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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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a sort of macabre sweepstake

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bebside-high-house-farm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others cringed and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not good,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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