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tasting the dark onion

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It was probably last Wednesday. I was driving down the Laverock listening to the Decembrists’ latest album The Hazards of Love.  It has an unstoppable momentum. This seems to have something to do with the keys and tonality, but the main factor is probably the lack of spaces between the tracks: the music never stops. The effect is irresistible continuity, and continuity in space and time have an extraordinary force, binding together things which might be meaningless and adrift in eternity if they stood on their own as discreet items.  The illusion of continuity conjures purpose out of chaos.

It was spring-like and suddenly there were shameless hosts of golden daffodils strewn along the verges. I was thinking that I needed to take control of my food intake and lose a few pounds for the summer. I stopped at Newsham Coop for some broccoli and tomatoes. There was the usual bunch of cars parked on the yellow lines just outside the door. I parked around the corner on the cobbles of the loading bays. My dad used to drive for the bakery for a while in the nineteen seventies, and in those days they used to load up the bakery delivery lorries there. When he was a kid he used to live in Store Terrace, just up the road a little way, next to the Post Office. In those days they used to load the various horse carts in these cobbled bays – the butchers’ carts, the bakers’ carts, the greengrocers’ cart, and so on – which they would take from street to street selling their produce. In the seventies I think only bakery and milk vans remained. My dad sometimes drove one of the electric bakery vans all the way to Cambois and back, over the new Kitty Brewster bridge. That was in the days when the pit at Cambois was still open, of course, and before they demolished the pits rows. There were still people there to sell stuff to in those days. It used to take the electric van about three quarters of an hour each way, but it didn’t matter much because most people in Cambois in those days didn’t have cars and were happy to buy their bread from the bakery van.

At the checkout I found myself behind Tania, baby Davina’s mother. I asked her what she was doing in these parts.

‘I’m staying with my new boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s called Darren. He lives in the Oval.’

‘Oh, so what happened with you and Joe?’ I asked.

‘I finished him,’ Tania said. ‘He was just such a loser.’

‘So what does Darren do?’

‘What does Darren do? Like a job, do you mean?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Darren hasn’t got a job. He’s got a car and that, though.’

‘Right. So how are you, any way? How’s the baby?’

‘I haven’t seen Davina for a week or two now. I’ve been helping Darren to paint the doors.  Anyway me and my dad aren’t really getting on at the minute, so it’s probably better if I don’t go over there.’

Davina had some Bachelor’s savoury rice, sausages, a large sliced white loaf , a big bag of Doritos and a couple of tins of beans in her basket. She also asked for a pack of Rizla’s, twenty Lambert and Butler and a four pack of Fosters.

‘Tell Michelle I’ll ring her, will you?’ she said, as she left.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Will do.’

I drove down Plessey Road listening to the Decembrists again, thinking about continuity, the importance of connections. What would places be without the roads and paths between them? What would our days be without the trails of memory and dreams that tie them together, without stories? The narratives we invent or find in our lives are like the branches of who we imagine we might be: without them each day would be like a leaf from a different tree.

Margaret was in the back garden, apparently gazing at the Citadel. De Kooning was sitting in the middle of the lawn cleaning his black face. I went out and picked him up. We looked over Hugo’s fence. There were daffodils in flower at the moose’s feet. I noticed the station clock had never been put back at the end of summer time last year.

‘Too late now,’ I said to De Kooning. ‘In a few days time it’ll be right again.’

When I went back inside I noticed a couple of packets of onion seeds on the bench near the kettle. Ailsa Craig and Bedfordshire Champion. March is the best month to sow onion seed in these parts. I realised Margaret must be thinking about growing her own onions and was outside looking for a place to plant them in the garden. Perhaps she was wondering if there was still enough light for them to thrive now that we lived in the shadow of Griff’s soulless castle. I’ve heard that onions can grow by starlight. I don’t know if it’s true, of course. It might be.

I decided to go for a walk before tea. I went down to the Mason’s Arms and along Coomassie Road, across Waterloo Road and through to Morrison’s car park. I made my way up Wright Street, through the cut past Sure Start and along the Sports Centre path to Newsham Road, from where I made my way back home.

When I got back I asked Margaret if she knew if there was a variety of onion that could grow by starlight.

‘No,’ she replied.

‘I think I’ll ring the Greek,’ I said. ‘He’ll know.’

The Greek seemed pleased to here from me. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said. ‘Oddly enough I was saying to Mr Geller only the other night how I hadn’t heard from you for a while. So what can I do for you, my friend?  Don’t tell me your broken Napoleon is still ticking.’

‘No, it stopped, just as you said it would. No, everything seems quiet on the clock front at the minute. What I want to ask you about is onions.’

‘Ah, the holy vegetable, our mysterious layered companion. Go ahead, shoot. Tell me what you need to know.’

‘Is there a variety that will grow on starlight alone?’ I asked. ‘I seem to remember reading somewhere that there is.’

‘Ah,’ the Greek said. ‘The fabulous Dark Onion of Heraclitus! Yes, we’ve all heard about that one. But which of us has ever tasted it? I’ve searched all my life for it, my friend. But the more I search the less likely it seems that I will ever find it. I’m beginning to think the Dark Onion may be no more than a myth.’

‘No chance of picking up a packet of seeds at Peter Barrett’s then?’

‘No, none. Not at Heighley Gate either. I would suggest you stick with Ailsa Craig, my friend. The Bedfordshire Champion is another popular and reliable variety. But if by any chance you were to stumble across the fabulous dark one, I would be in your eternal debt if you could in some small way share your good fortune with me.’

I thanked the Greek for his advice. I cooked my broccoli and tomatoes with some wholewheat pasta and garlic. I sat in the conservatory as darkness fell. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me.  I remarked to him that we needed to find out more about Heraclitus.

On Saturday it was cold; it rained that night. It was the night the clocks went forward. On Sunday it was clear and sunny. I drove up to Druridge. The tide was out and I walked up the beach. Far away to the north Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill were as white as angels. I drove back south and listened again to The Hazards of Love.

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fugitives, ghosts, and silver polar bears

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At about lunchtime on the day after baby Davina was abducted by Tania and Joe I got a call from Sergeant Godfrey Garnet at the police to say she’d been found.

‘That’s good news, Godfrey,’ I said. ‘Where is she? Is she okay?’

‘We’ve got her here,’ Godfrey replied. ‘She’s having a great time. Some of the girls are giving her a feed and oohing and aahing all over her and getting all broody.’

‘So where’s she been?’

‘We’re not sure. We got a tip off from a member of the public. We picked them up at the Spa in Bedlington Station.’

‘So was she with Tania and Joe?’

‘Aye, she was. They had some sausages and a big bag of Doritos in their basket and were trying to find the baby milk when we got there. We’ve got them both banged up at the minute. We’re trying to find out what we can charge them with. We want to see if we can do her for kidnap.’

‘So can a woman actually kidnap her own baby, Godfrey?’ I asked.

‘We’re not sure,’ Godfrey replied. ‘We’re taking advice from the CPS about that.’

‘So can we come and get her and take her back to her grandad?’ I asked.

‘Of course. Whenever you like. She’s the centre of attention here so she’ll be absolutely fine till you can get someone across.’

Michelle was out visiting someone in Seahouses. I rang her on her mobile and told her the news. She was speechless with delight and relief. I reassured her that the baby was fine. She said she’d be back down in an hour or so.

‘No hurry,’ I said. ‘The police are happy to baby sit for a while. I’ll ring grandad and give him the news. We’d better arrange to get Davina checked over by a paediatrician when you get back, just in case. The police say she’s suffered no harm, though.’

The member of the public had spotted Tania, Joe and baby Davina on the 447 Blyth to Morpeth bus. Apparently they got on somewhere in Cowpen Estate. Joe was carrying Davina in his arms. She was crying. As Tania paid the fares, Joe took his seat. He laid the wailing baby down on the seat beside him. His behaviour raised the suspicions of Polly Telfer, who as it happens works as a cleaner at the Bedlington Police Station on Schalksmuhle Road. She had been listening to Alan Robson on the night before.

Joe and Tania seemed very nervous during the bus ride, constantly looking out of the window. Polly Telfer told the police that to her they looked like “fugitives”. They got off at the Spa in Bedlington Station. Polly got off just a couple of stops or so later and immediately reported her suspicions to the duty desk. Five minutes later there were four police cars and an armed response unit at the Spa.

An hour or so Godfrey rang back.

‘Will your people be long in picking this baby up?’ he asked.

‘No, not long,’ I said. ‘What’s the matter, has the novelty worn off?’

‘Not exactly,’ Godfrey said. ‘But there is becoming a bit of an atmosphere around here now, if you get my drift.’

I laughed and reassured Godfrey that Michelle would be there any minute.

On the following Sunday I drove up to Thrunton Woods. I parked in the main car park and followed the forest road up on to Callaly Crag. There was a fair bit of snow up there, even though there was none at all down by the car park. It was a sunny day. I looked for a while over to Fawdon Hill and Hedgehope and Cheviot beyond, both white with snow. I made my way south into the glare of the winter sun, over the moor through the open areas between the conifer plantings towards the valley of the Coe Burn. I saw no-one at all during this part of the walk. The heather was high and the old tracks were very squelchy in places. At one point I had the company of a buzzard mewing above me. I saw a couple of pairs of roe deer stepping anxiously through the dead bracken at the forest edge. I left the track for a while and fought my way through the rough billowing heather towards Black Walter, where I picked up the forest road again and made my way back up into the snow before taking the track back down past the area where they are thinning the trees to the car. I walked for about two and a half hours and saw no-one other than a couple and an old guy with their dogs on my way out and a couple of mountain bikers in the car park when I got back down.

Thrunton Woods and the moors lying to the south of Long Crag down to Debdon Burn cover a large area of open land which was once part of the Armstrong estate. Some of it might still be owned by his descendents, although the adjoining Cragside estate is now owned by the National Trust, of course. What’s curious about the Thrunton Woods area is the almost total absence of traditional rights of way, along with the apparent virtual absence of old settlements. This of course cannot truly reflect the way things were before Armstrong got his hands on this land, but must represent the eviction and exclusion of ordinary people and the public from this land. It’s interesting to contrast it with the area of very similar land over at Bewick Moor, which is riddled with rights of way, many of them bridleways following old routes between old settlements. Thrunton has at some point been stripped of that traditional infrastructure of routes. It more closely resembles places like Simonside, Hulme Park and Cragside itself in these terms, probably for very much the same reasons, the loss of traditional rights under pressure from powerful and influential landowners, families and individuals pursuing their own aggrandisement and jealously defending their exclusive right to chase and kill every animal that flew, swam or ran there. Some people say Northumberland remains in some ways a feudal county. You can see what they mean. Places like this are the sites of our own version of the Highland Clearances and are haunted by a similar sense of dispossession and desolation. There’s a wild irony in the beauty and solitude we now find here and for which we love these places so much. We find freedom. We trespass with ghosts.

I drove back down the A697 as it follows the line of the Devil’s Causeway for a while before going through Longframlington and down the long hill into the Coquet valley. I listened to the album You & Me by The Walkmen. Their music has a sort of loose jauntiness, a sardonic sort of ramshackle energy. The singer declaims and laments in a suitably inconsequential and encouragingly post-modern manner. It’s well worth a listen.

When I got back I noticed that the assorted boxes of slippers that have littered the house all winter had gone.

‘Where have the all the slippers gone?’ I asked Margaret.

‘Gone to Brenda’s, every one,’ she replied. ‘We’re thinking of giving them away to a charity shop.’

‘Really? Are you winding up the Slipper Shop?’

‘Probably. The recession has pretty much killed the business.’

‘Oh, that’s sad,’ I said. ‘Still it’ll give you more time to join the Citizens in the struggle against the Citadel.’

‘Oh, that’s a lost cause, I think, don’t you? No, Brenda and I are planning a new business. We reckon that in hard economic times people spend money on things that cheer them up. Brenda reckons cinema attendance always increases during a recession.’

‘So what are you two going to do – get jobs as usherettes?’

Margaret tutted and shook her head. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said.

‘You can’t be going to open a picture house, are you? Surely not.’

‘No, nothing like that,’ Margaret replied. ‘We’re going to set up a funwear shop on eBay. We’re going to call it Frills, Fleeces and Furry Things.’

I nodded. ‘Sounds good,’ I said.

I gave De Kooning a shout and picked him up. We went into the conservatory to read The Observer.

On Monday I got a phone call from an old colleague, Dr Bertrand Sticks. Sticks is a sort of computer boffin these days, although at one time he was a front line social worker. It wasn’t exactly his forte. He has a sort of other worldly detachment about him. He is also somewhat displaced in class terms, having about him the look of one of Harry Potter’s more rotund friends.

‘Hi Sticks,’ I said. ‘What you been doing with yourself? It seems like yonks since I’ve seen you.’

‘It is yonks,’ Sticks said. ‘About four and a half years of yonks.’

‘So what you doing with yourself these days? Are you still in the Stylophone Quartet?’

‘No,’ he said, for a moment appearing to lose his poise. ‘No, that folded about three years ago. I spend most of my free time these days trying to design a new kind of robot, which I hope to build eventually.’

Sticks is a man with an unnatural interest in gadgets. He is one of the broad family of those who think the world is essentially mechanical and most closely resembles a clockwork mouse. The fact that he occasionally lapses into what sounds like mysticism is somewhat confusing, of course.

‘So how will this robot be different?’ I asked.

‘It will possess emotional complexity. My robot will replicate such emotions as fear and arousal with such exactness that it will be indistinguishable from a human being.’

‘Sounds impressive. How far have you got?’

‘I’ve got some drawings. I know how it will look. It will look like a silver polar bear.’

I liked the sound of this. A silver polar bear robot with human emotions. Science can surely hardly go much further than this.

‘The reason for the appearance is that it will commemorate what I think was for me the crucial break through I made in this project. I have recently succeeded in devising a programme which responds to the image of a polar bear with exactly the same complex set of emotions as a naked man would if he were to encounter the actual beast in a natural setting, in his igloo in Greenland, for instance.’

‘Great stuff, Sticks. Sounds absolutely fascinating. But that isn’t why you rang me, is it? You don’t want me to sit around naked looking at pictures of polar bears, do you?’

‘No, I don’t. I’m looking for two or three volunteers from front line practice to help me with the development of our version of the Ernas, the Electronic Risk and Needs Assessment System. As you know there’s a big push towards computerised information recording. The next big steps beyond that are seen as on the one hand gathering the information by direct computer input from service users themselves – probably at terminals in one stop shops, maybe in booths at supermarkets – and, on the other hand, developing models which will allow the computer to analyse that information automatically and immediately issue a plan. As you know, work is also being done on ECI’s – electronic client identities – as a step towards requiring and enforcing compulsory compliance with the plans. The goals are greater efficiency and consistency, arms length risk management, and better performance in terms of meeting timescales. And of course it should free up social workers to do more interesting work.’

‘Sounds like its goal might be to do away with social workers all together,’ I said.

‘Ho ho, ever the sceptic, eh?’ Sticks said. ‘The old Luddite flame still burns as brightly as ever in you, I see.’

I laughed. ‘When people live with lunatics they become lunatics, Sticks. If the only relationships we have are with machines we will become machines. That’s what I fear, Sticks. We both know this stuff’s really all about saving money and keeping the poor in their place.’

‘Okay. So, what are you saying? Do you want to be in on this or not?’

I paused. ‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Why not?’

‘That’s the ticket!’ Sticks said. ‘Better to be one of those shaping the future than to just leave it in the hands of fools and madmen. You can’t run away from it, you know. It’s good to have you on board, my old friend.’

For a minute or two I sat looking out over the rooftops. Paul Virilio’s statement crossed my mind: The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalization is the speed of light. I began to imagine it was summer and I was walking again across the moors at Thrunton.

Sticks is coming over to see me next week to talk about multiple choice questions and risk factors. He wants to find ways to break all social work judgements and decision making into a series of binary choices. I’m looking forward to seeing him. He’s completely deranged, of course, but at least you can’t say he isn’t a laugh.

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a sort of macabre sweepstake

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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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exodus and a last hand of whist

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newsham-library-twilght

They’ve been demolishing Newsham Library this week. I noticed as I drove through Newsham on Friday that it is now almost all down. A gaping space has opened up between the shops and the flats, a sort of scandalous vacuum. I caught glimpses of it down Elliot Street and the back lane between the Black Diamond and Tanz-N-Ere. I could see the giant crooked metal arm of a demolition machine poised above the rubble. It reminded me that things are disappearing so quickly. I really must hurry and photograph all those buildings and places that will be gone any day now. This is a matter of urgency to me. Time moves on inexorably, flattening the old world to make a place for the new. It worries me that some places might be destroyed before I’ve made a record of them. I want my inventory to be as complete as it can be. I know of course that the photograph will never really bring them back.  But it may bring back memories. Things do need to be remembered. My granddad spent the last years of his life in sheltered housing in Newsham. He probably toddled down Winship Street to this building every week a few years ago to find himself a book to read, probably a political biography, or maybe a travel book or a whodunit, or maybe The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The truth is I don’t really know what my granddad’s taste in books was.

In 1984 I was a student. During the miners’ strike I was a member of the Labour Party.  My monthly ward branch meetings took place in a room in Newsham Library, which at that time may have been a community centre of sorts, I think, or maybe it was still a working men’s club. Bundles of canny old ladies from another age would faithfully attend to make tea and provide a sort of amiable Socialist ballast. They had votes they gave away in the same good-hearted spirit that they gave away the cakes and biscuits they brought along. The rest of the branch comprised a bunch of men of various ages, dispositions and motivations – Arthur Hancock, Ronnie Milburn, Bill Brookes were among them, as I recall – who would debate or mull over or grumble or chunter on about the heroic tragedy or stupidity of the strike, flying pickets, the difficult or duplicitous position of the railwaymen, Kinnock’s devious cowardice, Scargill’s reckless leadership, or whatever. The branch chairman was Peter Mortakis, an insignificant Machiavellian sort of man with the political and moral integrity of a blowfly. He was in cahoots with the MP at the time, a useless, self-serving, Rumpolian, persistently absent carpetbagger. A lawyer. The sort of man who could have been Tony Blair’s favourite uncle. 

The room where the meetings took place was dark, maroon and brown, full of deep shadows and dim yellow lights that glinted on the glasses and bottles behind the bar. A sense of history seemed to stain the place, like blood on an old carpet. I never felt comfortable there, but it was a place where I somehow had to think I belonged.  It was like needing to stand for a while in a painting by Norman Cornish or Tom McGuinness.  Here was a world of ordinary people bound together by adversity. Here was the security of a mythical universe. Of course I can see now that the writing was already on the wall. Thatcher had already lined up the machines that would one day come and demolish this place. This week that day arrived. You can be pretty sure that a block of affordable first-time buyer apartments is already on its way.

Things have been hectic at work in the last two weeks. A tsunami of referrals has hit us after a period of inexplicable calm. This is always the way in social work. It’s unlikely that some mysterious force is at work in society that from time to time casts a curse over a particular place and makes a lot of children there suddenly begin to suffer harm at the same time, a sort of evil spirit that randomly visits a part of the population.  It’s more likely that these waves are to some degree chance occurrences and a consequence of fluctuations in levels of responsiveness and concern among professionals. But maybe it is all down to chance. And a sighting of Snow White’s stepmother in Ashington would hardly come as much of a surprise these days.

Thursday was a particularly bad day. Kids scared to go home from school, kids with bruises, kids with fractures, kids with burns, kids home alone, babies losing weight, babies in cold houses, tiny babies that no-one could find. Drunken mothers, drunken dads, dads throwing plates at walls, mothers throwing shoes, depressed mothers, dads doing drugs.

Late that afternoon everyone in the team was out on something or other. Michelle had spent half an hour with the police trying to get into the house of a twenty five year old mother called Tania who seemed to have lost all interest in her three week old baby. The flat was in darkness but the key was visible on the inside of the door, so there was obviously someone in the house. Eventually Tania came downstairs and answered the door. She was with her new sixteen year old boyfriend, Joe, the same boy who a few days earlier had bitten her on the face during an argument. She’d dumped him, she said. Joe and Tania had been in bed when Michelle and the police disturbed them. But where was baby Davina? Tania wasn’t telling. Tania wouldn’t take Michelle and the police to see her, not even under the threat of arrest. Michelle rang me up: what should we do? Baby P was on all our minds; the moorings of rationality were coming loose. All we could hear was the footfall of the beast slouching towards Bethlehem.

‘Have you tried torture?’ I said. ‘Pull her fingernails out. Offer her money. Tania needs to be persuaded to tell us where her baby is. If she doesn’t do so she’s got no chance of keeping it when we find it. But for God’s sake don’t make her any promises. We’re not going to be able to leave the baby there tonight now in any case, are we?’

Fifteen minutes later Tania told them where the baby was and they all set off in the police car to find her. She turned out to be with Tania’s sister. She’d been there all day. She was fit and well. On another day we might have decided to just leave her there and look at it again in the morning. But Baby P was on the minds of the police officers too. Baby Davina was made subject to Police Protection. Michelle arrived back at the office with the baby in her arms at about half past five. I told her who the foster carer was going to be.

‘Oh, is Debs around?’ she said. ‘I’ve just seen a police car chasing a white Mercedes down Milburn Road. I’m sure it was being driven by an Arab.’

‘Debs is at the hospital,’ I said. ‘Kid with a broken arm.’

On my way home that night I went to Tesco’s at North Shields. I was looking for a DVD of The Wizard of Oz. They didn’t have one, but I did pick up a copy of Todd Haynes film about Bob Dylan, I’m Not There. I didn’t see it when it came out, although I’d wanted to. At about seven o’clock I was driving back through Whitley Bay. My mobile rang. It was Debs.

‘The paediatrician says the injury could have been accidental. She’s not prepared to say it wasn’t.’

‘And the kid and mother are sticking to their story that he fell off a wall?’

‘Yep.’

‘And there have been no previous concerns about this kid?’

‘Nope.’

‘Then the kid goes home and we do an assessment, I guess.’

‘Should we have a strategy meeting?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, Debs. Maybe. Let’s talk about it tomorrow.’

I turned on the car radio and listened to Bob Harris’s country show on Radio 2. He played a song by George Strait called ‘I Saw God Today’. 

On Friday morning Debs’ husband phoned in to say she was sick. She’d been taken ill during the night. It sounded serious and she was probably going to have to go into hospital.

‘Tell her to take it easy and that we hope she gets well soon,’ I said, and began to wonder what I could do with her caseload.

‘Anyone fancy doing an assessment on a kid with a broken arm?’ I said to the rest of the team. Daft question. They all looked at me as if I needed treatment. At that point reception rang to say that Jack Verdi had arrived for a meeting with Debs. I went along to see him.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘Hey, hey, rock and roll! What’s with the shades, dude?’ He was wearing a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators.

Jack laughed, but he didn’t explain. I told him Debs was poorly and that the meeting couldn’t go ahead. He was fine about that and immediately went on to talk to me about the genius of Keats. Jack sees himself as in some way Keats last real disciple, which is odd for a man who’s prepared to prance around in little more than his boots to impress a few dozen middle aged women. There’s only so much mellow fruitfulness such women can take. But autumn is always a peak activity time for the disciples of Keats, of course, so Jack’s digression wasn’t really that unexpected.

Today it was breezy but bright and fairly mild for November. In the morning I walked down Plessey Road and bought The Guardian at the newsagents. I then continued on down to Park Road corner and along Beaconsfield Street towards the town centre, before turning  to cross Croft Road and go up Marine Terrace and back across Broadway Circle. A few leaves still cling to the trees but most are assigned to the gutters in drifts of yellow and brown or stuck on the roads like squashed butterflies.

This afternoon I rode along to my dad’s on my bike. The refurbishment of his house is still not complete. It’s becoming pretty obvious that a lot of the tradesmen recruited by the private contractor doing the refurbishments – Frank Haslam – don’t know what they’re doing. Some of them have admitted this to my dad. Some of them also seem to be canvassing for the redecoration work off their own backs. My dad’s cheesed off, but there’s not much he can do to get the work finished any quicker.

My dad was born and brought up in Newsham.  I told him about the library building now being knocked down. I asked him what he could remember about this building.

‘We called it the Big Club,’ he said. ‘Your grandfather used to often go down there at one time to play cards. He was very friendly with Bob Oxley, who was the steward at the time.’

He went on to tell me that what is now the Victory Club used to be the Wooden Club, because it was a wood building. There were also a couple of other pubs in Newsham in those days, neither of them more than a stone’s throw away from the three that still survive. They were the Miner’s Arms and the Turk’s Head. Newsham Coop used to be close to the Miner’s Arms and close to the Big Club, During the 1926 General Strike the Sunshine Fund or some such charity used to provide meals for the kids upstairs in the Coop building. The thing my granddad always remembered was the smell of the gingerbread pudding drifting down the stairs and into the street.

The local doctor had a room in the house opposite the Big Club. I think my dad said he was called Dr Gordon, although this could be a Freudian slip: it might have been Gardener. Either way, he was known as ‘The Butcher’. He was the doctor employed by Cowpen Coal Company for their compensation scheme. He had a reputation for sending men back to work at the pit when they were still unfit to be there.

It was getting dark as I rode back. The light was enchanting. The sky had those hard clear gradations from black-blues into orangey-greens and tobacco that you only get in winter. The sea was a pale and steely blue. There were quite a few people on the beach with dogs.

I got back before dark. The washed-up computer desk has disappeared from Hugo’s front garden and the gates to his drive are open. It looks like the Alligator is at long last ready for the road. I went inside and negotiated my way through to the kitchen over the assorted assemblies of slippers.  I gave De Kooning a sachet of Felix and made myself a cappuccino. I sat in the conservatory reading The Guardian for a while. The headline said that eight out of ten children who are seriously harmed are ‘missed’ by agencies, whatever ‘missed’ means. This sort of stuff scares senior managers to death, of course. ‘Whither goes Sharon Shoesmith, there go I,’ they think. It’s a situation you can be sure will soon mean a lot of work for the rest of us.

I picked up De Kooning and we peered together out into the darkness beyond the garden fence. The glimmer of strange lights was appearing again in the Citadel. Margaret was on the phone talking to Geraldine.

‘Have you seen any sign of rats out there?’ I whispered to De Kooning. ‘No? No, I thought not.’

Margaret came through and said that she and Geraldine were going to ring Griff on Monday and give him an ultimatum: get rid of the rats or they call in Environmental Health and go to the press.

‘What if there aren’t any rats there?’ I said. ‘How can anyone prove they’ve got rid of something which isn’t really there to begin with?’

‘How could they not be there?!’ Margaret said. ‘Trevor’s seen them again twice this week!’

I began to think that the mythical rats of the Citadel might be refugees from the Big Club building at Newsham. Maybe they are an exiled tribe of working class rodents displaced by modernity, looking for a new set of premises under which to continue their way of life. On their exodus they probably crossed Winship Street and made their way through the allotments and across the old railway line and then followed a route through the back gardens down Twentieth Avenue. I can see them now, scurrying bravely along carrying everything they own, all with their little knapsacks on their backs. Suddenly after forty days of dodging cats and kids with airguns their long walk brought them to the Citadel. The bare girders loomed above them.

‘This must be our new home!’ their weary little hearts exclaimed.

Which seems fair enough to me, but it isn’t exactly the future Margaret and Geraldine have in mind for them.

I was going to watch my new DVD tonight, but Margaret cancelled her plans to go out. I sat in the conservatory reading for a while and then logged on to Amazon. I ordered The Wizard of Oz. I went out and walked up to Newsham. It’s a cool, clear sort of night. The wind has dropped. I walked up Elliot Street. The lights from the pizza and chip shop, the Chinese and the Indian take-away flooded out across the dry pavement. The smell of curry and onions floated in the air. The rubble of the Big Club is fenced off. The big Cat machine stands among it, it’s demolition arm resting its heavy nose on the ground. I stood on the other side of the road.

‘Okay, granddad,’ I said. ‘German whist. Your deal.’

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