Equinox

I was the chieftain in the settlement then.

A killing winter it had been and a grasping one, reaching with frost crackling fingers to catch the young ones and the old ones and freeze the yet unknown ones in the womb. 

Not a child under three years old survived that winter. And that winter dragged and bore down on the land so that at the turning of the year, when night balances day, the signs of spring were few, and those often rimed with frost.

Since the loss of our daughter, my wife had turned me only for warmth. The long dried tears had cut her deeper than any knife and severed, it seemed, the affection between us. 

‘No,’ she’s say. ‘I couldn’t bear to catch with child again only to lose it.’

In vain I said that it was not to make a child that I wanted her, that I loved her and in that release we might find comfort together and heal, even though we couldn’t speak of the empty place under the covers where our little girl had once lain or the one under her heart where our son should had found haven. 

But she would not agree and I am not a man who would not force his wife. 

So there we lay, night after shortening night. And though the finest blade could not have separated us as we lay close for warmth, the longest bridge could not have spanned the gap between our spirits. And in the end as the nights grew a little warmer, I stopped turning towards her and dreamed of the days when we’d made love with all consuming passion and joy. And her face in my dreams stopped looking like hers and became wondrously strange and I tried to catch her but she was as elusive as a patch of light on the river wave and my longing burned.

And in the day, my wife was somehow even further away. When she’d finished listlessly grinding what little grain we had, or made my food, she’d curl back into the bed, her back turned to me, her face to the wall of the round house, curled like a babe in the womb, or a corpse in its grave.

Then when it came to the turning of the year, someone forgot to do what needed to be done, just as they had at Winter solstice. And though the winter had taken the old man who used to guard the gateway facing the stones had died, no one thought to find another to take his place.

On that day when promise of spring whispered in the chilly sunshine, the things that should have been done were left undone. The fires were not stirred up to ensure that fiery smoke filled the holes in our houses’ roofs, doors were left open, thresholds welcomed.

That day, I took my bow and went hunting alone. And in the woods, I looked into the mossy stone circle and saw nothing and no one and turned away, then turned back to see the woman from my dreams there, sitting astride a beautiful horse. And I knew that woman as if I’d known her my whole life. 

Her hair was as dark and rich as Midwinter night and yet shimmered like water in the full sun, it flowed down her back as far as her waist, in thick curls and her waist was slim and her breasts were high under her linen dress. Her face was…. I can not describe it. Whenever I looked at her eyes I found mine straying to consider the angle of her cheekbones and then the berry fullness of her mouth.

She slipped from her horse, the horse whose hooves I had not heard. It was sixteen hands at least that horse, and stood tossing its mane at her side, standing without bridle or saddle, as loyal as a dog yet as independent as a cat. Powerful yet slender, all its strength a potential in the muscles shifting under the chestnut skin. 

Will you help me? said the woman. Or I thought she said. I knew her so well that I knew what she was thinking. 

‘What ails you lady?’ I made to step in towards her. 

May I come to you instead? she said, or thought.

I beckoned. ‘Of course.’

And then… she stepped out of the circle towards me and smiled. 

I am lonely, she said or thought. Will you walk with me? And we walked, side by side, and  her hand slipped into mine and the warmth from her body warmed me and the horse followed behind without a sound, not even the crack of twigs underfoot or the swishing of young bracken as we passed. 

I cannot say how long we walked till we found a grove where soft green leaves lay fresh and inviting under the curving bough of a silver birch and no, I never once wondered why there were green leaves lain down like a cloak, nor why when she asked me to sit down with her, they were warm as a blanket held by a fire. The scent of her filled my head. It was like spiced mead and rich berry wine – heady and sweet – driving out all other thought but the need to taste her mouth and curve my hand round her breast and her waist and every secret of her body until I had given her the joy she demanded and deserved. And I don’t know how long we rolled in those leaves, only that when she pulled away, she smiled. 

I never wondered how at the turning of the year, on a day when the morning had started with frost, we could lay there naked and feel warm. My back was raked with her nails, and my own blood was salty on my lip, yet I only wanted her again and again until I died from the desire for her.  

But she smiled and dressed and stood and wordlessly, climbed onto her horse’s back and without a backward glance, they galloped soundlessly away.

Night was falling and now she was gone, the leaves looked like ones that had lain there  since Autumn, and the sweat on my skin started to chill me. I dressed, shivering, and made my way home. I made some excuse for bringing no food with me and turned from my wife’s sad eyes. And that night, I rolled myself in my cloak and lay on the other side of the fire so that I could not touch her even by accident and wondered how I could feel so empty and lost and if I would ever see the woman again.

The days drew out. The promise of green became rich foliage, the hunting was good once more and my wife now turned her face to the sky, and she bathed in the river and sat on the threshold shelling peas, the sun drying her lovely hair into waves of brown. She smiled a little. Shyly, she waited for me in our bed with the covers turned back, but though I joined her, I did not touch her. My longing for the woman was a sickness and I could feel the ribs through my skin as plain as the wheals on my back that her nails had left.

At Summer solstice someone remembered. Thresholds were closed, smoke holes filled. 

But I was the one who offered to face the stones. And I took my bow and I walked towards them and waited. And there she came, riding once more from nowhere into the centre of them. Her horse was as wild as ever, its eyes flashing and green and the woman was petulant. 

It did not work, she said, or thought. Your seed did not grow. I need you to try again. Or maybe I need a man whose children live.

‘All our children died the winter just gone,’ I said. ‘It was too bitter for them.’

The woman pursed her lips. It was too bitter for ours too.

I stared at her then, remembering my little girl fade in my arms. She had become strange in those last days of her life. And she was not the only child who changed in their final moments. Going to sleep like one person and waking as another, only to die a few days later. 

Call me out of the circle, she said, or thought. I need you to… I want you. Her petulance changed into desire. The horse stamped its silent hooves. The air shimmered.

‘Did you exchange your children for ours at midwinter?’ I said at last, bile in my throat. ‘Did you take my girl?’

Your children are stronger than ours. Ours are weak, but our powers are great. Give me another child, mix your blood with mine then…

‘Wait!’ I said. ‘Where is my little girl. Is she alive?’

If you won’t call me out of the circle, then come with me and find out. She coaxed with her mouth but her eyes were cold. She patted the horse’s neck. See what wonders could be yours.

And for a moment I stood there, the burning of desire strong in my gut, the scent of her filling my head, but it was a cold scent and a cold desire a.

‘If you can bring back our children alive, maybe I’ll come with you. Maybe I’ll do as I ask.’

The desire dropped from her face and her teeth snarled. I cannot.

‘Then go back to where you came from,’ I said. ‘I have betrayed my wife enough.’

She hesitated for only a second, then wheeled the horse round and galloped into nowhere.

And since then, I have faded in strength, though the scars on my back have not. I yearn for the woman every night though the desire is nauseating and cold. 

For I remembered who it was who was responsible for making sure we kept the gateway protected and the thresholds sealed at Winter solstice and turn of year in the Spring. 

It was the chieftain. It was I. And I lost more than my daughter with my negligence.

I lost everything.

A song called ‘Ride On‘ by Christy Moore inspired this story. One day, I might expand on it.

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/illustrations/vintage-arthur-rackham-victorian-1722369/

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.

The Underdog

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

She had got her revenge.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And as the music soared, she smiled.

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

Dinner for Two at Margaret’s

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One day he’ll have a dog again.

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She never knows when or how Fox will arrive. 

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

Then she spots him. 

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

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

***

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

His hotel could be anywhere or anyone’s. 

Her flat is very much here and very much hers. 

But does it really matter? 

A home is never really bricks and mortar. 

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

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

Archer

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was very still.

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

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

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

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

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

And I was alone.

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

Pests

Bertram smirked as he dropped his handful of dirt onto Aunt Hepzibah’s coffin. Daft old biddy. No sense of humour. Giving him a thrashing just for dropping spiders down her back while she snoozed. What else was he supposed to do on childhood duty visits?

If she hadn’t been so bad tempered, maybe he wouldn’t have put beetles in her bed or ants in the pepper grinder or crickets in her pistachio ice cream. Or maybe he would. He bit his lip, thinking of all those tricks he played on the miserable old girl when he was a kid. What a laugh. 

As others tossed handfuls of dirt and the odd flower into the grave, Bertram leaned over to watch the large spider he’d wrapped in earth, wriggle free and scuttle across the name-plate. He sniggered. Touché Aunt Hepzibah, little Bertie’s done it again. 

Some dusty old relic of a relation glared and tutted, but Bertram just smirked back.

At the post funeral lunch, the cold buffet was as dry as the company. He looked askance at his cousin Angelina, who was dabbing her eyes. But then Angelina always had been as wet as her name, buttering up their aunt with little gifts and hugs; crying whenever Bertram played jokes on her.

He started to creep up to make her shriek when the solicitor announced the reading of the will.

Bertram nearly fell off his chair when the solicitor announced Aunt Hepzibah had left her house to him. All the relations stopped sniffing to stare and mutter.

‘There is a proviso,’ continued the solicitor. ‘The house will only be yours once you’ve spent the whole of tonight in it, not leaving till seven a.m. tomorrow.’

Bertram snorted. It would be a piece of cake.

‘Are you sure you’ll be all right?’ said Angelina. ‘If you want me, I’ll be in the hotel down the road.’ 

What a drip she was.

***

A few hours later, at three a.m. Bertram found himself in Angelina’s room at the hotel, shaking. He had run all the way down the road stark naked, his glories flapping in the wind, and legged it up the drainpipe despite the flakes of rust and rose thorns stabbing delicate body parts. Now he wore Angelina’s pink frilly dressing gown which just about covered his dignity. A glass of whisky rattled against his teeth.

For a cousin who’d last seen him naked when they were three and who hadn’t seen him at all seen since they were twelve, and whom he’d thought rather prim, Angelina seemed quite mellow despite having a naked, trembling man in her room. 

‘What happened?’ she asked. ‘What made you run?’

A small whimper came from Bertram’s lips before he managed to stutter: ‘Spiders, spiders everywhere. Earwigs, beetles, tarantulas probably. They came out from the walls, down from the ceiling… they were all over me…it was terrible.’

He took a swig of whisky and rearranged the dressing gown which had fallen apart. A man is not at his best when frightened.

He looked up and saw Angelina was biting her lip. How sweet that she was concerned. Then she handed over an envelope.

Inside was a note in Aunt Hepzibah’s scrawl: 

‘Thanks for all the fun Bertram. But at long last, I’ve had the last laugh.’

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 http://www.dreamstime.com/photos-images/spider.html

Bus-stop on a Rainy Day

The zip broke and Jake’s portfolio exploded just as some swine swerved to speed through the puddle near the bus queue.

Rain had already leaked through the gaps and soaked into the cheap seams. Muddy, grimy road-water just added an extra patination to his paintings. The handles slipped as he struggled to hold the portfolio closed and save his work. With rain pouring, no-one could realise that all the tears Jake had dammed up since the tutorial had finally burst their banks and were running down his face.

‘You kids think you know everything,’ said a damp old man ahead of him in the queue. ‘Anyone with half a brain would’ve brought an umbrella.’ He leaned forward, water dripping off a massive, ancient green contraption as he stared into the portfolio. ‘What’s that? Modern art? Bit of rain might improve it.’ He snorted at his own joke, shoulders heaving and more water dislodged in lumps, tipping onto the paintings and sketches. He looked beyond Jake to whoever was behind him. ‘And here’s another one. Umbrella’d spoil what you call your style would it? What are those badges you got pinned on? Save the rainforest? Save the monkeys? They should save you. Even monkeys have got the sense to hold leaves over their heads when it’s raining.’ 

Jake turned so see Cait from college. Cait, who’d glared at his exhibition as if wanting to set it alight with her eyes. He’d wanted to ask why his work annoyed her but as she stood scowling on the slick pavement with her arms akimbo, he knew she must feel like his tutor did. That his art was ‘Too nice. Too hopeful. Not despairing enough.’  Her glare encompassed him and the old man in disparagement of the male sex or possibly the entire human race, then she shoved her hands in her pockets.

Cait hunched in her jacket. The rain had long since soaked all the way through the cloth and she was aware of damp skin cooling. She was unable to suppress a shiver. Even the fortress of her boots had been breached when the motorist went through the puddle. She’d reached out to help with Jake’s portfolio, her hands mottled and blue, but the old man’s words stung. What you call your style…even monkeys have got sense… Why couldn’t people understand? There was so much to sort out – the mess former generations had left through arrogance, ignorance, selfish disregard for the world. The issues were a drowning flood. Cait lay half-awake most nights nearly engulfed by them, trying to dam and steer and navigate those tumbling waters. But she had to push off from the shore and do something, not just drink and eat and sleep her way through life in blind hedonism while the world disintegrated around her. She wanted to save it all – the clean air and the oceans and the animals and even the people who mocked her. She wished she could express what she felt – be kind, be gentle, embrace the sun and the rain and the moon and the sea and the being alive – but her thoughts just came out as furious nonsense. Not like Jake – his art summed up everything she thought. When she’d seen his exhibition she’d wanted to lose herself in his pictures: beauty, joy, hope. She’d wanted to tell him but the words just wouldn’t come. He’d just think her stupid.

Bill had turned to look up the road. He was cold, jealous of the young blood of the two kids who would dry out and forget the rain in no time. Bill was warmed only by thinking of Judith. He was like someone who’d lost a limb but could still feel it aching. Judith wasn’t there but he knew what she’d say, could sense the weight of her arm hooked through his.

But her voice in his mind was disappointed. That was unkind. 

‘Kids should make more of an effort,’ he whispered. ‘Like we used to. Nowadays they’re proud to wear secondhand clothes and have rat-tail hair. Not like you. You were never less than immaculate. Right …. up to the end.’ He swallowed. 

Go on with you, Judith giggled. Remember what the old folk said about our fashions when we were their age? And the girl cares about things. Just like we do.

‘It’s a waste of time. Nothing changes.’

We said we’d never give up hope.

They’d met in the rain on a nuclear disarmament march in 1958. Her umbrella had blown out of her hands as she struggled with a banner and a pet dog sheltering inside her jacket. Dead soft, was Judith. Fierce as a lioness but underneath…

Bill remembered a holiday in the 1960s. Walking along some promenade, they’d passed a hurdy-gurdy man with a dancing monkey, its puckered woebegone face sucking any joy from the tune. 

‘Poor little thing,’ Judith had said. ‘It’s cruel, that’s what it is.’ She’d cried a little and in the middle of the night, Bill agreed to buy the creature and keep it for a pet. But next day, the hurdy-gurdy man and monkey were not to be found.

Perhaps the angry girl was just another Judith. And when had it ever been more important to look right than to do right? 

Umbrella, Judith whispered. 

‘What?’

We always kept a spare folding one in the shopping bag. Give them the old one – you don’t need anything that big anymore.

Bill swallowed, then straightened his shoulders before turning.

‘Sorry,’ he said. ‘Just lost my wife, but it’s no excuse.’ He held out the old battered umbrella he’d had since 1958 and nodded at the portfolio. ‘Take this – protect some of that art.’ Then he gave Cait a trembling smile. ‘Forget what I said. There’s always hope. This umbrella’s big enough for two. Perhaps you’ve got ideas to share. Someone’s got to save the world. It wasn’t me and Judith. But maybe it’ll be you.’

rainy bus stop

Words and art copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Lockdown (Tall) Tales

It’s time for the evening lockdown video call between me, my sister and my mother.

First crucial question of course is: 

‘What’s for dinner?’

I’m planning a concoction made from odds and ends which I’ll pretend is a proper recipe (again). My mother is having fish and potatoes (again). My sister is smug because her husband is a trained chef and she doesn’t know and doesn’t care because she doesn’t have to cook.

Leaving coronavirus concerns to chew over later (you don’t want to rush eating the elephant in the room all at once), the next question is: 

‘What happened today?’

Usually of course, there is no answer but for the distant sound of tumbling tumble-weeds.

Today however is different. 

My mother starts:

‘Funny you should ask. 

‘I looked out of my window today expecting it to be as quiet and boring as usual with nothing but a few birds poking about, and the first thing I saw was that all the squirrels had lined up on the branches of the trees and were not only looking down but were holding paws and jumping about. Some of them were waving leaves. 

‘I followed their gaze and saw what appeared to be an animal sports day happening on the lawn with squirrels, hedgehogs, and rabbits as contestants and robins as marshals. 

‘There was what looked like a wheelbarrow race, a three-pawed race, an acorn cup-and-pebble race and a sack race using odd socks they must have pinched from the laundry. 

‘There was a kerfuffle at the end when the rabbits complained that they and the sacks had been punctured by the hedgehogs and the hedgehogs countered this by accusing the rabbits of having an unfair advantage in the sack race. Fortunately the squirrels diffused it all by doing an aerial display with the robins.

‘Everything happened so fast though, that I couldn’t quite get the camera to focus.’

My sister is next:

‘Strange you should mention rabbits. I was on my daily run when I saw a very large rabbit. He seemed to be waiting for me. “You’re late,” he said, looking at his fitness tracker watch, “and slow. Come on, the Queen is waiting.” 

‘“Oooh” I said. “Would going all the way to Windsor castle for a dame-hood count as essential travel?”

‘“Tsk,” said the rabbit. “Not that Queen. The Red Queen. Come on, here’s the rabbit-hole. When you’re falling, try and keep two metres ahead if you please.”

‘Well down we went and off we jogged. The rabbit went far too fast. 

‘So I paused for a breather at a strange table covered with what looked like a range of trendy gins labelled “drink me” but before I could do anything about it, the rabbit came back and dragged me away. He said that the last girl who stopped at that table got into a right pickle and I wasn’t allowed to try any. To be honest it was a bit early for gin and I chirped up when I saw a sign to a tea-party but the rabbit said it had been postponed until lockdown is over. Apparently some dormouse is very happy about this. Before I could ask for coffee instead, he led me into a court-room. 

‘A few people – including an angry looking large woman in a rather stiff dress – were standing as far away from each other as possible. Jurors had been suspended from the ceiling in harnesses to enable them to socially distance. It turned out that I was supposed to be judging who’d stolen the Queen of Hearts’ tarts. 

‘As you know I don’t like making decisions, except about food. So I decided to eat the evidence. 

‘It was delicious. 

‘While the Queen was busy working out how to have my head chopped off from a distance of two metres, I legged it. Fortunately the tarts had given me enough energy to outrun everyone and I managed to grab one of the bottles of fancy gin on the way past, which I’ll try later to see what happens. 

‘What a shame I’d left my phone at home and couldn’t take photos.’

Now it’s my turn:

‘You know how everywhere has animals taking over the towns because all the people are staying home? And you know how the jurassic coast isn’t too far away from here. Well, I went on my walk today and you’ll never guess what I saw emerging from the lake on the meadows? A brontosaurus!

‘A small herd of tricerotopses was peeking from the trees and a velociraptor was hunting down a jogger. It had nearly succeeded when a pterodactyl swooped down, grabbed it and dropped it in the river, where it was eaten by a plesiosaur. Then the police helicopter turned up and began to pursue the pterodactyl. A T-Rex followed, trying to swipe them both out of the sky but of course, its arms were too short to reach.

‘As I watched them disappear into the distance, a herd of woolly mammoth appeared, lumbering along the bypass. There might or might not have been cavemen riding them. It was hard to say because of all the hair. Plus they might just have been people from the next village. You know what they’re like. 

‘While I was trying to work it out, I felt a cat rub itself against my leg. I was about to stroke its head when I realised it wasn’t a cat but a baby sabre-tooth tiger. That was when I decided I probably ought to walk home. 

‘I did have my phone – but a woolly rhino in the car-park knocked it out of my hand then trod on it so I couldn’t take photos either.’

We all fall silent.

‘What really happened today?’ says my sister. ‘Most interesting thing I did was find a matching pair of socks and plant some sweet-peas. What about you?’

I consider, running my mind over the day. ‘I cut my finger on some tin-foil simply wrapping something up. What about you Mum?’

Mum scratches her head. ‘Let’s see,’ she says. ‘My windows were cleaned and I had to pay the window cleaner by putting the money on the doorstep and backing away so he could take it from a social distance.’

‘Wild times,’ says my sister. ‘Let’s take it easy tomorrow.’

lockdown

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Room

I am tired.  

Lying in the bath, I let the steam envelop me. I massage round and round my eyes. They want to stay shut and slide into sleep. I am so tired. It’s been a long day and I wash off the travelling and the negotiating and the business smiles. The water is no dirtier as I leave the bath than it was to start with, but so many necessary politenesses needed to be strigilled from my skin.  

I’d prefer to stay in my room. I’d prefer not to join my colleagues for a sociable evening and have their forensic words try to scalpel through my façade to see what lies beneath. I’ll drink just enough wine to oil the conversation but not so much as to expose my soul. Colleagues. I’ve known them a great many years and know them not at all. Nor they I. Shortly I must dress again and slot my smile back in place.  

And I am too tired for what awaits me before I go out, but I have no choice tonight anymore than any other night when I’m in a strange place.  It’s what happens. 

Always.

Rising from the water, I wrap myself in a towel and leave the en-suite to step into the bedroom. I haven’t had time to familiarise myself with all the switches. Light blares from all corners and the ceiling. The TV – put on as part of my ritual – burbles with early evening inanities beside the portable kettle and the insufficient tea-bags. I try to avoid the mirrors and keep my back to the bed as I walk around to change the lighting and find clean clothes from my case.  

But in the end I have to face the girl.  

She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, bolt upright. Her hands are in her lap, clasped into a sledgehammer. Her feet dangle. They are almost bare. Despite this cold evening, slender strips of leather form delicate sandals resting against the plump duvet. Her large eyes are following me as I adjust the lamps. Her head turns as I move about, so as not to lose sight of me for a second and there are shadows under the eyes and red blotches on her white skin. Her clothes are flimsy. Through them I can see the bones of her collar-bone and the thinness of her wrists and ankles.

I swear I didn’t call her here. I never call them, but yet I find them every time in every hotel room. 

I attempt a smile but the girl doesn’t smile back. Taking my clothes, I change in the bathroom hoping my room will be empty when I return. But she’s still there, following me with her eyes as I cross the room to sit in front of the flickering TV.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask. 

It’s pointless. They never answer. Over all these years, in all these hotel bedrooms, not one of these girls has ever spoken. They just look at me, unsmiling, waiting for me to work out what to do.

I recall the first one. 

The hotel was Georgian, my bedroom in the attic: a bijou ensuite room fit for the business traveller. It was clean and pleasant, effort had gone into every aspect, simple as it was.  

I turned on the TV and went to run a bath. When I returned to the bedroom there was a strange girl in a seventeenth century clothes sitting on the edge of the bed. 

She was huddled, legs bound by her arms and her head on her knees. I couldn’t see her mouth but from behind straggling hair exhausted eyes observed me. Her figure was small but she had that pinched look of malnourishment and an expression of one who looked up from an abyss, wary and tensed.  She might have been any age from nine to sixteen, it was hard to say.  

That time, that first time, I was in no doubt seeing her had been brought on by stress. A ghostly servant made sense in that old building after the day I’d had. I had nowhere to go that evening and I watched TV as tense as a mouse unsure if a cat has seen it. I hoped that with every sip of cheap wine, the ghost would become less visible but she didn’t.  

After a while, she unfolded herself and came to stand next to me, as if about to take an order. In the end, I tried to make her disperse by speaking aloud.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked. 

She blinked and shifted from foot to foot. I looked down and saw that the worn shoes were too big. I thought: her feet must be sore. Then I realised what I fool I was. She’d been dead for three hundred years. The ruin of her feet was well beyond bunions and corns and blisters. I shook my head at my own folly. She didn’t exist and yet she was there and she wouldn’t leave.

‘What do you want?’ I asked.  

The girl frowned. 

It occurred to me that perhaps she thought I was the ghost, an apparition in her attic room, strangely garbed but undemanding. Yet she didn’t seem afraid of me. After a moment’s hesitation she leaned her head on my shoulder. I could feel nothing of course because either she wasn’t there, or I wasn’t there. I say I could felt nothing, but in truth, for a few seconds I felt something transfer between us. 

My eyes closed and I saw the room as it must once have been: cold and spare and dark, crammed with damp beds for lonely girls a long way from home, and saw in the corner, one frail figure curled up under thin blankets, coughing and rattling, all alone and uncomforted. The pain of her loneliness skewered my heart and her cold tears burned on my shoulder.  

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered, ‘I’m here. I wish I could help.’

The imagined weight of her head evaporated and I opened my eyes. The girl had gone and the room was as it had been before, cheerful, anonymous: a stopping place. But I was not as I had been. I was drained. 

I had felt lonely before. I was used to my own silence in indifferent hotels after a day of travel and talking business. But now that loneliness had increased, augmented by the misery of a long-dead stranger. Exhausted, I went to bed early, blaming the cheap wine and a stressful day.

The next time there was a strange girl sitting on my bed, I was surprised. I wondered if I should seek help. It was another strange room, another ghost. 

The third time, I was scared. 

The fourth, resigned. 

Again and again. Each time in every hotel, those ghosts drained me, as something of their sadness transferred to me and something of my pity transferred to them. I tried to find out who they were, but I needed time I didn’t have and anyway, they had all been underlings; the sort of people who die forgotten and unmarked. 

Sometimes the girl just wanted my empathy. Sometimes she seemed to crave my blessing. Once, following an insistent finger, I pulled back the corner of a carpet and under a floor board found an old letter. I read aloud to the best of my ability those misspelled words of love written in faded ink on dirty paper and when I stopped reading I saw a fleeting smile on the ghost’s face before she disappeared and left me wondering how to hide the damage to the carpet. 

Booking a modern chain hotel made no difference. 

These are ancient lands. People have built on the same spot for generations. New buildings have been constructed on fields where once someone died in a ditch or in battle or at the cruel hand of another. Even in the clinical plastic perfection of a generic motel, a child waited for my comfort and replaced it with the weight of their sorrow.

But this evening I am too tired. 

I never wanted children of my own; never wanted the responsibility of caring and supporting, but somehow I have been absorbing centuries of pain and cannot do it any longer.  

‘Who are you?’ I try again. The girl in her thin dress and sandals says nothing. I can’t work out the era of her clothes. A long time ago I think.

I look out of the window. This modern hotel is next to an old pub. Less than a mile away is a hill which was once an Iron Age fort and nearby are the ruins of a Roman Villa. This girl could be from those times – a slave perhaps, or a nobleman’s neglected daughter. She is thin and unhealthy but not dirty or unkempt. Unhealthy!  What am I saying?  This one has been dead for maybe two thousand years. Did she die around here in some long lost dwelling, staring onto mosaic floors and frescoed walls? Was there no parent to smooth that consumptive brow? Is she another one reaching out for a comfort no-one gave her when she needed it? 

Or she doing the opposite? 

I look harder. She is restraining a cough. Is it because she is afraid to irritate someone? She’s tense and her head is down.Is she keeping small so as not to annoy someone?  

It is too much. I have nothing left to give. I remember doing the same thing. No-one was ever there for me and I am drained dry.

I close my eyes and pull my legs up onto the chair, hugging them and putting my forehead down onto my knees just like I used to.

If I sit like this, still as a statue, Father won’t notice me. If I ball myself tight, the blows will hurt less. If I don’t look at Mother, I won’t see her turn away from me when he approaches. 

I am too old and too tired to cry, but tears are in my eyes and my throat hurts. Curled up, my muscles protest. I am not a child anymore. 

But then… 

A hand is on my shoulder, a small arm embraces me. A small head has lain itself on my head. They are soft as cobwebs, unreal as dreams but stronger than iron. 

I struggle in the embrace, but it hugs me tighter. 

More arms surround me, all small, all feather-light yet stronger than steel. I am enveloped in a web of comfort. I open my eyes and peek and find myself surrounded. All of those hotel ghosts link arms around me, all of them, from the eighteenth century maid, through the lonely lover to the Roman slave.

A susurration ripples in my ears, ‘we’re sorry, we’re here. We won’t turn away.’

My soul fills with warmth.

The pain lessens. 

The misery I absorbed to mix with my own, disperses.  

Someone, at last, has come to help.

87493386_852349465279519_3005131755939168256_n

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

The Wrong Road

The near-blind walk in the foggy dark is long and slow and terrifying. 

I track my route forward by feeling the crumbling edge of the road through my shoes. When the ground beneath my thin soles feels too smooth or solid I know I’m potentially veering into the path of traffic and step sideways onto the verge where the low, wet branches catch in my hair. This way I keep myself safe from traffic that won’t see me in time. But no traffic comes. It is, after all, very late.

Every few moments, ribbons of fog caress my face or drift in front of me or hover under the trees to watch me prod on along the edge of the ridge. Somewhere below the river rushes over low flat rocks, and above me the branches drip and around me my footsteps echo with a soft, sticky squelch.

My phone is dead. My car is somewhere miles behind, also dead.

Ten years ago I knew this road well but now I’m not so sure where I am. The fog has blurred all the half-familiar points. Instinct told me to go up the valley rather than down in search of help. Sooner or later I’m sure there’ll be a village and then at the very least, I’ll be somewhere rather than nowhere.

And then, at last, I see a pub across the road, lit up, the only oasis of hope in the darkness. 

I gasp, remembering it from all those years ago when it stood graffitied and abandoned, loitering, glowering with its back against the rock of the mountainside, derelict and empty. But now it is bright.

I cross the tarmac and stand for a moment outside, unable to believe the pub is actually open, clean, welcoming, after all that time I’ve been tramping in the dark. I’m soaked through, dishevelled probably, but there’s nothing else to do but enter. I open the door and step inside, the soft light more blinding than the fog. 

It’s empty but for the landlord who leans on the bar fiddling with his mobile phone, straightening with a puzzled smile when I appear then looking over my shoulder. I half turn as the weight of the door is taken by someone else. 

A woman, as damp as I but somehow yet elegant is crossing the threshold behind me. 

She has a face I could never forget. Her hair seems too heavy for her head and her long damp skirts cling to her legs. I expect her to follow me to the bar, but instead she just sits near the window and stares out into the darkness. She, like the road, seems familiar and yet not quite.

I tell the landlord what’s happened and order a drink, then realise I have no money on me and find my bank card has expired.

‘You both look like drowned rats,’ he says. ‘Sit down and have a coffee on the house. I’ll see if I can get a recovery vehicle for you.’ 

The woman says nothing when he puts the drink down in front of her. If he’s surprised we aren’t sharing a table it isn’t obvious. Perhaps he thinks we’ve argued over the break-down.

There is a pool of liquid on my table. I use it to doodle, trying to capture the curve of the woman’s head and shoulders as she clasps her cup and peers within as she’s scrying.

Forcing my finger into sweeps and lines slows my heart from panic to mere anxiety. The wall lamps in the pub are dim and the night beyond the windows is not so much darkness as a subtraction of light so the woman is shadowed, her features cast into angles and swirls. Hers is the kind of face people describe as ‘not remotely beautiful but-’. The kind of face that has stared with silent authority from babyhood onward.

In the background, the landlord speaks into his mobile too low to follow. He’s taking his time. How hard can it be to get a recovery vehicle? I falter over sketching as my agitation grows and then the woman says, ‘is that what you really want to do?’

Her eyes are fixed on me.

I smear the image away and shrug.

She rises and presses her nose to the window. The fog is thicker than ever and seeping wisps of it squirm on the doormat.

‘No good,’ says the landlord, stabbing his phone to end the call. ‘He’s got a family emergency.’ His expression is one of curious pity. ‘This isn’t a road to drive without enough fuel.’

‘I know,’ I snap. ‘It wasn’t that. Where’s your payphone? I’ll reverse the charges.’

He shakes his head. ‘We haven’t got one. There’s one down the road a bit. You probably walked past it after you abandoned your car.’

‘I could have walked past my own grandmother.’ I shiver. Even in the moonless darkness drifting strips of fog had seemed like people. ‘And I didn’t abandon it. I left it. Can I borrow your mobile?’

The landlord considers his phone. ‘Signal’s gone again. It’s a bit intermittent look. Weather’s probably affected the mast.’

It isn’t hard to imagine the fog coiling up and suffocating whatever emits a signal up that forsaken mountain. 

‘Have you got a landline?’ I’m desperate. ‘Could you phone someone for me?’

‘What’s the number?’

I look at my dead mobile and realise I can’t remember.

‘Can you phone me a taxi?’

‘No taxis round here,’ says the landlord, surprised. ‘People need driving, they’ve got friends, isn’t it?’

I wish I had friends.

I turn to the woman wondering how to ask a stranger for a lift back down the valley. She’s watching our exchange, impatient, indifferent and unbiddable. I lock eyes to shame her into offering but all that fills me is a swirl of cold doubt before she breaks the connection to stare back into the fog.

‘You dunno this road then,’ says the landlord. It’s a statement.

‘I used to.’

‘Follows the river look.’

‘I know.’

I remember the river well. It hides below a tree-edged ridge to rush towards the distant sea, minor rivers falling in behind as they join from other valleys. And the road keeps step with it – more or less – winding here, straightening there, shadowed, with blank wet rock high on one side and lurking water below the ridge on the other. Not a road to wander in the dark, let alone fog.

‘Where you off anyway?’ he says.

‘Home,’

‘No you weren’t,’ the woman interjects. ‘You were running away. And you don’t have long.’

‘How long you need to run away?’ says the landlord with a chuckle but he’s looking at me more closely now, his eyes flickering from my dripping hair to sodden shoes.

The pub is warm and bright. You can tell by the decor it’s only newly opened. I don’t want to go back outside.

‘It’s time to leave,’ says the woman. ‘Tell him what you have to.’

She is familiar, too familiar. Her hair flows and her skirts slink. 

‘Tell you what, I’ll drive you back down the valley,’ offers the landlord. ‘I’ll close early. No-one’s coming out in this.’

I imagine going down the valley with him – going back – going home. There are people wondering where I’ve gone. 

Or at least, ten years ago there were people who wondered and then – then they misunderstood.

I push my driving licence across the bar into the landlord’s hands. 

‘My car broke down,’ I said. ‘I just wanted help. This isn’t a road to walk in the fog. Not so high above the river.’

‘It’s time to leave,’ repeats the woman.

With a sob bubbling in my throat, I turn to join her. There is nothing else to do.

‘Tell them I didn’t do it on purpose,’ I tell the landlord over my shoulder. 

He stands open-mouthed as the door closes behind us, my licence in his hand. 

The woman and I are in the dark again and there is no light but a small glow from the pub though the fog is lifting. It seems like a nice pub.

It was never like that ten years ago. It was closed.

It was closed every foggy night for the ten years I’ve tried to reach it. But now it’s open and I can’t do any more to get my message through.

‘It’s over,’ says the river, her hair sleek to her face, her skirts clinging. Then she walks away.

And, as the landlord wrenches the door open and calls for me to wait, I follow her, fading into the fog as I cross the road, then the verge and finally, tumble for the last time over the crumbling edge of the ridge into the river’s waiting arms.

foggy

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.