Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Pease Pudding and Porn Crackers :: The Ugly Side of Senescence

I had a slightly queer experience over the weekend, an experience which has me looking - for the first time in my life - into making a will. A living will, if you will. The first request will be that if I ever lose control of my physical dignity to such a point whereby I’m involuntarily leaving smells and noises and little pools of urine all over the house, then someone must take responsibility, take me to one side with a roll of superstrength cling film, and suffocate me. Or disembowel me, behead me, hang me from the nearest lamppost, anything. Just make me stop. Out of mercy.

So anyway.

Keith and I drove to The North at the weekend to spend a couple of days with his dad and his (relatively) new and (relatively) young wife. I’ve never really spent any time in The North before. I’d passed through on my way to Scotland, but I’d never stopped. Not because I thought it was an uncivilised backwater filled with foul-mouthed trolls, short-sleeved Neanderthals and phlegm-hawking, urine-soaked sex-pests. No. I’d never been and I honestly had no opinion either way.

Now all that has changed.

I’ve known Keith’s dad, Gordon, since I was a little kid. He was always something of a hero to me. If that’s not over-egging the pudding a tad. He was the dad I never had. He did things my own dad never did. He showed me affection and kicked balls with me and facilitated fun and happiness. When he split up with Keith’s mum a few years ago, I believe I was more upset than when my own mother died. Which says a lot.

Last year Gordon, 55, married Sylvia, 11 years his junior, after less than a year of knowing each other. Keith says his dad just wanted to get a ring on her finger before she tired of his saggy flesh and ran off with someone less close to death. But I don’t think he really believes that. Gordon may be close to death in some respects, but in others he’s more vital than many a man half his age.

Gordon and Sylvia live in a really funky flat in Newcastle city centre, for which they pay – if you compare similar in London - next to nothing. In fact they pay 25% less than I do, between them, for about 75% more. I couldn’t believe this on Friday, but after a couple of days in The North, it made more sense. There is a trade off. You get to live at least 25% less expensively, but life up there is at least 75% less enjoyable, and the people a good 85% less human. Or maybe I should spend more time there before I dismiss it so definitively?

Nah. Just this once, I think I'm going to go with knee-jerk discrimination. Follow my instincts.

On Saturday night, Sylvia took us to Jarrow – henceforth known as Jarra - to meet her mum and step-dad, Doreen and George, who live – after a fashion – in a dark flat which smells suspiciously of leeks. Now obviously, I’ve got nothing against old people - aside from the intense fear of slow decay and painful, undignified death they automatically arouse in me - and Doreen and George, 76 and 85 respectively, seemed on first inspection thoroughly pleasant examples of the genre.

Doreen was all self-knitted cardigans and dark-toothed smiles, desperate to prepare endless pots of tea and sandwiches containing some kind of pudding apparently made of peas, which I managed to resist.

George was much the same, but less smiling and mostly immobile. Wearing an immaculately knotted tie beneath his chunky wife-knitted cardy, he had a neck like a pelican’s pouch, thick super-magnifying glasses and a large crucifix which he wore with considerable pride.

As Doreen made the first of 70 pots of tea, George asked us about our first impressions of the North East. Keith responded, hugely diplomatically, concentrating his answer on Durham, which we’d visited the night before and which is genuinely pretty.

Pretty enough in fact to warrant a brief picture show. Here is the river:



Here is the cathedral looking all broody and foreboding:



And here is the famous ugly knocker of the cathedral:



Cool.

George thought so too. He spoke for quite a while about sanctuary. Just long enough in fact, to make me start yearning for it.

George is very proud of the North East. He loves Jarra, and he loves God. Doreen meanwhile, loves knitting, pease pudding and Foster and Allen. Together they share a passion for Chinese food, Scrabble and – thankfully – alcohol.

Within half an hour of being at Doreen and George’s, something became abundantly clear. It was this: George knows best. So when it came to ordering the Chinese for the evening, there was no question of anyone choosing what they actually wanted, because George had his heart set on the set meals. George was a set meal kind of guy. As no one else really cared that much, George got his way, and just as Gordon was leaving to pick up the order, George shouted after him, ‘Don’t forget the porn crackers.’

‘Porn crackers?’ repeated Gordon, with a smirk.


George did actually say ‘porn crackers’, not because he couldn’t pronounce his R’s or anything, just because he seemed to forget there was an R in ‘prawn’. Of course at that age you do. Yet simultaneously he seemed unaware that he’d actually said it and instead seemed to think that Gordon was making a joke. It was a joke much to George’s liking. He repeated it three times, interspersing it with his strange, slightly creepy laugh which sounds exactly like the Count from Sesame Street but slowed down to about a quarter of the speed. ‘Porn crackers,’ he said. ‘The mind boggles.’

After the set meal, Doreen suggested we played Scrabble. By then I was drinking heavily so it didn’t seem such a bad idea. But first Keith, Gordon and I nipped outside to smoke. There was no smoking in George’s house ever since a tumour had eaten a chunk of his lung a couple of years ago. Which was fair enough. So we went out into the garden, huddled together and smoked a joint like naughty kids.

Back inside, we split into four teams: Doreen and George, Sylvia and Gordon, and me and Keith – the young ‘uns - on our own. The first sign that this was not going to be an ordinary game of Scrabble came when George, who had picked an A and thus was first to select his seven tiles, selected only three then passed the bag to Doreen. Keith and I exchanged looks, then Keith pointed out that Scrabble was played with seven tiles. ‘Well, we have our own rules here,’ George explained. ‘We pick three each at the beginning, so that nobody gets all the best letters. Then we pick the last four.’

‘So what’s the point of going first?’ asked Keith, genuinely bemused..

George shook his head quickly as if trying to dislodge the pained expression which had settled there.

‘And you could just as easily pick four I’s and three E’s,’ I added. ‘I mean, there’s no saying that you’re going to pick good letters just because you pick seven at once.’

‘These are our rules,’ said Doreen, smiling but slightly uncomfortable. ‘If you don’t like them….’

‘When in Jarra,’ George interrupted.

‘Ruin a perfectly good game,’ added Keith.

Now I happen to be a bit of a pain at Scrabble, inasmuch as I’m one of those people who has memorised a lot of silly words, many of which non-Scrabble freaks have never encountered. That’s generally how I win, by throwing in a dzo or an ictic when my opponent least expects it. So I began to realise the full horror of what was afoot when Keith’s first word liger was disallowed on the grounds that it was ‘stupid and made-up’.

‘We only allow proper words that everybody’s heard of,’ said George.

My mouth fell open. It was like they’d taken the only thing that was really valuable about Scrabble – the possibility of improving your vocabulary – and they’d stamped all over it like low-rent Nazis who couldn’t afford to burn books.

The only dictionary in the house was one of those pocket-sized things with about 60 words in it and although there was a computer with internet access, Sylvia said it probably wasn’t worth the effort, as the dial-up modem was slower than – she glanced at her step-father – was really slow, she said.

‘If we just use words everybody’s heard of, then there’s no problem,’ George said again.

A couple of goes later and the god of Scrabble gave Keith the following letters: A, D, E, F, K, U and Y, with a C in good space on the board.

By this point it was already clear that George had a puritanical streak, but when suddenly the word fucked was sitting in front of him, in his own home, under his own roof, on his own Scrabble board that he’d bought from the Salvation Army charity shop, he looked for a moment like he might shit.

He started shaking his head before the words came. ‘No, no, no,’ he said, breathless with exasperation. ‘You can’t have that. No, definitely not. You can’t have dirty words.’

‘But it’s in the dictionary!’ cried Keith, appalled. ‘And I presume we’ve all heard of it.’ He shook his head. ‘Fucked! From the verb to fuck. I fuck, you fuck, he fucks, we all fuck!’

By now George was glaring at him like he’d taken out his penis, detached it from his groin and pushed it forcibly into his wife’s puckered mouth.

‘No dirty words!’ declared Doreen.

Not acceptable,’ added George.

By now, everyone had begun to side with Doreen and George just for the fun of it.

‘George is right,’ I said. ‘There’s just no need for it. Nobody wants to hear that kind of language.’

‘Not at the dinner table,’ added Gordon.

A couple of turns later I turned the word log into the word blogs with the S on a triple word score. Thrillingly, the same S made spies of an adjacent pies. I was very pleased.

Again came the familiar slow moan that seemed to preface each of George’s sentences. ‘Ooooooooh, no, man, come on now. Play the game.’

‘What’s that supposed to be?’ said Doreen.

This time it was Keith’s turn to join them. ‘Yeah, come on, Stan. Don’t be ridiculous. What the hell is blogs? It’s just rubbish, isn’t it? You’re just wasting everyone’s time. If you can’t think of any proper words, why don’t you miss a turn and change some of your letters?’

I was particularly dischuffed with this latest outrage and for a moment I failed to see the funny side. It was a triple word score. I scowled. Incidentally, now that I am allowed to consult the internet, I see that blog - along with blogger, blogging, bassackwards, felch, slaphead and dischuffed - was included in the OED on March 13th, 2003. But no. George knows best.

There was one advantage to playing Jarra Scrabble however, inasmuch as whenever a word was played which was deemed an illegal move, you didn’t forfeit a turn. Instead – much more sporting and of course, ridiculous – you just picked up your tiles and tried again. So when blogs was refused, I tried with jabens. Then I plumped for bansh, followed by jashneb, shabjen and finally, shnja. Shnja was the straw that broke the camel’s back for George and he tossed down his tiles, refusing to play with people who simple weren’t going to try.

So Keith and I nipped out for another joint and by the time we got back, the Foster & Allen DVD was on.

It was called A Postcard From Ireland and it was quite possibly the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’d never seen Foster & Allen before, but I had seen Mulligan and O’Hare, Vic and Bob’s ludicrously coiffured man-breasted folk duo. Now I realise where they took their inspiration.

A Postcard From Ireland features 27 of Foster and Allen’s finest moments, most of which are lovingly illustrated with some of the cheapest, most poorly acted and badly constructed videos ever made. Embarrassing guff like this. And because we were a bit wrecked, and because what we watching was just so risible, and because we were in the presence of such arch puritanism, we just couldn’t help but take the piss a little. One of the first videos we saw was for a version of Lord of the Dance and featured Foster – or Allen, I can’t recall – walking like a sex offender amongst a group of local children, smiling and singing at them. ‘So let me get this straight,’ said Keith. ‘This dirty old man is being paid to hang around outside of schools, fondle his squeezebox and gurn at the kids? And he gets paid for this?’

‘He does look like a convicted paedophile,’ I said. ‘No disrespect intended, but I wouldn’t let him near my kids.’

‘Oh, God, now I remember! I read about these guys in the News of the World! They’re Satanists. They were exposed. They own a pub, and the cellar was full of all their Satanic regalia, loads of robes and horns and platinum dildos and children’s skulls.’

‘This video was banned in Ireland.’

‘That audience are all drugged and those children have been trepanned. Foster and Allen drilled holes in their heads to let the evil out, but then at the last minute, instead of letting evil out, they put more in.’

‘With their penises.’

‘They worship Baal. That man is only dancing with a brush because he knows that if he doesn’t, he’ll be sacrificed to Baal.’

And so on. In retrospect it wasn’t the most respectful behaviour, but Sylvia and Gordon were laughing, so we felt encouraged. Doreen was just ignoring us - I think she’d turned her hearing aid off – but George was fuming. Every comment we made was like a slap in Jesus’ face. Eventually he got up and went to bed without even saying goodnight. Then we stopped. And felt really bad.

It had been agreed that we would stay the night, although by the end of the evening I’m not sure we were really that welcome. But we stayed anyway, on a couple of foldaway beds in the study room, where there were lots of Readers’ Digest books and an old PC with a screeching modem. I decided to check my blog for comments which – I admit – is something I tend to do more than is probably healthy, so I switched on the PC and when it was finally ready, I started to type in the address. Which is when the strangest search history I’ve ever seen popped up in front of me.

Most of the pages which began with the letters be were for either benaughty.com or bestnudists.com. I’m not going to link to them, but please, feel free. I showed Keith. We were both very amused by this, but not particularly scandalised. They seemed like fairly innocuous pursuits for a pensioner with a penchant for porn. But then we typed in some other letters to see what else was hiding away in George’s internet history.

Clothesfreeforum.com seemed similarly innocent, almost sweet, as did spybeachbabes.com and maybe even secretvirgin.com. Well… maybe. But then there were others, which were clearly a little darker. Teenist.com for example. Younglittlegirls.com for another. And perhaps even more disturbing, privatebeast.com, where punters pay top dollar to see women having sex with horses and dogs. We went to a couple of the addresses to see what exactly we were dealing with here. Thankfully, Private Beast was just a couple of preview pages, pre-payment, giving you a glimpse of what to expect if you gave your credit card details. So it could have been fairly innocent surfing on George’s part. It could have been research, Pete Townshend-style. Ordinary, strictly legit fascination. Not very Christian certainly, but nothing to call the police about.

Except perhaps the page that came up when you clicked on the younglittlegirls.com link, which said ‘your account has expired’. Now I don’t know if younglittlegirls.com is a site dealing in child porn or merely a site trading on old men’s rather disturbing desires for very young-seeming flesh. And frankly, by this stage, both Keith and I decided that we didn’t want to know. I asked Keith if he would mention it to his dad, but he said he wouldn’t, because his dad would tell Sylvia, and Sylvia might tell her mum, and that might cause a lot of unnecessary upset and pain and turmoil. ‘It’s just some old bloke looking at porn,’ he said. ‘Mostly harmless,’ he added.

‘Should I clear the search history?’ I asked.

Keith shook his head. ‘Just leave it I reckon,’ he replied. ‘Turn it off and walk away. Maybe wash your hands.’

The next morning at breakfast, George was in superior mode, with great dollops of self-righteousness all over his face. He was dressed to the nines in preparation for church. And he had his best headmaster face on. Very unforgiving. There was an unpleasant atmosphere and conversation over the breakfast table ground to a halt. Eventually Doreen said, ‘I think you boys owe George an apology for last night. You said some things which… well, I won’t repeat them.’

Keith glanced at Sylvia who rolled her eyes at the ceiling and looked faintly embarrassed.

‘Oh, I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it,’ said Gordon. ‘it was just a bit of fun.’

‘No, Doreen’s right,’ said Keith. He looked across the table at George, and held his gaze. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I accused Foster & Allen of being paedophiles. That’s a very serious and not at all amusing allegation and I am genuinely sorry.’

‘I’m sorry too,’ I said. ‘We said some terrible things.’

George was nodding his head, but still scowling, as if we had a lot more grovelling to do before we would qualify for forgiveness.

I shook my head penitently. ‘Some of the things we said were barely legal,’ I said. Gordon looked at me quizzically.

‘I feel bad for what we said,’ said Keith.

‘It showed an embarrassing lack of respect,’ I added.

‘Pardon my French,’ said Keith, ‘but I feel like a horse’s cock for some of the things we said last night, I don’t mind telling you.’

As he stared at George, a wave of fury turned to something darker and washed slowly over the old man’s face, seemingly calming him. Keith held out his hand and apologised. George held out his hand and shook it. It was eerie. It was like someone was making a pact with the devil but it wasn't clear who. I shook George’s hand too and said I was also sorry. George looked to Doreen and said, ‘We better get going, love. We don’t want to be late.’ And after saying their goodbyes to Sylvia and Gordon, off they went to church.

As soon as the door was closed, Sylvia turned to Keith and said, ‘He’s still not cleared his history out then?’

Keith smiled, shook his head and poured more tea.

On the way back to London, Keith and I talked about getting old. We talked about the body breaking down. We said we didn't want to imagine George sitting at his PC, staring at young nudists and squeezing his 85-year old manhood, but we imagined it anyway. We talked about Newcastle and how depressing it was. Then we put all that behind us and talked about the future. We talked about fresh starts and a whole universe full of possibilities.

We talked about Spring.



We didn’t talk about paedophilia.

And we didn’t talk about MS.

It was a pleasant drive.

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18 comments:

suburbanhen said...

That's the actual scrabble board from the night? Because if it is, that's proper precious.

Michael said...

"phlegm-hawking, urine-soaked sex-pests"

That's a great turn of phrase, Stan!

I was going to tell you that you made a typo in referring to George as Sylvia's stepfather, but after the slightly sinister turn later in the post I'm not sure if I should!

Michael said...

Sorry, my mistake: I thought that they were George's parents. In Hillary Clinton terms I misread.
Time for sleep.

Lilith said...

Loved the scrabble board picture!
And the rest arent that bad either :)

Lilith.

lauren said...

such great writing, as always!

Wisewebwoman said...

What a great story!
Life is truly stranger than fiction.

Roszs Bif said...

Brilliant post as always, but don't be fooled by the apparent rubbishness of the north. We always do this off-putting stuff when Londoners visit, in case they all start moving here and putting the house prices up...

bittersweet said...

excellent writing - made my skin crawl.

having my cake said...

Part of me kept wanting to move onto another page that was more comfortable but I just had to keep reading. Great writing.

Hendo said...

I'm sorry but this blog is way too good for an amateur. Its either William Leith or Irvine Welsh.
It's superb anyway. Go Bete!

Tim Footman said...

Did George's cardigan have any good stains?

Penelope said...

How is it that you can turn a quick overnight trip and a game of Scrabble into such a fantastic story?!
At the risk of sounding like a true sycophant, you're bloody brilliant!

La Bête said...

No Hen, that was me mucking about a bit. Silly.

Cheers, Michael, Lilith, Lauren, Bitters and Cake. You are all very kind.

Bif, if that’s the case, it’s a brilliantly convincing deceit. You’re all bloody genii, manlike!

Hendo, you got me. I am Irvine Welsh. That’s why I’m living in Herne Hill writing university brochures. Thank you anyway.

Tim, no, he was actually impeccably clean, probably in a deliberate attempt to hide the stains within. Doreen however, was covered in stains. She called them ‘canteen medals’. Ugh.

Thank you, Penelope. Well, it took a while to be honest. But mostly… it's just a case of writing it down. There are stories all over the place I reckon. It’s just a matter of leaving the house and keeping an eye on the nutbags that you meet. And everyone’s nuts. 'Cept me of course.

Thomas said...

Great story, very funny and good to hear that you and Keith are getting along.

Made me feel, sort of fuzzy inside.

That old man's a wrong-un though.

Anonymous said...

Yes, I agree, Bete is brilliant, encore, we love you, yadda yadda....

Are you bored with us sycophants yet? We can keep it going, you know. We'll grind you down with our relentless praise, if you're not careful.

suburbanhen - Did you really think that was the actual scrabble board from the night, or are you just monkeying around with my brainbox?

La Bête said...

Wrong 'un indeed, Thomas. I take solace from the fact that he surely isn't long for this world. Then I feel a bit bad and think I've probably gone too far.

No, Anonymous! I need more! More I say! Praise me till I bleed!

suburbanhen said...

Well, that's why I asked, anon. Because if it is, then that'd be really hilarious. If it isn't, then it's just a little bit funny and slightly cute.
But I figured that because it has 'blog', 'ictic' and 'dzo' on it, it isn't. However, I thought I would politly check with Bete.
I'm not gullible, anon, just interested.
As an aside, you do sound a bit, er, bittah, as Kate Nash would say, anon.

Mr. Fermata said...

I praised myself till I bled once, but I'm older now. And gentler.

Excellent post.