by John Morrison
2. Willow Woman
The long Pennine winters make us think deeply about our place in the cosmos. You wake
up in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat. You don't know where you are. You
don't even know who you are. All you have is a sudden and terrifying comprehension that you are nothing
more than a tiny and insignificant cluster of molecules, randomly cast adrift in
a vast and uncaring universe. This sort of unsettling premonition makes us question
the very nature of existence, or at least vow to stop eating cheese at bedtime.
We don't see many Jehovah's Witnesses in Milltown. These bible-toting teapots know
the reception they'll get when they knock on any door. Instead of just telling them
to piss off, we invite them in to explain their ludicrous beliefs in graphic detail.
Conditioned to encounter only hostility, which reinforces their special status as the
Chosen Ones, they become perplexed and disorientated by a kind word or welcoming
The suspension of disbelief is an almost tangible force in Milltown. No faith or therapy
is too bizarre to gather a handful of committed adherents. If it was suggested, for
example, that personal growth might be promoted by standing on your head in a bucket of pig slurry, there'd be one or two undemanding souls who'd nod and say "you know,
that makes a lot of sense to me".
Willow Woman, for example, inhabits an uncomplicated world of pastel colours, in which
crystals, mobiles, herbs, astrological charts and inedible home-baked bread play
pivotal roles. She asks you what your sign is. "Aries", you reply warily, adding that astrology is a ludicrously random imposition of celestial order that gives comfort
only to the most gullible and simple-minded. Willow Woman gazes back with a countenance so open, honest and guileless that people
want to slap some sense into her. "You know", she smiles, somehow managing to combine
humility and smugness in one single expression, "a mistrust of astrology is a very
So you bite your tongue and refrain from pointing out that when you look at your stars in the papers, they tend to say something anodyne like: "You're
going to get a letter this week, meet someone nice, and breathe in and out". What
you don't see is anything specific, such as: "You are a 31-year-old systems analyst from Cleckheaton,
you've got a mole on your left buttock and on Thursday week you are going to have
a fatal collision with a bakery truck".
Willow Woman knows the value of everything but the price of nothing, which makes shopping a nightmare.
She sorts all her rubbish into different piles for recycling, but never takes them
anywhere. Nobody is quite sure where she's from, except that it's a country which
shares a common border with Fantasia and Never Never Land. She's only on nodding acquaintance
with the real world, and specialises in doomed affairs with utterly inappropriate
partners. And every red-blooded male in Milltown would crawl over broken bottles
to spend the night with her.
* * *
The LETS system of bartering has been adopted enthusiastically by Milltown folk. In
an effort to promote a cash-free society (what used to be known, more prosaically,
as 'poverty') we exchange our skills and barter our goods. It's a terrific idea,
and a cursory glance through the latest bulletin gives a flavour of the enterprise.
Participants list their offers and wants. What people want is someone to repoint their house, or mend a clapped-out camper van, or the loan of a
Harrier jump-jet for the weekend. What people can offer is an unlimited supply of goat's milk, to teach your stressed-out pets to relax, or to loan
you a pair of hair clippers. The sharp-eyed reader may spot the fundamental flaw
in this arrangement.
* * *
We are gearing ourselves up for the General Election; in the streets of Milltown there's
an almost palpable air of apathy. Politicians we haven't clapped eyes on for five
years are crawling out of the woodwork, happy to do anything - no matter how demeaning - that will win a few extra votes.
Those Tory candidates who can read the writing on the wall are dividing their time
between kissing babies and bargaining for highly-paid sinecures with multinational
companies. The Lib-Dems are responding to the by-now traditional exhortion, to "Go
back to your constituencies and prepare for opposition". Labour candidates, having jeered
from the sidelines for the best part of twenty years, are now faced with the terrifying
prospect of actually forming a government.
Milltown folk may thump the table, after a few beers, and argue the political toss.
But on the whole they subscribe to that old cliché: that whoever you vote for, it's
the government that gets in. The drinkers who prop up the bar at the Grievous Bodily
Arms have an even more more cynical view, suggesting that our precious democracy is nothing
more than three wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch.
"Make mine a big one", says one of the regulars; "What do you think I am", replies
the landlord, a disillusioned man with a face like a beef tomato, "a bleeding plastic
* * *