Third Choice

To this day, I can’t remember why, after clearing, I ended up in the university which interviewed me over the phone rather than the one which interviewed me in person.

Perhaps it was a wrong number that started it; the wrong number of marks in my exams. Now Sheffield University didn’t want me after all.

Colchester had a course I really fancied; but it was so far to the east as to be almost in Belgium. I couldn’t imagine living somewhere so flat that you could see your enemies coming for miles and worry, having lived most my life in the hilly west, where you can hide from your enemies and then ambush them. So I spoke on the phone to the cheerful lady at Chichester and a couple of months later, headed south; east, but south-east, and still technically west, if only in Sussex terms. It was not flat either, although history suggests the downs and hollows weren’t much use for hiding, over-run as the area has been by Romans, then Saxons, then Normans, then Londoners.

Two weeks in, I wrote letters to my grandmothers, forgetting the first time, caught up in the newness and excitement of living away from home, and also the lonely longing for a loving familiarity to connect with, yes, forgetting the first time, that the one who was always proud of me had died two years earlier and the sudden recollection made me cry. I wrote hopefully to my beloved and cheerily to my parents and probably to my younger sister, the usurper of parental attention.

Beyond the nestling college were fields and beyond that the city. A Cathedral city, bijou and full of tea-shops. If I had got into Sheffield, I’d have been in a proper metropolis with lowering buildings, sprawling development and the constant movement of faceless strangers. Perhaps I’d have felt lost. Perhaps my little college in its little circular city, still bound by Roman walls in places, its central roads still marking a cross by the Cathedral, an easy stride from halls to the railway station, was just perfect for me. A nest for a country mouse.

I was entitled to lunch and dinner in the refectory where meals were served at set times, with grace given by the Dean at the start. The food was, in the main, pretty good, I recall with vegetarian options I’d never tried: mushroom stroganoff, ragu pomodoro and bean casserole. But I eschewed them in the main, growing thin on soup and biscuits instead, rather than face the faces I feared would turn and stare at me.

I was very lonely that first year, not finding my life-long friends till the following September; so I sat in my room a lot, listening to the radio, writing stories and poems which now make no sense. I can still see the room where I wrote them in silence, isolated and shy, first looking out of the window at Autumn leaves and then Spring snowdrops and finally hail brought by June heat to smash the roof of the greenhouse on the other side of the path.

I can see the room but not myself, not really. I read over those old stories, full of hyperbole meant to be enigmatic and actually obscure, and wonder about the serious girl who wrote them and what she really thought she was trying to say. As for the poems, well, the torture of first love, the agonies of teaching your parents to let go – they are all there, but generally, there ought to be a law against people in their late teens and early twenties writing poetry, unless of course they’re Keats.

On Monday evenings, I went to Compline at the college chapel. I wasn’t familiar with the service, coming from a non-conformist background, but the soft, late night liturgy was like cocoa for the spirit, calming and reassuring. There was nothing for me to do but absorb the comforting words: “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end…From all ill dreams defend our eyes, from nightly fears and fantasies. Tread underfoot our ghostly foe, that no pollution we may know.” Solaced and warm with the comfort of faith, I walked back to my room and slept without the nightmares which otherwise plagued me.

In lectures, I learnt about literature. The main thing I learnt was that I didn’t like studying it, I just wanted to write it. My tutor tried to encourage us to produce flash fiction. The Odyssey in fifty words? Ridiculous. Having been asked the previous term to write epic poetry, the leap from verbosity to brevity was impossible to execute.

What else did I learn? Friendship, how to cook using two gas rings only, hand washing, photography, late night debating, how to start to break down my own protective walls and venture out.

What didn’t I learn? I didn’t learn teamwork then, or compromise or how to recognise the grey fuzzy edges of my opinions, thinking myself a failure if I didn’t stick rigidly to my views, rather than realise that maybe life is just not that black and white. I certainly didn’t learn common sense, leaving with a degree and no idea what to do next.

The subsequent drift is a whole other story.

Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing now if, in the sixth form, I’d concentrated on my A levels instead of on my heart, first full, then broken. Maybe, if I’d got into Sheffield, I’d have ended up in a different career, maybe become famous, maybe rich or influential. Or maybe not. The course I’d originally chosen made sense at the time, but thinking about it now, it’s hard to dredge out from my memory what I thought I was actually going to do with that Ancient Norse and Anglo Saxon.

So here is where I am.  After all, as they say, the choices I made, in the end made me and the path I didn’t mean to take, took me to the right place anyway.


(This was written after a prompt to write something including 13 words and one phrase.  I meant to write a story but this came out instead.  I may still write the story, so I’m not going to say what the 13 word and one phrase were!)

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

Catching the Post


Alix decided if she was going to go to the postbox, she might as well put her running gear on and run there. Or at least pretend to. Richard asked her what she thought she as doing.

‘Have you seen the fog?’ he argued, ‘It was hell driving home.  What on earth makes you want to go out in it? You can’t see your hand in front of your face. You’ll fall off the pavement and get run over or someone will attack you or something.’

Alix hadn’t noticed the fog. She’d been stuck indoors all day with the laptop and her thoughts, tackling bureaucracy and sorting out the old letters and diaries discovered when her mother went into the hospital. And then somehow she’d felt the desperate urge to try once more with Amy.

‘I need to get out,’ she said, ‘if it’s that bad, I’ll just go to the post box and back. If I don’t go now it won’t catch the first post.’

Richard looked at the letter and scowled. ‘I don’t know why you’re wasting your time. She won’t come.’

Alix looked at her husband – the stubborn set to his jaw masking the hurt pride, a characteristic he had passed down to their daughter. She swallowed the words she wanted to say. They had been said over and over. Someone had to give in and she was tired of it being her.  

She pretended to do some stretches and opened the door.

‘Won’t be long,’ she said.

She had never seen fog like it. It pressed against the walls like a pillow, as if it was trying to smother the house.

Still, the post box was so near she could have run there blind-fold and she really needed to get out. Maybe she’d just post the letter and come back, maybe she’d post the letter and run round the block. Maybe she’d just post the letter and go to the shops, just to clear her head.


‘Where do you think you’re going?’ said Jenny’s mother. ‘Have you seen the fog?’

‘I don’t care,’ said Jenny, pulling on her hat and buttoning her jacket. ‘I’ve got to post this letter – it’s got to get to Bill before he sails.’

‘They won’t let him have that leave you know. Anyway, for all you know he’s sailed already.  Don’t you—’

Jenny opened the door and slammed it behind her before Mother asked her if she didn’t know there was a war on. Again.

Mother opened the door and continued regardless. ‘Look at it! It’s thicker than porridge.  It’s uncanny that’s what it is. That’s what your gran would say and she had the second sight. You go out in this you’ll get run over, mark my words. And I’ve got a nice Woolton pie in the oven and it’ll go to waste.’

Jenny took a breath and dug into the fog, it felt like mining. ‘If I get run over, Arthur can have my portion. In fact, he can have it anyway, I’m not hungry.’

She stormed off. It was true, she wasn’t hungry. Even if Woolton pie wasn’t the most revolting thing made worse by a mother who could ruin even the blandest foods, she was aching from missing Bill. And she didn’t know why she needed to have this weekend with him, maybe just a night, maybe an hour, even in some dingy little boarding house near the docks, but she did.

Distantly she could still hear her mother still moaning. ‘It’s not proper chasing after a man, even when he’s your husband. Especially when he’s your husband. Only fools marry when there’s a war on.’ Her voice faded away.

Even in the blackout Jenny could have walked to the post box in her sleep but she felt disorientated in the sheer darkness of the fog. It felt as if she in some horrible game of blind man’s bluff. She kept slipping off the pavement into the road. It wasn’t far now.


Clara waited until Father fell asleep and carefully let herself out. The post box was set into the wall five houses away. She left the door on the latch and pulled it to. If she hurried she’d just about have enough time to catch the post.

She was so ashamed it hurt. How stupid she had been, how miserable she was. A whole day of weeping silently. What if he wouldn’t forgive her? What if he thought she wasn’t worth it?  What if he didn’t understand the fear that she felt? What if he didn’t come back for her and she was stuck with Father forever, desiccating into a mad old maid.

Clara kept her head down and her coat wrapped tight round her. She had forgotten her hat in her haste and felt vaguely wanton. She couldn’t even see the hem of her skirt, let alone the tips of her shoes as she rushed along. She tried to take a deep breath and realised it was not just the corset which stopped her from filling her lungs. It was the fog, impenetrable and almost edible.

She looked up to see if she could make out the post box, which was right next to a street lamp, but it was hard to make out whether the dim glimmer she could see was the lamp or light from an upstairs window.

Yes – here it was. How strange, it was glowing slightly, the only item of colour in the swirling grey.

Two other people were nearing it. Clara tried to make herself small. They looked very strange. Making out the shapes, she could tell that one was clearly a woman, but her skirts were short like a girl’s. On the other hand, she was wearing a hat and Clara self-consciously touched her damp uncovered hair.  The other person – it was hard to tell, but it also seemed to be a woman, although it was hard to make out what she was wearing. Some sort of trousers and some sort of shapeless jacket. And she was also hatless, her longish hair pulled back into a sort of tail like a horse.

Clara slowed. She didn’t know what to do.


The post box was glowing. That was the first thing Alix noticed. The next thing she noticed was that two other women were approaching. One was in a ridiculous long dress, creeping along apparently poised to run at the first threat and the other was dressed up in a dowdy suit with a rabbit’s foot pinned on as a brooch. She was even wearing a hat. Alix was conscious of her running gear and felt immensely unfeminine.


Jenny could see the postbox gleaming redly which was very odd. Then she realised that two others were approaching. One was dressed forty years or so out of date and the other looked as if she was wearing tight pyjamas. Were they ghosts? Her mother’s words echoed in her mind. ‘It’s uncanny, that’s what it is.’

Well nothing was going to stop her posting the letter. Once she’d done that she’d run.

‘It’s got to catch the post,’ she said urgently, her voice shaking. ‘Whoever you are – please don’t stop me.’


‘Why would I stop you?’ Alix protested, taken aback. ‘Mine needs to catch the post too.  Why are you frightened of me?’

‘Because you’re ghosts.’

‘I’m not a ghost,’ Alix said, ‘I’m from round the corner,’ as if that precluded the supernatural.  ‘I just need to send a letter to my daughter.’ She looked round at Clara hovering at the edge of what little light there was. If anyone was a ghost it was this young woman in Edwardian clothes, timid, a little older than the one in the old fashioned tweed suit. Yet she seemed so very much alive with emotion.


Clara took a breath. She really hadn’t much time. If Father came after her, he’d stop the letter being posted and that would be the end. Gerald would never know she’d changed her mind, that she was brave enough to go away with him after all.

‘I need to post mine. If I don’t…’ Clara’s voice petered out but she darted forward anyway. How strange, the panel on the front of the post box kept blurring – but she had to take the risk. The letter in her gloved hand slipped into the slot and as she let go, the two other women disappeared and she was on her own in the familiar street just a few doors away from her house. The fog was receding slightly and she ran for home to creep in through the door and close it gently. Now it was just a matter of waiting.


Jenny looked at Alix nervously. Clara had posted her letter and instantly dissolved into the fog which was now thicker than ever, sucking at their faces.

Tears filled Jenny’s eyes. ‘I’ve got to post it.’ she said. ‘I don’t know why, but I just know I have to post it. Whoever you are, please don’t stop it getting through.’  She took a firm step forward and pushed her letter into the box. As she let go, the woman in the pyjamas disappeared and she could hear her brother’s voice calling her. She started back up the hill wondering why she had been so unnerved by the fog. It wasn’t so bad. Jenny turned to look at the post box, dull and barely visible in the blacked out street. All she had to do now was wait.


Alix stood in the gloom alone. The fog was now so dense she could feel it in her lungs and ears and filling up her eyes. The postbox continued to glow. What was the point in posting the letter? Maybe Richard was right. Maybe it was a waste of time. It was certainly old fashioned. Who wrote letters nowadays? It might not even get to Amy for days. But somehow, somehow it made sense. The calls and texts and messages and emails had gone unanswered, maybe it would take a letter to get their daughter to come home.

It seemed as if the fog had formed a barrier in front of the box. Alix hesitated. What was she afraid of? Failure? Humiliation? Disappointment? What did any of those things matter really? With a sense of forcing her way through cobweb, she posted the letter to Amy and stood back, waiting to disappear.

Nothing happened. She shook her head, damp with the fog which suddenly didn’t seem much worse than usual. She could just make out the orange streetlights blurring but otherwise visible, marking her way home.

She let herself into the hall. Her hair was curling from the damp air and she suddenly felt grief overwhelm her. Mum would soon be gone, was nearly gone, just a frail shell of patient endurance; a softly held hand and barely audible words. And Amy didn’t know. Amy, who had stormed out after that row with her father all those months ago, wouldn’t contact her, didn’t know how little time was left to see her grandmother alive. There were things you couldn’t put in texts or leave on answer phones – you just needed to say them face to face.

Alix pulled herself together as much as she could and walked into the kitchen. Richard was sitting at the table with the bundles of letters and diaries.

‘Did you know your great great grandmother eloped?’ he said, passing her a picture of a shy girl in Edwardian clothes.

‘Yes I knew that.’ said Alix, ‘It worked out in the end. A year or so later they came back home and made peace with her father.’ She tried not to say this pointedly as she took the photograph, frowning as she looked at it, the timid stranger somehow familiar. ‘He left them the house when he died. I think it was just round the corner, near the…’

She stopped. Richard didn’t notice, now flicking through an 1940 diary. He frowned and rummaged in the box until he found the one for 1941, and a telegram, yellowed with age.

‘Did you know your mother never met her own father?’ he asked, ‘In fact, it looks as if your mother might easily not have existed at all. Listen to your grandmother’s diary: “Thank goodness my letter caught the post and they let Bill have that weekend leave before he sailed, who knows when I’ll see him again.” That was November 1940 and as far as I can tell she never did see him again. Look, here’s your mum being born August 1941 and then see this telegram came a few weeks later to say his ship had been torpedoed.’

He was silent. Alix leaned over and picked up a dusty rabbit’s foot brooch half hidden by old letters and turned it over in her hands.

Richard was still looking at the diary. His voice was quiet. ‘Makes you think doesn’t it?  All those moments when one small thing made all the difference.’ He paused. ‘Did you post that letter?’

‘Yes’ said Alix. ‘I nearly didn’t but in the end it suddenly seemed the most important thing in the world.’

Richard took back the photo of Alix’s great great grandmother and stared at it for a while.   ‘I think there’s some dust in my eye,’ he said, rubbing the corner and leaving the room.  He didn’t come back and after a while Alix went to look for him. The sitting room door was ajar and she was about to open it when she heard his voice low, tearful and insistent.

‘Amy: don’t hang up,’ he was saying. ‘Don’t hang up please. I’m sorry for what I said, please listen. Come home. Your mum needs you. I need you. I’m sorry – Amy, please just come home.’


Copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. This story and others are available to read in Kindling