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tallulah and the good catastrophe

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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.

.

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the return of the muslim vampires

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Yesterday morning I went to a meeting in Shiremoor. On my way back I decided to call and see my dad in Seaton Sluice. He’s getting his house refurbished – rewired, new kitchen and all that palaver – and I was wondering how things were going. When I got to the Sluice I saw Tristan’s white PermaPlumma van parked just around the corner of the Collywell Bay Road, more or less opposite the social club.  I spotted Tristan himself in his white boilersuit and blue jacket, leaning against the fence looking out over into the harbour. It was sunny and cold, quite suddenly like winter. The white buildings on Rocky Island were gleaming in the sun and the whole scene looking north had a picture postcard quality about it. I parked up and went over.

‘Hey, Tristan, what’s happening?’ I said. ‘Have you got as job up this way to do?’

‘No, mate,’ Tristan said. ‘No job. Work’s dwied up a bit, I’m afwaid.’

He looked just a little despondent, a little stoical.

‘So what you doing in the Sluice?’ I asked.

‘I’m just getting out of Bwenda’s way,’ he replied. ‘She’s got clients all morning. I didn’t want to be under her feet.’

I nodded and shared the view with him for a few seconds.

‘Hey, so what do you think of the response of the Left of the credit crunch, Tristan?’ I said.

‘What wesponse?’ he replied, suddenly becoming more animated. ‘The so-called Left squats like a bullfwog on a log and cwoaks and cwoaks but never jumps.’

‘So what’s it waiting for?’

‘I dunno, mate! A sign, maybe, or a call from heaven.’

‘So what should it do, Tristan? What would it look like if the bullfrog jumped?’

‘You know something, mate, I don’t think this bullfrog knows how to jump. I don’t think it’s actually got the legs for it anymore. It isn’t organised, that’s the problem. Who are the Left? Who’s leading them? Without organisation, mate, this fwog ain’t jumping anywhere.’

I laughed and said that maybe this was true, but surely that it just begged the question of why there was no organised Left in the first place, why we had a frog that couldn’t jump.

‘Maybe it’s because it can’t see anywhere to jump to?’ I suggested. ‘Maybe that one smug log in the backwater is the only one this frog can sit on these days. There’s no other log for the socialist frog to swim towards, is there?’

‘This is a chicken and egg situation,’ Tristan said. ‘Pwaxis, mate, that’s the way to deal with this kind of pawadox. You’ve always got to be weady to jump. Jumping’s what changes the world. Jump and the future weveals itself!  Wemember what Marx said: in the past it was the job of philosophers to understand the world, the job now is to change it. The fwog needs to get on with jumping, I say, and stop gazing at its navel and cwoaking. A fwog that loves the sound of its own cwoak is a fwog that will soon be dwowned in the tide of histowy.’

‘You make this frog sound a bit like Hamlet, Tristan,’ I joked. ‘To jump or not to jump, that is the question. A frog with its head up its own backside.’

I told Tristan I needed to be on my way. I found his position frankly a little undisciplined for a Trotskyist, somewhat lacking in theoretical rigour. But he is right, the Left’s response to the current global financial crisis has been remarkably passive, and you can only surmise that this is because they either don’t know how to respond or no longer have the capacity to do so. These two things are probably inextricably linked, of course. Marxists can gloat over their man’s acumen about capitalism, but which of them can tell us where to go from here? The Left seems to have lost the belief it once had that it can make history, and that it can even do so in circumstances not of its own choosing. The Left seems to be mostly comprised of Lutherans nowadays. They don’t need to be organised. All that’s needed is that each individual believes in the God of history. If everyone sits quietly in their soon to be repossessed homes praying to this God the revolution will inevitably occur. Capitalism will magically wither and die while they dream.

As I walked back to my car I mused on Tristan’s brave and perhaps slightly incoherent analysis, that the Left is a frog with no legs and nowhere to jump but somehow ought to jump anyway. Basho’s famous haiku came to my mind.

The old pond,
A frog jumps in:
Plop!

This poem has been translated by just about everyone, of course. The version I always recall is Alan Watts’ translation. I wasn’t sure how enlightening it was in terms of the Left and the global crisis in Capitalism, but it’s a fine little poem, isn’t it?

I called across to see my dad. His flat is upside down, polythene covering every floor surface, workmen coming and going, the door permanently open. My dad had his coat on and was obviously very cold. He offered me a sandwich; I declined. I told him I needed to get back to work and left. As I drove back down past the social club I could see Tristan. He was still looking out over the bay.

The schools are on holiday this week and it’s Halloween on Friday. Some of the kids in Ashington are using their cast off pillowcases as spook outfits and wandering from house to house knocking on doors. Just after I got back from the Sluice Gilmour rang me about this phenomenon.

‘We don’t have a resurgence of the Flinties, do we?’ he asked. ‘Tell me how worried we should be about this.’

‘Not at all,’ I suggested. ‘They are just kids trick or treating. They’re also wearing witches hats, Frankenstein masks and carrying pumpkin lanterns from Asda. Some of them have luminous plastic vampire teeth and fake knives through their heads. Do they sound like a bunch of Muslim terrorists to you?’

Gilmour agreed, they didn’t, although not without observing that stranger things have happened. And by chance he’d listened to Alan Robson on Night Owls last night and there had been some alarming calls from worried listeners in the Ashington area.

‘A lady called Hettie from Bomarsund rang up,’ Gilmour said. ‘This lady sounded quite agitated. She said to the presenter something like “It’s all happening again, Alan.” He tried to reassure her, but she was having none of it. He asked her if these children were throwing paper aeroplanes at windows again and then as a sort of Halloween joke he said, “Or is it bats this time, Hettie?”  Hettie was not at all amused. “Alan, with all due respect,” she said, “this is not funny.”  Alan apologised. Oh, Hettie wasn’t a happy bunny. Later a bloke called John from Westerhope came on. This guy was obviously some kind of conspiracy theorist. He seemed to think Ashington police were in cahoots with the Flinties to destroy the British way of life. The next caller was a drunken woman from Ashington.’

‘Oh, Cheryl!’ I said.’ Ha ha. Yes, we know Cheryl. She’d be complaining that the authorities weren’t taking her seriously, was she?’

‘Yes, that’s right. She said she’d seen someone dressed as – ‘

I interrupted him: ‘Robin Hood! Yes, she says that all the time!’

‘No,’ Gilmour said. ‘Not Robin Hood. The Lone Ranger.’

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Anyhoo, my boy,’ Gilmour said, ‘It sounds like we don’t have to get ourselves into a lather about any of this, do we? So, tell me, how’s your dad doing? Is he okay?’

‘Yeah,’ I replied. ‘He’s fine. Still mending fuses in the factory and what have you. How’s yours?’

‘Oh, father’s absolutely chipper. He’s a bit worried that the demand for meat might drop off a bit if there’s a recession, and of course like anyone else he’s getting a bit nervous about property values and his investments. But all in all he’s very well, thank you. Oh, by the way, did I tell you my lad’s driving the quad now?’

‘Is he? The quad, eh? Hey, that’s great. He’s really coming on, isn’t he? By the way, how’s your daughter’s horse doing?’

Gilmour told me the horse and his daughter were both doing remarkably well. I then asked him why he didn’t turn up at Rosie Lake’s leaving do last Friday.

‘Oh, it clashed with something my wife had arranged,’ he said. ‘How did it go? Did they give her a good send off?’

‘Well, Jack Verdi did,’ I said.

‘Jack finally performed?!’ Gilmour said. ‘My goodness, miracles will never cease, eh? What did he do, the old hits from his back catalogue?’

‘Yeah, well, his back catalogue was certainly involved. Nobody’s told you about, have they?’

‘No. No-one’s mentioned it. Hey, it sounds like I missed a good night? I really wish I could have been there. I’ve got a couple of Jack’s old albums, you know. I like his stuff. Is his voice still as good as it was?’

I chuckled. Gilmour asked me why I was laughing. ‘Oh, I guess you just had to be there,’ I said. ‘I’m sure Freddy will give you the full low down when you see him.’

I think our call ended with Gilmour in much better fettle than when our conversation began. It certainly cheered me up.

Debs came up and told me that Mandy was in the office. She was thinking of trying to get a private tenancy outside of Ashington, maybe in Morpeth or Seaton Delaval. She wanted to live somewhere where Flinty might not find her.

‘If she found somewhere could we help her out with a bond?’ Debs asked.

‘Is running away from him the answer, Debs?’ I said.

‘Oh, come on,’ she said. ‘What else is she going to do? The man’s a nutcase. He’s never going to leave her alone.’

I looked at her and shook my head. ‘Aye, all right,’ I said. ‘It’s only money, I guess.’

It was another cold afternoon. As I drove down Alexandra Road at dusk the sky was icy blues, violets and orange. The streetlights had just come on. An old white Mercedes passed me going in the other direction. The driver was dressed like an Arab. I turned on the radio. On the five o’clock news I heard that Gordon had stepped into the furore about Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand acting like a couple of prats on Brand’s late night radio programme a week or so ago. Gordon’s the man with his finger on the pulse of the nation.

It was dark before I got home.

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on the day the clocks went back

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The clocks went back last night. British Summer Time is over, the dark nights are here. It was a sunny morning, cool and windy. As I left the house to go for a walk and get the newspapers, Hugo was getting out of his car. He had a small plastic giraffe under his arm.

‘Here, mate, that tree of yours has suddenly gone yellow, hasn’t it?’ he shouted.

‘Happens every autumn, Fletch,’ I said, laughing.

Maureen and the Whelp were knocking on the Widow’s door.

‘She’s gone away,’ I said.

‘Oh?’ Maureen said. The Whelp gawped superciliously over her shoulder.

‘No, no,’ I said, seeing that my remark had an ambiguity which those who were religiously minded might find especially confusing. ‘I mean she’s gone to stay with her brother in Derbyshire. We’re not sure when she’ll be back.’

‘Oh,’ Maureen said again, but this time with a relieved smile. She got out her note book and wrote something in it. Perhaps she was noting that the Widow hadn’t escaped doing business with them by grabbing an early flight to heaven with the Methodists.

Boz went completely off the rails last week. He came to the office several times with one query after another about his children and his rights and the stupidity of the law.  On Wednesday he was arrested for stealing seed from a bird-feeder in a garden on the Fallowfield estate. It appears that he had been reliably informed that commercial bird seed contains cannabis seeds.

Boz had estimated that there are probably about five hundred bird feeders in Ashington, mostly hanging from trees and bird tables in the new private estates. He reckoned that there would be on average a pound of seed in each feeder. If ten percent of that was cannabis seed that would be fifty pounds of the stuff.  Boz reckoned a shrewd dealer would surely pay a tidy sum for fifty pounds of cannabis seed. All he had to do was to break the town into manageable harvesting districts – each district being about the right size for one night’s work – and systematically gather the seed from the gardens. He couldn’t fail.

On Wednesday night he found himself with his back against a six foot lattice fence in a garden in Magnolia Drive, cornered behind the garden pond by a Rottweiller called Dexter Dan. Dexter Dan’s owner, Geoffrey Harrison, a retired seaman and Chief Storekeeper by trade, shone his high-powered torch into Boz’s face and told him the police were on there way. Rather uncharacteristically Boz said nothing and instead began eating the seed from his pocket. He later explained that he’d calculated that trespass was a less serious offence than possession of more of a Class C drug than he could reasonably argue was for personal use only.

Boz was released the following morning and came in to see Lily at about lunchtime.  He told her of the idea he’d had and how he’d been apprehended on his very first seed gathering expedition.

‘They kept me in a cell all night, Lil,’ he said. ‘The police have no right to do the things they do, you know. Do I look like a criminal to you, Lil? Do I?’

Lily shook her head ambiguously. ‘So did they charge you with anything?’ she asked.

‘They’re complete numpties, complete bloody wassocks.’

‘So you were charged with something?’

‘They charged me with criminal damage to a bird feeder.’ Boz looked Lily straight in the eyes. He was very serious. He was saying loud and clear that this was no laughing matter.

‘Well, that’s not serious, Boz,’ she said. ‘I mean, it might never get to court.’

‘They also charged me with the theft of ten ounces of birdseed with an estimated value of two pounds fifty.’ He paused.

Lily put his hand on his shoulder.

‘I’ll be a laughing stock, Lil,’ he said. ‘The numpties from Newbiggin will call me Birdseed or Pecker or something else just as stupid that they’ll think is absolutely bloody hilarious. I’ll never be able to hold my head up in Ashington again. Never.’

‘Forget about it,’ Lily said. ‘Listen, no-one will ever know about it in any case if it doesn’t get to court. And I’m sure it won’t, Boz. It’d be a waste of public money.’

‘Can I have the kids this weekend, Lil?’ Boz asked, very calmly. ‘I need them with me right now. You can come and inspect the caravan if you want.’

Lily shook her head. ‘I’m sorry, Boz’, she said. ‘You know that can’t happen. It’s just not the right thing for the kids.’

Boz shook his head slowly. But he didn’t get angry at all. In fact, Lily felt he accepted this very easily. He looked very composed, as if he’d finally gained control of himself. As if, as Lily put it, the penny had finally dropped. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘I just needed to ask you. You understand that, right?’

‘Yes,’ Lily said. ‘I do understand.’

What happened in the next few hours is somewhat unclear. However, at about eight thirty on Thursday evening the police were called to Bubbles where Boz was being restrained by the doorman and a couple of lads from North Seaton. Boz had gone into Bubbles and announced to everyone there that he was a suicide bomber and that he was about to blow the place up. He pulled open his jacket and revealed a belt which he claimed was packed with explosives. The doorman sauntered over, head-butted him and threw him to the ground. The lads from North Seaton then helped out by putting in the boot. They removed the belt and found it was packed with Rowntree’s Table Jelly.

The police arrested Boz and initially considered holding him under Schedule 8 of the Terrorism Act 2000. However, it struck the duty Sergeant that a man who had just one day earlier been arrested for stealing birdseed from a garden feeder and who at the time of arrest had nothing more dangerous on his person than some unopened packets of Rowntree’s Table Jelly, probably wasn’t a member of Al Qaeda. In fact, he probably wasn’t at all well. Later that night Boz was sectioned. He is now in St George’s Hospital.

On Friday night I went to a working men’s club in Cramlington for the retirement do for Rosie Lake, who has managed long-term placements for children since time began. I don’t like these sort of does and, while I like and respect Rosie, I would normally have given it a very wide berth. Unfortunately I was roped into being a late replacement for Jack Verdi, who was going to play the piano for some of Rosie’s colleagues who wanted to sing a few songs for her. Jack rang me up and told me that for personal reasons he wouldn’t now be able to play. He asked me to stand in for him. I reluctantly agreed. I said I was surprised that he wasn’t able to go as he and Rosie had once been rivals for the same post and had been through a lot together. He said he genuinely regretted not being able to play for her.

Jack Verdi used to be a professional musician before he gave it all up to become a social worker and raise a family. Jack was in a band that made one or two chart-topping singles. He lived the rock and roll lifestyle to the hilt and in his younger days had quite a reputation as a hell-raiser. The story of how he once threw the ironing board out of the window of the Chelsea Hotel is still recounted in music circles to this day. Jack was hot tempered and quite notorious for getting into fights with other musicians about apparently insignificant issues. One story relates how he once threw a pint of cider over a sound engineer who’d suggested that B-flat was a better key than G for a particular song. This propensity for fighting led to Jack acquiring the nickname of ‘Scrapper’, and again even now from time to time in Q or Mojo or Rolling Stone you will see Scrapper Verdi invoked as the paradigm for the wild man of British rock.

On more than one occasion in recent years Jack has been expected to play at departmental leaving does, but for one reason or another he has never yet done so. Some people believe this is because Jack very much prefers the electric organ to the piano, and because he cannot bear to play anything but a top class instrument. It’s said he has a really wonderful organ, but that it’s far too big to bring along to a do. Someone once told me it’s a Hammond organ – complete with bass pedalboard and every other bell and whistle – and that it once belonged to Billy Preston. What people say is that Jack’s reputation depends upon his organ and that without it he’d be very ordinary. They say this is the reason he never plays in public nowadays.

I think that may be a little harsh. Jack has in fact sometimes turned up at a do but when he has he has always done something other than play the piano. It is true of course that he has sometimes chosen to do something unexpected and slightly eccentric. When Sally Chaudry left the Adoption Unit, Jack went along to her leaving do, stepped up to the microphone and read aloud for her selected passages from Moby Dick. Then, completely unaccompanied, he sang in their entirety two long Greenland whaling songs. The urge to perform really is irrepressible in some people.

I went along to Rosie’s do at about seven. I checked out what songs we were doing with Betty Gormley, who was the main singer for the evening. Betty – known to her colleagues as “Butterbeans” – is a bluff sort of woman from Rotherham. As a young woman she worked in a textile mill and used to sing in local pubs at nights to make some extra money. Like Jack she got a taste for the limelight and even though she moved on in her life – she married a man who ran a betting shop and got herself an education – she too is still drawn back there sometimes.

There was a reasonable turn out for Rosie’s do, including one or two notable faces from the past.  There were also some notable absentees, of course, not least among them Gilmour, who had told Rosie he’d be there for sure.

Once everyone had arrived Freddy Fotheringay, Rosie’s senior manager, made an amusing if somewhat predictable speech about the great service she has given the Department. He then presented her with her leaving present. Rosie took to the mike and did her bit, paying warm and generous tributes to colleagues past and present. She also took a few well-aimed shots at the pernicious effects that managerialism is having on the services provided for vulnerable children. Freddy smiled and took it on the chin. The Inspectors will be back soon and there’s not a blind thing he can do about it. It occurred to me at that point how Rosie suddenly looked older than she did just a week or so ago, and somehow much smaller. When someone’s working life comes to an end does something physical suddenly happen to them?

I took to the piano and Betty along with one or two of her colleagues took to the mike, most notably Talullah Hudspith, the youngest woman in the room, who has a strange penchant for feathers and platform shoes. We banged out three or four numbers from the Chas and Dave Songbook, which always goes down well this kind of audience. We then did one or two of Betty’s personal favourites – ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows’ and ‘Pedro the Fisherman’ – before ending with a rousing version of ‘Wish Me Luck (As You Wave Me Goodbye)’. Betty knew her audience well; it all went down perfectly.

Performance over, I sat at the back of the room with a plate full of crisps, the only guaranteed vegetarian option from the buffet table. I was sitting musing on the meaning of retirement and the loss of purpose that it sometimes brings. I was also musing about how suddenly it can alter our perception of a person, especially if that person has been powerful at work. That loss of power seemed to me perhaps the thing that stripped the person of their aura, that made them suddenly seem physically different. I was wondering if that is why my dad sometimes seems so small to me nowadays. He never did when I was a kid. Do we always instinctively equate size with power and does this affect our perception? Do we imagine a big person is powerful and therefore imagine a powerful person is big?

I was pondering how I might make my getaway when Butterbeans Gormley got back on to the stage and called for everyone’s attention. There had been a complaint made to the police and they were on their way over now. They wanted to interview Rosie, she believed, and possibly some others. No-one should leave the room. Rosie shook her head. She was genuinely aghast at this prospect. Everyone present was stunned into silence.

And then the policeman entered the room. He had his hat on and a truncheon at his side and walked purposefully into the middle of the darkened room. And at that point Butterbeans must have pressed play on the CD player. ‘You Sexy Thing’ by Hot Chocolate began blaring out. The policeman looked up and threw his helmet across the room.

It was Jack Verdi. One or two gasped, one or two covered their faces, one or two cheered. Most pinched themselves to see if they were awake and tried desperately to get their hands to make a clapping motion. Jack began gyrating sinuously in front of Rosie.

Jack looked flushed to me, but he was clearly still in remarkable condition, the result no doubt of the obsession with jogging he has had in recent years. He ripped of his Velcroed on jacket. We all know where he got this routine from, and it wasn’t Herman Melville. He ripped off his shirt, ripped off his policeman’s trousers. He writhed around shamelessly to the relentless music, dressed only in shiny black boots, black socks and a black leather thong. Jack was giving it his all, turning back the clock to give Rosie a send-off she’d never forget. There was only one question now: were we about to see the Full Monty Verdi?

Jack’s a friend, so let me spare his blushes. But I will say this: sometimes there’s a lot to be said for a Greenland whaling song. There’s a lot to be said for the Hammond Organ too.

Yesterday I finished my painting of Corby’s Crag. It has a certain roughness to it that I like, and the palette is wider than I’ve been using in the last year or so. I’ve got too many paintings lying around the house now. Perhaps I should try to sell some of them.

This afternoon I went out on the bike for an hour or so. I rode out across the reclaimed land from the old Isabella Colliery and then on up to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. It was hard work riding into the strong westerly wind, but it was a beautiful autumnal day. In places the roads were laminated with brown and yellow leaves and blowing down all around me. I rode up into Cramlington. It began to rain lightly and for a few minutes I stopped in a subway, where I read the graffiti and reflected again on Jack’s performance on Friday night. Once a rock star, always a rock star, I thought.

When the rain stopped I decided to head for home. With the wind at my back I flew down the Laverock Hall Road, past the bruised blackberry bushes and the tattered hawthorns. I came down Plessey Road with the late afternoon sun at my back and could see my long shadow pedalling ahead of me. In the pale blue sky over the sea there were a few ragged dark grey clouds. One of them was shaped like a West Highland Terrier.

I sat with De Kooning in the conservatory as I ate my rice and broccoli. I was trying to reset my watch, to turn it back an hour. It’s a complicated multi-function digital device and I still hadn’t discovered how to do it when Margaret came into the room. She was waiting for a pan of onions and turnip to cook.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked.

‘Trying to set my watch,’ I replied.

‘Oh, of course,’ she said. ‘The clock’s have gone back.’

‘So are you going to reset all the stopped ones?’ I asked. ‘Make then quarter past two instead of quarter past three? You should really.’

‘Why?’ she said. ‘The time on a stopped clock is meaningless.’

‘I don’t know about that,’ I said. ‘It seems to me that you’ve now got twenty two clocks that are all an hour fast.’

Margaret shook her head and tutted.

‘Well, what about the Napoleon in your room?’ I said. ‘Are you going to put that back to the same time as the others again?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think so. Some things are best left alone.’

Which reminds me, I must go out and see where Hugo’s put the small plastic giraffe.

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