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a glimpse of maybellene’s garden

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bebside #2

‘The sun is God’

(Said to be Turner’s last words)

Debs and Angie both went down with Swine Flu this week. I began to think about the apocalypse again.  The birch seeds are blowing across my garden path and burrowing into the rubber seals of my car windows. Great dark swirls of lapwings have taken to the air above the fields along the beach road. Dozens of goldfinches are nervously harvesting the seeds from tattered windblown thistles along the fence lines that run inland towards Newsham and New Hartley. The days are closing in. Darkness is on its way.

Lily burst into the office. It must have been Tuesday. She strode across the room like a Valkyrie.

‘That bloody woman does my head in!’ she said. ‘I’ve had to walk out or I’d have killed her!’

Pippa, Jodie, Jules and Michelle all glanced at her briefly in a very matter of fact way. They said nothing. Lily does this sometimes.

‘Who are you seeing?’ I asked. I was nibbling on one of the Thornton’s Mini Caramel Shortcakes that Jules had brought in from home to save herself from excess or waste.

‘Maybellene Twichell’ Lily replied, throwing her long blonde hair back like a palamino’s mane and adopting a haughty but subtly self-mocking stance. Lily does this too sometimes. Her moods have a dramatic quality about them, like the weather in the mountains.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘The Mouse Lady. So what’s up now – more evidence of spells and potions?’

‘No,’ Lily said, in a clipped way. ‘No. Polly has gone missing now.  That’s two down, one to go.’

‘So Penelope didn’t ever turn up, then?’

‘Of course she bloody didn’t.  Maybellene says that she saw next door’s tabby, Mr Bilbo, in her garden the other night and fears the worst. Of course she didn’t seem the slightest bit bothered by this possibility. If they were mice I’d be beside myself, wouldn’t you?’

I nodded. ‘So have you spoken to the cat yet?’

‘No, not yet,’ Lily replied, now suddenly distinctly more reflective. ‘I’m interviewing him tomorrow. But I can tell you now Mr Bilbo will have nothing to say on the matter.  My guess is Mr Bilbo will not have laid a paw on either of these mice. My guess is that Maybellene has already delivered them to childless couples for transformation. That woman makes my blood boil some times. She’s as slippery as an eel, that one. And oh so smug with it.’ Lily paused briefly and then asked,’ If Mr Bilbo says he didn’t take these mice, do you think we’ll have enough to start proceedings on Priscilla?’

‘I shouldn’t think so,’ I replied. ‘But why not run it past legal. You never know. How’s Pearl, by the way.’

‘She’s fine, I think. No fur, no facial or dietary changes.  In fact I think it may be that she is already her mother’s apprentice. It may be too late already for Pearl.’

Hmmm,’ I said, shaking my head thoughtfully, ‘that’s a shame.’

I emailed John Sultan and updated him on the disappearance of Polly. He replied tersely: ‘Okay. Thanks.’  John’s not a rich or nuanced communicator. This is pretty much the answer he gives to every email.

‘Hi John. The world’s turned to a strawberry tart.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘Hi John. There are seventeen extraterrestrial beings in the office and they’re turning all the staff into small china teapots.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘Hi John.  A shopkeeper on Woodhorn Road is buying new-born babies from strung out heroin addicts from North Seaton and feeding them to his pet tiger.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

‘Hi, John. There are tanks on Station Road, bombers over Lintonville Terrace, and my eyes have turned to turpentine.’

‘Okay. Thanks.’

I drove through the silent regiment of traffic cones on the Spine Road and up the slip road towards the Laverock Hall. The light was grey and white, the fields were yellow and rust. Already leaves have fallen from the trees. I was listening to Richmond Fontaine’s latest album, “We Used To Think The Freeway Sounded Like A River”. It’s predictably excellent. Willy Vlautin is a songwriter with unusually sophisticated narrative skills. His work is sometimes described as Carveresque. These are songs of anomie and dysfunctional relationships; their narrators inhabit a landscape that is almost irretrievably post-traumatic. Perhaps at one level these songs map a psychological meta-narrative – the collapse of character against environment into character against self. Something tragic and dehumanizing has happened here, but yet there’s something about the sharing of this experience in a song that offers a remedy of sorts, a kind of humanizing openness.

When I got in I discovered Margaret was on the telephone to Brenda. I went into the kitchen. About half a dozen or so of her clocks were gathered on the kitchen table. A yellow duster lay beside them. De Kooning was sitting among them, like a slightly bemused black druid. I made myself a cappuccino and took him through to watch the six o’clock news. Nick Clegg was on. I wondered if I should go for walk before tea.

‘How’s Brenda?’ I said to Margaret when she came through with a cup of tea to watch the weather.

‘She’s troubled,’ Margaret replied. ‘She doesn’t think Tristan really wants to find work. He goes out every day and tells her he’s out looking for work.  He goes out every morning at nine, comes back every night at half five. He acts as if he’s working, but says he isn’t. Brenda doesn’t know what to make of it. She doesn’t trust him. She wants to support him but doesn’t want him to make a fool of her.’

Nick Clegg popped up again, like a robin on a Christmas card. I picked up my book on Ivon Hitchens and began flicking through it.

‘Tristan’s a creature of habit,’ I said.

‘Brenda thinks he’s seeing someone else,’ Margaret said.

Kettles and frying pans crossed my mind.

‘Who?’ I said. ‘Does she drive a bus?’

Margaret scowled. ‘She’s not sure who it is,’ she replied.

‘Ah.’

‘But she has an idea.’

‘She has an idea?’

‘Yes, she has. She thinks it might be a woman from South Beach Estate. One of her clients said she saw his van there on a couple of occasions.’

‘It wasn’t Mrs Byro, was it?’

‘It might have been, yes. Why?’

‘I just wondered. Which road was Tristan’s van allegedly seen in?’

‘I’m not sure. One of the bird streets, I think.’

‘Curlew?’

‘It might be, yes.’

‘Or was it Avocet?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Or Osprey?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Or Eider?’

‘I’m not sure. It might have been Dunlin.’

‘Hmmm,’ I said, wondering if perhaps Mrs Byro was the femme fatale herself and had lobbed in the South Beach idea to throw Brenda off the scent. It was an very odd thought. Tristan’s a Trostskyite.

‘It wasn’t Albatross by any chance, was it?’ I said.

‘No,’ Margaret replied. ‘I’m pretty sure it wasn’t that one.’

Lily interviewed Mr Bilbo on Wednesday, as planned.

‘How did it go?’ I asked.

‘Okay,’ she replied, in a resigned sort of way. She obviously hadn’t got much.

‘Did he talk to you okay?’

‘Oh yeah, he was fine. A really well mannered and polite little chap. Straight as a die too.’

‘So?’ I said. ‘Come on then, what did he say? Has he been in Maybellene’s garden or was she just telling porky pies?’

‘Yes, he says he’s been in a few times.’

‘Ah ha! And?’

Lily frowned. ‘Mr Bilbo says he feels uncomfortable in Maybellene’s garden. He says there’s something odd about it. He never stops there, but he has to pass through it to get to Mrs McMurdo’s garden. Mrs McMurdo lets him sit in her greenhouse and she has catmint planted in her border.’

‘So what does Mr Bilbo say is so odd about Maybellene’s garden? Is it full of dead mice, for instance?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘That’s the odd thing. Mr Bilbo says he has never seen any evidence whatsoever of even one mouse in Maybellene’s garden. He says it’s the only garden he’s ever been in that’s like that.  Don’t you think that’s strange?’

I nodded slowly. ‘It is strange, yes. But what does it tell us?’

Lily shrugged and shook her head.

‘Okay, so what else did he say? Has he ever heard or seen anything odd?’

‘He says he’s heard them singing.  At first he says he thought it was a Mahalia Jackson record, but then he glimpsed Maybellene through the kitchen window. Mr Bilbo says Maybellene sings a lot and that he can hear her even if he’s in the next street. She sings spirituals.’

‘Spirituals?’

‘Yes, you know – Go Tell It On the Mountain, I’m On My Way to Canaan’s Land, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen, that sort of thing.’

‘Did Mr Bilbo mention those particular songs?’

‘Yes, he did actually. Do you think they are telling us something?’

I shrugged and shook my head.

‘So other than the Mahalia Jackson syndrome, which isn’t really that unusual, I guess, and the garden with no mice, was there anything else he mentioned which might be important?’

‘He said the garden smells strange.’

‘It smells strange? In what way? What does he say it smells like?’

‘He doesn’t know. He says it isn’t a smell he likes. He says it could be snakes.’

‘Snakes?!’ I said. ‘He definitely said that?’

‘Yes,’ Lily said. ‘He said the smell could be snakes.’ Lily looked sheepish.

‘You suggested that to him, didn’t you?’ I said. ‘You asked him a leading question, didn’t you?’

Lily nodded.  Her head drooped in shame, her long hair closng around her face like crematorium curtains. ‘Yes, I did,’ she said.

‘Lily,’ I said. ‘What on earth were you thinking of? That’s not like you.’

‘I know, I know,’ she said, looking up at me, wide-eyed and beseeching. ‘I know. But that bloody woman really gets under my skin. I know she’s up to something, I just bloody know it. I was so hoping Mr Bilbo would give us something.’

I was in Keswick last weekend. On Saturday I walked around Derwentwater and up over Catbells. It drizzled a bit around the middle of the day, but for the time of the year I couldn’t complain. On Saturday night I went to the Theatre by the Lake to see a production of an adaptation of one of P G Wodehouse’s novels – Summer Lightning. It was written in 1929. The characters have typically unlikely Wodehouse names – Percy Pilbeam, Sir Gregory Parloe-Parsloe, Galahad Threepwood and Hugo Carmody.  The men were all dapper and dandy – striped blazers, brightly coloured waistcoats, pastel ties, tan brogues and all that.  This novel was published just three years after the General Strike of 1926. Of course such events unfolded in a completely different universe to that inhabited by Wodehouse’s characters. The men who in those days worked (or didn’t) in the dirty dark world of the pits and shipyards of Blyth never ever dressed like this. I never saw a striped blazer in my granddad’s wardrobe. My grandma was never a flapper girl. But oddly enough I found myself taking a strange liking the style of the male characters. As soon I got back went on to the Veggie Shoes site. I really must get myself some tan brogues.

It’s been another good weekend weatherwise. I rode my bicycle over the fields to Bebside and then up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. There seems to be a unusually high number of berries on the trees and hedgerows this year, more than I can ever recall seeing in any previous year. I went up through Cramlington and Nelson Industrial Estate to Beaconhill and then down Arcot Lane, the broken track already littered with dry brown leaves. Sometimes the wind picked them up and swirled them into sudden vortices, like dogs chasing their tails. I went through Dudley and then back down to Seghill on the road, the wind at my back. I came over the fields to Newsham. It was feeling a little colder. Some kids had set fire to some trees and grass along the track that follows the route of the old railway line to New Delaval. The place is bone dry. It hasn’t rained much for weeks now. 

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the part of beauty that can’t be destroyed

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bath-terrace-lighthouse-blyth

As I was driving to work one day last week I was devising a questionnaire to help individuals to self-assess their attitude to the place where they want to be buried.  I decided upon one graded and scaled multi-answer question: “Which of these options do you consider better than having no grave at all?” 

  1. An unmarked grave
  2. A grave that has your epitaph but not your  name
  3. A grave that gives only your initial and surname
  4. A grave that gives only your name and date of death
  5. A grave that gives your name and age at death
  6. A grave that gives your name, dates of birth and death, and the names of your parents
  7. A grave that gives your name, profession, date and place of birth and death
  8. A grave that gives your name, profession and cause of death
  9. A grave on which someone has planted a mighty oak tree
  10. A grave that no-one ever visits
  11. A grave that isn’t kept clean
  12. A grave that gives your full name and title, profession, dates and places of birth and death, cause of death, names of parents, children, spouses and old lovers, and an epitaph
  13. A grave marked by a marble statue of an forlorn wingèd angel
  14. A grave marked by a weather-beaten stone skull
  15. A grave on which someone has urinated and left an empty lager can
  16. A grave watched over by solar lights
  17. A grave that no-one can ever find
  18. A grave which has someone else’s gravestone on it
  19. A grave beneath a boulder near the foot of Great Gable
  20. A grave that has fallen into the sea

When I went into the team room Pippa was telling Angie and Sally that The Death Kitty had again been won by someone at her daughter’s workplace, but that yet again the winner hadn’t been her daughter. The winner on this occasion was Malcolm, a finance officer. He was fortunate enough to have selected Hank Locklin as one of his candidates. Locklin had been the oldest surviving member of the Grand Ole Opry. He died on 8th March at the age of 91. One of his best known songs was Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, which in lyrical terms contains little more than the famous line “Send me the pillow that you dream on so darling I can dream on it too”.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Angie said.

‘Me neither,’ Sally said. ‘Had no-one picked Wendy Richard?’

‘They mustn’t have, no,’ Pippa said. ‘I don’t even think anyone’s got Jade Goody.’

‘How do they find out who has died?’ Angie asked.

‘From the internet,’ Pippa said. ‘There are lots of sites out there, you know, such as whosedeadandwhosalive.com, celebritydeathbeeper.com and dead-celeb.com. You can subscribe to some of them and they’ll send you an email to let you know whenever a celebrity dies.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’ll have a look.’

‘What’s your daughter’s name, again, Pippa?’ I asked.

‘Candy.’

‘Oh yes, of course, Candy. So is she okay?’

‘Yes, she’s fine,’ Pippa said. ‘She’s actually on holiday this week in the Lakes with her boyfriend.’

‘That’s where I’ve just been,’ I said. ‘Bowness.’

‘Candy’s in Cockermouth. But we love Bowness,’ Pippa replied. ‘We used to take the kids there all the time when they were little.’

‘Yes, I like it too,’ I said, ‘even though it’s a bit touristy for me.’

‘So where were you staying? In a hotel?’

‘No, I rented a house up on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh, Longtail Hill! Do you know the story about the young lass who was flattened by a steam roller there?’

‘Yeah, I’d heard about that,’ I said. ‘A red-head, wasn’t she?’

‘When the kids were little we used to always get the ferry over to Hawkshead. A woman on the ferry told us the story one day. It seems that Sharon – the beautiful red-headed woman who was eventually squashed? – used to get take the ferry every Sunday morning and secretly meet up with a young man called Ned Perfect. Together they used to take long walks together, hand in hand through Claife Woods and around Far Sawrey. The trouble was that Ned was already engaged to be married to Florence Nelson, and Florence Nelson wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. When Florence heard about Ned’s secret trysts with Sharon she decided to eliminate her rival in a way that would obliterate every last trace of her beauty. She decided to flatten her with a steam roller.’

‘The tale I’d heard was that Florence was irrationally jealous and that Ned had in fact done no more than accept a piece of orange from Sharon. I also thought Sharon always went to church on Sunday mornings.’

‘That might be what she told people,’ Pippa said. ‘But that’s not what the woman on the ferry told us. No, it seems that every Sunday morning Sharon met Ned on the far side of Windermere and that this went on for a long time. Florence eventually found out, of course, and discovered that every Sunday at about noon Ned gave Sharon a goodbye kiss at Claife Station and that Sharon then caught the quarter past twelve ferry alone, back to Bowness, and walked back up Longtail Hill to go home for her dinner. That’s why Florence hatched her plan to ambush Sharon with a steam roller as she was walking up the bank.’

‘Yes, I know about that bit,’ I said.  

‘And did you know that after the murder Ned Perfect would walk out on to Longtail Hill every morning and try to find a strand of Sharon’s red hair embedded in the tarmac, and that he’d prise the strand he found from the road and take it with him on the ferry over to Hawkshead. They say he put all the strands together in a silver box which is hidden among the roots of a tree near Claife Station. When the woman told us the story, she said Ned was still doing the crossing every single day. But that was a long time ago, of course. He’s probably dead now. And in any case we never saw him. The kids used to run around the woods shouting for him to come out, come out wherever he was. It was a little game we always played.’

‘For Ned Perfect, Sharon’s hair must have been the only part of her beauty that Florence could not destroy,’ I said. ‘The part she could never take away.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ Pippa said.

‘You haven’t forgotten about our meeting this morning, have you?’ Angie said.

‘Who’s it about again?’ I said.

‘Mrs McElhatton? Fern? The lady who thinks her daughter’s been replaced by an imposter?’

‘Oh yeah, of course,’ I said. ‘Give me a bell when everyone arrives.’

So it seems likely that the old white haired man I walked back from Far Sawrey with, and who as it happens had left me at the foot of the little path up to Claife Station, the place where Ned always kissed Sharon goodbye, was none other than Ned Perfect himself. It’s amazing that love and loss can bend whole lives into such strange shapes. As I made my way upstairs to my office I also realised that Perfect though Ned might be, he is clearly a far from reliable narrator.  There’s obviously a lot more to this tale, and I was wondering if perhaps I could find out more on the internet. Surely there must be something somewhere about it. Perhaps I’ll find something on famoussteamrollermurderers.com.

As I was leaving the office that night Jack Verdi was pulling into the car park on his motorbike. It was as Owen described it, big, shiny and black. Jack was in black leathers and wore a black high-gloss helmet with a dark mirrored visor.  The word Spider was written across the side of his helmet in blood red lettering.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘What’s your fettle?’

‘Good, man. Yeah, cool.’ He was trying to get the bike on to its stand. It was like watching a man made of pipe cleaners trying to bring a buffalo to heel. I couldn’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have found a Vespa scooter more manageable. He took off his helmet and put it on the tank and began to undo the Velcro on his black gauntlets, each of which seemed to be about as big as a vulture’s wing.

‘Nice machine,’ I said. ‘Yes, I’d heard you’d got rid of the Skoda.’

‘You bet I did, man. That was an old man’s chariot. I might as well have been travelling in a hearse. This baby is more up my street, dude, if you know what I mean.’

‘Owen told me it was a Kawasaki.’

‘Nah, this is a Ducati, man. Classic Italian race machine. Owen wouldn’t know a real bike if it jumped up and bit him. Guess what I call this beauty?’ he said, stepping over it and pointing to some white lettering on tank.

‘Hilda?’ I said.

‘Hilda?’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Hilda?  Why Hilda, dude?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It was just a guess.’

Cruella, dude. I call this baby, Cruella.’ He chuckled and brushed his hand across the name to remove a slight smudge from the gleaming black tank. ‘I named her after our mutual friend.’ He laughed again.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And this Spider thing – the thing on your hat?’

‘The name on my helmet?  Spider? That’s the name they used to sometimes call me in the band, man. That’s the name I answer to now. That’s my real name, man.’

I nodded. ‘So what are you here for, Jack?’ I asked. ‘A meeting?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a four thirty with Michelle about the Cassidy girls. We might have found a long term placement for them up over the Carter Bar near Hawick. Nice couple, run a little craft shop. He’s a woodturner, she’s a craft knitter, does handbags and scarves and mittens and stuff. If she likes the look of them I want to arrange to take Michelle up to meet them next week.’

‘Not on Cruella’s pillion, I hope,’ I said.

‘I will if she’s up for it,’ Jack joked.

‘She won’t be,’ I said. ‘You’ll be crossing the border in the Yaris.’

I made my way down towards the car park at the bottom of the street. I listened to Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album as I drove home. It’s certainly a bit more upbeat and musically animated than some of his previous work, but not as much as the reviews I’d read had led me to expect. The faltering, slightly washed-out and vague quality of his voice doesn’t readily lend itself to joy. The Jayhawks, for example, have a kind of emotional buoyancy and confident musical momentum which its hard to imagine Mr Oldham ever achieving – which isn’t to say that what he does isn’t in it’s own way just as good and valuable as the Jayhawk’s stuff, of course.

I drove down the Laverock towards Newsham and noticed that leaves are beginning to appear on the some of the hawthorn hedges. It’s suddenly possibly to believe it’s spring. When I arrived home Margaret was at the gate talking to Geraldine. A couple of months or so ago, Griff decided to add an extension to Citadel, another mere twenty feet of shadow for those of who live beneath it. It was almost as if they wanted the world to see it as barely more than a whim, a casual afterthought, nothing worth getting in a lather about. The Citizens were understandably shocked. They consulted leading members of the ruling political group, who were absolutely clear that they had been against this project from the start. They recommended that the Citizens appear at the planning hearing and seek a deferment, which they duly did. They asked the committee to visit residents’ homes to see just what the real impact was upon their lives.

The Committee made their site visit. The Widow Middlemiss had prepared herself for their visit. The Committee visited the building site, walked among the machines – the cranes, the dumpers, the diggers, the piles of breeze blocks and tiers of scaffolding – and beneath the naked girders and half built walls, and the builders went about their work all around and above them. The council official then announced the Committee could not visit any resident’s house, not even the Widow’s. On health and safety grounds. The official didn’t elaborate on exactly what the risks might be, of course, but Geraldine was pretty sure she’d worked it out.

‘They were frightened that Ethel’s teapot might fall on them,’ she said.

The planning committee duly returned to Morpeth and have now made their decision. It was absolutely predictable that they would grant consent for the extension and they did so. A committee member commented that the extension would not make a significant additional impact on the appearance of the building or upon residents. This of course is in a sense true. But it’s like saying that if you’ve stolen from someone more or less everything they’ve got taking the remainder of their loose change isn’t really such a big crime.

‘Democracy is a farce,’ Geraldine said. ‘They just do what they want. The whole thing’s been a charade.’

‘You’re right,’ Margaret said. ‘We may as well not exist.’

Margaret agreed. I stood and listened and nodded my agreement. I was thinking that the trouble with the councillors is that they’re probably just as powerless as we are, but that that none of them has the courage to admit it. I gazed idly over into Hugo’s front garden, where I noticed an old silver oven and hob unit had arrived in recent days along with a few sheets of plasterboard wrapped in polythene. I also noticed that The Alligator had acquired a new black boot and a towbar. It was obviously roadworthy again. I tried to recall when the beating had ended. Had I heard it this year?  I wasn’t sure.

I went into the house and left Margaret and Geraldine plotting the revolution. I scooped up De Kooning and took him through to the kitchen. There was a pile of onions and carrots on the bench. I made myself a cappuccino and we went through to the conservatory. I stood with De Kooning in my arms and looked out at the giant walls which now constitute the whole of our horizon.

‘That’s it, then,’ I said. ‘The battle’s finally over. There’s no way out of here now. We’re entombed.’

De Kooning rubbed his head against my face and began to purr.

‘Hey, you don’t know any Hank Locklin songs, do you?’ I said to him. ‘Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On? Happy Journey? Geisha Girl?’

It was only half past five, but the sun had already disappeared behind The Wall. As I contemplated the implacable panorama that incarcerated us I began to wonder if Bonnie Prince Billy had ever sung Hank Locklin songs. I wondered how that would sound like. De Kooning was watching the blackbirds chasing each other around the garden. I began to wonder if there was anywhere in Northumberland where I could still buy myself a steam roller.

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prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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south-newsham-railway-crossing1

 

We had more snow last week, again on Thursday. For a while it looked like it would never stop. ‘So this is how the world ends,’ I thought to myself.  Most members of my team went home early. There were rumours that the Spine Road might be closed so at about half four I set off for home. It turned out that the snow was already turning to sleet and rain by then. The wild apocalyptic blizzard was a false alarm. Nevertheless it was a slushy slither back down the Laverock and along Newcastle Road into Newsham.

The snow almost interfered with Tristan and Brenda’s Valentine trip to Prague.  Once or twice on Thursday the airport at Ponteland was closed for a while. But the snow is the least of their problems, it seems. Tristan had discovered earlier in the week that Brenda has become friendly with a man she’s been life-coaching. The man’s problems revolve around his marriage, it seems, and making decisions about how he is going to spend the rest of his life. He owns and runs an executive coach company called Mephisto Travel and he has a big house in Tynemouth, it seems. He’s made his fortune and he’s looking forward to taking it easy and seeing the world. What he doesn’t now know is who he wants to be with him on his travels. The man’s name is Elvis Devlin.

‘Elvis Devlin?’ I said to Margaret when she told me the tale.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s right. Do you know him?’

‘Do I know Elvis Devlin?’ I said. ‘Do I know Elvis?’

‘Yes, Elvis. Do you have a problem with that? It’s no sillier than your name, is it?’

‘You’re right. I just hope he’s not an impostor,’ I said. ‘I just hope he’s not a Devlin disguise.’

Margaret groaned and got on with cutting up the onions.

It seems that on a couple of occasions Brenda has been seen having coffee with Elvis Devlin at the Milkhope Centre near Blagdon. This is far enough from Whitley Bay to suggest that these encounters did not happen by chance, although that apparently is exactly how Brenda claims they did happen. (But in any case doesn’t everything happen for a reason, Brenda? I heard myself thinking.) Tristan’s suspicion is that Elvis might be singing Viva Las Vegas in her ear. So Prague nearly didn’t happen. Margaret says it’s a make or break weekend for them. She’s convinced that Tristan’s fears are unnecessary, but you know what the song says about suspicious minds.

On Friday morning the roads were okay and most people made it in. At about lunchtime I went downstairs to make myself a coffee. Lily was checking out the weather on the Met Office website. Michelle was having a sandwich and doing her sudoku book.

‘We’ve got another one,’ Lily said. ‘I’ve got another mother who’s got a spirit in her house. She says it knocks thing off the windowsills at nights and taps on the window.’

‘Has she got a cat?’ Michelle chipped in. Lily laughed.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘She hasn’t even got a broom. The place is mingin’!’

I stood in the kitchen with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the filing cabinets and waiting for the kettle to boil. I filled my cup and wandered back out into the team room. Angie came in and Lily asked her how the roads were. I sat down in Debs’ chair and put my feet on her desk.

‘You don’t believe in ghosts, do you, Lily?’ I said.

‘Nah!’ she said. ‘It probably is the cat. Actually it probably isn’t. She’s probably just nuts.’

‘Oh, I believe in ghosts,’ Angie said. ‘We used to have one on the house we had in Forest Hall.’

‘So do you think Lily should call in an exorcist for her client?’

‘Yes, why not?’

‘Probably for the same reason we don’t make assessments from star signs,’ I said. ‘And because it’d get me the bloody sack.’

‘What sign are you, Lil?’ Angie said. ‘Let me guess. Okay, okay, I’ve got it. You’re a Virgo. Am I right?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘I’m an Aries.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. How didn’t I see that? How stupid am I?’

‘I’m an Aries too,’ I said.

‘You’re not!’ Lily said. ‘You could never be an Aries.’

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Honestly.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Lily said. ‘You couldn’t be.’

On Friday night I began a new painting of Seaton Sluice. I’ve painted it before. I’m ambivalent about doing it because it is making a concession to the conventionally picturesque, something I’m trying to get away from. I decided on a low horizon. I was doing a view from the bridge of Rocky Island and the Kings Head pub. I used the canvas I’d underpainted in vermillion a week or two ago. I painted the sky quickly with a big flat brush. Square chunks of white and yellow ochre clouds careering wildly around in a Prussian blue sky.

On Saturday I rode along to my dad’s on the bike. It wasn’t a bad afternoon and the paths were mostly completely clear of snow.

During the week my dad had been to the library. As I was drinking a glass of pineapple juice he gave me a photocopy he’d made of an article from The Blyth News at the end of May 1936. The article reported the death at age eighty one of Harry Clough, the father of Tom Clough, the Newsham Nightingale. “FAMOUS PIPER DEAD”, was the headline, with the by-line “Newsham Man Who Played Before Royalty”. He is said to have died at his home in Plessey Road, of which Brick Row must have been considered a part.

The article said that in 1905 Harry Clough had played for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle. Until a few weeks before his death Harry had acted as a caller at Cowpen Coal Company, the article said.  Here’s a typical paragraph from the article, which is really a eulogy:

His music like his character delighted his audience. In both cottage and palace he enchanted with the folk music of Northumberland. His nature was kind and genial without ostentation. Unassuming and without any love of fame, his art was always at the disposal of charity.

As I recall Harry was buried at Blyth Cemetary, back down on the beach road. I’d ridden past it on the way along. I wondered if I should stop off on my way back and see if I could find his grave. But no doubt I’d have no more luck looking for the grave of the Nightingale’s father than I had looking for the grave of his son.

I asked my dad which route the old road out of Newsham followed. The book on the Cloughs had said it was very rough.

‘It followed the route of Newcastle Road along to where the little roundabout is now, and it turned right there and went up towards the Laverock,’ he said. ‘Of course in those days the houses on the right weren’t there. The store field was there, where they used to turn out the ponies from the pit in summer.’

‘So was it a rough road?’ I asked.

‘It was wet. When it got over the old railway line to the relief pit it took a big sweeping bend around before going up the Laverock. It was often flooded there.’

Laverock is an old word for a skylark. Most people assume this is how the farm on the ridge got its name and that the road got its name from the farm. I’ve never seen any real evidence for this. My alternative theory is that the place name may have nothing to do with the skylark at all. In Cumbria there’s a place called Laversdale. The first element of this is from the Old English personal name Leofhere. I wonder if this name or something similar isn’t the first element in Laverock and that the second is rigg, meaning ridge. There are ridge and furrows in the field beside Laverock Hall Farm and these will date back to the medieval period at least. The farm is also on a ridge, the ridge along which the road from Seaton Delaval to Horton runs. So the history and topography are arguably there to support the possibility that this might be Leofhere’s Ridge. Furthermore, local people usually talk about going up or coming down the Laverock, as if the land form itself is the thing they are climbing or descending. They do not say they are going up to the Laverock. The word is also said with a final vowel that is very close to the  i sound in rigg, although admittedly inevitably somewhat neutral. There are other examples around here of false etymologies arrived at and imposed by mapmakers, and this may be another. Rigg and rick are close enough together to allow an obvious aural mistake to be made. It was perhaps this mistake that threw an imaginary skylark into the sky above the ancient ridge.

As I rode home I glanced over to the cemetery, but rode straight by. It was getting late and the light was beginning to fail.

At about eight o’clock tonight I went out for a walk. It was a mild dry evening and there wasn’t much wind.  I walked along Sixth Avenue past the front gate to the site of the Citadel. The gates were closed and the security lights were shining eerily on the colossal towering structure. It really is a hellish, oppressive monstrosity, the wrong building in the wrong place. No wonder it reminds me of Kafka’s Castle. I walked through the cut and on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down past the first school. From there I crossed Winship Street into Elliot Street. They are already building on the site of the demolished Big Club. As I walked across I was thinking how these sites aren’t like widows: they don’t have to wait for a respectable period before they allow another building to occupy them. I had thought that apartments would be built here and I was therefore a bit surprised that building had started so soon, given the current depression in the housing market. I noticed a sign on the fence. It said “Considerate Construction”. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? I went over for a closer look and discovered that the new building appears to be going to be a new library. I was pleasantly surprised and for a moment impressed.

I went down Elliot Street past the take-aways and the betting shop, which was still open for business. An old guy in a flat cap was leaning in the doorway telling the woman inside a story about a bet he’d made. I crossed over to the Willow Tree, which was also open, although there weren’t many in. It seems to be under new management. I noticed there were flyers on the windows for a group called The Buskers, who it seems are playing there on Friday this week. I glanced over to the Brick Row open space. I wondered what sort of music they’d be playing. I wondered if the Cloughs would all be tapping their ghostly pipers’ feet. I walked back down Plessey Road, past the old Grammar school and on under the trees beside the bus stop.

When I got home Margaret was in. She was polishing the old Napoleon from her bedroom. It wasn’t ticking.

‘How did Brenda’s trip to Prague go?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘I haven’t heard from her.’

‘But she is back, isn’t she?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, they came back yesterday, I think.’

Or maybe she didn’t, I thought to myself. Maybe she’s already riding the Mephisto Express to Vegas.

I put the kettle on and went looking for De Kooning. I wanted to put him out in the garden for a while before I did a bit more on my painting of the Sluice.

 .

as good will stalks the fairy-lit earth

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blyth-croft-reef-hotel

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.’

 .

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.

.