed very distant. As Katherine says, he was forever going off to do research for his books and when I was thirteen, he disappeared for years and we thought he was dead. I gave Aunt Alice a hard time too. She seemed so very determined we be ladylike and it was so very dull. I can’t thank Katherine enough for arguing the case for my staying on at a good school till I was eighteen, and when Father disappeared and the money started to run out, asking our uncle to pay the fees.

Did you ever climb trees as a little girl?

Katherine: no. But I remember Margaret doing it. It was less than a year after Mother had died and Father took us to the New Forest, then retreated into his room to write his books. We were all so miserable. And then one day, Margaret disappeared. She was only little. I thought someone had abducted her or she might be lying injured somewhere and we’d never find her again and that would be another person lost to me. It was one of the worst few hours of my life.

Margaret: I’d forgotten that completely until recently. I can only say that at the time I just too young to realise how anyone else might feel. I suppose I was partly running from all the grief that was dragging us down which I couldn’t understand or manage. All I can remember of that day is feeling free for a while – light – as if a weight had dropped. To be honest, it was one of the best few hours of my life. I’m really sorry.

Did you have any role models?

Katherine: I had people I didn’t want to be like. I didn’t want to be as diffident as Aunt Alice or as judgmental as Aunt Leah but… actually my role model was our lodger Mina Robson. Her life had gone a bit wrong, but she just picked herself up and did something rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She quietly gave me the courage to do the same when I decided to find a job against Aunt Alice’s wishes.

Margaret: I could name any number of famous female doctors, but the honest truth is that Katherine is my role model. If she hadn’t had the courage to get a job and then start working with Connie, I daresay I’d have settled for trying to find a rich husband rather than think a woman could do anything more interesting and then doing it.

When did you have your first kiss, and who with?

Katherine: proper kiss? It was with my husband James when I was 25.

Margaret: I’m not telling but I certainly didn’t wait till I was 25.

What is your greatest fear? 

Katherine: failing the people I love.

Margaret: losing the people I love.

What is your greatest extravagance?

Katherine: nice clothes. We went through a long time of having to alter old dresses and trying to change a skirt designed for a 1880s bustle to a simpler 1890s style was no mean feat. I don’t know what we’d have done without Aunt Alice.

Margaret: Yes. Nice clothes all the way. And hats. And handbags. And shoes.

Would you be able to kill? 

Katherine: No.

Margaret: to protect someone or stop an evil? Yes. I wouldn’t want to, but I think I could.

What three words would others probably use to describe you?

Katherine: determined, short and (unfortunately) carroty-haired

Margaret: principled, fiery and (if you ask Fox) impetuous

What smells do you associate with your childhood?

Both: Ada’s baking!

Katherine: no-one made cakes like she did.

Margaret: Even thinking of it now makes my mouth water. Come on Kitty, let’s find a tea-shop.

***

Now it’s your turn:

Questions sought! 

Liz Hedgecock and I would love to do a Q&A about the Caster & Fleet series. For this – we need some Qs of course.

We’d love to know from anyone who’s read the books whether you have any burning questions about the process, the plots, the spin-offs – serious, curious or plain silly. Please either comment below or email me at paula@paulaharmon.com. (In case you don’t know: we have six books in the original series which is set in 1890s London, featuring Katherine Demeray and Connie Swift, plus a Christmas novella. We got so involved in our books that we individually took two side-characters and decided to find out what happened to them in spin-off series. I just have one in the Margaret Demeray series (so far – hoping the second will be out later this year) set in the 1910s and Liz now has four in the Maisie Frobisher series set in the 1890s. All are available on Amazon.)

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon.

Photograph – https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photo-two-women-car-image52012634

All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Heart of Quartz

Last Monday I ‘attended’ the funeral of a lovely person who was younger than I am, who died from secondary breast cancer. She was always adamant that this shouldn’t be described as a battle nor her as brave, so I won’t. However, typing these words alone makes me fill up. She was a number of lovely things and among them was writer. She blogged and she was writing a novel. 

She didn’t finish.

All of us will eventually leave something unfinished and her daughter is a writer too and I hope, when she is able to, that she’ll complete the novel and get it published for the world. And really – of the things that matter – Edwina was complete and beloved: funny, faithful, honest and pragmatic; mother, daughter, friend, partner. 

Of course most of us worry we won’t complete all the things we want to, me included. The day-job and various responsibilities seem determined to stop me from getting any writing done, not to mention my own ability to procrastinate and side-track myself.

I had a day’s leave from work on Thursday, and a chance conversation led me on a whim to ask if I could borrow a room in an old building to do some writing away from my home with all its noise and responsibilities and drains to creativity. 

The building’s normally an alternative therapy centre, so I wrote in an upper room bathed in sunshine which was also glinting off candles and crystals and bright, colourful throws and pictures.

Since I was there, I’d decided to buy some crystals for my daughter. 

My friend who sells them told me to go with what called to me. My daughter had said she’d like a piece of quartz and among the pretty bracelets, I found the one in the blurry photograph below. 

It’s a funny sort of shape and looks a little chipped and the outside is not perfectly smooth, dull almost – but if you hold it up to the light, there appear to be smoky clouds inside. As you twist and turn it, you can see them curling in a seemingly infinite dance.

I thought of what message I was sending to my daughter if I bought it: here’s a gift which is clearly imperfect and looks a little battered on the outside. 

But that’s how I feel sometimes and know she does too.

And… inside this piece of quartz, those smoky clouds are like a curious inner world of magic and imagination to draw on. 

So I bought it, sent it to her and explained. 

‘I love it,’ she said.

Oh and just in case you’re wondering how the writing went, I managed to write the most words I’ve written in a day for ages: nearly 5,000. This is nothing to many authors, but it was good for me. It was exhausting. 

I don’t know if it was the sunshine or the crystals or just being away from home for a bit, but it felt good.

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Viewscapes

They say that eyes are the windows of the soul, but I’m not convinced.

If we could look into someone’s eyes and gauge exactly what sort of person was behind them, the world would be a much happier place. We’d immediately see the kind heart or the cruel one. We’d know whether it was wise to accept that drink, that lift, that date, that election promise, that viewpoint. 

Sadly however we can’t, and get caught up in trappings, attractiveness, eloquence and prejudice instead.

So what about windows themselves? Are they the eyes of a house?

When I told my German pen-friend (in English) that a house looked down on a river, she thought the idiom highly amusing. 

‘How can a house “look”?’ she said. ‘It’s not alive. It doesn’t have eyes.’

I hadn’t thought it a peculiar thing to say until that moment. But I mentally shrugged. It seemed fine by me. Almost every house I’ve ever been in seems to have a personality. 

Between birth and going to university at eighteen, I lived in six homes: one flat and five semi-detached houses. I don’t remember the flat, but I had a dream a few years ago in which I ‘knew’ I was there, lying in my pram ‘watching’ part of my little world – a dark hall and dark shrubbery in the garden. My mother says this is about right. 

I remember the next two two houses as being dark too. I’ve no idea why. They were both relatively new, built with typical big 1950s/60s windows. Maybe it was the Victorian and Edwardian inherited clutter and furniture inside that made them dark. I recall that my bedroom window in the second house/third home came down to the floor. After bedtime, unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get up to read by the light coming in from outside, whether the last of the summer sun or by the orange light of the street lamps.

I was about six and a half when we moved to the third house/fourth home. It was brand-new and had huge windows. The one from the sitting room was actually a patio door, but being at the back, faced a high hedge at the end of our very small garden. However beyond the hedge and visible from my bedroom window was a barley field. I would watch for hours when the barley was growing, watching it swirl and dance like the sea. In my mind’s eye, it has perpetually swished in golden-green waves ever since, but I’ve just checked, and like most of what were then meadows round a village, it’s now buried under houses and probably has been for many years.

We moved to South Wales about two years later and rented our fifth home/fourth house for a few months while the sale of one house and the purchase of another went through. 

The house we rented was also brand-new, half way up (in fact clinging to) a mountain, front-door nose to nose against a forest. There was nothing to see but trees out of those windows, but out of the back, we could see for miles towards other distant mountains, across our village and across the narrow-gauge single-track railway line and the river to another village where our next house would be. 

There was something like a twenty foot drop from the sitting room windows to the sloping back garden. A couple of years ago, the village featured on one of those ‘perfect home search’ programmes and lo and behold, in the background of one shot was that row of houses still clinging to the mountain, including ours. 

‘I’d forgotten that drop,’ I said to Mum.

‘It was dead handy,’ she replied. ‘Once I found some fillets of fish in the freezer which had frozen to each other, so I dropped them out of the kitchen window so they’d break apart when they hit the garden.’ 

(Is it only my mother would think this was a normal and logical thing to do?)

Neither that house nor the one before had personalities – they were perhaps too new. 

But the final family home we had more than made up for their lack of it. 

I pretty much loathed that house from the off, but had no choice of course but to endure it for the ten years till I went to university. I won’t go on about it now, although there are hints in The Cluttering Discombobulator which includes our first year there. But chaotic (and I swear sometimes downright malignant) as that house was, the one thing you couldn’t fault it on was windows. 

From the front, you could see up and down the long street. As a little girl, you could see when a friend was coming to play, or see the path to the woods and as a teenager, you could (as I did) sit for hours and look out at the rainy evening, waiting for headlights which might mean that the boy who’d broken your heart had changed his mind and was coming to visit after all. 

The sink where my sister and I did the washing up (arguing throughout the process every time) was at the side of the house in the kitchen extension (which makes it sound more glamorous than the freezing, leaking, draughty place which it actually was). You could see right down the road and once I watched a neighbour walk his beautiful Irish setter up the hill as he often did, only remembering when he disappeared out of sight that he’d recently died. The window above this extension was the bathroom window which I once climbed out of to put tar on the worst of the leaks aged nine (yes honestly) and had to break in through aged twelve when we got locked out.

But it was the back of the house which had the best views. 

I missed my English barley sea. Our bit of Wales had rougher, wetter, harsher countryside. And the scenery was wilder too but no less beautiful for that. 

From my bedroom, you could see clear down across a tussocky field to the trees lining the river edge, then up the slope to the other village and up to the mountain’s top. In autumn and winter, you could see the trains screech along the railway. 

The house had been built before central heating was normal and all but one of the fireplaces had been bricked up long before we arrived. When my parents eventually put radiators in they didn’t include the bedrooms (which was more normal in the UK at the time than you’d think). They were all therefore cold and in winter, there was occasionally ice on the inside of my window but I didn’t really mind, the bed was warm. My room faced west, so I’d often kneel up in bed at night and look out  to watch the late summer sun setting past the mountain, knowing that the sea was not so far beyond. 

And oh – when there was a thunderstorm! While rain hammered down on the roof above and sliced through the grey air, lightning seemed to set the mountain on fire, the village appearing and disappearing in violent flashes as I watched, mesmerised. 

I’ve never had a view like it in a home since. But maybe I haven’t needed one in the same way. 

Perhaps I needed that view then, because I always wanted to be somewhere else: because when I wasn’t yearning for the place I’d left until it became mythical, I wanted to travel to new worlds, into the west, into the storm, and as adolescence struck, looked forward to growing up and leaving my family home to create my own home.

These days, I’m content where I am and more or less with who I am. 

I’m still lucky enough to have good views from my house, but none to compare with a mountain. 

Often, if I look outside, it’s for writing inspiration or because now I’m doing the day job from home, the wildlife, the neighbours’ cats and the innumerable delivery vehicles are sometimes more interesting than what I’m supposed to be doing. 

So are windows the soul of the house? Or the soul of the person inside the house looking out? 

On reflection, I honestly think it’s a little bit of both.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.Illustration 215064943 © Galina Yureva | Dreamstime.com

Rude Words and Literature

We had a number of family words which were often completely baffling to outsiders. This was sometimes because of where we lived and sometimes because they’d been made up – usually by my father.

The most embarrassing of these was ‘tuppence’ which was the family euphemism for faeces. The word ‘poo’ was considered rude by my father (I have no idea why) and so he’d invented ‘tuppence’. There was a sort of logic to this. The common British euphemism for urinating was ‘to spend a penny’ (as that was once the coin used to enter a public toilet). Therefore it followed that to do anything more substantial should cost two-pence (or tuppence). I had no idea this wasn’t a normal vernacular term until I used the word at school to widespread and derisive bafflement. 

We called woodlice ‘polliwogs’ even though apparently it’s usually a word used for tadpoles. When we moved to Wales, we found them nick-named roly-polies or wood-pigs. (For a glimpse at the various regional names there are for this little creature click here – let me know if you recognise any or have alternatives.) 

We also used Scottish words which my mother had grown up with: ‘hoaching’ for full of people, ‘dreich’ for dreary, ’fankle’ for tangle (as in ‘you’re getting into a right fankle with that’), ‘I’ll take it to avizandum’ (meaning ‘I’ll think about it before making a decision’). I thought the latter was entirely made up until I discovered it’s the Scottish law equivalent of the English & Welsh law ‘reserved judgment’. 

Over the years spent in Wales we added Welsh expressions which I now use in England to general incomprehension: ‘dwt’ (rhyming with ‘foot’) means very small (‘she’s only a dwt’) and ‘twti’ (rhyming with ‘footie’) means to crouch down (‘I had to twti down to get it’), ‘tamping’ for furious, ’cwtch’ for cuddling. 

Sadly, at school there were few attempts to interest students in the hidden gems of any language: English, Welsh, anything. 

The older we got, the worse it got.The compulsory learning of some Chaucer, Shakespeare and Dickens ought to have given plenty of scope in words and phrases which would have delighted us as teenagers and added to our vocabulary of fruity insults.

But the classics were mostly taught as something proper, prim, respectable, dull. There was a distinct connection drawn between ‘literature’ and ‘posh’ which made us miss all the richness of language which is often very earthy, if not downright rude.

While the London vernacular in Dickens could be broadly understood at a distance of 150 years and 180 miles, 13th century Chaucer might as well have been another language. 

We were told The Miller’s Tale was completely off the curriculum but not why. None of us however, could face trying to work it out by getting past

Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale tooled,

In al the route was ther yong ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie

Besides, ‘noble storie’ made it sound nothing like a tale in which someone kisses someone else’s ‘ers’ thinking it’s their face.

As for Shakespeare, his works were taught in such a way as to bore a corpse. 

The teacher’s approach in O Level (14-16 year old) classes was to make us read aloud from The Merchant of Venice – not act, just read. He often picked the shy boy whose voice hadn’t broken properly to read the lead romantic role who’d then have to struggle through the most dialogue, to general sniggering by the less sensitive pupils in the class. I recall virtually nothing of the play except that. 

In the A level English class (16-18), we studied The Tempest and Macbeth. I loved Macbeth because I ‘got it’ immediately and to be fair, our rather prim, ‘old’ (she was probably about 45) teacher did a good job of bringing it to life.

She never quite grasped why the class sniggered at 

Enter a bleeding captain. 

Duncan: ‘What bloody man is that?’

But she waggled her eyebrows to see if we understood the discussion in Act 2 Scene 3 between MacDuff and the Porter about the effects of alcohol on one’s love life. 

Then she took us to join all the other sixth formers in our area to see Roman Polanski’s film version of Macbeth in the cinema, and missed something that an auditorium of seventeen and eighteen year olds didn’t.

It’s Act 5, Scene 1. 

After instigating murder, the guilt-ridden Lady M mutters to herself as she tries to scrub imaginary blood from her hands, observed by a doctor and a gentlewoman. Despite the fact that the play is set in a Scottish stone castle in the middle ages during truly dreich weather which would normally require at least three layers of clothes, for reasons best known to Roman Polanski, in the film Lady Macbeth is wandering around stark naked. 

Deeply concerned, the doctor turns to the gentlewoman and says: ‘What a sigh is there.’ 

What was heard by the entire auditorium of 17-18 year olds watching a nude actress cross the screen in front of them was ‘What a size they are’.

Every single sixth former fell about laughing. 

Naturally, on returning to school, the person our English teacher asked to explain why 200 young people guffawed at the most poignant moment in the film was me

Not only was I not brought up to say anything my father perceived to be rude, I was also brought up to think even a white lie was awful. But at that moment I caved in to self-preservation and the desire to retain my classmates’ respect and mumbled ‘Dunno Miss.’

I think that sums up what was wrong with the way I was taught Shakespeare in school. 

I have a very strong suspicion, that if he had been in that cinema, Shakespeare would have fallen about laughing too and subsequently written the sniggering teenagers and baffled teachers into a play.

And I doubt there’d have been a euphemism in sight.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photograph 73130714 © Björn Wylezich | Dreamstime.com