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

What’s Going On?

‘Where now?’ said the taxi driver.

‘I’m not sure,’ said Margaret.

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

It’s a good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

‘Who are you waving to?’

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

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

‘Funny you should say that. Oh and…’

‘Who you waving at now?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reactions

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

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

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

I felt slightly unhinged.

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

I suppose they make a sort of sense.

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

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

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

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

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

DO NOT TRY THIS 😳

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs T’s Boiled Fruit Cake

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

INGREDIENTS

10 fluid ounces milk

4 ounces butter or margarine

6 ounces sugar (I used demerara)

10 ounces dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

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

1 egg

METHOD

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

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

285 ml milk

113 g butter or margarine

170 g sugar (I used Demerara)

284 g dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

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

1 egg

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

1¼ cups milk

1 stick butter or margarine

¾ cup sugar 

1½ cups dried fruit

2 teaspoons mixed spice

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

2¾ – 1⅓ cups self-raising flour

1 egg

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

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

https://www.mind.org.uk

https://breastcancernow.org

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

Heart of Quartz

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

She didn’t finish.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I love it,’ she said.

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

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

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

Viewscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rude Words and Literature

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whan that the Knyght had thus his tale tooled,

In al the route was ther yong ne oold

That he ne seyde it was a noble storie

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

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

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

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

She never quite grasped why the class sniggered at 

Enter a bleeding captain. 

Duncan: ‘What bloody man is that?’

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

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

It’s Act 5, Scene 1. 

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

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

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

Every single sixth former fell about laughing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imaginary Friends?

Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

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?

If you’ve got this far and want to hear how I first met Ælfnod, you can see me read the story ‘Dust’ by clicking here, or check out ‘Perspective‘ or ‘Personal Grooming‘ or ‘Interview with a Laundry Fairy’ or check out the book ‘Weird & Peculiar Tales’.

To find out more about my invisible household ghost, check out ‘Ghost Coin’ and ‘Quiet Company

To find out about the woodland and river, check out ‘The Return’ and also the book ‘Kindling’ which features the same woodland in some of the stories, though not always in a serious context.

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.