An Invitation

Once upon a time there was a kind woman who lived in a brick house in a row of brick houses on the edges of a city.

Her garden was the prettiest in the row of gardens and the most welcoming. Every night, foxes came and knocked on the patio door for food. Sometimes they brought cubs. In summer they frolicked in the sun. In winter, the one with the limp tried to sneak inside. She fed them and talked to them, getting to know their characters and foibles.

The house was always warm and full of real treasures: books and photographs, souvenirs and memories. She was not old, but ailments meant the woman could no longer go out a great deal. When she had to, her town now seemed noisy and frustrating with detours and indifferent strangers misdirecting. But from her home, she could talk to the world on her computer and the world talked back. She was funny and thoughtful, offering wise or cheering words. It was impossible to feel sad when friends received her messages. She much loved, but sometimes the electronic messages were not enough. She yearned for someone to raise a glass with and have a good chin-wag. She longed for worlds without frustration and indifference.

One Christmas she sent out invitations for Christmas dinner, but no-one answered. She had checked the doormat, her phone, her computer every five minutes but no-one confirmed whether or not they’d be coming. 

After a while, on the ‘watched pot never boils’ principle, she went round the house, trying to look at it objectively. The decorations were bright and pretty, her home welcoming. The fridge and cupboards were bursting with food.

She decided enough was enough. She called a taxi.

In her best coat and hat, the woman went to the community centre and looked at the bookclub ladies. They all seemed to be dressed the same and were talking over the top of each other. When she listened, they didn’t seem to be discussing a book but gossiping. The woman was not a gossip. She shook her head. 

Then she looked at the toddler group. This was a possibility – some of the mothers looked rather lost and the children were sweet – but then the woman realised all her ornaments were choking hazards and decided ‘maybe next year’ when she’d had a chance to change the decor. 

The next room held a club for pensioners. The woman was only in her middle years and nowhere near a pensioner. She was surprised to find that they were making more noise and having more fun than either the bookclub or toddlers. But then she noticed an old man sitting alone, hands on his walking stick, watching the others but not joining in. Their eyes met. His were bright and twinkling. There was still a little ginger in his neat beard. 

After a moment’s hesitation, the woman went over to speak with him. 

On Christmas Day, a taxi brought the old man round for dinner. The woman had a feast for eight in the oven but still had no idea whether anyone else would come. She poured two glasses of wine and expected the old man to settle down in an armchair but instead, leaning on his stick, he made his way through to the back of the house and into the garden. 

From his pocket the old man withdrew a small package wrapped in silver paper and handed it over.

‘Go on, open it,’ he said.

Inside was a key made of glass. The woman held it up in the weak sunlight and it seemed to spark with fire. It was cleverly made to look like crystal or even opal. She stared at the old man in surprise.

‘It’s exactly what you want,’ said the man.

‘It’s very pretty,’ said the woman, wondering where she’d put it and how much dust it would gather. 

‘Really,’ persisted the old man, ‘it’s what you want. Care to join me in another world?’

She laughed, but looking at him again, she saw that his twinkling eyes were serious and his mouth held a secret smile. ‘What does it open?’ she asked to humour him.

‘Close your eyes and turn it,’ said the old man. 

The woman felt silly, standing there in the cold garden with her eyes closed, turning a glass key in the air. For a brief second she wondered if it was all a ploy and whether she’d been a fool and would discover her house burgled when she woke from being clubbed over the head with a walking stick, but then she felt warmth on her face and the sounds of the city replaced by birdsong. 

When she opened her eyes, she found herself in a meadow near a tree bursting with fruit. The man standing before her was not old, but in his prime, red-headed, sparkly eyed, holding the bridle of a golden unicorn. She herself was young too, her limbs supple and she was wearing a riding outfit in rainbow silks. Something soft nuzzled her face and when she turned, another unicorn, silver, stood at her side. 

‘But…’ started the woman.

‘Don’t worry,’ said the foxy man. ‘We’ll return when dinner is cooked and just before your guests arrive. The key will be yours for whenever you need it and who knows where it will take you next. But for here and now – let’s ride. Shall we walk them down to the river?’

‘Nothing so slow!’ said the woman. ‘Let’s gallop! And I have a feeling these creatures can do more than that. Let’s fly! And if we’re late and the guests really do come – they can serve up the meal themselves!’

 

RSVP

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.

In the Diner

Outside rain pours onto a city dissolved into night.

Inside, the diner is garish with comforting colours; I smell coffee, fried food and damp clothes. I gather my things.

At this despairing hour, there is music, but little chatter. I should go, taking and leaving loneliness.

I should go, returning to my world; rejecting yours.

You catch my hand.

I should go. I should not look into your eyes. But I do. Through my tears, I see your tears. I am lost. Lost in love for you. Lost mapless at a crossroads.

Your hand holds mine.

I do not leave.

diner

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

From a prompt “Lost” on Thin Spiral Notebook – check out the other reactions

Quiet Company

I saw the household ghost yesterday evening.

During office hours, I work alone in the spare room, shuffling paper, tapping on a laptop, making calls.

Outside, in the winter garden, the courting pigeons shift and flutter on the fence, prospective lovers trying their chances and being dodged. A crow flies down. He flexes his wings in dismissal and the pigeons scatter. He raises his head and looks around in disdain, waiting till all eyes are on him. Then he lowers his beak, and with slow deliberation, sharpens it on the edge of the fence. Even the slinking cat bides her time, hiding in next door’s cabbages. I may pause with a cup of tea to watch, then go back to work.

It has never felt lonely here. The ghost, a musical companionable presence, potters around. He plays the electric piano in the front room, wearing spectral headphones. All I can hear is the rhythm of thumping keys, which stop as I enter. He hums tunes from inside machines and knocks on radiators.

Sometimes there’s a tap on the front door. I have to stop what I’m doing to go downstairs. Who’s there? No-one. I imagine the ghost sniggering when he catches me out like that; his ghosty shoulders heaving noiselessly.

At night when the family is home, if I go to bed early, I can hear the ghost. He chats or sings with some other unbody. The voices are just too indistinct to understand and I know it’s not the TV or radio downstairs.

Other times, he thumps about in the attic, rummaging through boxes.

‘Go to sleep,’ I tell him.

My husband mutters ‘what?’ then rolls over to snore.

No-one else ever hears the ghost. Until yesterday I had never seen him.

Recently, I’ve been so busy, I haven’t stopped to chuckle or admonish him. I’ve been meeting deadlines, correcting drafts. Then I had to work away. In my hotel there was nothing to hear but city noises: buses, trains, strangers. Finally home, I went to bed too tired even to read, let alone feel charmed by voices from another world. Too tired to say ‘hello’.

Then yesterday evening, I saw him. Through a gap in the hall curtains, night pressed against the glass. Then there was a flash of movement.

‘That’s the ghost’, I thought, ‘what’s he doing outside?’

Today, I am alone in the house again. At first it was silent. Then the letter-box rattled. Now it’s silent again.

Was the rattling from inside or outside?

Where is he? It is very quiet.

I am lonely.

I get up and start down the stairs. Will I find a real person outside? Has my ghost left?

There is no-one there. My shoulders relaxing, I bound up the stairs.

‘Naughty ghost!’ I admonish.

Suddenly syncopated rhythm rattles the pipes, the dishwasher croons and someone is playing hopscotch in the attic.

Shaking my head, I turn to my work again and smile, no longer alone.

Forgiven.

piano-5

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

Letter to My Bully

I found the old class photograph and I looked for you.

I can remember your words, most of them.

The words that stung, that ripped into me, then undermined me even when they made no sense: weird, strange, not normal, ugly, stupid, clumsy, useless, soft, cry-baby, weak: the jibes about my body, my face, my hair, my skin, my family, my past, my future.

I remember the separation, the isolation, the other-ness.

But guess what? Your face itself is blank.

Do I wish I learnt earlier to hide the pain? Maybe.

Perhaps I wish I had stopped looking at myself sooner and looked at everyone else instead to see that their vulnerabilities, their weaknesses, their weirdnesses, stupidities and so on were no less than mine. It was simply that theirs were not pointed out.

I certainly wish that it had not taken me so long to realise that you were the one with the problem, not me.

Someone who could uses fear to make companions is just as friendless as someone who sits alone. Maybe more so.

And if I was vulnerable and sensitive, in fact, if I am still vulnerable or sensitive then I am glad.

I have learnt that these are good things to be.

At least I can recognise pain and doubt and fear and try to comfort rather than exploit. I want to be kind and loyal. I bitterly regret every unkindness or disloyalty I have ever been guilty of.

And I do not fear failure. I know I can start again and again and again.

You thought that failure makes you weak. But you were wrong. It is not failure which makes you weak. Failure makes you strong. Failure makes you look at yourself and analyse what went wrong and move forward.

Being cruel makes you weak. Being a bully makes you smug on victory, building yourself up and up … but there is nothing but destruction waiting when you fall.

So I can look at the school photograph and find myself. I remember how alone I felt in that class of young faces. I can name most of those other children, including the ones who told me afterwards how afraid they were of you and the ones who tried to be kind even when you picked on them for trying to befriend me. But I can’t find you. If you’re who I think you are then you looked like everyone else. You don’t look so scary.

I am not ashamed to have been that shy, lonely little girl who didn’t know how to hide her feelings. I am proud that I have grown to want to be kind.

Are you proud to be the one who made me cry?

b&w

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

Flight

Of course he could fly, he knew it.

In pain, though, in waiting silence, he was not so sure. His arms, once strong, could now barely lift themselves from the covers.

They were holding him down. They waited till the pain was worst and pinned his arms to the covers and whispered at him: “it’s impossible… impossible to fly. You can’t….you can’t.” Then They went; abrupt and silent save for the whisper in his head: “you cannot stop us coming back”. They became more real than daylight or love or hunger or the desire for flight.

In the daytime, his mother put him to sit on the balcony and look out. That was where Theresa had first noticed him. She had seen him staring up into the freedom of the sky and then onto the shackles of the ground. When he looked down, she did not flinch, she waved. Two days later, she blagged her way in to the flat, talking and moving too fast for his mother to have time to stop her.

Now she came round every day.

“Why don’t she ever take you out?” she said, when his mother was out of earshot.

“She says she can’t.”

“Can’t be bothered more like. What a lousy view. It’s better from mine.”

“It’s not so bad.”

Truth to tell, he could remember no other view. He knew it was better than his own face, also forgotten. His mother had removed every mirror. Now his world was what he could see of the flats opposite. He knew three whole floors – every window, every balcony, the setting of every aerial on the roof, the scrap of scraggy curtain flapping, the feeble plants and saggy washing. It was hard to see much sky.

He asked, forgetting, “how many floors is there?”

Theresa considered and plumped vaguely for fifty. It conveyed, at least, the wearying height of the place. “There’s nothing but rats on the ground floor,” she added, “scares me silly.”

Even his mother agreed with that. It was a disgrace, she said.

He sat and looked at his view every day and thought about other people. There was a woman who used to come out onto the balcony and cry and her husband used to drag her back in. Once, when he was watching, the woman tried to jump. She was trying to fly. She shouted it, stretching out her free strong arms, yet looking more pinioned than her invisible, immobile observer. She could not fly. She could only fall. Someone dragged her back, kicking and shrieking. He hadn’t seen her for a long time.

He sat so still. Some days he imagined miracles about himself. Other days he couldn’t stand the dreary greyness anymore. That was when he leant back in his chair and stared into his personal scrap of sky.

The sky could swallow you up. As clean as a jewel, it curved and circled, drawing him towards itself. The very first time he felt it, his arms lifted, achingly, and for a few moments he could almost feel himself soaring and rising up over the aerials and the dirt into the heart of sapphire freedom.

All he had to do was learn the secret and he would be free. His mother said it was nonsense. But then, she was free but had forgotten the secret. He was no longer free and had to remember it.

Once his mother wouldn’t let Theresa see him.

“It’s a disgrace, you two wittering on,” she grumbled, shoving him early to bed, “talking nonsense the whole time, as if someone could fall in love with you, the way you are. You might as well face it, you won’t escape and sure as anything not by wishful thinking.”

She left him and went to bed. He could hear her snoring as he lay with nothing but covers to embrace him. Then They came for him. All around the bed together, They held him down. He couldn’t hear Them but he knew They were laughing and waiting. Closer They came. Closer than ever. He cried out but his mother, talking in her sleep, called “stop your whimpering… shut up… shut up!”

When morning came, he was soaked. His mother was silent with thin lips. It was the worst thing.

But she let Theresa in and she let Theresa wheel him out and take him up to her flat two floors above. It was the first time he had gone out since…. was it really two years? The bannisters above the sucking blackness of the stairwell were sticky and the lift was dank and malodorous but he touched them in an ecstasy of novelty.

Theresa’s flat was different. Flowers rejected by florists filled jars and bottles. Clashing throws and rugs and charity shop finds made the room buzz with colour. There was a picture on the wall. It was of a death but seemed to be filled with vigour and defiance. A man had his arms outstretched to fly but someone had pinned him down. His arms were nailed down, his legs were twisted and nailed down, his head had fallen forward, nailed with thorns. He was nailed down but an energy came from him.

“He understands,” said Theresa, “he understands being trapped and stuck. Right in the middle of everything though, he was free, he never stopped being himself.” She paused, “I think he knew that it is not about flying away but about flying anyway.”

They went out onto Theresa’s balcony. The evening was noisy. Around and below was music, argument, distant games, the blaring of sirens, the constant heavy flood of traffic. Was he drab, in his dull dressing gown, quiet and broken? Theresa’s hand crept into his and her head lay on his shoulder, as if he was her rescuer. Night became lovely. It was dark, but the sounds had dimmed and above the dull orange, he knew the sky was the black of translucent coal and hot with diamonds. Peace called him silently to fly.

Something was different now. He had been wrong all along. His mother did not know about flying because she was free but didn’t realise she was free. He knew about flying because he was tied down. He could not escape, but even if the sucking darknesses took his useless body to their claws and teeth and laughter, if they did, he could still go into the soaring singing freedom of his mind.

Theresa arms came round him and she looked into his eyes. He wondered what she saw, remembering only vaguely his perfect face from before and knowing it ruined. Theresa seeing him as he truly was, kissed his lips, wiped his hair from his eyes and settled his tired arms around herself. Flying tandem.

alleyway

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

Loneliness

Loneliness isn’t only
the friendless room,
the fading tombstone name,
an empty bed, or no-one to sit with.

Loneliness can be trying too hard,
trying to be loveable,
trying to fit in,
trying to show your gifts
when you’ve forgotten what they are.

Loneliness can be feeling you’re out of step,
a panic before starting to speak,
missing the sharing of silence and pain,
hearing yourself boring and silly.

Loneliness can be feeling
cut off from someone else’s life
or shut out of their heart
or not being able to share
the truth in your own.

Loneliness can be slowly
failing to believe in yourself,
losing confidence,
becoming touchy.

Loneliness can be
wanting to move on,
because you’re too tired
to keep trying so hard.

lonely

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

Third Choice

To this day, I can’t remember why, after clearing, I ended up in the university which interviewed me over the phone rather than the one which interviewed me in person.

Perhaps it was a wrong number that started it; the wrong number of marks in my exams. Now Sheffield University didn’t want me after all.

Colchester had a course I really fancied; but it was so far to the east as to be almost in Belgium. I couldn’t imagine living somewhere so flat that you could see your enemies coming for miles and worry, having lived most my life in the hilly west, where you can hide from your enemies and then ambush them. So I spoke on the phone to the cheerful lady at Chichester and a couple of months later, headed south; east, but south-east, and still technically west, if only in Sussex terms. It was not flat either, although history suggests the downs and hollows weren’t much use for hiding, over-run as the area has been by Romans, then Saxons, then Normans, then Londoners.

Two weeks in, I wrote letters to my grandmothers, forgetting the first time, caught up in the newness and excitement of living away from home, and also the lonely longing for a loving familiarity to connect with, yes, forgetting the first time, that the one who was always proud of me had died two years earlier and the sudden recollection made me cry. I wrote hopefully to my beloved and cheerily to my parents and probably to my younger sister, the usurper of parental attention.

Beyond the nestling college were fields and beyond that the city. A Cathedral city, bijou and full of tea-shops. If I had got into Sheffield, I’d have been in a proper metropolis with lowering buildings, sprawling development and the constant movement of faceless strangers. Perhaps I’d have felt lost. Perhaps my little college in its little circular city, still bound by Roman walls in places, its central roads still marking a cross by the Cathedral, an easy stride from halls to the railway station, was just perfect for me. A nest for a country mouse.

I was entitled to lunch and dinner in the refectory where meals were served at set times, with grace given by the Dean at the start. The food was, in the main, pretty good, I recall with vegetarian options I’d never tried: mushroom stroganoff, ragu pomodoro and bean casserole. But I eschewed them in the main, growing thin on soup and biscuits instead, rather than face the faces I feared would turn and stare at me.

I was very lonely that first year, not finding my life-long friends till the following September; so I sat in my room a lot, listening to the radio, writing stories and poems which now make no sense. I can still see the room where I wrote them in silence, isolated and shy, first looking out of the window at Autumn leaves and then Spring snowdrops and finally hail brought by June heat to smash the roof of the greenhouse on the other side of the path.

I can see the room but not myself, not really. I read over those old stories, full of hyperbole meant to be enigmatic and actually obscure, and wonder about the serious girl who wrote them and what she really thought she was trying to say. As for the poems, well, the torture of first love, the agonies of teaching your parents to let go – they are all there, but generally, there ought to be a law against people in their late teens and early twenties writing poetry, unless of course they’re Keats.

On Monday evenings, I went to Compline at the college chapel. I wasn’t familiar with the service, coming from a non-conformist background, but the soft, late night liturgy was like cocoa for the spirit, calming and reassuring. There was nothing for me to do but absorb the comforting words: “The Lord Almighty grant us a quiet night and a perfect end…From all ill dreams defend our eyes, from nightly fears and fantasies. Tread underfoot our ghostly foe, that no pollution we may know.” Solaced and warm with the comfort of faith, I walked back to my room and slept without the nightmares which otherwise plagued me.

In lectures, I learnt about literature. The main thing I learnt was that I didn’t like studying it, I just wanted to write it. My tutor tried to encourage us to produce flash fiction. The Odyssey in fifty words? Ridiculous. Having been asked the previous term to write epic poetry, the leap from verbosity to brevity was impossible to execute.

What else did I learn? Friendship, how to cook using two gas rings only, hand washing, photography, late night debating, how to start to break down my own protective walls and venture out.

What didn’t I learn? I didn’t learn teamwork then, or compromise or how to recognise the grey fuzzy edges of my opinions, thinking myself a failure if I didn’t stick rigidly to my views, rather than realise that maybe life is just not that black and white. I certainly didn’t learn common sense, leaving with a degree and no idea what to do next.

The subsequent drift is a whole other story.

Sometimes I wonder what I’d be doing now if, in the sixth form, I’d concentrated on my A levels instead of on my heart, first full, then broken. Maybe, if I’d got into Sheffield, I’d have ended up in a different career, maybe become famous, maybe rich or influential. Or maybe not. The course I’d originally chosen made sense at the time, but thinking about it now, it’s hard to dredge out from my memory what I thought I was actually going to do with that Ancient Norse and Anglo Saxon.

So here is where I am.  After all, as they say, the choices I made, in the end made me and the path I didn’t mean to take, took me to the right place anyway.

helmet

(This was written after a prompt to write something including 13 words and one phrase.  I meant to write a story but this came out instead.  I may still write the story, so I’m not going to say what the 13 word and one phrase were!)

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