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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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the owl, the albatross, and the dodo

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blyth-croft-road-crofton-mill

It was about the beginning of September, 1664, that I, among the rest of my neighbours, heard
in ordinary discourse that the plague was returned again in Holland; for it had been very violent
there, and particularly at Amsterdam and Rotterdam, in the year 1663, whither, they say, it was
brought, some said from Italy, others from the Levant, among some goods which were brought home
by their Turkey fleet; others said it was brought from Candia; others from Cyprus. It mattered not
from whence it came; but all agreed it was come into Holland again.  
 
Daniel Defoe
Journal of the Plague Year (1722) 
 
 

‘How, aa wuz blaan away by meetin’ ya marra,’ Eric said. ‘Aa towld wor young ‘un and he waadn’t believe it. Ee thowt aa waas just mekkin’ it up! But aa towld him whaat he looked like an’ aall that an’ ‘ee believes iz noo. It waas him, waasn’t it?  Ya marra iz the real McCoy, isn’t ‘ee?’

‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘He is certainly the one and only Owen Vardy, late of the much feted minstrel troop who went by the good name of Proudlute.’

‘Aye, that’s whaat aa telt wor young ‘un,’ Eric said. ‘That ya marra waas definitely the blowk oot of the Proodloot.  The lads at the Prymeeaa cannit believe aa’ve met him. Nor can aa. It’s like a miracle for someone who’s been on Top of the Pops to be in Eshinden, yuh knaa whaat aa mean? There’s ownly one thing that waald ‘ave been more amazin’ than meetin’ ya marra. D’yuh knaa whaat that waald o’ been?’

I looked at him and shrugged. I wondered if it wouldn’t have been an audience with George Herbert himself, author of The Country Parson and important early metaphysical poet.  I said I didn’t know.

‘To meet that Peter Andre,’ Eric replied, with an implied ‘obviously’. ‘Yuh knaa the one that’s married to hor wi’ the massa bazookas. Ur, yuh knaa, whaat’s aa name – Jordan. D’yuh knaa we aa mean?’

I nodded. ‘Yeah, I know them,’ I said. ‘I mean Peter and Katie – I know Peter and Katie.’

‘Whaat? Yuh knaa them as weell?!’ Eric exclaimed, his celebrityphilia obviously allowing him to get the wrong end of a fairly short verbal ambiguity. ‘Is it through ya marra? Does he knaa them from when ee wuz in the Proodloot?!

‘No, Eric,’ I said. ‘I don’t know them in that sense. I know who they are, that’s all.’

‘Ur, aa see whaat yuh mean,’ Eric said, palpably crestfallen. For a moment a dream egg beyond his wildest imaginings had been hatching before his very eyes, the possibility of meeting the legendary Peter Andre. For now Eric would have to do with Owen.

‘Here,’ Eric said, abruptly, putting his hooked finger in the air. ‘Ur, aye, whaat was it again? Eh, ur, aye, eh, hing on.’

At that point Eric stopped dead, his pirate pose frozen, like someone playing Statues. His face became expressionless, his eyes stared blankly into an invisible void. It was as if yet again someone had thrown the switch on his neurological systems. He stood as still a gravestone. And then suddenly life re-entered him.

‘Ur, aye,’ he said, as if no time at all had passed, ‘ya marra nivva met that Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, did ‘ee? Yuh knaa, them whaat did the Woolly Bully an’ that.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t ever recall Owen mentioning them at all, oddly enough.’

‘That’s a pity,’ Eric said. ‘They were mint.’

For a minute or so Eric again seemed absent, as if ruminating in an unseen life world perhaps. You’ll have realised by now that is something that often happens with Eric. I was about to wander off when he spoke again.

‘Here,’ he said. ‘Hing on, er, whaat waas it again? Ur, aye, the swine flu and aall that. Whaat d’yuh think of that?’

I shrugged. Before I could give an opinion however, Eric decided to give me his.

‘Aa think the telly’s got it aall wrang, divvent ‘ee? Wor young ‘un knaas someone who’s been to Mexico and tha’s nowt the matter wi’ hor.  Aa mean, ‘ee says she’s got a caald an’ aall that, but nowt weird. D’yuh knaa whaat aa think? Aa think tha’ mekkin’ it up?’

‘You don’t think swine flu exists?’

‘Nur. Whey, hoo waald a human porson catch a pig disease? Hev yuh ivva hord of a pig sneezin’ or hevvin’ a snotty nose? Aa mean, hoo can a pig hev the flu? The flu’s a human disease. Aa mean, the pig would hev to tek paracetemol and aall that!’ Eric laughed, his face lit up like the man in the moon.

‘So what about bird flu?’ I said. ‘Do you believe in that?’

Eric’s systems briefly shut down again, as if he might be downloading something from an external site.

‘Aye, aa dee,’ he eventually replied. ‘Aye, an’ aa’ll tell yuh whaat, aa think the bord flu is warse than this pig one, d’ye not?’

‘Worse? What do you mean by worse? That it’ll kill more people?’

‘Aye. Aa’ divvent think this pig flu’s ganna kill anybody ower here, d’ye? Aa mean, we’re not like Mexicans, are wuh? Hoo can English folks catch a disease off pigs?’

I nodded. ‘Who knows?’ I said. ‘But sooner or later they’ll be right. Sooner or later nature will bite back. But I think you’re right, swine fever might not the one.’

We live in apocalyptic times.  We wait for the hurricane. We wait for the fire. We wait for the plague. But for some of us we’ve already been waiting too long. We’ve got apocalypse fatigue. While most of the world intermittently runs around in blind panic, the prospect of the end of the world bores some of us now. We don’t feel inclined to believe it. Or maybe we just don’t feel inclined to care. And this is more or less exactly how the end will come – and more or less exactly why.

Tristan called along on Thursday night to pick up a box of sunglasses. Margaret was out when he arrived. I invited him in while I looked for the box. De Kooning arrived to give him the once over.

‘What’s your cat called?’ Tristan said.

‘De Kooning.’

‘Hello, De Kooning,’ Tristan said, stroking him beneath the chin. ‘Aren’t you beautiful? My name’s Twistan and I’m vewy pleased to meet you.’

‘So how’s tricks with you and Brenda, Tristan?’ I asked.

‘Oh pwetty good, I think,’ he said. ‘I think we’re getting there.’

‘It’s her birthday next week, isn’t it? Have you got her anything special or have you agreed you’ll just have to tighten your belts his year?’

‘I’ve got her something special,’ Tristan said. ‘But it wasn’t expensive. I think maybe I misjudged her in the past. I think she weally does know it’s the thought that counts.’

‘So what have you got her, then?’

‘An enamel keywing. An owl. It’s weally nice.’

I nodded. ‘An enamel owl keyring, eh? Are you sure Brenda will think this is what she wants? I mean, in what way is it special?’

‘One of Bwenda’s hewoes is the Gweek goddess Athena. Athena’s the goddess of wisdom and I think a kind of wole model for Bwenda. When her business gets bigger and there’s more than one thewapist she’s going to call it Athena Associates. The owl is Athena’s sacwed bird and it’s going to be the symbol of Bwenda’s company. That why this keywing is so special.’

‘Oh, I see. So Brenda sees herself as a sort of wise owl and your gift recognises that wisdom, eh? Clever stuff. You obviously have put a lot of thought into choosing it. ’

‘Yes, I have. I wanted to get her something that said something to her, that has a deep message fwom my heart to hers. You know Bwenda does have a good heart. I know sometimes she seems theatwical and shallow and self-obsessed and pweoccupied with her own needs, but behind that façade there weally is a genuine person. A weal person.  I know sometimes she imagines she’s the bloody owacle or something, but maybe she weally does have something to give others that can help them. Do you think?

I shrugged. ‘Maybe. I just like the idea that Brenda can see in the dark and that she somehow resembles an owl. I’d never noticed that before!’

‘I think maybe that’s the idea of Athena’s owl,’ Tristan said. ‘That it’s a voice that can help us to choose the wight diwection in life. Fweedom is a dark dark fowest, my fwiend. We all need a voice like that sometimes to wemind us where we’re going, to guide us along the wight path.’

‘And so you reckon the enamel owl keyring will keep her happy, do you?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Bwenda’s moved on, my fwiend. She weally has. She’ll be thwilled with her pwesent.’

‘I hope you’re right,’ I said. Of course a little bird in my head was telling me he probably wasn’t.

‘I love birds,’ I said. ‘So does De Kooning, of course. For me, freedom rather than wisdom or capriciousness or  pestilence is what birds symbolise.  Because they can just come and go as they please. They can always fly away. Their presence is always a sort of beautiful gift. Their absence is always a possibility. If you had to choose a bird to represent yourself, Tristan – like Brenda has chosen the owl – what would it be?’

‘I dunno, mate,’ Tristan said. ‘It wouldn’t be an owl, though, that’s for sure. I’m not that wise. Twotsky was intewested in birds, you know. He famously said “The nightingale of poetwy, like that bird of wisdom, the owl, is heard only after the sun is set.”  He’s making a wefewence to Hegel’s wemark about the owl of Minerva, of course.  But I digwess.  So what bird would I see myself as? Maybe it would be a pawwot. Because I weally do need to learn hold my tongue sometimes. I can’t sing, so I couldn’t be a nightingale. I guess it would have to be a bird on a long journey, an albatwoss perhaps. What about you?’

‘I don’t know either,’ I said. ‘A dodo, maybe, or a cuckoo!’

Tristan laughed. I gave him the box of sunglasses and he gave De Kooning’s black fur a final quick ruffle before he went on his way.

‘Good luck with the keyring,’ I said as he walked down the garden path beneath the gently fluttering spring birch leaves.

‘Don’t wowwy, mate,’ he replied. ‘She’ll be over the moon, I pwomise you.’

I sat in the conservatory with De Kooning for a while, drinking a cappuccino and flicking through The Guardian. Gordon’s in deep doo-doo, and it seems to be doo-doo that gets deeper every day. How he must now long for those days when life was simple and all he had to do was try to get his clock to tick more quickly.  Tristan had remarked that Gordon better beware of assassins and coups. Tristan reckons the long knives will be out for him now.

When Margaret came in I told her Tristan had been and collected the sunglasses.

‘Good,’ she said. ‘It’s nice to see he can do something right.’ Margaret’s tone told me there was a whole conversation going on that neither I nor Tristan knew anything about. Brenda was nowhere near as happy as Tristan believed, it seemed.

‘Has he got her a birthday present yet?’ Margaret asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He has. Strangely enough he was just telling me about it.’

‘Good,’ Margaret said, tersely. ‘Let’s just hope it’s something nice. He really does need to make her feel special once in a while. God knows she does enough for him.’

I nodded. ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I think Tristan does want her to feel special. I think that’s why he’s got her what he has. He’s obviously put a lot of thought into it.’

‘I don’t want to know what it is,’ Margaret said. ‘So don’t tell me. I just really hope he doesn’t let her down this time.’

I was pleased Margaret didn’t want to know what Tristan had bought Brenda for her birthday. I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to let the enamel owl keyring out of the bag yet.

It was getting dark. Margaret was chopping onions. I was going to go for a walk but for whatever reason I couldn’t be bothered. I made myself another cappuccino and began to think about which part of Blyth I wanted to paint next. I’m torn between concentrating on Newsham and doing a series of old pubs in Blyth. The Kings Arms in Cowpen is the oldest building in the town and I thought maybe I should do that next. Or maybe I should do the Willow Tree and the Black Diamond first. I began wondering how many pubs there still were in Blyth and if I should map them all before I decided which one I should paint next.

On Friday morning I arrived at the office late. On one of the chairs in reception there was a copy of Neruda’s Selected Poems. There was a lad in his late teens with a shaven head and a stud in his upper lip sitting on the chair opposite. He was wearing white nylon track top and pants and big white trainers.

‘Is this yours?’ I said, picking the book up.

‘Nah,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It belongs to one of them Zorrs. He’s in there talking to one of the social workers.’

‘Thanks,’ I said. I took the book and went through to the team room.

‘Are Mandy and Mr Zee in?’ I said to Lily.

‘Yeah,’ she replied. ‘They’ve been getting funny phone calls again. Debs is in with them.’

I flicked through the book and came across Neruda’s poem Bird. I probably wouldn’t have read this one in particular – or even noticed it – had my week already not been so punctuated by avian references.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.

When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

When I came down from my office at about lunchtime Owen was in the team room. He was wearing a thin brown cotton jacket, almost like the sort that a store keeper might wear. It hung on his bony frame like a slowly collapsing tent. He had just been in a meeting with Michelle and was passing time until his bus was due. I told him I’d been talking to Eric and that he’d said how blown away he’d been to meet him at last. Owen smiled, suppressing his elation.  Celebrities do that sometimes, I think. It’s paradoxical. It makes them look all the more remarkable for seeming all the more normal by being modest.

‘He said there was only one other famous person he’d have wanted to meet more,’ I said.

Owen frowned, curiously. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Who? No, no. No, let me guess.’ He gazed at me, narrowing his eyes and giving this issue deep thought. ‘Was it Leonard Cohen?’ he finally said.

‘No, Owen,’ I said, raising an eyebrow. ‘This is Eric we’re talking about here.’

‘Oh yes, Eric, eh? Okay’ He paused again. ‘So was it Neil Young?’

I shook my head slowly, emphatically.

‘No.’

‘James Taylor?’

I continued to shake my head. Owen looked perplexed, non-plussed even.

‘I’ve absolutely no idea, then,’ he said. ‘Give me a clue.’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘I’ll tell you exactly what Eric said to me when he was trying to remember this person’s name. He said it was the bloke who was married to “hor wi’ the massa bazookas”.’

Owen flinched a little, as if a Jack in the Box had just popped out beneath his nose. He then frowned a distinctly different frown, a frown of disapprobation. For a minute he looked like he was about to suffocate. He shook his head mechanically. It was going to difficult for him to answer now even if he knew. There are some things about a woman a man like Owen can’t admit he’s even noticed. 

‘Peter Andre,’ I said. ‘The guy that’s married to Jordan?’

Owen looked vaguely appalled. ‘Peter Andre? Eric would rather have met Peter Andre than me? Really?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No, I was only joking. He actually said Chubby Brown.’

‘Did he?’ Owen said. ‘Chubby Brown? Oh my God! I’d have preferred Peter Andre!’

‘Well, there you go. So it’s not that bad after all, is it? It was Peter Andre. Chubby was a joke.’

‘Chubby is a joke,’ Owen quipped. A part of him was obviously beginning to feed off the better bits of being second best to Peter Andre. It’s often a consolation in life if when you lose you focus on those people you’ve beaten rather than those who turned out to do better than you. There’s nothing worse than seeing yourself as a swan and being beaten at the bird show by a turkey. There I go again. I seem to have birds on the brain these days.

Owen then began to tell me another story about Jack. It seems Tallulah has recently taken part in an amateur production of Moulin Rouge, and that she’d brought some pictures of the show into the office. One or two of them apparently revealed her in a red silk basque, pink feather boa, black fishnet tights and black stilettoes.

‘You should have seen Jack’s eyes,’ Owen said, leaning forward and looking around as if to be sure no-one was eaves-dropping. ‘They looked like they were going to pop out of his head!’

‘How could you see them?’  I said. ‘He didn’t take his sunglasses off, did he?’

He did!’ Owen said, his face for a moment assuming the expression of a monkey that had just bitten into a lemon. ‘Between you and me,’ he went on, ‘I think he is descending into depravity. His lechery was undisguised. Utterly undisguised.’

‘So did you see these pictures too, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘Oh they were truly shameless. You could see all of Tallulah’s legs and everything. I will grant Jack this, of course: she should never have brought such pictures in. Never. She’s as much to blame as he is, in that sense. But her mistake was only an error of judgement, albeit a fairly grave one. She certainly isn’t depraved.’

‘Was she embarrassed by you and Jack looking at the pictures?’ I said.

‘Embarrassed? Tallulah? No, I don’t think so. I certainly hope not. Well, to be honest I don’t know. She must have been embarrassed when Jack asked her if he could have an enlargement of one of them for his wall. Any woman would. But Tallulah was very good, very controlled and professional, and didn’t let it show.’

‘Just as well,’ I said. ‘It sounds like she let just about everything else show.’

Owen looked as if he was hovering on the brink of panic. ‘Oh, look at the time,’ he said, as if gripped by a sudden urgency. ‘I must fly. I really must. My bus is almost due.’

I wandered back upstairs. There were a pair of collared doves sitting on the sill outside my window. I sat down carefully and watched them for a while. Eric was right, I thought: how could creatures like these ever have a human disease?

.

tallulah and the good catastrophe

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newsham-hotel-christmas

It looks like Debs will be off sick for a few months. Earlier this week I held an emergency meeting with the whole team to talk about redistributing her cases.

‘How do you want to do this?’ I said. ‘Do you want me to decide who gets what or should I just throw all the names into a hat and let you take turns picking one? Or do you want to discuss them one by one and see who’s interested?’

They decided that I should decide. I divided the couple of dozen most serious cases on Debs’ caseload between the five workers left standing. Angie copped for Mandy Potts, who as it happened turned up just as the meeting ended. She had Apple and Sparky with her. Mr Zee wasn’t with her. Mandy was upset.

‘Seems like a good time to introduce yourself,’ I said to Angie.

‘Oh, isn’t her weird boyfriend with her?’ Angie said. ‘I was looking forward to meeting him. I like young men in uniforms.’

‘A Zorro outfit’s hardly a uniform, Ange,’ Lily said.

‘Isn’t it?’ Angie pulled her pondering face, and wandered off to meet Mandy and the kids.

‘What’s up?’ Lily asked, when Angie came back along.

‘They’re going to make Mr Zee get a job. The dole’s on his back. Mandy doesn’t want him to because she’s scared that if she’s on her own Flinty will come to her door.’

‘She has a point,’ Lily said. ‘But it’s not a point the dole will take.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘He’s down there now and he thinks they’re going to send him for an interview.’

‘He should go,’ Lily said. ‘No-one’s going to give a job to a man dressed as Zorro, are they?’

‘Well, that’s the other thing,’ Angie said. ‘Mr Zee isn’t prepared to not dress the way he does. He thinks he has a human right to do so, like Christians wearing crucifixes and Muslims wearing the veil.’

‘Another good point,’ Lily said. ‘But again, not one the dole will buy.’

‘No, they won’t,’ Angie said. ‘They’ve suggested he may need to take work at MacDonald’s.’

‘Oh my God,’ Michelle said. ‘Can you image that, Zorro appearing in the drive-thru window! Imagine asking Zorro for a couple of  Happy Meals and a regular Coke!’

‘It could bring them business!’ Lily said, chuckling to herself as she tried to get on with inputting stuff on to the computer. ‘It’s a shame MacDonald’s aren’t likely to think the same.’

‘Mandy thinks that Mr Zee will leave her and return to Newcastle if they force him to take a job where he can’t continue to dress the way he does.’

‘That surprises me,’ Lily said. ‘I always had the impression from Debs that he’s really committed to Mandy and the kids. Things will fall apart if he does leave, that’s a certainty. Mandy will never cope without him.’

‘Bloody men!’ Angie said. ‘Is there a single one out there that isn’t a complete waste of space?!’

It snowed on Thursday. I sat in the team room for a while first thing going through the post and listening to the team talking about the BBC documentary on the Shannon Matthews case which had been on the previous night. Fairy tale explanations are the bedrock of the world according to the popular media, and on this occasion the police seem especially ready to give the story the right slant by stating that this girl’s mother was ‘pure evil’. Here we have The Cruel Mother. ‘I thought that police officer was about the tell us the story of Hansel and Gretel or something,’ I heard Angie say. The police are hardly more self-aware or enlightening as social narrators than The Sun or The Daily Mail. It is within the terms of the crude and narrow narratives the popular media constructs that the identities and aspirations of their audience will to a significant extent arise. Karen Matthews, who no doubt is a person who came to see herself in the terms of those narratives, was and is stupid, dysfunctional, misguided, and inadequate. But this description could equally as well be applied to the police themselves who had four hundred officers in the area for almost a month and failed to find a child who all the time was under their very noses. The same could also be said for the troops of journalists who traipsed around the area 24 hours a day for the same period. And now they’re blaming social workers for not seeing this coming two years earlier. Lily wondered when we would get our crystal balls.

‘It’s a pity Shannon didn’t think of dropping pieces of bread as a trail to her wicked uncle’s house, isn’t it?’ Angie said. ‘That’s always the thing to look for in a case like this.’

I went upstairs. About mid morning I was sitting up in my office looking out over the car park watching the white stuff falling hypnotically, like a weird quiet currency being repaid to the world. Nature has a fascinating economy. A pale blue Favorit slithered into the car park. It was Jack Verdi. He got out and pulled the collar of his black reefer jacket up around his face. He was wearing his Ray-Bans. His long grey hair was tied back in a pony tail by what looked like a red elastic band. In his pale desert boots he gingerly made his way across the snow into the office. He brought to mind something vaguely Russian, maybe someone from a Gogol story. He’d come for a meeting with Debs and forgotten she was off. He asked if I was free and came upstairs for a chat.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said when he came into my room. ‘How’s tricks?’  He shook my hand. As he leant forward to do so I briefly caught sight of his pale blue eyes peering out over his sunglasses.

‘Hey, I’m not so bad, mate. Bloody awful weather though.’

I looked out of the window and nodded.

‘Actually I like the snow,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Jack said, ‘to look at, but not to drive in!’

I made him a cup of tea and for a while we talked about music, as we always do. He always asks me who I’m listening to as a preamble to him telling me what I might want to try instead. On this occasion I swapped him Teddy Thompson and Josh Ritter for a classic album from Jefferson Airplane and Neil Young’s Live at Canterbury House 1968,  Sugar Mountain album.

‘Hey, that was quite a performance you gave at Rosie’s leaving do,’ I said, finally mentioning the elephant in the room. ‘Man, you certainly blew them away that night!’

Jack shook his head and looked down into his lap. ‘Yeah, well, maybe. I just wish I’d stuck to bloody well playing the piano, as I was supposed to do.’

‘Yeah, me too,’ I said. ‘Banging out Chas and Dave numbers in a room so thick with the reek of HRT isn’t exactly my bag either.’

He laughed. But he had something more on his mind, and I thought I knew what it was.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said, ‘I’d just let it go if I were you. Most people will already have forgotten about it, you know how they are. You’re the only person who’s thinking about now.’

‘Oh yeah, yeah, I know that,’ he said. ‘No, it’s not that, it’s what it’s telling me about me that bothers me. I’m becoming desperate. I can’t seem to let myself ever be anything but young. You know why I did that? Because I’m scared to death of getting old. I’ve seen this happen to other guys, guys who I was once in bands with. I’m starting to do what they’ve done and make a bloody fool of myself.’

‘Well, as they say, if you recognise a problem you’re half way there to solving it.’

‘Yeah, but how do you solve the problems of decrepitude and death?’

I laughed. I wanted this conversation to remain light. ‘Euthanasia’s good,’ I said. ‘I’ve already booked myself a one-way ticket to Switzerland.’

‘I don’t want to go,’ Jack said, shaking his head.

‘You don’t want to go to Switzerland, Jack? Compact land-locked mid European country? Bankers, watchmakers, Toblerone, Heidi, St Moritz, lots of big snowy mountains? It’s the sort of place where there’s never any litter and they don’t ever have to think about Asbo’s. Switzerland’s not such a bad place, Jack.’

‘I don’t mean I don’t want to go to Switzerland, man.  No, I mean I don’t want a die. At least not yet. I’ve still got some good times left in me. The problem really is that the rest of the world is starting to disregard me. It’s as if as you get older there’s a quiet conspiracy to exclude you from things. It starts when you’re about thirty. The world begins to tell you that you can’t do that. And do you know why it says that? It says it because it embarrasses them if you do. They just don’t want you around. They discard you, like you’re an old-fashioned appliance of some sort. I don’t buy it, mate. There’s some stuff I’m just not ready to say goodbye to.’

‘Like good old rock and roll, eh?’

‘Well, yeah, but not just that.’ His Aviators looked straight at me and for a moment or two he paused. ‘You read poetry, right?’ he said.

I said I did sometimes, yes.

‘You know I’m into Keats, don’t you? Yeah? Okay, can I show you something? It’s like a modern take on something he wrote. I’d be interested to know what your response to it is.’

He bent over and unbuckled his brown leather satchel bag. He took out a couple of sheets of A4 and handed them to me

‘You’ll know the original,’ he said. ‘It’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci.’

I.

O what’s bothering you now, my bonny lad,
Alone and palely loitering?    
Has thy assessment slithered into the sink?            
Are you waiting for the telephone to ring?
  
           
II.
 
O what can ail thee, fostering man!            
So flushed and so woe-begone?          
The question from the Chair was crass,         
The Police Checks were never done.
   
    
III.
 
I see a cloud across thy face          
Your reviews are all long over due,            
And in thy diary a fading date         
When your anxious manager last hounded you.
  
         
IV.
 
I met a damsel in the tearoom,         
Full beautiful-an Ashington child,             
Her hair was red, her foot was light,          
And her laughter was quite wild.
 
              
V.
 
I bought a cosy for her napper         
And sent her a text from my mobile phone;              
She texted me back and asked me to sing        
‘Will you give this little dog a bone.’    
    
VI.
 
I sat her in my Skoda’s front seat             
And put Crosby, Stills and Nash on,            
I whizzed her around the slippery bends        
Till all her lingering doubts were gone.
  
             
VII.
 
She bought me bags of morish sweets,           
And Honey Tunes and herbal tea,        
And then in an accent strange she said-        
“Bonny lad, aa’ve got the hots for ye.”  
      
VIII.
 
She took me to her terraced grotto,            
And swept the sawdust from her floor,          
And I gazed into her wild wild eyes            
Until my heart could take no more.
 
            
IX.

 

And with a tambourine she lulled me asleep,            
And I dreamt I heard a terrible din            
‘Twas the scariest dream I ever did dream,             
I dreamt I was trapped inside her bin.

X.

I saw pale ploughmen, businessmen too,
Old heartthrobs, death-pale as if without feelings;
They cried-“The Bonny Lass Without Pity
Has dumped us amang her peelings!”
 

XI.

I saw their starved lips in the garbage
With horrid warnings gaping wide,
And I awoke and found me dumped,
With another old scratter at my side.
 

XII.

And this is why I sojourn here,
Alone and palely loitering,
My assessments all soggy in the sink,
And my mobile phone not ringing.

 

After I’d finished reading it I said nothing for maybe a minute or so. Nor did Jack.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘This is, er, interesting.’

Jack looked at me. He wanted more than just, er, interesting.

‘Hey, Jack,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to say here? How I’d feel if I was the woman you wrote this for?’

‘It shows, then?’

‘Yeah, Jack, it shows. It’s about Tallulah, right?’

He nodded slowly.

‘So,’ I said, tentatively, ‘have you and her got a thing going on, or what?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘That’s just tittle tattle. Emma Pope started that rumour as a put down to me.’

‘But you would like to have something going on with her, yeah?’

He nodded, safe behind his sunglasses. ‘Yeah.’

‘And? . . .And? . . . And what? You think she’s too young for you?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Not at all. What bothers me is that she’ll think I’m too old for her.’

‘She’s not a kid, Jack. She must be well into her thirties now. What are you saying, that she’s shallow?’

‘No, she’s definitely not shallow,’ Jack said, almost indignantly. ‘She’s a woman with deceptive subtlety and depth. She’s like a great river and her complexion is forever changing as she makes her course through her days. Sometimes she’s wild and tempestuous, sometimes she trickles and gurgles, but sometimes she’s quiet and still and just so damned profound. No, she’s not shallow, man, but I’ve got twenty years on her, and she knows it.’

I nodded. I almost smiled. I looked at the poem again.

‘This dustbin metaphor,’ I said. ‘That’s serious, right, a deep concern hidden behind a daft joke?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Exactly. What bothers me is that even if I got something off the ground with Tallulah she’d pretty soon dump me for a younger model.  She has a bit of a reputation for chewing guys up and spitting them out.’

‘And the bin, that’s the bin of decrepitude, yeah?  It’s a bin you fear that once she dumps you in you’ll be in for the rest of your days?’

‘It’s more than that,’ Jack said. ‘It’s a bin I fear I’m already in. Not because I want to be there or because I’m really need to be. It’s just the bin the rest of the world has put me in. It ‘s like that Yeats line, isn’t it,  the one about old age being tied to you like a tin can to a dog’s tail. It stinks, man!’

‘And the bonny lass without pity, that’s not just Tallulah, is it? She’s society too, isn’t she, and young mistress Time herself. This bonny lass is The Reaper.’ A picture of Tallulah Hudspith wielding a giant scythe crossed my mind. It was an image from a Tarot card.

‘Yeah, something like that, I guess,’ Jack said.

‘You know what I’d do if I were you, Jack? I’d go for it. What’s the worst that can happen – you don’t get the gig. Or if you do you don’t get booked for a second night. But hey, Jack, for you this might just be the gig to end all gigs. One night with Tallulah might be your Madison Square Garden moment, the one gig you’ll never forget!’

Jack stood up. He very deliberately buttoned up his black reefer jacket. He smiled quietly and flicked his pony tail back over his collar. It was indeed a red elastic band holding it together.

‘Carpe diem, eh, man? I kinda knew that would be your take on it. Thanks, man. It helped.’

Jack picked up his brown satchel and slung it over his shoulder. ‘Hey, and one more thing, eh? This conversation we’ve had, strictly between me and you, right?’

‘Yeah, of course, Jack,’ I said. ‘Between me, you and the gatepost.’

He smiled and shook my hand again. I walked along the landing with him. As he was making his way down the stairs he turned and asked me if I knew Warren Zevon’s stuff.

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s good.’

‘He wrote a song called I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,’ Jack said. ‘Give it a listen some time.’

‘I will’ I said. ‘But isn’t poor old Warren now fast asleep himself?’

‘He is, man. But what a way to hit the mattress, eh?!’

I laughed. Jack left. The snow had turned to rain.

When I got home I had a quick pizza and then put my boots on to go for a walk. It was turning cold and the slushy snow was beginning to freeze into crusty waves. I walked along Broadway and then on as far as the Thoroton Hotel. I went up Marlow Street and cut through past the sports centre and over on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down Winship Street past the site of the Big Club, which is still fenced off but now completely razed. At the roundabout I stood for a moment or two and looked at the strings of Christmas lights slung above the road. I then made my way back down Plessey Road. In the last few days a lot more Christmas lights have appeared on houses and a lot more Christmas trees in their windows, but Christmas still seems slightly reluctant to appear this year, even though the Angel Alistair and the Good St Gordon from every television in the land sing, ‘Spend, Spend, Spend!’

‘Spend what?!’ the world sings back.

When I got back home Brenda was there again, gathering more slippers into boxes to take away for dispatch.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘How’s business?’

‘Brisk!’ she replied. ‘Surprisingly so. Things have really picked up in the past few days.’

‘Well, you can never go far wrong with slippers at Christmas, can you?’

‘Yes, I think you’re right. Folks may not have much money this year, but everyone can afford a good old fashioned pair of slippers, can’t they?’

Brenda didn’t have her Auguries of Innocence cardie on that day. She had a sort of long very expensive looking camel-coloured wrap around coat. She was also wearing green knee high leather boots with big shiny silver buckles on them, and out of the collar of her coat the leafy frills of a spring green blouse of some sort erupted. She also wore a coffee-coloured knitted hat of some kind, a one with a peak and a small chocolate brown button on the crown, the sort of hat that reminds me vaguely of Barbra Streisand. For a moment it crossed my mind that Brenda looked rather like a tortilla wrap.  

‘So what’s Tristan getting you for Christmas?’ I asked.

‘Oh I don’t know that!’ she replied. ‘That would take all the fun out of it. I like surprises.’

‘But there must be something you hope he gets you.’

‘Oh well, yes, of course. What I’m hoping for is a Matthew Williams Chapelle weave coat and some Jimmy Choo Erica ankle boots, as well as some lovely smellies and maybe some nice stocking fillers, such as earrings and brooches and choccies and things. Just lots of lovely lovely delicious surprises really. I’ve pointed Tristan in the direction of net-a-porter.com and I know for certain that he’s looked.  I’m quite excited really. But what about you? What do you want for Christmas?’

I paused for a moment, as if taking thought. ‘The emancipation of the working class, I think,’ I said, very calmly and seriously. ‘Yes, that definitely. That and world peace.’

Brenda nodded her head approvingly. ‘That’s just such a beautiful wish,’ she said. ‘Yes, of course, you’re absolutely right. It is the spiritual aspect of Christmas that really matters, not all the shopping and materialism. And in any case it really is better to give than to receive. You know, I don’t really care what anyone gets me actually. Christmas is just such a special time of year. Just be close to someone you care about and to know they’re there, that’s all any of us really needs.’

So I’ll tell Tristan to just send you a note and prod you from time to time then, I thought. I know what great joy and cheer that will bring.

‘So what are you getting Tristan?’ I asked.

‘An electric screwdriver set.’ Brenda replied. ‘I saw one at B & Q. It was such a good buy and it will be all he’ll ever need. He’s always saying how much he wished he had one.’

‘That’s nice, Brenda,’ I said. ‘If you’ve got to spend then a practical gift is always the way to go, I think.’

Lucky Tristan, I thought. But of course I’m sure Brenda will get a huge amount of pleasure from giving Tristan his electric screwdriver set.

‘Oh, but what do presents matter?’ Brenda said. ‘Christmas really is first and foremost a spiritual time, a time to think of others. As you said, a time for peace and love. Material things are such a terrible distraction sometimes, aren’t they?’

For a moment I wanted to ask her what the word ‘spiritual’ meant. But I thought better of it. In any case I think I already know how spiritual Brenda is: she’s about as spiritual as a checkout till. She has exactly the sort of spirituality the Angel Alistair wishes we all had this year.

‘Do you know anything about the Tarot, Brenda?’ I said, changing the subject. It was like asking a seagull if it knew about fish heads.

‘Yes, of course,’ she replied, becoming animated. ‘Do you want me to do a reading for you?’

‘No, not really,’ I said. ‘But thank you for the offer. No, I was wondering about one of the cards and what it means.’

‘Which one?’ Brenda said, always ready to share her esoteric knowledge with the curious.

‘The one with the reaper on’ I said. ‘Is it called the Tallulah?’

‘The Tallulah?’ Brenda said, screwing up her face. ‘The Tallulah? The Tallulah’s not a Tarot card. No, no. No, the card you’re describing is the Death card.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘The Death card. So there’s not an expression which is like “turning the Tallulah” or something like that?’

‘No,’ Brenda said, a little sharply. ‘No, there isn’t. The reaper is on the Death card.’

‘And if that card turned up for you it would be bad news, right?’

‘No, not necessarily,’ Brenda said. ‘That’s a common misconception. The Death card does not necessarily signify death. But it does signify that major change will occur in your life. Catastrophic change, in fact, but not necessarily for the worse.’

So, I thought to myself, turning the Tallulah foretells catastrophe. But not necessarily a bad catastrophe. The idea of a good catastrophe appealed to me. This was an idea it would be good for Jack to know about.

‘So have you ever done a reading for anyone when the Death card has turned up?’

‘Oh, yes, of course,’ Brenda replied. ‘Many times.’

‘And are any of those people still alive?’ I asked.

‘Yes, so far as I know, they all are.’

‘But they will have all encountered a catastrophe by now, yes?’

Brenda had rumbled my game a while ago of course. She was prepared to play along no longer.

‘You should stop taking the mick,’ she said. ‘You know, many people have been helped to make important decisions in their lives through the Tarot. Just because you think it’s nonsense, doesn’t mean it is nonsense, you know.’

I nodded. She was right of course. I began to wonder about making a catastrophic decision, or rather, making a decision to have a catastrophe in your life. It seemed to me that since the future can’t really be foretold, this must be the way the Tarot works. The cards suggest that decisions of a certain kind should be made. It sets an agenda in someone’s mind. Decisions are then made according to the cards’ suggestions and hey presto – the cards appear to have done what cards never can and to have foretold the future. The classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Perhaps most divination works in exactly the same way. The effect is that you take active responsibility for your own future but that by some sleight of hand you can always say that whatever happens was bound to be, that it was written in the cards.

I wandered through to the conservatory. De Kooning was sitting on the windowsill, looking out into the dark where the snow had fallen among the gaping spaces of the Citadel. Sometimes I think I’m too passive about the future. It’s not something I get a hold of and try to make for myself. Maybe it’s that working class thing. Maybe it’s something else. I just seem to be happy to sit and watch the river flow by. I could dip my foot in, I know that. Maybe I fear a catastrophe if I do. Maybe I think I might turn the Tallulah if I get my feet wet.

I wondered if I should get a Tarot pack and do a reading for De Kooning. I know of course that this sort of stuff doesn’t work for cats. Cats sit on life’s windowsill and sing Que Sera Sera. They sing it nine times over.

.

exodus and a last hand of whist

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newsham-library-twilght

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yep.’

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

‘Nope.’

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

‘Should we have a strategy meeting?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

if rats are made out of nothingness

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newsham-elliot-street-pan-ahar

New Labour won the Glenrothes by-election. Gordon will be gloating. He sits at night in his new primrose yellow room full of broken cogs and scattered springs and cannot believe his luck. He sniggers. He chortles. He laughs like a Kirkcaldy drain. How many dark nights did he sit over-winding his beloved timebomb, praying to the mythical deity that the bloody thing wouldn’t blow up in his face? But blow up it does and guess what: he’s off the hook! You’d almost think Gordon had done this deliberately, wouldn’t you? I gather he’s now asked Sarah to get him a wrecking ball for Christmas. He’s told her he’s come up with an ingenious solution to the recession in the construction industry.

I spoke to Talullah Hudspith a few days ago. I hadn’t seen her since Rosie’s leaving do. She asked me what I thought of Jack’s performance.

‘Quite remarkable,’ I said. ‘And brave. The man rocks, doesn’t he?’

Talullah and Jack have an odd relationship. Some say she has a thing about him; others say the exact opposite is true. I personally remain agnostic on the Talullah and Jack issue.

‘Do you think so?’ Talullah said, with more than a hint of a sneer. ‘I thought he was bloody ridiculous, actually. I mean, what on earth would possess a man of his age to prance around like that in front of all those poor women? He’s got no shame.’

In the light of this response you too will now no doubt be hypothesising about Talullah and Jack. I certainly was. But a tactical evasion seemed the order of the day.

‘So is he back at work?’ I asked.     

Talullah chuckled, or perhaps snortled. ‘Oh ho, he’s back all right!’ she said. ‘The dirty hound’s always skulking around in the shadows somewhere. He’s never yet spoken to me about his antics, of course. He’s quite ridiculous, really. Do you know he’s now wearing dark glasses for work?  He never takes them off. Who the hell does he think he is, Elvis Presley?!’

‘Yeah, I would be too if I’d done what he did!’ I said. ‘The guy’s probably just a bit embarrassed.’

‘Embarrassed?! Him?!  That’s a laugh. You couldn’t knock him back with a shitty stick, man. No, he’s a star reborn, that’s what our Jack is. I wish he’d do us all a favour and just retire.’

‘So,’ I said. ‘How’s the delightful Mrs Gormley? Did she enjoy the night?’

‘Oh, Betty loved it! She’d do it again tomorrow if she could.’

‘Maybe Jack’ll play for her if she asks him nicely,’ I said. ‘If he really is a star reborn, he’ll have no problem with that. Nor will she, I suspect. Just as long as he keeps his pants on next time.’

Talullah’s from a theatrical blackground. She’s naturally dramatic. She’s the kind of woman who likes to start a riot. Maybe it just gets up her nose that Jack upstaged her.

Mandy has been into the office a couple of times this week. There have been almost daily sightings of the Arab in the white Mercedes and she’s getting very stressed. On Friday she and Mr Zee were waiting to see Debs when I arrived at the office. Mr Zee looked very smart, as always. His rich brown cape was almost shimmering in the morning sun.

‘How you doing?’ I said to him.

‘I’m okay,’ he replied. ‘You know.’

‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I know. So are you still reading Bukowski?’

‘No,’ he replied. ‘I decided he wasn’t my cup of tea. I’m reading Neruda at the minute. They’ve got lots of his stuff at ZorrStore.com. I’m trying to get into Rumi too.’

Mandy then told me that the phone had rung seven times during the night for each of the last three nights, and each and every time it was the same old tune.

‘Is Flinty still with Molly?’ I asked.

Mandy shrugged and looked at Mr Zee.

‘We don’t know,’ he said.

‘Have you told the police?’

‘Yeah. Nothing they can do. The caller’s using a stolen mobile.’

When I got home that night there were three more big boxes of slippers in the hall. De Kooning was sitting on top of them playing king of the castle. Geraldine was talking to Margaret about the latest curse of the Citadel: rats. They were first spotted by Big Trevor while I was in Glasgow it seems, scuttling around beneath his railings.

‘They weren’t there until the builders came,’ Geraldine said.

I wondered if she thought the builders had imported them as a sort of alien species, or simply because no building site is complete without a good infestation of rodents.

‘So how did they get there?’ I asked, already allowing my mind to toy with the notion of their ex nihilo creation.

‘Well, it can only be the building site, can’t it?’ Margaret said. ‘They weren’t there until they started building that monstrosity.’

Okay, I thought, but how did they get here? Did Griff dress himself as the Pied Piper and lead them here from their old haunts along the quayside?  Did they hear along the grapevine about the Citadel site and make their way here, like the Israelites to the Promised Land, like Americans to California? My guess was that they’ve always been here or that perhaps the sightings are apocryphal, a plague of the Citizens’ collective imagination.

‘We need to visit the site en masse and register our protest,’ Geraldine said. ‘Rats are dangerous. Did you know that they sometimes curl up on your pillow beside your face as you sleep!  Imagine that. It’s horrific!’

‘Will we be safe?’ Margaret asked.

‘As long as we wear sensible footwear we will be!’ Geraldine said, obviously recalling the mass trespass during the summer when she fell off her high heeled boots. It’s not often Geraldine makes a joke about herself.

‘I’ll wear my Timberlands,’ Margaret said. ‘They’ll never get me in them.’

I went through to the conservatory to drink a cappuccino. There were a dozen or so pairs of slippers lined up across the floor. They were obviously part of the Christmas stock. Slippers with owls and guitars and ducks on them. Camper van slippers, cows and gingerbread men slippers. There were also a couple of pairs of fake fur leopard skin bootie slippers.  I stepped over them and stood at the window. The sky was almost dark. There were vague lights flickering somewhere deep in the carcase of the Citadel. It looms over us like Kafka’s Castle. I began again to wonder where Hugo had put his little giraffe.

‘Edna will never come home now,’ Margaret said, after Geraldine had left. ‘She’ll never cope with the idea that she might wake up and find a rat sleeping next to her face. It’s an absolute crying shame.’

I stared out at the Castle. I wondered about the rats that are made out of nothingness.

‘I’m going to Brenda’s tonight,’ Margaret said. ‘Her friend who’s an astrologer is coming to her house. She’s going to do my horoscope.’

I nodded. I said nothing for a minute or so.

‘Are you taking some of these slippers with you?’ I eventually asked.

‘No,’ Margaret said. ‘But I am taking the boxes in the hall.’

When she left I had another cappuccino and sat for a while reading my book on Scottish art. Some of W G Gillies’ paintings are stunning. I love his border landscapes and they sort of feel like home to me too. It takes a lot of confidence to paint as freely as he does in those paintings. But I was particularly taken on Friday night by his 1973 painting The Garden in Winter. We sometimes fail to see the beauty that lies in the ordinary things, the things we can see from our windows. We sometimes fail to see how much those things really matter. I gave De Kooning his prawns and painted a new square canvas over with a Prussian blue ground.

I watched it dry and listened to Meg Baird’s album. I decided I would have to go up to Temple soon to see the house where Gillies lived and where he did all those late paintings.

I watched Newsnight. I went to bed.

.

the return of the muslim vampires

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Yesterday morning I went to a meeting in Shiremoor. On my way back I decided to call and see my dad in Seaton Sluice. He’s getting his house refurbished – rewired, new kitchen and all that palaver – and I was wondering how things were going. When I got to the Sluice I saw Tristan’s white PermaPlumma van parked just around the corner of the Collywell Bay Road, more or less opposite the social club.  I spotted Tristan himself in his white boilersuit and blue jacket, leaning against the fence looking out over into the harbour. It was sunny and cold, quite suddenly like winter. The white buildings on Rocky Island were gleaming in the sun and the whole scene looking north had a picture postcard quality about it. I parked up and went over.

‘Hey, Tristan, what’s happening?’ I said. ‘Have you got as job up this way to do?’

‘No, mate,’ Tristan said. ‘No job. Work’s dwied up a bit, I’m afwaid.’

He looked just a little despondent, a little stoical.

‘So what you doing in the Sluice?’ I asked.

‘I’m just getting out of Bwenda’s way,’ he replied. ‘She’s got clients all morning. I didn’t want to be under her feet.’

I nodded and shared the view with him for a few seconds.

‘Hey, so what do you think of the response of the Left of the credit crunch, Tristan?’ I said.

‘What wesponse?’ he replied, suddenly becoming more animated. ‘The so-called Left squats like a bullfwog on a log and cwoaks and cwoaks but never jumps.’

‘So what’s it waiting for?’

‘I dunno, mate! A sign, maybe, or a call from heaven.’

‘So what should it do, Tristan? What would it look like if the bullfrog jumped?’

‘You know something, mate, I don’t think this bullfrog knows how to jump. I don’t think it’s actually got the legs for it anymore. It isn’t organised, that’s the problem. Who are the Left? Who’s leading them? Without organisation, mate, this fwog ain’t jumping anywhere.’

I laughed and said that maybe this was true, but surely that it just begged the question of why there was no organised Left in the first place, why we had a frog that couldn’t jump.

‘Maybe it’s because it can’t see anywhere to jump to?’ I suggested. ‘Maybe that one smug log in the backwater is the only one this frog can sit on these days. There’s no other log for the socialist frog to swim towards, is there?’

‘This is a chicken and egg situation,’ Tristan said. ‘Pwaxis, mate, that’s the way to deal with this kind of pawadox. You’ve always got to be weady to jump. Jumping’s what changes the world. Jump and the future weveals itself!  Wemember what Marx said: in the past it was the job of philosophers to understand the world, the job now is to change it. The fwog needs to get on with jumping, I say, and stop gazing at its navel and cwoaking. A fwog that loves the sound of its own cwoak is a fwog that will soon be dwowned in the tide of histowy.’

‘You make this frog sound a bit like Hamlet, Tristan,’ I joked. ‘To jump or not to jump, that is the question. A frog with its head up its own backside.’

I told Tristan I needed to be on my way. I found his position frankly a little undisciplined for a Trotskyist, somewhat lacking in theoretical rigour. But he is right, the Left’s response to the current global financial crisis has been remarkably passive, and you can only surmise that this is because they either don’t know how to respond or no longer have the capacity to do so. These two things are probably inextricably linked, of course. Marxists can gloat over their man’s acumen about capitalism, but which of them can tell us where to go from here? The Left seems to have lost the belief it once had that it can make history, and that it can even do so in circumstances not of its own choosing. The Left seems to be mostly comprised of Lutherans nowadays. They don’t need to be organised. All that’s needed is that each individual believes in the God of history. If everyone sits quietly in their soon to be repossessed homes praying to this God the revolution will inevitably occur. Capitalism will magically wither and die while they dream.

As I walked back to my car I mused on Tristan’s brave and perhaps slightly incoherent analysis, that the Left is a frog with no legs and nowhere to jump but somehow ought to jump anyway. Basho’s famous haiku came to my mind.

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Plop!

This poem has been translated by just about everyone, of course. The version I always recall is Alan Watts’ translation. I wasn’t sure how enlightening it was in terms of the Left and the global crisis in Capitalism, but it’s a fine little poem, isn’t it?

I called across to see my dad. His flat is upside down, polythene covering every floor surface, workmen coming and going, the door permanently open. My dad had his coat on and was obviously very cold. He offered me a sandwich; I declined. I told him I needed to get back to work and left. As I drove back down past the social club I could see Tristan. He was still looking out over the bay.

The schools are on holiday this week and it’s Halloween on Friday. Some of the kids in Ashington are using their cast off pillowcases as spook outfits and wandering from house to house knocking on doors. Just after I got back from the Sluice Gilmour rang me about this phenomenon.

‘We don’t have a resurgence of the Flinties, do we?’ he asked. ‘Tell me how worried we should be about this.’

‘Not at all,’ I suggested. ‘They are just kids trick or treating. They’re also wearing witches hats, Frankenstein masks and carrying pumpkin lanterns from Asda. Some of them have luminous plastic vampire teeth and fake knives through their heads. Do they sound like a bunch of Muslim terrorists to you?’

Gilmour agreed, they didn’t, although not without observing that stranger things have happened. And by chance he’d listened to Alan Robson on Night Owls last night and there had been some alarming calls from worried listeners in the Ashington area.

‘A lady called Hettie from Bomarsund rang up,’ Gilmour said. ‘This lady sounded quite agitated. She said to the presenter something like “It’s all happening again, Alan.” He tried to reassure her, but she was having none of it. He asked her if these children were throwing paper aeroplanes at windows again and then as a sort of Halloween joke he said, “Or is it bats this time, Hettie?”  Hettie was not at all amused. “Alan, with all due respect,” she said, “this is not funny.”  Alan apologised. Oh, Hettie wasn’t a happy bunny. Later a bloke called John from Westerhope came on. This guy was obviously some kind of conspiracy theorist. He seemed to think Ashington police were in cahoots with the Flinties to destroy the British way of life. The next caller was a drunken woman from Ashington.’

‘Oh, Cheryl!’ I said.’ Ha ha. Yes, we know Cheryl. She’d be complaining that the authorities weren’t taking her seriously, was she?’

‘Yes, that’s right. She said she’d seen someone dressed as – ‘

I interrupted him: ‘Robin Hood! Yes, she says that all the time!’

‘No,’ Gilmour said. ‘Not Robin Hood. The Lone Ranger.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Anyhoo, my boy,’ Gilmour said, ‘It sounds like we don’t have to get ourselves into a lather about any of this, do we? So, tell me, how’s your dad doing? Is he okay?’

‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘He’s fine. Still mending fuses in the factory and what have you. How’s yours?’

‘Oh, father’s absolutely chipper. He’s a bit worried that the demand for meat might drop off a bit if there’s a recession, and of course like anyone else he’s getting a bit nervous about property values and his investments. But all in all he’s very well, thank you. Oh, by the way, did I tell you my lad’s driving the quad now?’

‘Is he? The quad, eh? Hey, that’s great. He’s really coming on, isn’t he? By the way, how’s your daughter’s horse doing?’

Gilmour told me the horse and his daughter were both doing remarkably well. I then asked him why he didn’t turn up at Rosie Lake’s leaving do last Friday.

‘Oh, it clashed with something my wife had arranged,’ he said. ‘How did it go? Did they give her a good send off?’

‘Well, Jack Verdi did,’ I said.

‘Jack finally performed?!’ Gilmour said. ‘My goodness, miracles will never cease, eh? What did he do, the old hits from his back catalogue?’

‘Yeah, well, his back catalogue was certainly involved. Nobody’s told you about, have they?’

‘No. No-one’s mentioned it. Hey, it sounds like I missed a good night? I really wish I could have been there. I’ve got a couple of Jack’s old albums, you know. I like his stuff. Is his voice still as good as it was?’

I chuckled. Gilmour asked me why I was laughing. ‘Oh, I guess you just had to be there,’ I said. ‘I’m sure Freddy will give you the full low down when you see him.’

I think our call ended with Gilmour in much better fettle than when our conversation began. It certainly cheered me up.

Debs came up and told me that Mandy was in the office. She was thinking of trying to get a private tenancy outside of Ashington, maybe in Morpeth or Seaton Delaval. She wanted to live somewhere where Flinty might not find her.

‘If she found somewhere could we help her out with a bond?’ Debs asked.

‘Is running away from him the answer, Debs?’ I said.

‘Oh, come on,’ she said. ‘What else is she going to do? The man’s a nutcase. He’s never going to leave her alone.’

I looked at her and shook my head. ‘Aye, all right,’ I said. ‘It’s only money, I guess.’

It was another cold afternoon. As I drove down Alexandra Road at dusk the sky was icy blues, violets and orange. The streetlights had just come on. An old white Mercedes passed me going in the other direction. The driver was dressed like an Arab. I turned on the radio. On the five o’clock news I heard that Gordon had stepped into the furore about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand acting like a couple of prats on Brand’s late night radio programme a week or so ago. Gordon’s the man with his finger on the pulse of the nation.

It was dark before I got home.

.

waiting for the miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is she still with Mr Zee?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

‘It’s stopped,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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