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. 

The Song (part one)

From the darkness came singing. It inveigled into my sleeping sensation of floating in green light.

I woke. For a while, within closed lids, I tried to restrain that fading dream which had left me smiling. But it had gone. I opened my eyes but the darkness was no less. I was not used to real night. In the city, all I had ever known, the day never truly ends. But here, now, for miles, there was nothing but fields and sky and distant mountains. A few scattered homes, long slumbering, dotted the countryside. My eyes adjusted and through the open curtains, I saw white random stars in a pigment beyond black and deeper than imagining.

I listened. I was not used to real night. In the city, noise never reduces, its rhythms ebb and flow. Nighttime brings sharper definition to each sound. But here, now, there was nothing but a throbbing silence. There was no flowing traffic, no predictable siren or anticipated shouting. The only sounds I recognised were in the room with me. My husband Stephen, deep in sleep, breathed soft and slow. I reached to touch him, my invisible, unconscious guardian in the shadows. Our baby stirred next to me, her mouth suckling as she dreamt of being nursed perhaps, but she did not wake. Somewhere in the distance a dog, or something, yelped. Somewhere nearer by an owl, or something, screeched. With a tiny squeak, a scrap of night shot past the window: a bat. Maybe.

‘Don’t go into the country. It’s not for you.’ That’s what Mamma had always said as we endured those scorching, heart-straining summer days in the city. The traffic was angry with the heat, sweating into the smog. Voices shouted from streets and open windows, impatient, risky. My friends went away, offered to take me with them, but she kept me home. School arranged trips, the cost waived for people like us but she said no.

Mamma had brought me up with a protective fury. I thought it was because I was different. Everyone said I must be delicate but appearances deceive. Mamma’s skin tanned, even in the city. Her working hands were hard and a little rough, her knuckles lumpy, her muscles knotted. She was tiny but could lift a bully twice her size by the scruff and shake him. She was tiny but I was tinier. My bones were so small, the bullies tried to snap my fingers like candy sticks, but never could. My skin seemed so thin, they called me porcelain girl as they traced my veins, tinging my whiteness with a subtle jade. They said my blood was green and that it had pooled into my eyes. They said I must be adopted or my father had been a ghost. I was different.

‘Who was my father?’

‘Never mind him.’

‘Am I really yours?’

‘Always and ever. Let them try to take you away,’ she’d say.

‘Who wants to take me away?’ I’d say.

‘No-one,’ she’d answer, ‘but just let them try.’

And I remembered then, a long ago remembrance of a knock on the door in the night and Mamma tense. In my memory, I see us like mice, backed into a corner. Me, no more than two years old, tucked behind Mamma and Mamma shielding me with her tiny frame, hiding me behind her skirts, armed with… what? A wooden spoon? A saucepan? What else would there have been? And after a long time, footsteps retreating and Mamma relaxing and gathering me into one of her enveloping hugs before we went back to sleep in the bed with the rose patterned quilt. Is that a real memory? Or another dream?

‘Don’t let them take her,’ she’d said to Stephen at the end, ‘if I’m not here to protect her.’

‘Who’d want to take her?’ said Stephen.

‘No-one,’ she’d said. ‘And the baby,’ she’d said, ‘keep her safe like I kept Tara safe.’

‘I will always be with you,’ she said, ‘I’ll never leave you.’

But you did Mamma, you did leave me. Your hand was still clasping mine long after you’d lost the strength to breathe, tears dried in trails running from your tired eyes, still fixed on mine but empty.

And when Mamma was gone, after all those necessary things had been done and the last thing had been organised and it was all over and everyone but me had filed her death away, I could not sleep. And I could not cry. And Stephen brought us out of the city.

‘It’ll do you good,’ he said, ‘the peace and fresh air.’

‘Mamma said I didn’t belong in the country.’

‘She had run away from it,’ said Stephen. ‘Perhaps you and she left in disgrace. It’s a shame we couldn’t have brought her and shown her there was nothing to fear anymore.’

I had slept for the best part of four days, waking to feed the baby, to eat and wash, to talk a little. Now I thought of Mamma and, in the darkness, the tears came. I longed for Stephen to wake but he slept on and the baby snuffled but did not stir. The noises of the strange countryside studded the night, unpredictable and startling. Another dog, another owl, the bat. And singing. A song both distant and near, both inaudible and deafening, both wordless and full of meaning, both enticing and…

I knew the song.

I rose and went to the window. There was nothing to be seen apart from stars and the shadowy garden. I tiptoed downstairs and opened the back door looking into shrubbery monotone and indecipherable. The song was louder and yet still distant. It created an image beyond myself as a small girl hidden from a knock at the door; beyond my first steps towards Mamma; beyond my tiny finger curling round Mamma’s finger. Before that, there had been the same song.

I recalled floating, curled in emerald waters. I remembered viridian eyes and jade skin, suckling something sweeter than milk.

The song ceased. A voice from the shadows, strange and yet known, said:

‘Stolen Daughter, you have returned.’

[to be continued]

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

 

 

Subconscious

Sticky fingered vivid dreams
Inveigle into pockets of sleep.
Under pines scented with danger
I wait with the savant child
And patient suitor
Wondering if the unlighted house
really holds demons behind the wainscotting
or whether the man in the shadows lies
…and then…
In teenage agony I greet
another girl with grace.
My party dress is sleek and glimmers
but he doesn’t notice, his eyes
smile in friendliness and then turn
to her, even though
her dress has unfinished edges
and she is hiding rubbish
under a tablecloth
…and then…
with an underground ticket
I board a ferry with my camera laden mother
and we photograph chalky cliffs
and lonely cafes under spiralling seagulls
until bored, we are suddenly home
That old home from many years ago
to make tofu
…and then…
I wake, exhausted by adventures
in imagined and half remembered
worlds and worries.
My rest half-inched by
pickpocket dreams.

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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

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.

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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

Ghost Coin

My husband removed the 1980s bath-panel and found something bizarre.

A 1914 penny under an upstairs bath in a 1950s house.

We put it safe and ‘Googled’. In 1914, a penny bought half a pint of beer or loaf of bread or pint of milk.

The penny’s since disappeared.

Our friendly ghost’s playing tricks again. It often plays piano or rattles pipes. Bet that’s who put the coin where it shouldn’t have been.

No doubt it’s now sloped off with phantom mates to buy spectral beer at The Headless Spook Inn, which I suspect is in our attic.

Typical.

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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

At The Gallery

She came out of her reverie as if she had surfaced from the depths of a silent lake. Her ears filled with shrill chatter and her eyes were overwhelmed by the vibrancy of the paintings and sculptures around her, the designer clothes, the make-up; jewellery sparkling.

Someone put a glass of champagne into her hand. She looked into the rising bubbles:
one pop,
two, three pop,
four, five, six pop.

She didn’t drink from it.

“I didn’t realise it was you at first,” said the man who had given it to her, “I didn’t know your married name. Can you believe how long it is since art college? You’ve hardly changed a bit.”

He paused to sip. She smiled at him, trying to focus on his name badge without too obviously staring at his chest.

“Great pieces,” he went on, sloshing champagne as he waved his arm to indicate the paintings behind her, “your style has matured. There’s a kind of… mystery about them. What was your inspiration?”

She turned to look at the huge canvasses, their drowning blues and tangling greens, the hint of silver just out of reach. She yearned for silence and shrugged.

“Sorry, sorry, I should know better than to ask a fellow artist to talk about their work, it makes you cringe doesn’t it?” he hooked his arm into her elbow, “but I’ve got to ask, what do you think of my stuff? I think I’ve grown out of that self-absorbed young man you probably remember. This one is called..”

His voice blurred as she gazed at the sculpture he was drawing her towards. The people in the room moved in a misty stylised dance, their voices becoming incomprehensible as if a radio was picking up a distant foreign language broadcast.

Champagne slopped over the side of her glass.

Who is he? she thought.

Then she thought: for that matter, who am I?

 

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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 Return

Without the map she would not have come. Forty years had passed and she was settled a hundred miles away. She had long closed the drawer on that part of her life, packing up and disposing of more than books and diaries. Unfolding the map’s feeble creases had caused tears to drip onto the biro and felt tip. Night was falling. But how could she be afraid? Modern bad boys were warm indoors playing games online, too engrossed to be out bullying or vandalising.

She trusted only one friend with her secret: that in her loneliest days, strange and out of synch, transplanted from rural Berkshire to West Glamorgan, mocked for her accent, uncomprehending of theirs, she had gone alone to the river and alone to the copse and had talked to the spirits there and they had comforted her. They had sparkled under the trees hanging over the tumbling river and they had murmured from the larches and she had felt at peace.

Life was not so lonely anymore. But it was busy. No longer any time just to sit. Constant rushing and organising, buzzing with demands and responsibilities. Once she had been the lonely girl who drew a map to show where the fairies were, not sparkling childish tinkerbells, but living breathing spirits of wood and water. Now she was a practical adult, sensible and unemotional. Or that was what people thought. Life had taught her to hide herself.

But here she was, sitting under the trees as the full moon rose. She closed her eyes and was silent. But the wood was not silent. The air was cold, but she was not cold. The tree felt warm to her back and her heart filled with peace. “Croeso” it whispered. “We’re glad to see you” it breathed.

She opened her eyes and saw a child before her. Silver and made of moonlight and holding something and then gone. And she remembered. It had been what she had meant to do all those years ago. She unfolded the map for the last time – she could barely see it in the dark but she knew that it set out all the secret magical places and did not belong to her anymore. She folded it back up and poked it down into a cavity under the tree. “Diolch” she heard.

She stood up and rolled her shoulders and looked up into the moonlit trees. “I’m going now” she said, “I won’t be back again. But I want to say thank you. Thank you for being my friend when I was so lonely. Thank you for helping me learn to be happy on my own. Thank you for reminding me how to listen.”

She walked away, down past where the playground had been, where the pigsty had been, where the boy with the rotten teeth had lived and got in her car, parked outside her old house. She looked up at the moon as she drove away – she would never come back. But she was taking the child she had once been away with her and together they would learn to be still and at peace.DSCN4089

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