Wheels on Fire

I’d prefer my husband to kill me with kindness, but no, he decided to drag me on a 22 mile cycle in temperatures hot enough to melt iron instead. 

OK so it was probably only 25°C, but I’m British of mostly North European descent. Allow me some pity. There was housework to do but there’ll always be housework to do  and the day I choose it over anything else is the day you ask ‘who is this woman masquerading as Paula?’ 

So in the absence of a proper excuse not to go, I went. 

Hard as it is for my husband to believe, I did a lot of cycling once. 

The Christmas before I was five and before anyone decided such traditions were a choking hazard, I found a sixpence in my Christmas pudding. This was very auspicious and with eyes tight shut and hand clasping the tiny coin, I wished and wished I’d get a bicycle. A few weeks later when we went to my grandparents’ for my birthday tea, there was a bicycle and it was all mine. 

That’s pretty much the only time I’ve had a wish come true but it was worth it. 

I can still recall learning to ride it without stabilisers. Dad raced behind holding onto my saddle and an excited dog ran alongside me barking its head off. And then Dad let go and I was flying along under my own steam! Me – a person who could (can) trip over her own shadow! (I think the fact I was terrified of dogs and worried about what would happen if I fell off helped a little.)

Almost all the kids in the various places I grew up had bicycles. By the time I was eight, my family had settled on the side of a small south Welsh mountain. The road which started as a 1:4 gradient with two hairpins became straight and flat after a while and beyond our house there were, in those days, very few cars. I and the girl on whom Ffion in The Cluttering Discombobulator, The Advent Calendar and Kindling is based, cycled up and down acting out one of our narrative fantasies which involved super-hero cows and a rallying cry of ‘Geronimooooo!’ If the other kids thought we were very weird already (which they did), this just confirmed it. 

Cycling sort of petered out for us girls when we reached eleven/twelve but when I went to college at eighteen, I bought an old wreck of a bike and did it up – wire wool and everything. (My husband refuses to believe I could be this practical despite photographic evidence but I was.)

Thereafter, I once cycled from Chichester to Southampton along the (terrifyingly busy) A27 to see my then boyfriend (I suspect I got the train back). I would regularly cycle from my village 11 miles down the valley to Swansea or 11 miles up the valley to visit said boyfriend and barely got out of breath. On a better bike a bit later, I undertook a cycling/camping holiday from Fishguard to Aberystwyth. 

I lost what little wild abandon I had when I flew over the handle-bars on a hill and skidded along a gravel road using my left cheek as a brake. My hideous face frightened small children for a week afterwards and a bit of gravel got permanently embedded in my shoulder. I still have the scars from that and also from several years later when my daughter, sitting in a kid’s seat on the back of a much later bicycle, tipped herself sideways pulling it over resulting in the pedal digging a trench down my heel.

Suffice to say I’m neither as keen nor as proficient a cyclist nowadays. Nor as fit. But I did manage 22 miles today and am not yet dead.

Where’s all this going you might say? Well, one of the good things about this sort of exercise from my point of view is that there was a lot of thinking time, especially when my husband shot off ahead and left me ambling along looking at the scenery.

One of my thoughts was ‘how hard would it be to learn how to cycle as an adult?’

I can’t imagine it at all. Most of what people perceive in me as confidence is actually a belligerent refusal to be told what I can or can’t do – but I have learned my limits. If someone were to have asked me as a child to unicycle or tightrope walk, I’d probably have tried it out. Nowadays I’d automatically think of the potential injuries/humilation and feel life is too short. I can’t imagine having the courage to get on a bicycle and trust myself to be able to balance enough to ride it if I didn’t already know how.

In the Caster & Fleet series, Katherine and Connie learn to ride bicycles a great deal clunkier than anything I’ve ever had, while wearing much less accommodating clothes and at a time when the whole idea of women doing such a thing was a more than a little suspect. When Liz and I wrote them, we thought about the objections they might face as two nice middle-class girls doing something quite shocking and worse – becoming so independent. What I hadn’t really thought was how hard it must have been to do something so physically difficult at the age of 25 and 23. (Book six – The Case of the Crystal Kisses comes out soon – bikes included.)

Obviously Katherine and Connie are fictional (although it doesn’t quite seem so to me and Liz) but plenty of women in their day did learn to ride bicycles as adults. It can’t have been easy, it must have caused arguments in any number of homes but how much freedom they had as a result! The bicycle, along with railways and higher education for women must have expanded worlds that were so desperately and mind-numbingly narrow.

So, on a Sunday afternoon when I’ve probably had too much sun, is there a moral to all this? 

I often meet people who are worried about doing something new – for example, sharing something they’ve created or sharing something about themselves which no-one else has realised. Often they feel too young to feel they have gravitas or they feel so old they’ve missed the boat. They’re afraid of falling or of looking stupid.

If you’re one of them – try not to feel that way. I felt exactly the same until the day I just thought – I’ll risk sharing this story and a bit later, I’ll risk reading aloud this other story.

It was infinitely more terrifying than learning to ride a bicycle but it didn’t kill me and moreover I found a whole community of people ready to hold on to the saddle and not let go until they knew I could fly. I can’t say how glad I am to have taken that risk. It may not sound big to some people, but it was big to me.

Give it a go. Whatever it is (morality, legality assumed here) give it a go.
Whether it’s showing someone something you’ve created or whether it’s doing something difficult when there’s a risk of failure or doing something you once did often but have lost confidence to do again – try it anyway.

Mostly people are much more supportive than you fear. If they aren’t – try someone else.

Meanwhile – I’m telling my aching muscles they’ll be fine tomorrow and more importantly replacing some of the 1221 calories my fitness app says I’ve used. 

After all, one doesn’t want to get scrawny, does one?

66123163_418251668899934_7923335008868106240_n

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.

Tripoli 1986

Wednesday 16th April 1986

Waiting, half consciously
for the next harsh sounds of fighter
to cross my sky,
a speck of black, slow moving,
catches the corner of my eye.
I, shuddered to sudden movement, see
a blackbird gently winging,
faster than seemed possible
to leafless trees, jaggedly finger-streaked on grey.
The bird alighting like a smudge,
so still and yet..
Is this the tight silence before the storm?
The blind, drugged blackness before the dawn?

Somewhere people weep
while others serve up a dish
made of retribution and revenge,
saying as their grace:
“it was the right thing to do,
we’d do it again. Amen.”
In the name of the many
the few decide to line us up
on the crumbling edge of war;
shaping us into an entity for the history books.
A few thousand miles away
eighty percent agree and thank us
for our co-operation;
while we enumerate the targets:
Freedom’s fodder
and wait.

Yesterday we shivered as we spoke.
Today, loosening our fingers we say
“Yesterday was terrifying”
but tighten our fingers again
as, hidden by clouds,
invisible machines
test their wings in waiting.

flaming

I wrote this nearly 31 years ago, the day after the bombing of Tripoli. I can remember what triggered this, as I looked up from washing up in a cafe and out of the window, afraid that the bombing in Libya would escalate. I’d like to pretend 31 years was before I was born but actually I was a very young adult starting out in life, despairing at what was happening in my world and potentially in my name. This may not be the best written poem but it was heartfelt. How sad that as my children enter adulthood, nothing whatsoever has changed and the threats they face in fact may be directly connected.

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

Who Makes Me Fear?

Who makes me fear?
I says the terrorist
I with my gun
I want to blot out your sun
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I says the stranger
I might lie in wait
With a heart full of hate
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I says the gossip
With my stash of half-lies
I ensure the truth dies
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I say the press
I fill up editions
With unfounded suspicions
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I say the “friend”
With social media posts
I scare you most
I make you fear

fear

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

Big Sister

Hold my hand, hold it tight.

Don’t walk too fast, just saunter along as if we’re going to the market. Don’t look back, keep looking up at me and smiling. Laugh – pretend I’ve said something funny. That’s a girl.

Don’t worry, keep hold of my hand. Let’s skip for a bit as if I’m playing with you. No we can’t run – people will notice.

You’d think we’d be invisible wouldn’t you? All these crowds, all these twisting alleyways. But there’s always someone watching, always someone who will remember. Don’t worry, here, I’ll put my arm round your shoulder.

Let’s go this way and then we’ll double back a little bit along. Come on.

Don’t look down at the shadows and the dirt, look up at me. Look up at the sky. Can you see how blue it is? Isn’t it lovely?

Here, let’s slip through this way, we’re not so far from the edge of the settlement. Don’t tremble sweetheart, don’t look back. No-one is following now. We just keep walking.

Look! Can you see through that gap? Can you see the mountains? Look at the sun on them, turning them golden. Let’s pretend it’s a friendly dragon waiting to protect us. It’s not so far.

I know your feet are tired lovely, but you can walk a little further. We’ll be safe there, I promise. There’s a place on the mountain side and they’re waiting for us. Hold my hand, we just need to slip out through here and into the shadows again.

I promised I’d save us, little sister, I promised we’d get free. We’re nearly there… hold my hand. Soon your smile won’t be pretend anymore.

dawn

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

The Familiar

The way I see it is this.  If people spent more time looking with open minds and less time looking to find fault, they might be happier.  They might actually find what they’re looking for.

See, those people down there, yeah those ones – the ones with the flaming torches. They’re looking for evil and they’ve decided what it looks like (which is a simple formula to them.  “Different = Dangerous”) and so they’ve found something that sorta fits the bill, ignored anything that don’t and are acting on their assumptions.  Plus you can guarantee a bloke down the tavern said or one of the elders said or THEY said.  No-one knows which bloke, which elder, which THEY.  It’s just got to be true.  Cos the minute you say “whoa – hang on – who told you that?  Where’s the proof?” suspicion will fall on you. So you don’t say nothing.  And no-one says nothing and before you know it everyone’s got caught up in the moment and one set (a small set mind) is handing out flaming torches like they’re toffee apples and everyone just takes one co they don’t know what else to do. What are they? Ants?  Bees?  Sheep?

People say they’re the top of creation and look at them – hardly an individual amongst them, unless you count that poor wretch in the middle.  She couldn’t get more individual, could she, bless her.  That’s one woman who asked “why” too many times.  “Why don’t we try this?” “Why do we always do it that way?” “Why don’t you just be yourself and stop worrying what other people think?”  That’s what got her where she is now.

And see the people round the edges, yeah, I know, the smoke’s getting a bit thick. If you’re bothered now, best not stick around.  But look – the ones that are hanging back, the ones that are thinking “why am I holding this torch?” “why is this a good idea?” “why do we think this will make things better?”  Yes those ones – they’ll be next, mark my words. They’re gonna have to think quick if they don’t want to do the thing but also don’t want the others to know they didn’t.

Cos the thing is, people do think Why?  But they think it the wrong way.  They think “Why did the harvest fail again?  Why is my cow barren?  Why did my child die?” and then they look around and find someone to punish for it.  Life’s short.  Who can blame them you might say.  But funny how no-one says “why’s the harvest been so good?  Why have I got more calves than I can sell?  Why is my child so strong and healthy its face glows like an apple?” and then find someone to praise for it.

That woman – what did she ever do?  She wasn’t perfect.  Who is?  But you gonna to say that one little woman is guilty of everything that’s gone wrong – this year’s rain, this year’s non-stop rain, the cold, the crops rotting in the fields, the blue babies?  You think they gonna say to their maker when they meet him – “oh that little woman – we thought she was bigger than you”?   Nah – nor me pal.   If someone could put that to them – see the folk on the outside, they’re asking themselves that right now and trying to fade off into the night – look that one’s put his torch out, that one is starting to cry a little.  But most of the rest – I reckon now their blood is up now – if a voice came from Heaven they wouldn’t hear it or they’d blame the poor wretch herself for conjuring it up.  See they’ve looked for me too but they won’t find me.  I’ll miss her but nothing I can do to help now.   Most respect I can show is by going away and not watching what they do to her.  Best I can do is find someone else like her.  Someone who don’t mind a companion that’s been battered by life and shows it but don’t think it’s the mark of the devil or nothing.  Someone who knows how to ask “Why?” the right way.

But you and me, mate, we’re lucky cos we don’t waste time with talk.  We may think “Why’s there no food?  Why can’t I find somewhere warm and dry to sleep?  Why is the only thing caressing me a pile of fleas?” but we don’t go and blame anyone. We think “there was food once – there’ll be food again.  There will be shelter somewhere one day, there will be caress sometime” – and if not, well, that’s life innit.  Us and them and the fleas and the sun coming up and the rain coming or not coming and birth and death and the whole shebang – it’s all life.

Come on, best stick with me mate.  No point asking why this happened.  It’ll happen till the end of time or until people stop looking to blame others and start looking inside themselves and learn to just accept the fleas along with the caresses.  They’re lighting the pyre now.

Let’s go.  Don’t look back.  The sun always comes up.  It always comes up.

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

Flight

Tori couldn’t relax. As the sun started to fill the fields, she could make out hares and deer foraging in the sepia dawn but they didn’t delight her. Even as she headed north, she remained tense and alert, staring out of the window at the scenery, the towns, the stations – looking, looking to see if someone was staring back.

Then she saw the sheep. They were slowly moving together in a wide valley which led down to the river as it ran alongside the railway. The flock was not bunched up or spread out. They were head down, nibbling at the dew soaked grass but they were moving in formation. Tori sat forward as far as she could and tried to keep watching them before the train passed. She quickly looked round to see if any of the other passengers had noticed but they were oblivious: asleep, reading, playing on tablets and phones. But the sheep nonchalantly continued, formed into an arrow pointing south, back down the line. And then they were gone.

Tori tried to look back but it was impossible. The next station came and the next and another long piece of countryside. She checked her timetable. The train was running behind.

“Look at that” said the man opposite it, roused out of his sleep as his neighbour shifted in his seat, “that means bad weather coming, that does.”
Tori looked where he was pointing. She realised the field was full of sea gulls and they were…

The man’s neighbour looked out, “it’s not so far from the estuary though is it?”

“Far enough mate, they only come inland when there’s something brewing.”

Was Tori the only one that could see the gulls, settling and flying up, forming themselves over and over into an arrow all facing south, all flying up and settling down further down the line? And then they were gone. Tori shook herself. It had been too early a start. She was too apprehensive. She needed to calm down or he…

An announcement reminding the passengers that the train would not stop at the next station. The pace continued, sped up perhaps. Tori imagined the passengers standing on the platform, stepping back to avoid the suction of the passing train and then she saw them – a whole row of passengers, shoulder to shoulder, staring at her and pointing south – all of them pointing south. And then they were gone.

She looked at the man opposite but he’d fallen asleep again. She had to change trains at the city. For the first time, she hesitated. Searching for her platform, she saw the one which would take her home and paused, not sure which was more terrifying the returning or the continuing; then she found her onward train and climbed aboard.

There were no more strange sights. She tried to relax but the closer she got to her destination, the closer she gripped her bag, the more she clenched her teeth. Finally she arrived and alighted. Among the people rushing about, there was no-one waiting for her, no-one paying her attention. Perhaps he was on the other side of the barrier, out of sight. She stood still while the train pulled away and another came in and then she started for the exit.

Tori bumped into a guard. Or he bumped into her. He suddenly put his face very close to hers and spoke very deep and very urgently. “Go back” he said, “you can get on the train behind you. It’s going back. Make something up if they ask about the ticket, but go back.” And then he was gone.

Copyright 2015 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permissionflight_edited-1