Still Unwell

December 6, 2013 - 2 Responses

His face is spots upon spots upon spots upon spots upon spots. Spots to mar him and spots that may scar him, with no sign of calamine or sudocrem, medic or physician’s assistant.

Actually, Lulu is with him. She has prepared a potion which looks like an armpit with twigs in it. Whether this is to be applied or inserted, and onto or into what, are questions I prefer to leave to the boy himself. If his operatic death throes are any indication, they may form the bulk of his second volume. His eyes brimmed with such gratitude yesterday, when I brought him a glass of tap water and a paracetemol, I expected him to kiss my hand and call me Guvnor. Lawks, Mr B, you have saved an ’umble orphan this night, sir, and no mistike. He drooped like a hairy swan.

He is worse, and I do not say this lightly, than Olivier. How can a vegetarian be such a ham?

The Headcold Ritual

December 5, 2013 - Leave a Response

Stephen is unwell. He languishes upstairs, yodelling fluent self-pity into the eiderdown, while I sit on the sofa with a saucer full of stale Bourbons and his paperback copy of the Autobiography. My first impulse was to balance the spine in my palm and see what page it fell open at. It would furnish a valuable insight into his vision of himself. I decided I’d better not. One can have too much insight, especially into a friend.

This is Alan, of course.

Stephen’s prose style, on first glance, is extraordinary. I can’t think where he got it. The opening is so overwhelming in its striving for pathos that I had to break off for a nap.

I shall curl up with the second sentence later, when I have steeled myself with a milky Earl Grey, but first I must ransack the cabinets for a Beecham’s Powders. Poor Lulu will help. She has a remarkable sense of smell.

I suppose it is some compensation.


December 4, 2013 - Leave a Response

White coat doffed, Borset leads me past the meat to a plain back room. He brews me tea from a bag, and almost tears the white deal cupboard from the wall in his search for a saucer. He drinks his from a mug which declares him the World’s Greatest something. The precise field of his pre-eminence is obscured by a fat pinkie. He asks me how Lulu is, shyly laying down this conversational token like a child’s last penny at a Skee Ball stand. I feel he is on the verge of addressing me as Squire. My small rush of affection is stemmed, however, by a glimpse of his shirtcuff’s underside. It is streaked with blood.

My stomach tilts. It is as if I have just realised that Deanna Durbin’s lollipop is in fact an eyeball on a stick. I am conscious suddenly of the stench of fresh death. Even as I answer his query, I am trying to breathe into only the topmost vault of lung. My voice comes out as a herniated gurgle. I sound like the Queen Mother. Is it my imagination, or does he reverently sit a little straighter?

“I’ve been sad too,” he replies. He wants to elaborate, but his small purse of words is evidently emptied. He sees now that I am staring at his cuff, but his moon face is a stranger to the blush of shame. He picks at the stiffening gore with a distant thumbnail. World’s Greatest Murderer, I decide.

“You know the animals we eat,” he begins.

I cut him off. “Please do not include me in your troupe of savages.”

“It’s because their meat has names,” he persists. “Cow is beef. Calf is veal. Deer is venison. Dog and horse are just dog and horse.”

My brain lights up. Could I convert the world simply through proper labelling? Let no-one cloak their savagery in euphemism, and the world might recoil from the brute fact of it.

“This is something you could do,” he says. I am astonished at the accuracy with which he seems to have read my thoughts. But no. His telepathic ineptitude is matched only by his cruelty.

“Come up with a word for horsemeat,” he says, “and I could have three shops by Easter.” He seems not to notice me clawing at the air. “I’ve thought of rallop,” he goes on. “From ride and gallop. Rallop.” He repeats it with such relish it seems his mouth is already brimming with foal.

“Anyway, you’re the wordsmith,” he continues, tranquilly gathering the sherds of my crockery from the grey marmoleum. “I’m sure you could do better.”

He does not sound at all sure. I add that dubiety to his swelling debit list and leave with a cold farewell.

I lunched with Ms Durbin once, in Winnipeg. We bonded over her Lancastrian heritage and a shared distaste for the Renoir family. I was kind about Can’t Help Singing (perhaps a little too kind: I was lush with eggnog), and she thanked me oddly as she left for “making an old man happy.”

Her feet were enormous. Looking back now, I begin to doubt that it was her.

Your widening inky Titian

December 3, 2013 - Leave a Response

Holloway in Christmas ormanents looked, I could not help thinking as a trickle of icy rain insinuated itself into my yashmak of Jane Carr scarf, like a turd in a spangled catsuit. I could stalk the wet streets all day like a beige ninja if I liked, but my plan for Lulu had already caromed into the usual bulwark. I had no idea how to start.

System, perhaps, would save me. Lulu had pinned her trembling favours to one thickset victualler. Surely Holloway could boast another. “Come ye husky mongers!” I cried, quietly, and the clarion stirred my heart. Lifted as if by a great wind, I floated serenely the length of Holloway Road, from Harry’s Hut to the warty Ezekiel bouncing declamatory indictments off the Tube-station tiling. Righteous conviction coursed through me too. I half-expected a crowd to gather, a steaming ring of husky vendors, candesced with fleshly ardour. This did not happen. My wild flight commenced its descent on Chillingworth. By the time I cleared the boarded frontage of Blood Brothers, tattooists lately fled, I was a shell. That the Bloods broke camp from disgust rather than any shortage of human vellum was confirmed by the jersey-clad balloon animals who eyed me with witless malice from the filling station’s canopied forecourt. Titian would struggle to fill those sallow acres.

There was nothing for it. Our merchant community had let me down. I found myself hunched outside Borset’s, transfixed by a shin-cut’s bone eye. Borset himself bobbed before me, essaying a timid wave. Even as I welcomed the distraction I was conscious of a sadness in his demeanour.

“Come in,” he mournfully mouthed. I went.

Meet Pandarus

December 2, 2013 - Leave a Response

A woman in Brighton has developed a process to make picture frames from minced placenta. There is always a point at which I stop reading the newspapers and launch myself into the day. This was today’s.

My knock on Lulu’s door of late is timid and almost inaudible, as if a sturdy declarative thump might of itself summon up her plump inamoratus, gibbous and ruby-radiant in a crack of the door.  Today I braved it, bearing cooled porridge in what the catalogue billed as a sycamore kuksa, but is more properly characterised, due to its double handle, as a quaich. The wood at least is not in doubt, and neither on a normal morning is Lulu’s response to the freshening buckwheat scent.

That this was not a normal morning was quickly evident. I knocked three times before the door opened, and then it was not thrown wide with the usual ravenous hand. Instead it barely moved. I could tell by the scuffle and creak that she had retired instantly to bed. I pondered for a moment the sliver of winter light, then pushed in. Lulu lay huddled, the polar-fleece comforter she favours pulled up to her top lip. She was alone.

“No Borset today?” I burbled, affected breeziness making me sound like a floorwalker in a carpet shop. Lulu shook her head. A wide tear trickled down one cheek, zigzagging a little first in the wrinkles of her lower lid. Borset is no more.

I left the porringer cupped in her outstretched hand and strode downstairs. I could not pretend to miss Borset, with his cratered frontage and his gruesome carnal tang. But I will not have Lulu sad. Wreathed in chai fumes now, I felt a sacramental spirit move within me. My detective reinvention was a dismal wreck. Today sees another new me. If I cannot claim affection for myself, as a casual glance will confirm, I can at least catalyse it in others. In a moment I am on the street, coatless, scanning the faces of the Holloway foot-traffic (to what I recognise shortly thereafter, returning to the Vapours for my vintage checkback duffel, as their considerable alarm) for marks of Eros.

Such is my vigour that I almost forget to check the Horwin casements for my pale tormenter. Almost. 

Diacritical but not serious

November 29, 2013 - One Response

Sometimes I can spark a lyric by sticking a pin into Snippets or Life’s Like That, the kind of magazine I imagine sells most of its print run to hairdressing salons with teacups and stand-up dryers. It is a technique I borrowed from Lloyd Cole, though he applied it rather sweetly to Beginning Camus.

Today’s story, with I pricked with the pin of a Jobriath lapel-badge I bought from a stammering vendor in Hull, was of a wide-toothed Pons Aelian who had swapped her washing machine for a designer dildo. “The hand-washing’s a reet gan-on,” she admitted, or possibly declared, “but the family says I’ve never been happier.” Her skin, of which there was both too much and not quite enough, was mottled with livid umlauts, as if a corpse had been inflated almost to the point of popping and then laid for four hours on a sack of chestnuts. The sight defeated my pen.

But was it the picture? Wasn’t it rather envy of her capacity for unproblematic delight which made me recoil from the soy-ink Marimekko Yellow? In either case, I abandoned work and propelled myself out into Holloway. It was cold with the blunt unembarrassed cold of a North wind. My face eyed me pugnaciously from between asterisked breasts and iPhone manuals on the shelves of Harry’s Hut.

Pictured on an inner page I saw my former guitarist and occasional chess partner Tim “Tam” Tunnelling, beside an interview so unremarkable it threatened to reverse time: I swear I could feel it bore me before the light even reached my eyes. “He is no Johnny Marr,” was the consensus on my first venture with Tim. In one way it was rather a kind consensus: the list of guitarists Tim was not could have filled the NME twice over. I felt a pang of fondess nonetheless, as I involuntarily compared our hairlines. The weight suits him.

I had a friend who used to summon the image of Julie Burchill to delay the moment of sexual rapture. He did this so often in our touring days that the association stuck. Happening upon her unexpectedly in a BBC studio ten years later, he was forced to retire briefly and borrow a long sweater from Richard Osman.

This melancholy was a mask once. I fear it has fused to my skin.

Sweet Jenga, poultice for a bruised heart

November 28, 2013 - Leave a Response

I burst back into the living room with distracting gusto. At least it was designed to distract, but I may as well have been invisible. Danny and Alan were perched at either end of the sofa, suppressing tears and laughter with equal lack of skill. To avert conflict, I disclosed the mysterious events at Horwin Towers, and my unsuccessful efforts to unravel them.

“Call the police,” Alan says. Apart from a brief hiatus at the height of the Miners’ Strike, Alan has always gloried in constabulary company. Deciding that his motives were tainted with that vague suburban impurity which never quite coagulates into action, I was inclined to dismiss his suggestion. He persisted. I turned on the radio to drown his querulous murmur and found, to my horror, that the backlash to my current cultural prominence was in full effect. One of those Southern voices with a 25-letter alphabet was discussing today’s cover piece in Uncut. This is a classic prince-free Hamlet, quoting three men who made me a sandwich and a nurse I helped off a bus, but our r-averse pop Derrida accepts it as gospel. Between his simpered in-breaths I hear the rustle of polytechnic tweed.

“Morrissey says he has enough material for two albums,” he attempts. (I have restored the consonants.) “Do you know what else has enough material for two albums? Morrissey’s last five albums.”

I cut short the laughter of sycophants and turn to Alan.

“The police?” I say, as airily as I can.

“Your neighbours deny the boy’s existence. You have seen him in their house. Ergo they have an intruder.” Alan says ergo routinely, and QED when particularly feisty. Thankfully this is rare.

I praised his stratagem.

“But is it a stratagem?” he countered. “For all we know, it is true. The youth may even now be cracking eggs in their faces and unstringing a tennis racket.” Alan’s idea of a rampage may be arcane, but his ruse seems feasible. Resolving to put it into action at the next sighting of my willowy nemesis, I unbox a sustainable white ash Jenga. To my mind it is a minor entry in Ms Scott’s canon, lacking the epic sweep of her collaborative work on the Great Western Railway Game, but my choice was rewarded with a smile from Danny. He likes it when the blocks fall down.

Lulu hearts Danny hearts narrative non-fiction

November 27, 2013 - Leave a Response

Danny was stalking my living room like a brain-damaged panther and outlining his plans for a series of “true-life movies” when the doorbell sounded with that stuttering triple-tap which Alan affects. A bazooka through the letter-box could not have deflected Danny. “They’d be like proper movies, alright? But with no actors. Just real people, being themselves. On camera. And we see it!”

I ushered the new guest in and enjoined him to silence. “Danny,” I confided, “has invented the documentary.”

Alan lacks restraint on these occasions. Rather than watch poor Danny slowly peck his way out of the egg, he thundered flutily in with a pinched history of narrative non-fiction and an unnecessarily accurate précis of Danny’s likely contribution. He had sketched out a four-decade career “without the pungency or substance of John Grierson’s airiest fart” when I intervened. His face was the colour of nougat.

“I feel I must apologise,” he finally whispered. “Mother.” It was explanation enough for those who have been snared even briefly in the Lady B’s tight polyester orbit. But Danny’s face had crumpled like a trodden pie. He was beyond apology. He had evidently sent forth a distress signal so high-pitched it was audible only to Lulu. She bounded down the stairs, to which she now feels a territorial entitlement, and folded him without preamble into the crook of one enormous arm. The sight cheered Alan enormously. 

I had caught the camera in mid-launch, but Danny remained almost entirely lost to view. After an interval of choked corblimeys and some flapping of denimed limbs, I coaxed Lulu to the kitchen with the promise of apricots, and left her humming happily there while I attended to what was left of my guests. 

Meatloaf is murderloaf

November 26, 2013 - Leave a Response

I try to sift through my business mail at least once a month. This is not avarice. My needs are simple, and will be even simpler when I have pushed through the purchase of the wasteland adjoining my garden and crowned The Vapours with a modest swimming pool. There are public baths in Holloway, of course, but if I wanted to steep my pallid magnificence in teenage urine there are galleries in Berlin which would gladly accommodate me.

This month’s mail was tedious beyond compare. Licensing offers I embraced or rebuffed at the toss of a coin. Television cameos were dismissed. I did linger over a proposal to vegetarianise the monuments of recorded popular music, starting with Bat Out Of Hell. The aim is to reproduce the sound of the original album, but with a new vegetarian ensemble. This collective was to be called Nut Loaf. When I saw that the planned follow-up was Sprout Mask Replica, by Captain Artichoke-Heart, I dismissed the venture as a satire.

This was not without some relief. Could I clothe myself convincingly in the sexual abandon and sporting metaphors of Paradise By The Dashboard Lights? Certainly not with Chrissie Hynde hunched like a dyspeptic heron over the other mic.

Danny came around in the evening. He has bought a digital video camera with his first BBC cheque. Watching him cycle through expectancy, exertion, disappointment, rage, hope, menace and despair for fifty minutes was perhaps the closest I will ever come to observing an infant wean. I finally had mercy and explained what a lens cap was. Thus start glittering careers.


November 25, 2013 - Leave a Response

I have never played poker, of course, but I have read deeply enough in the literature of the Regency gambling den to know this: when your cards are weak, attack. Accordingly I assembled a look of haughty dudgeon as I drew myself erect in the shrubbery. I realised from a curl of cold air and the upward voyage of one grey Horwin eyebrow that the confluence of cotoneaster spine and Paul Smith silk had not been a happy one. A slit had opened around my right nipple. I need not bob in the slough of my pectoral grooming to tell you that the sight was a painful one. I was not, I confess, stage ready.

I mounted nonetheless and charged.

“What in the name of Hades are you doing? Do you know how dangerous it is to wake a sleepwaker? I might have had an infarction, or punched you in the jowl. Penguin shall hear of this!” I may have added a “Fie upon you!” and thrust my index finger in the air. I certainly addressed her as “Woman!”

Two things disturbed me as I stalked away. The first was obvious: I had failed utterly to further my quest. I knew no more about the quiffed foetus than I did before my vigil.

The second did not coalesce until I was wrapped around a cocoa and watching Lulu struggle with the oatmeal-scoop. The expression in Horwin’s eye as I scolded her was neither fear nor anger, nor the aggravated boredom I had detected in our few previous encounters. There was a gleam of something altogether rarer, and a flickering involution of the skin at the outer edges of her eyes confirmed it. For all my angry umbrage, and the brute fact of my trespass, the Horwin was gazing at me with affection. 

I could not understand it, and a slow second cocoa brought me no closer to a solution. It was with bitten lip and furrowed brow that I bent to wipe up after Lulu. The Horwin liked me. What was going on?