Imaginary Friends?

Did you ever have an imaginary friend?

This question was posed on a Facebook group recently. Some said they’d had several, some had had none. Some hadn’t, but their children or siblings had. Some had ones who when they explained them to adults appeared identical to dead relations the child hadn’t actually known, which is a whole potential story in itself. 

It got me thinking.

Had I had imaginary friends? 

When I was seven and in my second primary school, there was a time when I communicated with my reflection at playtime (recess). We (my reflexion and I) were called Trixie and Trina (I can’t recall who was who) and were twins separated into two different worlds by some spell/disaster and the glass was the only meeting place. I can’t remember what we talked about apart from being sad we couldn’t be physically together. I hadn’t long moved schools and was very lonely, having left my first best friend behind and knowing I’d never see her again. The fact that I was top of the entire junior school in spelling and reading but hadn’t made any friends got into my school report, but no one noticed I was talking to a reflection in playtime until a couple of school bullies decided to target me. I never dared to do it again. Fortunately, not long afterwards I made friends with a real girl who was on my wavelength (I knew this because she also wanted, more than anything, a flying unicorn). 

Thinking back, I feel a little guilty about Trixie and Trina. Are they still stuck on either side of a reflection simply wanting to be together again?

Roll on two years and (after another move) 144 miles west and I’m on a bus with my little sister. She’s been thwarted in her desire to have a dog and shouts at me for sitting on Sandy, an imaginary corgi puppy. I am mortified by the other passengers’ horror and the sympathy I’d had for my sister’s disappointment fades completely.

Roll on even more years and 100 miles back east and my son, aged four, tells me off for putting my shopping in the Tesco trolley on top of his imaginary sheep. 

As he’s now grown up – stuck at hime with us because of lock-down – I asked him if that was the only imaginary friend he’d had and he said ‘I had loads, I had an entire team of Pokemon at one point and they did everything with me’. Recalling watching him in swimming galas and football matches, I’m somehow not surprised.

I tried to work out if I’d had any, other than Trixie and Trina and initially thought ‘no’. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that when I was eight or nine, after another move of schools and another lost best friend and I spent a lot of time wandering about alone, talking to unseen spirits in the woods and river – that was something similar. 

I did make friends with another (real) girl around the same time. She was on a similar (e.g. highly imaginative) wavelength, and we created a series of convoluted stories to play out. One was sort of science fiction – involving an almost impassable jelly-like force field between worlds in which an enormous mutated fly was forever stuck and we acted it in the fields at school. Sometimes we could get through the jelly wall, sometimes we couldn’t and bounced off. We must have looked utterly bonkers to everyone else. 

We remained friends till after graduating university (by which time acting things out had been replaced by writing stories and boyfriends) but then lost touch for twenty-five years until she turned up at my father’s funeral. 

As we reconnected, pretty much the first thing we emailed to each other was ‘Do you remember the jelly wall with the big fly in it?’ 

Later, she said ‘Do you still have that map of the woods you drew with all the magic portals in it?’ 

I confessed that it had long been lost. 

Then she said ‘You had me completely convinced about all those magical beings there. I thought they were real for ages.’

I was taken aback on three fronts. Firstly, I rarely ever convince anyone of anything. Secondly, I wanted to say ‘but they were real.’ Thirdly, I wondered why I’d thought ‘were’ rather than ‘are’ and felt a deep, visceral disloyalty.

Were they imaginary friends? I never thought of them as either imaginary or friends. They were just there, among the leaves and bracken and bluebells, just out of sight in roots and hollows, or sparkling from the light shining through branches or on river wavelets. I could say what I wanted to them and they neither offered criticism nor advice. They never spoke at all. They just listened.

On the Facebook thread referred to earlier, someone said ‘I didn’t have one as a child, but I have one now.’ 

I’m not sure if they were being serious of course, but I felt a pang of mild jealousy. Why don’t I have one now that I’m an adult? I thought. Then I remembered my invisible household ghost and the invisible household elves. 

The former is ‘just’ a series of odd, inexplicable sounds in our rather strange (not old, just strange) house. He never communicates in any other way (yes he’s a he, I don’t know why, but he is). He’s not a ghost in the sense of being the spirit of a dead person. He’s just a noisy, companionable entity, who normally makes the house seem less empty when I work from home alone. I never speak to him, except at night when I tell him to shut up because he’s thumping about in the attic while I’m trying to get to sleep. 

The invisible household elves, who have some sort of form I can visualise, turn up when I’m doing housework or a major domestic overhaul. I think because I find those exercises immensely boring, my mind ambles off into some realm where I’m watching myself, considering myself objectively and somehow that morphs into a conversation with or listening to a conversation between a failed brownie called Ælfnod, a disruptive laundry fairy, a despairing grooming elf and potentially a mischievous dishwasher fairy and naughty garden pixies who recently snatched my husband’s glasses and hid them in a part of the garden my husband hadn’t been in. 

Are these my adult equivalent of imaginary friends?

Maybe someone who’s got this far without calling for men in white coats, will think it’s because I’m a writer and they’re the same as characters. But they’re not. Book characters are external from me almost entirely. They turn up, they make themselves known, they complain when I try to make them do something they wouldn’t do in a million years. Sometimes, without a qualm, I kill them off. There may be elements of me in them, but only elements.

Without asking a psychologist, I can work out that imaginary friends are almost certainly personifications of parts of one’s own psyche. This is why I think they exist and why they’ve been valuable for me at least.

As a child, they were companions to a little girl who was lonely, serious, imaginative and out of sync with her generation.

Now perhaps, if my household companions count as imaginary friends, they’re a reminder not only to take myself too seriously but also to just let my imagination run wild just as I once did at nine when it was as easy as breathing.

They are the part of me that may be honest and critical but is also validating and affirming. They make me laugh at myself but also accept myself. Basically they say ‘be yourself.’

So how have my household companions managed during lockdown?

The invisible household ghost is rather quiet. I’m never in the house alone these days as there are three other people also working from home. Does his silence tell you more about him, me, or my ability to hear anything over the sound of four adult people on video calls, and in the case of the younger two, also video games? Has he left, or is he just pottering about in the attic till he can be heard again?

And I have to confess, I haven’t heard from the invisible household elves for nearly a year either. But as I say, they tend to turn up when I’m doing a clear out so this may give you an idea of the state of my house. 

I kind of miss them all. Perhaps it’s time to send my three mortal house-companions off for a walk, have a quiet cuppa and then get the duster out. I wonder if they’ve missed me too?

If you’ve got this far and want to hear how I first met Ælfnod, you can see me read the story ‘Dust’ by clicking here, or check out ‘Perspective‘ or ‘Personal Grooming‘ or ‘Interview with a Laundry Fairy’ or check out the book ‘Weird & Peculiar Tales’.

To find out more about my invisible household ghost, check out ‘Ghost Coin’ and ‘Quiet Company

To find out about the woodland and river, check out ‘The Return’ and also the book ‘Kindling’ which features the same woodland in some of the stories, though not always in a serious context.

Words and photograph copyright 2021 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

Daisy-chains and Black Holes

If making daisy-chains and acting out what might happen as you fall into a black hole or similar were Olympic events, I might have had the chance as a sportswoman.

Or maybe not. 

I used to blame my lack of confidence at sport on childhood trauma: firstly aged five, hearing two grannies laugh at me as I tried to be placed in the egg and spoon race at school and later, aged nine or so, suffering two years of bullying which included being picked last for every team.

Looking back now, I realise not all of this is reasonable. 

I was the littlest child in my school in the youngest class. I was also extremely serious. I imagine a very small girl, running along clasping her egg and spoon (and they were the real thing in my day – none of this plastic nonsense) with a look of utter determination, socks falling down little legs, scabby knees occasionally showing as the overlong skirt flapped, mousy bunches bouncing above her shoulders. I was probably rather sweet and certainly funny. My own daughter, hampered by height in a similar manner just hammed up the whole thing as she competed with her best friend (the tallest in her class) to general hilarity including her own. I took myself far too seriously and felt quite bruised afterwards.

I recovered a bit when two years later, I went to a forward thinking junior school and was encouraged, despite my lack of stature, to learn the high jump and long jump properly. I was never going to win, but I did OK and was relatively confident in my abilities.

Then we moved again and I joined a school which had barely moved into the first half of the 20th century, let alone the last quarter. If there was any spare time, the boys got to do extra sport. The girls got to do extra needlework. If it was a very hot day, the girls got to do extra needlework while watching the boys do extra sport. My mother still has the item I embroidered that summer, every cross-stitch stabbed with boredom.

This was the school where I was comprehensively bullied for two years. On the one hand it crushed any small confidence I had that I could at least run, even if I wasn’t much good at catching or hitting a ball. It also put me off team games for life to the extent that when someone at work suggested an inter-team rounders match in St James’s Park, it took me straight back to those awful days of being jeered at and made me feel slightly sick. On the other hand, the junior school bullying – once I’d decided to stop letting people see they were hurting me – probably started me on a path of being determined to do my own thing and ultimately to stop worrying about what other people thought and worry more about whether I was meeting my own standards. 

Secondary school was a little different. Our games sessions involved four forms and therefore two groups of around sixty girls or sixty boys. How the teachers didn’t go mad I have no idea. Encouragement of women in sport was dampened by a teacher declaring in tones of despair that girls were useless once they hit puberty as women’s hips made it harder to run and busts made them more self-conscious. I’d never thought about my hips before and ever afterwards I’ve wondered if I really did run differently after the age of twelve. My bust was another matter. The last thing I was even remotely good at – running – became a torment both physical and mental as I was ‘wobbly’ very early on. 

The teachers concentrated on those who were teachable. These didn’t include me. During one year, in netball season, the teachers went off to coach girls with potential while those without were left alone – pitched in a vicious match against the goddesses of the school netball team. Imagine the Roman arena where useless specimens of humanity have been thrown to the top gladiators for a bit of light-hearted weapons practice. With no teacher watching, every rule (except bizarrely, staying in the right part of the court) was broken. Elbows, knees, and feet were employed to get the ball into the right goal. Meanwhile, even more feet were being applied to ankles within the useless girls’ team as low level feuds were played out under the guise of a match. In a vicious sort of way it was quite fun really. 

The teacher gave up trying to teach me tennis the day a cry came from the field where the boys were playing cricket: ‘Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No! It’s Paula’s tennis ball.’ I thought my serves were innovative but never mind. In the sixth form I went on a course to learn squash and afterwards challenged my boyfriend – a very competent sportsman – to a match. Afterwards, this generally mild-mannered young man said if anyone tried to make him play squash with me again, he’d have to kill them and me and possibly himself. This seemed harsh. My husband (not the same man and not as mild mannered) might feel similarly about teaching me dinghy sailing or ice-skating except he’s too busy laughing. I have fortunately learnt to put my nose in the air, get a cup of tea, stalk off and read or write something which is the adult equivalent of what I did in the days when I was picked last in teams – make daisy-chains and daydream.

You see, in school, the main sport in the summer was rounders. This – for anyone who doesn’t know – is related to baseball and consists of one team taking it in turns to whack a ball and try to get round four bases without being caught out, while the other team fields and tries to catch the ball in order to get them out. I hated batting because I was genuinely rubbish at it, bullying or no bullying, but I quite liked fielding if I could be as far away as possible from any likelihood of having to try and catch a ball.

Our country school had a massive daisy-covered field. Near one edge was a sort of copse. In break-times, the copse was crucial to me and the one person who’d play with me. It formed part of the world in which we acted out a very complicated story in which we’d gone through some sort of portal made of a translucent but tangible wall (a bit like clear jelly) to another world. We spent a great deal of time acting out the sheer terror of going through this invisible wall in which were trapped various enormous insects and managing the challenges on the other side as we tried to get back. It really doesn’t bear thinking about what we must have looked like and maybe it’s no wonder we were both considered odd. 

During a game of rounders, it was too risky to sneak off into the copse as the teacher wasn’t that daft. It was however possible to lay down in the grass as far away from any action as possible and make daisy-chains. Which is pretty much what I did, while imagining myself in the middle of one of my own stories having an adventure. On the very rare occasion a ball did come my way and an exasperated roar of ‘Paula!’ was bellowed by my team, it was really annoying. The one time I managed to scramble to my feet and catch the ball I was as surprised as anyone.

My own children turned out to be both creative and good at sports. My daughter did well and was quite focussed, particularly on gymnastics. But watching my son, who had a lot of potential, struggle with the team element of sport was baffling. No-one was picking on him (or at least not until his team lost because he wasn’t concentrating), he was capable and confident, he was being given lots of encouragement. So I asked him whether, apart from his struggles with concentration there was another problem. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I want there to be a story and no-one else does.’ He wasn’t really interested in playing football or swimming or learning judo for itself or for the sake of winning. He wanted it to be part of a story – a quest, a challenge, an adventure and none of the other children or the trainers understood. 

But I did. Because looking back, bullying aside, that’s exactly how I felt about sport and fundamentally still do. I want there to be a story, otherwise I’d rather be reading or writing one.

I like to think that if I ever was silly enough to agree to be on an office team playing rounders in St James’s Park, you’d be able to find me as a fielder, a long way from the action, making daisy-chains. I can still do it you know. 

As for acting out finding myself in another world, I lost touch with that friend for a long time until a few years ago. But as we caught up with each other over a series of emails, one of her first questions was ‘do you remember the jelly wall with the fly in it?’ Perhaps this is because, though we’re both now grown up and she’s not odd at all and maybe neither am I, we’re both writers and still looking for the story in every situation and wondering how best to describe what might happen if we step through a jelly wall or a black hole into another world. 

It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Beats whacking a ball in my view anyway.

daisies

Words and photographs (c) Copyright 2019 Paula Harmon. Not to be reproduced without author’s express permission.

A Letter to My Bully

Messaging

Once I put a message in a bottle and dropped it in the river.

Watching it bounce along until it disappeared, I suddenly felt guilty.

Most of the guilt was about littering but some of it was about deception.

It wasn’t the first time I’d done this sort of thing. A year or so earlier, I’d drawn a detailed map of the woods alongside our village. Only it wasn’t the usual sort of map.

This is what our woods were like. For several yards, bracken grew. In spring it sprouted bright fronds, curled like babies’ hands, unfurling as they grew. In summer, the green of the waving leaves grew dusty and tall enough to hide in. In autumn, they were golden and dry.

Interspersed with deciduous trees which were good for climbing, the heathland led to huge slabs of rock from which you could look across the valley to the mountains beyond the main road and bigger river.

Below the rocks was a path. In one direction the path led back towards the village, past two caves. One was nothing more than a hollow, a shelter from rain; the other was deeper and at its back a metal grating stopped you from falling into its depths. Ignoring the caves and continuing along the path, you would pass through the churchyard of the Welsh chapel. Gravestones in curlicued Welsh, grey and upright, stared down as you emerged onto the lower part of our street, next to the chapel’s only concession to the English language – a black sign with the words ‘Whosever believeth’ in gold.

Alternatively, if you climbed down from the stones and went in the opposite direction along the path, you would end up in the old quarry, a massive hollow of mysterious green and overhanging trees.

Above all of this, larches loomed and other trees gathered in conference. There was a copse with a circle of clear ground in the middle. The grass here was different: dark and shiny, lustrous, rich. In spring, bluebells grew. There were three slab rocks protruding from the ground, fallen together forming what looked like a tomb. It was just big enough for a nine year old to huddle inside.

This copse and the river were my places. I stood on the bridge of the river and told my problems to the lights under the trees. I sat in the copse and talked to invisible listeners. I drew a map which showed all the portals into the other world which I knew was there but couldn’t reach. The main portal was the stone ‘tomb’.

This sounds mad written down, but it wasn’t. I was a lonely child and at the time. Mercilessly bullied at school, I distrusted most of my peers. I read numerous books about other worlds running alongside ours and somehow, I discovered special places where the boundary was thin and I could be heard. It was comforting to have someone listen who wouldn’t sneer when I cried. l just wanted to find out how to cross over.

One day, I put the map inside a sweet tin with a coin and a couple of other contemporary things and buried it in the ‘tomb’. It was the thing to do at the time. A few months later, I dug it up again. I possibly felt guilty about littering, probably wanted the coin and definitely didn’t want the map to fall into the wrong hands.

But at least the map told the truth.

Dropping a bottle into the river wasn’t quite the same. I had been watching dramatisations of ‘The Secret Garden’ and ‘The Little Princess’. Here were tales of misunderstood girls for whom life somehow came out all right without the need for any magical intervention from outside. Magic would be more fun, but it eluded me.

While writing a heavily plagiarised version of the same sort of tale for my Guides Writer’s Badge, I carefully drafted a message on some paper, which I’d tried to make look older with the use of cold tea. I made my handwriting as Victorian looking (to me) as I could, rolled the paper up and put it inside a glass bottle with a screw top.

It could have said ‘How far did this go? Please ring Paula on 45223’.

But it didn’t.

It said: ‘Help! I am imprisoned by my wicked aunt in the tower of her mansion. Please rescue me! Victoria.’

As I watched the bottle disappear, I started to worry. Our river ran down from the mountains and at our village, joined a much larger river to head down to the sea. Anything thrown into it could theoretically have come from quite a large area of South Wales.

I wasn’t naturally a liar. What if the bottle was found? Would anyone believe it had been cast into the waters by some long dead Victorian, who had never been rescued?

Then I thought a bit harder. Would felt tip pen on modern paper and a twentieth century fizzy drink bottle fool anyone into thinking the message was Victorian? What if they thought it was recent and genuine and launched a rescue for someone who didn’t exist?

In all likelihood, the bottle was smashed long before it got to the main river. Quite apart from all the stones it had to dodge on the way, our little river joined the bigger one after dropping down a waterfall onto a pile of rock. What I should have been worrying about was all the broken glass in the water as the words of my carefully penned bit of fiction dissolved into nothing.

Even now, I still feel vaguely guilty. I’m not sure why. Yet part of me still hopes after all this time, that the bottle will be found, intact, with the message still inside and triggering a delicious mystery.

And as for the map… I am still hopeful it is somewhere in the clutter of our attic. One day, I will find that portal, one day…

message

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

Click here for links to my book “Kindling” which included two stories about the woods and river near where I grew up