Choose to Challenge

‘Maude and I are going to Switzerland for 19th March while you’re on your mission,’ said Margaret.

‘Really?’ said Fox. ‘Is this to do with International Women’s Day? Why Switzerland?’

Margaret shrugged. ‘I’ve never been there and they’re not doing it in Britain.’

‘I might come with you before heading over the border,’ said Fox. 

‘Keeping an eye on me?’

‘No. Because I agree with the aims: votes and decent working conditions for all – it’s a thousand pities people are more interested in the latest society gossip, the coronation and playing “our empire’s better than their empire” to notice how close we are to tipping into anarchy or war.’

‘You think that’s the choice?’

‘Quite possibly,’ said Fox. ‘Don’t you?’

The first international Women’s Day was celebrated on 19th March 1911 and occurs a few days before the beginning of the sequel to The Wrong Sort to Die which I’m working on just now, so the above might theoretically be a conversation held a while before that.

My character, Dr Margaret Demeray is a determined person. She believes firmly in equality and safe working conditions but I doubt she’d be oblivious to the sort of things that were said about suffragettes and the men who supported them in for example, postcards like these

In the United Kingdom, the suffrage movement was gaining momentum. On census day 1911, Emily Davison allegedly hid herself in the Houses of Parliament as a protest – here’s a fascinating article researching the truth of this. Many other women refused to be counted as part of their defiance in a document which recorded for women but not for men, how long they’d been married for example. Whether Margaret will is yet to be seen.

Margaret of course, is a creation of my imagination, but the inspiration for her comes to some extent from the older women on both sides of my family. 

I had nine great aunts and two grandmothers, who would have been aged between three and sixteen in 1911. I never thought to ask any of those I knew what they’d known or thought about suffragettes, although one did recall with delight that she’d turned twenty-one in 1928, the year that the voting age for women was dropped to be the same as that for men.

None were sentimental women. None thought womanhood had anything whatsoever to do with swooning or weakness or subservience. Not one ever gave me the impression they thought girls took second place to boys or that I should do less than make the most of every opportunity which came my way.

Ten of them had some form of career at least until marriage and I can easily imagine that most of them could have made senior management nowadays if they’d wanted to. 

They could be funny and they could be affectionate, but they also thought nothing worse than an indulged child. There was certainly no place in their mind-sets for crying. We were expected to get on with things, however crippled with shyness we were or lacking confidence or fearing criticism. Painful as that frequently was, it was a useful life skill, although having uncritical and supportive parents probably helped a great deal.

Since growing older, I started finding out more about them and they stopped being simply old relatives and became people. As far as I can establish, every single one rose to every challenge with determination to become valued women in their families and communities with strong ethics and views which were their own opinions and no one else’s.

Two, in 1941, then in their fifties, picked up the pieces (literally) when their home and business was destroyed by a WWII bomb and started up somewhere else, but not before making a cup of tea in the rubble immediately after the raid (which they’d escaped while hiding under the stairs) because how could you think without one?

One (whom I never met but wish I had) doubtless scandalised her highly conventional mother with Edwardian new age philosophies, esoteric books and curios. My father inherited the last two, a fair amount of which I recall from my early childhood.

Her youngest sister (who I did know) went travelling the world as soon as she retired and thrilled us with tales of camel rides, deserts, bazaars and souks, lighting a flame in me to want to do the same one day.

My favourite great aunt dedicated herself to teaching, never losing her interest in young people. As a retired lady in the late 1970s, she plonked herself down next to a group of punks in Glasgow bus station. She said they recoiled a little, clearly expecting her to tell them they were a disgrace, but she simply started chatting and as they relaxed, she learned all about how they got their mohicans to stand up, how many safety pins they needed and all about punk culture. 

It’s a thousand pities that 110 years after groups of women and men marched for fairness, equality and safe working conditions, these are still far from the experience of people, even in the developed world and that we still need an International Women’s Day, but we do. This year’s campaign theme is #ChooseToChallenge.

I knew plenty of contemporaries even in the 1970s and 1980s who felt second rate to their brothers and that there was no point to further education or trying for a career. But I was fortunate to have very determined (if sometimes a little uncompromising and occasionally downright eccentric) role models, who challenged any suggestion that their whole focus should be their husbands and children. They embraced everything the world could offer them but knew how to be phlegmatic if life didn’t turn out as expected.

Maybe they’d be horrified by my appallingly untidy house but I think they’d appreciate that even though it’s sometimes a struggle, I have just about balanced my creativity with building a career, raising a son and a daughter who are staunch feminists and that I’ve never once thought that being a woman should hold me or anyone else back.  

I am not entirely sure how they’d feel about being the inspiration for a number of my characters, from shy, proper, but quietly brave Aunt Alice, to somewhat mad Tullia to straight-talking Margaret via various other characters, some of who haven’t met the general public yet. But I hope they’d take it as a compliment and on International Women’s Day, I’d like to salute them.

Words copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. Illustration 136452856 © Maryia Naidzionysheva |

Timeline of Women’s Suffrage

Twenty Significant Women in History

Ten Famous Women Mathematicians

Most Influential Women in British Science

Twelve Famous Female Painters

Jasmine Tea

Holidays still felt wrong. Over the years, Diana had adapted to everything else. She had been independent and capable before she married, she was independent and capable after he’d gone. She reverted. The bed felt wider, the bills were harder. Otherwise the only things that mattered were the two daughters to bring up alone and a heart which felt as if it was made of cogs and gears running on oil, rather than flesh and blood powered by love.

But holidays were hard. When the girls were still little, there was no-one to plan the day with, argue over directions with, choose a restaurant with, count the pounds/pesetas/drachmas/euros with, sit up in the evening over a glass of wine and watch the sun go down with. As the girls grew, there was no-one to help them jump waves, to play jokes on silly, serious mummy; no-one to help kiss those sun drenched faces as they slept under strange skies, exhausted by new experiences. But she kept on anyway. At first, she decided where they would go and as years passed, she invited her daughters’ input and through their eyes, experienced the world anew.

Now they were nearly grown. Diana was no longer alone in the hot cicada evenings, one daughter would share a little of the wine and the other filled the evening with guitar music. But her bed was still cold on one side. And soon, the girls would fly the nest and she would vacation alone.

In the first week of their holiday, Diana took the girls a few miles upstream of the pretty town and watched as her confident, independent daughters, eschewing her help, phrase-book-Frenched themselves a canoe trip down the river. She saw them push off from the bank, all orange and yellow and red, insulting each other and arguing over paddling techniques as they disappeared under the trees; then she drove back to wait for them.

She had two hours to kill. This was the first time she had been abroad, totally on her own, since she had been in her twenties. There was no sticky hand to hold, no arm hooked through hers, no squabble to referee, no groans of boredom to contend with. To start, she walked the shaded streets along edges, peeking in windows, wondering who was watching her progress. She was the only person alone, washed along in a tide of families and couples.

Diana walked into a few shops and turned over the bright ceramics and lavender scented linen. She considered preserved delicacies and unusual jewellery. Under flapping awnings, waiters rushed to prepare tables for lunch, placing table mats and cutlery and reservation markers.

It was too early for lunch and besides, they would eat it together when the girls had finished their trip and handed the canoe back. But she was thirsty.

Going down a quieter side street, Diana found little businesses more unique than those in the main tourist area and among them, a shop selling English second hand books with a salon de thé attached. Diana could never resist a bookshop. She was pleasantly surprised with the selection, expecting tattered forty year old Penguins and musky hardbacks. The books were good quality and varied, the shop light and airy, with gentle piano music in the background. She could see through into the rear where a few tables stood neat with lace tablecloths and beyond them the light green of a narrow garden which must lead down to the river.

Diana chose three books and approached the till which stood between the open door and the empty tables. The music stopped and turning, she realised the piano was behind her and a tall man had risen to serve her. What nationality was he? After all, he was selling books in English. But his ‘Bonjour madame,’ was definitely French.

‘Bonjour monsieur,’ she said, handing over the books. The sounds of birds came in through the door and she could hear the laughter of people on the river and commentary on a passing tourist boat. She still had an hour to kill. Looking out into the garden, Diana noticed there tables were set up in the shade, a little vase of flowers on each one.

‘Et du thé aussi, s’il vous plaît?’ she asked.

The man smiled and handed her a menu. The range of teas was, like the selection of books, wide and varied. Diana’s desire for a taste of home was lost in the options. The day was very hot. It was too hot for English breakfast tea and milk.

‘Jasmin, s’il vous plaît,’ she said, struggling to remember in time to soften the J to make it sound French.
‘À l’intérieur ou..?’ he queried, indicating the cool of the interior.

‘Dans le jardin,’ she said firmly. She was pleased that although he knew she was an English speaker, although her accent was terrible, he continued to speak to her in French as he asked her to take a seat and said that he would bring the tea out to her.

Diana sat in the garden for a while, and then leaving her things on one of the spare seats, wandered down the length of the garden to enjoy its peaceful greenness and its slightly overblown flowers and herbs. She trailed her hands through lavender as she made her way to the end, where a little roofed store held spare tables and rusted garden tools. A small glass-less window looked down onto the river. Turning, she looked at the narrow back of the bookshop and its upper rooms and the stone walls enclosing this secret place of sun and tranquility. She ambled back to the table and took out her book.

‘Et voilà, Madame,’ said the man, putting a teapot and cup before her.

‘Merci beaucoup,’ Diana said, then, waving her hand added, ‘C’est très joli, ce jardin.’

Was that good French? She couldn’t remember. It sounded right.

The man paused and smiled, shrugging a little. He continued to speak in French, slowly but nevertheless in French: ‘it’s a bit of a mess, I’m afraid, I’d like to make to more appealing.’

Diana understood him. Every word. Well, not every word. But she understood what he was saying to her. She started to formulate a reply and then decided just to talk and hope that what she said made sense.

‘No. It’s good it looks at this time,’ she replied, knowing the French was wrong. But if she stopped to work it out, she might as well not speak at all.

‘You’re very kind. Do you think it would be nice to have a tea garden?’

‘Yes,’ Diana could not remember the subjunctive, how to say ‘I’m sure it would’. She plumped for: ‘It’s very polite, gentle, tranquil… I’m sorry – my French is very bad.’

The man smiled. ‘Not so bad,’ he said.

‘I’m not at school during many years,’ Diana winced, imagining her A level teacher sobbing into her text books. ‘Depuis’ not ‘pendant’. Too late.

‘Are you holidaying alone?’ asked the man. Somehow it felt neither intrusive or creepy. It was just a question.

‘No, my daughters are with me too. They promenade on the river in a canoe.’ What a ridiculous thing to say. And what must he think of her, leaving them to do it on their own? ‘They’re eighteen and sixteen,’ she added. Although now she thought about it, he couldn’t possibly think they were little children, she was no longer a young woman. She was sitting in front of him. The sun shone on her fine lines and anyone, even a man, could almost certainly tell that her hair was coloured and spot the reading glasses on the table. For a second she felt silly but he didn’t seem to be appraising her. He was just chatting.

‘Your daughters – do they speak French too?’

Diana was ashamed, not for the first time, of the linguistic indifference of her nationality. ‘One – she learns Spanish only. The other loves music alone.’

‘Ah,’ he nodded as if in approval, ‘does she play an instrument?’

‘Yes, the guitar. She’s in a team…er… gang.. er…band.’

‘And you?’

‘Yes, I play a bit on the …..’ what on earth was the word for piano? She pointed at the instrument inside.

‘Piano,’ the man told her without reproach.

Diana pulled a face in apology, ‘Sometimes …. when we’re on holiday, I ….’ (what’s the word for ‘miss’?) ‘want to play…I’m sorry. I forget more than I learned.’

‘Don’t be sorry, it’s nice for me to speak to a customer in French,’ he answered.

There was a silence but it was comfortable. Diana poured her tea and wondered how to ask what had made him start this business. He was looking down the garden as if envisaging it with more tables, filled with customers. Perhaps he preferred it as it was now, quiet, with just a few people dropping in from time to time, so that most of the time, he could play piano to his audience of pre-loved books. He was, like her, neither young nor old either. Just himself.

‘Monsieur, pourquoi…’ she started but then a voice called from the interior:

‘Yoohoo! Jacques! It’s us!’

The man bowed to Diana and smiled, ‘Pardon, madame,’ he said, ‘… et merci.’

‘Merci aussi,’ she replied as he turned to his other customers.

Thank you? What for?

She heard him inside, still courteous but now speaking impeccable English, ‘good morning Mr and Mrs Smith, how are you both today? What tea would you like? I have some green tea or lapsang souchong? Or orange blossom perhaps?’

‘Oh away with you and your teas!’ laughed Mrs Smith, ‘you know we don’t like that sort of thing. Just the usual, same as always.’

‘Inside or outside?’ asked Jacques.

‘Inside’s cooler I reckon,’ decided Mr Smith, ‘and no insects.’

In the garden, in the breezy shade, Diana finished her tea and carefully carried her things back to the counter. She paid Jacques and smiled, seeing him glance at the piano. 

’Come again, even if you don’t want books or tea,’ he said in French, ‘just to play the piano. If you’d like to, that is.’

‘Thank you, I think on the subject of it.’

Outside in the street, Diana made her way to the canoe landing place, slowly. When she arrived, the girls were waiting.
‘What have you been up to?’ asked her youngest, ‘you’re all smiley.’

‘Aren’t I allowed to smile?’ argued Diana, ‘I’m so proud of you both, you’ll give anything a go. Daddy would have been so pleased to know that you grew up willing to try. He was never scared of anything.’

Her eldest gave her a hug damp with river water. It was eleven years since his death but she could remember him, just about, ‘Or maybe, he was scared but he tried anyway,’ she said, ‘just like you.’

Just like me, thought Diana.

‘So really, what were you up to?’ asked her eldest.

‘Bought some books, had a cup of tea.’

Her youngest looked unimpressed. ‘Can we go canoeing again, Mum?’

‘If you like,’ said Diana.

‘What will you do? More tea?’

Diana thought about it. ‘Yes, why not,’ she said, ‘and maybe find a piano to play. I’m going to try something new.’

salon de the

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

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