The Other Type of Christmas

And then there was the year when Christmas went wrong.

In my part of the world and in my family, Christmas involves a house decorated with bright colours. It’s a time of secrets and excitement as presents are bought or made and then hidden; for the wider family to get together, exchange gifts, play boardgames, eat a lot of very rich food for twenty-four hours followed by leftovers for what feels like twenty-four days. For some of us it might include one or more church services, for others not. It’s a few days of switching off from the normal world, being a little self-indulgent, and having fun. 

It’s nice and cosy. 

I was lucky perhaps to get to my mid teens before I first experienced one where it wasn’t.

That Christmas my parents had decided we’d have Christmas Day at home in South Wales and not visit my paternal grandparents in Reading till Boxing Day. It was possibly because my grandfather, then aged about seventy-two, had been ill with a bad cold and didn’t want visitors or any of the fuss. 

Early on Christmas Eve – a bitter cold day with biting rain – my parents, sister and I went to do last minute Christmas shopping. I watched my parents amble in the direction of the stationery section of Woolworths suspecting that they were going to buy me the calculator I’d asked for and fearing that they’d forget I wanted one with a square-root function to save checking my maths homework against a log table. (If you don’t know what log tables are, you don’t know what you’ve missed.) 

Aged fourteen, the fact that I’d be disappointed if my parents forgot the square root function (which they did) was about the worst thing that I thought could happen in my Christmas world. Then we went home and just as we were settling down to watch TV, the telephone rang. It was my father’s cousin who’d been trying to get through all day, saying that my paternal grandfather had died. She was caring for my grandmother who was distraught at the loss of the man she’d adored for over fifty years.

Why we didn’t go to Reading then and there, I also don’t know. It’s possible my grandmother said not to, it’s possible that my father, who always struggled with knowing how to express emotion or comfort in the right way, was too distraught. I can’t recall. On Christmas Day we went through the motions I guess and ate a meal that tasted of grief. I can’t really recall that either. 

We travelled to Reading the next day. Late afternoon, it started to snow heavily. My grandmother begged us to stay, my father refused. I’m sure he was simply overwhelmed with emotions he didn’t know how to deal with, but it was a downright stupid decision. He drove the hundred and forty two miles home in a blizzard, hoping the car wouldn’t break down (as she was inclined to). He could see virtually nothing. He drove along the motorway in the outside (‘fast’) lane using the central reservation barriers as a guide.

We were half-frozen, because a windscreen wiper kept getting stuck meaning that my mother had to keep winding down the window to give it a shove. On the radio was a play about someone contemplating jumping off a foggy cliff. My sister and I remember it as a sort of dreamlike nightmare of a journey which can never be a funny recollection because of the context.

When we finally did get to our village, Dad couldn’t drive up the steep hairpin bends to our house as they were clogged with snow. We had to go the back way which involved a narrow, twisty lane without much in the way of hedges or fences between us and a steep slope down to the river on one side. They were, in any event, invisible.

No amount of pretty decorations or colourful lights could make up for the misery of that Christmas.

The following Christmas wasn’t a great deal better. My grandmother seemed constantly half-asleep. She died two months later. Although the medical cause was stroke, we were always sure it was actually a broken heart.

Even after rather more years that I care to count, it chokes me up to write this. Several years passed before those shadows receded.

Illogical it is, people will often say ‘how much worse that XYZ happened at Christmas.’ There’s an expectation that everything at Christmastime should be happy and perfect and when it’s not that seems to be a travesty. 

In the grand scheme of things, I know that losing a beloved elderly grandparent to natural causes is not a tragedy, it’s just sad. I haven’t had to endure the kind of horror that people had suffered in the last few weeks – losing loved ones in situations which should never happen. My heart goes out to the bereaved families of the children who were playing on ice, those crushed at a concert, victims of car accidents, violence and of course war. I’m not trying to make a comparison. But that particular Christmas was when I realised for myself that the realities of life do not pause for manmade red letter days.

And I know that there are other reasons apart from grief why Christmas can be hard going. It can be boring if you aren’t interested but everyone else is, and the whole commercial nonsense is constantly bombarding you. It can be lonely when everyone is in family groups and for whatever reason you’re not, or you don’t want to be or your family life is toxic.

I’ve been lucky with family, but even so I’ve had times when I’ve been sad or lonely; wondering how to make ends meet; wondering if I’d ever have a family of my own to start traditions with; worrying about whether someone would survive the sickness they were suffering.

This is not about my books (I’ll post about that another day). But when I wrote the short stories for The Advent Calendar seven years ago, I wanted to reflect the true experiences of Christmas, even in the less serious stories: the expectations versus the reality. In it there are nativity plays and carol singers and office parties, but also neglected lonely relations, homeless people, and refugees. Nothing, including the refugee situation, has really changed since (including, just to lighten the mood – the possibility of my sister dressing up in a tutu and embarrassing me in public). But I also wanted to reflect that stripping away the nonsense, the commerciality, the hype – there can be the tiniest flicker of hope that things can change.

This can be a hard time of year, it can be a lovely time of year, sometimes it can be a mixture of both. I hope that for you, it is what you want it to be and that you have what you need. But if for any who need support, or who want to give to organisations who help others – please see the links below (these are UK charities – but if you have equivalent links elsewhere please let me know and I’ll add them).

Mind – mental health support

Give Us a Shout

The Samaritans

Young Minds

The Calm Zone

Papyrus UK

St Mungo’s – homelessness and mental health support

Beat Eating Disorders Support

Words copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image

Big Tree, Little Boxes

When we decorate the Christmas tree this year (some time this week), there will be something missing.

Several things in fact.

When my son started primary school aged four, there was a fundraising fair towards the end of the Christmas term, which included a stall selling decorations. I bought two for the children:  each with a teddy-bear riding a rocking horse. One was behaving in a proper manner and the other was lying on its back being silly. I decided at that point that these would be the start of a collection for each of my children. The good teddy was for my daughter and the naughty teddy was for my son, because at the time this is precisely how both of them would have behaved when faced with a rocking horse or in fact in any situation you could think of. Nowadays however, I suspect my daughter would be standing in the saddle and my son (who has been sky-diving in his time) would be eyeing the rocking horse with deep suspicion.

Over the following eighteen years, we and the children’s grandparents added to the boxes. Every Christmas, the children would decide where their own decorations should go on the tree and put them there. The idea was that ultimately, when they had homes of their own, they’d have their own little box of decorations which would be a little bit of their ‘home-home’ that they’d be take with them to put on their own trees.

A couple of weeks ago, I handed my son’s box of decorations to him, because now – at last – he does have his own place. It felt like a bit of a watershed. The little boy who’d have caused havoc with a rocking horse, is now a young adult with a grown up job and the sort of tenancy that needs you to have a grown up job. 

I’m not sure where the time has gone. Once – just over twenty-nine years ago – there was just me and my husband with an artificial Christmas tree that my in-laws had given us (it was then about ten years old) about to celebrate our first married Christmas.

I bought what were the latest tasteful 1990s decorations and spent ages placing them evenly, but my husband ‘wrecked’ the effect by adding some multi-coloured lights which clashed completely as I’d made the tree ‘too serious and sensible’. (This sort of summed our differences in personality at marriage which is to some extent which is why a good many people thought we’d never get past that first Christmas, let alone our first year.) 

Then years passed and there were first three of us and then four of us, with the same old tree. Apart from a few rather expensive (for a mum of two small children working part-time) baubles I bought out of social embarrassment (long story), the decoration collection grew steadily more eclectic. When they were being randomly placed by little hands, all attempts at symmetry, co-ordination (and to some extent taste) went out of the window and never came back. By Christmas Eve everything would be done, and all four of us would be waiting for the grandparents to arrive.

This Christmas it’s all change again. There will be the same old tree (now nearly forty years of age and still going strong), but there will be just two of us decorating it, and this year, even the children and my son’s partner won’t arrive until Christmas Eve only an hour or so before the grandparents. It’s one of the oddest things to get our heads round: the children coming home almost as if they’re guests. (The novelty wears off quite quickly as they revert straight back into the nest in baby-bird mode – ‘Feed me! Feed me!’ while bickering and playing video games and leaving doors open despite the cost of heating.)

I didn’t think to take a photograph of my son’s box before I handed it over. The picture below is of my daughter’s. She has technically left home too, but she’s still living in her student digs with a lot of other people, so it’s not quite her own place yet and she’s not ready to take the box away with her.

Perhaps it’s time for me and my husband to start making our own little collection of special decorations to replace the ones that are in the children’s boxes. 

But I don’t think I’ll waste time worrying if they’re tasteful or in vogue, or co-ordinate. I’ll just embrace the joyous, colourful silliness of Christmas decorating – that bit of brightness in the miserable dark of midwinter. There’s enough to be worrying about in life – I’ve long learned that trying to be sensible really isn’t one that’s worth the effort.

Fun facts: when I was researching what the Victorians put on their Christmas trees apart from candles for a memory of Margaret’s in The Treacherous Dead(relevant extract below the picture), I found this fascinating website which has photographs of some very bright and unusual Victorian trees and some rather alarming patriotic baubles (zeppelins anyone?) And if you want to know about the history of Christmas decorations and and how long it took turkeys to walk – yes walk – to London from East Anglia here’s another fascinating article:

Extract from The Treacherous Dead

A hollow clatter made Margaret look round. Juniper was batting a red and white glass ball towards the wall. She snatched it away and held it in her palm. ‘Mother gave this to me to put on the Christmas tree. Katherine had a blue one. I’d forgotten. How lovely.’

Fox had fallen silent but Margaret wasn’t paying attention. The bauble brought a sudden, sharp image of her mother: the face of a woman younger than Margaret was now, with much redder hair dressed in curls and ringlets. As the image faded, other memories took over: scents of lavender and cinnamon, pine and candles; the swish of a silk dress and the crackle of a winter fire; pine needles pricking as Margaret was lifted in warm arms to hang the glass ball in a Christmas tree’s branches.

‘Perhaps you should deal with the rest,’ said Fox. His face was pale. A bundle of letters tied in pink ribbon had risen to the top. ‘Who are these from? Or don’t I want to know?’

Margaret took the letters. ‘Honestly, Fox, look at their age and the address.’ Pink dye stained the envelopes where it had touched them. The paper was yellowed, the address her sister Katherine’s. ‘These are twelve years old. They were from someone called Joel Gifford. He was a doctor.’


‘He died in Kimberley aged twenty-six.’

‘Oh,’ said Fox. ‘Kimberley, South Africa? Boer War?’ 

‘Yes. He was an army medic and he died during the siege.’ Margaret tried to picture Joel and failed. She had no photographs: just his letters and a memory of pleasant evenings in quiet restaurants. ‘We were friends.’

‘Just friends?’

Margaret touched the letters. ‘Perhaps if he’d lived it might have become something more, but he didn’t. These aren’t love letters. They’re descriptions of South Africa, his cases, his opinions and his responses to my ideas and attempts to get a good job. I haven’t looked at them for years.’ She put them on the floor. ‘I should have burnt them when I married Owen, but I didn’t. I suppose I should have done it when I fell in love with you, but I’d forgotten them. I’ll do it now.’

‘Why?’ Fox reached for her hand. ‘I still have Cynthia’s letters. I haven’t read those since 1896, but she’s part of who I am. Do you want me to burn those?’

‘Of course not, Fox! She was your wife.’ 

Fox returned Joel’s letters to the box, tucking the mantilla over the top. ‘Memories of people we loved are things we should keep. It’s the bad memories we should burn.’

They sat in silence, staring at the box. A movement alerted Margaret to Juniper reaching for the bauble again. ‘Good grief,’ she said. ‘This is rather maudlin. It’s quite unlike us.’

‘I’ve been away too long.’ Fox pulled her into a hug and kissed her slowly. ‘We need to stop tidying and get reacquainted. Then we’ll be in a fit state to start arguing again.’

[The Treacherous Dead will be published as an ebook on 29th December 2022. The paperback will be out sooner. The decoration may not be relevant, but it’s just possible the rest is…]

Words and photograph copyright 2022 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Yo! Season’s Greetings – what’s your feast?

It’s December 21st, nearing the end of a year for which the Oxford English Dictionary extended its Word of the Year to include ‘several unprecented words of the year’. I’m sure if each of us had a £1/$1/€1/etc for each time we’d uttered one of them, we’d all be rich.

Diwali and Hanukkah have not long passed, it will be Christmas on Friday, and in the northern hemisphere where I live, it’s Winter Solstice today and we’re all looking forward to the days growing longer again. So here I am wishing you season’s greetings!

I doubt I’m alone in finding my family traditions have been somewhat turned upside down more than once in 2020 and it’s more poignant than ever at Christmas. I won’t see friends or relations whom I’d usually see, I won’t have the in-laws here for Christmas (for the record, since there are in-laws and in-laws, this is a sad thing) and food shopping is more fraught than usual as collective madness has descended yet again.

But we do have our decorations up and we’ll have a nice meal and despite the various trials of this year, we’ll have a great deal to be thankful for as we raise a toast to absent loved ones (some of whom will only be absent by geography and/or covid restrictions so we’ll be able to toast them by video technology).

In a writers’ Facebook group, someone asked what our characters might be doing over the festive season. It’s an interesting thought, so here goes with a few of mine.

Let’s start in the 1890s/1910s.

Katherine and Margaret Demeray live comfortable lives (financially that is, their adventures may be less comfortable) in the late 19th Century/early 20th Century and therefore celebrate in the sort of way popularised by Dickens. Of course they (and also their cousin Albert Lamont) are of French Huguenot descent. The ancestors who fled France in the 17th Century would have been Calvinist protestants – puritans – although by the late 19th Century, both families are a great deal less strict and have defected to the Church of England.

While I did a tiny bit of research to find out whether French puritans were quite as strict as English ones and how Huguenots might have celebrated Christmas, I haven’t dug deep enough to find out much. But apparently the Huguenots scandalised English puritans by celebrating Noël at a time when English puritans were trying to ban Christmas and replace feasting with fasting. So, I’m going to stick my neck out and assume that the original Demerays and Lamonts full-heartedly enjoyed the season’s festivities without shame and brought some French specialities with them which three hundred years later, their descendants Katherine, Margaret (and perhaps Albert) included in their Christmas feasting: oysters (not hard at the time as they were cheap); duck and pork terrine or maybe even imported fois gras; marrons glacés (candied chestnuts); les treize desserts – thirteen desserts – a Christmas tradition from Provence including a sweet brioche called pompe à l’huile. Plus of course, by 1890 I’m sure they’d also be tucking into English traditional meal of goose or turkey, chestnut stuffing and roast potatoes followed by plum pudding (to maybe make the thirteen desserts into fourteen).

In the days before anyone thought of choking hazards (which included my childhood in the later 20th century), Christmas puddings always included a sixpence. If you were lucky enough to find it in your portion (before you swallowed it), the money was yours and considered good luck. Other silver trinkets might be put in the pudding, each representing what the future held, such as a tiny wishbone (to bring good luck), a silver thimble (for thrift), or an anchor (to symbolise safe harbour). Maybe the Demerays had a silver bean in theirs from a French tradition when the person finding it would be King for the Day or Bean King with similar traditions in Britain too.

Which links nicely to…

The third Murder Britannica book Murder Saturnalia is set in a particularly hard British midwinter in AD192 between the Roman festival Saturnalia on 17th December and the rather more ancient Winter Solstice on 21st December. (At the time, Christianity was illegal and no-one in any event had thought to connect the unspecified date of the birth of Christ with December. 25th December was a Mithraic festival and not reassigned for another two hundred years.)

There are all sorts of political shenanigans going on Rome in AD192 and Emperor Commodus is not only more bonkers than most, he’s also heading for an unexpected New Year’s Eve surprise, but no-one in my story is too bothered as Rome is a long way away. Nothing – not even the river freezing solid – stops anyone from eating, although Lucretia’s nephew Fabio (who’s undercover as a hired musician) is mainly living on stew and beer. Lucretia is happily prepared to gorge on all sorts of delights – stuffed chestnuts, spiced chickpeas, fried cubes of breaded cheese – but since the village where she comes from doesn’t really celebrate Saturnalia she’s rather horrified on arriving somewhere else to discover that for a day or so, she’ll have to cook for the slaves rather than the other way around.

I could get very carried away describing Roman food. The trade routes were fantastic, preservation skills high and you could live in Britain and eat foods from the other side of the Empire. I daresay they were expensive, but let’s be honest, in a Midwinter festival, everyone who can push the boat out usually does.  

Pork was high on the list of feasting food (although probably not the way Lucretia cooks it), and to link to the Demerays, also mulled wine and a kind of thirteen desserts at the end. If you want to read about the sorts of things the Romans ate at Saturnalia, this is an interesting article. Pass The Flamingo: Io Saturnalia or even watch some of the dishes being prepared here Celebrating Saturnalia with Cato’s Globi

A batch of globi was made for me on Saturnalia by a dear friend this week as a surprise! They were a bit like deep fried cheesecake balls! It cheered me up no end as it should have been publication day for the book, but you know – 2020 and all that. News in the New Year I hope. 

However, I do have some book treats if you’re looking for something new to read:

The Case of the Peculiar Pantomime Katherine and Connie think it’s time to shut up the detective agency for Christmas and have a rest, but someone at the Merrymakers Music Hall has other ideas.

Wartime Christmas Tales. A collection of stories set during World War Two by a number of international writers including me. 

Whatever your situation this December, whatever your beliefs and traditions, whether, whatever or however you celebrate, I hope that after everything this year has chucked at us, you have a refreshing time and that stepping into the New Year brings you light, hope, peace, respite and books!

Copyright: Words by Paula Harmon 2020. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Image by JamesDeMers from Pixabay


I sometime imagine myself dragging my spirit through mire in the last few weeks towards Christmas, whispering encouragingly ‘nearly there, nearly there’.

It’s not about Christmas itself, which I enjoy and try to make as laid back as possible. It’s about the increasing darkness beforehand.

I’m not entirely sure when this really kicked in. As a child, I recall not really liking winter. The highlights were Christmas plays, carol concerts and the massive family dinner put on by my great aunt. Winter as a teenager is a bit more of a blur because duh – hormones warp your priorities. I have two main midwinter memories. One is being in the school choir with the music teacher coaching us in a new arrangement of The Holly and the Ivy and trying forlornly to get us to pronounce ‘choir’ à la Queen’s English (e.g. to rhyme with ‘hire’) rather than in the local South Welsh accent (in which it rhymed – just about – with lawyer). The other is about turning up at the fifth form Christmas disco to find my best friend more or less wearing the same outfit and the boy of my dreams not noticing me yet again. 

At some point in adulthood however, I realised that going to work in the dark, coming home in the dark and – given the nature of some of the offices I’ve worked in (same career – lots of roles) – working in the dark wasn’t doing a lot for my mental health. As the days grow shorter, so does my attention span, my enthusiasm, my mood and my desire to be awake. They improve as Christmas nears and multi-coloured lights start to brighten houses that hitherto seem shuttered as firmly against winter as they would be against wolves.

At some point of course, I realised that I probably suffer from low level seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Moving to the equator or hibernating aren’t options. Recognising how I feel, looking it in the face and knowing that around Christmas I’ll start to feel better has helped me focus on the finishing line rather than the race. However imperceptible, I know that as the last Christmas leftovers are being eaten up and I’m starting to get annoyed with the decorations, the days will be getting longer and I’ll be starting to feel better. 

It’s not been quite so bad this year because my November, which is usually when I start to feel low, was supremely busy. I was heavily involved in the first literary festival in my town. I also had Murder Durnovaria to get out. I’m not sure I had time to even notice the change in light until I was on the other side of the festival and found myself heading to my day job in the pitch dark. Then I was starting to droop, staring blankly at editing I need to do on a novel and wincing at my total lack of preparation for Christmas. 

Christmas itself isn’t an issue. I grew up in a family which enjoyed Christmas but was never excessive about it. There weren’t many presents, but we ate well and spent several days being creative or reading without anyone expecting anyone to do something else instead. I’ve tried to continue that relaxed tradition with my own children. And after the year when I had to buy the entire Christmas meal on Christmas Eve and the world didn’t end and I realised no-one would have cared if we’d had spaghetti bolognese instead, I’ve been able to go with the flow about the food too.

Not every Christmas has been happy of course. Several have been clouded with a broken heart or a death or the shadow of serious illness and the mood has been less about a dizzying blaze of multi-coloured light and more about standing fast in a darkness illuminated by one defiant lantern – which for many is the whole point of the season. This year for me, the certainty that I’d got over the worst of SAD and simply needed to order food and persuade my slightly Bah Humbug husband to put decorations up and everything would be fine was knocked sideways by news I wasn’t expecting and which is currently still hanging over everything.

If like me, you find the last dark days of the year hard to bear, or if for you this Christmas or Christmas in general is difficult because of other people’s expectations, or you don’t buy into the hype or you’re alone and/or grieving, I’ve put some links below which you might find useful – some for support, some for ideas.

But I’d just like to finish on a note that’s not doom and gloom. 

I finally persuaded old Bah Humbug to help put up the decorations on Saturday. Naturally, no sooner was I ready to go than he decided to put up a new curtain rail in our daughter’s room instead – a job which had been waiting since September. 

Long story short, I threw up my hands in irritation and stormed off to assemble fake Christmas trees on my own.

I got Christmas trees 1 & 2 up (different rooms) and extracted the lights for Christmas tree 2 from their box. Half way out of the box, like sneaky serpents they spiralled into a hyper-granny-knot.

Having finished fitting the new curtain rail, my husband came to see what I’d been up to while he’d been ‘slogging away’ making a boil out of a pimple.

He tutted.

‘Now you see these lights,’ he said sagely. ‘What’s gone wrong here, the reason they’re tangled, is that you, being an impatient woman, pulled them out of the box the wrong way. As a patient man, I shall untangle them and put them on the tree. Stand back and watch the master at work.’

I left him wrestling them into submission while I did an internet search to establish whether Vlad the Impaler ever deployed a fake Christmas tree and if so how.

History is mute on the subject. It may yet be rewritten.


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

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Some ideas for doing something entirely different at Christmas

Coping with Anxiety and Depression at Christmas

Depression at Christmas – a Survival Guide

The Samaritans (UK)


Branch Lines

That winter was the coldest on record.

Every morning, we shuffled like cattle on the station platform, our breath vaporising. Each of us hunched in silence as our mobile screens studded the gloom until the train arrived. Sometimes an old lady was already on board, sitting with pursed lips, clasping her handbag. She glared out of the window, come rain or gloom, in cold disapproval. Looking at my own reflection, I practised my smile and lifted my eyebrows. At least she didn’t talk. I dozed until London.

One Monday in December, the wrong kind of snow meant we had to change trains. At some backcountry station, I climbed directly into a ancient carriage dragged from old rolling-stock. Two banks of high backed seats faced each other and on the other side, a corridor led to other carriages.

There was another girl inside. She was a little younger than me, wearing a tweed skirt, red coat and low heeled lace-ups. Curls and a brown trilby framed her face. She had a sort of uniqueness that I envied, sitting opposite in my anonymous corporate clothes. Fiddling with a bracelet, she turned to the door.

Outside, the whistle blew and the girl tensed. With a clatter, the outer door opened and a young soldier collapsed onto the seat.

He held her face and kissed her. Discretely, she nodded towards me.

‘Sorry miss’, he said, lighting a cigarette and removing his cap. The girl glanced at it, her face dimmed, her smile uncurved. Muttering excuses about leaving them in peace, I made my way to another carriage. A few stations later, we changed back to a modern train.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the train switched twice at the same out of the way stations. I rode alone, watching the dark approaching fingers of midwinter outside.

On Thursday, the girl got into my carriage again. Her smile was hesitant as she faced the door, touching her hair and pinching her cheeks. But the train pulled off and no-one else entered the carriage. She wilted then slumped. Her shoulders moved but her jaw tightened and her hands only unclenched her bag for the seconds it took to find a handkerchief and dab at tears. She was still trembling as we climbed down onto the platform but she held her breath, gritting her teeth to keep from making a noise. Before I could speak, she marched into the snowy gloom. I was standing unnerved, feeling I could be anywhere or nowhere, when the curtain of whirling white parted and the soldier grabbed my arm.

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I thought you were… Look, if you see her, can you give her this?’ He thrust a letter into my hand and stepped away. When the station became visible again, there was just me and a few other commuters on the platform herding towards the onward train.

I pushed the envelope into my bag. I would give it to the girl tomorrow.

On Friday, everything was running normally: no more corridor trains, just modern ones with no-smoking signs, wifi and refreshments. I rushed from station to underground to office, somehow still late.

Christmas was nearly upon us, but although we exchanged cards with scenes of snow and ice, in reality, all we had was rain. A slow grey muddy drag towards the festive season began. Memories of young lovers and old fashioned carriages thawed and melted away.

One morning, the grumpy old lady joined me.

As we went through a tunnel, I saw in the window reflections that she was staring at me.
‘I recognise you,’ said the old lady, easing off her gloves and tutting as the threads of one caught on her bracelet.

‘I often catch this train,’ I said.

‘No, that’s not it.’ Her lips pursed, her brows crunched together.

She looked down at my phone’s screensaver.

‘Your young man?’

I nodded.

‘I hope he’s not the sort to leave and not say goodbye. Not the sort who’d never come back because of a row.’

She stared at the tracks outside, branched at the points, disappearing around embankments.

‘They said the war was nearly over. Why did they need him to fight?’ she murmured.

Her eyes scanned my face. ‘Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great grandmother or something.’ The old lady was silent for the remainder of the journey.

A few days before Christmas, the temperature dropped. First frost, then snow. Just enough snow to bring back old fashioned trains. I could live with it. In the New Year, I would be starting a new job nearer home.

At the backcountry station, the girl sat down opposite and glared. In two months, lines had become etched between her brows. She clasped her bag as if daring me to take it. I glanced at the door but she snapped: ‘They’ve shipped out. He left and never said goodbye.’

At that moment, I thought my phone vibrated and rummaging in my bag, felt a crushed letter. The girl, glaring at the aimless snowflakes, had loosened her grip on her own bag. As I hesitated, the train lurched and … a ration book fell out. My face went cold, then hot. As she leant forward, I caught her arm.

‘This is yours,’ I said, handing her the letter, ‘he gave it to me a couple of weeks ago, but I didn’t see you again. I hope…’

There was a clunk under the carriage and a pause. As she took the letter, the train changed direction. The girl opened the envelope and when we stopped, I climbed out onto a different station altogether. But the girl stayed reading the letter, her hands trembling.

That was the last of the old carriage journeys. On my last commute to London, an old couple sat opposite me. He held her face in his hands and kissed her before grinning at me and lifting his cap.

The old lady was the one I’d met before, only she wasn’t grumpy. The lines on her face were soft, her mouth ready to laugh.

After a while, her husband dozing, the old lady said, ‘I recognise you.’

‘I’m often on this train.’

‘No, that’s not it. Your family from this way?’

I shook my head.

‘Thought maybe I once met your great-grandmother or something.’

She took me in, my hair, my face, my corporate clothes, my bag, my mobile.

‘Your young man?’ she asked, nodding towards my screen saver.

I nodded.

‘Terrible winter,’ said her husband, waking up, ‘Like when we met, isn’t it dear? Teenagers, right at the end of the war. Fell in love on this train journey, then fell out, nearly finished, but somehow it came right in the end. Terrible winter, like being in a dream. Felt like anything could happen. Felt like life could have taken one wrong turn and ruined everything.’ He looked at me a bit closer, his faded eyes twinkling through the glasses, ‘were you once our postwoman?’

I shook my head.

‘Funny. I look at you and think of letters. Can’t imagine why.’

I caught the old lady’s eyes.

‘Not a postwoman,’ she said, ‘just an angel passing through. Keeping things on track.’

And she put her hand in his, put her head on his shoulder and winked.

branch lines

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

A Letter to Father Christmas

Susie never forgot the Christmas Eve when she was three and couldn’t sleep. Peeking over the bannister, she saw a plump man hiding something large and flat. The next day, under the tree was a large flat present for her and it was a big blackboard easel.

‘I saw Father Christmas put it in the cupboard under the stairs!’ said Susie. There was no doubt in her mind after that.

Sometimes Christmas presents were good, like the easel, and sometimes they were all right, like books and sometimes they were boring, like dresses, jumpers and dolls. When she was four, Susie’s mother told her that she now she could write, a good way to tell Father Christmas what you wanted was to put a letter up the chimney.

Luckily Susie had a good fireplace. She watched Mummy light the coals and when the flames were high, she popped her letter in and watched it fly up the chimney and off to the North Pole.

The only thing was, that it must have got lost on the way, because the one thing she wanted more than anything was a train set and Christmas Day came and Father Christmas left lovely presents but none of them was a train set.

In Spring, Susie and her family moved to another town. Now they had central heating so there was no chimney to send a note up. For two years Susie’s presents were nice, but never quite what she really really wanted. Then, one rainy Autumn when Susie was seven they moved a long way. The new house was rather dark and a tiny bit scary.
There were fireplaces in each room but every single one had been bricked up. The only fire was a rayburn in the sitting room, a kind of sealed metal box where you could see the coals trapped and burning behind glowing glass. Susie didn’t bother telling her little sister about putting notes up the chimney because Mum wouldn’t let them touch it.

One breakfast time in late December, Susie heard a horrible scrabbling, flapping sound behind the part of wall in the dining room which had once been a fireplace.

‘A bird’s fallen down the chimney.’ said Dad ‘It’ll die if we don’t get it out.’

Susie and her little sister watched anxiously until eventually Dad pulled out enough bricks so they could see into the dark hollow which had once been a hearth.

There was a lot of dust. Susie’s little sister held her hand tight as the scrabbling started again, louder now that the space was open. Suddenly a robin hopped out, something in his beak. He flew up to Susie, dropped a sooty piece of paper on her outstretched hand and then flew to sit chirping by the window until Susie’s Mum opened it for him to fly out.

Susie opened the piece of paper.

‘Look Mum!’ she exclaimed, ‘It’s that note I put up the chimney for Father Christmas when I was four!’

‘It can’t be!’ said her Mum coming to look, ‘that house is two hundred miles away!’

But it really was the letter she had written three years before.

‘Tell you what’ Mum suggested, ‘this time why don’t we just pop it in the post to the North Pole. It might be safer.’
So they did. And that Christmas, under the tree was a long thin package for Susie and inside was a train set at last.

After lunch while Dad was helping set up the train set on the dining table, Susie looked out of the window into the front garden.

There was the robin, hopping about on the front wall and chirping away. Then he stopped to look at her. And Susie could have sworn he gave her a little wink.

what's this.jpg


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

Twas the Night Before Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas and all through the barn,
The rafters were festooned with fine silken yarn.
The spiders had woven their intricate lace
And fireflies like fairy lights lit up the place.
Thus the barn looked so festive yet down in the hay
A girl dressed in nothing but rags and tears lay
Cast out in the cold with no friend to stand by
She wept without hope and waited to die.
Her warmth ebbed away as the source of her shame,
She clasped to her heart, a mere babe without name.
Her lover was false and her trust he’d betrayed
And her parents had spurned her, this poor desperate maid.
So in her last hours she’d trudged through the snow
And entered the barn with its welcoming glow.
And that’s where he found them, the farmer so old,
And carried them into the house from the cold.
And called to his wife to bring blankets and tea
And said, “Here’s the wonder we long wished to see,
“We yearned for a child as months turned into years
“Till time took our hope and wasted our tears
“And now in midwinter our dreams have come true
“Not one child we’re given, for here there are two!”


Words copyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. Picture copyright 2016 Michael Williams  All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission

I entered a competition to write a poem continuing the first line and this is the result. The prize was a poster made especially for the poem and “The Grubdale Chronicles” by Michael Williams). Much to my surprise, I won first prize !