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the part of beauty that can’t be destroyed

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bath-terrace-lighthouse-blyth

As I was driving to work one day last week I was devising a questionnaire to help individuals to self-assess their attitude to the place where they want to be buried.  I decided upon one graded and scaled multi-answer question: “Which of these options do you consider better than having no grave at all?” 

  1. An unmarked grave
  2. A grave that has your epitaph but not your  name
  3. A grave that gives only your initial and surname
  4. A grave that gives only your name and date of death
  5. A grave that gives your name and age at death
  6. A grave that gives your name, dates of birth and death, and the names of your parents
  7. A grave that gives your name, profession, date and place of birth and death
  8. A grave that gives your name, profession and cause of death
  9. A grave on which someone has planted a mighty oak tree
  10. A grave that no-one ever visits
  11. A grave that isn’t kept clean
  12. A grave that gives your full name and title, profession, dates and places of birth and death, cause of death, names of parents, children, spouses and old lovers, and an epitaph
  13. A grave marked by a marble statue of an forlorn wingèd angel
  14. A grave marked by a weather-beaten stone skull
  15. A grave on which someone has urinated and left an empty lager can
  16. A grave watched over by solar lights
  17. A grave that no-one can ever find
  18. A grave which has someone else’s gravestone on it
  19. A grave beneath a boulder near the foot of Great Gable
  20. A grave that has fallen into the sea

When I went into the team room Pippa was telling Angie and Sally that The Death Kitty had again been won by someone at her daughter’s workplace, but that yet again the winner hadn’t been her daughter. The winner on this occasion was Malcolm, a finance officer. He was fortunate enough to have selected Hank Locklin as one of his candidates. Locklin had been the oldest surviving member of the Grand Ole Opry. He died on 8th March at the age of 91. One of his best known songs was Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On, which in lyrical terms contains little more than the famous line “Send me the pillow that you dream on so darling I can dream on it too”.

‘I’ve never heard of him,’ Angie said.

‘Me neither,’ Sally said. ‘Had no-one picked Wendy Richard?’

‘They mustn’t have, no,’ Pippa said. ‘I don’t even think anyone’s got Jade Goody.’

‘How do they find out who has died?’ Angie asked.

‘From the internet,’ Pippa said. ‘There are lots of sites out there, you know, such as whosedeadandwhosalive.com, celebritydeathbeeper.com and dead-celeb.com. You can subscribe to some of them and they’ll send you an email to let you know whenever a celebrity dies.’

‘Sounds interesting,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’ll have a look.’

‘What’s your daughter’s name, again, Pippa?’ I asked.

‘Candy.’

‘Oh yes, of course, Candy. So is she okay?’

‘Yes, she’s fine,’ Pippa said. ‘She’s actually on holiday this week in the Lakes with her boyfriend.’

‘That’s where I’ve just been,’ I said. ‘Bowness.’

‘Candy’s in Cockermouth. But we love Bowness,’ Pippa replied. ‘We used to take the kids there all the time when they were little.’

‘Yes, I like it too,’ I said, ‘even though it’s a bit touristy for me.’

‘So where were you staying? In a hotel?’

‘No, I rented a house up on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh, Longtail Hill! Do you know the story about the young lass who was flattened by a steam roller there?’

‘Yeah, I’d heard about that,’ I said. ‘A red-head, wasn’t she?’

‘When the kids were little we used to always get the ferry over to Hawkshead. A woman on the ferry told us the story one day. It seems that Sharon – the beautiful red-headed woman who was eventually squashed? – used to get take the ferry every Sunday morning and secretly meet up with a young man called Ned Perfect. Together they used to take long walks together, hand in hand through Claife Woods and around Far Sawrey. The trouble was that Ned was already engaged to be married to Florence Nelson, and Florence Nelson wasn’t a woman to be trifled with. When Florence heard about Ned’s secret trysts with Sharon she decided to eliminate her rival in a way that would obliterate every last trace of her beauty. She decided to flatten her with a steam roller.’

‘The tale I’d heard was that Florence was irrationally jealous and that Ned had in fact done no more than accept a piece of orange from Sharon. I also thought Sharon always went to church on Sunday mornings.’

‘That might be what she told people,’ Pippa said. ‘But that’s not what the woman on the ferry told us. No, it seems that every Sunday morning Sharon met Ned on the far side of Windermere and that this went on for a long time. Florence eventually found out, of course, and discovered that every Sunday at about noon Ned gave Sharon a goodbye kiss at Claife Station and that Sharon then caught the quarter past twelve ferry alone, back to Bowness, and walked back up Longtail Hill to go home for her dinner. That’s why Florence hatched her plan to ambush Sharon with a steam roller as she was walking up the bank.’

‘Yes, I know about that bit,’ I said.  

‘And did you know that after the murder Ned Perfect would walk out on to Longtail Hill every morning and try to find a strand of Sharon’s red hair embedded in the tarmac, and that he’d prise the strand he found from the road and take it with him on the ferry over to Hawkshead. They say he put all the strands together in a silver box which is hidden among the roots of a tree near Claife Station. When the woman told us the story, she said Ned was still doing the crossing every single day. But that was a long time ago, of course. He’s probably dead now. And in any case we never saw him. The kids used to run around the woods shouting for him to come out, come out wherever he was. It was a little game we always played.’

‘For Ned Perfect, Sharon’s hair must have been the only part of her beauty that Florence could not destroy,’ I said. ‘The part she could never take away.’

‘Yes, you’re probably right,’ Pippa said.

‘You haven’t forgotten about our meeting this morning, have you?’ Angie said.

‘Who’s it about again?’ I said.

‘Mrs McElhatton? Fern? The lady who thinks her daughter’s been replaced by an imposter?’

‘Oh yeah, of course,’ I said. ‘Give me a bell when everyone arrives.’

So it seems likely that the old white haired man I walked back from Far Sawrey with, and who as it happens had left me at the foot of the little path up to Claife Station, the place where Ned always kissed Sharon goodbye, was none other than Ned Perfect himself. It’s amazing that love and loss can bend whole lives into such strange shapes. As I made my way upstairs to my office I also realised that Perfect though Ned might be, he is clearly a far from reliable narrator.  There’s obviously a lot more to this tale, and I was wondering if perhaps I could find out more on the internet. Surely there must be something somewhere about it. Perhaps I’ll find something on famoussteamrollermurderers.com.

As I was leaving the office that night Jack Verdi was pulling into the car park on his motorbike. It was as Owen described it, big, shiny and black. Jack was in black leathers and wore a black high-gloss helmet with a dark mirrored visor.  The word Spider was written across the side of his helmet in blood red lettering.

‘Hi, Jack,’ I said. ‘What’s your fettle?’

‘Good, man. Yeah, cool.’ He was trying to get the bike on to its stand. It was like watching a man made of pipe cleaners trying to bring a buffalo to heel. I couldn’t help but wonder if he wouldn’t have found a Vespa scooter more manageable. He took off his helmet and put it on the tank and began to undo the Velcro on his black gauntlets, each of which seemed to be about as big as a vulture’s wing.

‘Nice machine,’ I said. ‘Yes, I’d heard you’d got rid of the Skoda.’

‘You bet I did, man. That was an old man’s chariot. I might as well have been travelling in a hearse. This baby is more up my street, dude, if you know what I mean.’

‘Owen told me it was a Kawasaki.’

‘Nah, this is a Ducati, man. Classic Italian race machine. Owen wouldn’t know a real bike if it jumped up and bit him. Guess what I call this beauty?’ he said, stepping over it and pointing to some white lettering on tank.

‘Hilda?’ I said.

‘Hilda?’ Jack said, frowning. ‘Hilda?  Why Hilda, dude?’

I shrugged. ‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It was just a guess.’

Cruella, dude. I call this baby, Cruella.’ He chuckled and brushed his hand across the name to remove a slight smudge from the gleaming black tank. ‘I named her after our mutual friend.’ He laughed again.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And this Spider thing – the thing on your hat?’

‘The name on my helmet?  Spider? That’s the name they used to sometimes call me in the band, man. That’s the name I answer to now. That’s my real name, man.’

I nodded. ‘So what are you here for, Jack?’ I asked. ‘A meeting?’

‘Yeah, I’ve got a four thirty with Michelle about the Cassidy girls. We might have found a long term placement for them up over the Carter Bar near Hawick. Nice couple, run a little craft shop. He’s a woodturner, she’s a craft knitter, does handbags and scarves and mittens and stuff. If she likes the look of them I want to arrange to take Michelle up to meet them next week.’

‘Not on Cruella’s pillion, I hope,’ I said.

‘I will if she’s up for it,’ Jack joked.

‘She won’t be,’ I said. ‘You’ll be crossing the border in the Yaris.’

I made my way down towards the car park at the bottom of the street. I listened to Bonnie Prince Billy’s latest album as I drove home. It’s certainly a bit more upbeat and musically animated than some of his previous work, but not as much as the reviews I’d read had led me to expect. The faltering, slightly washed-out and vague quality of his voice doesn’t readily lend itself to joy. The Jayhawks, for example, have a kind of emotional buoyancy and confident musical momentum which its hard to imagine Mr Oldham ever achieving – which isn’t to say that what he does isn’t in it’s own way just as good and valuable as the Jayhawk’s stuff, of course.

I drove down the Laverock towards Newsham and noticed that leaves are beginning to appear on the some of the hawthorn hedges. It’s suddenly possibly to believe it’s spring. When I arrived home Margaret was at the gate talking to Geraldine. A couple of months or so ago, Griff decided to add an extension to Citadel, another mere twenty feet of shadow for those of who live beneath it. It was almost as if they wanted the world to see it as barely more than a whim, a casual afterthought, nothing worth getting in a lather about. The Citizens were understandably shocked. They consulted leading members of the ruling political group, who were absolutely clear that they had been against this project from the start. They recommended that the Citizens appear at the planning hearing and seek a deferment, which they duly did. They asked the committee to visit residents’ homes to see just what the real impact was upon their lives.

The Committee made their site visit. The Widow Middlemiss had prepared herself for their visit. The Committee visited the building site, walked among the machines – the cranes, the dumpers, the diggers, the piles of breeze blocks and tiers of scaffolding – and beneath the naked girders and half built walls, and the builders went about their work all around and above them. The council official then announced the Committee could not visit any resident’s house, not even the Widow’s. On health and safety grounds. The official didn’t elaborate on exactly what the risks might be, of course, but Geraldine was pretty sure she’d worked it out.

‘They were frightened that Ethel’s teapot might fall on them,’ she said.

The planning committee duly returned to Morpeth and have now made their decision. It was absolutely predictable that they would grant consent for the extension and they did so. A committee member commented that the extension would not make a significant additional impact on the appearance of the building or upon residents. This of course is in a sense true. But it’s like saying that if you’ve stolen from someone more or less everything they’ve got taking the remainder of their loose change isn’t really such a big crime.

‘Democracy is a farce,’ Geraldine said. ‘They just do what they want. The whole thing’s been a charade.’

‘You’re right,’ Margaret said. ‘We may as well not exist.’

Margaret agreed. I stood and listened and nodded my agreement. I was thinking that the trouble with the councillors is that they’re probably just as powerless as we are, but that that none of them has the courage to admit it. I gazed idly over into Hugo’s front garden, where I noticed an old silver oven and hob unit had arrived in recent days along with a few sheets of plasterboard wrapped in polythene. I also noticed that The Alligator had acquired a new black boot and a towbar. It was obviously roadworthy again. I tried to recall when the beating had ended. Had I heard it this year?  I wasn’t sure.

I went into the house and left Margaret and Geraldine plotting the revolution. I scooped up De Kooning and took him through to the kitchen. There was a pile of onions and carrots on the bench. I made myself a cappuccino and we went through to the conservatory. I stood with De Kooning in my arms and looked out at the giant walls which now constitute the whole of our horizon.

‘That’s it, then,’ I said. ‘The battle’s finally over. There’s no way out of here now. We’re entombed.’

De Kooning rubbed his head against my face and began to purr.

‘Hey, you don’t know any Hank Locklin songs, do you?’ I said to him. ‘Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On? Happy Journey? Geisha Girl?’

It was only half past five, but the sun had already disappeared behind The Wall. As I contemplated the implacable panorama that incarcerated us I began to wonder if Bonnie Prince Billy had ever sung Hank Locklin songs. I wondered how that would sound like. De Kooning was watching the blackbirds chasing each other around the garden. I began to wonder if there was anywhere in Northumberland where I could still buy myself a steam roller.

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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.’

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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.

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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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