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the black aeroplane

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blyth brewery bar quayside

It was very summery in the earlier part of last week, although as it happens it wasn’t going to last. On Monday Tallulah was in the office. I was standing in the kitchen at the photocopier wondering if I should ask Eric to brush up all the sand when I heard a soprano voice in the corridor singing ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones
And girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have fun

It was Tallulah. As she passed the kitchen door she glanced in. When she saw me she came in to say hello. Or rather she slinked in. There is something strangely lithe and feline about Tallulah sometimes. Her red hair was tied back in a thin turquoise scarf. She was wearing long silver earrings, a tiny crescent moon at the end of each one.

Tallulah told me that Jack and Owen had almost come to blows at a meeting of the Keats appreciation group a few days earlier. It seems they’d been arguing about Lauren Laverne’s rendition of “the golden pen poem”, as Tallulah called it.

‘Owen felt that Laverne’s reading was disrespectful and impertinent,’ Tallulah said. ‘Jack sniggered at him and accused him of being elitist. Of course Jack didn’t quite put it like that. He suggested to Owen that only a stuck up little twerp who had his head up his own backside could think like that. Owen retaliated by calling Jack “slack and totally without scruples” and said Jack was “lacking a robust sense of the true meaning and value of poetry”. Jack guffawed and suggested the real problem was that Owen had the hots for Laverne but was in denial about it, denial that he was converting into denial about the quality of her rendering of the poem. Jack said Owen would never admit the beauty of Laverne’s reading of the poem until he admitted the beauty of Laverne herself. You should have been there. It was bloody hilarious.’

‘It sounds like it,’ I said. ‘And so Jack nearly hit Owen, did he?’

‘Yes, it’s worrying. Jack’s needs to watch himself. When Owen retaliated by called him degenerate and disrespectful to women, Jack got up, swaggered over to him, poked him on the brow with his index finger and asked him what he was going to do about it.’

I laughed. ‘What did Owen do?’ I said.

‘He trembled!’ Tallulah laughed. ‘What do you think he did? He trembled, picked up his carrier bag of seasonal vegetables and went off to catch the next bus back home to Heidi.’

‘Sounds like Lauren’s really put the cat among the pigeons among the Keats aficionados, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ Tallulah said. ‘But it’s Jack I worry about. I’d hate to see him do something he’d regret.’

‘Bloody hell, Tallulah, since when did you ever care about what happens to Jack? Last time you spoke to me about him you didn’t give him the lickings of a dog.’

‘Didn’t I? Really? How odd. I’m really very fond of Jack.’

Tallulah looked at me with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. It was an expression Laverne herself sometimes wears. I laughed. She laughed too.

‘Hey, do you know he’s taken to wearing a cowboy hat now?’ she said. ‘Well, a sort of Fedora, I guess.’

‘Is it black?’ I asked.

‘Yep,’ Tallulah said. ‘Black as your hat. Black as a spider. Black as night.’

The Good Doctor Sticks also came over last week. We had a session about the Electronic Assessment Module, which he continues to see as the future of social work, and then moved on the other matters.  He had an idea he wanted to pitch.

‘In The Observer this week it said that there were eight hundred Brits on waiting lists for Swiss euthanasia clinics,’ he said. ‘This is a clear case of demand without supply. Where’s there’s need, there’s opportunity. This is the fundamental principle of the market economy. And the government’s not about to make euthanasia legal over here any time soon – except in Gordon’s case as a one off, of course – and even if they did the money’s not there to fund the service from the public purse, so the market will need to fill the gap. I’m looking to pull together some interested people from various disciplines to begin to put together a package and come up with a business plan. Needless to say you, my friend, were one of the first people that came to mind.’

‘Thanks, Sticks,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘I’m flattered. So how do you see this working, exactly?’

‘Okay, our company will essentially operate in a specialised area which combines the expertise of social care professionals, counsellors and medical practitioners of various kinds with other areas of expertise, such as those of the travel and package short-break holiday providers, the leisure industry, the undertaking profession and funeral services.  The basic idea is that we will put together complete packages in Switzerland for those who wish to end their lives by euthanasia.  We will provide a complete service – transport, accommodation, nursing and medical care, return of the body, funeral services and so on.  But within that service we will offer a bespoke end of life experience for every client and their family.  We will set up a centre in Switzerland where a dying person and their loved ones can spend the client’s final days together. We will offer privacy and five star care. But more than that, we will tailor the whole package around the dying person’s wishes and desires. They will eat the foods  they love, listen to the music they love, see DVD’s of their favourite films or those they’d always wanted to see but missed, have their favourite books and poems read to them, and so on. The family would have a suite with all the amenities they desired and a top notch twenty four hour global care and hospitality package. We’d ensure that we met their every demand. For example if they loved Bartok, they could listen to him all they wished. We might even be able to get a string quartet to play for them.  If they liked Chas and Dave or ragtime, we’d ensure that it was available for them. Rap music, hip-hop, madrigals or Welsh male voice choirs. Whatever they wanted to hear before they left this world, we would ensure they heard it. Similarly with films. If they wanted Close Encounters of the Third Kind they would have it. Plasma screen, wraparound sound, Dolby stereo – the works. Similarly if they wanted The Swimmer or The Masque of the Red Death or The Snowman. And the same with food. If they wanted caviar they would get it. If they wanted cheese and onion pasty and mushy peas they’d get them. Top quality ingredients, cordon bleu chefs. On their final day, which I see as usually being a Sunday, the dying person would have a final evening meal – a Last Supper , if you will – after which they’d retire to their bed to begin their final journey.  At this point the music of their choice would begin to play, and again it could be anything they wanted, from Gorecki’s Third to something like K. C. and The Sunshine Band’s sublime and immortal “That’s the Way I Like It”, uh huh, uh huh. The latter would be my personal choice, of course. We’d want to make dying an unforgettable experience, if you’ll excuse the paradox.’

I nodded slowly. ’You don’t see this as at all cynical, do you?’ I said. ‘The exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people?’

‘I don’t’ Sticks replied. ‘Not at all. Don’t forget, my friend, better the good guys provide these services than let them fall into the hands of the bad guys.’

‘So if good guys do bad things does it make those things good?’ I asked. ‘Or does it not just make the good guys bad?’

‘You think too much, my friend,’ Sticks said, his affable smile rising like a brand new day across his face. ‘The key issue here is need and ensuring that need is met. That’s the business we’re in. We need to see that the market is the future for all areas of social care. There’s no shame in it my friend, no disgrace.  So, are you interested?   Do you want to hear more?’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Go ahead, shoot.’

‘Okay, here’s how I see it. In addition to the Your Final Days centre in Switzerland, we’d need a support, preparation and after-care service in the UK. That’s where you’d come in.  But more importantly we’d need our own aeroplane specially equipped to transport the dying person and their family to Geneva, or wherever. It would be a unique aeroplane for a unique journey, the Final Journey, a journey the dying person will only take once.’

‘So what will you call your aeroplane?’ I said, ‘EuthanAire?’

‘That’s good,’ Sticks chuckled. ‘I like its phonic ambiguities. It sounds like “you thin air”, where the status of “thin” is uncertain. Is it a verb or is it an adjective?  But either way it speaks of the ephemeral, transitory nature of our corporeal selves, does it not?  And the word also evokes the phrase “youth in air”, which is also helpful in reminding us that we all grow old and that death is inevitable, that being young is as fragile as a perfume on the wind. It isn’t the name I have in mind but it’s an interesting suggestion.’

‘No, Sticks, it wasn’t a suggestion: it was a joke.’

‘Of course it was’ he said. ‘But an interesting joke, yes?  However, the aeroplane I have in mind will be completely black, black wings, black from nose to tail fin. But inside it will be lined with white satin and all the furnishings – the seats, the couches and beds, the curtains, the carpets and the drinks trolley – will be gleaming, clean and white and lovely white lights will light every corner of the cabin space.  And the cabin staff will be dressed all in white too. It’s like a metaphor for death itself, you see. From the outside it looks dark and forbidding and inscrutable. The dying person wonders what it’s like inside.  But his or her final flight shows them that inside the black aeroplane it is peaceful and serene and that everything shines like snow.  This is how the Final Flight of life will be for our clients. They will ascend above the Earth and make the passage to Switzerland in the black aeroplane. That will be the name of our company, Black Aeroplane Enterprises.  I like to think that in time the phrase “it’s time to take the black aeroplane” will become an everyday figure of speech for dying, in much the same way as shuffling off the mortal coil and popping one’s clogs are now. And the advertising material is there already: take the black aeroplane and make dying an unforgettable experience. What do you think? Do you like what you’re hearing, my friend?’

‘Yeah, I guess,’ I said. ‘But do you think it’ll ever get off the ground?’

‘A black aeroplane is no heavier than a silver one,’ Sticks quipped. ‘I am anticipating no special difficulties with gravity.’

‘But what about if it’s made illegal to offer such packages. Or what if they liked their last weekend so much they decided they didn’t want to die after all?  Or what if euthanasia’s made legal in the UK and service providers are popping up everywhere?’

‘If the dying person were to decide they wished to remain with us they could return to the UK alive with their loved ones on the same flight that would have taken their body home.  Furthermore they will be offered a fifteen percent discount on a future booking if they make this within twelve months of that date.  If euthanasia is made legal in the UK I already have a plan to capture the market with a chain of high street branches aimed at providing a sensitive high quality service for the volume market. I’ll call these Last Stop Shops, which is rather clever, don’t you think?’

I shrugged. I sometimes think Sticks is on something – like another planet, for example. However, he’s regarded in the Directorate as our key ‘blue sky thinker’ and as a man whose views you should never dismiss.  Some say he sees the order of future where others can see only chaos.

‘You should be on The Apprentice, Sticks,’ I said. ‘Alan Sugar would be bowled over by someone like you.’

‘You think so? ‘ Sticks smiled, a slow, deeply self-satisfied smile, almost the smile of a cat. ‘Well, I’ll take that in the spirit I think it’s intended, my friend. Thank you. Yes, I can see it too: “Sticks: you’re hired!” Ha ha. And so what’s your answer, then? Do you want to be in my project group? Yes or no?’

I rubbed my jaw. ’Let me think about it,’ I said.

‘Fair enough. I’ll give you a bell next week. But remember, if the good guys don’t do it, the bad guys will.’

I love the way there’s so much greenery and light at this time of the year and how it all seems so irrepressible and profligate. I drove along Renwick Road that evening in slightly luminous marbled-pebble light. I passed Ronnie Campbell’s office at the corner of Claremont Terrace. It’s funny how meretricious and unfashionable the yellow and red of Labour looks now (no doubt a rebranding now awaits us in the not too distant future). Less than half a mile by Jag from his big house on Marine Terrace, Ronnie’s shabby office, an old brown corner shop – inscrutable and uninviting and which never looks likes it’s open – seems a metonym for his shoddy worn-out party, a metaphor for the way our representatives weigh the needs of the people against their own needs. I slid around Broadway Circle past the bow-windowed pre-war semis – solid, secure, desirable – and noticed in gardens the yellow tongues of the laburnum lolling in vague, soft shadows. I remembered that when I was a kid I thought these houses were really posh and that they belonged to rich people, people from a different world to me.

When I got home Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing a new jigsaw. It was a picture of a steamroller, a green Aveling and Porter. There was also a large jagged crystal on the bench beside the kettle.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I said.

‘I have,’ Margaret replied.

‘And how was Bowness?’

‘Bowness was good, I think. Tristan perhaps a little less good.’

‘Oh?’

‘Oh, indeed. The man doesn’t know how close he is to being given his marching orders. I mean, he’s so insensitive he even asked Brenda to marry him one night! Marry him, you know! Marry him! What is it about hanging from a thread that the man doesn’t understand?’

‘Tristan asked Brenda to marry him?!’ I said, genuinely surprised. ‘Nah, surely not. Are you sure Brenda’s not just pulling your leg?’

‘Brenda does not pull anyone’s leg,’ Margaret replied, very earnestly. ‘What she told me was the truth, I’m sure of that. They were sitting at a window seat in an Italian restaurant called Rumours, which is apparently at the bottom of the hill opposite St Martin’s church. Do you know it?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do. They do a good garlic bread.’

‘They’d just come back from a cruise on Windermere. It was a lovely evening and the sun was shining on her face. Out of the blue Tristan asked her to marry him, but, and here’s the cherry on the cake, he wouldn’t be able to buy her an engagement ring until business picked up! Brenda says she was absolutely gobsmacked. She felt it was as if he wanted her on the cheap.’

‘So did she say no?’

‘No, she didn’t know what to say. She said she just leaned over, kissed his cheek once and asked if she could have another glass of wine.’

‘Wasn’t she flattered?’ I asked. ‘I mean, it isn’t every day a woman gets a proposal of marriage, is it?’

‘No, she wasn’t flattered. She felt she was being manipulated. She felt she’d been defiled.’

‘Defiled?’

‘Yes, defiled. That’s the word she used. She felt she’d been defiled.’

At that point De Kooning, who until then had been sitting benignly on the kitchen table, took it into his head to steal a piece of Margaret’s new jigsaw. He knocked it on to the floor with his paw, jumped down, picked it up in his mouth and ran away with it, out through the conservatory into the garden.

‘Which piece has he got?’ Margaret asked.

I looked at her and shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘The one that fits the hole that’s still there when you’re finished, I guess.’

Margaret shook her head in dismay. I turned on the oven and got a pizza out of the freezer. I made myself a cappuccino and sat in the conservatory waiting for De Kooning’s return. It crossed my mind that the piece of music I’d want to play while I lay dying in Switzerland would be Dvorak’s cello concerto.

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fugitives, ghosts, and silver polar bears

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seaton-sluice-rocky-island-72dpi

At about lunchtime on the day after baby Davina was abducted by Tania and Joe I got a call from Sergeant Godfrey Garnet at the police to say she’d been found.

‘That’s good news, Godfrey,’ I said. ‘Where is she? Is she okay?’

‘We’ve got her here,’ Godfrey replied. ‘She’s having a great time. Some of the girls are giving her a feed and oohing and aahing all over her and getting all broody.’

‘So where’s she been?’

‘We’re not sure. We got a tip off from a member of the public. We picked them up at the Spa in Bedlington Station.’

‘So was she with Tania and Joe?’

‘Aye, she was. They had some sausages and a big bag of Doritos in their basket and were trying to find the baby milk when we got there. We’ve got them both banged up at the minute. We’re trying to find out what we can charge them with. We want to see if we can do her for kidnap.’

‘So can a woman actually kidnap her own baby, Godfrey?’ I asked.

‘We’re not sure,’ Godfrey replied. ‘We’re taking advice from the CPS about that.’

‘So can we come and get her and take her back to her grandad?’ I asked.

‘Of course. Whenever you like. She’s the centre of attention here so she’ll be absolutely fine till you can get someone across.’

Michelle was out visiting someone in Seahouses. I rang her on her mobile and told her the news. She was speechless with delight and relief. I reassured her that the baby was fine. She said she’d be back down in an hour or so.

‘No hurry,’ I said. ‘The police are happy to baby sit for a while. I’ll ring grandad and give him the news. We’d better arrange to get Davina checked over by a paediatrician when you get back, just in case. The police say she’s suffered no harm, though.’

The member of the public had spotted Tania, Joe and baby Davina on the 447 Blyth to Morpeth bus. Apparently they got on somewhere in Cowpen Estate. Joe was carrying Davina in his arms. She was crying. As Tania paid the fares, Joe took his seat. He laid the wailing baby down on the seat beside him. His behaviour raised the suspicions of Polly Telfer, who as it happens works as a cleaner at the Bedlington Police Station on Schalksmuhle Road. She had been listening to Alan Robson on the night before.

Joe and Tania seemed very nervous during the bus ride, constantly looking out of the window. Polly Telfer told the police that to her they looked like “fugitives”. They got off at the Spa in Bedlington Station. Polly got off just a couple of stops or so later and immediately reported her suspicions to the duty desk. Five minutes later there were four police cars and an armed response unit at the Spa.

An hour or so Godfrey rang back.

‘Will your people be long in picking this baby up?’ he asked.

‘No, not long,’ I said. ‘What’s the matter, has the novelty worn off?’

‘Not exactly,’ Godfrey said. ‘But there is becoming a bit of an atmosphere around here now, if you get my drift.’

I laughed and reassured Godfrey that Michelle would be there any minute.

On the following Sunday I drove up to Thrunton Woods. I parked in the main car park and followed the forest road up on to Callaly Crag. There was a fair bit of snow up there, even though there was none at all down by the car park. It was a sunny day. I looked for a while over to Fawdon Hill and Hedgehope and Cheviot beyond, both white with snow. I made my way south into the glare of the winter sun, over the moor through the open areas between the conifer plantings towards the valley of the Coe Burn. I saw no-one at all during this part of the walk. The heather was high and the old tracks were very squelchy in places. At one point I had the company of a buzzard mewing above me. I saw a couple of pairs of roe deer stepping anxiously through the dead bracken at the forest edge. I left the track for a while and fought my way through the rough billowing heather towards Black Walter, where I picked up the forest road again and made my way back up into the snow before taking the track back down past the area where they are thinning the trees to the car. I walked for about two and a half hours and saw no-one other than a couple and an old guy with their dogs on my way out and a couple of mountain bikers in the car park when I got back down.

Thrunton Woods and the moors lying to the south of Long Crag down to Debdon Burn cover a large area of open land which was once part of the Armstrong estate. Some of it might still be owned by his descendents, although the adjoining Cragside estate is now owned by the National Trust, of course. What’s curious about the Thrunton Woods area is the almost total absence of traditional rights of way, along with the apparent virtual absence of old settlements. This of course cannot truly reflect the way things were before Armstrong got his hands on this land, but must represent the eviction and exclusion of ordinary people and the public from this land. It’s interesting to contrast it with the area of very similar land over at Bewick Moor, which is riddled with rights of way, many of them bridleways following old routes between old settlements. Thrunton has at some point been stripped of that traditional infrastructure of routes. It more closely resembles places like Simonside, Hulme Park and Cragside itself in these terms, probably for very much the same reasons, the loss of traditional rights under pressure from powerful and influential landowners, families and individuals pursuing their own aggrandisement and jealously defending their exclusive right to chase and kill every animal that flew, swam or ran there. Some people say Northumberland remains in some ways a feudal county. You can see what they mean. Places like this are the sites of our own version of the Highland Clearances and are haunted by a similar sense of dispossession and desolation. There’s a wild irony in the beauty and solitude we now find here and for which we love these places so much. We find freedom. We trespass with ghosts.

I drove back down the A697 as it follows the line of the Devil’s Causeway for a while before going through Longframlington and down the long hill into the Coquet valley. I listened to the album You & Me by The Walkmen. Their music has a sort of loose jauntiness, a sardonic sort of ramshackle energy. The singer declaims and laments in a suitably inconsequential and encouragingly post-modern manner. It’s well worth a listen.

When I got back I noticed that the assorted boxes of slippers that have littered the house all winter had gone.

‘Where have the all the slippers gone?’ I asked Margaret.

‘Gone to Brenda’s, every one,’ she replied. ‘We’re thinking of giving them away to a charity shop.’

‘Really? Are you winding up the Slipper Shop?’

‘Probably. The recession has pretty much killed the business.’

‘Oh, that’s sad,’ I said. ‘Still it’ll give you more time to join the Citizens in the struggle against the Citadel.’

‘Oh, that’s a lost cause, I think, don’t you? No, Brenda and I are planning a new business. We reckon that in hard economic times people spend money on things that cheer them up. Brenda reckons cinema attendance always increases during a recession.’

‘So what are you two going to do – get jobs as usherettes?’

Margaret tutted and shook her head. ‘Don’t be silly,’ she said.

‘You can’t be going to open a picture house, are you? Surely not.’

‘No, nothing like that,’ Margaret replied. ‘We’re going to set up a funwear shop on eBay. We’re going to call it Frills, Fleeces and Furry Things.’

I nodded. ‘Sounds good,’ I said.

I gave De Kooning a shout and picked him up. We went into the conservatory to read The Observer.

On Monday I got a phone call from an old colleague, Dr Bertrand Sticks. Sticks is a sort of computer boffin these days, although at one time he was a front line social worker. It wasn’t exactly his forte. He has a sort of other worldly detachment about him. He is also somewhat displaced in class terms, having about him the look of one of Harry Potter’s more rotund friends.

‘Hi Sticks,’ I said. ‘What you been doing with yourself? It seems like yonks since I’ve seen you.’

‘It is yonks,’ Sticks said. ‘About four and a half years of yonks.’

‘So what you doing with yourself these days? Are you still in the Stylophone Quartet?’

‘No,’ he said, for a moment appearing to lose his poise. ‘No, that folded about three years ago. I spend most of my free time these days trying to design a new kind of robot, which I hope to build eventually.’

Sticks is a man with an unnatural interest in gadgets. He is one of the broad family of those who think the world is essentially mechanical and most closely resembles a clockwork mouse. The fact that he occasionally lapses into what sounds like mysticism is somewhat confusing, of course.

‘So how will this robot be different?’ I asked.

‘It will possess emotional complexity. My robot will replicate such emotions as fear and arousal with such exactness that it will be indistinguishable from a human being.’

‘Sounds impressive. How far have you got?’

‘I’ve got some drawings. I know how it will look. It will look like a silver polar bear.’

I liked the sound of this. A silver polar bear robot with human emotions. Science can surely hardly go much further than this.

‘The reason for the appearance is that it will commemorate what I think was for me the crucial break through I made in this project. I have recently succeeded in devising a programme which responds to the image of a polar bear with exactly the same complex set of emotions as a naked man would if he were to encounter the actual beast in a natural setting, in his igloo in Greenland, for instance.’

‘Great stuff, Sticks. Sounds absolutely fascinating. But that isn’t why you rang me, is it? You don’t want me to sit around naked looking at pictures of polar bears, do you?’

‘No, I don’t. I’m looking for two or three volunteers from front line practice to help me with the development of our version of the Ernas, the Electronic Risk and Needs Assessment System. As you know there’s a big push towards computerised information recording. The next big steps beyond that are seen as on the one hand gathering the information by direct computer input from service users themselves – probably at terminals in one stop shops, maybe in booths at supermarkets – and, on the other hand, developing models which will allow the computer to analyse that information automatically and immediately issue a plan. As you know, work is also being done on ECI’s – electronic client identities – as a step towards requiring and enforcing compulsory compliance with the plans. The goals are greater efficiency and consistency, arms length risk management, and better performance in terms of meeting timescales. And of course it should free up social workers to do more interesting work.’

‘Sounds like its goal might be to do away with social workers all together,’ I said.

‘Ho ho, ever the sceptic, eh?’ Sticks said. ‘The old Luddite flame still burns as brightly as ever in you, I see.’

I laughed. ‘When people live with lunatics they become lunatics, Sticks. If the only relationships we have are with machines we will become machines. That’s what I fear, Sticks. We both know this stuff’s really all about saving money and keeping the poor in their place.’

‘Okay. So, what are you saying? Do you want to be in on this or not?’

I paused. ‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Why not?’

‘That’s the ticket!’ Sticks said. ‘Better to be one of those shaping the future than to just leave it in the hands of fools and madmen. You can’t run away from it, you know. It’s good to have you on board, my old friend.’

For a minute or two I sat looking out over the rooftops. Paul Virilio’s statement crossed my mind: The speed of light does not merely transform the world. It becomes the world. Globalization is the speed of light. I began to imagine it was summer and I was walking again across the moors at Thrunton.

Sticks is coming over to see me next week to talk about multiple choice questions and risk factors. He wants to find ways to break all social work judgements and decision making into a series of binary choices. I’m looking forward to seeing him. He’s completely deranged, of course, but at least you can’t say he isn’t a laugh.

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