yammering

oh, well, whatever . . .

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.

 .

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when the lion dreams about red shoes

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bebside inn

I love the succession of scents that map the way through summer. The heady coconut smell of gorse, the sweet vapour of may, the clover, the roses, the honeysuckle. I love the way they ambush and seduce you as you walk or cycle the country paths.  For some reason this year I missed the honeysuckle, the one which I perhaps love most of all. I missed it without knowing I’d done so, mostly because it’s by its scent that the honeysuckle announces its presence.  It’s easy to pass a tangled hedgerow and hardly notice it.  The scent of the honeysuckle is its voice. It’s the scent that calls you near. I realised I’d missed the honeysuckle as I was cycling west through Northburn Grange estate in Cramlington a week past Sunday. It was warm and the air was humid, and as I was spinning along the cycle path between a hedge and the bank of the burn I was overwhelmed by the scandalous honey-sweet fragrance of purple Buddleia. Most years it’s the honeysuckle that catches me this way. It’s the scent of honeysuckle that usually establishes for me a deep entanglement with the energy of summer.

Owen was in the office again earlier this week. He was chatting in the team room to Lily when I came in.

‘Are you and Jack okay now?’ I said. ‘I heard you had a bit of a spat.’

‘Jack has an ugly side to him,’ Owen replied. ‘He’s a bully. He seems to have set himself on the dark road to damnation. You’ll know he’s gigging again with the band, of course?’

‘Is he?’ I said. ‘With The Clips? Hey, you can’t keep a good man down, eh?’

‘He should act his age. I don’t know who he thinks he is. He told Tallulah the other day that he saw himself as Dante and that he’s descending into an inferno. Dante! For goodness sake.’

I laughed. ‘So is Tallulah his Beatrice?’ I joked.

Owen smiled thinly, sadly. He then began to tell me about a girl called Beatrice who was an old flame he had, his first sweetheart, in fact.

‘Heidi hates her with a vengeance, of course,’ he said. ‘First love, last love, only love, and all that.  I made the mistake of telling Heidi when we first met that I called Beatrice my little Bee, and that she found me in the dark forest and led me to the foot of the mountain. I told her it was with my little honey Bee that I first walked through the vale and talked about the making of the soul. Heidi said that these conversations were tattooed on my heart, like a harlot’s name on a sailor’s arm, and there was no way they could ever be erased. I’ve told her since that she’s wrong, of course. I’ve told her that she is my true soulmate. But the thought of Bee still cuts her to the quick, I think, even now. Or as she would put it, when she thinks of Beatrice consternation pierces her heart.’

‘Hmmm,’ I said. ‘That must hurt.’

‘The thing was, Bee just wouldn’t let me go.  We parted because her mother and father thought I was too old for her.  And looking back now, I would agree with them. She was just sixteen and I was twenty five. I know now that it was wrong. But without Heidi I’d have never seen that.’

‘And so when her parents said it had to stop, you and your little Bee just kept on buzzin’, I suppose?’

‘We did for a while.  But one day her father accosted me as I was on my way to a rehearsal. It was early June. We were working on a Simon and Garfunkel medley that day. As I stepped off the zebra crossing Bee’s dad walked up to me. “You can’t say I didn’t warn you, you pervert!” he said, and set about me.  The next thing I remember was waking up in hospital with a broken nose. That’s where I met Heidi. I was sitting in A & E waiting for the results of my X-ray. She was sitting next to me. She’d been stung on the eyelid by a wasp.  We began to talk, and the rest is history, as they say. It was love at first sight for us both. I opened my heart to her. I told her what had happened to me and there and then she said she knew that I knew it wasn’t right.  She said she could see that I was a good man who’d been led on to a path of ruination and sin.  And she was right, of course.’

I nodded earnestly. ‘Hmmm. So that was the last you saw of your little Bee?’ I said.

‘No,’ Owen replied. ‘Sadly it wasn’t. It turns out that Bee was utterly obsessed with me.  She seemed to turn up wherever I went and, worst of all, she was always sitting in a front row seat at every concert we played.  And she was always wearing a very short skirt and the red shoes I’d bought her for Christmas.’

‘You were being stalked by a little Bee in red shoes, eh?  Why did you buy her red shoes? What was that about?’

‘It was our thing.  Bee looked like Judy Garland, you see. That’s how it all started.  And when she used to ask where she would tell her parents she was going when she went out, I used to say “Tell them you’re off to see the wizard”. She used to call me The Wiz sometimes and sing silly little rhymes to me, such as “Gee whizz, it’s me, Wiz, your little queen bee, Wiz,” and “You’re the biz, Mr Wiz,” and “Mr Wiz, Mr Wiz, you’ve got me in a tizz!”.’

I smiled politely. ‘And so how long did she turn up at your gigs for?’ I asked. ‘Weeks? Months?’

‘Almost two years. Never missed one show. But it was beginning to take its toll on Heidi.  Heidi can be very possessive and she always worried in case Bee won back my affections, in case I succumbed again to her charms. Heidi became very insecure, and it got so she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. ‘”First love, last love, only love” she would say to me. “Suppose you feel the same way too?” “But I don’t,” I’d say. But for some reason poor Heidi just could not convince herself that I loved her and not my little Bee with her long, long legs and shiny red shoes.’

I laughed. ‘What is it with you and your women, Owen?’ I said. ‘You’ve got more limpets than the Titanic!’

Owen chuckled and blushed. ‘Believe it or not I was a good looking fellow in those days,’ he said. ‘I turned many a fair lady’s head, I can tell you.’

‘Oh, I can imagine you did,’ I said. ‘But how did you ever shake off little Bee?’

‘Heidi took matters into her own hands.  She can be quite resourceful, you know. She rang Bee’s dad and told him where her daughter was going on all her nights away from home. The next concert we gave was in Stockport and Bee was sitting in the middle of the front row, as usual, in her short skirt and red shoes.  For our second number we always played a song I’d written called “Why Is The Sky As Blue As An Angel’s Eye?” In the middle of the first chorus Bee’s dad emerged out of the darkness and marched along the front row. Bee jumped up in fright.  The band stopped playing and the whole place stood up in silence to see what was happening. “Ah ha!” her dad said, grabbing her by the ear. “So you’re off to see the Wizard again, are you, my girl?  Well, I’ve got one or two tricks left up my sleeve too, I can tell you. And the first is to get rid of those red shoes.” He made Bee take off her shoes and place them on her seat.  Then he led her by the ear, barefoot up through the audience and out of the concert hall via the stalls exit.  It must have been absolutely humiliating for her.  But of course for Heidi it was as if a huge stone had been lifted off her shoulder.  We did the rest of the gig with the pair of red high heels sitting on the seat where Bee had been. That night for the first and only time in her life Heidi got drunk. And we never saw Bee again.’

‘Where did the red shoes go?’ I asked.

‘I don’t know. I’ve often asked myself that.  I like to think that perhaps they were claimed by a poor fan from Stockport and that she wore them every Friday night when she went out on the razzle. I like to think that fan is wearing them still. But the truth is I really don’t know where they went.’

‘You don’t think Bee came back for them?’

Owen looked shocked. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I have never thought that.  My God, Heidi would never cope with the idea that Bee might still be wearing those red shoes for me.  No, if they are anywhere they are safe in the hands of devoted fan from Stockport.’

Owen was thoughtful for a moment or two. I wondered if he wasn’t trying to process the notion that Bee might still be wearing those shoes.

‘Of course, you’ll know I later wrote a song called “Stockport Girl”, don’t you?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘I didn’t.’

‘Oh yes. It’s a little bit in the style of Bruce Springsteen. A cracking song, even if I do say so myself. Ask Eric about it – he’ll know it well, I’m sure.’

Owen stood for a while, his head slightly bowed, his body language penitent, a bit like that of someone who expected to be whacked across the back of the head at any moment.

‘Ah, those were the days, Owen, eh?’ I said, just to break the silence

‘You know, it was a very peculiar concert,’ Owen said, wagging his spindly index finger. ‘As I remember it now I was playing only to that pair of red shoes on the seat. There was no-one else there.  I still have a dream sometimes where that’s what’s happening. I see myself standing at the microphone in a concert hall with my guitar singing and the only audience I have out there in the darkness is that pair of red shoes.  I dreamt it again just a few nights ago. What do you think it means?’

‘I’m not sure,’ I said. ‘Were you naked?’

‘No, I had my pyjamas on. Heidi likes us to wear them. We have matching pairs.’

‘I meant in the dream, Owen. Were you naked in the dream?’

‘Oh. No, I was wearing blue jeans, a cowboy shirt and light brown boots with Cuban heels.  Why?’

‘I don’t know. It’s just one of those questions dream analysts always ask, isn’t it?’

Owen nodded slowly and looked up at me, a little like a crumpled cheese cloth Columbo.

‘Were there spurs on your boots?’ I asked.

‘I don’t think so,’ Owen replied, his eyes narrowing. ‘Why? Does that matter?’

‘I don’t know,’ I replied. ‘It’s just another one of those questions analysts always ask.’

As I was leaving the office later that afternoon I bumped into Eric.

‘Aye, aye, whaat cheor, bonny lad?’ he said. ‘Hoo’s yah marra?’

‘Owen, do you mean? Or Jack?’  I replied. ‘I think Jack’s back with the band and they’ll be doing some gigs again soon.’

‘Whaat?!’ Eric said, his round face lighting up like a camping lantern. ‘Are the Proodloot gannin’ back on the road?  Just wait till aa tell wor young un’ that. Ee’ll be ower the moon! How, do yuh think the’ might dee a gig at the Fell ‘Em Doon?’

‘No, Eric,’ I said. ‘Jack’s back with the band. You know, the skinny guy in sunglasses with the dyed black hair in a pony tail – the one you met a few weeks ago?’

‘Ur. Ur, aye, the Spider blowk. Ozzy Osbourne. Whaat’s his band caalled again? The Gliffs?’

‘The Clips. Short for Pluto’s Apocalypse.’

‘Ur, aye, the five Plutos. Ur aye, noo aa remember. Ur, hing on, ur, whaat waas aa ganna say again?’

Eric put his finger into the air like a grubby crude antenna and waited for a signal. Eventually he got one.

‘Ur, aye, so are the Proodloot not ganna dee any more gigs, then?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Owen’s more a slippers and pyjamas sort of man these days. Give him a nice mug of Ovaltine and his Wizard of Oz DVD and he’s a happy bunny.’

‘Ur, aye. That’s a pity.  If  ‘ee wanted tee, wor young un’ knaas the gadgie at the Fell ‘Em Doon and could probably get them a spot there. Will yuh ask yah marra next time yuh taalk tiv him if ‘ee wants wor young un’ t’ dee that?’

I said I would and began making my way out of the office. And then I remembered that I had to ask him something.

‘Hey, Eric,’ I said, ‘do you know a Proudlute song called Stockport Girl?’

‘Whey, aye,’ he said. ‘Of course. It’s a crackin’ song. It’s on tha thord album, isn’t it? Heroes in Clurgs. Hoo does it gan again?  Ur aye. Hing on.’

Eric shut down, searching for a signal again, like a mobile phone in a deep valley. Then in a sing-song sort of way he recited these lines, which I took to be the chorus:

‘Soothport gorl, Soothport gorl
Bright as a ruby, pure as a porl
Aa’m nivva ganna leave aa
Me Soothport gorl.’ 

 

I nodded, appreciatively.

‘Cheers, Eric,’ I said.

‘Aa’ll dee yuh a CD of it, if yuh want iz tee.’

‘No, that’s fine. But thanks anyway.’

Just as I was opening the door Eric shouted to me again.

‘Ur, aye,’ he said. ‘And can yuh ask yah marra as weell if the Proodloot ivva played on the same bill as the Jefferson Airplane. Wor young un’ says the’ did.’

I agreed to make this enquiry on Eric’s behalf and finally made it back out into the sunshine.

The loneliness of a woman is a sad misfortune, but the loneliness of a man is his destiny. I had this thought yesterday as I ate my tea. I was listening to Leonard Cohen’s first album. I don’t usually listen to music at teatime, but yesterday Margaret was watching The Weakest Link on TV when I got in from work and so I went into my bedroom and put my CD player on. As Cohen sang Suzanne I realised that it is age, not youth that defines a man. It isn’t until a man is getting old that he realises how loneliness defines him. Loneliness, he sees, is his absolute purpose.

I dipped pieces of stone ground wholemeal bread into my bowl of lentil soup. It’s summertime again and I’m struggling to get fit and shed the pounds that winter brought me. And all I could hear was this loneliness, this fact so obvious I began to wonder how I’d ever missed it. I looked at the painting of a lion I painted a year or so ago. He is virtually emaciated. A naked young woman rides him. I see now the terrible loneliness I have put into his orange eyes. She will never be as alone as he is already.

I’m off to Scotland for a week tomorrow. I’m going to walk the hills around Loch Tummel and Loch Rannoch. I’ve also arranged to go over to Fort William one night to have dinner with Alice McTavish and catch up on things in her world. I’m really looking forward to it. What would any life be without a good pair of boots and a yellow brick road?

.

the pure white doves and the peregrine

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boulmer tractor

Early one morning in high summer a few years ago I was sitting on Great Gable at Westmorland Cairn looking down the valley at the famous view of Wastwater.  I had the mountain more or less to myself, having camped the previous night down on the shore of Sprinkling Tarn. As I sat leaning against my rucksack, a raven and a peregrine falcon floated up on a thermal close to the crag. They were no more than thirty feet from me. The raven was harrassing the peregrine, which was mostly ignoring it, but at one point made a quick and very short move towards it, as if to get it to back off. Sort of like the way a lion might suddenly turn towards a troublesome hyena. The gesture had the desired effect. The raven made off across the valley in the direction of Scafell Pike. The peregrine continued to rise into the sky on the thermal. I lay back and looked up as it became an eventually invisible speck in the blue sky far above me.

As I lay there I wondered what would happen if a flock of fifty pure white doves passed beneath the falcon. It would stoop, of course, and take one of the doves – but which one?  How would it decide?  Would it take the whitest?  The smallest? The slowest? One in the middle? One on the edge? The doves would be flying in a flock as an evolved protective tactic: being in a flock is safer than flying alone. It might be that if fifty doves passed by one by one a peregrine would take every one. In a flock of fifty only one will be lost.  But which one would a peregrine target as it hurtled towards the flock like a thunderbolt? And why would it choose that one?  Could the peregrine discern differences between the doves invisible to the human eye?  Did the peregrine have a special kind of knowledge? How was its victim selected? I lay gazing into the cloudless sky as if waiting for the answer to descend on me. It didn’t.

Swine Flu is becoming a lot more widespread now. Lily went off with it at the beginning of this week.  The disease is picking off more and more people, apparently at random, although I’m inclined to find metaphors that suggest selection at some level.  I imagine the disease as the peregrine over the flock of doves.  Does the peregrine pick the dove it just happens to get its eye on?  I imagine the virus as a lion running at a herd of zebra. It tends to take the one that runs a little slower than the rest, the young or weak one, or the one who gets separated from the herd for other reasons or whose trajectory just happens to unfortunately veer too close to its own.  So while chance plays a part here, it’s not an entirely random process. Here we see the unfolding of the probabilities that, aggregated, evolution rests upon. It’s a process which features chance and choice, natural selection.

There is a tendency to ascribe intentionality and purpose to agents that do not in any sense make decisions or have any consciousness of their own actions.  A virus is obviously not like a lion or a peregrine, but that’s something we easily forget.  In fact we often seem ready to attribute an even higher level of intentionality and meaning to activities of invisible, microscopic organisms.  The hand we cannot see becomes the hand of God or Fate.  We see a moral judgement or higher purpose in who the virus ‘chooses’ to infect.  The virus must be the agent of a higher force. What we cannot see and rationalise quickly falls into the realm of the mythical. Often this shift of perspective can be seen in a change of terminology: a disease becomes a plague. The myth of the righteous and evil plague makes sense for us of the invisible, uncontrollable danger that we may be prey to.  To prevent or survive its onslaught we need to clean up our lives.  We need to repent and cease our evil ways. The virus is karma. If we get straight with the universe the continuation or restoration of our good health will be assured.  And yet the innocent must die too sometimes.  But there’s a reason for everything.  God is good. God is merciful.  Those innocents His virus takes from us have a special place in His plan. They will have the best seats on the Black Aeroplane that will take them straight to the orchard-plots of Heaven.

The fact of course is that in the case of every epidemic some people are always more likely to die than others and even though some of the strongest will die too, in the pattern of swine flu mortality we will also surely see the principle of natural selection at work. The lion may most often take the weak and the vulnerable, but once in a while he’ll take one of the strongest and quickest zebras on the plain. Swine Flu will do the same.

Last night I went for a walk up through Newsham, over to South Newsham and the old waterworks, down to the beach and back along Rotary Way. When I got back Margaret was on the telephone. I made myself a cappuccino and sat down beside De Kooning in front of the television to drink it. What I took to be a sports programme trailer or link was on. The voice-over was reciting a poem by Michael Laskey.

On Having Given Up Cricket

I shall play cricket in heaven
in return for the afternoons
gladly given to the other
pleasure of others’ leisure.

I shall walk, without haste, to the wicket
and nod to the angels kitted
in their whites waiting to discern
the kind of batspirit I am.

And one stroke in heaven, one dream
of a cover drive will redeem
every meeting of bat
and ball I’ve done without.

And I’ll bowl too, come on to bowl
leg-breaks with such control
of flight and slight changes of pace
that one over will efface

the faint regret I now feel.
But best of all I shall field:
alert in the heavenly deep,
beyond the boundary of sleep.

When Margaret had finished her telephone call she came through.

‘That was Brenda,’ she said.

‘Oh, how is she?’ I asked.

‘She’s very well. I asked her about your cat stealing the nine jigsaw pieces.’

I ignored her, as if I was engrossed in the television. I gave De Kooning a stroke.

‘Did you hear what I said?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘He won’t sit still for acupuncture, if that’s what she has in mind.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ Margaret said, tersely. ‘I know you’re not interested, but Brenda does think the theft and burial of those nine linked jigsaw pieces has a definite meaning.’

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Really?’

‘Yes. She actually thinks your cat is protecting you. Brenda thinks that by removing the driver from the steamroller he is neutralising the person who might use it to do you harm. She says the steamroller stands for someone or some force close to you that does not have your best interests at heart.’

I said nothing. Margaret paused for a minute or so. I was wondering if it could be the Swine Flu that De Kooning was supposed to have in mind.

‘Brenda also thinks she can help De Kooning,’ she eventually said. ‘She feels his energies are out of balance. She asked me if you would agree to her doing some work with him. She says she won’t charge you for her time.’

‘Some work with De Kooning?’ I said. ‘What work does she have in mind, exactly?’

‘Reiki.’

‘Reiki?’ I said.

‘Yes, reiki. She thinks it will really help him.’

‘She thinks that doing reiki on a cat will put an end to him stealing jigsaw pieces? Is that what she thinks?’

‘Yes.’

‘No,’ I said, shaking my head. ‘I won’t let her do it.’

‘Why not? What harm can it do?’

‘De Kooning doesn’t particularly like reiki,’ I said. ‘He has no faith in it. And besides, he won’t give his written consent.’

‘Then you could give it for him.’

‘I could,’ I said. ‘But I won’t. And in any case, I don’t want him fixed just yet. First I need him to tell me who’s driving that steamroller. I need to see those missing pieces.’

At that moment I wondered how Lily was.  I wondered if Lily might be dead.

.

Written by yammering

July 16, 2009 at 10:54 pm

the immigrant, the exile and nine lost pieces

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stott bobbin mill corner lakeside windermere

I was on holiday in the Lakes all last week.

On the Friday before I went off I was talking in the corridor to John Sultan, a senior manager from Morpeth. John’s close to another of the managers based in my office building, Edith Joicey – or Jackboots, as she’s sometimes known. Edith is the directorate’s prima donna. Meg Bomberg dislikes Edith intensely. She had a nightmare one night in which Edith had been promoted and was managing her. Next day she almost handed her notice in.

John is a curiously anonymous man. People call him soulless, and if I believed in the soul I’d have to agree. He dresses like a bank clerk, favouring the dependable dark blue of his Marks and Spencer single breasted suit most of the time. Oddly enough some women see him as almost handsome, although to others this perception is so inexplicable that John’s handsomeness has become the perennial subject of what is in essence a metaphysical debate among the female members of the workforce.

Morally, John is an even queerer proposition. Most of the time his ethical functioning appears to be approximately at the level of a ticket machine, or perhaps, to be more exact, of one of those machines you find in an amusement arcade where you insert fifty pence and get the chance to try to grab yourself a fluffy panda using joystick-controlled silver jaws. John is infamous for shameless petty machinations.

John had heard about our suspected MCTS case, Pearl Twichell, and wondered if there had been any developments.

‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Although one of the mice has gone missing.’

‘Which one?’ John asked.

‘Maybellene tells us it’s Penelope. She says that one’s gone missing before, though, and she’s sure it’ll turn up.’

‘Is she telling us the truth?’ John asked, invoking the inclusive corporate entity of the first person plural.

‘We have no evidence that she isn’t, John,’ I replied. ‘But truth, as we all know so well, is more elusive than a mouse in a mountain of mattresses.’

‘Hmmm,’ John said, nodding intelligently. ‘You’re right. But to me a lost mouse is not necessarily a mouse that has become a child.’

My turn to nod intelligently. ‘Yes, exactly, John,’ I said. ‘Exactly.’

‘Okay. Keep me up to date on this one,’ he said and ambulated away noiselessly, without another word of farewell, his neat black leather document case neatly tucked under his neat right arm.

When I got in from work that night Margaret was sitting at the kitchen table doing her jigsaw again. There was a big pan of sweet Spanish onions bubbling on the cooker.

‘It’s coming along nicely,’ I said.

‘Your cat’s nicked some more pieces and buried them in the garden somewhere. I’m beginning to wonder if there’s any point in going on with it.’

I looked down at De Kooning, who was sitting near the door cleaning his face.

‘Cats don’t understand jigsaws,’ I said. ‘Or if they do they obviously find them more intriguing if there are pieces missing. And they’re right, of course.  I think we all do. He’s probably just trying to be helpful.’

Margaret ignored me. I got myself a pizza out of the fridge and put it in the oven.  I picked up De Kooning and carried him out into the garden.

‘So what’s the idea of pinching the pieces from the jigsaw?’ I said. ‘Where are you stashing them?’

De Kooning was looking over the fence into Hugo’s burgeoning junkyard.  The water was trickling down the waterfall feature into the dark pond. The heron still peered unblinkingly into its depths.  I noticed a new blue owl had taken up residence a few feet away from the heron and that an oranges and lemons coloured two seater garden swing had been installed close to the decking and the platform clock, which still hasn’t been brought forward into British Summer Time.

‘So just where are you stashing the jigsaw loot, my little bandit friend?’ I said, walking him around the lawn and gazing down into the lilies, the pinks and the marigolds. De Kooning stared down too, joining with me in my curiously forensic scrutiny of the borders. We found no evidence of the jigsaw burials Margaret had suggested and I began to wonder if the missing pieces hadn’t in fact simply been deposited in a little pile somewhere, perhaps under the tangled honeysuckle or down behind the dense dark laurel bush.

Because I was going away the next day, after I’d eaten my pizza I rode along to Seaton Sluice see my dad. We talked about South Newsham mostly. Some time ago my dad told me that when he was a kid the people who lived in South Newsham – which the people in Newsham called “New Newsham” – used to call the place “Spike Island”.  He has no idea why this is as it is not an island and although there are many small burns running off the fields into the sea, there is no evidence that it ever was, although it may have sat among marshy ground. My dad, who has a tendency to pursue such questions slightly obsessively until he gets to the bottom of them, had tried to find out something in Blyth library and spoken to a couple of local historians. Both of them knew of the place being called Spike Island, but neither really knew how it got its name. One suggested that in the nineteenth and early twentieth century there was a pit pond close to the Hannah Foster Pit in South Newsham and suggested that perhaps there were ‘spikes’ – railings of some kind – around the pond to stop people getting too near and falling in. There is no evidence for this hypothesis, of course.

I had Googled “Spike Island” and discovered that one of the places with that name is an island in Ireland near Cork. It has been inhabited for many centuries and the place name is said to mean “island of the Picts”. Saint Mochuba started a church there when Christianity first came to Ireland. In the eighteenth century the island was bought by the British and Fort Westmoreland was built there. In the nineteenth century, according to Wikipedia, this fort became a prison where so-called “convicts” were housed awaiting deportation. Other websites tell us that it was in 1847 that “Spike”, as it is called locally, first became a convict depot and that only male convicts were kept there. By 1850 it is said over 2,000 people were being detained there. In 1848, in the middle of the potato blight, John Mitchel, Irish nationalist activist and political journalist, was held on Spike on his way to Van Diemen’s Land. Mitchel had powerfully expressed the widely held view that the famine in Ireland was due to “the greedy and cruel policy of England”.  Mitchell’s classic Jail Journal, one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts, was written, some say, while he was imprisoned at Spike.

When the Industrial Revolution gathered steam it was largely fuelled by coal from the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham, and because there was very limited local industrial labour much of it was drafted in from remote rural agrarian populations, including significant numbers from Ireland, most emigrating to escape the Great Hunger and the mess that British land ownership had wrought to their economy. My dad told me that at one time there was an Irish Club in Blyth, which perhaps gives an indication of just how many families of Irish origin there are in the area. I suggested to my dad that maybe there had been a particularly high number of Irish families in South Newsham and that they called the place Spike Island as a kind of black joke or homage, in much the same way as people talk about certain parts of some towns as Little Italy or Chinatown or Downtown Delhi. Maybe the name of Spike Island was simply meant to say something about life there, that it was not much different to being in a penal colony.

‘What we’d need to know to see if it might be the reason are the names of the families in South Newsham who were brought in to work in the pit,’ I said.

‘Well, I can remember there were Duckworths, Murrays, Latimers, and Sullivans there.  Your granddad was very friendly with one of the Sullivans. That’s an Irish name.’

‘I think Murray is too,’ I said. ‘That’s interesting, isn’t it?’

‘Aye, it is. I think I’ll go down the library and look at some of the old newspapers. They’ve got the Blyth News back to about 1850, I think. That should give us some idea.’

‘Maybe there was a sort of tribal patriarch there, a man called Spike Sullivan,’ I said. ‘A local hero, a sort of giant Irish republican pit-yacker who ruled the roost over there. If there wasn’t there should have been. Maybe it was his island, a bit like Craggy Island is Father Ted’s island.  Maybe this was a metaphorical island in the poetic imagination of the immigrant labouring families of South Newsham – a metaphor for imperialism and colonialism, maybe, a metaphor for lost Ireland itself, as so many fictional islands have been. Maybe there was a time when the Mighty Spike Sullivan – a sort of pitman Cuchulainn, wage-slaving to survive in a strange land – stood on the shallow highlands of South Newsham and dreamed of the home he was exiled from and of becoming the master of his own land. This would have been wishful thinking, of course, because he was never going to own this land any more than he ever owned his own land in Ireland.  But people do dream. Maybe he stood in the shadow of the pit that had taken possession of his life, on a low mound between hope and despair, and imagined the sea rising all around him and this place becoming his very own island – Spike’s Island. Maybe he imagined growing his own corn there one day, grazing a few cows along the shore. Maybe Spike himself named this place, in the same way that the Swiss Family Robinson named their island “New Switzerland”, as an act of ownership and possession, as a way of saying “This is my new Ireland”. Maybe this is the story of the place that the people have now forgotten.’

My dad looked at me as if to say I might be taking things just a teensy weensy bit too far here.

‘Enjoy your holiday,’ he said. ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’

As I rode back home along the track through the sand dunes I was thinking that the story of Spike Sullivan, like the story of Tom Tremble, was one that cried out to be told.

One afternoon last week I was sitting under a parasol at a table outside the Swan Hotel at Newby Bridge. I was looking over the River Leven at the point where it drains out of Windermere to wriggle and snake its way into the Irish Sea at Morecambe Bay. It was sweltering. The air was claggy, the light hazy and intense. A Chinese woman came and sat opposite me. She was slim, in her thirties. Her  fashionable red-rinsed dark brown hair was mid-length, straight and spiky, as if it had been cut with a sickle. To me it had the look of a hay stook about it. She was wearing big black sunglasses – they reminded me of a bluebottle’s eyes – black walking shorts, lightweight walking boots and a short lime green t-shirt. I was drinking a long cold ginger beer. She was drinking sweet cider and ice. The ducks sailed casually to and fro on the idly flowing water. Swifts and swallows swooped and flickered across the stream.  The trees and green rushes stood still all along the banks.

‘Are you staying at the hotel too?’ the woman said to me.

‘No,’ I said. ‘I’m in a house up by the lake.’

‘Ah, ‘ she said. ‘Do you know a place called Finsthwaite?’

‘Yes,’ I replied, and pointed over to the signpost near the bridge. ‘It’s up that way too. Are you going there?’

‘Yes. I want to see the grave of Clementina Douglas. Have you heard of her?’

‘No, I don’t think so. Should I have?’

The Chinese woman told me the tale of Clementina Douglas, who is also known as the Finsthwaite Princess. She was buried in Finsthwaite churchyard on 16 May 1771, her full name being recorded as Clementina Johannes Sobieski Douglas of Waterside, a spinster. It turns out that the story is probably apocryphal, but one which has some historical truth as its basis and which has fascinated many locals for more than a century. 

The Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie, had a long term relationship with Clementina Walkinshaw, his mistress.  Rumours grew that she had a daughter to him, and that this daughter was subsequently shipped off to some remote and secluded place. Local people say that Clementina Douglas was this daughter.  The evidence is slim that Bonnie Prince Charlie had any daughter other than his acknowledged daughter Charlotte, the Duchess of Albany, born in 1753, and even slimmer that if he did then Clementina Douglas was that daughter, living in concealment. Some have suggested that she may have been the daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw but that the father may be a different man. What we do seem to know for certain is that Clementina Douglas did live in Waterside, with a man called Captain James Douglas, who it is believed may have been her father. The rooms in Waterside had been rented by Captain Douglas since at least 1752. The historical evidence that she may have been the child of Clementina Walkinshaw rests on an ambiguous passage in a letter to James III’s secretary. That evidence would put her date of birth somewhere between 1745 and 1747.  The age of Clementina Douglas at her death in 1771 is not known, although clearly if she was the supposed daughter of Clementina Walkinshaw she would have been only aged about 25 when she died.

‘So she died young,’ I said. ‘Do we know what she died of?’

‘I don’t think so,’ The Chinese woman with the sickle cut hair replied. ‘But her dying young seems at odds with parts of the story which has been passed down. In the story she is described “a grand lady”.’

‘Maybe that just means she was posh,’ I said. ‘You know, not just an ordinary person like you or I. Maybe someone more like Tara Palmer-Tomkinson or Joanna Lumley.’

‘Yes, maybe. It is said she was very involved with a family called the Backhouses, who lived at Jolliver Farm, who do seem to have been members of the gentry.  A fellow called Ned Fell said he reburied Clementina’s remains in the grave of a certain Miss Backhouse when the old church was demolished. Others say however that it was a man called Joseph Charles Hunter who dug up and reburied the remains of the princess. They say that among the remains there was some of her fair golden hair and some blue ribbons with which it would have been tied.’

At that point a local man who had been standing behind us came forward and joined in the conversation. He was a tall, broad and grey haired. He had a pot belly. He was wearing an open-necked white shirt with a lattice of dark blue lines across the fabric and a little porkpie sunhat.  His trousers were held up by a broad brown leather belt. It turns out he had been a farmer in the area all his life and was now retired and living with his wife in a house up at nearby Canny Hill.

‘You’re talkin’ about the Princess, I see,’ the pot-bellied farmer said. ‘I don’t believe myself that she was the daughter of Bonnie Prince Charlie, but I know there’s a lot that do. Of course, I know the tale about the mysterious stranger coming and planting a Scottish thistle on her grave and how as the years passed the churchyard became thick with these foreign invaders. But you go up there now and I’ll lay you a pound to a penny you can’t find one Scottish thistle.’

The Chinese woman in her big sunglasses and I both nodded.

‘But they do say that Bonnie Prince Charlie was in Kendal in 1745, so he obviously knew the area,’ she said to the farmer.

‘Oh, yes, but you two are sitting here today. Does it mean in a hundred years time that’ll be reason enough to say you had a daughter and hid her away somewhere up in the woods yonder? I think not. Folks around here like a good yarn and they’re not ones for letting the truth get in the way of their enjoyment.’ The farmer pushed his pork pie hat back on his ruddy forehead, put his pint to his lips and looked out over the river. The conversation then took an unexpected twist.

‘Of course,’ the farmer said, ‘you’ll know the tale about the escaped murderer who holed up in these parts and believed she really was the Finsthwaite Princess?’

We both shook our heads.

‘You don’t? Oh this happened when I was just a young un’. It was a lass called Florence Nelson. She had been imprisoned after murdering her lover’s girlfriend by running her over with a steam roller. You’ve never heard about her?’

The Chinese woman shook her head. But I was delighted at the prospect of hearing more about Florence Nelson and said, ‘Yes, I’ve heard bits of that story. The Bowness Steamroller Murderess. She murdered Sharon Sweet, a red-headed woman. Her lover was Ned Perfect.’

‘That’s the one,’ the farmer said. ‘Spot on. Well. You might know then that Florence escaped from prison by digging a tunnel with a table spoon. Took her years by all accounts. And it seems that while she was imprisoned and working on her escape she came to see herself as an imprisoned princess of some kind.  Florence believed in rebirth and reincarnation and all that codswallop, and she eventually came to believe she had been Mary Queen of Scots in a previous lifetime. The prison authorities were aware of this, of course, but they had already marked her card as a woman who was bonkers and who would never return to society and so they were happy to humour her. The wardens began to call her Your Highness and M’Lady and to bring in pictures of Scottish castles and West Highland terriers for her, which she stuck up on the walls of her cell with Sellotape. Some even used to bring her back presents from their holidays, such as Edinburgh rock or a haggis from Dundee or some shortbread biscuits from Inverness or a woolly Tam o’ Shanter from Hawick. It seems that nothing in the whole world delighted Florence so much as getting gifts from Scotland. It’s said that during the years she took to dig herself out she read all of Walter Scott’s novels several times over. She had to all intents and purposes vanished into a make-believe world of being reborn Jacobite royalty.’

‘My God,’ the Chinese woman exclaimed. ‘So did you ever meet her yourself?’

‘No,’ the farmer said. ‘I didn’t, no. But I remember when they eventually found her and hearing all about it from my mother and other folks who lived around here.  Florence Nelson really did exist, we know that for a fact, believe me.’

‘I thought you said she believed she was the Finsthwaite Princess,’ I said. ‘But surely the Finsthwaite Princess wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots?’

‘No, no, of course not,’ the farmer replied, putting his pint down on the table. ‘No. When she was eventually apprehended again, just after the terrible events up by the ferry, she was wearing a wig of long golden hair tied up with blue ribbons. When the policeman asked her for her name she said, in a Scots accent, that it was Clementina Douglas, and from that day onwards, even when she was returned to prison to serve out the rest of her life sentence, she refused to be known by any other name.  Some time between escaping from prison believing she was a reincarnation of Mary Stuart and being arrested again she had convinced herself that it was a different Scots royal she had been in her previous life, the so-called Finsthwaite Princess. My mother told me that as Clementina sat in handcuffs in the back of the Black Maria that took her back to prison she sang The Skye Boat Song for the whole journey.’

At that point the pot-bellied farmer’s mobile phone rang in his shirt pocket. He had The Archers theme tune set as his ring tone.

‘Oh, hello Billy,’ he said. ‘How you getting on? Is it buggered? Do you need me to come over and give you a hand?’

It seems it was buggered and Billy did, and so the pot-bellied farmer drank down the last of his beer, bid us farewell and made his way round to the car park, from where he emerged a couple of minutes later in a shiny black Landrover Discovery.

‘So do you think that’s all true?’ the Chinese woman said to me. ‘All that stuff about the woman who thought she was Mary Queen of Scots and dug her way out of prison with a spoon?’

‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘It might be. I’ve heard about her before and how she murdered people with a stolen steamroller. I’d never heard about her believing she was anybody’s reincarnation, though. Still, if the stories about the Finsthwaite Princess are true than why shouldn’t those about Florence Nelson be?’

The Chinese woman nodded and smiled, the spikes of her hair twitching like the red-brown elements of fibre optic lamp. On the quiet Leven mallards cruised from bank to bank in the relentless heat. White butterflies twirled by.

‘I think I might have another drink,’ she said. ‘Would you like another ginger beer?’

‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Thank you. That’s very kind.’

On the day after I went to Finsthwaite churchyard it was again hot and humid. I drove over to Coniston and for a few hours walked the high fells. It was glorious. There is perhaps no experience in the world during which anyone will feel more alive and human than walking the mountains in summer.

Early in the afternoon I walked back down through the village and followed the Cumbrian Way down to Coniston Hall and on through the campsite to the lake shore. I sat on a big stone beneath the trees looking out over the lake to Brantwood, thinking about Ruskin. A group of four giggly teenage girls in bikinis pitched themselves on the shore not too far from me. They immediately noticed a group of boys in Canadian canoes a hundred yards or so further up the lake. In inflatable watercraft – gaudy airbeds and a shiny blue dolphin – they set out on the water, constantly giggly loudly to lure the canoe boys closer.  The strategy took about twenty minutes to work, but eventually the boys arrived.  Two of the girls had just climbed into one of the canoes as I set off to walk back to the village. I imagined Ruskin’s ghost with binoculars at a window across the lake wondering how it was that such sirens as these could complicate paradise. There is evidence that when he was alive Ruskin had a bit of the Humbert Humbert about him and it seems reasonable to assume that the ghost of a man will have the same character as the man himself did, although as I passed by Ruskin’s grave later I admit I began to wonder if I shouldn’t apologise for even thinking that someone like him would ever contemplate perving at those Coniston Lolitas.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen peeling some carrots. Her jigsaw was on the table and at first glance appeared to be finished.

‘Is it all done?’ I said.

‘It’s as done as it can be,’ Margaret replied. ‘But there’s a big hole in it. There’s something very strange about your cat.’

I walked over and looked at the jigsaw. It was indeed completely done except for the area from which De Kooning had taken the pieces. It so happened that the pieces he had taken turned out to be those from the cab window of the steam roller. De Kooning had removed all traces of the driver and his face.

‘Ha ha,’ I said. ‘That’s amazing!’

‘That’s spooky,’ Margaret said. ‘It’s a message of some kind, I’m sure of it. I’m going to get Brenda to come and look at it.’

‘It’s a coincidence,’ I said. ‘Pure chance.’

‘Are you trying to say that by pure chance a cat has taken nine pieces from a thousand piece jigsaw that just happen to fit together and that are the only nine pieces that include any part of the driver?’

‘Hmmm, that does seem remarkable,’ I said. ‘You’re right.’

‘Spooky is what it is, spooky. Do you know what I think he’s done? He’s taken one piece for each of his nine lives. Piece by piece he’s stolen the soul of the steamroller driver for himself. I’m going to ring Brenda and see what she thinks. I’m sure I’m right.’

I put the kettle on and poured a sachet of instant cappuccino into a mug. De Kooning wandered in from the garden and jumped up on my rucksack, as he often does when I return from holiday.  I picked him up and gave him a stroke.

‘No, I’ll tell you what he was doing,’ I said. ‘He was attracted to the pieces with pink in them. That’s what he did, he selected the pink pieces. He didn’t know that the only pink was the pink of the human face and hands. He just likes pink. That’s all this hole in your jigsaw means, nothing more mysterious than that. De Kooning simply likes the pink pieces.’

Margaret shook her head sceptically. She wasn’t buying it. She was going to ring Brenda whether I liked it or not.

.

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.

.

pluto and the golden pen

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blyth lampost and street reflection

Jack Verdi was in the office one afternoon last week. He’d been over to see Michelle about the planned placement of the Capstick twins with the Blackstocks in Otterburn. Unfortunately it won’t now be able to proceed because Hilda Blackstock has turned out to have an allergy to feathers. I was standing in the kitchen discussing the situation with Jack when Eric came in.

‘How,’ he said to me, ‘aa see Peter Andre has noo brokken up wi’ that, er, whaat’s aa name, yuh knaa,  hor with the, er – ‘

‘Katie,’ I said.

‘Aye,’ Eric said. ‘Hor. Jordan. Ya marra doesn’t knaa him, does ‘ee?’

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Unfortunately not.’

Eric glanced at Jack for a moment and then stood absolutely immobile for a few moments

‘How,’ he finally said, ‘aa waas listenin’ t’ ya marra’s stuff again the other neit on me Waalkman.  Tha’s a mint song on tha’ forst aalbum caalled, ur, whaat’s it called? Ur. Hing on. Ur, aye, Deity. D’yuh knaa that un’?’

I shook my head.

‘D’yuh not?  Er, hoo does it gan again. Hing on. Ur. Aye . . . .’

Eric began to sing with an expression of childlike rapture on his face.

‘Deity,  deity, touch me with your gaiety,
Gaiety, oh gaiety
Transcendental entity, come and lay your love on me
Love on me, oh love on me’

 

I shook my head again, in truth not only because I didn’t know this song, but also because Eric sang like a moonstruck buffalo.

‘D’yuh not knaa it? Ur, it’s great. How, whaat’s a deity anyhoo? Is it like a gurd?’

Yeah,’ I said. ‘That’s exactly what it is, in fact – a god.’

‘Aye, aa thowt see.’

Eric dropped into standby mode. Jack flicked his pony tail over his jacket collar and looked at me over the rims of his Aviators, obviously bemused.

‘Hey, Eric,’ I said. ‘This is Jack Verdi. Jack works with Owen. Jack also used to play in a band for a living.’

‘Did yuh?’ Eric said, his face lighting up like tinder in a bonfire.

‘Yeah,’ Jack said. ‘Back in the day we were big, man.’

‘Aye, so d’yuh knaa his marra, the one from the Proodloot?’

‘You mean Owen. Yeah, I know him well. We go way back.’

‘Aye, they’re great, aren’t the’?’ Eric said. ‘I bet yuh wish your baand waas as big as they wor. D’yuh knaa the’ were on Top of the Pops once?’

‘Yeah, man, I know,’ Jack said, rocking from foot to foot like a boxer in the corner. ‘Hey, listen, man, I don’t want to diss the dude. I mean, his bag’s his own but his bag ain’t mine, right? But the stuff those guys did was never rock and roll, do you know what I mean, man?’

‘Ur, aye. Nur. Aye. So whaat waas tha’ stuff, then? Waas it like the folk rock?’

‘Listen, man, their stuff was fluff. Wifty wafty holy moly twaddle, dude. All this junk about God. Rock is the Devil’s music, man. What’s rock and roll got to do with all this gaiety and deity flim flam?  That stuff was dead in the water a hundred years ago, know what I mean, man?’

‘So d’ ‘ee not believe in Gurd, like?’ Eric asked.

‘No, man – do you?’

‘Nur, aa divvent either,’ Eric said. ‘But some people still dee. Wor young un’ knaas a lass whaat gans t’ one of them spiritualist chorches, yuh knaa them whaat believes  in spooks an’ that  yuh can taalk t’ the deed an’ aall that. Aa think they still believe in Gurd, divvent the’?’

Jack nodded. 

‘Aye, so whaat wuz your baand caalled, then?’ Eric said.

‘Pluto’s Apocalypse,’ Jack replied. ‘We were a rock band, man. We played the Devil’s music.’

‘Ur, aye. Aye, and whaat are ye caalled again?’ Eric asked, with a dumbfounded sort of frown on his face.

‘They call me Jack,’ Jack replied. ‘Spider to my friends.’

‘Spider?’ Eric said. ‘Like in them creepy craawllie things wi’ the lang legs an’ aall that?’

‘Yeah, dude, the arachnids, the exact same creatures.’

Eric looked at me, raised his crooked finger to about shoulder height and then froze. Jack stood with one hand stuffed deep into his skinny black jeans pocket, the other stroking his jaw. Animation duly returned to Eric’s demeanour.

‘Aye, so we were ‘ee, like – the Pluto?’

‘No, man, there’s was no Pluto. We were all Pluto, man, just as we were all the Apocalypse.

Eric looked a little puzzled. ‘Ur,’ he said. ‘So d’yuh mean tha’ was like fower or five of yuz in the baand and yuh aall like tyuk torns at bein’ the Pluto?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, man,’ he said. ‘No. It’s complicated. Listen, hey . . . hey, I guess you just had to be there, dude, yeah?’

Eric went briefly into standby mode.

‘So ‘ee waarn’t the Pluto?’ he eventually said.

Jack shook his head again. ‘No, dude, I wasn’t the Pluto. There was no Pluto.’

‘So waar yuh aall the Apocalypses?’

‘Yeah, something like that,’ Jack said, clearly finding Eric a little exhausting.

‘So we waas the Pluto, then? Waas ‘ee somebody whaat used to be in the baand and whaat left?’

‘No, man, no.’ Jack said, becoming visibly exasperated. ‘Hey, what is it you don’t get about this, dude? There never was a Pluto. We were all Pluto. Savvy?’

‘Ur, aye, aye, noo aa see. Ivrybody wuz the Pluto, except that ee waarn’t him and naebody else waas either. Is that reit?’

‘Yeah, man, yeah, whatever. Everybody just called us The Clips any way.’

‘Ur,’ Eric said. ‘The Clips?  Ur, aye, hing on.’ He put his hooked finger to his shaven cranium and seemed to think for a moment before he replied, ‘Nur. Nur, aa’ve nivva hord of them either.’

Eric began to turn around and seemed to be about to leave. But another thought occurred to him.

‘Here, I think aa’ve got it noo,’ he said, looking at his own reflection in Jack’s Aviators.  ‘Waas the Pluto yuh named ya baand after the durg from Mickey Moose?’

Jack shook his head. ‘No, man. Hey, why would a rock band name themselves after a cartoon dog? It was Pluto the Roman God of the underworld.’

‘Ur, aye, aa’ve hord aboot him as weell. Aye, ya reit, ‘ee waas the gurd of the underwawld. Aa remember noo. Waas he owt t’ dee wi’ Horcules and Aphrodite and aall that?’

‘They were Greek, dude,’ Jack said, with a sarcasm that Eric seemed to miss. ‘But yeah, similar mythology.’

‘Ur, aye. Here, we’s that other Greek blowk aa’ve hord aboot, the one wor young un’ likes?’

Jack shrugged. I shrugged too. A guess at a moment like this would have been impertinent.

‘Ur, aye,’ Eric said. ‘Heraclitus, that blowk wi’ the dark onion.’

‘How does your brother know about that, Eric?’ I said, genuinely surprised at such an erudite reference.

‘Aa’ve nae idea,’ Eric said. ‘But ‘ee says ‘ee’s been sorchin’ for the dark onion aall ‘ee’s life. ‘Ee says it’s like sorchin’ for ‘ee’s own shadow by starin’ at the sun. Wor young un’ says the dark onion’s like the final mystery of life, d’yuh knaa whaat aa mean?’

Jack and I both nodded, slowly, affirmatively.

When I got home that night I had pizza for tea. Afterwards I sat with De Kooning in the conservatory, drinking a cappuccino and reading the poems in Frances Leviston’s collection ‘Public Dream.’  Later I went for a walk down through Blyth and along to the beach. It was a clear evening, but still a little cool. There was a gang of raucous teenage kids sprawled and littered around the dog-leg of the promenade, taking pictures of themselves on their mobiles and drinking bottles of lager. As I passed through them I pondered the way they distributed themselves in space. They were like caterpillars on a leaf, perhaps, or a tribe of meerkats around their burrow, or maggots on a sparrow’s corpse – one of those patterns that chaos theory might concern itself with. The sea was a deep steely blue, flat and somehow unnecessarily repressed. I noticed each of the new beach huts now has external security lights embedded in its alcove, trendy and discrete and allegedly powered by the small wind turbine at the edge of the grass beside the car park. Quite a few of them aren’t working.

When I got home Margaret was in the kitchen. The television was playing to itself in the front room. I plonked myself on the settee to watch it and De Kooning joined me. The Lauren Laverne trailer for BBC Poetry Week came on, the one where she and a friend are returning to her car in a multi-storey car park carrying their purchases after a girls’ shopping trip. As they enter the car park, apparently chatting about what Laverne might want as a gift, Lauren replies as they walk by reciting in a conversational tone Keats’ sonnet ‘On leaving some Friends at an early Hour’. She does it nicely, with a wry fashionable insouciance. That old Post-Modern irony again. The video’s setting – the car park and the shopping trip – picks up on the word ‘car’ in the poem, and other objects that might sound like things a girl shopping might covet – which is vaguely witty, I guess – and in doing so sets the content of the poem against the preoccupations of modern life. Occasionally Laverne’s rendering of the poem seems to allow us teasing glimpses into another value system, a life world of more immediate and authentic experience, a world where the things that matter aren’t things you can buy. The world of poetic experience and imagination. But such a perspective can only be admitted as little more than a curious ironic accessory in our getting and spending universe. But maybe that’s the way we’ve got to take our poetry these days, casually, peripherally, like the vague, beautiful perfume of something that’s all the more astonishing for being so unexpected, incidental and elusive. Maybe that’s the way it always really was.

This is the Keats poem. The next time I see them I must remember to ask Jack and Owen what they think of Laverne’s reading of it.

Give me a golden pen, and let me lean
On heap’d-up flowers, in regions clear, and far;
Bring me a tablet whiter than a star,
Or hand of hymning angel, when ’tis seen
The silver strings of heavenly harp atween:
And let there glide by many a pearly car,
Pink robes, and wavy hair, and diamond jar,
And half-discover’d wings, and glances keen.
The while let music wander round my ears,
And as it reaches each delicious ending,
Let me write down a line of glorious tone,
And full of many wonders of the spheres:
For what a height my spirit is contending!
‘Tis not content so soon to be alone.

‘Maybe poetry’s the new rock and roll,’ I said to De Kooning, who was now lying upside down with his paws over his eyes. ‘Do you think?’

De Kooning appeared to have no opinion on this issue.

‘Maybe I should start a poetry band,’ I said. ‘The equivalent of a rock band. Maybe I’ll call it something like Calliope’s Revenge. I think Jack would go for that, don’t you?’

De Kooning was stubbornly refusing to be drawn into a discussion of the issue. I rubbed his tummy. He gave a little leave me alone I’m happy squeak and kept his eyes covered. Sometimes he’s like this, it’s sleep before all things.

‘Fair enough,’ I said. ‘Let’s leave it till another time.’

I picked up my copy of Public Dream and wondered if it was too late for another cappuccino.

.

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.

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