Room

I am tired.  

Lying in the bath, I let the steam envelop me. I massage round and round my eyes. They want to stay shut and slide into sleep. I am so tired. It’s been a long day and I wash off the travelling and the negotiating and the business smiles. The water is no dirtier as I leave the bath than it was to start with, but so many necessary politenesses needed to be strigilled from my skin.  

I’d prefer to stay in my room. I’d prefer not to join my colleagues for a sociable evening and have their forensic words try to scalpel through my façade to see what lies beneath. I’ll drink just enough wine to oil the conversation but not so much as to expose my soul. Colleagues. I’ve known them a great many years and know them not at all. Nor they I. Shortly I must dress again and slot my smile back in place.  

And I am too tired for what awaits me before I go out, but I have no choice tonight anymore than any other night when I’m in a strange place.  It’s what happens. 

Always.

Rising from the water, I wrap myself in a towel and leave the en-suite to step into the bedroom. I haven’t had time to familiarise myself with all the switches. Light blares from all corners and the ceiling. The TV – put on as part of my ritual – burbles with early evening inanities beside the portable kettle and the insufficient tea-bags. I try to avoid the mirrors and keep my back to the bed as I walk around to change the lighting and find clean clothes from my case.  

But in the end I have to face the girl.  

She’s sitting on the edge of the bed, bolt upright. Her hands are in her lap, clasped into a sledgehammer. Her feet dangle. They are almost bare. Despite this cold evening, slender strips of leather form delicate sandals resting against the plump duvet. Her large eyes are following me as I adjust the lamps. Her head turns as I move about, so as not to lose sight of me for a second and there are shadows under the eyes and red blotches on her white skin. Her clothes are flimsy. Through them I can see the bones of her collar-bone and the thinness of her wrists and ankles.

I swear I didn’t call her here. I never call them, but yet I find them every time in every hotel room. 

I attempt a smile but the girl doesn’t smile back. Taking my clothes, I change in the bathroom hoping my room will be empty when I return. But she’s still there, following me with her eyes as I cross the room to sit in front of the flickering TV.

‘What’s your name?’ I ask. 

It’s pointless. They never answer. Over all these years, in all these hotel bedrooms, not one of these girls has ever spoken. They just look at me, unsmiling, waiting for me to work out what to do.

I recall the first one. 

The hotel was Georgian, my bedroom in the attic: a bijou ensuite room fit for the business traveller. It was clean and pleasant, effort had gone into every aspect, simple as it was.  

I turned on the TV and went to run a bath. When I returned to the bedroom there was a strange girl in a seventeenth century clothes sitting on the edge of the bed. 

She was huddled, legs bound by her arms and her head on her knees. I couldn’t see her mouth but from behind straggling hair exhausted eyes observed me. Her figure was small but she had that pinched look of malnourishment and an expression of one who looked up from an abyss, wary and tensed.  She might have been any age from nine to sixteen, it was hard to say.  

That time, that first time, I was in no doubt seeing her had been brought on by stress. A ghostly servant made sense in that old building after the day I’d had. I had nowhere to go that evening and I watched TV as tense as a mouse unsure if a cat has seen it. I hoped that with every sip of cheap wine, the ghost would become less visible but she didn’t.  

After a while, she unfolded herself and came to stand next to me, as if about to take an order. In the end, I tried to make her disperse by speaking aloud.

‘What’s your name?’ I asked. 

She blinked and shifted from foot to foot. I looked down and saw that the worn shoes were too big. I thought: her feet must be sore. Then I realised what I fool I was. She’d been dead for three hundred years. The ruin of her feet was well beyond bunions and corns and blisters. I shook my head at my own folly. She didn’t exist and yet she was there and she wouldn’t leave.

‘What do you want?’ I asked.  

The girl frowned. 

It occurred to me that perhaps she thought I was the ghost, an apparition in her attic room, strangely garbed but undemanding. Yet she didn’t seem afraid of me. After a moment’s hesitation she leaned her head on my shoulder. I could feel nothing of course because either she wasn’t there, or I wasn’t there. I say I could felt nothing, but in truth, for a few seconds I felt something transfer between us. 

My eyes closed and I saw the room as it must once have been: cold and spare and dark, crammed with damp beds for lonely girls a long way from home, and saw in the corner, one frail figure curled up under thin blankets, coughing and rattling, all alone and uncomforted. The pain of her loneliness skewered my heart and her cold tears burned on my shoulder.  

‘I’m sorry,’ I whispered, ‘I’m here. I wish I could help.’

The imagined weight of her head evaporated and I opened my eyes. The girl had gone and the room was as it had been before, cheerful, anonymous: a stopping place. But I was not as I had been. I was drained. 

I had felt lonely before. I was used to my own silence in indifferent hotels after a day of travel and talking business. But now that loneliness had increased, augmented by the misery of a long-dead stranger. Exhausted, I went to bed early, blaming the cheap wine and a stressful day.

The next time there was a strange girl sitting on my bed, I was surprised. I wondered if I should seek help. It was another strange room, another ghost. 

The third time, I was scared. 

The fourth, resigned. 

Again and again. Each time in every hotel, those ghosts drained me, as something of their sadness transferred to me and something of my pity transferred to them. I tried to find out who they were, but I needed time I didn’t have and anyway, they had all been underlings; the sort of people who die forgotten and unmarked. 

Sometimes the girl just wanted my empathy. Sometimes she seemed to crave my blessing. Once, following an insistent finger, I pulled back the corner of a carpet and under a floor board found an old letter. I read aloud to the best of my ability those misspelled words of love written in faded ink on dirty paper and when I stopped reading I saw a fleeting smile on the ghost’s face before she disappeared and left me wondering how to hide the damage to the carpet. 

Booking a modern chain hotel made no difference. 

These are ancient lands. People have built on the same spot for generations. New buildings have been constructed on fields where once someone died in a ditch or in battle or at the cruel hand of another. Even in the clinical plastic perfection of a generic motel, a child waited for my comfort and replaced it with the weight of their sorrow.

But this evening I am too tired. 

I never wanted children of my own; never wanted the responsibility of caring and supporting, but somehow I have been absorbing centuries of pain and cannot do it any longer.  

‘Who are you?’ I try again. The girl in her thin dress and sandals says nothing. I can’t work out the era of her clothes. A long time ago I think.

I look out of the window. This modern hotel is next to an old pub. Less than a mile away is a hill which was once an Iron Age fort and nearby are the ruins of a Roman Villa. This girl could be from those times – a slave perhaps, or a nobleman’s neglected daughter. She is thin and unhealthy but not dirty or unkempt. Unhealthy!  What am I saying?  This one has been dead for maybe two thousand years. Did she die around here in some long lost dwelling, staring onto mosaic floors and frescoed walls? Was there no parent to smooth that consumptive brow? Is she another one reaching out for a comfort no-one gave her when she needed it? 

Or she doing the opposite? 

I look harder. She is restraining a cough. Is it because she is afraid to irritate someone? She’s tense and her head is down.Is she keeping small so as not to annoy someone?  

It is too much. I have nothing left to give. I remember doing the same thing. No-one was ever there for me and I am drained dry.

I close my eyes and pull my legs up onto the chair, hugging them and putting my forehead down onto my knees just like I used to.

If I sit like this, still as a statue, Father won’t notice me. If I ball myself tight, the blows will hurt less. If I don’t look at Mother, I won’t see her turn away from me when he approaches. 

I am too old and too tired to cry, but tears are in my eyes and my throat hurts. Curled up, my muscles protest. I am not a child anymore. 

But then… 

A hand is on my shoulder, a small arm embraces me. A small head has lain itself on my head. They are soft as cobwebs, unreal as dreams but stronger than iron. 

I struggle in the embrace, but it hugs me tighter. 

More arms surround me, all small, all feather-light yet stronger than steel. I am enveloped in a web of comfort. I open my eyes and peek and find myself surrounded. All of those hotel ghosts link arms around me, all of them, from the eighteenth century maid, through the lonely lover to the Roman slave.

A susurration ripples in my ears, ‘we’re sorry, we’re here. We won’t turn away.’

My soul fills with warmth.

The pain lessens. 

The misery I absorbed to mix with my own, disperses.  

Someone, at last, has come to help.

87493386_852349465279519_3005131755939168256_n

Words and photograph copyright 2020 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

The Wrong Road

The near-blind walk in the foggy dark is long and slow and terrifying. 

I track my route forward by feeling the crumbling edge of the road through my shoes. When the ground beneath my thin soles feels too smooth or solid I know I’m potentially veering into the path of traffic and step sideways onto the verge where the low, wet branches catch in my hair. This way I keep myself safe from traffic that won’t see me in time. But no traffic comes. It is, after all, very late.

Every few moments, ribbons of fog caress my face or drift in front of me or hover under the trees to watch me prod on along the edge of the ridge. Somewhere below the river rushes over low flat rocks, and above me the branches drip and around me my footsteps echo with a soft, sticky squelch.

My phone is dead. My car is somewhere miles behind, also dead.

Ten years ago I knew this road well but now I’m not so sure where I am. The fog has blurred all the half-familiar points. Instinct told me to go up the valley rather than down in search of help. Sooner or later I’m sure there’ll be a village and then at the very least, I’ll be somewhere rather than nowhere.

And then, at last, I see a pub across the road, lit up, the only oasis of hope in the darkness. 

I gasp, remembering it from all those years ago when it stood graffitied and abandoned, loitering, glowering with its back against the rock of the mountainside, derelict and empty. But now it is bright.

I cross the tarmac and stand for a moment outside, unable to believe the pub is actually open, clean, welcoming, after all that time I’ve been tramping in the dark. I’m soaked through, dishevelled probably, but there’s nothing else to do but enter. I open the door and step inside, the soft light more blinding than the fog. 

It’s empty but for the landlord who leans on the bar fiddling with his mobile phone, straightening with a puzzled smile when I appear then looking over my shoulder. I half turn as the weight of the door is taken by someone else. 

A woman, as damp as I but somehow yet elegant is crossing the threshold behind me. 

She has a face I could never forget. Her hair seems too heavy for her head and her long damp skirts cling to her legs. I expect her to follow me to the bar, but instead she just sits near the window and stares out into the darkness. She, like the road, seems familiar and yet not quite.

I tell the landlord what’s happened and order a drink, then realise I have no money on me and find my bank card has expired.

‘You both look like drowned rats,’ he says. ‘Sit down and have a coffee on the house. I’ll see if I can get a recovery vehicle for you.’ 

The woman says nothing when he puts the drink down in front of her. If he’s surprised we aren’t sharing a table it isn’t obvious. Perhaps he thinks we’ve argued over the break-down.

There is a pool of liquid on my table. I use it to doodle, trying to capture the curve of the woman’s head and shoulders as she clasps her cup and peers within as she’s scrying.

Forcing my finger into sweeps and lines slows my heart from panic to mere anxiety. The wall lamps in the pub are dim and the night beyond the windows is not so much darkness as a subtraction of light so the woman is shadowed, her features cast into angles and swirls. Hers is the kind of face people describe as ‘not remotely beautiful but-’. The kind of face that has stared with silent authority from babyhood onward.

In the background, the landlord speaks into his mobile too low to follow. He’s taking his time. How hard can it be to get a recovery vehicle? I falter over sketching as my agitation grows and then the woman says, ‘is that what you really want to do?’

Her eyes are fixed on me.

I smear the image away and shrug.

She rises and presses her nose to the window. The fog is thicker than ever and seeping wisps of it squirm on the doormat.

‘No good,’ says the landlord, stabbing his phone to end the call. ‘He’s got a family emergency.’ His expression is one of curious pity. ‘This isn’t a road to drive without enough fuel.’

‘I know,’ I snap. ‘It wasn’t that. Where’s your payphone? I’ll reverse the charges.’

He shakes his head. ‘We haven’t got one. There’s one down the road a bit. You probably walked past it after you abandoned your car.’

‘I could have walked past my own grandmother.’ I shiver. Even in the moonless darkness drifting strips of fog had seemed like people. ‘And I didn’t abandon it. I left it. Can I borrow your mobile?’

The landlord considers his phone. ‘Signal’s gone again. It’s a bit intermittent look. Weather’s probably affected the mast.’

It isn’t hard to imagine the fog coiling up and suffocating whatever emits a signal up that forsaken mountain. 

‘Have you got a landline?’ I’m desperate. ‘Could you phone someone for me?’

‘What’s the number?’

I look at my dead mobile and realise I can’t remember.

‘Can you phone me a taxi?’

‘No taxis round here,’ says the landlord, surprised. ‘People need driving, they’ve got friends, isn’t it?’

I wish I had friends.

I turn to the woman wondering how to ask a stranger for a lift back down the valley. She’s watching our exchange, impatient, indifferent and unbiddable. I lock eyes to shame her into offering but all that fills me is a swirl of cold doubt before she breaks the connection to stare back into the fog.

‘You dunno this road then,’ says the landlord. It’s a statement.

‘I used to.’

‘Follows the river look.’

‘I know.’

I remember the river well. It hides below a tree-edged ridge to rush towards the distant sea, minor rivers falling in behind as they join from other valleys. And the road keeps step with it – more or less – winding here, straightening there, shadowed, with blank wet rock high on one side and lurking water below the ridge on the other. Not a road to wander in the dark, let alone fog.

‘Where you off anyway?’ he says.

‘Home,’

‘No you weren’t,’ the woman interjects. ‘You were running away. And you don’t have long.’

‘How long you need to run away?’ says the landlord with a chuckle but he’s looking at me more closely now, his eyes flickering from my dripping hair to sodden shoes.

The pub is warm and bright. You can tell by the decor it’s only newly opened. I don’t want to go back outside.

‘It’s time to leave,’ says the woman. ‘Tell him what you have to.’

She is familiar, too familiar. Her hair flows and her skirts slink. 

‘Tell you what, I’ll drive you back down the valley,’ offers the landlord. ‘I’ll close early. No-one’s coming out in this.’

I imagine going down the valley with him – going back – going home. There are people wondering where I’ve gone. 

Or at least, ten years ago there were people who wondered and then – then they misunderstood.

I push my driving licence across the bar into the landlord’s hands. 

‘My car broke down,’ I said. ‘I just wanted help. This isn’t a road to walk in the fog. Not so high above the river.’

‘It’s time to leave,’ repeats the woman.

With a sob bubbling in my throat, I turn to join her. There is nothing else to do.

‘Tell them I didn’t do it on purpose,’ I tell the landlord over my shoulder. 

He stands open-mouthed as the door closes behind us, my licence in his hand. 

The woman and I are in the dark again and there is no light but a small glow from the pub though the fog is lifting. It seems like a nice pub.

It was never like that ten years ago. It was closed.

It was closed every foggy night for the ten years I’ve tried to reach it. But now it’s open and I can’t do any more to get my message through.

‘It’s over,’ says the river, her hair sleek to her face, her skirts clinging. Then she walks away.

And, as the landlord wrenches the door open and calls for me to wait, I follow her, fading into the fog as I cross the road, then the verge and finally, tumble for the last time over the crumbling edge of the ridge into the river’s waiting arms.

foggy

Words and photograph copyright 2019 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission.

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.

Insight

Dear Niamh,

I blame you. 

Rhys doesn’t believe me but I just know it’s your fault that he and I are invisible. You’ve always stared at me as if I’m something nasty on your shoe. I hate that. I used to try and wind you up but it was a waste of time. Nothing gets to you. Nothing. I’ve never seen you cry and you don’t laugh at my jokes. You’re the only girl who doesn’t think I’m funny. Apart from Freya of course. Freya doesn’t laugh at anything at all. She just cries.

It really gets to me how you don’t like me,Niamh. You and me, we could make a good team. You’re brighter than the rest of these trolls. You read the same books, watch the same movies. To be honest, I even think you’re almost as pretty as me. We could run this school between us but you’re just not interested. You just hang out with Lauren and ignore me. Or I thought you did. But look at you now: you’re the only one who can see us and you’re grinning. So I know it’s all your fault.

I’ve been thinking about it and reckon it all started the day Freya went to Mrs Jones after break and said I was picking on her. Rhys sat there looking smug (made a change for him to be out of the limelight didn’t it?). He was just sniggering at me and nudging those thugs he hangs out with.  Charlie was looking gutted. Everyone could see the marks on Charlie’s neck but Rhys had got away with it again. Mrs Jones’s eyes rolled as she listened to Freya drivel on and then you stood up for her. You know how Mrs Jones thins her lips and stares at us as if she’s thinking how dare you interrupt my day with your pathetic little lives? Well she looked at Freya like that and then she looked at me like that. Me. I mean, Rhys, he’s a bully. Everyone knows he’s a bully. He chases people and thumps them. That’s bullying isn’t it? He even tries to thump Freya, when Charlie isn’t around, only she can outrun him – the lard arse. But me? I’m not a bully. I just tell it like it is.  

Freya is boring. She is gangly. She does have a funny accent. She does cry all the time. She is good at boring things like history. Her Dad is fat. Her house is a mess. 

Do you remember when Freya moved to this school from whatever God awful place she came from? She tried to make friends by inviting all us girls round to her house for a party. I mean, don’t you remember Freya’s home? Her parents are so weird and old fashioned they’ve only just about got a CD player and put on total crap music that even my mum wouldn’t listen to. Her Dad kept bleating on about stuff from about fifty years ago and Freya just hung on his words if he’s God or something. He didn’t even know how to do an internet search. I’m not sure he even had a smart phone. He just kept proving his point by digging out one of those dusty old books he’d got piled up everywhere because he’d run out of space in his stupid shop. I don’t think half of them were less than a hundred years old and there were about a million. There were cats asleep on them, her Dad was putting plates down on them. They were all over the place. Is that your idea of a party? So yeah, she’s weird. She can’t help it. It’s how she is. And it’s not my fault if I point it out to the other kids and they laugh. I’ve just got a good sense of humour and she hasn’t. It’s no good me pretending to everyone that she’d be any good on their team, she’d fall over her feet or cry or something.  It’s obvious.

I’m not like Rhys. He’s a bully. I’m just honest. He pushes Charlie around to get money and to make himself look scary. I just want Freya to face up to facts. If she laughed at my jokes I wouldn’t get so irritated with her. Not as much anyway.

The day when you told on me, good old Mrs Jones wasn’t putting up with all that soppy crap. She said ‘Just keep away from her then’ to Freya, just like she says to Charlie about Rhys, ‘just keep away from him then.’ See, she understands. If you don’t want people to get annoyed, don’t be annoying. 

People were a bit fidgety that afternoon. Well the girls were. The boys were just morons same as ever. Some of the girls wouldn’t look at me. But it was ok. It gave me time to remind Abbie about how Ellen’s Mum drinks like a fish and how it couldn’t be true about Georgia’s dad and then I wondered out loud why Chelsea is so short. After lunch, things were back to normal. Except you kept staring at me.

I decided to ignore Freya. It was the best thing to do, ignore her.

I thought, I’ll keep away from Freya, then she doesn’t need to keep away from me and I’ll make sure everyone else keeps away from her too. No-one has anything to complain about then. So I just mentioned to the rest of the girls how I’d heard that Freya had fleas and cockroaches in that slum she lived in and that was why she was so good at biology. I said it a bit loudly but it got a couple of the girls laughing anyway and they moved away from Freya and pretended to scratch. The ones that looked awkward probably didn’t understand the joke.   

Now I reckon that was the trigger point. You gave me evils while Lauren took Freya away with her arm round Freya’s shoulder. Freya was crying again: the big wet cabbage. That’s when you decided. I remember you asking Freya really loudly if you could go round hers that evening. It was after that.

Yes, I know it didn’t happen the next day or the day after, but I reckon that evening at Freya’s house, you found something in one of her dad’s disgusting old books.  

So everything was fine for a couple of days and then on Monday, I overslept. Mum didn’t wake me. She’d gone to work without dropping me off, which she does sometimes, but this time, she hadn’t found someone else to take me. So I just had to walk there on my own. I was a bit late so the only person arriving at the same time was Chelsea and she just ignored me. Didn’t even look at me. It was as if I wasn’t there. It was the same with everyone. They all ignored me. The bell rang and I went into the classroom and Mrs Jones took the register and when she got to my name she said ‘absent’ and that was that. It was the same all day. I put my hand up, no-one noticed. I kicked Sam under the table. He didn’t flinch. At break, no-one heard me. After lunch, Mrs Jones got to my name on the register again, looked a bit confused and said ‘why’s her name still on here?’ At the end of the day, she said ‘Chelsea, tomorrow, come and sit in that empty seat.’ and pointed where I was sitting. I looked round the class and no-one looked surprised or anything. Except you. You were looking straight at me and smiling in that quiet way of yours. God I was mad. I went up to Rhys and punched him really hard, just to prove I was there. I got up out of my seat and did it right in front of everyone, but no-one said a thing and Rhys, that great oaf, he just waved his hand a bit as if there was a fly around him.

I went home and Mum couldn’t see me either. She made enough supper for two but looked a bit confused and put the second plate in the fridge. I ate it cold when she’d left the kitchen. I sat down with her to watch TV but it wasn’t the same without her telling me to go to bed and me telling her how useless she is. 

I’ve kept coming to school. What else was there to do? I just thought it was some kind of seriously unfunny joke. A day after it happened to me, when I was sitting at the back of the class in Chelsea’s old seat, I saw Charlie come in crying. He wasn’t even pretending not to. He had gravel burn all down his cheek and his jumper was all ripped. The other boys squirmed a bit but everyone knew Rhys would come sauntering in next, on the look out for someone else to thump. Mrs Jones  told everyone to settle down and asked Charlie what had happened. 

‘Fell down,’ he said.

She didn’t believe it but shrugged. She scowled at Rhys, but Rhys just looked as innocent as it’s possible for Rhys to look. And thinking about it now, you glared at Rhys then while everyone else found something else to be interested in.

On Wednesday, Rhys came in to class but when Mrs Jones got to his name on the register, she marked him absent though he said ‘yes miss’. 

She’d stopped calling out my name the previous day. 

Rhys was angry. He started throwing things about, only nothing actually moved. It looked like they’d moved but at the same time it looked as if they were still where they were supposed to be. It was really weird. Everyone just got on with their work. Rhys got up and walked about thumping people. No-one noticed. Then he got to me, said ‘where’ve you been hiding?’ and punched me in the arm and I said ‘Ow!  Stop it you prat!’ and punched him back. It’s not really my style but I had to do something.

So there we were. I could see him and he could see me but we were both invisible to everyone else.  And after a while Mrs Jones just referred to me as ‘that girl who used to be here’ but said it as if saying my name made her mouth taste bad and talked about Rhys as if he were a particularly stupid pile of manure.

I thought Rhys only came to school to beat Charlie up, so I expected him to bunk off once no-one would notice. But he’s still here. I guess even he has enough brain cells to get fed up with hanging out at home. All the same, he’s worried because Ben’s taking Charlie to judo with him now.  Let’s face it, if he’d known how to, Charlie always could have got the better of Rhys. Now I bet Rhys is almost hoping to stay invisible.  

Me, I actually want to learn stuff, so it’s a bit frustrating when I know the answer and no-one’s listening. The only thing that made school bearable until this morning was that Mrs Jones was good for entertainment. I liked it when she made Chelsea finish that problem on the white board only made sure it was so high up that Chelsea had to stand on a chair and it was such a laugh when she got Tim to read out that long poem then mimicked his lisp. Yesterday, I thought it was hysterical when she laughed in front of everyone at Freya’s bit of creative writing about her father’s magic books. 

I’ve only just clicked it wasn’t funny. And it wasn’t a story.

I’m normally so bright, I can’t believe I didn’t realise the truth till you did it to Mrs Jones too. She came in late this morning, in a foul mood and bellowed like a cow, but no-one paid any attention. She banged on the desk till it nearly broke, but no-one calmed down. 

I actually felt a little scared of her, but I thought at least she can’t see me. Then I realised she  could. She was staring at me and Rhys while the class was laughing and chucking things around her. 

When the head came in to see what was going on and totally ignored her, Mrs Jones just slammed her way out of the classroom. And I looked over to you, Niamh, and you were laughing your head off.

So Niamh, I’ve worked out it’s all your fault. I know it is. I don’t know how but you’re staring at us with that smug grin. I thought nothing got to you, but obviously something does. I’ve never done anything to you, yet you’ve played this trick on me. I don’t know why, but if you can see us. I’m hoping you can read this and can reverse the spell or whatever you need to do.

Cos you know what I hate. What I really hate? I hate how they all forgot me and Rhys so fast.  Or not forgot, but how those kids I thought were my friends are all so catty about me now. I was the one that made things interesting and now they talk about me like they hated me. Some of them even hang out with Freya and say they were frightened of me. Me? I wasn’t like Rhys – I never hit anyone. I just like a good laugh. What’s scary about that? What’s wrong with them all? Turns out Freya has a sense of humour too and can smile. Who knew? I’ve heard some of the kids say even though she’s weird and boring, she’s funny and nice all the same so they just roll their eyes a bit and talk to her as if she was normal. 

And I miss my mum who just sits quietly at home in the evening and looks at my photo as if she’s trying to remember who I am.  

I don’t know what you think I’ve done to annoy you, but maybe you can tell me and then you can make things go back to normal. Maybe I’ll even try to work out what you all like about Freya. 

Niamh, please reverse that spell. 

It’s lonely when you’re invisible, Niamh.  

And it’s sooo boring.  

grey zoe

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.

Breaking News: a new book with Val Portelli

When I joined Facebook, my ‘friends’ were family, close friends and/or colleagues. Some of them came under the ‘long-lost’ category and it was wonderful to reconnect and keep in touch but beyond that I didn’t expect to get much out of social media.

Then I discovered one of my colleagues was a member of a writers’ page. I probably didn’t at that point, even realise such groups existed on Facebook and I didn’t even know this particular friend liked to write since apart from discussing work, we mostly discussed cookery. But I had a peek anyway.

This was all around the time when I was taking my first tentatives steps to get back into writing. I’d entered a local short story competition and to my amazement had been short-listed in the flash category with a 300 word story. So I joined one of the on-line writers’ groups and started to read things that people posted: flash fiction, dribbles, drabbles, six word stories… I was astonished at the imagination, the camaraderie, the fun people were having.

At one point, someone wrote about walking in the woods at night. Then someone else did their own take and it brought to mind how much time I’d spent in local woodland when I was a lonely child.  I imagined revisiting it, something I have not done for a very, very long time and a story formed in my head. And then another. All of a sudden, I had two short stories, one funny, one serious. Longer versions of both are in my first book ‘Kindling’.

A little after that, I joined another writers’ Facebook group and found the same welcome and encouragement.

So there I was, catapulted out of my safety zone into the world of social media and something I never expected to be the outcome happened.

I made new friends. 

Now one of them, Val Portelli (aka Voinks), was intriguing. Mythical beings and sometimes romance peppered her often gothic stories. Somehow or other we ‘clicked’ and started contributing to the same threads and sharing ideas. 

We both like a little element of the fantastic and provided each other with ‘prompts’. Over time, this developed into enough trust to make constructive comments on works-in-progress. This is the author equivalent of asking ‘does my bum look big in this?’ and bracing oneself for the actual truth. It’s very scary.

Val and I didn’t meet in person until last year. In nervous anticipation I wrote a story called ‘Penfriends’ about what might feasibly go wrong, but we got on very well indeed. And then one of us said ‘why don’t we pull all our fantasy short stories, flash fiction and drabbles into a book?’

So we did. 

‘Weird and Peculiar Tales’ is out today on Amazon. 

If you like short stories which may be funny or chilling or serious but always involving magic, myth or legend, take a peek. After all, the holidays are coming up!

Link to Amazon.co.uk

Link to Amazon.com

Link to Val Portelli’s website

weird & wonderful Tales black cover 30.3.18

The Start of the Bridge

The girl sped up, her heels clicking on the wet pavement. She was unsteady in her haste, or perhaps she was staggering because of what had been in her drink. Maybe it was both. Drizzle made her hair unstraighten. He liked it that way. And when she passed under the streetlight, raindrops sparkled in the curls like tiny translucent pearls. He smiled.

Just at the start of the bridge, her right heel caught in a crack and her foot twisted. She cried out, stopped, half turned and looked at him. Her eyes widened. His smile became a grin and he continued his nonchalant approach. The path along the river was just to their right, the scent of wet summer hedgerows drifted from the darkness. Her thin top was nearly soaked through, clinging to her body. He imagined the taste of the water on her skin, the softness under the wet fabric. She would be like a mermaid. It would be wonderful. 

The girl started to cry. She pulled at the shoe caught in the pavement and then wrenched at the strap to take it off. He smiled. He only had to walk three strides and he’d have reached her. As long as she didn’t get across the bridge, he could take her down the path and show her what she was missing.

With one more stride he passed the funny little ruin at the start of the bridge. The girl was an arm’s length away now, still struggling with the buckle, tears mingling with rain.

Before he could touch her, something grabbed his arm and the world went black.

*****

His nostrils filled with a stench which made him retch: fungus, sodden straw, smoky, filthy clothes, human waste and body odours so layered in tone and undertone he wondered how mere sweat could create them. He reached out his arms in the darkness and touched, on one side wet stone and on the other softness restrained under slimy cloth. A breast. His wrist was gripped.

‘Oh no you don’t.’

The voice was hoarse, as if the whisper was dragged through smoke and throat-dissolving gin. The words stank of rotten meat. 

‘Let me go!’

‘What if I don’t want to?’

‘Let me go you…’

What was she this woman? She was short, that was all he knew. But he couldn’t work out if she was old or young, fat or thin. There was no light whatsoever. She spoke again.

‘What were you gonna to do that girl?’

’N…Nothing. I just wanted a bit of a cuddle.’

‘Didn’t look like she was interested.’

‘She never gave me the chance.’

He squirmed in her grip but the hand, though small, was strong. It tightened round his wrist.

‘Let me go!’

‘And if she’d ask you to let her go? Would you have? The truth now. I’ll know if you’re lying.’

He swallowed. He still couldn’t see, just smell the cold, damp of the room or whatever it was, feel her foul breath, taste the mould on the damp walls, hear the trickle of water somewhere outside. Was it the river? He thought of the river-bank, of holding the girl down in the undergrowth squirming like an eel. The grip on his wrist tightened even more. He pulled at it with his other hand but could not unpeel the woman’s small fingers. He flailed in the darkness for her face, for a door, for a weapon. Failing, he felt his bowels loosen.

‘Where is this?’ he said.

‘The jail.’

‘What jail? There’s no jail in this town anymore. They moved it to… I don’t know where, but we haven’t got one.’ He snorted. She was just a filthy idiot. He tried to wrench his arm away but her grip tightened evermore. 

‘Oh yes there is,’ she said. ‘You were standing right by it.’

He remembered. The funny little ruin at the end of the bridge: there were handcuffs carved into the old stone. 

‘Now in my day,’ the woman said calmly, her jagged nails digging into the soft flesh of his wrist, cutting the skin, ‘in my day, this was just for petty criminals to cool them down overnight. Pickpockets, drunks, brawlers. People like me. In my day, they never worried about men like you. “Fair game” they used to say about girls like her, out late, all alone. Times change.’

‘What do you mean “in your day”? Let me go! A girl like that’s still fair game. What’s she to you?’

‘Oh she’s my … let me see… great great great grand-daughter or something. Maybe a few more greats.’

He swallowed, this woman was filthy and mad. And then he was aware of the coldness of her small hand, how hard and tiny the fingers round his wrist, the way her breath was fading, the smells receding into nothing but damp stone. He could hear the river again, a car passing in the rain. He could hear people talking: a panicked girl, someone else comforting her. He could make out the orange glow of street lights through cracks in the old padlocked door. 

‘How can you know that girl was your anything?’ he whispered.

A voice, fading and cold, murmured, ‘any girl in trouble is my something.’

*****

The stench told them where he was.

‘Been dead a week I reckon,’ said the pathologist.

‘Beats me how his body got here,’ said the detective. ‘It took us an hour to break in. The lock’s been rusted solid for over fifty years and there’s no other entrance. What killed him?’

‘No obvious cause of death. There’s not a mark on him but some scratches on his wrist which … it’s hard to tell but … they seem to be words…’ 

The detective held the torch closer, covering his face from the stench and flies.

‘What do they say?’

The pathologist peered closer, twisting the wrist in the beam of light.

‘What do you reckon? To me it looks like “fair game”.’

 

bridge

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.

Shopping for Comfort

Alice Thompson walked briskly towards the shop. She felt as if she ought to have a basket to swing. It wasn’t the same with a squishy cloth bag. She chuckled, remembering doing this walk with her mother all those many, many years ago. One hand would be holding Mummy’s hand and the other would be swinging the basket and somehow she always managed to hit the grumpiest people with it rather than the ones who would laugh it off. Like sour old Mrs Higgins for example who would rub her elbow and mutter about children nowadays and stomp off with a face like a prune and her stockings sagging at the ankles and Alice would look up at Mummy and Mummy would wink and grin and sometimes they’d both skip to the shop together. It was strange how Mummy’s face was remembered so clearly, those laughing dark brown eyes, that lovely dark hair in a roll round her head. When they went out, she’d wear a bright headscarf. “Hitler’s not going to stop us from looking pretty,” she’d say.

Alice paused to peruse her shopping list, there was always something she’d forgotten. “Mustard, Custard, Beef Extract.” Had she really run out of nothing else? She looked back towards home and frowned. There were so many cars whizzing about these days. There only used to be one or two. Still plenty of grumpy people about though. She looked for Mrs Higgins but couldn’t see her, perhaps she’d done her shopping earlier. Turning back, Alice was surprised that the baker had changed his paint scheme and the goods inside the window looked impossibly tempting. Must have been up all night making those things out of cardboard: cakes and whatnot.
She blinked, looked back at her list and shrugged, speaking to the inner disquiet, “Mummy always said a hot cup of beef extract will comfort you when there’s not much in the cupboard and custard’s a real treat and mustard…” Why did she want mustard? She visualised the little yellow tin with the red writing and the bull’s head and the royal crest. Why did mustard have a bull on it? Was it because it was nice with beef? A bit cruel to the bull, that is, sticking its head on the tin of something you’re going to eat with it.

She walked more slowly now until she arrived at the shop. It too had transformed, very gaudy, and the name of the grocer had gone and was replaced by a big bright nonsensical word: “Costbeater”. Alice’s hand shook as she pushed the door open. Inside the place was full of shelves and goods, floor to ceiling: goods of all kinds, bright and jolly and meaningless. She picked things up at random. What were noodles? What was ravioli? What was soy sauce? Alice’s legs felt weak. She must be in a dream. There shouldn’t be this much stuff here. There should be a brown counter and all the goods behind it; all the goods Mr Perkins could obtain anyway. And she and Mummy would read out their list and give up their coupons…

Oh no, she’d left the coupons behind. What was she going to do? She could feel her eyes fill. Then a voice said, “hello Mrs Thompson, are you O.K? Oh dear, you look a bit upset. Come and sit down, come on, here’s the chair. Take a deep breath and let me look at your list.”

Alice let herself be led to a chair and sat, shaking, wondering who Mrs Thompson was. She wiped her eyes and looked up at the girl who had helped her. She was very brown. Maybe she’d been out in the sun a lot, or more likely she was one of those evacuees. People from London looked different didn’t they? She was kind though, the brown girl. Alice smiled and wondered if they could make friends. She handed over the list and the girl smiled. “Ah yes,” she said, “I’ll get these for you, just you sit there.”

“We’ve forgotten our coupons,” said Alice. She looked round, “where’s Mummy?” she asked.

The brown girl’s smile dropped a little. Then she brightened, turning to beckon someone from the back of the shop.

Alice tucked her handkerchief back into her sleeve, then looked up into her mother’s eyes. Big brown eyes smiled down at her. Her mother’s hair was darker than usual but the headscarf was so pretty, blue and pink today with bits of gold. Her skin was browner than usual too. Still she’d been out in the garden a lot recently. But her eyes were the same: kind and happy.

“Don’t worry about the coupons,” said Mummy, “bring them next time.”

Alice looked at the list again. She felt like she had just woken up and frowned, “I can’t think why I put these things on there,” she said, “it’s cheese, bread and milk I need.”

“I thought as much,” said Mrs Patel, “But don’t worry, just sit there while we get your shopping and then I’ll see you home safe and sound. I’ll just ring your daughter so she’s there waiting for you.”

“Maybe the beef extract too, then,” said Alice, “I can make her some when I’m home. She seems a bit sad these days. There’s nothing like a cup of beef extract to cheer you up. Liquid comfort, my mother used to say. Liquid comfort.”

comfort2

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

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?

 

abstract

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

Don’t Move

I am so cold and so alone.

It is nearly silent now, this dead hour, this dead dark hour. I can only hear the soft worrying noises of night. I can hear a lone distant car becoming more distant. Free to go – not tethered like me.

Tethered, yes that is me – tied to this room, this house, this life, this never ending wakefulness. Tethered to the shore perhaps but at the same time cast loose to the night – floating on a dark river of exhaustion and uncertainty and fear.

I dare not leave this room. You will hear me move. You will sense me. Awake: you are an endless list of demands and desires.

For now you are asleep at last. I can hear your light breathing. But soon you will reawaken and call for me.

I wish… what do I wish? Do I wish I could pass this servitude to someone else – just for a day, no just for an hour, no just for a few minutes?

No, I wouldn’t.

I want you to demand only me, to want only me, to cry out for only me.

But just let me move, my precious baby, just let me move, just let me for one whole sweet night go back to my own room, to sleep, dreamless, warm in my own bed.

dark with lights

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

At the Book-Signing

“I don’t really read.”
“Oh”
“But I came cos your name reminded me of someone I knew at school. In fact it’s weird. You look just like her.”
“That’s because I AM her.”
“No you can’t be.”
“I am. And I recognise you too.”
“No you’re not her. She was a weirdo. And a swot.”
“Yup. That was me.”
“Yeah but you look normal.”
“I did then too.”
“And see, it says here on the front cover ‘humour’. She didn’t have a sense of humour at all. Trust me.”
“It’s hard to laugh when someone’s hidden your stuff, beaten you up and isolated you from the rest of the class.”
“She was good at those boring things like history and English. She liked reading. She’d probably have read your book.”
“I have.”
“I always wanted to be in a book.”
“You are. Fourth story in. The one called ‘Revenge’.”
….
“That’s gross. Is that even physically possible?”
“Tell you what, take a book home with my compliments before I’m tempted to find out.”
“Nah. Like I said, I don’t really read.”

pen

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

(This was written in response to a prompt “Imagine you’re at a book signing – what happens?”)