by John Morrison


98: Springtime in Milltown

Spring has finally arrived in this little old milltown: a great relief for locals driven half crazy by another long Pennine winter. The trees around the old packhorse bridge are laden down with blossom. The hard-edged gritstone scene is softened - for a few days, at least - by pastel, cotton-candy colours; it's like being in a particularly sentimental Walt Disney cartoon. You half expect a flock of bluebirds to land on your shoulder and trill in three-part harmony.

And the trees are filled with songbirds, their little chests puffed out with springtime fervour. What they are actually singing about is anyone's guess. Perhaps it's a heartfelt paean of love, from a cock bird to his mate, as she patiently sits on the nest and incubates a clutch of eggs. Or perhaps it's something rather more prosaic, like "This is my tree... fuck off". Who knows for sure?

After so many weeks of unrelieved gloom, the spring sunshine penetrates the darkest recesses of our homes. Milltown folk inspect their unsavoury surroundings, to see what havoc has been wreaked by another winter of household neglect. Squalor shames us into action, leaving us with difficult choices: like, should we clean the cooker, or just move house? In preparation for a bout of spring cleaning, the contents of terraced houses are decanted into diminutive front yards. It's at this point that our resolve generally falters. The tasks that confront us seem too big; we can't even decide where to start. This is why rubbish tends to stay piled up in yards all around Milltown... sometimes for years.

Willow Woman surveys the cobweb-strewn corners of her own little house in Hippy Street. She moves the sofa to see what's underneath, then moves it back again quickly. She waves a feather duster around, without much enthusiasm, succeeding only in whipping up the dust in clouds. Over recent months a deep layer of dust has helped to lag pipes, stop draughts and impart a silvery bloom to the pile of unread feng shui books. But now the dust seems to dance in the rays of light. It's Disney dust.

You could eat a meal off the carpet in Willow Woman's front room. You could; you just wouldn't want to. With its lumpy texture and intriguing collection of stains, it already resembles a gigantic pizza. She lays sheets of newspaper down, in preparation for slapping some paint on the walls. It seems pointless: a few splashes of off-white emulsion would just look like mozzarella.

The only time that the Milltown Times looks even remotely interesting is when it's spread out on the floor, and there's a job that urgently needs doing. Paintbrush in hand, Willow Woman scans the scattered pages and nods approvingly. Eve Currier, the paper's new editor, seems to have a firm hand on the tiller. Taking a lint-free cloth to the paper's tarnished reputation, she's burnished it until it gleams. She quickly replaced that tired old masthead ('Petulantly parochial... and proud of it') with something that more accurately reflects the paper's aspirations at the dawning of a new millennium: 'The Milltown Times: about as good as you thought it would be'. And if the stories tend to go round in ever-decreasing circles... well, that's what life is like in a small town.

The harsh spring light makes a searching examination of our lives too, with rather more clarity than we either need or want. We feel a strong urge to shake ourselves out of our winter lethargy. And, with our failings and foibles mercilessly exposed, spring seems a good time to take stock. Of course, those who have come to the conclusion that the world is just an unprincipled dung-heap will naturally want to be on the top. But for those who believe that the world is full of magic and wonder, scrabbling to the summit doesn't have quite the same kind of desperate urgency. There are sights to cheer the most jaded soul. Minor miracles and tiny epiphanies of everyday life. Like the tiny shiver of pleasure on seeing a Range Rover in a long-stay car-park, that's been left with its lights on.

Most Milltown folk know that in the audit of life they're either adding - however minutely - to the sum of human happiness... or they're detracting from it. It's good to balance the books on an annual basis, instead of waiting for the final reckoning. Spring is, thankfully, a time of optimism when, for a few blissful days, anything seems possible.

A lot of hare-brained schemes are hatched at this time of year. After a few beers the idea of opening a shop can seem quite appealing. A mind befuddled by drink finds it easy to foresee a ready market for didgeridoos, or dolls' houses, or kinetic sculptures made entirely of ear wax. These notions generally dissipate in a few hours, like the morning mist that clings to the valley on spring mornings. Here in Milltown, however, such ideas have a nasty way of becoming reality. So every few weeks a new shop - called Tinky Winky, Hanky Panky or something equally fatuous - will open its doors, with a muted fanfare and a cartload of misplaced optimism. Only to close again soon after, leaving the ex-retailers broke, disillusioned and shell-shocked. That's what they say around here: from open-toed sandals to open-toed sandals in, oh, about six weeks.

We feel a little proprietorial about the shambling figure who is making halting progress around the town. He may be a drunk but, by golly, he's our drunk. As he stands unsteadily on the old packhorse bridge, watching yesterday's supper drifting downstream like a miniature oil-slick, Town Drunk wonders where his life has gone. He's unimpressed with the whole meaningless charade. Why bother taking your clothes off when you go to bed, he wonders... you've only got to put them on again next morning. Why wash... you'll only get grubby again. It's a reductive philosophy that's bound to end badly. That way madness lies.

Respectable parents shield their childrens' eyes as he staggers past, thus giving alcohol an unwarranted air of mystery and romance in their impressionable young minds. It's true that Town Drunk doesn't feel he's had a proper night out unless he ends up attached to a saline drip. But he hasn't always been a figure of fun, an intoxicated buffoon. There was a time - though he can barely remember it now - when he had a job, a house of his own and the love of a good woman. You wouldn't guess to look at him today but, convinced that there was, indeed, safety in numbers, Town Drunk was once in the banking business. As a counter clerk, he was unfailingly helpful and courteous to the customers of the Milltown Savings and Loan Bank; yes, that's how long it's been since he last held down a proper job. Neither a borrower nor a lender be: that was his motto... which helps to explain why his career in banking was cut so cruelly short.

Town Drunk had even had a girlfriend... well, a girlfriend in the sense that she didn't need batteries. It was a novel experience to be approached by a woman who wasn't a store detectives. The relationship was never easy. His paramour took sexual indifference to unseemly lengths, thereby creating an early, pioneering example of cold fusion. Sex, for her, was like being chased by a lion. If she lay still, and played dead, maybe it would just sniff her and leave her alone.

There were many aspects of their relationship that she was reluctant to explore... mostly on sound medical grounds. Town Drunk asked her to do things that not only weren't much fun, but which were still capital offences on the Isle of Man. Sexual pecadillos deemed insanitary even by our more adventurous cabinet ministers, unless there was a tub of calamine lotion conveniently to hand.

She took it upon herself to save Town Drunk from himself: always a thankless task. She tried to steer him away from his interest in projectile vomiting, and to show him that life could be different without drinking to excess: boring, in fact. It wasn't to last. By the time the relationship had unravelled, it was as though they spoke different languages. While he muddled through in English, she used the whistles and clicks of an obscure East African patois. Town Drunk never really got over the trauma. He still bears the scars: carpet burns, mostly. When his doctor told him to drink Canada Dry, he went and did exactly that. No wonder he's ended up inside a bottle.

As another day reaches its end, Wounded Man watches the sun go down. The river is transformed into a ribbon of light, rippling beneath the old packhorse bridge. The characters retreat back into the shadows, and the lights of Milltown twinkle like constellations of orange stars. He gazes at the outline of the old packhorse bridge, until it merges into the twilight and he can see it no longer.

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