Fresh Fruit and Little Monkeys

When I was nine, I worked for perhaps three weekends in a zoo. 

It was a tiny South Welsh concern called Penscynor Bird Gardens (later Wildlife Park) and originally housed birds, monkeys, an aquarium and llamas. When I was fourteen or so, our school cross-country route ran through the llamas’ field and they used to chase us. When I say ‘us’ I mean the obedient/boring (take your pick) three girls who used to run the route properly rather than hide in the woods gossiping and/or smoking until the games lesson was over.

Anyway, back to the job when I was nine. I don’t know how my father found out about it but he said I could earn 50p every Saturday. This sounded like a great plan as my usual weekly pocket money was 15p if I was lucky, and I loved animals.

Or at least, I loved the idea of them. My total zoological experience (apart from owning a cat) was the many hours I spent observing mini-beasts, reading books about realistic (rather than anthropomorphised) animals and watching wildlife programmes like The World About Us and Jacques Cousteau. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said a writer-naturalist, like Gerald Durrell or Joyce Stranger. The fact that I was terrified of dogs, didn’t like strong odours or being excessively dirty, and generally left the unpleasant parts of animal care to my mother didn’t seem to factor in my thought processes.

So I took the job.

My role chiefly consisted of chopping up over-ripe fruit for small noisy, fast-moving and seemingly incontinent creatures from marmosets to toucans before helping clean out their cages. 

It was an extremely hot summer. The air in the cages was sickly with the stench of blackening, squashy bananas, oozing melons and the acrid odour of droppings. High-pitched chattering monkeys and birds snatched at food through a haze of fruit flies as fast as I could pile it in their bowls. I remember the gold of the summer light through the leaves above the cages’ roofs, the monkeys’ oh-so-innocent eyes distracting me from what their tiny pickpocket hands were doing, flashes of iridescent fur or feathers, the whisk of wings or tails overhead. I think I’d have liked it if it hadn’t been for the smell. Maybe.

The second weekend, they were photographing for the new brochure and asked me to stare into the fish-tanks like a tourist. Being self-conscious or vain (take your pick), I was torn between being thrilled, and wishing I were wearing something more glamorous than an old tee-shirt, shorts and wellies, but I duly did as asked. When the brochure came out, there I was, looking very solemn and with a slight overbite I hadn’t known I had which I’ve worried about ever since. 

My parents kept the brochure for years. Of course, it’s since fallen foul of two house moves and is nowhere to be found. Nor have I so far found anything online except for images of the cover.

I can’t remember how long I lasted, but it wasn’t long. The experience dampened my urge to be a naturalist and by the time, three years later, a huge stag beetle climbed down inside the back of my blouse causing me to scream so loudly that my father nearly crashed the car we were in, I went off zoology altogether. This was just as well given my abysmal performance in science.

I still can’t bear over-ripe fruit but I wasn’t put off cats or writing and perhaps if there’s a lesson I should have learnt then but didn’t till later, it’s to know where your strengths are, concentrate on them and not feel bad about it. 

The Bird Gardens remained part of my life till I went to university because on most days you could hear the peacocks shrieking across the valley. 

A tiny, tiny bit of me wishes I’d stuck it out and been part of that mad enterprise in that most unlikely of places but I didn’t and never got to return as an adult because the Bird Gardens have long since closed.

But by one of those small-world flukes, I recently discovered I’ve ended up living 134 miles away in the same town as someone who attended the same secondary as me, albeit ten years later.

‘Do you remember the Bird Gardens?’ she asked.

‘Oh yes.’

‘Did you hear about the chimpanzees escaping and getting into the school?’ 

‘No!’ I exclaimed. ‘Why didn’t my parents tell me?’

But my mother hadn’t known and when I emailed an old schoolfriend, she hadn’t heard either.

‘Fancy missing that,’ she said, sending links to photographs of the place as it is now, an abandoned ghost-zoo. ‘Why didn’t it happen when we were there? The chimps would have been less trouble than some of the kids, not to mention brighter.’ 

She had a point. It would have been even more fun than the day our French lesson was enlivened by watching the windows of the chemistry lab being flung open to let twenty kids dangle out gasping for air while dark, presumably noxious fumes coiled round them and up into the aether.  

A couple of months ago, as lockdown was biting, my former schoolfriend sent a link to a newspaper clipping about a wallaby seen one night bouncing through the village where our school was. The photographs are blurry, unreal and mysterious as what appears to be a wallaby is hotly pursued by what’s stated to be a police officer.

In quiet understatement a witness worried ‘it’s a bit chilly to be out as a marsupial in Wales’ and RSPCA Cymru said ‘it’s certainly unusual footage’.

Was it really an escaped pet? Was the pursuer, in fact, really a policeman?

Or was it really, a ghost of a memory trying to get back to the Bird Gardens.

I like to think so. 

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Words copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon and photograph ID 58034269 © Makar | Dreamstime.com. All rights belong to the authors and material may not be copied without the authors’ express permission.

Memories

I wrote about a childhood holiday in Wales and showed my family.

‘You’ve forgotten that the car broke down three times,’ said Mum. ‘Your dad reconnected the exhaust with bandages and glue.’

‘I thought that was in Scotland.’

‘Nope. And you’ve forgotten how you were always wandering off in a daydream and we could never find you.’

‘There was a dragon to find, but no-one helped. At least I wasn’t naughty like Julia.’

My sister objected, ‘I was as good as gold.’

‘Yeah right,’ I retorted.

‘Memories are mostly made up,’ said Mum, ‘but they’re more fun that way.’

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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

From a prompt on Thin Spiral Notebook – see what other people have written

The Almost Heirloom

‘I had a lovely necklace once,’ said my grandmother. ‘It could have been yours.’

‘Was it stolen?’

‘No. In 1923, when I was fifteen, I sold it.’

‘Why?’

‘I could sit on my hair, but the fashion was for Eton bobs. When Father forbade it, I sneaked out, sold the necklace and went to my brother’s barber.’

I couldn’t imagine my grandmother, the perfect housewife, as a teenage rebel.

‘Was your father angry?’

‘Even angrier,’ she said, ‘when I started wearing skirts above the knee and pale stockings!’

She laughed, ‘keep annoying your parents, darling. It’s what youth is for.’

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Words and photograph copyright Paula Harmon 2017. Not be reproduced without the author’s express permission.

From a prompt in Thin Spiral Notebook

 

Travelling Companions and other Small Pests

Dad always said that while a few months old, I chewed my way through a carry-cot when we travelled from Hendon to Scotland with an aunt.

This was of course, long before car safety-seats for children.

He said they placed me, safe in my carry-cot, next to the aunt. His implication was that when they arrived in Troon, I was rolling about on the back seat having eaten my way through a fair amount of synthetics, a metal frame and some bedding. He suggested that if we’ve travelled any further, I might have eaten the aunt as well.

I suspect he was exaggerating and I just chewed on a handle.

But it’s true to say that I wasn’t keen on constraint.

One of my earliest memories is about running out of the house to tell a neighbouring child I had a baby sister. Another time, I gave our dog the slip and sneaked away to look at some sheep on a hill, while Mum was nappy changing or something.

Shortly after that I went off my sister. The Young Wives came round and said she was gorgeous. As for me, I was fobbed off with a colouring book and told I looked just like my Dad. As he was rather plump, going bald and male, this was very upsetting.

And then there was the pram incident.

I should probably never ever tell a psychologist.

It was Mum’s fault really. I used to sit in a sort of chair on top of the pram. When we got to town, she did what all mothers of the time did and parked us up on the pavement while she went inside the shop. On this occasion, it was a chemist. In the window were three enormous glass bottles filled with bright coloured liquid. Deep at heart I always hoped that one day Mum would buy the blue one. She never did.

Mum was going to the chemist for rose-hip syrup and I thought maybe she’d get me one of those yummy hard fruit lollipops. But then I worried, what if she forgot? I needed to remind her. There wasn’t much time. I squirmed and wriggled and slid forwards in my seat so that I could drop to the pavement then run into the shop.

That was the plan.

It failed.

Mum came out and found me on the pavement with the pram tipped up. For a moment, she looked frantically round for the baby. Where had she gone? Had she been catapulted out? An aggrieved wail made her look under the blankets. My sister had slid down inside the covers and was making her views felt.

This may explain a lot about my sister and me. The pram incident is buried in her subconscious and she spent most of our childhood and adolescence trying to get revenge.

I sometimes worry that she may still be planning it. And we’re going on a road-trip in the Autumn.

Oh dear.

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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

Mind The Gap

Here I am, swaying on the inbound train.
The seat warm from someone else, tea in styrofoam, personal space invaders and noisy conversations.
Rushing from meeting to meeting.
I should be preparing but instead, I’m daydreaming, looking out
At woodlands and slumbering trees, muddy fields and blasted oaks, sheep and horses clumping in the gorsey heath.
And catching glimpses of strangers’ lives – peering into homes and gardens,
And whizzing past passengers waiting at stations, caught in the space between leaving and arriving.
I should be reading the agenda but I’m thinking back to journeys gone.
Could I have imagined myself thus all those years ahead?
I think I thought, deep down, that life stopped with marriage and babies.
What would I have thought at twenty-one?
All those train journeys we took
From Chichester to Southampton to Salisbury to Neath to Kingston to Hove.
What if I’d looked at a woman, older, a proper grown up, staring out of the window day dreaming and known it was me?
What happened to all those years?
The gaps grew between hopes and reality, between plans and fate.
The same face is reflected in the glass,
Just older, plumper, the hair coloured but not for fun,
The smart office clothes I longed for then and loathe now.
The yearning to be at home creating and the job which pays the bills.
But across the gap the linked hands reach out from those barely remembered days.
The journeys I took with Deb and Mo, laughing on the train, imagining our futures.
How could we have envisaged me in the far off middle years, sitting on a train
Messenging them in their small corners far away –
The gap traversed by magic.

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

Over the Bridge

It’s a slow amble down the slope.

The railings on either side are a little wonky. One set appears to be held up by brambles and on the edge bordering the big green field with the sad horse tethered in his small brown circle, the railings slope idly as if no-one ever told them to stand up straight. They were painted black once, but now they’re dull rust colour. You can taste the iron just by looking at them. Right at the end, just before the bridge the bars have been bent apart so that someone small can squeeze through.

The start of the bridge is overhung with trees.  Trees overhang the river on both sides. The railings of the bridge are still black, mostly, and the paint is smooth and lumpy under my hands as I look over.

Upstream, the river curves away but the depths still sparkle under the trees and little droplets of light and dust shine and spin and dart – appearing and disappearing. The water is darkest as it disappears around the bend but the spots of sunshine on the waves and in the air make it friendly and welcoming. I open my mouth to speak to the flashes of brightness but find I am dumb.

Turning, I look over the other side of the bridge. You can see further downstream and it is not so overhung. For a few metres, the water runs swiftly, weed straggling with the flow. Deceptively it plays over hidden deeps and stony shallows.  It will speed up and deepen as it bends away, as it nears the waterfall at the other end, before it pours out into the bigger river and on to the sea.

The black bars of the bridge are hot under my hands, even under the trees and when I step on the bottom bar with my feet between the balusters so that I can lean over, the metal is hot on my toes as well.

Just out from under the bridge is a small sandbank, dry enough to stand on. A little girl is there alone, crouched down, intently staring at something. She is around nine and her feet in white sandals are planted firmly on the edge of the lapping water. Her cotton dress is short and floral and her brown hair is clipped back from a face which is turned from me. She is carefully picking out stones and examining them. A little pile has built up and I can see that some are smooth and pretty and some are like black glass, jagged and sparkly. After a while, she stops picking out stones and just hunches, elbows on her knees, chin on her hands, staring into the water. It is shallow enough here for her to make out all the little lives going about their business in the lee of the main flow. Sometimes, she looks upstream and downstream and then returns to her observations or her foraging.

If she has any doubts and fears, it seems they are forgotten. Now she appears totally content and safe and full of hope and peacefully alone.

In a while, she will go home, taking some of her finds; she will say goodbye to the river and the sparkling lights who listen to her secrets and her worries; she will take one last look at the nymph, busily marching round its underwater kingdom and hope that she will be there when it emerges and transforms.

I look at her and wish I could remember the words the river understands, wish I knew how to find the pretty stones, still feel sad that the next time she comes the nymph will be gone and a myriad dragonflies will fly around but none will recognise her.

If she looks up, she will not see me because I do not exist yet. She will see nothing but a bridge, going home in one direction and going away from home in another.

She will grow up and stop visiting the sand bank. Some of her worries will come true and others won’t. She will forget how to talk to the wild, but the wild will not forget how to speak to her.

The river will flow on, the waterfall will carry her away, the big river will swallow her up, the sea will engulf her, but she will be all right. In the end, she will be all right. The light sparkling under the trees will always be there.  She will be all right.

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

The Wanderers

Do they wander do you suppose? Books I mean.

Every couple of years I herd them up from the four corners of the house, sort them out, put them into some sort of order so that I know where they are (a few are lassoed and corralled for the charity shops). Then I try to work out how “Eastern Vegetarian Cooking” came to be nestling between “Travels in Tartary” and “The Marriage Proposal” up in the spare room where the shelves are mostly filled with thrillers (and the odd random school report hastily shoved on the shelf when visitors come).

The cookbook should be in the kitchen, still pressing petals from my first bouquet (many many years ago, the giver lost to the turbulent waters of teenage past). “Travels” should be close by “Notes from a Small Island” in the travel/autobiography area in the hall and “The Marriage Proposal” should be with the novels by authors names at the end of the alphabet in our bedroom.

Do you think it’s because I’ve never cooked from the cookbook? It’s far too complicated, and I’m not a vegetarian.

And “Travels in Tartary” is an old book, very old, bought by my father in some dusty secondhand shop, maybe the one in Salubrious Passage many years ago. It makes me think of Dad – travels in the wild, unkempt parts of the world being absorbed by a comfortable plump man who didn’t like to be too far from a decent cup of coffee and a three course meal. I keep meaning to read it too, but never quite get round to it.

So do you suppose the unread ones move about when we’re not watching?

Maybe they get bored with the company of their own kind. Perhaps Tartary said to himself: “Just because I’m a travel book, am I only allowed to hob-nob with travel books?” and decided to broaden his horizons? Perhaps on his travels he found a restless cookbook, clutching her petals in her pages and together they braved the stairs to discover the wild world of the spare room bookshelves with their murder and espionage and dark deeds. And at the door, they found a cosy novel about love who wanted a bit of excitement and together they… no that’s ridiculous. How can books wander?

Only where is the one I’m looking for now? It is another cookbook which I’ve never cooked from (mainly to avoid an early death from coronary heart failure.) Where would it go?

Any ideas? If you were a cookbook of recipes from the Southern States of the USA (lots of frying). Who would you want to hang out with?IMG_0820

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

Travelling

Once I said “I want to go somewhere”
And my listener asked me where
“Anywhere” I said
“Anywhere different, I don’t care”
“Why” she said, “you’re settled here”.

But I like travelling restlessly from here to there.

I remember journeys when very small, from grandparents’ to home at night. Past London suburb shops still open and lit to the cosy darkness of our Berkshire home; with just the cosy domestic lights and blinds pulled down. The wondering, wondering – all those unknowable lives behind the curtains and doors –

And childhood holidays, down torturous Cornish lanes, crawling like crippled ants towards the coast. The plunge of green hill to the glittering blue. for the one who first sees the sea:
“It’s me! It’s me!”

And then moving away, travelling by night on blankets and toys, waking to find our new Welsh home curled low: guarded by trees and surrounded by ranging mountains like sleeping giants.

And to and from college and evening drives to film the moon dissolving into the sea. And to and from friends…I never want travelling days to end.
Yes I’m settled here – but sometimes I just want to be somewhere else.walk in the woods_edited-2

Blue is, Blue is Not

Blue is for uniforms.
Teenage girls reluctant in boring old sensible navy blue.
Blue to make us all look the same.
Me and Susan and Annette.
But it didn’t of course:
Short or curvy or thin or tall or a mix of these things
We simply looked ourselves in navy
No, blue is not just for uniforms.
Blue is dreary.
No, it does not have to be an apologetic tint
Like white that got in with the navy wash.
And neither do I – I can like blue but not be uniform
Like blue but not be indistinct.
Blue is cold.
What about peacock or turquoise or teal?
Those warm blues, sultry blues, Moroccan blues,
The colours of possibility
The open sky, the open road,
Mystery of Indian sapphires,
In them I feel sensuous, rich, warm, adventurous.
Blue is dull.
Oh think of the wine dark blue of winter
Brightened with pink or red
The colour of cuddles by the fire
Of spicy plums and apples and blackberries
In Latin there is no proper word for blue
Caeruleus covers everything
From wine dark sea to stone washed jeans.
In blue I can feel the moods of the skies:
In October I wore fine sophisticated Delft
Blue and white, fine patterning on
a flattering summer dress
I felt grown up and pretty
Sipping my anniversary wine
in a charming side street restaurant.
This week wearing dark blue
Like the bruised dusky sky
When the clocks went back.
Oh blue.  It is the colour of calm.
Perhaps.  But it is the colour of water.
And water has many moods.
Under the water the feet of the calm swan
Paddle madly.
It is the colour of sky but
The blue can hide the coming heat
Or the coming storm.
I can look calm.
But I am not.
Underneath, I whir with possibilities.
I can wear the uniform
But I am not the uniform
I am, finally, myself.