Hiding Places

Two years ago, I started a story about a little girl hiding in a house.

I am fascinated by houses. Perhaps because I moved a lot as a child, perhaps because I see how they reflect the personalities of the people who live in them, perhaps because in my early childhood I knew several homes with rooms and attics full of potential treasure: stuffed animals, old gramophones, books, stacked photographs.

Homes seem to me to have a personality of their own. When my husband and I were house hunting twelve years ago, we would walk out of a property and say “that’s a happy house” or “that’s an unhappy house” even though there was nothing visible to indicate a difference between them.

My story started innocently enough but as it wound its way from muse to keyboard, the child in the story stopped being carefree. She became someone desperate, unhappy, lonely; hiding in a perfect, neat, cold house. I wrote it for a competition and hadn’t quite finished it when a friend told me a story about her mother’s childhood in Nazi Germany and somehow a little of that was woven in too. My story is set in an unspecified world in which there is persecution for being different. I’m not publishing it here for the moment as I hope to publish it elsewhere but this is about what happened after it had been written.

Once I’d finished and refined it, I entered the story into a local competition run by the Rotary Club and it was short-listed for the Mayor’s prize. In October 2016, I went to the Corn Exchange (our local equivalent of a town hall) to read it out.

Odd as it may sound (since I was the one who’d written it) I found it hard to read aloud because although I knew what was happening, I still got choked up. I tend to speak quietly and quickly even when I’m not nervous. The acoustics in the building are not very good and I had to read while holding a microphone and also conscious of the fact that I would then have to clamber back down some steep steps without a handrail in heels and somehow try not to fall (give me a staircase and I will fall down it). I could feel myself getting angry on behalf of this imaginary little girl, caught up in the political machinations of adults and my voice started to crack. I ended with tears in my eyes. There was applause, I got down the steps without making a fool of myself and then found I had to climb back up because I’d won.

After all the prizes had been handed out and I was safely back on ground level again, a lady in her late seventies or early eighties came up. She said her hearing was poor and she’d been sitting at the back and not quite been able to make out everything I’d said. She asked if I could drop round to her house and give her a printed copy of some of my stories so that she could read them for herself.

The following weekend, I found her house (which had a wonderful door as if it would lead into a magic realm) and as she wasn’t in, popped the stories through the letterbox, leaving my address but forgetting to leave my phone number, meaning to go back a few days later.

Life was busy and it went out of my head.

A week or so afterwards, as I was in the kitchen editing photographs one Sunday and my mother, who’d come round for the afternoon was sitting with me doing embroidery while dinner burbled away in the oven, the lady arrived at my front door, having walked maybe a mile across town to do so. I invited her in for a rest and something to drink before driving her home. She said some lovely things about the stories I’d given her but then she asked about the inspiration for the one about the hiding little girl.

I explained that part of it was imaginary and the other part was inspired by stories friends of Polish and German descent had told of hiding Jewish fugitives and from reading a book called “My Hundred Children” by Lena Kuchler-Silberman and books by Corrie Ten Boom.

Over a cup of tea, the lady explained that she was Jewish. In 1938, while she was still a baby, her parents had escaped Austria but her grandparents, uncles and aunt had not been able to leave. There is now barely a trace of them.

She knows one uncle died in Dachau and one grandfather was beaten to death before even getting to a camp (the Viennese Nazi authorities kept good death records – don’t you love bureaucracy?). Her parents told of people just getting a knock on the door and being given half an hour to get themselves down to the town hall.

“Can you imagine, the Corn Exchange is our town hall,” she said, “so they come to your house and they pick on you because you’re Jewish, or Catholic, or Protestant or Muslim or immigrant or you name it, and you have half an hour to get to the Corn Exchange and you don’t know what will happen to you and maybe no-one will ever find out.”

The lady who took the trouble to bring me back my story now lives in a nice town in a peaceful country with children and grand-children of her own living in other nice towns. She sat, telling me her life, drinking tea with my mother, calm and friendly.

My mother is just a few years younger. The only separation she experienced during the war, was when my grandmother moved to be near family in Scotland with her two small children, away from the risk of bombing. They left my grandfather (too old to join up and in a reserved occupation) to carry on working in London and living in the empty family home. My mother’s family tree has all its branches in the last century at least.

The other lady’s family tree, like so many, had branches hacked off and destroyed.

All that potential, all those nearly people. All those children who maybe couldn’t hide quite safely enough. Her life now may be pleasant and safe, but her parents’ desperate flight, the loss of their loved ones are engraved on her.

I know her story is not news. I know, even worse that that, it’s not old news. The Nazis weren’t the first to do it and they weren’t the last.

It is going on right now, somewhere in the world, as I type this.

Religious grounds, ethnic grounds, racial grounds, political grounds, gender identity, sexuality, how many generations your ancestors arrived – somewhere someone is justifying a reason for the humiliation, discrimination, disenfranchisement, dehumanisation, persecution and death of other human beings just because they are different.

I wish it wasn’t true. More than anything, I wish I didn’t know there are people in “civilised” countries who are right this moment looking forward to starting it up again.

God forgive us for never learning and for the capacity for hatred in the human heart.

The evidence is right in front of us. And don’t assume you could be safe because we may not know the criteria. Watch out, because any one of us may be summonsed to the town hall one day and the hiding places may yet run out.


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

Who Makes Me Fear?

Who makes me fear?
I says the terrorist
I with my gun
I want to blot out your sun
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I says the stranger
I might lie in wait
With a heart full of hate
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I says the gossip
With my stash of half-lies
I ensure the truth dies
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I say the press
I fill up editions
With unfounded suspicions
I make you fear

Who makes me fear?
I say the “friend”
With social media posts
I scare you most
I make you fear


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

Lunchtime (or “to see ourselves as others see us”)

Carlos breathed out and started to put things away. The morning was over and the boats were pulled back up onto the shore ready for the afternoon trade.  Now it was too hot to be out on the lake.  Too hot to do anything.  He could hear his wife getting the table laid on the balcony above and smell lunch being prepared.  There would be salad and good bread, hearty wine, cheese and ham and she had gone down early and got prawns from the market, prawns fresh up from the coast – and she would be cooking them with garlic.

Carlos’s mouth watered.  He reached up to the sign, ready to flip from “Abierto” to “Cerrado” when he spotted them.

Oh no, talking of prawns.  Here they came – two families who looked like prawns – both types – the raw and the overcooked.  Why did they always choose to ignore the big notice which said 12:00-14:00 CERRADO?

The family who looked like raw prawns came inelegantly down the slope.  They were even paler than usual.  The parents wore matching polo shirts of some depressed greyish sky colour and droopy jersey shorts of a slightly darker bilberry hue.  They had flat sensible sandals which let plenty of air in and let feet spread out.  The parents had sad little beanie hats in washed out cotton; the type that are really useful because they fold up to be stashed in bags.  (And in Carlos’s view should stay there.)  The father had socks on.  The mother looked so slopey shouldered, so bosom-less and her hair was pulled back into some sort of stringy bun, that it was hard to imagine that she had ever been desirable enough to breed with.  On the other hand, she had married a man who wore socks with sandals. The teenage daughter looked as if she was in training to be her mother but was young enough for her to have made some sort of effort with clothes and hair and to look as if the baseball cap she wore was only on because her mother had nailed it on.  All of them were pasty white to the point of blueness – enough sun screen on to withstand the heat from the gates of hell no doubt.  They were lugging a huge bag of food.  It included a flask of (probably) tea.

The family who looked like over cooked prawns were bouncing down the slope. Bouncing in all senses.  Where the raw prawns were scrawny and/or saggy and devoid of sex appeal, the cooked prawns looked as if they had once had too much sex appeal and were now like overblown roses.  The father was bursting over his shorts and the mother was oozing out of her bikini top and despite the fact that her belly was now pillowy, a navel piercing sparkled from the cosy maternal flab.  Their son, still young enough to have a flat stomach and firm arms, was bouncing behind them in indignation, glaring at his phone/ipod/whoknowswhat.  The parents were both beyond bright pink.  Hatless, they looked as if they were frankfurters which had been boiled for slightly too long and with any more sun, they would burst.  The son was not quite as bad, presumably because he spent more time indoors on his electronic device.  They had a huge bag of food too.  It included a bottle of (probably) beer.

All of them arrived at the door at the same time.  They looked at each other out of the corner of their eyes.  Carlos had noticed similar exchanges before.   The pale family thought the others were crass and foolish; the sunburnt family thought the others were boring and didn’t know how to have a good time.  You’d never know they came from the same country.

“Cerrado,” said Carlos firmly.

“We just want to hire some boats, mate,” said Cooked Father, “then we’ll be out of your hair.”

“Cerrado,” repeated Carlos.  “Abierto TWO O’CLOCK.”

“Tell him we just want to hire some boats” whispered Pale Mother, “tell him it won’t take him long.  We just want to take the boats out and find somewhere to have lunch.”

“I can’t say all that in Spanish dear” Pale Father complained, “Er, quiero er, bateau, no that’s French… Emily, can you help?”

His daughter rolled her eyes, caught the smirking glance of the sunburnt boy and blushed.  “No Dad. I do German remember.”

“Cerrado,” Carlos stated.  He could speak perfectly good English and French and German, but not at lunchtime.  He turned the sign over, locked the door and went up to the balcony to join his family.

The two families stood there for a while.  On the other side of a thin bit of chain was the beach and the boats and the view.

“We could just climb over,” said Pale Father.

“We could pay when we get back,” agreed Burnt Mother.

Her son rolled his eyes. “There’s probably some boring safety talk he’s got to give us.  Anyway, looks as if they’re chained up.”

The girl chose the moment when everyone was looking at the boats to haul her cap off and puff up her hair.  She looked down at her feet and tried to will them to look smaller.  She pulled her iPod out so that she could check herself out in selfie mode.

Tomorrow she would buy some lower factor suntan stuff.  Surely she wouldn’t die of cancer if she was just a little bit brown.

The boy asked her: “have you got a signal?”

She jumped.  “No, have you?  I’ve just been listening to stuff and watching things I downloaded.”

The boy said, “me too.  What you got then?”

They wandered off under the trees where it was cooler and they could see their screens more easily.

The parents stood around in silence for a while.  After a bit, Burnt Mother said “we could sit under the trees and have our picnic.”

Pale Mother said “yes I suppose we could.”

There was a pause and both said “what have you got for your lunch then?”

Carlos on his balcony sipped his glass of tinto and looked down on them through the railings.  The two teenagers were sharing earphones and laughing at something on a tiny screen, their shoulders nearly touching.  The two sets of parents had settled down and were sharing things out between them, starting with two bottles of wine, one white brought in a flask to keep it cool, one red at slightly more than room temperature. They would all be firm friends by two p.m.

He dipped his bread in the garlicky oil in satisfaction and smirked.  Social Engineer. That’s what he was.  Social Engineer.

canoes on the lake

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

The Familiar

The way I see it is this.  If people spent more time looking with open minds and less time looking to find fault, they might be happier.  They might actually find what they’re looking for.

See, those people down there, yeah those ones – the ones with the flaming torches. They’re looking for evil and they’ve decided what it looks like (which is a simple formula to them.  “Different = Dangerous”) and so they’ve found something that sorta fits the bill, ignored anything that don’t and are acting on their assumptions.  Plus you can guarantee a bloke down the tavern said or one of the elders said or THEY said.  No-one knows which bloke, which elder, which THEY.  It’s just got to be true.  Cos the minute you say “whoa – hang on – who told you that?  Where’s the proof?” suspicion will fall on you. So you don’t say nothing.  And no-one says nothing and before you know it everyone’s got caught up in the moment and one set (a small set mind) is handing out flaming torches like they’re toffee apples and everyone just takes one co they don’t know what else to do. What are they? Ants?  Bees?  Sheep?

People say they’re the top of creation and look at them – hardly an individual amongst them, unless you count that poor wretch in the middle.  She couldn’t get more individual, could she, bless her.  That’s one woman who asked “why” too many times.  “Why don’t we try this?” “Why do we always do it that way?” “Why don’t you just be yourself and stop worrying what other people think?”  That’s what got her where she is now.

And see the people round the edges, yeah, I know, the smoke’s getting a bit thick. If you’re bothered now, best not stick around.  But look – the ones that are hanging back, the ones that are thinking “why am I holding this torch?” “why is this a good idea?” “why do we think this will make things better?”  Yes those ones – they’ll be next, mark my words. They’re gonna have to think quick if they don’t want to do the thing but also don’t want the others to know they didn’t.

Cos the thing is, people do think Why?  But they think it the wrong way.  They think “Why did the harvest fail again?  Why is my cow barren?  Why did my child die?” and then they look around and find someone to punish for it.  Life’s short.  Who can blame them you might say.  But funny how no-one says “why’s the harvest been so good?  Why have I got more calves than I can sell?  Why is my child so strong and healthy its face glows like an apple?” and then find someone to praise for it.

That woman – what did she ever do?  She wasn’t perfect.  Who is?  But you gonna to say that one little woman is guilty of everything that’s gone wrong – this year’s rain, this year’s non-stop rain, the cold, the crops rotting in the fields, the blue babies?  You think they gonna say to their maker when they meet him – “oh that little woman – we thought she was bigger than you”?   Nah – nor me pal.   If someone could put that to them – see the folk on the outside, they’re asking themselves that right now and trying to fade off into the night – look that one’s put his torch out, that one is starting to cry a little.  But most of the rest – I reckon now their blood is up now – if a voice came from Heaven they wouldn’t hear it or they’d blame the poor wretch herself for conjuring it up.  See they’ve looked for me too but they won’t find me.  I’ll miss her but nothing I can do to help now.   Most respect I can show is by going away and not watching what they do to her.  Best I can do is find someone else like her.  Someone who don’t mind a companion that’s been battered by life and shows it but don’t think it’s the mark of the devil or nothing.  Someone who knows how to ask “Why?” the right way.

But you and me, mate, we’re lucky cos we don’t waste time with talk.  We may think “Why’s there no food?  Why can’t I find somewhere warm and dry to sleep?  Why is the only thing caressing me a pile of fleas?” but we don’t go and blame anyone. We think “there was food once – there’ll be food again.  There will be shelter somewhere one day, there will be caress sometime” – and if not, well, that’s life innit.  Us and them and the fleas and the sun coming up and the rain coming or not coming and birth and death and the whole shebang – it’s all life.

Come on, best stick with me mate.  No point asking why this happened.  It’ll happen till the end of time or until people stop looking to blame others and start looking inside themselves and learn to just accept the fleas along with the caresses.  They’re lighting the pyre now.

Let’s go.  Don’t look back.  The sun always comes up.  It always comes up.

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