Blogging and Television – a True Story

In my recent travels I met with a TV Producer in Bradford.  He’d been following my blog and liking it, and contacted me to discuss ways of dramatising it for TV.  We’d arranged to meet in the Brewhaus Bar near the Alhambra Theatre, where he bought me a pint and suggested a curry afterwards in Neal Street, which was just up my street.

We got chatting about all things drama and I embellished some tales of my nomadic experiences.  He’d read them all and whereas the blog is I think a mere stream of consciousness, he kindly said they were “more-ish.”  Along my desultory route I had naturally pondered televisual adaptations of my prose and I was happy to hear he was thinking similarly.  We were on the same hymn sheet, as they say in church and indeed everywhere else.

From the Brewhaus (which I liked very much) we strolled to the Karachi Curry House, which was apparently the first ever such eatery in Bradford, catering for millworkers.  Of course there are thousands now, but it was good to see this one had retained its identity and reputation for no-nonsense, unlicensed nosh; cheap, very tasty and served on formica tables minus cutlery (there were plates though).  Such is the charm and excellence of the place, there was a couple in their 60s who regularly travel from as far as the Black Country to have a sit-down meal here.

Anyway we had a good old catch-up the Producer and I, and something happened which was rather astonishing – he paid the bill.  Having lived in Yorkshire for five years or so when working on Emmerdale, I know this is worthy of note – to get as much as a pint of beer off a Yorkshireman is as rare a sight as a pile of teddy-bear shit.

But the point of this entry isn’t to make cheap jokes about the Yorkshireman’s parsimony (he’s actually a very kind bloke and a good sort), it’s to recount some of our dissertations on story, narrative arcs and the need for truth in drama.

When he asked what kind of story I like best in my travelogue, I said that very often it’s the simple tales of everyday folk.  Looking back over some of the entries, I picked out favourites including the one about Phil from Newcastle, who was chained bollock-naked to a lamp-post on his stag night, and all he could worry about was what his lass would say.  And the tale of Steve, whose wife Tracy called him a useless twat because he forgot the Amber Solaire on their cathartic trip to Saltburn.  These were simple things happening to feckless men who happened to be shit-scared of their wife, or in Phil’s case wife-to-be.

But why also are they my favourites, the salient memories of my 140-day journey so far?  It’s because I think they’re resonant of the show I grew up with called Coronation Street.  Imagine Stan Ogden, a useless fat layabout nagged to death by Hilda, and Jack Duckworth quaking in his boots at the very thought of Vera’s bubble-perm and metaphorical rolling-pin.  These characters (and as I touched on in my eulogy to Liz Dawn the other week, they don’t make them like that any more) were so beautifully-observed out of real life and their stories were not in the main reliant on car-crashes, heists and kidnappings, they were tender, simple, familiar and heartwarming tales of struggling working-class couples trying to get through each day unscathed then go to bed and dream of waking up to something better – ie. a few more quid in the bank.

So when I think of story, this is how I think – a car crash doesn’t make a story, a kidnapping isn’t story either, these are happenings, events.  And when I think of truth, this is how I think – truth is what I know, what I relate to.  I can relate to the Oggies and the Duckworths, I’ve met them everywhere and I’ve met the modern equivalent in Phil from Newcastle and Steve and Tracy from Birmingham.

But in all my 53 years and all my travels both recent and in the distant past, I have never once met someone’s who’s been bundled into the boot of a car and driven into the woods to have his head chopped off, or locked in a cupboard and left to starve.  I’m not for a minute suggesting these things don’t happen (and pity the poor bastards they happen to) I’m just saying it’s not my world and it’s not for me what inherently makes drama or story.

I’m realistic enough to know that these days the audience wants bells and whistles and front covers that tell them everything’s going to be sensational.  But I can’t help wishing sometimes the front covers would say we’re going to be treated to a tender, moving, humorous love story between a feckless oaf and a battleaxe.  Or maybe I’m just too old-fashioned or just too old for this, or just my life isn’t remotely sensational!

Then again, when I consider that soaps and serial dramas pull in millions whereas my blog is read by one man and his dog, I might be talking out of my arse.  So if this blog ever does get televised I might find myself rewriting Steve as a serial killer who gets sick of Tracy’s nagging and takes to wacking her over the head with a monkey wrench, and Phil chained bollock-naked to the lamp-post and getting eaten alive by foxes.

But to be honest I’d struggle with that, because it didn’t happen, so it wouldn’t be the truth.

 

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A to Z of Being Down and Out

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Tony Wilkinson – Down And Out, BBC books

I read the news this morning and felt ashamed.  There was I feeling down about unemployment when there were people in Vegas going to enjoy a bit of music and paying the price of their life for it.

I’d planned to write about the anger I feel at being professionally sidelined and abjectly poor, but on discussing the news, Mandy suggested another A to Z (which she enjoys) in which I could offer some less angry, wry and hopefully humorous observations on the plight of the unemployed homeless nomad.  Faithful readers (thank you Trev in Worksop) may remember I promised to kick the A to Z thing into touch, but I bow to popular demand and give you my third alphabetical lexicon of this diary to date:

THE A to Z OF THE DOWN-AND-OUT

– Apology from the system that failed me and their admin error which meant I’ve gone hungry.  Mercifully this was rectified when I signed on this afternoon and I might get my peanuts come tomorrow.

B – Broke.  I fucking hate being broke.  Also Bastards…

– Creditors.  When a man is on his arse, these bastards queue up to rub salt in his haemorrhoids.

D – Dog,  The fucking black thing that renders one unemployable.

E – Endless misery and inability to stand your corner at the bar.

– Friends and family.  Thank God for them.  I’d love to name-check them all but they’re too numerous and too kind – they give me love, food, wine and the will to live.

G – Gratitude.  What you feel for the above.

– Hope.  There has to be this or otherwise go Hungry or Hang yourself.

– Ignominy.

J – Jobseekers’ Allowance.  They should call it Jobseekers’ Weekly Humiliation.  You have to apply for several jobs per week.  I’ve done so and heard Jack-shit…

K – Keep trying, even though you’ve got in touch with contacts in your field (some of whom go back years) and they’ve completely fucking ignored your calls and emails.

L – Lucky bastards and professional fair-weather friends and contortionists.

M – Motherfucking misery.

N – No.  My least-favourite word.

O – Oh no.  My least-favourite phrase.

P – Poverty.

Q – Queuing with cap in hand.

R – Rejection.  A writer or jobseeker’s nightmare.

S – Shit.  It’s what you feel or are made to feel.

– Terrible.  Ditto.

U – Undervalued.  Ditto.

– Vagabond is what you feel you are, because if you’re not careful you begin to smell of baby wipes and shit.

W – Waste.  That’s waste of a talent when others less so are earning thousands and to be frank I wish them Wakeful nights.

X – Xanadu.  There has to be one for us somewhere…

Y – “Yes I have a job for you…” which would help.

– Zero money in the bank but zillions of characters and stories to write about.

So there you are.  Some Anger did come out I’m afraid.  When you’re homeless, jobless and pot-less the “A word” – like the dog – isn’t easy to keep from the door.  Then again, watch the news and you see anger and cruelty at its worst, so perhaps I should just shut my mouth and be grateful for what I have as I travel north again to Manchester and its tantalising wealth.

Liz Dawn

It’s with great sadness that I hear that Liz has died.  Perhaps portentously, I’d been scribbling notes in my diary about meeting with a TV director and our discussions on what makes a good character and what makes good story – then I wake to hear that one of the greatest soap opera characters of all time has passed away.  I say characters deliberately – of course it’s the actress who’s died, but in recalling moments that I was lucky enough to share with Liz, at work and at leisure, I’m bound to say that she was a character too.

At work she was hilarious company and extremely dedicated to the part of Vera Duckworth, whom she played brilliantly for many years.  At leisure, she was great fun to be with and if I may say so a terrific flirt – I’ll spare the detail but she once flirted with me in The Grapes in Manchester, and tried to pair me off with her daughter!  How often have I dined out on that story?!

But returning to the part of Vera, what a part to play and how wonderfully-storylined and written!  I have so many happy and laughter-filled memories of Jack and Vera, their sparring, their blazing rows and their tender moments that demonstrated the heart and truth of a couple the likes of which are found in terraced streets up and down the country.  The fact that Liz and Bill Tarmey played them with such brilliance made us nudge each other and say “they’re just like that couple across the road”… or indeed “they’re just like you and me.”

I’m often accused of being over-nostalgic in terms of Coronation Street, the show I was brought up on and lucky enough to serve for twenty years, but to my dying day I’ll adhere to the principle that the programme must thrive with characters like Jack and Vera at its very heart.

So while Liz has sadly passed, and will I like to think be joining Bill in heaven, I know in my heart that her legacy will live on, her voice will for ever echo down the cobbles, and the many rich stories will stay with those of us who remember, till we also shuffle off this mortal coil.

Liz Dawn, our Vera, ciao, Mark.

What’s it all about Alfie? (A Love Story)

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Two old goats for neighbours on my travels – or L to R Alfie, Me

Bimble (v) walk or travel at a leisurely pace

Thanks to my old school pal Fred Parker, who gave me this word in response to my question in Five Go Off to Stealth-camp.

The eponymous Alfie (AKA Roger Hinde) is the very old friend I referred to yesterday and the story of our reunion is as follows:  I was in Nantwich Library trying to sign on (a soap opera in itself) when I heard this voice proclaim, “You’re not allowed in here!”

“Bollocks,” I said to myself, then turned to see Alfie, looking no different from when I last saw him some ten years ago as he visited my apartment in Castlefield Manchester.  At the time I was Coronation Street Story Editor and his visit was a welcome break from the very long hours of creative toil.

Now, at the grand old age of 66 (same age as my brother Podge – they went to the Grammar School together) there was still the boundless energy and twinkle in his eye.  In his younger days when he was treading the boards he would’ve passed for a David Essex lookalike with his cheeky grin and Romany ruddiness.  “The years have treated you well Alfie,” I said mid-manhug.  But how wrong I was, as he soon went on to tell me he’d had cancer for five years and nearly died.

I’ll go deeper on this later but first I’ll describe the buoyant reunion of us two old goats as I invited him aboard the Ottermobile for a brew.  Because with Alfie you never get to finish a story – much like a soap opera.  As conversation fizzles, you’re energised and carried away on the tide of wit and keenness.  You try to compete with his joie de vivre and the stories it offers.  Your anecdotes are wittily interrupted by his, and the chat crackles into creative avenues you didn’t realise were on the A to Z.  In a nutshell you’re inspired.

One of our reminiscences was about “bimbling” through the English and Welsh countryside, normally via river or canal, a pursuit we followed often, and often with fishing tackle on our backs.  As I touched on yesterday, we once fished at the Tern Mouth of the River Severn, where he knew barbel liked to chew Spam.  I’d never seen a barbel before, let alone catch one, so imagine my surprise and delight when I pulled out this beautiful huge fish, before of course putting it unharmed back in the water.  But as always with these things there has to be a cloud, in the form of Alfie’s sulking because my barbel was bigger than the tiddler he reeled in!  He will of course dispute this claim.

Back in the day, and I’m talking twenty-odd years ago, along with other arty projects we formed a theatre company called Grand Junction with a view to touring a series of playlets about the history of Crewe’s railways.  But we got bogged down in all the politics of Equity and the Independent Theatre Council so the project was back-burnered.  Also my 18-month work in Rwanda impeded matters somewhat.  This was the selfish pursuit of a career that I’ve referred to earlier, which meant leaving friends behind… and ultimately the disintegration of my first marriage.

Anyway amid these and other unfinished yarns, he had coffee, a bag of crisps and a bar of chocolate from the Ottermobile larder; pretty much my weekly ration.  And I realised that despite his health scare he still had that ravenous appetite to eat seven more potatoes than a pig.  And he didn’t even bother to wash his cup, the fucker.  But I forgave him that omission as he described how close to death he’d been, which made crockery pale into insignificance.

But for me it also put things into perspective as he recounted that when it was “touch and go” he received many visitors genuinely offering help and favour, but then when he recovered these visits gradually abated – a story of fair-weather friends and their disappointment that Alfie didn’t die, that Alfie had this indomitable determination to pull through and prove to the bastards he wouldn’t shuffling off the coil without protest.  Hence I observed parallels between his story and mine, and the realisation of what’s really important, what life is really all about ie. its delivery of friends and loved-ones, which are more important through thick and thin than any politics or any wealth a career might afford.

Mine and Alfie’s bromance was a mini soap opera with its highs and lows.  We’d chew the fat, set the world to rights, deconstruct the arts of writing and acting and downright act the goat.  We’d fall out like lovers do, and rein each other in from our propensity to get carried away with an idea.  He’d be grumpy and truculent and I’d coax him into working that energy into script and performance.  I’d be down and he’d lift me with a well-timed pun or a “nosegay” of Pete and Dud or a snippet from Last of the Summer Wine.

And I’m happy that the bromance will now be rekindled.  We’ll probably write together again, free from the shackles of politics, unleashed from the need to please others.  We will have fresh adventures from the Ottermobile.  And we will undoubtedly bimble.  But above all, we will laugh and laugh.

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Old goats at the cricket – L to R, Compo, Clegg, Foggy, supporting cast

 

Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape

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Pecket Well, as the Actress said to the Bishop

Been thinking a lot about music lately and Adventures in a Yorkshire Landscape is one of my all-time favourite songs.

Bridges and rivers and buildings pulled down/Time spent in places my footsteps have found

For me anyway, the lyrics conjure up images both beautiful and dark.  It’s strange, I think, that even a beautiful place can make you feel sad.  I spent many years in Yorkshire and always appreciated its fantastic scenery, yet for various reasons I endured here my darkest “orange” days.  I had a brilliant job and much to offer it, but was getting iller and iller.  The depression led to the darkest day of all when I contemplated suicide, got in a car drunk, felt like driving into a wall.  Only the thought of hurting someone else in the process stopped me.  I sought help and found it but, though in theory my employers were understanding, frankly this was the start of a brilliant middle-distant termination of my services.  Or that’s how it felt I’m afraid.

Yesterday I had a meeting with a renowned TV director and I enjoyed the burst of laughter and creative energy, a reminder of what I’ve been missing since those days of the past (more on this to follow).  And at the time of writing I’m on-grid, travelling First Class by rail to London, where I’ll give a talk on the art of storytelling.  I will be the “expert” sharing my expertise and at the same time unemployed.  Used to public-speaking yet unused.  That’s the story I’m telling, the story of my life, a story of humorous and horrendous contradictions.  A tragicom for the van-dweller wondering if there’s more to his life than van-life.

Singing sad wires of council house mystics/To apply their statistics and read the tealeaves

So why did I go back to Yorkshire?  Well because I needed to.  I needed to tie up loose ends, both creatively and personally.  They call it closure but I should prefer to call it a new beginning.  Weighing up the endless contradictions in my fucked-up life I guess has led to yet another epiphany – time to sort myself out once and for all.  I have nothing but a lot to offer, both creatively and lovingly.  I need to find a home and where better to look than home, my home town that is, where I’ll be reading the tealeaves and looking to render the buildings that have been pulled down.

Time knows no limits for days such as these.

 

Brief Encounter – The Story of Ann and Me

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Grand Hotel, Scarborough – “She once was a true love of mine

After my warm welcome chez Stuart and Rachel I headed north to Scarborough feeling much brighter.  I even murdered Are you Going to Scarborough Fair as I drove.  I like to sing and drive, and I like to improvise silly songs of my own… as you’ll see if you read on.

Made a bit of a balls of the parking issue – I remembered side streets where free parking was on offer but didn’t remember their being so far away from the sea front!  So I walked the mile or so to town, where I thought I’d treat myself to a bacon butty and a cup of coffee somewhere.

On the steep way down towards the Grand Hotel I encountered a lady who seemed to be struggling with her shopping.  It’s not so easy these days to be gentlemanly, it can be misconstrued as patronising or sexist (as once happened to me in WHSmiths when I held the door open for a woman… then wished I’d let it go in her face) but intuition told me this would be appropriate and not unwelcome.  So I offered to help with her bags.

The reaction took me quite by surprise.  No she didn’t call me patronising or sexist, she thanked me profusely and burst into tears.  Seeing she was distressed, I guided her to a seat where she sunk down with her hands over her face.  This would be where Trevor Howard would proffer Celia Johnson a kerchief, but I only had a clump of kitchen roll in my pocket and couldn’t guarantee it hadn’t been used.  I apologised for this but she wouldn’t hear of it, I’d been kind enough already to help.

“I haven’t done anything,” I protested.

“Yes you have,” she countered, “the very fact that you offered.”

As she rummaged in her bag for a tissue she began to shake with laughter, saying she was such a fool for crying, what must I think?

I make three admissions; 1) the mercenary in me felt this might be a story, 2) the suspicious in me thought she might be mad, and 3) how could I not have noticed till now that she was extremely attractive?

She had long, blonde, curly hair and pale complexion, a pert little nose and blue eyes.  She was tall and slim, and the tight maxi-dress she wore showed off her neat, elegant figure.  Over the dress she wore a trendy denim jacket and she sported matching beaded necklace and earrings.  It’s always the ears that get me and I loved the way she looped her hair back so I could get a glimpse (by the way, I’m not saying she did this deliberately, but wish I could!)

I said I didn’t think anything bad of her for crying, and added that I wouldn’t pry but I’m a good listener if she needed to get something off her chest… which she did, with only the slightest hint of a Geordie accent:

Ann was born in Newcastle and lived with her parents till aged 21 when she married Andrew, whom she’d met at college.  They were happily married and over the next twenty years they build up a waste-recycling business, he as director and she as company secretary.  The demands of business were harsh, especially as they produced six kids (which astonished me) along the way.  With the financial rewards for all the toil they enjoyed family holidays abroad, a luxury home in Dalton and a villa in Spain.  She had everything.  They had everything.

Three months ago she was about to celebrate her 50th and a big family party was organised; outside caterers, marquee, flowers, the works; no expense spared for the 100 guests.  It was going to be the happiest day of her life, but it was also going to be the day that Andrew told her he had someone else.

At first Ann thought he was kidding – “But who the fuck would joke about something like that?”  Then came the shock, the anger, the heartbreak, the massive row, the horrible questions: Who?  How long?  Did he love her?  Did she love him?  With the answer to these last two being “yes”, Ann knew (or at least would know in time) it was no use fighting, not for him, not for her and certainly not for the kids’ sakes, they deserved better.  The fallout would obviously be huge (both emotionally and materially) but for that day, Ann found the courage and the strength and the dignity to gain control:

“I remember saying ‘You’ve done this to me, you’ve broken my heart and you’ve ruined my big day.  You don’t get to ruin everyone else’s.  We’re having this fucking party Andrew, and you’re going to be the host and fucking well look like you’re enjoying it!'”

I only hope I’ve done justice to Ann’s tale, I mean obviously I wasn’t taking notes.  Frankly the scale of her heartbreak is massive and these words or any might not cut it.  I was a little embarrassed that she’d told me, a complete stranger, then touched when she apologised for doing so.  But I shrugged off her apology and repeated that I’m a good listener and I hope it helped to get it said.  I was sorry for her plight and wanted to say that Andrew’s an utter prick, but didn’t.  Instead I asked what now?

“Meeting an old friend for lunch,” she said, “and a good old chat.”

“I guess it’ll be one of those all-men-are-bastards chats?” I laughed.

She laughed too, and it made her face beautiful.  “I’ve bought her some presents and I’m going to give them to her.  I’m spending as much of the bastard’s money as I can.”

She apologised for swearing, saying she doesn’t much.  I said she should do it more often, it helps.  Not everybody likes swearing, but I do.  Some people have complained about swear words on my blog, I said, but I don’t give a shit.  Sometimes when I’m angry at people or the world I drive along and make up angry or stupid songs.  She asked what I sing and I very reluctantly told her that this one’s to the tune of These Are a Few of My Favourite Things:

“Arseholes and bastards and fuckwits and wankers

Dickheads and tossers and bent merchant bankers,

Tossers and fuckers and shit-heads and turds,

These are a few of my favourite words.”

She laughed and said she loved it, and I said I’d teach her the words.  We chatted for maybe forty-five minutes, an hour tops, and I filled her in on my journeys.  She said the idea was cool and she sometimes thinks about just getting into her car and driving…  I knew what she meant but said she’d be OK, she’s got her kids (who incidentally all agree that Andrew is a prick and his girlfriend is a tart) and she’s still got her parents.  Plus she’s got 100 friends.

“101,” she said, and I’ll never forget it.  But then it was time for her to go.  I didn’t want to let her go but of course I must; what kind of deluded idiot was I to think this was going to end any other way?  So I rose to help her gather her “retail therapy” and bid her goodbye and good luck, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek and thanked me for being such a kind man.

“One day you’ll be rewarded,” she said, “Don’t let the arseholes and bastards and fuckwits and tossers get you down.”

“Wankers,” I corrected.

I was going in the same direction as her, down the hill for my bacon butty, but felt reluctant to walk with her; I had to let her go.  So I hung back on the seat and rolled a cigarette.  When I finally ventured onto the prom I hoped to glimpse her again, with her friend, but I didn’t.

Many years ago we played a story on Coronation Street which was pitched as a “Brief Encounter” for Sally Webster.  I was in charge of that story and for research I watched the video, though I’d obviously seen it before a dozen times.  And loved it.  In the end of course, Sally Webster slept with her amour, because the soap gods say no subtlety!  The audience wants a shag and we shall deliver a shag.  Well personally I think we should be irreverent to the gods.

But anyway there was my real-life Brief Encounter.  I was Trevor Howard, Ann was Celia Johnson – for me at any rate a 60 minute romance.  With no exchange of numbers and no shag of course.  A shag would’ve made it 62, but I shouldn’t sully the memory.

Bet Lynch Lives in Bridlington

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In a Bridlington pub I settled with my Guardian and Gillette Soccer Saturday, knowing I had to make two pints last six hours.  Which is no mean feat.  Nursing a drink till the froth is dried on the inside of the glass is the pub equivalent of stealth-camping – you’re sitting quiet, hoping not to get noticed, while of course gazing upon the world as it goes by.  All fine, except that someone did notice – the barmaid, who bore an exciting resemblance to Bet Lynch.

Her name was in fact Lucy.  Somewhere between 50 and 60 and trying to knock ten years off, Lucy was blonde, busty, voluptuous, provocatively-cleavaged in red (not leopard-print) and done up to the nines.  Her towering locks were tied up and her ears were pierced with dangly numbers as big as windchimes.  In younger days she would’ve been beautiful and though three marriages, six kids, thirteen grandkids and a current torrid, door-slamming relationship with potential hubby number 4 have taken their toll, she still looks good.  And I imagine a throng of men loitering at the bar either staring at their pint or more likely her impressive chest.  I could be one of them, because I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if I fancied the woman.

I got her story when I went up for my second ale and she commented, not inaccurately or judgmentally, that I was a slow supper.  I laughed and corrected that if I had the money I’d be supping quicker and coming back more often.  I wasn’t looking for sympathy, just stating fact.  But anyway she seemingly felt sorry for me and put this one on the house.  If money didn’t change hands then life-stories did.  The bar was quiet at this point, early doors, so there was the freedom and privacy conducive to intimacy.  She’d noticed I’d been scribbling in my notebook so asked if I were a writer and as I described my project she seemed impressed, so I nervously dropped in that I’m searching human stories and characters and she reminded me of Bet Lynch.  She laughed and said she’d had that dozens of times, though in her game you don’t get much time for telly and anyway she’d prefer Eastenders.  Fair enough, I said, each to their own.

Lucy didn’t hail from East Yorkshire, she was a Leodensian, a “Wessie” as they call them here (ie someone from West Yorkshire).  She hadn’t travelled much, too many kids and and too little money, though some years ago she flirted with the idea of emigrating to Australia with her first husband… but that didn’t happen because he turned out to be a “cock”.  As did husbands number 2 and 3, she added.

I could’ve chatted to Lucy for hours but there was football to watch and a crossword to do and the bar was getting busy.  And as I sipped my ale and watched my team go down to Everton, I pondered how ephemeral and loveless is this life; you flit from place to place where love is swift arrows.  Fleeting meetings and greetings, if you like shit poetry.

By 7pm I’m walking down the prom with my guitar and a bag of chips, thinking that like other places I’ve laid my hat, there’s so much beauty while the town itself is something they forgot to bomb.  And I think about Lucy and her cleavage, her windchimes and her door-slamming husband-to-be.  I wanted to get to know her more but clearly that was impossible – inviting Tony into my campervan the other day was one thing, but saying to a woman “Would you like to come back to my van?” is a far from impressive chat-up line.   And of course she was taken.  And of course I shouldn’t assume she fancied me.  So as I stealth-camp near Bempton Cliffs I say to myself, “You’re on your own again, cock.”