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.
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.)
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.)
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)
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).
Remove from the heat and add the bicarbonate of soda while the mixture is still hot.
Leave to cool. (I put it in a bowl to speed this up.)
When the fruit mixture cold, add flour and egg.
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)
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
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.
My son and I were discussing star signs the other day. Apparently I’m supposed to be good at organisation while my dislikes include absolutely everything at some point or other. We both laughed at the latter as it’s unfortunately quite true (although not necessarily for very long) but when he raised doubts about the former, I asked him who in the family knew where everything was, when everything was happening and who was supposed to be doing what at any given time, he had to concede that it’s me (if only so I’d tell him where his stuff is).
My organisational skills are not obvious in our generally untidy house. This is because, while I can spend ages setting up an excellent storage system for books, paperwork, bed linen (yes honestly) etc, after employing said system for a while, I get bored and find something more interesting to do, so every few months I have to go through a reorganisation drive.
Before I go any further, I’ll explain that I’m not an advocate of astrology and I know if you are, that it’s more complicated than a broad internet search, but my son and I had fun working our way through family members’ alleged overarching attributes saying ‘yes, no, no, oh yes, what her? Hahahaha’ etc and when we applied the test to my father (who was the same star sign as I am) we both said ‘nope, nope, nope, nothing like him, nope’.
For a start, Dad liked almost everything, always. Secondly, no one in their right mind would have referred to my father as a planner except when it came to visiting bookshops and making meal-stops. As for organisation, he applied it to the most peculiar things. For example, after laborious calculations, he’d job down the fuel consumption of his car in little notebooks for no reason whatsoever. He’d record his weight every day in 1lb increments because he’d been on a diet once which told you to do it and helped him lose 14lb and therefore he’d kept recording his weight even though he’d long since stopped doing that particular diet, couldn’t remember which one it was and had put all the weight back on anyway.
His personal papers, when I had to sort them out, were scattered hither and yon except for one seam of perfectly organised files which he’d kept in meticulous order in a drawer for a whole eleven months, too many years earlier to be of any use to me whatsoever. If he had a ghost, it might have been cowering in a corner as I muttered, except it was probably happily haunting a bookshop as infinitely more interesting than watching me hunt for a P60.
I’m a lot more free-flowing with trips than paperwork.
I once had a colleague who’d plot her itinerary for a city visit down to the minute – and I mean literally to the minute – knowing exactly where she would be at any given moment with no leeway whatsoever. I’m not sure how she planned to cope if anything threw the whole thing out. I didn’t dare ask. The thought of that kind of regimen filled me with horror.
My approach to city visits (and thankfully that of anyone I’m likely to be with) tends to be ‘we know where we’re starting from, we know where we need to end up, there are lots of things we could do, let’s pick a few we might do and if we don’t do it all or any of it, or we find something unexpected and do that instead, it doesn’t matter as long as we have a good, interesting walk and most importantly a decent lunch’.
And then there’s writing.
Authors often refer to themselves as being plotter or pantser. Plotters often set their novel out in detail and know exactly what’s going to happen to whom at what point and why. Pantsers often start out with an idea and/or character, start writing and see what happens. Each may consider the other’s approach with as much horror as my erstwhile colleague and I viewed each other’s city visit technique.
(My father, who wrote too, was firmly in the pantser gang, never letting a plan get in the way of his characters’ adventures. Although having said that, when I was recently setting up a card index system for my characters, I found some old index cards in a box and discovered in the middle several with my father’s writing on them, outlining some of his characters’ details. It was a strange and wonderful moment especially as, putting his and mine side by side we’d both got bored after doing it for the same number of characters.)
I like to think I’m closer to the planning end of the plotter/pantser spectrum but current experience would suggest otherwise. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die. It started with a highly detailed plot outline. Somewhere as I wrote towards the middle, the story decided it didn’t want to do what it was told and veered off the route I’d planned and I headed into unfamiliar territory hoping to find my way back.
Plotting or pantsering – which do I really prefer? I can never decide.
Either way sometimes trying to get the words down is like wading through treacle wearing deep-sea diving kit. Yet even when sticking to the plan, there are passages which surprise me when I write them and there are eureka moments when things I hadn’t quite worked out, come into focus out of nowhere.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not so much that I haven’t planned or that I’m not organised, it’s more that the story itself is as keen on being forced the way I want it to go as a tent is keen to be shoved back into its bag as neatly as it started.
Oh well. I suppose that, after all, is what editing is for.
Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.Credit for frame
My own sister was born when I was three and a half. My delight wore off when I realised she was getting more attention than I was.
She had dark brown hair and big brown soulful eyes. I was mousy and sulky looking. She seemed good at making friends, I was rubbish at it. She, despite being a tomboy, was given pretty frilly clothes. I, despite being a romantic daydream, was given practical ones. Was I jealous of her? Yes. Were we close as children? Sometimes yes and sometimes no. Whenever we shared a bedroom, I’d tell her or read her stories. When there was a thunderstorm, she’d climb into bed with me. When bullies picked on me, she’d offer to beat them up. Otherwise, except in the holidays, the gap was too large to cross for us to be close.
It wasn’t until we were twenty-two and nineteen, when she moved from the family home to start her first job, that we ended up sharing a house and became closer. We could argue without anyone going off in a sulk or feeling misunderstood – they were honest, open arguments which we worked through until we had a win-win resolution.
I think she’s dippy. She thinks I’m bossy. But it doesn’t matter.
I know we’re both extremely lucky in this regard. I know plenty of siblings who can’t say the same. But as for us, my sister is one of my very best friends. One day, we’ll go on a mad-old-lady road trip together. Although I’m not entirely sure which I trust least: her driving or her navigating…
All this got me thinking about two of my characters who are sisters. I’m working on the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die at the moment. The main character, Margaret Demeray ‘started out’ (in a book sense), as the annoying younger sister of Katherine Demeray in The Case of the Black Tulips which I co-wrote with Liz Hedgecock. The gap between these two sisters is nearly nine years. By the time it’s 1911, they are very close but maybe it wasn’t always so. Here’s an extract from the sequel, where something Fox says reminds Margaret of a moment from her childhood:
When Margaret had been aged seven, the family went on holiday in the New Forest. Running off on her own, she’d found a perfect, climbable young oak, just waiting for her. She removed her shoes and stockings, knowing any damage to them might give her away afterwards, then climbed.
Thirty years later, she recalled the bark scraping her bare legs, the ache in her arms and the freedom of feeling hidden in the leaves with no one to tell her what to do. She saw Aunt Alice and Katherine hunt for her, their voices anxious and strained. ‘Meg! Meg! Where are you?’
It was Katherine who spotted the shoes and stockings at the bottom of the tree and peered up into the branches. ‘Come down this instant!’
‘Oh Kitty, you come up. It’s marvellous!’
But Katherine refused. She’d stood there hands on hips, with the all the dignity a sixteen year old can manage, looking snippy.
At the time, Margaret had been convinced that her big sister had wanted to climb the tree but was too boringly absorbed in being nearly grown-up to let herself try.
But now that Margaret thought back with an adult mind, Katherine’s remembered face was not so much angry as hurt and terrified.
So, thinking about this and because I’ve got a small request at the end, I thought I’d interview both Katherine and Margaret to see how they’re similar or different, and what they both remember of the incident in the New Forest.
It’s January 1911
What is your full name? Do you have a nickname (if so, who calls you this)?
Katherine: Katherine Mathilda King née Demeray. My immediate family call me Kitty sometimes. Not my husband though.
Margaret: Margaret – I’m not telling anyone till I have to – Demeray. Only my father, sister and aunt call me Meg.
Where and when were you born?
Katherine: Fulham, 4th May 1865
Margaret: Fulham, 16th January 1874
Where do you live now, and with whom?
Katherine: In a house in Bayswater with my husband James, 16 year old son Ed and four domestic staff.
Margaret: In a flat in Bayswater with my cat Juniper.
What is your occupation?
Katherine: I’m a private investigator working with Connie Lamont.
Margaret: I’m a pathologist in St Julia’s Chest Hospital for the Poor.
How would you describe your childhood? How much schooling have you had?
Katherine: Our mother died when I was fifteen. Until then everything was very happy. But then our father took me out of school on the grounds that a middle-class girl didn’t need a formal education as she’d never need to work, she just needed to find a husband. He continued teaching me at home but it was very eclectic and patchy as he tended to go off for months on his travels. Aunt Alice took over as much of our nurture as she could. She was only in her early thirties and I now realise she set aside any matrimonial hopes to help raise us. I fear I gave her a hard time but I was heartbroken about losing Mother and bitter about leaving school.
Margaret: I was six when Mother died and I barely remember her. Father, while good fun sometimes, always seemed very distant. As Katherine says, he was forever going off to do research for his books and when I was thirteen, he disappeared for years and we thought he was dead. I gave Aunt Alice a hard time too. She seemed so very determined we be ladylike and it was so very dull. I can’t thank Katherine enough for arguing the case for my staying on at a good school till I was eighteen, and when Father disappeared and the money started to run out, asking our uncle to pay the fees.
Did you ever climb trees as a little girl?
Katherine: no. But I remember Margaret doing it. It was less than a year after Mother had died and Father took us to the New Forest, then retreated into his room to write his books. We were all so miserable. And then one day, Margaret disappeared. She was only little. I thought someone had abducted her or she might be lying injured somewhere and we’d never find her again and that would be another person lost to me. It was one of the worst few hours of my life.
Margaret: I’d forgotten that completely until recently. I can only say that at the time I just too young to realise how anyone else might feel. I suppose I was partly running from all the grief that was dragging us down which I couldn’t understand or manage. All I can remember of that day is feeling free for a while – light – as if a weight had dropped. To be honest, it was one of the best few hours of my life. I’m really sorry.
Did you have any role models?
Katherine: I had people I didn’t want to be like. I didn’t want to be as diffident as Aunt Alice or as judgmental as Aunt Leah but… actually my role model was our lodger Mina Robson. Her life had gone a bit wrong, but she just picked herself up and did something rather than wait for someone to rescue her. She quietly gave me the courage to do the same when I decided to find a job against Aunt Alice’s wishes.
Margaret: I could name any number of famous female doctors, but the honest truth is that Katherine is my role model. If she hadn’t had the courage to get a job and then start working with Connie, I daresay I’d have settled for trying to find a rich husband rather than think a woman could do anything more interesting and then doing it.
When did you have your first kiss, and who with?
Katherine: proper kiss? It was with my husband James when I was 25.
Margaret: I’m not telling but I certainly didn’t wait till I was 25.
What is your greatest fear?
Katherine: failing the people I love.
Margaret: losing the people I love.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Katherine: nice clothes. We went through a long time of having to alter old dresses and trying to change a skirt designed for a 1880s bustle to a simpler 1890s style was no mean feat. I don’t know what we’d have done without Aunt Alice.
Margaret: Yes. Nice clothes all the way. And hats. And handbags. And shoes.
Would you be able to kill?
Margaret: to protect someone or stop an evil? Yes. I wouldn’t want to, but I think I could.
What three words would others probably use to describe you?
Katherine: determined, short and (unfortunately) carroty-haired
Margaret: principled, fiery and (if you ask Fox) impetuous
What smells do you associate with your childhood?
Both: Ada’s baking!
Katherine: no-one made cakes like she did.
Margaret: Even thinking of it now makes my mouth water. Come on Kitty, let’s find a tea-shop.
Now it’s your turn:
Liz Hedgecock and I would love to do a Q&A about the Caster & Fleet series. For this – we need some Qs of course.
We’d love to know from anyone who’s read the books whether you have any burning questions about the process, the plots, the spin-offs – serious, curious or plain silly. Please either comment below or email me at email@example.com. (In case you don’t know: we have six books in the original series which is set in 1890s London, featuring Katherine Demeray and Connie Swift, plus a Christmas novella. We got so involved in our books that we individually took two side-characters and decided to find out what happened to them in spin-off series. I just have one in the Margaret Demeray series (so far – hoping the second will be out later this year) set in the 1910s and Liz now has four in the Maisie Frobisher series set in the 1890s. All are available on Amazon.)
They say that eyes are the windows of the soul, but I’m not convinced.
If we could look into someone’s eyes and gauge exactly what sort of person was behind them, the world would be a much happier place. We’d immediately see the kind heart or the cruel one. We’d know whether it was wise to accept that drink, that lift, that date, that election promise, that viewpoint.
Sadly however we can’t, and get caught up in trappings, attractiveness, eloquence and prejudice instead.
So what about windows themselves? Are they the eyes of a house?
When I told my German pen-friend (in English) that a house looked down on a river, she thought the idiom highly amusing.
‘How can a house “look”?’ she said. ‘It’s not alive. It doesn’t have eyes.’
I hadn’t thought it a peculiar thing to say until that moment. But I mentally shrugged. It seemed fine by me. Almost every house I’ve ever been in seems to have a personality.
Between birth and going to university at eighteen, I lived in six homes: one flat and five semi-detached houses. I don’t remember the flat, but I had a dream a few years ago in which I ‘knew’ I was there, lying in my pram ‘watching’ part of my little world – a dark hall and dark shrubbery in the garden. My mother says this is about right.
I remember the next two two houses as being dark too. I’ve no idea why. They were both relatively new, built with typical big 1950s/60s windows. Maybe it was the Victorian and Edwardian inherited clutter and furniture inside that made them dark. I recall that my bedroom window in the second house/third home came down to the floor. After bedtime, unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get up to read by the light coming in from outside, whether the last of the summer sun or by the orange light of the street lamps.
I was about six and a half when we moved to the third house/fourth home. It was brand-new and had huge windows. The one from the sitting room was actually a patio door, but being at the back, faced a high hedge at the end of our very small garden. However beyond the hedge and visible from my bedroom window was a barley field. I would watch for hours when the barley was growing, watching it swirl and dance like the sea. In my mind’s eye, it has perpetually swished in golden-green waves ever since, but I’ve just checked, and like most of what were then meadows round a village, it’s now buried under houses and probably has been for many years.
We moved to South Wales about two years later and rented our fifth home/fourth house for a few months while the sale of one house and the purchase of another went through.
The house we rented was also brand-new, half way up (in fact clinging to) a mountain, front-door nose to nose against a forest. There was nothing to see but trees out of those windows, but out of the back, we could see for miles towards other distant mountains, across our village and across the narrow-gauge single-track railway line and the river to another village where our next house would be.
There was something like a twenty foot drop from the sitting room windows to the sloping back garden. A couple of years ago, the village featured on one of those ‘perfect home search’ programmes and lo and behold, in the background of one shot was that row of houses still clinging to the mountain, including ours.
‘I’d forgotten that drop,’ I said to Mum.
‘It was dead handy,’ she replied. ‘Once I found some fillets of fish in the freezer which had frozen to each other, so I dropped them out of the kitchen window so they’d break apart when they hit the garden.’
(Is it only my mother would think this was a normal and logical thing to do?)
Neither that house nor the one before had personalities – they were perhaps too new.
But the final family home we had more than made up for their lack of it.
I pretty much loathed that house from the off, but had no choice of course but to endure it for the ten years till I went to university. I won’t go on about it now, although there are hints in The Cluttering Discombobulator which includes our first year there. But chaotic (and I swear sometimes downright malignant) as that house was, the one thing you couldn’t fault it on was windows.
From the front, you could see up and down the long street. As a little girl, you could see when a friend was coming to play, or see the path to the woods and as a teenager, you could (as I did) sit for hours and look out at the rainy evening, waiting for headlights which might mean that the boy who’d broken your heart had changed his mind and was coming to visit after all.
The sink where my sister and I did the washing up (arguing throughout the process every time) was at the side of the house in the kitchen extension (which makes it sound more glamorous than the freezing, leaking, draughty place which it actually was). You could see right down the road and once I watched a neighbour walk his beautiful Irish setter up the hill as he often did, only remembering when he disappeared out of sight that he’d recently died. The window above this extension was the bathroom window which I once climbed out of to put tar on the worst of the leaks aged nine (yes honestly) and had to break in through aged twelve when we got locked out.
But it was the back of the house which had the best views.
I missed my English barley sea. Our bit of Wales had rougher, wetter, harsher countryside. And the scenery was wilder too but no less beautiful for that.
From my bedroom, you could see clear down across a tussocky field to the trees lining the river edge, then up the slope to the other village and up to the mountain’s top. In autumn and winter, you could see the trains screech along the railway.
The house had been built before central heating was normal and all but one of the fireplaces had been bricked up long before we arrived. When my parents eventually put radiators in they didn’t include the bedrooms (which was more normal in the UK at the time than you’d think). They were all therefore cold and in winter, there was occasionally ice on the inside of my window but I didn’t really mind, the bed was warm. My room faced west, so I’d often kneel up in bed at night and look out to watch the late summer sun setting past the mountain, knowing that the sea was not so far beyond.
And oh – when there was a thunderstorm! While rain hammered down on the roof above and sliced through the grey air, lightning seemed to set the mountain on fire, the village appearing and disappearing in violent flashes as I watched, mesmerised.
I’ve never had a view like it in a home since. But maybe I haven’t needed one in the same way.
Perhaps I needed that view then, because I always wanted to be somewhere else: because when I wasn’t yearning for the place I’d left until it became mythical, I wanted to travel to new worlds, into the west, into the storm, and as adolescence struck, looked forward to growing up and leaving my family home to create my own home.
These days, I’m content where I am and more or less with who I am.
I’m still lucky enough to have good views from my house, but none to compare with a mountain.
Often, if I look outside, it’s for writing inspiration or because now I’m doing the day job from home, the wildlife, the neighbours’ cats and the innumerable delivery vehicles are sometimes more interesting than what I’m supposed to be doing.
So are windows the soul of the house? Or the soul of the person inside the house looking out?
On reflection, I honestly think it’s a little bit of both.
This question was posed on a Facebook group recently. Some said they’d had several, some had had none. Some hadn’t, but their children or siblings had. Some had ones who when they explained them to adults appeared identical to dead relations the child hadn’t actually known, which is a whole potential story in itself.
It got me thinking.
Had I had imaginary friends?
When I was seven and in my second primary school, there was a time when I communicated with my reflection at playtime (recess). We (my reflexion and I) were called Trixie and Trina (I can’t recall who was who) and were twins separated into two different worlds by some spell/disaster and the glass was the only meeting place. I can’t remember what we talked about apart from being sad we couldn’t be physically together. I hadn’t long moved schools and was very lonely, having left my first best friend behind and knowing I’d never see her again. The fact that I was top of the entire junior school in spelling and reading but hadn’t made any friends got into my school report, but no one noticed I was talking to a reflection in playtime until a couple of school bullies decided to target me. I never dared to do it again. Fortunately, not long afterwards I made friends with a real girl who was on my wavelength (I knew this because she also wanted, more than anything, a flying unicorn).
Thinking back, I feel a little guilty about Trixie and Trina. Are they still stuck on either side of a reflection simply wanting to be together again?
Roll on two years and (after another move) 144 miles west and I’m on a bus with my little sister. She’s been thwarted in her desire to have a dog and shouts at me for sitting on Sandy, an imaginary corgi puppy. I am mortified by the other passengers’ horror and the sympathy I’d had for my sister’s disappointment fades completely.
Roll on even more years and 100 miles back east and my son, aged four, tells me off for putting my shopping in the Tesco trolley on top of his imaginary sheep.
As he’s now grown up – stuck at hime with us because of lock-down – I asked him if that was the only imaginary friend he’d had and he said ‘I had loads, I had an entire team of Pokemon at one point and they did everything with me’. Recalling watching him in swimming galas and football matches, I’m somehow not surprised.
I tried to work out if I’d had any, other than Trixie and Trina and initially thought ‘no’. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that when I was eight or nine, after another move of schools and another lost best friend and I spent a lot of time wandering about alone, talking to unseen spirits in the woods and river – that was something similar.
I did make friends with another (real) girl around the same time. She was on a similar (e.g. highly imaginative) wavelength, and we created a series of convoluted stories to play out. One was sort of science fiction – involving an almost impassable jelly-like force field between worlds in which an enormous mutated fly was forever stuck and we acted it in the fields at school. Sometimes we could get through the jelly wall, sometimes we couldn’t and bounced off. We must have looked utterly bonkers to everyone else.
We remained friends till after graduating university (by which time acting things out had been replaced by writing stories and boyfriends) but then lost touch for twenty-five years until she turned up at my father’s funeral.
As we reconnected, pretty much the first thing we emailed to each other was ‘Do you remember the jelly wall with the big fly in it?’
Later, she said ‘Do you still have that map of the woods you drew with all the magic portals in it?’
I confessed that it had long been lost.
Then she said ‘You had me completely convinced about all those magical beings there. I thought they were real for ages.’
I was taken aback on three fronts. Firstly, I rarely ever convince anyone of anything. Secondly, I wanted to say ‘but they were real.’ Thirdly, I wondered why I’d thought ‘were’ rather than ‘are’ and felt a deep, visceral disloyalty.
Were they imaginary friends? I never thought of them as either imaginary or friends. They were just there, among the leaves and bracken and bluebells, just out of sight in roots and hollows, or sparkling from the light shining through branches or on river wavelets. I could say what I wanted to them and they neither offered criticism nor advice. They never spoke at all. They just listened.
On the Facebook thread referred to earlier, someone said ‘I didn’t have one as a child, but I have one now.’
I’m not sure if they were being serious of course, but I felt a pang of mild jealousy. Why don’t I have one now that I’m an adult? I thought. Then I remembered my invisible household ghost and the invisible household elves.
The former is ‘just’ a series of odd, inexplicable sounds in our rather strange (not old, just strange) house. He never communicates in any other way (yes he’s a he, I don’t know why, but he is). He’s not a ghost in the sense of being the spirit of a dead person. He’s just a noisy, companionable entity, who normally makes the house seem less empty when I work from home alone. I never speak to him, except at night when I tell him to shut up because he’s thumping about in the attic while I’m trying to get to sleep.
The invisible household elves, who have some sort of form I can visualise, turn up when I’m doing housework or a major domestic overhaul. I think because I find those exercises immensely boring, my mind ambles off into some realm where I’m watching myself, considering myself objectively and somehow that morphs into a conversation with or listening to a conversation between a failed brownie called Ælfnod, a disruptive laundry fairy, a despairing grooming elf and potentially a mischievous dishwasher fairy and naughty garden pixies who recently snatched my husband’s glasses and hid them in a part of the garden my husband hadn’t been in.
Are these my adult equivalent of imaginary friends?
Maybe someone who’s got this far without calling for men in white coats, will think it’s because I’m a writer and they’re the same as characters. But they’re not. Book characters are external from me almost entirely. They turn up, they make themselves known, they complain when I try to make them do something they wouldn’t do in a million years. Sometimes, without a qualm, I kill them off. There may be elements of me in them, but only elements.
Without asking a psychologist, I can work out that imaginary friends are almost certainly personifications of parts of one’s own psyche. This is why I think they exist and why they’ve been valuable for me at least.
As a child, they were companions to a little girl who was lonely, serious, imaginative and out of sync with her generation.
Now perhaps, if my household companions count as imaginary friends, they’re a reminder not only to take myself too seriously but also to just let my imagination run wild just as I once did at nine when it was as easy as breathing.
They are the part of me that may be honest and critical but is also validating and affirming. They make me laugh at myself but also accept myself. Basically they say ‘be yourself.’
So how have my household companions managed during lockdown?
The invisible household ghost is rather quiet. I’m never in the house alone these days as there are three other people also working from home. Does his silence tell you more about him, me, or my ability to hear anything over the sound of four adult people on video calls, and in the case of the younger two, also video games? Has he left, or is he just pottering about in the attic till he can be heard again?
And I have to confess, I haven’t heard from the invisible household elves for nearly a year either. But as I say, they tend to turn up when I’m doing a clear out so this may give you an idea of the state of my house.
I kind of miss them all. Perhaps it’s time to send my three mortal house-companions off for a walk, have a quiet cuppa and then get the duster out. I wonder if they’ve missed me too?
‘Maude and I are going to Switzerland for 19th March while you’re on your mission,’ said Margaret.
‘Really?’ said Fox.‘Is this to do with International Women’s Day? Why Switzerland?’
Margaret shrugged. ‘I’ve never been there and they’re not doing it in Britain.’
‘I might come with you before heading over the border,’ said Fox.
‘Keeping an eye on me?’
‘No. Because I agree with the aims: votes and decent working conditions for all – it’s a thousand pities people are more interested in the latest society gossip, the coronation and playing “our empire’s better than their empire” to notice how close we are to tipping into anarchy or war.’
‘You think that’s the choice?’
‘Quite possibly,’ said Fox. ‘Don’t you?’
The first international Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March 1911 and occurs a few days before the beginning of the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die which I’m working on just now, so the above might theoretically be a conversation held a while before that.
My character, Dr Margaret Demeray is a determined person. She believes firmly in equality and safe working conditions but I doubt she’d be oblivious to the sort of things that were said about suffragettes and the men who supported them in for example, postcards like these.
In the United Kingdom, the suffrage movement was gaining momentum. On census day 1911, Emily Davison allegedly hid herself in the Houses of Parliament as a protest – here’s a fascinating article researching the truth of this. Many other women refused to be counted as part of their defiance in a document which recorded for women but not for men, how long they’d been married for example. Whether Margaret will is yet to be seen.
Margaret of course, is a creation of my imagination, but the inspiration for her comes to some extent from the older women on both sides of my family.
I had nine great aunts and two grandmothers, who would have been aged between three and sixteen in 1911. I never thought to ask any of those I knew what they’d known or thought about suffragettes, although one did recall with delight that she’d turned twenty-one in 1928, the year that the voting age for women was dropped to be the same as that for men.
None were sentimental women. None thought womanhood had anything whatsoever to do with swooning or weakness or subservience. Not one ever gave me the impression they thought girls took second place to boys or that I should do less than make the most of every opportunity which came my way.
Ten of them had some form of career at least until marriage and I can easily imagine that most of them could have made senior management nowadays if they’d wanted to.
They could be funny and they could be affectionate, but they also thought nothing worse than an indulged child. There was certainly no place in their mind-sets for crying. We were expected to get on with things, however crippled with shyness we were or lacking confidence or fearing criticism. Painful as that frequently was, it was a useful life skill, although having uncritical and supportive parents probably helped a great deal.
Since growing older, I started finding out more about them and they stopped being simply old relatives and became people. As far as I can establish, every single one rose to every challenge with determination to become valued women in their families and communities with strong ethics and views which were their own opinions and no one else’s.
Two, in 1941, then in their fifties, picked up the pieces (literally) when their home and business was destroyed by a WWII bomb and started up somewhere else, but not before making a cup of tea in the rubble immediately after the raid (which they’d escaped while hiding under the stairs) because how could you think without one?
One (whom I never met but wish I had) doubtless scandalised her highly conventional mother with Edwardian new age philosophies, esoteric books and curios. My father inherited the last two, a fair amount of which I recall from my early childhood.
Her youngest sister (who I did know) went travelling the world as soon as she retired and thrilled us with tales of camel rides, deserts, bazaars and souks, lighting a flame in me to want to do the same one day.
My favourite great aunt dedicated herself to teaching, never losing her interest in young people. As a retired lady in the late 1970s, she plonked herself down next to a group of punks in Glasgow bus station. She said they recoiled a little, clearly expecting her to tell them they were a disgrace, but she simply started chatting and as they relaxed, she learned all about how they got their mohicans to stand up, how many safety pins they needed and all about punk culture.
It’s a thousand pities that 110 years after groups of women and men marched for fairness, equality and safe working conditions, these are still far from the experience of people, even in the developed world and that we still need an International Women’s Day, but we do. This year’s campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge.
I knew plenty of contemporaries even in the 1970s and 1980s who felt second rate to their brothers and that there was no point to further education or trying for a career. But I was fortunate to have very determined (if sometimes a little uncompromising and occasionally downright eccentric) role models, who challenged any suggestion that their whole focus should be their husbands and children. They embraced everything the world could offer them but knew how to be phlegmatic if life didn’t turn out as expected.
Maybe they’d be horrified by my appallingly untidy house but I think they’d appreciate that even though it’s sometimes a struggle, I have just about balanced my creativity with building a career, raising a son and a daughter who are staunch feminists and that I’ve never once thought that being a woman should hold me or anyone else back.
I am not entirely sure how they’d feel about being the inspiration for a number of my characters, from shy, proper, but quietly brave Aunt Alice, to somewhat mad Tullia to straight-talking Margaret via various other characters, some of who haven’t met the general public yet. But I hope they’d take it as a compliment and on International Women’s Day, I’d like to salute them.
Well it’s Valentine’s Day 2021. Where I am, it’s very cold, raining, we’re in lockdown and everything’s closed, so there’s a limit to how easy it is to be romantic, especially when you’re me.
Usually, my husband cooks us a nice meal which we eat à deux. This year, we have two other adults in the house who can’t go anywhere else and as it’s Sunday, my mum (who’s in our support bubble) will be coming round for dinner. Various solutions, including staggered meals, presented themselves and in the end we gave up and my son said he’d cook a meal for all five of us. Maybe I’ll decorate the table with hearts. Maybe not.
I don’t mind really. My husband and I are fairly rubbish at soppy stuff in general, and with eleven months of the impact of Covid-19 behind us and who knows how many more ahead, we’d rather have a Valentine’s banquet for all our loved ones, so many of whom we haven’t seen for a very long time and those we have seen, we’ve had to greet from a two metre distance, usually while wearing a mask.
I was going to avoid writing about Valentine’s Day today and write about something else. Lupercalia or Fornacalia perhaps. These were both Roman festivals celebrated in early Februrary. But having looked them up, I decided against it. The former is very strange and despite what the latter looks like written in English, it’s all to do with baking. I might make some heart shaped cookies today, but I’m certainly not making spelt wafers from scratch. (If you want to, the recipe is in the Fornacalia link.)
So back to good old St Valentine’s Day. While apparently, Geoffrey Chaucer was apparently the first to record 14th February as relating to romance in his 1375 poem ‘Parliament of Foules’, it was the Victorians (naturally) who managed to commercialise and therefore make lots of money out of it. If you want to see some really unusual Victorian cards, both hand-made and printed, you might enjoy this article from the Museum of London.
While I’ve written the odd short love story, so far I haven’t written a romance novel. That’s not to say there are never any romantic moments in my mystery books, but they tend to go awry. I’m not entirely sure what to blame this on but there are a few contenders.
For a start, I didn’t have much in the way of role-models. My paternal grandfather, while loving my grandmother deeply, wasn’t keen on public displays of affection. The one time I walked into their kitchen and saw him embrace then kiss her gently, seemed so intimate that I backed out immediately before returning more noisily just in case I disturbed any more elderly shenanigans. My father would have been a romantic but my mother thought it nonsense. My sister and I as children tried to force them into romance, by making soppy Valentine’s cards on their behalf, but these were greeted with some bafflement.
Then, watching films and TV as a young teenager in the smutty, innuendo-heavy seventies, I viewed a bewildering set of ideas of what a woman should expect from lurve. In comedies (and sometimes dramas), women were divided into:
‘nice girls who might but probably wouldn’t until married to the nice boy’ who turned into ‘nice wives who were largely decorative and whose chief function seemed to be hosting dinner parties to impress the nice husband’s boss’;
‘dolly birds’/‘bits of crumpet’ who were free with their favours and would never settle for being a wife but might for being a mistress;
‘brainy types’ who just needed the right man to waken their sexuality whereupon they’d become (1) or (2);
‘frigid wives/women’ who existed chiefly to make the man’s life a misery but give him an excuse to pursue (2) or seduce (3);
‘plain, sex-mad spinsters’ – objects of derision who wanted to be (1) or (2) but had no hope since no man would touch them (despite the fact that the men in the comedies were often repulsive and had little to no concept of respect/consent).
Love films (of which I can only remember ‘Love Story’) seemed to chiefly involve someone dying and it all being too late and lots of gut-wrenching angst.
My maternal grandmother read a lot of books which I devoured when we stayed with her: murder mysteries, thrillers and rather steamy historical fiction in which bodice-ripping always lead to at least one person having their head cut off.
It was all very confusing. I didn’t want to be a, b, c, d or e. I certainly didn’t want anyone to die just as they found their one true love. Especially me. Especially by decapitation.
Then there was the first Valentine’s I received at about fourteen. It came in the post at breakfast time on a school-day and the tiny hope that it was from THE ONE faded when I saw my best friend’s handwriting (since she and THE ONE didn’t really know each other). Innocently if a little disappointed therefore, I opened the envelope in front of my family, and extracted a Valentine’s card full of dubious (in every sense) ‘verse’ written by my friend on behalf of a mutual male friend for whom I had no romantic feelings whatsoever. While I was still reeling in a mix of emotions (finally, I had a Valentine’s but it was from the wrong boy), the card was whipped from my hands by my aggravating little sister and after she’d sniggered a bit, snatched by my father, who never having any concept of other people’s mortification, read it aloud to my mother and declared he’d take it to the office to show his colleagues. I stopped him. Just.
A few years later, THE ONE did actually ask me for a date and we went out together for about eighteen months. When he ended it, we were walking along and I was crying so hard I walked into some scaffolding before he could stop me and I banged my head, whereupon despite the fact that he was deeply contrite and I was utterly broken-hearted, we both burst out laughing (albeit briefly).
And then, there was the summer evening MANY years after that, when my husband proposed to me while we were sitting on a cliff watching the sun go down into the sea while birds swooped and soared overhead. We’d only been going out for about two months and while I wanted to say yes, it all seemed so ridiculous, that I said no. Consequently a year and a bit after that, when he tried again, the proposal I accepted one grey day went something like, him: ‘mumble mumble get married’, me: ‘oh go on then.’
See – I can’t even do my own love story properly.
So, as I say, I haven’t written a romance yet and wonder if I have the skills. Occasionally, I have a go at writing love scenes, but my inner teenager emerges, sniggers, ruins the moment and makes me write things like this:
He stood irresolute in the bedroom torn between the desperate urge to get his trousers off and the knowledge that he might look less than sexy in his superhero socks and boxers. With relief, he realised she’d got her hair and face tangled in the complicated straps of her dress, which gave him just enough time to stumble about the room removing his clothes, chuck them out of sight and recline on the bed before she emerged, flushed with what he hoped was desire but feared was largely exhaustion.
He kissed her neck, her mouth and their feet tangled under the covers as he pulled her closer, lifting his lips from hers to say: ‘I l— Aargh! Ow ow ow!’
‘The cat’s got onto the bed. She’s attacking my feet! She’s just sunk her teeth in! Aargh!’
So you see, that’s why I chose the picture below to go with this blog. Although the man doesn’t look much like Fox in The Wrong Sort to Die, the woman does look a bit like Margaret, right down to the suspicious look: ‘Why are you being so soppy? what are you after?’
Mind you, Fox probably is after something. It could be help with his latest mission, a decent meal, a pint of beer in the Dog & Duck rather than a cup of coffee in a prim café, or it could be something else entirely. I can’t imagine what but I suspect it doesn’t involve flowers and chocolate. Well. Maybe chocolate.
When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo.
It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.
Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.
Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.
So I took the job.
My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages.
It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.
The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since.
My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.
I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.
I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it.
The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley.
A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.
But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.
‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.
‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’
‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’
But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.
‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’
She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.
A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.
In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.
Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?
Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.
I seem to have become infected with some sort of reverse-Midas touch which means pretty much everything I touch is breaking down. This includes the fridge-freezer, the oven door, the car (or at least a warning light has come on) and the laptop which has ‘lost’ its word processing system. And yesterday, when I was teaching my daughter to sew, the sewing machine stopped working.
In the early hours of this morning when I was trying to formulate a short story and realising it was rapidly turning into a novel, I returned my thoughts to sewing, which as a creative activity, helps me zone out completely. Right now, the more I can tune out the better.
I learnt to sew very young. Until I married I made a lot of my own clothes, partly because I was an odd shape: short, thin, with no hips but an ample bust. After marriage I largely stopped because we had a small house and it wasn’t as easy having bits of sewing over the place and living on toast for a couple of days while I was making something. And the way I mutter to myself when things go wrong drove my husband mad. Now that my son has pretty much moved out though, I’ve reconfigured his bedroom as a sewing room and am starting afresh.
As I was thinking about this at six a.m., I considered my characters and their relationship with clothes.
Aunt Alice in the Caster & Fleet books is partly drawn from my paternal grandmother only with added primness and shockability (my grandmother wasn’t prim and not especially shockable although that might have been because she didn’t really realise what was going on). My grandmother had been brought up to be a housewife. It would be her husband’s job to support her, while she played her part by being thrifty and skilled in cooking, sewing and parenting. Which she was. She adored pretty, bright, well-fitting clothes, took a lively interest in prevailing fashion and delighted in discussing dress-making ideas and helping develop my skills. This filtered into Aunt Alice.
Katherine in the same books is even shorter than I am, but doesn’t have a bust worth talking about. While that would have been an advantage to me, it wasn’t to her in the late 19th Century. She’s also in a situation where the rug has been pulled out from under her financially. She can no longer afford a dressmaker but must rely on Aunt Alice’s skills. She herself can sew of course, but she’s not really patient enough to put as much effort in as she would need to, not to mention the fact that she has a job keeping her occupied every day. She’s very conscious in the early books that what she’s wearing is very slightly out of style, or has been re-modelled. While she’s grateful to Aunt Alice, she’s also a little envious of her better off friends, particularly Connie. Katherine also struggles with fashions which don’t really suit small, flat-chested women. This is pretty much a reflection of how I felt in my younger years when fashions didn’t really suit small, busty women and I didn’t have any money for new clothes.
Her younger sister Margaret, who appears from time to time in the Caster & Fleet books and now has a book all of her own set in 1910 is positively clothes obsessed. She remembers her teenage years when she was always a little out of style, and now she’s fully grown up and has a professional career, she will splash out on the latest hats and a few evening dresses that she perhaps can’t quite afford, simply because they’re beautiful. She has the advantage over Katherine of being taller and busty. She may find the bust a nuisance in the 1920s, but right now, she’s quite happy in clothes that are elegant and perfectly skim her figure. (Yes, I’m jealous of Margaret. She reflects how I wish I was and has a confidence in her appearance I won’t have if I live till I’m 100.)
Moving back several hundred years Lucretia, is also obsessed with the latest fashion (as soon as it arrives from Rome to West Britain). Her mental self image is fixed around eighteen. Then she was small and curvaceous with long dark, wavy hair and while probably not exactly pretty, she was certainly striking. Nowadays – the wrong side of fifty – she’s very curvaceous and says the appearance of the odd silver strand of hair is a trick of the light. Just in case though, she has a collection of wigs sourced from all over the empire: one with black Indian hair, one with blonde German hair, one with red hair (the source of which may be a henna plant) and one which mixes them up a bit. She also wears as much make-up as she can without falling forwards under the weight of it. Most of the cosmetics are lead based and therefore toxic, but even if she realised, she’d probably say beauty has its price. It’s perhaps as well she doesn’t have access to a full-length mirror and can keep in her head the image of herself as young and beautiful and not have it dashed by reality – though of course, she’d say that was a trick of the light too.
Nowadays of course, I’m probably closer to Lucretia than Katherine in looks, though I couldn’t bear all that make-up. I’d say I couldn’t bear the thought of a wig either but not having seen a hairdresser since January, my silver strands are rather taking over.
I am still short, with no hips and an ample bust. Sadly I am no longer thin. And equally sadly, unlike Lucretia I do have a full-length mirror and am not deluded enough to think I still look eighteen. Oh well – I’m ready for a different dress-making challenge. Bobbins at the ready sewing machine – I’m coming to fix you.
(This is from a rather blurry polaroid of me and my sister in a Welsh costume made by my mother for St David’s Day when we lived in Wales. All the other little girls wore short skirts but my father was determined we should be ‘authentic’. As we were English this seemed a bit pointless but that was Dad for you. My sister is now taller than me.)
Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.