Personal Grooming

‘Listen,’ says the Grooming Fairy. ‘She’s a lost cause.’

‘I know but…’ says Aelfnod, ‘Look at her, all proud of her nails – painting them with cheap nail-polish and all. She’s had that bottle for five years at least.’

‘Five years? I bet there’s dinosaur claws with that stuff on waiting to be dug up.’

‘Go on.’

The Grooming Fairy rolls her eyes. ‘Look – she’s – I dunno how old and she’s been biting her nails from the age of ten to the Dawn of Coronavirus and now she’s proud of herself cos she’s stopped cos Boris Johnson’s told her to stop.’

‘I don’t think she’s ever listened to Boris Johnson.’

The Grooming Fairy shrugs and makes a W sign on her forehead. ‘Whateverrrr. How come it’s taken a pandemic to stop her biting her nails? What sort of self-discipline is that?’

‘This isn’t about her nails, it’s about her general self-esteem.’

‘Huh!’ says the Grooming Fairy. ‘She should have learnt to do her hair and make-up and all that when she was a teenager.’

Aelfnod coughed. ‘I live in the attic remember. She has a whole box of scrapbooks full of Jackie Magazine cuttings telling her how to do her hair and make-up. AND I’ve seen the photo-albums with all that mad hair she had in her twenties.’

‘Ah -the 1980s.’ The Grooming Fairy’s face softens into nostalgia. ‘It must be time for it to come back into style. I can’t wait for a new batch of teenagers to fill my nostrils with the sweet scents of home-perming solution.’

‘I don’t think she’ll be doing that again.’

‘It could hardly make her hair any worse. She should been to the hair-dresser before the lock-down.’

‘Half the country is thinking that.’

‘Yeah but look at her. The grey’s coming through and her fringe is getting long enough to braid. She’s like a hippy badger.’

‘Shhh – she’ll hear you. Anyway, she’s bought two home-dyeing kits just in case lock-down’s extended. She just can’t decide between sensible brown and insane blue. She’s trying to talk her daughter into helping. But … her daughter’s a bit dippy at the moment herself. I thought maybe you could help instead.’

‘Look Aelfnod – what do you expect me to do? The woman’s been rubbish at what she calls the “girly stuff” since the beginning of time. She starts off ok, but then she rubs her face or runs her hands through her hair in exasperation when she’s annoyed or thinking or both and before you know it she looks like a miniature Giant Panda with a wig made out of rat’s nests. And that’s in normal circumstances. She’s not even good at clothes – did you see she went through her underwear drawer in a fit of boredom the other day and discovered she’s kept nine bras that don’t fit. I mean they’re pretty and all but what did she keep them for? I suppose right now she could offer them as face-masks – but whose face is THAT shape. Although, I suppose right now, I’m impressed she’s brushing her hair and getting out of her nightclothes every day – you should hear the tales I’ve heard from some of the household elves round here.’

‘I know.’ Aelfnod heaves a sigh. ‘These are strange times. But she’s doing her best. And she may not feel very confident about the “girly stuff” but she is trying her best to feel normal. She’s even on top of the laundry. (The cobwebs not so much.) And she’s being traumatised by having to go round a supermarket via a one way system rather than like a random particle. And doing it when she’s allowed to rather than when she feels like it. And she’s missing staring out of the window of a train pretending she’s thinking intellectual thoughts when really she’s just wondering whether to cook tea or get a ready-meal or takeaway instead of staring out of the windows at home wondering when she can go somewhere else (and what to cook for tea out of what’s in the house). I just think she – like everyone really – could do with a boost. I don’t think she’d realised how much all those little things like having her hair and nails and eyebrows done could make her feel like she had an element of control on a mad situation. Isn’t there anyway you can do her hair magically?’

The Grooming Fairy ponders. ‘I likes a challenge, I does. Now where’’s that list of questions I’ve got to ask, like where she’s going for her next holiday?’

‘You can’t ask that! No-one’s allowed to go anywhere at the moment.’

‘Meh,’ said the Grooming Fairy. ‘Then she’ll have to make it up. Just like I’ll be doing. This is going to cheer us both up no end.’ She cracks her knuckles and grins. 

 Aeflnod has a sudden thought. ‘Oh bother. I forgot about social distancing? You can’t do hair from two metres away. Forget I mentioned it.’

The Grooming Fairy ponders again. ‘Meh. You says she needs cheering up. I could do it while she’s asleep. Like I said. I likes a challenge. Now. Where are those long-handled hedge-trimmers and the ceiling painting brush with the extendable handle?’

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

 

Perspective

‘So many knobs,’ I say, sighing into my mug.

‘I beg your pardon?’ Aelfnod splutters on his tea.

‘Door knobs, cupboard knobs, handles, things for opening lids with, taps, letter-boxes. You know. Things that need extra bleaching just now.’

‘Ah.’ Aelfnod settles back and a dreamy look crosses his face as he contemplates the joys of housework, clearly feeling that I have all the fun. ‘I was worried there for a minute.’

Aelfnod, despite the fact that we have differing views on dust, is a kindred spirit.

He knows when to talk and when to be quiet. He knows when a shared pot of tea in silence is the only thing that makes sense. He understands what it’s like to need space and time to re-boot your mind with something completely disconnected from everything else that’s going on.

In my case, it’s by being alone – driving with the radio on loud, tapping into whatever the music triggers, or being on a train with my brain rocking down new tracks or on a station platform, anonymous among all the commuters rushing pointlessly about – observing, listening and invigorated (if sometimes also cross, cold and late).

For Aelfnod, his reset process appears to be rummaging through the cookery books. (If it’s not him – then who else is reordering them so I can never find the one I want?)

Life has all been a bit trying over the last week. We’re on lockdown, working from home and all of a sudden the only people I’m allowed to be with seem noisier and messier than usual and I can only get out of the house once a day.

Nerves are being trodden on like cowpats round a water trough.

Mingled with personal anxiety caused by coronavirus, the day-job is absorbed in mitigating its impact. So it’s impossible to tune out from the crisis. The most creative decisions of the day are what to cook with what’s in store and when to go for my one walk. All in all, my reset time and my creative time seems to have seeped away and I’ve been feeling grumpy.

It really does come to something when I’m missing a five a.m. start and squeezing past strangers at Clapham Junction.

In case you didn’t know, Aelfnod is one of my invisible household elves. And the thing about invisible household elves is that they’re not exactly real (shh don’t tell them that), so they don’t turn up for a chat unless I want them to.  But they often come to mind when I’m being domestic and self-reflective.

So this afternoon, after some vigorous bleaching of the aforesaid knobs, handles etc, and despite the fact that I ought to be getting to grips with a novel plot, I decided to get a grip on my own plot and turned to Aelfnod for his views on being in lock-down which already feels like it’s been going on for a year when it’s only been a few days.

‘Does it bother you?’ I say.

Aelfnod shrugs and holds out his doll’s tea-cup for more tea. ‘It’s a bit dusty and the airing cupboard is full of out-of-control laundry fairies but this is a nice home.’

‘I know, but I’m used to being pretty much able to go out when I want to do what I want and see what I want.’

‘Then you’re luckier than many. And the things you really like best are indoorsy things anyway – writing, reading, cooking, sewing, painting – and you haven’t done the last two for years. Perhaps now’s the time to start again.’

‘I thought you didn’t like mess.’

‘I don’t like you slamming doors because you’ve got to the point where you’re getting on your own nerves.’

‘I only slammed one door,’ I say huffily.

‘Only because the other one gets caught on the carpet.’ Aelfnod takes another sip of tea and frowns. I feel that in another decade, he’d be puffing a pipe in an admonishing manner. ‘Look on the positive,’ he says. ‘All the news does is focus on the negative. You know that.’

‘It’s true,’ I admit. ‘It’s just that people…’

‘Ah people. None of us know why humans think they’re the most intelligent creatures on earth. You buy stuff you don’t need, rush to go to places which are no nicer than where you’re from, complain when there’s too much to do, complain when there’s nothing to do, never really know what you want. You always look at stuff the wrong way. Instead of looking at the fear, look for the bit of hope. You being stuck indoors right now might save a life. Maybe a life you’ll never know about.’

‘You’re right. And I keep thinking of Anne Frank and knowing I’ve nothing to complain about. And I don’t live alone and I do love the people I’m with.’

‘Exactly. Plus you might discover something. Think about it – what have you noticed?’

I sit back and consider. After a pause I say, ‘There’s less traffic so it’s quieter, I can hear the birds better and the air seems clearer.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s good to be mindful of food, supplies, travel, little freedoms and not take them for granted. You appreciate nature more when you treasure time outside. Everyone is sharing pictures of buds, and sparrows and even mini-beasts which we might not have noticed before.’

‘And…’

‘Community groups are springing up all over the place. People are falling over themselves to shop or get prescriptions for isolated neighbours, even ones they don’t know. Someone posted a desperate message in our local group and within two hours, the group – without anyone leaving home – had tracked down his family and got him help.’

‘There you go. What else?’

I’m starting to cheer up. ‘And if it weren’t for modern technology I couldn’t meet with the rest of my family by video every day so I don’t have to worry so much.’

‘Oh yes,’ says Aelfnod, with a disapproving frown. ‘I’ve listened into your conversations. They’re not very intelligent. Far too much giggling.’

‘Well sorry,’ I say. ‘There’s only so much news to share when you’re all stuck indoors and there’s one thing on everyone’s mind. You can only discuss what everyone is having for dinner for so long. It’s more fun to do something silly. But now I think of it, it’s not just connecting with family. It’s everyone. Colleagues, friends, Facebook contacts, all sorts of people who can’t meet in person have found ways to do it via the internet.’

‘Like what?’

‘Online book clubs, book readings, virtual gigs and poetry slams, interactive quizzes. In fact if I joined in everything I could, I’d never do anything else.’

‘Sounds better than anything on TV.’

I’m feeling a lot brighter. ‘And museums and art galleries and theatres are providing links to all sorts of exhibitions and plays you couldn’t easily see otherwise.’

Aelfnod sits up straight. ‘Is Midsummer Night’s Dream one of them? I’d love to see that. My ancestor’s one of the main characters.’

‘Yes but how will you get online?’

‘Tsk. What a silly question,’ Aelfnod dunks a cookie-crumb in his tea and gives me a grin. ‘I do it all the time. Why else do you think your phone is always fully charged at night and flat as a goblin’s flip-flop in the morning?

***

If you want to read about how I first met Aelfnod check out Weird and Peculiar Tales  a collection of short stories by Paula Harmon and Val Portelli. It’s on special offer until 2nd April 2020.

If you want to know about the household elves’ view of me (well one of them anyway) you might want to read An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

If you want to know about any of the links mentioned above check these out:

From Clapping to Kindness: Five Reasons to be Hopeful

Community Support Links in the UK

Watch Royal Shakespeare Company Shows from home

The Guardian: 10 of the world’s best museum and art gallery tours

Good Housekeeping: best virtual tours

How to visit Paris catacombs and Disney theme park rides online

https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus-extremely-vulnerable

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Words copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Image of tea-pot by Trang Le from Pixabay

Territory Unknown?

Once upon a time Napoleon rode a dinosaur into the jungle and…

went on a resolution quest perhaps? Well these are mine:

Number One – this is the important one: Do not to try and do forty things at once all the time. (I’m thinking of my personal life. Multi-tasking is sort of what I’m paid to do it at work.)

In private however, I must not try to reorganise four bookcases, sort laundry, cook dinner, argue with teenagers/husband/self, find that thing and reorganise furniture in my head all that the same time. 

In particular, I must not try to juggle a ton of writing projects. I think there was one month last year when I was writing and/or revising four different projects. If they’d been all set in the same era it might have helped, but as one was Victorian, one in the 1950s, one in the second century and who knows what the other thing was, because I’ve forgotten, it’s no wonder I came out of that month feeling frazzled and wondering where the fun had gone.

This morning, I finished the first draft of the yet unnamed sequel to Murder Britannica. It’s set a year later (AD 191) and the action has moved from a fictional village in what is now north of Cardiff, South Wales to the very real town of Durnovaria. Dorchester, which is not far from where I live, is built on its remains but the Roman town is not terribly visible. Which then leads on to the next resolution:

Two: Do lots of research but don’t disappear down research rabbit holes. As far as MB2 (as it’s currently called) is concerned, this has involved looking up Roman recipes and realising that the majority actually look very nice and wondering if I could cook them (although probably not stuffed dormice, flamingo or barren sow’s womb). For an entirely different project, I’ve also found out that Bristol Basin in New York is actually built from actual chunks of Bristol. For a third one, I discovered that the word ‘knickers’ for female underwear was not current in 1892. Actually, I’m going to ignore resolution number two. It’s much more fun going down the rabbit-holes.

Three: Keep being brave. At some point in my past, I decided that I wouldn’t let myself be ruled by what makes me anxious or afraid. There are too many of these to mention, so I won’t. One of the things about getting back into writing as an older person is writing about people over thirty having fresh starts. While the sequel to Murder Britannica is a light hearted murder mystery, the underlying theme is, I suppose, ‘looking back versus looking forward’. The younger women (both under twenty) are on the threshold of an adult life which is likely to be restrictive unless they do something about it. But the older women (well over forty-five), have all sorts of reasons to find out if there is more to their later years than weaving. Is there? Oh yes.

Four: only keep the clutter I love. Admittedly I’ve actually obtained two ‘new’ bits of clutter since Christmas. One is a – actually I have no idea what it is, a sort of compass I think – but I like to think of it as a time-machine and the other is a 1904 folding camera. I like to think of them as prompts, or even props for my writing and they’re in a cupboard so shouldn’t get too dusty (major advantage). All the same, this year, I’m determined to finally empty the attic when it’s neither too cold nor too cold (April & October??). I know the attic is full of tat. I know there’s even got a box labelled ‘stuff from under Matt’s bed’ which we sealed up when we moved in 2004. I know, I know – I say the same thing every January but maybe this year at long last, I’ll actually do it. 

In the meantime, the long overdue decluttering has at least resulted in clearing out those kitchen drawers where everything has been stuffed for the last thirteen years. This led to the discovery of Napoleon and a dinosaur who were nestled with a gorilla in amongst a hundred dried up felt-tip pens and a few rogue Cub-Scout/gym club/swimming club badges that I’d never got round to sewing on anything. 

Sooner or later, I’ll decide what Napoleon is doing and where he’s going. In the meantime, he and T-Rex have been reprieved and are back in the drawer.

Of course, if you have some ideas about their adventures feel free…

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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.

Dog’s Diary: a Day in the Life

7am.
Waking the Idiot was more fun than usual this morning. All the extra weight I’ve gained made a lot of difference when I jumped on her and then sat on her chest. Her face went an odd shade of grey. It was a shame to find that my tongue is now too fat to get in her ear to extract the wax, but it was fun finding out. For me.

7.15am.
The Idiot is mad. Did she really think I was going out in that rain just because she wanted me to? And on a lead. Per-lease. I’m sure there’s a pile of paper somewhere if I need to do anything private. I’m certainly not doing it with an audience.

7:30am
What was this stuff she expected me to eat? (It smelt quite nice, but I ignored it on principle. She should have shared her bacon sandwich.)

7.45am
BOOOOOOOORED. Need to recharge.

1pm.
Exhausted. My sleep was constantly interrupted by her waking me to ask if I wanted walkies. It’s still raining. I thought perhaps she was lonely and sat on her computer keyboard. I hope she washes her mouth out with soap after she called me all those names. 

4pm.
The Fool was chucked out first thing this morning but clearly didn’t know what to do. Could have sat under a bush, could have gone to ‘Mrs Cake’ three doors down and eaten treats, but noooo, don’t let’s use our brains, let’s just sit in the rain looking confused for hours. He looks like a dead rat. The Idiot finally realised and brought him in and is now trying to dry him with a towel. I never get that kind of treatment. Although there’d be trouble if she tried. 

5pm.
OK so I’m now a bit desperate and I can’t find any paper except for the pile next to her keyboard. I’ve tried sneaking up on top when she slopes off to make more tea, but all this extra weight meant I couldn’t heave myself up properly. Now there is paper all over the floor, the Idiot’s probably using more bad language, but it’s hard to tell because she’s crying too. I would hide under the sofa but I have a sneaky feeling my bum would stick out. I miss my old figure. The Fool is eating my food as well as his. Gutbucket. I want it now. It’s not fair. Just because I’ve ignored it all day doesn’t mean I didn’t want it eventually.

7pm.
Bored again. Need something to do.

7.05pm.
Well that was rubbish. She doesn’t usually mind when I rush round the furniture and up the curtains. Usually she films it and puts it online. She’s NEVER chucked me into the back garden in the rain. And I can’t get under a bush with this body. And now the curtains have been pulled off the wall I can see right into the sitting room and the Fool has finally got the hang of things and is curled up all smug on the Idiot’s lap. 

7.30pm.
The Idiot has relented and brought me indoors but if she thinks she’s getting me rolled up in towel, she’s got another think coming. I’ve got more important things to do. I hate being a dog and the Fool is rubbish at being a cat.
Where’s that spell book?
Time to reverse the body swap.

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Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Photograph a composite of two from Pixabay.

An Interview with the Laundry Fairy

I am sitting opposite Paula’s laundry fairy and she..

Excuse me, I’m not her fairy. She is my person.

Aw that’s sweet, you look on her as family.

No, I mean she belongs to me not the other way around.

A bit like a pet?

More like an experimental subject to be honest.

Ah. Well to continue. You… may I know your name?

Only if you want to die horribly.

Oh. Ahem. Well may I say you’re looking resplendent in an outfit which … may I call it unique?

Call it what you like. It’s the best I can do using the stuff I find in Paula’s cupboards. Some of her clothes are that old they need carbon dating.

You mean you’ve woven it yourself out of her cast-offs?

Ha! Me? Weave? Nah, I got someone to do it for me. And they’re not exactly cast-offs, more stuff she didn’t keep an eye on.

Things she’d put in storage?

Where would be the fun in that? No. Things she put down for five minutes. Watching her pull her hair out thinking she’s gone doollally and trying to find stuff I’ve magicked off when she’s in a hurry is almost as much of a laugh as moving her keys.

I see. Anyway, I must say you look a little more robust than I thought a fairy would.

Are you saying I look fat?

No, no – you can put the sink plunger down – not fat at all, far from it. More… athletic. You must work out a lot. And those tattoos, dead impressive. What are they again?

Crossed odd socks on one arm and a mangle-in-a-tangle on the other. Do you want to see the one on my…

Er, another time perhaps. Shall we get on with the questions sent in by our readers? 

If you must.

Do you do your own dishes after meals?

What sort of question is that? What do you think dishwasher fairies are for?

There are dishwasher fairies?

Of course there are. It’s a modern thing. They’re sort of a cross between a brownie-gone-bad mixed with a laundry fairy. Brill combination. They’re either so efficient they dissolve the pattern off the plates or they save up the gunk in the filter and spew it out over everything and then break the machine. If they time it right, they can do it just before a public holiday or when guests are coming. It’s ace.

Apart from the humans, are you all alone here? Well obviously not, you’ve already mentioned the dishwasher fairy.

She’s a sort of second cousin. If you think my tattoos are impressive, you should see her piercings. Then there’s the garden gnomes. They’re sort of relations on the other side. They lie in the grass and shove things in the lawnmower. They also go slug-racing, stamp on flowers and encourage the weeds. Or at least they do in this garden. The only thing they won’t mess with is Paula’s husband’s chilli plants. My word. Uncle Joe took a bite out of one and burst into flames. Had to tip a pint of milk over his head to put him out. I suppose I ought to mention the book imps. They’re a bit useless as they tend to get sidetracked with reading things, but they erase things from diaries and calendars, and they move books, office projects and homework about when they’re bored. Usually on Sunday night or before a deadline. And then there’s the goodie two-shoe brownies. Well there used to be. Now there’s only one brownie left. He’s called Aelfnod and I had him nicely under control till she met him and gave him a home in the attic. The others moved out in disgust. This is one terribly untidy family. Even the spiders don’t think this house is much of a challenge.

Do you put both socks on first, or one sock, one shoe?

What kind of weirdo puts on one sock, one shoe? And you’re talking like you only need two socks. I put all the socks on at the same time. And they’re all odd.

Do you have any pets?

I’ve got Aelfnod. Or I will when I can work out how to get in the attic.

Who does your laundry?

Paula does of course. And then I nabs it after. Just when she thinks she’s found the missing socks and goes to find their partners, I nips in and grabs them. And anything else I fancy the look of.

Are those your real teeth?

Excuse me? What sort of people are your readers? Of course they’re not my own teeth. That would be weird. They’re dentures made from the ones the tooth fairy gets. Not that the tooth fairy’s been round for a few years. And I never did get a full set of 56, cos the littlest human went all cynical on the tooth-fairy and tried to trick her. Never saw another penny for her teeth after that. Hah. But then I didn’t get the teeth either.

Do you recycle?

Well here I am wearing an outfit made from odd socks. And you won’t believe what the dishwasher fairy can make with the odd teaspoons, apart from use them as earrings that is. Mind blowing, I’m telling ya. Last time we managed to break both the washing machine and dishwasher at the same time, we took a weekend break sailing in a boat made from odd bits of plastic container, odd socks and odd teaspoons. Lost them afterwards but hey.

Would you take chicken soup to your neighbour if he was sick?

Aelfnod the brownie? Huh. Only so I could dunk him in it.

If you could go back in time, where would you go?

Two Saturdays ago when I managed to sneak a ball point pen into the shirt wash. Oh the wailing when the washing machine stopped working as the pen disembowelled itself and bit of it slipped into the drum and oh you should have seen the pretty blue patterns on those lovely cotton garments! Lovely splodges just where they could be seen by everyone! And then the arguing over who’d put the pen in the washing machine and whose fault it was and the researching for stain removers and the soakings in vinegar and bicarbonate of soda and all in vain. Oh that was a happy day.

If you could get rid of one disease, what would it be?

Lady writers. Paula put me in a book she wrote with Val Portelli called Weird and Peculiar Tales.

Did she write libellous things about you?

Oh no, it was all true. But she made it look like I was the bad guy. Me? I just like a bit of a laugh. Anyway, gotta go, I’ve got a tissue to put in the pocket of some black trousers before the dark wash is put in. And I’m feeding up one of the spiders so he can chew his way into the attic. I’m sure Aelfnod must be all lonely up there. See ya round. Nice socks by the way. I’d keep an eye on them if I were you.  I likes them.

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Book by Paula Harmon & Val Portelli

Breaking News: a new book with Val Portelli

(c) Paula Harmon 2018.  Words and photograph copywrite Paula Harmon and not to be reproduced without her express permission or without credit given.

 

 

Put Down The Embroidery, We’re Going In

Just for the record, I have nothing against embroidery (with the exception of the interminable cross-stitch on gingham tray cloth I had to make in school aged nine). Although I’m a bit too impatient for french-knotting and even less patient when it comes to knitting, I do love dress-making and a number of other activities which are traditionally ‘girly.’

But that’s because I have options. 

If the most dangerous pursuit I was allowed involved the risk of stabbing myself with a needle, I think I’d be learning to sky-dive instead.

When Liz asked me to collaborate on a novel and we had to work out where to begin, it seemed logical to me to write something set in Victorian England. I’m not sure if this is because it fitted in with some of Liz’s other books or because it appealed to me anyway. It was winter when we started talking about it and one lunch-time, I was staring out of the office window into gloom. The day before I’d been doing the same thing in London, where I work regularly. Something popped into my head: a mysterious letter. 

I tapped an enigmatic letter into my phone and sent it as a message to Liz.

‘Ooh’ she replied. And that’s where we started from. 

Who is the letter-writer? Male? Female? Friend? Foe? To whom is the letter addressed? Who is going to find out?

As young middle-class women in the late nineteenth century, Katherine and Connie find life quite restrictive, but underneath the constraints of staying respectable, they are no different to young women today or in any other generation: bored by routine, irritated by authority, straining against the ‘rules’.

And so, when Katherine opens a mysterious letter, she opens the door to a whole new world of adventure.

Now and again, she may even yearn for a bit of embroidery, just for some light relief.

Liz and I have had so much fun writing about Katherine and Connie, arguing and teasing each other via Google Docs and Messenger while we were editing almost as much as Katherine and Connie argue and tease each other in the books.

The Case of the Black Tulips, first in a series, comes out on 19th June. If you like feisty female characters and fancy a mystery set in London, November 1890, then have a look. It’s currently 99p/99c as a pre-order e-book. Paperback details will come out shortly.

It might be something worth putting down your embroidery for.

Venturing Out

Finding the Plot – Venturing Out part two

Books by Paula Harmon & Liz Hedgecock

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Words copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. Book Cover by Liz Hedgecock (all accreditations within the book). All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission. 

Dear Travel Journal

It’s day three and I’m not sure future generations will ever believe my record of commuting in 2018. Travel is supposed to broaden the mind but it’s just making me lose mine.

Today is typical. I drove to catch the 6:45am train and I came across a group or (to use the proper collective noun) ‘murder’ of crows in the middle of the country road. One which was too idle to take off in time met its maker at 60 mph, showering my car in sinister feathers. My question is: if I’ve murdered a crow in a murder of crows am I a double murderer?

Somewhat rattled, I got to the station in time but to no avail. I know I live in the country but it’s still absurd when your train has been cancelled due to bird strike on the driver’s window. And that bird was a pheasant.

The 6.45 being out of action, the next departure was also delayed because, according to a weary announcement, there were ‘two lads who are refusing to pay for their tickets and until we get them off the train, we’re not leaving.’ Wherever the excitement was, it wasn’t in my carriage and despite everyone craning over each other to look out of the window, we never saw the miscreants being hauled off which was a shame as it would have livened things up. Perhaps it was no wonder that after that, when we finally got moving, the person in charge of the train wasn’t sure where we were. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, this train will shortly be arriving at …….’ Very long pause…Eventually an automated tannoy announcement came on. I wasn’t really listening to the destination list until it said ‘next station Axminster’ which is in the wrong direction. No one else in the carriage seemed to notice (probably, like me, busy trying to get the free wifi to connect). I looked up and the information doodah screen definitely said the next station was Andover. I spent the next half an hour in a state of mild anxiety but eventually Andover rolled into view. After that, they seemed to have changed the tape.

I got a drink from the trolley to calm my nerves, took a swig of tea and discovered it was coffee. Yuk. The next unpleasant thing was realising someone in the carriage was constantly but silently breaking wind and knowing they might be doing it all the way to London. Luckily, he seemed to get off at the next stop, or else just ran out of methane. But when I got up to put my tea, or rather, coffee container in the bin, I got back to witness an otherwise attractive young man picking his nose. He then ate it. Perhaps he considered it to be breakfast.

A bit later, a glamorous young woman got on. She started by fixing her enormous pseudo beehive with hairspray. Yes. In the carriage full of people. Shortly after that, she sharpened her talons with an emery board. It sounds like nails on blackboard and bits of shavings went everywhere.

I averted my eyes to the view out of the window but when at the next stop, a man sat next to me and started crocheting, I ended up mesmerised by his creation. So I was still looking when he put the wool down and started scrawling a list instead. It appeared to say:

  1. Cheese
  2. Fluffy PJs
  3. Bedsocks
  4. Pillows
  5. Travel rabbit

Now, I’m fairly sure that the last item was travel tablets scribed in bad handwriting, but you never know. I wonder (apart from anything obvious) what a travel rabbit could be. I may have to write a story.

Oh but the joys of an early morning commute in midwinter. The squelchy sneezes, the coughs full of enough catarrh to coat the back of a spoon, the sniffs, all the germs joyfully mingling when it turned out the train was three carriages short and the virus laden bodies were crammed up against each other in a proximity British people abhor unless newly in love. Ah the joys of finding the train journey will take an extra 40 mins due to a sick person in another train at Clapham Junction. I mean why? What could we do about it?

And then the journey stopped completely due to signalling problems. Apparently trains were being signalled through one by one by hand. I am not sure what this means but had visions of The Railway Children waving a petticoat. I suppose it can’t be the same as the average modern petticoat is too flimsy to re-direct a train.

So that was then. Somewhere in between there was a day at work (same old same old) and then I started home.

I was slightly worried to start with because the announcer on the train sounded French. Initially I wondered if I had been transported, without noticing, from London to Paris or, in fact, to the other Waterloo? (Is the other Waterloo French speaking? Quick internet search…. Yes I think it is). Anyway, I was ALMOST sure I heard Salisbury being mentioned as a destination, so I thought I should be safe. Bit of a shame really, I wouldn’t mind finding myself in Belgium instead and from thence, after a bit of sight-seeing, on a south-bound train to the Côte d’Azur.

At the beginning of the journey, I sat next to a dainty looking young woman who turned out to be eating a burger bigger than her head. It was a bit grim to watch and worse to smell but I managed to move across the aisle to give her elbow room while she shoved it down. I thought her jaw might dislocate at one point. Meanwhile some loud man was holding forth about politics. He sounded like someone from a thirties gangster movie and was trying to get the postal address and photo of another passenger who managed to escape at the next stop (and I have a feeling he didn’t even really want to get off there). As the train pulled off again, the burger-girl dropped the last bits of fast food on her black trousers. I was so glad I’d moved. My dress wouldn’t have been improved by ground beef, ketchup and mayo.

For the next half hour our carriage was invaded by a loud group who had been chucked, effing and blinding out of the ‘quiet’ carriage. The loudest one yelled ‘I’m gonna complain to the train company! What’s the point of quiet carriages? Who wants to be quiet on a train?’ It sums up the average Briton’s sang-froid (or distaste for confrontation) that despite the fact everyone else was thinking ‘me – I want to be quiet’, all anyone did was tut and roll eyes at each other.

Meanwhile, burger-girl was replaced by a series of quiet but revolting people. Taking her place across the aisle was someone scratching and scraping flakes of skin onto the seat next to him. Someone somewhere else was breaking wind. Then a small man sat down beside me and stuck his elbows out. Shortly thereafter, he ate crisps and a ripe egg mayo sandwich loudly WITH HIS MOUTH OPEN and drank tea with slurps worthy of a drain clearing machine. The phantom farter upped his or her game and this added to the effluence of the egg sarnies. I would have been sick, but there wasn’t enough room. When the passengers thinned out, the mouth-open-slurper did go off to another seat, but not before kicking most of his rubbish onto the floor. Lovely.

I might have relaxed then but was busy restraining myself from standing up, leaning over the seat behind and telling the girl sitting there that if she persisted in saying “like” every third word I might have to kill her. I imagined that if I did, she’d just say “so I’m just like sitting here and you’re like being so like aggressive and like I think like killing me is like illegal or like something”. And it was all too exhausting, so I didn’t.

And now, with just 40 minutes to go, the train has just stopped in middle of nowhere. Apparently there is a cow on the line. We have to wait while a railway manager with herding experience gets her back into the field and stands guard at the side of the railway to keep her from being turned into mincemeat. Although quite possible burger-girl would lick the tracks.

Dear Travel Journal. As I say, no-one would ever believe this. I think I may have to change your function and turn you into a fantasy novel in which all the heroine wants to do is get home and is thwarted in every chapter by almost insurmountable challenges and drooling monsters.

It would probably seem more plausible than anything that’s happened today.

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Words and photograph copyright 2018 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

If you want to read the story I wrote about ‘The Travel Rabbit’ you’ll have to check out this book!

Pumpkins!

‘Pumpkins! I ask you – pumpkins!’

‘Woss wrong with pumpkins? They’re orange. They’re effsfetic ent they?’

‘They’re not traditional though, are they?’

‘Ent they?’

‘Nope. You know the legend doncher?’

‘Er…’

‘The one about Jack.’

‘Jack wot climbed the beanstalk?’

‘Could be… anyway…’

‘Jack wot built the ‘ouse?’

‘Maybe…anyway…’

‘Jack wot went up the ‘ill with Jill and fell down and broke ‘is crown?’

‘ANYWAY….Jack sold his soul, see?’

‘Probably needed to raise the cash to build an ‘ouse. Costs a fortune that does.’

‘Whatever, but the thing is, the thing is then he got scared of the dark.’

‘Probably behind with the ‘leccy bills what will spending all ‘is cash on building an ‘ouse and buying beans and that.’

‘Well anyway, so then he made a lamp out of a turnip.’

‘Why?’

‘Dunno.’

‘Well, that can ‘appen when you falls down and breaks your crown. You can go a bit doollally. No amount of vinegar and brown paper’s gonna sort out brain trauma.’

‘Yeah well, anyway, he roams he does, Jack, looking for his lost soul or summat. So other people started to make lamps outta turnips too.’

‘Why’d they do that? Had he started a sort of franchise?’

‘No it was reverse physicilology or summat.’

‘Wossat then?’

‘No look listen, people made lanterns out of turnips and put them outside their houses to scare Jack away.’

‘Why turnips?’

‘Takes a real man to make a lantern out of a turnip. Turnips is hard. All that digging with a teaspoon – only a real man can do that and then when they eats the innards their farts can blow the scales off a lizard.’

‘Spect Jack was used to that what with the beans from the beanstalk an all.’

‘Wot you on about?’

‘Wot YOU on about?’

‘Well the thing is – it was TURNIPS! It was turnips till a few years ago. Then suddenly, it’s pumpkins everywhere and turnips don’t get a look in. And what am I?

‘You’re a turnip.’

‘Dead right. And what are you?’

‘I’m a turnip.’

‘You certainly are. So that’s why I’m mad. Blinking pumpkins. Coming over here, taking our jobs. It’s a liberty that’s what it is. A blinking liberty.’

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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

The Tale of a Tale

By 2009, I had sort of given up on any ideas of writing. What with work and young children and the aftermath of a stressful house/job/school move from Gloucestershire to Dorset, there just wasn’t time.

My father however, couldn’t stop making up stories. Every few months, he’d ask me to read a new novel, in which unlikely people had unlikely adventures in futuristic worlds. They were always good fun, although Dad’s feelings towards editing was much the same as his feelings towards decluttering (unnatural and diabolical).

One day, I said ‘why don’t you write about yourself or someone like yourself?’ and he said ‘because it’s boring. If you think you could make up a story about an old fogey in a wheelchair, be my guest.’

Dad was not your archetypal old fogey really. By this time, he had chronic arthritis but it didn’t stop him. If he thought a building wasn’t sufficiently adapted for wheelchair users, he would very politely explain this at length to the owner or anyone handy. On one occasion he visited in a café in my local (Georgian) town and finding the step awkward and the doorway narrow, popped out to get an Argos catalogue to show a café proprietor what ramps were available at a reasonable sum. The café closed down a few months later. I don’t think there’s a connection. He rushed around in either a scooter or electric wheelchair, regardless of anyone else’s feet or the suitability of the pavement. If he couldn’t be doing with the pavement, he’d drive down the middle of the road instead. One day Dad drove his wheelchair round a blind corner in the middle of Weymouth at four miles an hour with me and my sister running behind, shrieking at him to slow down. On another occasion, he lowered himself out of the wheelchair onto the pavement in order to take a ‘really good photograph’ of passing cars. My mother had to explain to concerned passers-by that he hadn’t collapsed and was technically quite well. I realised then that my father would embarrass all of us for as long as he could and I might as well accept it.

So there was the challenge: write about an old fogey in a wheelchair.

I still don’t know where the idea came from, but the whole story, just as unlikely as any of his, popped into my head as I was in the supermarket and I came straight home and wrote it on the computer in the freezing cold front room. It was called ‘Coffee at Tiffany’s’.

Shortly afterwards I wrote a second story: ‘Katie is a Cat’. This was inspired from the rainy day when I crossed Westminster Bridge and saw on the other side of the road two people, one of whom was in a wheelchair. So far so normal. However, they also had a cat in a basket on the wall behind them. Trust me, that’s not usual for central London at rush-hour.

A few years passed and Dad became very ill. I decided to write another ‘old fogey’ story for his birthday, but it just wouldn’t quite come. By June 2012, Dad was in hospital undergoing tests, totally exhausted but still writing. I dug out the ‘old fogey’ story and tried again. It would be a Father’s Day present. But I couldn’t find the happiness I needed to write something silly and put it back to one side. My sister and I arranged a photograph of all four grandchildren instead but he never saw that either. Dad died two days before Father’s Day.

Well, more years passed and Mum kept saying how much she’d liked those two silly stories and I remembered the others which I’d started and not finished. And I recalled the little bits of writing I’d done as a sort of outlet for grief. And I remembered all the fun we’d had with Dad when we were children. Then I realised Mum’s 80th birthday was coming up.

It took me months and a lot of secrecy. It took a lot of asking Mum odd questions about things which happened a long time ago (without telling her why), digging out old photographs, writing on trains, getting exasperated, feeling emotional.

When I decided to illustrate the book, I asked Mum, as if from idle curiosity, whether she had any of Dad’s drawings. She dug out a story Dad had written for my sister which I’d thought was long lost. There was his sketch from all those years ago, of a startled squirrel pegging out her washing, being confronted by an eagle. As you do. Fortunately it was the typed version, as no-one could read Dad’s handwriting. Even Dad.

Somehow, pulling all these elements together, I wrote a book. The parts based on real events proved to be harder to write than any of the fantasy sequences. Life is not narrative, with a beginning, middle and logical conclusion. In the end, I stopped bothering trying to make it accurate and just started having fun instead.

And finally, with a few days to spare, I had a proof copy to give to Mum for her 80th birthday as a total surprise.

And now the book is published for sale.

‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’ is a celebration of my father: hero, eccentric, adventurer and story-teller to the end.

Part memory, part fantasy, it’s the story of an eccentric father with hero-worshipping little daughters and the adventures he has in his imagination when those girls turn into boring middle-aged women who need to lighten up.

‘Don’t worry,’ said Dad, ‘everything will be fine.’

And do you know what Dad? Somehow it is.

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Words and illustration copyright 2017 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

Click here to buy ‘The Cluttering Discombobulator’

Memories

 

 

 

Father’s Day

I could not have asked for a better Dad; a less embarrassing one perhaps and maybe one who coughed up more pocket money. But love, acceptance, nurturing, support, guidance he had in abundance.

He didn’t believe in children contradicting their parents (even when the ‘children’ were in their forties) or in personal mental space and not much in personal physical space. This made him infuriating.

On the other hand, he had more than his fair share of hair-brained ideas and optimism. He also had much less grip on reality than he needed. This made him fun.

Here’s a true story to show you what I mean.

When my sister and I were teenagers, most of our friends had long slipped the leash and either holed up in their rooms with the radio-cassette-recorder OR if they had the bus fare, went to town. It was mostly the former, because friends were spread across several villages and the effort of getting to town wasn’t really worthwhile.

My sister and I were different. Dad felt that as long as we were still home and no matter how old we were, the family should spend all its free time together. This is probably why we both left home quite young.

Anyway, one day, I was about sixteen and my sister thirteen, Dad said we were all going to the beach.

I think it was summer, but you wouldn’t have known from the weather. It was cold and rainy. We looked at him askance.

‘And,’ he said, ‘which of you wants to do the filming?’

What did he mean? Had he resurrected the old cine camera? No. It turned out that he’d borrowed a trendy new camcorder from someone in the office. It weighed a ton but you could put a blank video tape in it and film. Then you could play it back through your TV. This was exciting. Half the people we knew didn’t even have VHS recorders to tape TV programmes, let alone the means to make their own videos. On the other hand…

‘Film what, Dad?’

‘Me,’ he said, ‘I’m going surfing.’

At the time, Dad was, to us, ancient; that is, he was about forty-two. Nowadays I think that forty-two is a perfectly reasonable age to go surfing, but back then in our view, it was akin to a centenarian going base-jumping. He was also very overweight and not terribly fit.

‘But…’ said Mum.

‘I’m borrowing Dave’s wetsuit and surfboard and you can film me. It’ll be a great new hobby and when I’ve got the hang of it, we can all do it.’

‘But Dad,’ I said, ‘I don’t want to.’

‘Nonsense, of course you do. Don’t be a wet blanket.’

On the beach, the rain had stopped but it was colder and the wind had got up.

We sat on the shingle in anoraks, drinking tea from a flask and wondering how long it took for pneumonia to kick in. My sister and I were given no option. While our friends were in the warm, nowhere near their parents and being trendy, we were sitting with Mum being blown to bits, watching our Dad be embarrassing. Even I, full of romantic hopes, knew the chances of looking attractive were nil. My long hair plastered my face in damp tangles and my make-up smudged. I had refused to exchange a summer skirt for jeans on the grounds of femininity. Now I feared that at any minute the goose pimples on my legs might start to ice over. If an attractive boy was about to enter my life, I hoped he wouldn’t pick today.

The rollers were worthy of Hawaii. But the weather wasn’t. And nor were Dad’s skills.

In the borrowed black wetsuit, Dad looked like an elderly orca failing to catch a youthful penguin. He appeared and disappeared in crashing waves. He got on the surf board, lay down, fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee and fell off. He got on the surf board, lay down, got up on one knee, almost stood up and… fell off. And repeat. We took it in turns to film him, swapping when our fingers went blue and started to shake. Although given the weight of a 1980s camcorder, they were shaking anyway. We finished the tea. After a while, my sister, never one for weather of any description (hot, cold, wet, dry, even now she takes it as a personal affront) refused to film on the grounds of potential frostbite.

We really wanted Dad to succeed. At every attempt we leaned forward and tensed, the camerawoman holding the camera steady against the wind. Then he fell off again.

After what felt like about a year but was probably about two hours, Dad gave up.

He emerged from the changing area dressed normally and more buoyant than he had been in the water.

‘Did you get it all on film?’ he said.

‘Yes, but Dad,’ said my sister, ‘you never actually surfed.’

‘At least I tried,’ he said, ‘which is more than you did. You three look like MacBeth’s witches after they’ve been through a car wash. You might have left me some tea.’

He patted the camcorder.

‘Can’t wait to see the footage,’ he said, ‘but first, lunch! And I’ve been thinking…maybe we won’t take up surfing as a family. Maybe we’ll take up hang-gliding instead.’

That was Dad.

I didn’t escape this sort of thing till I got a boyfriend and even then Dad wanted to come to the cinema with us. Not, you understand, because he wanted to protect me from any improper advances, but because he thought we could all watch the film and chat about it afterwards. He was rather hurt when I said no. When my sister got to sixteen, she just quietly did her own thing regardless and he never seemed to notice. Younger sisters get away with everything.

(NB the photo below is NOT from that long lost video. These are hardy young surfers at Bournemouth in January. Dad didn’t look as svelte by a long way, but probably it’s how he visualised himself and good on him. Perhaps if we all spent less time worrying if we should or could, we’d have more fun finding out!)

SurfersWords 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