Notes From a Fragile Island.

December 24th 2004 (Croydon)

After work I go back to the house, shower and change. Off to Purley to meet up with PS, Tom K, Kelly H, Punk Wayne, Hannarama, Ronnie Kay, Fashion A, Mark and Nick B at The Foxley Hatch. They have been there for some hours already. I decide to walk in the fog rather than take a bus. The Brighton Rd is devoid of pedestrians. The cars hush by, streams of beamed red and white light cut through the swirling air. Christmas decorations flash in windows. As I reach the old dairy yard at Purley Oaks, a shadowy figure appears before me in the gloom. There is something about the man’s wide and stiff-legged gait as he staggers toward me, something of the gunslinger, dominating the pavement, that suggests caution on my behalf. But, as we are about to pass I glance up and realise with surprise that it is Punk Wayne. “Hey!” I turn to give him a hug – he is always a huggy kind of bloke – “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” He says, shying away. There is something in his voice that makes me wonder if I have somehow offended him. “Wayne?” He holds a palm to my face. “Don’t touch me! I’ve shat myself! I need to get home. They’re all at the Foxley Hatch.” With this he staggers, stiff-legged, dismal, into the fog again. Ten minutes later I am in the bright glow of the busy pub. Several tables have been commandeered at the far end. The tables, drawn together, are littered with glass and ashtrays and greetings cards and wrapping paper. “Doctor Reeves is here!” says Nick B. He stands and, champagne bottle in hand, searches the debris for a flute. None are forthcoming. Ronnie Kay offers an empty tumbler. “Don’t be crass. The doctor needs a proper glass!” A brilliant evening unfolds and minds unravel. I realise that trying to catch up with my drunken and dear friends is pointless. But, by the end of the night, there I am clinging to a lamppost, reeling around it, skittish and dizzy and laughing hysterically as I retell, for the nth time, of my Christmas meeting with Punk Wayne. “Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!”

December 24th 2016 (Whitley Bay)

Final day at work before Christmas. Cycle to the ferry to catch the 9am over the Tyne to South Shields. As I hurtle down the bank from Collingwood’s monument I count 4 rats, 3 magpies, and 1 woman struggling a toy pushchair up the muddy path. I stop and lean into the bushes to let her pass. We say hello and I notice that the pushchair has a doll and a small terrier dog in it – both tucked neatly to the chin with a blue crocheted blanket.

Being both a Sunday and Christmas Eve I am advised by a handwritten sign on the pontoon that there is only a ‘LIMMITED SERVICE’ (sic). The next ferry is at 10:30, so I ride up into dismal North Shields and get a cut at the Turkish barbers on Saville Street. The shop is busy with dreadful and morning drunks. I sit in silence and marvel at the conversation around me. It is mostly racist and peppered with unnecessary bad language. When the barber asks me what I am doing today I say that I’m working in South Shields. “What is your job?” In an attempt to keep a low profile I tell him that I am a baker. This has the opposite affect and I find myself embroiled in an increasingly vague and convoluted description of such work! Afterwards, I go to Costa Coffee. I detest Costa, but it is almost an oasis in this town. On the counter there is a handwritten sign declaring ‘CASH ONLY’. I leave empty-handed having spent my coins on a haircut.

Someone has been busy. Above the reception desk at Marsh Hairdressing an illuminated sign has appeared overnight. A declaration in flashing plastic letters announces to one and all that ‘We Make You Look Good!’ The letters flash red and yellow and green and are entwined around a large plyboard pair of badly cut-out scissors adhered to the wall. An extraordinary jumble of wires hang from the proclamation, amusingly though the letter ‘d’ fails to light up. P. Marsh stands in front of it, arms crossed and grinning.

Work is fun. Judith B (my client and Peter M’s and Jennifer P’s old school teacher) brings a card and gift for me. It is, wonderfully, a nugget of Obsidian! We had spoken some weeks ago about this mysterious crystals appearance in a dream I had (I had never heard of it before and was surprised when I looked it up that it is specifically pertinent to dreaming!). How kind and thoughtful.

Back across the river (4pm). It is dark. All the ferrymen are polite and friendly, except one, who, it seems, bids everyone hello and a Merry Christmas, except me. Odd. He speaks as if he has a mouthful of nuts and bolts anyway!

Back on Saville Street. A man smoking outside a scruffy, pop-up junk shop, enquires, “Any last minute Christmas shopping?” He indicates the shop behind him. I have often glanced in the window but never had the opportunity to go in. I say, “No, but I’m going to have a browse if I may.” He ushers me in. There are some interesting clothes on rails – an astrakhan, jeans, military jackets (gold, frayed brocade), dead men’s suits, etc – all damp, but reasonably priced. We chat as I browse. Terry lives in a van. I buy a Levi’s trucker’s jacket for £15. He stuffs the denim into a carrier bag and offers me a banana and a cigarette. I decline the banana and we smoke in the shop. We talk about Haruki Marikumi.

Home. Shepherd’s pie, Pinot Grigio. DVD of City of God that arrived in the mail while I was at work from Alaster in Bath. Depressing, but wonderfully coloured.

December 24th 2020 (Whitley Bay)

On the walk to work, vaguely hungover from a late night session with Cath S ( a box of Sauvignon demolished – just like the old days with PS, but without the drama! – I have memories of trying to play the guitar and failing; the instrument, a strange and unfamiliar thing; chords and words to my own songs elusive… a clear sign of intoxication!). A hearse and several long black cars slide past. I dip my head and, for a moment, think of JC’s dad. But dismiss this. However, it leaves me quite sad. Six haircuts. Terry has left his hearing aids in his van and so he has to keep questioning and mishearing everything I say. This is helped no further as we both wear masks. He tells me that his son won’t be coming up due to the lockdown. “He’s in Caterham, isn’t he?” I say. I remember this detail from our last chat. “What?! God, no! No, he’s a welder!” This confuses me for some hours and then I realise that he must have thought I’d said, “He’s in catering, isn’t he?”

It begins to sleet. I wrap up at 2pm and walk home. Call JC. She says, “my dad passed away yesterday.” I am shocked at the speed with which death arrives. When I last saw him in July, he complained of a sore back, putting it down to a trapped nerve. How unfair. She arrives and we exchange presents and have a glass of Bailey’s and chat. As she sits on the kitchen counter in her usual place, snow begins to fall onto the skylight behind her. “A sure sign. A message,” she says. And I am inclined to agree – what else is there to say? Walk her home and take the seafront route back to mine. The sea is violent, the sky is bruised. I consider many things and make a loose promise to be a better person somehow.

The boiler is fixed and so I read sections of J. Michell’s The Flying Saucer Vision, a few pages of M. Mickles’ Mark E. Smith biography, some Larkin and a bit of Orwell’s Essays as I soak in the bath with a Bergamot and lemongrass scrub, a cigarette, a wine, and then, the flat warm, heat lasagne and steam asparagus. After several glasses of Sauvignon, I put on a white shirt, my favourite 1960’s Levi’s, my new Rupert The Bear scarf, light a candle and some incense, create an altar in front of my treasured Patti Smith front page advertising her debut from 45 years ago (?!), play Sticky Fingers and my annual revisit of my tribute to Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks from when I lived in South Shields and send a Christmas video message to CA in Seattle.

cassettes – you’re a big girl, now.

18 thoughts on “Notes From a Fragile Island.

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