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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?

.

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the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint

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delaval-arms-in-seaton-sluice1 

At teatime last Friday I noticed a pair of glass earrings and a big green bottle of Becherovka on the table in the conservatory.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I asked Margaret, who was in the kitchen topping and tailing parsnips.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She brought me those crystal earrings back from Prague. Aren’t they lovely?’

‘Some of the old Czech herbal paint stripper too, I see. So how are things with her and Tristran?’

‘Oh they’re fine,’ Margaret replied, in an I don’t know what all the fuss was about sort of way. ‘They’re all loved up and happy again. They had an absolutely wonderful time. They bought each other amber amulets and they’ve both vowed to wear them forevermore. Brenda bought some really beautiful lace for herself too and a wooden marionette for her consulting room.’

I nodded. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Tristan’s okay.’

I sat down to drink my cappuccino. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me. I’m reading a book of poetry called ‘Beasts for the Chase’ by an American poet called Monica Ferrell. A friend in New Jersey sent me the book. Ferrell wasn’t a poet I’d heard of till then. She turns out to be a bit old-fashioned and prophetic in her tone at times, quite earnest, although quite good at her craft. She strikes me as one of those poets who imagine a poet is a seer, someone with special access to a world behind and beyond this one. Such a vision (!) always entails a belief in the supernatural, often under the guise of the primal. Such poets often invoke animals as their metaphorical selves or equivalents, their spiritual alter egos and agents in the other world. Such poetry always pretends to show us what we really are, what our essence is, and to show us the eternal world our souls inhabit, the world behind the veil of perception. It’s all seductive nonsense, of course. Poetry certainly somehow plugs fairly directly into the way we make the world and the ways in which we make it make sense. But it’s an exercise done with words, just as music is an exercise done with sound and painting an exercise done with pigment, canvas and brushes.  I like Tam Lin as much as the next person, but anyone who thinks that at Halloween he was turned into an adder and a bear and a burning gleed really is away with the faeries. That sort of stuff doesn’t even happen in Glasgow. Poetry and truth have a much more oblique and complex relationship than some poets imagine. We need a poetics that is rigorously non-dualist. I’m sure there must be critics out there who’ve tried to formulate something to rescue us from the mire of misty-brained mythologies. I must go on to Amazon some time and see what I can find.

‘So, De Kooning’ I said. ‘What do we make of this stuff?’

He put his front paws on to my leg and looked up at me. His right ear flicked a couple of times.

‘Yes, you’re right, we prefer Ted Hughes, don’t we?’ I said. ‘We Brits like mumbo jumbo with a bit more muscle.’

It’s been much warmer for the past few days. On Sunday it was dry and almost spring-like. I went out for a bike ride to make the most of it. I rode across to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. I freewheeled down the hill from High Horton Farm and over the Horton Bridge and then went up through the new housing estates towards the Nelson Industrial Estate. There was a noticeable north westerly breeze. I took the road past the Snowy Owl towards Blagdon. I glanced over at the new opencast site. It’s on the estate of those famous stewards of the landscape, the illustrious Ridleys. Matthew Ridley was a prominent figure in the development of Northern Rock and not a man to let concern or consideration for the needs or feelings of other human beings get in the way of personal profit. In fact Matt can’t get his head around the idea that anyone can actually do such a thing, because surely it’s not human nature to think of anyone but yourself. The planning application was rejected by the County Council but overturned by the government on appeal. It’s another shameful mess. I turned left at Blagdon went south past the Holiday Inn to the Seaton Burn Roundabout. The wind was finally behind me. It’s about ten miles home from there. I went via Arcot Lane, High Pit and Shankhouse.

When I got home I did a bit of gardening. I took the secateurs to last year’s withered stragglers from the catmint, lopped some branches of some of the shrubs and cut back the fuschia almost to the ground. New growth is already beginning to appear from the earth and the snowdrops are already flowering. Winter’s on its way out.

I’d finished the painting I was doing of Seaton Sluice. During the week a pack of five Loxley 16″x16″ canvases had been delivered. I decided I’d do another painting of Seaton Sluice on one of those, using the first one as my source. I underpainted the canvas in cadmium yellow and read The Observer while that dried. Then with a big flat brush I scribbled, scrawled and slapped on a sky in titanium white, burnt sienna and burnt umber. It was dramatic and swirly and turbulent and as I let myself get into it I was aware that it was very Turneresque and that it was Turner I was stealing this sky from. It was probably the influence of the burnt sienna, a colour I have only recently added to my palette, used with white on a yellow ground. I think I was somehow remembering The Fighting Temeraire – there was a print of this painting on the wall at my old school, I now recall – and The Slave Ship, I think. Turner is hard to emulate in acrylic paint though because the paint dries too quickly and doesn’t allow you to use glazes very well or to achieve those beautiful subtle gradations and colour shifts.  When I’m a better painter I’m sure I’ll want to use oils a lot more. The sky I produced was of course nothing like a sky you’ll ever see in nature. I don’t think that ever bothered Turner much, and it certainly doesn’t much bother me either. After all, the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at the Blyth office. It was another nice morning and after the meeting I decided to have a walk over to the quayside to look at the river for a few minutes before I went back to Ashington. I spotted Tristan’s white PermaPlumba van parked on the quayside close to Eddie Ferguson House. Tristan was sitting alone on one of the benches at the other side of the fence.

‘Hi, Tristan,’ I said. ‘What brings you to these parts?’

‘Just killing time, mate,’ he said. ‘Nothing better to do, I guess.’

‘Still no work, eh?’

‘Dead as a door nail, my fweind. Dead as a door nail. I’m telling you, this wecession will close Bwitain down if Bwown doesn’t sort it out soon.’

‘Do you think he can do that?’

‘No, I know he bloody well can’t. But let’s not pwetend he had nothing to do with getting us into this mess. He should pay the pwice.’

‘So how was Prague?’ I said. ‘Margaret tells me it was the business.’

‘Did she?’ Tristan said, and turned to look me in the eye, as if to see if I was joking. ‘Well, Pwague’s a fine city, sure enough, a place worth seeing.’

‘But you wouldn’t go back?’

He shrugged and gazed out over the river towards the bauxite silos on the far bank. A couple of kids were fishing on the jetty just downstream from there. The first wind turbine loomed above them. ‘Can I ask you something off the wecord?’ he said. ‘Just between me and you?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything you like.’

‘Have you heard of a bloke called Elvis Devlin? Wuns a bus company called Mephisto Twavel?’

‘Listen, I know about it, Tristan,’ I said. ‘Margaret told me.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I thought you might know.’

‘It’s no big thing,’ I said. ‘It’ll go no further than me.’

‘Oh no, no,’ he said. ‘That’s fine. That’s fine.’

‘I thought you and Brenda had sorted that out. I thought things were cool between you again.’

‘Bwenda’s vewy needy, you know. She’s vewy insecure. She’s got twust issues, weally big twust issues.’

‘But this isn’t about anything you’ve done, is it?’

‘The thing about Bwenda is you’ve always got to do something to pwove you love her. That’s what the Pwague twip was about. All the fuss she made about her Chwistmas pwesents. Bwenda doesn’t know what the weal thing is. If I was the wichest man in the world and gave her evewything money could buy, it wouldn’t be enough. Tomowwow she’d want something else. Bwenda thinks that if you don’t give her pwesents you don’t love her. The thing is, she’s almost got me bwoke – but I daren’t tell her. I’m wunning our welationship on my cwedit card now. The cwunch is bound to come!’ He laughed a little.

‘Now you know how Gordon feels,’ I said, laughing too, trying to keep the thing in the air. ‘So what you’re saying is that the only way to make sure Brenda doesn’t believe you’re not about to go off with some other woman is to keep on giving her things, and that if you don’t she won’t trust you anymore?’

‘Yes, exactly. You know how matewialistic she is. But it’s weally about twust, not gweed.’

‘But surely there’s no way you can give her things indefinitely? You’re not Richard Branson!’

‘No, you’re damn wight, I’m not Wichard Bwanson. I’ve told her that. I said “Bwenda this is about twust. For you pwesents are pwoof that someone loves you.” That’s why she’s attwacted to wich men, like this Elvis bloke. It’s because they can give her an endless supply of expensive pwesents. You know, that’s why I think she pwobably went for me now. Because when we met I was doing well. I was wolling in it. She’s so insecure she needs you to give, give, give. I asked her: “Bwenda,” I said, “Would you still think I loved you if I couldn’t buy you things?” “Of course I would,” she said. “What on earth do you take me for?!” But she wouldn’t, I know for sure she wouldn’t.”

‘So what’s the answer?’ I said. ‘Maybe she needs to life coach herself a bit.’

‘Oh, yes, I’ve pointed out the iwonies of this situation, believe you me I have. Maybe there is no answer. But the cwunch is going to come before long, that’s for sure. I’m spent up and there’s no work coming in. You can’t wun a welationship on cwedit. Pretty soon I’ll be bankwupt.’

‘Maybe things’ll take a turn for the better soon,’ I said. ‘Gordon’s green shoots might be springing up all around us any day now.’

‘Fat chance of that!’ Tristan said. ‘And besides that would only pwolong the agony. It wouldn’t solve the pwoblem. Bwenda needs to learn to twust. The thing is of course that it isn’t weally men she doesn’t twust – it’s herself she doesn’t twust. And evewy time she cwaves for another pwesent she knows she can’t be twusted. People who can’t be twusted don’t twust others, isn’t that twue?   Because they think evewybody’s just like them. Bwenda can’t see that anyone could ever love her for what she is. It’s a self-worth thing with her. It’s as if she thinks only expensive things will ever make her good enough. But of course they never will.’

We sat quietly for a minute or two watching the river. A seal popped up and I pointed it out to Tristan. He said it had been there all morning.

‘He’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ Tristan said. ‘He’s really beautiful.’

‘Anyhow,’ I said, ‘I need to be making my way back to work. I hope things work out okay for you and Brenda.’

‘Thanks, mate. Me too. Oh, and by the way, do me a favour, don’t tell Margawet you’ve seen me. I don’t want it getting back to Bwenda where I spend my days.’

‘Brenda thinks you’re working?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Yeah, and I need to keep it that way. God knows what she’d do if she knew I wasn’t’

‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ I said.

I drove past Ridley Park and along Wensleydale Terrace, past the site of the demolished Wellesley School which now stands deserted waiting for the economy to turn to make it worth building houses there. I reached the South Shore estate and glanced over at the sea. At the roundabout I went up South Newsham Road. It struck me that Blyth no longer has outskirts. It has a settlement boundary which marks the point where fields will turn into housing estates. The transition is sudden, in no way gradual. You can’t really say you’re coming into Blyth these days. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ve arrived or you haven’t. I turned on the CD player and listened to The Killers’ Sam’s Town album. I played it loudly. I crossed the railway at South Newsham and cruised up the Laverock and on to the Spine Road.

I parked in the public car park at the bottom of the street. As I was walking up to the office I met Owen Vardy coming down the hill. He was wearing a loose wrinkly oatmeal-coloured linen jacket – it was at least a size too big for him – and pale baggy Chinos.  He had a stripey brown and pink scarf wrapped around his neck, Dr Who style. He was leaning into every step, each of which appeared cautious and measured. Owen walks like a man on a treadmill, a treadmill he thinks might at any moment either stop completely or speed up dramatically. He was carrying an Asda ‘Bag for Life’.

‘Hi, Owen,’ I said. ‘Have you been shopping?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Well, not really. I’ve been to a meeting about the Collingwood children. I carry my files in this bag.  It’s the perfect size, you see. Actually, between you and I, I did take a quick toddle over to the high street to pick up a few vitamins.’

‘Oh, so what vitamins do you take?’

‘Oh, you know –  zinc, vitamin C, B complex, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, echinacea, evening primrose oil, flax oil, omega-3 and omega-6, saw palmetto, feverfew, calcium, magnesium, potassium, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, CoQ10 . . . you know,  just the usual stuff.’

What, no Becherovka? I thought to myself.

‘So are you ever ill, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, of course. I’m just the same as everyone else, you know, I catch colds and what have you. But there’s no point in taking unnecessary chances, is there? Oh, by the way, did you hear the latest about Jack?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. Don’t tell me he’s been dressing up again?’

‘No, no. He’s got rid of his Skoda and bought a motorbike. A big shiny black one. I think it might be a Kawasaki. It’s a very dangerous machine, a very dangerous machine. I think he’s being very foolish, actually.’

‘It’s his life, Owen,’ I said. ‘Or death, as the case might be.’

‘Exactly. Do you know he’s the same age as me?  In fact we were born on exactly the same day. You’d never catch me on a motor bike.’

‘I don’t think I’d bother trying,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t stand a chance.’

For a moment Owen missed the joke. He looked at me quizzically, his head slightly to one side, a half smile frozen on his face. What was he listening for, I wondered. Then he got it.

‘Ho ho,’ he laughed. ‘Very good. Yes, very good.’ And then he slid straight back into parson-like caution and prudence. He put his fingertips on my sleeve. He leaned in close to me.

‘And you’ll not have heard what he said to Tallulah either, have you?’ he said. ‘He offered to buy her a full set of leathers – a red leather bodysuit. He offered to take her out on his pillion.’

I laughed. ‘Oh my God, he’s shameless, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ Owen said. ‘He is shameless, and lacking in any sort of dignity too, I think.’ Just for a moment I fancied I caught the elusive vinegary whiff of piety and prurience.

‘Any how,’ he said, looking at his watch, ‘I really must be getting along now or  I’ll miss my bus.’

Owen always travels by bus, for road safety and environmental reasons, he says, although given how much he must spend on vitamins I wonder if he could afford a car in any case. As we parted I was thinking I must read George Herbert again.

When I went into the office Mandy Potts was in reception with Apple and Sparky. She looked like she’d been crying.

‘Hi, Mandy,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’

She shook her head slowly. She wasn’t. When I went through to the team room I asked Angie what Mandy wanted.

‘She wants to go to a refuge.’

‘Again?’ I said. ‘Why? Surely Mr Zee hasn’t turned nasty?’

‘No,’ Angie said. ‘Anything but. No, it’s not that. Elephant Carmichael called to see her last night. He gave her a message.  He told the Arab said not to forget that what’s his is his forever. He told her the Arab said to say hello. When they got up this morning there were four piles of sand on the step. She said they looked like four little graves. ‘

 .

as good will stalks the fairy-lit earth

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blyth-croft-reef-hotel

It would have been a miracle if all the slippers had gone when I returned from Ambleside. They hadn’t. Over the weekend one after another, like Magi logging on to LastMinuteMyrrh.com, Citizens came to collect their orders. Big Trevor had ordered no fewer than six pairs. For his mother he’d ordered some lambswool moccasins in dusky pink. For his mother-in-law the same, but in a more restrained natural light tan. His two sisters and sister-in-law all got shiny silk sequined mules with a low heel in silver, black and red. His daughter got a pair of Winnie the Poohs, which Margaret says have been one of the best sellers over Christmas. Interestingly Trevor didn’t order any slippers for himself and nor did anyone else order any for him. Perhaps Trevor’s a barefoot sort of man at home, I thought. Or perhaps he’s hoping to get a pair for himself in the Slipper Sisters eBay shop sale, which was starting on Christmas Day (because that’s when Marks and Sparks start theirs, Margaret explained).

While I was away the Widow Middlemiss returned home. Her brother and sister-in-law are staying with her until the New Year. It seems she had been quite anxious about returning and had feared that when she got back she would find her house overrun with a plague of frogs. Fortunately this was not the case, although it did occur to me that as was it was winter now and the heating in the house hadn’t been on for months there could be any number of them hibernating behind her settee or under her bed. She sent Margaret a glittery white Christmas card with a picture of an angel on it. Inside the card she thanked Margaret for all her help at the time of the flood. She also gave Margaret a similar card to pass on the Brenda. On Sunday morning Maureen and the Whelp turned up at the Widow’s door. How do they do that? How did they know she had returned? Do doorstep evangelists have some sort of special radar which enables them to detect the presence of people like the Widow? Are they for instance like sharks, which are said to be able detect a single drop of blood in the ocean from more than five miles away and without fail to always find their way to its source within a matter of seconds? How do they do that?

At work most of the toys from the Salvation Army and other charities were delivered and distributed in my absence. We don’t get as many as we used too, though, and there are always a number of parents who turn up at our door in the days before Christmas asking if we can help. For the most part the answer is no. Whatever other Christmas bonuses he gives out there is no allowance for toys for the children of the poor, perhaps because that whole process would look a bit Dickensian and evoke images of the Poor House. The Poor House is not the sort of image New Labour is really looking for.

Lily took Boz’s kids through to the hospital to see him. He’s no longer on a secure ward and expects to be discharged early in the new year. Lily said he was very calm and ‘absolutely lovely’ with the kids. He had bought them presents and had a little Christmas party with them on the ward. They all wore Christmas hats and played pass the parcel and musical chairs with some of the other patients. Angie asked if the Mad Hatter had been there. Lily said he hadn’t. Apparently he’s on Prozac now and not half as much fun as he used to be.  As I listened to this conversation I recalled that the Mad Hatter had been found guilty of murdering time and his stopped at teatime watch came to mind. I wondered if Margaret would be resetting the time on her twenty three clocks for 2009.

On Christmas Eve Angie visited Mandy, Apple and Sparky. Mr Zee was still there and the situation was calm and settled. Mr Zee’s job interview was cancelled because the company went into liquidation and so the possible crisis has been averted, as least for the time being. Angie asked Sparky what he was hoping to get from Santa, and he said a Zorro suit just like his ‘daddy’s’. Unfortunately Flinty has become aware of this development in the relationship between Mr Zee and the children. He rang Angie on Christmas Eve, ostensibly to ask again how he was supposed to get his presents to them. Angie reminded him that he’d already been told several times that if he got them delivered to the office they we would see to it they got to the children in time.

‘Aye, but how can I do that?’ Flinty said. ‘I’m not allowed to enter Ashington, am I? What are you saying, that I should break the conditions of my parole?!’

‘No, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘I am not suggesting you do anything of the sort. I would suggest that it would be very irresponsible for you to ever do such a thing.’

‘Aye, exactly,’ Flinty replied. ‘So how are the kids going to get their presents?’

‘Last time we spoke you said you could get your sister to drop them off. I thought that’s what we agreed would happen.’

‘But what if she doesn’t want to do that?’

‘You said she wouldn’t have any problem doing that. Did you ask her?’

‘That’s not the point, though, is it? What if she’d said no?’

‘So she said yes? So she can drop them off and we’ll make sure they’re delivered.’

‘Any way there’s another thing I’m not happy about. Someone tells me that that freak is making my kids call him dad. Is that true?’ It better bloody well not be.’

‘So far as I am aware Mandy’s current partner is not making the children call him anything,’ Angie said.

‘Hey, listen, pet. Them’s my bairns and I’m telling you now that neither you nor anybody else in this world has the right to let them think some weirdo from a fancy dress parlour is their dad. Got it, pet? I’m their dad, not that freak.’

‘Mandy’s partner has a very good relationship with the children, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie said. ‘It would be quite wrong to judge anyone merely by the way they dress. But for your information I can assure you he does not dress the way he does as a form of fancy dress. He’s actually a very serious person.’

‘Serious person, my arse! What sort of serious person needs to dress up as some sort of fictional Mexican bandito?! Eh?! If it isn’t just fancy dress, what is it, eh? Is he in disguise or something? Is he being hunted down by the Federales or something?!’

Flinty had a point, of course. There is a big difference between dressing up and being in disguise. A man dressed as an Arab to evade the attention of the police is a good example of the latter, and his behaviour is obviously open to explanation by reference to his predicament (although the reasons for his choice of disguise might be less clear). The reason why someone would simply want to spend all his or her waking hours dressed as Count Dracula, Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Godzilla or Zorro is rather less obvious, and in any case if someone did the term ‘wearing fancy dress’ would probably not be an adequate account of their behaviour. But Angie wasn’t wanting to debate the complexities of this issue with him or to provoke him further by raising The Arab question with him, an identity which in any case he’d simply categorically deny he’d ever assumed.

‘I think you’ll find, Mr Flintoff, that we all have a right under Human Rights legislation to dress as we choose, just so long as it doesn’t offend public decency or break some other law.’

‘And you don’t think that a geezer dressed up in cowboy boots and a cape living in the same house as my kids offends me?! What planet are ye from, pet?’

‘Obviously not the same one as you, Mr Flintoff,’ Angie replied. ‘Can I suggest that this conversation is getting us nowhere. If you get your sister to bring the presents in I’ll make sure they are delivered in time for Christmas.’

‘Hey, don’t bother, pet. I’ll tell you what, I’ll deliver them myself!’ he said, and hung up. Flinty’s sister brought the presents in to the office an hour or so later.

Every morning on the days before Christmas I noticed there was a lot of sand around the photocopier, especially on Christmas Eve morning. ‘Morning, Frodo,’ I said as I passed him. ‘How’s tricks?’

‘Is Tom having any holiday this Christmas?’ I asked Jesse from admin when she came up with a letter for me to sign.

‘No, I think he’s in every day,’ she said. ‘I don’t think he’s very big on Christmas.’

‘Has he got any family?’

‘Actually, I’m not sure. Tom’s a very, very private person. He never talks about his home life at all. He’s a sort of international man of mystery.’

‘So he doesn’t have a partner?’

Jesse shrugged. ‘If he does it’s not one he’s ever told anybody about,’ she said.

‘Kids?’

Jesse shrugged again.

‘Parents? Grandparents?’

She shook her head.

‘A girlfriend, a boyfriend, a best friend, a confidante?’

Another shrug.

‘A cat? A budgie? A goldfish?’

Late that afternoon there was only a skeleton staff left in the building. Tom had let all the other admin workers finish early and was in the main office, manning the telephones. I wandered through and sat down at one of the desks.

‘You all ready for Christmas, Tom?’ I said.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I am. I’m looking forward to a few days off.’

‘So do you do anything special at Christmas? Are you a party animal or a stay at home kind of guy?’

‘Oh, I’m not one for parties.’ he said, and smiled.

‘No, me neither,’ I said. ‘And doesn’t all this present buying business drive you loopy?! There’s supposed to be a recession going on. I don’t know about you, but to me it still seemed like Bedlam again out there this year! Still, what’s the point of having money if you’re not going to spend it on anyone, eh?’

Tom smiled, meekly. I noticed a parcel lying on his bag. It was wrapped in fine silver paper with gold spots on it and tied up with a blue satin ribbon. From its size and shape I would have said it looked very much like a new toner cartridge for a Xerox M35. There was also a ream of Premium Ivory Bond and a brand new green extendable leash on the floor near him, as well as another big gift wrapped bundle which looked to me as if it probably contained a quilted stable rug coat for a small horse.

‘Do you want to get away?’ Tom said. ‘I’m happy to hang on here. We can always get you on your mobile, can’t we?’

‘Thanks, Tom. That’s very kind of you. Yeah, I might do that.’

I suspected Tom wanted everyone to go so he could take Frodo home for Christmas. I sat for a minute or so. I got up, leant over towards Tom and shook his hand.

‘All the best to you and yours, Tom,’ I said. ‘Have a really good Christmas.’ What I was wanting to do of course was to remind him that a Xerox is for life, not just for Christmas.

‘Yes,’ Tom said. ‘All the best to you too. Merry Christmas.’

When I got home the house was full of the smell of the sweet onions Margaret was cooking for Christmas Day. I fed De Kooning a plate of prawns and sat for a while flicking through Bill Smith’s book on D Y Cameron. Then I went out for a walk. I crossed Broadway Circle and went along to the top of Waterloo Road to look at the house with the Christmas lights and the inflatable Homer Simpson dressed as Santa. I walked down past the still unfinished market place refurbishment and the bus station and on down to the quayside. It’s easy to convince yourself on a night like this that all is well with the world and that good will really does stalk the earth.

When I got back home Margaret was wrapping up the last of her presents.

‘Did you get Brenda something?’ I asked.

‘Of course,’ she said. ‘I got her a pair of winter gloves and a matching muff in leopard skin faux fur and a sweet little Radley purse with a lime green dog. I also got her a Chanel Coco Mademoiselle Gift Set – perfume, body cream, body wash, everything. Cocos her favourite. She’ll really love it. Oh, and I got her some silver earrings from The Biscuit Factory, handmade ones with little birds dangling down.’

‘Did you get anything for Tristan?’

‘Of course. I wouldn’t leave him out, would I? I got him a three-pack of striped socks from Topman.’

‘Hmmm, good choice,’ I said. ‘Troskyists are really big on stripes this year.’

‘Oh, by the way, that’s your present from Brenda over there,’ Margaret said. ‘The one beneath the tree in the holly and mistletoe paper.’

I picked it up. It was a cube, each side being perhaps twelve inches in length. I shook it. It rattled a little and I fancied it might have slurped or gurgled too. I very much wanted it to be an electric screwdriver set, but its weight and sound told me it wasn’t.  I wondered if I stared at it long enough and wished hard enough I could change the contents of my unopened gift into what I wanted it to be. I wondered if it was a Plaster of Paris Paint It Yourself horse’s head or an illuminated world globe showing the map of the British Empire at the end of the Nineteenth Century. It was probably not a good idea to entertain such thoughts though, just in case. Be careful what you wish for, as they say.

‘Do you know what it is?’ I asked Margaret.

‘No, of course not,’ she replied.

I decided to open it. It was a battery powered Zen-style Feng Shui Windchime Table Fountain. That’s what it said on the box. I took it out. It somehow reminded me of the whale’s jawbone arch at Whitby, although of course that isn’t made of silver plastic. The Table Fountain is obviously meant to be a therapeutic ornament, something to soothe me.

‘Oh, isn’t that lovely!’ Margaret said. ‘It’s so unusual, isn’t it? You must remember to thank her for it.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I will. By the way, you did put my name on her present, didn’t you?’

‘Yes, of course. Why? You haven’t bought her something on your own, have you?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I haven’t. Not this year. I only wish I had.’

 .

tallulah and the good catastrophe

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newsham-hotel-christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I looked out of the window and nodded.

‘Actually I like the snow,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Like good old rock and roll, eh?’

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

I said I did sometimes, yes.

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

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

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

I.

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

 

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

X.

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

XI.

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

XII.

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

 

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

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

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

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

‘It shows, then?’

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

He nodded slowly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘He’s good.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Spend what?!’ the world sings back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

if rats are made out of nothingness

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newsham-elliot-street-pan-ahar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘How you doing?’ I said to him.

‘I’m okay,’ he replied. ‘You know.’

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

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

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

‘Is Flinty still with Molly?’ I asked.

Mandy shrugged and looked at Mr Zee.

‘We don’t know,’ he said.

‘Have you told the police?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Will we be safe?’ Margaret asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I watched Newsnight. I went to bed.

.

waiting for the miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is she still with Mr Zee?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

‘It’s stopped,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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