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tasting the dark onion

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south-newsham-72dpi

It was probably last Wednesday. I was driving down the Laverock listening to the Decembrists’ latest album The Hazards of Love.  It has an unstoppable momentum. This seems to have something to do with the keys and tonality, but the main factor is probably the lack of spaces between the tracks: the music never stops. The effect is irresistible continuity, and continuity in space and time have an extraordinary force, binding together things which might be meaningless and adrift in eternity if they stood on their own as discreet items.  The illusion of continuity conjures purpose out of chaos.

It was spring-like and suddenly there were shameless hosts of golden daffodils strewn along the verges. I was thinking that I needed to take control of my food intake and lose a few pounds for the summer. I stopped at Newsham Coop for some broccoli and tomatoes. There was the usual bunch of cars parked on the yellow lines just outside the door. I parked around the corner on the cobbles of the loading bays. My dad used to drive for the bakery for a while in the nineteen seventies, and in those days they used to load up the bakery delivery lorries there. When he was a kid he used to live in Store Terrace, just up the road a little way, next to the Post Office. In those days they used to load the various horse carts in these cobbled bays – the butchers’ carts, the bakers’ carts, the greengrocers’ cart, and so on – which they would take from street to street selling their produce. In the seventies I think only bakery and milk vans remained. My dad sometimes drove one of the electric bakery vans all the way to Cambois and back, over the new Kitty Brewster bridge. That was in the days when the pit at Cambois was still open, of course, and before they demolished the pits rows. There were still people there to sell stuff to in those days. It used to take the electric van about three quarters of an hour each way, but it didn’t matter much because most people in Cambois in those days didn’t have cars and were happy to buy their bread from the bakery van.

At the checkout I found myself behind Tania, baby Davina’s mother. I asked her what she was doing in these parts.

‘I’m staying with my new boyfriend,’ she said. ‘He’s called Darren. He lives in the Oval.’

‘Oh, so what happened with you and Joe?’ I asked.

‘I finished him,’ Tania said. ‘He was just such a loser.’

‘So what does Darren do?’

‘What does Darren do? Like a job, do you mean?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Darren hasn’t got a job. He’s got a car and that, though.’

‘Right. So how are you, any way? How’s the baby?’

‘I haven’t seen Davina for a week or two now. I’ve been helping Darren to paint the doors.  Anyway me and my dad aren’t really getting on at the minute, so it’s probably better if I don’t go over there.’

Davina had some Bachelor’s savoury rice, sausages, a large sliced white loaf , a big bag of Doritos and a couple of tins of beans in her basket. She also asked for a pack of Rizla’s, twenty Lambert and Butler and a four pack of Fosters.

‘Tell Michelle I’ll ring her, will you?’ she said, as she left.

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Will do.’

I drove down Plessey Road listening to the Decembrists again, thinking about continuity, the importance of connections. What would places be without the roads and paths between them? What would our days be without the trails of memory and dreams that tie them together, without stories? The narratives we invent or find in our lives are like the branches of who we imagine we might be: without them each day would be like a leaf from a different tree.

Margaret was in the back garden, apparently gazing at the Citadel. De Kooning was sitting in the middle of the lawn cleaning his black face. I went out and picked him up. We looked over Hugo’s fence. There were daffodils in flower at the moose’s feet. I noticed the station clock had never been put back at the end of summer time last year.

‘Too late now,’ I said to De Kooning. ‘In a few days time it’ll be right again.’

When I went back inside I noticed a couple of packets of onion seeds on the bench near the kettle. Ailsa Craig and Bedfordshire Champion. March is the best month to sow onion seed in these parts. I realised Margaret must be thinking about growing her own onions and was outside looking for a place to plant them in the garden. Perhaps she was wondering if there was still enough light for them to thrive now that we lived in the shadow of Griff’s soulless castle. I’ve heard that onions can grow by starlight. I don’t know if it’s true, of course. It might be.

I decided to go for a walk before tea. I went down to the Mason’s Arms and along Coomassie Road, across Waterloo Road and through to Morrison’s car park. I made my way up Wright Street, through the cut past Sure Start and along the Sports Centre path to Newsham Road, from where I made my way back home.

When I got back I asked Margaret if she knew if there was a variety of onion that could grow by starlight.

‘No,’ she replied.

‘I think I’ll ring the Greek,’ I said. ‘He’ll know.’

The Greek seemed pleased to here from me. ‘It’s been a long time,’ he said. ‘Oddly enough I was saying to Mr Geller only the other night how I hadn’t heard from you for a while. So what can I do for you, my friend?  Don’t tell me your broken Napoleon is still ticking.’

‘No, it stopped, just as you said it would. No, everything seems quiet on the clock front at the minute. What I want to ask you about is onions.’

‘Ah, the holy vegetable, our mysterious layered companion. Go ahead, shoot. Tell me what you need to know.’

‘Is there a variety that will grow on starlight alone?’ I asked. ‘I seem to remember reading somewhere that there is.’

‘Ah,’ the Greek said. ‘The fabulous Dark Onion of Heraclitus! Yes, we’ve all heard about that one. But which of us has ever tasted it? I’ve searched all my life for it, my friend. But the more I search the less likely it seems that I will ever find it. I’m beginning to think the Dark Onion may be no more than a myth.’

‘No chance of picking up a packet of seeds at Peter Barrett’s then?’

‘No, none. Not at Heighley Gate either. I would suggest you stick with Ailsa Craig, my friend. The Bedfordshire Champion is another popular and reliable variety. But if by any chance you were to stumble across the fabulous dark one, I would be in your eternal debt if you could in some small way share your good fortune with me.’

I thanked the Greek for his advice. I cooked my broccoli and tomatoes with some wholewheat pasta and garlic. I sat in the conservatory as darkness fell. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me.  I remarked to him that we needed to find out more about Heraclitus.

On Saturday it was cold; it rained that night. It was the night the clocks went forward. On Sunday it was clear and sunny. I drove up to Druridge. The tide was out and I walked up the beach. Far away to the north Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill were as white as angels. I drove back south and listened again to The Hazards of Love.

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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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prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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south-newsham-railway-crossing1

 

We had more snow last week, again on Thursday. For a while it looked like it would never stop. ‘So this is how the world ends,’ I thought to myself.  Most members of my team went home early. There were rumours that the Spine Road might be closed so at about half four I set off for home. It turned out that the snow was already turning to sleet and rain by then. The wild apocalyptic blizzard was a false alarm. Nevertheless it was a slushy slither back down the Laverock and along Newcastle Road into Newsham.

The snow almost interfered with Tristan and Brenda’s Valentine trip to Prague.  Once or twice on Thursday the airport at Ponteland was closed for a while. But the snow is the least of their problems, it seems. Tristan had discovered earlier in the week that Brenda has become friendly with a man she’s been life-coaching. The man’s problems revolve around his marriage, it seems, and making decisions about how he is going to spend the rest of his life. He owns and runs an executive coach company called Mephisto Travel and he has a big house in Tynemouth, it seems. He’s made his fortune and he’s looking forward to taking it easy and seeing the world. What he doesn’t now know is who he wants to be with him on his travels. The man’s name is Elvis Devlin.

‘Elvis Devlin?’ I said to Margaret when she told me the tale.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s right. Do you know him?’

‘Do I know Elvis Devlin?’ I said. ‘Do I know Elvis?’

‘Yes, Elvis. Do you have a problem with that? It’s no sillier than your name, is it?’

‘You’re right. I just hope he’s not an impostor,’ I said. ‘I just hope he’s not a Devlin disguise.’

Margaret groaned and got on with cutting up the onions.

It seems that on a couple of occasions Brenda has been seen having coffee with Elvis Devlin at the Milkhope Centre near Blagdon. This is far enough from Whitley Bay to suggest that these encounters did not happen by chance, although that apparently is exactly how Brenda claims they did happen. (But in any case doesn’t everything happen for a reason, Brenda? I heard myself thinking.) Tristan’s suspicion is that Elvis might be singing Viva Las Vegas in her ear. So Prague nearly didn’t happen. Margaret says it’s a make or break weekend for them. She’s convinced that Tristan’s fears are unnecessary, but you know what the song says about suspicious minds.

On Friday morning the roads were okay and most people made it in. At about lunchtime I went downstairs to make myself a coffee. Lily was checking out the weather on the Met Office website. Michelle was having a sandwich and doing her sudoku book.

‘We’ve got another one,’ Lily said. ‘I’ve got another mother who’s got a spirit in her house. She says it knocks thing off the windowsills at nights and taps on the window.’

‘Has she got a cat?’ Michelle chipped in. Lily laughed.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘She hasn’t even got a broom. The place is mingin’!’

I stood in the kitchen with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the filing cabinets and waiting for the kettle to boil. I filled my cup and wandered back out into the team room. Angie came in and Lily asked her how the roads were. I sat down in Debs’ chair and put my feet on her desk.

‘You don’t believe in ghosts, do you, Lily?’ I said.

‘Nah!’ she said. ‘It probably is the cat. Actually it probably isn’t. She’s probably just nuts.’

‘Oh, I believe in ghosts,’ Angie said. ‘We used to have one on the house we had in Forest Hall.’

‘So do you think Lily should call in an exorcist for her client?’

‘Yes, why not?’

‘Probably for the same reason we don’t make assessments from star signs,’ I said. ‘And because it’d get me the bloody sack.’

‘What sign are you, Lil?’ Angie said. ‘Let me guess. Okay, okay, I’ve got it. You’re a Virgo. Am I right?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘I’m an Aries.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. How didn’t I see that? How stupid am I?’

‘I’m an Aries too,’ I said.

‘You’re not!’ Lily said. ‘You could never be an Aries.’

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Honestly.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Lily said. ‘You couldn’t be.’

On Friday night I began a new painting of Seaton Sluice. I’ve painted it before. I’m ambivalent about doing it because it is making a concession to the conventionally picturesque, something I’m trying to get away from. I decided on a low horizon. I was doing a view from the bridge of Rocky Island and the Kings Head pub. I used the canvas I’d underpainted in vermillion a week or two ago. I painted the sky quickly with a big flat brush. Square chunks of white and yellow ochre clouds careering wildly around in a Prussian blue sky.

On Saturday I rode along to my dad’s on the bike. It wasn’t a bad afternoon and the paths were mostly completely clear of snow.

During the week my dad had been to the library. As I was drinking a glass of pineapple juice he gave me a photocopy he’d made of an article from The Blyth News at the end of May 1936. The article reported the death at age eighty one of Harry Clough, the father of Tom Clough, the Newsham Nightingale. “FAMOUS PIPER DEAD”, was the headline, with the by-line “Newsham Man Who Played Before Royalty”. He is said to have died at his home in Plessey Road, of which Brick Row must have been considered a part.

The article said that in 1905 Harry Clough had played for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle. Until a few weeks before his death Harry had acted as a caller at Cowpen Coal Company, the article said.  Here’s a typical paragraph from the article, which is really a eulogy:

His music like his character delighted his audience. In both cottage and palace he enchanted with the folk music of Northumberland. His nature was kind and genial without ostentation. Unassuming and without any love of fame, his art was always at the disposal of charity.

As I recall Harry was buried at Blyth Cemetary, back down on the beach road. I’d ridden past it on the way along. I wondered if I should stop off on my way back and see if I could find his grave. But no doubt I’d have no more luck looking for the grave of the Nightingale’s father than I had looking for the grave of his son.

I asked my dad which route the old road out of Newsham followed. The book on the Cloughs had said it was very rough.

‘It followed the route of Newcastle Road along to where the little roundabout is now, and it turned right there and went up towards the Laverock,’ he said. ‘Of course in those days the houses on the right weren’t there. The store field was there, where they used to turn out the ponies from the pit in summer.’

‘So was it a rough road?’ I asked.

‘It was wet. When it got over the old railway line to the relief pit it took a big sweeping bend around before going up the Laverock. It was often flooded there.’

Laverock is an old word for a skylark. Most people assume this is how the farm on the ridge got its name and that the road got its name from the farm. I’ve never seen any real evidence for this. My alternative theory is that the place name may have nothing to do with the skylark at all. In Cumbria there’s a place called Laversdale. The first element of this is from the Old English personal name Leofhere. I wonder if this name or something similar isn’t the first element in Laverock and that the second is rigg, meaning ridge. There are ridge and furrows in the field beside Laverock Hall Farm and these will date back to the medieval period at least. The farm is also on a ridge, the ridge along which the road from Seaton Delaval to Horton runs. So the history and topography are arguably there to support the possibility that this might be Leofhere’s Ridge. Furthermore, local people usually talk about going up or coming down the Laverock, as if the land form itself is the thing they are climbing or descending. They do not say they are going up to the Laverock. The word is also said with a final vowel that is very close to the  i sound in rigg, although admittedly inevitably somewhat neutral. There are other examples around here of false etymologies arrived at and imposed by mapmakers, and this may be another. Rigg and rick are close enough together to allow an obvious aural mistake to be made. It was perhaps this mistake that threw an imaginary skylark into the sky above the ancient ridge.

As I rode home I glanced over to the cemetery, but rode straight by. It was getting late and the light was beginning to fail.

At about eight o’clock tonight I went out for a walk. It was a mild dry evening and there wasn’t much wind.  I walked along Sixth Avenue past the front gate to the site of the Citadel. The gates were closed and the security lights were shining eerily on the colossal towering structure. It really is a hellish, oppressive monstrosity, the wrong building in the wrong place. No wonder it reminds me of Kafka’s Castle. I walked through the cut and on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down past the first school. From there I crossed Winship Street into Elliot Street. They are already building on the site of the demolished Big Club. As I walked across I was thinking how these sites aren’t like widows: they don’t have to wait for a respectable period before they allow another building to occupy them. I had thought that apartments would be built here and I was therefore a bit surprised that building had started so soon, given the current depression in the housing market. I noticed a sign on the fence. It said “Considerate Construction”. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? I went over for a closer look and discovered that the new building appears to be going to be a new library. I was pleasantly surprised and for a moment impressed.

I went down Elliot Street past the take-aways and the betting shop, which was still open for business. An old guy in a flat cap was leaning in the doorway telling the woman inside a story about a bet he’d made. I crossed over to the Willow Tree, which was also open, although there weren’t many in. It seems to be under new management. I noticed there were flyers on the windows for a group called The Buskers, who it seems are playing there on Friday this week. I glanced over to the Brick Row open space. I wondered what sort of music they’d be playing. I wondered if the Cloughs would all be tapping their ghostly pipers’ feet. I walked back down Plessey Road, past the old Grammar school and on under the trees beside the bus stop.

When I got home Margaret was in. She was polishing the old Napoleon from her bedroom. It wasn’t ticking.

‘How did Brenda’s trip to Prague go?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘I haven’t heard from her.’

‘But she is back, isn’t she?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, they came back yesterday, I think.’

Or maybe she didn’t, I thought to myself. Maybe she’s already riding the Mephisto Express to Vegas.

I put the kettle on and went looking for De Kooning. I wanted to put him out in the garden for a while before I did a bit more on my painting of the Sluice.

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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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