The Ancient Greeks, always preferring gut-wrenching tragedy over soppy happy-ever-after, would thoroughly approve. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that Berwick is being toyed with as a plaything; that our menopausal town, tired and knackered with its prolapsed cobbles and varicose vennels, is having its chin hair capriciously teased by unseen deities. In the Underworld, around an Olympian-sized table in an Olympian-sized boardroom, we are being discussed in the same manner as Per Una’s disappointing sales at Marks & Spencer.
“Right then,” says Hades, tapping his teeth with his pen. “Leaving the current Greek financial crisis to one side for the minute – nice work by the way, Nemesis, that’ll teach them to drop us like a mucky bandage – I want you all to turn to item 13 on the agenda: Berwick-upon-Tweed.”
Hades casts his eye around the boardroom. “Well?” he says. “Suggestions?”
Nobody says anything. Thanatos clears an uneasy throat while Eris plays with some paperclips. Hypnos develops a sudden fascination with his fingernails.
“Nothing?” Hades demands at length. “My mightiest of minions and not one of you can come up with anything to bring this benighted town to its knees by crushing all hope, strangling optimism, and water-boarding satisfaction and wellbeing?”
Moros raises a tentative hand. “We could continue with the financial ruination theme. It is quite big at the moment.”
Hades fixes Moros with a gaze sharp enough to skewer and blunt enough to hurt. “Wake up and smell the charred virgins, Moros. This is a town that already boasts Home Bargains, Bonmarché, and Pound Stretcher. I think we can safely say it’s financially ruined already. C’mon guys, let’s have a bit of blue sky thinking.”
“We used to be really good at this sort of stuff,” sighs Moros, holding a lost soul by its leg and absently pulling off an arm. “Meddling in the affairs of humans used to be fun. But now… well, now it’s all about the shareholders. There’s no room for creativity.”
“Speak for yourself,” Apate purrs, pouting at her reflection in her compact. “Some of us never lose it.”
“I meant to ask you,” Hades frowns. “Just how did you manage to persuade that tapeworm to ticket all those cars outside Berwick Parish Church on Sunday?”
“Oh, same old, same old. Seduced by the lure of power. I simply promised him a polyester uniform and a lanyard.” She flashes a modest dimple and tucks her hair behind one coquettish wing. “I said if he did really well I would grant him a hi-vis jacket. He nearly wet himself.”
“It’s a golden fleece for council workers.”
Eris sneers in derision. “Oh, whoop-di-bloody-doo! One soul, Pat, you ensnared one tiny, insignificant soul; it hardly makes you Simon-freakin-Cowell. I think, sweetheart, that Hades is thinking more of the big picture, capiche?” He pauses momentarily. “Don’t think for one moment I didn’t see that hand gesture.”
Hades stands up and begins to pace, the pinstripe of his suit thrumming with tension. “Actually, what we need,” he growls, “is to think—”
“Big!” agrees Eris happily.
“The devil is, as they say, in the detail.”
There is a cough from the door. “Sorry, I’m late. I missed the last ferry.”
“You are the last bloody ferry, Charon, you muppet,” yawns Hypnos. “Don’t tell us – the traffic was murdered.”
Charon slides into a vacant chair. On his lap perches a Superdrug carrier bag from which he draws a notepad. He carefully places it on the table and taps it.
“Here,” he breathes. “It’s all in here. By the time we’ve finished with Berwick-upon-Tweed, all happiness will be vanquished and the hopelessness of mortal existence exalted. Their tourist trade will be ruined forever.” He stops and frowns as if he’s forgotten something. “Oh yes,” he says, remembering. “Mwah-ha-ha.”
Hades is still pacing. He shows no sign of having heard.
“It’s a merry-go-round,” beams Charon expectantly.
Hades doesn’t respond.
“Yknow? A carousel?”
The other minions snigger but Charon ignores them because they had all laughed at Susan Boyle as well, but he had known; he had always known.
“It’s a roundabout – the universal symbol of the fun of life. The power of a roundabout brings succour to all; joy and harmony to those who seek it. Everyone loves a roundabout.”
There’s a murmur of agreement.
“But nevertheless, Chaz,” Moros explains, “you’re straying off-message. We’re trying to make a Berwick life one of despair and desperation. If we go giving people random funfair rides, they’ll want to live forever. Basically, you’ll be screwing yourself out of a job.”
Charon leans forward, his eyes glittering. “Listen. We get a mini carousel not a full-size one, no. We need to create both adult resentment at the maximum height restriction, and guilt if they think of refusing their child a ride thus depriving their own offspring of some complicated misremembered childhood idyll.”
“Nice,” murmurs Apate.
“Then we place this receptacle of child wonderment by the bins outside Home Bargains. It’s important the positioning is right. The roundabout has to be far enough away from any pleasant scenery that might distract from the busy junction and traffic fumes, but near enough to the fruit and veg stall to make being stung by a wasp off its face on a rotting Cox Pippin a real possibility. Are you with me so far?”
The minions nod eagerly, and a few of them feel a twinge of shame as they remember how they treated Susan Boyle.
“But the best bit,” Charon is on a roll now, “the very best bit is that when the carousel turns, the children will know on an instinctive level just how crap it is. And the watching adults will also realise how crap it is but they can’t say anything, can they? Because if they do then they’ll be admitting that their childhood was crap too and they’ve done nothing more with their lives than feed off false memories and pass on a baton of crapness to their children. So they’ll just stand there, screaming inside, watching their blank-eyed kids going nowhere as Cher belts out ‘If I Could Turn Back Time.'”
The room holds its breath. At last Hades speaks.
Charon wets his lips nervously. “Um… well… for a fraction of each rotation we could ensure the kids get a glimpse of Pandora, the jewellers, across the road. Like a metaphor for fleeting and unobtainable hope?”
A ghost of a smile hovers over Hades’ lips.
“Er… I thought we could call the front company of the operation Lepers Entertainment but when I ran it past Marketing they weren’t very keen. Apparently lepers aren’t very on-trend. They suggested Leipers, instead.” Charon pauses. “The ‘i’ is silent.”
Hades flares his nostrils and gazes into the middle distance. So close. Oh, so close. He could smell Berwick’s demise in the ether, and yet… there is a piece missing, an indefinable something…
“Oh,” says Charon, “and I thought we could park the carousel not only by the bins and the wasps and the traffic, but right across the disabled parking spaces on Marygate.”
Eris sucks his teeth and looks doubtful. “You’ll be lucky to get that pushed through. A fairground ride from Lepers—
“Leipers. The ‘i’ is silent.”
“—Leipers Entertainment, parked in the disabled bays? Northumberland Council employees may be short-sighted and venal, but politically incorrect? Never.”
“Wait,” Hades holds up his hand, thinks for a moment, then turns to Apate. “Pat, do you have any hi-vis jackets left?”
And Hades allows a small bubble of contentment to pop inside him as the last piece falls into place.