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a glimpse of maybellene’s garden

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bebside #2

‘The sun is God’

(Said to be Turner’s last words)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

‘Okay. Thanks.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kettles and frying pans crossed my mind.

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

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

‘Ah.’

‘But she has an idea.’

‘She has an idea?’

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

‘It wasn’t Mrs Byro, was it?’

‘It might have been, yes. Why?’

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

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

‘Curlew?’

‘It might be, yes.’

‘Or was it Avocet?’

‘Perhaps.’

‘Or Osprey?’

‘Yes, maybe.’

‘Or Eider?’

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

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

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

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

Lily interviewed Mr Bilbo on Wednesday, as planned.

‘How did it go?’ I asked.

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

‘Did he talk to you okay?’

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

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

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

‘Ah ha! And?’

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

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

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

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

Lily shrugged and shook her head.

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

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

‘Spirituals?’

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

‘Did Mr Bilbo mention those particular songs?’

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

I shrugged and shook my head.

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

‘He said the garden smells strange.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the week they pretended the world wasn’t broken

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blyth-cowpen-quay-ferry-corner-72dpi

This has been the week of the G20 in London and the NATO summit in Strasbourg. It’s been a week when the leaders of the developed world have orchestrated the grand illusion that things are going to be all right. The world’s had a bad infection, it’s true, but the good news is Dr Obama’s on the case and the patient’s off the critical list. (Obama’s a bit like the political equivalent of House, it seems. A less curmudgeonly variant. What they have in common is that they both know with absolute certainty that whatever illness the economy’s got, it’s not Lupus.)

Of course the week’s been more about saving political necks than changing anything very much about the way the world works. The whole thing was a transparent media event, the straightforward massaging of electorates – or consumers, as they’re now called. A week to persuade the world to renew its faith in free market capitalism. Confidence is the new magic bullet and this week was a gun to fire it. Dr Obama’s job was to squeeze the trigger. For some reason I’m reminded of Burt Lancaster in Valdez is Coming.

Of course, in the movie of this episode in the history of world I’d have Barack played by Will Smith and Gordon by Walter Matthau. My real first choices would be Cate Blanchett for Barack and Morgan Freeman for Gordon, but I’d worry in case this alienated my audience. Casting Sarkozy would be slightly trickier either way, because in both cases I’d want to avoid having one of those films that mix computer-generated animation with footage of real actors.

On Thursday morning I had to go to a meeting in North Shields first thing. Margaret asked me if I could drop a box off for Brenda for her on my way back.

I got there at about eleven o’clock. Mrs Byro was coming out of her appointment as I arrived. She really is an extraordinarily small woman, probably no taller than Noel Edmonds. And her dress sense too is remarkable – for the rigour with which it comprehensively denies the eye all and any aesthetic satisfaction. But Mrs Byro turned out to be a surprisingly articulate woman, albeit one who speaks in a somewhat alien accent, to my ear an odd mixture of Jewish American and Low Polish, perhaps with just the hint of Belfast.

‘Hello, there,’ she said. ‘Have you come to see Brenda too?  She’s marvellous, isn’t she?’

I nodded. She smiled, as if in her eyes we were now members of the same tribe, one of those human beings who cannot live without a shaman.

‘I’m worried about the deer,’ she said. ‘Do you think we’ll be all right?’

‘The deer?’ I said, wondering if perhaps I was mistaking an adjective for a noun.

‘Yes, the deer. The roe deer. I often go to stay with my sister up near the Thrunton Woods, you see. Do you know the Thrunton Woods? Well, they have a lot of deer up there, you know. Yes, and they say some of them have started to bite the necks of other deer.’

‘Really? Neck-biting deer? Do you mean affectionately?’

‘Oh no. Oh no, not like that that.’ For a moment Mrs Byro looked flustered. She seemed to blush a little.

‘So these deer attack the other deer?’ I said. ‘Why?’

Mrs Byro came a little closer. I gazed down at her, as a man in a lighthouse might gaze down at an unexpected visitor. She looked up at me, her eyes glazed like those of a bewildered rodent.

Bloodlust,’ she said. She swallowed deeply. ‘Bloodlust. Some of the roe deer in the Thrunton Woods have become vampires.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Vampire deer? That’s not something I’ve ever heard about before. Are you sure?’

‘Oh I’m sure,’ she said. ‘I’m absolutely sure. My sister says she’s seen it with her very own eyes. These creatures are shameless. They are breaking the laws of nature.’

I shook my head in an understanding way. The Mrs Byros of this world have a way of turning us all into doctors. I touched her shoulder. ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine,’ I said, as if confirming my prognosis. ‘Most deer aren’t like that, I’m sure.’

‘That’s what Brenda said. That’s exactly what she said. She’s a marvellous woman, isn’t she?  I hope she’s as much help to you as she has been to me. I really don’t know where I’d be with out her.’

Mrs Byro ambled off. She somehow reminded me of a walking proggy mat, albeit one little taller than an armadillo. I looked at Tristan and made a what the hell planet is she from gesture. He rolled his eyes and smiled.

‘She pays the bills,’ he said.

‘How are things with you?’ I said. ‘What are you doing here on a work day? Have you come clean with Brenda about having no jobs on?’

‘Yes,’ Tristan said. ‘We finally had a heart to heart. I told her I wasn’t going to pwetend any longer. I told her that if she can’t love a poor man as much as a wich man then we have no future. I’ve cleared the air. I think it’s done the twick, mate. I think we’re cool now. Fingers cwossed, eh? Anyhow, how are you, my fwiend? I hear you’ve been on holiday.’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I had a week in Bowness a couple weeks ago. It was good. I went to Brantwood and a few other places I hadn’t been to and did a bit walking.’

‘Bwantwood? Oh that’s a lovely place, isn’t it? My first wife used to love to go there. She loved Wuskin. She loved all that Arts and Cwafty and Pwe-Waphaelite stuff. When the kids were little we used to take them to Coniston evewy summer and we always went to visit Wuskin’s gwave. For Claire it was a sort of annual pilgwimage. She loved those places.’

‘You’ve got kids, Tristan? I didn’t know that. Do you still see them?’

‘Yes, I’ve got two, Effie and Gabby. They’re twins. I speak to them on the phone evewy week and I go down to see them whenever I can. They’re at university now and I’m vewy pwoud of them. They’re my kids, and nothing in the world matters more to me than them. They loved Bowness too, now I think of it. They loved getting the fewwy over to the Hawkshead side. Have you ever been on that fewwy?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘In fact I was on it when I was there. I went over and walked up to Hilltop.’

‘Ah, Beatwix Potter, eh? Effie and Gabby loved Peter Wabbit and Jewemiah Puddleduck and all that stuff. We always used to take them to Hilltop so they could see the house and the pub that’s in the books.’

‘The Tower Bank Arms.’

‘Yes, that’s it. We always had a glass of cider and a packet of cwisps there.’

‘So did you ever hear about Florence Nelson?’ I said. ‘The woman who murdered a love rival on Longtail Hill.’

‘Oh yes, of course,’ Tristan replied. ‘Evewyone knows that tale. Flowence Nelson, the Steamwoller Murdwess. She was a bad un’, that one. You have to admire her determination though.’

‘Because she took driving lessons and planned it all so patiently and meticulously?’

‘No, because of the jailbweak.’

‘The jailbreak?’

‘You didn’t know that she escaped? Oh, there was no stopping Flowence Nelson. It was a bit like that film, The Shawshank Wedemption. She dug her way out of Styal pwison with a spoon. It took her over thwee years. She went on the wun. They say she dwessed as a man and hid out for months in a wuined house near Gwange Over Sands. She lived on birds’ eggs and bewwies. She knew that Ned Perfect had taken up with another woman, another wed-head. A hairdwesser fwom Twoutbeck Bwidge called Amelia Pond. They say Ned and Amelia were engaged to be mawwied. Flowence had made her mind up, they were both going to pay the ultimate pwice. They would never be wed.’

‘Florence had her sights on Ned too?  I thought she adored the man!’

‘She did. She worshipped the gwound he walked on. But hell hath no fuwy and all that. From the minute Flowence bwoke out of that pwison carnage was inevitable. But first she had to find another steamwoller, which isn’t that easy for a woman on the wun disguised as a man in the Lake Distwict. Night after night she went out on a moped twying to find one and secwetly watching Ned and Amelia to discover their woutines. Eventually one moonlit August night she found what she wanted, an Aveling and Porter parked up in a roadside barn at High Bowwans. It was in perfect nick and in just the wight place. The stage was set for one of the most infamous cwimes to ever take place in those parts.’

At that point Brenda came through. She said hello to me and asked me if I’d brought a box for her from Margaret. I pointed to it on the table.

‘Oh that’s excellent,’ she said. ‘Has Margaret told you we’ve ditched the fleece and fun idea?’

‘Yeah, she told me. She told me you’ve gone back to the sunglasses idea. So what are you going to call your shop this time round, The Sunglasses Shop?’ I was aware that previously Brenda had dismissed my slightly more fanciful suggestions. I was trying to avoid being flippant.

‘Oh no,’ Brenda replied. ‘That’s far too prosaic. I’m surprised that you of all people would suggest such a thing.’

I shrugged, as if to acknowledge my stupidity. ‘Sorry, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Just a daft idea. So what are you calling it?’

The Maids With The Shades.’

‘The Maids With The Shades,’ I nodded. ‘Yes, that’s good,’ I said. ‘It’s memorable.’

As I drove back along through Seaton Sluice I wondered whether the old man I’d walked with through Far Sawrey wasn’t Ned Perfect after all. It sounded as if Ned too may have ended his days flattened into the tarmac somewhere along the quiet shores of Windermere. No wonder Pippa’s kids never found him in the woods. Next time I see Tristan I must remember to get him to tell me the rest of the story.

When I got home that night Margaret was resetting the time on all of her twenty three stopped clocks. She was setting them to nine minutes past nine. I asked her why she’d chosen that time.

‘Brenda advised me that it was a good time for any stopped clock in 2009.’

‘Just because of the 09 thing?’

‘No. Brenda says nine is a very special number. It is a number full of hope. It encourages and anticipates fulfilment. She says this is because it is the last single number and stands at the brink of ten. Ten represents a goal or aspiration in life.’

‘So nine minutes past nine is a special time. Yes, that makes sense. I can see that. But why not nine minutes to nine?’

‘Well, that’s something you had better ask Brenda, isn’t it?’ Margaret said, slightly dismissively. ‘I’m sure she’ll be more than happy to explain.’

‘I met one of Brenda’s, er, patients today,’ I said. ‘A diminutive tatterdemalion of a woman who has convinced herself there are Dracula deer in Thrunton Woods. Probably a suitable case for acupuncture. Or reiki, perhaps. Anyhow she told me that Brenda’s a marvellous woman.’

‘She is. She’s very clever. You’re probably the only person who doesn’t see it.’

I nodded, as if I agreed. ‘How are things with her and Tristan?’ I asked. ‘They seem better than they were.’

‘Do you think so? Well, they aren’t. Actually I don’t things are at all good there. There are quite a few things about Tristan that I think Brenda’s isn’t happy with at the minute. If he doesn’t watch himself he’s going to lose her.’

‘Her birthday’s coming up soon, isn’t it?’ I said.

‘Yes, the fifth of May. Four weeks on Tuesday. I’ve already got something for her.’

‘It’s not a pair of Wayfarers, is it?’

‘No.’

‘Phew!’

I went out for a walk down to the beach. I had a look at the new beach huts they’re putting up along the promenade. They have all the usual charm and authenticity of copycat retro seaside ornaments. If you didn’t recognise them from photographs you’ve seen of Whitby, Cromer, or Brighton they’d be failing to do their job. Like every other old coal town, Blyth is now more of a commodity than a community. What you see is more about branding than social need. I walked on into the dunes to Gloucester Lodge farm and then back up home through the old campsite and across South Beach Estate.

On Saturday it was dry in the afternoon. I went to my dad’s on the bike, although it turned out to be so windy that I wished I hadn’t.

On his visit to the library this week my dad had got out a locally produced book on the history of the Isabella Colliery. It’s one of those documents that doesn’t really have a clear focus and is largely a compilation of the memories of the usual community suspects, with the inevitable variations in quality. It does contain a dialect poem of sorts about Plessey Road, though. It’s entitled Plessy Waggon Way. It was written by Thomas Thirlwell and published in Blyth in 1903 in a book called Blyth and Tyneside Songs and Recitations. The piece celebrates the improvement of the road from Newsham to Blyth. Here’s the fourth verse.

The say thor’s noo commenced te run
Tom Allen’s three-horse bus se gay
Ne doot the Newsham foaks ‘ill cum
Te Blyth each week te spend thor pay
They’ll catch the fra Willow Tree
Te smoke outside or smile inside
Then roond bi Blyth the seets they’ll see
Wye lads, they’ll get a clivvor ride
 

It’s a piece with more social than aesthetic value.

It was sunny today. I was going to go out the Thrunton Woods to look for wildlife, but I didn’t have much petrol in the car and didn’t feel like going to the garage. I walked from the door, up Plessey Road and then on up the bridleway into the fields which follows the course of the old wagonway. I turned off on the track over to Low Horton farm and then crossed the bridge over the Spine Road on to the Heathery Lonnen. I stopped for a minute or so and looked over to Horton Church. I wondered if I should try again to find the Nightingale’s grave. I decided not to and followed the lane north down to Bebside. I crossed the railway and went down past the crowded Asda car park.  I came back over the reclaimed Isabella Colliery land. When I got home I discovered that Hugo had a new car on his drive, an orange Bond Bug. Hugo was standing, big as a pirate, hands on hips, gazing at it, when he noticed me going up my garden path.

‘Here, mate,’ he shouted. ‘What do you think of her? Isn’t she a little cracker?’

‘It’s a Bond Bug, isn’t it. Fletch?  You don’t see many of those these days.’

‘Aye, that what she is. You don’t see many ‘cos there’s not many left. Me mate says there’s less than a thousand left in existence. These things are like hen’s teeth nowadays.’

‘So can you still get parts for them?’ I asked.

‘You can if you know where to look,’ Hugo replied, gnomically. He probably meant a secret scrapyard somewhere.

I went inside and told De Kooning about the Bond Bug. We went into the kitchen and I made myself a cappuccino. The two packets of onion seeds were still lying on the bench. I took my cappuccino and copy of The Observer into the conservatory. I was reluctant to open it. It’s been the week of the G20 and Jade Goody’s funeral. There’s only so much good news one man can take.

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the part of beauty that can’t be destroyed

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bath-terrace-lighthouse-blyth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Candy.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who’s it about again?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Owen told me it was a Kawasaki.’

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

‘Hilda?’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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a sort of macabre sweepstake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others cringed and frowned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Not good,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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