Of Chopsticks, Tramps and Bandages

‘Girls must be partners and comrades rather than dolls.’ 

‘Their pork is excellent… but they do not find it necessary to burn the house down for each joint.’

‘The well-dressed man has an unpleasant shock in store for him.’

‘Returning from the city, they discovered the house lit up and a man lying in bed.’

‘Most of the processes are of course, familiar to real Colonists, gipsies, and the better class of tramps and poachers.’

Are these from any of my works in progress? Not yet.

Are they story prompts? Not specifically.

These are actually sentences from real newspaper articles published in British newspapers between 1910 and 1912. 

Researching is like entering a rabbit warren (or indeed a certain Swedish furniture store) mistakenly expecting a speedy exit, then finding yourself with something you never knew you wanted.

I first discovered the British Newspaper Archives when I was trying to find a report of a real event for Death in the Last Reel. I was feeling pretty pleased when I found what I was looking for, then spotted something on the same page which fitted into the story too. It may look totally coincidental in the novel but really wasn’t. A newspaper that day really did have two things that Margaret would be concerned about next right to each other on the page.

It then occurred to me that some of the minutiae of life might be easier to find out this way. For example – how much prize money might be offered for a short story in 1912? I’d put £5 in my early draft and someone said ‘That would have been nearly half a year’s wages for a maid. Surely it’s too much.’ Accepting that as a good point and looking for something accurate, I searched the archives again and found a short story competition at the right sort of time, with a top prize of … £5. Wages and the value of things then and now can’t be directly correlated. But £5 was a princely sum and well worth winning. 

When I’m not book researching, I’m digging into my family history and there was a mystery I wanted to solve for myself, so I used the website to see what I could find. While I discovered some things that were anticipated and tragic, I found other things that were rather sweet. I also found a crime. 

When my grandfather was about six, his home was burgled. The burglars stole £18 3s 4d but were pursued by a constable as they tried to get away, whereupon they launched an attack on him with the jemmy and a stick and left him injured as they escaped. The constable was found and hospitalised. The burglars were caught, charged and brought to court. I haven’t quite found out what their sentence was yet, even though the crime was reported in several papers.

But like the page with the factory fire and the spy, it’s not just one headline on the page that fascinates.

In the tabloid forerunner the London Illustrated News, ‘Alleged Burglars Attack a Constable’ (an article which includes the word ‘burglariously’) is perhaps one of the milder incidents reported on 13th May 1911. It nestles in the middle of: ‘Appalling Tragedy at Asylum’, ‘Sensational Scene at a Theatre’, ‘Fatal Affray at Limehouse’, ‘Savage Murder of a Yorkshire Gamekeeper’. At the bottom of the page is an advertisement for Dr Patterson’s Famous Female Pills (which corrects all disorders of females where other remedies have failed).

Four days earlier, The Halesworth Times and East Suffolk Advertiser, reporting the same thing has a rather different approach. ‘Constable’s Fight with Burglars’ comes after ‘Bride but no Bridegroom, £500 damages for Jilted Widow’, which itself comes under an instalment of the story ‘A Miscreant’s Wife’ by Lillias Campbell Davidson and before headlines such as ‘A Modish and Becoming Coiffure’, ‘Cooking a Village’*, ‘Interviewing a Ghost’ and ‘Girl Leads Rebels’ among others, before a section for children. At the top of the page is an advertisement for Dr Williams’ Pink Pills (which can tackle a strong man’s unexpected collapse). *No that’s not a typo.

I sometimes worry that I have a lot of odd things happening in my books, and then I consider real life and feel I’m not trying hard enough. 

Anyway, if you want to know what the quotations at the top relate to, without further ado, here is a brief explanation of each quotation. 

  1. Oxford Journal 10th August 1910 – an answer to a question about exactly who Girl Guides were supposed to guide. Turns out it’s husbands and/or Empire. The sentence quoted above is the last that perhaps wouldn’t exasperate a modern woman who doesn’t consider matrimony or colonising someone else’s country her life goal. Rather chillingly, given the date, one useful thing Girl Guides would learn was how to find a wounded soldier on a battlefield if necessary and then treat his injuries.
  2. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 – a description of the fairly new and fashionable Chinese Restaurant off Piccadilly. It’s in a number of newspapers and describes authentic and interesting sounding Chinese food which clearly baffled yet delighted the diners (and yes the restaurant supplied porcelain chopsticks but also offered knives and forks).
  3. Daily Mirror 3rd May 1912. An article entitled, ‘The Most Envied Men… Those who bought their clothes before London’s Tailors’ Strike’ goes on to give the awful fact that ‘It is likely that in the next few months, possibly, he will have to wear garments of last year’s choice…’
  4. Christchurch Times, 26 October 1912. No it’s not a re-enactment of Goldilocks. Two ladies returned from an evening out in Glasgow to find an inebriated burglar, who’d collected all their jewellery together, but then decided to have a nap.
  5. Pall Mall Gazette 18 May 1912 again – a review of a book called ‘In Camp and Kitchen’ by Lucy H Yates. (No, I didn’t realise there was a class system for poachers either.)

Were they what you expected? Or had you thought it was something else entirely? Do tell!

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image Credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-rodent-newspaper-reading-6374731/

Bones, Stones and Long, Long Roots

Today, my husband and I dug up two old bones.

One was definitely some sort of leg joint, the other, which had snapped, was harder to distinguish. ‘I assume they’re not human,’ I said, dubiously.

For the record, we weren’t on an archaeological dig, but clearing a part of the garden which was once thought of as a bit of No Man’s land between us and the house behind, until the house behind wanted to do some building work and everyone looked at their deeds and realised the No Man’s land was actually ours. 

Equally for the record, I’m not talking massive country estates or old manor houses here. Our house is an average sort of house and the oldest bits of it are from the 1950s, prior to which acres and acres of land around us, now covered in houses, was farmland. But the boundaries for our house are so inexplicably and unnecessarily complicated, the solicitor spent two hours explaining them to us when we bought the house.

No one in their right mind would call me a natural, enthusiastic or good (or even adequate) gardener but there’s something about doing battle with hidden roots, identifying what to keep and what to dig up, and nurturing the new things I’ve planted, that helps my mind do much the same to any plot problem. What do I need to remove that’s killing the thing I need to live? What needs more care? What looks like a weed but is in fact something useful and precious? Or vice versa. So I’ve been enjoying putting my back into something different over the last couple of weeks, to help straighten things out creatively in my subconscious.

I’ve found working on the current ‘work in progress’ hard, because it’s part of a series set in the run up to World War I and naturally, right now, it’s impossible to ignore the parallels between the tensions in the 1910s and what’s happening in 2022. I consequently decided a while ago, to change to a slightly different tack – removing most of the international sabre-rattling and worse that were the background to a plot set in 1913 because it felt far too much like what is going on just now. 

But of course this put me back and meant removing perhaps thirty thousand hard-written words. It also meant I needed to review the backdrop to my story, which is now what on the surface appears to be a slightly calmer 1912. 

Maybe this was unnecessary (and the excised work won’t be wasted) but it feels right to me.

But it’s not all bad. Whatever the era, for most people, most of the time, while the things to worry about range widely from impending international crises to what to have for dinner, for most people, most of the time, the latter is higher up the list of importance, largely because it’s easier to control. Otherwise, at the point when the crisis directly impacts on us, we would not have the mental or physical resources to handle it.

I’m reminded of the letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during WWII which I ‘inherited’. He was in his forties and working in a reserved occupation in central London during the day and a Home Guard at night. My grandfather stayed in the family home in London, while my grandmother took my father (then about two) to live with relations in the countryside. (My mother’s family did something similar, but that’s another story.) My grandfather wrote to my grandmother about all sorts of things. He rarely mentioned the war at all. This stops me from trying and cram every significant historical event into a book, because at any given time, people don’t always realise which events are significant and often give many of them more than a passing thought or moment of interest.

In the period covered by the book I’m working on, the enquiry into the sinking of the Titanic has just begun and over five hundred households in Southampton are mourning a family member due to the disaster. The latest in a series of major strikes across the country is one by East End garment workers. Meanwhile, the Royal Flying Corps has started up as a branch of the armed forces and warplanes are being constructed. Suffragettes are stepping up the militancy of their campaign for the vote. So far, so gloomy.

On the plus side the National Insurance Act is about to be passed, which will ultimately put an end to the need for workhouses. And on the ‘moving forward if nothing else’ side, the Home Rule Bill has been passed in the Commons as a stepping stone towards Ireland’s long-awaited independence.

On the plus plus side, the Stockholm Olympics are on, and Britain wins ten golds, fifteen silver and sixteen bronze. British female athletes win medals in tennis, diving and swimming. 

And on the plain ridiculous front, one of the Olympiad events is Tug-of-War, in which only two teams competed. A team of Stockholm police from the host nation Sweden are up against a British team comprising London police (five from the City of London Police and six from ‘K’ (Stepney) division of the Metropolitan Police). The game ends when the British team succumb to exhaustion and sit down, thereby conceding defeat.

In the book, my characters are ordinary people whose lives are trundling along peacefully (with the possible exception of Fox’s life) until something happens to derail them. 

Some of them – Margaret Demeray and Fox in particular of course – are more informed than others. Some characters are more reliable and honest than others. Many read about current things in the paper and then largely forget them. Others don’t read about them at all. People get up, go about their daily duties, go to bed. Some lose someone or something. Some grieve. Some fight. Some heal. Some commit crime. Others solve crime. They fall in love, they bring up families, they laugh and play. They all wonder what’s for dinner. 

(Not all the same people are doing all those things at once of course. That would be very exhausting.)

While most of the ‘events of 1912’ above will have a mention in the book, only a few will have a personal significance to any of the characters. The key thing will be that someone, somewhere is dead before their time and Margaret and Fox need to find out why and do something about it.

I’m sometimes asked why I enjoy writing and reading murder-mysteries when I’m naturally a peaceful sort of person. The answer is that I think there is something in the psyche of most of us that enjoys reading something where we can face our fears in a fictional format and see justice to some extent being done. To me, that perhaps explains murder-mysteries’ popularity and certainly explains why I like reading and writing them. Why historical murder mysteries? That’s a whole other subject.

So it was helpful to root through these thoughts as I dug up weeds and brambles and endured the stings of nettles on my hands and arms. (No, I didn’t save any nettles to make soup and yes my arms are still tingling.)

But none of the thinking got No Man’s land cleared. 

I threw another long, unidentified and unwanted root into the composting bag, while my husband contemplated the bones.  

‘I don’t think these are human,’ he said, scanning me from head to foot and clearly doing a mental comparison of what might have be a femur in his hand and my (rather short) leg. ‘But I gather there was a piggery here once, and pigs will eat anything. Who knows? Mwhahahaha!’

‘It’s no good offering that to me as a plot suggestion,’ I said. ‘It’s been done.’

‘Meh,’ said my husband, chucking what was hopefully nothing more sinister than someone’s dog’s long lost treasure on the pile of non compostable stuff.

‘Why can’t we find something useful that might earn us some money?’ I complained. ‘Like an Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold coins? Or a Roman mosaic?’

‘I don’t fancy digging that deep,’ he muttered. ‘And you never will, you slacker. Come on – get back to nettle-pulling or there’s no wine for you later.’

So I did.

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image from Pixabay. (No, it’s not my garden!)

Foreshadows

I live in an area where there were a lot of Roman roads, many of which are below more modern roads. 

One of them, not far from where I live joins another road near an old hill fort, which Roman invaders occupied for a while (presumably after turfing the locals out) before they built something more angular a few miles to the south west.
According to local stories, on a quiet dark night, at the point where the remains of that Roman road meets the other one which runs at right angles to it, you might see a Roman soldier.

I’m not sure what he’d be doing there, stuck fundamentally in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know which way he’s supposed to be heading, but then that’s the nature of ghosts. And in Roman times, and perhaps later, it would have been a crossroads. Leaving aside whether I believe in him or not, or whether the crossroads is significant or not, I also wonder how anyone can see him, since presumably the ‘ground’ back then was a good deal lower down than it is now. 

I travel that road quite often, but have never seen him, and a less than rational part of me worries that since logically he’d only be visible from the chest up or perhaps from the head up, walking a path long since buried by later generations of mud and so on I might accidentally run … er … through him.

The idea of levels of history fascinates me. Who knows what’s beneath our feet at any time? Or what will one day be above where we now walk?

Recently, my husband and I spent a day in London with friends, enjoying views from the Sky Garden and then traipsing round the area here Margaret Demeray’s fictional St Julia’s hospital would have been located if she or it were real. We were in what would have been the middle of Roman London, not far from the London Mithraeum which is effectively two storeys below modern ground level.  

My friends then took us to the courtyard outside the Guildhall, and showed me a plaque in the paving which said that underneath us was the Roman amphitheatre, parts of which can be seen from well below street level. Sadly the Guildhall was shut that day, so we couldn’t see them, but I wandered about in the sun having the fascinating thought that if something happened to the space time continuum maybe someone in the second or third century might look up during a lull in activities in the amphitheatre, and see us walking in the air above the arena and wonder if we were ghosts or portents rather than people wondering where to go for lunch. 

This takes me to something that I often wonder when people talk about ghosts. Assuming they’re seeing anything at all, are they really seeing things from before or things from the future? This might take you to quantum theory, or it might not. I honestly don’t know enough about it to speculate. But who’s to say the people wandering like ghosts aren’t actually lost people from the future?

That thought reminds me a little of when my then office moved to a new building. When they’d dug the foundations, they’d found and cleared both a Civil War mass grave and below it, an Anglo-Saxon churchyard. But… they had been a long way down. The building is a good five storeys high at the back and three at the front, to allow for a massive drop between the road and the docks behind. There is (or perhaps was – I haven’t worked there for a long time) a filing room on the topmost floor and it was there that a member of staff swore they saw a ghost one evening when there were only a few of us left behind on the late rota. It spooked them so much they absolutely had to go home and leave me and one other person behind. (Clearly, it didn’t matter what happened to us.)

As the top floor of that building is as far above where ground level would have been in AD 1643 (let alone AD 680) as I was above the London Roman amphitheatre the other week, I never could see what a ghost from the past would be doing up there. It certainly wasn’t filing. But if they really saw someone, perhaps it wasn’t a ghost but someone from the far future.

Perhaps that future person was somehow reflected through a doodah of the space time thingummy (you can tell I barely passed science can’t you) onto the same place in a different century in its own past only at the level they will be at rather we are. 

Or maybe not.

The staff member was always a little vague about the ghost. They were never clear about its sex or clothing or could say pretty much anything about it which would identify what era it was from. They just said it was spooky and they were far too distressed to work a moment longer and might be late the next day. 

I might give them some credence because I work for an organisation which has a great many buildings which are said to be haunted.

For example, a very sensible friend and colleague from a totally different place told me she once came across a sombre looking woman in a dreary dress wandering about the restricted area. As a responsible employee and as the senior manager on site, my friend politely but firmly asked the sombre woman where her visitor’s security pass was. The sombre woman said nothing. She just carried on along the corridor and round a corner towards a dead end. Unused to being ignored, my friend followed … but the woman was nowhere to be seen and it was only then that she decided she’d finally met the Grey Lady who’d been said to haunt the older part of that building for six hundred years. As I say, my friend is a very sensible person, so I’m not sure who was more surprised, her or the Tudor ghost asked to produce ID.

But that was her. 

Apart from two very old graveyards which had once been under it but were now empty, the building where the other person got spooked out was a mere eighteen months old. Maybe the staff member saw a ghost. Maybe they saw a shadow of the future.

But given their general attitude to work, I find it somewhat hard to imagine that they saw anything except a pile of very boring filing and an opportunity to go home early.

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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

The Nameless Manuscript

Someone was shaking me awake.

‘Train terminates here, miss,’ said the guard.

Finding myself slumped against the grimy train window, I blinked, stood up and made my way off the train. Still half asleep, I wobbled on the step and the guard helped me down as if I were an old lady or worse: tipsy.

Alone on the platform, I ran my hand across my eyes and grimaced at the soot left on my gloves.

At the barrier, the ticket collector looked askance and outside the station, the taxi man hesitated when I gave Harriet’s address, taking me in from top to toe as if ascertaining whether I could afford the fare.

‘My word,’ said Harriet, when I finally arrived at her flat, ‘did they make you travel in the coal tender?’

‘Do I look that bad?’ I looked into the mirror over her fireplace. My clothes were crumpled from the sleep and my hat askew, hitching my curls up on one side and flattening them on the other. Soot striped my eyes as if I had applied war paint.

‘I hope whatever you were doing was good copy,’ said Harriet, after I’d tidied myself up. ‘Could you put it in “Blueprint for Thingummy”?’

She nodded at my satchel, where my just-finished manuscript hid, its pages huddled within the string, tied up as a sacrifice for the publisher who’d agreed to look at it. I imagined it whimpering with the fear of being read and laughed at. I only had until tomorrow to think of a proper title.

‘Apart from the fact that it’s finished – I think – I’m not sure how I could get time-travel into it. “Blueprint” is supposed to be a murder mystery.’

‘Time-travel?’

‘It’s what happened to me on the train.’

‘I knew it,’ said Harriet, ‘trying to be an author is sending you mad. You need to stop writing and get a proper job before you get overwhelmed by delusion. And you need a stiff drink. Whatever really happened is obviously too traumatic to be solved with a cup of tea.’

‘Anything can be solved by a cup of tea.’

‘Really – you’d rather tea to a whisky and soda?’ She poured out a generous measure and waggled it at me.

‘Well maybe not tea the way you make it.’ I took the proffered glass and sat back. ‘Seriously, I really did travel in time.’

‘You were dreaming, but tell me anyway. Which era did you go visit? I always wanted to go back to Medieval times.’

‘It wasn’t back. It was forward.’

‘Robots I guess. Rocket ships.’

‘No, it wasn’t like that at all. I was on a train.’

‘Well yes. You were on a train, fast asleep.’

‘I fell asleep almost as soon as I got on and then I woke up a few minutes later. I found myself sitting at a table and all the seats were orange.’

‘Orange?’

‘And the windows were quite clean. Apart from a few rain streaks, I could see out clearly. There was no soot.’

‘That’s because it was all over your face instead.’

‘No listen, I saw the power station at Battersea.’

‘Who can see that from the train in November? The radio said there was a real pea-souper in London today.’

‘There was. Or rather there was before I fell asleep. But when I woke, the skies were completely clear. No fog, no smoke.’

‘The power station…’

‘Just a shell. With scaffolding. Everything looked both familiar and unfamiliar. I thought I saw a fisherman on the river.’

‘What could you fish out of the Thames?’

‘I dread to think. There were skyscrapers on the horizon.’

‘Like the Empire State? In London?’

‘They weren’t anything like the Empire State. I can’t even describe them.’

‘I thought you were a writer. Isn’t it your job to describe things?’

I closed my eyes and tried to remember those edifices glinting in the autumn sun. ‘They were strange shapes. One looked like a pencil with a jagged top.’

‘It was a dream.’

‘And the people in the carriage. They were different.’

‘Silver suits, ray-guns?’

‘No. They wore pretty much what we wear only not so smart. Some had suits but not many. No hats apart from two men with peaked ones a bit like schoolboys wear.’

‘Baseball caps?’

I paused, remembering staring at them, wondering whether to be affronted at the sight of men indoors who had not removed their hats. I tried to recall what a baseball player wore.

‘Maybe.’

‘So they were all scruffy, dirty?’

‘No. That’s the strange thing. They were all dressed so casually and yet they were all so clean. Apart from their shoes. Hardly anyone had polished their shoes.’

I recalled the shiny hair, the smell of laundry soap, scent; the clear skin and eyes. There had been no odour of tobacco or coal or sweat. There was a strange smell which I couldn’t place and I wondered if it came from the orange seats which were made from something like rayon or from the structure of the carriage interior itself which appeared to be made of pale Bakelite. It was not unpleasant, just odd.

‘Some of the women wore a lot of cosmetic and others none. And no-one smoked.’

‘No-one?’

‘I know. I felt a bit rattled. I was afraid I might smell and must look peculiar with my hat and red suit and shiny shoes and brown satchel. But no-one paid me any attention till I got my cigarettes out.’

‘What did they do?’

‘They frowned and tutted and one of them nodded at the window. I thought he meant I should open it or something. Then I saw a sign. It was a sort of black sketch of a smoking cigarette with a red line through it. So I put my cigarettes away and said sorry.’

‘And then…’

‘I was ignored again. They were all staring at things – oblong bits of Bakelite – all sizes. There were flat folding typewriters. People were typing away, though I couldn’t see where the paper went. Others were looking at silent movies on tiny screens – I don’t know where the projectors were and they had wires stuck in their ears. And some were reading or writing by tapping on the glass with their fingers. Oh I can’t explain.’

‘I’m telling you. You’ve been working on that novel too hard. It’s worn out your brain. Typing without paper, writing with fingers…’

‘And then the train stopped at Vauxhall (which looked very strange) and one of the girls at my table left her oblong thing behind. I stood up to try and call her, but she’d had to walk down a long aisle and I couldn’t see her. I heard a whistle and some beeping and then the train started up. I fell back in my seat and bumped my head. Next thing I knew, I was being woken up by the guard down here.’

‘My dear,’ said Harriet, pouring me another whisky, ‘you’ve been watching too many scary movies.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. It was all real.’

Harriet stubbed out her cigarette and nodded towards my satchel. ‘OK. If you say so. Are you going to show me your masterpiece or not? I want to be able to say I handled it just before the publisher snapped it up.’

Unbuckling the straps. I pulled out the manuscript, and with it came the girl’s oblong Bakelite thing. It was about eight inches by five, flat, glass on one side and dull black on the other, like a picture frame without a picture. When I touched it, a sunset appeared and when I pressed a button, the image was replaced with a grid of numbers and the words ‘enter passcode’. Just to see what happened, I touched out the first number which came to mind: the year, 1932.

The numbers disappeared and words replaced them…including my name.

I read aloud, ‘“In the early thirties, my great-grandmother had a strange experience on the train out of London. She was on the way to her publisher with the manuscript we now know as the best-selling masterpiece of classic detective fiction called…”’

The glass went black but for a whirring circle and some incomprehensible words. Then they too disappeared and nothing happened when I pressed the button.

I shook the object to see if it would do anything else. It didn’t.

Harriet lit a new cigarette.

I sighed and contemplated the depleted whisky bottle.

It had been a very strange day and no matter what the oblong thing said, I still had to decide a name for my novel.

As if reading my mind, Harriet said ‘Maybe your book will turn out to be a best-selling masterpiece, but I think you should stick to the title “Blueprint for Thingummy”. I can’t imagine any kind of world in which “Battery drained, shutting down” has any kind of meaning at all. Can you?”

screen

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

(This story started as a prompt on a Facebook page to write 750 words including “Blue-print”, “delusion” and “fisherman”. I started writing it on a train journey and was having so much fun I doubled the word limit! – I did post an edited version though…)

Timewalker

Once I ascended hills, brushing my hands through lavender or tempted by strawberries. I gathered berries along the row by the heath. I walked by rivulets and stepped over streams, feeling the clay under my feet.

When the invaders came, I walked on in the shadow of the stockade as it rose then burnt and fell then rose again over and over until the timber was replaced by stone.

I walked inside walls as they rolled outwards like ripples; one built after another to encompass the paving as it sneaked cobble by cobble across fields and mud.

The rivulets flowed on, trickling with waste from the tanners and butchers and chamber pots into the sludge and churn of the river.

Sometimes, I crossed the river’s waves in rocking boats or followed up in darkness to the watergate. On its southern shores, I walked among bawdy, gaudy folk as they spilled out of theatres and taverns. Women, painted with lead, carmine and disease called me to join them but I walked on.

They covered Tyburn Brook and I walked, tracing its invisible path with my eyes to avoid seeing my surroundings. Sometimes the blood trickled at pace with me and feet jolted feet above me, as I stepped aside from the innards on the path. But I kept my head down, never looking up in case pecked out eyes from unbodied heads should be watching.

Later, death stalked. Flea laden rats scurried across my feet but my feet did not stop. And too soon afterwards, as stone walls burnt and timbers trembled into ash and multi-coloured windows exploded, I still walked on.

I walked east. People lived like lice, huddled and swarming; boiling, roiling in dark, damp rooms. The children’s bare feet hop over filth and then drank of the river though stank and lethal. I walked west. People lived like gilded gods; demanding, beautiful, finger-clicking, bell-ringing. I was wallpaper, disposal.

Under my feet, down in the clay where once I trod, engines started run through tunnels, snake like, engorging and disgorging. And I walked on, my shoulders rubbing another generation of strangers, belongings slung over their shoulders, as they stumbled into overcrowded rooms.

The last of the rivulets were bricked up and channelled, their trickle echoed in the naming of streets above them. And some of them ran through channels of brick and bore away the waste and contagion and others seeped. I plodded on.

Sometimes, my mouth is choked with fog and I cannot see more than my feet plodding from pool to pool of filtered lamplight. The air is oily. In the east, a different death now stalked the gaudy women. Whitechapel stained red and I walked in the shadows out of sight.

And then the pyrotechnics of terror: the skies flashed and buildings fell. The earth exploded into craters under my feet so that I clambered over brick and rubble, brushing the dust from my shoes.

Now, in clear skies, above me leviathans rear from the ground into impossible monoliths of glass and steel and I walk and walk as I have always walked. Invisible.

My toes remember the squelch of the marsh. My hands recall the lavender and my tongue the strawberries although now the fields grow nothing but pavements and terraces.

No one asks me what I see, what I know. I am nothing. A shade.

I look down at my feet treading on the pavements lain over cobbles, lain over straw, lain over mud, lain over bones: hidden or forgotten, lain over dreams and forgotten faiths, lain over five thousand years. And they will remember the rich and the powerful, the bookmarks in history but they will not remember me. My feet have been every colour. I am local, incomer, foreigner, slave. I am the spirit of every servant who walked, unseen, unnoticed but seeing, noticing; head down, feet tired.

And so will I continue, going about someone else’s business; walking over hidden histories and forgotten streams as pride and empires rise and fall. Until eventually the monstrous edifices return to dust. Till the marsh reeds burst back through the paving. Till I can run my hands through lavender and pick wild strawberries once more.

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

Historical Note
This was prompted by walking up Lavender Hill near Clapham Junction and trying to imagine it when it was fields and not urban. It’s impossible to do justice to the history of London in 700 words, but here are the changes I’ve tried to reflect:

c. 4500 BC: Evidence of settlement
c.

43 AD: Roman settlement 
… c. 61 AD: Roman settlement destroyed when the Iceni tribe, led by Queen Boudicca burnt it to the ground… 
c.100 AD: Roman Londinium built to replace Colchester as the capital of the Roman Province
c. … 450 AD-950 AD decline of London after the collapse of Roman rule and during repeated Viking invasions…. 
c. 1066 AD London once again the largest town. William the conqueror builds Westminster Abbey and Tower of London… 
c. 1196- late 17th C: public executions at Tyburn
… 14th C AD: Black death – London loses a third of its population… 
16th C AD: In Southwark, William Shakespeare builds the Globe theatre. The south bank with its theatres and stews is generally disapproved of.
… 17th C AD: English civil war… 
1665 AD: Great Plague
… 1666 AD: Great Fire of London… 
1848-1866 AD: Cholera epidemics leading to building of sewers…   
1858 AD: Joseph Bazalgette was given the go ahead to start creating a system of sewers, the direct result of which was to clean up the Thames and stop the cholera outbreaks. 
… 1863: First underground railway 
… 1939-45 AD: Bombing killed over 30,000 Londoners and destroyed large tracts of land and buildings.
… 1952 AD: The Great Smog – perhaps 12,000 people died from pollution as a result of which the Clean Air Act was brought in which ended the ‘pea-souper’ fogs for which London was notorious… 
Modern day: The development of Canary Wharf, building of landmark buildings like The Shard etc

Subterranean rivers of London: as London developed, tributaries were covered over and now run in culverts. Fleet Street and Holborn for example are two streets named for the streams and brooks which run (or once ran) underneath them. If you like modern adult fantasy, there is a great series of books by Ben Aaronovitch imagining the lost rivers of London with personalities of their own and a whole world of magic in the modern day city hidden in plain sight.

Generally: the constant influx of immigration over centuries, including refugees and economic migrants, slaves and servants from Europe and beyond which make up the cultural melting pot which is a modern city.