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Archive for the ‘boz’ Category

as good will stalks the fairy-lit earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Has he got any family?’

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

‘So he doesn’t have a partner?’

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

‘Kids?’

Jesse shrugged again.

‘Parents? Grandparents?’

She shook her head.

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

Another shrug.

‘A cat? A budgie? A goldfish?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Did you get Brenda something?’ I asked.

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

‘Did you get anything for Tristan?’

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, of course not,’ she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

 .

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on the day the clocks went back

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

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

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

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

‘She’s gone away,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So you were charged with something?’

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

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

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

Lily put his hand on his shoulder.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yes,’ Lily said. ‘I do understand.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘Trying to set my watch,’ I replied.

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

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

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

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

Margaret shook her head and tutted.

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

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

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

 .

waiting for the miracle

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My computer’s been down. In a way it was if the world had stopped. A bit like not going to work. A bit like being without a television.

Last week Boz got himself locked up. At the beginning of the week he was in the office talking to Lily about abducting his children and hiding away with them in the caravan at Sandy Bay. Lily pointed out that he had already sabotaged his own plan by disclosing his secret whereabouts. Boz threw a wobbler and stormed out. He went into the car park and began methodically ripping the wing mirrors off cars. This is no easy task – a bit like pulling out a rhinocerous tooth, I thought. Once extracted he threw the detached mirrors over the wall into the street. He detached five in all, including both the driver’s and passenger’s side from Meg Bomberg’s BMW. At least no-one will notice the wiggly scratch now, as Lily said.

Boz then went and sat on the wall and had a cigarette. He was sitting there almost serenely when the police arrived in their Ford Focus panda car. They rolled down the window. The officer asked him if he knew anything about the five broken mirrors lying in the road.

Boz shook his head. ‘Me?’ he said. ‘Naw, nowt to do with me, mate. Do I look like a vandal? Naw, it must be the numpties from Newbiggin.’

Lily walked out into the car park at this point. Boz glanced at her.

‘So do I look like a kidnapper to you?’ he asked the police officer. ‘Do I? Do I have the look of a man who would abduct children? Well, come on – do I?’

The police officer glanced across at his colleague. He had a wry smile on his face. Lily hadn’t said a word.

‘You think that’s funny, do you? Eh?’ Boz said, throwing his cigarette down and standing up. He scrunched his stub into the pavement. For a moment he stood looking at the police officer, nodding his head slowly. Then like a leopard he suddenly pounced on the Focus wing mirror and began riving at it.

The police officers leapt out, twisted his arm up his back, slapped him in handcuffs, and threw him in the back seat of the panda, its passenger side mirror dangling like an almost severed limb. Boz bellowed and sang that they were numpties, numpties, numpties, that all policemen are numpties. They took him away to the station.

Lily looked at me and shrugged. ‘Do you think it’s time to cancel the anger management sessions?’ she said.

That night when I got home the clock was still ticking. The global economy was in a state of chaos. De Kooning wanted me to pick him up and carry him to the kitchen. I did so and then went for a walk before night fell.

On Thursday morning I caught the beginning of In Our Time as I drove to work. By sheer coincidence, I would suggest, the programme was looking at miracles. In the introductory part they looked at the Jewish and Christian versions of the idea and the way it was bound up with the idea of God and His power to intervene in the world. It seems that the Hebrew word used in the Bible means both ‘wonder’ and ‘sign’. It interested me that these two concepts could be separated. The programme moved on to the Hindu and Taoist view of miracles, where a miracle can just be a wonder and not a sign at all. It seems that someone with these world views can witness as a miracle and regard it with a sense of wonder – and be fully aware that it defies the laws of nature – but not think it has a meaning. Such things are not signs. The Taoist has no idea why they happen and isn’t much bothered in any case. They just do. This is an attitude that is alien to the west, I was thinking. Western cultures are heavy on ‘the need for cognition’, so much so that some Western psychologists consider it to be one of our fundamental traits.  We need to know why things happen. We want explanations. Everything happens for a reason. We need to give an event a meaning.

The programme mentioned the case of the Hindu milk miracle, which occurred in 1996, and involved a stone statue of Ganesha the sacred elephant drinking milk. Or seeming to drink milk, depending on your point of view. This caused great excitement in the Hindu community and Hindus from far and wide came to witness the phenomenon. Even in Britain sales of milk near Hindu communities soared as people went off to get a bottle and feed a spoonful to their local stone elephant. The excitement was about something wonderful happening and the desire to witness a supernatural event. There was little concern about what the event might mean, it seems. Of course even in India the need to explain quickly asserted itself in some quarters. Scientists rapidly came up with the explanation that the stone elephant appeared to drink the milk because of capillary action: the stone was porous. Hindus resented this wonder being taken from them. Why is it that things that have an explanation cannot still be wonderful?

I was thinking, of course, about the Napoleon in Margaret’s bedroom. Its tick was nagging at me. Maybe I should just regard it as a wonder, a clockwork Ganesha. Maybe I should try to persuade Margaret that this magic ticking really had no meaning, that it was a sign of nothing at all. What in fact was the evidence that it had a meaning, and what was the evidence that it had any particular meaning? Was there a message in the ticking, a secret language of ticks that a suitably inspired listener might translate?  Is there a Rosetta Stone of ticking? I doubted it somehow.

When I got in De Kooning ran up to me, as if he had great news. Had the Napoleon stopped? I picked him up, but before I got to the door of Margaret’s bedroom I knew it hadn’t. I pushed open the door and looked over at it. It gazed back smugly. It was ticking steadily, indifferently, like a cow chewing the cud of time.

‘I think I’ll have a cappuccino,’ I said. ‘Do you want a few prawns?’

I sat in the conservatory with my cappuccino, trying to read The Guardian. I wondered if I should ring the Greek, but I knew what he would say: the clock will stop, be patient. I began to think I would have to take matters into my own hands and take a spanner to this insolent clockwork wonder. I began to fear that once word got out about the Napoleon’s perpetual motion, miracle freaks from around the globe would flock to our house for a glimpse of this wonder. They would come with camcorders, digital cameras and mobile phones and probably pay for the thrill of recording it, although what the value of a recording of a ticking clock – albeit an impossibly ticking one – would be was a little unclear to me. What would be important, however, was that Margaret and Brenda didn’t realise the money making potential of this freak clock.

Scientists and horologists from around the world would descend upon us. Theories would proliferate. The government would call for calm. Gordon would have to decide upon some Calvinist neo-liberal position on the question, a view with which all cabinet ministers would be bound to agree. It would have to be made very clear that even if this miracle is a sign, it’s not a sign of anything about the economy. There were clear dangers that it would be read that way in the current climate, given that the miracles the unregulated global markets have brought to us are now falling apart around their ears. Gordon would have to act to marginalise and neutralise the miracle of Margaret’s Napoleon.

It was becoming clear: a miracle can lose its gloss fairly quickly. Miracles might not be all they’re cracked up to be. Naturalists and supernaturalists, deists and atheists and Seventh Day Adventists, Neo-Druids and a host of other New Age pilgrims would squabble and debate night and day at our gate. Makeshift camps would spring up on the grass verges, mini-Glastonburies. The faithful would be found asleep or urinating in gardens. The neighbours would complain. Geraldine would probably go to the press. The miraculous clock would be as bad as the Citadel – worse possibly – another dreadful blight on their peaceful existence. The police would put permanent traffic cones down the street. Celebs would arrive for a photo opportunity. Robbie Williams might arrive. Or Jade Goody. My mind went back to the spanner: surely it would be better to nip this curse in the bud? But how could I do that without admitting that a miracle may have occurred? How could I destroy the evidence that I might be wrong about the nature of the world?  I was in a cleft stick. I’d have to hold firm and wait. The Greek was surely right: the Napoleon would stop any day now.

I spent a lot of last weekend out and about, walking or cycling. I was avoiding the ticking, I suspect. When I was in the house I’d sit in the Conservatory staring at the dark dreadful matrix of the Citadel with De Kooning, playing music loudly enough to make absolutely sure not a tick could be heard. I listened a lot to Teddy Thompson’s latest album. It turns out to be an especially good record to drive away unwanted ticks. I think De Kooning liked it too. From time to time I got up with him and we danced a little as we looked out together at the darkening world.

On Monday I was going first thing to a meeting in North Shields. Margaret asked me to drop off another box of slippers at Brenda’s on the way.  I got there at about half nine. Tristan answered the door. He came to the door in pale blue pyjamas and a pair of checky brown slippers, which looked brand new to me. His hair was tousled.

‘Morning, Tristan,’ I said. ‘Are you not working today?’

‘No jobs,’ he said. ‘Business is slow. It’s the cwedit cwunch, mate.’

Yes, of course, I thought to myself, the cwedit cwunch. It has consequences for us all, even a Trotskyist plumber from Whitley Bay.

‘So is this the beginning of the end for capitalism, do you think?’ I asked. ‘Is this the way the system collapses?’

‘It’s in sewious twouble, mate, that’s for sure. But they can’t afford to let it fall. They’ll pwop it up no matter what it costs. No point in expecting miwacles, as the man said. And as my father always weminded me, capitalism is adaptable. It’s wuthless. It’s survived this long and it’ll survive a while yet. And he was wight. I’m beginning to think the world will be on its knees before we’ll see socialism.’

It was nice to be reminded of the illustrious Wupert. Tristan, of course, is probably right.

‘So is Brenda in?’ I said. ‘I’ve got a box of mules for her.’

‘Yes, she’s just getting weady.’ Tristan said. ‘She’s got a client in about ten minutes. She’s been away for the weekend and she got back late last night.’

‘So where’s she been? Anywhere special?’

‘A poetwy festival. She loved it. She seems to get a lot out of mixing with poets. She finds it exciting. It’s a load of pwetentious wubbish to me. But each to their own, eh? ‘

I nodded. ‘So what kind of client does Brenda have this morning, Tristan – someone for acupuncture?’

‘No, weiki, I think.’ Tristan replied. ‘Mr Armitage. He’s been having twouble with his kidneys. Or is it his knees? Anyway, here he is now.’ Tristan nodded towards the road. An old man in a blue Rover was pulling up. I gave Tristan the box of slippers and bid him farewell.

‘Say hello to Brenda for me,’ I said. I was wondering what kind of poetry she reads. I was wondering if she reads Lorca. Perhaps she prefers Bukowski.

I drove on the North Shields, listening to some more Teddy Thompson. I was noticing the ways he reminds me of his dad, something that wasn’t very obvious to me at first.

When I arrived at the office Boz was sitting in reception.

‘So they let you out, Boz, did they?’ I said.

‘Of course they did,’ he said. ‘Do I look like a criminal? I hadn’t done anything in the first place. It was their fault, not mine. That’s the trouble with the police, they show people no respect.’

Mandy Potts was in the interview room with Debs. Debs told me she was worried because the phone calls had started again. Over the weekend they’ve had Yvonne Fair on three separate occasions. Someone has also told her that a white Mercedes was driving around the estate in the early hours of Sunday morning and that Elephant Carmichael’s been released on bail.

‘And she says Molly Armstrong’s on the game,’ Debs said. ‘Mandy says Flinty always tried to get her to go on the game when he needed money for drugs. She thinks he must be desperate. When he can’t get drugs he’s unpredictable.’

‘So what does she want you to do?’ I asked.

‘’Nothing, I think. She just wants to talk about it. She wishes he would just disappear, but she knows I haven’t got a magic wand.

‘Is she still with Mr Zee?’ I asked.

‘Yeah,’ Debs said. ‘The kids were with him while she came in.’

I listened to Teddy Thompson again as I drove home that night. When I got in I heard the Napoleon ticking. I let De Kooning out and got changed. I went out for a walk. I walked over to the old campsite beside the reservoir at South Newsham and then down to the beach. I walked along the promenade and then followed the beach road and Wensleydale Terrace to the park. I went along the quayside and through the footpath on Ballast Hill. I walked along York Street and from there through Morrison’s car park. I went all the way up Bowes Street and then along Renwick Road and past the council offices on my way home.

When I got back Margaret was in. As soon as I came through the door she asked me if I’d done anything to the Napoleon.

‘Nothing,’ I said. ‘I won’t touch it, I promise.’

‘It’s stopped,’ she said.

‘It’s stopped?!’ I said. ‘Your Napoleon’s stopped?!’

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It’s stopped. Have you done anything to it? Please tell me the truth. Have you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I swear I haven’t. I’d thought about, of course, more than once. But, no, I haven’t touched it.’

Margaret shook her head. ‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘I can’t believe it. What am I going to tell Brenda? Why would it suddenly stop?’

This was an odd question, the exact opposite of the question that had been bothering me. I had ideas, but I didn’t think Margaret was in the mood for them. What I wanted to tell her was that Teddy Thompson was to blame. But I didn’t.

De Kooning came trotting in from the garden. It was almost dark. I picked him up and went into the kitchen. I stood him on the bench and put the kettle on.

‘So what do you think of that?’ I said to him, almost gleefully, scratching his head for him in that way he likes so much. ‘The clock’s stopped. Just think – no Robbie Williams, no Katie and Peter, no Jade Goody. It’s a miracle, isn’t it, an absolute bloody miracle!’

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