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a glimpse of maybellene’s garden

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bebside #2

‘The sun is God’

(Said to be Turner’s last words)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kettles and frying pans crossed my mind.

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

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

‘Ah.’

‘But she has an idea.’

‘She has an idea?’

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

‘It wasn’t Mrs Byro, was it?’

‘It might have been, yes. Why?’

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

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

‘Curlew?’

‘It might be, yes.’

‘Or was it Avocet?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Or Osprey?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Or Eider?’

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

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

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

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

Lily interviewed Mr Bilbo on Wednesday, as planned.

‘How did it go?’ I asked.

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

‘Did he talk to you okay?’

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

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

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

‘Ah ha! And?’

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

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

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

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

Lily shrugged and shook her head.

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

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

‘Spirituals?’

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

‘Did Mr Bilbo mention those particular songs?’

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

I shrugged and shook my head.

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

‘He said the garden smells strange.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

pluto and the golden pen

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blyth lampost and street reflection

Jack Verdi was in the office one afternoon last week. He’d been over to see Michelle about the planned placement of the Capstick twins with the Blackstocks in Otterburn. Unfortunately it won’t now be able to proceed because Hilda Blackstock has turned out to have an allergy to feathers. I was standing in the kitchen discussing the situation with Jack when Eric came in.

‘How,’ he said to me, ‘aa see Peter Andre has noo brokken up wi’ that, er, whaat’s aa name, yuh knaa,  hor with the, er – ‘

‘Katie,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Eric said. ‘Hor. Jordan. Ya marra doesn’t knaa him, does ‘ee?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Unfortunately not.’

Eric glanced at Jack for a moment and then stood absolutely immobile for a few moments

‘How,’ he finally said, ‘aa waas listenin’ t’ ya marra’s stuff again the other neit on me Waalkman.  Tha’s a mint song on tha’ forst aalbum caalled, ur, whaat’s it called? Ur. Hing on. Ur, aye, Deity. D’yuh knaa that un’?’

I shook my head.

‘D’yuh not?  Er, hoo does it gan again. Hing on. Ur. Aye . . . .’

Eric began to sing with an expression of childlike rapture on his face.

‘Deity,  deity, touch me with your gaiety,
Gaiety, oh gaiety
Transcendental entity, come and lay your love on me
Love on me, oh love on me’

 

I shook my head again, in truth not only because I didn’t know this song, but also because Eric sang like a moonstruck buffalo.

‘D’yuh not knaa it? Ur, it’s great. How, whaat’s a deity anyhoo? Is it like a gurd?’

Yeah,’ I said. ‘That’s exactly what it is, in fact – a god.’

‘Aye, aa thowt see.’

Eric dropped into standby mode. Jack flicked his pony tail over his jacket collar and looked at me over the rims of his Aviators, obviously bemused.

‘Hey, Eric,’ I said. ‘This is Jack Verdi. Jack works with Owen. Jack also used to play in a band for a living.’

‘Did yuh?’ Eric said, his face lighting up like tinder in a bonfire.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘Back in the day we were big, man.’

‘Aye, so d’yuh knaa his marra, the one from the Proodloot?’

‘You mean Owen. Yeah, I know him well. We go way back.’

‘Aye, they’re great, aren’t the’?’ Eric said. ‘I bet yuh wish your baand waas as big as they wor. D’yuh knaa the’ were on Top of the Pops once?’

‘Yeah, man, I know,’ Jack said, rocking from foot to foot like a boxer in the corner. ‘Hey, listen, man, I don’t want to diss the dude. I mean, his bag’s his own but his bag ain’t mine, right? But the stuff those guys did was never rock and roll, do you know what I mean, man?’

‘Ur, aye. Nur. Aye. So whaat waas tha’ stuff, then? Waas it like the folk rock?’

‘Listen, man, their stuff was fluff. Wifty wafty holy moly twaddle, dude. All this junk about God. Rock is the Devil’s music, man. What’s rock and roll got to do with all this gaiety and deity flim flam?  That stuff was dead in the water a hundred years ago, know what I mean, man?’

‘So d’ ‘ee not believe in Gurd, like?’ Eric asked.

‘No, man – do you?’

‘Nur, aa divvent either,’ Eric said. ‘But some people still dee. Wor young un’ knaas a lass whaat gans t’ one of them spiritualist chorches, yuh knaa them whaat believes  in spooks an’ that  yuh can taalk t’ the deed an’ aall that. Aa think they still believe in Gurd, divvent the’?’

Jack nodded. 

‘Aye, so whaat wuz your baand caalled, then?’ Eric said.

‘Pluto’s Apocalypse,’ Jack replied. ‘We were a rock band, man. We played the Devil’s music.’

‘Ur, aye. Aye, and whaat are ye caalled again?’ Eric asked, with a dumbfounded sort of frown on his face.

‘They call me Jack,’ Jack replied. ‘Spider to my friends.’

‘Spider?’ Eric said. ‘Like in them creepy craawllie things wi’ the lang legs an’ aall that?’

‘Yeah, dude, the arachnids, the exact same creatures.’

Eric looked at me, raised his crooked finger to about shoulder height and then froze. Jack stood with one hand stuffed deep into his skinny black jeans pocket, the other stroking his jaw. Animation duly returned to Eric’s demeanour.

‘Aye, so we were ‘ee, like – the Pluto?’

‘No, man, there’s was no Pluto. We were all Pluto, man, just as we were all the Apocalypse.

Eric looked a little puzzled. ‘Ur,’ he said. ‘So d’yuh mean tha’ was like fower or five of yuz in the baand and yuh aall like tyuk torns at bein’ the Pluto?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, man,’ he said. ‘No. It’s complicated. Listen, hey . . . hey, I guess you just had to be there, dude, yeah?’

Eric went briefly into standby mode.

‘So ‘ee waarn’t the Pluto?’ he eventually said.

Jack shook his head again. ‘No, dude, I wasn’t the Pluto. There was no Pluto.’

‘So waar yuh aall the Apocalypses?’

‘Yeah, something like that,’ Jack said, clearly finding Eric a little exhausting.

‘So we waas the Pluto, then? Waas ‘ee somebody whaat used to be in the baand and whaat left?’

‘No, man, no.’ Jack said, becoming visibly exasperated. ‘Hey, what is it you don’t get about this, dude? There never was a Pluto. We were all Pluto. Savvy?’

‘Ur, aye, aye, noo aa see. Ivrybody wuz the Pluto, except that ee waarn’t him and naebody else waas either. Is that reit?’

‘Yeah, man, yeah, whatever. Everybody just called us The Clips any way.’

‘Ur,’ Eric said. ‘The Clips?  Ur, aye, hing on.’ He put his hooked finger to his shaven cranium and seemed to think for a moment before he replied, ‘Nur. Nur, aa’ve nivva hord of them either.’

Eric began to turn around and seemed to be about to leave. But another thought occurred to him.

‘Here, I think aa’ve got it noo,’ he said, looking at his own reflection in Jack’s Aviators.  ‘Waas the Pluto yuh named ya baand after the durg from Mickey Moose?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, man. Hey, why would a rock band name themselves after a cartoon dog? It was Pluto the Roman God of the underworld.’

‘Ur, aye, aa’ve hord aboot him as weell. Aye, ya reit, ‘ee waas the gurd of the underwawld. Aa remember noo. Waas he owt t’ dee wi’ Horcules and Aphrodite and aall that?’

‘They were Greek, dude,’ Jack said, with a sarcasm that Eric seemed to miss. ‘But yeah, similar mythology.’

‘Ur, aye. Here, we’s that other Greek blowk aa’ve hord aboot, the one wor young un’ likes?’

Jack shrugged. I shrugged too. A guess at a moment like this would have been impertinent.

‘Ur, aye,’ Eric said. ‘Heraclitus, that blowk wi’ the dark onion.’

‘How does your brother know about that, Eric?’ I said, genuinely surprised at such an erudite reference.

‘Aa’ve nae idea,’ Eric said. ‘But ‘ee says ‘ee’s been sorchin’ for the dark onion aall ‘ee’s life. ‘Ee says it’s like sorchin’ for ‘ee’s own shadow by starin’ at the sun. Wor young un’ says the dark onion’s like the final mystery of life, d’yuh knaa whaat aa mean?’

Jack and I both nodded, slowly, affirmatively.

When I got home that night I had pizza for tea. Afterwards I sat with De Kooning in the conservatory, drinking a cappuccino and reading the poems in Frances Leviston’s collection ‘Public Dream.’  Later I went for a walk down through Blyth and along to the beach. It was a clear evening, but still a little cool. There was a gang of raucous teenage kids sprawled and littered around the dog-leg of the promenade, taking pictures of themselves on their mobiles and drinking bottles of lager. As I passed through them I pondered the way they distributed themselves in space. They were like caterpillars on a leaf, perhaps, or a tribe of meerkats around their burrow, or maggots on a sparrow’s corpse – one of those patterns that chaos theory might concern itself with. The sea was a deep steely blue, flat and somehow unnecessarily repressed. I noticed each of the new beach huts now has external security lights embedded in its alcove, trendy and discrete and allegedly powered by the small wind turbine at the edge of the grass beside the car park. Quite a few of them aren’t working.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen. The television was playing to itself in the front room. I plonked myself on the settee to watch it and De Kooning joined me. The Lauren Laverne trailer for BBC Poetry Week came on, the one where she and a friend are returning to her car in a multi-storey car park carrying their purchases after a girls’ shopping trip. As they enter the car park, apparently chatting about what Laverne might want as a gift, Lauren replies as they walk by reciting in a conversational tone Keats’ sonnet ‘On leaving some Friends at an early Hour’. She does it nicely, with a wry fashionable insouciance. That old Post-Modern irony again. The video’s setting – the car park and the shopping trip – picks up on the word ‘car’ in the poem, and other objects that might sound like things a girl shopping might covet – which is vaguely witty, I guess – and in doing so sets the content of the poem against the preoccupations of modern life. Occasionally Laverne’s rendering of the poem seems to allow us teasing glimpses into another value system, a life world of more immediate and authentic experience, a world where the things that matter aren’t things you can buy. The world of poetic experience and imagination. But such a perspective can only be admitted as little more than a curious ironic accessory in our getting and spending universe. But maybe that’s the way we’ve got to take our poetry these days, casually, peripherally, like the vague, beautiful perfume of something that’s all the more astonishing for being so unexpected, incidental and elusive. Maybe that’s the way it always really was.

This is the Keats poem. The next time I see them I must remember to ask Jack and Owen what they think of Laverne’s reading of it.

Give me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d-up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half-discover’d wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
‘Tis not content so soon to be alone.

‘Maybe poetry’s the new rock and roll,’ I said to De Kooning, who was now lying upside down with his paws over his eyes. ‘Do you think?’

De Kooning appeared to have no opinion on this issue.

‘Maybe I should start a poetry band,’ I said. ‘The equivalent of a rock band. Maybe I’ll call it something like Calliope’s Revenge. I think Jack would go for that, don’t you?’

De Kooning was stubbornly refusing to be drawn into a discussion of the issue. I rubbed his tummy. He gave a little leave me alone I’m happy squeak and kept his eyes covered. Sometimes he’s like this, it’s sleep before all things.

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘Let’s leave it till another time.’

I picked up my copy of Public Dream and wondered if it was too late for another cappuccino.

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the owl, the albatross, and the dodo

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blyth-croft-road-crofton-mill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You don’t think swine flu exists?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘De Kooning.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So what have you got her, then?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head slowly, emphatically.

‘No.’

‘James Taylor?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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.

.

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.

.

prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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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.

 .

fugitives, ghosts, and silver polar bears

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

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

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

‘So where’s she been?’

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

‘So was she with Tania and Joe?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An hour or so Godfrey rang back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded. ‘Sounds good,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sounds impressive. How far have you got?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a sort of macabre sweepstake

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Last Wednesday morning I was at a meeting in Morpeth first thing. When I arrived back at the office about mid morning Jesse and Pippa from admin were in the team room talking to Michelle, Lily, Sally and Angie. They were discussing a game Pippa’s daughter plays with her colleagues at the place where she works.

The object of the game is to be the person who picks the well known person who dies before any of the people picked by anyone else. It seems each person can pick three people – let’s call them their Gees Gees (which could stand for Grim Gallopers) – and they pay £5 into a kitty for each of their Gee Gees. No two people can choose the same Gee Gee. The person who has picked the Gee Gee that dies first collects the whole kitty. At that point everyone in the game has the opportunity to pick a new set of Gee Gees. It’s a sort of macabre sweepstake.

A week or two earlier Pippa’s daughter’s workmate – Kathy – had won: Patrick McGoohan, the star of the one-time cult TV series The Prisoner had died. He was eighty. His demise brought Kathy a windfall of £540, or, to be strictly accurate, £525, as her original stake should be deducted from her winnings.

Pippa’s daughter had been sitting with Hugh Hefner, The Pope and Amy Winehouse. In the way the game is played at Pippa’s daughter’s company (sorry, I don’t know Pippa’s daughter’s name) on there being a winner everyone gets the option to keep the Gee Gees they hold or to throw in one or more. Pippa’s daughter chose only to keep Amy Winehouse. Rather than go for old people who might go on forever she decided to go for a full hand of younger people with dangerous lifestyles. She added Pete Doherty and Lewis Hamilton to her portfolio.

‘Why don’t we play that game?’ Angie said. ‘I’d pick Margaret Thatcher.’

‘That’s just wishful thinking,’ Lily said. ‘If that worked I’d go for Richard Madeley. He’d be gone tomorrow.’

‘Oh, no, he’s not very old,’ Sally said. ‘I think I’d put my money on Patrick Moore.’

‘Isn’t he already dead, Sal?’ Angie said.

‘No. No, he isn’t,’ Sal said. ‘I saw him on The Sky at Night just a couple of weeks ago.’

‘Yes, Sal, but was he alive?’ Lily said. They all laughed.

‘Don’t you think this game’s a bit sick?’ Jesse said.

‘Yes,’ Angie said. ‘It is. But isn’t that the point?’

‘Why don’t we make up our own variation?’ Michelle suggested. ‘What about trying to pick the next local authority to have a child death on one of their social workers’ caseload? Who bags Haringey?’

The others cringed and frowned.

‘Why stop there?’ Angie said. ‘Why don’t we just put the money on the kids on our own caseloads?’

‘Hush up, Ange,’ Lily said. ‘Don’t tempt providence.’

I made myself a coffee and wandered upstairs to my office. At first I was pondering the idea of tempting providence and wondered if this was another manifestation of magical thinking. Maybe it’s closer to the idea of speaking of the devil. Maybe it’s to do with the idea that God is not mocked. And yet what kind of insecure and fickle deity would it be that needed to throw Its weight around like that for such a trivial provocation? Maybe it’s just something to do with a primitive belief in the power of words.

I sat down with my coffee and looked out over the rooftops. I began to think about painting. I haven’t painted anything since I finished my canvas of Corby’s Crag. I have been thinking about painting somewhere more urban. I like Gillies’ paintings of Temple, and although it seems to be a village and probably quite rural, I want to find and show the beauty in the things beneath our noses. I want to say we don’t have to go far to find something worth looking at.

When I logged on to my computer I discovered I had received an email from Alice McTavish in Fort William. She was writing to tell me that there had been a fair amount of snow up there this winter and she was wondering if I was planning to come up for a few days skiing. She offered to make me a mushroom risotto. I wrote back and said that I couldn’t get any holiday until the end of February. I asked her to make sure none of the snowflakes melted before then.

At about lunchtime Tania picked up baby Davina during a supervised contact session and simply walked out of the office with her. Michelle followed her down the street, telling her she was being daft and doing herself no good. Tania was having none of it. Davina was her baby and she’d do what she liked with her. Michelle told her she couldn’t because we had a court order and Davina had to stay with her dad, who was now approved as her emergency foster carer. Tania just walked on.

Michelle was powerless. What was she supposed to do, rugby tackle Tania and wrestle the baby from her grip? She ran back to the office. She was in a panic. She rang the police and gave them a description and potential addresses Tania might go to. The police went straight out but had no luck. They visited Joe’s house too. His mother said she had no idea where he was. He hadn’t been home since yesterday. The plot was thickening. A young mother with no real interest in her baby had abducted the baby and gone off with a hare-brained youth. Maybe Michelle’s about to win the kitty, I thought to myself. I didn’t say it out loud, of course.

Next morning baby Davina and Tania were still missing and we had no clue where she was. I took a call from a police inspector and agreed to publicity. Later that day the missing baby began to be mentioned on the news bulletins on Metro Radio, along with pleas to the public to contact the police if they had any information about the whereabouts of mother and baby. The whole day passed without any news. Michelle sat in the office, unable to do anything. The rest of the team made her cups of tea and told her not to worry, the baby would be found fit and well, they were sure. Gilmour rang to see if there’d been any news. He also asked how Michelle was.

‘Not good,’ I said.

‘Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that this baby is okay,’ he said.

For a moment or two I imagined that the universe was indeed at the command of some perverse force. That things don’t ever go wrong by chance or accident. That they go wrong because the world is in the hands of providence, and providence is amoral and prone to mischief and cruelty. Providence is metaphysical spite. It’s funny that such a nutty belief will probably be reassuring to some people. We’d rather believe that we’re in the hands of a monster than think we’re in the hands of no-one at all.  At least you can talk to a monster.

After tea Margaret was baking onion tarts. De Kooning was hiding somewhere. I went for a walk through the Isabella and over the reclaimed land to Tynedale Drive. I walked all the way to Cowpen Road and then down past the cemetary to the North Farm. I came back along Renwick Road, past the Thoroton Hotel and back along Broadway to Rotary Way. Later I went along to my dad’s to return the library book on the Cloughs, which was almost overdue. I drove up the Avenue and through Seaton Delaval on the way back. I turned on the radio and flicked through the stations. Alan Robson was on Metro. Hettie from Bomarsund was on the line.

‘Hello, Alan,’ she said. ‘It’s Hettie from Bomarsund here.’

‘Good evening, Hettie. What do you want to talk to us about tonight?’

‘Good evening, Alan. Alan, have you heard about that young lass who’s kidnapped her own baby?  Isn’t that a terrible thing? I think she must be in a terrible state to do something like that, don’t you, Alan.’

‘Well, I don’t really know that much about it, Hettie. I mean, can a mother really kidnap her own child?’

‘Yes, but this bairn was being looked after for her by a foster parent, Alan. She’s obviously got needs, Alan. Don’t you agree, she must be a girl with needs?’

‘You might be right, Hettie. If that lass happens to be listening now, Hettie, what would your message to her be?’

‘You know what I’d say to her, Alan? I’d say, “Take your baby back, pet. People are just trying to help you. If you hurt your bairn you’d never forgive yourself.” My heart goes out to her, Alan.’

‘Thank you, Hettie. Let’s go now to line two, where we’ve got John from Westerhope. Good evening, John. What do you want to say to the night owls tonight.’

‘Hello, Alan. What I want to say is that with all due respect your last caller is exactly the sort of person who’s got this country in the pathetic state it’s in today. Do you know what my message to that girl on the run with her baby would be? It would be “Good for you, girl.” It’s the do-gooders who have taken away all our freedom and brought the country to its knees, Alan. Social workers only take people’s kids off them to give them to middle class couples who can’t have them or to put them with lesbians and paedophiles.’

‘Well, I’m sure there are a lot of people won’t agree with you there, John. Surely sometimes social workers are right to take children off their parents, aren’t they? What about Baby P?’

‘Exactly, Alan! Exactly! That’s proves my point, doesn’t it? If this lass’s child had really been at any risk of harm at home the social workers would have left her with where she was. That’s what they do, Alan. You can hardly open a newspaper these days without coming across the story of another poor kid social workers have left to die.’

‘I’m not sure you’re right on this one, John. But of course I respect your point of view. Let’s have another record. I’m sure there are plenty of others out there who want to have their say on this lass’s baby. We’ll be back after this.’

Chesney Hawkes came on. The One and Only. I drove past Newsham Coop and over the railway crossing, past the Black Diamond and the Newsham Hotel and around to the Willow Tree. I glanced over the grass where the Brick Row once stood and through the dark spaces where the Newsham Nightingale once piped, across to the anonymous little council houses beyond and the little yellow rectangles of their windows. Tania and Joe were probably holed up with baby Davina in just such a house tonight. They were probably with a bunch of raucous kids, drinking cans of lager and smoking cannabis, arguing about whose turn it was to be on the Wii, passing Davina round like a stray kitten they’d brought in from the street. A tattered-eared pitbull called Tyson was probably sniffing at her face.

As I drove into the top of my street Chesney stopped singing and Alan Robson returned to the mike.

‘So, welcome back, night owls,’ he said. ‘Tonight we’ve been talking about the girl who’s stolen her baby from social workers and gone into hiding with her. Right now on line four we’ve got Cheryl from Ashington. Hello, Cheryl. How are you tonight? This bairn’s from around your way, isn’t it?’

‘Hello, Alan. It’s Cheryl here. Yes, Alan, she is. I could tell you who she is, Alan, if you want to know.’

‘Oh no, Cheryl. No, no, I think we’ve got to respect this lass’s right to privacy, haven’t we?’

‘Yes, Alan, that’s true. But what you don’t know is just what’s going on around here . . .’

At that point I turned the radio off. The last thing I needed to hear was that baby Davina had been abducted by Robin Hood and his Merry Men and was being taught to use a bow and arrow in Bothal Woods.

I slept badly that night. I awoke at least three times. Baby Davina was on my mind. The first time woke up I was wondering who was feeding her. She was in a dark place crying frantically. She was completely alone. De Kooning made his way to the top of the bed and sniffed at my face. He began to purr. I pressed him back down on to the duvet and gave him a stroke.

‘Go back to sleep, De Kooning,’ I said. ‘It’s not morning yet.’

Next time I awoke I was thinking about Michelle. I knew she’d be lying awake. I knew she’d be worrying herself to death. If anything happened to baby Davina she’d carry the can. Her photo would appear in The Daily Mail. She’d be pilloried. She’d be destroyed. I heard De Kooning begin to purr again. I put my arm out of the sheets and rubbed his tummy. He gave my hand a little play fight.

‘Go back to sleep, De Kooning,’ I said. ‘It’s not morning yet.’

The third time I awoke I had been having a terrible dream. I dreamt I was King Lear. Or perhaps I was some other character from that play. The Fool, perhaps. Or Edgar. Or Gloucester. I was probably an amalgamation of several of the characters all in one dream person. I was caught in a storm. I was blind and stumbling close to the edge of a cliff. I dreamt I was gathering samphire. I dreamt I was gathering samphire and I heard De Kooning fidgeting. He was purring again, loudly, like a tractor.

‘Go back to sleep, Cordelia,’ I said. ‘It won’t be much longer now.’

.

the nightingale’s cage and the prince of pipers

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newsham, blyth old stationmaster's house

When I arrived at the office on Tuesday Jack Verdi and his colleague Owen Vardy were in reception. They had come for meetings about different families. These two men have a strange affinity with one another, something their appearance belies. It’s believed they even have the same birthday. Jack – who has now taken to wearing skinny leg black jeans and trainers – is increasing rock-Gothic black and motorcycle dangerous, a man in shades, a refugee from the crypt. Owen by contrast is David Livingstone without the pith helmet. He has about him something of the demeanour of a country parson, gentle and reed-like, with a rather tentative and deferential style. Unlike Jack, Owen seems not to want to rage against the dying of the light, not even to seek to challenge it subversively. Of course, the word on Owen is that he may not be quite as meek as he seems and that somewhere inside that parson-like persona there burns a still unquenchable fire. What these two men share, besides their birthday, is that they are from the same generation, that they both were once professional musicians – Owen was part of a quite successful folk-rock outfit called Proudlute – and that both have known fame. Both are trying to get their bearings in an obscure post-celebrity netherworld. Both also share an enduring fixation with John Keats. When I arrived they were discussing Keats’ epitaph, and appeared to be disagreeing about whether it would be an appropriate epitaph for us all today.

‘Ah ha,’ I said as I approached them, ‘Verdi and Vardy, the undertakers, I presume.’

Keats is buried in a grave in Italy. Famously, he did not want his name put on his gravestone. He wanted it only to contain his epitaph, the line he told his painter friend Severn he wanted: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water”. This phrase deploys an image taken from the play Love Lies Ableeding, written by Beaumont and Fletcher some two hundred years earlier. The image is generally taken as speaking of our transience, the brevity and impermanency of life and fame and renown, and how we are all destined to die and to be forgotten. It says the world will not remember who we were. In Keats’ case you might also argue that his identification and involvement with the sensuous, sensual substances of the world is also represented in the image, that it suggests that who he was is written in the concrete stuff of nature, the things he let himself somehow unite with and become. A good example of negative capability, perhaps. But either way, a name written in water will not endure, at least not at the level of individual identity, of being discernible as anyone in particular. No-one’s name will long survive their passing. It is a tad ironic, of course, that the anonymity of Keats’ gravestone and the pessimism of his epitaph have enhanced its fame and made it more likely to be remembered.

Owen was saying that he wanted the same epitaph on his grave. Jack was arguing that times had changed and that the epitaph needed to be updated accordingly

‘It’s a new age, man,’ Jack said. ‘If Keats had been around now he wouldn’t have accepted death so easily. Life expectancy has increased dramatically since those days. People are no longer resigned to an early death. Hey, one day soon people might not even need to die! The epitaph needs to reflect that change. “Here lies one whose name was writ in rock,” that’s what my epitaph’s going to be, man!’  Jack chuckled, at his own felicitous ambiguity, no doubt.

‘That can’t be right,’ Owen said. ‘The whole point of the epitaph is its universality. It’s our transience and the temporary nature of our existence that binds us together as human beings. It’s the very thing that makes us human, Jack.’

‘No, man,’ Jack said. ‘That’s bollocks. It might have been that way once, but not now, man, not now. If Keats was around now he wouldn’t be moping around with this romantic despair and dissolution mullarkey. He wouldn’t be even one percent in love with easeful death. He’d be saying grab the future and strangle it, dude! Carve your name into the stars, man! The spirit of Keats is transformative, man, and we’ve got to pay the cat his dues. If Keats was around today he wouldn’t slip so quietly into his grave – they’d have to drag him off the stage, man, crowbar the axe from his hand.’

Owen looked pensive, like a man looking into an empty bird cage. Someone told me that Owen in fact did once keep a pet nightingale. Jack says the only pet he ever had was a flea. He said he found it on himself after he had spent an afternoon in a room in the Chelsea Hotel with Janis Joplin. He says he just couldn’t bring himself to crush a creature that had been on Janis’s body, that may have tasted her blood and felt the warm throb of her skin. He tells how he put the fortunate flea in a jam jar and kept it with him on the tour bus for weeks. He named it Jimi. One day the band was on Route 66, driving through the night on their way to a gig in St Louis. A roadie who had been drinking a lot of beer was desperate to relieve himself. It is generally believed that Jimi probably died by drowning, although some like to think he escaped into the night when the jam jar was hurled from the bus and shattered on the pavement of a small unknown town somewhere in middle America.  Some will tell you Jimi’s still out there, living the good life in a motel east of Albuquerque. This tale may be apocryphal, of course. In true rock tradition, Jack’s not the sort of man who would let factual accuracy stand in the way of the construction of his personal myth.

‘No, man,’ Jack said, ‘it’s the desire to cheat death, to defy it, to overcome it, to transcend it – that’s what makes us human, that’s what binds us together. Not the willingness to surrender demurely to the Reaper.’ I wondered if he was alluding to Tallulah at this point. Surely not.

Owen shook his head gently. ‘I really, really don’t agree,’ he said. Jack was leaning against the wall, wiry and spectre-thin in his skinny leg jeans, inscrutable behind his Aviators. What struck me was the way he was more and more deploying the vocabulary of a rock musician again. If I’d closed my eyes when I was listening to this conversation I might have thought it was Keith Richards speaking.

As I walked along the corridor I thought that one of the differences between Jack and Owen is that Jack has no children. I wondered if he had whether he’d have a different attitude to death, a different attitude to life. It’s surprising how much difference that can make, at least for some people.

When I went into the team room Michelle collared me to talk about baby Davina. After a short spell in foster care Davina was returned to her mother, Tania, and both had gone to live with her dad. Unfortunately Tania has on several occasions gone awol for two or three nights on end, leaving the baby with her dad. She was away again and her dad was at the end of his tether.

‘There’s just no attachment,’ Michelle said. ‘It’s never going to work. I think it’s time to call it day with Tania. Grandad is prepared to go for Residence and I think that’s the way we need to go now.’

Attachment is the new love for some social workers and other professionals. Some of them seem to think that if attachment is good then parenting will be good. Attachment theory is on its way to becoming a theory of everything for some professionals, the only real construct they’ll ever need. Things are not that simple, of course, and some day soon someone’s going to have to write the book Attachment is Not Enough. But what is true is that if a parent has a poor attachment to his or her child, the child’s needs are not likely to be fully met and the child is far more likely to suffer harm. A child to whom no responsible adult is attached is a child a wolf will soon devour.

‘So where’s Tania gone this time?’ I asked.

‘Her mother’s, she’ll say. But she hasn’t. I’ve been there. My guess is she’s lying in bed with Joe again, not answering the door and having a merry old time while grandad feeds the baby and changes the nappies.’

‘Yeah, okay,’ I said. ‘Talk to grandad and pull a planning meeting together.’

Angie had been hovering nearby and wanted to talk about her new client, Naomi Bell.

‘Are there attachment problems there too?’ I asked.

‘Probably,’ Angie said. ‘The place is a pig sty and the kids are running amok. But the main problem is she’s barking. I asked her about what support she had and she told me she was close to her mother, who gave her lots of advice and kept her right. The trouble is her mother’s been dead for years.’

‘So maybe she was speaking historically.’

‘No. She was speaking to her mother while I was there! “Mother,” she calls out. “Mother, are you there?” Spooky, or what?!’

‘And was she – there, I mean?’

‘Yes, it seems she was. She told Naomi to feed the bairns bananas and porridge and everything would be fine.’

‘Hmmm, tasty suggestion. Does she have a CPN?’

‘Nope.’

‘A psychiatrist?’

‘No.’

‘A sympathetic GP?’

‘No, none of those. What she’s got is a medium.’

‘A medium?’

‘A medium, and a spirit guide called Fatima.’

‘You’re thinking of a referral the mental health and a strategy meeting, right?’

‘Right.’

‘Okay, let’s do it. Invite the medium, invite Fatima – mother too if she’s available. Let’s remember the spirit of Working Together.’

I’ve been reading a book that my dad discovered in the library called ‘The Clough Family of Newsham’. It’s published by the Northumbrian Pipers Society. Some members of the Clough family were important and celebrated Northumbrian smallpipes players, particularly Tom Clough. My dad knew they were pipers but hadn’t realised how famous a Northumbrian piper Tom had been. Tom, a pitman, is said by the book to have been known as The Prince of Pipers. I had never even heard of the family and the name meant nothing to me. But it turns out that my dad actually knew Tom and his son, Tom junior, another well known piper. My dad remembers that sometimes in the summer Tom would play his smallpipes in the backyard of his house in Brick Row at Newsham, which is demolished now but stood in the area opposite the Willow Tree that is now grassed over, just before you get to the railway crossing. When my dad was a kid he and his friends would hear Tom playing in the yard and sometimes throw things over the wall as a prank.

On Thursday night I walked up Plessey Road to the Willow Tree to look at the space where Brick Row had stood. I had never heard of this street and it must have been demolished decades ago. It was called Brick Row because it was the only row built of bricks. My dad lived in Stone Row – you can guess why it was called that – which ran at right angles to Brick Row along the eastern side of railway line to the Stationmaster’s house. That row has gone too, but the Stationmaster’s house remains, black and redundant at the far reaches of a somewhat anonymous estate of social housing – maisonettes and small semis. I listened for and tried to imagine the “amazing, hypnotising runs of notes”, the “startlingly clear and inspirational” playing and “masterly rendition of old airs” described by the authors of the book. I listened hard but I’m not sure I heard any tune I knew, only the sound of the wind whining through the railings in the darkness and the grumble of the traffic across the line over on Newcastle Road.

The book says Tom senior suffered from an increasing loss of his hearing in the late 1940’s. It’s suggested by some that this may have been because in September 1940, during the war, a bomb destroyed their house. Others suggest that he had been almost deaf for years before that because of a mining explosion. We don’t really know why, but there’s no doubt Tom’s hearing went. He had a poetic streak and in the 1950’s wrote this:

My hearing now is not so keen,
As what it was or might have been.
In whispers soft the old pipes say,
‘Just fill the bag. We know the way.’

 

It sounds a bit like he might have been the Beethoven of the smallpipes. In one of his notebooks he wrote “Music is some Divine Essence that clarify’s the Soul enabling it to take momentary glimpses into heaven.” This phrase might have made a good epitaph for him, I guess. He died in 1964 and is buried up on the hill in Horton churchyard. I’ve no idea what his epitaph is, but I might stop by there one day on my way to work to visit his grave and find out. Maybe I’ll hear the plaintive lilt of his smallpipes in the wind. But then again, there’s every chance I won’t..

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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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