At the Book-Signing

“I don’t really read.”
“Oh”
“But I came cos your name reminded me of someone I knew at school. In fact it’s weird. You look just like her.”
“That’s because I AM her.”
“No you can’t be.”
“I am. And I recognise you too.”
“No you’re not her. She was a weirdo. And a swot.”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Yeah but you look normal.”
“I did then too.”
“And see, it says here on the front cover ‘humour’. She didn’t have a sense of humour at all. Trust me.”
“It’s hard to laugh when someone’s hidden your stuff, beaten you up and isolated you from the rest of the class.”
“She was good at those boring things like history and English. She liked reading. She’d probably have read your book.”
“I have.”
“I always wanted to be in a book.”
“You are. Fourth story in. The one called ‘Revenge’.”
….
“That’s gross. Is that even physically possible?”
“Tell you what, take a book home with my compliments before I’m tempted to find out.”
“Nah. Like I said, I don’t really read.”

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

(This was written in response to a prompt “Imagine you’re at a book signing – what happens?”)

Kitchen Haiku

Hungry teenagers:
Spurn gourmet, demand junk food.
I weep as I cook.

Keep your head down low
Get outside quick and breathe deep
Dad’s frying chillies

Would it count towards
My five a day, if I ate
Vegetarians?

Dishwasher broken!
Husband! Disembowel it!
Mend it or wash up!

[2 hours later]

Bother Drat Bother
Dishwasher completely dead
Guests come tomorrow

Exotic cuisine
Without right ingredients:
Optimistic Dad

The scent of orange,
Cherries and almond essence
Recall Gran’s kitchen

Tell me to do it
To cook just like your mother
And I’ll add hemlock

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

Homespun

“I’ve bought you a loom,” said Dad, fancying self-sufficiency.

Mum was planting potatoes, while his thoughts shuttled off, wondering about getting a pigpen.

Indoors, my mother, tense as warped yarn, wondered how she was could cook with this monstrous machine filling our dark kitchen. Selvedges would run parallel to cupboards while the beam abutted the range and to weave the weft she would have her back to the sink.

One day, the loom was gone.

Despite Scots blood, Mum never wove the tweed suit Dad planned. I think she made a table mat.

He’s lucky it wasn’t a shroud.

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

Prompted by the word “Yarn” in the Thin Spiral Notebook. (NB this is a true story.)

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.”

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

Raining all over the World

Rain – comforting, devasting, longed for. To me, there’s nothing quite like lying in a cosy bed in my dry bedroom listening rain on the roof to make me feel warm and safe. Perhaps it takes me back to listening to the steady breathing or heartbeat of my mother while I nestled in the womb. Or maybe the drumming of her fingers on her stomach as she tried to work out whether it was possible to get any bigger. Who knows.

Listening to the rain on roofs of holiday caravans and tents and boats is even more comforting (provided it’s relatively gentle and there’s no wind). I think it’s the smugness of being undercover while yet still somehow in the wild. Your only concern is the hope that it will have miraculously dried up by morning.

In reality this is a feeble hope. I recall damp midnight treks to the loo on a French campsite to find it full of amphibians apparently taking a rain check from the weather. Further back I recall terrifying night-time manoeuvres with the family caravan which had been parked by my ever optimistic father on a cliff top shortly before a storm hit. Even further back than that I recall being bundled into the car during what seemed to be an apocalypse while the tent borrowed from my father’s cousin collapsed in hail and gale force winds (my ever optimistic father had been convinced the weather would hold for one more night). Admittedly I wasn’t bothered about the tent and it was only later that I found out my father’s cousin never quite forgave him for its destruction. I was mostly terrified by the fact that I could not see my parents, or indeed anything outside the car because of the deluge and it seemed as if I was trapped, possibly forever, in a small metal container being rattled by the wind and drowned in rain with my little sister who was howling to ensure she’d get the maximum attention should we ever see our parents again, while I was crying because in his hurry, ever optimistic dad had shut my foot in the door.

Much more recently, I remember being woken as the rocking of the boat we were on stopped being cradle like and started being brain rattling. Listening to the ominously increasing thud of waves and the way the tinkling in the shrouds had turned into to a war dance as the boat turned into a wind which husband (otherwise known as ancient mariner) had promised wasn’t coming until late afternoon, giving us plenty of time to get ashore and home. What made the whole experience more bizarre was that we had to sail back to a mooring then get from the mooring to the shore in a dinghy while being dumped on in all directions by sea and rain. Trying to encourage the children not to be afraid even though I was, I suggested they sang a song. The only thing they could come up with under duress was the one they’d been learning for the school play “Wind in the Willows”. The song? “Messing about in Boats” oh how we laughed. Finally ashore, we realised the water had got inside our very underwear. When we got home, the washing that I’d put out the previous afternoon, assured by ancient mariner that we’d be back in plenty of time to get it in before the weather changed, was wetter than when I’d taken it out of the washing machine. I should point out that this was June.

Rain. I think of myself as a western girl (western in the British sense, I wouldn’t look good in a stetson). This westerly sense of self is based on very little. Twenty-five percent of my genes come from Kent and London.  Born in Edgware, I am technically a Londoner myself, and there is one thin ancestral strand from a long way the other side of the channel. Another twenty-five percent is Irish (which, albeit eastern Irish is still in the West from where I’m sitting right now). But having said that, the remaining set of genes are from the West coast of Scotland and since the age of eight with the exception of three college years in Sussex, I have lived in the West – South West Wales then South West England.

It feels like home, facing the sunset – the unknowable possibilities beyond the horizon – the wilds, the mystery, the distant half visible lands. OK, I know it’s Ireland and the Americas but I prefer to think it’s Tír na nÓg. And while equally I know that beyond the West is the East coming to meet it over the Bering Strait, I prefer to think of the sea cascading over the edge of the world into the … anyway the point is, the West feels like home. It has hills to hide in, sea to stare off into and, let’s be honest: a fair amount of rain.

It doesn’t rain as much as people from outside Britain think. It doesn’t rain all the time. It does stop. It even stops in Wales. People never believe me when I describe a childhood and middle teens of getting sunburnt on the beach and summers so hot the bracken was tinder dry and the local bad boys set fire to it threatening the woods in which we played sunset games of cowboys and Indians. My first summer in Wales was spent in glorious sunshine happily cooling off in a forest or watching water beetles in a small pond under the trees. Admittedly, it was followed by a terrible autumn in our new house when the whole world appeared to turn grey. In October, ever optimistic dad having gone away for the weekend on some sort of training course convinced quietly realistic mum that the dodgy looking extension would be just fine. I remember mum crying quietly as she ran out of saucepans to catch the rain. (The subsequent tarring of the roof leaks was done by me as the only person small enough to climb out of the bathroom window onto the extension roof, apart from my little sister who was deemed perhaps too young. This is the sort of thing only my dad could think of.) And yes, after that, my Welsh teenage years included walking to school down our hill with its double hairpin bend, which turned into a cataract of water chicaning round the bends, the drains unable to cope. At school, we wandered around in breaks with no shelter in the days when you weren’t allowed inside when it rained unless you were a prefect. At the time there was a fashion for duffle coats and fish tail parkas, so that classrooms after a wet break smelt of numerous wet mongrels as we all steamed dry over Shakespeare or quadratic equations. Serves the teachers right, we thought.

Right now sleety rain is being hurled at the windows by a trainee gale. I don’t want to drive in it let alone walk in it. I live in allegedly the sunniest part of England and it still seems to have been raining for pretty much five months. Which is unusual. I am not qualified to argue about global warming. I would only say that my view is that while the climate has changed constantly since the beginning of time, if the steam in the bathroom after a teenager has been showering for forty-five minutes or the smoke in the kitchen when you boil a saucepan dry is anything to go by, then the unprecedented increase in carbon emissions since the industrial revolution must have some sort of impact.

Rain: song lyrics are full of rain, usually representing pain or loneliness or despair, but sometimes it represents something essentialAnd sometimes, it’s just fun. A smirking (male) friend once said that “It’s raining men, hallelujah” should have been our college anthem since at the time the ratio of women to men was five to one.

Rain. It’s a double edged sword. Even in a country used to rain, homes and livelihoods are destroyed by floods. Where there is poverty, damp houses create disease and misery. And while I’m lying in bed lulled to sleep by the pattering on the roof, people, not so many miles away, other human beings, some of whom have trekked in desperation from countries where water is a luxury, are sitting in mud, listening to the rain on makeshift shelters wondering if anything will ever change.

I have, I suppose, a typically British ambivalence to rain. Probably like the apocryphal Inuit and snow, we have a hundred ways to describe rain and can talk about it for hours. There’s the rain which is fine and misty and makes your hair curl and there’s the sudden localised downpour which can drench you to the point you have to strip off immediately inside the front door to avoid soaking the carpets. And like most British people, my definition of a nice summer’s day is one where I don’t need to worry about taking an umbrella. On the other hand, rain in summer is sometimes a miraculous thing: the smell of the drops hitting the parched earth, the sound of them pattering on the hard ground outside the window flung open to catch the tiniest breeze.

I often wish it would go away, yet if we haven’t had it for a while, I am glad when it returns.

Right now, I wish it would go away. I want to see a blue sky for more than a day and I want to feel the sun on my skin. I feel for the homeless and the people on the other side of the channel and the farmers and the businesses and the people in inadequate housing with leaking roofs and damp walls.  But yesterday I took a taxi and said so to the driver and he said “in East Africa where I come from, it hasn’t rained for three years. And you must remember, this country is beautiful because of rain.”

So writing this, and listening to the wind in the chimney and the rain against the glass, I try to think of what it would be like without it. How different we’d be as a nation, how my garden would look without the millions of different greens (all somewhat sodden at the moment) and how much I’d miss the sound of rain on the roof at night to make me feel warm and safe.

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