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Posts Tagged ‘prague

the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint

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delaval-arms-in-seaton-sluice1 

At teatime last Friday I noticed a pair of glass earrings and a big green bottle of Becherovka on the table in the conservatory.

‘Have you seen Brenda?’ I asked Margaret, who was in the kitchen topping and tailing parsnips.

‘Yes,’ she said. ‘She brought me those crystal earrings back from Prague. Aren’t they lovely?’

‘Some of the old Czech herbal paint stripper too, I see. So how are things with her and Tristran?’

‘Oh they’re fine,’ Margaret replied, in an I don’t know what all the fuss was about sort of way. ‘They’re all loved up and happy again. They had an absolutely wonderful time. They bought each other amber amulets and they’ve both vowed to wear them forevermore. Brenda bought some really beautiful lace for herself too and a wooden marionette for her consulting room.’

I nodded. ‘That’s good,’ I said. ‘Tristan’s okay.’

I sat down to drink my cappuccino. De Kooning came in and jumped up beside me. I’m reading a book of poetry called ‘Beasts for the Chase’ by an American poet called Monica Ferrell. A friend in New Jersey sent me the book. Ferrell wasn’t a poet I’d heard of till then. She turns out to be a bit old-fashioned and prophetic in her tone at times, quite earnest, although quite good at her craft. She strikes me as one of those poets who imagine a poet is a seer, someone with special access to a world behind and beyond this one. Such a vision (!) always entails a belief in the supernatural, often under the guise of the primal. Such poets often invoke animals as their metaphorical selves or equivalents, their spiritual alter egos and agents in the other world. Such poetry always pretends to show us what we really are, what our essence is, and to show us the eternal world our souls inhabit, the world behind the veil of perception. It’s all seductive nonsense, of course. Poetry certainly somehow plugs fairly directly into the way we make the world and the ways in which we make it make sense. But it’s an exercise done with words, just as music is an exercise done with sound and painting an exercise done with pigment, canvas and brushes.  I like Tam Lin as much as the next person, but anyone who thinks that at Halloween he was turned into an adder and a bear and a burning gleed really is away with the faeries. That sort of stuff doesn’t even happen in Glasgow. Poetry and truth have a much more oblique and complex relationship than some poets imagine. We need a poetics that is rigorously non-dualist. I’m sure there must be critics out there who’ve tried to formulate something to rescue us from the mire of misty-brained mythologies. I must go on to Amazon some time and see what I can find.

‘So, De Kooning’ I said. ‘What do we make of this stuff?’

He put his front paws on to my leg and looked up at me. His right ear flicked a couple of times.

‘Yes, you’re right, we prefer Ted Hughes, don’t we?’ I said. ‘We Brits like mumbo jumbo with a bit more muscle.’

It’s been much warmer for the past few days. On Sunday it was dry and almost spring-like. I went out for a bike ride to make the most of it. I rode across to Bebside and up the Heathery Lonnen to the Three Horse Shoes. I freewheeled down the hill from High Horton Farm and over the Horton Bridge and then went up through the new housing estates towards the Nelson Industrial Estate. There was a noticeable north westerly breeze. I took the road past the Snowy Owl towards Blagdon. I glanced over at the new opencast site. It’s on the estate of those famous stewards of the landscape, the illustrious Ridleys. Matthew Ridley was a prominent figure in the development of Northern Rock and not a man to let concern or consideration for the needs or feelings of other human beings get in the way of personal profit. In fact Matt can’t get his head around the idea that anyone can actually do such a thing, because surely it’s not human nature to think of anyone but yourself. The planning application was rejected by the County Council but overturned by the government on appeal. It’s another shameful mess. I turned left at Blagdon went south past the Holiday Inn to the Seaton Burn Roundabout. The wind was finally behind me. It’s about ten miles home from there. I went via Arcot Lane, High Pit and Shankhouse.

When I got home I did a bit of gardening. I took the secateurs to last year’s withered stragglers from the catmint, lopped some branches of some of the shrubs and cut back the fuschia almost to the ground. New growth is already beginning to appear from the earth and the snowdrops are already flowering. Winter’s on its way out.

I’d finished the painting I was doing of Seaton Sluice. During the week a pack of five Loxley 16″x16″ canvases had been delivered. I decided I’d do another painting of Seaton Sluice on one of those, using the first one as my source. I underpainted the canvas in cadmium yellow and read The Observer while that dried. Then with a big flat brush I scribbled, scrawled and slapped on a sky in titanium white, burnt sienna and burnt umber. It was dramatic and swirly and turbulent and as I let myself get into it I was aware that it was very Turneresque and that it was Turner I was stealing this sky from. It was probably the influence of the burnt sienna, a colour I have only recently added to my palette, used with white on a yellow ground. I think I was somehow remembering The Fighting Temeraire – there was a print of this painting on the wall at my old school, I now recall – and The Slave Ship, I think. Turner is hard to emulate in acrylic paint though because the paint dries too quickly and doesn’t allow you to use glazes very well or to achieve those beautiful subtle gradations and colour shifts.  When I’m a better painter I’m sure I’ll want to use oils a lot more. The sky I produced was of course nothing like a sky you’ll ever see in nature. I don’t think that ever bothered Turner much, and it certainly doesn’t much bother me either. After all, the skies in nature aren’t made out of paint.

On Tuesday morning I had a meeting at the Blyth office. It was another nice morning and after the meeting I decided to have a walk over to the quayside to look at the river for a few minutes before I went back to Ashington. I spotted Tristan’s white PermaPlumba van parked on the quayside close to Eddie Ferguson House. Tristan was sitting alone on one of the benches at the other side of the fence.

‘Hi, Tristan,’ I said. ‘What brings you to these parts?’

‘Just killing time, mate,’ he said. ‘Nothing better to do, I guess.’

‘Still no work, eh?’

‘Dead as a door nail, my fweind. Dead as a door nail. I’m telling you, this wecession will close Bwitain down if Bwown doesn’t sort it out soon.’

‘Do you think he can do that?’

‘No, I know he bloody well can’t. But let’s not pwetend he had nothing to do with getting us into this mess. He should pay the pwice.’

‘So how was Prague?’ I said. ‘Margaret tells me it was the business.’

‘Did she?’ Tristan said, and turned to look me in the eye, as if to see if I was joking. ‘Well, Pwague’s a fine city, sure enough, a place worth seeing.’

‘But you wouldn’t go back?’

He shrugged and gazed out over the river towards the bauxite silos on the far bank. A couple of kids were fishing on the jetty just downstream from there. The first wind turbine loomed above them. ‘Can I ask you something off the wecord?’ he said. ‘Just between me and you?’

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘Anything you like.’

‘Have you heard of a bloke called Elvis Devlin? Wuns a bus company called Mephisto Twavel?’

‘Listen, I know about it, Tristan,’ I said. ‘Margaret told me.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah, I thought you might know.’

‘It’s no big thing,’ I said. ‘It’ll go no further than me.’

‘Oh no, no,’ he said. ‘That’s fine. That’s fine.’

‘I thought you and Brenda had sorted that out. I thought things were cool between you again.’

‘Bwenda’s vewy needy, you know. She’s vewy insecure. She’s got twust issues, weally big twust issues.’

‘But this isn’t about anything you’ve done, is it?’

‘The thing about Bwenda is you’ve always got to do something to pwove you love her. That’s what the Pwague twip was about. All the fuss she made about her Chwistmas pwesents. Bwenda doesn’t know what the weal thing is. If I was the wichest man in the world and gave her evewything money could buy, it wouldn’t be enough. Tomowwow she’d want something else. Bwenda thinks that if you don’t give her pwesents you don’t love her. The thing is, she’s almost got me bwoke – but I daren’t tell her. I’m wunning our welationship on my cwedit card now. The cwunch is bound to come!’ He laughed a little.

‘Now you know how Gordon feels,’ I said, laughing too, trying to keep the thing in the air. ‘So what you’re saying is that the only way to make sure Brenda doesn’t believe you’re not about to go off with some other woman is to keep on giving her things, and that if you don’t she won’t trust you anymore?’

‘Yes, exactly. You know how matewialistic she is. But it’s weally about twust, not gweed.’

‘But surely there’s no way you can give her things indefinitely? You’re not Richard Branson!’

‘No, you’re damn wight, I’m not Wichard Bwanson. I’ve told her that. I said “Bwenda this is about twust. For you pwesents are pwoof that someone loves you.” That’s why she’s attwacted to wich men, like this Elvis bloke. It’s because they can give her an endless supply of expensive pwesents. You know, that’s why I think she pwobably went for me now. Because when we met I was doing well. I was wolling in it. She’s so insecure she needs you to give, give, give. I asked her: “Bwenda,” I said, “Would you still think I loved you if I couldn’t buy you things?” “Of course I would,” she said. “What on earth do you take me for?!” But she wouldn’t, I know for sure she wouldn’t.”

‘So what’s the answer?’ I said. ‘Maybe she needs to life coach herself a bit.’

‘Oh, yes, I’ve pointed out the iwonies of this situation, believe you me I have. Maybe there is no answer. But the cwunch is going to come before long, that’s for sure. I’m spent up and there’s no work coming in. You can’t wun a welationship on cwedit. Pretty soon I’ll be bankwupt.’

‘Maybe things’ll take a turn for the better soon,’ I said. ‘Gordon’s green shoots might be springing up all around us any day now.’

‘Fat chance of that!’ Tristan said. ‘And besides that would only pwolong the agony. It wouldn’t solve the pwoblem. Bwenda needs to learn to twust. The thing is of course that it isn’t weally men she doesn’t twust – it’s herself she doesn’t twust. And evewy time she cwaves for another pwesent she knows she can’t be twusted. People who can’t be twusted don’t twust others, isn’t that twue?   Because they think evewybody’s just like them. Bwenda can’t see that anyone could ever love her for what she is. It’s a self-worth thing with her. It’s as if she thinks only expensive things will ever make her good enough. But of course they never will.’

We sat quietly for a minute or two watching the river. A seal popped up and I pointed it out to Tristan. He said it had been there all morning.

‘He’s cute, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Yeah,’ Tristan said. ‘He’s really beautiful.’

‘Anyhow,’ I said, ‘I need to be making my way back to work. I hope things work out okay for you and Brenda.’

‘Thanks, mate. Me too. Oh, and by the way, do me a favour, don’t tell Margawet you’ve seen me. I don’t want it getting back to Bwenda where I spend my days.’

‘Brenda thinks you’re working?’

Tristan nodded. ‘Yeah, and I need to keep it that way. God knows what she’d do if she knew I wasn’t’

‘Your secret’s safe with me,’ I said.

I drove past Ridley Park and along Wensleydale Terrace, past the site of the demolished Wellesley School which now stands deserted waiting for the economy to turn to make it worth building houses there. I reached the South Shore estate and glanced over at the sea. At the roundabout I went up South Newsham Road. It struck me that Blyth no longer has outskirts. It has a settlement boundary which marks the point where fields will turn into housing estates. The transition is sudden, in no way gradual. You can’t really say you’re coming into Blyth these days. You’re either in or you’re out. You’ve arrived or you haven’t. I turned on the CD player and listened to The Killers’ Sam’s Town album. I played it loudly. I crossed the railway at South Newsham and cruised up the Laverock and on to the Spine Road.

I parked in the public car park at the bottom of the street. As I was walking up to the office I met Owen Vardy coming down the hill. He was wearing a loose wrinkly oatmeal-coloured linen jacket – it was at least a size too big for him – and pale baggy Chinos.  He had a stripey brown and pink scarf wrapped around his neck, Dr Who style. He was leaning into every step, each of which appeared cautious and measured. Owen walks like a man on a treadmill, a treadmill he thinks might at any moment either stop completely or speed up dramatically. He was carrying an Asda ‘Bag for Life’.

‘Hi, Owen,’ I said. ‘Have you been shopping?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘Well, not really. I’ve been to a meeting about the Collingwood children. I carry my files in this bag.  It’s the perfect size, you see. Actually, between you and I, I did take a quick toddle over to the high street to pick up a few vitamins.’

‘Oh, so what vitamins do you take?’

‘Oh, you know –  zinc, vitamin C, B complex, vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, selenium, folic acid, echinacea, evening primrose oil, flax oil, omega-3 and omega-6, saw palmetto, feverfew, calcium, magnesium, potassium, ginkgo biloba, ginseng, garlic, CoQ10 . . . you know,  just the usual stuff.’

What, no Becherovka? I thought to myself.

‘So are you ever ill, Owen?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, of course. I’m just the same as everyone else, you know, I catch colds and what have you. But there’s no point in taking unnecessary chances, is there? Oh, by the way, did you hear the latest about Jack?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I don’t think so. Don’t tell me he’s been dressing up again?’

‘No, no. He’s got rid of his Skoda and bought a motorbike. A big shiny black one. I think it might be a Kawasaki. It’s a very dangerous machine, a very dangerous machine. I think he’s being very foolish, actually.’

‘It’s his life, Owen,’ I said. ‘Or death, as the case might be.’

‘Exactly. Do you know he’s the same age as me?  In fact we were born on exactly the same day. You’d never catch me on a motor bike.’

‘I don’t think I’d bother trying,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t stand a chance.’

For a moment Owen missed the joke. He looked at me quizzically, his head slightly to one side, a half smile frozen on his face. What was he listening for, I wondered. Then he got it.

‘Ho ho,’ he laughed. ‘Very good. Yes, very good.’ And then he slid straight back into parson-like caution and prudence. He put his fingertips on my sleeve. He leaned in close to me.

‘And you’ll not have heard what he said to Tallulah either, have you?’ he said. ‘He offered to buy her a full set of leathers – a red leather bodysuit. He offered to take her out on his pillion.’

I laughed. ‘Oh my God, he’s shameless, isn’t he?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ Owen said. ‘He is shameless, and lacking in any sort of dignity too, I think.’ Just for a moment I fancied I caught the elusive vinegary whiff of piety and prurience.

‘Any how,’ he said, looking at his watch, ‘I really must be getting along now or  I’ll miss my bus.’

Owen always travels by bus, for road safety and environmental reasons, he says, although given how much he must spend on vitamins I wonder if he could afford a car in any case. As we parted I was thinking I must read George Herbert again.

When I went into the office Mandy Potts was in reception with Apple and Sparky. She looked like she’d been crying.

‘Hi, Mandy,’ I said. ‘Are you all right?’

She shook her head slowly. She wasn’t. When I went through to the team room I asked Angie what Mandy wanted.

‘She wants to go to a refuge.’

‘Again?’ I said. ‘Why? Surely Mr Zee hasn’t turned nasty?’

‘No,’ Angie said. ‘Anything but. No, it’s not that. Elephant Carmichael called to see her last night. He gave her a message.  He told the Arab said not to forget that what’s his is his forever. He told her the Arab said to say hello. When they got up this morning there were four piles of sand on the step. She said they looked like four little graves. ‘

 .

prague, the skylark, the mephisto express

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south-newsham-railway-crossing1

 

We had more snow last week, again on Thursday. For a while it looked like it would never stop. ‘So this is how the world ends,’ I thought to myself.  Most members of my team went home early. There were rumours that the Spine Road might be closed so at about half four I set off for home. It turned out that the snow was already turning to sleet and rain by then. The wild apocalyptic blizzard was a false alarm. Nevertheless it was a slushy slither back down the Laverock and along Newcastle Road into Newsham.

The snow almost interfered with Tristan and Brenda’s Valentine trip to Prague.  Once or twice on Thursday the airport at Ponteland was closed for a while. But the snow is the least of their problems, it seems. Tristan had discovered earlier in the week that Brenda has become friendly with a man she’s been life-coaching. The man’s problems revolve around his marriage, it seems, and making decisions about how he is going to spend the rest of his life. He owns and runs an executive coach company called Mephisto Travel and he has a big house in Tynemouth, it seems. He’s made his fortune and he’s looking forward to taking it easy and seeing the world. What he doesn’t now know is who he wants to be with him on his travels. The man’s name is Elvis Devlin.

‘Elvis Devlin?’ I said to Margaret when she told me the tale.

‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘That’s right. Do you know him?’

‘Do I know Elvis Devlin?’ I said. ‘Do I know Elvis?’

‘Yes, Elvis. Do you have a problem with that? It’s no sillier than your name, is it?’

‘You’re right. I just hope he’s not an impostor,’ I said. ‘I just hope he’s not a Devlin disguise.’

Margaret groaned and got on with cutting up the onions.

It seems that on a couple of occasions Brenda has been seen having coffee with Elvis Devlin at the Milkhope Centre near Blagdon. This is far enough from Whitley Bay to suggest that these encounters did not happen by chance, although that apparently is exactly how Brenda claims they did happen. (But in any case doesn’t everything happen for a reason, Brenda? I heard myself thinking.) Tristan’s suspicion is that Elvis might be singing Viva Las Vegas in her ear. So Prague nearly didn’t happen. Margaret says it’s a make or break weekend for them. She’s convinced that Tristan’s fears are unnecessary, but you know what the song says about suspicious minds.

On Friday morning the roads were okay and most people made it in. At about lunchtime I went downstairs to make myself a coffee. Lily was checking out the weather on the Met Office website. Michelle was having a sandwich and doing her sudoku book.

‘We’ve got another one,’ Lily said. ‘I’ve got another mother who’s got a spirit in her house. She says it knocks thing off the windowsills at nights and taps on the window.’

‘Has she got a cat?’ Michelle chipped in. Lily laughed.

‘No,’ she replied. ‘She hasn’t even got a broom. The place is mingin’!’

I stood in the kitchen with my hands in my pockets, gazing at the filing cabinets and waiting for the kettle to boil. I filled my cup and wandered back out into the team room. Angie came in and Lily asked her how the roads were. I sat down in Debs’ chair and put my feet on her desk.

‘You don’t believe in ghosts, do you, Lily?’ I said.

‘Nah!’ she said. ‘It probably is the cat. Actually it probably isn’t. She’s probably just nuts.’

‘Oh, I believe in ghosts,’ Angie said. ‘We used to have one on the house we had in Forest Hall.’

‘So do you think Lily should call in an exorcist for her client?’

‘Yes, why not?’

‘Probably for the same reason we don’t make assessments from star signs,’ I said. ‘And because it’d get me the bloody sack.’

‘What sign are you, Lil?’ Angie said. ‘Let me guess. Okay, okay, I’ve got it. You’re a Virgo. Am I right?’

‘No,’ Lily said. ‘I’m an Aries.’

‘Oh, yes, of course. How didn’t I see that? How stupid am I?’

‘I’m an Aries too,’ I said.

‘You’re not!’ Lily said. ‘You could never be an Aries.’

‘I am,’ I said. ‘Honestly.’

‘I don’t believe you,’ Lily said. ‘You couldn’t be.’

On Friday night I began a new painting of Seaton Sluice. I’ve painted it before. I’m ambivalent about doing it because it is making a concession to the conventionally picturesque, something I’m trying to get away from. I decided on a low horizon. I was doing a view from the bridge of Rocky Island and the Kings Head pub. I used the canvas I’d underpainted in vermillion a week or two ago. I painted the sky quickly with a big flat brush. Square chunks of white and yellow ochre clouds careering wildly around in a Prussian blue sky.

On Saturday I rode along to my dad’s on the bike. It wasn’t a bad afternoon and the paths were mostly completely clear of snow.

During the week my dad had been to the library. As I was drinking a glass of pineapple juice he gave me a photocopy he’d made of an article from The Blyth News at the end of May 1936. The article reported the death at age eighty one of Harry Clough, the father of Tom Clough, the Newsham Nightingale. “FAMOUS PIPER DEAD”, was the headline, with the by-line “Newsham Man Who Played Before Royalty”. He is said to have died at his home in Plessey Road, of which Brick Row must have been considered a part.

The article said that in 1905 Harry Clough had played for King Edward VII at Alnwick Castle. Until a few weeks before his death Harry had acted as a caller at Cowpen Coal Company, the article said.  Here’s a typical paragraph from the article, which is really a eulogy:

His music like his character delighted his audience. In both cottage and palace he enchanted with the folk music of Northumberland. His nature was kind and genial without ostentation. Unassuming and without any love of fame, his art was always at the disposal of charity.

As I recall Harry was buried at Blyth Cemetary, back down on the beach road. I’d ridden past it on the way along. I wondered if I should stop off on my way back and see if I could find his grave. But no doubt I’d have no more luck looking for the grave of the Nightingale’s father than I had looking for the grave of his son.

I asked my dad which route the old road out of Newsham followed. The book on the Cloughs had said it was very rough.

‘It followed the route of Newcastle Road along to where the little roundabout is now, and it turned right there and went up towards the Laverock,’ he said. ‘Of course in those days the houses on the right weren’t there. The store field was there, where they used to turn out the ponies from the pit in summer.’

‘So was it a rough road?’ I asked.

‘It was wet. When it got over the old railway line to the relief pit it took a big sweeping bend around before going up the Laverock. It was often flooded there.’

Laverock is an old word for a skylark. Most people assume this is how the farm on the ridge got its name and that the road got its name from the farm. I’ve never seen any real evidence for this. My alternative theory is that the place name may have nothing to do with the skylark at all. In Cumbria there’s a place called Laversdale. The first element of this is from the Old English personal name Leofhere. I wonder if this name or something similar isn’t the first element in Laverock and that the second is rigg, meaning ridge. There are ridge and furrows in the field beside Laverock Hall Farm and these will date back to the medieval period at least. The farm is also on a ridge, the ridge along which the road from Seaton Delaval to Horton runs. So the history and topography are arguably there to support the possibility that this might be Leofhere’s Ridge. Furthermore, local people usually talk about going up or coming down the Laverock, as if the land form itself is the thing they are climbing or descending. They do not say they are going up to the Laverock. The word is also said with a final vowel that is very close to the  i sound in rigg, although admittedly inevitably somewhat neutral. There are other examples around here of false etymologies arrived at and imposed by mapmakers, and this may be another. Rigg and rick are close enough together to allow an obvious aural mistake to be made. It was perhaps this mistake that threw an imaginary skylark into the sky above the ancient ridge.

As I rode home I glanced over to the cemetery, but rode straight by. It was getting late and the light was beginning to fail.

At about eight o’clock tonight I went out for a walk. It was a mild dry evening and there wasn’t much wind.  I walked along Sixth Avenue past the front gate to the site of the Citadel. The gates were closed and the security lights were shining eerily on the colossal towering structure. It really is a hellish, oppressive monstrosity, the wrong building in the wrong place. No wonder it reminds me of Kafka’s Castle. I walked through the cut and on to Newsham Road. I walked up into Newsham and down past the first school. From there I crossed Winship Street into Elliot Street. They are already building on the site of the demolished Big Club. As I walked across I was thinking how these sites aren’t like widows: they don’t have to wait for a respectable period before they allow another building to occupy them. I had thought that apartments would be built here and I was therefore a bit surprised that building had started so soon, given the current depression in the housing market. I noticed a sign on the fence. It said “Considerate Construction”. You’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? I went over for a closer look and discovered that the new building appears to be going to be a new library. I was pleasantly surprised and for a moment impressed.

I went down Elliot Street past the take-aways and the betting shop, which was still open for business. An old guy in a flat cap was leaning in the doorway telling the woman inside a story about a bet he’d made. I crossed over to the Willow Tree, which was also open, although there weren’t many in. It seems to be under new management. I noticed there were flyers on the windows for a group called The Buskers, who it seems are playing there on Friday this week. I glanced over to the Brick Row open space. I wondered what sort of music they’d be playing. I wondered if the Cloughs would all be tapping their ghostly pipers’ feet. I walked back down Plessey Road, past the old Grammar school and on under the trees beside the bus stop.

When I got home Margaret was in. She was polishing the old Napoleon from her bedroom. It wasn’t ticking.

‘How did Brenda’s trip to Prague go?’ I asked.

‘I’ve no idea,’ she said. ‘I haven’t heard from her.’

‘But she is back, isn’t she?’ I asked.

‘Oh yes, they came back yesterday, I think.’

Or maybe she didn’t, I thought to myself. Maybe she’s already riding the Mephisto Express to Vegas.

I put the kettle on and went looking for De Kooning. I wanted to put him out in the garden for a while before I did a bit more on my painting of the Sluice.

 .

a fish called bwenda

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blyth-cemetary

On one of the days between Christmas and New Year Margaret sent me over the Brenda’s to deliver a box of sale slippers. Tristan came to the door.

‘Oh hello, mate,’ he said. ‘Mewwy Chwistmas. Are you coming in?’

‘Merry Christmas, Tristan,’ I replied. ‘Yeah, I’ve just got to deliver this box for Brenda. Is she around?’

‘She’s in with a client at the minute, but should be fwee soon.’

‘What’s she doing, a bit of post-Christmas life coaching for one of Santa’s little elves?’

‘Not quite,’ Tristan laughed. ‘But it’s not far off. She’s got Mrs Bywo in with her. This lady is about as tall as a painted teapot and dwesses like a demented wagamuffin. Bwenda knows her from her poetwy group. I tell you she has twied just about evewy thewapy Bwenda knows, for evewything fwom colour blindness to celebwityphilia. She’s come in today for some urgent acupuncture because of stwange tingles in her feet, which she thinks she got from being too close to a starfish while she was talking to the mermaids on the wocks at Cullercoats on Chwistmas Eve.’

‘I didn’t know acupuncture worked for that,’ I said.

‘Imaginawy tweatments often work well for imaginawy complaints,’ Tristan replied.

‘Hmm, good point,’ I said. ‘Any way, how are you? Did you have a good Christmas? Was Santa good to you?’

Tristan grimaced and shrugged, in the way that Trostskyists do. ‘It could have been better,’ he said.

‘Don’t tell me Santa didn’t come,’ I said.

‘Oh, I did okay that way,’ he said. ‘The usual chocolates and aftershave and what have you, and Bwenda got me an electwic scwewdwiver, which will come in vewy handy if business ever picks up again. Oh, and thanks for the socks, by the way, which I thought were weally wadical for me. No, the pwoblem is that I’ve been a bit in the doghouse with Bwenda since she opened her pwesents fwom me.’

‘Oh bloody hell, mate,’ I said. ‘You didn’t cut corners, did you?’

‘No, I shelled out an arm and a leg. But it seems I got the wong bwands for her. You know, Bwenda, she’s got expensive taste, and I thought the stuff I got her was wight up her stweet. I got her a Louis Vuitton handbag, a Cartier watch and a Burbewwy twench coat. When she unwapped them I thought she’d be cockahoop, but she wasn’t. She looked a bit down in the mouth. “Are they fakes?” she says to me. “Fakes?!” says I. “Of course they’re not fakes. You’ve no idea what that little lot cost me.” “Are you sure?” she says, looking at me thwough her hair as if I might be pulling a fast one here. “Absolutely sure,” I says. “Do you want to see the weceipts?” Eventually she came awound to accepting that they were all the weal thing, but she still wasn’t happy – because, she says, evewyone knows you can easily get fakes of these bwands. “Even Chavs wear them,” she says. “Yes,” I says, “but yours aren’t fakes, are they? Not like theirs.” “Yes, but how will anyone know that?” she says. “They don’t look any diffewent.” I tell you mate at that point I was wishing I had bought bloody knock-offs and saved myself a lot of money. “So what do you want me to do, Bwenda?” I says. “Pin a These Are Not Fakes label on them to tell the world they’re weal?!”‘

‘It’s a strange world we live in, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Someone wearing a fake imagines the world thinks it’s the real thing, and someone wearing the real thing imagines the world thinks it’s a fake! Maybe we should all go back to going around naked, eh?”

‘Anyhow,’ Tristan went on, ‘she eventually came awound, but not before I said I’d make it up to her by taking her for a short bweak in Pwague for Valentine’s Day. Not that I can afford it, of course. Work’s all but dwied up. You can’t get moved for bloody plumbers now that house building’s stopped.’

At that point I heard the door of Brenda’s consulting room open. Mrs Byro came out and shuffled down the hall to the front door. I could see what Tristan meant. At first glance Mrs Byro appears to be to haute couture what Hugo is to horticultural design and you’d assume that her wardrobe must be a junkyard, a random accretion of disparate garments.  She is no bigger than a hobbit and has long hippy dippy hair of a curiously neutral colour. She struck me as the kind of woman you’d imagine must always choose her outfit for the day before she puts the light on. She has that sort of ostensibly accidental charity shop eclecticism that you never actually see among the poor (who are for the most part running around in fake Levi’s carrying fake Louis Vuitton handbags, of course). But I suspect it would be a mistake to think that the Mrs Byros and the Brendas of this world are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their wardrobe strategies. They are in fact sisters.

‘Hi, Brenda,’ I said. ‘Merry Christmas.’

‘And a very merry Christmas to you too,’ she replied, giving me a big hug and a kiss on each cheek. ‘Did Tristan tell you about Prague? Oh, I’m so excited!’

‘Yes, he did,’ I said. ‘It sounds fab. Hey, and thanks for the Christmas present. It’s really interesting and, er, you know, unusual.’

‘Yes, I thought you might like it,’ she said. ‘I thought it would look good on your desk at work.’

‘Hey, I’d never thought of that. Yeah, I see what you mean, though. It’d be really good to be able to just turn it on whenever things become a bit too stressful. I must remember to get some batteries for it on my way home.’

I gave Brenda the box of sale slippers and drove back up the coast, listening to Lucinda William’s latest album. She’s made better, but it’s good. It hardly matters what she sings though, her blistered paint and rusty broken nails voice says it all.

When I got back Margaret was peeling some carrots. I asked her what Brenda had got her for Christmas. ‘Did she get you a fountain too,’ I asked.

‘No,’ Margaret replied. ‘She got me a Strength Rune silver necklace, a collection of Nam Champa soaps, a Green Man candle holder and some candles. Oh, and a black beret. It’s all very good quality stuff, of course.’

‘Yes, it all sounds very Brenda to me,’ I said. ‘But it doesn’t sound especially you. When did you last wear a beret?’

Margaret continued peeling carrots. She said nothing. I picked up The Guardian and wandered through to the conservatory. De Kooning joined me.

‘If you had a friend who was a goldfish,’ I said, ‘and she had bought you a Christmas present, what would you have liked her to have got you?’ 

De Kooning looked up at me for a moment. He licked his paw and began to clean his face.

‘Okay’ I said, ‘if the choice was between a wrecked pirate ship aquarium ornament and a catnip-filled fluffy toy mouse, which one would you go for?’

De Kooning stopped cleaning himself for a moment and looked at me as if I was daft.

‘Okay, okay, it’s a no-brainer, you’re right. Unless the goldfish was called Brenda. If Brenda was your goldfish friend you would have got the pirate ship.’

Sunday was bright and frosty. I drove up to Lordenshaw. I walked over to Spylaw and from there contoured across the moors around the southern slopes of Simonside before climbing up to the crag on the path that passes Croppy’s Hole. There was a fair amount of ice here and there and the peat on top was frozen rock solid. But it was dry and sunny and it was easy walking over the top on the newly laid stone slabs. To the north there was snow on Cheviot and Hedgehope Hill, shining like a bride in the winter sun. It was a beautiful day. It was 2009. As I walked east off Dove Crag I began to think about Basil Bunting.

When I got home Hugo was on his drive. He was working on the Alligator with what appeared to be an angle grinder. He gave me a wave as I went up my path. I went out into the back garden and looked over the fence into Hugo’s garden, which I hadn’t seen for a while. It was much the same as before, except that there was a straggle of silvery tinsel on the moose’s antlers. The waterfall was turned off and the pond was frozen. The ducks and the otter were in there usual places. The grey heron gazed at the ice and never blinked, not even once. It was late afternoon. The last rays of the sun were glinting on the still naked girders of the Citadel.

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