Bonfire Night

(An extract from The Cluttering Discombobulator)

1974 November – I remember

And then there was the time Dad threw a firework party. 

In those days and where we lived, Hallowe’en wasn’t much of a thing. If you wanted sweets pretty much for nothing, you waited till Christmas when you could go carol singing or, on 5th November, you made an effigy out of newspaper and old clothes and trailed round the houses demanding ‘a penny for the guy’. At the end of the day, the guy would be put on top of a bonfire and set alight. Any vague sensitivities I might have had about the facts behind the tradition (I was that kind of child) were put aside for the sake of hard cash. Such was quite possibly the reality about the real Guy Fawkes’s fate too. We preferred actual sweets but even a penny wasn’t to be sniffed at since you could still get a quarter of sherbet from the post-office shop for about 10p. Or maybe you couldn’t. It’s a long time ago. 

This was the year when Mum handed over with suspicious dexterity, Dad’s most disreputable jumper and trousers to dress the guy. We made the guy a head out of a paper bag and were disappointed that Mum wouldn’t hand over one of Dad’s hats. But Mum was wise. Dad would have spotted the hat whereas he couldn’t be sure about the clothes. 

The good thing about bonfire night is that it’s in November. By the time we were hoisting the guy onto the bonfire, it was dark. Dad, squinting at its attire with a slight frown, dismissed the thought that his own wife could be so duplicitous as to sacrifice his favourite tramp dressing-up outfit. Shaking the idea out of his head, he turned to plan the firework display.

The guests were, as far as I recall, Dad’s colleagues from the office. What they made of the ascent to our road, with its double hair-pin bend I’ve no idea. So, it was November and it was dark and spitting with rain. The bonfire blazed, consuming the guy in Dad’s oldest clothes. Jane and I wrote our names in the air with sparklers. 

We all stood around in the damp cold watching Dad and a friend light fireworks. 

Every time Dad lit the blue touch-paper, we tensed in case nothing happened. Then there was a soft fzz, a brief silence followed by a gentle sizzle and a few sparks which turned into a roar and cascade of colour: Roman candles, flares and fountains spat golds and reds and greens in every direction. 

Then the rockets, fired into the starless night, higher than the roofs, higher than the mountain, exploding above our heads and cascading in shreds of silver and gold, spiralling down and down and melting into nothing. 

‘Last but not least, the Catherine wheel!’ said Dad. He nailed it to a fence post and lit the paper.  But by now the spitting rain had passed through a bad tempered drizzle and was starting to drench into everyone’s clothes.  

‘Inside the garage!’ said Dad.

The garage was huge. There was room for two cars but it had never housed any or at least none of ours because there was no room. It was full of clutter – half of it was a heavy duty version of indoors without the books.

Dad nailed the Catherine Wheel to a random piece of wood and positioned it upright using the vice on his workbench. 

He relit the fuse.

Again, there was the fzz and the pause and then with the fury of a small dragon who’s trapped his tail in a revolving door, the Catherine Wheel started to spin and spit sparks. For a couple of minutes, it lit up the open mouthed faces of the watchers. It lit up the lawnmower and the garden tools and the plant pots and the empty jars. It lit up bicycles, roller skates, the discarded doll’s pram and Mum’s 1950s ice-skates and snow shoes. It lit up the lathe, a straw archery butt, some old packing cases with newspaper in, the half finished wooden-dolls-house, the half-finished doll’s cradle, the cat basket and the abandoned ant farm.

Then the garage filled with thick, black smoke.

Coughing and scrambling, the blinded guests helped each other outside into the early stages of a downpour.

‘It’s fine,’ called Dad, ‘it’s gone out now!’

‘The thing about Robert,’ choked out one of his colleagues, ‘he’s either mad or a genius.’

‘He might be both,’ coughed the other, ‘but either way, he’s unforgettable.’

This is an extract from my book ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator‘ an amalgam of things that really happened (including this) and things that might have in my father’s imagination.

https://www.dreamstime.com/royalty-free-stock-photo-fireworks-november-th-guy-fawkes-night-celebration-party-display-festival-image39505685

What I Did On My Holidays

Ah – the writing topic for the start of the Autumn term. Did it fill you with dread?

There were the children who’d gone something amazing (like go to Disneyland), children like us who’d gone to stay with relations or had a camping holiday and the children who’d been unable to go away at all.

I never went to Disneyland, but looking back, I know I was very fortunate. My summer holidays generally included me and my sister taking the bus into town alone (sometimes with my sister’s imaginary dog) to visit the library, and with our parents visiting relations in Berkshire or Scotland (this involved several car breakdowns as my father had poor car purchasing skills but could mend most things with duct tape) and one short (and usually disastrous) camping holiday. Mostly however, as for many children of my generation, it consisted of being thrown out of the house after breakfast to entertain ourselves all day until it went dark or it was tea-time, whichever came earlier. We lived in the countryside with woods and rivers at our disposal. We had bicycles and roller skates and there weren’t many cars in our village and there were a lot of stay at home mums, including mine, fewer than 20 children aged 5-12 and a few grumpy, sneering teenagers. I suspect it might have been a different for me and my sister if we’d lived in a city, but we didn’t.

I still have a slightly confused nasal memory which comes back every summer – the combination of woodland, burning bracken, hot earth and Dettol. I often messed about alone along the river or climbed about the old quarry or in the old ‘caves’, acted out dramas with my equally creative and out-of-the-loop friend or joined in with the other kids playing Cowboys and Indians, I was generally scratched to smithereens by brambles, rocks and tree bark by the end of the day, so my mother always had a hot bath, generously topped up with Dettol waiting to ward off any infection ready for my return. The burning bracken smell is because the naughtier boys used to set fire to it every year when it got dry, regardless of the proximity of houses. I guess it must have rained (this was South Wales after all), but I genuinely don’t recall a wet summer till I was a teenager and miserable by default.

I have no idea what the teacher expected us to describe in that first creative writing exercise of the school year but nothing I’d done felt worth writing about under the heading ‘What I did In The Holidays’. The library, relations, making sandcastles, bicycling and games seemed too boring to write about. I once tried just making something up but the teacher saw through it, possibly because she thought a combination of dragons and me rescuing anyone from mortal danger seemed unlikely (rude). It’s only looking back that it seems like there was anything magical about any of it.

However this summer (or rather early autumn) my husband and I hired a camper van in Scotland and did a tour, similar to one we’d done in 1996. Not quite the NC500, we did part of that and then went off piste. And he asked me to keep a diary – so here it is. No dragons I’m afraid, and no real excitement. No burning bracken or scabby knees, but here’s ‘What we did in our holidays’ for anyone who’s interested.

DAY ONE (1st September 2021)

(Bristol to) Edinburgh to Invergordon 180 miles (ignoring flight and going in a circle from Broxburn to Queensferry for a bit)

With three alarms going off at five am we made it to the airport in good time and arrived in unexpectedly sunny Edinburgh a bit after 8. Couldn’t pick up the van till 1, but with a large case and some tiredness, we couldn’t do much sightseeing so settled for a looong breakfast instead and then a longer hike to a bus stop than we expected, since the bus didn’t stop at the stop it was supposed to stop at and we had to walk to one by the Scottish Parliament.

Anticipating cold and trying to keep weight of the hold bag down, I was wearing a lot of layers which made me look like a bag lady.  Mark naturally looked his usual suave self. Collected van and discovered that it was last hired by Alan Cummings. (I doubt he would be interested to know we got it next.)

Got into a complete fankel after we’d started out, trying to get to the motorway with a small scale map and two sat navs that couldn’t agree. But finally! We reached the open road – or rather the bit of open road we wanted – and headed north. Just arrived at our first stop, a certified location near Invergorden and looking forward to catching up with friends who live nearby.

DAY TWO (2nd September)

Invergordon to Dunnet’s Head (88 miles)

Not sure how we managed to leave Invergordon at 11am not get to Dunnets Head till 6pm. Either maps is lying or we entered a time warp or we spent too long having a cuppa at Dunbeath and much too long in Tesco at Wick (which we visited while hungry so there’s a risk it’s empty now). Lunch included a lovely home made focaccia made by my friend. We’re looking forward to revisiting our youth with some camping style cooking tonight with a chicken curry. Husband is in charge. Perhaps I should hide the chillies…

DAY THREE (3rd September) 

Dunnet Head to Loch Eriboll (71 miles)

First stop across the North Coast was at the first town where Mark filled up with diesel and while I waited in the camper van, he went to the post office to get some cash as the next campsite was cash only. Then he came back to tell me he’d forgotten his PIN. Naturally this meant that I had to get the money out of my account instead. 

‘I’ll pay you back’ he said. 

I’m still waiting. Those of you who know him will wonder how we’ve been nearly 28 years married and I still haven’t learned. 

Next issue was when one of us (possibly me) hadn’t closed fridge properly so a plastic pot of arrabiata pasta sauce flung itself out when we went round a sharp bend and cracked. 

Crossed the north on a road which was only modernised in the late 20th century which winds itself through the dark heathery peaty landscape filled with treacherous peat bogs. It’s eerie enough now. What it must have been like 100+ years ago … I wonder how many people disappeared into the bogs? There’s an abandoned house midway which was once a welcoming place for travellers. Now it’s full of very good but rather creepy paintings. 

It felt quite good to get away from that house.

We made infinitely better time to the campsite at Loch Eribol which is so far in the middle of nowhere there was no WiFi or phone signal and we considered sending messages by pigeon, only there weren’t any. Possibly they’d been eaten by midges. We tried Durness for lunch but choices were expensive hotel (I refer you to Mark and money), a burger van and a cheese toastie van. We could have driven on a mile to Cocoa Mountain but we were too tired and hungry. We had the makings of a Greekish salad so had that overlooking the beach then returned to campsite to batten down. We watched one of the other campers wandering about in beehive kit and …. lo and behold midges arrived about 5:30 pm and bombarded the van all night. They could even get through mosquito netting so we had to shut ourselves in and eat – surprise – pasta arrabiata while they were trying to drill their way in. It’s amazing I didn’t dream of being besieged by miniature extras from the Walking Dead as that’s what it was like.

DAY FOUR (4th September)

Loch Eriboll to Altandhu via the Mad Wee Road and Ullapool 

100 miles

Got up early and prepared to leave, assuming the midges had gone off shift. Man were we wrong. Mark covered everything but his face which ended up looking like a currant bun. I was only outside briefly but had shorts on. My legs were a mass of midges in no time and looked afterwards if a toddler had decided to dot me with a felt tip. 

Breakfasted overlooking Kyle of Durness. The carpark was visited by a post office van while we were there. The van waited for some time with its doors open and parcels waiting inside. There was neither house nor post box for miles so I can only assume this was the mermaid/selkie/Loch or Brae monster delivery and the postie had to wait for them to appear and collect it.

After a drive down through lovely countryside, pausing to buy fresh local bread and cheese at Scourie, we had to make the decision whether to go ‘straight’ on down to Ullapool or attempt a loop of road which on the tourist map was described as the ‘Mad Wee Road’. It’s not especially mad and its only ‘wee’ aspect is width.

It’s steep, narrow and twisty with passing places and ‘not suitable for caravans’ so we hesitated for a bit then went for it. At passing place two of two thousand we met another camper van and wound down the windows to ask how it was. Female passenger shuddered a little then smiled. ‘Lovely scenery! You’ll be fine!’ And we were.

Stopped at Drumbeg (where the Magical Tea Gardens were closed so I never found out what was magical about them) and bought some Ullapool smoked salmon from the village shop which seemed illogical since we were going to Ullapool but hey it looked good. I said hello and made the usual British chit chat about weather and asked how things had been and the woman at the counter said it was positively quiet and she’d been rushed off her feet all summer and was quite glad of the peace and quiet. I imagine that if you live along there you probably do so because you’re not fond of hordes of people so I could understand this. 

Having survived the remainder of the road, we headed south properly, pausing to clamber about Ardreck Castle where there were signs with the demand: ‘do not poop in the dungeons like they did in 2020’. The sheep were ignoring this prohibition but I feel it wasn’t aimed at them and am as ever disgusted by some humans. After that we were on the last leg to Ullapool and since campsites are not always easy to find, put in the postcode to the car sat nav and trundled on down into the town, overtaking a convoy of crofters on small tractors who were raising money for charity. 

The car satnav is mute therefore doesn’t tell us anything audibly and we ignored its display till we arrived in Ullapool when we knew we’d need it.

I looked with delight at all the craft shops etc as we’d arrived early enough to go and mooch before settling down for the evening. Then we realised the sat nav was trying to send us back the way we’d come.

Calling it various names (none polite) we pulled over and deliberated. We finally had enough signal to look at a map on the phone. This was when Mark realised the campsite he’d booked wasn’t actually in Ullapool but in Altandhu which is on a headland north of Ullapool. Short of magic or a non existent ferry, the only way to get there was indeed to turn around, go back the way we came and drive down another twisty narrow road with passing places till we arrived. So after all, buying Ullapool smoked salmon in Drumbeg turned out to be wise as we may not get a chance to do it in Ullapool itself.  

After a drink in the bar/restaurant near the campsite – a trip to which made Mark develop a new anti midge face protection out of a clean pair of pants just in case (for himself I add & I’d rather be midged than wander about with knickers over my face), we had the old student favourite of corn beef hash à la Harmon (which is a comforting bowl of curried, savoury sludge completely unrelated to any other form of the normal recipe).  Eating a student dinner cooked by Captain Underpants – what a life of glamour I lead! Lovely view though (Loch an Alltain Dubh that is.)– 

DAY FIVE (5th September) 

Altandhu to Applecross 121 miles

Last night, Mark re-enacted our honeymoon and I’ll tell you how.  DON’T PANIC – the following is suitable to read for anyone! We honeymooned on a boat in Greece and every night we were attacked by mosquitoes. Every night I was woken in the early hours by Mark swearing, spraying insecticide and trying in vain to squash mosquitoes. This wasn’t what I’d envisaged bring woken up in the early hours for on my honeymoon for but hey, life is full of surprises. Roll forward nearly 28 years and last night Mark inadvisedly opened the van roof panel for some air as it was warm. The mosquito net was over it but the average Scottish midge can squeeze through that flimsy nonsense so husband was comprehensively midged again. They didn’t seem to like me as much. 

Cue reenactment of Kephalonia 1993 only without the insecticide and with even less chance of catching any of the little blighters, letalone squashing them. Eventually we slept again and got up after eight to start travelling. Today’s actual travel was beautiful and uneventful if a little tiring due to more single traffic roads in addition to some rain. 

Eventually we arrived safely at Applecross, where the campsite had a fish n chip van available till 8:30. We relaxed after our long wiggly drive with a quiet drink, outside the lovely Applecross Inn, looking across to Skye.

Day Six (6th September) 

Applecross to Skye 148 miles

Today was the day we deviated off the North Coast 500 and headed to Skye. 

If we’d thought the road TO Applecross the previous day was twisty and daunting, it was NOTHING to the road FROM Applecross. Views absolutely staggering even with cloudy skies as we descended via hairpin bends. Even the on board sat nav screen thought we were in Mordor. It didn’t stop a million cyclists though. The previous day they’d been slogging up or racing down in pouring rain, now (possibly the same ones after drying out) were slogging up or racing down the other side. It was, I have to say, nice to be back at sea level and less twisty roads afterwards. 

We were greeted on Skye by some fantastic rainbows. The photos just don’t do them justice. We were pretty much driving through them, but sadly no gold appeared in the van so we must have driven through the wrong bits. We stopped in Portree to find a local bakery for fresh bread, and a pharmacy to get some antihistamine cream for Mark’s midge bites (which are chiefly on his face but have yet not marred his beauty) and a camping shop to see if he could buy one of those midge proof hats with the veil. No hope on the latter as what hasn’t sold out is stuck on a lorry somewhere along with everything else this summer. This is a shame as I was looking forward to sharing a photo. After that, the weather closed in and we drove to the campsite in pouring rain and largely through a cloud. 

Last time we visited Skye (1996) it was blazing sunshine so this was disappointing but there you go. You can’t go to Scotland and expect guaranteed good weather. 

We were staying in Talisker but it was too late to visit the distillery. We did however pop down to the local inn and have a drink in the rain outside, looking into Loch Harport and watching the little lives in the water: crabs, some sort of blenny trying to make the crab go away so perhaps protecting eggs and something dark and mysterious and scuttling creature which was either a very large prawn, a baby lobster or a miniature monster. 

Giving up on all hope of sunshine or WiFi, we settled down to the smoked salmon from Ullapool with green veg, parsley sauce and mashed potatoes with spring onions/scallions for dinner. (It was my turn to cook again but Cinderfella did the washing up.)

Day Seven (7th September)

Talisker, Skye to Connel nr Oban (148 miles)

After a night of rain, we left Skye soon after 9 and headed for the mainland and hopefully some sunshine. Naturally Skye taunted us with what might have been just as we were leaving. Next time we’ll stay longer and force the sun to come out. Just over the wee bonny bridge (ok it’s bonny but not especially wee) in the Kyle of  Lochalsh was walking a very tall, slim elderly gentleman wearing a pair of plaid breeches, sturdy boots, sweater and deerstalker. I’d have thought I was hallucinating only he was also wearing a face mask. You’ll have to take my word for it as it seemed rude to photograph him. He may end up in a story so any names will be considered! 

Uneventful drive to the campsite other than watching a bridge swing which was hard to photograph and arrived early afternoon. We had considered staying a second night (as we hadn’t booked anywhere for 8th) but they didn’t have any pitches free. 

We’d intended to claim our pitch then drive into Oban but Mark was shattered from driving and we decided to stay out and unwind a bit, although first job was finding a site for the night of 8th. After that the sun came out in earnest and we were able to sit out and enjoy it. 

Midges (in smaller numbers than by Loch Eriboll) turned up at dusk and I ‘cheered’ Mark by reading out what I’d found out about midges online: ‘The female midge’s mouth parts – fine toothed mandibles and maxillae, work like two saws, cutting through the skin. The midge then excretes a saliva into the wound, which keeps the blood from coagulating, creating a pool of blood upon which to feed.’ 

Mark’s response: ‘bloody women’. 

I read the next bit: ‘some people are more “attractive” to midges than others’ and added ‘these are usually misogynists’. 

Having yet failed to find any netted hats, Mark transformed into Captain Underpants to combat them while I used a nice scarf. 

After a while, Mark also added a scarf to complete his look and ended up looking like a sartorially confused assassin. 

He unveiled himself enough to cook venison burgers (bought from a nice farm shop) for dinner accompanied by a home made un-Scottish but very nice salsa made by me. 

(For the record I’ve been midge bitten too but not reacting as much – yet.)

Day 8 (8th September)

Connel to Kilberry

A lovely sunny morning for a short dap south. 

We stopped in Oban first thing and had a wander, picking up goodies like local trout pate and cheese and mint choc crunch things from a local deli and some meat from the butcher but more importantly a midge proof hat net for Mark! (Actually we got one for me too but I’ve yet to model it. Its day will come.)

Stopped for lunch at Loch Gilphead which I mispronounced as Gill-fee-ad all the way along the journey till we arrived and saw the ‘welcome to/fáilte gu’ sign and I realised, looking at both English and Gaelic that it was Gilp-head, since it’s at the head of Loch Gilp. I might have realised sooner if I’d realised it was Loch Gilp and not Loch Glip which is what I’d read it as on the map. I really do miss my eyesight. 

Absolute highlight on the final stretch was seeing a seal perhaps 200 yards away which was totally unfazed by us taking photos. 

I tried to get it to turn to face us by making friendly seal noises. Having no idea what they might sound like, I gently called ‘eep eep’ which worked. 

So either ‘eep eep’ is seal talk meaning ‘hello’ (or possibly ‘look at me – I’m an idiot’) or more likely the seal was giving us a hard ‘is it too much for a creature to be left in peace to sunbathe without people squeaking at it insanely?’ hard stare. 

The campsite turned out to be lovely, being just off a series of beaches. 

The water was – for sea water – comparatively not freezing. People were swimming. Darn – too bad we’d forgotten our swimsuits or we could have joined them. (There were kids about or naturally we’d have skinny dipped – not.) 

We sat out  in blazing sun till it started to cool off and later in the absolute pitch dark, Mark went out with his new hat on to see if it worked. He still had a face when he returned so apparently it does.

Day 9 (9th September)

Kilberry to Livingston

More or less a transit day today so that we’d have two nights near Edinburgh ready to fly back (boo) on Saturday. We stopped in Tarbert to have breakfast and had a quick look round. What a lovely looking place. It was also where in 1098, a Norwegian king called Magnus Barefoot, who’d been told by the Scots King Edgar that he could have any bit of Scotland he could navigate a boat round with its rudder set, got his men to lug a ship from seaboard to seaboard and then sail around the rest of the Kintyre peninsula, so the southern half of the peninsula became Norwegian for a while. (The Gaelic ‘An Tairbeart‘ literally means ‘across-carrying’ or ‘portage’.)

History lesson over and now it’s music. All together now: ‘I’ll take the high road and ye’ll take the low road …’ We drove down the west side of Loch Lomond, trying to make out Ben Lomond which was being coy behind low cloud and eventually managed to find a nice spot to have lunch. This was harder than you’d think as the area was positively hoaching, something we weren’t used to! 

Then we headed towards Edinburgh avoiding Glasgow as by then it was school kicking out time and time meant we were sadly unable to stop at Stirling. 

It was a long distance from campsite  to campsite but not a particularly long journey. Most of it A roads and some of it motorway so it felt like stepping into another world entirely. We miss the twisty, narrow roads with passing places and being able to stop pretty much where we liked within reason. 

Although we did slow down (along with everyone else) when to my delight the Kelpies appeared, looming over the motorway. (I’m not sure this is terribly sensible planning as almost every car slowed down but I was glad to see them as I didn’t realise i would and had wanted to.)

‘What are those?’ said Mark.

‘Kelpies,’ I said. ‘Shapeshifting Celtic water spirits who may lure you to your doooom – devouring you and spitting your entrails out on the loch edge.’ I sighed. ‘Although I was a Kelpie when I was in Brownies and my badge had a cute little sprite on it and there was none of this luring and devouring and leaving entrails malarkey – not in MY brownie pack anyway.’

Mark laughed. ‘I’m trying to imagine you as a Brownie! Two foot nothing but knowing everything.’

‘Tsk,’ I retorted. ‘I was at least four foot when I went up to Guides.’

All along the motorway there were yellow weather warnings for heavy rain but I’m pleased to say that we were safely pitched on campsite before it started. For our thoroughly ‘healthy’ evening meal, we had a fry up of haggis, black pudding, bacon, egg with vegetables (one has to try) and mashed potatoes with spring onions, chilli and butter.

This may explain why I had odd dreams afterwards involving superheroes solving a laundry emergency and one of my characters herding penguins while heavily pregnant or maybe that’s just me.

Day 10 (10th September)

Edinburgh

Took a taxi into Edinburgh today.

It had rained all night and though dry by morning, it was overcast (though warm) and the weather forecast was for rain, so rather reluctantly we ditched the idea of shorts and sandals for jeans/leggings and boots/trainers. This proved to be a mistake. (Curse you – BBC weather forecast.) As you can see from the photos below, Mark spent the time waiting for the taxi chatting up the local birds.

The lovely (if loquacious) taxi driver told us there was a new Johnny Walker experience attraction covering 7 floors and dropped us nearby even though it wasn’t on our list. While not whisky drinkers, it might have been interesting but it looked like the cheapest ‘experience’ was £35 for 40 mins so we headed off to find the Surgeons Halls Museum which I wanted to visit. Admittedly Mark didn’t and he wasn’t too keen on looking at stuff about pathology and dissection before lunch, and as the closer we got, the further Google maps said it was, we gave up when we reached the National Museum and went in there instead. Lovely exhibition on the Galloway Hoard and I dragged Mark to one on typewriters too via exhibits on transport and communications, but by this time we were far too hot to stay indoors especially with masks on so we went for a wander round the city to try and cool down on the trail to try and find somewhere to agree on for lunch. 

After settling for somewhere we could eat outside, we wandered some more and trailed in and out of some lovely indie shops. I sat with some Earl Grey doing some writing in a lovely little tea shop for a bit and we ended up watching some street musicians play ‘Wish you were here’ with guitar, drums and bagpipes (v good), before finding our bus stop to get back to campsite. Our first bus went from ‘due’ to ‘disappeared’ in seconds but the next one arrived half an hour later and dropped us at a stop about 1.5 miles from the campsite. 

My feet were still complaining the following day about being hot and crammed into trainers all day while hiking a city but it was a lovely end to a truly lovely holiday. Our last meal was a Chinese takeaway delivered to us on the campsite. How civilised is that?!

We had a lovely time and every single person we’ve met, from random people on bus stops when we were confused, to people in shops and people pitching tents have been so absolutely lovely and friendly. 

Next time, a different area and a different route. But there will definitely be a next time.

PS – the midge bite itch have started to kick in…. aargh!

Where to Begin?

This year, it feels like I have mostly been writing the sequel to The Wrong Sort To Die.

When I started writing, I never thought I’d write a series. But here I am, looking to release book two in the third series I’ve written or co-written. 

Writing a sequel is quite different to writing the first in a series.

Writing a new book is like meeting new people. Or it is to me.

Generally, the main character becomes a sort of new friend and there’s an element of excitement in finding out all about them: their strengths and weaknesses; the things which are likeable and the things which aren’t; their hopes and dreams. This is true even if there’s some element of myself in a character, because whereas I have a good idea why I’m the way I am, I don’t always know why a character is the way they are, until they reveal their pasts and secrets. This possibly sounds bonkers, but there you go.

The difficulty with sequels is that the characters are no longer new friends, they’re old ones. 

As an author, you have a reasonable idea of what they did immediately after the end of the first book and what they’d want to be doing in the second if pesky things like mysteries didn’t get in the way.

The additional difficulty when you’re writing a book set in a real past, is that even with fictional characters, the world they’re living in needs to be researched. If the era you’re writing about is fairly recent, then there are so many rabbit holes to get lost in and there may be a lot you might want to include but can’t. And even then, having carefully plotted things out and written huge great wodges of the first draft, you double-check a fact and it throws the whole plot out when you find out that you can’t include something you wanted to. And then, even when you’ve sort of adjusted for that hurdle, the damn characters decide to go off piste anyway.

This is partly what happened to me, although to some extent, I think it’s part of my creative process. The good thing (from my perspective) is that the bits I’ve had to cut out of book 2 can go into book 3 without too much difficulty.

Death In The Last Reel’ starts six months after the first book, in January 1911. 1911 was quite an eventful year for Britain. I filled an entire wall with key events which I could potentially use, leaving me in a major dilemma as to where to start the book. 

  • In January, there was an armed siege in the East End of London when the anarchist gang who’d gunned down three policemen were cornered. It was the first such incident in Britain to go on newsreel. If you click here you’ll see Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary watching events unfold along with a ridiculous number of bystanders. 
  • The first international Women’s Day Marches took place in March, although not in Britain. Perhaps the authorities were afraid of a recurrence of the violent clashes between suffragettes and the police on Black Friday
  • Despite escalating tensions between Germany and Britain (two British naval officers had been arrested for spying in Liepzig in late 1910 and were subsequently sentenced to imprisonment) the Emperor of Germany (e.g. Kaiser Wilhelm II) and Empress came on a state visit. 
  • There was a Festival of Empire in the Crystal Palace. The Titanic was launched. There were aviators both male and female making history, there were strides in communications. There was the introduction of national insurance to assist those in need. There was the hottest summer on record.
  • But there was also major social unrest, with strikes and riots throughout the year, starting with a six week strike at the Singer factory in Edinburgh in March. (A fictional book I enjoyed about this is called ‘The Sewing Machine’ by Natalie Fergie.)
  • Creaking European monarchies and empires, unaware that their days were numbered, formed alliances in fear of war and made small aggressions against each other and larger ones in North Africa and the Middle East.

110 years later, 1911 appears to have been in a turmoil which seems far too familiar, but perhaps at the time, without mass and social media to scare them, if people weren’t directly affected by something they weren’t as worried by it. The newspapers were full of information, but I can imagine people were just as likely to prefer sensation and gossip in the illustrated press than pages of tightly printed political description as they are now. And perhaps people being people, most of them preferred to keep their heads firmly in the sand anyway, assuming that nothing could possibly happen. If they saw newsreel at the cinema, perhaps they saw it as part of the general entertainment, rather than something to fear.

With all that going on in 1911, where on earth should I begin book two in the Margaret Demeray series? 

To start with, the background against which she’s living her fictional life.

Given that St Julia’s (the fictional chest hospital for the poor where Margaret works) is close to the East End (it’s theoretically situated somewhere between Bank and Aldgate tube stations) it seems logical that she’d know about the tensions in Whitechapel and Spitalfields. Those tensions were complex. The area was a hot-pot of cultures, religions, backgrounds as refugees from Russia and Latvia joined the crowded streets filled with the descendants of those who’d been incomers themselves a generation or two before, who themselves had replaced previous incomers. Political agitation and turf wars were constantly rumbling away. (A fascinating book about the area’s history is called ‘The Worst Street in London’ by Fiona Rule.)

And given that the intelligence organisation for which Fox works is aligned with the police, it seems logical he would be involved in the the siege of Sidney Street, while also worrying about foreign aggression, since his job is trying to ensure that if a war comes, Britain is best placed to win.

So that’s the historical background.

Then there’s the story inspiration. 

Margaret likes going to the cinema, so I did some research into the moving picture industry. Cinema was, of course, still relatively new and considered a bit of a fad which was unlikely to last. Films were short – often between fifteen and thirty minutes, even when they were dramatising entire novels or Shakespeare’s plays. Perhaps that’s why when the industry started, there were several female directors and studio owners. (The Girls We Should Thank For Kickstarting Hollywood) I wanted to reflect this in the book and while looking for the films which were out at the time (like ‘The Lobster Nightmare’) noted that the first British film (1895) was called ‘Incident at Clovelly Cottage’, filmed in a residential street in Barnet. Sadly, apart from a few frames, both the film and the plot are long gone. But this was another bit of inspiration. What could happen in such a quiet, innocent-looking street? Is the woman with the pram as innocent as she appears?

The second bit of inspiration was while reading a book called ‘Odd People: Hunting Spies in the First World War’ by Basil Thomson (which is a rather strange book I heard about while going on a virtual walk in London during lockdown tracing the geographical and historical traces of MI5 and MI6). In it, the author recounts a situation where someone very insignificant reports something very serious to the police. They eventually discount it as total delusion. My immediate thought was ‘What if it’s not delusion? What if it’s real? What if the insignificant person knew something important?’

And naturally, at the heart of the story are Margaret and Fox themselves. What’s happened to their relationship since the end of book one? How will the fact that they’re both strong-willed, very private, very independent and in their late thirties affect how they deal with that (see Dinner for Two at Margaret’s)? And of course, did Margaret’s battles with the male status quo end with her success at the end of book one, or are they about to get worse? 

If you want to know – the book will be out at the end of November 2021 and there’s a little more information below the image.

BOOK TWO IN THE MARGARET DEMERAY SERIES WILL BE AVAILABLE FROM 30th NOVEMBER 2021

DEATH IN THE LAST REEL

‘Stop standing in the way of bullets.’

‘I will if you will.’

Does the camera ever lie?

1911: After the violent murder of three policemen in the line of duty, tensions between London constabulary and Whitechapel anarchists simmer. Meanwhile accusations and counter accusations of espionage further weaken relations between Germany and Britain. Can Margaret Demeray and Fox find out which potential enemy is behind a threat to the capital before it’s too late?

In the shadow of violence in the East End, just as Dr Margaret Demeray starts to gain recognition for her pathology work, a personal decision puts her career at the hospital under threat. Needing to explore alternative options, she tries working with another female doctor in Glassmakers Lane. But in that genteel street, a new moving-picture studio is the only thing of any interest, and Margaret’s boredom and frustration lead to an obsessive interest in the natural death of a young woman in a town far away. 

Meanwhile intelligence agent Fox is trying to establish whether rumours of a major threat to London are linked to known anarchist gangs or someone outside Britain with a different agenda. When another mission fails and he asks Margaret to help find out who provided the false intelligence that led him in the wrong direction, she can’t wait to assist. 

But enquiries in wealthy Hampstead and then assaults in Whitechapel lead unexpectedly back to Glassmakers Lane. How can such a quiet place be important? And is the dead young woman Margaret a critical link or a coincidental irrelevance?

Margaret and Fox need to work together; but both of them are independent, private and stubborn, and have yet to negotiate the terms of their relationship. 

How can Margaret persuade Fox to stop protecting her so that she can ask the questions he can’t? And even if she does, how can they discover is behind the threat to London when it’s not entirely clear what the threat actually is?

TO PRE-ORDER THE EBOOK – CLICK ON THIS LINK

A Novel Idea

Here’s a confession about a time when ‘the story’ was more important than common sense, logic or, in fact, the environment.

Sometimes I’m asked whether I have a preference in terms of what era I read about in historical fiction and whether it reflects on the eras I write about.

It’s hard to answer either.

The first books I read which could be termed historical fiction for children were set during the English Civil War between the “Roundheads” and “Cavaliers” or set in Elizabethan England. I loved books like ‘Cue for Treason’ where one of the protagonists was a girl who actually did things rather than just sit about watching boys have all the adventures. 

Then, around the age of nine or ten, I hit a heavy romantic/melodramatic phase around the time that children’s TV dramatised ‘A Little Princess’ in which a girl goes from riches to poverty and is kept in an attic by a wicked headmistress.

This was where my confession comes in.

I had entered the hinterlands of adolescence where I realised that my parents just didn’t understand me. I started a novel titled with those very words – an angst ridden drama involving a cruelly under-appreciated Victorian girl who… 

I didn’t get very far because I hadn’t quite worked out what she was going to actually do except whinge (although I daresay I’d planned a handsome young lad for her to fall in love with because he did understand and appreciate her and they’d ultimately marry). 

Instead I formulated a romantic plan less exhausting than writing a novel.

I might have been inspired by one of the old-fashioned Codd Neck bottles we’d dig up from time to time.

They were just begging to have a message put in them, if only they weren’t broken. And that’s where I got the idea.

I wrote a letter in the poshest English I could muster, in my fanciest handwriting with lots of curlicues, begging the recipient for help and asking them to rescue me from the attic in the castle where I was cruelly imprisoned. I dated it 1872, ripped the edges a little, stained the whole thing with tea to make it look old, rolled it up and put it in a normal glass bottle with a screw top (which I was saving to take back to the shop in exchange for enough small change to buy sweets and thus quite a sacrifice to the literary cause).

I then took the bottle to my secret place by the river, slipped it in and watched it bob downstream until it disappeared.

For a few days afterwards, I imagined the bottle getting into the larger river into which ‘mine’ fed and then out to sea and finally being picked up who knew where. It would be in the news! It would be a sensation! Who had the imprisoned girl been? Which castle? Had she ever escaped or was her skeleton still waiting in a dusty attic?

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

The thing I should have worried about – the fact that ‘my’ river was full of rocks and led to a waterfall and therefore the chances were high that the bottle might smash long before it got to the larger river, let alone the sea and someone might stand on it and get hurt – didn’t occur for years.

It also didn’t occur to me that even if it had been found intact, no one would think the message was genuine since the bottle, the handwriting and the felt-tip pen with which I’d written the letter were firmly late 20th century, not to mention the fact that it might seem suspicious that the ‘imprisoned’ girl had somehow managed to escape the attic to drop the bottle in a river and then presumably gone back to incarceration. 

What I did worry about for a week or so was that when it was found, a fruitless and expensive global search for a fictional little girl would commence for which I’d be wholly responsible.

When nothing happened I stopped worrying, but possibly as a direct consequence, I largely lost interest in romances about rich girls who were nothing like me and drifted towards books about average people who, whether historical or not, found themselves in extraordinary situations and had to manage with the resources at their disposal. 

And that, in partial answer to both original questions, explains what I’m really interested in reading and writing. 

It’s less about the era, even though I do have ones I gravitate towards. It’s more about what happens when an average sort of person – neither so poor, that they may as well take risks because they’ve nothing to lose nor so rich that they can do what they want and not worry about the consequences – has to tackle an extraordinary situation, when maybe they have to do it around the working day, family commitments, social expectations, financial constraint. Can they still have adventures? Can they still face peril? Can they still have fun?

Yes they can!

And when Liz Hedgecock got in touch (or did I get in touch with her?) and suggested co-writing a series set in Victorian London I jumped at the chance to prove it. 

We set about writing one book and the Caster and Fleet series then took over our lives because Katherine and Connie’s adventures were so much fun to write.

And in the first one, I finally got to write and deliver an anonymous letter. Only this time, it was in a much less risky way than I had aged nine or ten and it didn’t waste a bottle.

If you haven’t had the chance to read the Caster and Fleet series (six novels plus a novella) – the first three books are on special offer between Monday 28th June and Sunday 4th July 2021:

The Case of the Black Tulips is 99p/99c

The Case of the Runaway Client is £1.99/$1.99

The Case of the Deceased Clerk is £2.99/$2.99

And if you want to hear an abridged version of the first two chapters to give you a taster and also find out how Liz and I made friends and worked together on the series, here we are being interviewed about the books and their spin offs. 

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

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Father’s Day with Roderick

Father’s Day is tricky for many. Some have lost fathers, some never knew their fathers, some wish they’d never known their fathers.

I was fortunate to have a father whom I loved very much and who loved me. 

That’s not to say we always got on or always understood each other. We were in some ways too similar and therefore clashed – we were, for example, both ‘always right’ which is fine when you agree but if you don’t… 

Then there were the ways in which we were different. He thought I’d grown up too serious, I thought he wasn’t serious enough. 

I couldn’t understand quite why he didn’t recognise when or why people got upset or embarrassed. It wasn’t until my son was diagnosed with ADHD with elements of Aspergers that I realised Dad, in a different era, might have been diagnosed with some greater degree of Aspergers. It helped understand him a little better. He was loving and kind and had a heart of gold. He couldn’t do enough for people. He just didn’t quite understand them.

He died just a few days before Father’s Day in 2012. My sister and I brought our mother back to their home a few hours later to find that the postman had delivered the Father’s Day gift we’d bought for him. I’d been writing a story for another gift but not had the heart to complete it because he was so ill. It wasn’t until five years later that I did finish, and put it, with memories of a childhood with an eccentric father, the processing of grief and all the adventures that Dad might have had if only the world were slightly less real and a lot more fantastic into The Cluttering Discombulator.

Nine years have passed, and hearts can heal.

I think of Dad most days and wish I could have shared my author journey with him and helped him to find his own at last. I’m still hopeful that one day, I’ll find a way of deciphering his boxes of writing and publish some of it. I wish I could tell him I’m not as serious any more. 

Mostly, I wish I could tell him I’ve drawn on him for the character of Roderick Demeray (the father of Katherine, from The Case of the Black Tulips and Margaret from The Wrong Sort to Die). But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind and my mother and sister are delighted.

In the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die (which will hopefully be out later this year), Roderick (who’s now eighty-one) has discovered that Margaret is working near a moving picture studio. How could she keep such a thing quiet? 

Unbeknownst to her, he makes his way to the studio and uses his connection with her to ask if they might like to turn some of his books into moving pictures. Margaret, when she is asked to come and collect him, is mortified. 

As she finally drags him away, Roderick spots a second-hand bookshop.  

‘We aren’t in any hurry are we dear?’ said Father. ‘I thought we could go there.’

‘Even at this distance through the rain can’t you see how filthy and dark it is?’ argued Margaret. ‘And the owners are idiots.’

‘Those sorts of places always turn out something unexpected.’

‘You can’t imagine how true that is,’ said Margaret. ‘But not today. I need to get you home before you catch a chill.’

‘Oh Meg,’ Father’s shoulders drooped. ‘It’s a new bookshop! Or new to me. And we haven’t gone book shopping together for ages.’

Margaret checked her wristwatch. ‘Why don’t you come back to the flat instead. We can have a nice lunch and I’ll show you my copy of “The Spell of Egypt”. You haven’t read it have you?’

Father narrowed his eyes. ‘What’s for lunch?’

Margaret tried to recall that the contents of her pantry. ‘I’ll make a sort of pilaff. That’s almost Egyptian.’

‘Marvellous!’ Father stopped sulking and straightening, started walking towards the main thoroughfare. ‘What are we waiting for?’

This, for the record, is precisely what my father (who would now be eighty-three) would have done to me. Writing about Roderick feels like spending time with Dad. 

I like to think that if they could meet, the two of them would talk for hours as they pored over piles of old books and maybe compared notes on hats, pipes, tea, travelling and of course, daughters.

I’m not sure which daughter would come off worst. Maybe, just maybe, it would’t be me.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Books Photo 1425265 © Mietitore | Dreamstime.com Smoking Hat Photo 13114177 © Margaretanne | Dreamstime.com

The Underdog

Nancy sat back in her seat. As the music soared, she smiled. There had been nothing else she could have done. 

She had got her revenge.

***

The years might never have passed. The tall arrogant woman marched into the hall with her entourage, finding fault with everything from the decor to the spotlighting and Nancy recognised her immediately. 

Forty years had passed. But Tina was still thin, almost cadaverous, her hair, presumably greying, was coloured and in a different style but similar – close cropped emphasising her angled features and grey eyes. She still had virtually no figure, this woman who had laughed at Nancy’s early puberty and had rounded up the other girls to point and snigger and make snide remarks about bras and periods. Tina still didn’t look as if she needed a bra. Still looked as if whatever she wore would be elegant. But instead of softening over time, the arrogance had set in her face, so that it was impossible to look at her in the flesh and think she was beautiful, even though her publicity photographs make her look that way.

Tina didn’t recognise Nancy. Why would she? Doubtless Tina forgot her the moment she changed schools, while Nancy cried for months into her pillow, still suffering the fall-out of being ostracised for so long. 

Tina’s legacy meant that after she left, no-one would pick Nancy for teams, though she was swift and capable to start and then, deafened by jeering, eventually became clumsy, lost confidence and slowly gave up. 

Even after all this time, any sort of team game involving a sport filled her with dread, even when it was just for fun – colleagues teasing her, instructing her how to throw a bowling ball – she could feel the tension rising, the sick terror of letting her team down.

Doubtless if anyone had asked Tina about Nancy, she wouldn’t have remembered her at all. Or maybe she would think back to some little girl who cried all the time, the one she nicknamed Guinea Pig. She probably sought someone else to torment the moment she moved to the other school.

Now, forty years later, here she was looking round for someone to blame and her eyes fell on Nancy, ‘I suppose you’re the organiser. Is this the best you can do with this place?’

The hall was immaculate, tastefully decorated with flowers in the colours specified in the brief, the drapes changed to co-ordinate and held back with elegant double cord.

‘That spotlight: it’s far too harsh. How can you expect me to perform under that?’

‘It can be adjusted’ Nancy said, ‘so the brightness won’t stop you from concentrating.’

‘Hardly that, some of us are professional.’ She looked Nancy up and down and found her wanting, ‘But I require a diffused effect. You need to sort it out or I’m you will have to explain to the audience that your incompetence led to the concert being cancelled.’

Ah – the diffused effect. Forty years may not have changed her very much, but the little change did include a lot of fine lines, exacerbated perhaps by smoking and certainly by scowling.

Nancy went off to see what could be done, gritting her teeth as she heard Tina say quite clearly ‘these minions have no idea. Can you imagine getting to her age and still having such a miserably unimportant job.’

In the corridor between the stage door and the stage was all Tina’s luggage and professional equipment. Nancy’s eye fell on her violin and her heart went cold.

It was not the same of course, it couldn’t be. The case was smart and new, the violin must be significantly more valuable – but it brought back that memory anyway.

Two nine year old girls by the coats and bags getting ready for their music lesson. 

Nancy’s violin, the cheapest available, bought with loving optimism by her parents who couldn’t really afford it: a wasted gift as she had no real talent for it. 

And Tina’s violin, easily twice the price or maybe more – that was what she told them anyway, in a shiny hard black case. It was probably the only thing that Tina had loved. Perhaps it still was. And she could play. She really could. Whatever else you said about her, you couldn’t deny that she could play.

As Nancy had reached for hers, she knocked against Tina and the expensive violin in its case fell to the floor. Tina whirled on her. She was usually controlled in her viciousness, but this time she had lost it completely – hammering into Nancy with fists and kicking her shins.

‘If you’ve damaged it, I’ll kill you!’ she growled. ‘You pathetic little bitch.’

And Nancy had finally had enough. She took stopped protecting her face and started hitting and kicking back, until Tina landed a blow in her stomach knocking her to the floor. 

Scrambling to her feet, Nancy picked up a shoe and threw it hard… just as the head teacher turned the corner.

Tina’s violin, padded in its case had been fine of course, but Nancy was given detention.

Now, Nancy staring at Tina’s latest violin, feeling the humiliation from all those years before well up in her and feeling ashamed. Hadn’t she changed since then? Hadn’t the bitterness receded? Hadn’t she learnt how to forgive and move on knowing that otherwise the bullies would have won and destroyed her whole life?

The music producer came up behind her as she was lost in thought.

‘That woman is a nightmare.’ he said in despair. ‘How such wonderful music could come out of such a hard hearted…’

‘Is it wonderful?’ Nancy answered without thinking. ‘It always sounds a bit soul-less to me. Technically fantastic but missing emotion.’

The music producer thought for a while. ‘You might just be right. But she’s the best I’ve got on the books at the moment. She’s just gone to brief her team. Half an hour of peace and quiet.’

Nancy glanced towards the open stage door and remembered something. Hesitating only slightly, she picked up Tina’s violin case and grabbed the producer’s arm. ‘Come with me’ she said.

Round the corner was the busker, a young man with a battered violin. When Nancy had passed him earlier that morning, he was manfully playing even though one of the strings had broken. 

She loved to hear him every day, and when she could, she stopped to drop coins and give him a smile of encouragement. He had got to recognise her and smiled when she passed and she would wave in response.

He was having a break when Nancy and the producer turned up, stretching his arms and sipping water.

‘Hello,’ said Nancy, opening Tina’s violin case. ‘Show this man what you can do.’

‘You can’t…’ said the producer and the busker together.

‘Yes I can. She owes me,’ Nancy said firmly, ‘and I know you won’t damage it. I just want you to show this man how you can play. We’ve got about ten minutes.’

Hesitantly, the busker took the violin. He handled it as if it was Venetian glass, but turned it over and inspected it, then checked its tuning, nodding his head in appreciation. 

‘Nice fiddle,’ he summed up, and raised it under his chin.

He played a lively dance and then a slow sad song and finally a thoughtful, hopeful piece with notes fading away until they disappeared under the noise of the city around them.

‘Yup,’ he concluded, ‘very nice fiddle.’ He handed it back. ‘But it’s not mine.’ He grinned and picked up his battered old violin and started to play, skilfully managing with his three remaining strings.

Nancy started back to the hall with Tina’s case, but the producer stayed behind. She glanced back and saw him listen enthralled, waiting for the moment he could start negotiations.

She just got the violin back in time. Tina was storming through and spotted her standing near to it, just straightening up. ‘If that’s been damaged, I’ll blame you.’ she snapped, snatching it up.

The concert went well. Everyone said it was a triumph. The set and lighting were perfect for the star. The press reports said ‘it was hard to imagine the star was in her forties, she looked so youthful, with her slim figure and the silvery light around her fine features.’ The music press however reported that ‘although wonderful, her performance sometimes feels as if it lacks emotion.’

But a new star was in the ascendant. A young man whose playing could make your mood change from tears to joy to laughter to contemplation until you were a whirl of emotions. A young man with a battered violin, crossing the divide between classical and modern, with a cheeky smile and a wink in the right places.

When he held his first concert at her venue, Nancy sat back in her seat. There had been nothing else she could have done. She had got her revenge – she had exposed the bully and helped the underdog. 

And as the music soared, she smiled.

Words copyright 2016 & 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.Photo 32176429 © Alisbalb | Dreamstime.com

What’s Going On?

‘Where now?’ said the taxi driver.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Margaret.

‘What’s happening?’ whispered Nellie. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s a good question.

After fourteen months in some form of lockdown, things are changing. Within a couple of days, I’ve gone from not having any face-to-face ‘dates’ in my calendar to adding five meet-ups during July and August. 

After all this time being a hermit, it’s a little daunting. 

At work, I started a new role in January and have had to learn it remotely, longing for the ability to whisper in a colleague’s ear ‘what’s going on?’ when things got confusing (which is a lot of the time). 

But recently, despite having to book a socially-distanced desk through a matrix (rather than pitch up and squeeze between other people wherever there’s a laptop-sized gap as we used to do) some of my colleagues returned to the office. 

On that day, our daily team-meeting took place with most of us (provincial members like me) on Teams and four (ones living in or near London) in the office. I felt a pang of nostalgia for the commute, and even Croydon. I thought how nice it will be when I can finally catch up with my work friend in person and go for a cup of tea and debrief, rather than do it over Teams, which really isn’t the same.

I imagine it’s not too many months before I’ll go back too. And while one of the downsides will be that I’ll have to dress properly (rather than wear a smart top and a scruffy pair of leggings because people can only see me from the waist up) I’m hoping by the time I do, I won’t want to whisper ‘what’s going on?’ anymore, because I’ll know.

In my non-work world, despite being a bank holiday weekend, the rain has stopped and the sun has come out. Perhaps since I no longer feel like I’m in an aquarium, my mood has shifted to the positivity that can only happen when a British writer of a certain age can dry three loads of laundry on the line and feel like the work-in-progress is back under some sort of control. 

I paused work on it yesterday afternoon just before the above snippet. 

Things had taken an unexpected turn because Margaret has fifteen year old Nellie with her when this wasn’t in the original plan. Consequently, I later fell asleep wondering where she ought to tell the taxi driver to take them next, for which I needed to consult a map.

Perhaps in consequence of this uncertainty and/or because of clams in my dinner, I dreamed that I met one of the people I’ve made plans to meet (she knows who she is) and she was running amok: leaping over railway ticket barriers, being rude to officials, demanding food and excursions and generally not being the law-abiding, refined individual she usually is. 

(Of course, since I haven’t met her in person in the last fourteen months, this may be her new normal.)

Shaking that dream out of my head when I woke, I got up and worked on the next bit of the work-in-progress until about eleven a.m my time. 

It’s 4 p.m. for Margaret and she needs to be somewhere else at 5 p.m. I’d got her to the first stop to offload Nellie and she’s been asked again: ‘What’s going on?’ to which she has to answer ‘I wish I knew.’

I needed to stop there for a bit of thinking time. So in the spirit of the era, and because we needed something for lunch, I went off to cook some nibbles from ‘The Women’s Suffrage Cookery Book’. I don’t know why Margaret’s recipe didn’t get in there, as the ones that did are every bit as vague as hers might be. I had to do a fair amount of guessing of measurements, temperatures and timings with the ‘Egg Patties’ although a little less with ‘Chocolate Macaroons’ but they turned out all right and with a bit of tweaking, I’ll make them again.

Of course, life being what it is, I never got back to the work-in-progress today. 

Margaret is still stuck in… (clues below) and she’ll have to wait until tomorrow (my time) to (hopefully) get to her appointment at 5 p.m (her time) and deal with… you’ll have to wait and see.

Whether I can do this before or after work is yet to be seen. 

Thankfully for Margaret (and unlike me in my new role) I do know what’s going on in the story. I just need to get Margaret to the point when she does.

***

WHERE IS MARGARET DROPPING NELLIE? The following paragraph will not be in the final book. But may give you a clue if you know where Connie from the Caster & Fleet series ended up living and where a certain Mr Holmes may have met the woman of his dreams. In 1911 that woman might now be a little older, but after all, what’s age to crime-busting?

‘Who are you waving to?’

‘That’s my friend Connie’s house. She’s a REAL Lady Detective.’

‘Coo! Like that Caster & Fleet who get in the papers?’

‘Funny you should say that. Oh and…’

‘Who you waving at now?’

‘Mrs Holmes – she’s a Lady Detective too.’

‘She looks a bit .. what’s that word … menopausal.’

‘They’re the best sort of detectives. Don’t take any nonsense and if you mess them when they’re having a hot flush, they’re likely to grabble you to the ground and tie your limbs in a reef knot before you can say knife.’

‘I can’t imagine being that old. To be honest, I can’t imagine being as old as you – begging your pardon, doctor – but one day, I want to be that scary.’

‘Good for you, Nellie. You’re a girl after my own heart.’

Words and all photographs bar that of the fox copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Fox photograph: Photo 31122236 / Fox © J Vd | Dreamstime.com

Reactions

This time last year, existing in a limbo between a breast cancer diagnosis and a lumpectomy, I decided to deep-clean my kitchen cupboards.

This is not normal behaviour. Writers will tell you that they’ll frequently do anything rather than put pen to paper and I’m no different. But in my case procrastination doesn’t usually involve extreme housework.

The limbo however, wasn’t simply about time, it was about mental state. Reeling from my mother nearly dying five months earlier and from the impact of coronavirus, my own cancer diagnosis pushed my mind a little closer towards the fairyland than it normally is. Mondays to Fridays weren’t so bad. I was never furloughed, so my day job – never entirely sane in the best of circumstances – kept my brain occupied during the week. But at weekends, I found that only cooking and cleaning stopped my anxiety from spiralling.

I felt slightly unhinged.

British English has many expressions for being not quite right: ‘she has a screw loose’, ‘she’s losing her marbles’, ‘she’s off her trolley’.

I suppose they make a sort of sense.

Doors off their hinges, machines with loose screws or missing ball-bearings, trams coming off their rails won’t work and might collapse at the slightest push.

Distracting myself with things that I had to concentrate on but which didn’t involve really thinking, was my way of not pushing and therefore not collapsing.

However on that day, not really thinking wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

Instead of using the shop-bought chemical sprays, I decided to make a ‘natural’ cleanser using bicarbonate of soda and vinegar. I looked up directions on the internet (which can never be wrong – right?) and found a ‘recipe’ for a solution good enough to clean a car engine. My kitchen wasn’t that bad I hasten to add, but I decided to follow the instructions anyway.

Now while science was not my strong point at school, I’m not entirely clueless. I understand about reactions. It’s fundamental to cookery, which is a science in itself and which I’m good at. I also made enough volcanos using bicarb and vinegar with my children when they were small to know what to expect when you combine them. I even have a boiled fruit cake recipe which has a fascinating and satisfying moment of eruption as the bicarb is added (see below). So I should have known better than to follow instructions which said ‘simply put the ingredients in a clean bottle and put the lid on’.

DO NOT TRY THIS 😳

It may be as well that the bottle I used was plastic and it’s definitely as well that I stepped back otherwise I might have been blinded.

Within two seconds, the chemical reaction within forced froth out under the bottle cap. One more second and the bottom of the bottle split with a loud bang. Milliseconds after that, the cap flew off and foam exploded everywhere, chiefly upwards, to some extent into all four corners of our reasonably sized kitchen-diner but largely over me.

My husband walked into the kitchen to find me wiping froth off my face and out of my hair as if I’d been in a custard pie fight and asked unnecessarily ‘Has something happened?’.

This failed experiment ought to have made me re-engage my brain but I carried on in a similar vein for a little longer, two weekends later accidentally emptying an entire bottle of paprika (which had its own loose lid) all over the floor and nearly crying about something which was probably out of date and cost less than £2 to replace.

It wasn’t until after the operation and I was back at work trying to normalise myself, that a colleague arranged a video meeting ostensibly to talk about our increasingly frustrating project but then saying ‘forget all this, you’re not ok are you?’

And after a pause, I said ‘No. I’m not.’

An hour later, I came off the call, wiped my eyes, emailed my line-manager, rang the doctor and dug out the information which the breast cancer nurses had given me with a local helpline on. I was diagnosed with severe anxiety and mild depression.

I’m fortunate that my employer has a robust mental health policies and very fortunate in my line-manager who couldn’t have been more supportive. I was allowed to work part-time for a few weeks while I underwent radiotherapy, had some counselling and slowly put my hinges back on, screwed down the screws, found the marbles and got the tram back on the tracks.

It’s hard to know whether the way I felt was to do with the cancer or because it had been discovered during a pandemic or was caused by the pandemic itself. I had friends and family willing to listen but I was worried about burdening them with my troubles when the whole thing was traumatising them too. Talking to them about normal things instead was a lifeline and I couldn’t have managed without them.

But as the counsellor said, the combination of emotional ingredients in my life had created a perfect storm, and I needed to talk to a total stranger whose feelings I didn’t need to worry about, to get my thoughts into perspective.

And what brought things under some sort of control was actually the beginning of the process: taking that first step by admitting ‘I am not ok.’ 

If you recognise any of this – please please do the same. (Helpline links below.)

Now, while I have my first post surgery mammogram coming up, I’m feeling positive. Things aren’t combining in the same way to cause the same kind of reaction. And while the chief lasting effect of last year’s extreme anxiety seems to include struggling to make a plot make sense in a first draft when I’m writing, I am ok.

A year later, there is still a patch on the ceiling of my kitchen which is whiter than the rest. Until it’s redone, I shall periodically look up and remember the moment when the lid came off.

And I can laugh about it, imagining my paternal grandfather (a laboratory chemist) wondering what happened to his genes and my paternal grandmother (who didn’t understand science but was a wonderful cook) knowing exactly what happened to hers.

And in honour of that, alongside the pictures from last year, here’s a picture of the aforementioned boiled fruit cake which I made this afternoon. I dug out the recipe after 40 years and cooked it to see if it was as fun and as nice as I recalled. (It was.) It’s not my gran’s recipe, but it’s a much better – or at least safer – use of bicarbonate of soda than an explosive cleaning solution. (Video of what happens when you add the bicarbonate of soda and also the recipe below the photographs if you’re interested.)

Here I am adding the bicarbonate of soda to the boiled fruit cake mixture while it’s still hot. Don’t panic – this is exactly what is supposed to happen!

Mrs T’s Boiled Fruit Cake

(Around 1981, the original recipe was given to me in ounces but metric and also cup/stick conversions are below – however I have only cooked it in imperial! – I hadn’t cooked this for years so wasn’t sure how it would turn out. The mixture seemed quite stiff when I put it into the cake tin but it rose well and is surprisingly light while still rich. I think it would go nicely with cream.)

INGREDIENTS

10 fluid ounces milk

4 ounces butter or margarine

6 ounces sugar (I used demerara)

10 ounces dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

10-12 ounces self-raising flour (I found 10 plenty)

1 egg

METHOD

  1. Place milk, butter, sugar, fruit and mixed spice in a saucepan and boil for 10 minutes (stir occasionally to stop it from catching on the bottom of the pan).
  2. Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda while the mixture is still hot.
  3. Leave to cool. (I put it in a bowl to speed this up.)
  4. When the fruit mixture cold, add flour and egg.
  5. Place in a lined cake tin and cook for 1½ hours in a moderate oven (175℃/350℉/gas mark 4)

METRIC CONVERSION (I haven’t tested this but it should be right)

285 ml milk

113 g butter or margarine

170 g sugar (I used Demerara)

284 g dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

284-340 g self-raising flour (I found 284g plenty)

1 egg

CUP/STICK CONVERSION (I haven’t tested this either)

1¼ cups milk

1 stick butter or margarine

¾ cup sugar 

1½ cups dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2¾ – 1⅓ cups self-raising flour

1 egg

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

Here are some UK helpline links. If you have links from other countries which could help your fellow compatriot, let me know and I’ll add them.

https://www.mind.org.uk

https://breastcancernow.org

Dinner for Two at Margaret’s

It’s the evening of a cold February day in 1911. 

Dr Margaret Demeray is returning to her Bayswater flat after a long day in a central London hospital. Meanwhile, Fox is leaving the north London hotel where he lives to join her for dinner. 

***

Fox feels nicely anonymous in this hotel. It was modernised a few years ago and the Victorian clutter has been replaced by clean, simple elegance with clear views in public rooms and down corridors. 

His suite comprises a small sitting room, bare but for a small table and chairs, a small sofa and a desk in which he keeps the bare minimum of items, an adjoining bathroom and a bedroom complete with large bed with a dark blue cover, gleaming wardrobe, dressing table and bedside tables.

Before leaving for Bayswater, he straightens the clothes in his wardrobe so that none of them will crease, and then straightens his only photograph of Margaret which is on the left hand bedside table. It’s snapshot of her drawing in a sketch book, one of her ridiculous hats discarded to the side. Because of the way she’s sitting, her face is obscured by a long curl which has come loose and has the sun shining through. His memory colours it glowing auburn and he chuckles at her insistence that it’s brown.

The drawer contains a bible supplied by the hotel, two magazines:  Motor Cycling and The Penny Magazine and one book: Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

He and Margaret would like to visit the Cévannes and perhaps find the place where her Huguenot ancestors came from. He’s teased her by suggesting they do so by donkey and stay in a tent. He’s hoping when he tells her that he’d really like them to travel by motor cycle and stay in remote auberges, she might be might think it enough of an improvement to say yes. 

Also in the drawer, Fox keeps a photograph of himself aged four sitting on his mother’s lap. They are both smiling, cuddled up in a large leather chair with a spaniel puppy at their feet and his father behind, looking down on them. No one who went through his things could know who any of them were. Nor could they identify where they were. It’s impossible to see the numerous tables and portraits and whatnots and plants and ornaments which filled that room – indeed the whole house, but Fox can see them in his mind’s eye and smell his father’s pipe-smoke and his mother’s perfume. Visiting Margaret’s father’s home brings it all back, only with more talk of dragons and with a suburban instead of country view from the windows. 

The puppy was called Bouncer and died during Fox’s first year at university. 

One day he’ll have a dog again.

Fox checks his appearance in the long mirror. After some consideration, he changes his cufflinks to ones that suit his tie and the handkerchief in his breast-pocket better. Checking that the room is neat, he dons his overcoat, collects his hat and picks up the wine he bought earlier. He couldn’t borrow the car this evening and he doesn’t want to use the motor-cycle and get grubby and creased again, having spent half an hour scrubbing himself clean after a day spent undercover. His journey to Bayswater will be a little tortuous but he smiles. He can’t wait to be somewhere where he isn’t anonymous.

***

Margaret is glad to be home. The tube was stiflingly hot, but outside the February air is close to freezing point. 

The shared outer door of the house where she has her flat is cherry-red with gleaming brass fittings. The little covered porch with its boot scrape and sisal mat has been swept out and today at least, Margaret doesn’t need to balance on the doorstep removing muddy shoes to leave there.

Inside the front door, the hall – which runs right down to the garden is tiled in red and black and rather dark. What light comes through the quarter light on the door catches the metal fittings on the elephant foot umbrella holder and various hefty pieces of Benares brass which the Winsons brought back from India when Mr Winson retired in 1900, four years before he died.

Afterwards, Mrs Winson sold the upper floor and attic to Margaret (although she only uses the latter for putting things into that she doesn’t really need or want anymore but can’t bear to get rid of).

Margaret tends to find herself creeping up the carpeted stairs and is never sure why. Mrs Winson, who is rather reserved, will occasionally pop out into the hall to see what’s what but when she does she’s always smiling and friendly if a little baffled. After seven years, Margaret is still unsure if this is shyness, disapproval of Margaret’s profession/odd hours/friends or simply deafness. However Mrs Winson willingly takes care of Juniper, Margaret’s cat, unless she’s away when Margaret’s sister Katherine flat- and cat-sits instead, so she can’t disapprove that much.

Margaret’s inner front door, which is cream, could do with another coat of paint but it’s nice to close it behind her. She puts her keys on the hall stand – a narrow table with a marquetry scene and some rather intricate curlicues and carvings. It was her maternal grandmother’s and somehow reminds her of that dainty old lady with her lace and brooches and the colourful, incomprehensible embroidery she never seemed to finish. 

To Margaret’s left is the W.C. which is plain, hygienic and functional. Next to it is the bathroom which is also plain, hygienic and functional. Margaret would like it to be prettier but is not prepared to compromise on cleanliness, partly because her woman-who-does, Dinah, only comes four days a week and on the others, cleaning is Margaret’s responsibility. The bathroom has bottles of coloured bath-salts to brighten it and smells of a heady combination of rose-scented and Pears soap. Margaret has painted a wreath of roses in enamel around the edge of the basin to make it pretty. The bath is enormous – easily big enough for two.

Opposite is Margaret’s bedroom. She bought the Arts and Crafts furniture seven years ago. Since today’s not one of Dinah’s days, it’s just as Margaret left it that morning. The deep purple eiderdown on the double bed is slightly askew. All the cupboard doors and clothes drawers are ajar. She’d think she’d been burgled if she didn’t know that she’d simply woken late that morning. Margaret regrets changing her mind about what to wear at the last moment and dumping her now creased blouse and skirt on the chair rather than hang them properly. She tidies up before replacing her day dress with something prettier, then brushes out her hair, leaving it loose. 

She opens the window to call her cat. Despite the cold, Juniper is sunning herself on the low roof of the ground floor extension directly outside. On summer days, Margaret sometimes joins her. Once out she went out there in the pouring rain at night, however she doesn’t recommend it.

On her bedside table is a photograph of Fox looking quizzical and a variety of reading material. Today the options are: an article about new dissection techniques, A Room With A View by E.M. Forster, The Road by Jack London and The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Margaret is capable of reading all of them or only one of them depending on how her day has been. Alternatively she might open the drawer in the left-hand bedside table. Inside that are her prayer book and New Testament which she consults occasionally, and also the copy of Heidi and The Blue Fairy Book which were given to her for the Christmas when she was six. She remembers Katherine reading them to her and the comfort they found as two recently motherless girls whose father was lost in grief. When she’s had a bad day she’ll read Heidi, when she’s had a really bad day, she’ll read the fairy stories.

Leaving her bedroom, Margaret goes to check that she at least left the kitchen tidy. She’s a keen cook and wishes the kitchen were bigger and better-equipped. She has a medium sized stove, a large sink, a small piece of counter, some wall cupboards and a pantry against the coldest wall. She’d like a fridge but apart from the expense and the weight, there’s no room unless she loses the pantry. Although she has a shelf of cookery books, Margaret tends to cook by instinct. She likes curry and fish but rarely cooks them as the smell pervades the whole flat, which is one reason why she doesn’t let Fox loose in the kitchen, as he tends to burn things in his impatience. The other reason is that he leaves an unholy mess. Margaret has sent her two favourite recipes to Mrs Aubrey Dowson, who is collating recipes for a cookery book to raise funds for the suffrage cause. She – Margaret that is – is rather worried that she got the measurements wrong since she usually does everything by eye and had to guess.

Margaret collects two glasses and cutlery and goes to the sitting room. 

This is her favourite place. A sofa and armchair covered in a modern, warm-red floral design face the fire. On the mantlepiece are photographs, various ornaments from fancy modern candlesticks to an object whittled out of a twig by her nephew when he was eight which he swore was a cat, a clock, invitations and postcards. It’s awful to dust. 

To one side of the fireplace on a low table is the new telephone. Margaret has mixed feelings about the telephone. There has been not one single crisis since it was installed, but it always rings at the wrong time. 

The art is eclectic, some of it Margaret’s own work. There are seascapes, portraits, scenery, sketches of London. One wall is dominated by a bookcase which needs reorganising again. Poetry, Nietzsche, a book on obstetrics and The Spell of Egypt have somehow got jumbled together. 

A small desk covered in papers is set to one side but she hasn’t time to tidy it. 

A table is set against a wall. It can be brought out into the middle of the room if necessary, but for two, it’s fine where it is and Margaret lays it for dinner, exchanging the small vase of flowers for one of the fancy candle sticks. 

She puts a recording of Debussy’s Clair de Lune on the second-hand gramophone before looking out of the window into the little park and then along the pavement. 

She never knows when or how Fox will arrive. 

If, one day, he landed a bi-plane in the park, it somehow would not surprise her. She hopes he’s had a safe day. She’s now known him eight months – he’s elusive, annoying, unpredictable and she knows infinitely less about him than he knows about her.

Then she spots him. 

He’s walking along whistling, his hands in his pockets and a bottle of wine under his arm. 

Her heart pounds as soon as she sees him and as ever, she’s not entirely sure if it’s just love or knowing that whatever else is true, without him, her heart may as well not beat at all.

***

Fox tucks the wine more safely under his arm and starts to whistle as he increases his pace. The air is crisp and dry. He’s nearly at Margaret’s flat and sensing her watching for him makes him feel warm. He’s now known her for eight months – she’s short-tempered, often spontaneous about the wrong things and frequently secretive about the silliest issues. He hopes she’s had a good day and not too tired to finally tell him what’s on her mind. 

His hotel could be anywhere or anyone’s. 

Her flat is very much here and very much hers. 

But does it really matter? 

A home is never really bricks and mortar. 

If you want to know how Margaret and Fox met in 1910 – here’s the link to The Wrong Sort to Die

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photo 463547 / Art Deco © Alphavisions | Dreamstime.com

Archer

The sky had lightened but the sun had not yet risen.

I’d been awake all night, pacing, pacing. So while it was still not yet light, I walked from my house and out of town and up the hill fort. Perhaps in that ancient place when the sun rose, my world would make sense again.

Near the summit I saw a man and he saw me. 

He was naked, crouching behind the rock and so still, I’d perceived him as part of the landscape as I climbed. If he was as startled as I was, he said nothing.

I paused, uncertain. My heart thudded and my mouth dried. I was a long way from anywhere and I was alone.

I realised he was appraising me and I wondered how long he’d been watching my approach. As he scanned me from head to toe, no expression crossed his face apart from a tiny frown, and then he appeared to dismiss me from his interest as he turned his gaze to the east.

He was very still.

I thought: should I carry on up to the lonely summit, or turn and hike down the lumpy tummocky slope? He could outrun me either way.

My office legs were tired and my calves ached. I was conscious of the softness of my arms and skin. 

Blinking in the thin light, I stared at him. I’d thought he was naked but now realised he wore some kind of leather trousers. Curved against his chest was a bow. His face, chest, arms were tanned and begrimed. His hair and beard were dark and tangled. His feet were dusty and hard. 

A bird called behind me and he looked towards it and reached for the bow. His eyes caught mine as he knocked the arrow.  I could not hear the bird anymore, just the distant bleating of sheep rushing to the east. Was it the bird he was aiming at? 

I could not move. The arrow pointed towards me but I could not move. The man’s arm drew back and the sun rose. And the sun rose and the sheep bleated and the birds sang and there was no man. The sun rose and the sky lightened and I was staring at a rock. No, two rocks, one curved, one angular.

And I was alone.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Photo 62385734 © Helen Hotson | Dreamstime.com