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Archive for December 2008

as good will stalks the fairy-lit earth

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It would have been a miracle if all the slippers had gone when I returned from Ambleside. They hadn’t. Over the weekend one after another, like Magi logging on to LastMinuteMyrrh.com, Citizens came to collect their orders. Big Trevor had ordered no fewer than six pairs. For his mother he’d ordered some lambswool moccasins in dusky pink. For his mother-in-law the same, but in a more restrained natural light tan. His two sisters and sister-in-law all got shiny silk sequined mules with a low heel in silver, black and red. His daughter got a pair of Winnie the Poohs, which Margaret says have been one of the best sellers over Christmas. Interestingly Trevor didn’t order any slippers for himself and nor did anyone else order any for him. Perhaps Trevor’s a barefoot sort of man at home, I thought. Or perhaps he’s hoping to get a pair for himself in the Slipper Sisters eBay shop sale, which was starting on Christmas Day (because that’s when Marks and Sparks start theirs, Margaret explained).

While I was away the Widow Middlemiss returned home. Her brother and sister-in-law are staying with her until the New Year. It seems she had been quite anxious about returning and had feared that when she got back she would find her house overrun with a plague of frogs. Fortunately this was not the case, although it did occur to me that as was it was winter now and the heating in the house hadn’t been on for months there could be any number of them hibernating behind her settee or under her bed. She sent Margaret a glittery white Christmas card with a picture of an angel on it. Inside the card she thanked Margaret for all her help at the time of the flood. She also gave Margaret a similar card to pass on the Brenda. On Sunday morning Maureen and the Whelp turned up at the Widow’s door. How do they do that? How did they know she had returned? Do doorstep evangelists have some sort of special radar which enables them to detect the presence of people like the Widow? Are they for instance like sharks, which are said to be able detect a single drop of blood in the ocean from more than five miles away and without fail to always find their way to its source within a matter of seconds? How do they do that?

At work most of the toys from the Salvation Army and other charities were delivered and distributed in my absence. We don’t get as many as we used too, though, and there are always a number of parents who turn up at our door in the days before Christmas asking if we can help. For the most part the answer is no. Whatever other Christmas bonuses he gives out there is no allowance for toys for the children of the poor, perhaps because that whole process would look a bit Dickensian and evoke images of the Poor House. The Poor House is not the sort of image New Labour is really looking for.

Lily took Boz’s kids through to the hospital to see him. He’s no longer on a secure ward and expects to be discharged early in the new year. Lily said he was very calm and ‘absolutely lovely’ with the kids. He had bought them presents and had a little Christmas party with them on the ward. They all wore Christmas hats and played pass the parcel and musical chairs with some of the other patients. Angie asked if the Mad Hatter had been there. Lily said he hadn’t. Apparently he’s on Prozac now and not half as much fun as he used to be.  As I listened to this conversation I recalled that the Mad Hatter had been found guilty of murdering time and his stopped at teatime watch came to mind. I wondered if Margaret would be resetting the time on her twenty three clocks for 2009.

On Christmas Eve Angie visited Mandy, Apple and Sparky. Mr Zee was still there and the situation was calm and settled. Mr Zee’s job interview was cancelled because the company went into liquidation and so the possible crisis has been averted, as least for the time being. Angie asked Sparky what he was hoping to get from Santa, and he said a Zorro suit just like his ‘daddy’s’. Unfortunately Flinty has become aware of this development in the relationship between Mr Zee and the children. He rang Angie on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to ask again how he was supposed to get his presents to them. Angie reminded him that he’d already been told several times that if he got them delivered to the office they we would see to it they got to the children in time.

‘Aye, but how can I do that?’ Flinty said. ‘I’m not allowed to enter Ashington, am I? What are you saying, that I should break the conditions of my parole?!’

‘No, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘I am not suggesting you do anything of the sort. I would suggest that it would be very irresponsible for you to ever do such a thing.’

‘Aye, exactly,’ Flinty replied. ‘So how are the kids going to get their presents?’

‘Last time we spoke you said you could get your sister to drop them off. I thought that’s what we agreed would happen.’

‘But what if she doesn’t want to do that?’

‘You said she wouldn’t have any problem doing that. Did you ask her?’

‘That’s not the point, though, is it? What if she’d said no?’

‘So she said yes? So she can drop them off and we’ll make sure they’re delivered.’

‘Any way there’s another thing I’m not happy about. Someone tells me that that freak is making my kids call him dad. Is that true?’ It better bloody well not be.’

‘So far as I am aware Mandy’s current partner is not making the children call him anything,’ Angie said.

‘Hey, listen, pet. Them’s my bairns and I’m telling you now that neither you nor anybody else in this world has the right to let them think some weirdo from a fancy dress parlour is their dad. Got it, pet? I’m their dad, not that freak.’

‘Mandy’s partner has a very good relationship with the children, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘It would be quite wrong to judge anyone merely by the way they dress. But for your information I can assure you he does not dress the way he does as a form of fancy dress. He’s actually a very serious person.’

‘Serious person, my arse! What sort of serious person needs to dress up as some sort of fictional Mexican bandito?! Eh?! If it isn’t just fancy dress, what is it, eh? Is he in disguise or something? Is he being hunted down by the Federales or something?!’

Flinty had a point, of course. There is a big difference between dressing up and being in disguise. A man dressed as an Arab to evade the attention of the police is a good example of the latter, and his behaviour is obviously open to explanation by reference to his predicament (although the reasons for his choice of disguise might be less clear). The reason why someone would simply want to spend all his or her waking hours dressed as Count Dracula, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Godzilla or Zorro is rather less obvious, and in any case if someone did the term ‘wearing fancy dress’ would probably not be an adequate account of their behaviour. But Angie wasn’t wanting to debate the complexities of this issue with him or to provoke him further by raising The Arab question with him, an identity which in any case he’d simply categorically deny he’d ever assumed.

‘I think you’ll find, Mr Flintoff, that we all have a right under Human Rights legislation to dress as we choose, just so long as it doesn’t offend public decency or break some other law.’

‘And you don’t think that a geezer dressed up in cowboy boots and a cape living in the same house as my kids offends me?! What planet are ye from, pet?’

‘Obviously not the same one as you, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie replied. ‘Can I suggest that this conversation is getting us nowhere. If you get your sister to bring the presents in I’ll make sure they are delivered in time for Christmas.’

‘Hey, don’t bother, pet. I’ll tell you what, I’ll deliver them myself!’ he said, and hung up. Flinty’s sister brought the presents in to the office an hour or so later.

Every morning on the days before Christmas I noticed there was a lot of sand around the photocopier, especially on Christmas Eve morning. ‘Morning, Frodo,’ I said as I passed him. ‘How’s tricks?’

‘Is Tom having any holiday this Christmas?’ I asked Jesse from admin when she came up with a letter for me to sign.

‘No, I think he’s in every day,’ she said. ‘I don’t think he’s very big on Christmas.’

‘Has he got any family?’

‘Actually, I’m not sure. Tom’s a very, very private person. He never talks about his home life at all. He’s a sort of international man of mystery.’

‘So he doesn’t have a partner?’

Jesse shrugged. ‘If he does it’s not one he’s ever told anybody about,’ she said.

‘Kids?’

Jesse shrugged again.

‘Parents? Grandparents?’

She shook her head.

‘A girlfriend, a boyfriend, a best friend, a confidante?’

Another shrug.

‘A cat? A budgie? A goldfish?’

Late that afternoon there was only a skeleton staff left in the building. Tom had let all the other admin workers finish early and was in the main office, manning the telephones. I wandered through and sat down at one of the desks.

‘You all ready for Christmas, Tom?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am. I’m looking forward to a few days off.’

‘So do you do anything special at Christmas? Are you a party animal or a stay at home kind of guy?’

‘Oh, I’m not one for parties.’ he said, and smiled.

‘No, me neither,’ I said. ‘And doesn’t all this present buying business drive you loopy?! There’s supposed to be a recession going on. I don’t know about you, but to me it still seemed like Bedlam again out there this year! Still, what’s the point of having money if you’re not going to spend it on anyone, eh?’

Tom smiled, meekly. I noticed a parcel lying on his bag. It was wrapped in fine silver paper with gold spots on it and tied up with a blue satin ribbon. From its size and shape I would have said it looked very much like a new toner cartridge for a Xerox M35. There was also a ream of Premium Ivory Bond and a brand new green extendable leash on the floor near him, as well as another big gift wrapped bundle which looked to me as if it probably contained a quilted stable rug coat for a small horse.

‘Do you want to get away?’ Tom said. ‘I’m happy to hang on here. We can always get you on your mobile, can’t we?’

‘Thanks, Tom. That’s very kind of you. Yeah, I might do that.’

I suspected Tom wanted everyone to go so he could take Frodo home for Christmas. I sat for a minute or so. I got up, leant over towards Tom and shook his hand.

‘All the best to you and yours, Tom,’ I said. ‘Have a really good Christmas.’ What I was wanting to do of course was to remind him that a Xerox is for life, not just for Christmas.

‘Yes,’ Tom said. ‘All the best to you too. Merry Christmas.’

When I got home the house was full of the smell of the sweet onions Margaret was cooking for Christmas Day. I fed De Kooning a plate of prawns and sat for a while flicking through Bill Smith’s book on D Y Cameron. Then I went out for a walk. I crossed Broadway Circle and went along to the top of Waterloo Road to look at the house with the Christmas lights and the inflatable Homer Simpson dressed as Santa. I walked down past the still unfinished market place refurbishment and the bus station and on down to the quayside. It’s easy to convince yourself on a night like this that all is well with the world and that good will really does stalk the earth.

When I got back home Margaret was wrapping up the last of her presents.

‘Did you get Brenda something?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I got her a pair of winter gloves and a matching muff in leopard skin faux fur and a sweet little Radley purse with a lime green dog. I also got her a Chanel Coco Mademoiselle Gift Set – perfume, body cream, body wash, everything. Cocos her favourite. She’ll really love it. Oh, and I got her some silver earrings from The Biscuit Factory, handmade ones with little birds dangling down.’

‘Did you get anything for Tristan?’

‘Of course. I wouldn’t leave him out, would I? I got him a three-pack of striped socks from Topman.’

‘Hmmm, good choice,’ I said. ‘Troskyists are really big on stripes this year.’

‘Oh, by the way, that’s your present from Brenda over there,’ Margaret said. ‘The one beneath the tree in the holly and mistletoe paper.’

I picked it up. It was a cube, each side being perhaps twelve inches in length. I shook it. It rattled a little and I fancied it might have slurped or gurgled too. I very much wanted it to be an electric screwdriver set, but its weight and sound told me it wasn’t.  I wondered if I stared at it long enough and wished hard enough I could change the contents of my unopened gift into what I wanted it to be. I wondered if it was a Plaster of Paris Paint It Yourself horse’s head or an illuminated world globe showing the map of the British Empire at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It was probably not a good idea to entertain such thoughts though, just in case. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

‘Do you know what it is?’ I asked Margaret.

‘No, of course not,’ she replied.

I decided to open it. It was a battery powered Zen-style Feng Shui Windchime Table Fountain. That’s what it said on the box. I took it out. It somehow reminded me of the whale’s jawbone arch at Whitby, although of course that isn’t made of silver plastic. The Table Fountain is obviously meant to be a therapeutic ornament, something to soothe me.

‘Oh, isn’t that lovely!’ Margaret said. ‘It’s so unusual, isn’t it? You must remember to thank her for it.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will. By the way, you did put my name on her present, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, of course. Why? You haven’t bought her something on your own, have you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I haven’t. Not this year. I only wish I had.’

 .

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kurt schwitters and the empty box of fate

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I spent last week staying in a cottage at Under Loughrigg close to Ambleside. I usually have a week away walking in the hills in December, and last week was an especially good time to go this year as it meant I escaped the mayhem of Margaret and Brenda trying to post off all those slippers in time for Christmas. But last week wasn’t such a good week weather-wise. It rained almost every day and on a couple of days rained very hard. Some nights I could hear the Rothay running high and rushing by below my bedroom window.

Monday wasn’t a bad day. There was still quite a good covering of snow on the mountains. In the morning I left town by the old coffin road going north towards Grasmere. As I made my way up the hill toward Rydal Hall fugitive glimpses of sunlight were catching the snow high up on Fairfield, my destination. As I often do when walking where he lived, I tried to put myself in Wordsworth’s shoes and to imagine how walking this path must have felt to him. I often convince myself that this is a futile exercise: even my footwear and map militate against it. Wordsworth had a relationship with the weather and the place that I can hardly begin to imagine, I suspect.

It was cold on Fairfield and felt damp. I made my way down the snowy descent to Grisedale Tarn, which lay below me like a slab of grey pewter in its bowl of broken rock and white snow. From the tarn I followed the bridleway back down to Grasmere. I wandered around the village and had a cappuccino before making my way back by way of the paths to the south of Grasmere and Rydal Water. It turned out to be the best day of the week. After a frosty start on Tuesday the rain began.

Each morning I opened the curtains and looked out to see rain on Wansfell. Last Christmas I had a cottage over that way, not far below Jenkins Crag, close to where Kurt Schwitters lived when he first came to stay in Ambleside in 1945. The weather was better last year and I spent several good days up on Wansfell looking for Schwitters’ footprints and walking the paths he must have so often walked in the last years of his life.  

Because it was raining much of the time last week I found myself spending more time than usual in the cottage. Sometimes I’d sketch, sometimes I’d read or listen to music. Sometimes I even watched daytime television. I saw programmes I’d heard people talk about but never seen before.

Late one rainy afternoon I sat watching the dusk closing in, descending like a dark amorphous cloak over Wansfell. I turned on the television and Deal or No Deal appeared, hosted by Noel Edmonds. Edmonds has bleached blond hair, oiled and slicked back, and a scraggy goatee beard. He reminded me of Richard Branson, who also has this cheesy swashbuckler look about him. I initially simultaneously recalled both Amundsen and the Aryan Nation. Putting those echoes aside, I noticed how much of the Barnum and Bailey Ringmeister Edmonds had about him. A small, middle-aged man, perhaps no taller than a vacuum cleaner, he was clad in seasonal browns and russets, perhaps with a little gold or scarlet trimming here and there. He was wearing a high shouldered sort of jacket with a collar of a different colour to the body. It may have been velvet and for all I could see may have had a fitted waist and tails. I think he was wearing a waistcoat and he was in a collar and tie. His look seemed to encode a sort of amiable if vaguely counterfeit authority and expertise. He reminded me of a medicine man of some sort, the sort of quack doctor who at one time in America travelled from town to town in a caravan selling hair restoring potions, wonder cures for warts, patented tonics, snake oils for every occasion, that sort of thing. Dr Swapshop, perhaps, or Dr Houseparty.

It’s easy to dismiss a programme like this as cynical, manipulative poppycock just because that’s what it happens to be. But maybe this programme actually shows us a lot about how we construct, imagine and deal with risk in our society. It appears to set desire and dream against reason, but the hero(ine) of the show is always the (relatively poor and needy) contestant, and we are quickly persuaded – as are the studio audience – to identify with the contestant’s wishes and fears and to believe in the dream. The Dream of course is the usual fairy tale that if you want something enough you will get it. The hapless viewer is sucked into a regressive world of magical thinking. We join the contestant and the audience in believing that wishing can alter the way things are. The scrupulous – and inscrutable – sealed boxes seem to suggest that as no-one can tamper with them a rational decision can be made knowing there can be no cheating. But the inscrutability of the boxes means that until they are opened they could potentially contain any amount of money, and magical thinking leads us to think that we have the power to change that amount – or rather that whatever amount is in there will be the direct consequence of our fears and wishes. The boxes are the property of providence and contain nothing until the future reveals them. It’s another version our old esse est percipi conundrum. The future is empty. It will only be filled by events that have yet to happen.

The other player in this game is the banker, whose money it is that we are to suppose the contestant is playing for. From time to time this inevitably somewhat metaphysical banker intervenes by telephone via the dapper little Dr Swap to make the contestant an offer for the box in front of him or her, the box that contains the amount of money the contestant will win if he or she chooses to go that far. The banker’s interventions are supposed to be cold, rational and driven by a calculation of self interest. But within the context of the game of course they are as dubious and manipulative as any other element. Our mistrust of bankers comes into play: how do we know this banker doesn’t know what’s in the box all the time?  The banker’s offer can never be taken at face value, even if he (let’s assume he’s male!) appears to merely respond to the fortunes of the contestant. If he offers a large sum to someone who’s on a winning streak it might mean that he actually knows there’s a bigger sum in the box and he is trying to prevent the contestant winning it. The offer can therefore be seen as evidence that the contestant is indeed in for a big win; the offer should be rejected. On the other hand a small offer to a contestant on a losing streak might look like an attempt to make them think they’re bound to lose when the banker actually knows all along that there’s a lot of money in that final box. So this offer too, which in rational terms may also represent as much as the contestant is ever likely to win, is rejected. Similar self-deceptions occur if we assume the banker doesn’t know what’s in the box. A good offer in this case encourages the contestant and his or her audience to see this as evidence of the efficacy of magical thinking. It says the banker too knows that wishing hard enough really does change the future. A bad offer has a similar effect, because it too can be read as the banker attempting to discourage dreaming or encourage fear because he knows the power they have. In this world of fortune and fate every sign must let you believe that you can be a winner too.

Of course in this game the truism that the future has not yet happened and therefore no-one can know what it holds is entirely illusory. The inscrutable boxes that contain the future cannot be changed. Not unless you believe that wishes and fears do determine the future. If you believe this a swan will hatch from the duck’s egg that was irrevocably laid in the contestant’s box, or, if your fears are too strong and you don’t wish hard enough, your immutable treasure will dwindle to a trifle.

As the thick saturated mass of night fell on Wansfell that afternoon a young woman with a toothy smile had a run of good fortune: by chance she opened four boxes in a row that had only low amounts in them, thus increasing the probability – and belief – that her box contained one of the large sums. The banker responded by offering her £10,000. On a balance of probability basis this was more than the contestant was likely to win: most of the remaining boxes contained less than that, even though one did contain £250,000. But faced with the go for it, girl dream that drives these things, reason went to the wall. Encouraged by her boyfriend and the rest of the audience the young woman chose to open more boxes. She lost three of the remaining four large amounts in quick succession. The banker made another offer: £1,200. Again on a balance of probability calculation this was a reasonable offer, but as there was still a one in eight chance that she might win £35,000, she pressed on. She eventually opened the box in front of her and won £5. The offers the banker made were never enough to coax her out of her belief in the power of wishing, and that’s probably the only real calculation our make believe banker ever made. At the end the young woman with the toothy smile said sorry to her boyfriend for failing. Perhaps she felt that she hadn’t wished hard enough or that she had feared failure too much, although I imagine she later rationalised it all as a failure to make a rational choice based on probability when it became advantageous to do so. ‘I should have just taken the ten thousand, shouldn’t I?’ she’ll say.

The next contestant that afternoon was Gordon Brown. Gordon, like the young woman with the toothy smile, began well enough and had some early success in eliminating a better than chance number of low amount boxes. The telephone rang: the banker was offering Gordon £20 for his box. Little Dr Swap, standing on some books to enable him to see over the table top, rolled his eyes. Gordon smirked knowingly. He’s a man who knows all about bankers: when they act like this you can be sure they’re up to something, and that something is probably feathering their own nests.

‘I, er, owe it to the nation to honour our manifesto promise on this, er, issue. I am able to announce today that in respect of the, er, Honourable Gentleman’s offer our position is this: er, no deal,’ he said. He laid his hands on his inscrutable future, as if it was the dispatch box at question time. He had about him a smug certainty. If there was ever a man to defeat the banker, Gordon was that man. The audience cheered. Gordon winked at his wife Sarah, who was sitting in the front row of the audience with one of their children on her knee.

Gordon next opened box number seven, the one in the possession of The Man in a Cowboy Hat.

‘I’m prayin’ for you, pardner,’ The Man said.

‘Go for it, Gordon,’ someone from the audience called out.

The box was opened. It contained only £1.

The audience cheered. Gordon smiled bashfully, and turned to look at Sarah. He was visibly chuffed. He went over and shook The Cowboy’s hand, as if to thank him for his act of exceptional good will. The Cowboy smiled, as if he was a hero too. ‘I guess my prayers were answered,’ he said.

The phone rang. The banker upped his offer to £2,000. Gordon smirked again. He looked like a man who thought he had already all but vanquished the possibility of defeat.

‘It is my, er, responsibility to manage the nations asset prudently. Through prudence and good management this government has established the healthiest set of unopened boxes in a generation. I am confident that we can withstand any, er, minor, er, mis, er, fortunes. We are therefore in a position to say again to the Honourable Gentleman: no deal, sir.’

The audience loved it. St Gordon could do no wrong. But then, just as it had with the young woman with the toothy smile, fortune took a turn for the worst. In what seemed like no time at all Gordon was reduced to only four unopened boxes. Three of these boxes contained amounts of £15 or less; the fourth contained £250,000. The telephone rang. Standing as tall and proud as a pepper mill Dr Swap lifted the handset slowly to his ear. He nodded and then nodded again.

‘He’s now offering you . . . ‘  Dr Swap paused and took a deep breath. For a moment he reminded me of a miniature Kirk Douglas. ‘£15,000. Deal or no deal?’

Gordon smirked and smiled knowingly.

‘No deal,’ Gordon said, without hesitation. Here was man who felt the hand of history on his shoulder. ‘I have not come here today to make a deal. I have come to restore pride to our nation. I have come in the can do spirit that has always characterised our nation. I can win the £250,000. I will win the £250,000. Anything less will be failure.’

The audience went bananas. The tension in the room was electric. Sarah had her hand over mouth.

‘Which box do you want to open next?’ Dr Swap asked.

Gordon looked at the three remaining choices. He chose to open box number nineteen, the box belonging to The Swiss Cheese Girl.

‘Good luck, Gordon,’ she said. ‘Vee all vont you to vin.’

The Swiss Cheese Girl opened box nineteen. The audience gasped and the studio fell into a dreadful silence: the £250,000 was lost.

Gordon hung his head. He suddenly looked ten years older. The phone didn’t ring. Gordon opened another box and the £15 was now also gone. There were now only two boxes remaining: £10 and 10p, and one of them was definitely his.

The telephone rang. Little Dr Swap listened attentively.

‘Oh, that was nasty,’ he said.  With an expression that resembled a bewildered chicken he turned to Gordon. ‘He’s offering £7.50. Deal or no deal?’

Gordon looked back over his shoulder. Sarah was sitting with Alistair Darling. They both smiled half-heartedly, shook their heads and shrugged their shoulders. Gordon looked down at his unopened box. Surely all hope was now gone. But Gordon was not a man about to smile bravely at the cruel hand fate had dealt him. No, Sirree.

‘I have an offer to make the Honourable Gentleman,’ Gordon said.

‘You have?! That’s new!’ Dr Swap said, suddenly as upright and tall as a meerkat standing on its hind legs.

‘I want to ask the Honourable Banker to allow me to put half a million pounds into each of the two remaining boxes,’ Gordon said. ‘Deal or no deal?’

The audience gasped; the audience murmured.

‘Well, I never!’ Dr Swap exclaimed. He put Gordon’s offer to the banker.

‘He says it’s highly irregular. But he is prepared to consider it. But first he wants to know what happens to money in the box you don’t open,’ Dr Swap asked.

‘That money will be his,’ Gordon said. ‘I only get to keep my, er, winnings from the box I open, in accordance with the, er, rules of the game.’

The offer was put to the banker. The banker’s reply came back immediately.

‘He says it’s a deal!’ the dapper one said, with a gnome-like gleam on his face. He carefully placed the phone back into its cradle.

The audience clapped, stamped, whooped and cheered. Sarah and Alistair gazed at Gordon in what looked like a mixture of amazement and adoration. Little Dr Swap was again looking around the audience in much the same way as a meerkat might look across a desert. He was in new territory too. Gordon nodded to Alistair, who made a quick mobile phone call and confirmed that the money was now in the boxes. The game could go on.

‘Well,’ Dr Swap said. ‘I think I know what you’re going to do now.’

Gordon was just about to answer when the phone rang again. Our Little Swashbuckler assumed an expression of frozen disbelief. He slowly picked up the receiver. You could have heard a pin drop in the audience.

‘Okay. Yes, I see. Okay, I’ll put that to him.’  Dr Swap turned to Gordon and paused. ‘He wants to make you a final offer.’

Gordon smiled, almost smirked again. Self-satisfaction was returning to his face. He was truly back in the game.

‘The banker wants to offer you the amount you would have won originally had you been left with only the highest value box. He is offering you . . . £250,000. Deal or no deal?’

The audience emitted yet another collective gasp. This was a game like no other. The banker had never before offered that kind of money to anyone.  Gordon nodded and again smirked just a little. He looked over his shoulder. Alistair and Sarah were nodding enthusiastically. They had manic grins all over their faces.

‘It has always been our hope to bring success to this country,’ Gordon said. ‘To act in the interests of all of the people, not just some of them. We have not achieved what we have by taking unnecessary risks or behaving in a reckless way. By following a policy of sound financial management we have become the envy of the world and restored this nation’s stature in the world. Now is no time to abandon the successful course we have set. Tell the banker I will accept his offer. Tell him he has a deal!’

The audience cheered enthusiastically. Sarah and Alistair sprang from their seats and ran across to Gordon and embraced him. Little Dr Swap shook his head and smiled. He sidled over and shook Gordon’s hand.

‘That was quite amazing, Gordon,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever see a game like that again. Against all the odds you achieved your goal – you won the £250,000. Gordon, you are a winner!’

Later that evening the rain eased off. I walked into town and went to Zefferelli’s to eat. It’s always a very good place to go and for me the most comfortable and pleasant place to eat in Ambleside. I ordered garlic bread followed by vegetable chilli and rice. As I waited for my food I listened to the conversation the two couples on the table next to me were having. They were obviously well-educated and well off. I think one of them perhaps lectured at a university, perhaps in politics or sociology. He also seemed to speak fluent Italian and at times demonstrated this a little too loudly.

They were debating Gordon’s performance that afternoon. Three of the four took the view that it would increase his poll ratings significantly. The lecturer bloke wondered if a snap election early next year wasn’t now a possibility. The other man felt the Conservatives should be given a chance. The lecturer argued that both major parties would follow very similar policies and that winning an election at present would be a bit of a poisoned chalice. Things could only get worse.

After I’d eaten I wandered around Ambleside for a while. There were a few Christmas lights dangling above the street and strung across shop windows and their reflections shimmered darkly on the wet pavements. It looked very seasonal. As I walked I remembered that Schwitters is said to have sometimes gone to the cinema that now also houses Zefferelli’s restaurant. I began to wonder what films he might have seen there. I like to think he would have gone to see It’s a Wonderful Life and perhaps also The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall. I like both of those films and decided that when I got back I would see if I could get DVD’s of them both.

On Friday it rained very heavily. In the morning I wanted to visit Schwitters’ grave but it was chucking it down. I sat drinking a cappuccino and watched the Jeremy Kyle Show instead. Kyle appears to be the ratfaced scourge of the Chav Nation, television’s self-appointed grand inquisitor of the underclass, who appear to submit themselves to abuse and humiliation as if it is in some way their version of living the dream. If you worship the Great God Celebrity it seems to matter little how you get yourself to its altar. Kyle would never get away with talking the way he does to any other group in society, of course. The powerlessness of his victims is a key element in his show, although perhaps one we only become aware of if and when we reflect critically on the power Kyle himself appears to exercise, the way he mistreats his guests with impunity. Would he talk to Andrew Sach’s granddaughter like that, or Kate and Gerry McCann? Kyle’s programme is one of those that seems to enable the middle classes to feel superior but which in reality is fascinating and reassuring because it acts out the secret nightmare of their own lives, the dark shadows of what they really are. Kyle’s programme revolves around sexual intrigue and betrayal, infidelity, promiscuity, paternity and disordered family life. He deploys the DNA test and lie detector test with much the same cavalier brutality that a witchhunter might have deployed thumbscrews or the ducking stool. I think the grotesque enjoyment we might get from watching this programme is superficially sadistic, but ultimately secretly deeply masochistic. We may be the witchhunter, but we are always also the witch. On Friday Gordon Brown was on the programme. Remind me to tell you about that some time.  It was really quite revealing.

Early on Friday evening the road south to Windermere and the road north to Keswick were both flooded for a while. The Rothay was running high behind the cottage and once or twice I went out with a torch to check that it wasn’t about to burst its banks. By midnight the level was beginning to fall again. I went to bed and listened to its rush. In the morning I left early. I needed to talk to De Kooning about the empty box of fate. I was hoping all the slippers had gone.

.

Written by yammering

December 24, 2008 at 11:30 pm

the broken troubadour

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blyth-rosemary-terrace

I am walking in a perfect place. I am with Brenda, who I take to be my guide.

‘Where am I?’ I ask. ‘What is this place?’

All around us and across our path soft snow is gently falling. Across the meadow there is wide expanse of grey water, a lake. The dim shapes of mountains rise up beyond it. It is twilight. Candles are flickering in the windows of the little stone cottages we pass from time to time.

Brenda is dressed in what I later come to believe is a Munchkin outfit. On her head she is wearing a big soft deep red pancake hat. It reminds me of the hat Rembrandt wears in his late self-portraits, especially the one of 1660. It is vague and amorphous, unnecessarily substantial. Snowflakes sit on it like butterflies on velvet. Her dark hair tumbles out of it like a frozen black waterfall.

‘Why aren’t we leaving any footprints?’ I ask, as I glance back over my shoulder down the path we have walked.

‘The paths in heaven leave no trace of those that walk on them,’ Brenda replies.

‘Where are we going?’ I ask.

‘Heaven knows,’ she replies.

As we approach another cottage I hear the strumming of a gypsy guitar. Brenda leads me to the little window. Inside I see Jack Verdi. He is dressed like an Elizabethan courtier, in a bottle green jerkin, a white ruff and a tall silk hat. He is wearing French hose.

‘It’s Sir Philip Sidney,’ I whisper. He is sitting on a low stool, playing to Tallulah, who is dressed in a black t-shirt and black skinny leg jeans and has her red hair tied up in bunches.

‘He is The Broken Troubadour,’ Brenda says.

Tallulah begins to tap random rhythms on a tambourine and to dance to the music of the guitar. Her dance is wild, precarious and full of flamboyant contortions.

‘She is a drunken giraffe,’ Brenda says. I watch the show, mesmerised.

‘Why do human beings leave no footprints when they walk across the snows of heaven?’ I ask.

‘Because heaven can never change,’ Brenda replies.

Inside the cottage Tallulah is now spoon feeding her troubadour a large bowl of warm English apple pie and hot vanilla custard.

‘How did they get here?’ I ask.

‘They had the right tickets,’ Brenda replies.

‘What are the right tickets?’ I ask.

‘Grace and kindness and laughing eyes.’ she answers.

‘Grace and kindness and laughing eyes?’ I say. ‘Is that how I got here too?’

‘No,’ Brenda replies. ‘You stole your ticket from someone you once knew.’

I opened my eyes. It was almost morning. De Kooning was softly tapping my nose with his paw.

‘What’s wrong?’ I said. ‘Have the clocks all started ticking again?’

.

Written by yammering

December 12, 2008 at 10:12 pm

tallulah and the good catastrophe

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newsham-hotel-christmas

It looks like Debs will be off sick for a few months. Earlier this week I held an emergency meeting with the whole team to talk about redistributing her cases.

‘How do you want to do this?’ I said. ‘Do you want me to decide who gets what or should I just throw all the names into a hat and let you take turns picking one? Or do you want to discuss them one by one and see who’s interested?’

They decided that I should decide. I divided the couple of dozen most serious cases on Debs’ caseload between the five workers left standing. Angie copped for Mandy Potts, who as it happened turned up just as the meeting ended. She had Apple and Sparky with her. Mr Zee wasn’t with her. Mandy was upset.

‘Seems like a good time to introduce yourself,’ I said to Angie.

‘Oh, isn’t her weird boyfriend with her?’ Angie said. ‘I was looking forward to meeting him. I like young men in uniforms.’

‘A Zorro outfit’s hardly a uniform, Ange,’ Lily said.

‘Isn’t it?’ Angie pulled her pondering face, and wandered off to meet Mandy and the kids.

‘What’s up?’ Lily asked, when Angie came back along.

‘They’re going to make Mr Zee get a job. The dole’s on his back. Mandy doesn’t want him to because she’s scared that if she’s on her own Flinty will come to her door.’

‘She has a point,’ Lily said. ‘But it’s not a point the dole will take.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘He’s down there now and he thinks they’re going to send him for an interview.’

‘He should go,’ Lily said. ‘No-one’s going to give a job to a man dressed as Zorro, are they?’

‘Well, that’s the other thing,’ Angie said. ‘Mr Zee isn’t prepared to not dress the way he does. He thinks he has a human right to do so, like Christians wearing crucifixes and Muslims wearing the veil.’

‘Another good point,’ Lily said. ‘But again, not one the dole will buy.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘They’ve suggested he may need to take work at MacDonald’s.’

‘Oh my God,’ Michelle said. ‘Can you image that, Zorro appearing in the drive-thru window! Imagine asking Zorro for a couple of  Happy Meals and a regular Coke!’

‘It could bring them business!’ Lily said, chuckling to herself as she tried to get on with inputting stuff on to the computer. ‘It’s a shame MacDonald’s aren’t likely to think the same.’

‘Mandy thinks that Mr Zee will leave her and return to Newcastle if they force him to take a job where he can’t continue to dress the way he does.’

‘That surprises me,’ Lily said. ‘I always had the impression from Debs that he’s really committed to Mandy and the kids. Things will fall apart if he does leave, that’s a certainty. Mandy will never cope without him.’

‘Bloody men!’ Angie said. ‘Is there a single one out there that isn’t a complete waste of space?!’

It snowed on Thursday. I sat in the team room for a while first thing going through the post and listening to the team talking about the BBC documentary on the Shannon Matthews case which had been on the previous night. Fairy tale explanations are the bedrock of the world according to the popular media, and on this occasion the police seem especially ready to give the story the right slant by stating that this girl’s mother was ‘pure evil’. Here we have The Cruel Mother. ‘I thought that police officer was about the tell us the story of Hansel and Gretel or something,’ I heard Angie say. The police are hardly more self-aware or enlightening as social narrators than The Sun or The Daily Mail. It is within the terms of the crude and narrow narratives the popular media constructs that the identities and aspirations of their audience will to a significant extent arise. Karen Matthews, who no doubt is a person who came to see herself in the terms of those narratives, was and is stupid, dysfunctional, misguided, and inadequate. But this description could equally as well be applied to the police themselves who had four hundred officers in the area for almost a month and failed to find a child who all the time was under their very noses. The same could also be said for the troops of journalists who traipsed around the area 24 hours a day for the same period. And now they’re blaming social workers for not seeing this coming two years earlier. Lily wondered when we would get our crystal balls.

‘It’s a pity Shannon didn’t think of dropping pieces of bread as a trail to her wicked uncle’s house, isn’t it?’ Angie said. ‘That’s always the thing to look for in a case like this.’

I went upstairs. About mid morning I was sitting up in my office looking out over the car park watching the white stuff falling hypnotically, like a weird quiet currency being repaid to the world. Nature has a fascinating economy. A pale blue Favorit slithered into the car park. It was Jack Verdi. He got out and pulled the collar of his black reefer jacket up around his face. He was wearing his Ray-Bans. His long grey hair was tied back in a pony tail by what looked like a red elastic band. In his pale desert boots he gingerly made his way across the snow into the office. He brought to mind something vaguely Russian, maybe someone from a Gogol story. He’d come for a meeting with Debs and forgotten she was off. He asked if I was free and came upstairs for a chat.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said when he came into my room. ‘How’s tricks?’  He shook my hand. As he leant forward to do so I briefly caught sight of his pale blue eyes peering out over his sunglasses.

‘Hey, I’m not so bad, mate. Bloody awful weather though.’

I looked out of the window and nodded.

‘Actually I like the snow,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Jack said, ‘to look at, but not to drive in!’

I made him a cup of tea and for a while we talked about music, as we always do. He always asks me who I’m listening to as a preamble to him telling me what I might want to try instead. On this occasion I swapped him Teddy Thompson and Josh Ritter for a classic album from Jefferson Airplane and Neil Young’s Live at Canterbury House 1968,  Sugar Mountain album.

‘Hey, that was quite a performance you gave at Rosie’s leaving do,’ I said, finally mentioning the elephant in the room. ‘Man, you certainly blew them away that night!’

Jack shook his head and looked down into his lap. ‘Yeah, well, maybe. I just wish I’d stuck to bloody well playing the piano, as I was supposed to do.’

‘Yeah, me too,’ I said. ‘Banging out Chas and Dave numbers in a room so thick with the reek of HRT isn’t exactly my bag either.’

He laughed. But he had something more on his mind, and I thought I knew what it was.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said, ‘I’d just let it go if I were you. Most people will already have forgotten about it, you know how they are. You’re the only person who’s thinking about now.’

‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know that,’ he said. ‘No, it’s not that, it’s what it’s telling me about me that bothers me. I’m becoming desperate. I can’t seem to let myself ever be anything but young. You know why I did that? Because I’m scared to death of getting old. I’ve seen this happen to other guys, guys who I was once in bands with. I’m starting to do what they’ve done and make a bloody fool of myself.’

‘Well, as they say, if you recognise a problem you’re half way there to solving it.’

‘Yeah, but how do you solve the problems of decrepitude and death?’

I laughed. I wanted this conversation to remain light. ‘Euthanasia’s good,’ I said. ‘I’ve already booked myself a one-way ticket to Switzerland.’

‘I don’t want to go,’ Jack said, shaking his head.

‘You don’t want to go to Switzerland, Jack? Compact land-locked mid European country? Bankers, watchmakers, Toblerone, Heidi, St Moritz, lots of big snowy mountains? It’s the sort of place where there’s never any litter and they don’t ever have to think about Asbo’s. Switzerland’s not such a bad place, Jack.’

‘I don’t mean I don’t want to go to Switzerland, man.  No, I mean I don’t want a die. At least not yet. I’ve still got some good times left in me. The problem really is that the rest of the world is starting to disregard me. It’s as if as you get older there’s a quiet conspiracy to exclude you from things. It starts when you’re about thirty. The world begins to tell you that you can’t do that. And do you know why it says that? It says it because it embarrasses them if you do. They just don’t want you around. They discard you, like you’re an old-fashioned appliance of some sort. I don’t buy it, mate. There’s some stuff I’m just not ready to say goodbye to.’

‘Like good old rock and roll, eh?’

‘Well, yeah, but not just that.’ His Aviators looked straight at me and for a moment or two he paused. ‘You read poetry, right?’ he said.

I said I did sometimes, yes.

‘You know I’m into Keats, don’t you? Yeah? Okay, can I show you something? It’s like a modern take on something he wrote. I’d be interested to know what your response to it is.’

He bent over and unbuckled his brown leather satchel bag. He took out a couple of sheets of A4 and handed them to me

‘You’ll know the original,’ he said. ‘It’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’

I.

O what’s bothering you now, my bonny lad,
Alone and palely loitering?    
Has thy assessment slithered into the sink?            
Are you waiting for the telephone to ring?
  
           
II.
 
O what can ail thee, fostering man!            
So flushed and so woe-begone?          
The question from the Chair was crass,         
The Police Checks were never done.
   
    
III.
 
I see a cloud across thy face          
Your reviews are all long over due,            
And in thy diary a fading date         
When your anxious manager last hounded you.
  
         
IV.
 
I met a damsel in the tearoom,         
Full beautiful-an Ashington child,             
Her hair was red, her foot was light,          
And her laughter was quite wild.
 
              
V.
 
I bought a cosy for her napper         
And sent her a text from my mobile phone;              
She texted me back and asked me to sing        
‘Will you give this little dog a bone.’    
    
VI.
 
I sat her in my Skoda’s front seat             
And put Crosby, Stills and Nash on,            
I whizzed her around the slippery bends        
Till all her lingering doubts were gone.
  
             
VII.
 
She bought me bags of morish sweets,           
And Honey Tunes and herbal tea,        
And then in an accent strange she said-        
“Bonny lad, aa’ve got the hots for ye.”  
      
VIII.
 
She took me to her terraced grotto,            
And swept the sawdust from her floor,          
And I gazed into her wild wild eyes            
Until my heart could take no more.
 
            
IX.

 

And with a tambourine she lulled me asleep,            
And I dreamt I heard a terrible din            
‘Twas the scariest dream I ever did dream,             
I dreamt I was trapped inside her bin.

X.

I saw pale ploughmen, businessmen too,
Old heartthrobs, death-pale as if without feelings;
They cried-“The Bonny Lass Without Pity
Has dumped us amang her peelings!”
 

XI.

I saw their starved lips in the garbage
With horrid warnings gaping wide,
And I awoke and found me dumped,
With another old scratter at my side.
 

XII.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
My assessments all soggy in the sink,
And my mobile phone not ringing.

 

After I’d finished reading it I said nothing for maybe a minute or so. Nor did Jack.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘This is, er, interesting.’

Jack looked at me. He wanted more than just, er, interesting.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to say here? How I’d feel if I was the woman you wrote this for?’

‘It shows, then?’

‘Yeah, Jack, it shows. It’s about Tallulah, right?’

He nodded slowly.

‘So,’ I said, tentatively, ‘have you and her got a thing going on, or what?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s just tittle tattle. Emma Pope started that rumour as a put down to me.’

‘But you would like to have something going on with her, yeah?’

He nodded, safe behind his sunglasses. ‘Yeah.’

‘And? . . .And? . . . And what? You think she’s too young for you?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not at all. What bothers me is that she’ll think I’m too old for her.’

‘She’s not a kid, Jack. She must be well into her thirties now. What are you saying, that she’s shallow?’

‘No, she’s definitely not shallow,’ Jack said, almost indignantly. ‘She’s a woman with deceptive subtlety and depth. She’s like a great river and her complexion is forever changing as she makes her course through her days. Sometimes she’s wild and tempestuous, sometimes she trickles and gurgles, but sometimes she’s quiet and still and just so damned profound. No, she’s not shallow, man, but I’ve got twenty years on her, and she knows it.’

I nodded. I almost smiled. I looked at the poem again.

‘This dustbin metaphor,’ I said. ‘That’s serious, right, a deep concern hidden behind a daft joke?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Exactly. What bothers me is that even if I got something off the ground with Tallulah she’d pretty soon dump me for a younger model.  She has a bit of a reputation for chewing guys up and spitting them out.’

‘And the bin, that’s the bin of decrepitude, yeah?  It’s a bin you fear that once she dumps you in you’ll be in for the rest of your days?’

‘It’s more than that,’ Jack said. ‘It’s a bin I fear I’m already in. Not because I want to be there or because I’m really need to be. It’s just the bin the rest of the world has put me in. It ‘s like that Yeats line, isn’t it,  the one about old age being tied to you like a tin can to a dog’s tail. It stinks, man!’

‘And the bonny lass without pity, that’s not just Tallulah, is it? She’s society too, isn’t she, and young mistress Time herself. This bonny lass is The Reaper.’ A picture of Tallulah Hudspith wielding a giant scythe crossed my mind. It was an image from a Tarot card.

‘Yeah, something like that, I guess,’ Jack said.

‘You know what I’d do if I were you, Jack? I’d go for it. What’s the worst that can happen – you don’t get the gig. Or if you do you don’t get booked for a second night. But hey, Jack, for you this might just be the gig to end all gigs. One night with Tallulah might be your Madison Square Garden moment, the one gig you’ll never forget!’

Jack stood up. He very deliberately buttoned up his black reefer jacket. He smiled quietly and flicked his pony tail back over his collar. It was indeed a red elastic band holding it together.

‘Carpe diem, eh, man? I kinda knew that would be your take on it. Thanks, man. It helped.’

Jack picked up his brown satchel and slung it over his shoulder. ‘Hey, and one more thing, eh? This conversation we’ve had, strictly between me and you, right?’

‘Yeah, of course, Jack,’ I said. ‘Between me, you and the gatepost.’

He smiled and shook my hand again. I walked along the landing with him. As he was making his way down the stairs he turned and asked me if I knew Warren Zevon’s stuff.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s good.’

‘He wrote a song called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,’ Jack said. ‘Give it a listen some time.’

‘I will’ I said. ‘But isn’t poor old Warren now fast asleep himself?’

‘He is, man. But what a way to hit the mattress, eh?!’

I laughed. Jack left. The snow had turned to rain.

When I got home I had a quick pizza and then put my boots on to go for a walk. It was turning cold and the slushy snow was beginning to freeze into crusty waves. I walked along Broadway and then on as far as the Thoroton Hotel. I went up Marlow Street and cut through past the sports centre and over on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down Winship Street past the site of the Big Club, which is still fenced off but now completely razed. At the roundabout I stood for a moment or two and looked at the strings of Christmas lights slung above the road. I then made my way back down Plessey Road. In the last few days a lot more Christmas lights have appeared on houses and a lot more Christmas trees in their windows, but Christmas still seems slightly reluctant to appear this year, even though the Angel Alistair and the Good St Gordon from every television in the land sing, ‘Spend, Spend, Spend!’

‘Spend what?!’ the world sings back.

When I got back home Brenda was there again, gathering more slippers into boxes to take away for dispatch.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘How’s business?’

‘Brisk!’ she replied. ‘Surprisingly so. Things have really picked up in the past few days.’

‘Well, you can never go far wrong with slippers at Christmas, can you?’

‘Yes, I think you’re right. Folks may not have much money this year, but everyone can afford a good old fashioned pair of slippers, can’t they?’

Brenda didn’t have her Auguries of Innocence cardie on that day. She had a sort of long very expensive looking camel-coloured wrap around coat. She was also wearing green knee high leather boots with big shiny silver buckles on them, and out of the collar of her coat the leafy frills of a spring green blouse of some sort erupted. She also wore a coffee-coloured knitted hat of some kind, a one with a peak and a small chocolate brown button on the crown, the sort of hat that reminds me vaguely of Barbra Streisand. For a moment it crossed my mind that Brenda looked rather like a tortilla wrap.  

‘So what’s Tristan getting you for Christmas?’ I asked.

‘Oh I don’t know that!’ she replied. ‘That would take all the fun out of it. I like surprises.’

‘But there must be something you hope he gets you.’

‘Oh well, yes, of course. What I’m hoping for is a Matthew Williams Chapelle weave coat and some Jimmy Choo Erica ankle boots, as well as some lovely smellies and maybe some nice stocking fillers, such as earrings and brooches and choccies and things. Just lots of lovely lovely delicious surprises really. I’ve pointed Tristan in the direction of net-a-porter.com and I know for certain that he’s looked.  I’m quite excited really. But what about you? What do you want for Christmas?’

I paused for a moment, as if taking thought. ‘The emancipation of the working class, I think,’ I said, very calmly and seriously. ‘Yes, that definitely. That and world peace.’

Brenda nodded her head approvingly. ‘That’s just such a beautiful wish,’ she said. ‘Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. It is the spiritual aspect of Christmas that really matters, not all the shopping and materialism. And in any case it really is better to give than to receive. You know, I don’t really care what anyone gets me actually. Christmas is just such a special time of year. Just be close to someone you care about and to know they’re there, that’s all any of us really needs.’

So I’ll tell Tristan to just send you a note and prod you from time to time then, I thought. I know what great joy and cheer that will bring.

‘So what are you getting Tristan?’ I asked.

‘An electric screwdriver set.’ Brenda replied. ‘I saw one at B & Q. It was such a good buy and it will be all he’ll ever need. He’s always saying how much he wished he had one.’

‘That’s nice, Brenda,’ I said. ‘If you’ve got to spend then a practical gift is always the way to go, I think.’

Lucky Tristan, I thought. But of course I’m sure Brenda will get a huge amount of pleasure from giving Tristan his electric screwdriver set.

‘Oh, but what do presents matter?’ Brenda said. ‘Christmas really is first and foremost a spiritual time, a time to think of others. As you said, a time for peace and love. Material things are such a terrible distraction sometimes, aren’t they?’

For a moment I wanted to ask her what the word ‘spiritual’ meant. But I thought better of it. In any case I think I already know how spiritual Brenda is: she’s about as spiritual as a checkout till. She has exactly the sort of spirituality the Angel Alistair wishes we all had this year.

‘Do you know anything about the Tarot, Brenda?’ I said, changing the subject. It was like asking a seagull if it knew about fish heads.

‘Yes, of course,’ she replied, becoming animated. ‘Do you want me to do a reading for you?’

‘No, not really,’ I said. ‘But thank you for the offer. No, I was wondering about one of the cards and what it means.’

‘Which one?’ Brenda said, always ready to share her esoteric knowledge with the curious.

‘The one with the reaper on’ I said. ‘Is it called the Tallulah?’

‘The Tallulah?’ Brenda said, screwing up her face. ‘The Tallulah? The Tallulah’s not a Tarot card. No, no. No, the card you’re describing is the Death card.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘The Death card. So there’s not an expression which is like “turning the Tallulah” or something like that?’

‘No,’ Brenda said, a little sharply. ‘No, there isn’t. The reaper is on the Death card.’

‘And if that card turned up for you it would be bad news, right?’

‘No, not necessarily,’ Brenda said. ‘That’s a common misconception. The Death card does not necessarily signify death. But it does signify that major change will occur in your life. Catastrophic change, in fact, but not necessarily for the worse.’

So, I thought to myself, turning the Tallulah foretells catastrophe. But not necessarily a bad catastrophe. The idea of a good catastrophe appealed to me. This was an idea it would be good for Jack to know about.

‘So have you ever done a reading for anyone when the Death card has turned up?’

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ Brenda replied. ‘Many times.’

‘And are any of those people still alive?’ I asked.

‘Yes, so far as I know, they all are.’

‘But they will have all encountered a catastrophe by now, yes?’

Brenda had rumbled my game a while ago of course. She was prepared to play along no longer.

‘You should stop taking the mick,’ she said. ‘You know, many people have been helped to make important decisions in their lives through the Tarot. Just because you think it’s nonsense, doesn’t mean it is nonsense, you know.’

I nodded. She was right of course. I began to wonder about making a catastrophic decision, or rather, making a decision to have a catastrophe in your life. It seemed to me that since the future can’t really be foretold, this must be the way the Tarot works. The cards suggest that decisions of a certain kind should be made. It sets an agenda in someone’s mind. Decisions are then made according to the cards’ suggestions and hey presto – the cards appear to have done what cards never can and to have foretold the future. The classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps most divination works in exactly the same way. The effect is that you take active responsibility for your own future but that by some sleight of hand you can always say that whatever happens was bound to be, that it was written in the cards.

I wandered through to the conservatory. De Kooning was sitting on the windowsill, looking out into the dark where the snow had fallen among the gaping spaces of the Citadel. Sometimes I think I’m too passive about the future. It’s not something I get a hold of and try to make for myself. Maybe it’s that working class thing. Maybe it’s something else. I just seem to be happy to sit and watch the river flow by. I could dip my foot in, I know that. Maybe I fear a catastrophe if I do. Maybe I think I might turn the Tallulah if I get my feet wet.

I wondered if I should get a Tarot pack and do a reading for De Kooning. I know of course that this sort of stuff doesn’t work for cats. Cats sit on life’s windowsill and sing Que Sera Sera. They sing it nine times over.

.