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the lonely death of duncan the vulcan

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The problem of devil children continues to grow in our society. In some quarters it is considered to have reached epidemic proportions. Inevitably this has become a political issue and with an election looming each major political party has a position on the problem. Often such children are in cahoots with deviant adults, of course, and often they have transformational powers and can pass themselves off as small rodents. They pose particularly difficult challenges to carers. Last week I was in Stannington at Placements for a high level meeting to look at resources for such children. We are developing an innovative multi-agency approach under the rubric of SADCAP, our Satanic and Demonic Children Action Programme. We have developed a good evidence-based assessment tool and will monitor all cases at a high level through a group which will be called the SDCG. We are very hopeful that at a later stage this project will win an award and attract government money no matter which party is in power after May.

After the meeting I decided to hang around for a while and read my emails before heading off home. There weren’t many people in. I wandered through the magnolia and pale green corridors past the cubicles that are used as offices. I came to the office Tallulah shares with Betty. Neither were in. I sat down at Tallulah’s desk to use her computer to log in. Her desk was quite orderly but inevitably bore the mark of her personality. There was a calendar of famous squirrels, a small yellow frog pencil sharpener, a plastic fox, some aloe vera hand cream, a magnetic porcupine clad in multicoloured paper clips, a photograph of Nicole Kidman, framed and signed, a couple of Meg and Mog books, that sort of thing. There were also a number of documents of various kinds on her desk. Partly visible beneath an assessment report of some kind was a handwritten letter on deckled ivory foolscap paper. It was written in deep blue ink by a fountain pen. The handwriting was scribbly and urgent, angular, but also rhythmical. It reminded me of a record made by the needle of a seismograph. I lifted the report to one side and leaned forward to read the letter. As I pulled it towards me I saw that there were a couple of other documents beneath the letter; one of them was a cutting from a newspaper. I read the letter first.

Dearest T,

It’s strange, isn’t it, how suddenly a death can follow a birth sometimes. March has been the cruellest month for me, and despite what the poet says I know April will be far kinder.  Until a few weeks ago it was as if I was unborn. At best I was dormant, and had been for so long that it seemed to me my natural state, a state not unlike death itself. And then our correspondence began. You came into my life absolutely unannounced, absolutely out of the blue, the way that an angel always does. My long dead limbs and other organs began to warm and to twitch in unusual, almost forgotten ways. It was as if I was being warmed by an invisible fire. My heart was awakening from a deep slumber. The eternal hibernation of my soul appeared to be ending.

As you can imagine I was initially a little confused by this turn of events, but very quickly became utterly cockahoop. Well, any man would, wouldn’t he, if  suddenly blessed by the presence of an angel as unique and lovely as you? I found myself singing in my cabin, walking through the snow in the woods laughing and giggling like a foolish school boy.  I found myself looking at my reflection in the head of my favourite axe and grinning at the grizzled old face I saw there. I found myself telling my reindeer about your emails and asking them how they would feel if they could pull you and I together on my sled, all the way down the long straight road to the village. I was happy, T, happy. I had forgotten what happiness felt like. Can you imagine how that must have been? I had been a dead man walking, T, I know that now.

And yet this joy began to fade almost as quickly as it came, much as the winter sun does in these high northern latitudes.  I know it was my fault; I misunderstood you. I thought you must feel as I do. How daft can a lumberjack be?  An angel doesn’t have the same status as a lumberjack, the same organs, the same purpose in life.  An angel is a messenger, the bringer of a blessing she doesn’t own, so to speak, a blessing that is just something entrusted to her to bestow upon someone else. An angel doesn’t have a heart to give a way. An angel doesn’t have a heart like a lumberjack’s, a heart that is all too ready to be broken.

As you know, I came to see you as the Angel of the Volcano.  I should perhaps have never told you this; I fear it may have been my fatal mistake and the single event which turned you from me.  In using this phrase I was in effect calling into question your entire status as an angel. And yet what else could I think? In my younger days vulcanology was my whole life. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that without it I would have had no life at all in any real sense, and that my entire being depended upon my relationship with volcanoes. How I loved the strange, powerful, virtually infinite interiors, the unpredictability and volatility. How I loved to hear the rumble and roar, the fuming and spitting. How I loved the unquenchable nature. To me beauty and desire were surely irrevocably volcanic.

I knew of course that in my flirtations and closer relationships with volcanoes I could be melted, fried or vaporised at any time. Of course I had to guard against the vanity and folly of heroic love, of becoming addicted to the risk and of seeing only myself in this adventure.  While there is no doubt I sometimes did take a little pride in my composure and poise while on the slopes of such formidable entities, I like to think that this was never more than a brief and all too human weakness, and that for the most part what drove me was always my love of the volcano herself. Heroic love seeks admiration and needs to conquer and tame: it was never my wish to stifle or choke any volcano. To me a volcano is never a challenge: to me a volcano is a delight. My aim was never to subordinate, manage or contain; my aim was always intimacy.  With intimacy came acceptance, with acceptance redemption, and with redemption, peace. This is something that those who don’t love volcanoes never grasp. The redemptive dimension. The radical reassurance and sense of wholeness that come from such willing intercourse with danger.

As the tone of your emails subtly shifted and cooled I realised that I would never now approach you.  I realised we could never meet, never kiss, never touch. I realised then that what I’d feared and hidden from myself for so long was true: I will never again walk towards a volcano and reach my destination. I will never again be close to the fierce beautiful furnace in a volcano’s heart. I remembered now too keenly what brought me to these snowy northern parts, why I chose a remote solitary life among the snow. I realised that the purpose in my life has disappeared and that in pretending I can live without it I am fooling no-one but myself, athough given the isolated and reclusive life I have chosen to live here among these trees there is of course no-one else here I might have fooled!

Anyhow, I’ve gone on a bit. I’ve said what I needed to, I think. I hope I haven’t said too much. I am happy to have felt your warmth, even if it was distant, even if for the most part it was only a fire in my imagination. My life has been the better for that. What has happened to me in speaking with you has been rather like having my coffin lid lifted and having a beautiful hand awaken me for a moment. I felt a strange heat and it warmed me. I was blinded by the fierce light. And just when I began to believe this dream might be real the coffin lid closed over me again. The final nails are now being driven home. I hear them in the darkness. And yet for all that, it is true: I wouldn’t have missed these weeks for the world. I can now die with a living memory of true happiness. Thank you, T, my flame-haired friend, my angel of the volcano.

I must go.  Do not think me cowardly or lacking courage. Discretion is the better part of valour, don’t they say? It is braver to know when to leave the ring than to remain there and fail. The reindeer will be hungry and wondering where I am. My axe will be going rusty. There are things I must do before this short day ends.

Thank you and goodbye, my angel.

Yours volcanically,

Duncan

Beneath the letter, written in the same seismic handwriting on blue deckled edged writing paper I saw what I recognised to be a couple of Emily Dickinson’s volcano poems. This was the first:

A still—Volcano—Life—
That flickered in the night—
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight—
.
A quiet—Earthquake Style—
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples—
The North cannot detect
.
The Solemn—Torrid—Symbol—
The lips that never lie—
Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—
And Cities—ooze away—
.

Beneath that there was a line, followed by the second poem:

The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan—
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.
.
If nature will not tell the tale
Jehovah told to her
Can human nature not survive
Without a listener?
.
Admonished by her buckled lips
Let every babbler be
The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.
.

I turned over the blue deckled paper to read the press cutting that lay beneath it. On the back of the sheet I found another of Dickinson’s volcano poems, again scribbled in the same hand, although this time in black ink, less evenly and at an angle across the sheet. It looked as if it had been added as an afterthought. Or perhaps it was a note he’d made earlier and he had forgotten was there.

On my volcano grows the grass,–
A meditative spot,
An area for a bird to choose
Would be the general thought.
How red the fire reeks below,
How insecure the sod–
Did I disclose, would populate
With awe my solitude.
.

I picked up the press cutting and lifted it closer. It was dated from earlier in the week and was from a copy of The Journal. It read as follows:

MYSTERY WALKER FOUND DEAD ON CHEVIOT

Late yesterday afternoon a mountain rescue crew brought down the body of an unknown walker found dead on the northern flanks of Cheviot close the The Bizzle. The man, believed to be in his fifties, died of hypothermia.

Although police say there are no suspicious circumstances to his death, members of the mountain rescue team have told The Journal that the man was extraordinarily ill-equipped for the winter weather on the mountain, wearing only jeans and a lightweight orange fleece top. They also say the man appears to have been engaging in some sort of unknown artistic exercise when the weather caught him out.

One member of the team has told The Journal that the circumstances in which the man was found suggest he may have deliberately allowed himself to die. Our understanding is that the man was lying spread-eagled facing the sky, and that prior to his death he had scraped a large square and an overlapping circle in the snow. The Journal understand that both shapes were of very exact, near perfect geometrical proportions. We also understand that the width and height of the square exactly matched that of the man with his outstretched arms. It appears that prior to his death the man had performed a ‘snow angel’ in the snow and that the arc of his arms and legs exactly described the line of the circle.

The leader of the mountain rescue team, “Mighty” Ron Telfer, has said he is convinced that the man was attempting to reproduce Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man. As Mighty Ron points out, this drawing represents an ideal of human proportion – and of symmetry and order within the universe generally – that few would hold to in today’s society, where diversity and difference in people are welcomed and celebrated.

Detective Sergeant “Tinker” Robson of Northumbia Police described the man as “obviously a troubled individual who may have been suffering from Dysmorphic Body Syndrome.”  Mighty Ron describes the man’s actions on the mountain as ill-advised and irresponsible and has made a plea to other walkers planning similar activities to think again.

The identity of the man is not yet known. The only personal objects found on his person were an unused postcard of Sicily and a card for Zefferelli’s restaurant in Ambleside. ‘We believe the man may not have been from these parts,’ Sergeant Robson said.

Police are appealing for anyone who thinks they may be able to identify him to come forward.

I put the documents back as I’d found them. For a moment or two I gazed into Nicole Kidman’s unblinking eyes. I decided not to check my emails after all. I was a little unsettled by the story of the death on Cheviot. I know that mountain well and I was pretty sure I know the spot where the man would have died.

As I was making my way over to the car park Jack arrived, rumbling across the gravel on his black Ducati. He scrunched to a halt beside me, got off the bike and lifted his black helmet from his head.

‘Yo, dude,’ he said, offering his gauntlet clad palm for me to slap. ‘How in the world are you, man? What brings you to this particular circle of hell?’

‘SADCAP meeting,’ I said, shrugging.

‘Oh, the old devil children business, eh?  Was Freddy there?’

‘Yeah, he was there. So were an assortment of priests, a bevy of psychologists and a woman called Cymbeline McMurdo, who represents the local Pagan network.’

‘The usual suspects, then?’ Jack said, sarcastically, pulling up the collar of his leather jacket and flicking his pony tail over it.

I nodded. ‘Hey, I was sitting a Tallulah’s desk intending to look at my emails a few minutes ago and I came across a letter to her from a guy called Duncan. Do you know anything about that?  Is he her latest flame?’

‘Oh, Duncan the Vulcan!’ Jack said. ‘Oh, yes, there’s no-one in the place doesn’t know about that poor sod. There’s a lesson for us all there, mate. I mean, man that could have been me, know what I mean?’

‘Yeah, you had the hots for her too once, as I recall.’

Jack laughed. ‘Yeah, man, I stared over that precipice so long my eyebrows caught fire! But, you know what, dude – I got wise? I stepped back from the brink.’

‘That’s not the way I remember it, Jack,’ I said, frowning.

‘Hey, hey, whatever, man,’ Jack said, irritably, adjusting his new Wayfarers on his nose. ‘The point is this – I could have been that poor sucker in the snow. She’s bad news, man, I tell you. She sucks you in and she spits you out, dude.’

I nodded slowly. ‘So you think the guy in the snow was Duncan?’

‘Oh, for sure. Who else would it be? It’s him for sure – Lady T knows it too.’

‘It’s ironic, isn’t it, that a man so obsessed with fire should die frozen in the snow?’

‘Ironic, dude? Ironic? It’s freakin’ tragic.’

When I got back to the car I rummaged around on the back seat and found my copy of Damien Rice’s album “O”. It’s a tremendous album and in my view one of the best albums of the century so far. One of the best songs is entitled Volcano, and that was the reason I wanted to listen to it.

I drove down past Plessey Woods and over Hartford Bridge. It was grey and had been raining a bit. The sky was a mess of torn and ragged black and white clouds. Volcano began to play as I was climbing the bank out of the woods. I turned left at the roundabout at Plessey Checks and down the dual carriageway that follows the course of the old wagonway to Blyth. I didn’t sing along, even though the chorus is almost irresistible and on any other day I would have done. I was strangely preoccupied with Duncan the Vulcan, the man who’d died in the snow on Cheviot. It was almost as if in my mind I knew the exact spot where he had been found.

I wanted to listen to the whole album, so rather than go home I drove down to the car park opposite the South Shore estate and looked out over the sea until it finished.  As I drove home along Rotary Way I saw Tristan’s white PermaPlumb van coming in the opposite direction. At first I thought he was alone, but as we approached one another I could see that sitting next to him was a diminutive figure, someone barely tall enough to see over the dashboard. Tristan was laughing and talking in a very animated way to his companion and didn’t notice as I flashed my lights at him. As we passed one another I glanced across into Tristan’s van to see who was with him. It was none other than Mrs Byro. She was dressed to the nines. Gone was the charity shop ragamuffin look. She was now wearing a silky red dress, low cut with thin straps. Her arms were bare. She was wearing lipstick, fake tan and false eyelashes. She had combed her hair. She looked almost sexy! Although it was impossible for me to tell, she might even have been wearing black tights and a pair of black patent Jimmy Choo’s with five inch heels.

I drove home gobsmacked. Tristan and Mrs Byro: who would have thought it?! As I went in De Kooning came down the hall to greet me. Margaret wasn’t in.

‘You won’t believe who Tristan’s having a fling with?’ I said to De Kooning as I picked him up. ‘Mrs Byro! For Christ’s sake, Mrs bloody Byro!!!’

He rubbed his face against mine. I carried him into the kitchen and stood him on the bench while I looked for some prawns for him.

‘It just goes to show you never can tell, doesn’t it?  People have hidden depths.  You never know who the wild ones are or just who might turn out to be a volcano!’

I gave De Kooning his prawns, turned the oven on and got myself a pizza from the freezer. I put the kettle on. I made myself a cappuccino.

.

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pandora and cabbages and quietly falling snow

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Margaret spent most of the holidays in Salford with Gloria, who she always refers to as her sister in law, even though it’s now almost five years since she divorced Henry. I have sometimes wondered if they might not one day get back together but the chances of that plunged dramatically recently when Henry was jailed for attempting to steal the genetic code of a certain strain of prize cabbage. Gloria was absolutely distraught at this turn of events and it was in part to support her that Margaret went down for Christmas.

‘Take care of my clocks,’ she said as she left.

‘I will,’ I said, glancing at De Kooning as if to ask him what attention twenty three stopped clocks could possibly require.

Having the house to myself meant I could work on my new painting of Newbiggin as and when I wanted to. I left it propped on the mantelpiece for a fortnight, a jar of brushes next to it. Sometimes you’ve got to look at a painting more or less continuously to know exactly what it needs. I tidied everything up on the night before Margaret came home, of course, and moved all my junk back to my bedroom.

When Margaret came home she told me she’d had a good time. They’d eaten a goose on Christmas day and got tipsy on brandy. Gloria’s present to her was a Pandora bracelet with a collection of charms that means they are eternal friends. She and Gloria had even gone to visit Henry in prison.

‘Oh, did you?’ I said. ‘So how is he?’

‘Bearing up,’ Margaret replied, thoughtfully. ‘But he looked pale, and he’s lost an awful lot of weight, Gloria says.’

‘Must be the porridge,’ I said. ‘Or maybe he’s just not getting his greens.’

Margaret frowned disapprovingly.

‘By the way, what kind of cabbage was it that he tried to steal the genetic code of?’ I asked.

Margaret shrugged.

‘Was it an oxheart?’ I said.

Margaret shook her head.

‘Not an oxheart?’ I said. ‘Okay, was it a colewort or a drumhead?’

Margaret just looked blankly at me.

‘Was it a Savoy?’ I said.

‘I don’t know!’ Margaret said. ‘Why would I know that? Do I look like an expert on cabbages? And for God’s sake what difference does it make what kind of cabbage it was any way? Would there have been a different outcome if it had been a different kind of cabbage?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied, after a short pause. ‘I really don’t know.’

‘So why did you ask?’ Margaret said.

‘Just curious,’ I replied, a little disingenuously.

Margaret spent her first night home cutting up and boiling onions for herself. It had been snowing and because she doesn’t like to drive in the snow she told me she’d brought a present back for Brenda and asked me if I’d take it along for her in the morning.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What did you buy her?’

‘A Pandora bracelet,’ she replied. ‘It’s really lovely.’

‘Yes,’ I said, nodding like Paul Merton. ‘They’re very popular these days, aren’t they?’

Margaret rang Brenda to tell her I would be coming along. She took the phone into her bedroom and closed the door. The call lasted for an hour.

‘She’s expecting you,’ Margaret said when she came back.

The beach road was a bit slushy as I drove south, but the journey wasn’t difficult. When I got to Brenda’s Tristan let me in. He was just on his way to B & Q at Wallsend to get some Stanley knife blades.

‘Hello, my fwiend,’ he said. ‘Mewwy Chwistmas!’

‘Yes, same to you, Tristan,’ I replied. ‘Did you have a good one?’

‘Yes, vewy good, thanks. Me and Bwenda had a quiet one together and then I was away over the new year seeing my kids. Just got back yesterday, in fact. Bwenda was gweat about it, even gave me a few bob towards the twavel costs. I miss them, you know.’

Tristan and I had a brief conversation about whether there was any evidence that New Labour had ever been or were ever likely to be a party of redistribution. He then asked me if I’d mind if he got away as he was in a hurry. I said I didn’t and I’d just sit in the waiting room until Brenda was free.

I was reading the new copy of Closer magazine when Mrs Byro arrived. She shuffled into the waiting room like a confused armadillo and deposited herself quietly on a chair opposite me. I glanced over the top of my magazine and noticed Mrs Byro was wearing black wellies that were probably several sizes too big for her. Her thick maroon wool socks were folded over the tops of them.

In the article I was reading in Closer it said that Cheryl Cole is planning to dramatically overhaul her hectic lifestyle this year. The article tells us that Cheryl is going to Barbados for a ‘much needed break’ from her husband and that she’s also going to change her diet and fitness regimes. The article also quotes Cheryl as saying she doesn’t like her legs.

‘Hello there,’ Mrs Byro suddenly said, quietly. She took off her floppy purple hat and put it on the table.

‘Hello,’ I said, and smiled. I returned to my magazine, as if deeply engrossed in it.

‘Do you mind if I ask what are you reading?’ Mrs Byro asked me, a minute or so later. ‘It looks very interesting.’

‘It is’ I said. ‘It’s an article about a woman who doesn’t like her legs,’

‘Oh, that must be awful,’ Mrs Byro said. ‘Alien Leg Syndrome – I’ve seen a television programme about that. Enmity towards one’s own limbs is such a cruel and terrible curse. She should come and see Brenda too, shouldn’t she?’

I nodded politely. I looked at Mrs Byro, trying to remember why she comes to see Brenda. I had it in my mind that she came for acupuncture because of an irrational fear of wild deer, but suspected I was probably wrong. Fortunately Mrs Byro herself came to my rescue on this front.

‘I’ve come for some meteor balm,’ she said, smiling nervously.

‘Oh, have you?’ I said.

‘Yes, I have,’ Mrs Byro replied. ‘I did something silly on New Year’s Eve. I came to see Brenda first thing next day but she wasn’t here unfortunately. Her neighbour said she’d been out all night and might not be back for a few days. I finally managed to contact her yesterday and came to see her right away. I hope it isn’t too late.’

I looked at Mrs Byro and smiled. ‘I’m sure it won’t be,’ I said.

Brenda came in to the room at that point. I stood up and she kissed me on both cheeks. It felt vaguely like a scene from Dr Zhivago.

‘How’s Margaret?’ she said, as if she hadn’t spoken to her for an hour not twelve hours earlier.

‘She’s okay,’ I said. ‘A bit worried about Henry, but otherwise fine. And how’s Brenda? Did you have a good new year?’

‘Oh it was all right,’ Brenda said. ‘Very quiet. Just me and Jools Holland, really.’

‘Was Santa kind to you?’ I asked.

‘Yes, he was, thank you. Surprisingly so. I was a very lucky girl this year, I think.’

I nodded. ‘Oh, here’s your extra present from Salford,’ I said, handing her the parcel.

I looked down at Ms Byro. She was sitting like a kitten with tattered fur and swaddled in green and brown cardigans, looking up at a conversation between two giants. I noticed her golden yellow scarf has worn and bobbly. I also noticed she was wearing a Pandora bracelet. I wondered what her combination of charms might mean. They seemed to comprise mostly animals and stars and moons. Something to do with destiny and nature, obviously.

I drove back down to the sea front and north past Feather’s Caravan Site and up towards the Delaval Arms. I was listening to a Josh Ritter CD. As I was going down the hill at Seaton Sluice I decided to go and see my dad for a while. We talked for a while about Eubie Blake. He played me some stuff he’d recorded from the radio in the past few days. Our conversation then turned to politics.

‘Do you think New Labour is a redistributive party?’ I said to him.

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘Definitely. Campbell is, any way. Look how much he’s redistributed to himself since he became MP!’

It began to snow as I passed the Astley Arms. I drove into Blyth in a line of slow moving traffic. At South Beach we slowed down at the Amersham Way roundabout.  Tristan was coming out of the estate in his PermaPlumb van. He didn’t see me as he passed me on his way south, back to Whitley Bay. Josh Ritter was singing Thin Blue Flame. I sang along and wondered what Newbiggin looked like in the falling snow.

.

the needle in destiny’s jukebox

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quay road, blyth

That night, I had a dream. I drifted off thinking
about happiness, birth and new life. But now I was haunted
by a vision of… He was horrible. The lone biker of apocalypse.
A man with all the powers of Hell at his command.

 

You’re young and you’ve got your health. What do you want with a job?

 The Coen Brothers

Raising Arizona

 

I was standing in the corridor talking to Jack. In his skinny black jeans and biker boots he was leaning against a poster that says Safeguarding is Everyone’s Business. He reminded me a lot of Felix the Cat. It occurred to me Tallulah was in a meeting upstairs.

‘Hey, you’re not waiting for Tallulah, are you?’ I said.

‘Nah,’ Jack said. ‘I’ve moved on, man. I’ve got another cherry in my crystal chandelier now.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I mean, you aren’t actually waiting here now for her are you?  She’s upstairs in a meeting. I thought you might be going back together.’

Jack laughed and shook his head. He adjusted his Aviators on his face and pulled up the collar of his leather jacket. I wondered if he was about to break into a chorus of You’re the One that I Want.

‘I saw her at Tynemouth at the weekend. She was in the Wooden Doll, out on the lash with a slackjawed entourage of mule-faced harridans. She was blathered, man, I can tell you. They all were. Blathered and blotto, blasted, bombed and boogalooed. Know what I mean?’

‘They were drunk?’

‘As skunks, dude.  Lady T can hardly remember seeing me. She was well hammered, mate, hooched up, out of it, tanked, toodlelooed, wrecked, wrinkled, polluted, and duplicated. Man, she was trousered, know what I mean?’

‘I think so. She was drunk. So did she speak to you?’

‘She sneered at me, man, that’s what she did – sneered at me. That lady’s got one helluva attitude problem, my friend. She wants to eat the sparrows from my soul.’

I nodded very slowly.

‘So are you still with the band, Jack?’ I said.

‘Yeah, I sure am. It’s my life, man. It’s what I am. I was born to be a needle in destiny’s jukebox.’

I nodded again.

‘So were you playing at the Wooden Doll at the weekend? Is that how you happened to see Tallulah?’

‘Nah, that was Friday. We didn’t have a gig that night. I was on a recreational mission, if you know what I mean.’

I was about to begin nodding again when Tallulah bowled around the corner at the end of the corridor and began striding towards us like a leopard with a Mae West half-smile on her face.

‘Oh oh,’ Jack said. ‘Here comes Minnie the Moocher. This is probably my cue to skedaddle, dude.’

Tallulah strode up to us, her bag slung over her shoulder, her red hair tied back.

‘Well, well,’ she said, looking Jack up and down, ‘if it isn’t Ronnie Wood.’

‘Miaow!’ Jack replied. ‘What’s the problem, Lady T, did the green-eyed monster come a-callin’?’

‘Dream on, Jack,’ Tallulah replied. ‘But, hey, I suppose that must have been your daughter I saw you with at the weekend, was it?’

‘Have you ever noticed’ Jack said – to me, rather than to Tallulah, ‘how when women reach a certain age they can get a bit confused about those who are young and beautiful?’

‘Oh, come off it, Jack,’ Tallulah came back. ‘If you were only my age you’d still be twice the age of that half-naked tattooed bimbo you were drooling over on Friday.’

Jack looked at me and made a sort of palms up shrug.

‘See what I mean, man?’ he said. He zipped up his jacket.  ‘Time to make tracks, I reckon.’

Jack slouched away slowly down the corridor. As he opened the door at the end he looked back, pulled his Aviators down his nose and, looking over them, blew Tallulah a kiss.

Tallulah shook her head. She turned and looked straight at me, her blue eyes very serious. It struck me that she reminded me a lot of Florence Welch.

‘He’s going to get himself sacked,’ she said. ‘He’s on self-destruct. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jack will be with us much longer.’

For a moment I thought she was going to cry. I was sure she was. But just then Eric came into the building. He spotted me immediately and made a beeline for me.

‘How,’ he said, ‘Aa’ve just seen ya marra’s sidekick, whaat’s ‘ee’s name? The one whaat plays wi’ that baand – yuh knaa, the Gliffs. Ozzy Osbourne – yuh knaa, the Pluto, him wi’ the massa motorbike.’

‘Jack’s band’s called The Clips,’ Tallulah said, as if very politely correcting him. ‘Not The Gliffs.’

‘Ur, aye,’ Eric said, looking at Tallulah. ‘Aye, here, so d’ye knaa ‘ee’s marra, iz weell? The blowk whaat wuz in The Proodloot? Whaat’s ‘ee’s name again? Ur, aye. Hing on.’

Eric slipped into please wait, communicating with server mode, his rigid index finger raised like a coathook.

‘Owen.’ Tallulah replied, laughing quietly. ‘Owen Vardy. Oh, I know Owen, all right.’

‘D’yuh knaa wor young un’s tryin’ t’ get the gadgie at the Fell Um Doon to book them for a neit? Aa’ll get yuh a ticket, if yuh like.’

Tallulah shook her head. ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘But if he books The Clips let me know. Now there’s a band worth seeing.’

She winked at me and left.

‘We’s she?’ Eric said, as she closed the door. ‘Is that the Pluto’s lass?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No. In fact they can’t actually stand each other.’

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen cooking some onions and scraping some carrots. I hadn’t seen her for a few days. I asked her how Brenda and Tristan were.

‘Not good,’ she said.

‘Any more news on the woman he’s supposed to be seeing from South Beach. Where does she live again, Albatross Way?’

‘It looks like there is no woman from South Beach,’ Margaret said. ‘Mrs Byro seems to have made a mistake. It seems it was something she dreamt.’

‘So Tristan’s in the clear, then?’

‘Not quite. It’s only a matter of time before Brenda figures out what Mrs Byro’s dream means. She thinks the dream is probably prophetic. She thinks the birds are symbols of things to come. Brenda says Mrs Byro is one of God’s chosen vehicles. It’s through the likes of Mrs Byro that the radio stations of the future broadcast their quiet music. ’

I nodded slowly. I could have been listening to a tune by Elgar in my head, but in reality I was thinking how much I dislike it when the clocks go back and all of a sudden you have to drive home in the dark. You feel like the victim of a robbery.

I gave De Kooning a cuddle and sat with him for a while watching the six o’clock news and drinking a cappuccino. Afterwards I went out for a walk in the dark. I went looking for the autumn leaves. I walked through the Solingen Estate and into Ridley Park. I walked from there along Bath Terrace and then back up Ridley Avenue, which might be at its very best at this time of the year. A little while later I walked across Broadway Circle. I stopped beneath the streetlight in the middle, close to the TA building, drifts of fallen leaves all around me. The lights from the Broadway shops – the chippy, the newsagent cum corner shop that calls itself a superstore, the chop suey house, the off-licence – were flooding the dry pavement. And yet there are still those who will tell you that Blyth isn’t a beautiful place.

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a glimpse of maybellene’s garden

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bebside #2

‘The sun is God’

(Said to be Turner’s last words)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kettles and frying pans crossed my mind.

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

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

‘Ah.’

‘But she has an idea.’

‘She has an idea?’

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

‘It wasn’t Mrs Byro, was it?’

‘It might have been, yes. Why?’

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

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

‘Curlew?’

‘It might be, yes.’

‘Or was it Avocet?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Or Osprey?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Or Eider?’

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

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

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

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

Lily interviewed Mr Bilbo on Wednesday, as planned.

‘How did it go?’ I asked.

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

‘Did he talk to you okay?’

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

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

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

‘Ah ha! And?’

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

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

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

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

Lily shrugged and shook her head.

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

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

‘Spirituals?’

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

‘Did Mr Bilbo mention those particular songs?’

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

I shrugged and shook my head.

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

‘He said the garden smells strange.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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lunasdal

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lairig ghru

It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonnie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie:
The time flew by wi’ tentless heed,
‘Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.

Corn rigs, an’ barley rigs,
An’ corn rigs are bonnie:
I’ll ne’er forget that happy night,
Amang the rigs wi’ Annie.

Robert Burns

Going north on the first day of my holidays I sat in the long queue of traffic at the roadworks at Bankfoot a few miles north of Perth for almost an hour, singing along with the Jayhawks. It was mid afternoon and I was noticing again how the light in August fails, how it is corrupted by a kind of blackness, a sort of sootiness that isn’t there in midsummer. This same darkness shortens the days. I was wondering why I always go on holiday in August, rather than earlier in the summer.  Part of it is because I don’t want summer to be over, I think, and once I’ve had my holiday it always feels like it is in some way. But part of it is that I actually really love the August light despite the way it has shades of winter and death about it – probably because it has, I guess. The light of August has a dreadful sadness about it.

The things you notice, of course, are the tired heavy greens of the trees, the bleached and spent yellows of the grasses, the closing down of the shadows, the new palette of late summer flowers, the slow insinuation of the brown and purple of autumn. I was singing along to The Man Who Loved Life watching another batch of caravans and 4×4’s coming through, when I noticed two or three crows flitting between the verge and the fence posts, probably in search of road kill. I remembered Van Gogh’s Crows in the Cornfield, one of his final paintings. It was painted shortly before his suicide. Van Gogh killed himself on 29th July. I began to wonder whether the failing inflection of the light was a factor, whether he saw a darkness coming that he couldn’t face. Or maybe for a moment he saw too clearly the darkness he had always loved too much.  Oh, but there’s been too much mythologizing about Van Gogh already. Ignore my musings.

It was Lammas, a Christian feast meaning ‘loaf mass’, but one which is really a colonisation of an earlier pagan feast day, in much the same way as Christmas and Easter are. In the Irish Celtic tradition it is Lughnasadh, the festival of the god Lugh. Lughnasadh falls midway between Beltaine in May and Samhain in November and marks the beginning of the third quarter of the year. It is called Lunasdal by the Scots Celts, which is also their name for the month of August. It’s the time when the harvest first begins and the berries begin to ripen. And it’s a grand time to be in Scotland.

On 13th August I made an early start from Coylumbridge down through the Rothiemurchus Forest towards the Lairig Ghru. It was a fine day.  Rothiemurchus is a very special and beautiful place, one of the last and largest remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest which once covered most of the Highlands.  I particularly love the way the gnarly Scots Pines seem to somehow sit each in its own specially allotted space among the tangled acres of heather, bilberry, bog willow and juniper. This place is home to wildcats and pine martens, red squirrels and red deer, capercaillie, osprey, eagles, siskins, crossbills and who knows what else. The heather was coming into bloom and from time to time I was caught by the sweet honeyed scent as I walked south towards the mountains.

As I was descending the long track towards the Iron Bridge, I met a very tall man – a man at least three inches taller than me, probably about six foot five, maybe even taller –  walking briskly towards me. He was dressed all in green, had wispy red hair and was as thin as a beanpole. He was carrying a full pack, including a tent and sleeping mat. I guessed he had spent the night in the mountains, and it turned out I was right: he had camped high in the Lairig Ghru. The man’s name was David Alexander Cucumber, and he told me was a local doctor. He told me he was hurrying back down because he was sure his surgery would be especially busy that afternoon.

‘Swine Flu?’ I said.

‘No,’ Dr Cucumber replied, in a tight, raspy Highland accent. ‘Nothing quite so straightforward as that.’

‘Measles?’

‘No, not that either.’

‘Insect bites?’

‘No.’

Dr Cucumber looked at me quizzically, as if trying to decide my nature.

‘You’re not from these parts, are you?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m from Northumberland.’

‘Yes, yes, that’s what I thought. But you seem an intelligent enough man all the same. Tell me, did you notice the meteors last night?’

‘I didn’t see any myself,’ I replied. ‘No. But I’ve heard about them. The Perseids.’

‘Yes, yes, they’re the ones. Well, there are ancient beliefs about those meteors that many folk around these parts still hold to be true. The August meteors are known in the Celtic tradition as The Games of Lugh. Did you ever hear that expression?’

I said I had, and that I knew that Lugh was a sort of god of the first harvest and said by some to be associated in some way with the sun.

‘Aren’t the games supposed to commemorate the death of Lugh’s foster mother?’ I said.

‘Yes, they are,’ Dr Cucumber replied, stooping slightly towards me, like a twig tottering momentarily under the weight of its burden. He looked at me with narrowed eyes and smiled slyly. There was a moment’s pause, allowing us to scrutinise one another a little more closely.

‘In these parts,’ he went on, ‘it is believed by some that if a woman lies out in loose fitting garments on a clear night under the August meteors then she may conceive, that in effect a meteor may impregnate her. You’d be surprised how many women still do that around here, unbeknown to their husbands, of course. It tends to be women of a certain age, you see. Often they have already had children and those children are now growing up and no longer need them so much. At the same time their marriages may have lost their spark. Their husbands hardly seem to notice them any more, and spend most nights watching satellite TV or just reading again the novels of Scott or Robert Louis Stephenson. A woman of a certain age can, in those circumstances, begin to brood and become prey to an ancient loneliness and a strange longing. I looked at the sky yesterday afternoon and saw it was clear. I knew then that today’s surgery would be a busy one and that it would be a night in the hills for me. I could name you now no fewer than thirty women who I know for certain will in no more than summer frocks and petticoats have lain alone in their gardens all last night waiting as like golden arrows the meteors pierced the sky above them. And I know that I’ll see every single one of those women this afternoon at my surgery.’

I laughed gently. ‘They don’t want pregnancy tests, do they?’

‘No, they don’t. On the contrary. As they prepare breakfast for their menfolk and bairns, the utter foolishness of their actions always dawns on them. They begin to rue that, as if unwed, they have lain all night beneath falling meteors.  They begin to fear the consequences and they know they’ll have to come to me for the remedy.’

‘The remedy?’ I asked. ‘The remedy for what? Time cannot be undone. You cannot undo a night beneath the stars.’

‘No, you’re right: they can’t do that. But they can ensure there are no unwelcome consequences. Can you imagine what would happen if one of them were to become pregnant because of that night? How would they ever explain that to their husbands?  You must remember that these women are by definition in relationships which no longer have the physical dimensions they once did. Whose baby would they say they were now carrying?  You see their predicament, don’t you?’

I nodded slowly, allowing myself to imagine for a moment the sense of betrayal and hurt a good Highland man might suffer to discover his wife was carrying a child that could not be his.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I can.’

‘And then you can see why they will all come and see me this afternoon, because there is a remedy and it never fails to help.’

‘A remedy for what?’ I said again, a little perplexed. ‘A woman cannot become pregnant from a falling meteor.’

‘Can’t she?’ Dr Cucumber said, a little sharply, knocking a wisp of red hair from his brow. ‘Are you absolutely sure of that? If you were a woman and you’d lain out all night as they have, would you want to take the chance?’

‘Of course I would,’ I said. ‘Who ever became pregnant from a meteor? No-one.’

‘Exactly,’ Dr Cucumber said, as if I’d finally seen the light. ‘No-one ever has because no-one has ever not taken the remedy. To my knowledge not one woman has ever taken that chance. Not one. And why on earth would they? They’d be a fool to do so when they know there is an absolutely one hundred percent reliable remedy.’

‘But this is just superstition,’ I said. ‘And a waste of medical resources. You are prescribing them a remedy they do not need.’

Dr Cucumber knitted his brows and looked down at me in a schoolmasterly sort of way. ‘How can you be so certain of that?’ he said. ‘Don’t the facts speak for themselves on this matter? Every woman who has ever lain beneath the meteors has applied the remedy and not one of them has ever suffered an unwelcome pregnancy. I’d say that was strong evidence, wouldn’t you?’

I shook my head with some disbelief. ‘So there’s a remedy for this meteor condition, a sort of morning after the meteors pill, is there? And this has been fully tested by scientists using randomised controlled trials and all that and found to be truly effective?’

‘Oh, no, the remedy isn’t one any pharmaceutical company would – or could – ever manufacture. No, it’s a remedy that has its roots in knowledge of a completely different order – the wisdom of the universe as passed down through the generations.’

‘So do you as a rational man believe in that sort of knowledge?’ I asked. I was becoming increasingly curious about the medical credentials of our Dr Cucumber.

‘It has its place,’ he replied, emphatically. ‘It isn’t the be all and end all, and I’m not pretending it is. But as Shakespeare said, there are more things in heaven and earth than some people are prepared to admit. Don’t you agree?’

I nodded. ‘And so what is the remedy for this meteor predicament?’ I asked. ‘Is it something you find in the mountains?’

‘Yes, that’s part of it. Yes, now you’re on the right track.  The remedy depends upon the application of what is called Meteor Balm, and this balm is made in accordance with a secret recipe originating it is believed with a certain Miss McTavish.  The exact constituents of Miss McTavish’s Meteor Balm are known only to a handful of people and I happen to be one of those people, having been entrusted with the recipe by my grandmother shortly before her death.’

I was about to ask him what the ingredients of this recipe were, fully expecting him to decline to tell me, when he went on.

‘One of the key ingredients,’ he said, ‘is bilberries. But there are only three places around these parts that these bilberries must be picked, two of which are at secret locations back there in the Lairig Ghru. Furthermore, the bilberries must be picked at dawn while the dew is still on them on the morning of the night of the August meteors. You can see now why I spent the night in the mountains, can you not?’

‘I can,’ I said. ‘So Miss McTavish’s Meteor Balm is a sort of bilberry potion?’

‘Yes, but there are many other ingredients, of course, and the measures must be very exact. For example, fresh juniper leaves from the forest must be used, fresh thyme and onions boiled in water from Loch an Eilein.’

‘Onions, eh?’ I said.  ‘It doesn’t surprise me that they’re in the recipe. I share a house with a woman who believes onions have almost magical powers.’

‘They do,’ Dr Cucumber said, and for a moment a wild glint came into his eyes. He reminded me of the Doc in Back To The Future, a taller thinner ginger version. ‘There’s no question of that. The Balm would never work without onions, I can tell you that.’

‘And so what does the woman do with the balm in order to prevent meteor pregnancy? Does she drink it?’

‘Oh, no, that would be silly. She would die for certain if she did. No, the balm is applied to the face and belly every six hours and the woman must keep herself in a secluded place for at least twenty four hours, avoiding sunlight and refraining from any alcoholic drinks.  She must also sleep that night seated in an oak chair, preferably outdoors but if not then in front of an open window facing north. Although such an eventuality is of course only a remote possibility, they must also ensure that no physical intimacy occurs between themselves and their husbands.’

‘And this works every time, eh?’ I said.

‘As I’ve said already, it has never failed yet.’

At this point Dr Cucumber looked at his watch and bid me farewell. He had to get home, dig some onions and prepare the balm for his patients that afternoon. I walked on towards the Lairig Ghru, the warm sun on my face. I put my sunglasses on and quickened my pace. I was thinking about Bethlehem. I was thinking about David Hume. I was thinking about picking wild bilberries in the shadows beneath Lurcher’s Crag.

It rained on the following day and I decided to drive down to Pitlochry and have a look around the town. On the way down I stopped at the House of Bruar art gallery, which is very swish and shrewdly commercial and stocked with various recognisable representations of Scottishness, with a particular emphasis I thought on game animals and hunting. I drove on through Blair Atholl, where the Tilt finally hews and hacks its way out of the mountains, and on towards the Pass of Killiecrankie. The rain was falling on the fields of yellow grass and I stopped by the side of the old road for a while to look at them. This is where at the end of July in 1689 the great battle of the first Jacobite uprising took place and the Claymores of Dundee’s Highlanders slaughtered Mackay’s army as they came north to suppress them.

I parked near Pitlochry station. Eventually I made my way over the river to the Festival Theatre to look at the paintings there. The main exhibition was of mixed media landscape paintings by Iona Leishman. I hadn’t come across her work and I was quite taken with it. It has a complex layered texture and patterning that I found really engaging. A few days later I looked at her website. The same work there looks quite dull and uninteresting, oddly enough.

I spent the second week of my holidays at home painting and doing some walking and cycling. When I came in at teatime on Tuesday Margaret was about the leave the house.

‘I’m going to meet Brenda,’ she said, as if the matter was urgent.

‘Has something happened?’ I enquired.

‘Something certainly has happened. Brenda is extremely upset. She’s found a letter from the benefits people. Tristan’s claiming benefits. She can hardly believe it.’

‘He must need the money, I guess.’

‘Oh, yes, go on, make an excuse for him!  And the worst of it is, he hasn’t told her. He leaves the house every day and goes to work. Brenda will never cope with the shame of being in a relationship with a benefits cheat, I can tell you that.’

Margaret left. I put the Felice Brothers on the CD player and sat down on the sofa with De Kooning to listen. They have become one of my favourite bands and I was somehow just in the mood for their dark, doomed, ragged and vital concoction.  It was a nice evening. A succession of cyclists passed by. I watched them from the window. A teenage girl on a chestnut horse rode up the street just after seven. It struck me that this doesn’t happen too often. A couple of tracks later three camels passed, followed very shortly afterwards by two lads in turbans riding elephants. I began to wonder whether there was a circus on a field in Newsham, or maybe at the old waterworks/camp site in South Newsham.  However this theory was soon scotched. No sooner had the elephants gone than a huge herd of wildebeest came pounding by, their hooves clattering on the tarmac, a great cloud of dust behind them. They were being chased by a group of lionesses.

August’s a funny month. I think I’ll take my holiday a little earlier next year.

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the pure white doves and the peregrine

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boulmer tractor

Early one morning in high summer a few years ago I was sitting on Great Gable at Westmorland Cairn looking down the valley at the famous view of Wastwater.  I had the mountain more or less to myself, having camped the previous night down on the shore of Sprinkling Tarn. As I sat leaning against my rucksack, a raven and a peregrine falcon floated up on a thermal close to the crag. They were no more than thirty feet from me. The raven was harrassing the peregrine, which was mostly ignoring it, but at one point made a quick and very short move towards it, as if to get it to back off. Sort of like the way a lion might suddenly turn towards a troublesome hyena. The gesture had the desired effect. The raven made off across the valley in the direction of Scafell Pike. The peregrine continued to rise into the sky on the thermal. I lay back and looked up as it became an eventually invisible speck in the blue sky far above me.

As I lay there I wondered what would happen if a flock of fifty pure white doves passed beneath the falcon. It would stoop, of course, and take one of the doves – but which one?  How would it decide?  Would it take the whitest?  The smallest? The slowest? One in the middle? One on the edge? The doves would be flying in a flock as an evolved protective tactic: being in a flock is safer than flying alone. It might be that if fifty doves passed by one by one a peregrine would take every one. In a flock of fifty only one will be lost.  But which one would a peregrine target as it hurtled towards the flock like a thunderbolt? And why would it choose that one?  Could the peregrine discern differences between the doves invisible to the human eye?  Did the peregrine have a special kind of knowledge? How was its victim selected? I lay gazing into the cloudless sky as if waiting for the answer to descend on me. It didn’t.

Swine Flu is becoming a lot more widespread now. Lily went off with it at the beginning of this week.  The disease is picking off more and more people, apparently at random, although I’m inclined to find metaphors that suggest selection at some level.  I imagine the disease as the peregrine over the flock of doves.  Does the peregrine pick the dove it just happens to get its eye on?  I imagine the virus as a lion running at a herd of zebra. It tends to take the one that runs a little slower than the rest, the young or weak one, or the one who gets separated from the herd for other reasons or whose trajectory just happens to unfortunately veer too close to its own.  So while chance plays a part here, it’s not an entirely random process. Here we see the unfolding of the probabilities that, aggregated, evolution rests upon. It’s a process which features chance and choice, natural selection.

There is a tendency to ascribe intentionality and purpose to agents that do not in any sense make decisions or have any consciousness of their own actions.  A virus is obviously not like a lion or a peregrine, but that’s something we easily forget.  In fact we often seem ready to attribute an even higher level of intentionality and meaning to activities of invisible, microscopic organisms.  The hand we cannot see becomes the hand of God or Fate.  We see a moral judgement or higher purpose in who the virus ‘chooses’ to infect.  The virus must be the agent of a higher force. What we cannot see and rationalise quickly falls into the realm of the mythical. Often this shift of perspective can be seen in a change of terminology: a disease becomes a plague. The myth of the righteous and evil plague makes sense for us of the invisible, uncontrollable danger that we may be prey to.  To prevent or survive its onslaught we need to clean up our lives.  We need to repent and cease our evil ways. The virus is karma. If we get straight with the universe the continuation or restoration of our good health will be assured.  And yet the innocent must die too sometimes.  But there’s a reason for everything.  God is good. God is merciful.  Those innocents His virus takes from us have a special place in His plan. They will have the best seats on the Black Aeroplane that will take them straight to the orchard-plots of Heaven.

The fact of course is that in the case of every epidemic some people are always more likely to die than others and even though some of the strongest will die too, in the pattern of swine flu mortality we will also surely see the principle of natural selection at work. The lion may most often take the weak and the vulnerable, but once in a while he’ll take one of the strongest and quickest zebras on the plain. Swine Flu will do the same.

Last night I went for a walk up through Newsham, over to South Newsham and the old waterworks, down to the beach and back along Rotary Way. When I got back Margaret was on the telephone. I made myself a cappuccino and sat down beside De Kooning in front of the television to drink it. What I took to be a sports programme trailer or link was on. The voice-over was reciting a poem by Michael Laskey.

On Having Given Up Cricket

I shall play cricket in heaven
in return for the afternoons
gladly given to the other
pleasure of others’ leisure.

I shall walk, without haste, to the wicket
and nod to the angels kitted
in their whites waiting to discern
the kind of batspirit I am.

And one stroke in heaven, one dream
of a cover drive will redeem
every meeting of bat
and ball I’ve done without.

And I’ll bowl too, come on to bowl
leg-breaks with such control
of flight and slight changes of pace
that one over will efface

the faint regret I now feel.
But best of all I shall field:
alert in the heavenly deep,
beyond the boundary of sleep.

When Margaret had finished her telephone call she came through.

‘That was Brenda,’ she said.

‘Oh, how is she?’ I asked.

‘She’s very well. I asked her about your cat stealing the nine jigsaw pieces.’

I ignored her, as if I was engrossed in the television. I gave De Kooning a stroke.

‘Did you hear what I said?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He won’t sit still for acupuncture, if that’s what she has in mind.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Margaret said, tersely. ‘I know you’re not interested, but Brenda does think the theft and burial of those nine linked jigsaw pieces has a definite meaning.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Really?’

‘Yes. She actually thinks your cat is protecting you. Brenda thinks that by removing the driver from the steamroller he is neutralising the person who might use it to do you harm. She says the steamroller stands for someone or some force close to you that does not have your best interests at heart.’

I said nothing. Margaret paused for a minute or so. I was wondering if it could be the Swine Flu that De Kooning was supposed to have in mind.

‘Brenda also thinks she can help De Kooning,’ she eventually said. ‘She feels his energies are out of balance. She asked me if you would agree to her doing some work with him. She says she won’t charge you for her time.’

‘Some work with De Kooning?’ I said. ‘What work does she have in mind, exactly?’

‘Reiki.’

‘Reiki?’ I said.

‘Yes, reiki. She thinks it will really help him.’

‘She thinks that doing reiki on a cat will put an end to him stealing jigsaw pieces? Is that what she thinks?’

‘Yes.’

‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I won’t let her do it.’

‘Why not? What harm can it do?’

‘De Kooning doesn’t particularly like reiki,’ I said. ‘He has no faith in it. And besides, he won’t give his written consent.’

‘Then you could give it for him.’

‘I could,’ I said. ‘But I won’t. And in any case, I don’t want him fixed just yet. First I need him to tell me who’s driving that steamroller. I need to see those missing pieces.’

At that moment I wondered how Lily was.  I wondered if Lily might be dead.

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Written by yammering

July 16, 2009 at 10:54 pm

the immigrant, the exile and nine lost pieces

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stott bobbin mill corner lakeside windermere

I was on holiday in the Lakes all last week.

On the Friday before I went off I was talking in the corridor to John Sultan, a senior manager from Morpeth. John’s close to another of the managers based in my office building, Edith Joicey – or Jackboots, as she’s sometimes known. Edith is the directorate’s prima donna. Meg Bomberg dislikes Edith intensely. She had a nightmare one night in which Edith had been promoted and was managing her. Next day she almost handed her notice in.

John is a curiously anonymous man. People call him soulless, and if I believed in the soul I’d have to agree. He dresses like a bank clerk, favouring the dependable dark blue of his Marks and Spencer single breasted suit most of the time. Oddly enough some women see him as almost handsome, although to others this perception is so inexplicable that John’s handsomeness has become the perennial subject of what is in essence a metaphysical debate among the female members of the workforce.

Morally, John is an even queerer proposition. Most of the time his ethical functioning appears to be approximately at the level of a ticket machine, or perhaps, to be more exact, of one of those machines you find in an amusement arcade where you insert fifty pence and get the chance to try to grab yourself a fluffy panda using joystick-controlled silver jaws. John is infamous for shameless petty machinations.

John had heard about our suspected MCTS case, Pearl Twichell, and wondered if there had been any developments.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although one of the mice has gone missing.’

‘Which one?’ John asked.

‘Maybellene tells us it’s Penelope. She says that one’s gone missing before, though, and she’s sure it’ll turn up.’

‘Is she telling us the truth?’ John asked, invoking the inclusive corporate entity of the first person plural.

‘We have no evidence that she isn’t, John,’ I replied. ‘But truth, as we all know so well, is more elusive than a mouse in a mountain of mattresses.’

‘Hmmm,’ John said, nodding intelligently. ‘You’re right. But to me a lost mouse is not necessarily a mouse that has become a child.’

My turn to nod intelligently. ‘Yes, exactly, John,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’

‘Okay. Keep me up to date on this one,’ he said and ambulated away noiselessly, without another word of farewell, his neat black leather document case neatly tucked under his neat right arm.

When I got in from work that night Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing her jigsaw again. There was a big pan of sweet Spanish onions bubbling on the cooker.

‘It’s coming along nicely,’ I said.

‘Your cat’s nicked some more pieces and buried them in the garden somewhere. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point in going on with it.’

I looked down at De Kooning, who was sitting near the door cleaning his face.

‘Cats don’t understand jigsaws,’ I said. ‘Or if they do they obviously find them more intriguing if there are pieces missing. And they’re right, of course.  I think we all do. He’s probably just trying to be helpful.’

Margaret ignored me. I got myself a pizza out of the fridge and put it in the oven.  I picked up De Kooning and carried him out into the garden.

‘So what’s the idea of pinching the pieces from the jigsaw?’ I said. ‘Where are you stashing them?’

De Kooning was looking over the fence into Hugo’s burgeoning junkyard.  The water was trickling down the waterfall feature into the dark pond. The heron still peered unblinkingly into its depths.  I noticed a new blue owl had taken up residence a few feet away from the heron and that an oranges and lemons coloured two seater garden swing had been installed close to the decking and the platform clock, which still hasn’t been brought forward into British Summer Time.

‘So just where are you stashing the jigsaw loot, my little bandit friend?’ I said, walking him around the lawn and gazing down into the lilies, the pinks and the marigolds. De Kooning stared down too, joining with me in my curiously forensic scrutiny of the borders. We found no evidence of the jigsaw burials Margaret had suggested and I began to wonder if the missing pieces hadn’t in fact simply been deposited in a little pile somewhere, perhaps under the tangled honeysuckle or down behind the dense dark laurel bush.

Because I was going away the next day, after I’d eaten my pizza I rode along to Seaton Sluice see my dad. We talked about South Newsham mostly. Some time ago my dad told me that when he was a kid the people who lived in South Newsham – which the people in Newsham called “New Newsham” – used to call the place “Spike Island”.  He has no idea why this is as it is not an island and although there are many small burns running off the fields into the sea, there is no evidence that it ever was, although it may have sat among marshy ground. My dad, who has a tendency to pursue such questions slightly obsessively until he gets to the bottom of them, had tried to find out something in Blyth library and spoken to a couple of local historians. Both of them knew of the place being called Spike Island, but neither really knew how it got its name. One suggested that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a pit pond close to the Hannah Foster Pit in South Newsham and suggested that perhaps there were ‘spikes’ – railings of some kind – around the pond to stop people getting too near and falling in. There is no evidence for this hypothesis, of course.

I had Googled “Spike Island” and discovered that one of the places with that name is an island in Ireland near Cork. It has been inhabited for many centuries and the place name is said to mean “island of the Picts”. Saint Mochuba started a church there when Christianity first came to Ireland. In the eighteenth century the island was bought by the British and Fort Westmoreland was built there. In the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia, this fort became a prison where so-called “convicts” were housed awaiting deportation. Other websites tell us that it was in 1847 that “Spike”, as it is called locally, first became a convict depot and that only male convicts were kept there. By 1850 it is said over 2,000 people were being detained there. In 1848, in the middle of the potato blight, John Mitchel, Irish nationalist activist and political journalist, was held on Spike on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchel had powerfully expressed the widely held view that the famine in Ireland was due to “the greedy and cruel policy of England”.  Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, was written, some say, while he was imprisoned at Spike.

When the Industrial Revolution gathered steam it was largely fuelled by coal from the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham, and because there was very limited local industrial labour much of it was drafted in from remote rural agrarian populations, including significant numbers from Ireland, most emigrating to escape the Great Hunger and the mess that British land ownership had wrought to their economy. My dad told me that at one time there was an Irish Club in Blyth, which perhaps gives an indication of just how many families of Irish origin there are in the area. I suggested to my dad that maybe there had been a particularly high number of Irish families in South Newsham and that they called the place Spike Island as a kind of black joke or homage, in much the same way as people talk about certain parts of some towns as Little Italy or Chinatown or Downtown Delhi. Maybe the name of Spike Island was simply meant to say something about life there, that it was not much different to being in a penal colony.

‘What we’d need to know to see if it might be the reason are the names of the families in South Newsham who were brought in to work in the pit,’ I said.

‘Well, I can remember there were Duckworths, Murrays, Latimers, and Sullivans there.  Your granddad was very friendly with one of the Sullivans. That’s an Irish name.’

‘I think Murray is too,’ I said. ‘That’s interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Aye, it is. I think I’ll go down the library and look at some of the old newspapers. They’ve got the Blyth News back to about 1850, I think. That should give us some idea.’

‘Maybe there was a sort of tribal patriarch there, a man called Spike Sullivan,’ I said. ‘A local hero, a sort of giant Irish republican pit-yacker who ruled the roost over there. If there wasn’t there should have been. Maybe it was his island, a bit like Craggy Island is Father Ted’s island.  Maybe this was a metaphorical island in the poetic imagination of the immigrant labouring families of South Newsham – a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism, maybe, a metaphor for lost Ireland itself, as so many fictional islands have been. Maybe there was a time when the Mighty Spike Sullivan – a sort of pitman Cuchulainn, wage-slaving to survive in a strange land – stood on the shallow highlands of South Newsham and dreamed of the home he was exiled from and of becoming the master of his own land. This would have been wishful thinking, of course, because he was never going to own this land any more than he ever owned his own land in Ireland.  But people do dream. Maybe he stood in the shadow of the pit that had taken possession of his life, on a low mound between hope and despair, and imagined the sea rising all around him and this place becoming his very own island – Spike’s Island. Maybe he imagined growing his own corn there one day, grazing a few cows along the shore. Maybe Spike himself named this place, in the same way that the Swiss Family Robinson named their island “New Switzerland”, as an act of ownership and possession, as a way of saying “This is my new Ireland”. Maybe this is the story of the place that the people have now forgotten.’

My dad looked at me as if to say I might be taking things just a teensy weensy bit too far here.

‘Enjoy your holiday,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’

As I rode back home along the track through the sand dunes I was thinking that the story of Spike Sullivan, like the story of Tom Tremble, was one that cried out to be told.

One afternoon last week I was sitting under a parasol at a table outside the Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge. I was looking over the River Leven at the point where it drains out of Windermere to wriggle and snake its way into the Irish Sea at Morecambe Bay. It was sweltering. The air was claggy, the light hazy and intense. A Chinese woman came and sat opposite me. She was slim, in her thirties. Her  fashionable red-rinsed dark brown hair was mid-length, straight and spiky, as if it had been cut with a sickle. To me it had the look of a hay stook about it. She was wearing big black sunglasses – they reminded me of a bluebottle’s eyes – black walking shorts, lightweight walking boots and a short lime green t-shirt. I was drinking a long cold ginger beer. She was drinking sweet cider and ice. The ducks sailed casually to and fro on the idly flowing water. Swifts and swallows swooped and flickered across the stream.  The trees and green rushes stood still all along the banks.

‘Are you staying at the hotel too?’ the woman said to me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m in a house up by the lake.’

‘Ah, ‘ she said. ‘Do you know a place called Finsthwaite?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, and pointed over to the signpost near the bridge. ‘It’s up that way too. Are you going there?’

‘Yes. I want to see the grave of Clementina Douglas. Have you heard of her?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Should I have?’

The Chinese woman told me the tale of Clementina Douglas, who is also known as the Finsthwaite Princess. She was buried in Finsthwaite churchyard on 16 May 1771, her full name being recorded as Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglas of Waterside, a spinster. It turns out that the story is probably apocryphal, but one which has some historical truth as its basis and which has fascinated many locals for more than a century. 

The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had a long term relationship with Clementina Walkinshaw, his mistress.  Rumours grew that she had a daughter to him, and that this daughter was subsequently shipped off to some remote and secluded place. Local people say that Clementina Douglas was this daughter.  The evidence is slim that Bonnie Prince Charlie had any daughter other than his acknowledged daughter Charlotte, the Duchess of Albany, born in 1753, and even slimmer that if he did then Clementina Douglas was that daughter, living in concealment. Some have suggested that she may have been the daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw but that the father may be a different man. What we do seem to know for certain is that Clementina Douglas did live in Waterside, with a man called Captain James Douglas, who it is believed may have been her father. The rooms in Waterside had been rented by Captain Douglas since at least 1752. The historical evidence that she may have been the child of Clementina Walkinshaw rests on an ambiguous passage in a letter to James III’s secretary. That evidence would put her date of birth somewhere between 1745 and 1747.  The age of Clementina Douglas at her death in 1771 is not known, although clearly if she was the supposed daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw she would have been only aged about 25 when she died.

‘So she died young,’ I said. ‘Do we know what she died of?’

‘I don’t think so,’ The Chinese woman with the sickle cut hair replied. ‘But her dying young seems at odds with parts of the story which has been passed down. In the story she is described “a grand lady”.’

‘Maybe that just means she was posh,’ I said. ‘You know, not just an ordinary person like you or I. Maybe someone more like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson or Joanna Lumley.’

‘Yes, maybe. It is said she was very involved with a family called the Backhouses, who lived at Jolliver Farm, who do seem to have been members of the gentry.  A fellow called Ned Fell said he reburied Clementina’s remains in the grave of a certain Miss Backhouse when the old church was demolished. Others say however that it was a man called Joseph Charles Hunter who dug up and reburied the remains of the princess. They say that among the remains there was some of her fair golden hair and some blue ribbons with which it would have been tied.’

At that point a local man who had been standing behind us came forward and joined in the conversation. He was a tall, broad and grey haired. He had a pot belly. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt with a lattice of dark blue lines across the fabric and a little porkpie sunhat.  His trousers were held up by a broad brown leather belt. It turns out he had been a farmer in the area all his life and was now retired and living with his wife in a house up at nearby Canny Hill.

‘You’re talkin’ about the Princess, I see,’ the pot-bellied farmer said. ‘I don’t believe myself that she was the daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but I know there’s a lot that do. Of course, I know the tale about the mysterious stranger coming and planting a Scottish thistle on her grave and how as the years passed the churchyard became thick with these foreign invaders. But you go up there now and I’ll lay you a pound to a penny you can’t find one Scottish thistle.’

The Chinese woman in her big sunglasses and I both nodded.

‘But they do say that Bonnie Prince Charlie was in Kendal in 1745, so he obviously knew the area,’ she said to the farmer.

‘Oh, yes, but you two are sitting here today. Does it mean in a hundred years time that’ll be reason enough to say you had a daughter and hid her away somewhere up in the woods yonder? I think not. Folks around here like a good yarn and they’re not ones for letting the truth get in the way of their enjoyment.’ The farmer pushed his pork pie hat back on his ruddy forehead, put his pint to his lips and looked out over the river. The conversation then took an unexpected twist.

‘Of course,’ the farmer said, ‘you’ll know the tale about the escaped murderer who holed up in these parts and believed she really was the Finsthwaite Princess?’

We both shook our heads.

‘You don’t? Oh this happened when I was just a young un’. It was a lass called Florence Nelson. She had been imprisoned after murdering her lover’s girlfriend by running her over with a steam roller. You’ve never heard about her?’

The Chinese woman shook her head. But I was delighted at the prospect of hearing more about Florence Nelson and said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard bits of that story. The Bowness Steamroller Murderess. She murdered Sharon Sweet, a red-headed woman. Her lover was Ned Perfect.’

‘That’s the one,’ the farmer said. ‘Spot on. Well. You might know then that Florence escaped from prison by digging a tunnel with a table spoon. Took her years by all accounts. And it seems that while she was imprisoned and working on her escape she came to see herself as an imprisoned princess of some kind.  Florence believed in rebirth and reincarnation and all that codswallop, and she eventually came to believe she had been Mary Queen of Scots in a previous lifetime. The prison authorities were aware of this, of course, but they had already marked her card as a woman who was bonkers and who would never return to society and so they were happy to humour her. The wardens began to call her Your Highness and M’Lady and to bring in pictures of Scottish castles and West Highland terriers for her, which she stuck up on the walls of her cell with Sellotape. Some even used to bring her back presents from their holidays, such as Edinburgh rock or a haggis from Dundee or some shortbread biscuits from Inverness or a woolly Tam o’ Shanter from Hawick. It seems that nothing in the whole world delighted Florence so much as getting gifts from Scotland. It’s said that during the years she took to dig herself out she read all of Walter Scott’s novels several times over. She had to all intents and purposes vanished into a make-believe world of being reborn Jacobite royalty.’

‘My God,’ the Chinese woman exclaimed. ‘So did you ever meet her yourself?’

‘No,’ the farmer said. ‘I didn’t, no. But I remember when they eventually found her and hearing all about it from my mother and other folks who lived around here.  Florence Nelson really did exist, we know that for a fact, believe me.’

‘I thought you said she believed she was the Finsthwaite Princess,’ I said. ‘But surely the Finsthwaite Princess wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ the farmer replied, putting his pint down on the table. ‘No. When she was eventually apprehended again, just after the terrible events up by the ferry, she was wearing a wig of long golden hair tied up with blue ribbons. When the policeman asked her for her name she said, in a Scots accent, that it was Clementina Douglas, and from that day onwards, even when she was returned to prison to serve out the rest of her life sentence, she refused to be known by any other name.  Some time between escaping from prison believing she was a reincarnation of Mary Stuart and being arrested again she had convinced herself that it was a different Scots royal she had been in her previous life, the so-called Finsthwaite Princess. My mother told me that as Clementina sat in handcuffs in the back of the Black Maria that took her back to prison she sang The Skye Boat Song for the whole journey.’

At that point the pot-bellied farmer’s mobile phone rang in his shirt pocket. He had The Archers theme tune set as his ring tone.

‘Oh, hello Billy,’ he said. ‘How you getting on? Is it buggered? Do you need me to come over and give you a hand?’

It seems it was buggered and Billy did, and so the pot-bellied farmer drank down the last of his beer, bid us farewell and made his way round to the car park, from where he emerged a couple of minutes later in a shiny black Landrover Discovery.

‘So do you think that’s all true?’ the Chinese woman said to me. ‘All that stuff about the woman who thought she was Mary Queen of Scots and dug her way out of prison with a spoon?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It might be. I’ve heard about her before and how she murdered people with a stolen steamroller. I’d never heard about her believing she was anybody’s reincarnation, though. Still, if the stories about the Finsthwaite Princess are true than why shouldn’t those about Florence Nelson be?’

The Chinese woman nodded and smiled, the spikes of her hair twitching like the red-brown elements of fibre optic lamp. On the quiet Leven mallards cruised from bank to bank in the relentless heat. White butterflies twirled by.

‘I think I might have another drink,’ she said. ‘Would you like another ginger beer?’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’

On the day after I went to Finsthwaite churchyard it was again hot and humid. I drove over to Coniston and for a few hours walked the high fells. It was glorious. There is perhaps no experience in the world during which anyone will feel more alive and human than walking the mountains in summer.

Early in the afternoon I walked back down through the village and followed the Cumbrian Way down to Coniston Hall and on through the campsite to the lake shore. I sat on a big stone beneath the trees looking out over the lake to Brantwood, thinking about Ruskin. A group of four giggly teenage girls in bikinis pitched themselves on the shore not too far from me. They immediately noticed a group of boys in Canadian canoes a hundred yards or so further up the lake. In inflatable watercraft – gaudy airbeds and a shiny blue dolphin – they set out on the water, constantly giggly loudly to lure the canoe boys closer.  The strategy took about twenty minutes to work, but eventually the boys arrived.  Two of the girls had just climbed into one of the canoes as I set off to walk back to the village. I imagined Ruskin’s ghost with binoculars at a window across the lake wondering how it was that such sirens as these could complicate paradise. There is evidence that when he was alive Ruskin had a bit of the Humbert Humbert about him and it seems reasonable to assume that the ghost of a man will have the same character as the man himself did, although as I passed by Ruskin’s grave later I admit I began to wonder if I shouldn’t apologise for even thinking that someone like him would ever contemplate perving at those Coniston Lolitas.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen peeling some carrots. Her jigsaw was on the table and at first glance appeared to be finished.

‘Is it all done?’ I said.

‘It’s as done as it can be,’ Margaret replied. ‘But there’s a big hole in it. There’s something very strange about your cat.’

I walked over and looked at the jigsaw. It was indeed completely done except for the area from which De Kooning had taken the pieces. It so happened that the pieces he had taken turned out to be those from the cab window of the steam roller. De Kooning had removed all traces of the driver and his face.

‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘That’s amazing!’

‘That’s spooky,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s a message of some kind, I’m sure of it. I’m going to get Brenda to come and look at it.’

‘It’s a coincidence,’ I said. ‘Pure chance.’

‘Are you trying to say that by pure chance a cat has taken nine pieces from a thousand piece jigsaw that just happen to fit together and that are the only nine pieces that include any part of the driver?’

‘Hmmm, that does seem remarkable,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

‘Spooky is what it is, spooky. Do you know what I think he’s done? He’s taken one piece for each of his nine lives. Piece by piece he’s stolen the soul of the steamroller driver for himself. I’m going to ring Brenda and see what she thinks. I’m sure I’m right.’

I put the kettle on and poured a sachet of instant cappuccino into a mug. De Kooning wandered in from the garden and jumped up on my rucksack, as he often does when I return from holiday.  I picked him up and gave him a stroke.

‘No, I’ll tell you what he was doing,’ I said. ‘He was attracted to the pieces with pink in them. That’s what he did, he selected the pink pieces. He didn’t know that the only pink was the pink of the human face and hands. He just likes pink. That’s all this hole in your jigsaw means, nothing more mysterious than that. De Kooning simply likes the pink pieces.’

Margaret shook her head sceptically. She wasn’t buying it. She was going to ring Brenda whether I liked it or not.

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