25. You only get a whooo with Ty-phoo


The circular ambulation of the besieged five gave the feeling that escape was all but impossible, and that only a death-defying gesture, like climbing a 100-foot cliff without safety harnesses, could grant you freedom. Mountaineering remained an option and Peter O’Toole was living proof that the rock face could be conquered. Directions? Find the German graves where Mark E Smith had defecated, spot the wrecked car in the tree and the decomposing scaffolder, and you can’t miss it.

Pots and pans collecting rainwater reflected the light that was wildly flickering from the upstairs window, its strobe effect making the entrance of Hangingbrow Hall resemble a chamber of mind torture from Michael Caine’s The Ipcress File. As if on cue, the precipitation picked up its familiar tempo and the well-exercised party, by now drenched, cold and dishevelled, descended into defeated depression.

“Can you imagine if Peter O’Toole’s in there already?” Brian Clough found the energy to joke. “It wouldn’t surprise me, y’know. I just hope he’s passed a corner shop and bought us all a nice tin of rice pudding.”

Tony Wilson characteristically placed his hand over his bowed head, as he often did in a plight, astounded that he was still in the depths of a crisis that ought to have been resolved itself many, many hours ago. “Well, I say we take our chances outdoors,” he suggested, pushing his saturated hair back. “I’m reminded of that great novel One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. You know, the one about the prisoner in a gulag. ‘You should rejoice that you’re in prison. Here, you have time to think about your soul.’ That’s putting a positive spin on all this.”

Geoff Boycott waved the quote away as if bothered by a cloud of midges. Not one for oversentimentalising any situation, he stoically announced, “Well, I’ve got to go indoors, I’ve no choice. My contact lens solution is on fireplace and I need to get these devils out my eyes, otherwise my pupils might dry up.”

In a vile mood, Mark E Smith picked up a rainwater-filled soup bowl from the ground and took a long slurp. Fuelled by the acrid nausea of nicotine withdrawal, it tasted like a compost heap. He glowered then emptied the water onto the grass and lobbed the earthenware like a frisbee in the direction of the light show in the upstairs window. The accuracy surprised even The Fall frontman and the pane exploded like an iceberg that had been struck by an out-of-control UFO on one of Jupiter’s moons. Instantly, the room fell into darkness and peace prevailed.

“What’re yer playin’ at, lad?” Boycott snarled.

“I don’t have to answer to you or anyone else,” Smith angrily replied. “I should’ve gone up that fuckin’ bluff with O’Toole. I’d have found a garage within half an hour, swiped a pack of smokes and been ’appy as a sandboy. Let’s get in there. I’m gonna get leathered at the World War II Oddbins.”

A sudden swooping sound brought frowns of misunderstanding before a flat crack was heard, as if a spoon had struck a hard-boiled egg.

“Aaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!” screamed Smith. “Aaaaaaahhhhhhh!”

“What the hell’s happening now?” Clough called out. “Are we under attack?”

“I’ve been hit!” Smith danced, placing his hand over his forehead. “GBH! That bastard up there’s thrown the fuckin’ dish back at me! That’s twice now! Twice! It’ll be middle class!”

Wilson leapt to the assistance of his fellow Lancastrian while fighting the strong desire to let out a long, hard laugh. “Well, he’s bleeding,” Wilson confirmed, and then firmly placed his lips together, imprisoning a smile that desired to be freed. “Almost pointless in asking, but has anybody brought plasters?”

To Wilson’s astonishment Boycott replied, “I might ’ave, in me bag.”

With steely resignation, Healy let out an audible groan and said, “OK, let’s shift him inside and get him patched up, shall we?”

The door to Hangingbrow Hall was still ajar from their earlier rapid exit. Of course, neither of them had expected they’d ever return so what was the point of shutting it? Boycott’s lower-case “b” pushed to 90 degrees mouth was an effective tool to convey both happiness and resentment, and it was now utilised for the latter. He tugged the door handle to allow himself and his bag an easier entrance and the hinges let out a now-recognisable ghastly whine. The five resignedly shuffled across the threshold, through the entrance passageway and into the gruesome interior of the pitch-black main hall.

“Tim, can you get the light, darling?” Wilson asked, leading his patient by the arm.

Healy fell short of rolling his eyes but quietly responded, “Yes sir, no sir, three bags full sir,” and flicked the Bakelite toggle. The chandelier bzzzzzzz’ed into dim life and the gang were presented with one of the most desolate scenes any star of sport or television could ever have the misfortune to witness.

The Factory Records co-founder located the stool that had previously acted as a wicket in Geoff Boycott’s unnecessary cricket match and prompted Smith to sit and remove his hand from his forehead. There was a fair amount of blood but that was to be expected with a cut at the eyebrow. Boycott unzipped his bag and passed Wilson a grey sock to mop up the blood.

“It’s laundered,” Boycott reminded.

Wilson gently wiped Smith’s forehead and saw a small curved red line that, normally, might require a stitch or two. “You’ve had worse after a night at the Red Lion playing dominoes,” Wilson commented.

“Ooooh, Matron,” Smith grinned, which brought a release-of-tension guffaw from the gathered crew.

While Wilson administered Boycott’s wide collection of Elastoplast adhesive dressings, Clough scraped at the ashes in the fire with his sodden shoe end.

“Homely as this shit heap can never be,” Clough announced, “we need some wood, and when our patient here has been discharged from Hangingbrow General, that stool can be used to get the fire going. Then we need to find an axe and bring some of that tree down from outside. You know, the one that looks like it’s climbing out of the ground and wants to tear someone in two. That bugger has some low branches on it that we can lop off.”

Boycott wasn’t completely at ease with this plan and his mouth stiffened. “Well…” he began.  “That stool. It’s useful wickeeet is that, Bri. What if we wanted a knock-abart in mornin’?”

Clough looked at Boycott with disbelief. “Knock-about?” he questioned, and shook his big head. “Eeeeh, Geoffrey, you’ll be the death of me you will!”

“Admit it,” argued Boycott, “if you ’ad football ’ere or a set of five-a-side posts, they’d not be going up in flames this evenin’. You’d be savin’ ’em. They’re things of beauty. Precious items.”

Clough gave the statement considerable thought, narrowed his eyes and placed a balled fist to his lips. “I see your point Geoffrey, but these are extenuating circumstances,” Clough insisted.

But Boycott was resolute: “We’ll keep stool. Let Smithy ’ere ’ave his seat by fire to recuperate. Anyway, I’ve got a spare set of stumps in me bag that’ll easily catch light. I can’t see we’ll find grass smooth enough to play on anytime soon round ’ere and I can easily replace these next time I’m in trainin’. Let’s use them instead. Masking tape can be us kindlin’ and Smithy’s 1940s cook’s matches are still on mantelpiece, look, by my lens solutions.”

Totally disassociating himself from the ludicrous conversation playing out, Healy reacquainted himself with the nefarious surroundings and slowly strolled along the perimeter of the main hall. The desperation of their situation was prominent in his mind, a clanking bell alerting him to danger that they must escape from. There was the Shredded Wheat box-covered window, the absent window pane that had felt the full brunt of Boycott’s exemplary boundary, the discarded curtains and sheets that had been used for their fitful hour’s sleep the night before, and, most malicious, the skeletal dead bodies partially dangling from the wall, bones knitted together so that, whoever these people once were, however desperate their demise, they were forever held upright in a perpetual crowd panic, jaws agape, amid the beetle-infested wall cavity.

With trepidation, Healy approached the breached wall of death in which he’d earlier become entangled and there, through the shin and ankle bones, spotted Boycott’s walloped cricket ball. On close inspection, the trapped menagerie of empty eye sockets, loose teeth and spindly fingers were dressed in rotting rags, clothes from history that had now been released into the futuristic neon-lit Eighties. Healy wracked his brain to figure out why such a fate had befallen so many sorry souls. Were they a bunch of wild criminals, executed nearby for stealing livestock or setting fire to a barn? These were the Debatable Lands after all, the narrow strip of territory on the Anglo-Scottish border that was inhabited by brigands, many of whom ended life on a rope. Healy’s memory plucked the term “Jeddart justice” from the deepest depths of his mind, where trials would take place after the execution. How do I know that? Healy wondered, before remembering his school trip to Jedburgh in the mid-Sixties. While eating Dairylea sandwiches and supping red-fizz Tizer from a tin, his teacher would have supplied historical knowledge and Healy’s young sponge of a brain soaked up the details.

“Anything in there we can burn?” Clough asked.

“Corpses and that’s about it,” Healy replied. “Might need gloves to drag this lot out of the wall, though, eh, if they’re going on the fire.”

“Well, you’ve got gloves!” Clough pointed out.

Healy was baffled. Was Clough joking or not? And then realised that the football manager just liked to see people busy. Surely, if there was a line of order to get the hearth aglow, paintings and curtains would come before decomposed bodies.

Primarily concerned with alcoholic consumption, Smith rose from the stool and blinked ostentatiously to test his eyesight. His brow was already undergoing an aurora borealis of colour change behind the sticking plasters, turning from blue to purple, mixed with the seeping red of blood. To his relief, he found his vision to be adequate for his purposes and he wandered towards Healy, focusing on the skulls with cheerless wonder.

“For mash get Smash!” Smith ventured with a monotone timbre. “This lot look like them instant-potato robots. I sometimes wondered if they kept packets in their cargo hold while racin’ round our solar system, introducing alien species to kettles and whathavya, giving 7p off vouchers to troglodytes on distant worlds.”

“That was some shot by our Geoffrey,” Clough beamed, marvelling at the wanton destruction, and then turned to Healy. “I still think you should’ve caught the bloody thing. We would’ve had him out.”

“You know the word bonfire?” Wilson spoke, apropos of nothing. “Any idea where it comes from? No? I’ll tell you. A lot of people would think it was French. Y’know, good fire. But they’d be wrong. It comes from ‘bone fire’, a fire of bones. Ignis ossium. Back in the time of the Celts, they’d burn animal bones to ward of evil spirits.”

“I wouldn’t have thought so,” Boycott disregarded. Wilson attempted to clarify his statement as fact but Boycott was not to be outwitted. “I reckon it’s more to do wi’ Bonfire Night, from the 1600s when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament. Beats me why they’d try and celebrate a near disaster, but Bonfire Night started the next year.”

“They had bonfires before Bonfire Night,” Smith cut in. “There were tons of pagan festivals. Anyway, I’ve read into this and when a body gets cremated, skeleton survives. Bones have to get crushed afterwards, which turns ’em into ash. Cos you wouldn’t want to fling fragments of your Aunty Gladys’s pelvic region onto the centre circle at Maine Road, would you? Paul Power’s got enough to contend with as it is.”

Clough frowned. “You’ve defeated Anthony’s argument there. He told us the word bonfire comes from bone fires, and yet you’ve just said that bones don’t burn. So what’s it to be? You can’t have it both ways, clever clogs.”

“Maybe animal bones burn better than human ones,” Healy put forward.

“Bones are bones, surely,” an exasperated Boycott said. “Apart from birds, which are ’ollow. And cuttlefish, which are made out of… I don’t know, cuttle.”

“We put chicken bones on our fire after we’ve ’ad our tea,” Smith spoke. “They don’t half crackle. And guess what? We’ve ’ad no evil spirits in the house. Wilson’s been nowhere near, have you?”

“I came across this magazine, y’knaa, a periodical,” Healy added. “Bit part. It was called The Unexplained, and I read about this thing called spontaneous human combustion, where, for no apparent reason, bodies catch light. Funnily enough, I think the magazine was aimed at kids, like.”

“I saw that in our papershop,” Smith recalled. “Mysteries Of Mind, Space & Time! I had a flick through the one about UFOs. It’s funny that aliens always want to shove probes up our arses.”

“There’s nothing new about spontaneous human combustion,” Wilson added. “Charles Dickens wrote about it in Bleak House. Remember Mr Krook? He’s a drunk, a rag-and-bone man. He consumes so much gin that he practically breathes alcohol fumes. Guppy and Mr Weevle discover his ashes and it’s thought that he burnt from the inside out, but it’s also suggested that greed has fuelled the flames.”

“You’re a lot like someone from a Dickens novel, Wilson,” Smith added.

Wilson half-smiled at the sentiment. “You’re totally right, of course. In a way I’m like a Dickens hero. All his protagonists are nobodies who know loads of wacky people. And that’s me. I know all these far-out people and creative people, and I stand in the middle telling the story. And let’s not forget that Hard Times is set in Coketown, a North-west urban environment with the air of Manchester about it.”

“It’s Preston,” Smith commented.

“That’s debatable,” Wilson fired back. “But what is certain is that now we’re seeing a return to Dickens’s world of Gradgrind and Bounderby, where a reliance on facts is overpowering the imagination of youth. Dickens visited Manchester’s factories and was horrified by what he saw. Horrified.”

Brass was based on Hard Times, you know,” Smith enlightened. “British telly at its best, that. Sometimes I think Channel 4 might not be such a bad force. Bradley Hardacre as Maggie Thatcher’s 1920s business lie dream.”

Boycott was ready to expound on the fact that, if anything, cows should spontaneously combust more often, being, as they were, vigorous manufacturers of methane, but a sudden draught chilled the gathered five and they each instinctively turned to face the source.

By the fireplace, suspended a foot or two above the ground, could be seen the soft-focus outline of a gently glowing human figure, floating with no sound and light as a feather. Healy recognised the entity as the old lady he’d witnessed in the corridor the night before and he involuntarily gulped with alarm.

A tinny voice, as if from an ancient gramophone recording, scalded, “Sssshhhh, you’re waking the children.”

A moment passed as the floating apparition regarded the wide-eyed strangers across the dusty expanse of the hall.

“Where are the children, love?” Clough called out.

“Upstairs, of course,” the spectre responded and let out a sigh. “In bed. As should you be at this hour!”

“What are their names?” Wilson followed, allaying fear to collate information.

There was no response to this. The lady dithered by the hearth, in two minds about which direction she should travel.

“Where’s master of ’ouse, Twisteaux?” Smith called to her.

The ghost slowly glanced across to the songwriter. “He’ll be busy downstairs.”

“Downstairs?” Clough asked and slowly ventured forwards. “What’s downstairs, love?”

Again there was no reply.

“I’ll bet you’re worked off your bloody feet keeping this place running,” Clough coaxed. “Those three kids’ll think the bloody world of you.”

“They are such lovely children,” the lady replied – and floated, floated.

“Any chance of a cup of tea?” Boycott blurted.

The phantom’s face melted at this proposition and the doting childminder’s head transformed into a cloaked skull. She reared with spite and inflated with anger like a set of window nets caught in a gale. “Tea? Teeeaaaaa?” the ghost proclaimed. “Get your owwwwnnnn teeeeaaaaaa!” Reminiscent of a Dan Air BAC 1-11 departing Manchester Ringway, the apparition rose with a sucking roar, cleared the heads of Boycott, Wilson, Smith and Healy and vanished through the wall, leaving behind a constellation of glittery sparkles that grew dim and then disappeared.

“Any chance of a cup of tea?” Healy squinted and shook his head. “Of all the questions ya could’ve asked?”

“I surprised meself to be ’onest,” Boycott admitted. “With all this damned tiredness, I’d forgotten we were conversin’ wi’ dearly departed. Wi’ most women I come across when in a stranger’s ’ome, I ask for ’ot beverage. I make no apology for that.”

“Cold beverage anyone?” Smith smirked.

Go to Chapter 26: Come and play, everything’s a-OK.