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the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint

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delaval-arms-in-seaton-sluice1 

At teatime last Friday I noticed a pair of glass earrings and a big green bottle of Becherovka on the table in the conservatory.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I asked Margaret, who was in the kitchen topping and tailing parsnips.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She brought me those crystal earrings back from Prague. Aren’t they lovely?’

‘Some of the old Czech herbal paint stripper too, I see. So how are things with her and Tristran?’

‘Oh they’re fine,’ Margaret replied, in an I don’t know what all the fuss was about sort of way. ‘They’re all loved up and happy again. They had an absolutely wonderful time. They bought each other amber amulets and they’ve both vowed to wear them forevermore. Brenda bought some really beautiful lace for herself too and a wooden marionette for her consulting room.’

I nodded. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Tristan’s okay.’

I sat down to drink my cappuccino. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me. I’m reading a book of poetry called ‘Beasts for the Chase’ by an American poet called Monica Ferrell. A friend in New Jersey sent me the book. Ferrell wasn’t a poet I’d heard of till then. She turns out to be a bit old-fashioned and prophetic in her tone at times, quite earnest, although quite good at her craft. She strikes me as one of those poets who imagine a poet is a seer, someone with special access to a world behind and beyond this one. Such a vision (!) always entails a belief in the supernatural, often under the guise of the primal. Such poets often invoke animals as their metaphorical selves or equivalents, their spiritual alter egos and agents in the other world. Such poetry always pretends to show us what we really are, what our essence is, and to show us the eternal world our souls inhabit, the world behind the veil of perception. It’s all seductive nonsense, of course. Poetry certainly somehow plugs fairly directly into the way we make the world and the ways in which we make it make sense. But it’s an exercise done with words, just as music is an exercise done with sound and painting an exercise done with pigment, canvas and brushes.  I like Tam Lin as much as the next person, but anyone who thinks that at Halloween he was turned into an adder and a bear and a burning gleed really is away with the faeries. That sort of stuff doesn’t even happen in Glasgow. Poetry and truth have a much more oblique and complex relationship than some poets imagine. We need a poetics that is rigorously non-dualist. I’m sure there must be critics out there who’ve tried to formulate something to rescue us from the mire of misty-brained mythologies. I must go on to Amazon some time and see what I can find.

‘So, De Kooning’ I said. ‘What do we make of this stuff?’

He put his front paws on to my leg and looked up at me. His right ear flicked a couple of times.

‘Yes, you’re right, we prefer Ted Hughes, don’t we?’ I said. ‘We Brits like mumbo jumbo with a bit more muscle.’

It’s been much warmer for the past few days. On Sunday it was dry and almost spring-like. I went out for a bike ride to make the most of it. I rode across to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. I freewheeled down the hill from High Horton Farm and over the Horton Bridge and then went up through the new housing estates towards the Nelson Industrial Estate. There was a noticeable north westerly breeze. I took the road past the Snowy Owl towards Blagdon. I glanced over at the new opencast site. It’s on the estate of those famous stewards of the landscape, the illustrious Ridleys. Matthew Ridley was a prominent figure in the development of Northern Rock and not a man to let concern or consideration for the needs or feelings of other human beings get in the way of personal profit. In fact Matt can’t get his head around the idea that anyone can actually do such a thing, because surely it’s not human nature to think of anyone but yourself. The planning application was rejected by the County Council but overturned by the government on appeal. It’s another shameful mess. I turned left at Blagdon went south past the Holiday Inn to the Seaton Burn Roundabout. The wind was finally behind me. It’s about ten miles home from there. I went via Arcot Lane, High Pit and Shankhouse.

When I got home I did a bit of gardening. I took the secateurs to last year’s withered stragglers from the catmint, lopped some branches of some of the shrubs and cut back the fuschia almost to the ground. New growth is already beginning to appear from the earth and the snowdrops are already flowering. Winter’s on its way out.

I’d finished the painting I was doing of Seaton Sluice. During the week a pack of five Loxley 16″x16″ canvases had been delivered. I decided I’d do another painting of Seaton Sluice on one of those, using the first one as my source. I underpainted the canvas in cadmium yellow and read The Observer while that dried. Then with a big flat brush I scribbled, scrawled and slapped on a sky in titanium white, burnt sienna and burnt umber. It was dramatic and swirly and turbulent and as I let myself get into it I was aware that it was very Turneresque and that it was Turner I was stealing this sky from. It was probably the influence of the burnt sienna, a colour I have only recently added to my palette, used with white on a yellow ground. I think I was somehow remembering The Fighting Temeraire – there was a print of this painting on the wall at my old school, I now recall – and The Slave Ship, I think. Turner is hard to emulate in acrylic paint though because the paint dries too quickly and doesn’t allow you to use glazes very well or to achieve those beautiful subtle gradations and colour shifts.  When I’m a better painter I’m sure I’ll want to use oils a lot more. The sky I produced was of course nothing like a sky you’ll ever see in nature. I don’t think that ever bothered Turner much, and it certainly doesn’t much bother me either. After all, the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at the Blyth office. It was another nice morning and after the meeting I decided to have a walk over to the quayside to look at the river for a few minutes before I went back to Ashington. I spotted Tristan’s white PermaPlumba van parked on the quayside close to Eddie Ferguson House. Tristan was sitting alone on one of the benches at the other side of the fence.

‘Hi, Tristan,’ I said. ‘What brings you to these parts?’

‘Just killing time, mate,’ he said. ‘Nothing better to do, I guess.’

‘Still no work, eh?’

‘Dead as a door nail, my fweind. Dead as a door nail. I’m telling you, this wecession will close Bwitain down if Bwown doesn’t sort it out soon.’

‘Do you think he can do that?’

‘No, I know he bloody well can’t. But let’s not pwetend he had nothing to do with getting us into this mess. He should pay the pwice.’

‘So how was Prague?’ I said. ‘Margaret tells me it was the business.’

‘Did she?’ Tristan said, and turned to look me in the eye, as if to see if I was joking. ‘Well, Pwague’s a fine city, sure enough, a place worth seeing.’

‘But you wouldn’t go back?’

He shrugged and gazed out over the river towards the bauxite silos on the far bank. A couple of kids were fishing on the jetty just downstream from there. The first wind turbine loomed above them. ‘Can I ask you something off the wecord?’ he said. ‘Just between me and you?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything you like.’

‘Have you heard of a bloke called Elvis Devlin? Wuns a bus company called Mephisto Twavel?’

‘Listen, I know about it, Tristan,’ I said. ‘Margaret told me.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I thought you might know.’

‘It’s no big thing,’ I said. ‘It’ll go no further than me.’

‘Oh no, no,’ he said. ‘That’s fine. That’s fine.’

‘I thought you and Brenda had sorted that out. I thought things were cool between you again.’

‘Bwenda’s vewy needy, you know. She’s vewy insecure. She’s got twust issues, weally big twust issues.’

‘But this isn’t about anything you’ve done, is it?’

‘The thing about Bwenda is you’ve always got to do something to pwove you love her. That’s what the Pwague twip was about. All the fuss she made about her Chwistmas pwesents. Bwenda doesn’t know what the weal thing is. If I was the wichest man in the world and gave her evewything money could buy, it wouldn’t be enough. Tomowwow she’d want something else. Bwenda thinks that if you don’t give her pwesents you don’t love her. The thing is, she’s almost got me bwoke – but I daren’t tell her. I’m wunning our welationship on my cwedit card now. The cwunch is bound to come!’ He laughed a little.

‘Now you know how Gordon feels,’ I said, laughing too, trying to keep the thing in the air. ‘So what you’re saying is that the only way to make sure Brenda doesn’t believe you’re not about to go off with some other woman is to keep on giving her things, and that if you don’t she won’t trust you anymore?’

‘Yes, exactly. You know how matewialistic she is. But it’s weally about twust, not gweed.’

‘But surely there’s no way you can give her things indefinitely? You’re not Richard Branson!’

‘No, you’re damn wight, I’m not Wichard Bwanson. I’ve told her that. I said “Bwenda this is about twust. For you pwesents are pwoof that someone loves you.” That’s why she’s attwacted to wich men, like this Elvis bloke. It’s because they can give her an endless supply of expensive pwesents. You know, that’s why I think she pwobably went for me now. Because when we met I was doing well. I was wolling in it. She’s so insecure she needs you to give, give, give. I asked her: “Bwenda,” I said, “Would you still think I loved you if I couldn’t buy you things?” “Of course I would,” she said. “What on earth do you take me for?!” But she wouldn’t, I know for sure she wouldn’t.”

‘So what’s the answer?’ I said. ‘Maybe she needs to life coach herself a bit.’

‘Oh, yes, I’ve pointed out the iwonies of this situation, believe you me I have. Maybe there is no answer. But the cwunch is going to come before long, that’s for sure. I’m spent up and there’s no work coming in. You can’t wun a welationship on cwedit. Pretty soon I’ll be bankwupt.’

‘Maybe things’ll take a turn for the better soon,’ I said. ‘Gordon’s green shoots might be springing up all around us any day now.’

‘Fat chance of that!’ Tristan said. ‘And besides that would only pwolong the agony. It wouldn’t solve the pwoblem. Bwenda needs to learn to twust. The thing is of course that it isn’t weally men she doesn’t twust – it’s herself she doesn’t twust. And evewy time she cwaves for another pwesent she knows she can’t be twusted. People who can’t be twusted don’t twust others, isn’t that twue?   Because they think evewybody’s just like them. Bwenda can’t see that anyone could ever love her for what she is. It’s a self-worth thing with her. It’s as if she thinks only expensive things will ever make her good enough. But of course they never will.’

We sat quietly for a minute or two watching the river. A seal popped up and I pointed it out to Tristan. He said it had been there all morning.

‘He’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ Tristan said. ‘He’s really beautiful.’

‘Anyhow,’ I said, ‘I need to be making my way back to work. I hope things work out okay for you and Brenda.’

‘Thanks, mate. Me too. Oh, and by the way, do me a favour, don’t tell Margawet you’ve seen me. I don’t want it getting back to Bwenda where I spend my days.’

‘Brenda thinks you’re working?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Yeah, and I need to keep it that way. God knows what she’d do if she knew I wasn’t’

‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ I said.

I drove past Ridley Park and along Wensleydale Terrace, past the site of the demolished Wellesley School which now stands deserted waiting for the economy to turn to make it worth building houses there. I reached the South Shore estate and glanced over at the sea. At the roundabout I went up South Newsham Road. It struck me that Blyth no longer has outskirts. It has a settlement boundary which marks the point where fields will turn into housing estates. The transition is sudden, in no way gradual. You can’t really say you’re coming into Blyth these days. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ve arrived or you haven’t. I turned on the CD player and listened to The Killers’ Sam’s Town album. I played it loudly. I crossed the railway at South Newsham and cruised up the Laverock and on to the Spine Road.

I parked in the public car park at the bottom of the street. As I was walking up to the office I met Owen Vardy coming down the hill. He was wearing a loose wrinkly oatmeal-coloured linen jacket – it was at least a size too big for him – and pale baggy Chinos.  He had a stripey brown and pink scarf wrapped around his neck, Dr Who style. He was leaning into every step, each of which appeared cautious and measured. Owen walks like a man on a treadmill, a treadmill he thinks might at any moment either stop completely or speed up dramatically. He was carrying an Asda ‘Bag for Life’.

‘Hi, Owen,’ I said. ‘Have you been shopping?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Well, not really. I’ve been to a meeting about the Collingwood children. I carry my files in this bag.  It’s the perfect size, you see. Actually, between you and I, I did take a quick toddle over to the high street to pick up a few vitamins.’

‘Oh, so what vitamins do you take?’

‘Oh, you know –  zinc, vitamin C, B complex, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, echinacea, evening primrose oil, flax oil, omega-3 and omega-6, saw palmetto, feverfew, calcium, magnesium, potassium, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, CoQ10 . . . you know,  just the usual stuff.’

What, no Becherovka? I thought to myself.

‘So are you ever ill, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, of course. I’m just the same as everyone else, you know, I catch colds and what have you. But there’s no point in taking unnecessary chances, is there? Oh, by the way, did you hear the latest about Jack?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. Don’t tell me he’s been dressing up again?’

‘No, no. He’s got rid of his Skoda and bought a motorbike. A big shiny black one. I think it might be a Kawasaki. It’s a very dangerous machine, a very dangerous machine. I think he’s being very foolish, actually.’

‘It’s his life, Owen,’ I said. ‘Or death, as the case might be.’

‘Exactly. Do you know he’s the same age as me?  In fact we were born on exactly the same day. You’d never catch me on a motor bike.’

‘I don’t think I’d bother trying,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t stand a chance.’

For a moment Owen missed the joke. He looked at me quizzically, his head slightly to one side, a half smile frozen on his face. What was he listening for, I wondered. Then he got it.

‘Ho ho,’ he laughed. ‘Very good. Yes, very good.’ And then he slid straight back into parson-like caution and prudence. He put his fingertips on my sleeve. He leaned in close to me.

‘And you’ll not have heard what he said to Tallulah either, have you?’ he said. ‘He offered to buy her a full set of leathers – a red leather bodysuit. He offered to take her out on his pillion.’

I laughed. ‘Oh my God, he’s shameless, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ Owen said. ‘He is shameless, and lacking in any sort of dignity too, I think.’ Just for a moment I fancied I caught the elusive vinegary whiff of piety and prurience.

‘Any how,’ he said, looking at his watch, ‘I really must be getting along now or  I’ll miss my bus.’

Owen always travels by bus, for road safety and environmental reasons, he says, although given how much he must spend on vitamins I wonder if he could afford a car in any case. As we parted I was thinking I must read George Herbert again.

When I went into the office Mandy Potts was in reception with Apple and Sparky. She looked like she’d been crying.

‘Hi, Mandy,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’

She shook her head slowly. She wasn’t. When I went through to the team room I asked Angie what Mandy wanted.

‘She wants to go to a refuge.’

‘Again?’ I said. ‘Why? Surely Mr Zee hasn’t turned nasty?’

‘No,’ Angie said. ‘Anything but. No, it’s not that. Elephant Carmichael called to see her last night. He gave her a message.  He told the Arab said not to forget that what’s his is his forever. He told her the Arab said to say hello. When they got up this morning there were four piles of sand on the step. She said they looked like four little graves. ‘

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