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tasting the dark onion

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘So what does Darren do?’

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

‘Yeah.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Will do.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No,’ she replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

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waiting for the miracle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Is she still with Mr Zee?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

‘It’s stopped,’ she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

.

eliza and the last day of summer

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Last Sunday I went to Keswick to see Eliza Carthy at the Theatre by the Lake. It was a fine day that had the feel of the last day of summer. I strolled around the town – which was surprisingly busy, I thought – and browsed in the outdoor shops. It’s sale time because it’s the end of the season and next year’s stuff is about to come in, and perhaps also because the economic slow down is having an impact. I sat outside at the Lakeland Pedlar with my elderflower cordial and carrot cake and gazed up at Skiddaw. The mountains were lolling in a loose grainy mist, benign and summery. I was wishing I’d brought my boots. But I hadn’t.

I wandered along the lake path from Crow Park down to the National Trust Centenary Stone at Calfclose Bay. On the way back I sat for a while on a seat near the Ruskin Memorial at Friar’s Crag looking out over Derwentwater. Perhaps his unquiet ghost sat down with me for a while. Places are made of memories. I was thinking about how double-edged they are, how the past perpetually constructs and reconstructs the present, and how the present constantly reconstructs the past. I gazed at the soft roller coaster ridge of Causey Pike and the snaggy peak of Eel Crag, like a lover gazing at a beloved he cannot reach. Memory is a landscape of longing and loss. The power of association is greater than Ruskin wanted to admit. But I wasn’t thinking about any of the many days when I’d walked these hills, any particular adventure or experience. I was just opened up somehow, peculiarly undefended in the face of the mass and texture of the place. I seemed to be somewhere beyond the particularity of events, but somehow there and then in a very particular moment.  I wished again that I’d brought my boots. I went past other walkers as if I was carrying a secret, as if I’d stolen one of the hills and it was in my rucksack, wrapped up in my black fleece. When I got back to my hotel room it struck me that I hadn’t taken a single photograph. Some days, I suppose, we must need to just let the moments be. Remembering, like art, is like an an act of love that sometimes feels like a violation.

I sat in my room near the window reading The Observer. But I wasn’t really paying attention. I wasn’t taking anything in. The articles floated by on the skin of my mind. None of them broke the surface tension or sank. I was preoccupied, wrapped in the paradox of being somewhere else at the very moment of being most fully here. It was probably beauty I was really wondering about, and how it had both immediacy and depth. The landscape of the Lakes is something that like most other people I experience as beautiful. There are paradigms of beauty we learn as children and find on every postcard. And yet while I knew that it was a common experience in its appearance and in its immediacy, I felt beauty must also be idiosyncratic and individual in its depth. Surely it’s more than a mere facade. Beauty is recognition. Beauty is knowledge of a kind. I was wondering if memory isn’t at its heart. I doubted that beauty could exist for a being without a memory. Beauty, I thought, in my Ruskinesque register, is a kind of angel of memory.

The articles in The Observer floated by. I was sounding a tad transcendental, I was thinking, a wee bit like a Platonist. A bit high-falutin’ and airy-fairy. Perhaps Ruskin’s ghost was still yammering inside me. I’d have to watch that. Beauty is recognition, but it is organic, material, iterative, cumulative, learnt, synthetic – I was looking for the words, the qualities to nail it down, to make sure it stays where it is, here in the real and ordinary lives of real and ordinary people. Beauty is not beyond us, not elsewhere, not the glimpse of another world. I was getting hungry. It was teatime. I was thinking that perhaps the study of idiosyncrasies of beauty must be like the archaeology or geology of memory. I was thinking I had wasted my money buying a newspaper today.

I had a quick shower and put back on the clothes I’d just taken off. I ate at Casa Bella, where the food is consistently good, much better than it ought to be for the price, I always think. I sat at a table near the window and watched the passers-by. I was feeling okay, I thought.

Eliza is lively and engaging, pale skinned and girlish, ordinary in a way. The intimacy of the venue suited her well and enhanced the sense of her being emotionally and personally close to her audience. This is probably particularly important for a folk artist, where being perceived as remote from her audience might be an unfortunate irony. The perceived distance between an artist and her audience is of course a key element in the experience of the performance. Eliza’s rapport seems utterly natural, as if it’s never had to be worked at. This is an illusion too, of course. She has a nice line in apparently spontaneous waffle, as she might call it, about things her audience of ordinary people know and can identify with, like boyfriends, mobile phones, families, babies, getting drunk, parties, rowing on the lake, and the pirate’s hook that happens to be hanging on the microphone stand. Tonight’s performance was ostensibly as much a conversation with the audience as a performance of the songs from her latest album. The conversation – in actuality a sort of monologue, of course – undoubtedly added context and thus depth to the songs and therefore altered and arguably enhanced them for her audience. The truth is that as entertaining and likeable as she undoubtedly was, I found myself at times wishing she would play a little more. There is depth and common experience – an inescapable humanity – about folk songs which is personal in any case and which can stand alone. I felt like a spoilsport at times, as if I was being a little churlish in my desire to hear her sing and play her fiddle more. And I was, because she is so personable and probably very genuine.

What I like about Eliza’s records – her music – is the intensity, the way the force of her music – rhythm, repetition, persistence, tone, texture, and what have you – ensnares me, wraps itself around me, possesses me. I like the way dark spaces are opened up- chasms – and the way the music is a kind of rope that swings and hauls me around spaces that seem simultaneously dangerous and safe, depraved, reckless and (ha ha – I’ve slipped this one past you once before!) sublime. I like how I’m made to lurch and stumble, teeter and soar, glide and fall. What I like is the palpable physicality of her music, how it reunites me with movement, with the dynamics or kinetics of being an animal in an animal’s world. Maybe this is one of the things the beauty of music remembers for us, the way the body moves, how we made and make the space where we find ourselves as bodies. I’d watched videos of Eliza on YouTube and she seemed to me to be also possessed by the physicality of her music. I had come to witness some of those moments. And I did. Eliza and her band are all strong musicians and seem to be deeply involved with their material. There were times when I got what I came for, the immediacy of Eliza fiddling and stepping and swaying around the stage like a distracted hobgoblin, driven to a dance that is as deep as we are, as deep as any of us can be, and stepping up to the microphone to fathom and release unfathomable emotions. Eliza surrenders her voice to her song, her body to her violin – that’s how good she is.

After the concert she came out into the bar and sat at the table with her CD’s. I bought another copy of Dreams of Breathing Underwater and asked her to sign it for me. She’s pregnant and I wished her good luck with the baby and she thanked me for that. Eliza wants to be the same woman off stage as she is on stage, I thought, and maybe she is, in some ways at least. But it would be a mistake to assume that a Yorkshire lass has any less of a secret life than Leonard Cohen.

The next morning I had intended to hire a rowing boat and go out on the lake for an hour. I was thinking I might drown the ghost of Ruskin once and for all. But it was raining steadily. I drove down past Thirlmere, over Dunmail Raise and through Grasmere in the quiet silvery rain and it looked very like the first day of autumn. I went to Ambleside and browsed around the outdoor shops there, but again bought nothing. I wandered around the town and spent a little while in the Old Courthouse Gallery looking again at the paintings of Libby Edmondson, which I particularly like and whose style in some ways reminds me of mine.

When I got back home there was only De Kooning in the house. I could hear the Napoleon still ticking in Margaret’s bedroom. De Kooning gave me a nudge with his head and I took him to the kitchen and gave him some prawns. I told him Eliza was good but asked him not to mention Ruskin. I went through to the conservatory as I checked my mail. There were seven large onions on the coffee table. The clatter and rumble of the Citadel men was relentless.

When Margaret came in I asked her if she’d wound the Napoleon up.

‘I have not,’ she said, emphatically. ‘I haven’t tampered with it at all. Brenda has advised me that intervening would not not a good idea.’

‘I didn’t know she knew about clocks.’ I said. ‘There’s no end to her talents, is there?’

Margaret rolled her eyes. She didn’t need to tell me that the awakening of a long dead clock would be regarded as a sign by Brenda. What it was a sign of was less obvious, of course.

‘Did you tell Brenda about my spider’s corpse theory?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ Margaret replied, tersely. ‘She said that such an explanation is so far fetched and unlikely that it can be safely dismissed.’

And yet the idea that the clock might start up again in contravention of the laws of nature and in doing so have a higher meaning, which might be of very great significance indeed, isn’t so unlikely, it seems.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Okay.’

On Thursday I noticed the clock was still ticking and I asked Margaret again if she had wound it up. Again she said she hadn’t.

‘Then someone has,’ I said. ‘Because even if we don’t know why it started, what we do know is it won’t keep going unless someone keeps winding it up. Perpetual motion isn’t possible.’

‘I haven’t touched it,’ Margaret repeated. ‘And I won’t. But let me tell you this – that clock may never stop again. Brenda’s right, everything happens for a reason, and that Napoleon is no exception.’

‘I think I’ll call the Greek,’ I said.

‘You can call who you like,’ Margaret said. ‘There are some things that even the Greek can’t explain.’

I rang the Greek. He said to be patient. Sooner or later the Napoleon will fall totally silent again.  But it hasn’t done so yet and it’s beginning to worry me. Imagine if the world according to Brenda just happens to turn out to be true. 

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Written by yammering

September 20, 2008 at 10:32 pm

a broken napoleon and a dead spider

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Returning to work after a holiday is always a difficult transition, like stepping from a garden into a bullring. Transitions like this are often best managed by a ritual, and in my case this involves washing and ironing all my clothes, polishing my shoes, trimming my sideboards, and having a long bath. It’s as if the odour of recreation must be washed from me, as if to return to the old world I must make myself a new man. Going back to work is like rebirth. I must purify myself before my eviction from the womb.

Things have been surprisingly quiet at work. Sightings of the Arab have declined dramatically it seems (although Robin Hood may have become a permanent resident). Debs says that in part this is because Elephant Carmichael has been remanded in custody on charges of aggravated burglary and attempting to pervert the course of justice and Flinty’s keeping his head down. More significant though is that Flinty’s shacked up with Molly Armstrong in her flat at Rothesay Terrace down at the Station and is otherwise engaged, at least for the time being. What’s more, the schools are open again, the nights are drawing in a bit, and the weather hasn’t been good. The population of Flinties is dwindling rapidly, as if they’ve been nothing but summer migrants. I spoke to Gilmour a day or so ago and told him so and that I thought things were settling down. He told me that this was great news.

‘Looks like we’ve cracked this one, eh?’ he said. ‘I’ll let the Director know. Good work!’

‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘We do what we can.’

It rained heavily last weekend. Morpeth was flooded and Northumberland finally became the victim of freak weather and got the publicity and pity that for so long it has been denied. A disaster can be a cloud with a very silver lining. Eat your heart out the Vale of York: Charles and Camilla visited us today. They dallied a while, meandered along the loyal fringe of their postdiluvian subjects and shook a few of their damp northern hands. The television report showed them at a chip shop in Morpeth town centre. I think it was the Market Chippy on Newgate Street, next to the cheese shop. I like the look of Charles. He’s consistently odd. Somehow he reminds me of a gundog, one that perhaps lacks a little in the way of grey matter but who has an irrepressible sense of mischief. A springer spaniel perhaps. A one that would chew your furniture. He also sometimes reminds me of a bedraggled fledgling, an owlet perhaps.

The Widow Middlemiss hasn’t yet returned from Derby. Despite the heavy rain her property has suffered no further flooding. Griff has obviously taken steps to avoid another PR disaster. When I came in from work earlier this week Margaret was in the Widow’s garden dead-heading her French marigolds and hoeing the borders. I glanced across to see if Hugo was back. He wasn’t. I went inside and made myself a cappuccino. I was sitting in the conservatory with De Kooning pondering the realities of wage slavery when I became aware of a faint ticking. I followed the sound to the door of Margaret’s bedroom. I pushed it open slowly, as if I was about to find a bomb. What I found was a lot stranger: the ticking turned out to be the Napoleon Mantel Clock on her dressing table. It had come back to life. It was ticking enthusiastically. It had broken ranks with its twenty two silent and motionless companions. It now said it was almost five o’clock, which wasn’t right but suggested it had probably started working again about two hours earlier, at which time I knew Margaret would have still been at work.

‘The Napoleon in your bedroom is working,’ I said to Margaret when she came back in.

‘It can’t be,’ she said. ‘It’s broken.’

‘It can’t be broken,’ I replied. ‘It’s ticking.’

She went to the bedroom and checked. She was still wearing her wellies and green gardening gloves. She came back with her mouth hanging open.

‘How can this be possible?’ she said. ‘That clock is broken. The Greek said it was beyond repair.’

‘The Greek was obviously wrong,’ I said.

‘He’s never wrong. The Greek is never wrong. Never.’

My pizza was ready. I sat for a while eating and pondering the mysterious resurrection of the broken Napoleon. It had the look of a miracle about it. But it wasn’t, of course. I asked Margaret if it was okay if I examined it. I went into her bedroom and gazed at the ticking timepiece. I picked it up with both hands and looked deep into its face. It was now keeping perfect time. It had a sort of blank insolence about it. A smugness even. This was a clock that wasn’t about to give anyone an account of its baffling revival. I stood it back down on the dressing table, next to a copy of Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now. Brenda had recommended this to Margaret a few days ago. I picked it up and flicked through a few pages. Zen meets narcissism. Absurd and incoherent. Pure Brenda. The perfect companion for a clock that rises from the dead, I thought.

I rang the Greek. He told me there was simply no way the Napoleon could be working. It was a broken clock. I told him it had. The Greek was puzzled.

‘Then I was wrong,’ he said. ‘It was never broken. A broken clock is a broken clock, and it cannot repair itself.’

I told Margaret I’d spoken to the Greek and that he’d said the clock must have been in working order all along.

‘If that’s so then why didn’t it start ticking before now?’ she said. ‘And why did it start now? There’s something funny going on here, I’ll tell you that. Clocks just don’t stop and then start again without reason months and months later. It doesn’t make sense.’

‘There’ll be an explanation,’ I said. ‘But we might never know what it is. Perhaps a dead spider was jamming the works and it has finally decomposed or its corpse has finally fallen from the cogs. That could have happened.’

She rolled her eyes. ‘Oh, yes, that’s very likely,’ she said. ‘The corpse of a spider falling from the cogs. I think I’ll give Brenda a ring.’

I glanced at De Kooning. He was washing his face with his paw. Behind me I could hear the television newsreader saying that a junior whip has come out and said openly that their should now be a leadership contest in New Labour. It was starting to rain and looking very dark outside. The economy’s in recession. I wondered what Gordon was doing tonight.

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