yammering

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Archive for January 2009

a sort of macabre sweepstake

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bebside-high-house-farm

Last Wednesday morning I was at a meeting in Morpeth first thing. When I arrived back at the office about mid morning Jesse and Pippa from admin were in the team room talking to Michelle, Lily, Sally and Angie. They were discussing a game Pippa’s daughter plays with her colleagues at the place where she works.

The object of the game is to be the person who picks the well known person who dies before any of the people picked by anyone else. It seems each person can pick three people – let’s call them their Gees Gees (which could stand for Grim Gallopers) – and they pay £5 into a kitty for each of their Gee Gees. No two people can choose the same Gee Gee. The person who has picked the Gee Gee that dies first collects the whole kitty. At that point everyone in the game has the opportunity to pick a new set of Gee Gees. It’s a sort of macabre sweepstake.

A week or two earlier Pippa’s daughter’s workmate – Kathy – had won: Patrick McGoohan, the star of the one-time cult TV series The Prisoner had died. He was eighty. His demise brought Kathy a windfall of £540, or, to be strictly accurate, £525, as her original stake should be deducted from her winnings.

Pippa’s daughter had been sitting with Hugh Hefner, The Pope and Amy Winehouse. In the way the game is played at Pippa’s daughter’s company (sorry, I don’t know Pippa’s daughter’s name) on there being a winner everyone gets the option to keep the Gee Gees they hold or to throw in one or more. Pippa’s daughter chose only to keep Amy Winehouse. Rather than go for old people who might go on forever she decided to go for a full hand of younger people with dangerous lifestyles. She added Pete Doherty and Lewis Hamilton to her portfolio.

‘Why don’t we play that game?’ Angie said. ‘I’d pick Margaret Thatcher.’

‘That’s just wishful thinking,’ Lily said. ‘If that worked I’d go for Richard Madeley. He’d be gone tomorrow.’

‘Oh, no, he’s not very old,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’d put my money on Patrick Moore.’

‘Isn’t he already dead, Sal?’ Angie said.

‘No. No, he isn’t,’ Sal said. ‘I saw him on The Sky at Night just a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Yes, Sal, but was he alive?’ Lily said. They all laughed.

‘Don’t you think this game’s a bit sick?’ Jesse said.

‘Yes,’ Angie said. ‘It is. But isn’t that the point?’

‘Why don’t we make up our own variation?’ Michelle suggested. ‘What about trying to pick the next local authority to have a child death on one of their social workers’ caseload? Who bags Haringey?’

The others cringed and frowned.

‘Why stop there?’ Angie said. ‘Why don’t we just put the money on the kids on our own caseloads?’

‘Hush up, Ange,’ Lily said. ‘Don’t tempt providence.’

I made myself a coffee and wandered upstairs to my office. At first I was pondering the idea of tempting providence and wondered if this was another manifestation of magical thinking. Maybe it’s closer to the idea of speaking of the devil. Maybe it’s to do with the idea that God is not mocked. And yet what kind of insecure and fickle deity would it be that needed to throw Its weight around like that for such a trivial provocation? Maybe it’s just something to do with a primitive belief in the power of words.

I sat down with my coffee and looked out over the rooftops. I began to think about painting. I haven’t painted anything since I finished my canvas of Corby’s Crag. I have been thinking about painting somewhere more urban. I like Gillies’ paintings of Temple, and although it seems to be a village and probably quite rural, I want to find and show the beauty in the things beneath our noses. I want to say we don’t have to go far to find something worth looking at.

When I logged on to my computer I discovered I had received an email from Alice McTavish in Fort William. She was writing to tell me that there had been a fair amount of snow up there this winter and she was wondering if I was planning to come up for a few days skiing. She offered to make me a mushroom risotto. I wrote back and said that I couldn’t get any holiday until the end of February. I asked her to make sure none of the snowflakes melted before then.

At about lunchtime Tania picked up baby Davina during a supervised contact session and simply walked out of the office with her. Michelle followed her down the street, telling her she was being daft and doing herself no good. Tania was having none of it. Davina was her baby and she’d do what she liked with her. Michelle told her she couldn’t because we had a court order and Davina had to stay with her dad, who was now approved as her emergency foster carer. Tania just walked on.

Michelle was powerless. What was she supposed to do, rugby tackle Tania and wrestle the baby from her grip? She ran back to the office. She was in a panic. She rang the police and gave them a description and potential addresses Tania might go to. The police went straight out but had no luck. They visited Joe’s house too. His mother said she had no idea where he was. He hadn’t been home since yesterday. The plot was thickening. A young mother with no real interest in her baby had abducted the baby and gone off with a hare-brained youth. Maybe Michelle’s about to win the kitty, I thought to myself. I didn’t say it out loud, of course.

Next morning baby Davina and Tania were still missing and we had no clue where she was. I took a call from a police inspector and agreed to publicity. Later that day the missing baby began to be mentioned on the news bulletins on Metro Radio, along with pleas to the public to contact the police if they had any information about the whereabouts of mother and baby. The whole day passed without any news. Michelle sat in the office, unable to do anything. The rest of the team made her cups of tea and told her not to worry, the baby would be found fit and well, they were sure. Gilmour rang to see if there’d been any news. He also asked how Michelle was.

‘Not good,’ I said.

‘Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that this baby is okay,’ he said.

For a moment or two I imagined that the universe was indeed at the command of some perverse force. That things don’t ever go wrong by chance or accident. That they go wrong because the world is in the hands of providence, and providence is amoral and prone to mischief and cruelty. Providence is metaphysical spite. It’s funny that such a nutty belief will probably be reassuring to some people. We’d rather believe that we’re in the hands of a monster than think we’re in the hands of no-one at all.  At least you can talk to a monster.

After tea Margaret was baking onion tarts. De Kooning was hiding somewhere. I went for a walk through the Isabella and over the reclaimed land to Tynedale Drive. I walked all the way to Cowpen Road and then down past the cemetary to the North Farm. I came back along Renwick Road, past the Thoroton Hotel and back along Broadway to Rotary Way. Later I went along to my dad’s to return the library book on the Cloughs, which was almost overdue. I drove up the Avenue and through Seaton Delaval on the way back. I turned on the radio and flicked through the stations. Alan Robson was on Metro. Hettie from Bomarsund was on the line.

‘Hello, Alan,’ she said. ‘It’s Hettie from Bomarsund here.’

‘Good evening, Hettie. What do you want to talk to us about tonight?’

‘Good evening, Alan. Alan, have you heard about that young lass who’s kidnapped her own baby?  Isn’t that a terrible thing? I think she must be in a terrible state to do something like that, don’t you, Alan.’

‘Well, I don’t really know that much about it, Hettie. I mean, can a mother really kidnap her own child?’

‘Yes, but this bairn was being looked after for her by a foster parent, Alan. She’s obviously got needs, Alan. Don’t you agree, she must be a girl with needs?’

‘You might be right, Hettie. If that lass happens to be listening now, Hettie, what would your message to her be?’

‘You know what I’d say to her, Alan? I’d say, “Take your baby back, pet. People are just trying to help you. If you hurt your bairn you’d never forgive yourself.” My heart goes out to her, Alan.’

‘Thank you, Hettie. Let’s go now to line two, where we’ve got John from Westerhope. Good evening, John. What do you want to say to the night owls tonight.’

‘Hello, Alan. What I want to say is that with all due respect your last caller is exactly the sort of person who’s got this country in the pathetic state it’s in today. Do you know what my message to that girl on the run with her baby would be? It would be “Good for you, girl.” It’s the do-gooders who have taken away all our freedom and brought the country to its knees, Alan. Social workers only take people’s kids off them to give them to middle class couples who can’t have them or to put them with lesbians and paedophiles.’

‘Well, I’m sure there are a lot of people won’t agree with you there, John. Surely sometimes social workers are right to take children off their parents, aren’t they? What about Baby P?’

‘Exactly, Alan! Exactly! That’s proves my point, doesn’t it? If this lass’s child had really been at any risk of harm at home the social workers would have left her with where she was. That’s what they do, Alan. You can hardly open a newspaper these days without coming across the story of another poor kid social workers have left to die.’

‘I’m not sure you’re right on this one, John. But of course I respect your point of view. Let’s have another record. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there who want to have their say on this lass’s baby. We’ll be back after this.’

Chesney Hawkes came on. The One and Only. I drove past Newsham Coop and over the railway crossing, past the Black Diamond and the Newsham Hotel and around to the Willow Tree. I glanced over the grass where the Brick Row once stood and through the dark spaces where the Newsham Nightingale once piped, across to the anonymous little council houses beyond and the little yellow rectangles of their windows. Tania and Joe were probably holed up with baby Davina in just such a house tonight. They were probably with a bunch of raucous kids, drinking cans of lager and smoking cannabis, arguing about whose turn it was to be on the Wii, passing Davina round like a stray kitten they’d brought in from the street. A tattered-eared pitbull called Tyson was probably sniffing at her face.

As I drove into the top of my street Chesney stopped singing and Alan Robson returned to the mike.

‘So, welcome back, night owls,’ he said. ‘Tonight we’ve been talking about the girl who’s stolen her baby from social workers and gone into hiding with her. Right now on line four we’ve got Cheryl from Ashington. Hello, Cheryl. How are you tonight? This bairn’s from around your way, isn’t it?’

‘Hello, Alan. It’s Cheryl here. Yes, Alan, she is. I could tell you who she is, Alan, if you want to know.’

‘Oh no, Cheryl. No, no, I think we’ve got to respect this lass’s right to privacy, haven’t we?’

‘Yes, Alan, that’s true. But what you don’t know is just what’s going on around here . . .’

At that point I turned the radio off. The last thing I needed to hear was that baby Davina had been abducted by Robin Hood and his Merry Men and was being taught to use a bow and arrow in Bothal Woods.

I slept badly that night. I awoke at least three times. Baby Davina was on my mind. The first time woke up I was wondering who was feeding her. She was in a dark place crying frantically. She was completely alone. De Kooning made his way to the top of the bed and sniffed at my face. He began to purr. I pressed him back down on to the duvet and gave him a stroke.

‘Go back to sleep, De Kooning,’ I said. ‘It’s not morning yet.’

Next time I awoke I was thinking about Michelle. I knew she’d be lying awake. I knew she’d be worrying herself to death. If anything happened to baby Davina she’d carry the can. Her photo would appear in The Daily Mail. She’d be pilloried. She’d be destroyed. I heard De Kooning begin to purr again. I put my arm out of the sheets and rubbed his tummy. He gave my hand a little play fight.

‘Go back to sleep, De Kooning,’ I said. ‘It’s not morning yet.’

The third time I awoke I had been having a terrible dream. I dreamt I was King Lear. Or perhaps I was some other character from that play. The Fool, perhaps. Or Edgar. Or Gloucester. I was probably an amalgamation of several of the characters all in one dream person. I was caught in a storm. I was blind and stumbling close to the edge of a cliff. I dreamt I was gathering samphire. I dreamt I was gathering samphire and I heard De Kooning fidgeting. He was purring again, loudly, like a tractor.

‘Go back to sleep, Cordelia,’ I said. ‘It won’t be much longer now.’

.

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the nightingale’s cage and the prince of pipers

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newsham, blyth old stationmaster's house

When I arrived at the office on Tuesday Jack Verdi and his colleague Owen Vardy were in reception. They had come for meetings about different families. These two men have a strange affinity with one another, something their appearance belies. It’s believed they even have the same birthday. Jack – who has now taken to wearing skinny leg black jeans and trainers – is increasing rock-Gothic black and motorcycle dangerous, a man in shades, a refugee from the crypt. Owen by contrast is David Livingstone without the pith helmet. He has about him something of the demeanour of a country parson, gentle and reed-like, with a rather tentative and deferential style. Unlike Jack, Owen seems not to want to rage against the dying of the light, not even to seek to challenge it subversively. Of course, the word on Owen is that he may not be quite as meek as he seems and that somewhere inside that parson-like persona there burns a still unquenchable fire. What these two men share, besides their birthday, is that they are from the same generation, that they both were once professional musicians – Owen was part of a quite successful folk-rock outfit called Proudlute – and that both have known fame. Both are trying to get their bearings in an obscure post-celebrity netherworld. Both also share an enduring fixation with John Keats. When I arrived they were discussing Keats’ epitaph, and appeared to be disagreeing about whether it would be an appropriate epitaph for us all today.

‘Ah ha,’ I said as I approached them, ‘Verdi and Vardy, the undertakers, I presume.’

Keats is buried in a grave in Italy. Famously, he did not want his name put on his gravestone. He wanted it only to contain his epitaph, the line he told his painter friend Severn he wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This phrase deploys an image taken from the play Love Lies Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher some two hundred years earlier. The image is generally taken as speaking of our transience, the brevity and impermanency of life and fame and renown, and how we are all destined to die and to be forgotten. It says the world will not remember who we were. In Keats’ case you might also argue that his identification and involvement with the sensuous, sensual substances of the world is also represented in the image, that it suggests that who he was is written in the concrete stuff of nature, the things he let himself somehow unite with and become. A good example of negative capability, perhaps. But either way, a name written in water will not endure, at least not at the level of individual identity, of being discernible as anyone in particular. No-one’s name will long survive their passing. It is a tad ironic, of course, that the anonymity of Keats’ gravestone and the pessimism of his epitaph have enhanced its fame and made it more likely to be remembered.

Owen was saying that he wanted the same epitaph on his grave. Jack was arguing that times had changed and that the epitaph needed to be updated accordingly

‘It’s a new age, man,’ Jack said. ‘If Keats had been around now he wouldn’t have accepted death so easily. Life expectancy has increased dramatically since those days. People are no longer resigned to an early death. Hey, one day soon people might not even need to die! The epitaph needs to reflect that change. “Here lies one whose name was writ in rock,” that’s what my epitaph’s going to be, man!’  Jack chuckled, at his own felicitous ambiguity, no doubt.

‘That can’t be right,’ Owen said. ‘The whole point of the epitaph is its universality. It’s our transience and the temporary nature of our existence that binds us together as human beings. It’s the very thing that makes us human, Jack.’

‘No, man,’ Jack said. ‘That’s bollocks. It might have been that way once, but not now, man, not now. If Keats was around now he wouldn’t be moping around with this romantic despair and dissolution mullarkey. He wouldn’t be even one percent in love with easeful death. He’d be saying grab the future and strangle it, dude! Carve your name into the stars, man! The spirit of Keats is transformative, man, and we’ve got to pay the cat his dues. If Keats was around today he wouldn’t slip so quietly into his grave – they’d have to drag him off the stage, man, crowbar the axe from his hand.’

Owen looked pensive, like a man looking into an empty bird cage. Someone told me that Owen in fact did once keep a pet nightingale. Jack says the only pet he ever had was a flea. He said he found it on himself after he had spent an afternoon in a room in the Chelsea Hotel with Janis Joplin. He says he just couldn’t bring himself to crush a creature that had been on Janis’s body, that may have tasted her blood and felt the warm throb of her skin. He tells how he put the fortunate flea in a jam jar and kept it with him on the tour bus for weeks. He named it Jimi. One day the band was on Route 66, driving through the night on their way to a gig in St Louis. A roadie who had been drinking a lot of beer was desperate to relieve himself. It is generally believed that Jimi probably died by drowning, although some like to think he escaped into the night when the jam jar was hurled from the bus and shattered on the pavement of a small unknown town somewhere in middle America.  Some will tell you Jimi’s still out there, living the good life in a motel east of Albuquerque. This tale may be apocryphal, of course. In true rock tradition, Jack’s not the sort of man who would let factual accuracy stand in the way of the construction of his personal myth.

‘No, man,’ Jack said, ‘it’s the desire to cheat death, to defy it, to overcome it, to transcend it – that’s what makes us human, that’s what binds us together. Not the willingness to surrender demurely to the Reaper.’ I wondered if he was alluding to Tallulah at this point. Surely not.

Owen shook his head gently. ‘I really, really don’t agree,’ he said. Jack was leaning against the wall, wiry and spectre-thin in his skinny leg jeans, inscrutable behind his Aviators. What struck me was the way he was more and more deploying the vocabulary of a rock musician again. If I’d closed my eyes when I was listening to this conversation I might have thought it was Keith Richards speaking.

As I walked along the corridor I thought that one of the differences between Jack and Owen is that Jack has no children. I wondered if he had whether he’d have a different attitude to death, a different attitude to life. It’s surprising how much difference that can make, at least for some people.

When I went into the team room Michelle collared me to talk about baby Davina. After a short spell in foster care Davina was returned to her mother, Tania, and both had gone to live with her dad. Unfortunately Tania has on several occasions gone awol for two or three nights on end, leaving the baby with her dad. She was away again and her dad was at the end of his tether.

‘There’s just no attachment,’ Michelle said. ‘It’s never going to work. I think it’s time to call it day with Tania. Grandad is prepared to go for Residence and I think that’s the way we need to go now.’

Attachment is the new love for some social workers and other professionals. Some of them seem to think that if attachment is good then parenting will be good. Attachment theory is on its way to becoming a theory of everything for some professionals, the only real construct they’ll ever need. Things are not that simple, of course, and some day soon someone’s going to have to write the book Attachment is Not Enough. But what is true is that if a parent has a poor attachment to his or her child, the child’s needs are not likely to be fully met and the child is far more likely to suffer harm. A child to whom no responsible adult is attached is a child a wolf will soon devour.

‘So where’s Tania gone this time?’ I asked.

‘Her mother’s, she’ll say. But she hasn’t. I’ve been there. My guess is she’s lying in bed with Joe again, not answering the door and having a merry old time while grandad feeds the baby and changes the nappies.’

‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Talk to grandad and pull a planning meeting together.’

Angie had been hovering nearby and wanted to talk about her new client, Naomi Bell.

‘Are there attachment problems there too?’ I asked.

‘Probably,’ Angie said. ‘The place is a pig sty and the kids are running amok. But the main problem is she’s barking. I asked her about what support she had and she told me she was close to her mother, who gave her lots of advice and kept her right. The trouble is her mother’s been dead for years.’

‘So maybe she was speaking historically.’

‘No. She was speaking to her mother while I was there! “Mother,” she calls out. “Mother, are you there?” Spooky, or what?!’

‘And was she – there, I mean?’

‘Yes, it seems she was. She told Naomi to feed the bairns bananas and porridge and everything would be fine.’

‘Hmmm, tasty suggestion. Does she have a CPN?’

‘Nope.’

‘A psychiatrist?’

‘No.’

‘A sympathetic GP?’

‘No, none of those. What she’s got is a medium.’

‘A medium?’

‘A medium, and a spirit guide called Fatima.’

‘You’re thinking of a referral the mental health and a strategy meeting, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Okay, let’s do it. Invite the medium, invite Fatima – mother too if she’s available. Let’s remember the spirit of Working Together.’

I’ve been reading a book that my dad discovered in the library called ‘The Clough Family of Newsham’. It’s published by the Northumbrian Pipers Society. Some members of the Clough family were important and celebrated Northumbrian smallpipes players, particularly Tom Clough. My dad knew they were pipers but hadn’t realised how famous a Northumbrian piper Tom had been. Tom, a pitman, is said by the book to have been known as The Prince of Pipers. I had never even heard of the family and the name meant nothing to me. But it turns out that my dad actually knew Tom and his son, Tom junior, another well known piper. My dad remembers that sometimes in the summer Tom would play his smallpipes in the backyard of his house in Brick Row at Newsham, which is demolished now but stood in the area opposite the Willow Tree that is now grassed over, just before you get to the railway crossing. When my dad was a kid he and his friends would hear Tom playing in the yard and sometimes throw things over the wall as a prank.

On Thursday night I walked up Plessey Road to the Willow Tree to look at the space where Brick Row had stood. I had never heard of this street and it must have been demolished decades ago. It was called Brick Row because it was the only row built of bricks. My dad lived in Stone Row – you can guess why it was called that – which ran at right angles to Brick Row along the eastern side of railway line to the Stationmaster’s house. That row has gone too, but the Stationmaster’s house remains, black and redundant at the far reaches of a somewhat anonymous estate of social housing – maisonettes and small semis. I listened for and tried to imagine the “amazing, hypnotising runs of notes”, the “startlingly clear and inspirational” playing and “masterly rendition of old airs” described by the authors of the book. I listened hard but I’m not sure I heard any tune I knew, only the sound of the wind whining through the railings in the darkness and the grumble of the traffic across the line over on Newcastle Road.

The book says Tom senior suffered from an increasing loss of his hearing in the late 1940’s. It’s suggested by some that this may have been because in September 1940, during the war, a bomb destroyed their house. Others suggest that he had been almost deaf for years before that because of a mining explosion. We don’t really know why, but there’s no doubt Tom’s hearing went. He had a poetic streak and in the 1950’s wrote this:

My hearing now is not so keen,
As what it was or might have been.
In whispers soft the old pipes say,
‘Just fill the bag. We know the way.’

 

It sounds a bit like he might have been the Beethoven of the smallpipes. In one of his notebooks he wrote “Music is some Divine Essence that clarify’s the Soul enabling it to take momentary glimpses into heaven.” This phrase might have made a good epitaph for him, I guess. He died in 1964 and is buried up on the hill in Horton churchyard. I’ve no idea what his epitaph is, but I might stop by there one day on my way to work to visit his grave and find out. Maybe I’ll hear the plaintive lilt of his smallpipes in the wind. But then again, there’s every chance I won’t..

.

a fish called bwenda

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blyth-cemetary

On one of the days between Christmas and New Year Margaret sent me over the Brenda’s to deliver a box of sale slippers. Tristan came to the door.

‘Oh hello, mate,’ he said. ‘Mewwy Chwistmas. Are you coming in?’

‘Merry Christmas, Tristan,’ I replied. ‘Yeah, I’ve just got to deliver this box for Brenda. Is she around?’

‘She’s in with a client at the minute, but should be fwee soon.’

‘What’s she doing, a bit of post-Christmas life coaching for one of Santa’s little elves?’

‘Not quite,’ Tristan laughed. ‘But it’s not far off. She’s got Mrs Bywo in with her. This lady is about as tall as a painted teapot and dwesses like a demented wagamuffin. Bwenda knows her from her poetwy group. I tell you she has twied just about evewy thewapy Bwenda knows, for evewything fwom colour blindness to celebwityphilia. She’s come in today for some urgent acupuncture because of stwange tingles in her feet, which she thinks she got from being too close to a starfish while she was talking to the mermaids on the wocks at Cullercoats on Chwistmas Eve.’

‘I didn’t know acupuncture worked for that,’ I said.

‘Imaginawy tweatments often work well for imaginawy complaints,’ Tristan replied.

‘Hmm, good point,’ I said. ‘Any way, how are you? Did you have a good Christmas? Was Santa good to you?’

Tristan grimaced and shrugged, in the way that Trostskyists do. ‘It could have been better,’ he said.

‘Don’t tell me Santa didn’t come,’ I said.

‘Oh, I did okay that way,’ he said. ‘The usual chocolates and aftershave and what have you, and Bwenda got me an electwic scwewdwiver, which will come in vewy handy if business ever picks up again. Oh, and thanks for the socks, by the way, which I thought were weally wadical for me. No, the pwoblem is that I’ve been a bit in the doghouse with Bwenda since she opened her pwesents fwom me.’

‘Oh bloody hell, mate,’ I said. ‘You didn’t cut corners, did you?’

‘No, I shelled out an arm and a leg. But it seems I got the wong bwands for her. You know, Bwenda, she’s got expensive taste, and I thought the stuff I got her was wight up her stweet. I got her a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Cartier watch and a Burbewwy twench coat. When she unwapped them I thought she’d be cockahoop, but she wasn’t. She looked a bit down in the mouth. “Are they fakes?” she says to me. “Fakes?!” says I. “Of course they’re not fakes. You’ve no idea what that little lot cost me.” “Are you sure?” she says, looking at me thwough her hair as if I might be pulling a fast one here. “Absolutely sure,” I says. “Do you want to see the weceipts?” Eventually she came awound to accepting that they were all the weal thing, but she still wasn’t happy – because, she says, evewyone knows you can easily get fakes of these bwands. “Even Chavs wear them,” she says. “Yes,” I says, “but yours aren’t fakes, are they? Not like theirs.” “Yes, but how will anyone know that?” she says. “They don’t look any diffewent.” I tell you mate at that point I was wishing I had bought bloody knock-offs and saved myself a lot of money. “So what do you want me to do, Bwenda?” I says. “Pin a These Are Not Fakes label on them to tell the world they’re weal?!”‘

‘It’s a strange world we live in, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Someone wearing a fake imagines the world thinks it’s the real thing, and someone wearing the real thing imagines the world thinks it’s a fake! Maybe we should all go back to going around naked, eh?”

‘Anyhow,’ Tristan went on, ‘she eventually came awound, but not before I said I’d make it up to her by taking her for a short bweak in Pwague for Valentine’s Day. Not that I can afford it, of course. Work’s all but dwied up. You can’t get moved for bloody plumbers now that house building’s stopped.’

At that point I heard the door of Brenda’s consulting room open. Mrs Byro came out and shuffled down the hall to the front door. I could see what Tristan meant. At first glance Mrs Byro appears to be to haute couture what Hugo is to horticultural design and you’d assume that her wardrobe must be a junkyard, a random accretion of disparate garments.  She is no bigger than a hobbit and has long hippy dippy hair of a curiously neutral colour. She struck me as the kind of woman you’d imagine must always choose her outfit for the day before she puts the light on. She has that sort of ostensibly accidental charity shop eclecticism that you never actually see among the poor (who are for the most part running around in fake Levi’s carrying fake Louis Vuitton handbags, of course). But I suspect it would be a mistake to think that the Mrs Byros and the Brendas of this world are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their wardrobe strategies. They are in fact sisters.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Merry Christmas.’

‘And a very merry Christmas to you too,’ she replied, giving me a big hug and a kiss on each cheek. ‘Did Tristan tell you about Prague? Oh, I’m so excited!’

‘Yes, he did,’ I said. ‘It sounds fab. Hey, and thanks for the Christmas present. It’s really interesting and, er, you know, unusual.’

‘Yes, I thought you might like it,’ she said. ‘I thought it would look good on your desk at work.’

‘Hey, I’d never thought of that. Yeah, I see what you mean, though. It’d be really good to be able to just turn it on whenever things become a bit too stressful. I must remember to get some batteries for it on my way home.’

I gave Brenda the box of sale slippers and drove back up the coast, listening to Lucinda William’s latest album. She’s made better, but it’s good. It hardly matters what she sings though, her blistered paint and rusty broken nails voice says it all.

When I got back Margaret was peeling some carrots. I asked her what Brenda had got her for Christmas. ‘Did she get you a fountain too,’ I asked.

‘No,’ Margaret replied. ‘She got me a Strength Rune silver necklace, a collection of Nam Champa soaps, a Green Man candle holder and some candles. Oh, and a black beret. It’s all very good quality stuff, of course.’

‘Yes, it all sounds very Brenda to me,’ I said. ‘But it doesn’t sound especially you. When did you last wear a beret?’

Margaret continued peeling carrots. She said nothing. I picked up The Guardian and wandered through to the conservatory. De Kooning joined me.

‘If you had a friend who was a goldfish,’ I said, ‘and she had bought you a Christmas present, what would you have liked her to have got you?’ 

De Kooning looked up at me for a moment. He licked his paw and began to clean his face.

‘Okay’ I said, ‘if the choice was between a wrecked pirate ship aquarium ornament and a catnip-filled fluffy toy mouse, which one would you go for?’

De Kooning stopped cleaning himself for a moment and looked at me as if I was daft.

‘Okay, okay, it’s a no-brainer, you’re right. Unless the goldfish was called Brenda. If Brenda was your goldfish friend you would have got the pirate ship.’

Sunday was bright and frosty. I drove up to Lordenshaw. I walked over to Spylaw and from there contoured across the moors around the southern slopes of Simonside before climbing up to the crag on the path that passes Croppy’s Hole. There was a fair amount of ice here and there and the peat on top was frozen rock solid. But it was dry and sunny and it was easy walking over the top on the newly laid stone slabs. To the north there was snow on Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill, shining like a bride in the winter sun. It was a beautiful day. It was 2009. As I walked east off Dove Crag I began to think about Basil Bunting.

When I got home Hugo was on his drive. He was working on the Alligator with what appeared to be an angle grinder. He gave me a wave as I went up my path. I went out into the back garden and looked over the fence into Hugo’s garden, which I hadn’t seen for a while. It was much the same as before, except that there was a straggle of silvery tinsel on the moose’s antlers. The waterfall was turned off and the pond was frozen. The ducks and the otter were in there usual places. The grey heron gazed at the ice and never blinked, not even once. It was late afternoon. The last rays of the sun were glinting on the still naked girders of the Citadel.

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