Young dog and hard rocking – Candlemas? (9,3)
Emergency band practice this evening, picking over the wreckage of Wednesday. Much time is wasted as we debate whether to send the 21st Century Schizoid Men a condolences card on the death of the Sage himself, Greg Lake, yesterday. At least his end was a little more dignified than that of the other members of Emerson, Lake and Powell.
When at last we pick up our instruments, my impersonation of Bill Wyman is spot on. Not Bill as he was in his swaggering, insouciant youth but Bill as he is now, aged 80, his gnarly fingers unable to complete the simplest of riffs. Rumour has it that my band are looking for a new bass player and I’m not even dead yet. Stig, in particular, deserves to be playing with proper musicians and I know he hates the Stones stuff. Doom metal remains his first love. If Candlemass need a nyckelharpa player for their latest reunion, he’ll be on the first plane to Stockholm.
We knock off early because Phil is off to dinner with his prospective in-laws. Mastermind is just finishing when I get back to the ranch.
“How about getting Groundhog Day on NetFlix?” I suggest as I slump onto the sofa.
“What, again?” grumbles Dad. “We must have seen it 27 times.”
“Like Phil Connors, you must learn to enjoy the repetition.”
“In my day, we watched movies just once, unless they turned up twenty years later on television, in which case we might see them twice.”
“Well, it’s not your day any more, thank God.”
And so we spend the rest of our Friday night curled up on the settee, anticipating all the jokes, chuckling too early, remembering all the other times since 1993 that we have done exactly the same thing. A whole packet of chocolate digestives disappears down our gullets.
I show Dad a book I have picked up from the public library, The Wisdom of Groundhog Day: How to improve your life one day at a time, by Paul Hannam. It looks at how history repeats itself, one day at a time, in our humdrum diurnal lives and how we can break free from negative repetitions, just as Phil the Weatherman eventually does.
I do not tell him the real reason why I am reading it.
There is a French proverb: sur la Chandeleur, l’hiver se termine ou renforce. Will my own life be terminated on 30th December or will I somehow be reborn? It is the Punxsutawney Paradox. Or the Gawain-dilemma. But Sir Gawain had led a life of virtue and restraint. I have not.
I have exactly three weeks left. The axeman is sharpening his blade in some green grotto. But how can I be so certain that I will die three weeks today? You deserve to know. I have held off from telling you the truth because I know you will not believe me. I fear your laughter. Please be gentle with me.
It was amongst the hottest June days of my adolescence and I was one of a gang of giggling schoolboys who had gone to the Hoppings Fair on Newcastle Town Moor. It was every bit as tawdry as you would expect but carried a hamburgery whiff of danger about it. One or two of my 15-year-old frat-pack took the opportunity to smoke and most of us nursed cans of Special Brew, smuggled in on the bus or requisitioned from an adjacent off-licence. Just grateful that my voice had finally broken, I was far too square and obedient to indulge in any such vice at that age. Nonetheless I pretended to be one of the lads and they indulged the illusion on condition that I adopted a strictly subservient role at all times and only spoke when I was spoken to.
Not much had changed since 1981 when Mark Knopfler wrote ‘Tunnel of Love’ (although the Spanish City references suggest a Whitley Bay setting rather than the Toon itself) – the carousel and the carnival arcades, the neon burning up above the big wheel, the roar of dust and diesel. But only one of us would-be sultans of swing had a girl to take down the tunnel and it wasn’t me. I remember we cheered the hopeful swain and his spotty paramour on their way. Lucky bastard.
Close by the impossibly glamorous tunnel was the ramshackle entrance to a more modest money-spinner. ‘Solomon Sage’ – that was all the sign said, as though it was somehow obvious what service might be proffered therein.
“Is he a fortune-teller?” a lad called Tony asked the hatchet-faced woman at the turnstile. She laughed derisively.
“It’s the real thing, sonny,” she said. “Solomon Sage knows your whole life-story. But are you brave enough to hear it?”
We laughed, of course. But one of our number, an earnest lad called John Harrison, fished a 50p coin out of his pocket and, after extracting a promise that the rest of us would wait for him, crossed the threshold into the wizard’s cave.
The big wheel kept on turning and we watched promises being made in the shooting galleries. Eventually John, perhaps my closest friend at the time, emerged looking decidedly ashen-faced. Naturally, we pressed him for his verdict but he seemed too shocked to speak. At last he recovered some power of communication.
“Quite impossible! Knew my name, my date of birth, my family, my school, everything!”
We agreed that this was quite impossible but John was adamant.
“He knew my past, my present … and my future.”
“So what is your future?” Tony asked.
“I … I promised I wouldn’t tell anyone. You’ve got to give it a go, really you have. I dare you to …”
And like a fool, I did, although not before all the others had taken a turn and it would have been embarrassing not to. One by one my pals trooped out looking dazed and confused. There was no hiding place; I too had to take my turn with Mr Solomon Sage.
The booth was surprisingly large once you got inside. The mysterious Mr Sage sat behind a simple table but there was no crystal ball. Instead there was a bookcase full of dusty tomes, so old that you could not read anything on the spines. Mr Sage was no gypsy with earrings and tattoos. He looked like everyone’s favourite uncle, with a straggly grey beard and a welcoming smile.
“Sit down, Mr Hogg, what can I do for you?”
I mumbled something by way of reply or greeting and I must have asked him how he knew my name was Hogg.
“I know many things about you, Mr Hogg. Your name is Alan Alexander Hogg and you were named after the children’s author, A. A. Milne.”
“Well, that’s not quite true …” I began.
“Although you also have family relatives with those names. Would you like me to tell you when you were born? It was February 2nd 1988. Candlemas, in fact. And Groundhog Day. Didn’t the film of that name come out on your fifth birthday?”
I was almost too stunned to speak.
“My favourite movie!” I spluttered at last. “How do you know all these things?”
Solomon Sage looked at me for a moment, as if judging whether I was capable of keeping a secret.
“Some of it is in my head and some is written in these books.”
He fingered several leather-bound volumes before pulling one out from the shelf. In a matter of seconds he had found the page he was looking for.
“Ah, here we are, Alex. Your past, your present and your future.”
“But how do you know my future? How can you know anyone’s future?”
“This is a book from the future, Alex. It comes from a future when all information is everywhere, when everything that has ever occurred can be recovered and replayed.”
“But how can you have a book from the future?” I insisted.
“Our time together is short, Alex. Are you sure you want to spend that time asking such questions? I don’t think you would believe me if I told you.”
“What does your book say about my future then?”
“I will have a look …”
I watched him as he scanned the text, jumping quickly from page to page. His shirt-cuffs were frayed and his hands shook slightly as he gripped the book, shielding its contents from me. After thirty seconds or so, he pulled down another book and continued reading, shaking his head slightly. I was conscious that my allotted time was running out.
“Please, Mr Sage,” I said. “I’d like to know!”
“There are a few things that it cannot do any harm to tell you. You will do very well in your examinations and you will win a place at Oxford University where you will study literature.”
“Indeed so. But you will find that the study of literature does not offer you an easy path into the world of work. It will take you a long time before you find what you want to do.”
“So I won’t be a professional footballer?”
“I’m sorry, Alex. You will not be a professional footballer.” He closed the book with a smile.
“Is that all you can tell me? Surely there is more. How long will I live for?” I was desperately trying to prolong the consultation and had not thought the question through.
“That is not the sort of thing any man should know.”
I should have let the matter rest there but I would not. I begged him to tell me how long I had to live, insisting I had a right to know the truth. He looked at his watch and swatted my entreaties away but still I would not give in.
“Very well,” he said at last. “But you must promise that you will never tell a soul these secrets. It will be very bad for you, if you do.”
I promised. It is a promise I am now breaking but, if I am to die, what does it matter anyway? Solomon Sage looked me in the eye. He seemed to be searching for some evidence that I could be trusted with the truth. Finally, with the deepest of sighs, he answered my question.
“The story of your life ends on the thirtieth of December, 2016. That is what the book says.”
“But how? How will it all end?”
“You want to know too much. No man should know the manner of his own end. Beware of water, Alex. That is all I will say.”
“No! I have said too much. There are people waiting. Enjoy your life, Alex. It will contain many good things!”
He snapped the book shut and with that our interview was over. I stumbled out into the glare of the fairground lights. I had opened Pandora’s box, eaten of the fruit of the forbidden tree. Like a modern Prometheus, I had stolen the secrets of the gods. Solomon Sage had not wanted to tell me any of this and yet I had badgered him into giving me a date. Of course, it was all nonsense, some sort of legerdemain, I decided. And, for a 15-year-old, 2016 seemed a long, long way off, plenty of time to laugh off these ridiculous prophecies.
It was clear that the rest of my accomplices had had similar experiences, although each was true to his promise. Hardly a word was said. Somehow our appetite for the Wall of Death had shrivelled to nought and it was not long before we slunk off into the cold Geordie night.
I went back the following year. I would have words with Mr Solomon Sage. I didn’t know what those words would be, but there would be words. I would grab one of his books and read it for myself. But there was to be no more wisdom of Solomon. Next to the Tunnel of Love, there was only the opportunity to throw ping-pong balls at goldfish bowls, in hopes of winning a stuffed toy. I asked the lady on the stall whether she knew of somebody called Solomon Sage and she just shrugged her shoulders. I began to doubt my own memories – had I somehow hallucinated the whole thing?
When the time came, I told my parents that I wanted to apply to Cambridge, not Oxford. What, after all these years of cheering for the Dark Blues in the Boat Race, my father asked? I could not tell him the reason why. There was a brief stand-off because he had already warned one or two of the folks at University College to expect my application. I should have stuck to my guns, made a futile application to Cambridge and settled for three years at some red-brick alternative. But there was a part of me which wanted those predictions to come true. Winning a place at a top university was not my birthright. I had worked quite hard to give myself a chance of getting in to Oxford and I was determined not to be side-tracked by some fairground chicanery, especially if my father’s connections might tip the balance. The application was made, the place was won.
If chicanery it was, I never discovered Solomon Sage’s secret, nor did I ever see the man again. I’ve Googled the name – it’s as if he never existed. The only Solomon Sage in history (the son, appropriately enough, of David Sage and Bathsheba Judd) was born on August 18th 1737 in Middletown, Connecticut. Profession? Time traveller.
No, I made that bit up. And yet every word that Solomon said was true. There is only one pronouncement left to be verified.
What, you don’t believe me? Of course you don’t. You are far too sophisticated to give this nonsense any credence. To tell the story at all leaves me open to ridicule, so you can understand my reluctance to confide in even my closest friends and family. 2017 will be my judge. You can laugh at me all you like then. Look, there he is, the man who believed in the power of prophecy, still embarrassingly alive. And if Drowned Hogg Day passes without incident, I will be laughing too. I would love to be proved wrong.