yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

on the day the clocks went back

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The clocks went back last night. British Summer Time is over, the dark nights are here. It was a sunny morning, cool and windy. As I left the house to go for a walk and get the newspapers, Hugo was getting out of his car. He had a small plastic giraffe under his arm.

‘Here, mate, that tree of yours has suddenly gone yellow, hasn’t it?’ he shouted.

‘Happens every autumn, Fletch,’ I said, laughing.

Maureen and the Whelp were knocking on the Widow’s door.

‘She’s gone away,’ I said.

‘Oh?’ Maureen said. The Whelp gawped superciliously over her shoulder.

‘No, no,’ I said, seeing that my remark had an ambiguity which those who were religiously minded might find especially confusing. ‘I mean she’s gone to stay with her brother in Derbyshire. We’re not sure when she’ll be back.’

‘Oh,’ Maureen said again, but this time with a relieved smile. She got out her note book and wrote something in it. Perhaps she was noting that the Widow hadn’t escaped doing business with them by grabbing an early flight to heaven with the Methodists.

Boz went completely off the rails last week. He came to the office several times with one query after another about his children and his rights and the stupidity of the law.  On Wednesday he was arrested for stealing seed from a bird-feeder in a garden on the Fallowfield estate. It appears that he had been reliably informed that commercial bird seed contains cannabis seeds.

Boz had estimated that there are probably about five hundred bird feeders in Ashington, mostly hanging from trees and bird tables in the new private estates. He reckoned that there would be on average a pound of seed in each feeder. If ten percent of that was cannabis seed that would be fifty pounds of the stuff.  Boz reckoned a shrewd dealer would surely pay a tidy sum for fifty pounds of cannabis seed. All he had to do was to break the town into manageable harvesting districts – each district being about the right size for one night’s work – and systematically gather the seed from the gardens. He couldn’t fail.

On Wednesday night he found himself with his back against a six foot lattice fence in a garden in Magnolia Drive, cornered behind the garden pond by a Rottweiller called Dexter Dan. Dexter Dan’s owner, Geoffrey Harrison, a retired seaman and Chief Storekeeper by trade, shone his high-powered torch into Boz’s face and told him the police were on there way. Rather uncharacteristically Boz said nothing and instead began eating the seed from his pocket. He later explained that he’d calculated that trespass was a less serious offence than possession of more of a Class C drug than he could reasonably argue was for personal use only.

Boz was released the following morning and came in to see Lily at about lunchtime.  He told her of the idea he’d had and how he’d been apprehended on his very first seed gathering expedition.

‘They kept me in a cell all night, Lil,’ he said. ‘The police have no right to do the things they do, you know. Do I look like a criminal to you, Lil? Do I?’

Lily shook her head ambiguously. ‘So did they charge you with anything?’ she asked.

‘They’re complete numpties, complete bloody wassocks.’

‘So you were charged with something?’

‘They charged me with criminal damage to a bird feeder.’ Boz looked Lily straight in the eyes. He was very serious. He was saying loud and clear that this was no laughing matter.

‘Well, that’s not serious, Boz,’ she said. ‘I mean, it might never get to court.’

‘They also charged me with the theft of ten ounces of birdseed with an estimated value of two pounds fifty.’ He paused.

Lily put his hand on his shoulder.

‘I’ll be a laughing stock, Lil,’ he said. ‘The numpties from Newbiggin will call me Birdseed or Pecker or something else just as stupid that they’ll think is absolutely bloody hilarious. I’ll never be able to hold my head up in Ashington again. Never.’

‘Forget about it,’ Lily said. ‘Listen, no-one will ever know about it in any case if it doesn’t get to court. And I’m sure it won’t, Boz. It’d be a waste of public money.’

‘Can I have the kids this weekend, Lil?’ Boz asked, very calmly. ‘I need them with me right now. You can come and inspect the caravan if you want.’

Lily shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Boz’, she said. ‘You know that can’t happen. It’s just not the right thing for the kids.’

Boz shook his head slowly. But he didn’t get angry at all. In fact, Lily felt he accepted this very easily. He looked very composed, as if he’d finally gained control of himself. As if, as Lily put it, the penny had finally dropped. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I just needed to ask you. You understand that, right?’

‘Yes,’ Lily said. ‘I do understand.’

What happened in the next few hours is somewhat unclear. However, at about eight thirty on Thursday evening the police were called to Bubbles where Boz was being restrained by the doorman and a couple of lads from North Seaton. Boz had gone into Bubbles and announced to everyone there that he was a suicide bomber and that he was about to blow the place up. He pulled open his jacket and revealed a belt which he claimed was packed with explosives. The doorman sauntered over, head-butted him and threw him to the ground. The lads from North Seaton then helped out by putting in the boot. They removed the belt and found it was packed with Rowntree’s Table Jelly.

The police arrested Boz and initially considered holding him under Schedule 8 of the Terrorism Act 2000. However, it struck the duty Sergeant that a man who had just one day earlier been arrested for stealing birdseed from a garden feeder and who at the time of arrest had nothing more dangerous on his person than some unopened packets of Rowntree’s Table Jelly, probably wasn’t a member of Al Qaeda. In fact, he probably wasn’t at all well. Later that night Boz was sectioned. He is now in St George’s Hospital.

On Friday night I went to a working men’s club in Cramlington for the retirement do for Rosie Lake, who has managed long-term placements for children since time began. I don’t like these sort of does and, while I like and respect Rosie, I would normally have given it a very wide berth. Unfortunately I was roped into being a late replacement for Jack Verdi, who was going to play the piano for some of Rosie’s colleagues who wanted to sing a few songs for her. Jack rang me up and told me that for personal reasons he wouldn’t now be able to play. He asked me to stand in for him. I reluctantly agreed. I said I was surprised that he wasn’t able to go as he and Rosie had once been rivals for the same post and had been through a lot together. He said he genuinely regretted not being able to play for her.

Jack Verdi used to be a professional musician before he gave it all up to become a social worker and raise a family. Jack was in a band that made one or two chart-topping singles. He lived the rock and roll lifestyle to the hilt and in his younger days had quite a reputation as a hell-raiser. The story of how he once threw the ironing board out of the window of the Chelsea Hotel is still recounted in music circles to this day. Jack was hot tempered and quite notorious for getting into fights with other musicians about apparently insignificant issues. One story relates how he once threw a pint of cider over a sound engineer who’d suggested that B-flat was a better key than G for a particular song. This propensity for fighting led to Jack acquiring the nickname of ‘Scrapper’, and again even now from time to time in Q or Mojo or Rolling Stone you will see Scrapper Verdi invoked as the paradigm for the wild man of British rock.

On more than one occasion in recent years Jack has been expected to play at departmental leaving does, but for one reason or another he has never yet done so. Some people believe this is because Jack very much prefers the electric organ to the piano, and because he cannot bear to play anything but a top class instrument. It’s said he has a really wonderful organ, but that it’s far too big to bring along to a do. Someone once told me it’s a Hammond organ – complete with bass pedalboard and every other bell and whistle – and that it once belonged to Billy Preston. What people say is that Jack’s reputation depends upon his organ and that without it he’d be very ordinary. They say this is the reason he never plays in public nowadays.

I think that may be a little harsh. Jack has in fact sometimes turned up at a do but when he has he has always done something other than play the piano. It is true of course that he has sometimes chosen to do something unexpected and slightly eccentric. When Sally Chaudry left the Adoption Unit, Jack went along to her leaving do, stepped up to the microphone and read aloud for her selected passages from Moby Dick. Then, completely unaccompanied, he sang in their entirety two long Greenland whaling songs. The urge to perform really is irrepressible in some people.

I went along to Rosie’s do at about seven. I checked out what songs we were doing with Betty Gormley, who was the main singer for the evening. Betty – known to her colleagues as “Butterbeans” – is a bluff sort of woman from Rotherham. As a young woman she worked in a textile mill and used to sing in local pubs at nights to make some extra money. Like Jack she got a taste for the limelight and even though she moved on in her life – she married a man who ran a betting shop and got herself an education – she too is still drawn back there sometimes.

There was a reasonable turn out for Rosie’s do, including one or two notable faces from the past.  There were also some notable absentees, of course, not least among them Gilmour, who had told Rosie he’d be there for sure.

Once everyone had arrived Freddy Fotheringay, Rosie’s senior manager, made an amusing if somewhat predictable speech about the great service she has given the Department. He then presented her with her leaving present. Rosie took to the mike and did her bit, paying warm and generous tributes to colleagues past and present. She also took a few well-aimed shots at the pernicious effects that managerialism is having on the services provided for vulnerable children. Freddy smiled and took it on the chin. The Inspectors will be back soon and there’s not a blind thing he can do about it. It occurred to me at that point how Rosie suddenly looked older than she did just a week or so ago, and somehow much smaller. When someone’s working life comes to an end does something physical suddenly happen to them?

I took to the piano and Betty along with one or two of her colleagues took to the mike, most notably Talullah Hudspith, the youngest woman in the room, who has a strange penchant for feathers and platform shoes. We banged out three or four numbers from the Chas and Dave Songbook, which always goes down well this kind of audience. We then did one or two of Betty’s personal favourites – ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Pedro the Fisherman’ – before ending with a rousing version of ‘Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)’. Betty knew her audience well; it all went down perfectly.

Performance over, I sat at the back of the room with a plate full of crisps, the only guaranteed vegetarian option from the buffet table. I was sitting musing on the meaning of retirement and the loss of purpose that it sometimes brings. I was also musing about how suddenly it can alter our perception of a person, especially if that person has been powerful at work. That loss of power seemed to me perhaps the thing that stripped the person of their aura, that made them suddenly seem physically different. I was wondering if that is why my dad sometimes seems so small to me nowadays. He never did when I was a kid. Do we always instinctively equate size with power and does this affect our perception? Do we imagine a big person is powerful and therefore imagine a powerful person is big?

I was pondering how I might make my getaway when Butterbeans Gormley got back on to the stage and called for everyone’s attention. There had been a complaint made to the police and they were on their way over now. They wanted to interview Rosie, she believed, and possibly some others. No-one should leave the room. Rosie shook her head. She was genuinely aghast at this prospect. Everyone present was stunned into silence.

And then the policeman entered the room. He had his hat on and a truncheon at his side and walked purposefully into the middle of the darkened room. And at that point Butterbeans must have pressed play on the CD player. ‘You Sexy Thing’ by Hot Chocolate began blaring out. The policeman looked up and threw his helmet across the room.

It was Jack Verdi. One or two gasped, one or two covered their faces, one or two cheered. Most pinched themselves to see if they were awake and tried desperately to get their hands to make a clapping motion. Jack began gyrating sinuously in front of Rosie.

Jack looked flushed to me, but he was clearly still in remarkable condition, the result no doubt of the obsession with jogging he has had in recent years. He ripped of his Velcroed on jacket. We all know where he got this routine from, and it wasn’t Herman Melville. He ripped off his shirt, ripped off his policeman’s trousers. He writhed around shamelessly to the relentless music, dressed only in shiny black boots, black socks and a black leather thong. Jack was giving it his all, turning back the clock to give Rosie a send-off she’d never forget. There was only one question now: were we about to see the Full Monty Verdi?

Jack’s a friend, so let me spare his blushes. But I will say this: sometimes there’s a lot to be said for a Greenland whaling song. There’s a lot to be said for the Hammond Organ too.

Yesterday I finished my painting of Corby’s Crag. It has a certain roughness to it that I like, and the palette is wider than I’ve been using in the last year or so. I’ve got too many paintings lying around the house now. Perhaps I should try to sell some of them.

This afternoon I went out on the bike for an hour or so. I rode out across the reclaimed land from the old Isabella Colliery and then on up to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. It was hard work riding into the strong westerly wind, but it was a beautiful autumnal day. In places the roads were laminated with brown and yellow leaves and blowing down all around me. I rode up into Cramlington. It began to rain lightly and for a few minutes I stopped in a subway, where I read the graffiti and reflected again on Jack’s performance on Friday night. Once a rock star, always a rock star, I thought.

When the rain stopped I decided to head for home. With the wind at my back I flew down the Laverock Hall Road, past the bruised blackberry bushes and the tattered hawthorns. I came down Plessey Road with the late afternoon sun at my back and could see my long shadow pedalling ahead of me. In the pale blue sky over the sea there were a few ragged dark grey clouds. One of them was shaped like a West Highland Terrier.

I sat with De Kooning in the conservatory as I ate my rice and broccoli. I was trying to reset my watch, to turn it back an hour. It’s a complicated multi-function digital device and I still hadn’t discovered how to do it when Margaret came into the room. She was waiting for a pan of onions and turnip to cook.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘Trying to set my watch,’ I replied.

‘Oh, of course,’ she said. ‘The clock’s have gone back.’

‘So are you going to reset all the stopped ones?’ I asked. ‘Make then quarter past two instead of quarter past three? You should really.’

‘Why?’ she said. ‘The time on a stopped clock is meaningless.’

‘I don’t know about that,’ I said. ‘It seems to me that you’ve now got twenty two clocks that are all an hour fast.’

Margaret shook her head and tutted.

‘Well, what about the Napoleon in your room?’ I said. ‘Are you going to put that back to the same time as the others again?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so. Some things are best left alone.’

Which reminds me, I must go out and see where Hugo’s put the small plastic giraffe.

 .

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