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Archive for the ‘tristan’ Category

the lonely death of duncan the vulcan

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The problem of devil children continues to grow in our society. In some quarters it is considered to have reached epidemic proportions. Inevitably this has become a political issue and with an election looming each major political party has a position on the problem. Often such children are in cahoots with deviant adults, of course, and often they have transformational powers and can pass themselves off as small rodents. They pose particularly difficult challenges to carers. Last week I was in Stannington at Placements for a high level meeting to look at resources for such children. We are developing an innovative multi-agency approach under the rubric of SADCAP, our Satanic and Demonic Children Action Programme. We have developed a good evidence-based assessment tool and will monitor all cases at a high level through a group which will be called the SDCG. We are very hopeful that at a later stage this project will win an award and attract government money no matter which party is in power after May.

After the meeting I decided to hang around for a while and read my emails before heading off home. There weren’t many people in. I wandered through the magnolia and pale green corridors past the cubicles that are used as offices. I came to the office Tallulah shares with Betty. Neither were in. I sat down at Tallulah’s desk to use her computer to log in. Her desk was quite orderly but inevitably bore the mark of her personality. There was a calendar of famous squirrels, a small yellow frog pencil sharpener, a plastic fox, some aloe vera hand cream, a magnetic porcupine clad in multicoloured paper clips, a photograph of Nicole Kidman, framed and signed, a couple of Meg and Mog books, that sort of thing. There were also a number of documents of various kinds on her desk. Partly visible beneath an assessment report of some kind was a handwritten letter on deckled ivory foolscap paper. It was written in deep blue ink by a fountain pen. The handwriting was scribbly and urgent, angular, but also rhythmical. It reminded me of a record made by the needle of a seismograph. I lifted the report to one side and leaned forward to read the letter. As I pulled it towards me I saw that there were a couple of other documents beneath the letter; one of them was a cutting from a newspaper. I read the letter first.

Dearest T,

It’s strange, isn’t it, how suddenly a death can follow a birth sometimes. March has been the cruellest month for me, and despite what the poet says I know April will be far kinder.  Until a few weeks ago it was as if I was unborn. At best I was dormant, and had been for so long that it seemed to me my natural state, a state not unlike death itself. And then our correspondence began. You came into my life absolutely unannounced, absolutely out of the blue, the way that an angel always does. My long dead limbs and other organs began to warm and to twitch in unusual, almost forgotten ways. It was as if I was being warmed by an invisible fire. My heart was awakening from a deep slumber. The eternal hibernation of my soul appeared to be ending.

As you can imagine I was initially a little confused by this turn of events, but very quickly became utterly cockahoop. Well, any man would, wouldn’t he, if  suddenly blessed by the presence of an angel as unique and lovely as you? I found myself singing in my cabin, walking through the snow in the woods laughing and giggling like a foolish school boy.  I found myself looking at my reflection in the head of my favourite axe and grinning at the grizzled old face I saw there. I found myself telling my reindeer about your emails and asking them how they would feel if they could pull you and I together on my sled, all the way down the long straight road to the village. I was happy, T, happy. I had forgotten what happiness felt like. Can you imagine how that must have been? I had been a dead man walking, T, I know that now.

And yet this joy began to fade almost as quickly as it came, much as the winter sun does in these high northern latitudes.  I know it was my fault; I misunderstood you. I thought you must feel as I do. How daft can a lumberjack be?  An angel doesn’t have the same status as a lumberjack, the same organs, the same purpose in life.  An angel is a messenger, the bringer of a blessing she doesn’t own, so to speak, a blessing that is just something entrusted to her to bestow upon someone else. An angel doesn’t have a heart to give a way. An angel doesn’t have a heart like a lumberjack’s, a heart that is all too ready to be broken.

As you know, I came to see you as the Angel of the Volcano.  I should perhaps have never told you this; I fear it may have been my fatal mistake and the single event which turned you from me.  In using this phrase I was in effect calling into question your entire status as an angel. And yet what else could I think? In my younger days vulcanology was my whole life. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that without it I would have had no life at all in any real sense, and that my entire being depended upon my relationship with volcanoes. How I loved the strange, powerful, virtually infinite interiors, the unpredictability and volatility. How I loved to hear the rumble and roar, the fuming and spitting. How I loved the unquenchable nature. To me beauty and desire were surely irrevocably volcanic.

I knew of course that in my flirtations and closer relationships with volcanoes I could be melted, fried or vaporised at any time. Of course I had to guard against the vanity and folly of heroic love, of becoming addicted to the risk and of seeing only myself in this adventure.  While there is no doubt I sometimes did take a little pride in my composure and poise while on the slopes of such formidable entities, I like to think that this was never more than a brief and all too human weakness, and that for the most part what drove me was always my love of the volcano herself. Heroic love seeks admiration and needs to conquer and tame: it was never my wish to stifle or choke any volcano. To me a volcano is never a challenge: to me a volcano is a delight. My aim was never to subordinate, manage or contain; my aim was always intimacy.  With intimacy came acceptance, with acceptance redemption, and with redemption, peace. This is something that those who don’t love volcanoes never grasp. The redemptive dimension. The radical reassurance and sense of wholeness that come from such willing intercourse with danger.

As the tone of your emails subtly shifted and cooled I realised that I would never now approach you.  I realised we could never meet, never kiss, never touch. I realised then that what I’d feared and hidden from myself for so long was true: I will never again walk towards a volcano and reach my destination. I will never again be close to the fierce beautiful furnace in a volcano’s heart. I remembered now too keenly what brought me to these snowy northern parts, why I chose a remote solitary life among the snow. I realised that the purpose in my life has disappeared and that in pretending I can live without it I am fooling no-one but myself, athough given the isolated and reclusive life I have chosen to live here among these trees there is of course no-one else here I might have fooled!

Anyhow, I’ve gone on a bit. I’ve said what I needed to, I think. I hope I haven’t said too much. I am happy to have felt your warmth, even if it was distant, even if for the most part it was only a fire in my imagination. My life has been the better for that. What has happened to me in speaking with you has been rather like having my coffin lid lifted and having a beautiful hand awaken me for a moment. I felt a strange heat and it warmed me. I was blinded by the fierce light. And just when I began to believe this dream might be real the coffin lid closed over me again. The final nails are now being driven home. I hear them in the darkness. And yet for all that, it is true: I wouldn’t have missed these weeks for the world. I can now die with a living memory of true happiness. Thank you, T, my flame-haired friend, my angel of the volcano.

I must go.  Do not think me cowardly or lacking courage. Discretion is the better part of valour, don’t they say? It is braver to know when to leave the ring than to remain there and fail. The reindeer will be hungry and wondering where I am. My axe will be going rusty. There are things I must do before this short day ends.

Thank you and goodbye, my angel.

Yours volcanically,

Duncan

Beneath the letter, written in the same seismic handwriting on blue deckled edged writing paper I saw what I recognised to be a couple of Emily Dickinson’s volcano poems. This was the first:

A still—Volcano—Life—
That flickered in the night—
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight—
.
A quiet—Earthquake Style—
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples—
The North cannot detect
.
The Solemn—Torrid—Symbol—
The lips that never lie—
Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—
And Cities—ooze away—
.

Beneath that there was a line, followed by the second poem:

The reticent volcano keeps
His never slumbering plan—
Confided are his projects pink
To no precarious man.
.
If nature will not tell the tale
Jehovah told to her
Can human nature not survive
Without a listener?
.
Admonished by her buckled lips
Let every babbler be
The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.
.

I turned over the blue deckled paper to read the press cutting that lay beneath it. On the back of the sheet I found another of Dickinson’s volcano poems, again scribbled in the same hand, although this time in black ink, less evenly and at an angle across the sheet. It looked as if it had been added as an afterthought. Or perhaps it was a note he’d made earlier and he had forgotten was there.

On my volcano grows the grass,–
A meditative spot,
An area for a bird to choose
Would be the general thought.
How red the fire reeks below,
How insecure the sod–
Did I disclose, would populate
With awe my solitude.
.

I picked up the press cutting and lifted it closer. It was dated from earlier in the week and was from a copy of The Journal. It read as follows:

MYSTERY WALKER FOUND DEAD ON CHEVIOT

Late yesterday afternoon a mountain rescue crew brought down the body of an unknown walker found dead on the northern flanks of Cheviot close the The Bizzle. The man, believed to be in his fifties, died of hypothermia.

Although police say there are no suspicious circumstances to his death, members of the mountain rescue team have told The Journal that the man was extraordinarily ill-equipped for the winter weather on the mountain, wearing only jeans and a lightweight orange fleece top. They also say the man appears to have been engaging in some sort of unknown artistic exercise when the weather caught him out.

One member of the team has told The Journal that the circumstances in which the man was found suggest he may have deliberately allowed himself to die. Our understanding is that the man was lying spread-eagled facing the sky, and that prior to his death he had scraped a large square and an overlapping circle in the snow. The Journal understand that both shapes were of very exact, near perfect geometrical proportions. We also understand that the width and height of the square exactly matched that of the man with his outstretched arms. It appears that prior to his death the man had performed a ‘snow angel’ in the snow and that the arc of his arms and legs exactly described the line of the circle.

The leader of the mountain rescue team, “Mighty” Ron Telfer, has said he is convinced that the man was attempting to reproduce Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing of the Vitruvian Man. As Mighty Ron points out, this drawing represents an ideal of human proportion – and of symmetry and order within the universe generally – that few would hold to in today’s society, where diversity and difference in people are welcomed and celebrated.

Detective Sergeant “Tinker” Robson of Northumbia Police described the man as “obviously a troubled individual who may have been suffering from Dysmorphic Body Syndrome.”  Mighty Ron describes the man’s actions on the mountain as ill-advised and irresponsible and has made a plea to other walkers planning similar activities to think again.

The identity of the man is not yet known. The only personal objects found on his person were an unused postcard of Sicily and a card for Zefferelli’s restaurant in Ambleside. ‘We believe the man may not have been from these parts,’ Sergeant Robson said.

Police are appealing for anyone who thinks they may be able to identify him to come forward.

I put the documents back as I’d found them. For a moment or two I gazed into Nicole Kidman’s unblinking eyes. I decided not to check my emails after all. I was a little unsettled by the story of the death on Cheviot. I know that mountain well and I was pretty sure I know the spot where the man would have died.

As I was making my way over to the car park Jack arrived, rumbling across the gravel on his black Ducati. He scrunched to a halt beside me, got off the bike and lifted his black helmet from his head.

‘Yo, dude,’ he said, offering his gauntlet clad palm for me to slap. ‘How in the world are you, man? What brings you to this particular circle of hell?’

‘SADCAP meeting,’ I said, shrugging.

‘Oh, the old devil children business, eh?  Was Freddy there?’

‘Yeah, he was there. So were an assortment of priests, a bevy of psychologists and a woman called Cymbeline McMurdo, who represents the local Pagan network.’

‘The usual suspects, then?’ Jack said, sarcastically, pulling up the collar of his leather jacket and flicking his pony tail over it.

I nodded. ‘Hey, I was sitting a Tallulah’s desk intending to look at my emails a few minutes ago and I came across a letter to her from a guy called Duncan. Do you know anything about that?  Is he her latest flame?’

‘Oh, Duncan the Vulcan!’ Jack said. ‘Oh, yes, there’s no-one in the place doesn’t know about that poor sod. There’s a lesson for us all there, mate. I mean, man that could have been me, know what I mean?’

‘Yeah, you had the hots for her too once, as I recall.’

Jack laughed. ‘Yeah, man, I stared over that precipice so long my eyebrows caught fire! But, you know what, dude – I got wise? I stepped back from the brink.’

‘That’s not the way I remember it, Jack,’ I said, frowning.

‘Hey, hey, whatever, man,’ Jack said, irritably, adjusting his new Wayfarers on his nose. ‘The point is this – I could have been that poor sucker in the snow. She’s bad news, man, I tell you. She sucks you in and she spits you out, dude.’

I nodded slowly. ‘So you think the guy in the snow was Duncan?’

‘Oh, for sure. Who else would it be? It’s him for sure – Lady T knows it too.’

‘It’s ironic, isn’t it, that a man so obsessed with fire should die frozen in the snow?’

‘Ironic, dude? Ironic? It’s freakin’ tragic.’

When I got back to the car I rummaged around on the back seat and found my copy of Damien Rice’s album “O”. It’s a tremendous album and in my view one of the best albums of the century so far. One of the best songs is entitled Volcano, and that was the reason I wanted to listen to it.

I drove down past Plessey Woods and over Hartford Bridge. It was grey and had been raining a bit. The sky was a mess of torn and ragged black and white clouds. Volcano began to play as I was climbing the bank out of the woods. I turned left at the roundabout at Plessey Checks and down the dual carriageway that follows the course of the old wagonway to Blyth. I didn’t sing along, even though the chorus is almost irresistible and on any other day I would have done. I was strangely preoccupied with Duncan the Vulcan, the man who’d died in the snow on Cheviot. It was almost as if in my mind I knew the exact spot where he had been found.

I wanted to listen to the whole album, so rather than go home I drove down to the car park opposite the South Shore estate and looked out over the sea until it finished.  As I drove home along Rotary Way I saw Tristan’s white PermaPlumb van coming in the opposite direction. At first I thought he was alone, but as we approached one another I could see that sitting next to him was a diminutive figure, someone barely tall enough to see over the dashboard. Tristan was laughing and talking in a very animated way to his companion and didn’t notice as I flashed my lights at him. As we passed one another I glanced across into Tristan’s van to see who was with him. It was none other than Mrs Byro. She was dressed to the nines. Gone was the charity shop ragamuffin look. She was now wearing a silky red dress, low cut with thin straps. Her arms were bare. She was wearing lipstick, fake tan and false eyelashes. She had combed her hair. She looked almost sexy! Although it was impossible for me to tell, she might even have been wearing black tights and a pair of black patent Jimmy Choo’s with five inch heels.

I drove home gobsmacked. Tristan and Mrs Byro: who would have thought it?! As I went in De Kooning came down the hall to greet me. Margaret wasn’t in.

‘You won’t believe who Tristan’s having a fling with?’ I said to De Kooning as I picked him up. ‘Mrs Byro! For Christ’s sake, Mrs bloody Byro!!!’

He rubbed his face against mine. I carried him into the kitchen and stood him on the bench while I looked for some prawns for him.

‘It just goes to show you never can tell, doesn’t it?  People have hidden depths.  You never know who the wild ones are or just who might turn out to be a volcano!’

I gave De Kooning his prawns, turned the oven on and got myself a pizza from the freezer. I put the kettle on. I made myself a cappuccino.

.

that goddam glib and oily art

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To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself
as something of a superman. 
 
Albert Camus ‘The Fall’
 
My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent.
My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago if they ever did
exist. There are no more barriers to cross. 
 
Bret Ellis Easton ‘American Psycho’
 
I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life.  It’s awful.  If I’m on my way to
the store to buy a magazine, even, and somebody asks me where I’m going, I’m liable
to say I’m going to the opera.  It’s terrible.
 
J.D. Salinger ‘The Catcher in the Rye’
 

J. D. Salinger died last week and Tony Blair appeared before the Chilcot Inquiry. Blair’s generation in many ways both embraced and constituted the spirit of Holden Caulfield and constructed their identities around the values he represents. I would guess that Blair has very probably read Salinger, and in fact it isn’t hard even now to imagine Tony turning up for the cameras wearing a red baseball cap backwards, oddly enough. I wouldn’t have been hugely surprised if he’d turned up at the inquiry wearing one. It’s exactly the sort of misguided, cringe-worthy, I fancy myself to death sort of thing he would do. Blair is a malign and manipulative man – nothing at all like Caulfield really. Holden is all too aware of his own motives, all too ready to admit his failings. Holden sees the inescapable phoniness of the world that is closing in on him and he recoils from it, desperate to hold on to what one critic terms his radical innocence. Blair no longer retains one shred of such innocence. He is radically corrupt, annihilated by his own narcissism, a man without authenticity.

I was in Morpeth earlier this week for a meeting about the implications for us of the high numbers of homes that are being invaded by mice because of the cold weather. The Twichell case combined with the current fears about child trafficking in Haiti have alerted us again to the transformation issue. Senior managers were anxious to ensure that we were alive to the danger that abusers might take advantage of the situation and to ensure we had a strategy to address it. Some felt it was a problem that could only effectively be addressed at a higher political level and argued that the right course of action was to lobby the government for a mouse licensing and registration scheme. Others felt that we needed to take a more active stance. John Sultan suggested that it would be helpful if social workers had sniffer cats available to them when undertaking challenging investigations. The Director agreed with him and it was duly decided that two adult sniffer cats would be bought and a select group of social workers trained in their use.

Gilmour was part of the meeting. Afterwards I sat with him in his office for a little while catching up. It struck me that as he matures he’s growing into a warm and affable man. The thing that was most on Gilmour’s mind seemed to be how annoyed he was with John Sultan. Gilmour and John have the same role in different halves of the organisation; they are rival princes in the line of succession.

‘Bloody Sultan!’ he said.  ‘That sniffer cats idea was mine, you know! Did he acknowledge it? Not on your bloody life. He never bloody does!’

I nodded. ‘Yes, I thought it was a bit imaginative for John,’ I said. ‘A bit leftfield.’

‘I tell you, he’ll try to take credit for just about anything,’ Gilmour said. ‘He’s shameless. Last week he told someone that multi-systemic therapy was originally his idea. Just before Christmas I heard him say CBT was another idea he came up with.’

‘He’s a remarkable man,’ I said.

‘Oh, you don’t know the half of it, my boy,’ Gilmour went on, shaking his head in slow disbelief. ‘Antibiotics, string theory, nanotechnology, the electric violin . . . ‘

He gazed out over the rough winter grey grassland outside his office window. A few white gulls circled against the flat grey sky.

‘How’s your dad?’ I said.

‘My dad?’ he said, suddenly cheering up. ‘My dad is ticketyboo, thanks. Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, you know, just wondering.  Is he still in the prize cattle business?’

‘Oh yes very much so. My boy’s following him into agriculture, you know. Did I tell you that? Oh yes. He’s driving the quad now.’

‘Really?’ I said. ‘It seems like only yesterday you were telling me about his first day at school. Doesn’t time fly?’

‘It certainly does. But how’s your dad, by the way? Is he well? He hasn’t retired yet has he?’

‘Retired, my dad? Nah, he’ll never retire. No, he’s still in the same line of work, dismantling old turbines in submarines and that sort of stuff.’

Gilmour nodded earnestly. ‘And his health?’ he said. ‘Is he is good health?’

‘Generally speaking, yes, he is,’ I said. ‘Yes. Like any man of his age he has occasional ailments, of course. He had a touch of scurvy just before Christmas and gets sciatica whenever it snows, but on the whole he’s not doing too badly. Is your dad well?’

‘Father is in the pink! Apart from his gout and the occasional bout of biliousness he’s the very picture of health. Not at all bad for a man who has already had more than his allotted three score and ten. But as you say, none of us is ague-proof. How old is your old man now, by the way?’

‘I’m not really sure,’ I replied. ‘My dad’s very secretive about his age. He always has been. He told me about twenty years ago that he was almost sixty. But that would make him about eighty nine now and I can hardly believe that. I would say he’s perhaps in his late fifties.’

‘Yes,’ Gilmour said, a twinkle coming to his watery blue eyes, ‘father’s like that too. Old people are funny, aren’t they? It has to be something to do with the way they deal with mortality, don’t you think? A little white lie they tell themselves to keep the nearness of the end out of sight. I’ll wager that you and I will engage in the very same self-deception when we get to their stage of life, eh?  There are things we’d all rather not see.’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘My dad quite likes the idea of it all being over, I think. I think it’s something else with him. Probably sheer perversity, possibly simply vanity.’

Gilmour smiled and looked at me in what I thought was a rather paternal way. His smile then slowly froze and he returned his gaze to the wide field of winter grass.

‘Fiscal easing,’ he said, a  note of horror in his voice. He was almost whispering, as if at a vision.

I nodded, slowly.

‘I’ve just realised Sultan claimed that one too.’  He turned his head and looked at me with almost exhausted astonishment.

‘You should have challenged him,’ I said.

‘I know I should.  I know I should. But at the time you just don’t realise that it’s happening. He says these things with such absolute confidence – with such a sense of ownership of everything he says – that it never occurs to you that these ideas aren’t his or that they might not be true.’

‘You’re going to have to examine every word our John utters,’ I said. ‘Once he’s sold you the stolen goods it’ll be too late.’

Gilmour smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I like that analogy. A robber selling on his ill-gotten gains, eh? A perfidious charlatan, a fraudster, if you like. Yes, exactly. Caveat emptor must be our dictum in these matters. Beware Sultan’s dodgy goods.’

As I made my way across the car park a few minutes later I spotted Jack Verdi parking up the Ducati near a pile of old snow.

‘Hey, hey, dude, how’s tricks?’ he said, turning up both his black leather-clad palms for me to slap as a greeting. I complied, in a perfunctory manner.

‘I’m pretty good, Jack,’ I said. ‘As good as anyone can be after a morning with the management group.’

Jack took off his gloves and laid them on his bike seat. He lifted the black helmet from his head. He reminded me of Ivanhoe.

‘The management group,’ he said, as if slowly crushing each syllable he uttered. ‘Pah! A bunch of grey suits and sell-outs, you mean. Phony bastards, everyone of them, dude. Who was there?’

‘The usual bunch,’ I said. ‘Gilmour, John Sultan – that lot.’

‘Ah, Goneril and Regan,’ Jack quipped. ‘Was Freddie there?’

I nodded. ‘Yes, he was.’

‘I knew Freddie when he sold the Socialist Worker and was planning the revolution’ Jack said. ‘What price integrity, eh, man? Look at him now – Bungalow Bill. He’s a turncoat, man, a toad-spotted traitor, a Benedict Arnold, a Judas,  a backslider, a deceiver, a defector, a dog-faced deserter, a double-crosser, a hypocrite, a quisling, a snake, a hollow square, a fink, a ghost, a google, a nark, a rat, a weasel, do know what I mean, dude? He’s a sell-out, man. Know what I mean?’

I nodded. ‘So what brings you here, Jack?’ I asked.

‘I’m at the Panel again with the Buttercup boys. Waste of bloody time, of course.’

I nodded again. Jack adjusted the red bobble holding his pony tail.

‘Is the band still going?’ I said.

‘Yeah, of course. I’ll be on the road for the rest of my days, man, I know that now for certain. It’s what I was born for.’

‘Born to be wild, eh, Jack?’ I said, smiling.

He laughed and put his Aviators on. ‘Hey, dude,’ he said. ‘Where do you think Joanna Lumley stayed when she came to Morpeth to open the Sanderson Arcade?’

I looked at him, narrowing my eyes. Surely he wasn’t about to tell me she’d stayed at his place? Surely that couldn’t be true?

‘I’ve no idea really, Jack.’ I said. ‘Where did she stay?’

‘I don’t know either, man,’ he said. ‘I’ve no idea. But I don’t think it would have been at the Anglers Arms in Weldon Bridge, do you?!’

‘No, I wouldn’t have thought so – but hey, who knows, Jack, sometimes – ‘

‘I bumped into Talullah down in the Arcade earlier,’ Jack said, cutting across me. ‘She told me that’s where Joanna stayed, in the Anglers at Weldon Bridge. I told her she was dreaming. We had quite a spat about it.’

‘A spat? Why?’

‘Because I told her she was simply wrong. I told her that I knew as more or less a certainty that Joanna had stayed in the Malmaison in the Town. I told her I knew Joanna and that I’d had a drink with her on the quayside the night after the opening.’

‘I didn’t know you knew Joanna Lumley, Jack’ I said. ‘You kept that one to yourself.’

‘I don’t know her, man. I just said that to our redheaded friend to put her in her place. And it worked! She was just so sure of herself, man. She said someone she knew from Rothbury had told her it for a fact. Bullshit, dude! She was blagging, man, blagging, and we both knew it.’

‘I wouldn’t have thought the Sanderson Arcade was your sort of territory, Jack. What were you doing in a place like that?’

‘I was going to Mark and Sparks to purloin a couple of Mexican Three Bean wraps. Ever had those, man? Delish!’

‘Yes, I like them too, they’re good.’

I drove back down to Ashington listening to The Duke and The King. The first two tracks on the album are pretty good – If You Ever Get Famous and The Morning I Get To Hell. When I got back to the office I told Lily that we’d be getting sniffer cats and she might want to think about whether to use one on the Twichell case.

‘I don’t suppose we get to choose the cats’ names, do we?’ she asked.

‘No,’ I said. ‘We don’t.’

Lily shrugged. ‘That’s a pity,’ she said. ‘It would be nice to call one of them Hercules. I’d call the other one Tim.’

I asked her if she’d like to do the training. She said she would.

When I got home that night Margaret was making batches of onion pate and turnip cakes to put in the freezer. I asked her how Brenda and Tristan were doing.

‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Have you heard something?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I was just curious.’

‘Oh, well they’re fine at the minute, I think. Brenda certainly seems a lot less dissatisfied than she was. I’m pleased about that. She gives a lot to others and deserves a little happiness herself.’

I went out for a walk before tea. I left Plessey Road and wove my way towards Links Road through the streets of South Beach Estate. At the corner of Curlew Way and Lapwing Close a couple were kissing beneath a streetlight. I went on past the pub, along Fulmar Drive to the traffic lights and then down to the beach road roundabout. I walked along to Wensleydale Terrace and Belgrave Terrace and down Ridley Avenue past the old police station building into Blyth town centre. It was quiet, almost deserted. I passed Blockbuster Videos, the yellow light swilling on the damp pavement, and up Waterloo Road as far as Coomassie Road before making my way back to Broadway by way of Princess Louise Road.

When I got home I went on to Amazon and ordered some DVD’s of film versions of King Lear: the Olivier version, the Paul Scofield version, and Grigori Kosintsev’s Russian sub-titled version. The Olivier version arrived a couple of days ago. Olivier is convincing and noble enough in a stolid sort of way, but for me Robert Lindsey steals the film with his callow, lithe, and slippery Edmund, sleek and shiny eyed, like a poacher’s dog. Like a viper.

.

pandora and cabbages and quietly falling snow

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Margaret spent most of the holidays in Salford with Gloria, who she always refers to as her sister in law, even though it’s now almost five years since she divorced Henry. I have sometimes wondered if they might not one day get back together but the chances of that plunged dramatically recently when Henry was jailed for attempting to steal the genetic code of a certain strain of prize cabbage. Gloria was absolutely distraught at this turn of events and it was in part to support her that Margaret went down for Christmas.

‘Take care of my clocks,’ she said as she left.

‘I will,’ I said, glancing at De Kooning as if to ask him what attention twenty three stopped clocks could possibly require.

Having the house to myself meant I could work on my new painting of Newbiggin as and when I wanted to. I left it propped on the mantelpiece for a fortnight, a jar of brushes next to it. Sometimes you’ve got to look at a painting more or less continuously to know exactly what it needs. I tidied everything up on the night before Margaret came home, of course, and moved all my junk back to my bedroom.

When Margaret came home she told me she’d had a good time. They’d eaten a goose on Christmas day and got tipsy on brandy. Gloria’s present to her was a Pandora bracelet with a collection of charms that means they are eternal friends. She and Gloria had even gone to visit Henry in prison.

‘Oh, did you?’ I said. ‘So how is he?’

‘Bearing up,’ Margaret replied, thoughtfully. ‘But he looked pale, and he’s lost an awful lot of weight, Gloria says.’

‘Must be the porridge,’ I said. ‘Or maybe he’s just not getting his greens.’

Margaret frowned disapprovingly.

‘By the way, what kind of cabbage was it that he tried to steal the genetic code of?’ I asked.

Margaret shrugged.

‘Was it an oxheart?’ I said.

Margaret shook her head.

‘Not an oxheart?’ I said. ‘Okay, was it a colewort or a drumhead?’

Margaret just looked blankly at me.

‘Was it a Savoy?’ I said.

‘I don’t know!’ Margaret said. ‘Why would I know that? Do I look like an expert on cabbages? And for God’s sake what difference does it make what kind of cabbage it was any way? Would there have been a different outcome if it had been a different kind of cabbage?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied, after a short pause. ‘I really don’t know.’

‘So why did you ask?’ Margaret said.

‘Just curious,’ I replied, a little disingenuously.

Margaret spent her first night home cutting up and boiling onions for herself. It had been snowing and because she doesn’t like to drive in the snow she told me she’d brought a present back for Brenda and asked me if I’d take it along for her in the morning.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘What did you buy her?’

‘A Pandora bracelet,’ she replied. ‘It’s really lovely.’

‘Yes,’ I said, nodding like Paul Merton. ‘They’re very popular these days, aren’t they?’

Margaret rang Brenda to tell her I would be coming along. She took the phone into her bedroom and closed the door. The call lasted for an hour.

‘She’s expecting you,’ Margaret said when she came back.

The beach road was a bit slushy as I drove south, but the journey wasn’t difficult. When I got to Brenda’s Tristan let me in. He was just on his way to B & Q at Wallsend to get some Stanley knife blades.

‘Hello, my fwiend,’ he said. ‘Mewwy Chwistmas!’

‘Yes, same to you, Tristan,’ I replied. ‘Did you have a good one?’

‘Yes, vewy good, thanks. Me and Bwenda had a quiet one together and then I was away over the new year seeing my kids. Just got back yesterday, in fact. Bwenda was gweat about it, even gave me a few bob towards the twavel costs. I miss them, you know.’

Tristan and I had a brief conversation about whether there was any evidence that New Labour had ever been or were ever likely to be a party of redistribution. He then asked me if I’d mind if he got away as he was in a hurry. I said I didn’t and I’d just sit in the waiting room until Brenda was free.

I was reading the new copy of Closer magazine when Mrs Byro arrived. She shuffled into the waiting room like a confused armadillo and deposited herself quietly on a chair opposite me. I glanced over the top of my magazine and noticed Mrs Byro was wearing black wellies that were probably several sizes too big for her. Her thick maroon wool socks were folded over the tops of them.

In the article I was reading in Closer it said that Cheryl Cole is planning to dramatically overhaul her hectic lifestyle this year. The article tells us that Cheryl is going to Barbados for a ‘much needed break’ from her husband and that she’s also going to change her diet and fitness regimes. The article also quotes Cheryl as saying she doesn’t like her legs.

‘Hello there,’ Mrs Byro suddenly said, quietly. She took off her floppy purple hat and put it on the table.

‘Hello,’ I said, and smiled. I returned to my magazine, as if deeply engrossed in it.

‘Do you mind if I ask what are you reading?’ Mrs Byro asked me, a minute or so later. ‘It looks very interesting.’

‘It is’ I said. ‘It’s an article about a woman who doesn’t like her legs,’

‘Oh, that must be awful,’ Mrs Byro said. ‘Alien Leg Syndrome – I’ve seen a television programme about that. Enmity towards one’s own limbs is such a cruel and terrible curse. She should come and see Brenda too, shouldn’t she?’

I nodded politely. I looked at Mrs Byro, trying to remember why she comes to see Brenda. I had it in my mind that she came for acupuncture because of an irrational fear of wild deer, but suspected I was probably wrong. Fortunately Mrs Byro herself came to my rescue on this front.

‘I’ve come for some meteor balm,’ she said, smiling nervously.

‘Oh, have you?’ I said.

‘Yes, I have,’ Mrs Byro replied. ‘I did something silly on New Year’s Eve. I came to see Brenda first thing next day but she wasn’t here unfortunately. Her neighbour said she’d been out all night and might not be back for a few days. I finally managed to contact her yesterday and came to see her right away. I hope it isn’t too late.’

I looked at Mrs Byro and smiled. ‘I’m sure it won’t be,’ I said.

Brenda came in to the room at that point. I stood up and she kissed me on both cheeks. It felt vaguely like a scene from Dr Zhivago.

‘How’s Margaret?’ she said, as if she hadn’t spoken to her for an hour not twelve hours earlier.

‘She’s okay,’ I said. ‘A bit worried about Henry, but otherwise fine. And how’s Brenda? Did you have a good new year?’

‘Oh it was all right,’ Brenda said. ‘Very quiet. Just me and Jools Holland, really.’

‘Was Santa kind to you?’ I asked.

‘Yes, he was, thank you. Surprisingly so. I was a very lucky girl this year, I think.’

I nodded. ‘Oh, here’s your extra present from Salford,’ I said, handing her the parcel.

I looked down at Ms Byro. She was sitting like a kitten with tattered fur and swaddled in green and brown cardigans, looking up at a conversation between two giants. I noticed her golden yellow scarf has worn and bobbly. I also noticed she was wearing a Pandora bracelet. I wondered what her combination of charms might mean. They seemed to comprise mostly animals and stars and moons. Something to do with destiny and nature, obviously.

I drove back down to the sea front and north past Feather’s Caravan Site and up towards the Delaval Arms. I was listening to a Josh Ritter CD. As I was going down the hill at Seaton Sluice I decided to go and see my dad for a while. We talked for a while about Eubie Blake. He played me some stuff he’d recorded from the radio in the past few days. Our conversation then turned to politics.

‘Do you think New Labour is a redistributive party?’ I said to him.

‘Oh aye,’ he said. ‘Definitely. Campbell is, any way. Look how much he’s redistributed to himself since he became MP!’

It began to snow as I passed the Astley Arms. I drove into Blyth in a line of slow moving traffic. At South Beach we slowed down at the Amersham Way roundabout.  Tristan was coming out of the estate in his PermaPlumb van. He didn’t see me as he passed me on his way south, back to Whitley Bay. Josh Ritter was singing Thin Blue Flame. I sang along and wondered what Newbiggin looked like in the falling snow.

.

the needle in destiny’s jukebox

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quay road, blyth

That night, I had a dream. I drifted off thinking
about happiness, birth and new life. But now I was haunted
by a vision of… He was horrible. The lone biker of apocalypse.
A man with all the powers of Hell at his command.

 

You’re young and you’ve got your health. What do you want with a job?

 The Coen Brothers

Raising Arizona

 

I was standing in the corridor talking to Jack. In his skinny black jeans and biker boots he was leaning against a poster that says Safeguarding is Everyone’s Business. He reminded me a lot of Felix the Cat. It occurred to me Tallulah was in a meeting upstairs.

‘Hey, you’re not waiting for Tallulah, are you?’ I said.

‘Nah,’ Jack said. ‘I’ve moved on, man. I’ve got another cherry in my crystal chandelier now.’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I mean, you aren’t actually waiting here now for her are you?  She’s upstairs in a meeting. I thought you might be going back together.’

Jack laughed and shook his head. He adjusted his Aviators on his face and pulled up the collar of his leather jacket. I wondered if he was about to break into a chorus of You’re the One that I Want.

‘I saw her at Tynemouth at the weekend. She was in the Wooden Doll, out on the lash with a slackjawed entourage of mule-faced harridans. She was blathered, man, I can tell you. They all were. Blathered and blotto, blasted, bombed and boogalooed. Know what I mean?’

‘They were drunk?’

‘As skunks, dude.  Lady T can hardly remember seeing me. She was well hammered, mate, hooched up, out of it, tanked, toodlelooed, wrecked, wrinkled, polluted, and duplicated. Man, she was trousered, know what I mean?’

‘I think so. She was drunk. So did she speak to you?’

‘She sneered at me, man, that’s what she did – sneered at me. That lady’s got one helluva attitude problem, my friend. She wants to eat the sparrows from my soul.’

I nodded very slowly.

‘So are you still with the band, Jack?’ I said.

‘Yeah, I sure am. It’s my life, man. It’s what I am. I was born to be a needle in destiny’s jukebox.’

I nodded again.

‘So were you playing at the Wooden Doll at the weekend? Is that how you happened to see Tallulah?’

‘Nah, that was Friday. We didn’t have a gig that night. I was on a recreational mission, if you know what I mean.’

I was about to begin nodding again when Tallulah bowled around the corner at the end of the corridor and began striding towards us like a leopard with a Mae West half-smile on her face.

‘Oh oh,’ Jack said. ‘Here comes Minnie the Moocher. This is probably my cue to skedaddle, dude.’

Tallulah strode up to us, her bag slung over her shoulder, her red hair tied back.

‘Well, well,’ she said, looking Jack up and down, ‘if it isn’t Ronnie Wood.’

‘Miaow!’ Jack replied. ‘What’s the problem, Lady T, did the green-eyed monster come a-callin’?’

‘Dream on, Jack,’ Tallulah replied. ‘But, hey, I suppose that must have been your daughter I saw you with at the weekend, was it?’

‘Have you ever noticed’ Jack said – to me, rather than to Tallulah, ‘how when women reach a certain age they can get a bit confused about those who are young and beautiful?’

‘Oh, come off it, Jack,’ Tallulah came back. ‘If you were only my age you’d still be twice the age of that half-naked tattooed bimbo you were drooling over on Friday.’

Jack looked at me and made a sort of palms up shrug.

‘See what I mean, man?’ he said. He zipped up his jacket.  ‘Time to make tracks, I reckon.’

Jack slouched away slowly down the corridor. As he opened the door at the end he looked back, pulled his Aviators down his nose and, looking over them, blew Tallulah a kiss.

Tallulah shook her head. She turned and looked straight at me, her blue eyes very serious. It struck me that she reminded me a lot of Florence Welch.

‘He’s going to get himself sacked,’ she said. ‘He’s on self-destruct. For what it’s worth, I don’t think Jack will be with us much longer.’

For a moment I thought she was going to cry. I was sure she was. But just then Eric came into the building. He spotted me immediately and made a beeline for me.

‘How,’ he said, ‘Aa’ve just seen ya marra’s sidekick, whaat’s ‘ee’s name? The one whaat plays wi’ that baand – yuh knaa, the Gliffs. Ozzy Osbourne – yuh knaa, the Pluto, him wi’ the massa motorbike.’

‘Jack’s band’s called The Clips,’ Tallulah said, as if very politely correcting him. ‘Not The Gliffs.’

‘Ur, aye,’ Eric said, looking at Tallulah. ‘Aye, here, so d’ye knaa ‘ee’s marra, iz weell? The blowk whaat wuz in The Proodloot? Whaat’s ‘ee’s name again? Ur, aye. Hing on.’

Eric slipped into please wait, communicating with server mode, his rigid index finger raised like a coathook.

‘Owen.’ Tallulah replied, laughing quietly. ‘Owen Vardy. Oh, I know Owen, all right.’

‘D’yuh knaa wor young un’s tryin’ t’ get the gadgie at the Fell Um Doon to book them for a neit? Aa’ll get yuh a ticket, if yuh like.’

Tallulah shook her head. ‘No thanks,’ she said. ‘But if he books The Clips let me know. Now there’s a band worth seeing.’

She winked at me and left.

‘We’s she?’ Eric said, as she closed the door. ‘Is that the Pluto’s lass?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘No. In fact they can’t actually stand each other.’

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen cooking some onions and scraping some carrots. I hadn’t seen her for a few days. I asked her how Brenda and Tristan were.

‘Not good,’ she said.

‘Any more news on the woman he’s supposed to be seeing from South Beach. Where does she live again, Albatross Way?’

‘It looks like there is no woman from South Beach,’ Margaret said. ‘Mrs Byro seems to have made a mistake. It seems it was something she dreamt.’

‘So Tristan’s in the clear, then?’

‘Not quite. It’s only a matter of time before Brenda figures out what Mrs Byro’s dream means. She thinks the dream is probably prophetic. She thinks the birds are symbols of things to come. Brenda says Mrs Byro is one of God’s chosen vehicles. It’s through the likes of Mrs Byro that the radio stations of the future broadcast their quiet music. ’

I nodded slowly. I could have been listening to a tune by Elgar in my head, but in reality I was thinking how much I dislike it when the clocks go back and all of a sudden you have to drive home in the dark. You feel like the victim of a robbery.

I gave De Kooning a cuddle and sat with him for a while watching the six o’clock news and drinking a cappuccino. Afterwards I went out for a walk in the dark. I went looking for the autumn leaves. I walked through the Solingen Estate and into Ridley Park. I walked from there along Bath Terrace and then back up Ridley Avenue, which might be at its very best at this time of the year. A little while later I walked across Broadway Circle. I stopped beneath the streetlight in the middle, close to the TA building, drifts of fallen leaves all around me. The lights from the Broadway shops – the chippy, the newsagent cum corner shop that calls itself a superstore, the chop suey house, the off-licence – were flooding the dry pavement. And yet there are still those who will tell you that Blyth isn’t a beautiful place.

 .

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. 

.

lunasdal

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lairig ghru

It was upon a Lammas night,
When corn rigs are bonnie,
Beneath the moon’s unclouded light,
I held awa to Annie:
The time flew by wi’ tentless heed,
‘Till, ‘tween the late and early,
Wi’ sma’ persuasion she agreed
To see me thro’ the barley.

Corn rigs, an’ barley rigs,
An’ corn rigs are bonnie:
I’ll ne’er forget that happy night,
Amang the rigs wi’ Annie.

Robert Burns

Going north on the first day of my holidays I sat in the long queue of traffic at the roadworks at Bankfoot a few miles north of Perth for almost an hour, singing along with the Jayhawks. It was mid afternoon and I was noticing again how the light in August fails, how it is corrupted by a kind of blackness, a sort of sootiness that isn’t there in midsummer. This same darkness shortens the days. I was wondering why I always go on holiday in August, rather than earlier in the summer.  Part of it is because I don’t want summer to be over, I think, and once I’ve had my holiday it always feels like it is in some way. But part of it is that I actually really love the August light despite the way it has shades of winter and death about it – probably because it has, I guess. The light of August has a dreadful sadness about it.

The things you notice, of course, are the tired heavy greens of the trees, the bleached and spent yellows of the grasses, the closing down of the shadows, the new palette of late summer flowers, the slow insinuation of the brown and purple of autumn. I was singing along to The Man Who Loved Life watching another batch of caravans and 4×4’s coming through, when I noticed two or three crows flitting between the verge and the fence posts, probably in search of road kill. I remembered Van Gogh’s Crows in the Cornfield, one of his final paintings. It was painted shortly before his suicide. Van Gogh killed himself on 29th July. I began to wonder whether the failing inflection of the light was a factor, whether he saw a darkness coming that he couldn’t face. Or maybe for a moment he saw too clearly the darkness he had always loved too much.  Oh, but there’s been too much mythologizing about Van Gogh already. Ignore my musings.

It was Lammas, a Christian feast meaning ‘loaf mass’, but one which is really a colonisation of an earlier pagan feast day, in much the same way as Christmas and Easter are. In the Irish Celtic tradition it is Lughnasadh, the festival of the god Lugh. Lughnasadh falls midway between Beltaine in May and Samhain in November and marks the beginning of the third quarter of the year. It is called Lunasdal by the Scots Celts, which is also their name for the month of August. It’s the time when the harvest first begins and the berries begin to ripen. And it’s a grand time to be in Scotland.

On 13th August I made an early start from Coylumbridge down through the Rothiemurchus Forest towards the Lairig Ghru. It was a fine day.  Rothiemurchus is a very special and beautiful place, one of the last and largest remnants of the ancient Caledonian forest which once covered most of the Highlands.  I particularly love the way the gnarly Scots Pines seem to somehow sit each in its own specially allotted space among the tangled acres of heather, bilberry, bog willow and juniper. This place is home to wildcats and pine martens, red squirrels and red deer, capercaillie, osprey, eagles, siskins, crossbills and who knows what else. The heather was coming into bloom and from time to time I was caught by the sweet honeyed scent as I walked south towards the mountains.

As I was descending the long track towards the Iron Bridge, I met a very tall man – a man at least three inches taller than me, probably about six foot five, maybe even taller –  walking briskly towards me. He was dressed all in green, had wispy red hair and was as thin as a beanpole. He was carrying a full pack, including a tent and sleeping mat. I guessed he had spent the night in the mountains, and it turned out I was right: he had camped high in the Lairig Ghru. The man’s name was David Alexander Cucumber, and he told me was a local doctor. He told me he was hurrying back down because he was sure his surgery would be especially busy that afternoon.

‘Swine Flu?’ I said.

‘No,’ Dr Cucumber replied, in a tight, raspy Highland accent. ‘Nothing quite so straightforward as that.’

‘Measles?’

‘No, not that either.’

‘Insect bites?’

‘No.’

Dr Cucumber looked at me quizzically, as if trying to decide my nature.

‘You’re not from these parts, are you?’ he said.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m from Northumberland.’

‘Yes, yes, that’s what I thought. But you seem an intelligent enough man all the same. Tell me, did you notice the meteors last night?’

‘I didn’t see any myself,’ I replied. ‘No. But I’ve heard about them. The Perseids.’

‘Yes, yes, they’re the ones. Well, there are ancient beliefs about those meteors that many folk around these parts still hold to be true. The August meteors are known in the Celtic tradition as The Games of Lugh. Did you ever hear that expression?’

I said I had, and that I knew that Lugh was a sort of god of the first harvest and said by some to be associated in some way with the sun.

‘Aren’t the games supposed to commemorate the death of Lugh’s foster mother?’ I said.

‘Yes, they are,’ Dr Cucumber replied, stooping slightly towards me, like a twig tottering momentarily under the weight of its burden. He looked at me with narrowed eyes and smiled slyly. There was a moment’s pause, allowing us to scrutinise one another a little more closely.

‘In these parts,’ he went on, ‘it is believed by some that if a woman lies out in loose fitting garments on a clear night under the August meteors then she may conceive, that in effect a meteor may impregnate her. You’d be surprised how many women still do that around here, unbeknown to their husbands, of course. It tends to be women of a certain age, you see. Often they have already had children and those children are now growing up and no longer need them so much. At the same time their marriages may have lost their spark. Their husbands hardly seem to notice them any more, and spend most nights watching satellite TV or just reading again the novels of Scott or Robert Louis Stephenson. A woman of a certain age can, in those circumstances, begin to brood and become prey to an ancient loneliness and a strange longing. I looked at the sky yesterday afternoon and saw it was clear. I knew then that today’s surgery would be a busy one and that it would be a night in the hills for me. I could name you now no fewer than thirty women who I know for certain will in no more than summer frocks and petticoats have lain alone in their gardens all last night waiting as like golden arrows the meteors pierced the sky above them. And I know that I’ll see every single one of those women this afternoon at my surgery.’

I laughed gently. ‘They don’t want pregnancy tests, do they?’

‘No, they don’t. On the contrary. As they prepare breakfast for their menfolk and bairns, the utter foolishness of their actions always dawns on them. They begin to rue that, as if unwed, they have lain all night beneath falling meteors.  They begin to fear the consequences and they know they’ll have to come to me for the remedy.’

‘The remedy?’ I asked. ‘The remedy for what? Time cannot be undone. You cannot undo a night beneath the stars.’

‘No, you’re right: they can’t do that. But they can ensure there are no unwelcome consequences. Can you imagine what would happen if one of them were to become pregnant because of that night? How would they ever explain that to their husbands?  You must remember that these women are by definition in relationships which no longer have the physical dimensions they once did. Whose baby would they say they were now carrying?  You see their predicament, don’t you?’

I nodded slowly, allowing myself to imagine for a moment the sense of betrayal and hurt a good Highland man might suffer to discover his wife was carrying a child that could not be his.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I can.’

‘And then you can see why they will all come and see me this afternoon, because there is a remedy and it never fails to help.’

‘A remedy for what?’ I said again, a little perplexed. ‘A woman cannot become pregnant from a falling meteor.’

‘Can’t she?’ Dr Cucumber said, a little sharply, knocking a wisp of red hair from his brow. ‘Are you absolutely sure of that? If you were a woman and you’d lain out all night as they have, would you want to take the chance?’

‘Of course I would,’ I said. ‘Who ever became pregnant from a meteor? No-one.’

‘Exactly,’ Dr Cucumber said, as if I’d finally seen the light. ‘No-one ever has because no-one has ever not taken the remedy. To my knowledge not one woman has ever taken that chance. Not one. And why on earth would they? They’d be a fool to do so when they know there is an absolutely one hundred percent reliable remedy.’

‘But this is just superstition,’ I said. ‘And a waste of medical resources. You are prescribing them a remedy they do not need.’

Dr Cucumber knitted his brows and looked down at me in a schoolmasterly sort of way. ‘How can you be so certain of that?’ he said. ‘Don’t the facts speak for themselves on this matter? Every woman who has ever lain beneath the meteors has applied the remedy and not one of them has ever suffered an unwelcome pregnancy. I’d say that was strong evidence, wouldn’t you?’

I shook my head with some disbelief. ‘So there’s a remedy for this meteor condition, a sort of morning after the meteors pill, is there? And this has been fully tested by scientists using randomised controlled trials and all that and found to be truly effective?’

‘Oh, no, the remedy isn’t one any pharmaceutical company would – or could – ever manufacture. No, it’s a remedy that has its roots in knowledge of a completely different order – the wisdom of the universe as passed down through the generations.’

‘So do you as a rational man believe in that sort of knowledge?’ I asked. I was becoming increasingly curious about the medical credentials of our Dr Cucumber.

‘It has its place,’ he replied, emphatically. ‘It isn’t the be all and end all, and I’m not pretending it is. But as Shakespeare said, there are more things in heaven and earth than some people are prepared to admit. Don’t you agree?’

I nodded. ‘And so what is the remedy for this meteor predicament?’ I asked. ‘Is it something you find in the mountains?’

‘Yes, that’s part of it. Yes, now you’re on the right track.  The remedy depends upon the application of what is called Meteor Balm, and this balm is made in accordance with a secret recipe originating it is believed with a certain Miss McTavish.  The exact constituents of Miss McTavish’s Meteor Balm are known only to a handful of people and I happen to be one of those people, having been entrusted with the recipe by my grandmother shortly before her death.’

I was about to ask him what the ingredients of this recipe were, fully expecting him to decline to tell me, when he went on.

‘One of the key ingredients,’ he said, ‘is bilberries. But there are only three places around these parts that these bilberries must be picked, two of which are at secret locations back there in the Lairig Ghru. Furthermore, the bilberries must be picked at dawn while the dew is still on them on the morning of the night of the August meteors. You can see now why I spent the night in the mountains, can you not?’

‘I can,’ I said. ‘So Miss McTavish’s Meteor Balm is a sort of bilberry potion?’

‘Yes, but there are many other ingredients, of course, and the measures must be very exact. For example, fresh juniper leaves from the forest must be used, fresh thyme and onions boiled in water from Loch an Eilein.’

‘Onions, eh?’ I said.  ‘It doesn’t surprise me that they’re in the recipe. I share a house with a woman who believes onions have almost magical powers.’

‘They do,’ Dr Cucumber said, and for a moment a wild glint came into his eyes. He reminded me of the Doc in Back To The Future, a taller thinner ginger version. ‘There’s no question of that. The Balm would never work without onions, I can tell you that.’

‘And so what does the woman do with the balm in order to prevent meteor pregnancy? Does she drink it?’

‘Oh, no, that would be silly. She would die for certain if she did. No, the balm is applied to the face and belly every six hours and the woman must keep herself in a secluded place for at least twenty four hours, avoiding sunlight and refraining from any alcoholic drinks.  She must also sleep that night seated in an oak chair, preferably outdoors but if not then in front of an open window facing north. Although such an eventuality is of course only a remote possibility, they must also ensure that no physical intimacy occurs between themselves and their husbands.’

‘And this works every time, eh?’ I said.

‘As I’ve said already, it has never failed yet.’

At this point Dr Cucumber looked at his watch and bid me farewell. He had to get home, dig some onions and prepare the balm for his patients that afternoon. I walked on towards the Lairig Ghru, the warm sun on my face. I put my sunglasses on and quickened my pace. I was thinking about Bethlehem. I was thinking about David Hume. I was thinking about picking wild bilberries in the shadows beneath Lurcher’s Crag.

It rained on the following day and I decided to drive down to Pitlochry and have a look around the town. On the way down I stopped at the House of Bruar art gallery, which is very swish and shrewdly commercial and stocked with various recognisable representations of Scottishness, with a particular emphasis I thought on game animals and hunting. I drove on through Blair Atholl, where the Tilt finally hews and hacks its way out of the mountains, and on towards the Pass of Killiecrankie. The rain was falling on the fields of yellow grass and I stopped by the side of the old road for a while to look at them. This is where at the end of July in 1689 the great battle of the first Jacobite uprising took place and the Claymores of Dundee’s Highlanders slaughtered Mackay’s army as they came north to suppress them.

I parked near Pitlochry station. Eventually I made my way over the river to the Festival Theatre to look at the paintings there. The main exhibition was of mixed media landscape paintings by Iona Leishman. I hadn’t come across her work and I was quite taken with it. It has a complex layered texture and patterning that I found really engaging. A few days later I looked at her website. The same work there looks quite dull and uninteresting, oddly enough.

I spent the second week of my holidays at home painting and doing some walking and cycling. When I came in at teatime on Tuesday Margaret was about the leave the house.

‘I’m going to meet Brenda,’ she said, as if the matter was urgent.

‘Has something happened?’ I enquired.

‘Something certainly has happened. Brenda is extremely upset. She’s found a letter from the benefits people. Tristan’s claiming benefits. She can hardly believe it.’

‘He must need the money, I guess.’

‘Oh, yes, go on, make an excuse for him!  And the worst of it is, he hasn’t told her. He leaves the house every day and goes to work. Brenda will never cope with the shame of being in a relationship with a benefits cheat, I can tell you that.’

Margaret left. I put the Felice Brothers on the CD player and sat down on the sofa with De Kooning to listen. They have become one of my favourite bands and I was somehow just in the mood for their dark, doomed, ragged and vital concoction.  It was a nice evening. A succession of cyclists passed by. I watched them from the window. A teenage girl on a chestnut horse rode up the street just after seven. It struck me that this doesn’t happen too often. A couple of tracks later three camels passed, followed very shortly afterwards by two lads in turbans riding elephants. I began to wonder whether there was a circus on a field in Newsham, or maybe at the old waterworks/camp site in South Newsham.  However this theory was soon scotched. No sooner had the elephants gone than a huge herd of wildebeest came pounding by, their hooves clattering on the tarmac, a great cloud of dust behind them. They were being chased by a group of lionesses.

August’s a funny month. I think I’ll take my holiday a little earlier next year.

 .

the black aeroplane

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blyth brewery bar quayside

It was very summery in the earlier part of last week, although as it happens it wasn’t going to last. On Monday Tallulah was in the office. I was standing in the kitchen at the photocopier wondering if I should ask Eric to brush up all the sand when I heard a soprano voice in the corridor singing ‘Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.’

I come home in the morning light
My mother says when you gonna live your life right
Oh mother dear we’re not the fortunate ones
And girls they wanna have fun
Oh girls just wanna have fun

It was Tallulah. As she passed the kitchen door she glanced in. When she saw me she came in to say hello. Or rather she slinked in. There is something strangely lithe and feline about Tallulah sometimes. Her red hair was tied back in a thin turquoise scarf. She was wearing long silver earrings, a tiny crescent moon at the end of each one.

Tallulah told me that Jack and Owen had almost come to blows at a meeting of the Keats appreciation group a few days earlier. It seems they’d been arguing about Lauren Laverne’s rendition of “the golden pen poem”, as Tallulah called it.

‘Owen felt that Laverne’s reading was disrespectful and impertinent,’ Tallulah said. ‘Jack sniggered at him and accused him of being elitist. Of course Jack didn’t quite put it like that. He suggested to Owen that only a stuck up little twerp who had his head up his own backside could think like that. Owen retaliated by calling Jack “slack and totally without scruples” and said Jack was “lacking a robust sense of the true meaning and value of poetry”. Jack guffawed and suggested the real problem was that Owen had the hots for Laverne but was in denial about it, denial that he was converting into denial about the quality of her rendering of the poem. Jack said Owen would never admit the beauty of Laverne’s reading of the poem until he admitted the beauty of Laverne herself. You should have been there. It was bloody hilarious.’

‘It sounds like it,’ I said. ‘And so Jack nearly hit Owen, did he?’

‘Yes, it’s worrying. Jack’s needs to watch himself. When Owen retaliated by called him degenerate and disrespectful to women, Jack got up, swaggered over to him, poked him on the brow with his index finger and asked him what he was going to do about it.’

I laughed. ‘What did Owen do?’ I said.

‘He trembled!’ Tallulah laughed. ‘What do you think he did? He trembled, picked up his carrier bag of seasonal vegetables and went off to catch the next bus back home to Heidi.’

‘Sounds like Lauren’s really put the cat among the pigeons among the Keats aficionados, eh?’

‘Yeah,’ Tallulah said. ‘But it’s Jack I worry about. I’d hate to see him do something he’d regret.’

‘Bloody hell, Tallulah, since when did you ever care about what happens to Jack? Last time you spoke to me about him you didn’t give him the lickings of a dog.’

‘Didn’t I? Really? How odd. I’m really very fond of Jack.’

Tallulah looked at me with a wide-eyed, innocent expression. It was an expression Laverne herself sometimes wears. I laughed. She laughed too.

‘Hey, do you know he’s taken to wearing a cowboy hat now?’ she said. ‘Well, a sort of Fedora, I guess.’

‘Is it black?’ I asked.

‘Yep,’ Tallulah said. ‘Black as your hat. Black as a spider. Black as night.’

The Good Doctor Sticks also came over last week. We had a session about the Electronic Assessment Module, which he continues to see as the future of social work, and then moved on the other matters.  He had an idea he wanted to pitch.

‘In The Observer this week it said that there were eight hundred Brits on waiting lists for Swiss euthanasia clinics,’ he said. ‘This is a clear case of demand without supply. Where’s there’s need, there’s opportunity. This is the fundamental principle of the market economy. And the government’s not about to make euthanasia legal over here any time soon – except in Gordon’s case as a one off, of course – and even if they did the money’s not there to fund the service from the public purse, so the market will need to fill the gap. I’m looking to pull together some interested people from various disciplines to begin to put together a package and come up with a business plan. Needless to say you, my friend, were one of the first people that came to mind.’

‘Thanks, Sticks,’ I said, rolling my eyes. ‘I’m flattered. So how do you see this working, exactly?’

‘Okay, our company will essentially operate in a specialised area which combines the expertise of social care professionals, counsellors and medical practitioners of various kinds with other areas of expertise, such as those of the travel and package short-break holiday providers, the leisure industry, the undertaking profession and funeral services.  The basic idea is that we will put together complete packages in Switzerland for those who wish to end their lives by euthanasia.  We will provide a complete service – transport, accommodation, nursing and medical care, return of the body, funeral services and so on.  But within that service we will offer a bespoke end of life experience for every client and their family.  We will set up a centre in Switzerland where a dying person and their loved ones can spend the client’s final days together. We will offer privacy and five star care. But more than that, we will tailor the whole package around the dying person’s wishes and desires. They will eat the foods  they love, listen to the music they love, see DVD’s of their favourite films or those they’d always wanted to see but missed, have their favourite books and poems read to them, and so on. The family would have a suite with all the amenities they desired and a top notch twenty four hour global care and hospitality package. We’d ensure that we met their every demand. For example if they loved Bartok, they could listen to him all they wished. We might even be able to get a string quartet to play for them.  If they liked Chas and Dave or ragtime, we’d ensure that it was available for them. Rap music, hip-hop, madrigals or Welsh male voice choirs. Whatever they wanted to hear before they left this world, we would ensure they heard it. Similarly with films. If they wanted Close Encounters of the Third Kind they would have it. Plasma screen, wraparound sound, Dolby stereo – the works. Similarly if they wanted The Swimmer or The Masque of the Red Death or The Snowman. And the same with food. If they wanted caviar they would get it. If they wanted cheese and onion pasty and mushy peas they’d get them. Top quality ingredients, cordon bleu chefs. On their final day, which I see as usually being a Sunday, the dying person would have a final evening meal – a Last Supper , if you will – after which they’d retire to their bed to begin their final journey.  At this point the music of their choice would begin to play, and again it could be anything they wanted, from Gorecki’s Third to something like K. C. and The Sunshine Band’s sublime and immortal “That’s the Way I Like It”, uh huh, uh huh. The latter would be my personal choice, of course. We’d want to make dying an unforgettable experience, if you’ll excuse the paradox.’

I nodded slowly. ’You don’t see this as at all cynical, do you?’ I said. ‘The exploitation of desperate and vulnerable people?’

‘I don’t’ Sticks replied. ‘Not at all. Don’t forget, my friend, better the good guys provide these services than let them fall into the hands of the bad guys.’

‘So if good guys do bad things does it make those things good?’ I asked. ‘Or does it not just make the good guys bad?’

‘You think too much, my friend,’ Sticks said, his affable smile rising like a brand new day across his face. ‘The key issue here is need and ensuring that need is met. That’s the business we’re in. We need to see that the market is the future for all areas of social care. There’s no shame in it my friend, no disgrace.  So, are you interested?   Do you want to hear more?’

‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Go ahead, shoot.’

‘Okay, here’s how I see it. In addition to the Your Final Days centre in Switzerland, we’d need a support, preparation and after-care service in the UK. That’s where you’d come in.  But more importantly we’d need our own aeroplane specially equipped to transport the dying person and their family to Geneva, or wherever. It would be a unique aeroplane for a unique journey, the Final Journey, a journey the dying person will only take once.’

‘So what will you call your aeroplane?’ I said, ‘EuthanAire?’

‘That’s good,’ Sticks chuckled. ‘I like its phonic ambiguities. It sounds like “you thin air”, where the status of “thin” is uncertain. Is it a verb or is it an adjective?  But either way it speaks of the ephemeral, transitory nature of our corporeal selves, does it not?  And the word also evokes the phrase “youth in air”, which is also helpful in reminding us that we all grow old and that death is inevitable, that being young is as fragile as a perfume on the wind. It isn’t the name I have in mind but it’s an interesting suggestion.’

‘No, Sticks, it wasn’t a suggestion: it was a joke.’

‘Of course it was’ he said. ‘But an interesting joke, yes?  However, the aeroplane I have in mind will be completely black, black wings, black from nose to tail fin. But inside it will be lined with white satin and all the furnishings – the seats, the couches and beds, the curtains, the carpets and the drinks trolley – will be gleaming, clean and white and lovely white lights will light every corner of the cabin space.  And the cabin staff will be dressed all in white too. It’s like a metaphor for death itself, you see. From the outside it looks dark and forbidding and inscrutable. The dying person wonders what it’s like inside.  But his or her final flight shows them that inside the black aeroplane it is peaceful and serene and that everything shines like snow.  This is how the Final Flight of life will be for our clients. They will ascend above the Earth and make the passage to Switzerland in the black aeroplane. That will be the name of our company, Black Aeroplane Enterprises.  I like to think that in time the phrase “it’s time to take the black aeroplane” will become an everyday figure of speech for dying, in much the same way as shuffling off the mortal coil and popping one’s clogs are now. And the advertising material is there already: take the black aeroplane and make dying an unforgettable experience. What do you think? Do you like what you’re hearing, my friend?’

‘Yeah, I guess,’ I said. ‘But do you think it’ll ever get off the ground?’

‘A black aeroplane is no heavier than a silver one,’ Sticks quipped. ‘I am anticipating no special difficulties with gravity.’

‘But what about if it’s made illegal to offer such packages. Or what if they liked their last weekend so much they decided they didn’t want to die after all?  Or what if euthanasia’s made legal in the UK and service providers are popping up everywhere?’

‘If the dying person were to decide they wished to remain with us they could return to the UK alive with their loved ones on the same flight that would have taken their body home.  Furthermore they will be offered a fifteen percent discount on a future booking if they make this within twelve months of that date.  If euthanasia is made legal in the UK I already have a plan to capture the market with a chain of high street branches aimed at providing a sensitive high quality service for the volume market. I’ll call these Last Stop Shops, which is rather clever, don’t you think?’

I shrugged. I sometimes think Sticks is on something – like another planet, for example. However, he’s regarded in the Directorate as our key ‘blue sky thinker’ and as a man whose views you should never dismiss.  Some say he sees the order of future where others can see only chaos.

‘You should be on The Apprentice, Sticks,’ I said. ‘Alan Sugar would be bowled over by someone like you.’

‘You think so? ‘ Sticks smiled, a slow, deeply self-satisfied smile, almost the smile of a cat. ‘Well, I’ll take that in the spirit I think it’s intended, my friend. Thank you. Yes, I can see it too: “Sticks: you’re hired!” Ha ha. And so what’s your answer, then? Do you want to be in my project group? Yes or no?’

I rubbed my jaw. ’Let me think about it,’ I said.

‘Fair enough. I’ll give you a bell next week. But remember, if the good guys don’t do it, the bad guys will.’

I love the way there’s so much greenery and light at this time of the year and how it all seems so irrepressible and profligate. I drove along Renwick Road that evening in slightly luminous marbled-pebble light. I passed Ronnie Campbell’s office at the corner of Claremont Terrace. It’s funny how meretricious and unfashionable the yellow and red of Labour looks now (no doubt a rebranding now awaits us in the not too distant future). Less than half a mile by Jag from his big house on Marine Terrace, Ronnie’s shabby office, an old brown corner shop – inscrutable and uninviting and which never looks likes it’s open – seems a metonym for his shoddy worn-out party, a metaphor for the way our representatives weigh the needs of the people against their own needs. I slid around Broadway Circle past the bow-windowed pre-war semis – solid, secure, desirable – and noticed in gardens the yellow tongues of the laburnum lolling in vague, soft shadows. I remembered that when I was a kid I thought these houses were really posh and that they belonged to rich people, people from a different world to me.

When I got home Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing a new jigsaw. It was a picture of a steamroller, a green Aveling and Porter. There was also a large jagged crystal on the bench beside the kettle.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I said.

‘I have,’ Margaret replied.

‘And how was Bowness?’

‘Bowness was good, I think. Tristan perhaps a little less good.’

‘Oh?’

‘Oh, indeed. The man doesn’t know how close he is to being given his marching orders. I mean, he’s so insensitive he even asked Brenda to marry him one night! Marry him, you know! Marry him! What is it about hanging from a thread that the man doesn’t understand?’

‘Tristan asked Brenda to marry him?!’ I said, genuinely surprised. ‘Nah, surely not. Are you sure Brenda’s not just pulling your leg?’

‘Brenda does not pull anyone’s leg,’ Margaret replied, very earnestly. ‘What she told me was the truth, I’m sure of that. They were sitting at a window seat in an Italian restaurant called Rumours, which is apparently at the bottom of the hill opposite St Martin’s church. Do you know it?’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I do. They do a good garlic bread.’

‘They’d just come back from a cruise on Windermere. It was a lovely evening and the sun was shining on her face. Out of the blue Tristan asked her to marry him, but, and here’s the cherry on the cake, he wouldn’t be able to buy her an engagement ring until business picked up! Brenda says she was absolutely gobsmacked. She felt it was as if he wanted her on the cheap.’

‘So did she say no?’

‘No, she didn’t know what to say. She said she just leaned over, kissed his cheek once and asked if she could have another glass of wine.’

‘Wasn’t she flattered?’ I asked. ‘I mean, it isn’t every day a woman gets a proposal of marriage, is it?’

‘No, she wasn’t flattered. She felt she was being manipulated. She felt she’d been defiled.’

‘Defiled?’

‘Yes, defiled. That’s the word she used. She felt she’d been defiled.’

At that point De Kooning, who until then had been sitting benignly on the kitchen table, took it into his head to steal a piece of Margaret’s new jigsaw. He knocked it on to the floor with his paw, jumped down, picked it up in his mouth and ran away with it, out through the conservatory into the garden.

‘Which piece has he got?’ Margaret asked.

I looked at her and shrugged. ‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘The one that fits the hole that’s still there when you’re finished, I guess.’

Margaret shook her head in dismay. I turned on the oven and got a pizza out of the freezer. I made myself a cappuccino and sat in the conservatory waiting for De Kooning’s return. It crossed my mind that the piece of music I’d want to play while I lay dying in Switzerland would be Dvorak’s cello concerto.

.

yellow cheese and moondust

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newsham park - new delaval blyth

It looks like Tristan bottled it.

‘How did Brenda’s birthday go?’ I asked Margaret on Monday. ‘Was she happy with her presents?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ Margaret replied. She was polishing one of her clocks with lemon-scented Pledge. ‘Tristan’s taken her off for a surprise last minute holiday in the Lakes.’

‘Has he?’ I said. ‘Where have they gone?’

‘They gone to one of your hideaways,’ Margaret replied, buffing the clock face with a yellow duster. ‘Bowness.’

Bowness is obviously the new Prague, I thought.  I expect I’ll discover a bottle of Fursty Ferret and a slab of Kendal Mint Cake on the kitchen bench any day now.

A week or so ago we received a referral from Carol Anne McKenzie, a School Health Advisor, about an eight year old girl, Pearl Twichell. Carol Anne suspected that Pearl’s mother – who rather interestingly goes by the name of Maybellene, hopefully after the eponymous heroine of the old Chuck Berry song – was acting in a way that suggested possible MCTS, Malignant Child Transformation Syndrome. Such cases are few and far between these days and I admit to regarding the suggestion with a fair degree of skepticism. However, the case was allocated to Lily and after her initial assessment she felt Carol Anne might well be right.

We called a strategy meeting to share information. Lily told the meeting that she’d asked Maybellene directly about the concerns leading to her involvement.

‘I asked her straight out,’ Lily said, ‘“have you been trying to turn your daughter Pearl into a mouse?” Maybellene replied that she hadn’t. “Isn’t it true that you have three pet mice?” I asked. “It is,’” she replied. “Were those mice once children?” I asked. “Not so far as I know,” she replied, which struck me as a curious answer because it seemed to me to admit the possibility that they might have been. “Are you telling me they might once have been children?” I asked. “No,” she replied, “what I’m saying is that I don’t know. I got those three mice off a traveller who lodged in my house for a while. They were his. When he left he left them behind. I never inquired into their history or ancestry.” “Why not?” I asked. “Weren’t you curious?” “No,” she replied, in a way that was almost cocky, “I didn’t ever think it mattered.”  I think one of the things this meeting needs to realise is that in Maybellene we have a woman of exceptional guile and cleverness. She knows the answers professionals want to hear. Sometimes while I was talking to her I felt she was simply toying with me.’

Jennifer, our new Senior Spells and Potions Advisor, a small plump woman with curly grey hair, nodded knowingly. “I’ve met women like Maybellene before,’ she said. ‘They are very difficult to read sometimes.’

‘Yes, any way,’ Lily went on, slightly irritated, ‘I then asked her why her three mice were called Polly, Penelope and Priscilla. She said they were already named when she got them from the traveller. “But those three names are all girl’s names, aren’t they?” I said. She accepted that this was true, interestingly enough. But she was too clever to fall into my trap. “So are they girls?” I said. “No,” she replied, looking at me as if butter wouldn’t melt, “they’re mice.” “And you’re quite sure that they weren’t girls before they were mice?” “As I said,” she said, “I do not know their full history.” I’m not an aggressive woman, as you all well know, but at that point I felt like planting her one, I can tell you!’

‘But she’s clever. Isn’t she?’ Jennifer remarked. ‘She isn’t suggesting transformation is out of the question. No, she’s only saying that if it occurred it’s not something she had a hand in.’

‘Can we believe her?’ I asked.

‘No, I don’t think we can,’ Lily said. ‘And in any case, surely to take possession of mice you know to have been transformed from infants is little better than to transform those infants yourself. It’s like the kind of thing we did with the torture of those suspected Islamic terrorists – farmed it out to the Americans and Moroccans. If she knew about the transformation she is an accomplice, and therefore responsible for the trafficking of transformed infants.’

‘But do we have any clear evidence about the two areas of concern here,’ I asked. ‘First, that she has been seeking to transform her daughter Pearl into a mouse, and second, that the three mice she keeps are in fact transformed infants?’

The meeting was completely silent.

‘Jennifer,’ I said, ‘these spells that Maybellene is believed to have been using – what do we know about those?  How potent are they? Are they specific to mouse turnings? Do they provide us with clear evidence of an attempted transformation?’

‘They are of moderate potency,’ Jennifer said. ‘Certainly not spells of extraordinary efficacy. But they could achieve mouse turnings if used properly by a skilled practitioner.  However, they are not mouse turning specific and indeed have a quite broad application, including some relatively mundane and benign uses, such as vanquishing the white spots from toenails.’

‘What about the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell?’ Lily asked. ‘That’s the one Pearl’s teacher found written in Maybellene’s handwriting in one of Pearl’s schoolbooks. Isn’t that one specific to mouse turnings?’

‘Yes, Jennifer said, ‘that one is. But what evidence is there that Maybellene ever uttered it?  And that spell is also really only suitable for use by experts. It requires extraordinary exactness and patience. In the wrong hands it can have catastrophic results.  There are many well documented cases of accidental snake and toad turning by inexperienced users of that particular spell. It’s not a spell that comes without hazards. I suppose we’ve got to ask if a mother who loves her child as much as Maybellene appears to love Pearl would take the chance of such a catastrophic outcome.’

‘You see, Jennifer,’ Lily said, becoming distinctly matriarchal and assertive in her tone, ‘this is where you and I differ. To me any mother who would transform her child into a mouse by definition does not love that child. Such an act is a de facto rejection in my eyes and self-evidently emotionally abusive.’

Jennifer nodded patiently. She looked a little like a dandelion clock. ‘I respect your position on this issue, Lily,’ she said. ‘As you know, this is one of those difficult questions that child care professionals we haven’t yet come to a clear consensus about.’

Lily shrugged, and gave me a snarky make-believe smile.

‘The other issue, of course,’ Jennifer continued, ’is that even if we could show that at any point she did give voice to the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell, we’d also have to prove intent. The recent judgement in Highspot v Northamptonshire makes it clear that unless malignant intent can be clearly demonstrated there is no legal basis for seeking an order on the grounds of the utterance of transformative spells. You’ll recall that in that case a child’s grandmother had uttered a spell in her sleep and by accident turned her granddaughter, who had been sleeping nearby, into a lettuce. The court agreed this transformation would have been malignant but only if intent could be proven. Social Services’ applications for orders in respect of the other children in the family were dismissed.’

‘The law’s a mess on this issue,’ Lily said. ‘I think judges are getting this all wrong. The whole thing needs sorting out.’

‘I agree with Lily about this,’ Carol Anne declared. ‘If you ask me no normal mother would act in such a way and any family who even knows such spells should not be considered fit to care for children.’

We all know them, of course,’ I remarked.

‘Yes, but we’re professionals,’ Carol Anne countered. ‘We are not in the business of harming children.’

I nodded sagely. ‘So what about Maybellene?’ I said. ‘You met her too, Jennifer, didn’t you? What did you make of her?’

‘I agree with Lily that she’s a very very clever woman. But I too struggled to find definite proof of malignant intent – or indeed even of intent to transform.’

‘Did you challenge her?’ Lily asked, obviously bristling.

‘Of course,’ Jennifer replied. ‘I also asked her directly about the concerns. “How many children have you turned into mice?” I asked. “None,” she replied. “How many times have you uttered spells over your daughter?’ I asked. “Never,” she replied. “How many spells do you know?” I asked. ‘None,” she replied. “So what about the Yellow Cheese and Moondust spell, which is written in your hand in one of Pearl’s school books,” I said, thinking I’d finally caught her out. “Isn’t that just a nursery rhyme?” she said, as if butter wouldn’t melt. “No,” I replied, “it’s a mouse turning spell.” She frowned and said, “Well, I never. You learn something every day. Who would have ever thought it.” I’ll knock the smugness out of you, I thought to myself. “What about when the school nurse – sorry Carol Anne, I know I should have said School Health Advisor – heard you muttering under your breath when you were standing alone in the corridor outside Pearl’s classroom?  What were you muttering then, if it wasn’t a spell?” “A psalm,” she says, as bold as brass. “A psalm.”’

‘A psalm!’ Carol Anne exclaimed. ‘Well, I ask you. I’m telling you it was no psalm she was chanting outside that classroom.’

‘But the difficulty is we have no evidence to prove it wasn’t a psalm, Carol Anne,’ Jennifer said. ‘By your own admission you didn’t actually hear what she was saying. And Maybellene does seem to dote on Pearl, doesn’t she? That child obviously wants for nothing.’

‘Do we have any evidence of harm?’ I asked, looking towards Stephen, our legal advisor, who had sat quietly listening. ‘Anything we could put before a court?’

‘Not in what I’ve heard so far,’ he said. ‘No. Nothing that would stand up.’

‘And there’s been no evidence of transformational signs in Pearl?’ I asked. ‘Carol Anne?’

‘No, none that I’ve seen. No facial fur patches, no ear changes, no changes to her vocal range – nothing.’

‘Of course, we know gradual transformations are very much the exception,’ Jennifer said. ‘Most transformations are instantaneous and occur immediately on the utterance of an efficacious spell.’

Lily looked despondent. Her hunch was that Pearl was at serious risk of malignant transformation, and she may well be right. But unfortunately the evidence wasn’t there to support a decisive intervention in Pearl’s life. This is often the case in social work, the complexities and conflicts of which are not at all understood by the media or the general public, who have for the most part little idea of the reality of the lives of the marginal families we deal with. The lives of the underclass are more or less invisible to the great mass of society. Inevitably we concluded that we didn’t have grounds to remove Pearl from Maybellene’s care and that we could only continue to work with the family on a voluntary basis and try to monitor Pearl’s welfare closely.

As I drove home that evening the sun was shining. I was listening to the Felice Brothers’ album Yonder Is The Clock. It’s good potent rootsy music, Americana, as the genre is called these days, music unmistakably in the tradition of The Band, Dylan, Tom Waits, the Jayhawks and the like. It has that same sort of loose texture and abrasive darkness.

As I sat in the traffic queue on the Horton road at the Laverock Hall Farm roundabout I began wondering what other albums or songs had clocks in their title. The obvious one was Bill Haley and The Comet’s Rock Around the Clock. I wondered how many more I could think of before I got to the roundabout. It turned out to be fewer than I thought, probably because the queue was shorter than usual, or perhaps because there are fewer than I imagine there are. This was my list:

Clocks by Coldplay
Clockwork Orange Soundtrack
Sky Like a Broken Clock by Kelly Joe Phelps
Stop The Clocks by Oasis
Punch The Clock by Elvis Costello
Clock Without Hands by Nanci Griffith
Beat The Clock by Sparks

 

When I got home I noticed that a large bright blue barrel had landed on the gravel in Hugo’s front garden fairly close to his path, near the car wheels and the sheets of plasterboard. It looked like a depth charge. The colour contrasted vividly with the orange of the Bond Bug. I stopped for a moment beneath the fidgety green canopy of the birch and noticed the hosta against my fence were now growing strongly. The air was cool and there was a bit of a breeze. As I was feeding De Kooning Margaret came in and began preparing her vegetables. I got changed and went out for a walk. I went through the Solingen Estate, through Ridley Park, and along the quayside. I came back up Waterloo Road, past the open space of the refurbished market place. At the spire of the Presbyterian church I turned south on to Cypress Gardens and made my way back to Broadway field. A couple of young children in yellow coats and their parents were in the new play area. When I got back Margaret was out. I put Shine Eyed Mister Zen on the CD player. De Kooning sat with me and we listened to it. It’s my favourite Kelly Joe Phelps album and I hadn’t heard it for far too long.

The weather went downhill later in the week. It rained and got windy. I went to my dad’s in the car.  Our conversation was dominated by the MP’s expenses scandal.

‘I see Campbell’s paid back six thousand pounds for furniture he bought for his house in London,’ my dad said. He was talking about our honourable member, the redoubtable Red Flag Ronnie.

‘I noticed that,’ I said, munching on a chocolate Brazil. ‘Such a generous gesture. But I bet we don’t know the half of it yet, eh?’

Campbell is an unreconstructed old style pseudo-egalitarian. He may lack Peter Mandelson’s urbane façade and sophistication, perhaps even his intelligence, but at the end of the day they have more in common than either would admit. Campbell used to be a miner, an NUM official at the time of the miner’s strike in 1984. He got himself elected on a wave of local Labour party consolation, mixed with the disillusionment with the absent carpetbagger who was his predecessor. Ronnie had a slogan, a vision, a USP: he was an ordinary man, a man of the people, a socialist. He declared to the whole self-seeking throng of Thatcher’s world that he, Ronnie Campbell, would do an MP’s job on a miner’s wage. Hubris, Ronnie, hubris. Nowadays he rakes in nearly quarter a million pounds a year from being an MP, taking his full sixty five grand salary and pretty much every expense he can, including the usual twenty odd thousand for the mortgage payments on a second home. Many people also believe that his wife is probably on his office staff payroll, although to date Ronnie’s been a bit coy about sharing the details of that arrrangement with the electorate. This is at least consistent with his unstinted opposition to the introduction of the new Freedom of Information legislation, of course.

When Ronnie was elected he lived in an old terraced house in Cowpen Quay. He now lives in a big detached house on Marine Terrace and drives to the betting shop in his Jaguar. It turns out that what some of us suspected all along was true: Red Flag Ronnie doesn’t really have a red bone in his body. His sort of socialism was never going to have the spine to reasist the siren songs of the John Lewis list.

‘Aye, Campbell’s been a big disappointment,’ my dad said. ‘I know you didn’t agree with me, but I thought he was a decent man, somebody who was on the side of ordinary people. But we know now he’s just as bad as the rest of them. How does he think history will remember him now? It won’t be as a socialist or a man of the people. It’ll be as just another insignificant self-seeking old Labour crook, the ex-pitman who had to pay back six thousand pound for furniture he’d fiddled on expenses.’

‘Yeah, that and his support for fetishes,’ I joked, alluding to the occasion last year when Ronnie had declared his public support for National Fetish Day after misunderstanding the meaning of the word. Ronnie thought it had something to do with worrying about which horse to bet on. ‘You can see the headline for his obituary already, can’t you – Furniture and Fetishes MP Dies.’

‘What do you think happens to them when they get into Parliament?’ my dad said, a look of disbelief on his face. ‘Is it an infection, do you think, like the Swine Flu? Or is it just the glitter and clink of the cash? Is that what casts a spell on them?’

‘Maybe it’s the wicked witch from the Fees Office,’ I said. ‘But I don’t buy the idea that these are good people inevitably transformed to bad people by some strange irresistible system. Not everyone turns bad. Those people that do were perhaps weak and self-deceiving from the start. Maybe they were never really in it for the good they could do, or if they were there was always a stronger motive lurking behind that façade, one waiting like a lion to pounce out and devour them – self-interest, vanity or greed. We don’t choose our representatives well. We choose them for sentimental and irrational reasons. We don’t really know them when we choose them, we only know the label they’ve got stuck to them. It’s a pig in a poke every time.’

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ my dad said. ‘Campbell did well enough during the strike. He looked like he was on the right side then, no-one can say he didn’t. You’ve got to be fair to the man.’

‘Appearances are deceptive,’ I said, nibbling at what was at least my seventh chocolate Brazil. ‘That’s the bedrock of modern politics, isn’t it?’

‘Surely the Labour Party will deselect him before the next election,’ my dad said.

‘Do you think so?’ I said. ‘I bet they don’t. If he isn’t their candidate, it’ll be because he’s decided himself not to stand.’

‘Well he should stand down. The man should be ashamed to stand again.’

‘Maybe that’s why he won’t stand down – because it’d be admitting his faults. And any way he’s probably forgiven himself already. Politicians never let their sins weigh on their consciences for very long.’

‘Well, I’ll not vote for the scoundrel,’ my dad said, picking up my empty pineapple juice glass and taking it to the kitchen. ‘And I’ll tell you this, there’s a lot of other people who won’t either. They cannot understand why he did it!’

‘Did what? Bought the furniture? Well, he thought he was entitled to it.’

‘Pah, baloney! He knew he wasn’t entitled to it! He’s a stupid bugger, I’ll grant you that, but he knew fine well he was only entitled to what he needed. Do you not think so?’

‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘I do think so. But I think Ronnie lacks a reliable moral compass and probably always has. It’s depressing. Another example of an all too corruptible fallen socialist, yet more evidence that the prospect of a fair world is just pie in the sky. It just confirms the view that greed is human nature and that everyone’s born like that. But if we are we’re done for. It’s just a dog eat dog, cat eat mouse world.’

I drove back in the rain, past the new beach huts and on to Plessey Road. I listened again to Yonder Is The Clock. I was pondering whether I’m sometimes a bit too hard on Ronnie and wondering if Tristan and Brenda were back from Bowness yet.

 .

the owl, the albatross, and the dodo

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blyth-croft-road-crofton-mill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘You don’t think swine flu exists?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘De Kooning.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘So what have you got her, then?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I shook my head slowly, emphatically.

‘No.’

‘James Taylor?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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the week they pretended the world wasn’t broken

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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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