Jobs For The Girls

Aged five, I was asked to draw what I wanted to be when I grew up. I drew a woman in a headscarf wielding a broom and smiling. A happy housewife.

What was I thinking? I never wanted to be a housewife.

I actually wanted to be a secretary, but couldn’t draw one because I didn’t actually know what a secretary did except something to do with writing (which I liked) and typewriters which fascinated me (and still do).

So I drew a housewife, which is what my mum was at the time, even though I didn’t actually want to be one and she probably didn’t want to be one either. I didn’t know what secretaries did, but I knew what housewives did and because I was a very lucky little girl with a very lovely mum, this was it: they help their children read and write and do crafts and make scones and bake fresh bread to eat after school and they’re always smiling and pretty. 

It didn’t occur to me that housewives were supposed to keep things tidy and dust. That sort of nonsense didn’t happen in our house when there were paintings to paint and scones to cook. And I don’t recall Mum ever wearing a headscarf, certainly not while sweeping the floor and grinning like a loon, but that’s what I drew anyway.

A couple of years later, Mum went back to part-time work starting as a nursing assistant and ending up as a civil servant. This was at the time a little embarrassing as no one else’s mum worked, but nevertheless reinforced the idea that it was more interesting to have a job than do housework, so I started to think about possible careers. 

Being a nurse briefly appealed, but that was because I liked the uniform and cute little hat. (Many years later, my sister, who did become a nurse, had a very different view of the ‘cute little hat’, which had to be folded into exactly the right shape every day. She was regularly tempted to crush it into a ‘cute little missile’ and throw it at Matron.) 

Other children said I ought to be a teacher (helpful or bossy?), but by the time I was seven I’d already decided that both nursing and teaching would be unbearably noisy and involve too much blood, mud, snot, tears and whining (and that would just be me).

By the time I was a teenager, I wanted to be a writer, but knew it probably wouldn’t pay the bills. The urge to be a secretary had faded but the possibility of teaching lurked. Beyond that, I had no ideas whatsoever, except I didn’t want to be a civil servant. By then my mother could quote more form numbers and their function than anyone surely ever needed to know. I never wanted to be in a job where I had to know form numbers.

So there I was in the fifth form, trying to make sensible decisions about my future, going for an appointment with the school careers adviser.

When I was sixteen, Computer Studies was still a new and weird O level option which involved a small group of students (even geekier than I was) huddling round some a box in a cupboard which was linked somehow to the County Council’s mainframe and spewed code. To me, Computer Studies were niche and unacademic and of doubtful use.

This is why I didn’t know what a data entry form was when the careers adviser handed me a brown form with a lot of squares marked next to a range of questions and explained that all I had to do was put blobs in the right places and a computer would analyse my responses and produce the perfect career just for me.

With great excitement at this interesting promise, I scored my enthusiasm levels in terms of interests, skills and school subjects from one to ten and handed the form back. A week later, I was given the result. Apparently my ideal career was:

A forestry worker working in forests for the Forestry Commission. 

You couldn’t get much more indoorsy than I am. So, deciding the whole thing was nonsense, I went off to do A levels in English, French and Latin, realising a little too late when I emerged from university with an English degree slap bang into a recession a few years later, that Computer Studies might have been niche and unacademic … but could have given me a better chance of getting a well paid job. Or indeed any sort of job.

Nevertheless, battling my way through the situations vacant pages for about a year, I continued to ignore the advice of the careers computer.

I did various things after university, including abandoning a post graduate teacher training course when I realised I’d make a terrible teacher and that the average eleven year old was taller than me. But none of my jobs have involved trees other than in the form of desks and paper, and I’m proud to state that I’ve followed my mother’s lead in not worrying unduly about the more boring aspects of housework by prioritising to cooking and creating. (Nor have I often worn a headscarf.)

Eventually, I did join the Civil Service (one of the more interesting branches) ‘until something better turns up’ but it didn’t and here I am still working for the same organisation, towards the end of a career involving various roles in various places, splinters from career ladder rungs deep in my fingertips. Now, despite my lack of a Computer Studies O Level, I’m working on the IT development side. Yet after twenty-two years, I’m still able to quote form numbers and their uses despite not having needed to do so since 2005.

I often wonder whether what went wrong with that prototype careers analysis I tried at sixteen. 

Was it the programme? The data entry form? The data enterer? Was it my answers? Or was it something else?

What would have happened if it had come up with a career choice that really appealed? Would I have had the courage to go for it? If so, where could I be now?

Or … what if I got someone else’s results and they got mine? 

Maybe somewhere out there is a born lumberjack who was told to be whatever I should be been rather than working with trees in a forest. If so, I wonder whether they went with their instincts or the computer’s suggestion? 

And if I got their results, what was my perfect career? It certainly wasn’t housewife.

What do you reckon?

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 https://pixabay.com/vectors/cleaning-silhouette-maid-duster-5196528/

New Beginnings Everywhere

The sparrows have returned to our garden from wherever they shelter over the winter.

From what started as four sweet little birdies a few years ago, a small army of spadgers now congregates each morning on one of the trees to eye up our house. They’re clearly ready to start roosting again which involves a lot of lewd or violent behaviour right in front of us on the fences and decking; a fresh brood of chicks yelling for food from dawn to dusk every few weeks; general clattering and bickering. What’s not happening on the decking, happens in the eaves of our house, where they periodically pull out the nails which hold the tiles in place (presumably they don’t go with their desired decor) and from which they occasionally get into the loft.

Tomorrow is the start of the Chinese Year of The Water Tiger, and the day after is Candlemas. In some countries, they don’t take their Christmas decorations down till Candlemas Eve, after which the new year really starts and in others (in a throw-back to pre-Christian traditions perhaps), Candlemas involves pancakes (or more accurately crêpes) whose round, golden shape symbolises the return of the sun as spring approaches. (I like this idea – one can never have enough pancakes, crêpes or galettes and I was wondering what to cook for dinner on Wednesday.)

So even though January is ending, there’s always a chance for a new beginning.

Have you ever made a fresh start that started out draining but in the end worked out empowering? Or do you need to make one and it scares you?

As a teenager/young person, I’d expected that writing would be my career, but life didn’t work out that way. Was I disappointed? Yes. Did I ever think I’d pick up that abandoned ambition? No. For a long period, it seemed impossible, and every time my dreams were nearly in my grasp again, something would take them away.

Back in 2005, my youngest child was due to start school. I was working three days per week and despite being a team-leader, had almost secured an agreement to continue that working pattern after September. Finally, I was going to have two whole days to myself to start writing! I didn’t really know what I’d write – I had a few ideas, but nothing concrete. Then… my husband became seriously unhappy at work and the chance to move into another role in Dorset rather than travel back and forth to London from Gloucestershire presented itself. He’d always wanted to go back to the south coast where he’d been a student and the job was right up his street. I quite fancied an adventure. I said ‘yes, let’s go’.

Initially however, I found the transition much harder than I’d expected. I hadn’t realised how much I’d miss my support network and how hard it would be to make a new one. I hadn’t realised quite how hard it would be to establish myself in a new role and gain respect (especially since the one I’d been given – just after a merger of two parts of my organisation – was unpopular) while still working part-time and not knowing anyone at all. And to make things worse, I couldn’t keep my proposed working pattern. I had to rush between school and work, being at work, and then as chief child carer rush the children to and from various after school activities. Any hopes of time to myself were knocked firmly on the head. 

This was a very low point in my personal plot. I wrote something about trying to explain to the post office about forwarding mail while we were selling one house, buying another, and renting an interim one. It was read aloud on Terry Wogan’s breakfast show. But that was it. Otherwise, I kept writing ‘humorous’ emails to old friends, one of whom got in touch as she thought I was losing what few marbles I had. At some point, I wrote down in the third person a story encompassing what I was going through and how it made me feel. It was cathartic, but only a few people have ever read it.

But… it was a while before I realised that from a creative point of view some things had changed for the better and that this had given me a new starting point.

With the move, I’d also left behind some of the things that were hindering me – other people’s views on what I should write in particular. And I’d learned a lot about the world and myself since I was a teenager/young adult. A kind of freedom from what other people thought made me begin again.

Around 2010, I started some stories, planned out some novels. One lunch break, I wrote down a paragraph from a possible Roman murder mystery. My dad (still living in Wales) and I started a little contest between ourselves writing silly stories. When he died in 2012, an old school friend with whom I’d lost touch turned up at his funeral. She was the kindred spirit from the school year below, with whom I made up stories and acted them out, who had the same mad imagination, who had also been a little ‘odd’. 

‘Are you still writing?’ she said. 

‘Not really,’ I said.

It turned out she hadn’t stopped. As we rekindled our friendship, she encouraged me to start again and ultimately enter a local writing competition in 2015 in which I was short listed. After that, I joined a local writers’ group.

And one evening on the way home from work, I heard someone talking about self-publishing on the radio, and I bought his book and thought ‘I could do this’. 

Then I discovered a Facebook writing group. I had no idea these existed but and after a while I worked up the courage to join and share little bits of writing.

This was now 2015, ten years after that traumatic move. What happened next was a like popping the cork on a bottle. All that pent up, frustrated creativity came pouring out. I pretty much wrote Kindling and The Advent Calendar in the space of two months while also doing Nanowrimo. Now I admit, that that particular Nanowrimo novel is still in a cyber drawer, but the following year, I published the two collections of short stories and the year after that The Cluttering Discombobulator and the year after that the Roman murder mystery paragraph I’d written in my lunch hour came out as Murder Britannica.

And it wasn’t only having the courage to write which made the difference, it was also making writer friends through the writing group and online. Friends who encouraged me, and in many cases became more than ‘virtual’ and in the case of two of them, became co-writers and very close friends indeed. Liz Hedgecock asked me to co-write The Caster & Fleet Series and Val Portelli suggested we pull some of our short stories together into an Weird & Peculiar Tales.

What does the future hold? In the immediate sense, the publication of the third Margaret Demeray book later this year I hope and maybe a longer sequel to The Good Wife. And after that on maybe not too distant a date, I’m hoping the writing shed will come into its own and I won’t be distracted by a demanding day job, but who knows… 

After all – since it’s National Story Telling Week, if you click on the link below, you’ll hear me on YouTube, somewhat hesitantly reading ‘The Familiar’, one of the first stories I wrote for ‘Kindling’. It may be a little sad as a story, but it too is ultimately about a new start. Would I have believed I’d do anything like this in 2005? Not in a million years.

So I’d like to encourage you at this new time of new beginnings, whether you’re a writer or not. If you’re stuck, or don’t think ‘it’ will ever happen (whatever ‘it’ is) please don’t give up. The time might not be ‘now’ but when it comes, it’ll be the right time somehow and ‘it’ will be the richer for it. And also, whether you think of yourself as a writer or not and things are bogging you down – consider finding a creative outlet. You don’t need to share the outcome, but writing, drawing, sewing, crafting, photography cooking… all of them are massive boosts to mental health – a way of expressing things it’s hard to say out loud.

Go for it – it’s never too late for a new beginning.

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

Once More With Feeling

Somehow it’s New Year again. 

My daughter has gone back to university and all the Christmas food has been eaten except a few chocolates and enough cheese to make macaroni cheese for fifty (and the Christmas pudding which we’ll have tomorrow).

I stopped doing a ‘round robin’ Christmas letters a long time ago, around about when I joined Facebook. But this year I wrote one for a few friends I haven’t seen in person for years and who aren’t on Facebook much or at all. Turned out, when I started writing, that 2021 didn’t add up to a great deal. ‘Ooh,’ I thought. ‘There was that trip to Silchester with Debbie.’ Then I thought a bit harder and realised ‘that trip’ was in 2019. Somehow 2020 and 2021 have merged into one – a sort of roller coaster of lockdowns being imposed and lifted, of silence and noise, of anxiety and relief, of being able to travel and/or see people and then not being able to and then being able to again, of Christmases and holidays not being the way (or with the people) we’d expected and so on. 

Meanwhile some things have sort of trundled on as if nothing has changed – my husband and I were never furloughed so have kept doing the day jobs, my children continued (somehow) their university work. 

As you can tell from previous Januaries (sp??), I’m not much of a resolution maker (or keeper). The loft remains chaotic, my nails nibbled, the crochet abandoned, the choir I briefly joined has not been revisited. But I thought I’d have a quick look back at former January posts, and saw these New Year’s good wishes from Val Portelli in January 2020, at a point when my life was a little upside down, but before we all realised the whole world was about to turn upside down. They were:

  1. A secret writing space
  2. Trained housework fairies
  3. Self cleaning and ironing clothes
  4. Self cooking and washing up meals
  5. Empty, peaceful train journeys
  6. Supportive work colleagues
  7. Considerate offspring
  8. Strong anti-bodies as soldiers for ailing relative
  9. No plot holes, and
  10. A successful writing year

In retrospect they have a sort of poignancy. But, if I apply them to 2021 too, this would be the outcome:

  1. After first asking in 2005, I finally had a shed built for me to write in in July 2021. It’s furnished with odds and ends from the attic, and my husband keeps joining me in there, so it’s hardly secret, but it’s lovely!
  2. I’m fairly sure the fairies returned to fairyland in 2019 and I can’t say I blame them.
  3. I gave up the ironing years ago, but the washing remains visible only to me.
  4. Sadly not, although my husband still argues he loads the dishwasher better than I do. It’s simplest to agree. It keeps him happy.
  5. I only had one train journey in 2020 and two in 2021. I don’t miss the 6:45 am commutes to London twice a week, but I miss the rhythm and ‘out of the world’ feeling of train travel for writing in.
  6. My colleagues are amazingly supportive.
  7. My offspring are lovely, despite their early adult life not being remotely as carefree as they’d expected and I’m so proud of both of them.
  8. We got through. Sadly, not all our friends did. If you’re bereaved too, I’m really sorry.
  9. My plot holes overflowed. I spent even more of 2021 removing sub-plots than I did in 2020! I blame Covid. Not sure if it’s the lack of train travel or some sort of anxiety induced brain fog which means my ideas get more tangled than my crochet.
  10. Big old novels ‘Murder Saturnalia’ and ‘Death in the Last Reel’, novella ‘The Good Wife’ and short story collections ‘Invitation For Christmas’ and ‘Night Navigation’ all came out somehow. I’m content with that. 

I’m not even going to try and make resolutions for 2022 – writing or otherwise – out loud. I have aspirations and things I hope to achieve, but if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s not to assume everything will go to plan. After all, there’s the Yiddish saying ‘Der mentsh trakht un got lakht’ meaning ‘Man plans, and God laughs’, and didn’t Robert Burns say ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley’ (go awry)?

But I will say that I’m working on a sequel to ‘Death In the Last Reel’  (the third book in the Margaret Demeray series) and also a sequel to ‘The Good Wife’ which will be a short novel rather than a novella.

I’ve just started reading ‘The Thief on the Winged Horse’ by Kate Mascarenhas and I have ‘Old Baggage’ by Lissa Evans next on the pile (and a pile of non fiction too as ever), but I plan to be more disciplined about reading and follow this suggestion for reading in 2021. It’s from the The Book Hangout Spot Facebook page. Here are the suggestions and my thoughts so far

  • January: A book you read at school: Old Mali and the Boy’ by D.R. Sherman
  • February: A book you wish you’d read at school: ‘Anita and me’ by Meera Syal. It didn’t exist at the time, because Meera is around my age, but it’s a great book – an eye opener of what it was like to be a British Asian contemporary living in a rural community (as I did, only mine was mono-cultural) watching the same TV programmes but with a different viewpoint. I wish we’d had more exposure to contemporary British people of a different ethnicity through the books we read at school. I think it would have made a massive difference in the long run to people’s perceptions and their decisions as adults.
  • March: A book published within the last year: ‘This Much Huxley Knows’ by Gail Aldwin.
  • April: a non fiction book: ‘The Great War: The People’s Story – Kate Parry Frye’ by Elizabeth Crawford
  • May: a book you wouldn’t normally choose: I’m thinking Science Fiction – any ideas?
  • June: a book that will improve a specific area of your life – no idea whatsoever!
  • July: a book that a friend recommended: ‘The Singing Sands’ by Josephine Tey
  • August: a book that you can read to your child: ‘Treacle Walker’ by Alan Garner
  • September: a book that you listen to: ‘The White Russian Caper’ by Phyllis Entis
  • October: a Pulitzer prize winning book of fiction: ‘The Night Watchman’ by Louise Erdrich
  • November: a comedy: ‘The Flat Share’ by Beth O’Leary
  • December: your choice: I’ll decide closer to the time!

Any suggestions gratefully received and I’d love to know if you’ve got any reading plans too.

AND FINALLY – if you’ve got this far. Two offers for a very short time in the US & UK:

The Case of the Black Tulips’ is 99p/99c until 6th January 2022

‘The Wrong Sort To Die’ is 99p/99c until 8th January 2022

Happy New Year! And may 2022 be a good one and full of peace and fulfilment.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image File ID 104038561 | © Artur Szczybylo | Dreamstime.com

Bonfire Night

(An extract from The Cluttering Discombobulator)

1974 November – I remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Inside the garage!’ said Dad.

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

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

He relit the fuse.

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

Then the garage filled with thick, black smoke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Did On My Holidays

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY ONE (1st September 2021)

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

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

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

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

DAY TWO (2nd September)

Invergordon to Dunnet’s Head (88 miles)

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

DAY THREE (3rd September) 

Dunnet Head to Loch Eriboll (71 miles)

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

‘I’ll pay you back’ he said. 

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

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

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

It felt quite good to get away from that house.

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

DAY FOUR (4th September)

Loch Eriboll to Altandhu via the Mad Wee Road and Ullapool 

100 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY FIVE (5th September) 

Altandhu to Applecross 121 miles

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

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

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

Day Six (6th September) 

Applecross to Skye 148 miles

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day Seven (7th September)

Talisker, Skye to Connel nr Oban (148 miles)

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

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

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

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

Mark’s response: ‘bloody women’. 

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

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

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

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

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

Day 8 (8th September)

Connel to Kilberry

A lovely sunny morning for a short dap south. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 9 (9th September)

Kilberry to Livingston

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

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

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

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

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

‘What are those?’ said Mark.

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

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

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

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

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

Day 10 (10th September)

Edinburgh

Took a taxi into Edinburgh today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Novel Idea

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

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

It’s hard to answer either.

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

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

This was where my confession comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes they can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Father’s Day with Roderick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine years have passed, and hearts can heal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions

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

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

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

I felt slightly unhinged.

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

I suppose they make a sort of sense.

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

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

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

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

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

DO NOT TRY THIS 😳

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs T’s Boiled Fruit Cake

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

INGREDIENTS

10 fluid ounces milk

4 ounces butter or margarine

6 ounces sugar (I used demerara)

10 ounces dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

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

1 egg

METHOD

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

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

285 ml milk

113 g butter or margarine

170 g sugar (I used Demerara)

284 g dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

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

1 egg

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

1¼ cups milk

1 stick butter or margarine

¾ cup sugar 

1½ cups dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2¾ – 1⅓ cups self-raising flour

1 egg

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

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

https://www.mind.org.uk

https://breastcancernow.org

Something and Nothing

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

Sisters, Sisters (chatting with the Demerays)

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

‘No!’

‘Come down!’

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

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

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

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

***

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

It’s January 1911

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

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

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

Where and when were you born?

Katherine: Fulham, 4th May 1865

Margaret: Fulham, 16th January 1874

Where do you live now, and with whom?

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

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

What is your occupation?

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

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

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

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

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

Did you ever climb trees as a little girl?

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

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

Did you have any role models?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your greatest fear? 

Katherine: failing the people I love.

Margaret: losing the people I love.

What is your greatest extravagance?

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

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

Would you be able to kill? 

Katherine: No.

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

What three words would others probably use to describe you?

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

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

What smells do you associate with your childhood?

Both: Ada’s baking!

Katherine: no-one made cakes like she did.

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

***

Now it’s your turn:

Questions sought! 

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

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

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon.

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

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