The Permutations of Patty Pearson

Submitted into Contest #32 in response to: Write a story that includes characters who are aware they are a work of fiction.... view prompt



My name is Trisha Hamilton, and you’ll probably have heard of me. Especially if you’re female and aged between 40 and 60, or younger and have a Mum or Gran who keeps her childhood books, or older, if you keep the books your children had, or if you haunt secondhand bookshops and the book sections of charity shops.

     Who is this woman with the ego on her, you might be thinking. Well, okay, I’m being a bit mischievous. You’ll have heard of Patty Pearson. Well, probably. But Patricia is one of those obliging names that gives you two totally different variants, and feminist or not, I took my husband’s name, and still use it, even though we’re entirely amicably separated. 

     You’ll note that I keep harping on the word probably like some lager commercial assuming false modesty as a sales tactic. 

     By the way, this isn’t going to be one of those Mommie Dearest type misery memoirs. Fair enough, Mum and I have had our differences and our slanging matches and our spells of radio silence. But I see why she did what she did, and I got a fair amount of enjoyment out of it as well as the irritation. Mind you, so did she!

     Unlike Alan and I, Mum and my biological father (I never knew him, and never had any wish to, and trust me, I’ll never be persuaded otherwise. So far as I’m concerned, even though I don’t call him Dad and he never expected me to, my stepfather, Mike, who Mum married when I was in my teens was my Dad, and a brilliant one. I just wish they’d got round to it sooner.) didn’t separate amicably at all. She made some laudable attempt to tell both sides of the story, but as soon as I was old enough, and possibly before, my Grandma and my Uncle Luke made sure I knew all about him and I never harboured any illusions. 

     I suppose in my early childhood we were living in what certain old-fashioned books used to call genteel poverty. Oh, there wasn’t a doily or an antimacassar in sight (though I knew for a fact that grandma had both in the drawers in her little flat beside the sea and had no intention of parting with them). We did not take in paying guests, and I never lacked for anything I needed, nor, when I was little, for anything I wanted. Mum had the kind of pragmatic pride that meant she would never have hesitated to get any benefit she could that was meant for me, no matter how embarrassing an interview or intrusive a form, but did not want to draw anything for herself. She had a great many (or perhaps not as many as I imagine) little jobs, serving at the corner shop, temping (I knew when she was temping as she brought the work home sometimes and though her typewriter was electric, it was of the old-fashioned noisy, clattery kind with a golf ball. I knew what a golf ball was on a typewriter long before I knew what it was on a golf course) and sometimes doing a couple of shifts behind the bar at the Mason’s Mill. When that was in the evening there were a couple of “regular” babysitters. I didn’t like the term, after all, I wasn’t a baby, but the women were okay. Lillian was quite an old lady, as old as Grandma, and we used to watch soaps (except I don’t think they were called soaps then, or maybe just starting to be) and quiz shows together, and Sue was still not much more than a child herself, in the Lower Sixth at the local high school, and brought along her cassette collection. I suspect both the soaps and the cassettes contained things that were not necessarily age-appropriate, and they were quite lenient on the matter of bedtime, too, though so was Mum. 

     Mum always says that the Patty books (she always called me Patricia or occasionally Pat) were my idea. Well, perhaps, like the books themselves, it’s a half truth. I knew she could certainly spin a fine tale, and knew that she had a way of making me part of the story in a way that made them more interesting and (frankly) flattered my ego but not in the laboured and pre-fab way of those books you see, to this day, advertised as Christmas gifts presenting an Adventure Starring Your Child

     I can’t say I remember saying in so many words “Why don’t you write them down, Mum,” but though she’s a fine storyteller, she’s not a liar, so I suppose it must be true!

     Anyway, the Patty books were born. They filled a convenient gap. They came after the Young Traveller series (which I enjoyed, but somehow had the feeling that even when they were first printed they were a bit old-fashioned. Still, they were a lot more fun than geography textbooks and taught me far more!) but before anyone “normal” had the internet or any of its predecessors. They also had the definite edge that Mum was good at geography. She had a degree in it (okay, a joint one with economics, but I wasn’t sure what economics were) and even when I was little I knew she entertained the notion of training as a geography teacher one day. And she was also good, very good, at telling a story.

     She swore that in the first book Patty goes to Peru the alliteration was unintentional and she was indulging in a bit of wish-fulfilment fantasy about visiting Machu Picchu. “Not that I suppose I ever will,” she said, a tad wistfully. I’m pleased to report that, eventually, she did, and was not disappointed. But Patty and “Mum” – who was only ever referred to as Mum – could make that journey. And she was good at it – very good! She was a natural for that Reithian doctrine of combining information and entertainment, and did it with a light touch, without being condescending. The books were illustrated – she did it herself, she had a bit of a flair for drawing, though not as much as she did for writing. She never used photos of me, and for the most part I was very glad about that. Though Patty’s character was most definitely keenly drawn (and she shared my loathing of beetroot, liking for lists, and fascination with languages) in the illustrations she was a bit of a cipher. I suppose they were aimed at children who still, even if they didn’t admit it, liked pictures in their books, but had long outgrown picture books, until they grew into them again. She had long dark hair like me, that she sometimes wore loose and sometimes in a single plait, like me. 

     It was followed by an Antarctic adventure that definitely had a hint of the picaresque but also a surprisingly hard-hitting ecological message ahead of its time, called Patty and the Penguins and a curious volume (remember, this was before the Berlin wall came down) called Patty in Pomerania (I would have liked more about the dogs in it!) and one in which a Roman mystery was solved called Patty and the Purple Robe

     Well, they weren’t overnight blockbusters, and things didn’t go viral then, but they steadily and surely built up a readership, and managed to be liked with young readers and critics and teachers alike. There was even a queue at one of the local bookshops when Patty and the Panama Canal was published, though not one of Harry Potter-esque proportions. 

     Mum’s well-chuffed to this day that one of the production team on Impossible Engineering said that Patty and the Panama Canal originally piqued their interest in such matters. I suppose an actual engineer rather than one that just made TV shows about them would have been even better, but it was still decidedly gratifying.

     Like many series it had its less successful or more controversial (or both) volumes. Patty on a Pilgrimage evoked, well, let’s say, mixed feelings. Mum was at pains to keep it non-controversial and non-denominational and universal, but of course there were those who thought she should leave such subjects alone altogether, and those who thought she should have not been so “PC” – a term that had now already started to be used with more frequency than accuracy. Personally I loved the adventures in the Pyrenees and the legends, like Roland and Oliver, that she wove in, but I don’t think it was one of her better books, even leaving the controversy aside. Luckily she was back on prime and non-controversial form with Patty in Pennsylvania.  It had originally been going to be called Patty in Philadelphia but Mum decided that it was best to maintain the sound as well as the look of the alliteration. Perhaps forewarned by the fate of Pilgrimage, she kept matters Amish to a non-controversial minimum. Ironic, though, that now first editions of Pilgrimage get the best prices of all her books, though none of them have featured in Sotheby’s Auctions or the like.

     By now, though the books never made her a millionaire, we had definitely been lifted out of poverty, even the genteel kind. And we began to have some rather nice holidays in real life! Yes, we did go to Paris and to Palma de Mallorca, and to Portugal, and to Perth (the Scottish one, not the Australian one) but that was, Mum assured me, coincidence, and not a criterion in picking our destination. There was a Patty goes to Paris – somehow there just had to be and would have been anyway, but she made a point of us having holidays that were nothing whatsoever to do with the books.

     Folk sometimes ask me if being Patty caused me any problems and if I wished I weren’t. Well, yes, it did cause me some problems. Especially as I grew older, my classmates realised that even though Mum kept the illustrations fairly anonymous, I was Patty. There was some teasing, and some jealousy, but for the most part it worked out well enough. I had good friends who didn’t care, and my moments of wishing that Mum (or I!) had never had the idea about writing the books were few and far between. 

     She had always sworn that the series would be finite. Not that she’d kill Patty off or anything like that – whether she’d have been less horrified by that notion if Patty’s alter ego wasn’t sitting beside her at the tea table, I don’t know! But that she wouldn’t be some kind of “Patty Pan” and would grow up, at least to some extent, though she did seem to have slowed the ageing progress (maybe the Pilgrimage had some effect after all!) and remained a couple of years behind me. When I was 13 I asked if I could have my hair cut, and Mum, always wise enough to pick her battles, said fair enough as long as it wasn’t anything too dramatic, and on the proviso that Patty still had her long plait. I was fine with that. 

     The last official Patty book was Patty in Pretoria, celebrating the birth of the new South Africa. She didn’t stretch things to the extent of Patty actually meeting Nelson Mandela, but she “swore he caught her eye and smiled” when his motorcade went past. 

     She made no song and dance about ending the series and – probably very wisely – never made any kind of official announcement. She did do something, also very wise, if not necessarily original, and published a book under a different name. This was a “Young Adult” thriller, a genre she had already half-toyed with in Purple Robe, and was well-reviewed. By the time the second one came out (and she had decided not to have any more serial characters, though there was a likeable police officer who made cameo appearances in both) rumours on the burgeoning internet had started to surface, and she came clean about it. By this stage she was diversifying, also writing an adult family saga, and a book with animal protagonists, aimed more at younger readers. Of course there was clamour for more Patty books, and she ruefully said that she was beginning to understand how the likes of Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie had felt. But she held firm. Firm and flexible – and unlike politicians who adopt such slogans, she kept to it. She did not produce any more Patty books, but she never absolutely and categorically ruled out that she was going to.

     Though fan fiction had existed centuries before the online world, even if the phrase itself wasn’t used, it now was blossoming, and she was laidback about it. She carefully never endorsed any particular site or author, but let it be known that as long as certain things were respected and observed (so far as I know there was never anything along the lines of Patty makes a Porn Film but she’d have come down on it like a ton of bricks) she was fine about it.

     And here’s the thing. I’ve done one of my own! In fact, I’ve done three of my own. Unlike Mum I’ve never had the patience (and probably not the talent) to be a full-time author, though I’ve periodically had an odd poem or story published and have somehow been roped into editing the parish magazine even though I’m not much of a church-goer.  I work as an archivist for the council. But I couldn’t imagine life without Patty and the Plutonians

     Oh, and don’t give me that nonsense about it not being a planet. So far as I’m concerned it always has been and always will be.

     Grayla and Incatus say I make far too much of a fuss about it and they’re not remotely bothered, though sometimes I think they protest too much and sometimes they regard it just as a blip.

     “See the big picture, Patty,” Grayla said, only this morning. “And I know it might be an odd thing to say to you but there are things that matter a lot more than words.” Because there was the possibility of someone coming calling, she had shrunk into my thumb nail, less than a speck to anyone who didn’t know. 

     “Remember you know so much more than they do already,” Incatus said, swirling around the room in a metallic violet mist that would have disconcerted anyone who wasn’t used to it. “Infinitely more than their scientists and astronomers. They have only just discovered the shining blue wonders of our special little world. You have visited it hundreds of times, and you know that at the moment,” (by which he meant for the last million years or so) “we’re only small because we choose to be and it’s convenient. We could make Jupiter look like a microbe in a moment.”

     “But for the moment, at least, we don’t need such cheap party tricks,” Grayla smiled – I knew she was smiling though I couldn’t see her. 

     They have advised me to keep this to myself for the time being, not even to tell Mum, though we’re still very close. It’s hard at times. But never mind. There’s always something to look forward to. Grayla and Incatus are taking me on a trip to the asteroid belt tonight!


March 11, 2020 08:12

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


23:57 Mar 18, 2020

I love this story. Meaningful and you take the reader on ta journey. I liked it a lot.


Deborah Mercer
07:34 Mar 19, 2020

Thank you for your kind words, Stephanie!


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply