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.

Three Blue Moons

There once was a rich man with three sons and three daughters.

Now the lads were all much of a muchness being young and puppylike – each competing to gain their father’s approval; but the girls were quite distinct. The youngest was pretty as a wildflower and rather spoilt, the middle one was so merry, she could make a corpse laugh and the eldest was serious and wise.

Well you know how it goes, men came from far and near to court the pretty daughter and the merry one but all were unnerved by the serious, quiet eldest girl and in her turn, she couldn’t think of anything to say for all she knew so much. Once she fell in love with a likely young man, but he soon tired of her. Even if he was interested in the wonder she felt at the unfurling of a leaf or her love of music, it all tangled into dull nonsense when she spoke. And the young man turned away to laugh at her younger sister’s jokes and flirt with her littlest sister before leaving for another place and break the hearts of other girls.

Alas, at that time and in that place, it was the custom that the younger girls could not marry until the eldest married and the boys could not bring home a wife until their sisters were gone. The family chivvied the oldest girl but she grew quieter and duller and more serious by the day until the youngest sister declared she might as well be dead and the oldest brother persuaded their father that the girl must marry the first man who asked, whether he be beggar or prince.

You’d think of course that this would bring forth any number of suitors but in truth, as soon as any drew near, their heads were turned by one or other of the younger girls and the older sister grew yet quieter and more serious and more tongue tied.

Still it came to pass after many months, on the night of a blue moon, that a wealthy stranger came by and asked for shelter for himself and his retinue. The rich man welcomed him in, gave him a place of honour at his table and in exchange for hospitality demanded the stranger’s story. For surely the man was from afar, his clothes strange and bright, his hair silver as starlight, his accents smooth and rolling as the sea, and surely he had a tale to tell, for his face though young was scarred with many wounds and his left hand ever wore a fine leather glove even as he ate. 

The stranger looked round the table and perceived a rich man and his wife and three ruddy, handsome sons, and a girl pretty as a wildflower with a pout and a sidelong glance, and a girl merry as a lark, with eyes that sparkled like crystal and a girl with a serious mouth and downcast face, and a hand that crumbled her bread into her dish. 

And the stranger said. ‘I fear to disappoint you, for all that I have done for seven years is search high and low, over mountain and sea and through forest and river, for a wife who could live on a lonely hill in a quiet house and sleep beside a man who never sleeps. I have climbed towers in deserts and hacked through thorns and wrestled dragons and yet I have not found her.’ 

‘And what dowry do you demand?’ demanded the middle girl.

‘Why,’ said the stranger, ‘no dowry do I require but the girl’s own tender heart.’

‘And what riches do you offer her?’ cried the youngest girl, her head on one side.

‘Why,’ said the stranger, ‘she shall wear the finest clothes and eat the best food for as long as she stays with me. And should she ask to return to her parents, I will send her home with a casket of jewels as heavy as her tears.’

‘And why can you not sleep?’ whispered the eldest girl.

The stranger looked on her and said, ‘because I am under a spell and until it is broken, I must live on a lonely hill in a quiet house. If I marry, until she chooses otherwise, my bride will be forever bride but not wife. But if before that time she wants to go home, she will be free to do so and I will see her safely on her way with the treasure I promised.’

The two younger girls shook their heads in disdain but the eldest brother said. ‘Will you take our eldest sister? She’s quiet. A lonely house should suit her.’

And the eldest girl sighed and gazed into her wine and foresaw nothing but sadness if she remained at home and perhaps some peace if she went away and nodded.

The stranger looked kindly on her and said. ‘Will you give me your hand? If we marry tomorrow that will be the first blue moon and it is seven days travel to my house. You need then only stay two more blue moons and then you may choose whether to go or stay. And from the moment I put the ring on your finger, I vow never to touch you again until you ask me to.’

So the stranger and the eldest daughter married the next day and good to his word, from the moment he put the ring on his finger, he did not touch her. Servants helped her mount a horse behind a groom and she waved goodbye to her family and for seven days and seven nights they travelled until they reached a lonely hill and a quiet house inside a walled garden.

This was her new home. That night, she was dressed in her finest linen and laid in the bridal bed and after a while, the stranger came to lie along side her. 

Sure that he must break his promise, she lay awake as long as possible, bedclothes held tight around her. She could hear his breathing, feel the warmth of his body, knew that he was not sleeping. They did not speak. 

Yes, she lay awake as long as she could, but in the early hours her treacherous body gave into exhaustion. Yet he did not touch her and when she finally opened her eyes in the morning, still cocooned in bedclothes, he had gone.

Every night she did the same but eventually, beyond weary, she allowed herself to drift off earlier and earlier. Soon after midnight on the sixth night, she woke to find herself cold and her husband’s side of the bed already empty. She rolled herself more tightly in the covers and drifted back off into dreamless slumber.

During the daytime, they spoke politely whenever they were together. He asked about her ideas and home life but never about her hopes and dreams. She pushed the food around her plate and take tiny sips of wine, aware when his glance fell on her and when it did not. Once she looked up and saw he was hunched within himself, staring down on his uneaten food. When his eyes lifted to meet her gaze, she thought there tears in his eyes reflected hers, but perhaps it was just the candlelight sparkling. 

On the seventh night, she dreamed of wild dances and climbing trees and setting sail on silent seas. She awoke, chilled. Beyond imagining, it was another blue moon. It streamed through the window, illuminating the room and casting a broad stripe across the bed, over the slopes of her body and into the valley of the empty space where her husband should have been. After a moment, she rose and putting on a wrap, went to the window.

Below, on the garden wall, some creature, a cat or fox perhaps, sat hunched and still. She had never thought that an animal could look sad but this one did. Its head was lowered as if it didn’t care who might attack, did not care if there was prey to be caught. She leaned out and whispered to it and the creature stirred and looked up. Its face was indistinct, silver in the moonlight, its size and exact shape somehow ungaugable. Perhaps its fur was striped or perhaps it had been attacked with razor sharp claws. But its eyes, dark and unblinking gazed up at her and the starlight made them seem wet. 

‘Are you lonely?’ she whispered. 

And she heard her husband’s voice say ‘yes.’

Startled, she turned. But he was not there. She was quite alone. There was a cry from the garden and she gazed again, looking for the creature until she saw it slink over the wall, limping a little, to disappear into the lonely hills and whispering forest.

When she asked her husband of it the next day, he said nothing for a moment before telling her that the whole land was under a spell and he with it. 

‘Is it that you’d like to go home?’ he asked. 

And the girl thought of her quiet room and the fragrant garden and shook her head. ‘Not yet,’ she replied. ‘But will you not tell me why the spell was cast?’

Her husband sighed and ran his left hand over his right as if to ease its ache and then he said, ‘my father stole my mother from the forest folk. He treated her most cruelly for she wept for home and for the sweetheart she had lost and she never gave him one babe but me. When I was seven years old, he said I looked too unlike him and he treated my mother so ill she died and her people came and cursed him, casting a spell that he would be forever alone. He laughed in their faces and held up a knife of iron to deflect the curse onto me, child as I was, even as he lunged to kill me. But the spell rebounded through a shaft of strange moonlight and the knife turned in his hand and killed him and my mother’s people brought me up in their quiet ways until I was a man and they told me that the spell could only be lifted when all the hate I’d inherited had been wept away. And I have wept and wept and I been lonely and yet the spell still binds me.’

The girl sat for a moment in silence and said, ‘Let me see those scars husband, and the hand you keep covered, for I think there are herbs in the garden from which I could make a salve and ease your suffering.’

And so the days and nights passed. The girl slept, lying in the bed with him awake beside her and no longer feared that he would break his promise. She picked herbs and made salves and his wounds became less angry, his hand stronger.

On the seventh night of the second month, she saw again the strange sad creature in the garden, its markings even less distinct but its eyes still full of tears and its paw still tender. She spoke to it without hearing a reply. 

Time went by. The girl worked in the garden, nurturing herbs and flowers. She ventured into the edges of the forest and sought mushrooms and bark and spoke with respect to the listening creatures that hid from her and then she returned to the quiet house and went to work with her salves and medicines, not noticing that she sang, not noticing the paintings on the walls and the figures in the dull tapestries brighten as she did so. 

When the third month started, she was teaching the maids to read and polishing a lute to play in the evening, and the silverware sparkled and the paintings and the tapestries almost danced to the music in the air and her husband’s wounds began to heal.

On the sixth night of the third month, she stayed awake until he slipped out of bed and then followed him on tiptoe, her feet chilled by the stone floor. He paced the house for a while and finally stepped out into the garden. She lost sight of him in the shadows, distracted when the strange creature leapt onto the wall and away. Quietly she crept to the place where it had been and saw a single silver hair glisten on a leaf. And she pondered.

On the seventh evening of the third month, there was another blue moon. 

She said at supper, ‘Husband. I have stayed with you for the time you said I must and tomorrow I will decide. But I beg that you will understand if I spent tonight alone in another room.’

For a wonder, his wounds seemed to deepen again as if freshly cut and his eyes filled with tears but he nodded and said no more.

Now the girl made to yawn and casting off her maids, went to bed in another room alone and locked the door. Yet it was from the outside she locked it. And she went out into the moonlit garden and hid behind the tree where the silver hair still sparkled on a low hanging leaf. It was cold in the garden and strange voices came from beyond the wall but yet she stayed.

When the moon was at its highest, she saw her husband come into the garden and walk towards her. She tucked herself deeper into the shadow and watched his approach. He stood for a while bathed in light and then with a sob, he changed from man to a silvery creature a little like a fox or a cat or a wolf with stripes like scars. With eyes full of grief, he lifted his front right paw a little and whispered ‘so lonely’ hunching down as if he wished something might attack him and end his misery forever.

And the girl slipped out from behind the tree and put her arms around him and kissed his fur and wept and her tears and his mingled in the moonlight and as they flowed along the scars on his face, they dissolved away and the creature’s form changed again until he was a man, tall and strong and whole. Yet still he wept as his bride held him close for he dare not break his promise by putting a hand on her.

Until in wonder she reached up and wiped his eyes and said, ‘Cry no longer, my love. The spell has been wept away and soon it will be time for sleep.’

‘Soon?’ he whispered.

And then she kissed his lips and held his hands and said, ‘Yes, soon. I have made my choice. I am yours and you are mine and now I long for you to touch and hold me. We will sleep, my darling but not until the moon sets and we are one and worn out by love.’ 

 

blue moon

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.

Hot Water

‘And this,’ said Desmond, opening a gate within the high walls and ushering his new pal Gerald through, ‘is the laundry area. It keeps everything in one place, well away from the main house so that we don’t have to look at billowing sheets or smell soap. Bertha loves it, don’t you Bertha?’

A maidservant, sleeves rolled up over muscled arms and a strand of hair stuck to her sweating face, scowled as she stirred the copper in the courtyard.

‘It’s Bessie…sir,’ she replied.

Behind her, other maids scurried across the cobbles between the laundry rooms and drying rooms under grey unforgiving skies. The steady rain which had been falling since breakfast soaked into Bessie’s cap and her boots were stained dark with wetness.

‘I call all the maids Bertha,’ Desmond said as an aside to Gerald. ‘They don’t mind, do you Bertha?’ He stroked her face.

In silence, Bessie kept stirring the boiling cauldron with a large wooden paddle, her eyes narrowed. From time to time, a fold of white linen popped up from frothing bubbles which were a brownish-pink. The smell of soft soap was less pleasant than Desmond remembered, and some small part of his small mind wondered why she was boiling laundry in the yard rather than inside the building but then – he hadn’t been interested in laundry since he was six and wanting bubbles for his toy pipe.

‘Someone had something of an accident with a tablecloth, what?’ Gerald suggested.

‘Something like that… sir,’ said Bessie.

‘By the way Bertha,’ wondered Desmond. ‘Have you seen Lord Charles this morning? He can’t resist a pretty young maid,’ he added to Gerald. ‘He’ll get himself in hot water one of these days. Ha! Ha!’

Desmond pinched Bessie’s flushed cheek and patted her backside. 

Her grip on the paddle tightened, but still she said nothing. 

She merely stared down into the copper and with a small smile watched another brownish-pink bubble explode with a malodorous ‘pop’.

laundry murder

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.