A Novel Idea

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

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

It’s hard to answer either.

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

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

This was where my confession comes in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I was consumed by guilt. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes they can!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ID 201797590 © Chrissiecreative | Dreamstime.com

Messaging

Once I put a message in a bottle and dropped it in the river.

Watching it bounce along until it disappeared, I suddenly felt guilty.

Most of the guilt was about littering but some of it was about deception.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of thing. A year or so earlier, I’d drawn a detailed map of the woods alongside our village. Only it wasn’t the usual sort of map.

This is what our woods were like. For several yards, bracken grew. In spring it sprouted bright fronds, curled like babies’ hands, unfurling as they grew. In summer, the green of the waving leaves grew dusty and tall enough to hide in. In autumn, they were golden and dry.

Interspersed with deciduous trees which were good for climbing, the heathland led to huge slabs of rock from which you could look across the valley to the mountains beyond the main road and bigger river.

Below the rocks was a path. In one direction the path led back towards the village, past two caves. One was nothing more than a hollow, a shelter from rain; the other was deeper and at its back a metal grating stopped you from falling into its depths. Ignoring the caves and continuing along the path, you would pass through the churchyard of the Welsh chapel. Gravestones in curlicued Welsh, grey and upright, stared down as you emerged onto the lower part of our street, next to the chapel’s only concession to the English language – a black sign with the words ‘Whosever believeth’ in gold.

Alternatively, if you climbed down from the stones and went in the opposite direction along the path, you would end up in the old quarry, a massive hollow of mysterious green and overhanging trees.

Above all of this, larches loomed and other trees gathered in conference. There was a copse with a circle of clear ground in the middle. The grass here was different: dark and shiny, lustrous, rich. In spring, bluebells grew. There were three slab rocks protruding from the ground, fallen together forming what looked like a tomb. It was just big enough for a nine year old to huddle inside.

This copse and the river were my places. I stood on the bridge of the river and told my problems to the lights under the trees. I sat in the copse and talked to invisible listeners. I drew a map which showed all the portals into the other world which I knew was there but couldn’t reach. The main portal was the stone ‘tomb’.

This sounds mad written down, but it wasn’t. I was a lonely child and at the time. Mercilessly bullied at school, I distrusted most of my peers. I read numerous books about other worlds running alongside ours and somehow, I discovered special places where the boundary was thin and I could be heard. It was comforting to have someone listen who wouldn’t sneer when I cried. l just wanted to find out how to cross over.

One day, I put the map inside a sweet tin with a coin and a couple of other contemporary things and buried it in the ‘tomb’. It was the thing to do at the time. A few months later, I dug it up again. I possibly felt guilty about littering, probably wanted the coin and definitely didn’t want the map to fall into the wrong hands.

But at least the map told the truth.

Dropping a bottle into the river wasn’t quite the same. I had been watching dramatisations of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘The Little Princess’. Here were tales of misunderstood girls for whom life somehow came out all right without the need for any magical intervention from outside. Magic would be more fun, but it eluded me.

While writing a heavily plagiarised version of the same sort of tale for my Guides Writer’s Badge, I carefully drafted a message on some paper, which I’d tried to make look older with the use of cold tea. I made my handwriting as Victorian looking (to me) as I could, rolled the paper up and put it inside a glass bottle with a screw top.

It could have said ‘How far did this go? Please ring Paula on 45223’.

But it didn’t.

It said: ‘Help! I am imprisoned by my wicked aunt in the tower of her mansion. Please rescue me! Victoria.’

As I watched the bottle disappear, I started to worry. Our river ran down from the mountains and at our village, joined a much larger river to head down to the sea. Anything thrown into it could theoretically have come from quite a large area of South Wales.

I wasn’t naturally a liar. What if the bottle was found? Would anyone believe it had been cast into the waters by some long dead Victorian, who had never been rescued?

Then I thought a bit harder. Would felt tip pen on modern paper and a twentieth century fizzy drink bottle fool anyone into thinking the message was Victorian? What if they thought it was recent and genuine and launched a rescue for someone who didn’t exist?

In all likelihood, the bottle was smashed long before it got to the main river. Quite apart from all the stones it had to dodge on the way, our little river joined the bigger one after dropping down a waterfall onto a pile of rock. What I should have been worrying about was all the broken glass in the water as the words of my carefully penned bit of fiction dissolved into nothing.

Even now, I still feel vaguely guilty. I’m not sure why. Yet part of me still hopes after all this time, that the bottle will be found, intact, with the message still inside and triggering a delicious mystery.

And as for the map… I am still hopeful it is somewhere in the clutter of our attic. One day, I will find that portal, one day…

message

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Click here for links to my book “Kindling” which included two stories about the woods and river near where I grew up

Hope

April 1992.

And here we were driven past the empty presidential palace mocking in obscene opulence the high rise buildings where water only came on once or twice a day.

We went down avenues of Soviet era diplomatic mansions, their intricate gates strangled by over grown gardens, their walls a tired, old fashioned blue. We saw the bullet marked walls and lamp posts of the city streets and small queues outside shops selling luxuries: toothpaste, scented soap.

In the countryside: uneven roads, a well, two ladies in black, a bakery selling the best bread in the world for less than a penny. A scene for a photograph I was too ashamed to take. In the orphanage, children hesitated when we offered them toys. Were they theirs? Were they really? Could they keep them? Dumb for want of a common tongue, we taught them games we’d long stopped playing: skipping, catch. Swings were put up, a slide. Inside, tiny ones too sick to play, watched us, solemn, tired; or didn’t watch, looking inward, silent. While painted walls dried, we were given a tour of the orphanage grounds. The little boy, a character from Dickens, alight with cheekiness, chattered away regardless of our incomprehension and we chatted back, regardless of his. I smelt wood shavings, and looked into a shed, where in the sunlight, strips of pine curled and fell as the carpenter planed a small box. I smiled at the sight and smell until I realised he was making a coffin. So many children there, not orphans but abandoned. Some had HIV (then a death sentence) others’ parents could not afford to feed them. Later, in the sun, a little girl said “Mama?” and sat on my lap. She looked healthy enough, but you couldn’t tell.

Back in the city, an excursion into the night. The high rises glowered down onto shadowy streets. We were ushered into an informal inn straight off the pavement. Our small group half filled it, our women, the only women there. The local drinkers looked askance then shrugged. Glasses were filled and raised, hard-boiled eggs were passed round, songs were sung. Romanian songs, the melodies as foreign as the words, then Irish songs as the priest in our group stood to sing ballad and love song.

The night drew on. We started back to the flats at midnight and as we passed, the doors of the Orthodox church burst open.

The congregation bearing candles spilled down the steps in near silence until the priest on the threshold shouted “Christ is Risen!” and the congregation shouted “He is Risen Indeed!” and raised flickering light above the dark streets.

And when I went home, how could I glory in Easter chocolate and endure healthy children demanding the latest toys when I had shared the simplicity of a boiled egg and watched the astounded delight of an abandoned child cuddling a teddybear?

And what were chicks and bunnies compared to hope peppering the darkness with that exultant candlelight?

easter egg

Words and photograph copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

The Truth, The Partial Truth and a Little Bit of Nostalgia (with explanatory notes at the end)

Yesterday, I wrote a story. I sent it to a friend for input and she said “why am I always convinced your stories are true?”

Well, the fact is that there really was some truth in that story.  In fact, there is a lot of truth in most of my stories. Some of the twists and turns may be imaginary; some of the characters and creatures may not exist; but somewhere in them is something that’s real.

Answering her question though, brought back a lot of memories. The story starts with two girls and their little sisters carol-singing round the neighbours’ houses, hoping for money. The girls have put a lot of effort in, but the local boys, without putting effort in at all, got to the neighbours first and received all the spare cash anyone was willing to give. The boys had done exactly the same thing with “penny for the guy”* a month earlier. This part of the story was pretty much true.

My friend and I were very creative. The good thing about my house, from her perspective, was that my mother absolutely didn’t care how much mess we made, whereas her mother absolutely did.  I made papier-mâché headed glove puppets and together we put on puppet shows for my sister’s birthday parties. The puppets acted out our versions of fairy tales scripted with some under-parental-radar naughtiness. Sadly I can’t remember any of them now.

She and I also organised a bunch of girls into putting on a play. The script was in rhyming couplets and had allegedly been written by another girl’s mother.  It was a classic drama with an evil villain, a swooning heroine, an elderly mother and a swash-buckling hero. We performed it for anyone we could round up, taking milk bottle tops as payment which we then sent to the Blue Peter** appeal which was raising money for guide dogs for the blind. Dad (who probably wished he could have joined in) even bought us stage paints to make our faces up with. The only lines I can now remember are the heroine’s, when faced with the choice of eviction or marriage to the villain:

“Sir Jasper, don’t be such a creep;
The snow outside is six feet deep!”

We always had our doubts that the other girl’s mother had actually written it, but on the other hand, she may have.  I wish I still had a copy.

I was lucky enough to grow up at a time when, in the absence of anything else to do, children were outdoors, unsupervised, whenever it wasn’t raining. There were few cars in our village and we could run and cycle and play tennis in the road or venture into the wilds. I grew up within five minutes’ walk of woods, old quarry workings which we called caves, mountains, two rivers, a canal and a waterfall. In the woods there might have been elves; in the mountains there might have been giants and dragons; in the caves there might have been witches; somewhere under the bracken was an old Roman road and we might meet a centurion’s ghost. It was always worth trying to find out.

If I count up the ways in which I could have died or seriously injured myself, ambling about, often alone, in all of these places, I run out of fingers. One of the local boys nearly did die, almost hanged while messing about with rope in the trees, but he survived, and so did I. The greatest danger I think I faced was when two of the nastier boys grabbed me when I was on my own and bundled me into one of the caves.  I remember being very frightened but also angry. At that moment, an older girl called out for me across the woods. Even though I was being threatened to keep quiet, I shouted back “here I am!” and the boys let me go. It was only many many years later, I realised what might have been in their minds.

Our village consisted of two roads which led off a main road. They started at the bottom of the hill and immediately parted company.  I lived on the steepest road which twisted in narrow hairpins towards the chapel and then straightened up just as you passed the big black and gold notice board with “whosoever” on it.  I loved that word.

We moved there when I was eight. The old school house was redundant and was in the process of being turned into a dwelling. There simply weren’t enough children to keep it open and we went by bus to school in the next village. Houses ranging from semis to terraces to miners’ cottages lined the road. On one side was an upward slope which led into the woods. On the other was a field which led down to the river. (The field was, much to our disgust, later turned into a housing estate.)  The river led down to the waterfall and then joined a bigger river which ran alongside the newly renovated canal.

We’d sometimes have picnics at the canal, and Dad would send us with a bottle of home-made ginger beer which he made from what he called a “ginger-beer plant”. There is another version, using a lot more fresh ginger, but this is the one he made. The resulting liquid looked utterly disgusting but was sort of nice and nasty all at the same time. I have just looked this up and this is how it’s made:

Ingredients for the ‘fake’ ginger beer plant:

Half a teaspoon of dried yeast
1 teaspoon of ground or fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon sugar
1 cup warm water
Making the ‘fake’ ginger beer plant:  Mix ingredients in a jar and cover with a piece of muslin. Secure with a rubber band. For the following week, add 1 teaspoon of sugar and 1 teaspoon of ground or fresh grated ginger daily.

Apart from a few teenagers (of no interest to us), in the village there were, as far as I can recall about ten girls and about ten boys under twelve.

One of the girls used to pop in to see her grandmother on the way to the school bus because the grandmother would open a drawer full of sweets and select something for her to take to school against starvation. Candy was discouraged in our house, so I was always jealous. On the other hand, the poor girl subsequently spent most of her teens trying to lose weight and going to the dentist.

Many of the boys were trouble.  Some of them were motherless, which might have been why they were so wild, but even so, they were a horrible bunch. They stole our apples. They set their dog on our cat (although she got her own back by slashing it across its nose). At Hallowe’en they would chuck eggs at doors and torment people by placing leering Jack O’Lanterns along their walls.

Of the nicer boys, I remember that one said he saved time at breakfast by putting his toast and marmalade on top of his cornflakes and poured his tea over the top so that he could eat the whole thing as a sort of mush.  This always appalled me, because chaotic as my house was, table manners were rigid.

As we grew out of childhood and into our teens, we spent less time outside, found friends from other places and discovered other pastimes. Our secondary education was fragmented and split us up. We attended one school in a village a bus ride away between the ages of  eleven and twelve and then another, a mile’s walk away, between the ages of twelve and sixteen. At sixteen, if we wanted to go to sixth form or college, they were in a different town altogether. At eighteen, those of us who went on to university, mostly moved away and never went back.

The point of all this nostalgic rambling is that just looking back at being eight to twelve years old, I have plenty of fuel for my imagination. So yes, a lot of the stories are true, just not entirely true.

Apart from the dragons of course…
JUST IN CASE YOU DIDN’T KNOW:
* “penny for the guy”. I haven’t seen this for a very long time. When I was a child and where I lived, not much was made of Hallowe’en. We’d never heard of trick or treating. My husband who is the same age as I am, says he does remember it. But then he lived in a city and I lived in the west about twenty years behind. However, we did celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, also called Bonfire or Fireworks Night. Nowadays not many people do this at home as fireworks are expensive and people are more safety conscious. Except in a few places, the taste for making a “guy” (an effigy named after Guy Fawkes who, in 1606, was caught in an act of terrorism and subsequently executed) and setting fire to it, is also less popular, especially because of the sectarian implications. Back then however, children (who couldn’t care less about the political or religious aspects, but just liked the chance to get some cash) would make a guy out of old clothes and cart it round the neighbours’ houses. If you were lucky, they’d give you some cash. Sometimes you got sweets. A month later, we went round carol-singing with the same aim in mind.

** “Blue Peter” is a long running BBC TV children’s programme. It runs an annual charity appeal, giving children the chance to raise money in simple ways. I like to think we contributed to training perhaps a paw of a guide dog.

dragon
Words and photograph copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon (pottery dragon bought many many years ago in Neath, West Glamorgan, South Wales.  I would credit the maker if I could!). All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Letter to My Bully

I found the old class photograph and I looked for you.

I can remember your words, most of them.

The words that stung, that ripped into me, then undermined me even when they made no sense: weird, strange, not normal, ugly, stupid, clumsy, useless, soft, cry-baby, weak: the jibes about my body, my face, my hair, my skin, my family, my past, my future.

I remember the separation, the isolation, the other-ness.

But guess what? Your face itself is blank.

Do I wish I learnt earlier to hide the pain? Maybe.

Perhaps I wish I had stopped looking at myself sooner and looked at everyone else instead to see that their vulnerabilities, their weaknesses, their weirdnesses, stupidities and so on were no less than mine. It was simply that theirs were not pointed out.

I certainly wish that it had not taken me so long to realise that you were the one with the problem, not me.

Someone who could uses fear to make companions is just as friendless as someone who sits alone. Maybe more so.

And if I was vulnerable and sensitive, in fact, if I am still vulnerable or sensitive then I am glad.

I have learnt that these are good things to be.

At least I can recognise pain and doubt and fear and try to comfort rather than exploit. I want to be kind and loyal. I bitterly regret every unkindness or disloyalty I have ever been guilty of.

And I do not fear failure. I know I can start again and again and again.

You thought that failure makes you weak. But you were wrong. It is not failure which makes you weak. Failure makes you strong. Failure makes you look at yourself and analyse what went wrong and move forward.

Being cruel makes you weak. Being a bully makes you smug on victory, building yourself up and up … but there is nothing but destruction waiting when you fall.

So I can look at the school photograph and find myself. I remember how alone I felt in that class of young faces. I can name most of those other children, including the ones who told me afterwards how afraid they were of you and the ones who tried to be kind even when you picked on them for trying to befriend me. But I can’t find you. If you’re who I think you are then you looked like everyone else. You don’t look so scary.

I am not ashamed to have been that shy, lonely little girl who didn’t know how to hide her feelings. I am proud that I have grown to want to be kind.

Are you proud to be the one who made me cry?

b&w

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

A Fine Mess

Clearing out a wardrobe in middle years is an exploration of hope over reality. I wish I was tidy. I quite enjoy the catharsis of taking a massive bag of clothes and books to the charity shop. I take pleasure in polishing when there’s a clear surface to dust. But I really wish someone else could magic away the clutter.

This suit, yes it made me look elegant and corporate but…. I bought it eleven years ago and haven’t been able to fit into it for eight. Why is it still there?

And the lovely party dress bought on a whim online. In the wrong size. There it hangs, six years later, forlorn and unworn waiting for me to regain my once elfin figure (and also for a party invitation).

At the bottom of the wardrobe was my dissertation, unread since it was handed in. The cover is stained from where it got damp once. It was rescued when I cleared out my parents’ shed in 2013. I try to visualise me as an earnest young undergraduate stabbing away at a typewriter. I can’t remember how her mind worked, but I can remember the agony of producing every word, even though most of them now make no sense (the average goldfish bowl is more profound). Still back in the wardrobe it goes, because the only other place to put it is an overloaded bookcase.

Somewhere in my system there must be at least one tidy gene. Unfortunately, it has been mislaid in the chaos of all the untidy ones. I do like a neat working environment for writing, drawing or sewing.  But the reality is that if necessary, I will have to turn my back on anything out of place elsewhere in the room (I’d never do anything creative otherwise) and for example right now I am tapping in my little writing corner while behind me are four piles of clean laundry and outside the room…

On the other hand, the plus side of having been brought up in a house where a clear worktop was just wasted space is that I can cook in an area the size of a side-plate if necessary; a skill which makes me able to cope with the catering side of camping with nonchalance.

Personally, I blame my parents. One of my earliest memories is of a room, floor to ceiling (or at least above my three year old head) with stuff. I can’t now recall what stuff although books featured significantly. However, I do remember a glass case with a stuffed red squirrel inside. It had fascinating shiny eyes. There was also a musical box which had real butterflies pinned to little rods which danced up and down when the music played. They were very pretty, but I was sad that something so free should be fixed so permanently. “Are they dead?” I asked. “Afraid so but just as well.” Dad answered. Sometime between then and when we moved to the next house, both the squirrel and the musical box were sold. They had come with my parents from their first home, a flat in Hendon which had previously belonged to my father’s aunt (who conveniently died sometime before the wedding). As far as I can gather, my father thus accumulated a number of her books (which covered a range of the early 20th Century equivalent of New Agism, e.g. Theosophy, British Israelitism and so on) and several odd items she had either inherited or collected, including dead animals in cases. Recently, friends took us to find that flat where my parents started their married life and where I lived until I was eighteen months old. It is fundamentally a maisonette. At the time when I was born, my parents lived in the top floor and one of my father’s other aunts lived on the ground floor. I took some exterior photographs to show my mother and then did an internet search to see whether we could find any interior shots from the last time it was sold or rented out.

“The bathroom looks a bit different,” said my mother in some surprise, slightly affronted that it hadn’t remained the same for fifty years, “and the sitting room never looked as roomy as that when we were living there.”

“That’s possibly because it’s tidy now,” I pointed out.
“You might be right,” conceded Mum.

After moving from Hendon, we moved to Dunstable, then to Wokingham, then to Winnersh then to Neath in South Wales. This was all in a space of seven years. If the proverbial rolling stone gathers moss, my rolling father gathered stuff. There is no other word for it unless you know a collective noun that covers books, half finished projects, paperwork which is in no order whatsoever and may have become irrelevant twenty years earlier, items inherited or handed down by relations who presumably didn’t want them and knew my father was a sucker for that sort of thing, random bits of china and souvenirs etc etc. Stuff. What we had most of was books of course, thousands of them. When we moved to the house in Wales, we put the majority of them up in the front room on bowed bookshelves. Some of the villagers were incredulous. “What they want all them books for?” they said, as if this was stranger than keeping baby alligators, which was what the adjoining neighbours did in their front room.

Eventually, my father and another neighbour moved the bathroom from downstairs into a bedroom upstairs and what had once been the bathroom became what we called the study. Only my father was capable of “studying” in there. Everyone else was in fear of being crushed to death by something falling off the tottering piles of books and papers. Whenever my sister or I had a birthday party, or some masochistic relation came to stay, there was a frantic shoving of clutter into the study. If you subsequently wanted anything, it was an exercise similar to finding a specific geological strata in a range of mountains and probably more dangerous. After my ninth birthday party, the bully at school made nasty comments about our disordered house which made me hate it; but on the other hand, when I reconnected with an old friend a few years ago (a girl who came round regularly, not just when we’d shovelled a room clear) she told me how refreshing it had been to visit a home where you could paint, sew, write, cook and no-one cared about the resulting chaos.

(Incidentally, the study finally became too constricting even for my father to write in, so, after trying to work in the attic but finding it too dark, he constructed a room within the airing cupboard where he could put his electric typewriter and eventually a computer. Really, you’ve just got to believe me on this.)

It’s hard to imagine how my father turned out this way. Or maybe it was a natural reaction. My paternal grandmother was the archetypal housewife and kept her home streamlined and immaculate. My paternal grandfather was a prototype minimalist and couldn’t bear mess or pictures at an angle or things on windowsills or dust or crumbs. He didn’t show any evidence that small children playing caused him any pain, but we did have to tidy up after ourselves, which we virtually never did at home. My grandmother kept some decorative, feminine, pretty ornaments in her room where they wouldn’t annoy him but they were still kept very neat.

What my mother’s excuse is, I have no idea. My maternal grandfather died before I was born but my maternal grandmother also kept a tidy, if arty, house and she too made sure my sister and I cleaned up after ourselves when we stayed. A recent TV programme showed young girls in the 1940s and 50s being chained to the home, training up as housewives. My mother just laughed. “Never happened to me!” she said cheerfully.

So I assume that my mother had either not picked up any wifey skills before her marriage at twenty-three or lost interest in the face of my father’s consequent refusal to do anything except horde and live in chaos. Possibly a combination of both. He wasn’t a man to be argued with, and I speak as one who tried. Dad regarded any sort of tidying, cataloging, organising or (heaven forbid) reducing the volume of stuff as a dark art. When I mentioned the fact that I was doing my biennial book sort, culling the ones I didn’t want and putting the remainder back into some sort of order by genre and author, he visibly shuddered, as if I was describing the slaughter of kittens with a pickaxe. Mum did try. She once took a mass of long unread science fiction books to a charity shop only for my father to buy them back a week later because “I seem to have lost the ones I thought I had.”

She didn’t pass on many home-making skills to me or my sister either. Both of us regard housework as a sort of Sisyphean task which has been set to punish us for something. On the other hand, Mum and Dad between them showed us how to be creative. There were story competitions and painting and papier-mâché and lino cutting. Every holiday Dad would try out some new craft with varying success: corn dollies, soap carving, pottery. There just wasn’t much time for nonsense like dusting or vacuuming.

Long long after my sister and I had left, my parents finally moved from the family home and into a bungalow, manfully trying to force nearly forty years of stuff into somewhere half the size of the place they were leaving and pretty nearly managing it, if you didn’t mind the fact that there wasn’t much floor. Recently, the old family home came up on the market and we looked in astonishment at the interior shots on the estate agent’s website. It was impossible to recognise anything, including my old room, where latter owners had put a spiral staircase into the attic which was now a light filled spacious room rather than a dark glory hole reminiscent of a junk shop.

In 2012, when my sister and I stayed for the last week of Dad’s life as he lay unconscious in the intensive care unit of the local hospital, we reorganised some of the stuff just so that I had somewhere to sleep and tried to create some sort of sense out of the remainder. We felt like traitors and we would have given anything for him to wake up and tell us to stop interfering and that no reasonable person needed more than six inches of horizontal surface visible at any given time.

He died without knowing that we’d started organising the mess and boxing up things for charity or to put into storage. Ruefully we laughed when we found half a five pound note in between two dusty books, saying it was our fitting inheritance. We never did find the other half. A little under a year later, my mother moved out of the bungalow to be near me and this time, the decluttering, which had been slowly progressing for nine months, had to be finished in the space of two weeks. There would be no room in the flat at the sheltered complex.

That was three years ago and I still feel scarred by the experience of disposing of so much so quickly. My mother’s flat is now tidy in an untidy sort of way and most of the retained boxes of stuff are in our garage, although periodically she kidnaps one to rummage through. She misses the clutter of fifty-one years of marriage to a hoarder.

In the process of helping her move from bungalow to flat, I unearthed a tin (yes a tin) of furniture polish from the kitchen and said to my mother, “er… isn’t this the same tin you had when I was a little girl?”

“Probably,” she said. “The thing is,” she added with much wisdom, “there’s always something much more interesting to do than housework.”

mess2

Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

War Games

Children are a blood-thirsty lot. In my early years of primary school, the playground was just as likely to be a battle-field with one group attacking another as it was to be scene of kiss chase, which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same thing.

Boys games were simple. There were two sides. You shot at each other with imaginary guns. Consequently you were either heroically victorious or heroically dead, having expired with magnificent sound effects. After a short period of lying around frozen in the moment of death, you came back to life to do a bit more shooting until the bell went when friend and foe marched arm in arm to the refrain: “We won the war, in 1964!”

Girls games: There was a lot of emphasis on dolls, kiss-chase or kidnapping boys to be your husband while you kept house. I didn’t mind the kissing or kidnapping but had a hate-hate relationship with both dolls and housework. So until I was seven, my playtime, depending on my school and social status at the time, was spent either acting out fantasy stories (alone or with my equally weird friend Joanna and a unicorn), being bullied or playing war games with the boys.

Even though, or perhaps because, all the other girls had long since caved in to gender stereotyping and sidled off to find a skipping rope, Joanna and I stuck to the war-games as long as we could. But tragically, the boys eventually decided they didn’t really want girls involved anymore. Was this because the boys were challenged by our ability to look more dead than they could (I practised quite a lot in readiness for an acting career) or because Joanna and I not only wanted to a story to explain the battle but also include the unicorn? In the end we were sent off the battlefield to be nurses purely so that periodically we could touch the fallen and make them come back to life.

When I was eight we moved from England to Wales. I found that while terminology changed, the fundamental rules of playground engagement were roughly the same including bullying, which, it turned out, is truly a game without frontiers.

Whether because of our age or local custom, there was definitely no mixing of the sexes in the playground. Now I had to arm myself for a darker kind of conflict: big girls’ games. On the face of it, these simply involved skipping ropes and elastics, learning nonsensical complicated rhymes, avoiding falling on one’s face and talking about the fashion credentials of each other’s clothes. But in truth it was a cold warfare of double-talk with a constant undercurrent of oneupwomanship. I never ever learnt how to crack the secret code, but nevertheless learnt early on that undercover negotiations worthy of Le Carre meant that the girl with the power was not necessarily the girl who won the game and the girl you needed to keep on your side was almost certainly your deadliest enemy.

Outside of school, in long hot summer evenings, all the village children played one massive game of Cowboys and Indians. This involved running around in the bracken and climbing trees, ambushing each other, generally without a clear idea who was which. Although I’d left the unicorn in Berkshire, I was still desperate for a storyline and in my head I was a beautiful, mysterious Indian princess, outlined against the sunset sky waiting for her hero. (Fortunately – my new friend, despite understanding the yearning for a story, could be relied on to get me down out of the line of sight when I was about to be shot by a Cowboy with no romance in his soul.)

The point is, there was always an enemy. We just weren’t sure who they were or whose side we were on. Brought up at a time when TV consisted of three channels and only showed Westerns and World War II films, it’s perhaps not surprising that in the playground we wondered whether we were still at war with Germany if not the Apache. We sort of knew we weren’t. We were pretty certain the war had finished some time before 1964, but it was all a bit foggy. Our grandparents talked about the war, our parents referred to it. On TV it filtered into dramas, comedies, films. It was as if it had never ended. Or as if people were sorry it had.

My father had a great deal of imagination but little sensitivity, so that on the one hand he told stories which made us certain that it was just a matter of time before we met a dragon, on the other hand he didn’t wonder whether an inquisitive little girl should listen to quite so much news. I remember very clearly hearing about battles in Israel, firmly convinced it was all to do with the crucifixion because when you’re three, the difference between last Easter and two thousand years ago is negligible. Then there was the reporting of the Prague Spring, which took place on my father’s thirtieth birthday. I recall asking where Czechoslovakia was and worried when they said it was where our car, a Skoda, came from. What if the people with tanks came to get it back?

Anxiety about war, therefore, started very early on. I felt conscious in some background way, that someone was out to get me. I just didn’t know who.

The IRA seemed to be the most likely. My parents both worked in the public sector. Letter bombs were delivered to my mother’s office and my father’s scruffy old briefcase, left on an office landing, was partially dismantled by security staff as a suspect package. If it looked disreputable beforehand, it looked a lot worse afterwards but national security had been threatened by nothing worse than a couple of science fiction novels, his own scribblings and an empty tupperware (my father was never known to leave a lunch uneaten.)

Initially the only conflict I thought the Soviet Union could trigger was a recurring argument between socialist Dad and his Conservative father. I think they thought that Communism and by association, socialism, undermined the whole calm conformity of the British way of life and was the unlocking of the gate to general chaos and anarchy. This possibility so terrified my grandmother that she refused to shop in the Co-op. To my father’s teenage shame, my grandfather had once refused to give water to a passing member of one of the Aldermaston marches on the grounds that he disapproved of any challenge to the status quo.

By the time I was the teenager, a pacifist, I more anxious than ever about conflict. I was no longer worried about the Germans. I had a German pen friend. My grandfather was vaguely worried that through her I would marry a foreigner (the irony of this is that one of his own grandfathers was from what is now the Ukraine.) But I wasn’t sure that a ecologically, community minded German wasn’t preferable to a miserable Briton. Inner city discontent, industrial action, high unemployment, apartheid, IRA bombings, race riots, women’s rights all wove themselves into the flag waving, petrol bombing, picket line fires-in-oil-drums tapestry of my teens. Meanwhile on TV archetypal stereotypes with their casual racism: the dolly birds and frigid wives, the lazy workers, stupid Irish, singing Welsh, mean Scots, class-obsessed English, were starting to flicker and fade. Television had become a distorted mirror of a society which was fracturing and reforming.

In 1980, the BBC started to teach Russian. I only learnt how to say thank-you and goodbye before the programme was hastily withdrawn when the USSR had invaded Afghanistan.

The sabre rattling started in earnest shortly after. Or at least, that’s when I noticed it. In the sixth form, we endlessly discussed our fears about the bickering between the Soviet Union and the USA. Could the Falklands War escalate with interference from outside? Would the boys I’d known since childhood eventually be conscripted to die for places we hadn’t known existed? The Falklands War ended but the tension remained. We learned how to prepare for a nuclear attack. Someone said that someone had told them that someone had said that in the event of a nuclear threat both America and Russia would destroy the whole of Western Europe to save it from being annexed by the other side. This was cheering. Our morbid discussions tended to veer towards what we’d do if we heard the four minute warning. Would you have sex with the first person available just in case it was your last chance or indeed first and only chance – even if that meant doing it with HIM? Would four minutes be long enough to do so? If not, would you commit suicide? If you didn’t kill yourself, then was it your responsibility to start a new generation in the post apocalyptic world? And if so, would you reproduce with the first person available – even if it was HIM? (We were teenagers – it was hard to keep focussed on the right things sometimes.)

I was genuinely convinced that I was not going to live to adulthood. That some idiot would press the big red button and wipe out everything and all the people – faulty yes, failed yes, but just people. I can remember feeling depressed and angry and hurt and cheated by the leaders of the world who just couldn’t work out some way of making peace. It seemed like five minutes since an adult was telling me to play nicely with my sister and here were the adults incapable of doing the same on a larger scale. I talked to my father about it and he said he remembered feeling the same about the Cuban missile crisis when he was young. It wasn’t comforting to know that in the intervening time, no-one had learned anything.

I went to a few CND meetings but the earnestness made me a little nervous and while I admired the brave conviction of the Greenham Common women I was even more nervous of them (and also, to be honest, didn’t fancy being that grubby). I miserably concluded that I was not an activist. I was going to die angry but unheard (albeit clean.)

In 1981, my German penfriend invited me to stay with her family and they took me to see the fence.

It was a beautiful summer’s day and we were in the middle of nowhere. We had climbed up a small mountain and passed a life size Calvary. Suddenly we were in a field with a waist high hand rail and maybe fifty yards away across some longer grass, there was a tall wire fence with watch towers and high walkways patrolled by armed soldiers.

“Be careful,” said my pen friend’s father, “That’s a mine field. And don’t take photographs.”

I remember staring at it, not quite believing it was real, watching as one of the soldiers stopped his restless walking back and forth and turned to stare back at us. Impossible to tell at that distance what age he was. Impossible to know what lies he has been told about my culture and what lies I’d been told about his.

Under the lazy blue sky and across the waving treacherous grass, I just knew that I didn’t want to kill him and I didn’t want to be dead.

Eight years later, I was watching TV film of the Berlin wall being broken down, three years after that, I was standing on a street in Bucharest looking at bullet holes and an empty presidential palace, twenty years after that, my next door neighbour was from Belarus.

In 2013, we took our son to his GCSE options evening and were told that the history course covered the Cold War. I looked at the teacher and realised that she would have been too young to have remembered it, that it was history to her, whereas to me, it was a backdrop; that it coloured my teenage and early adult years with an underlying dread I have never quite shaken off.

Now, the anxiety felt by my teenage son and daughter is the fear that there just might be a terrorist in their midst. Does it comes to the same thing? They feel depressed and angry and cheated by people wanting to destroy something for reasons which miss the point of humanity, which is that the person beside you or across the border, or on the other side of the world is ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a beautiful creation, faulty yes, failed yes, but just another person with hopes and dreams and loves, who wants to grow up and leave in peace.

And yet here we are, still squaring up to each other, like boys in a playground. Like girls in a playground, still making secret deals and whispering behind each other’s backs. And still not really certain who or what we’re fighting and whose side we should be on.

green fieldsCopyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission