Glitch

 

Glitch by Chris Green

Heliotrope destination,’ the caller says and then hangs up. Heliotrope destination? It sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. What does that mean? What on earth is he talking about?

 In these days of scams and hoaxes, I record the calls we get on our landline. I play the message back. A man’s voice. No trace of an accent. Nor does it have that metallic sound you get from a robot voice. The number is withheld. 

I try not to dwell on it. Perhaps it’s part of a bizarre promotional campaign to launch a new product which will become apparent in due course. I get back to my painting of the Aurora Borealis. Izzy will be home soon and I want to make it look like I’ve been productive while she’s been out. She keeps reminding me I haven’t finished a painting for weeks, let alone sold one. 

Multilingual interface. It’s a text on my mobile this time. Once again, an apparently meaningless pairing of random words. Number withheld again. Troll? Prankster? But why would a prankster target me? Nutcase? Someone bearing a grudge? I can’t think of anything I’ve done to upset anyone. I’ve led a very low profile life since I’ve been here.

Bewildering they may be, but the messages are not life-threatening. I get back to the Aurora Borealis. I dab some bold green swirls onto the canvas. When working in oils, you need to be decisive. The more layers of paint you can get into the painting, the better the result. That’s the beauty of oils. You can put some depth into the work. I am just mixing up some purple when I hear two emails ping in quick succession on my laptop. At first, I ignore them, but curiosity gets the better of me. The sender for both of them I discover is noreply@nowhere.com Neither of them has any subject, so there’s not a lot to go on. The messages too are becoming weirder. Corporation horn and nervous subsidiary.

Strange is never good. I learnt that a long time ago. My mind is racing. Surely, it couldn’t be …….. No, the idea is absurd. But, there again….. To distract myself, I slip a Wagner CD into the Bose. Götterdämmerung, Twilight of the Gods. I turn the volume up so I won’t be disturbed again and continue with my painting. I apply some viridian green straight from the tube and shape it with a palette knife, hacking at the canvas. I mix some with a little titanium white and cut that in. I step back to take a look. I do not hear Izzy come in.

‘I found this on the mat.’ she says. She is holding a plain postcard with the words, harlequin fancy written on it. ‘What is that all about?’

I mutter something about being as puzzled as she is. But I am getting a bad feeling the message might relate to my past. I have not gone into detail with Izzy about my past. I cannot.

‘I can’t hear you,’ she says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful racket down?’ 

For some time, I’ve been getting the impression that Izzy does not appreciate Wagner as much as I do. There again, I do not like Billy Joel. Or Elton John. Relationships, though, like other covenants, are all about compromise. Admittedly, I have had to compromise more than most, but that’s another story. With Valhalla in flames and the Rhine overflowing its banks, I pause the opera. I give her a summary of the previous messages. As i do so, fresh emails ping on the laptop. noreply@nowhere.com no subject. Incidental hejira. Aggregate reception. 

I try to shrug them off, but Izzy is having none of it. Perhaps she detects that beneath it all I know something is wrong.

‘What about that chap you met a couple of weeks ago in the market?’ she says. ‘The geeky one with the snake called Stanley, who started talking to you about that number that’s too big to tell you how big it is?’

‘Graham’s number. It’s called Graham’s number.’

Yes. That’s the one. Might it be him?’ 

‘What, Norman? No, I think Norman is just an ageing trainspotter with learning difficulties.’

‘How about the bloke who wrote The Early Worm Catches the Bird? The one who was telling us about Wet Blanket Ron, when we were in the pub. He was creepy.’ 

‘Just a lonely old author, I think. I can’t imagine many people read his books. Pretty harmless, though. Anyway, whoever it is knows my number, my mobile number, our house number and my email.’

‘You mean, it might be someone we know well?’

‘There is that possibility,’ I say. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, though. There’s bound to be a reasonable explanation.’ 

The room goes quiet. I can sense Izzy weighing up who she feels might be suspicious. Our friend, Hoagy Platt possibly? He’s a bit of a joker. Might he do something like this? Freda Mann, the poet or Dean Runner, perhaps? He’s a strange one.

‘Let me have a look at the emails,’ she says, finally. ‘Perhaps there’s something about these communications you haven’t spotted.’

I open up my Gmail account for her. 

‘Where are they?’ she says, scrolling up and down the page. ‘Where are these messages?’

I take a look. To my alarm, there is no longer any sign of them. They are not even in Trash. They seem to have somehow been completely deleted. I take out my phone. The text message too has gone. The message on the phone too is missing. Is this good or is this bad?

If you have been in a relationship for any length of time, you will be familiar with that look you get when your partner feels that you have been trying to deceive her. You will be familiar too with the stony silence that follows, in most cases for the rest of the day. Sometimes the following day, too. But it’s an ill wind and all that. Without any of her interruptions and with no further unsolicited messages, I am able to make significant progress on my painting. Could this be the secret of great artists? Might Mrs Monet have thought Claude was keeping things from her and given him the silent treatment? Might Mrs Matisse have been a frequent sulker?

Late the following day, Izzy’s son, Ben, calls in. We are not sure if Ben is living with us or not. He appears from time to time to raid the fridge and then is gone again. He is off to a festival this time, apparently. 

‘Mum gone to bed, has she?’ he says, as he munches his way through a slice of pizza. ‘She not speaking to you again?’ 

Having no children of my own, I get on pretty well with Ben. I give him a summary of what has happened.

‘Probably a password generator,’ he says. ‘Good idea! You and Mum are always forgetting passwords.’

I give Ben’s explanation some thought, but reject it. The people who offered you the password would also know it, which would immediately compromise its security.  

To my relief, there are no more unexplained messages over the next few days. Izzy now thinks that I may have imagined the earlier ones. I entertain the idea that she may be right. She suggests I ought to see someone to help me over my confusion, Dr Strummer perhaps. But as time passes, she backs down and things around the house return to normal. I even manage to finish my Aurora Borealis painting, and decide to take it along to Gallery 9. 

You get accustomed to the interior of a car. Its features become so familiar that as you drive it around from day to day, you hardly notice them. But as I start the Nissan, I feel something is different. At first, I can’t put my finger on what it is. Then it hits me. Alongside the various readouts for fuel, temperature and mileage on the instrument panel are the words supernova trampoline in blue Sans Serif script. It is difficult to see what this might have to do with the functioning of the car. Independent momentum, it reads now. It changes to perpendicular freefall. These might be just words, but there is no rational explanation for these muddled phrases appearing on the dashboard display. Someone is messing with my head. Someone with a shitload of technology and guile at their fingertips. Could it really be my comrades returning to spirit me away? Surely, after all this time, they would have forgotten about me. But who else could be behind it? No-one from around these parts. They are still working on the understanding that there are just three dimensions. And they have only just come up with the internet. They would not be capable of such diverse communication. It must be my people arriving to collect me and take me back home. They are probably having a few teething troubles with the comms equipment. After all, wasn’t it a glitch in the Earth translation widget on the landing craft that left me stranded here in the first place?

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved


 

 

Call Me Lottie

Call Me Lottie – by Chris Green

LOTTIE

‘Pale blinds, drawn all day, I’m afraid,’ says Landon Truitt. ‘Upstairs and down.’

‘I remember getting those blinds fitted,’ I say. ‘Local fellow. He called himself The Blind Man, which at the time I thought was amusing.’

‘The Blind Man. Good name. Very droll, Mrs Crenshaw.’

‘Lottie. You can call me Lottie,’ I say. ‘Please. You can’t imagine how much I hate the name, Crenshaw.’

Landon Truitt has dropped by to update me on his progress. He is a private detective of sorts. I found his card on the notice board at Waitrose. It read, Landon Truitt – Private Detective, Honest and Trustworthy, All Types of Investigation Undertaken. I have hired him to find out what’s happening with my soon to be ex-husband, Dwayne. No-one has seen Dwayne in the flesh since I left him last August. He doesn’t appear to have left the house in Bougainvillea Heights. He does not answer the door to me and has changed all the locks. He was behaving oddly for a while before I left him, but I put this down to business pressure. Then of course there were the experimental drugs he was taking for his rare blood disease. Dwayne has always been a bit of an enigma.

‘In all the time I’ve been watching, I haven’t seen him once, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie. Not so much as a glimpse of him.’

‘Have there been any comings and goings?’

‘Oh yes …… Lottie. There were, let me see ……. eighteen visitors yesterday. I’ve got photos of some of the visitors and I’ve written down descriptions of the others.’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ I say. ‘Others have told me the same. People seem to keep calling round to the house, but Dwayne never appears.’

‘I thought I recognised one of them,’ says Truitt. ‘Charlie Gunn. I was in uh, …. I knew Charlie years ago.’

‘Charlie Gunn. Charlie Gunn. No. Don’t know him. Let me see the photos, would you?’

Landon Truitt hands me the contact sheets he has printed off. I don’t recognise any of the visitors from the shots, although the figure in the brightly coloured boiler suit looks vaguely familiar. On second thoughts, probably not. I wouldn’t know anyone who would dress in an orange boiler suit, would I?

‘They’re not very clear, are they, Truitt?’ I say, holding one of the contact sheets up to the light.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie, but I had to move the car. A candy car was cruising up and down. I thought it best to park further away from the house. But then the digital zoom on my phone was playing up a bit.’

‘Is that one wearing a spacesuit?’

‘I believe so, Mrs Crenshaw. Your husband appears to be a strange man if you don’t mind me saying so.’

‘Lottie, please. Yes. You could definitely say that Dwayne Crenshaw is a very strange man.’

‘I get the feeling that you are hiding something from me. Would it help, do, you think, if you told me a little more about him? This seems a bit different from my usual cases.’

I am not sure how much I should tell Landon Truitt. For that matter, I’m not sure how much I know about Dwayne. We were never lovey-dovey close. It was more a marriage of convenience. My family had lost its fortune on Black Wednesday, and Dwayne Crenshaw’s star seemed to be in the ascendency at the time. Dwayne for his part seemed to be attracted to my …… full figure. To please him, when he was entertaining clients, I wore dresses that showed this off.

‘What kind of cases do you usually handle, Truitt?’ I say, to dodge the subject.

‘All kinds,’ he says. ‘Mainly surveillance work. But this is usually connected with suspected infidelity or something like that. Would I be right in thinking that this is not why I’m keeping an eye on your husband’s house? A plush house like this in the suburbs must be worth megabucks. Is he a pop star or something, perhaps? If he is, I haven’t heard of him.’

I feel that there might be some mileage in pursuing this line. ‘You’ve not heard of Dwayne Crenshaw?’ I say. ‘Where have you been living?’

LANDON

Had it not been my first case in weeks, well apart from some identity checks and a search for Mrs Floyd’s missing cat, Dillinger, I would have told Lottie Crenshaw to sling her hook. Attractive she might be, but that is no excuse for rudeness. ‘Was she going to get a proper service?’ she asked, ‘was I a professional?’ What a cheek! The woman is clearly loaded. You can tell that a mile off by the designer clothes she wears, taupe skirt suits and crocodile pumps. I’m surprised she knew how to find my gaff above the garage in Corporation Street. She certainly turned some heads when she arrived in her little Lotus.

It was clear she was hiring me because my rates are cheap. I charge £25 an hour plus expenses. Much cheaper than she would get elsewhere. Even then she wanted to negotiate the price. I shouldn’t have been so casual with my business card. Perhaps it was also a mistake to put the card in Waitrose. Would Tesco have been a better bet? Reverse psychology and all that. Maybe I should have picked another line of work. I could easily have gone back to internet security, well hacking, when I was released in January.

Lottie Crenshaw doesn’t realise how difficult surveillance is in a quiet suburban area. She thinks it’s like it is on the TV, where the detective and his oppo sit posing in their Raybans in a comfortable car, listening to Chet Baker, with tea and sandwiches brought along by a girl from the agency. Admittedly shades are pretty much compulsory for a private eye, but at the same time, it’s really hard not to look conspicuous. I had to keep moving the car to avoid suspicion. I saw my old mate, Charlie from Pentonville. What was the old reprobate doing round here? Not the kind of location you would expect to find him. Unless ….. I kept my head down. I think I know where to find Charlie should I ever need him.

There have been a handful of people visiting her husband. Well, quite a lot, actually, but you can’t just get out of the car and say ‘Excuse me guv, but do you mind if I take your photo. Hold still, will you?’ And Lottie has the nerve to criticise my pictures. I expect she has an all singing, all dancing Canon Eos or something like that. Since the altercation with Mrs Nelson’s enraged husband last month when I was trying to get his picture, all I have is my smartphone. The thing is, I’m not even sure what I am supposed to be looking for. Lottie Crenshaw’s instructions were vague. She just told me to watch the house and report back. Now she tells me her husband is some kind of nut. Shouldn’t she be paying me more for the added risk?

‘I did wonder if Dwayne Crenshaw might be a bit of an oddball, Mrs C,’ I say, looking at the contact sheet of photos I printed before the printer gave up on me. ‘I think that’s a man in a spacesuit going into the house in this photo.’

‘Yes. It could well be a spaceman’ she says. ‘It does look as if the blurry figure in your picture might be wearing a spacesuit. Dwayne is a little, what do you call it? Leftfield? It could be for a photoshoot. Dwayne was a ….. pop star. Big in the eighties.’

‘I guess if he were making a video or something, that might explain the spaceman.’

‘And the man in the orange boiler suit.’

‘What about Charlie though?’

‘You keep on about Charlie. Who is Charlie?’

‘Charlie is a fixer. A clean up man.’

‘Oh! I see. I think. ……. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of my husband though.’

‘Can’t say I have, Lottie. I don’t listen to a lot of music though.’

‘You must have heard Life On Jupiter. That was massive.’

‘No. I don’t think I have heard that one,’ I say, trying to assess if she is having me on. I mean, Life on Jupiter, what a stupid title, even for the nineteen-eighties. ‘How does it go?’

Looking at her reaction, I can tell that I’ve embarrassed her. She isn’t going to sing it. I don’t want to dig myself into too deep a hole here. Peanuts it might be, but I do want to get paid. I am at the limit of my overdraft and I have bills upon bills. Not to mention the maintenance payments. I can’t see Anna being understanding about a cessation of those. Not that I ever get to see the children these days.

‘I could do some rooting around on the internet, Lottie,’ I say, to win her back round. ‘It’s amazing what you can find out if you know where to look.’

‘And you know where to look, do you?’ she says.

‘Yes ma’am,’ I say. ‘I was in the security services back in the day.’

LOTTIE

Deep down there might be something endearing about Landon Truitt or I wouldn’t have hired him. Not only is he resourceful, but he also seems honest and trustworthy. In today’s world, these are rare qualities in a man. I wish I could say I was honest and trustworthy. They say opposites attract. What am I thinking? I’m not attracted to him in the slightest. Not in the slightest. How could I be? He’s a back street private detective. There’s just an overlap in our lives’ narratives. That’s all.

I imagine he will be a little puzzled he can’t find any reference to Dwayne’s pop career on the internet. But there again, this might motivate him to look a bit harder, dig a bit deeper into his treasure trove of secret websites to find traces of him. This way, he may find something useful. He might actually discover what my husband has been up to recently. After all, I’m paying him good money to come up with information. Good money to him anyway. He’s broke. I can tell. He has a hangdog look about him. Along with the doe-eyed look of infatuation. But he still has to earn his £100 a day.

Maybe I should have mentioned my financial position before, or perhaps you’ve guessed. I’m a little strapped for cash at the moment. I had to sell a diamond ring last week to pay the rent on the flat in Compton Mews. The big worry for me is that Dwayne might spend all his money before our divorce comes through. The Aston Martin that is parked around the side of the house can’t have been cheap. There’s also the danger that when his judgement is impaired by the psychoactive properties of his life-saving drugs, he might lose it in a dodgy deal. He has made his money doing dodgy deals, buying and selling dodgy businesses. By definition, wheeling and dealing in this way is a risky enterprise. He’s certain to fall foul of the law one of these days. To live outside the law, you must be honest and no-one could ever accuse Dwayne Crenshaw of being honest.

‘All businesses are untrustworthy,’ Dwayne was fond of saying. ‘What’s the difference between selling established ones and selling less established ones, or even bogus ones? Nothing. No-one is upfront these days. They all make up the figures. Where do you think we would be if people suddenly started telling the truth?’

This may well be, but I have to look after my settlement. I’m hoping that this will be a high six-figure sum. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic of a good result, but he’s probably saying that because I am paying him a lot of money. When it comes down to it he can only do so much to plead my case, and the other side is likely to bring up a number of indiscretions I haven’t told Guy Bloke about.

LANDON

‘I stand corrected, Mrs C …. Lottie. You were right. Dwayne Crenshaw was huge, worldwide. Or at least his alter ego Dean Callisto was. Thirty-one consecutive top ten hits in the UK, and six number ones on the Billboard chart. Life On Jupiter was a minor hit compared to Sex Machine or Descent Into Madness. Not to mention Dean’s collaboration with the legendary George Toot. I can’t imagine how I overlooked him. Well, actually I can. You didn’t tell me that Dwayne changed his name, did you?’

Lottie looks a little confused. Or she pretends to look confused. I never know what to believe with her. I’d probably go so far as to say that women are a mystery to me. I will never be able to understand the perverse logic of their thought processes. How their expressions never give away what they might be thinking. Or their actions. I can’t help but think about the time I took Anna to The Coach and Horses for our anniversary. She spent hours getting ready, and then in the middle of dinner she told me she was planning to leave me. Any man who claims he can see through a woman is probably missing a lot.

‘Did you manage to find what Dwayne Crenshaw has been up to recently?’ Lottie asks.

‘Aha!’ I say. ‘All the sites seem to suggest that Dean Callisto …… alias Dwayne Crenshaw is living in New York with his new wife, Tara. She is seventeen, according to the whatsheuptonow.com site. He’s working on a new album and is planning a comeback tour later in the year.

‘Really?’

‘Yes, Lottie. Do you think the person living in the house in Bougainvillea Heights that I’m watching may not be your husband? Could he be an impostor? ……. Or is there something you are not telling me?’

LOTTIE

How on earth did he come up with all that wish-wash about Dwayne Crenshaw being Dean Callisto? Has he been researching on uncyclopedia.com or something? ……. Wait a minute! I see what’s going on. Having discovered that I was spinning him a yarn, he is now trying to get one over on me. I may have underestimated Landon Truitt. He might be smarter than he looks. Not that he looks too bad now that he’s smartened up a bit. But still.

‘OK. You’ve called my bluff on that one,’ I say. ‘What did you really find out?’

‘It may seem odd, Lottie, what with Dwayne Crenshaw being such an unusual name, but there are literally hundreds of Dwayne Crenshaws and each one of them seems to live a complicated life.’

‘I would have imagined there would be only one or two in the world.’

‘So would I. There are sixty-four in the UK alone. However, the good news is that I’ve managed to isolate our Dwayne Crenshaw.’

‘And ….’

‘He sold the house in Bougainvillea Heights six months ago to a film company. Funnily enough, the film company he sold it to is owned by Dean Callisto.’

‘Bloody hell! You are kidding, right?’

‘Not this time. Truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?’

LANDON

We are in Lottie’s plush apartment in Compton Mews to discuss my findings on the case. She says she doesn’t have any tea. She has poured me a gin and tonic instead. Gingerly, I fill her in on the house sale.

‘Dean Callisto?’ she says. ‘Good Lord!’

I come out with ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ or some such platitude to try to minimise the impact.

There is a momentary silence. I wait nervously for her reaction. Lottie gets up and walks around the room.

‘Six months ago, you say?’

‘That’s right.’

There is a more prolonged silence. I take a gulp at my G and T, wondering whether I should elaborate. Lottie continues to pace up and down. I imagine I might now be off the case. I’ve had cases like this before. Too many of them. Cases where I haven’t come up with the desired result and haven’t been paid. Not to be paid is the last thing I need right now. And I can hardly send Nolan Rocco or Charlie Gunn round to sort Lottie out. While I haven’t up to now intimated that I have a cash flow issue, I suggest politely that she might want to settle the account early. Get it out of the way. Get it off her chest. Perhaps she takes this too literally.

‘I was wondering if we couldn’t negotiate that,’ she says, unbuttoning her blouse.

Lottie is certainly an attractive woman. I have been struggling with this feeling all along, but surely there is professional etiquette to be considered. Isn’t there? …… Oh well, perhaps not. It seems we are quickly able to overcome this obstacle.

To my surprise, there is little embarrassment afterwards. It seems like it is the most natural thing in the world for Lottie and I to be sipping a post-coital cocktail with a fancy name and talking about how we can market my investigative skills to make some real money. If I am to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed, she feels I need to make some changes. Get some new cards made up for a start.

‘Ditch honest and trustworthy,’ she says. ‘Sentimental advertising regarding scruples gets you nowhere in the twenty-first century. You don’t want to be chasing around after Mrs Floyd’s cat forever, do you?’

‘What about deceitful and arrogant?’ I suggest.

‘Ha ha. Let’s see,’ she says. ‘Licensed and Bonded inspires confidence and implies a level of trust.’

‘Landon Truitt, Private Detective, Licensed and Bonded’
Get rid of Private Detective. Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded is better or perhaps Private Investigations Agency. Clients like to feel that there is a team working for them.

‘Landon Truitt Private Investigations Agency.’

‘Perhaps change Landon Truitt. How about Simon Alexander or Jonathan Steel?’

‘I don’t know …..’

‘That’s settled then, but first things first. Dwayne Crenshaw. What are we going to do about Dwayne Crenshaw?’

‘Find him would be a good start.’

‘You’ll be able to do that, won’t you? Now that you have a little incentive.’

‘I can’t see a problem there. I’ll get on to it right away.’

‘Well. …… Perhaps you might leave it for a few minutes, don’t you think?’

LOTTIE

Men are simplistic creatures. God may have given them both a penis and a brain, but sadly only enough blood supply to use one at a time. They might as well just have an on-off button. And they are so incredibly self-absorbed they never realise that they are being manipulated. However, that said, Landon shapes up better than most. He is a sweetie. He understands something has to be done about my husband. He thinks his friend Charlie might be able to persuade Dwayne that it is in his best interests to offer me a generous settlement. I think Landon and I are going to get along just fine.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cover Illustration by ArtTower on Pixabay


NIGHT

night3

NIGHT by Chris Green

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs blown in on the wind, or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the noise from the night workers laying the new cables for the listening centre and the beefy Alsatian from two doors down barking at a visiting fox in the garden. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block out the noise, but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away. Even if the voices stop, the door is open and they come flooding in. He is at their mercy. 

The voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank realises he will not get back to sleep. Finally, he wakes Linda up. It annoys him sometimes that Linda can sleep through anything, even Mrs Oosterhuis’s television on loud at 3 a.m. 

‘Can you hear anything,’ he asks?

‘You’re not going to go on about Randy what’s-his-name again, are you?’ says Linda, moving restlessly in the bed. ‘Look! I can’t hear a thing. Now, can we go back to sleep?

Are the voices in his head, perhaps, Hank wonders, not for the first time? Nothing more than figments of his imagination? 

Clint, a colleague of Hank’s at Desperados, the country and western club where he helps behind the bar at weekends, tells him about Rose Pink, a therapist that his wife, Betsy Lou has been seeing. He suggests Hank makes an appointment to see her. Betsy Lou has come on in leaps and bounds, he says, and can now even go to the gun shop on her own. 

Hank makes an appointment to see Rose Pink the following Thursday morning. He is a little apprehensive as he has done nothing like this before. He has always seen therapy as some kind of punishment for drug addicts and psychopaths. Not something for average Joes who live a normal life. Despite his reservations, he steels himself and goes along to the house in the suburbs where Rose Pink practices. At first, she does not appear to hear him over the Black Sabbath track that is playing, an odd choice, he feels, for a psychotherapist. In the break between tracks, he gets her attention. She comes to the door. She is wearing ripped jeans and a Breaking Bad t-shirt. Hank guesses she is a few years younger than him, the right side of forty, perhaps.

She turns the music off and apologises for keeping him waiting. She sits him down in a comfortable chair and after a shaky start, Hank tells her about his nocturnal demons.

‘Who is this …… Randy Van Wormer,’ Rose Pink asks? 

‘Van Warmer. It’s Randy VanWarmer,’ says Hank. ‘He’s a singer-songwriter. From Colorado but he grew up in Cornwall. He’s a one-hit-wonder. He had his big hit back in 1979. It was called Just When I Needed You Most. When my father left her and ran off with a waitress from Hungry Jacks, my mother played it over and over for days. It’s a truly heart-wrenching song. Have you never heard it?’

‘No, I don’t believe I have,’ says Rose Pink.

‘You are lucky,’ says Hank. ‘The ultimate unwelcome earworm.’

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

‘Anyway, Randy VanWarmer died in January 2004 on the same day that my mother died. I was seven years old. From that time I became aware of his ghost.

‘Come on now, Hank!’ Rose Pink says. ‘You don’t believe all that crap, do you? You’re a grown man. I mean, look at you. You must be six foot, even without your Stetson. Don’t you think it’s time to get a grip? Pull yourself together!’

This is not the type of response that Hank expects. It says on the Internet that empathy and understanding are the bedrock of psychotherapy. Rose Pink’s take on it seems to be an unnecessarily aggressive one.

‘Look, here’s an idea,’ she continues. ‘Before you go to bed, why don’t you play Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City a few times. That’s what I do if I feel stressed. Paradise City will see off any other potential earworm. Guaranteed! Now! About these other things that stop you sleeping.’

Although he is losing faith in Rose Pink, Hank gives her a brief account of the things that keep him awake at night, the night workers laying the cables for the spy base, the singsong of chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television, the neighbour’s Alsatian.

‘Let’s look at these one at a time,’ Rose Pink says. ‘There’s not much you can do about the cabling, or perhaps the revellers, but the other issues are easily resolvable. You could threaten Mrs Oosterhuis. You could tell her that the next time you hear her TV you’ll come round and put a hammer through the screen. And the fellow with the Alsatian. Why don’t you just go round and punch his lights out?’

‘But once I get the idea that I’m not going to be able to sleep, it stays there,’ Hank says.

‘For Christ’s sake, man! The answer to that one is easy,’ Rose Pink says. ‘Don’t get the idea in the first place. Drink a tumbler of rum or something before you go to bed.’

Hank suddenly realises why Clint’s wife Betsy Lou is usually swaying from side to side when he sees her. 

Despite this, Hank decides to give the rum cure a go. He buys a bottle of Captain Morgan from BargainBooze and, while Question Time is on, pours himself a generous tumbler. Although Linda gets upset about him shouting ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ at the politicians, the public, the pundits and even the presenter throughout the programme, the rum seems to do the business. By 11:30, he is sleeping like a baby. He did not even need Guns n’ Roses.

Hank wakes at 3 a.m. however. Against the background of the neighbour’s Alsatian dog barking madly at a fox in the garden, he can hear the raised voices of revellers coming back from the late-night clubs and Mrs Oosterhuis’s television turned up louder than ever. Perhaps she has been out and bought a new 56-inch model. As if this weren’t enough, he can hear Randy VanWarmer’s ghost belting out his erstwhile hit. And more. The elaborate sonic picture reverberates around his aching head. Next to him, Linda is sleeping the sleep of the just. 

Hank gets up and makes himself a cup of tea but it is no good. The demons are with him now. No matter what he does, he knows he will continue to be at their mercy. If just one of them would stop. For instance, why can’t the fox just slink off somewhere and what are people still doing coming home from clubs at 5 a.m.?

Although it is the busiest time of year at the surfboard repair centre, Hank tells them he is sick. He says it must be something he ate. He phones Rose Pink and she finds a lunchtime slot in her schedule, one that she says she sets aside for emergencies. At first, she does not hear his knock, but eventually, the Sonic Youth track ends, and he knocks again. This brings Rose Pink to the door in her black t-shirt and punk Goth leggings. He notices her hair is a different colour to the previous day, more purple.  

‘This had better be good,’ Rose Pink says, by way of a greeting.

‘Thankyou for seeing me at such short notice,’ says Hank. ‘It’s very good of you.’

‘Just get on with it, will you?’ Rose Pink says. ‘Did you do what I said?’

‘I did. I drank nearly half a bottle of rum, but I woke in the night and there was what I can best describe as a new intensity to the disturbance,’ Hank says. ‘As if it’s all closing in. And getting louder. And going on for longer. Added to which, Randy VanWarmer seems to have also found a new song. It’s called I Never Got Over You.’

‘Sounds pretty miserable,’ Rose Pink says. ‘But you seem to like this …… slit your wrist country music.’ 

‘I like real country music,’ Hank says. ‘George Jones, Merle Haggard …… ‘

‘Now you are splitting hairs,’ Rose Pink says. ‘It’s all indulgent, self-pitying drivel. You have to distance yourself from all of that crud. You need to rock a little.’ 

‘But …… ‘

‘You have to take the rough with the smooth. Tackle things, head-on. Take control of the situation.’

‘But ….. ‘

‘Christ, Hank! What are you, a man or a mouse?’

‘I thought therapists were supposed to show understanding and compassion.’

‘Oh, that’s what you read, was it? Well, buster! That’s not therapy, that’s babysitting. Real therapy requires shock and awe tactics. Goddammit! How else is anyone ever going to address their shortcomings? How do you think anyone is ever going to change if someone constantly mollycoddles them and says there, there?’

Following the session, Hank decides it is time he did something about his sorry situation. He wants to be a man, not a mouse. He begins by phoning Clint.

‘I’m not going to be able to help out at Desperados any longer, Clint,’ he says.

‘That’s a shame,’ Clint says. ‘Why’s that, Hank?’

‘All the songs we play at the club are so depressing,’ Hank says.

‘What! Willie Nelson depressing? Surely not,’ Clint says.

Next, Hank goes around to see his next-door neighbour but one. 

‘About your dog,’ he says.

‘What dog?’ says the neighbour. ‘Bruiser died three months ago.’

‘Why have you brought that hammer round?’ says Mrs Oosterhuis on his next call.

‘I’ve come to give you an ultimatum about your television,’ Hank says.

‘I don’t have a television,’ Mrs Oosterhuis says. ‘A television wouldn’t be much use to me. I’m blind.’

Hank thinks he spots a flaw in her argument.

‘If you are blind, how did you know I had a hammer?’ he says.

‘I have very good hearing,’ Mrs Oosterhuis says. ‘I grew up in the veldt in the Transvaal.’

Following on from his bout of assertiveness, Hank finds things are a little better that night. Just a trickle of revellers speaking in hushed tones make their way home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television is much fainter, and the dog comes out with little more than a muted ruff when the fox comes in the garden. And Randy VW barely gets past the opening line of his hit. This is, of course, comforting, but Hank wonders why he can still hear any of these noises at all. At breakfast, Linda suggests he must face the possibility that he is delusional. Forcefully, he feels. 

Hank debates whether he might need another session with Rose Pink to clarify exactly what is wrong. Her unconventional approach to therapy appears to have given him a nudge in the right direction, but perhaps there are more holistic ways to address his …… what should he call it? Confusion? Anxiety? Phobia? Neurosis? Not that he thinks it is going to be a walk in the park, but half the battle, as he understands it, is admitting that you have a psychological problem. He is pleased to see on Facebook that a group of neuroscientists have discovered a song that reduces anxiety by sixty-five percent. If he could perhaps replace Randy VanWarmer’s heartfelt lament with this, then he might be in business. He could play the tune, say five or six times during the day and then another five or six times before going to bed. 

After several hours of listening to Weightlessness, Hank’s breathing is barely discernible. When Linda comes home late from the salon and finds him motionless in his chair with his eyes closed, she thinks he is dead. She turns off the ethereal music that is coming from the hi-fi system and calls the NHS out of hours’ service. She tells them she does not know what has caused Hank’s catatonia but that lately, he has been showing signs of ……. confusion. 

‘Don’t do anything until the doctor gets there,’ she is told.

To steady herself, she pours herself a glass of the rum that Hank brought home. She calls out his name repeatedly to try to rouse him, but he remains immobile. 

‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ she says. ‘You haven’t gone and done anything silly, have you? You haven’t taken anything?’ 

She goes over to him and puts her hand on his wrist. She thinks she can detect a faint pulse, but not being medically trained, she can’t be sure. She might also be imagining it, but thinks she senses a slight movement in his chest.

‘Hank!’ she says, gently shaking him. ‘Hank! Wake up, Hank!’ 

 There is still no response. It is at this moment that the doorbell rings. Linda rushes to the door.

‘I’m Dr Spurlock,’ says the diminutive man in the overcoat and the large black bag standing there. 

‘Thank God you’ve come,’ Linda says. ‘Come on in.’

‘Any changes with your husband, Mrs Hank?’ Dr Spurlock asks.

‘No. No changes.’

‘Shall we take a look?’

Dr Spurlock puts his bag down and examines Hank. He feels for a pulse and then takes out his stethoscope.

‘Now, tell me,’ he says. ‘How long has your husband been like this?’

‘It is hard to say, Doctor,’ says Linda, pushing her tumbler of rum out of sight, behind a potted plant. ‘He was like it when I came home from work a little while ago.’

‘It looks as if he is …… floating, Mrs Hank. My guess is that Mr Hank is somewhere up there on the ceiling. Not usually a common condition but we’ve come across this a lot lately. Has he been listening to …… Weightlessness by any chance?’

‘He did have some strange music on when I got home, yes.’

‘That will probably be Weightlessness, Mrs Hank,’ Dr Spurlock laughs. ‘Now if you’ll just stand back, I’ll just give your husband a shot and that should do the trick. It will bring him round and in no time, he will be as right as rain.’

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of people coming home from the night shift at the foundry blown in on the wind, or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the thumping bass from the Reggae sound system at number 44 and the fierce Rottweiler from across the way howling defiantly at the moon. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out, but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away, even if the voices stop. But the voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank realises he will not be able to get back to sleep. Nor is there any point in waking Linda. There’s something inherently treacherous about night. Time to get up and listen to Motörhead again or perhaps the Pestilential Goat Live in Saigon album that Rose Pink suggested he keep back for emergencies.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved

Home Alone Too

 

Home Alone Too by Chris Green

Was it a knock that had woken her? Anna doesn’t like being alone in the big old house at the best of times, but knowing that Ron is on the other side of the world makes her more edgy. She takes a look at the clock. It is 3:13. Much too late for anyone to be calling, even if it were an emergency. Perhaps it was the wind rattling the window. She remembers that the weather forecast had not been a good one.

But she is wide awake now. It is too far into the night to be able to go straight back to sleep. She puts on her white full-length Féraud dressing gown and goes down to the kitchen. There is nothing like a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake to settle you when you are on edge. While she waits for the kettle to boil, she has the nagging feeling that something is not right. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but something feels different. She makes a quick check around the front room, the study, the utility room. Although nothing seems to be out of place, it feels as if there has been recent movement. She is familiar with this feeling. It’s not something you can put into words. There’s an energy field, a cold spot, something along those lines. She shivers. She recalls reading that the saying about someone walking over your grave originates from the Middle Ages when the distinction between life and death was less distinct.

She checks the conservatory. The lemon tree seems to have been moved. She cannot be sure, but she does not remember leaving the patio doors unlocked. She is careful about things like this. Ron’s work in security and surveillance has instilled this sensibility in her. But whether she locked them or not, they are unlocked now. And if they are unlocked, then someone could have got in, in fact, they could still be in the house. Instinctively, she picks up the nearest blunt object, in this case, the cast iron frying pan that she left on the hob. There are no obvious hiding places in the house but still, the fear remains.

She switches all the lights on and nervously patrols the rest of the house. She looks behind dressers, in cupboards, under the stairs. Nothing. She takes a torch out into the garden. Nothing. With a sense of relief, she pours the boiling water onto a camomile tea bag and sits herself down at the dining room table. She is about to give Ron a call, but she thinks better of it and puts the phone back in its cradle. There is no point in worrying him unnecessarily. He would not be able to fly back from Singapore just like that, and anyway what is all the fuss about. There is no-one in the house and she doesn’t want to let Ron know that there has been a security lapse, even one so minor.

Anna goes back to bed, but she can’t settle. Rebel thoughts about an intruder keep up their campaign. She tosses and turns. She wishes that Ron were there. He would comfort her. Perhaps they might make love. Making love usually helps to calm her when she is troubled. They say climaxing re-balances the chakras. But Ron is not there, she tells herself, nor is he going to be for a while, so she has to take command of the situation. She must pull herself together.

Ron has probably had his chakras re-balanced out east,’ says annA.

There’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it,’ Anna counters

But you’re resentful and jealous,’ says annA.

If you can’t do anything about something you should let it go,’ her protector offers.

You could even the score.’

But what would that prove.’

Of course, you are on your own and you are scared,’ says annA.

Free your mind from the judgements of others and gently go your own way in peace,’ adds Anna. ‘Things will work out if you trust reason and logic.’

The see-saw continues to rock her emotions. The wind continues to rattle the window. Eventually, at around 6 a.m. Anna manages to get off to sleep. But, after a nightmare about being held captive in a dark, dank basement in Blackheath by a one-eyed hunchback, she wakes up in a sweat. She does not normally inhabit such ghoulish dreamscapes. Her night-time world is typically occupied by people from the office or her friends from her decoupage class or the gym where she does her Pilates – in mash-ups of random everyday situations.

She showers and gets ready for work. Her stomach is churning a little, and she doesn’t feel like breakfast but forces down an oatcake with her cup of tea. She straightens her skirt and puts on a bright summer coat. She fobs her Mini Cooper, but it seems to already be unlocked. Now, this is something she never does. The car is her pride and joy and she would never leave it unlocked. Not even on the occasions, she has to go back into the house for something she has forgotten. She is spooked. The plain white envelope on the dashboard sets her heart racing even faster. It has her name on the front in fine black italic capitals. With trepidation, she picks it up and examines it. Finally, she opens it. It is empty.

She needs to get to work. Her line manager, Maurice, will know what she should do. Even before she slept with him last Christmas he was supportive, and afterwards, even though she didn’t sleep with him again. Maurice is a rock. He will put his arm around her and reassure her. He will tell her that there is nothing to worry about. He will probably tell her it is just someone having a prank. It happens all the time, he will say. She sets off, trying hard to keep this thought in mind.

Another thing she always makes sure of is that the Mini has fuel. She is so cautious that as soon as the level reaches halfway, she fills the tank. But, when the car shudders to a standstill going along the back lane onto the by-pass, she notices that the fuel gauge is registering empty. Why didn’t the red light come on? Emergency Calls Only reads the display on her phone. What is wrong with the thing? She only changed providers last month.

Lovers’ Lane, as it is affectionately known, is not what most people would think of as a sinister place. It has arable fields on both sides with well-tended hedgerows, and further along there is a pleasant area of woodland. Anna gets out of the car. The winds that were blowing through the night have died down and there is a stillness in the air. She cannot even hear the hum of traffic that you might expect to hear coming from the dual carriageway. She is about halfway along the lane. She looks up and down. Should she head back home on foot to phone the AA Roadside Assistance from there? Has her breakdown cover lapsed, she wonders? Ron is the one who takes care of these matters and he has been away such a lot lately. Should she wait for someone to come along? Even though the road is not well used, her car is blocking the highway. She can’t leave it where it is. And she hasn’t the strength to move it to a passing place on her own.

Hello, my lovely,’ says a voice from out of nowhere.

It is not the knight in shining armour or the good Samaritan she is hoping for. It is the one-eyed hunchback from her dream. He is carrying some kind of axe.

Dozens of stories she has heard of mad killers on the loose momentarily flash through her consciousness. The one who butchered his killers and kept them in the deep freeze. He escaped from prison a year ago. He is still on the loose. The one who skinned his victims? Was he ever caught, or is it just a character from a film she is thinking of? The cannibal murderer that was in the news recently. The line from the song by The Doors Ron sometimes plays in the car, there’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad runs through her head.

The axeman is over her now. He has raised his weapon. Anna feels she is going to pass out. The last thing she remembers is …….

She is startled by a knock on the driver’s side window.

Is everything all right, love?’ the stranger says. This one is not carrying an axe. He is well dressed and has a winning smile.

What? How?’ she says, as she winds down the window. ‘Where am I?’

Are you all right?’ he asks, in soothing tones.

What happened to ….. the ….. the ….. I was …… What’s going on?’

I’m sorry I startled you,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I need to get by …… and, well, my sweet, you are blocking the road.’

Sorry,’ Anna says, finally realising where she is. ‘I’ve …….. uh. I’ve run out of petrol.’

Start it up. Let me have a look,’ the man says. ‘It may not be the fuel.’

Anna turns the key, and the engine fires up.

Look! See! It started, first time,’ he says ‘And, you’ve got over half a tank.’
Thank you. Thank you. ……. How did that happen? I could have sworn it was empty. I don’t know what to say. I get anxious sometimes when my husband is away.’

You do seem a bit shaken,’ the man says. ‘I understand. I’m alone too. Look! I live just along the lane, there. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea to settle you?’

Yes. I think I’d like that,’ Anna says, meeting his gaze. He really is quite handsome.

I’m Hugo, by the way,’ he says.

Anna notices his shirt is almost the same blue as his eyes. ‘Pleased to meet you, Hugo,’ she says. ‘I’m Anna.’

My house is that white one on the right, past the row of poplars there,’ he says, pointing. ‘The one with the gables.’

I know that house,’ Anna says. ‘The one that used to belong to the mystery writer. I pass by it every day. It has a distinctive tree on the lawn. A cedar of Lebanon I believe. I’ve often admired it.’

Cedrus Libani. It originates in The Levant. In the eighteenth century they used to be planted in the gardens of every stately home in England, but they have fallen out of favour lately, probably on account of their size.’

I’ve read they can live to be over a thousand years old,’ Anna says.

Yes,’ he laughs. ‘This one will certainly outlive you or I. Just pull into the drive, and I’ll be right behind.’

Anna manoeuvres the Mini the hundred yards along the lane to the white house, followed by Hugo in his black Mercedes Coupé. Under the shade of the cedar tree, they exchange glances. Anna feels something is in the air. It is a feeling she has had before, one involving weakness and knees, her weakness, her knees. Inside the house, one thing quickly leads to another. Before she knows it, they are in one another’s arms, kissing.

Perhaps you would like a glass of white wine,’ Hugo says. ‘Or would you prefer red?’

Maybe later,’ Anna says.

As they make their way upstairs, the magazine feature, The Secret Lives of the Ruling Classes, open on the hall table escapes her attention. This relates the gruesome tale of the Victorian serial killer, Lord Derringer. Anna may not discover, therefore, until it is too late, how in the 1860s, the 7th Earl of Derringer brutally butchered his victims with a broad axe and buried them beneath a shady tree, in many respects, similar to the one she can see through Hugo’s bedroom window as she slips off her skirt.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved


No Dark Side of the Moon

No Dark Side of the Moon by Chris Green

Don’t blow in a bear’s ear.’ the stranger in the Astrakhan coat says, as he passes me on October Avenue.

I am puzzled. Does he not realise there are no bears in these parts? The nearest thing to a bear is the Sonny Liston lookalike who works at Gary Geary’s garage, and there is no way I am going anywhere near him anytime soon. His stare is enough to floor you, not to mention the prospect of this hulk of a man coming towards you bearing a spider wrench. I always get my repairs done at Floyd’s Motors on the industrial estate. They are more friendly there.  

The stranger turns around and comes after me. ‘The bear and the bear hunter have different opinions,’ he calls out.

I pick up my pace to put distance between us. I have better things to do than listen to some wacko banging on about bears. I have to be at my Tai Chi class at six. I have ten minutes, and I have to stop at the ATM outside the SPAR on the way. We have to pay for our lessons weekly, and Yin Yan only takes cash. Yin has not been in the country long and has yet to get to grips with the British banking system. 

My partner, Emily, feels Yin is a fraud. She doesn’t recognise any of the routines he has me practice at home. She tells me I ought to join her Yoga class instead to help me relax. But it seems to me, there is more to Yoga than breathing and being present. There’s all the bending and stretching. I don’t feel my limbs are supple enough to cope with all the contortions this requires. Although she keeps mentioning it, surely Emily doesn’t believe there is anything going on between me and Freya in the Tai Chi class and that this is the reason I am so keen to attend. Admittedly Freya is a stunner, but I’m old enough to be her father. And with a busy subliminal message consultation service to run, how does she imagine I could find the time to conduct an extramarital affair? Emily picked up on a Freudian slip I made when I referred to the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here as Wish You Were Her and she hasn’t let it go. It could of course be a double bluff, and Emily is having an affair with someone in her Yoga class. Rick perhaps, or Roger. She keeps talking about how accomplished these two are. Or it could be a double-double bluff and she realises this is what I will think she is having an affair so I will elect to join the class. It’s hard to read women’s thoughts. I came across a meme which said that even the condensed edition of A Guide to Women’s Logic would run to hundreds of pages, while the expanded edition of What Men Understand about Women would be a very short book.

To live with wolves, you have to howl like a wolf,’ the man in the Astrakhan coat yells as I come out of the community centre after my class. He moves in closer. His pock-marked face and black eyepatch make him appear more menacing than he did earlier. Where is Emily? She was supposed to pick me up in the car, but it seems to have slipped her mind. My call goes to voicemail, so I start to make my way homeward on foot. The madman follows. I tell him to bugger off. He takes no notice. 

I wouldn’t normally frequent The Purple Parrot. When it was The Rose and Crown. I sometimes took our dog, Elvis, in there. In an attempt to lose my pursuer, I dive in there now, hoping for a refreshing pint of Pedigree. It turns out that The Purple Parrot does not serve draught beer. Surely a pub has to serve a proper pint to call itself a pub. What has happened to the place? Is it a case of change for change’s sake? The Rose and Crown used to be a great pub. Friendly crowd of people. Good selection of ales. It was a thriving business. 

By contrast, The Purple Parrot is nearly empty and the few that are there seem to want to keep themselves to themselves. The one in the pink jumpsuit with the tri-coloured cocktail looks across at me suspiciously, but he seems harmless. At least the nutcase has not followed me in here. As I sip my outrageously priced Belgian Pilsner, my phone rings. It is Emily. She apologises for not picking me up earlier. Her meeting went on longer than planned. She says she will come and collect me now. I keep an eye out for the car and when she arrives, manage to dodge the weirdo waiting outside. I explain what has been happening. Emily feels that as usual I am over-reacting. 

Oddballs are everywhere,’ she says. ‘It’s a sign of the times. You should get used to it, Syd. And just because he wears an eyepatch, doesn’t make him dangerous.’

I can’t help thinking Emily’s dress is low cut for a logistics and stock control office meeting, and she looks a little dishevelled, but I say nothing. I do not want her to think I am becoming paranoid again.

At home, I ask Alexa who the man in the Astrakhan coat is, and she tells me he is Blofeld. I think this is improbable, not least because Blofeld is fictional. But these days, who knows? Nothing has any meaning anymore. The boundaries between reality and fiction have become blurred. You can’t rely on anything these days. We are bombarded with contradictory information day and night through advertising, the news media, Twitter and Facebook, Alexa, the graffiti on the underpass, and the know-all behind us at the supermarket checkout. Conflicting narratives, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fight for a place in our consciousness. Each idea tries to pass itself off as common-sense, helpful or normal. No longer sure what to believe, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. 

A number of unlikely phenomena have come to my attention lately. I read that abandoned mobile phones communicate with each other. How weird is that? Near the Equator, the sun sets twice on alternate Sundays. Atlantis has risen from the deep, and it is not where we expected to find. Researchers have discovered that paradox-free time travel is possible. You could now in theory go back in time, kill your own grandfather, and still exist. As Picasso said, everything you can imagine is real. Science, after all, is only magic that works. We are all made out of stars, and there is no dark side of the Moon.


© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Me and My Shadow

 

Me and My Shadow by Chris Green

The late October greyness means the beach is deserted. Now the season has ended, the beach-hut owners have shut up shop for the winter. Row upon row of these bijou coastal retreats stand empty. Many have security shutters down or are boarded up and padlocked. Perhaps it is too early, but not even the dog-walkers are out on the beach this morning. The silence is palpable. Miles and miles of sand and shingle are disturbed only by parcels of oystercatchers making the most of the retreating tide. Sara and I enjoy walking along this stretch on mornings like this when it is quiet. It acts as a meditation. It gives us the chance to reflect, and we can gather buckets of seaweed for the garden without it attracting too much attention. Seaweed is great for growing gourds.

We have never heard a gunshot in these parts before, so at first, we assume there must be another explanation for the loud retort that echoes around the bay. We see no reason why it should make any difference to our enjoyment of our lovely morning stroll. But then, up ahead behind a clump of rock, we see a figure lying face down in the sand. He does not appear to be moving. As we get closer, we see he is drenched in blood. It has soaked through his quilted lumberjack-checked shirt.

He’s been shot,’ we say simultaneously, this after a short delay in which we search for a more plausible explanation for his predicament. Something less savage than being gunned down. After all, this is not the penultimate episode of an Australian crime noir on Netflix, this is the sleepy English coast on a Sunday morning in real-time. How can the shooting have happened here? Worse, how can it have happened in plain sight without us seeing it? Did the shot come from the boat that is now speeding away? Where did the boat appear from? Why hadn’t we noticed it before now? Or see who may have boarded it? Was it in the bay all along? Or did the shot come from inland? There are plenty of places in amongst the clumps of trees where a gunman could conceal himself.

We’d better see if he’s still alive,’ Sara says, just as I am considering how best we can conceal ourselves in case we are next on the hitman’s list. Doesn’t she understand how these things work? If we are potential witnesses to the incident, then we will also be potential targets for the perpetrators.

Despite my reservations, my humanity gets the better of me. I help Sara turn the man over.

Be careful, Sean!’ she says. ‘We don’t know what damage moving him might do.’

We discover that although he has lost a lot of blood, he is still breathing. I don’t know that much about anatomy, but the bullet appears to have gone straight through him. In through the front and out at the back. Is that even possible?

I’ll call an ambulance,’ Sara says, as she tries to staunch the flow of blood. ‘They should be able to land an air ambulance somewhere around here.’

Better get the police too,’ I say.

Same number, isn’t it?’ Sara says.

Emergency numbers are not as straightforward as they used to be. Sara is put on hold while they try to find someone who can deal with her enquiry on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the poor fellow we are trying to help looks oddly familiar. It takes me a few moments to realise where I’ve seen him before. He works at the shadow repair centre in the indoor market. He is a licensed shadow surgeon. He tailors people’s shadows and silhouettes. I come across him now and again when I pop down to the flag exchange in the market to get a new flag for the mast in the front garden. I think he must have separate premises where he does the surgery. As I recall, his name is Eddie.

Shadows have been in the news lately. Do we still need them? The Shadow Reform lobby group wants to do away with them once and for all, and apparently they are becoming a powerful force. Perhaps they have changed their tactics and upped their degree of militancy. Perhaps the attempted killing here is connected to their campaign. But surely these people are nothing more than narrow-minded reactionaries or misguided fools. Shadows are vital to inter-personal communication. Studies published in both medical journals and the liberal press have consistently shown that shadows also make a significant contribution to self-esteem. With the onset of winter, it is important to make sure your shadow looks good. On a crisp winter’s day, with the sun low in the sky, there is nothing so dispiriting than a sad-looking shadow. An ill-fitting one with the wrong proportions. Or worse still, no shadow at all.

Eddie recovers sufficiently to utter a few words. He doesn’t know who shot him, he says, or where the shot came from. But he has received death threats recently. He is clearly very weak. Fortunately, within minutes, the air ambulance arrives. Working quickly, the paramedics bandage him up, give him injections and take him away to St Thomas Hospital in Highton. The police response is markedly slower. Detective Inspector Gaffer and his sidekick, D.C. Newby, call on us shortly before lunch the next day.

Mr and Mrs Alexander, isn’t it?’ D.I. Gaffer says, reading from his handheld device. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got. Edward Rosso, aged thirty-eight, works at Highton market, shot we believe with a high velocity rifle at Mudsea beach yesterday. We have the two of you down as the only witnesses.’

Should we be thankful that we are not suspects?’ I say, cynically. ‘But if we were, I imagine you would have been around yesterday, with the caution and the cuffs. Even if it was a Sunday.’

OK! OK! I take the point, Mr Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘But we are here now. What can you tell us about the incident?’

Not very much,’ I say. ‘It all happened so quickly.’

We know that Mr Trimmer has had threats on his life,’ Newby says. ‘He reported these to us a week or two ago.’

Did you not follow these leads up?’ Sara says.

The threats were anonymous, Mrs Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘Added to which, BCU only passed the information on to us the day before yesterday. What we have determined though is that a substantial body of people do not approve of Eddie Rosso’s line of work.’

He’s a shadow surgeon,’ Newby adds. ‘Whatever this is.’

But sadly, that’s all we have to go on,’ Gaffer says.

I choose not to tell them that when I go to the market to buy my flags, if he is around, I pass the time of day with Eddie. This would only complicate matters. I know Gaffer and his oppo are only doing their job, but nothing I say about any conversations Eddie and I might have had is going to shed any light on who shot him. I tell them we saw a boat leaving the scene, but I know nothing about boats so there’s nothing I can add to this. It was blue and white, or was it red and cream? It wasn’t the sort of boat that had a sail. Eventually the detectives lose interest and we get away with giving brief statements. With the usual, if you think of anything else that might help, they take their leave. I ask Sara if she could phone the hospital to check on Eddie’s progress. But I feel our lives will be simpler if we try to put the matter behind us.

.…………………………………..


In the days that follow, we hear reports of other isolated shootings that might be connected to shadow abolitionist groups. Concern begins to grow in the press about their activities. They are perhaps affiliated to home grown far-right terrorist organisations. The Daily Mail though shows sympathy with the group, and questions whether in this day and age shadows are needed. Were they ever needed, asks the Express editorial, taking it a step further? We also notice one or two reports about people unexpectedly losing their shadows. It’s possible that stories like this have been circulating for a while, but we have had no reason to notice them until now. Some people think it’s primarily psychological, but these are principally psychologists. There is a suggestion on Spiked-Online that losing one’s shadow might be down to evolution, and eventually we will all lose our shadows. But the overriding view of the phenomenon from within the scientific community is one of scepticism. In these days of fake news, charlatans abound.

Sara and I are walking side by side through the grassy meadow near the Iron Age hill-fort. As we are trying to get our lives back on an even keel, we have decided to avoid Mudsea beach for the time being. We are fortunate that we have a choice of picturesque countryside close by for our Sunday morning walks. Autumn leaves on distant trees with shades of yellow, gold, orange and red add a touch of drama to the landscape. A gentle breeze blows from the south-west and the sun is low in the sky. Not bad conditions for the beginning of November.

Sara spots it first. Her long dark shadow stretches out proudly in front of her. By contrast, I have no shadow. She lets out a scream. As she grabs my arm to point this out to me, I can see she is horror stricken. But this is nothing compared to how I feel as I become aware of my loss. Until you find you have no shadow, you can’t possibly imagine how devastating it feels to lose it. It is like losing a limb. It is worse than losing a limb. At least you know what you have lost when you lose a limb, losing your shadow is uncharted territory. At first I don’t accept it. How can it have happened? There must be a mistake. All of that talk about people losing their shadows was surely nothing more than talk. Those reports in the papers were not to be taken seriously. This is the real here and now. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a trick of the light, maybe. There has to be a rational explanation.

None is forthcoming. Sara’s shadow remains intact, but mine is not there. I no longer have a shadow. Sara is often more level-headed than I am in difficult situations. She offers to find out if Eddie is out of hospital. If he is, she will see if he has any ideas about what has happened and what can be done about it. Perhaps he knows an easy way to get a shadow back.

Eddie thanks us for saving his life. If there’s anything he can do, he says. In answer to my query, he explains that shadow recovery isn’t an exact science. It is a little like reverse engineering. It’s a step-by-step experiment. Every case is different. Trial and error, suck it and see. Apart from the physical, there is also a psychological element. I’m not sure what he means by this. Is he referring to shadow in the Jungian sense? But there’s no need for me to pursue it. I have to trust his judgement. If he is unable to reconstruct my original shadow, he says, he should be able to cobble something together. As soon as he is up and about again, he will do his best.

.…………………………………..

As Sara and I stroll along the coastal path in the January sunshine, my new shadow is on display for all to see. It is remarkable what a skilled technician can achieve. Eddie has pulled out all the stops. I am, of course, sworn to secrecy as to how he does it, but he has recovered my shadow. If you were to look at it too closely, you might spot that is not completely symmetrical. And it is perhaps a little broader than my original one. But, if anyone should draw attention to this, I could put it down to festive overindulgence. But these are minor imperfections. I am just thankful to once more have a shadow.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Lenticular Clouds

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

Lenticular clouds hang over Mount Dante in the distance. Disc-shaped and silver, they have an air of the surreal about them. You expect clouds to move across the sky with the wind, but these are stationary. Here in the town below, the inhabitants are in the midst of a heatwave. It has been searingly hot for two weeks now. Chet wishes the clouds would come over and deposit their load. His friend, Raul tells him they will not come this way. Lenticular clouds are only there because of the mountain. They could stay in place for days, hovering. They will gradually morph as the air currents push them towards the troposphere. Raul knows about weather. Before his accident, he used to be a pilot. He says they can expect another two weeks of this heat. With high pressure systems like this, rain-bearing clouds do not form, he says. There is not even a hint of a breeze. Chet wishes he were by the coast. Being landlocked in a heatwave is the worst.

Before the battery went flat, the weather app on Chet’s phone showed 44 degrees Celsius. He cannot charge the phone now. There has been no power in the town for seventy-two hours. There has been no explanation for the outage. There was talk of it being a terrorist attack, but why would terrorists target a backwater like this. News travels slowly in these parts. Rumours abound instead. The next town is forty miles away. Conditions were bad enough before the power went off, but if you had air conditioning you could stay indoors. If you did not, you could, at least, circulate the hot air with a barrage of fans. Chet did not have air conditioning and by the time he got round to thinking about fans, the stores had all sold out. He could have perhaps eaten humble pie and gone back to his parents, but anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Not even they with all their resources will have any protection against the interminable heat. A little discomfort will do them good, he reckons. What they did was unforgivable. He is better off staying with Raul. The accommodation may be basic, a collection of shacks tacked on to one another, with the occasional rat scurrying around, but the company is good.

The town has ground to a halt. The tar on the roads is turning to liquid. The air smells of creosote. Cracks are appearing in the concrete of buildings. The river bed has dried up. Blue-green algae have formed on the town’s swimming pool. There are warning notices posted outside. The water smells awful. Food is rotting in overflowing waste bins and on the streets. Everywhere is closed. No-one is going anywhere. Buses are no longer running and petrol stations are closed. The nearest airport is over a hundred miles away near the border, and the coast is the same distance in the other direction. Banks, offices and schools are closed. Even Bashir’s convenience store which is open 24/7 is closed. The hospital is closed and rumour has it that dozens are dying daily from the effects of the extreme heat. There is no way to confirm these rumours. Stores are being looted. Chet wonders how anyone can summon up the energy to loot. This would not be a prime pillaging place at the best of times.

Chet sits in the shade beneath a wilting zelkova tree on a lone patch of grass that the blistering heat has spared. He is decked out in shorts and flip flops. He has taken his CoolDude t-shirt off and is wearing it like a bandana. He is trying to read a book about the stars that Raul has lent him. Since the lenticular clouds appeared he has taken an interest in the sky. He finds he cannot concentrate on the book. The heavens are a celestial smorgasbord of byzantine complexity. It is too hot for long words to sink in. He puts the book down.

She appears as a mirage. She comes out of the sun in a thin white silk dress. Chet has never seen her before. He would remember. This is not a large town. There are perhaps five thousand people living here. He has never seen anyone like this before. She is stunning. She approaches him. She has a waterfall of obsidian hair and skin like porcelain. She has a smile like springtime. Her eyes are deep brown and look like they are made out of glass. How does she manage to look so cool in the sweltering heat? She looks as if she has stepped out of an ice cream parlour.

She puts her finger up to her lips in a gesture to signify that she requires silence for her mission. Chet is lost for words anyway. Where could he begin? She takes his hand and leads him off as if they were familiar lovers. With clandestine stealth, she bypasses the main square and the roads leading off it, through a series of narrow winding streets and labyrinthine alleys. He does not know where they are. Although it is a small town, he has not been this way before. It seems abandoned. Many of the buildings are falling apart. They arrive at a small white town-house. It is entirely in the shade. It is noticeably cooler. The sun never reaches these parts. They enter through a stuccoed courtyard. Chet finds they are in a small shuttered room, with ethnic tapestries hung on the walls. They are on a soft bed with brightly coloured linen. She draws him towards her and kisses him passionately. It is not until after they have made love that the silence is broken when his vision speaks softly to him in a language that he does not understand. To Chet, this is a small matter. Conversational consonance cannot compare to the poetry of the senses. For now, he’s going to stay.

Chet wakes with a start. He is disorientated. The room is dark and unfamiliar. There are slatted shutters on the windows but no light is coming through. It must be night-time, he decides. He is alone. He is naked. He is lying on a dishevelled bed. He cannot remember how he came to be here but he has had the most erotic dream. He is all sticky from the emission. He cannot find any clothes. Where are his clothes? There is no power for the light, so he stumbles around in the darkness. He finds the door is locked. It feels like quite a flimsy door, but he cannot move it. It must be strengthened with something to keep it firm. He is trapped. His mouth is dry. He is incredibly thirsty. A sense of panic mixed with despair rises in him. He listens for a sign of life outside of the room. There is a profound silence. It is still, not even the sound of the wind. He finds a bottle of water. It is a litre bottle and it is nearly full. There is nothing he can do but wait and hope. The last thing he remembers is reading Making Sense of the Heavens, the book that his friend, Raul lent him. He was sitting under a zelkova tree near the dried up river bed. And then …… And then …… Nothing. Then ….. the dream, if it was a dream – about an exotic temptress in white.

At dawn, he can just see out of a small crack in one of the window slats. He can see the peak of the mountain. The lenticular clouds still hang ominously over its summit.

…………………………………………..

Raul is secretly pleased with the lack of power in the town. It means that he does not have to go to work in the plant. He is painting a landscape in oils. Since he has not been able to get up in a plane, painting is the pastime he most enjoys. He would like to give up work and take up painting full time and sell his work. Although his art is accomplished, there is not a big demand for it since the recession. He has been told his brooding, haunted style is reminiscent of metaphysical Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. Although flattered, Raul doesn’t really like comparison to anyone. He feels his art is highly original. The landscapes with the elongated shadows of the town’s old decaying buildings are ideal source material for his moody studies. The emptiness of the streets since the power outage has also been inspirational. The painting he is working on has chimerical Iberian towers and arches leading to a desolate rocky desert landscape with lenticular clouds hanging over a mountain peak in the background. A lone silhouetted figure holding a broken wheel by the dried up fountain hints that all is not well. The stacked saucer shape of the clouds today is perfect for the balance of the composition.

He has to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly. He slapped it on the canvas yesterday and it cracked and blistered in the high temperatures. He daubs an arc of coral red at the base of the clouds and mixes in a dab of zinc white in situ on the canvas. It is a technique he uses a lot. He pauses to let the paint dry. He steps back to look at the work from different angles. He is pleased with its progress today. The scene has a dreamlike quality. The clouds with their otherworldliness add an air of mystery and menace.

He wonders what has happened to Chet. He did not come back last night, which is unusual as Chet likes to sit down with him for a chat over a bottle of wine. He was going to show Chet how to find the constellations, Hercules and Indus in the night sky. They are going through the celestial alphabet. Chet does not have a lot of friends. He is a bit of a loner. Surely he would not have gone back to his parents’ house. They disowned him when they found his drugs stash. And he would surely never have forgiven them for going to the police. After all, most young people around here smoke cannabis. It grows like a weed out in the badlands. The police probably smoke cannabis. They probably smoked Chet’s cannabis. They let him off with a caution.

…………………………………………..

Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

Brush still in hand, Raul turns around. He is dumbstruck. Standing there is Salvador Dalí. His handlebar moustache is fully waxed and despite the heat, he is wearing a dark three-piece suit. The immense bird of prey perched on his gloved hand is a bit of a shock too. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Raul struggles with an explanation. Not least in the mystery is the small matter that Dalí has been dead for many years. This could be an impersonator, but why would he be here? Raul can see and hear this substantial figure before him, who to all intents and purposes is the legendary painter, with an avian friend. Until a better explanation comes along, he must go by his senses.

I love the clouds,’ says Dalí, scanning the painting. ‘They are like how you say, objeto volador no identificado, yes?’

Raul composes himself for a reply. He manages, ‘Whuyuh,’ or something similarly devoid of language.

Rocks and clouds. They are the secret to a successful painting,’ Dalí continues. ‘If you remember this then your art will sell the millions and you will become famous. Let me see some more of your paisajes.’

How does one address the master, Raul wonders? The raptor on Dalí’s gauntlet is fidgeting. It looks as if it might lunge at him. The prospect makes him nervous.

Raul leads the artist into his small studio. There on rickety wooden easels are two landscapes that he has been working on. One canvas is of a seashell suspended from a classical arch in a desert landscape. In the middle of the orange sands is an oversized mannequin in black sunglasses. The other features two columns of arches set at impossible angles casting geometric shadows, in the background the silhouette of a steam train set against a yellow and green sky. Dalí walks up and down smoothing the ends of his moustache pensively.

I am thinking that I see Giorgio,’ he says. ‘I should not say this, but I did copy a lot from Giorgio. All I added really were rocks and trees. And the soft watches, of course. Oh, and tigers.’

Whilst trying to resist the comparison with de Chirico once again, Raul can’t help but feel flattered that the great Avida Dollars is appraising his work. This gives him the confidence to enter the conversation a little.

I was wondering about a perigee moon over the train in this one,’ he says. ‘And maybe darkening the sky to compensate.’

I designed a tarot pack,’ says Dalí. ‘I was very pleased with The Moon card. You cannot go wrong with a big red moon in a painting.’

When I was a boy I wanted to go to the moon,’ says Raul. ‘I asked my parents and they said that NASA weren’t recruiting in these parts, so I trained to be a pilot instead.’

When I was a boy I wanted to become Dalí,’ says Dalí. ‘So that is what I did.’

You can never tell how things are going to turn out, can you,’ says Raul. ‘Sometimes in life, there is great irony. I was taking aerial photographs of the moon when my plane crashed.’

I could tell how things were going to turn out,’ says Dalí. ‘I knew I would be a great painter. I knew I would be famous. It was my destiny. It was in the stars.’

I study the stars,’ says Raul. ‘I’ve been teaching my friend, Chet how to read the night sky. I am showing him where to find the constellations. But he has disappeared.’

People come and go. Things appear and disappear,’ says Dalí. ‘All things must pass. My good friend, George Harrison told me that.’

He did not come back last night.’

Last night I could see the stars. The night sky is very clear,’ says Dalí. ‘What has happened to the lights? Is there no electricity here?’

No-one knows why the power is off,’ says Raul. He disappears behind a curtain to fetch some other canvases to show Dalí. When he returns there is no sign of the artist. He is fanned by the wings of a large black raptor as it flies off with a small rodent in its talons.

…………………………………………..

Time passes slowly for Chet in the locked room. After initial attempts to break down the door and dismantle the shutter, he has given up. He has disturbed the shutter enough to allow a shaft of light through and if he puts his face up against it, he can see out. He is facing a whitewashed wall. He can just see the peak of the mountain and the lenticular clouds capping it. He has given up shouting for help too. He is wasting valuable energy by doing so. It is clear that no-one is around.

He tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. How much of it was real and how much of it a dream? Being brought to a secret lair and seduced by an exotic angel is certainly the territory of dreams, but here he is. In this unfamiliar room. How did this happen? Was he drugged? Perhaps the water he is drinking contains some potion. According to transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Raul is fond of quoting, reality is a sliding door. His friend would probably have an explanation for what is going on. He has a far greater experience of life. Growing up in a household where he was never encouraged to think for himself, Chet finds clarity elusive. All things seem shrouded in mystery. He has few answers. There are many questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea salty? Why do fools fall in love? And presently, and most importantly, why is he being held captive? He can think of no reason. His imprisonment would seem to benefit no-one. Also, it contradicts the initial experience where he was made more than welcome by the libertine lorelei who brought him here.

How long will a litre of water last, he wonders? It is either half full, or half empty now.

…………………………………………..

Raul takes a long pull on his beer. The warm bottled beer in the Agave Bar is unpleasant, but he feels he needs one. He has no wine at home and everywhere else is closed. The Agave never closes. It would take an earthquake. Sol, the barman seems to live at this dark and dingy bar. Raul asks him if Chet has been in.

No. I don’t believe he has,’ says Sol. Not seen him since you brought him in a while back.’ He explains that since the power outage hardly anyone has been in. He is ready to launch into a rant about the loss of trade that the power outage is causing. Sol is not aptly named. His disposition is anything but sunny.

Noah, who has been sat at the bar listening, interrupts him. ‘Is that the posh kid?’ he asks Raul.

Guess that’s who you mean,’ says Raul. ‘Why, Noah? Have you seen the lad?’

Think I did, now you come to mention it,’ says Noah. ‘He was with a pretty girl. I was sure surprised. Never seen him with anyone but you before. Had him down as a ….. well, a bit of a loner.’

When was this?’

Yesterday afternoon it must have been. They were heading for the old town. Did you see him, Jake?’

Jake looks up from the bottle of tequila he is nursing. ‘No, Noah, can’t say I did.’

Where do you think they were going?’ says Raul.

Well, I have no idea. I’m not going to be following them, am I, although she was quite a stunner,’ says Noah.

Nobody goes up there much since the ….. uh, emergency, do they?’ says Sol. Sol doesn’t get out anywhere that much. He has the pallor of a dedicated barman.

What actually happened?’ asks Raul. He has heard all kinds of rumours, but small towns can generate fanciful stories.

Noah and Jake look at one another. Neither of them says what they are thinking.

The outbreak,’ says Sol. ‘There was an outbreak of something, wasn’t there?’

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

I’m going up there,’ says Raul doggedly. ‘Thank you, boys, for the information.’

…………………………………………..

It is morning, or perhaps it is afternoon. Chet cannot tell. Daylight is spilling through the shutter. He is woken up by a noise of someone outside. He hasn’t slept much. He is drowsy. With a rattle of keys the door opens. With the light now from the open door, he sees her standing there in all her finery. The same little white dress, the same waterfall of obsidian hair. She has brought a basket of fruit. She hands him a peach. He devours it ravenously. She slips out of her dress. She joins him on the bed and kisses him passionately. He responds to her touch. She responds to his. She is wet. Ardently they make love. It is as if nothing has happened since the previous time they were together. They are just resuming the assignation, where they left off. There are no recriminations.

Afterwards, as they share the fruit, she speaks to him in the language that she spoke to him before. The difference is, now, he finds he can understand her. This is inexplicable. It is the same language, but it is no longer foreign to him. His mind is buckling with incomprehension. How can this be happening?

She tells him that although she is made up of flesh and blood, she is insubstantial, like a spirit. She can only appear in the material world under a particular set of circumstances. She says that she cannot explain any further for now, as it would only confuse him more. What she requires from him is his trust.

When you appear, can everyone see you?’ asks Chet.

No, not everyone.’

When you disappear, where do you go?’

Please do not ask any more questions, as I cannot answer them,’ she says. ‘Just trust me is all that I ask of you. You will be rewarded if you put your faith in me. Let’s go and get your clothes. We have to go. Time is short.’

…………………………………………..

The church clock is stopped at eleven minutes past eleven as Raul makes his way through the town. The scorching heat saps his strength. The streets are still deserted. There may be no power, but where is everyone, he wonders. Where do they all go? Life cannot stop because there is no electricity. He notices that the sky over the mountain top is changing. Normally the wind blows right through lenticular clouds. They form in the crest of the mountain wave where the rising updraught of the wave has cooled and moisture has condensed. The clouds dissipate in the downdraught of the wave where the air has descended and warmed to the point where the moisture evaporates. The stacked saucer effect of the lenticular clouds above Mount Dante has gone. They are scattered. They are brightly coloured, almost psychedelic. The shape that is forming and the rich hue of the clouds suggest they are dispersing. When he was flying, Raul was careful to avoid cloud banks like this. They could cause dangerous turbulence.

As he approaches the crumbling ruins of the old town he becomes conscious of an eerie hush. It is like entering another world, a world of spirits perhaps. It has been a no-go area for so long, he cannot remember why the townsfolk abandoned it, but Noah and Jake’s conspiratorial silence seemed to have suggested he should avoid it. Apprehensively, he enters the network of narrow winding streets. The cobbled road surface is covered in sand and strewn with assorted debris. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper compete for space on windowless ruins and gutted houses. Tumbleweed grows amongst the rubble. A path leads off to the right into a labyrinthine series of alleys, each lifeless and silent. It is a much larger area than it first appears. He feels his hopes of finding Chet here evaporating.

…………………………………………..

Chet and his revenant run hand in hand out of the dark void and into the light. The lenticular clouds over the mountain look spectacular. The whole sky is alive in a fluid chromatic explosion. It is as if the heavens are hosting a titanic light show for the Gods by a mythic rock band. It is breathtaking. Alas, all things must change. Nothing is permanent. Dreams fade, bubbles pop, and clouds evaporate. The carnival will soon be over. The lenticular clouds over Mount Dante will be gone by the end of the afternoon.

We have to be quick,’ Chet’s vision says. ‘Soon the power will come back on, and I too will disappear.’

He asks a thousand questions, all at once. She does not hear. Already her form is fading.

…………………………………………..

Chet and Raul sit on the stoop taking in the evening sunshine over a glass or two of red from Bashir’s new delivery. A gentle breeze rustles the canopy. Chet is pleased that it is a little cooler. The heat really got to him, he says, and he didn’t know where he was without the internet. Anything could have been happening and he wouldn’t know about it. He had some very strange thoughts. He wondered if he was going mad. Raul says that the heat didn’t bother him, nor the lack of electricity.

I’m glad the clouds have gone, though,’ he says. ‘There’s something about lenticular clouds that makes me uneasy.’

I know exactly what you mean,’ says Chet. ‘They don’t bring any rain. It’s a bit like thunder without the lightning. It throws you off balance.’

And they are there for days, just hovering.’

Bound to have an effect’

Like the moon and the stars.’

We’ll probably never know the full story.’

Mysteries should remain mysteries. The universe is full of secrets.’

We’ll have to get back on to the constellations tonight. We were up to H, weren’t we?’

That’s right, Hercules is next, and Indus.’

What about another glass of wine?’

I did manage to get some painting done, though,’ says Raul. ‘I don’t expect you noticed.’

I love the new picture,’ says Chet. ‘It reminds me of one I saw by Salvador Dalí.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Tomorrow Never Knows

Tomorrow Never Knows by Chris Green

Vicky was finding it difficult to remember things. Friends of hers, in their fifties and sixties, suggested that her memory was unlikely to get any better. As you grew older, they said, those peripheral places where the past was stored were harder to find. They told her how they constantly forgot important dates and events, and often asked for the same information over and over. They increasingly needed to rely on the internet and other memory aids to remind them of things they thought they knew.

A diary is essential,’ said Naomi, who was fifty-eight. ‘How else would I know where I have been, or who I have seen?’ Vicky did not see Naomi as someone who led a particularly chaotic life. Taking the dog to the vet was a bit of an outing.

You can use a diary to express your feelings,’ said Emily, who was sixty-one. ‘You can let off steam when you put your mind to it, and I find this helps a lot.’ Married, as Emily was, to Colin, Vicky could see that she might sometimes need this outlet.

A’ve kept a diary since Ah was a wee lassie. an’ noo a’ve got no-ain tae gab tae at nicht, Ah fin’ mah diary’s a stoatin comfort,’ said Fiona, who was sixty-four and recently widowed. Murdo had died last year as a result of a hunting accident in the Highlands, or was it a rare blood disease.

Vicky, who was still only forty-eight, began to put aside five or ten minutes each night before she went to sleep to record the day’s events and to put down her thoughts. She became quite disciplined about this ritual. She quickly found that writing a diary simplified her life. No matter how late she went to bed, she would find time to put pen to paper.

Memory is a fickle apparatus, its performance imprecise and unpredictable. Vicky could remember some things from long ago clear as a bell and she was able to reconstruct large sections of her life around a particular episode from way back. But when she tried to remember what happened last week or earlier that day, she drew a complete blank. Sometimes the reverse was true. This was particularly frustrating. She would lie awake at night trying to piece together what happened in the Summer of 1994 or the Spring of 2001. Or what she had done in the months between splitting up with Hugh and meeting Grant. She would get so far and then draw a blank. She could feel a pulsing ache from the feverish activity taking place in far reaches of the hippocampus as the fruitless search for information progressed. As well as gaps in her recollections, Vicky was also faced with the bewilderment brought on by false memory. Where did random rogue recollections come from? There appeared to be no way of checking the accuracy of her account of anything that happened long ago. She wished that she had started keeping a diary sooner.

It was June 6th, a Friday. Vicky had had a full-on day. It had started well with the news that Alice and Alex were going to make her a grandmother, but had gone downhill with the shunt in the Lexus at lunchtime, and got worse when she found out her car insurance had lapsed. Why hadn’t she had a reminder? Perhaps she had had a reminder. Why hadn’t she put the renewal date in her diary? The office in the afternoon had been a nightmare. Her computer picked up a virus and the photocopier broke. Dinner with Doug at the Dog and Duck had been a disaster. Doug drank far too much and had embarrassed her in front of clients. The phone call from Phil at eleven asking her to work in the morning was all she needed.

To put down her reflections on the day, she took out her diary, which she kept in a drawer in her bedside cabinet. To her astonishment, she found that the page for June 6th had already been filled in – in her neat handwriting, as had the pages for June 7th, June 8th and June 9th, in fact, every day up until July 5th. She read the day’s entry in horror. It gave an accurate description of her day, complete with an up to date appraisal on how she was feeling towards Doug. Those were the exact words she had used when he had asked her to run him home.

Charlotte, Vicky’s friend from the amateur swimming club, was not pleased to get the call. She had been in the throes of passion with her new friend, Piers, at the time, and had only answered on the premise that any call after midnight must be important. It was a few minutes before she put Vicky’s call into this category. But Vicky had been a friend for years and she could tell that she was distraught. Pleas for her to calm down only brought on another outburst.

What does it say for tomorrow?’ Charlotte asked finally. ‘I mean today.’

Vicky read out the diary entry for June 7th.

Simple! Don’t go to work in the morning, then the diary entry will be proved wrong,’ said Charlotte.

I think I do have to go to work. Important deadlines, and all that. June, as you know, is always a busy time at East Asian Travel.’

Then you must make sure that you do not go to town in the afternoon and then the rest cannot happen,’ Charlotte said. ‘You don’t have to buy the surrealist painting of the naked saxophone player with the New York skyline by the unknown Spanish artist.’

I suppose not, but it’s one of a pair along with a blind trumpet player looking out to sea that I’ve already got. The pictures are quite amazing.’

Vicky!’

OK. You’re right, Charlotte. I won’t go, and I won’t buy the cinnamon-scented wax plant from Tree Hugger Nurseries. I won’t even pick up the Lexus from the panel beaters.’

And you don’t really need to get a wetsuit from Albatros Diving, do you? So that’s your diary day cancelled out.’

After a night of tossing and turning, and a dream about drowning in a rip-tide off the Bay of Biscay, Vicky made it into work. Her in-tray reflected the busyness of the summer season. She was faced with a long list of people to phone about their travel plans, and hundreds of tickets and letters to be sent out. Why couldn’t East Asian Travel make greater use of the Internet like everyone else did these days?

Phil, normally so aloof, was being exceptionally helpful and had even brought in some cakes.

I’ll give you a lift in to pick up your car, my sweet,’ he said, putting his arm around her shoulder. Was he flirting with her? No, it turned out. He was just softening her up to work Sunday. She did not find this out until after they had picked up the wetsuit. bought the painting, been to the garden centre and she had helped choose a birthday present for Phil’s wife.

If Vicky had remembered her diary entry for the day, depending on viewpoint, she would have seen that she was going into work, or according to what was written, had been into work, on the Sunday. She would also have anticipated, or recalled, Doug’s unwelcome call in the afternoon. And what was she doing at Frankie and Benny’s with Toni? She never went out on a Sunday evening and she hated pizza.

Following this, Vicky decided to read the entries carefully for the whole period that was filled out. She tried to commit the events of each day to memory. But, over the next few days, no matter how hard she tried to contradict her proscribed schedule, circumstance conspired against her. She ended up doing exactly what was written in her journal. Even the most unlikely episodes took place. How could you predict that a TV celebrity was going to die in a balloon accident? And what were the chances of meeting your primary school teacher who you hadn’t seen for forty years in the traffic-free area outside Monsoon?

I can’t see what the problem is,’ said Naomi. ‘It takes the hard work out of keeping a diary if it’s already filled in.’ Naomi hated surprises. She liked everything to be just so.

It makes it seem like fate,’ said Emily. ‘I met a clairvoyant the other day. She does readings over the phone. Colin says its a load of old crap but I believe things happen for a reason.’ In Emily’s world, everything from tarot to teacup readings could help to simplify life’s great mysteries.

Fiona was more sympathetic. ‘Ah can ken wa yoo’re scared,’ she said. ‘Ah woods be terrified. Quantum leaps ur somethin’ ye expect tae bide in science fection where they belang.’

Much of Vicky’s diary-week was predictable, inasmuch as it consisted of regular activities, like go swimming after work on Tuesday, or go to her evening art class on Wednesday. She did not know why she wrote it down. Half of it was meaningless. Did it matter that she had cooked a casserole or had an erotic dream? Or that the cat had been in a fight or the parlour maple was flowering? After all, it flowered every June at about this time. Because it was written in the diary, she made a special effort not to call Eric, the cooker repairman in to replace the faulty oven fan, but he called around anyway on the off-chance that she might need a domestic appliance repair done. However, some of what she had apparently written for the week was unusual. She had the same dream that she had recorded in the diary of her travelling, as a man, on a bus in Barcelona, listening to The Cinematic Orchestra on a music player with oversized headphones, while the Christmas dinner was cooking. She was looking out for the railway station where she had to catch the 5:25 train to take her back to the place where she caught the bus. She calculated she would just about make it on time. The family, not her family but a family put together from unconnected people remembered from childhood, were waiting in the Las Ramblas apartment and when she arrived back the pheasant roast would be ready to serve. Not the kind of dream you would expect to have twice.

The Mariachi band marching past her house playing Bésame Mucho every morning was a bit random too, and the dead owl on the doormat, unexpected. And what were the chances of finding yourself in a lift with the author, Frank Biro? For the whole week, the mundane and the exceptional matched exactly what was recorded in the diary. It seemed her free will was gradually being broken. By Friday, she was in panic mode.

Confusion of this nature is commonly caused by overwork,’ said Dr Chandrasekar, the young locum who was filling in for her regular GP, Dr Sadness. ‘What is your job?’

Vicky told him she was in the travel business.

Ah!’ he said. ‘This is one of the worst jobs for work-related stress and anxiety. And of course, it’s worse in the summer months, am I right?’

Vicky thought that perhaps he was stating the obvious, but agreed.

Do you drink alcohol regularly?’ he asked. ‘Alcohol as you probably know can make one delusional.’

Vicky confessed that she had popped an extra bottle of red or two into the supermarket trolley in the past few days, to help cope with the trauma, but as a rule, she didn’t overindulge.

How many units a week on average would you say?’

There was a time for honesty, but she felt this wasn’t it. ‘About eight or nine,’ she said.

No recreational drug use, I take it.’

Absolutely none. Not for many years.’

I think what I’ll do is write you out a prescription for some tablets. Now you take six a day and in a few days, I think you should start to feel less anxious.’

Risperdal!’ said Charlotte. ‘He gave you Risperdal! That’s what they give to people with schizophrenia. Six a day! Definitely not, Vicky.’ She listed the side effects. They included hypersalivation, insomnia, mood disorders and suicidal tendencies.

So what do you suggest?’ said Vicky.

I’ve started seeing a Sand Tray therapist,’ said Charlotte.

What on earth?’

She gets me to alter the positions of miniature objects which represent people and events. She says that will help me make the same changes in real life.’

And has it helped?’

Well it’s early days, but I do enjoy playing in the sandpit.’

Vicky went instead to Aurora, a non-directive psychotherapist she found in Circles of Light. Sessions consisted of Aurora listening to a free-flowing narrative of Vicky’s inner world while she clicked a set of coral worry beads.

I am in a large institution, a sort of self-contained metropolis, and I am being initiated into an elaborate catalogue of rules and regulations and procedures that apply there,’ said Vicky. ‘Leader issues me with instructions for classes I have to attend. When I have finished one, he tells me I have to attend the next one which will start at 10 p.m. and then the next one at midnight and then one at 2 a.m. and so on. I accidentally miss one and am reprimanded. He tells me I will have to go to extra classes as a result. The procedures are very rigorous. I have to walk this way or that way along corridors and up staircases by following arrows. I have to take particular colour-coded emblems that I have been issued with along to each class. It has to be the correct colour, and I do not know how to choose. No one has told me and I keep making mistakes. I have to keep a record of my progress. In my small room, I spend hours filling out a spreadsheet, which in turn makes me late for my next class. Other people I meet seem to accept the regime as normal.’

And how do you feel about it?’ asked Aurora.

I feel trapped of course, as if I am imprisoned. I want to get out,’ said Vicky.

Go on,’ said Aurora.

I am walking through one of the large covered spaces and I see a sturdy figure swimming with powerful strokes through a central channel, helped by the flow of a fast-flowing stream. I try to point this out to one of the acolytes and he says there is no stream, it is a gravel path. I mention it to Leader, and he is pleased that I have told him. It means that someone is trying to escape and now he will be able to stop them. As a result, my status within the institution seems to change. I no longer have to go to classes. I am now in a massive glass atrium. I am sitting on the grass along with some others, eating doughnuts, with a texture like styrofoam. The atmosphere here seems much more relaxed. I notice there are tall glass sliding doors at the front of the atrium. I see people on the outside going about their daily life. They appear sketchy, like figures in an architect’s drawing. Someone in a harlequin suit says to me that it is an illusion, fate has no outside. You are always inside. I do not want to believe him, and I make for the doors, which slide open, but close just as I am about to reach them. I try this several times but there is no way out….. Then I wake up.’

I will see you again next Tuesday,’ said Aurora. ‘We can talk more about it then.’

Phil felt Vicky might be able to distract herself by working longer hours while Doug suggested she ought to stop being so selfish and think about others for a change. Vicky wondered if it might not be better to just go with the flow and see what happened. After all, according to the diary, nothing fatal was about to happen before July 5th. She decided that she would not deliberately try to follow what was written, but neither would she try and avoid it.

This scheme worked well for a few days. Everything went according to plan. What was written in her diary and what happened each day continued to match, but on Thursday she noticed an anomaly. She had gone to see True Story at The Plaza and not Never Lose Focus at the Savoy. When she looked through the diary entry again, the original entry had changed, which would mean that in her absence the diary was rewriting itself. It had changed, hadn’t it? Vicky could not be sure of anything anymore. Her memory was not to be relied upon. This was the reason she had started writing her diary in the first place.

The cheque from the insurance company didn’t arrive on Friday and she didn’t win the eBay auction for the Gaggia Espresso machine. It seemed that her real life and the diary account were getting out of sync. When she checked later, however, there was no record of the cheque or the coffee machine on the page for Friday. She was certain there had been. And it was not the hottest day of the year on Saturday as reported; in fact, it was cold wet and windy. On checking, she found this entry too had changed. On Monday she noticed that there had been an omission in the diary account. Surely she would have recorded something as important as winning tickets for Ladies Singles Final Day at Wimbledon.

You’re not sure, are you?’ said Naomi. ‘I told you this would happen to you.’

Join the club! I can’t remember what happened yesterday,’ said Emily.

It’s an early sign ay Alzheimers,’ said Fiona. ‘Age creeps up oan ye, ye ken.’

You’ll have to start making copies of your diary,’ said Naomi.

I don’t think Colin approves but I know someone who does remote viewing,’ said Emily.

Ye coods keep th’ diary oan line,’ said Fiona. ‘An’ save it tae google clood.’

On Monday evening, Vicky scanned the remaining eighteen completed pages on to her PC. She felt pleased with her resolution and that night slept without the usual apnoea or bad dreams. The next morning before work, when she checked, she found that the diary had an updated entry ‘scanned the remaining eighteen completed pages of the diary’. Her meticulous script (the rounded s, the well-formed c, the curls on the a, the lazy elongated n) was unmistakable. The scanned version, to her alarm, also had the same entry. Summer it might have been, but Vicky felt a January chill run through her. She was spooked.

Her apprehension was about to get worse. Vicky had not given much consideration to why the diary entries finished on July 5th. When a possible explanation occurred to her, it hit her like a bombshell. It came as the result of a dream in which she was driving fast towards a level crossing. It was a crossing that she was familiar with. She drove through it most days. Without the warning of the red flashing lights, the gates ahead of her closed. Realising the stopping distance at the speed she was travelling would not bring her to a halt, she tried to turn away from the crossing into a road to the right, but the car’s steering was not functioning, and when she tried to apply the brakes, she found the vehicle only had bicycle brakes. The car pushed through the gates and came to a halt in the middle of the tracks. Large black steam locomotives pulling freight headed towards her from both directions. They were approaching at breakneck speed. She had no time to get out of their path. She was going to die. On waking, it occurred to her that the out of control car signified that she had no control over her life. This was perhaps why her diary finished on July 5th. There being no record of July 6th, she was overtaken by a powerful foreboding was going to die the following day.

She examined the diary once more. The dream was now recorded in detail in both the diary and the scanned document. She unplugged the scanner and took it up to the attic. She shut down the computer. Files could not be updated and no new files could be created if it was not switched on. She turned her attention to the diary. She contemplated destroying it. She decided that this might not be the best solution, but from now on she would keep it with her at all times. She read each page again carefully, looking for clues. There was no mention of a degenerative illness or a scenario that would put her life in peril anywhere. She paid particular interest to the page for Thursday, July 5th. What was written here now became of great importance to her? She felt she had to avoid the sequence of events on this day at all costs.

For the next two weeks, she did not let the diary out of her sight except when she was asleep. Even then, although it was uncomfortable, she had it strapped to her waist under her nightdress. Except for a few omissions and oversights, her day to day experience and the account in the diary matched each other. The same things happened at work and she went to the same activities that the diary said she would. The Mariachi band now played El Jarabe Tapatio each morning and she had lunch at the new Albanian restaurant that no-one had heard of. She even had the same unexpected phone call from Doug in the middle of the night. While the synchronicity was still spooky, she was relieved that nothing untoward seemed to be happening. She appeared to have established an equilibrium. She even wondered whether she now had to avoid the events of July 5th.

On Friday, July 4th in the early evening, Vicky was taking a shower after a hot sticky day at the office. Before stepping into the shower, she had left the diary face down on the top of the laundry basket, but when she stepped out, it was gone. There had been a few seconds that she had her eyes closed while she rinsed her hair, but no one could have got into the bathroom and taken it. The door was bolted and she had not even closed the shower curtain. Caught between panic and desperation, she emptied the linen basket and threw discarded clothes and bath towels this way and that, but there was no sign of the diary, and yes, the door was still locked. She was absolutely certain that she had put the diary face down on the top of the basket, hadn’t she? Once she had given up the search and composed herself, she booted up the PC to check the diary files. These too had disappeared.

That night, in her brief spell of sleep, she dreamt that she was on holiday in a foggy former Eastern bloc country. It was the last day of her holiday and her flight was due to leave in two hours. She had not packed, and her belongings were scattered everywhere. They had a charred look about them as if they had been in a fire. She could not remember who she was with. Her travelling companion’s identity kept changing. Alice was with her now and she produced a large shiny old fashioned black pram with lots of chrome fitments. She wanted to take it on the plane. Vicky wondered how such a large item would fit into the luggage. It did not look as if it would fold away. Next, she was driving to an old church, which had recently been restored. Suddenly the sun visor in front of her dropped down. Somehow, it covered the whole of the windscreen. She could not see where she was going. She could not take her foot off the accelerator. She could hear the loud hum of the traffic ahead. She realised she was heading towards a busy main road. She woke with the sheets bathed in sweat.

Despite her shattered mental state, she made it into work. To her surprise, the day started well with the news that Alice was, in fact, expecting twins. But it went rapidly downhill with a knock in the Audi at lunchtime, and got worse when she found she had not transferred her insurance from the previous vehicle. Clearly, her memory too was going from bad to worse. The afternoon in the office was a nightmare. She spilt coffee over a customer’s suit. Her mobile phone fell into the toilet bowl. Her laptop died. The day did not improve. Her dinner date with Danny at Dino’s was a disaster. Unlike Doug, Danny did not drink. But after a bottle of Argentinian Malbec and a large brandy, Vicky embarrassed herself with her outpouring of emotion. At the end of the evening, Doug did not ask if he might see her again. Phil’s phone call at eleven-thirty, telling her that East Asian Travel was to cease trading and that she was out of a job, was the final straw.

Vicky reached into the drawer of her bedside cabinet for her diary to record the day’s events. It was an instinctive reaction. Even though it had been the mother of all bad days, it had to be done. She had somehow forgotten that the diary had gone missing. Yet, there it was in its usual place. She opened it up where it was bookmarked, only to discover that there were blank pages. Why, she wondered, had she not written in it for nearly a month?

Charlotte was exasperated to get yet another call. She had just put out the light. What was the most diplomatic way way, she wondered, to tell her friend that she was off her rocker?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ceci n’est pas Une Batte

Ceçi n’est pas une batte by Chris Green

Not many people realise that the surrealist painter, René Magritte was a big fan of English cricket. He discovered cricket by accident in a newspaper article in the 1930s. Although he had a reasonable command of English, the unfamiliar language baffled him. Innings, runs, overs, wickets, stumps, and bails. There were no equivalents to these in his native Belgium. The game was not played here. He was amused too by the names of the fielding positions, short leg, silly mid-on, gulley, backward point, first and second slip, etc. And the rules of the game were not only complicated but surreal.

He learned that there were two sides of eleven men, one in and one out in the field. Each man on the in side went out to bat and the fielding side tried to get him out. When he was out, he came in. Then the next man went in until he was out. When he was out, he too came in. When they were all out, the side that was out came in and the side that had been in went out and tried to get those coming in out. In addition, there were many ways in which the fielding side could get the batsmen, namely bowled, caught, stumped, run out and leg before wicket, whatever this was. When both sides had been in and out twice, the game finished. The team with the most runs won, unless they had not had enough time to finish because of bad light or rain, in which case it was a draw. Runs were made by the two batsmen that were in running between two sets of stumps after the one on strike had hit the ball and the ones in the field had not stopped it. Games lasted for three or five days.

René felt he had to experience this theatre of the absurd first hand. It sounded a lot more interesting than hockey or volleyball. He took a trip to England to watch a local weekend game at a village on the Kent coast. Although he had a little difficulty understanding everything that was going on, he felt it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. He was hooked. He began to make regular trips across the Channel to watch Kent play County Cricket at Canterbury. With his dark suit and signature bowler hat, René fitted in easily with the well-to-do spectators in the Members’ Enclosure and the hospitality tents. As he chatted away to his fellow fans, most did not realise they were in the presence of a famous artist.

He gradually got to know the Kent cricketers. As luck should have it, Kent’s captain, Bryan Valentine was a keen amateur artist and knew who René Magritte was. Bryan was aware that new art movements were springing up in Europe and eager to keep up with developments. René became a regular guest in his quarters, where they discussed the connections between art and cricket long into the night.

As cricket looked so much fun, it was only natural for René to want to have a crack at it. He bought all the kit and arranged for a few sessions in the nets. With a little coaching from the Kent players, he mastered some of the batting strokes, the cover drive, the hook, the sweep and the late cut. They told him he was a natural. Encouraged by this, René persuaded Bryan to let him play in a Sunday charity match.

The only reservation René had was in the game’s presentation. If, as he hoped, cricket was ever going to take off in Belgium, this needed a little tweaking. It would need to drop some of its formality. To add a little humour, instead of the standard cricketing cap, he wore his trademark bowler hat for the charity match. Although this was greeted with puzzlement at first, the boozy Sunday crowd soon caught on. It would not be appropriate for regular county fixtures, but once in a while, it was good to break with tradition.

With her husband disappearing regularly, Georgette Magritte began to suspect he was having an affair. The explanation for his absences that he was watching cricket was an unconvincing one. She insisted the next time he went on his travels, he took her along. René tried to put her off. He explained that the shopping opportunities in Canterbury might fall short of her expectations. It was not exactly London. She would be better off going to the department stores in Brussels for her frocks. But this did nothing to convince Georgette. She was going with him and that was that.

René was right. Georgette did not enjoy their wet week in Kent in early September one bit. Canterbury was something of a backwater. It was completely lacking in culture and had no dress shops. The weather made it worse. The sight of twenty-two men sitting around in white trousers and sweaters waiting for the rain to stop seemed to be the ultimate pointless activity. The rain was clearly not going to stop. What could it possibly be about cricket that so fascinated René?​ When she put her mind to it, Georgette could become the incredible sulk. A model of passive aggressive manipulation. René had no defence against this. He capitulated. They returned home early.

September marked the end of the cricket season, so to keep his enthusiasm for the game alive over the winter months, René embarked on a series of surreal cricket paintings. He felt these would help to promote the game in Belgium and who knows, perhaps even France. He used all of his signature themes, cricketers in bowler hats, cricketers with green apple faces, cricketers with bowler hats and green apple faces. Cricketers with fluffy clouds as faces. A picture of a cricket bat with the title, Ceçi n’est pas Une Batte. Sadly, few of these paintings have survived. The ones that have are in a private collection belonging to the reclusive Sebastian Bose-Harrington at Harrington Hall, where the public cannot view them. These were originally a gift to the less reclusive Colin Bose-Harrington, a senior Kent Cricket Club board member in the days leading up to World War 2.

With the outbreak of war, cricket in England came to an abrupt halt. Even had it continued, the Nazi occupation of Belgium would have made it difficult for René to travel. His last cricket painting is believed to have been completed in early September 1939, just days before Belgium fell. The Nazi occupying force considered his work to be degenerate art and destroyed this one along with many others.

It is not clear why René did not resume his passion for cricket after the war, but artists are restless souls. Change for them is a driving force. This versatility, in turn, adds kudos to their work. If, for instance, Picasso had had just one period, he would surely not have stood the test of time. We would no longer be talking about him in such elevated terms today. Similarly, through Magritte’s ability to re-invent himself, his paintings have increased in value logarithmically over the years. His Le Principe du Plaisir recently sold for 27 million dollars in New York. Because of their rarity, the six surviving cricket paintings in the Bose-Harrington collection might expect a similar return should they ever come onto the market. In the meantime, be comforted that the great Belgian painter was once a big fan of English cricket.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

666 – The Number of the Bus

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666 – The Number of the Bus by Chris Green

Mr Saxx who taught us Maths in Year 11 was obsessed with probability. In his classes, we were required to calculate the probability of many unlikely scenarios. Based on historical performance and the profile of those players currently available for selection, what was the probability that Chamberlain House would win the Fives trophy this year, he might ask? What were the chances that Jarvis Vest would beat Dish Price in the Upper School Middleweight Boxing Final? Would Bogey Yates win Bully of the Year again, or would it go to Marty Wheeler? Mr Saxx even started up a class bookmakers so that we could practice calculating odds and understand how to be successful in beating them. Each day we had to read The Sporting Life to learn the ins and outs of bookmaker’s odds. I won a tidy sum of money when Bucket of Rum won a Handicap Chase at Fontwell Park at 66-1. This was enough to spark my interest in Maths. I came top of the class that year. Sadly, Mr Saxx was struck off for malpractice, but I was on my way.

Many people see chance and probability as slippery customers, hard to pin down. To make progress here, you need to understand a little about how they operate. Let’s look at probability. How many people would you imagine it would need to be in a room before there was a 50/50 chance that two of them would share the same birthday? You might think at least 50 people would be necessary. After all, there are 365 days in a year. There are a lot of possibilities. But the answer is just 23. It’s the 50/50 element of the question that catches you out. This is possibly why many people are afraid of mathematics and steer clear of numbers. Numbers, it is true, can be treacherous.

A car travels a distance of 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. How fast would the car have to travel the same 60-mile distance home to average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip? Most people say 90 miles per hour, not realising it is a trick question. The first leg of the trip covers 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. So, this means the car travelled for two hours (60/30). For the car to average 60 miles per hour over 120 miles, it would have to travel for exactly two hours (120/60). Since the car has already travelled for two hours, it can’t average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip. It is important to read the question carefully and not rush into coming to a conclusion.

With a basic understanding of mathematics, I learned to avoid sucker bets like the lottery and scratch-cards. These were a complete con. A large proportion of the pot was creamed off to give to worthy causes. Not good at all for the punter. Maths also enabled me to quickly calculate the odds of my hand winning in any given situation when playing poker. While I may have missed out on the excitement of bluffing with a pair of jacks, this was more than compensated for by a fatter wallet at the end of the night. But where was the fun in being risk-averse? What on earth was the point of having a fondness for numbers and a skill with them without looking for ways to beat the odds? Surely, life without taking chances was no life at all.

I was leaving the casino one evening when, to my surprise, I bumped into Mr Saxx. He was getting out of a shiny silver Bentley. I hadn’t seen him since he was dismissed from my school, several years previously.

Hello, Mr Saxx,’ I said. ‘Nice motor.’

Ah, Davy, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘You’ve just come from The Flamingo, have you?’

I told him I had.

How did you get on?’ he asked. ‘Not too well, I hope.’

Why’s that, Mr Saxx?’ I asked.

It’s my casino, Davy,’ he said. ‘It’s one of a chain that I own.’

You’re not teaching Maths any more then, Mr Saxx.’

Charles! Call me Charles!’ he said. ‘No, Davy. Those days are in the past. You like my new car then. Better than the old Mazda I used to drive, isn’t it?’

I had heard of high-yield investment schemes, of course. They were basically Ponzi schemes. Initially, the operator pays high returns to attract investors and entice current investors to invest more money and in turn, new investors. When new investors join, a cascade effect begins. The operator pays a return to initial investors from the investments of the new participants, rather than from genuine profits. I was surprised when Charles Saxx suggested I might like to manage such a venture for him.

It’s all right, lad,’ he said. ‘You won’t need to put a penny in. I’m offering you the opportunity because I recall how good you were with numbers back when I used to teach you. I still remember the conversation we had in class about Graham’s number, the biggest number ever used in maths, a number so big that even if each digit were written in the tiniest writing possible, it would still be too big to fit in the observable universe. Way bigger than a googolplex, I remember you pointing out.’

At first, I was wary. I had grown up in a world where the common-sense view was that if something seemed to be too good to be true, it probably was too good to be true. But I quickly discovered this was no longer the case. Now everyone seemed to believe they could get something for nothing. With the carrot of easy money dangled before them, it was remarkable how gullible people could be. Even when we called one of the investment opportunities Scammer, they still lapped it up. And it wasn’t just the punters. This one got a recommendation on YourMoney.com. Their advisor, Dudley Bills described the initiative as the perfect place for your nest-egg.

Could it be that people simply didn’t understand the basics of arithmetic, I wondered? Without inspiring teachers like Mr Saxx, had Maths in their schools been so dull that they could not recognise sleight of hand? That because of their lack of insight into how numbers worked, they were always destined to be victims of their ignorance? It was certainly a possibility, but not one that I would lose sleep over. When you are rich, you never have to take responsibility for your actions. Others with a lesser understanding of figures will always be there to carry the can for your misrepresentation when the time comes. So, exit strategies for this scheme and others like it were merely a formality.

Yet it was not plain sailing. Like many others, I had been led to believe that money could buy you happiness. If you were wealthy, your life would be easy. You would have infinite leisure time. You would be the picture of health. You would have beautiful women falling at your feet. As it turned out, not all of these were true. Certainly, money could act as a women magnet, but what was often overlooked was that the women wealth attracted were likely to have their own agenda. In a word, they tended to be gold-diggers. I discovered this to my cost. My leisure time disappeared. Life was anything but easy. And each time the inevitable acrimonious break-up occurred, my assets were halved. As a result, my health deteriorated. I should have learned when Rachel took me for a pretty penny, but I didn’t. Charmain was charming and Desirée desirable, but both had the same idea. They were not interested in happy families, they both wanted money. That’s what they wanted. My money. And now the same thing was happening with Sarah.

I decided to seek Charles Saxx’s advice. I had from time to time read about his successes in the paper. Hardly a week went by without the launch of some new venture. Charles was clearly loaded and yet he seemed to manage to keep his boat afloat. How had he avoided the gold-diggers? What was his secret? Although I hadn’t seen Charles for a year or two, I dug out the number he had given me and called him. He seemed pleased to hear from me. It had been too long, he said, and he invited me round for canapés. I found his large new house, Robles Altos, a mile or so along a steep, private road leading to the common. His new McLaren was parked on the drive. I pressed the button on the entry phone on the iron gates and he let me through.

I did not think it was appropriate to come right out with my problem. This was something that needed to be slowly worked into the broader conversation. I allowed Charles to tell me a little about his background. He told me he grew up in the west country. He was an only child and had had few friends. He said he had always been in awe of his cousin, Roy.

Roy had six siblings and lots of friends, he said. Not only that, but Roy also had vision. He was an innovator. I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with a USB frog, an invisible kettle, or a luminous badger. Or a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog.’

I knew I had heard the name Saxx somewhere else,’ I said. ‘So, Roy, the inventor of the inflatable Buddha and the bouncing tortoise is your cousin.’

From an early age, Roy was always creative,’ he said. ‘I realised I could not compete. The best I could come up with was a digital mojo.’

What on earth was a digital mojo? I began to wonder if perhaps all the Saxx family were oddballs. Might Trevor Saxx, the presenter of Underwater Football on The Marine Channel also be related? However, kookiness didn’t seem to have been a significant handicap to the Saxx’s success.

Not being able to compete with Roy was what drew me to mathematics,’ Charles continued. I needed something I could rely on. I did well at Maths at school so naturally, I went for Maths at university and came out with a First. Even the notoriously difficult Numerology module presented no challenge. My degree should have opened up opportunities right away,’ he continued. ‘But I guess I was a bit lazy. I saw the post at the school advertised and thought I’d give it a go. I could have plodded along, teaching calculus to spotty fifteen-year-olds, but I thought I could put my own stamp on it. Make it more interesting. Then as you know, I was dismissed. This was what spurred me into action. I realised that everything in this material world revolved around numbers. Understanding numbers gave me a huge advantage over others. So I thought, why not go for it?

You’ve certainly done very well for yourself since you ….. moved on, Charles,’ I said. ‘I wish I could say the same. But each time I think I’ve got it made, it seems to get taken away again.’

What do you mean?’ he said.

In a word, women,’ I said ‘Either I’m a poor judge of character or they spot that I am rich and home in on me with one thing in mind. To exploit my vulnerability and make themselves a quick buck. In quick succession, Rachel, Charmain and Desirée all fleeced me. When the time came, they all came up with up fearsome matrimonial solicitors. And now Sarah is doing the same, and we are not even married. When my solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed heard we were up against Mr Glock of Stipe, Stipe and Juttner, he told me we might as well throw in the towel. We stood no chance of getting a result.’

Do you think you maybe wear your heart on your sleeve, Davy?’ he said.

I had to acknowledge Charles had a point. Once I became attracted to someone, I tended to dive straight in. I may have even proposed to Desirée on the first night.

You think I play my cards too early, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Would it be better if I were to apply poker tactics?’

Exactly,’ he said. ‘Or the same attitude you had with regard to our investment scams. Take no prisoners. Now, look! What’s done is done but you must get a more ruthless legal representative this time around. Don’t go for a regular divorce solicitor. What you need is a different approach. Nolan Rocco is good. He will be more than a match for this Mr Glock. He will surprise you, that’s for sure.

Nolan Rocco, it turned out, was a pseudonym for the speculative fiction writer, Phillip C. Dark. Phillip spotted straight away what was required. He didn’t even need to face Mr Glock. He had a novel solution. He was going to get rid of him completely, along with Rachel, Charmain, Desirée and Sarah. To do this, he would use a mathematical sleight of hand. Numbers, he said, were the key. Naturally, this met with my approval.

I was 36 years old. So Phillip C. Dark planned to rewrite my story by adding 1 to 36, halving the high number to get the number of pairs, 18, then multiplying 37 by 18. This, as I knew it would, came to the magic number, 666. He then simply deleted 666 words from my biography. This took the story back to exit strategies for my investment scams being a formality. I was once again in a good position. From here, I could move on to better things. No need to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part or any of the other commitments that came with getting one’s rocks off. These were optional extras and ones I would not be signing up for.

Paul Gauguin trailblazed the idea of leaving his old life behind and starting afresh on a tropical island. In search of meaning in my own life, I made the decision to follow in his footsteps. I needed a new direction. Having been a stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin too had a numbers background. There, alas, the similarities ended. Art was something I had little talent for. But to let this get in the way would be defeatist? After all, I had money to support me and I had plenty of time to learn how to paint.

I headed for the volcanic island of La Gomera, the least populous of the Canary Islands. La Gomera was Columbus’s last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships. He stopped here for a month to replenish his crew’s food and water supplies. Since then, little of any note had happened on the island. La Gomera was Trip Advisor’s idea of a quiet place. It was described as the perfect place to look at the night sky. There were usually clear skies and little light pollution. It seemed like an ideal spot to take stock and regroup.

I had not been on the island very long when walking though San Sebastian de la Gomera, among the brightly coloured shopfronts, I came across a darkened single-storey building, set back a little from the others. It was painted black with thick blinds drawn. Above it was a dark display board with 666 written in large white Gothic numerals. No letters, just the number 666. Not exactly what you would expect to find among the market stalls, cheese shops and tapas bars. 666 is, of course, the magic sum of the first 36 digits, the sum if you like of the numbers on a roulette wheel. Was this then a gambling den? Or something more sinister? 666 was also the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, the so-called Devil’s Number. Although 666 appeared to be closed, it seemed reasonable to assume something iniquitous took place here.

I had rented a house close to the town and in the short time I had been resident, I had got to know one or two of the locals. None of them seemed to have any idea what went on at 666. It never seemed to be open, they said. Perhaps it was used to store contraband. Perhaps something of a maritime nature. It would be closed for months on end while ships were at sea. Pablo, however, who was teaching me how to paint landscapes, was sure there must be a Satanic connection.

It’s all too easy to jump to Satanic conclusions,’ I said. Was this an attempt to get him to elaborate or was I trying to be clever?Some people take the diabolic associations of 666 so seriously that they avoid anything related to the digits 6-6-6. This is known as hexakosioihexekontahexophobia. I think I’ve got that right. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? 666 has zillions of references in popular culture, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Phantom of the Opera, Escape from LA, to name but a few. But look, Pablo! The number 666 has other associations too. Apart from being the number of the Beast, it is the sum total of the numbers 1 to 36, which is known in mathematics as a triangular number. In Roman numerals, it is DCLXVI, all the numeric symbols in decreasing order. And there are any number of biblical connections. And what about the trigonometry of the Golden Mean? It is an all-round special number. And 666 is the number of the bus to Oxborough where I used to live.’

But, my friend, none of these would explain the dead goats that have been found around here,’ he said. ‘Miguel from the panadería tells me he has seen them at night in their dark cloaks.’

Did I really want to think about dead goats? I had come to La Gomera for a quiet life and to learn to paint. I couldn’t recall seeing dead goats in any of Gauguin’s pictures. 666 could wait.

Anyway, Pablo, what do you think of this painting I’ve done of the hills over the back?’ I said to change the subject. ‘Perhaps you could tell me a little more about chiaroscuro.’

I wasn’t expecting Phillip C. Dark to call me, but I was pleased he did. I had no idea how my Canary Island adventure was going to turn out. He had obviously given it some thought, after all, as a writer, this was his job. He told me he had it in hand but I would have to wait and see.

Will it be a happy ending?’ I asked. From what I could remember, some of Phillip’s stories ended happily and some of them didn’t. I estimated the percentages might work out at about 52 – 48, although some of the endings were so enigmatic, it was difficult to tell.

Like I said, you’ll have to wait and see,’ Phillip C. Dark said.

I waited. As I distanced myself from the idea of 666, my painting came on in leaps and bounds. Spring was perfect for capturing the landscapes of La Gomera. I especially relished painting the spectacular sunrises. At first light each day, I would make the effort to be in place to take advantage of the natural beauty. I got up early as usual on June 6th and found my spot. At 6 a.m. the sun was just coming up when I noticed a group of hooded figures in dark cloaks coming over the crest of the hill. They were heading my way. They were carrying lighted wooden torches. They appeared to be chanting something in low voices. Were they returning from some nefarious night-time activity or were they just setting out? While I was debating which way I should run, I woke up. To my alarm, I was back in England. At home in Crowley Crescent in Oxborough. At the breakfast table with Sarah. She was angry about something I had done. Some unforgivable transgression. She had had enough, she said, she was leaving me. I had better think about getting myself a good solicitor. Even though we hadn’t been together long, were not married and her name was not on the deeds, Mr Glock had told her she ought to be looking to come away with at least half of everything.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Le Dernier Mot

lederniermot2

Le Dernier Mot by Chris Green

As I walk along the coastal path early on a sunny Sunday morning, a light breeze blows from the south-west and the tide rolls gently in. There is no-one about at this hour. I take in the tranquillity. Having recently completed a story, I am hoping to draw inspiration for a new one. From past experience, these are perfect conditions to get the creative juices flowing. A sentence here, a sentence there, a character, a phrase, or just the germ of an idea. Many of my short stories have started this way. Not just material that reflect the current location and circumstances either. There is no telling what form the inspiration will take. Postcards from the Moon, De Chirico Shadows, Jazz, Beware of the God, and Sunday Girl, to name but a few, have come to me in this way on my coastal walks. A diverse selection of work. To remember the flashes of inspiration from my walks, I now make voice recordings on my phone.

Historically, many famous writers from Dickens and Wordsworth to Joyce and Hemingway took solitary walks to get inspiration for their work, although of course these luminaries of yesteryear either had to stop and write their ideas down or rely on memory. Graham Greene went for walks in towns and cities all over the world to get his background material. J. K. Rowling likens walking to dreaming, drawing a parallel between the REM dream state and the meditative-like state attained by exercise. Her walks around Edinburgh are legendary and have inspired many of the clever plot twists in her books.

But sadly today, mile after mile of the beautiful coastline brings nothing of interest. I seem to be going over and over old ground. I have experienced writer’s block before and have come through it. So, when I stop for a cup of tea and a bun at the beach cafe which is just opening for the day, I do not worry too much about the lack of progress. Inspiration is something that happens naturally. Creativity is not a process you can force. It has no sense of time. If you open yourself to the universe, they say, you will receive its bounty. It is a little like tuning in to the radio. The ideas are out there. You just have to be receptive to them. This has always worked for me up until now. Something will probably come floating in as I retrace my steps along the coast path later, but if it does not, there is always tomorrow.

As I make my way back, I take in the lapping sounds of the waves breaking gently on the shingle beach. Apart from the odd dog walker, the coastal path is still deserted. People seem to get up later on a Sunday. At the water’s edge, a parcel of oystercatchers keeps an eye on the progress of the tide. Perhaps it is about to turn. Are oystercatchers incoming tide feeders or outgoing tide feeders? I can’t remember. On a rocky outcrop up ahead, a cormorant is drying its wings. In heraldry, this pose represents the Christian cross. Scandinavians consider cormorants to be a good omen. Should I too see this as a sign? Somewhere far off, I hear the sounds of children playing and the echo of a dog barking. A procession of cumulus clouds paints a pleasing pattern against the azure sky. A brightly coloured boat criss-crosses the horizon as if posing for a child’s painting. It is an idyllic setting, a perfect stretch of coastline. Yet still, no inspiration for a story is forthcoming.

Like an apparition, the stranger appears out of nowhere. Suddenly he is there, facing me. He is over six feet tall and has a funereal aspect. He is thin as a rake and the long black coat and stovepipe hat he is wearing make him seem even taller. He has piercing blue eyes, a long white beard and a deathly pallor. His appearance would be startling anywhere, but here on a sunny morning on the Devon coast, this is certainly the case. I am more than startled. I am terrified.

You will not find it,’ he says.

Nervously, I ask the wraithlike stranger what he means.

You are looking for a story,’ he says. ‘But I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed.’

What are you talking about?’ I say.

There are no more stories,’ he says.

Of course there are,’ I say. ‘There will always be more stories.’

You are wrong, my friend,’ he says. ‘There were only ever a finite number of stories and the last one has gone. There will not be any more.’

How can there only be a finite number of stories?’ I say, defiantly. ‘There are stories everywhere. You and I meeting here today could be a story. It would be quite a dramatic story. What do you say to that?’

I’m afraid this has already been a story,’ he says. ‘It has been a story many times over.’

Do you then mean there will be no new stories in the philosophical sense?’ I ask. ‘As in there are only seven basic plots. Everything ever written falls into one or other of these.’

That is not what I mean,’ he says. ‘Believe me! There are no more stories, period. You will not find another story.’

From his body language, it looks as if he feels our business is done. But I can’t leave it there. I tell him I want more details.

As I said, there were only ever a finite number of stories,’ he says. ‘For a while, it looked as if the stock might last longer, but there has been a run on them lately. There are simply too many writers. Armand Ziegler, a Swiss magical realism author, who you’ve almost certainly never heard of, took the last one yesterday with his story, Le Dernier Mot. The Last Word. That’s it, my friend. There is nothing more to say.’

There must be more stories,’ I say. They can’t have all ……………..

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


‘Sunsets on Mars are blue,’ says the man’s voice coming from behind her. It is too loud for her to ignore.

Suzy turns around to see a stranger in a badly creased seersucker suit has sat down at the next table. He is alone. Is he talking to her or talking to himself, she wonders? Perhaps he is practising lines for a play. The Apollo is just down the road and he has that theatrical air about him. Dishevelled hair. Lined face. Goatee beard. Wild eyes. Probably best to ignore him. But, what an odd thing to say, out of the blue!

Iguanas have three eyes,’ he says. He definitely seems to be addressing her. He is staring right at her. Intently. Might he be coming on to her? If he is, she doesn’t think much of his chat up lines. Or his style. He is looking her up and down, leeringly. She had thought this morning when she got up that wearing her red dress might lift her spirits. She had been feeling a bit low. With Lev gone, everything seemed to be getting on top of her. But in hindsight, perhaps the dress was a mistake. It makes her stand out too much at this time of the morning. Luigi’s Café is not a dressing up kind of place. Supermarket shoppers mainly. And it seems, the odd weirdo.

She looks around for a waitress to ask for the bill for her Profiterole and Macchiato but they have all temporarily disappeared. She takes out her phone and pretends to make a call hoping this will deter the stranger. It doesn’t.

The brain is composed of 60% fat,’ he says. ‘Did you know that?’

He’s just plain creepy, she concludes. Looney Tunes. A basket-case. She should leave. There is still no sign of a waitress and the other customers all appear to be engaged in conversations. She pushes a ten-pound note under her plate, gathers up her bags and makes a hasty exit.

On the street, she is relieved to discover the creep has not followed her. Just the other day, her friend Yvonne told her she had had a stalker. This had all started off with someone leering at her in Starbucks when she was on her own. He began to follow her everywhere and she had to bring in the police.

Suzy is about to get into her Ssangyong when her phone rings. She does not recognise the number. She decides to answer it, anyway. Kurt, her eldest was talking about getting a new phone.

Bluetooth was named after King Harald Bluetooth who united Denmark and Norway in the tenth century,’ says the now familiar voice. Bluetooth? Is this how the creep from the café has obtained her number? A bit tecky but how else would he know it?

I understand you feel intimidated,’ Holly at the hairdressers says. ‘But really, all you have to do is steer clear of Luigi’s and not answer the phone.’

I’ve already blocked the number,’ Suzy says.

It’s not as if he knows where you live, is it?’ Holly says.

I hope not,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s not something you could find out from a mobile phone number, is it, Hol?’

No. He was just some geek trying to be clever,’ Holly says. ‘You get them all the time.’

‘I guess you’re right,’ Suzy says. ‘He was talking nonsense.’

It is Friday night. Kurt and Axel are out with their mates taking drugs or two-timing their girlfriends or whatever teenage lads get up to these days. Either way, they are likely to be out all night. Suzy is alone in the house. At times like this, she wishes Lev had not gone off like he did. It has been nearly a month now but she cannot get used to being alone. At the time, she felt she wanted him out of her life but now she is not so sure. She is all over the place. It only takes the slightest thing to upset her. Perhaps they should have given it another try. Her friends keep telling her she should move on but in the meantime, she is finding it can be very lonely, especially as all of them are in relationships. She decides there’s nothing really for it but to mix a gin and tonic and see what’s on TV. On a Friday night! How sad is that!

She sips her drink and presses the on-button on the remote. Without warning, his face fills the screen. This is impossible. Yet, there’s no mistaking him. The dishevelled mop of hair. The goatee beard. The Keith Richards creases that line his face. The intense stare. This is the creepy man from the café. In high definition and larger than life on her 56 inch TV. How can this be happening?

A tarantula can live without food for more than two years,’ he says. To add to her disorientation and distress, the freak is coming out with more surreal rubbish too. What kind of game is this? What can it all mean? What does he want?

She tries changing channels but to her horror, he is still there staring straight into the camera and, by extension, directly at her.

Earth has travelled five thousand miles in the last five minutes, Suzy’ he says.

He is even addressing her by name now.

She tries random buttons. He stays on the screen, leering menacingly at her.

There are too many black holes to count,’ he sneers.

Panicked, Suzy pulls out the plug. He is gone. She pours herself another drink. No tonic this time.

Andy Mann, the aerial installation technician who used to work with Lev assures her what she is describing is impossible. But as she seems distraught and he happens to be in the area, he says he will call around and take a look.

Take me through it,’ he says. ‘Show me exactly what you did.’

Suzy is a little reluctant, in fact, she is bricking it as she plugs the TV back in. She stands back and presses the button on the remote. BBC1 comes on as you would normally expect. The One Show. She changes the channel over and over. Each number brings up the correct station showing its normal Friday night fare.

Suzy does not know what to feel, vulnerable, confused, relieved, embarrassed.

Now that you’re here, Andy, why don’t you stop for a drink?’ she says.

SATURDAY

Thank you for staying over, Andy,’ Suzy says. ‘That was good of you.’

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

And you’re sure Amy won’t have wondered where you were.’

No. Amy’s visiting her mother. Anyway, I could always say my van broke down or something. It’s worked before.’

You mean I’m not the first. You are bad, Andy.’

The main thing is, do you feel better? You were in a bit of a state when I arrived.’

I do, Andy. Much better. Perhaps you could make me feel …… better again before you go.’

What about Kurt and Axel? Won’t they be back soon?’

You must be joking. It’s Saturday. Wherever they’ve been or wherever they are now, they won’t be up this early.’

You’re having trouble with this one, aren’t you, Phil,’ Patti says.

It’s ground to a halt the last couple of days,’ I say. ‘And I don’t know where to take it. The Philip C. Dark brand relies upon shock and surprise and this one has run out of steam.’

You could introduce a talking cat,’ Patti says. ‘That would move the story forward.’

Funnily enough, I was thinking of a talking cat,’ I say. They are always a good stand-by. I could call it Dave. Dave’s a good name for a cat, don’t you think?’

SUNDAY

Dave has been out all night. His people have left him and gone away on holiday. The lad who is supposed to be letting him and out and feeding him his pouches of Gourmet chunks has not been since Friday afternoon. Young people are so unreliable at weekends. Not the best of nights to be out either as it has been pouring with rain and he has had to sleep in a leaky old shed. It is now light and thankfully the rain has stopped. Dave sees an opportunity of some warmth and who knows, perhaps even a tasty breakfast from the lady at number 42, the one whose husband has left her. Nice smells are coming from her kitchen.

Suzy is unnerved by the scratching sound at the door. Not being accustomed to talking cats, she is freaked out when the ginger and white tom asks her if he can come in and snuggle up by the radiator to get warm.

I’m quite partial to bacon too if you have a spare rasher or two,’ Dave says. ‘And perhaps a sausage.’

Perhaps, in the wake of her recent experiences, she is becoming de-sensitised to strangeness. Rather than slip once more into panic mode, she finds herself quietly amused by the idea of a chatty moggy.

I’ve not seen you around here before,’ she says. ‘What’s your name?’

I’m Dave,’ Dave says. ‘Would you like to talk about magic carpets?’

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

I thought magic carpets would make a change,’ Dave says. ‘All my people want to talk about are cabbages and kings.’

OK,’ Suzy says. ‘Let’s talk about magic carpets.’

Or if you prefer we could talk about Red Sails in the Sunset,’ Dave says. ‘Do you know that song? I could sing it for you.’

I think I might have it somewhere,’

There are thirty nine recorded versions of Red Sails in the Sunset. Did you know that? My favourite is Fats Domino’s’ Have you got that one or did Lev take it with him when he left?’

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

OK. As you probably know, magic carpets originate in the area from Egypt to Iraq known as the Fertile Crescent, which of course is also where domestic cats come from.’

Uh huh.’

Not going well with the talking cat, is it?’ Patti says.

It does need a little work,’ I say. ‘And a title.’

Would you like to read my Richard Brautigan book?’ Patti says. ‘Trout Fishing in America. I think it might help.’

Good title,’ I say. ‘I’m guessing it’s not about trout fishing, right?’

Not completely, no,’ Patti says. ‘It’s a series of sketches of a strange yet strikingly familiar world.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Snow

Snow by Chris Green

It’s getting very cold. I wonder if it’s going to snow,’ the text message reads.

It’s an odd message and I do not recognise the number. But to get into the spirit of things I reply, ‘It’s only August.’

This appears to strike a chord because immediately I get a reply which reads, ‘Meet me in Providence Park by the lake in twenty minutes, the third seat in.’

I am now curious as to what this is about. Perhaps it is someone I know playing a prank. Perhaps not. But whatever it is, there is a sense of intrigue about it. As I am close by and not due to pick Hannah up from the hairdressers for an hour, I make my way along to the park. I approach the lake, trying to make the best use of the trees for cover. I don’t want to walk into some kind of trap. The third bench is the only one that is occupied. Beneath the fedora and dark glasses, the woman sitting there looks as though she might be quite attractive. Surely, there is no need for the overcoat at this time of year though. Curiosity gets the better of me. Throwing caution to the wind, I go across and say hello. She gestures for me to sit alongside her.

I think it is going to snow very soon,’ she says, deadpan, as she slides me a large brown envelope. With this, she gets up and leaves. I call after her, but it seems the lady is not for turning.

This appears to be textbook spy-spoof behaviour. Cloak and dagger stuff. With all the electronic media available, this cannot really be how espionage is carried out in this day and age. And what could it possibly have to do with me? Where would I fit into the clandestine world of the secret service? I’m a heating engineer.

The envelope contains a 12 by 8 black and white photo. A name, Grigoriy Zakharov. An address, 19 Len Deighton Drive. An instruction, use the Glock.

I am perplexed as I have never heard of Grigoriy Zakharov, have no idea where Len Deighton Drive is or even what town it is in, and as far as I can remember I don’t own a Glock, which as I understand it is some kind of handgun. There is not much need for small arms in central heating installation or boiler maintenance. Admittedly, since the downturn in the economy, money is tight and people are struggling to make ends meet. But we have not yet had to resort to such drastic measures to collect our fees.

If it’s not someone having a lark, it must be a case of mistaken identity. It’s easy to get a digit wrong when you are keying in a mobile phone number. I found myself talking to Ed Sheeran once. It turned out Ed didn’t need his Baxi combi-boiler serviced. I expect the woman who contacted me has by now realised she has slipped up. I don’t imagine I will hear any more about the matter. It would be too embarrassing for her to admit her mistake and contact me again. I feel it is sensible not to tell Hannah about the incident though. In case something is awry. I know if I mention it, she will worry. Hannah hates strange.

While I am sitting in the car outside Cutting Edge waiting for Hannah, I decide to change the CD in the car player. The Coldplay one has been in the player for several days. Perhaps we could have Snow Patrol instead. I am one of those old-fashioned people who has not yet embraced the digital revolution of in-car entertainment. For one thing, I have hundreds of CDs at home that I have paid good money for. What would I then do with them?

To my astonishment, in the front of the glove compartment instead of a selection of CDs, I find a gun. I don’t know much about guns. I’m more used to handling pumps and valves, but this matt black Glock pistol looks and feels like the real deal. The odd thing is, it somehow doesn’t seem out of place. It’s a scary idea, but it is almost as if I expected to find it in the glove compartment. My head is reeling with conflicting thoughts. Who, why and how? But speculation is difficult once logic goes out the window. I don’t have time to dwell on these matters. I need to conceal the gun before Hannah gets into the car.

Perhaps it is the sign of a skilled hairdresser, but Hannah’s hair looks exactly the same as when she went in. It never seems to look any different after her appointments. I tell her it looks lovely. I have learned it is always a good idea to compliment a woman emerging from the hairdressers on her coiffure.

Three text messages ping in quick succession on my phone as we are driving along Tambourine Way.

Shall I see who that is?’ Hannah says.

No,’ I say, trying hard not to show signs of panic. ‘I’ll pull in at the supermarket car park. We need a few bits and pieces, don’t we?’

I did the shopping first thing this morning. Don’t you remember?’ she says, giving me a quizzical look.

I come up a few things that weren’t on the list. Things that I know Hannah won’t have thought of. Garibaldi biscuits, Baby Bio, shaving soap, drawing pins, WD40, and Special Brew. The quizzical look morphs into a contemptuous look. I can tell she does not want to be doing this after an arduous hour or so at the hairdressers. If it comes to that, neither do I want to be doing it. There are better ways of spending a Saturday afternoon. But this is a situation that needs careful handling.

While I am getting a shopping bag out of the boot, I check the text messages. To my relief, they are all spam. But while I am looking for a more suitable place to hide the gun, I get an incoming call.

It is nearly September. Is it going to snow?’ the caller says. She does seem to want it to snow.

To pacify her, I tell her that it might still snow.

I do hope so,’ she says. ‘A lot of things depend on it. You won’t be able to ski if it doesn’t snow.’

Before I have the chance to respond, she ends the call.

Hannah says she will pop into the art supplies shop next door while I tackle the supermarket. This gives me breathing space to contemplate my course of action. Should I inform the police? Not such a good idea. While I still have the gun, this could easily backfire. Should I let Hannah in on what is going on? Probably not, if I can avoid it? Especially as I don’t have a clue what it is. At the supermarket checkout, I buy a new Sim card and put this into my phone. If my mobile phone is the perpetrator’s only means of contact, then this should be sufficient. If it is not, then who knows?

Hannah seems cheered by her visit to the art shop. She has several packages.

Let’s go to Mangia e Beve for lunch, Nick,’ she says. ‘Emma in the hairdressers says they do an excellent involtini di melanzane ripieni di uva passa, capperi e noci.’

Sounds complicated,’ I say. ‘What is it?’

Rolled aubergines stuffed with raisins, capers and walnuts,’ she says. ‘But I’m sure they will have some tasty meat dishes too.’

While I am still looking through the menu, the woman from the park comes in and sits down at a nearby table. She seems to have ditched the overcoat but is still wearing her hat and sunglasses. She looks across at me. It is not a happy, smiley look. I feel a chill run down my spine. She keys something into her phone and I receive a text message about the snow clouds forming. I’m not sure how this can be happening. How can she have found out the new number? It should be impossible. I suppose, in my confusion, I may have accidentally put the old Sim back into the phone and disposed of the new one. This is the kind of thing anyone might do when they are under stress. The message is followed by another, saying that unless it snows soon, there will be no tobogganing.

Hannah is busy texting one of her friends so I take the opportunity to google Grigoriy Zakharov. The only two matches it comes up with are a Soviet architect and a commodities trader from Minsk. Perhaps the world of international espionage has changed, but it would be stretching the imagination a little to think that spooks would be interested in this pair. Especially as according to Google, Grigoriy Zakharov the architect died in 1982. I can find no-one with that name closer to home. But, perhaps I ought not to expect there would be. The whole point of secret services is that they are secret. They operate undercover. If he were an agent, whoever Grigoriy Zakharov is would use a code name.

Having delivered her message, without further ceremony, my handler gets up to leave. But there is no reason to suspect that this means she is letting me off the hook. I get the impression she will keep appearing until the deed is done.

That was Rosie Parker from number 42,’ Hannah says. ‘She says there’s been a lot of strange activity outside our house. Men in dark suits and dark glasses getting in and out of black BMWs with tinted windows. She is worried one of them might have a gun. She wonders if we have any idea what might be going on.’

I decide that I have no choice but to come clean. I explain about the text messages concerning snow, the woman in the overcoat and dark glasses, the mysterious Grigoriy Zakharov, and the Glock pistol in the glove compartment.

You fool,’ she says. ‘What have you landed us in? If you had ignored the original message, none of this would be happening.’

We don’t know that,’ I say in my defence. ‘She does seem pretty persistent.’

So, how do you account for it, Nick?’ she says.

I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But it looks like we are in trouble.’

There is a protracted silence while Hannah seethes. I stare at the menu in the vain hope that by avoiding her gaze, the problem might somehow disappear.

I think I may have an idea about what has happened,’ Hannah says, finally.

You do?’ I say, looking up. Is she going to offer me a lifeline?’

Do you remember when we went to see that Tim Burton film at the multiplex?’ she says.

That was months ago,’ I say.

I know, but as we were leaving, you picked up a flyer about the new cold war thriller that the production company were planning to make. Don’t you remember?’

Vaguely,’ I say. ‘It was going to be based on an Ian McEwan novel.’

There was a competition in the flyer, wasn’t there?’ she says. ‘As I remember it, you had to answer questions about spy films, and this gave you the opportunity to become an extra in the film and have dinner out with the stars. It mentioned some of the ones they hoped to cast. Benedict Cumberbatch. Liam Neeson. Emily Blunt. Scarlett Johansson. ……. You didn’t happen to fill it in by any chance, did you?’

I may have,’ I say. ‘Now you come to mention it, I believe I did.’

Well, that explains it,’ she says. ‘You are slow on the uptake, you know, Nick. Don’t you see the connection? Snow. Cold. Cold War thriller. It all adds up. She couldn’t have given you more obvious clues. She’s telling you that you’ve won the competition. I expect they are ready to start shooting the film. This is probably your audition for the part. Perhaps it’s even part of the film.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

‘e’

 

e’ by Chris Green

There is not a lot to do in Builth Wells when the weather is wet. Wales is, of course, famous for its damp climate. But this year was exceptional. April had been a washout, and now May looked like breaking all records. Ifan Griffiths was unsettled by it. With all the changes taking place in the country, the birds returning to nest, and the sap rising, Spring should be the best time of year. Ifan yearned to get out into the Cambrian Mountains which were right on his doorstep. They were his patch. But on the few occasions he had set out this year, not even his expensive North Face waterproofs were up to the task of keeping him dry.

Recently divorced, Ifan lived alone in a traditional lime-wash cottage on the edge of the village. It was a particularly wet night and he could not sleep because of the rain pounding on the roof. At 3 a.m. he found himself watching SyFy, one of the many new channels he was able to turn to for relief since signing up for the Sky Entertainment Extra package. As the low budget film, Syfy was showing progressed, Ifan began to feel there was something naggingly familiar about the plot. The main character in the film, Judson Cleary, was living his life in an iPod shuffle. Days were sequenced randomly after one another. And the actor playing the part stumbled about the screen looking puzzled at each turn of events. A dizzying sense of déjà vu consumed Ifan. His heart began to race.

Had he not had a similar experience two weeks previously, Ifan might have thought nothing more about the sense of familiarity. Sky Cinema Drama had shown a film called King of the Jungle, which seemed to have plundered the depths of Ifan’s unconscious for its source material. As the slow-moving kidnap drama unfolded, each scene had been familiar, and the lion appeared out of nowhere to save the day at exactly the time Ifan was expecting it. He had not seen the film before. This was its first outing on television. He checked his DVD rental account to confirm that he had not rented it and forgotten about it. Shuffle was also not on his list. Perhaps he had read the book. Memory could be an unreliable servant, but he felt he had not read the book.

Ifan came to the gradual realisation that the sense of familiarity of the two films owed itself to one simple fact. He had written the stories on which they were based. When he was not wandering the gentle slopes of the Cambrian Mountains with his binoculars and camera trying to get prize-winning shots of harriers and kites, Ifan spent much of his time writing short stories. He had started writing during a childhood bout of jaundice and had been knocking out stories for over thirty years. He had built up quite a collection, all of them, including the two that seemed to form the basis of the two films, unpublished. He had not tried very hard to get his stories published. It is fair to say he had not tried at all. He just enjoyed writing. Writing for him was almost an involuntary process. The wide-open spaces of mid-Wales fired his imagination. When he was out walking, he found himself inundated with ideas, and on returning home needed somewhere to deposit them. He frequently ended up working on several stories at once, cutting and pasting from one document to another. He loved the way words danced on the page, the way the sentences coupled and uncoupled. Hours passed without him realising it.

Ifan’s solitary pastimes were one of the reasons that Cerys had left. She felt that he did not pay her enough attention. She told him he was entirely self-obsessed. He was either up in the hills or away with the fairies. Ifan’s argument that if she didn’t spend so much time quilting and embroidering, then he would not spend so much time rambling and writing, was a weak one. She countered easily with, he never asked about her day or offered to take her out to dinner. They had not been on a proper holiday for three years and, except for a day trip to Oswestry, had never been outside Wales. Last year he had forgotten her birthday This was the final straw. She upped and left. Ifan was heartbroken. They had been together for five years.

From time to time Ifan had shared his stories with friends. They usually put them aside to read at a later date but never seemed to get round to it. Most of those in the village, those he might have a pint with in the local pub for instance, like Dafydd, Iolo and Hywel did not share his literary interests. So Ifan attended a monthly book club in Llandrindod Wells. Here he was sometimes persuaded to read a story to the group. Occasionally he photocopied one to hand out. While they gave him encouragement, Eiffon or Tegwen did not give the impression that they understood what he was writing about. Bryn felt the story about the Owlman was too long, and Nerys wondered if the story about the jungle in Cornwall might have ended differently. Dewi questioned whether drawing attention to postmodern theory was a legitimate device in short fiction.

Ifan revisited the drafts of the two television stories, both of which he had written around ten years ago. He re-read them carefully. He was prepared to admit that he had a tendency towards paranoia. His former therapist, Aura, had told him so. Although the two films had not followed the plots word for word, or scene for scene, there were too many similarities for it to be put down to coincidence. Even supposing that the idea of the days of the year playing out like a music shuffle lacked exclusivity, the explanation that time is not linear being the accidental result of a malfunctioning video installation by a Belgian nu-surrealist, did not seem the kind of idea that would be doing the rounds. This being the case, how would the film-makers have got hold of the stories? He had not sent them to any publishers. His colleagues in the book club would be aware of the penalties for plagiarism. He considered each of the group in turn but concluded they were beyond suspicion. Eiffon and Tegwen were among the last of life’s innocents, Bryn had his own literary ambitions, Nerys and Dewi only came along to the book club for company. He had not had much to do with Huw, Mfanwy or Giancarlo, and Rhodri Llewelyn didn’t speak English at all.

Ifan found out on the Internet that the screenplays for both King of the Jungle and Shuffle had been written by Corrina Herzog. Surely a pseudonym. There was no bio for Corrina on Wikipedia. Her name was notably absent on web searches. There was not even a Corrina Herzog on Facebook. Perhaps whoever it was had written these two screenplays and changed their name again. He tried different spellings for her but still turned up nothing. This brought his research to a shuddering halt.

One night after a few pints of Double Dragon, Ifan confided in Dafydd.

You’re beginning to sound like Jones the Dark Side, mind you, Dafydd said. ‘He thinks they’re tapping his phone and that Jones the Post is following him.’

I’ll give my head for breaking if I’m not right. Those are my stories, see,’ Ifan said. ‘Someone must have hacked into my computer.’

You must have emailed them to somebody. What about that girl you met at university?’

You mean Andrea?’

Yes. Andrea. You were hoping to light a fire in her hearth.’

It was all the dream of a witch according to her will.’

What?,’ said Dafyd.

Despite the leeks growing in your window box, you’re not very Welsh, are you Dafydd?’ Ifan said. ‘Wishful thinking it is. I don’t think I stood a chance.’

Ifan had met Andrea Evans at university in Aberystwyth. He was there as a mature student on a Joint Honours path of Countryside Planning and English. Andrea was on a Media Studies course and they had been on a Modern and Postmodern module together. They seemed to get along and had gone to see The Smashing Pumpkins together in Swansea. For a while, Ifan had thought that given time they might even become an item. They did not, and after University they lost touch but caught up years later on Facebook. Andrea was by then a creative with an up and coming company in London. Ifan asked her if she would like to read some of his stories and Andrea gave him her email address. Ifan sent her pdfs of some of his stories, and later when Andrea said she hadn’t received them, sent them again. Weeks passed and Ifan heard nothing from Andrea. He resigned himself to the possibility that Andrea hadn’t really wanted to read his stories but was just being polite, as so many others had been before her. Short stories were out of favour. They were not the books that you saw advertised on Amazon. Was it possible that Andrea had sold on his stories?

Since a recent bout of paranoia, Ifan’s Facebook privacy level was set to Only Me, the highest level. This meant he was the only one who could see his posts, not that there had been any. He opened up the program and changed the settings and saw that Andrea Evans was still a friend. He posted a private message, asking her how she was, hoping that she would remember him and perhaps comment on the stories he had emailed her.

I’m good,’ she replied. ‘How are you? Never did receive your stories by the way.’

Ifan responded saying that he had sent them to her email address – twice.

At this point, it occurred to Andrea that he had probably sent them to an incorrect email address. She replied saying that they should have been sent to andreaeevans@hotmail.com

Perhaps someone is this very moment getting a big fat royalty cheque from their publication.’ she joked.

Oh bugger!’ thought Ifan. He had missed the central ‘e’. ‘E’ for Elizabeth perhaps.

He remembered thinking at the time that andreaevans@hotmail.com was a very convenient address, unless she had been one of the first to register for email. Ifan’s address was ifangriffiths193@btinternet.com You wouldn’t imagine Ifan was a common name, but there must have been at least 192 other Ifan Griffiths signed up for email with his provider before him.

The email Ifan sent to the original recipient demanding an explanation for the blatant plagiarism of his work was returned undelivered. Andrea Evans’s Hotmail account was closed.

It has however stopped raining in Mid-Wales.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Waterfalls

waterfalls2

Waterfalls by Chris Green

1:

Through thick and thin, Barney Cisco has followed Bristol City’s fortunes, travelling up and down the country in all winds and weathers to watch his team play. He has been able to finance his fanatical support through a lucrative stall at Compton Regis market selling cheap foreign mattresses at inflated prices. While Bristol City, or the Robins as they are known, might not have the glamour of Manchester United or Chelsea, the club has occasionally excelled. Although he was just a lad, Barney remembers the heady days in the late seventies when City enjoyed top flight football and although they lingered near the foot of the table the entire time, he became hooked by the excitement of their annual relegation battle.

Bristol City’s purple patch was in bitter contrast to what was to follow. In 1982 they became the first club to suffer three consecutive relegations, ending up in what was then Division 4. Remarkably, the young Barney remained undeterred. He watched City yo-yo up and down the divisions over the decades without missing a single match, not even the Third Round FA Cup tie against Carlisle that was abandoned after ten minutes when the north-west suffered the worst blizzard in its history.

As soon as he was old enough, Barney took his son, Sonny to matches with him, that is until Sonny got caught in possession of a thousand ecstasy tablets and was sentenced to three years at Exeter Crown Court. Sonny claimed he was looking after the drugs for a friend, but Judge Girley in his summing up suggested that this may have been his imaginary friend, Pluto.

Barney was shocked by Sonny’s arrest and imprisonment. In his self-absorption, he had failed to notice Sonny’s disappearances after Saturday matches or his recurrent mood swings. Rather than look a little deeper into the possible causes of his downfall, he blamed Sonny’s waywardness on Dolores. Dolores had walked out on them when Sonny was just seven, acknowledged by child psychologists to be a key age in a boy’s development. She went off to live with Shaun O’Shea, a scaffolder from Skibareen. She said she hated football. She said that Shaun was a sensitive man who played the harp. Drank the Harp, more like, Barney told her. Still, Dolores would find out about Shaun’s drink problem and come running back, tail between her legs. Dolores didn’t. Barney was left to look after Sonny’s welfare. He never forgave Dolores.

With Sonny now incarcerated, Barney felt bereft.

Darren Spurlock, a friend of his, told him about Lorelei Angel, a life coach that had helped him to turn his life around.

‘She will take you from where you are to where you want to be,’ he said, over a pint or two at the Dog and Duck one Sunday lunchtime. ‘She worked on my self-confidence and fitted me out with the tools to secure a pizza delivery franchise. Although I had not realised it before, running a pizza delivery operation was something that I had secretly always wanted to do.’

Darren managed to persuade Barney to go along to Lorelei for a consultation.

Barney spent a while nervously explaining to Lorelei how he felt. To his surprise, he found that she actually listened to what he was saying and after the first few minutes, he found it easy to open up to her. He told her how he had put his life on hold to bring little Sonny up. How he had worked every day, except for match days, to put a roof over Sonny’s head with not a word of encouragement from Dolores. How heartbroken he had been when Sonny was sentenced. He had nearly cried outside the court. How he realised that it was now time to put his life in order. Start taking care of himself.

‘You need to make some changes in your life in order to bring about the transformation,’ Lorelei told him.

‘I suppose I could start selling cheap foreign settees at the market along with the mattresses, and perhaps bucket chairs and maybe some rugs’ said Barney.

‘Well, that would be a start,’ said Lorelei. ‘But it’s not what you’d call a big change, is it, Barney? You may find you need to branch out a little more than that. OK. Let’s leave the career change for now. You might want to look into changing some of your habits. What do you do at weekends?’

‘I go to watch the Robins play,’ Barney said. Had she not been listening? ‘That’s Bristol City.’

‘Bristol City. That’s a football team, isn’t it?’ Perhaps she had been listening after all.

‘That’s right.’

‘And you go every weekend?’

‘Well, yes, every weekend from August to May.’

‘There you go then. There’s are unlimited opportunities for some change there.’

‘Oh, I think I see what you are getting at,’ Barney might have been tempted to say. ‘You mean sometimes I could go to watch Bristol Rovers, instead? That would be funny. That would make it a pair of Bristols. Get it! Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. Pair of Bristols.’

‘I can see why your wife left you,’ Lorelei might have said, head in hands. ‘You might want to work a little on your misogyny too. And your sexist humour.’

But such a final exchange did not take place. That Barney showed a new found restraint was testament both to Lorelei’s motivational skills and to his willingness to learn. The session with Lorelei had brought home to him how predictable and unfulfilling his life was. He deserved better. He was tired of playing the victim. If he was to feel fulfilled, he recognised that he needed to change. He made the decision there and then not to renew his season ticket. After all, the Robins had only just seen off relegation – yet again, finishing eighteenth in the table. This was hardly something to get excited about. They would probably do just as badly next year. Into the bargain, season tickets prices were set to rise. He needed to get things in perspective. There had to be better ways to spend his weekends. Perhaps he could go to country fairs or take up yoga. There again, perhaps not. But he would find something that worked for him. What about Art? He could go and visit some galleries or try his hand at painting.

2:

Stacey Jayne has long wanted to be an artist. In such spare moments as family life has allowed, she has got her brushes out and painted tentative watercolours. She has concentrated on subjects around the house and in the garden, still lifes and flowers. To prevent her partner, Dorsey, local councillor and Mayor-Elect from belittling her attempts, she has kept these hidden. Although she has always been uncertain of her ability, one or two of her friends who have happened to call in have caught her working and complimented her on her efforts. Lindy Lou loves her subtle study of the kitchen utensils in the washing up bowl and suggests that she try the classes at the local community centre. They are not expensive and she has heard that the tutor, Lamaar Fike is very good.

Stacey Jayne decides to go along to check out the opportunity and as luck should have it, a new course is due to start the following day. She signs up for a term. From her very first effort, Lamaar tells her that she has a good eye for detail. He says that she might be ready to move on to acrylics or oils and that she should have a proper space at home to paint in, so she buys an easel and sets up a makeshift studio in the spare room. Having arranged the space to her liking, she decides what she needs is a bucket chair to be able to sit comfortably at her easel.

The man in the David Hockney tee-shirt at the stall at Compton Regis market is very helpful. He shows her a range of comfortable looking bucket chairs.

‘I rather like this red one,’ she says, after she had tried a few. ‘But ….. it says, Made in Romania. Romania? Is that good?’

‘It’s a little-known fact but all the best bucket chairs are made in Romania,’ he says. ‘And of course, I only stock the best. I have my reputation to think of.’

‘I think, I’ll take it, then,’ she says. ‘I hope you don’t mind me inquiring, but I couldn’t help noticing your tee-shirt. I love David Hockney. Do you paint?’

All that Barney knows about Hockney is that he is some kind of painter, a pop artist he thinks or is he an Impressionist? Perhaps they are the same thing. He is not sure. Nor has Barney actually started his venture into art yet, he thought he would buy the tee shirt first. This, however, is not the time for him to admit these shortcomings. His customer is a very attractive woman. And, she seems to be taking an interest in him. This is not something that has happened very much lately.

‘A little,’ he says, with a shrug, hoping that hinting at modesty might suggest he has insurmountable talent. ‘I paint a little.’

Deceit does not come naturally to Stacey Jayne. Perhaps this has something to do with her convent education. She is anxious therefore not to exaggerate her artistic prowess. But, at the same time, she would like to show this talented painter with the sideline in market trading that she is versed in the language of fine art techniques. ‘I’ve just started a course,’ she says. ‘I’m learning acrylics and oils. We’re doing stippling, dabbing and flicking at the moment.’

Acrylics? Stippling? Dabbing? Flicking? Oils? H’mm, thinks Barney.

‘That’s good,’ seems the safest response. He goes with it.

Stacey Jayne’s ‘What kind of things do you paint?’ is parried with Barney’s ‘Well, you know. A bit of this, a bit of that.’

Her bold ‘Oh really! I’d love to see some of your work,’ meets with an uncertain ‘Sure.’

‘That’s great,’ she says. ‘I look forward to that.’

Her phone rings and she moves away a little. A voice appears to be shouting down the phone at her. Her serenity vanishes. Her posture changes. Her brow furrows. Her fists clench.

‘You’re going to do what?’ she screams. ‘If you do, that’s it!’

Perhaps things at home are not hunky dory for Stacey Jayne, he thinks. Might this present him with an opportunity, later on? Probably not. But then, you never know.

3:

Stacey Jayne has been bothered by Dorsey’s petulance for some time. Toys, pram and propulsion spring to mind. If he doesn’t get his own way, he goes into infant mode and throws a tantrum. He is controlling, dictatorial. He has always shown a deep resentment of her having hobbies of her own. She recalls the time that she went a cake decorating demonstration when, apparently, she should have been raising the Union Flag in the garden for the Queen’s birthday. Dorsey went ballistic. And the occasion that she wanted to go to a belly dancing class with Donna. He hid her house keys and locked her in the house. But, returning home to find that her husband has torn up her watercolours and trashed her easel is the final straw. What would the people of the town think if they knew that Councillor Dorsey Pitts, Mayor-Elect was guilty of such wanton destruction over his pretty wife wanting to express herself? She had only joined an art class, not boiled his favourite bunny or slept with Satan.

But if she really wants to bring Dorsey’s name into disrepute, she will bring the public’s attention to his connections with the English Defence League, the English Volunteer Force, or the one with the Germanic name. When she had taken the matter of his involvement up with him, he had tried to pass his clandestine communications off as freemasonry, but bit by bit Sarah Jayne discovered his connections were more sinister. While he might not be a leading light in any of these far-right organisations, the fact that he has associations with them at all would surely be enough to ruin his mainstream political career. After all, this is a cosmopolitan town, not somewhere where a local politician of any party should be holding extreme views. However hidden Dorsey’s connections or however convincing his subsequent denial of them might be, suspicions about him would remain. The old saying there’s no smoke, and all that.

But, this is something to keep back for later, a negotiating tool if you like. He can communicate with her from now on through solicitors. She is leaving him. What he has done is unforgivable. She can go and stay with Donna until she finds somewhere. And she will give Barney Cisco a call. He is bound to know where she can rent some studio space to paint in.

4:

Hi. Barney Cisco speaking,’ he says. He does not recognise the number.

‘Hello, Barney. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Stacey Jayne,’ she says. ‘I bought a bucket chair from you a few days ago.’

Remember her? Of course he remembers her. He’s been thinking about nothing else since their meeting. Not even Bristol City’s problems in defence or Sonny’s upcoming parole hearing. ‘Ah, yes. I think I do remember you,’ he says, trying to muster up cool indifference.

‘I was just wondering if you might be able to help me,’ she says. ‘What with your connections in the art world. My circumstances have uh …… changed and I wondered if you might know of a small studio space to rent where I could paint.’

‘I’ve think I might have the very thing,’ he says, trying desperately to think of the very thing he might have.

‘Could I come and have a look?’ she says.

‘I’ll tell you what, Stacey,’ he says. ‘Give me a day or two and I will get back to you. Is this the best number to get you on?’

Barney is thrown into a panic. Facilitating the space for Stacey Jayne to paint presents no problem. He can set aside a couple of rooms at the back of his warehouse. He will need to clear it out a bit of junk, and clean up, but this can easily be done. He can buy some easels and paints from Nicki Bello’s artists’ supply stall. But, what about the paintings? He needs to make it look like it is a working studio and that he has completed a few canvases and has others in progress. Where on earth is he going to get hold of these? Suddenly, he has the light-bulb moment. There is a prestigious exhibition on at Art Attack by an overseas artist with an unusual name. He knows this because his friend and fellow Bristol City supporter, Jarvis Vest works as a security guard there. Given favourable circumstances, and a little guile, he can borrow some paintings from there.

5:

‘These paintings are brilliant, Barney,’ says Stacey Jayne, as she moves slowly round the four large canvases of Tuscan landscapes in the makeshift studio. ‘You are so talented. I don’t know how my poor daubings will look alongside these.’

‘It’s good of you to say so, Stacey Jayne,’ he says. He is pleased with how he easily he managed to blot out Lili Stankovich’s signature and replace it with Barney Cisco using some black paint on the wrong end of a small brush. You can hardly notice the alterations.

‘What are you working on at the moment?’ she asks.

‘I’m doing another landscape in oils,’ he says. ‘I took it home to do a bit on it last night. Sometimes I find that the light is better in my conservatory.’

‘Ah, I see.’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘Look! I’ve got my bits and pieces in the car. I’ll bring them in, if that’s OK, then if you are interested, I was wondering whether you might want to go and see that Lili Stankovich exhibition that’s on at Art Attack.’

‘I’ve a lot on today, maybe next week,’ says Barney. Procrastination is a tried and tested strategy and in his line of work maybe next week means never.

‘Oh look, Barney!’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘Isn’t that the police outside?’

‘What?’ says Barney. ‘Oh my God!’

He busies himself trying his best to cover up the canvases that are on show while he tries to remember what Sonny’s solicitor was called.

‘They’re peering through the window, now,’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘I wonder what they might want. I hope you are not in trouble, Barney.’

Why, oh why had he listened to Lorelei Angel? Why had he tried to better himself? And what made him think he had a chance with a babe like Stacey Jayne? He should have followed the advice of that song that was always playing on Tonya Ludovic’s bric-a-brac stall. ‘Don’t go chasing waterfalls,’ it went, or something like that. ‘Stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to.’ He should have stuck to what he was good at, supporting Bristol City through thick and thin and selling cheap foreign mattresses at inflated prices at his market stall.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Nightswimming

Nightswimming by Chris Green

On the face of it, Nightswimming is about someone’s fond memories of skinny-dipping in their younger days. Surely though, the song is about dreaming. You couldn’t get a more haunting tune or a more dreamlike arrangement. And the band are called REM. Rapid Eye Movement. What more do you need? It’s a perfect fit. They’re using nightswimming as a metaphor for the mystifying world of dreams. That fugitive landscape where nothing is what it seems. That dark space on the edge of town where the silence echoes and characters change in front of you without warning.

Gino, the café owner may not be aware of this. He is probably just playing the song because he likes REM. This is not surprising. Not so long ago they were the biggest band in the world. Every album went platinum. I suspect the girl with the multi-coloured hair who Gino is talking doesn’t know what Nightswimming alludes to either. She probably just thinks it’s a pretty tune about a group of young people taking a naughty dip at the lido on a summer night after a heavy session at The Goat and Bicycle.

I finish my mint tea and go over to the counter to pay.

Do you know what this song’s about?’ I say.

Gino looks me in the eye and laughs. He thinks it is a trick question.

It’s about going for a midnight swim,’ he says. ‘Listen!’

I think it’s about dreaming,’ the girl says. ‘It has that ethereal feel to it.’

So do I,’ I say. ‘He appears to be recalling a real-life experience. Nostalgia, you might say. But in dreams, memories become confused with fable. Hence the random stream of consciousness lyrics.’

Nightswimming gives way to Man on the Moon. On the album, they appear the other way around, so this must be a hits compilation.

What do you make of this one?’ I say.

It’s about the moon landing,’ Gino says.

All their songs have more to them than meets the eye,’ the girl says. She looks up the lyrics on her phone.

Man on the Moon. It couldn’t be clearer,’ Gino says. ‘Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins.’

It seems to jump from one subject to another,’ the girl says. ‘It’s quite a complicated song.’

It is a tribute to the actor, surrealist comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman,’ I say. ‘Andy was a prankster and there is a suggestion that he faked his own death. Haven’t you ever wondered about the line, Andy did you hear about this one? The singer links his death with the conspiracy theory about the moon landings.’

What about the goofing on Elvis line?’ the girl says.

Andy used to do an Elvis impersonation that even Elvis was alleged to have praised,’ I say.

Some new customers come into the café. Gino turns his attention to them.

I’m Maya,’ the girl says, moving closer. ‘I expect you know this means illusion or dream.’

Hello Maya,’ I say. ‘I’m Phil.’

I can’t help wondering about your interest in lyrics, Phil,’ Maya says. ‘Are you perhaps a songwriter or a lyricist?’

In a way, I suppose,’ I say. ‘At least, the words bit. I write fiction. I’m Phillip C. Dark.’

Cool!’ she says. ‘I may have read a story of yours. Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

That one is by Chris Green,’ I say. ‘But you are not far off. It is in the same anthology as one of mine.’

Are you writing anything at the moment?’ she says.

I’ve just started a short story where the Twin Towers aren’t destroyed in 9/11 but the White House is,’ I say. ‘As a result, the USA falls into the hands of terrorists, one of whom is the former TV show host who sets about running the country through social media.’

Sounds good,’ Maya says. ‘Hey, look! If you are not doing anything, why don’t you come and meet my cat, Ronnie? He’d love to meet you.’

I was going to get my kaleidoscope repaired and then go to look for some fridge magnets,’ I say. ‘But I guess that could wait until later.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is very close to my house,’ she says. ‘So we could go there together afterwards, and I could help you choose.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is on the same side of town as Maya’s house, but it is a few miles further on. If Maya had not been travelling with me, it would have been nigh on impossible to find it. It is set in a clearing in the middle of a wood which in itself is off the beaten track. I park some distance away, and we have to beat our way through the undergrowth to reach it. It is more of a log cabin than a house. The location reminds me of a story of mine where people can teleport themselves over long distances simply by thinking about where they want to go. All they need to have is a physical picture in their mind of the desired destination. To keep criminals and thieves away, the wealthy build homes without windows in elaborate woodland mazes to confuse the ever more sophisticated Google maps. They become so reclusive that they live their entire lives within the confines of their homes. They become afraid to communicate with anyone in case they give away their location. Not that Maya seems to be rich or reclusive.

Ronnie, it turns out is large for a domestic cat, measuring around six feet from tip to tail. Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life, but Ronnie is the first cat I’ve come across that you can have a conversation with. I had thought that talking cats only existed in Haruki Murakami novels. Not only does Ronnie talk, he seems to know his REM tunes too. When Maya mentions we’ve been listening to Nightswimming and Man on the Moon, he becomes animated.

Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite is my favourite,’ he says ‘There’s a lot going on in there. It’s about a drifter. With its roadside motel, instant food, payphones and oddball characters, it describes his transient lifestyle. Sidewinder is a metaphor for the drifter, don’t you think?

REM songs always have double meanings,’ I say, thrilled to have found a cat that is knowledgeable about popular culture. ‘A sidewinder is a snake, of course, but also an old style of telephone with a winding handle on the side.

Their singer, Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics,’ Ronnie says. ‘I don’t think the others in the band were sure what the rest of the song meant.’

He’s dreaming about the things he misses,’ I say. ‘The candy bars, falling stars and the Dr Seuss stories.’

He mentions The Cat in the Hat. That’s my favourite Dr Seuss story too,’ Ronnie says. Did You know that he was a big fan of Syd Barrett? Dark Globe was his favourite. Do you know that one? REM recorded it too.’

That’s the one that starts off, Oh where are you now, pussy willow, isn’t it? I say. ‘I like Octopus. Trip, Trip to a dream dragon.’

I knew you two would hit it off,’ Maya says. ‘Ronnie has always been a fan of dream-pop.’

It was lovely to meet you, Mr Dark,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’d love to talk to you some more, but I must be going or I will be late for a very important date. I’m taking my friend Alice to an exhibition at The Looking Glass Gallery.’

What are you going to see?’ I ask. Cats appreciating art as well as music. It is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

We are going to see some new work by abstract artist, Jenny Westbrook,’ Ronnie says. ‘Jenny’s paintings are organic and very colourful. The exhibition is called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

What a great title for an exhibition!’ I say. ‘I hope you enjoy them. It was good to talk to you, Ronnie.’

I’ve made a double layer bilberry upside-down cake,’ Maya says when Ronnie is gone. ‘Would you like some?’

I would love some,’ I say, suddenly aware that I haven’t eaten since breakfast.

Then we can go upstairs and you can help me with some buttons,’ Maya says.

Having known Maya for less than an hour, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit forward.

I have to get my kaleidoscope repaired,’ I say.

I haven’t forgotten,’ Maya says. ‘We can do that afterwards, and we will still have time to go and choose some fridge magnets.’

In the experimental fiction writers’ circles I move in, you become accustomed to heightened levels of strangeness. We are a pretty weird bunch with some pretty weird ideas. While most people try to fashion order out of chaos, we try to fashion chaos out of order. But when you experience elements of this strangeness first hand, you can’t help but be phased. You try to match it to some of the staples of the sci-fi or fantasy genres, parallel worlds, time travel, simulated consciousness, virtual reality, illusions, etc. But even so, you don’t expect to encounter anything as bizarre as a blue six-feet long talking cat with an interest in music and art in everyday, waking life. Might this not lead you to question reality? What is it about your situation or circumstances that has changed, you may wonder? You might question whether you are awake. What if you are dreaming? If you are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream, who is the dreamer?

Maya’s buttons prove to be a big distraction, and before we know it, it is late afternoon. I think it needs to be said that although time pretends to be regular and move in a linear fashion, it sometimes falls flat on its face and embarrasses itself. Time would be better described as flexible, elastic, malleable. It is only a reflection of change and from this, our brains construct a sense of time as if it were flowing. But it’s an illusion. Time is all over the place. Einstein was on the right track. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, he said, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. Not that Maya and I did a lot of sitting.

If we hurry, we will have just enough time to get to the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. The kaleidoscope repair will probably have to wait until another day. I take a look out of the window. The woodland seems to have thinned considerably. There are now hardly any trees. All I can see is a large lake. It is already getting dark. The moon is coming up.

Perhaps we’d better forget about the fridge magnets too,’ Maya says.

I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. The lake does look inviting.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ben Maceo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Maceo by Chris Green

Ben Maceo told me about the clock last week. Ben has special powers, you see. He can tell when things are going to happen. Had it been anyone else, I would never have believed them, but as it was Ben, I knew that it would happen and so I was able to prepare. Ben knew that the big clock in the town’s main square was going to explode and that there would be fragments of time scattered everywhere. He knew you would no longer be able to rely on your watch or the numbers you saw on your phone display to tell the time. He knew that time being the key to practically everything, the chaos would spread. Perhaps I should have shared his warning with others, but I did not. I find that not many people are ready for unpleasant truths, and especially not to hear them before the event. The others on the campus already think that I’m a bit weird for hanging around with Ben.

Anyway, time is all over the place now. Not just hours and minutes, but years and months are coalescing, or separating. No-one knows what is going on and from what I can see from the television pictures, there is panic on the streets. Film crews have been shipped in from far and wide to take a look at the chaos that is happening in the town. Many of course have not been able to get here as time is buffeted around, but some have arrived, or are arriving. But others who have arrived are stuck here, whether they want to be or not.

Every aspect of our everyday lives, as Ben points out, is time-dependent. I am not going to even venture outside until things get back to normal. Perhaps they will never get back to normal, but this is a chance that I have to take. In the meantime, I can take some cuttings from my agave plants and practice some Janacek on my ukulele, and there’s that Schopenhauer essay I have to finish off. Schopenhauer’s view on time is that we spend too much of it ruminating on the past or planning for the future that our lives quickly pass us by. So, I’m going to try to get on with mine. After all, Ben has my phone number. He will let me know if and when there is any change. Perhaps he might even call round. We could listen to my new Ozric Tentacles CD. And, who knows what else?

I have learned to trust Ben’s intuition. It was Ben who told me about the man in the Homburg hat’s arrival at the railway station last June. Ben was aware that the stranger’s very presence in the town would bring about the worst snows on record, and this in the middle of summer too when the rest of the country was basking in the seasonal sunshine. The mystery man was also responsible for the disappearance into thin air of the 11:11 train from the capital to the west country on November 11th, somewhere between the ancient burial sites and the land sculptures by the artist with the unpronounceable name. Ben told me this was going to take place days before it happened.

His gift is that he can detect what is happening behind the scenes. He can see the invisible threads that connect all things. He knows that when one of those threads gets broken that something anomalous will happen. By tracing the path of the broken thread, he says, he can tell exactly what will happen, along with when and where it will happen. He does not do any of this consciously. He says that it’s just like having the radio on in the background. This is how he knew that we would have blizzards in June and he knew the train would disappear.

There is more strangeness in the world than most people realise,’ he is fond of saying. ‘Most people cannot see the mechanics of things happening. They just put events down to cause and effect, without understanding what cause might be or what happens in between cause and effect or else they come up with some claptrap about theoretical physics to explain things.’

I’m right with Ben on this one. Theoretical physicists seem to know very little about the universe. Their theories change every five minutes. They talk about red shifts and blue shifts, expansions from the big bang and contractions down to gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, but despite all this blather, their understanding of what is really going on never seems to become any clearer. The great Karl Popper summed it up by saying, ‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’ Ben Maceo takes it a step further and argues that there is no point at all in universal theories, each event is unique and has its own explanation.

……………………………………………….

Time is still all over the place. So far as I can tell, it has been three days, give or take, so far as I can tell since it all went down and Ben still hasn’t been round to see me. He hasn’t so much as called me. You would think that given his intuitive powers, he would have detected the undeniable chemistry between us. Surely he has spotted that I always sit next to him in Paradox and Plurality. He must have noticed that I hang on his every word. What can he possibly be doing that is getting in the way of our blossoming romance? Especially now. He can’t be busy. College has been closed since the upheaval. He has no excuse not to get in touch.

I left several messages on Ben’s phone, but amidst all of the temporal disorder, I suppose he may not have got them. Perhaps he will get them tomorrow or maybe he got them and thought they were from last week. From before the clock exploded. This could explain why I haven’t had a call. On the other hand, the messages may still be up there in the ether, struggling to find its way, along with all the other communications that have been disrupted. They said on the news that messages from weeks ago were still bumping around out there, trying to find their destination. I suspect some people will have made it out of town, but the newsman said that this would be a risky undertaking because of the wormholes. I imagine the term wormhole is perhaps being used here because they have no idea what is going on.

Ben would be able to explain what is going on, but he probably wouldn’t want to tell them. Perhaps they would not understand it if he did. If you can’t understand something without an explanation, then you can’t understand it with an explanation. I read that somewhere. I wonder where it was. There is an innate tendency to feel that things have always been as they are now and always will be. This is the way the human mind seems to work, but there was always a before and there will always be an after. It’s just a question of learning to think this way. We need to take a more Zen approach.

It is dark much of the day. Sometimes light breaks through for a few minutes but then the sky blackens again. With nothing to regulate them properly, night and day seem to be entirely arbitrary. My laptop is continually doing a system restore and my bedside clock is like a random number generator. I keep picking up numerals off the floor from the various clocks around the flat. Living without the certainty of time takes a lot of getting used to.

Ben did say that in the beginning, at least for the first few days, the aftermath of the explosion in the town would be difficult to live with. Perhaps he has left town. He knew that it was going to happen and seemed to understand the effect it would have, so this would make sense. And this is why he can’t communicate. Bit he should have taken me with him. Instead, I am stuck here. Oh well, no use dwelling on it. If it stays light for a while, I think I will paint some yantric mandalas to focus my mindfulness.

……………………………………………….

The stranger in the Homburg hat. …… The one that Ben described. ……. He is outside my house. ……. He’s looking in the window. ……. He has something in his hand. He is holding it up for me to see. It looks like an envelope, a black envelope, one of those A4 folding ones that you use to keep documents in. …… Oh my God! I can see his silhouette through the frosted glass of the front door. He is wearing a long black overcoat and with the hat looks about seven-feet tall. He’s knocking on the door. ……. What should I do? I’m not ready for this. I am terrified. He knocks again and shouts something. I can’t make out what he is saying. His diction is not good, but it does sound like a threat. ……. Suddenly, there is another rupture in time and to my great relief, the man in the Homburg hat is no longer there. But, the black manilla wallet is lying on the coir doormat inside the door, in front of me. Anxiously, I pick it up and inspect it, afraid to open it to see what is inside.

Finally, I pluck up the courage to take a look. The wallet contains nine sheets of A4 paper, each with several paragraphs of text on, but it is like no writing that I have ever seen before. It is perhaps a little, but only a little, reminiscent of Arabic script. In any event, it looks to the untrained eye as unintelligible as Kurdish or Urdu might be. At the bottom of the last page, as if acting as a signature, there is a line-art graphic of a shattered clock. How am I supposed to make anything of this arcane communication? We covered Theosophy and The Golden Dawn and all that Zoroastrian mysticism in a module last semester, along with Rosicrucianism and the Kabbalah, but I can’t pretend that I followed it that closely. It was too easy to get one mixed up with the other and I drifted off a lot. I think I may have just sat in on the module to be around Ben.

The curious thing is, I find that I am able to read this bizarre communication. Not all of it, certainly, but I can make out passages of the strange text. Where has this remarkable ability sprung from? The letter contains none of the mumbo jumbo from esoteric teachings that the blocks of arcane lettering suggest. Instead, it mentions a meeting. I am to meet an undisclosed party, by the statue of Neil Diamond. The statue of Neil Diamond? Crackling Rosie? Sweet Caroline? Why is there a statue of Neil Diamond? The statue, it says, is located next to the harmonica museum. I didn’t realise there was a harmonica museum in the town. Where on earth is the harmonica museum? The letter doesn’t offer a map. Oh well, I expect I will find it. It is not a large town. The main problem might be the one concerning the specified time, midday. Time has not settled down yet, so how will I know when it is midday and if I do find out, will it still be midday when I get there.

……………………………………………….

Light doesn’t necessarily travel at the speed of light,’ says a muted voice. I cannot see where it is coming from and, at first, think it might just be a voice in my head. After all, it is an odd line in conversation.

The slowest recorded speed for light is thirty-eight miles per hour,’ the voice continues. Is it perhaps some kind of coded message? I turn around to see a short stocky one-armed man in a Pablo Picasso blue and white hooped sweatshirt and black sunglasses emerging from behind the statue of Neil Diamond. He has a Siamese cat perched on his shoulder. Even though there is a lot of competition for strange, if this fellow is going for strange, he has surely succeeded.

Would you like to sing to my cat?’ he says. ‘He likes sea shanties best.’

I don’t think I know any sea shanties,’ I tell him. ‘Sea shanties aren’t a very girlie thing.’

Of course, you do,’ he says, dancing on the spot. ‘Everybody knows at least one sea shanty. What about Blow the man down?’

No sorry,’ I say. ‘I don’t know it.’

What about a folk song then,’ he says. ‘My cat likes Wimoweh. My cat is called Trevor, by the way.’

OK I’ll give it a go,’ I say, finding myself somehow being drawn into Pablo Picasso’s veil of nonsense.

Wimoweh is easy as it doesn’t have a lot of words, but as soon as I start singing, Pablo Picasso disappears along with his cat. One minute they are here and the next they are gone like thieves in the night. I am still no wiser as to what the meeting might have been about, or indeed if this was the meeting at all. I wait outside the harmonica museum for a while, but no-one else turns up to meet with me.

I notice that some men are trying to rebuild the town clock. It is a great brute of a thing, much bigger than I remember it being. It is surrounded by crude scaffolding and one of the men is struggling to carry the minute hand up an improvised ladder while another holds the hour hand in place at three o’clock. Perhaps time will soon be back to normal and I will see Ben again. After all this singularity, I’m looking forward to some straightforward metaphysics and philosophy.

……………………………………………….

By the new saxophone shop? Yes, Ben. Of course, I can meet you there. I’ve got my bicycle. The new saxophone shop, though? I’m not sure where that is…… Ah, I see. Jack of Clubs Street. That’s around the corner from the kaleidoscope repair centre, is it?’

At last, to my great relief, Ben has called me. It’s so good to hear his voice. Since he’s been away, I have had to suspend belief with some of the things that have been happening.

Yes, up Jack of Clubs Street and about a hundred yards on the left,’ he says. ‘You can’t miss it. It has a large Selmer saxophone hanging outside. I’ll meet you in an hour.’

I’m concerned that if I let him off the phone then he will be gone out of my life again. ‘Look! I’ve been worried about you,’ I say. ‘And I’ve been living a nightmare. Where have you been?’

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and I’ve been in between,’ he says. ‘You’re right. Things got a bit mad back there for a while, didn’t they? But, I believe the man in the Homburg hat has gone now.’

Thank God,’ I say. ‘He was sinister.’

I hope the dancing painter with the cat wasn’t too much bother,’ he says. ‘He comes out of the woodwork sometimes when he sees an opportunity. I expect you had to sing a song or two.’

It is uncanny the way Ben knows what has been happening, even though he has not been in town. Or has he? He did say he’s been here and he’s been there and he’s been in between. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be meeting him again. I can hardly contain myself.

I pass the clock and see that the hands are now in place and the men are taking the scaffolding down. A small group of cheery vagrants are gathered around it, celebrating with their bottles of cider. I pass the new statue of Neil Diamond, although I have to say, it doesn’t look a bit like him. I take a detour to avoid some men putting up a hoarding to advertise a new blockbuster called Rocket Man, or something. I’ve not been this way often, but eventually I manage to find Jack of Clubs Street. It is a long narrow street and it is enveloped by a haze so I cannot immediately make out where the saxophone shop is. Then, I spot the silver Selmer saxophone shimmering through the murk. It seems to have fallen from its mount onto the pavement.

But, where is Ben? There is no sign of him. What can have happened? I get off the bike and I look frantically up and down the street. Through the haze, I can see the man in the Homburg hat. He is walking slowly towards me. On his shoulder, he is gripping something with both hands, It is difficult to make out what it is. Is it a balloon? Or, is it a surfboard? It seems to be changing shape. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Surely it’s not a rocket launcher! Why has Ben brought me here? Jack of Clubs Street does not seem a safe place to be. The haze clears a little. The man keeps coming towards me. He is close now and I see that what he is carrying is carrying is a bucket of dreams. He offers it to me.

It doesn’t have to be bad,’ he says. ‘You can pick one with a happy ending if you like.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret by Chris Green

Van Morrison wanted to be a vet,’ the man says.

Who?’ says the girl, not looking up from the book she is reading.

Van Morrison, you know. Brown Eyed Girl, Bright Side Of The Road.’

Oh! Him!’ the girl says, hoping this will put an end to the conversation. She is not here to listen to geeky middle-aged men in paisley shirts talking about portly crooners. She has aspirations. She just needs a little downtime at the moment to get over a disappointment.

When he was at school, he wanted to be a vet. Then his father bought him a saxophone.’

That’s nice,’ the girl says, pulling her black sunglasses down from their resting place on her forehead.

The man doesn’t take the hint. ‘I was using close on 50 gigabytes a week just browsing on my iPhone and I was texting and messaging non-stop. And then there was the streaming. That took it up to 100,’ he continues. ‘What about you? Tracey, isn’t it?’

I think I was probably on more than that,’ says Tracey. ‘If I had used my phone any more they would have had to surgically remove it. Now. …… Can I get back to my book?’

I don’t know how I became so addicted,’ Dirk says. ‘I’m more of an outdoor person really.’

Tracey continues to blank him.

I had to bite the bullet and come along here,’ he says. He doesn’t tell her that his partner, Domino was knocked down texting a friend while crossing a busy London thoroughfare. Domino died from the injuries she sustained. Although this was six months ago Dirk can’t bring himself to talk about it. Instead, he continues to elaborate on his own habit, which through his days and nights of loneliness became worse.

When I wasn’t on the phone,’ he says. ‘I was on the laptop. When I wasn’t on the laptop, I was on the tablet. I took the phone to bed. I had an app to wake me if there were any status updates, another to tell me if I had any messages, another to let me know if I had any tweets. In the end, I was awake all night. I don’t like being awake all night.’

He awaits some kind of response. None is forthcoming.

Unless of course, it’s with someone nice,’ he adds, boldly. ‘I’m Dirk, by the way.’

Tracey doesn’t respond. She feels he is getting more creepy by the minute. Why is it that men feel that she is another country to be conquered or colonised? Where did she read this?

They are at Best Kept Secret, a digital detox retreat in Cornwall. There is no phone signal here and no Wi-Fi. You would have to drive several miles to get any kind of reception on your device. It is so remote that even the postman has trouble finding it. In addition, no TVs or radios are allowed here. You are permitted to bring just three books for a week-long stay. The centre has the express aim of changing people’s habits. Best Kept Secret goes one step further than Unplugged Weekend, reSTART and other establishments dealing with Internet Addiction Disorder. It is not interested in weekenders. It is so serious in its aims that during your stay it doesn’t allow you off-site. They store your car keys in a safe in case you are tempted to leave.

Katie …. Price,’ Dirk reads from the cover of the novel that Tracey is holding aloft. ‘The …. Comeback ….. Girl. Is it good?’

I’m enjoying it, yes,’ Tracey says.

I’m reading Van Morrison’s biography,’ he says. ‘You can borrow it when I’ve finished if you like.’

Well, Dirk, did you say? Perhaps, Dirk, you might want to get back to it and let me get on with my novel.’

Have you reached an exciting bit?’ he asks.

Tracey ignores him. She pulls her faux leather jacket around her to cover her cleavage and turns away.

Dirk looks around for someone else to talk to. There is no-one. Some of the guests are in the life drawing class and some are in the Pilates session. Others are in NLP therapy or else in the quiet meditation room. A couple of them are in physiotherapy for RSI. Dirk finds the whole atmosphere of withdrawal within the centre claustrophobic. He prefers it out here on the patio. He can listen to the birdsong and take in the aroma of wild roses and pennyroyal.

……………………………………………………

Although one usually thinks in terms of videos, anything can go viral on the Internet. Whether it’s a photo, an animation, an article, a quote, a tweet, a person, an animal, an idea, an argument, a coupon or an upcoming event, virtually anything that is shareable can go viral. Such is the power of hyperspace. All it takes is a handful of shares on social media and the right target audience to trigger an avalanche of sharing. News items, genuine and fake flash round the globe. If the American President were shot it is reckoned that three-quarters of the people in the world would know about it within fourteen minutes.

This is of course under normal circumstances. As it happens the American President has not been shot, but the transatlantic internet pipeline that joins Europe to the US has been down for two days. This is unprecedented. The world is waiting for something to happen. The crisis has generated record sales of newspapers but they have no news. Instead, there is a wealth of speculation. There are suggestions that terrorism is behind the breach in the pipeline. The Telegraph says it has all the hallmarks of a Russian cyber attack. The Sun blames it on Jihadis. The Express is torn between blaming in on illegal immigrants and the storms that are coming this way. The Mail doesn’t refer to it. concentrating instead on statins and house prices.

………………………………………………………….…

Dirk is unaware of the turn of events in the wider world. He doesn’t know that there has been a hiccup in hyperspace. All he knows is that he is completely at a loss in the non-digital world. Without his devices, he finds it difficult to bond with the others at the centre. Most of them seem to come from the corporate world, whilst he himself is a bit of a dreamer. He has always eked a living in the margins of society, drifting aimlessly from one job to another. Domino shared his quasi-alternative views. The irony of her demise is that she was an eco-campaigner. She hardly used her phone. Life, he feels, is full of contradictions.

Being in the confines of the centre has only served to remind him how much he misses Domino. Some of the others at Best Kept Secret have managed to find a modicum of solace in treatment or quiet contemplation, but he has not. In three days there he has become increasingly restless and edgy. He is desperate for some human contact, some love and understanding.

Tracey has now finished her Katie Price, her Sophie Kinsella and her Jojo Moyes novels. Dirk finds her once again on the patio. With nothing left to read, she stares into space.

It is against the law to have a pet dog in Iceland,’ Dirk says, hoping that Tracey might either be a dog lover or a dog hater in which case he has interesting facts about cats at the ready.

Tracey does not seem to have a view about the Nordic lack of tolerance for man’s best friend. She continues to stare into space. This provides a cue for Dirk to play his cat card and also refer to Tracey’s gaze.

The first cat in space was a French cat named Félicette in 1963,’ he says. ‘She was black and white.’

Tracey has no view about feline celebrities.

Dirk has other facts at his fingertips. Before he came in here, he often spent the whole dayspent many an afternoon browsing trivia sites. He is about to tell Tracey that Coca-Cola would be green if colouring weren’t added to it, when they are joined on the patio by Echo.

Echo looks tanned and sporty and is probably nearer his age than Tracey. She has beautiful brown eyes and a winning smile. Dirk feels he might be able to get along with Echo. And what a great name! He noticed her earlier when she arrived in a brightly coloured VW camper earlier. She came over to him to introduce herself. He was further encouraged when she showed a preference for the mung bean dahl over the oatmeal power bowl at lunch. And he might have imagined it. But didn’t she compliment him on his floral print shirt? She seems more relaxed than most of the burnt-out event organisers and ad executives inside. It is hard to imagine that she has Internet Addiction Disorder. She is even able to keep from fidgeting her fingers.

Without a device to play with, most of the others, himself included, do not know what to do with their hands. This is one of the often overlooked difficulties of digital device withdrawal. They don’t tell you about all of the side effects associated with Internet Addiction Disorder when you arrive. Some are fiddling with their spectacles, their zips, their shoelaces, or rearranging the salt and pepper pots and the cutlery on the table. Dirk has found himself playing a lot with the loose change in his pocket.

Following her break up with Blake, the last thing Echo needs is another alpha male who has to be the centre of attention. Nor does she want someone who will stare with wonder at her hair or hang on her every word. She is looking for a sensitive man who will understand her needs. She looks Dirk up and down. They smile at one another.

What is your favourite Dr Seuss book?’ she asks.

It is not a question that Dirk has often been asked, but as the only one that he knows is The Cat In The Hat, this is his answer.

You’ve not read The Butter Battle Book then,’ Echo says.

What’s it about?’ asks Dirk. He is anxious to keep this conversation going.

It is about a land where two hostile cultures, the Yooks and the Zooks,’ Echo says. ‘They live on opposite sides of a long curving wall. The Yooks wear blue clothes and the Zooks wear orange. The dispute between the two cultures is that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. The conflict between the two sides leads to an arms race where each comes up with ever more deadly weapons, the result of which is mutually assured destruction.’

There is a moral to the tale then,’ Dirk says. ‘I will have to read it when I get out of here. I’ve nearly finished Van Morrison’s biography, so it’s a shame that I didn’t know about it before I signed up.’

Van Morrison. You like Van Morrison?’

Well yes. I do, rather.’

I adore Van Morrison,’ Echo says.

That’s great. Only some women find him ….. a little …..’

Dreamy?’

No, not exactly.’

Transcendental?’

No. ….. I was going to say, shouty. Some women find him a little shouty.’

Surely not,’ Echo says. ‘Van is the man.’

Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance.’

It’s the middle of the day,’ Echo says. ‘But you are right. Why not?’

………………………………………………………….…

It seems improbable that all the global communication pipelines could be breached at the same time. There are around five hundred different submarine cables spanning every ocean. But this is what appears to be happening. One by one they are failing. With just the transatlantic pipelines out, the possibility of some kind of rational explanation remained, excessive movement in a major tectonic plate causing sudden or greater than expected continental drift, perhaps. But what about those spanning the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? The likelihood of the failings being from natural causes has now completely disappeared. There must be a more sinister explanation. And what is happening to the satellites in orbit? Little by little the digital world is breaking up. Sabres rattle, but then this is nothing new. Power struggles seem to be part of the human condition. The internet pipeline crisis is unlikely to fuel much of a conflict as most of the weapon systems will no longer function.

While across the board the younger generation starts to experience withdrawal symptoms, many of the older generation can remember that just twenty or so years ago, there was no internet. Perhaps it is a case of selective memory, but many reflect that life was better. Things were simpler. There was not the urgency to be in communication with everyone all the time. You could put things off, chill out. Up and down the country older people experience a feeling of relief that they do not have to check their missed calls and emails, respond to social media statuses or put updates on to their computers. Before all this technology took hold, things still got done. In many ways, it was easier to get things done. Back then there were a few mobile phones, but all you could do with them was make person-to-person calls. And you had to be in range. And even then you had to shout loudly. And they were not what you would call compact. You would have difficulty getting one in your jacket pocket.

………………………………………………………….…

Do you know, I don’t miss my devices at all,’ Dirk says. They are about to leave Best Kept Secret after their stay. Dirk has been there ten days and Echo a week.

Nor do I,’ Echo says. ‘I don’t think I will even switch my phone back on.’

Better off without them. I’ll think I will give my tablet away.’

Gives you a different perspective on life, doesn’t it?’

What does?’

The freedom to say no.’

Not that you did too much of that.’

Ha, ha,’ says Echo, hitting him on the arm with her Quicksilver backpack.

Just think of all those poor people that still have to grapple with that insane deluge of trash in their feeds day in day out.’

They will find out one day …… or not.’

Anyway, here we are, footloose and fone free,’ Dirk says.

Shall we go surfing to celebrate?’ Echo says. ‘I think Summerleaze Beach would be good. It’s west facing. The swell should be just right.’

Don’t know it,’ Dirk says. ‘Is it far?’

It’s north of here. Bude,’ Echo says.

Bude? Isn’t that where the secret listening base intercepts the traffic from the transatlantic internet pipeline?’ Dirk says.

You are still doing it,’ Echo says. ‘You have to let go of all this mental floss.’

But don’t you wonder what’s been happening in the world while we’ve been in there?’

Same old, I should think. Political posturing, smouldering racism, celebrity indiscretions. Nothing ever changes really, does it?’

You’re right.’ Dirk says. ‘Let’s go and get some air into our lungs.’

Then perhaps we can book into that nice hotel that looks out on to the ocean,’ Echo says. ‘And you can show me that thing you want to do with dark chocolate.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Clumpton

clumpton

Clumpton by Chris Green

Having taken several wrong turns on our way to the coast, Holly and I find ourselves in Clumpton. We start to blame each other for unforgivable navigation errors. We need a break from driving to get our bearings and compose ourselves. We park up on one of the narrow streets and go looking for somewhere where we might get a cup of tea. If you have ever been to Clumpton, the chances are you arrived here by accident. It is unlikely to have been the place you were heading for. It has no Wikipedia page, and there is no reference to it on Trip Advisor. We feel, in a sense, we are pioneers.

The first thing we notice is that the streets are deserted. No cars, no people, no background noise. We can hear the proverbial pin drop. Eventually, we come by an old fellow with a suitcase sitting by the side of the road. It does not appear to be a bus stop. It would be surprising if any buses came this way. He does not return our greeting. It does not seem our business to pry. Perhaps he is waiting for Godot. The further we venture into the village, the eerier the silence becomes. The houses do not seem neglected, yet there are no signs of life. Surely Clumpton has not simply been abandoned.

We pass a Post Office and General Stores, but this is closed. It looks as if it might have been closed for a long time. Has the village been evacuated on account of a radiation leak at a nearby power plant? Perhaps there has been a news item about it we have missed. There has to be a rational explanation for the deathly quiet. There is no mobile phone signal and no internet so we are unable to google Clumpton to get any information.

If only there were someone to ask,’ Holly says. ‘Where is everyone?’

Let’s take this turning here,’ I say. ‘Long Street. That’s bound to lead somewhere. If we don’t find anywhere open, we’ll head back to the car.’

Charlies does not look like much from the outside. Were it not for a weathered sign advertising delicious home-cooked food, we might take it for an ordinary terraced house. From the outside, it looks small, but once inside, it is deceptively large. Dimensionally transcendent perhaps, like a sci-fi creation.

In stark contrast to the empty streets, Charlies is buzzing with life. It is packed. There are probably fifty people crowded in here. The café appears to double as an informal craft market. In amongst the tables, there are quirky upcycled items of furniture along with displays of scented candles and curiously shaped crystals, soapstone figurines and wind-chimes. A kaleidoscope of home-made jams and preserves.

Judging by the inter-table bonhomie, the diners all appear to be locals. Charlies has the feel of a village hall. It is clearly the hub of the community. There is none of the hesitant small talk and nervous looking around you might expect from strangers to the area waiting for their baguette to arrive. Despite the quirkiness of the place, the people look remarkably conventional. They are clearly comfortable with one another. Even the youngsters seem chilled. I can’t help but notice a pronounced homogeneity in the facial features. Clumpton does not appear to have a large gene pool.

We squeeze in at a small table in the corner. A notice says Charlies offers Table Service. But given the demand, it looks like this might be a little slow. There don’t seem to be any menus, so I pick up a Clumpton newsletter. It features an update on the recently introduced Clumpton Pound. I find it difficult to see where you might spend such a currency, given that there are no shops. But the editorial is full of optimism that it will catch on. The people on the next table, a local committee of some kind, talk about starting a Clumpton Free Press and restricting news about the outside world. Too many bad things going on, they say. Snatches of conversation we catch begin to sound a little sectarian.

Meanwhile, we make hesitant small talk and look around nervously. Eventually, a young waitress in a charcoal uniform comes across to our table. Her name badge says, Sharon. It looks as if she has put this on as an afterthought.

I haven’t seen you in here before,’ she says. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

We were on our way to the coast and we took a wrong turning or two,’ I say.

I see,’ she says. ‘We don’t get many visitors in Clumpton.’

I couldn’t help noticing that all the people in here seem to know one another,’ I say. ‘Is it always this busy like this?’

Yes,’ she says. ‘Pretty much. Clumpton is a close-knit community. People look out for one another.’

But the rest of the village is very quiet,’ Holly says. ‘I don’t think we saw anyone on our way here.’

That’s odd,’ Sharon says. ‘I always think of Clumpton as a bustling little place. There’s always something happening. Now, what can I get you?’

We’ll have two teas, please,’ I say.

Sorry, we don’t do tea,’ she says.

Two Lattés then,’ Holly says.

That’s coffee, isn’t it?’ Sharon says. ‘I’m afraid we don’t do coffee either. There’s no call for it. How about home-grown camomile cordial or perhaps you’d prefer fresh apple juice, grown from our local orchards?’

We settle on the apple juice.

A middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed jump-suit comes across to our table.

We’ve got an offer on dream-catchers,’ she says. ‘Three for the price of two. Or how about a nice decoupaged occasional table?’

Perhaps another time,’ I say. ‘Look, I’m curious. The streets are empty and everyone is crowded in here on a Tuesday morning. There are lots of new-age touches to the place yet most of the people look pretty traditional. What’s going on?’

I don’t see any contradiction,’ she says. ‘Everyone gets along really well in Clumpton.’

That’s nice,’ Holly says, anticipating that I might be working up to suggesting there is some kind of cult. As it happens, this was exactly what I am thinking. Holly gives me one of her don’t you dare glances.

But, surely Charlies can’t be in reference to that Charlie. And Sharon can’t be a reference to that Sharon. That would be absurd. Where are these crazy thoughts coming from? These are just a bunch of inward-looking little Englanders. Isolationists. Extreme Brexiteers, if you like.

Holly and I finish our juice, pay the heavily inflated bill, and make our way back to the car. The silence still echoes on the empty streets, and the man with the suitcase is still waiting for Godot. Once again, he does not return our greeting.

What a bizarre place!’ Holly says. ‘It’s difficult to pick out one thing. Everything about it was odd.’

For sure,’ I say. ‘But definitely a story we can dine out on. Did you get any photos?’

One or two,’ Holly says.

To our horror, our Sandero doesn’t start. I take a look under the bonnet and fiddle around with a few leads, but to no avail. The engine is dead.

I’ve got the number for Our RAC insurance here,’ Holly says. ‘I remember we added Breakdown Cover to the policy when we renewed it.’

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to Status Quo’s hits and five minutes of talking to an obstructive customer service operative, it appears our Breakdown Cover doesn’t cover us for roadside assistance. And no, we can’t upgrade over the phone. Not even if we pay an admin fee.’

What if everyone were to go for the basic cover and only decide to upgrade it when they had an accident or broke down in the middle of nowhere?’ the Advisor says.

I would have thought roadside assistance was included in the basic cover,’ I say.

You only have cover within a radius of fifty miles from your postcode,’ she says. ‘And it looks like Clumpton is nearly three times this. I can’t even find it on the map.’

It looks as if we’ll have to go back to the café to see if there’s a mechanic in the village,’ I say to Holly. ‘There again, I don’t think we’ve seen a single car since we’ve been here.’

Don’t be so negative,’ Holly says.

Not wishing to go back to the blame game, Holly and I head back to Charlies in silence. We have been going through a sticky patch lately. She maintains I’m the reason that our Lucy left home. Even though she was seventeen, I still treated her like a child. Who could blame her for moving in with Kurt? Meanwhile, I have been finding it difficult to forget Holly’s fling with Phil, even though this was months ago. But having agreed to put all this behind us, I don’t want to now point out that it was Phil’s brother Sam who sold us the Sandero and presumably, she is holding back from telling me I ought to know more about cars. More recriminations are not going to be helpful.

The village is still deserted and although it is a small place, we have difficulty getting our bearings. We keep arriving back at the No Entry sign in Hope Street. We are going round in circles. We blame each other for poor orienteering skills. We ask the man with the suitcase for directions, but he just looks at us blankly. We carry on with our search, but the café seems to have simply disappeared. We find ourselves back at the car.

You’ve got the photos though, haven’t you?’ I say. ‘I mean, we weren’t imagining it.’

Of course, we didn’t imagine it,’ Holly says, taking out her phone. ‘Look! …… Hang on! The pictures have gone. Where are they? I couldn’t have accidentally deleted them, could I?’

Let me have a look,’ I say. ‘Here they are. Charlies, inside and out. It’s at the end of North Street. I can’t imagine how we could have missed it.’

Do you want to go back to see if you can find it then?’ she says.

Not really,’ I say. ‘But, unless we get the car started. ….. Let me just try it one more time.’

I turn the key and the Sandero bursts into life. We are in business. As we head back towards civilisation, Holly and I start to compose a Trip Advisor review for Clumpton.

What about Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma for a title,’ Holly says

Is there such a place?’ I say.

Yes there is,’ Holly says. ‘And there’s a Nothing, Arizona.’

OK Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma, it is then,’ I say ‘’Then perhaps we could say something about it being a close-knit community of cousins.’

Perhaps we don’t need to say anything at all,’ Holly says. ‘The title is probably enough to discourage people, don’t you think?’

Not even a Turn Back or Don’t Bother?’

OK! One or the other then.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Wish You Were Here

wishyouwerehere3

Wish You Were Here by Chris Green

The huge red and green trucks thunder along the carriageways of the two-lane motorway in both directions. There is something both hostile and haphazard about the way they cross from lane to lane, throwing up dense clouds of dust from the parched road surface. The trucks are military in design with names like KRAZ and URAL, spelt out in assertive typefaces over sinister radiator grilles, their menace tempered only by their remarkable luminosity through the haze. On each wagon, the red and the green bodywork sparkles as if neon-lit.

I have had no sense of smell for years, but the powerful stench of rank diesel from these precipitate leviathans somehow overcomes this and makes me feel nauseous. We are close to the side of the road and we are on foot, which seems somewhat foolhardy out here in the fading light. Although we are apparently miles from civilisation, it has not occurred to us that we might hitch a ride in one of the trucks: they seem to exist only in a virtual sense as if they belong to a separate realm. Perhaps it is through fatigue, but we do not speculate what the mission of the ominous convoys might be, even though there seems to be a complete absence of private cars or buses on the road. The featureless terrain stretches out all around us for miles in every direction. We pass road signs, but these are in Persian script. Not that it would help us much were they not. We do not know the name of anywhere in these parts.

I form the view that I probably blacked out at some point earlier because I have no idea how we have ended up in Iran, close now to the border with Iraq. I have the recollection that Kora and I booked a holiday, but I have a strong feeling that this is not what we had in mind. I remember sitting at home on the terrace of our apartment, looking through brochures filled with pictures of blue seas and beaches resplendent with sturdy coconut palms.

Towards dusk, we follow a rough track towards what looks like a small village, and after a few hundred yards arrive outside a gnarled wooden shack with an illuminated sign with an orange and red logo and some Arabic writing. Hesitantly we step inside hoping that we might be able to buy something to eat. A group of men in brightly coloured djellabas sit around a long table playing some sort of communal board game. They do not appear to register our arrival. A television mounted high up in the far corner of the room playing an Arab news station is thrashing out an issue with some malevolence. A map of the UK comes up on the screen. The attention of the men is captured by this. There are one or two guttural mutterings from the table, followed by an angry shout and a burst of waving of arms in the air. It seems suddenly prudent for us to leave. Once outside, we hear a shot ring out. Kora and I run. There is altogether too much going on here, none of it fortuitous. I begin to feel very tired.
………………………………………………………………….…

I awake with a start and switch on the light, bringing to life a flickering fluorescent tube. I establish that I am alone. The room I find myself in is familiar in an ambiguous kind of way, although it occurs to me, deeply unattractive. The walls are deep purple and most of the furniture is black. In the corner is a lacquered rococo dresser on which are a vase of dead flowers and a stuffed marmoset in a glass case. I form the impression that I have been here a few days, perhaps emerging now from a protracted slumber. I notice I have several days’ growth of beard. Was I clean-shaven before? I sense that I was. Some of the clothing scattered around the floor looks like it might belong to me, which seems a reasonable assumption. I struggle for some moments with my short term memory. My recall is, in fact, close to zero. I am on holiday perhaps. I have in the back of my mind, quite a long way back admittedly, the recollection that this is the case. It occurs that people do not often go on holiday alone. So, one of the key questions is who, if anyone, am I on holiday with? What might my partner’s name be? Here I have considerable difficulty. I cannot remember. I call out several names in turn. Kora! Natasha! Mercedes! Each of these names seems to hold a significant association. I try others. Sharon! Tracey! Rover! Rover is something of a longshot. I have no memory of having owned a dog.

No one replies. I push back the duvet, which sends the Gideon bible and a wooden ocarina hurtling to the floor. I have a quick swill in the blackened enamel sink, slip on my jeans and Iceman hoody and search for some clues. I look for items that might be useful in my present situation like a mobile phone, map, passport, tickets or money. I conduct a thorough search and come up with a registration document for a Dodge Challenger and some Barclaycard receipts for night-time lingerie, neither of which seems particularly helpful. I venture down the stairs. Dusty etchings reminiscent of Jake and Dinos Chapman hang on the walls, and the empty echo of a lingering silence hangs on the air. There is a small lobby at the foot of the stairs. I ring the bell more as a gesture than with any real hope of someone appearing. I can’t help noticing there is a 1983 A-Team calendar on the wall. Am I perhaps in some kind of time warp?

I take a hesitant walk outside. I experience the feeling of being outside myself, like an onlooker on my situation. It is dark, but although it is dark, objects still cast a stubborn shadow as if it were light. The half-standing buildings and piles of collapsed masonry and rubble suggest to me that the place has been bombed and abandoned. Maybe some while ago; there are no signs of recent habitation. No vehicles. No bodies. I wonder momentarily how it happened. Is it a terrorist attack, or is there a war going on at this very moment, whenever this is, in whatever country I am in? In whatever year? The building I have come from is the only one still standing. Remarkable, I think, that it still has electricity. But this is far from the only peculiarity. In the distance, the old man in a long overcoat and homburg hat calling to his cats has a distinctly spectral aspect. I wave to him and call out but he did not seem to see or hear. I approach him and call again, but still, he does not acknowledge me.

I move on down the street, if street is not too grandiose a description for this cluster of rubble. I speculate further as to where I might be and how I came to be there (by road, rail or inter-planetary craft maybe) but to little avail. My memory refuses to join in with the exercise. On finding a signpost in a script I do not recognise, for no lucid reason, I ignore the more likely roads back to civilisation and take a narrow path where the marker on the sign has been broken off. Tall berberis hedging flourishes on either side of the path. A little too abundantly perhaps. It quickly becomes difficult to see anything at all in the unmitigated gloom. The ground is uneven and several times I stumble and have to break my fall.

After covering a few hundred yards with only minor scratches and bruises I reach a clearing. Amidst the faint shafts of light, I can make out a dozen or so small igloo-shaped buildings some constructed of regular light-coloured wooden blocks, and others made out of wicker so that they looked like large baskets. A voice tells me this is ‘where the children lived’. I look around. I imagine it might be the old man with the cats that has spoken, but no-one is there. What children? Where were they? What is this place?

I continue on my way, taking a track through a shallow wooded area. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes grow in the spaces between the trees. I recognise the red and white spotted ones from children’s’ stories. Stories I recall I have read to my daughter. I have a daughter. My partner is called Kora and I have a daughter named Sierra. She is five, or is it twelve? Pretty much everything else seems hazy, though. Like where we live or what has happened or how the holiday, if it is a holiday, has turned out like this. Something about red and green trucks is trying to make its way into my consciousness when I come eventually to a disused railway station covered in brown ivy and blind black parrots. None of this surely was in the brochure.
…………………………………………………………………….

Kora and I drive up the steep ravine in a dark green coach with running bars along the side. I experience the feeling that l have done this many times. Perhaps every day. Kora, however, seems excited and wants to take a turn at driving, so I move over and I let her. I sit on the running board to take in the view, although there is no view, just the occasional colony of startled bats caught in the headlights. As we climb, the passage between the sides of the gully becomes narrower and steeper. The pitch of the engine becomes higher and higher. In places, there is only a couple of inches between the sides of our carriage and the granite rocks either side of the what has now developed into a railway track. Our carriage is one of several being hauled uphill by an ungainly steam locomotive. We are in the goods van. Natasha is holding a baby wrapped in a block of ice. The ice begins to melt and I feel a huge wave of concern that the baby might die. Things it seems are getting out of control. What a strange world this is where everything constantly changes without warning.

The train carries on regardless up the incline, straining more and more as the engine struggles to cope. A tune is going round and round in my head. It has such a simple melody, but for a while, I can’t work out what song it was. This occupies my mind for several moments, taking my thoughts away from the alarming surrealism of my situation. The engine’s boiler begins to sound as if it is about to blow apart. Thick clouds of smoke belch out into the sky. The tune in my head is growing faster and faster, keeping pace with the engine’s pistons. Is it something by Blur, or Radiohead maybe? It feels as if my head is going to explode. Finally, I work it out. It is Frères Jacques. At this point, the chasm widens dramatically and the ground levels out. Here we join a purposeful procession of people on foot on either side of us, some carrying pikes and tridents, or are they clarinets and saxophones? It is hard to tell in the gloom. Several of them are dressed as Napoleon and hold raised flags emblazoned with arcane symbols. So great is my confusion, I cannot say for sure whether we are on the train or not at this point. Or if there has ever been a train.

We look down from our vantage point upon a magnificent river estuary bathed in reflections from the town on the other side. Suddenly, zipping up the river at astonishing speeds are two sparking whales. Beads of gold like a chain of shimmering ripples on the water lay in their wake as they dive in and out of the water in a straight path upstream. They must be travelling at a hundred miles an hour and measured two hundred feet from tip to tail. The crowd that has now gathered on the bank to watch lets out an appreciative cheer. It seems to be some kind of fish race. No whales aren’t fish, are they? They are insects.

My memory is beginning to return to me. I remember sitting with Kora at the breakfast table in our apartment opening the mail a few weeks ago. I remember a letter which read, Congratulations. You have won the holiday of your dreams.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Jazz 2

jazz2

Jazz 2 by Chris Green

I am out in the back, struggling over a spreadsheet, when I hear the bell ring. I cannot see the woman who has come into the shop, but it appears she can see me.

Have you got Soul Junction by Red Garland?’ she calls out.

If I have, it’ll be in the CD rack in the corner,’ I call back. ‘The one marked Bebop. They are all in alphabetical. I’ll be with you in a minute.’

I was hoping you might have it on vinyl,’ she says.

Mood Indigo doesn’t get many requests for Red Garland these days, let alone for his albums on vinyl. Sadly, Red has fallen out of favour. Thelonious Monk and Bill Evans tend to be the jazz pianists today’s jazz buffs choose. Yet arguably, Red was the most innovative of the three. It was he, along with George Shearing perhaps, who pioneered the block chord, so influential in jazz piano. Then there were his arrangements. He brought out the best in his players. Some of John Coltrane’s best work was with Red’s Quintet.

Soul Junction,’ she repeats with a smile as I approach the counter. She is a beauty. How can I best describe her without alienating female readers? She is in her prime. She is statuesque. She is dressed in a light-coloured, tight-fitting summer dress that accentuates her curves. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair. She …….

It’s for my husband, Sacha,’ she says. ‘It’s his ninetieth birthday next week. He saw the Red Garland Quintet play many times during their residency at The Paris Jazz Club, back in the nineteen-fifties.’

I’m not sure how to react to this revelation. It means there is a sixty-five-year age gap between them. Best not to draw attention to it, perhaps. Anything goes these days.

I can probably get a copy of Soul Junction for you on vinyl,’ I say, instead. ‘If you let me have your number, I’ll let you know when it is in.’

That would be fabulous,’ she says. ‘Thank you. I’m Gala by the way and here’s my card.’

After she has left, I look at the card. Gala Rose, Enigma. At a guess, not her married name, probably not her birth name. And why Enigma? Perhaps it doesn’t matter greatly. She is a sensual delight. I am smitten.

There are several mint condition copies of the album available on eBay for around £25, so I select the one from a trader I am familiar with. From experience, I am aware that mint condition does not mean very much on eBay these days. It is a loose description. The album arrives five days later, hopefully in time for her Gala’s husband’s birthday, so I give her a ring. I have to admit I am looking forward to seeing her again.

Hi, Gala. It’s Duke from Mood Indigo,’ I say. ‘I have your husband’s disc.’

Oh, hello Duke,’ she says. ‘I’m afraid Sacha passed away the day before yesterday. He had an abseiling accident.’

That’s terrible,’ I say, suppressing my puzzlement at why a ninety-year-old man would be abseiling. ‘Is there anything I can do?’

You’re very kind,’ she says. ‘No, I don’t think so. Once the funeral is over and the estate is settled, I’m going to go away for a while. South America, probably. It will be Spring there by then.’

I think about Gala now and then, but do not expect to see her again. I am surprised therefore when, six months later, she comes into the shop again.

Have you got Blue Train,’ she says?

One of my all-time favourites,’ I say. ‘I have it here on CD but I don’t have it in vinyl. I sold the last copy last week. But I can get it for you.’

That’s OK,’ Gala says. ‘Ramon doesn’t have a record deck yet so CD will be perfect.’

Ramon?’ I say.

Yes, I met Ramon at a Gaucho skills demonstration in Buenos Aires. He is a fine horseman. Gauchos have extraordinary riding skills. Nothing compares to watching them compete in the national sport of Pato. It is a fast and furious game, not for the faint-hearted. The most exciting part is when the Pato ball falls to the ground and the gaucho has to pick it up from this horse at a gallop. This is Ramon’s speciality. Of course, Ramon is younger than Sacha. He’s eighty-eight. Anyway, we got married last month. We are planning on opening an equestrian centre over here.’

Congratulations,’ I say. It is difficult not to remark on the strangeness of Gala’s life, in particular her curious attraction to older men. But as it is none of my business, I once again resist the temptation. Each to their own. Perhaps her life is only unusual when compared to my dull existence, a single thirty-something man managing a backstreet jazz record shop and trying to make ends meet.

Thank you,’ she says. ‘Ramon is a darling. I’m sure we will be very happy.’

I hope it works out for you this time,’ I say. ‘Anytime you or Ramon want more jazz records, or even just a chat about jazz, feel free to drop in.’

Of course,’ Gala says. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’

I don’t actually expect to see Gala anytime soon. When relative strangers say they will see you soon, they seldom mean it. But yet again, I am proved wrong. Less than a week later, she is back. While it would be wrong to say that her sparkle has gone altogether, she seems more subdued.

I don’t suppose you happen to have Requiem Para Un Malandra by Astor Piazzolla, Duke,’ she says. ‘I need to get hold of it for Ramon’s funeral. He died in a hang-gliding accident in that storm at the weekend.’

Oscar Wilde’s quote about carelessness comes to mind, but it is clearly not an appropriate response to this situation.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ is the best I can manage.

I’ve heard of Piazzola, of course. He is synonymous with tango music. I probably have one or two of his CDs in stock, although I can’t say for certain as I’ve given up on the stock spreadsheet. But I didn’t realise that Piazzola wrote requiems. My Spanish is not very good, but doesn’t malandra translate as crook? It certainly seems to be a dangerous twilight world that Gala inhabits.

I’m Inspector Bill and this is my colleague, D.C. Younger,’ the tall man in the detective coat says. They do not look as if they’ve come about a parking violation. ‘We’d like to talk to you about your friend, Ralph Monday who was found strangled at his home in Stable Hill last week.’

I don’t believe I know anyone of that name,’ I say.

Acquaintance then?’

No. I don’t think so. It’s an unusual name. I’m pretty sure I would remember.’

Then perhaps you might explain why this business card with your name and with your mobile number added in biro was found on his person,’ Inspector Bill says. ‘This is your handwriting, is it not?’

Any why the CD of Blue Train was in the player. As you will observe, the CD case has a Mood Indigo sticker on it,’ D.C. Younger says, showing me a photo on his phone.

I have absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘I do not know anyone called Ralph Monday.’

It has also come to our attention that similar evidence was found at the scene of the as yet unsolved murder of one, Samuel Charles, a few months ago. In this case, it was a vinyl copy of Red Garland’s Soul Junction that had the Mood Indigo sticker on it. But the card we found there is identical to the other one with the same handwriting in biro,’ Bill says. ‘Samuel Charles too was strangled. Big coincidence, wouldn’t you say?’

Evidence? Surely they don’t think I murdered these people.

Oh, come on, guys!’ I say. ‘If I had, as you say, killed these two people, I would have hardly left such incriminating evidence. Besides, they are both strangers. What motive would I have?’

My mind meanwhile is working overtime. It dawns on me that there might be a connection to Gala Rose, Enigma. Enigma? Femme Fatale might be a better descriptor. I don’t like to think it, but there must be a connection. Even the names of the deceased seem like extrapolations of her two dead husbands’ names, albeit the circumstances behind their demise differ. But what would Gala’s motive be? Unless she was going to inherit, the gold-digger explanation would seem to carry little weight. And if she was the beneficiary, surely she would realise that this would show up somewhere in the records. Wouldn’t it? There is something underhand happening here. But how am I going to get to the bottom of it? I don’t even know her real name and I know the phone number she gave me no longer works because I tried it the day before yesterday. Even given proof of her involvement, I would be reluctant to feed her to the lions.

If you don’t come up with a convincing explanation in two minutes flat, it’s a trip downtown for you,’ Bill says. ‘And don’t expect to be leaving anytime soon.’

I take a moment to compose myself. Bill’s threat smacks of desperation. They are clutching at straws. They are hoping that I will incriminate myself. This is how they operate. It makes their job easier if, caught off guard, people say the wrong thing and put themselves in the frame. They have nothing that puts me at the scene of either of the crimes. And since I wasn’t, they are unlikely to be able to come up with any. They are a long way from the something you can rely on in court, handcuffs stage.

Why have you waited months to come to me with your evidence connecting me to the murder of your Samuel Charles?’ I say as an opener.

He moves on to the Ralph Monday case.

I don’t even know where Stable Hill is,’ I say.

They change tack and suggest that even if I am not responsible, I might be an accomplice. The jazz albums at the crime scenes are the common thread.

I tell them I sell dozens of Red Garland and John Coltrane albums, perhaps hundreds. They are popular artists. How and I supposed to remember who bought each one?

But you must keep a record of sales, Younger says.’

Not exactly,’ I say. ‘I am rubbish with computers.’

My incompetence on sales spreadsheets is matched by my incompetence on the free accounting software on the machine. Accounts have never been something I’ve been hung up on. I normally just get my accountant to make up some figures at the end of the year. After all, the raison d’être of jazz is its informality. Even so, they insist on taking the laptop away for examination by their techies.

We will be in touch,’ Bill says finally. ‘Don’t get any funny ideas about leaving the country.’

I still find it difficult to picture Gala as a cold-blooded killer. But whether they were her husbands or not, it now seems possible, even likely that she committed the two murders. Or arranged for them to be carried out. But why? Her marriage narratives seemed apocryphal when she related them to me. But because it would be too crazy to make up such wild stories, and the fact that she looked ravishing, I did not examine them closely. I accepted them. I took her at her word. She was married to two very old men. So what? Should I have asked the police if the victims were very old men? The ones Gala had described? They did not give a lot of detail about the victims, just that they were dead. Strangled.

If Gala was making it all up anyway, would it make any difference what she told me? It would not matter how old Sacha or Ramon supposedly were. But where on Earth do the jazz albums fit into the story? What purpose did they serve? Perhaps they were to make it look as if I may have had something to do with the murders. But if so, why? And where is Gala now?

The police return the laptop, dismayed at the level of my incompetence with its software. Nothing of any interest to anyone here. They tell me I have even managed to disable the operating system. They call around a couple more times with questions about my customers, but each time they seem less hopeful in getting a result. Why they have been able to get nowhere with other leads is a mystery. But apparently, nearly half of all murders in the UK are unsolved these days.

There is no further sign of Gala Rose. Even the police have uncovered no traces of her. I begin to question whether she was real. Perhaps I simply imagined her. In order to get on with my life, I decide this is the best way to look at it. There is no sense in beating myself up. I expect everyone experiences episodes that they are unable to find explanations for. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. It is very unlikely I will see Gala again, and I have my entire future ahead of me. I can join a dating agency. Renew my membership at Ronnie Scott’s. I might even enrol for a computer course to learn spreadsheets.

Do you have Something Else?’ she says.

I can see that this is not Gala, but even so, she is a stunner. How can I best describe her without alienating female readers? She is in her prime. She is statuesque. She is dressed in a light-coloured, tight-fitting summer dress that accentuates her curves. She has big brown eyes and long dark hair. She …….

You mean the hard bop album by Cannonball Adderley,’ I say.

Yes that’s the one,’ she says. ‘It’s for my husband. It will be his eighty-sixth birthday next week.’

What can I say? At least husbands are getting younger.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Brief Encounter

briefencounter2

Brief Encounter by Chris Green

The Beginning:

It is 7th June 1977, the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It is a public holiday, to all intents and purposes, a Sunday. Everything is closed. Although it means a day off work, I feel downbeat. It has been a stressful few months. I am only twenty-five, but I am in the middle of a divorce. Unusual circumstances behind it, but it is by mutual agreement. Maggie and I were never suited. But this doesn’t make it any easier. Emotionally breaking up is always hard to do. On top of the separation, there’s the anguish of all the legal squabbling and the arrangements necessary for dividing up everything.

I have nothing on my agenda for the day. Nothing I need to do, no-one I have arranged to see. I am going with the flow, hoping each day that something will come along to pull me out of my malaise. Perhaps I have always gone with the flow. Maybe this is the problem. Other people appear to have plans, ambitions. They are motivated. They mark out their destiny. They know where they were going. This is what they told me to do at school, advice that I subsequently ignored, along with all the other helpful guidance Mr Masters offered.

It is sunny, so at lunchtime, I make my way along to the Beer Gardens on the Promenade. Other than a change of scene and a leisurely pint, I have no expectations. My friend Reuben is there, sitting at a table with three attractive young girls. He introduces me. Amy (with a y), Charlotte and Hannah. Reuben is a technician at the local college, a bit of a tippler if the truth be told. He is recognised locally as a colourful character. He can talk the talk. He is holding forth on this and that, and the girls seem to be listening. In between his commentary, I learn that Charlotte is taking a vocational course at the college where Reuben works, hence the connection.

The girls are all around eighteen. They all attended Cheltenham Ladies College, one of the most select schools in the country. Charlotte finished a year ago. Amy and Hannah have just left. Charlotte and Hannah live in Cheltenham. They were both day girls at the Ladies College, but Amy was a boarder. She lives in the stockbroker belt in Surrey, where her father is the CEO of the nation’s biggest housebuilder. As school is out, she is staying with Charlotte before she goes off to summer camp in Italy. She is tall and slim and has a winning smile. She is stunning. She could easily pass for a movie star or a model. I can’t take my eyes off her. Opportunities to hang out with beauties like this don’t come my way often.

After half an hour, Reuben goes off to the Bayshill Inn to catch up with Chadwick Dial. Chadwick owes him money, apparently. Perhaps Reuben needs to call in the debt to continue drinking through the afternoon. I am left in the company of the three girls. This is not a situation I am accustomed to, but it would be churlish to complain. I have the hots for Amy. She does not seem not averse to my attention. She laps it up, and appears to reciprocate. She keeps flicking her hair back. She maintains eye contact and smiles at me even when we are not speaking. This is more than just a polite smile. Her smile lights up her face. She moves her chair closer and leans in to me when she is talking. She even touches my arm once or twice and addresses me by my name. Flirting maybe, but it feels like it is more than that. How can I build on this rapport? I have never been one to make the first move. An innate shyness, I suppose. My past relationships have always just somehow happened. How should I play this one? In my experience, it is not easy to separate a group of close-knit friends.

When the Beer Gardens is about to close, I invite the girls to The Dobells, a pub that is scheduled to stay open all day. We have a drink or two, taking in the party atmosphere of the busy bar. Later in the afternoon, when it really becomes noisy to hear ourselves speak, we go back to my house for a smoke. I have some good quality hash. Three different types. I have dependable supply lines and always keep a little extra in case any of my friends want some. You wouldn’t think it with well-bred young ladies, but this hint of underworld activity seems to give me added status in their eyes. Perhaps when you have lived a sheltered life, you have a burning desire to break out. To discover what else is out there.

Why am I looking back on all of this over forty years later, you may wonder? Ernest Hemingway once said the secret of short story writing is to write one true sentence and take it from there. To make something believable, he said, all you have to do is write one true sentence and you are on your way. Write the truest sentence that you know. The story will come. As a writer, I am always looking for new plot ideas. When on the back of the one true sentence, this memory came flooding back to me, I guess I got carried away with Hemingway’s idea. Before I knew it I had written a true paragraph. Once I had started, I wanted, in some way, to relive these moments. The sweet bird of youth and all that. Perhaps I ought not pass it off as fiction, but what the heck! It’s going well. It’s easy enough to just change the names. OK. That’s done. Nyki (with a y) need never know. Let’s get on with the story.

There are lots of evening Jubilee events taking place, so I suggest we all meet up at The Cotswold Inn to start the evening. Then we can choose which of them to go to. I am not confident that any of the girls will even turn up. Hannah is the only one with a car, and she seemed the least keen of the three. The way things have been going lately, I find it difficult to imagine things will suddenly change. The default setting is pessimism. But my luck is in. Amy arrives looking radiant.

I buy her a long cool drink and we make easy conversation. After a while, I feel sufficiently relaxed to explain a little about my current situation. Rather than being put off, she seems quite excited by it. Not many people get divorced when there’s a baby on the way, she says. I suppose not, I say, but that’s the way it is. Amy hopes to go to university in Newcastle in September. An odd choice, I’m thinking. Does she realise what Newcastle is like? It’s a far cry from Camberley. But anyway, September is a long way off. Meanwhile, Amy tells me a little about her background and about family holidays in Juan-les-Pins. I tell her about the time Maggie and I got caught up in the Greek-Turkish war and were stuck in Athens for weeks, unable to leave. And how I dabbled in the occult and once lived with a wizard and his wife, well, mostly his wife and how this did not end well. Is my flippancy the right approach, I wonder, or am I messing up big-time?

Ricky Teacher joins us and asks if I have anything for him. After we’ve done the business, he asks us if we’d like to go to the extravaganza in the grounds of the Reservoir Inn. All the top local bands are playing, he says. It seems to be a ruse for him to show off his new Lancia. But why not? Amy and I decide to take up the offer and not to wait for Charlotte. She can catch up with her later.

At the event, we walk around arm in arm like a proper couple. As I introduce Amy to friends and acquaintances, they take us to be an item. I am able to help out Dewi and Alex with their usual quarter and in the back of Greg’s big Rover, Matt says he’s glad I’m here, there’s been a bit of a shortage of good gear lately. Amy takes all the commerce in her stride. A new experience perhaps. She even seems to hang on to each joint longer than one might expect. When I show surprise, she tells me the Ladies College had plenty of places where the girls could share a spliff.

We have a fabulous evening and later move on to a street party back in Cheltenham. There is more music and dancing. Amy is a great mover. She is clearly someone who enjoys life. Exactly what I need. At midnight, Amy feels she ought to phone Charlotte to let her know what she is doing. She thinks Charlotte will probably be back home by now. As she is in, Amy invites me back to come back with her and the two of us take a cab. We arrive at an imposing Edwardian villa along a private road on the outskirts of town. It has a tennis court and a swimming pool. Charlotte says she doesn’t know if her parents are home, but it doesn’t matter as she has her own private suite.

Charlotte comes up with some well presented nibbles and the three of us chat freely and listen to music. Charlotte doesn’t have a great selection. Amy has more sophisticated tastes than Charlotte. More of a rock sensibility. David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones. Steely Dan, Steve Miller, Stevie Wonder. And she likes reggae, and not just Bob Marley. I have all of these and much more. My record collection is something I treasure. It is not going to be open to negotiation in the divorce settlement. I may not be able to hang on to the house and Maggie will probably get to keep the car, but the records are staying with me. Might I use my music as an enticement now? At around 2 a.m. when Charlotte goes to put the kettle on, I suggest to Amy that we could go back to mine. We would be more comfortable there. With a glint in her eye, she says she would like that. Why didn’t I suggest this earlier? This way we can get to know one another better.

Sliding through the silent streets in the back of a cab in the middle of the night with a beautiful babe seems like a scene from a Hollywood movie. I have to pinch myself, but this is what is happening. Amy whispers in my ear that she has never slept with anyone before. The boy she has been seeing has wanted to, but she has never felt the same way about him. I have no view on this one way or another, but I cannot help but be flattered that she is choosing me. Perhaps it is because she has only ever been out with boys and given my age and experience, she sees me as a man.

The Middle:

Following a momentous night, I take the rest of the week off work to be with Amy. It’s a question of priorities. A brand new love affair is a beautiful thing. Something that must be treasured. I might only experience half a dozen epiphanies like this in a lifetime, whereas work is at best a means to an end. No contest. Amy over work every time. For several days, we are inseparable. We spend a lot of the time in bed getting to know one another but also manage to take in the town, a walk on Cleeve Common, The Cotswold, The Night Owl and King of Dub Records to buy some new reggae. One rainy afternoon, we settle down in front of the TV and watch an old black and white film called Brief Encounter. Only later do I find out that it was one of the classic British movies of all time. Impossible to watch that film now, or even to see any reference to it without thinking of Amy.

The following Monday, having arranged for Amy to come back the following weekend, we say or goodbyes. I go back to work and she catches the coach back to Camberley.

Hemingway’s other advice for writing short stories is to be concise. His stories are on average less than three thousand words, so I will aim for this figure. To move the narrative along, I will stick to the point. I won’t bring in unnecessary details of my complicated, eventful, haphazard life around this time. Sticking to his one true sentence rule, this is all to be related exactly as it happened forty-three years ago. I’ll have to counter the argument, but is it fiction with, does it have to be? It is what it is, a story.

Amy comes to stay with me several more times before she goes off to summer camp in Italy. Our relationship blossoms and it feels more and more that we are a couple. People at work now ask me, how is Amy? We go to The Cotswold or see live music at The Plough. We have friends around after the pubs close. There are quite a few late nights. We go to a couple of gigs at the Art College. Punk is taking off locally and we see The Slits, but are underwhelmed. The Clash and The Stranglers are OK, but the others, forget it.

Sometime towards the end of July, the day before Amy is due to arrive in Cheltenham, I come home from work to find that Charlotte has somehow let herself in. She is cooking a spaghetti bolognese. She hopes I don’t mind, but she has brought a bag and is planning to stay the night. She wonders if I would be good enough to do the same for her as I did for her friend. She too is a virgin. I could, of course, turn her down, but I wonder how many men in my position would do that. While Charlotte may not be as stunning as Amy, she is by no means unattractive. And it is flattering that she has chosen me. Into the bargain, she has sacrificed a certain amount of dignity to do so. Anyway, she is bubbly and outgoing and has always been good company.

In a word, I do the deed. It is very nice, but the earth doesn’t move. Perhaps neither of us expected it to. It feels odd though when the two of us go along to meet Amy from the coach the next day. Although she does not mention it, I get the impression that Amy thinks something is strange too. Did Charlotte intend to cast some doubt in her mind? Who can tell? The feeling is there in the background for the duration of Amy’s stay, a mixture of guilt and apprehension of her leaving for the summer. I am going to miss her. While the past few weeks have been like a dream, reality may at last be knocking at the door. The divorce court hearing is imminent and then, of course, there’s the cost of it all, emotionally and financially. And how will I react to becoming a parent? It will be puzzling for the tax office, someone in the pub says, when you change your code from married with no children to single with one.

The End:

My birthday is September 11th. Yes, I know. But that isn’t until years later. Amy is back from Italy and is coming to help me celebrate. We haven’t seen each other for five or six weeks, although many letters have gone backwards and forwards. While Amy was in Italy, I finally became divorced and I also became a father. Although a reconciliation is out of the question, a sea change has occurred. Under pressure, I have moved out of the house and am temporarily renting a room from Reuben. My life has changed.

I am overjoyed to see Amy again, and despite everything, it looks as if we might continue where we left off. We have a beautiful weekend. We are back in our bubble once more. But perhaps this is to ignore the reality of our situation. The obstacles to a relationship may need to be faced. Firstly, what about the distances and the impracticality? Secondly, there are our respective commitments. Thirdly, we never know what is around the corner.

The following week, Reuben drags me along to the beginning of term dance at his college. I am puzzled by his insistence. I am entirely unaware of what is waiting for me. Reuben apparently isn’t. He has something up his sleeve. He has promised another Aimee (this one with an i and a double e) that he will make sure I come. Aimee is also stunning. She is intelligent and witty, has long blonde hair and soft feminine curves. She is a great mover. More importantly, she is here now, and she has already booked her place in my bed for the night. Without me even realising it. She has brought an overnight bag and a change of clothes. Through availability, if nothing else, she trumps the other Amy. Like the Chet Baker classic says, perhaps I fall in love too easily, but I am destined to be with this Aimee for the next three years.

I have one final telephone conversation with Amy, this from work one evening as I do not have a home phone. She tells me she is getting ready to go off to university. The summer is over. Our summer is over. The train has left the station. It’s turned into Brief Encounter. Although neither of us knocks it on the head there and then, the distance between us seems to have palpably grown. When I tell her I will call her again, I wonder if I actually will. The longer I leave it, the more unlikely this becomes.

I think about Amy now and then. With a touch of sadness, but always with great fondness. Another time and another place, who knows? I wonder how it all turned out for her.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Startling Discovery of Phlogiston

thestartlingdiscoveryofphlogiston2019

The Startling Discovery Of Phlogiston by Chris Green

Things started getting weird around here some time ago, following the startling discovery of phlogiston. The previous belief, kept alive for many years by charlatans, was that everything was made up of 118 elements, all arranged neatly by the number of protons, electron configurations and recurring chemical properties, into something they called the Periodic Table. What nonsense this seems now! How on earth did they get away with such poppycock for so long? It is now accepted worldwide that phlogiston, a substance without colour, odour, taste, or weight, is present in all materials.

Certainly, chemists struggled against the facts at first, insisting on their complex explanations of matter. I suppose this was understandable. After all, they were trying to protect their lucrative research posts. But, they were finally forced to admit that they had made up all of the mumbo-jumbo. We now know there are just four elements.

Since the startling discovery of phlogiston, things tend to be much more random. Here’s a snapshot.

Chris Christ, my housemate is watching the brilliant blind surfer, Tom Crews in the final of the water-sports on his screen. Crews is going for Gold.

Oh My God.’ CC screams as with the help of his guide dog, Marvin, Crews manages to get himself upright on the board and ride the huge breakers of the Boogaloo Bay swell.

CC tends to be easily impressed so I ignore his outburst. I am more interested in the Octathlon which is playing on the other channel. I am rooting for Curt Tarver in the Quoits. He is already twenty points ahead after an heroic performance in the Shin Kicking but his close rival, Bud Register has his best events, the Moonwalking and the Cheese Rolling still to come. And you can never rule out Benito Pond. He is the World Bog Snorkelling champion.

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago people played mindless team games like football and cricket and bet money on horses running around a wet track, jumping over hedges. And that silly game where they hit a ball backwards and forwards over a net for a few hours.

Imagine now, driving forty miles in a slow moving queue of traffic to an out of town retail park to buy a car-load of stuff that you didn’t need. These days everything just arrives as you need it. You don’t even have to go on the Internet. The Internet. What a waste of time that was!

Look! Here’s a delivery now! It’s simply uncanny how they know I need forty pounds of kelp and a rusty mangle. I greet Bryn, the driver of the Scammell Scarab. Bryn and I chat about sandstorms and gravy and, of course, about the benefits brought about by the startling discovery of phlogiston. Quite thoughtful of Bryn to have brought the bucket of snakes too. CC will be able to cook them up later and make a nice stew.

Bryn says he’s off down the road to Tequila Hawks’ caravan next. Tequila has entered the Poison Your Neighbour’s Pet competition and she needs henna to lace the neighbour’s ferret’s coca cola with. If she wins she is going to use her prize money to take the hovercraft to Rangoon.

Enjoy the sunshine,’ Bryn says as he gets into the Scammell.

I wonder why we are still pretending that the earth orbits the sun. How stupid is that? It’s clear that the sun moves around the earth. You can see it every day crossing the sky. It’s amazing just how much we are duped.

Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Quad Bike

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Quad Bike by Chris Green

If you don’t buy me a quad bike,’ Kylie says. ‘I will stop going to school and join Danny Rocco’s gang.’

Doug and Tracy Little are becoming exasperated by their daughter’s outbursts. Children are more defiant than they used to be when they were growing up. Do they learn their no-nonsense negotiating skills at school along with cyber-bullying and mendacity? Or does rebellion come through peer pressure outside school?

In days gone by it might have been a pony. Not that this would make any difference. In fact, a pony would be even more expensive. But a quad bike? For a girl? At twelve years old? Doug hadn’t managed to get a bicycle by then.

To further her case, Kylie shows them videos on her iPhone of Danny and his gang terrorising shoppers in the town centre on a Saturday afternoon, Danny urinating on a street beggar, and …… surely that isn’t a real gun that Danny is pointing at the security man in the gaming shop.

That’s what it will be like,’ she says. ‘If you don’t buy me a quad bike.’

Whoever gave the parenting advice remember who is the adult and who is the child needs to be updated on developments in the parent-child dynamic. Now the child seems to be the one with the power. Several of Doug and Tracy’s friends’ teenage children have joined gangs like Danny’s. Every day you hear stories on the news about out-of-control teenagers. And not just in the cities. Only last week there was the siege at a school in a small market town down south, and the following day a gang of thirteen-year-old girls held up a village post office in Norfolk and shot the volunteer postmistress.

Kylie has decided she wants a quad bike and that is that. Tracy tries to reason with her. She says, ‘Where do you think we are going to get the money, Kylie? We have a cash flow crisis. You know your Dad lost his job at the warehouse last month.’

This might have worked for children of previous generations, but it cuts no ice with Kylie.

Bring on the violins,’ she says.

And my Disability Allowance has been stopped,’ Tracy says. Tracy was injured by a falling awning in the Lower High Street in a freak blizzard last winter.

This doesn’t work on Kylie either. She comes right back with, ‘D’uhh. Haven’t you heard of payday loans? KwikKwid is only up the street.’

But there’s not going to be a payday,’ Doug says.

Then you’ll have to sell something,’ says Kylie. ‘You sold your motorbike to buy Kiefer’s Stratocaster last year. And he doesn’t even play it. That’s it! You can sell Kiefer’s Stratocaster.’

Neither Doug nor Tracy dare tell her that Kiefer has already sold the guitar to buy drugs.

Brendan Shirt had not always wanted to work in a bank. When he was younger, he dreamed of being a footballer, or a pop star, but like most dreamers, he found the openings for footballers and pop stars gradually close before him. Football was out as his ball skills were limited and he got out of breath easily. While in the pop world, not being able to sing might not necessarily have presented a problem, Brendan was also overweight and unattractive.

So, after some poor A level results, banking it was. It was this or insurance. Or something where you had to get your hands dirty. And he didn’t want that. After ten years of checking documents and sucking up to his superiors, he was put in charge of loans at the local branch of the bank that likes to say yes. This tag line, of course, originated in the days before banks became more likely to say no. Although the bank’s slogan is now the less snappy Local Banking for Britain, it is one of the few where you can still talk to an actual human being.

Doug Little is Brendan’s first client on a Monday morning. Brendan has his details up on screen. They are not impressive and Mr Little has come up with an unusual loan request.

An off-road quad bike, eh? And you say that the one your daughter wants is nearly two thousand pounds,’ he says. ‘Well, at least you are honest, Mr Little. Not that this particular quality counts for very much in banking. ……. That was a joke, by the way.’

Doug tries to force a smile. He has had to wait three weeks for the appointment. He is not at his cheeriest. Things have been going badly at home. Over the weekend the police came round looking for Kiefer. As if this weren’t enough, he suspects that Kylie has stopped going to classes. Surely the torn cut off jeans she went out in this morning aren’t acceptable as uniform at Meadow Lane, and he couldn’t help but notice she had some new nasal jewellery. What might Mr Gaffney, the Deputy Head think about nasal jewellery, he wonders?

I see from your statement that payments into your account seem to have dried up lately,’ Brendan Shirt says.

A temporary cash flow hiccup, Mr Shirt. I’m afraid I was laid off last month.’

I see. Perhaps you have some other information that will support your application. An income that doesn’t show up here, maybe.’

Not exactly. …… but I have plenty of options open to me. I think I may get a job offer later on in the week.’

That will be in packaging, will it? I see that you worked in a packaging plant.’

Yes. RapidPost. But I’m hoping to work for a larger organisation.’

That will be a zero-hours contract too, I’m guessing.’

They haven’t specified the terms.’

You do understand what I’m trying to get at. We can’t lend money with the ease that we did a few years ago.’

The phone rings.

Excuse me, I’d better take this,’ Brendan says. ‘I’m expecting a call from Head Office.’

Doug gets up to leave the room, but Brendan gestures for him to stay. He goes over to the window. Through the window, he has a good view of the municipal gardens. Some youths wearing three-stripe track pants and hoodies are throwing stones at the windows of the Town Hall. A riot seems to be breaking out.

Brendan meanwhile is having a difficult phone conversation. ‘I thought we were supposed to tighten our belts,’ he says, raising his voice.

Danny Rocco is urinating up against the war memorial. A stocky figure in a black balaclava is spraying red aerosol paint on to the statue of Brigadier Barrington-Smythe. Doug cannot be sure, but his build looks remarkably like Kiefer’s. And there is a girl with green hair riding a yellow quad bike through the municipal flower beds. ……… Bloody hell! It is Kylie.

Thank You, Mr Gilligan,’ Brendan barks. He slams the phone down. He seems angry.

Kiefer has turned his attention to the walls of the office block. Black paint this time. Where did he pick up these racist views? Kylie, meanwhile, is driving the vehicle around in circles, churning up the dianthus beds.

Oblivious to what is going on outside, Brendan turns to face Doug.

You’ve got your loan, Mr Little,’ he says. ‘Your daughter can have her quad bike. Apparently, the bank is not lending enough money. I do wish they would make up their minds.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cat Town

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Cat Town by Chris Green

Chet’s train to Chatton has never been this late. It is seven o’clock. He has been on the platform for an hour and a half without seeing a soul. Where are the other passengers? Admittedly, Dark Hollow is a quiet backwater, but in the six weeks he has been working at the secret research establishment here, Chet has never known the station to be completely empty. At this time of day, there are usually a steady stream of people on their way home from the base. For that matter, where are the trains going up the line to Everwinter? Even if there are delays on the southbound track, surely there should have been a northbound train or two in the time he has been waiting. Where are Vlad and Dmitri, he wonders? They always take the northbound train.

Chet puts away his paperback of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and gets up to check the timetable on the wall. According to this, it should be the busiest time of the day. Half a dozen trains are scheduled to stop. Something is badly wrong. He tries to phone Mandy to let her know that he will be late, but he does not have a signal. He takes the battery out of the phone and the SIM card and puts them back in. He fiddles around with Settings. Still nothing. No signal, no wi-fi, nothing.

It is Friday, so Mandy will be setting off for her Pilates class about now. Chet remembers that he has sometimes seen a taxi waiting outside the station. It is a long journey and will be expensive, but it will be worth it. He takes the exit to investigate. There is no taxi waiting today. But there is a phone box. He can phone Mandy on her mobile and find out what is going on. If she is in the middle of her spine stretches or leg circles and does not answer, he can phone Doug or Pete. One of them will surely have some information about what is going on. He inserts his debit card, but the machine spits it out. He tries his other cards. The same thing happens.

The streets are empty, no people, no vehicles anywhere. The air is gripped by a Simon and Garfunkel silence. Has the village been evacuated in the time he has been waiting in the station? Chet considers walking back to the base, but it is getting dark now, and it is coming on to rain. The base itself is half a mile away and he would be able to contact someone from there. But as he does not have to work tomorrow, he does not feel the inclination to retrace his steps. Perhaps next week he will start driving to work like some of his colleagues do. He could do a car share with Kobayashi perhaps. He also lives in Chatton. In truth, he is a little scared by the idea of going back into the underground base at night. It is quite a sinister place at the best of times. He has not yet discovered what its actual function is. All he knows is that the information he handles is Classified.

He crosses the footbridge to the other platform. The door to the station office is locked, but it submits easily to a gentle nudge from his shoulder. He tries the phone. It is disconnected. After a few deep breaths to calm himself, he concludes there must be a simple explanation. Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but to stay put. If the worst comes to the worst, he can sleep on the bench in the waiting room. If a train turns up in the night then fine but if not, whatever emergency is causing the delays is certain to be sorted out by morning.

Chet has a night of fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of searching for missing cats and being trapped at the bottom of dried-up wells. This is only broken by an announcement over the public address system that the 5:29 train to Ramwood, calling at Fool’s Marsh and Little Holbeck and Cat Town will be 11 hours and 41 minutes late, due to an irretrievable loss. The 5:29? This is his train from yesterday evening. Clinging to the hope that the 11 hours and 41 minutes has elapsed, Chet wearily makes his way on to the platform to see what is going on. But really, the excuses they come up with for train delays. Irretrievable loss, what is all that about? And the announcer. Cat Town. Surely he means Chatton.

The platform is empty. Overnight, clumps of weeds have sprung up between the paving. A few of the station’s windows have been broken and there is some fresh graffiti. It is in a language that he does not understand. To his greater astonishment, the railway tracks have disappeared. For as far as he can see up and down the line in both directions, there are no tracks. It is as if the line has been closed for years. The space has been taken over by bramble and bindweed, burdock and bracken. There are prize-winning marsh thistles and even some sizeable sycamore trees growing.

Chet feels a surge of panic. While he is aware that the work he does at the base might be sensitive, none of his training has prepared him for any eventuality like this. Any prospect of a rational explanation appears to have vanished. Anxiously he investigates the area outside the front of the station. Here again, things have changed since yesterday. There is random debris strewn on the tarmac, a buckled bicycle wheel, a torn rubber boot, a shattered picture frame and a washing-up bowl. There is broken glass on the pavement here and there and a build-up of litter in the gutter. Yet, there is no sign of life. The streets are in the grip of the intimidating mute stillness they were yesterday.

Mandy must be worried sick by now. Either that or she is thinking he is having an illicit affair. Perhaps she thinks that he has run off with her friend, Lucy again. It was last Christmas, but Mandy doesn’t seem to have completely forgiven him for his transgressions. He needs to get back to reassure her, and soon. He takes the phone out again, but now it won’t even power up. How is he going to get back home? Back to reality? Also, might whatever has happened here be happening everywhere? Might what was accepted by everyone as reality yesterday now be gone forever?

Back on the platform of the station, Chet spots the lone figure of a man in the distance. He is a few hundred yards along the track, or what yesterday would have been the railway track. Today it is a veritable jungle. The man has a stick and is beating back the bracken. He seems to be searching for something. The railway track perhaps? Disorientated Chet might be, and terrified, but at least he has not lost his sense of humour. He chuckles. Slowly he makes his way through the undergrowth. He can hear a faint voice. The man is calling out something, a name maybe. Perhaps he has lost his cat. Or his parrot. Or his pig. Or his monkey.

With each step, the vegetation becomes thicker until it is so dense it threatens to envelop him. The more Chet moves towards Doctor Dolittle, the further away he seems to get. Doctor Dolittle grows fainter and fainter as if he is evaporating. Finally, he vanishes altogether. Was he nothing more than a phantom, Chet wonders? Is he losing his mind? At least, the station was a place of relative safety. He turns around to make his way back there. To his horror, the station has disappeared. He is faced with an unfamiliar terrain. He cannot even work out where the station might have been.

Chet stumbles through the wilderness, in search of something, anything, that will offer hope of escape from this surreal nightmare. He successfully avoids the swarm of wild bees that comes at him, but he does not see the gap in the ground cover until it is too late. There is nothing he can hold on to. He finds himself at the bottom of what seems to be a dried up well. The air is chilling and has the smell of damp earth, mould, moss, lichen. He is dazed. He tries to pick himself up. His legs feel weak and his shoulders, arms, and chest hurt from the impact. He tries to examine the grazes on his arms, but he cannot see his body at all. He looks up. He can only see is a thin slither of daylight.

He is now shaking with fear. How is he going to get out of here? The gap is narrow and the walls are sheer. There is no way he will be able to scale them. And surely the chances of someone happening by in this wilderness are minuscule. Is this it, then? A slow lingering death? He will never see Mandy again. He will never again touch her soft skin or taste her sweet lips. Nor Lucy’s, for that matter. He will never make that trip to Venice. Or see the final episode of Black Mirror. He will never own that small jazz club that he has dreamed about. He will never live to see West Ham win the Premier League. Well, no change there then.

Hello! …… Chet!’ calls an echoey voice from up above.

God, am I glad to hear a voice,’ Chet shouts back.

I’m sorry that you fell down the well,’ the voice says. ‘I should have covered it up. Are you OK?’

Get me out, can you please,’ Chet shouts.

Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I will soon have you out of there. Let me go and get some rope.’

No. I don’t need any dope. I just want to get out of here.’

Rope! I will throw down a rope for you. ……. Just hang on there a moment.’

With this, the stranger goes off. Chet is nervous that he will not return. But he is given little chance to indulge his dark despair. In no time at all the man is back and has secured a length of rope. He tosses it down. Chet catches it and climbs up to daylight.

I am sorry about that, Chet,’ he says. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m Haruki Murakami. I noticed that you were reading a book of mine, back there at the station.’

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Yes, I was. I love it.’

Now! Chet! I’m doing some research around here for a new novel. It has the usual themes, murder, sex, war, jazz from the nineteen fifties, lost cats and, of course, dried-up wells, but this time there are going to be some English characters. It has a protagonist who works in covert operations, has a dark foreboding character, dreams of owning a jazz bar and is having a clandestine liaison with his wife’s friend. I do apologise, but you seem to have walked into my novel.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Strangers When We Meet

strangerswhenwemeet

Strangers When We Meet by Chris Green

How many miles do you need to have the same car in your mirrors before you become suspicious? How many turnings before alarm bells ring? Emma Fox has no idea, but the black SsangYong appears to be tailing her. At times right up her rear bumper. SsangYongs are quite common, but not that common. It is not a car that stands out. She is only able to identify the badge because she recently took one for a test drive. But she is sure this is the same car that drew up behind her when she left work and having taken the same circuitous route, it is still here as she nears home. She makes a note of the registration plate. She pulls into her drive. The SsangYong stops outside but eventually drives off. Emma is unnerved.

Matt is overseeing a gas pipeline construction contract in Norway and the phone link is a bit hit and miss, so she is unable to share her concern with him. At least, that’s the story. Matt would probably tell her she was imagining things, anyway. Perhaps he might bring up other instances where she has over-reacted. Like the many occasions she had called him to say she had blown the house electrics when it was just a tripped switch. And the time she thought the telephone engineer had come to rob them. Easy mistakes to make when you have a hundred other things to think about.

Emma settles down for the evening, cooks herself a pasta meal and tries to forget the matter. She does not mention her pursuer to her friend, Madeleine, when she calls to ask Emma about getting tickets for the Janacek recital at the music festival next month. They chat about what plant food is best for dahlias, the new drama releases on Netflix, and whether they should have axed Snow White in support of the BLM protests. Where would it end? Would White Christmas be next? They arrange to meet up at the weekend. Matt’s absence is not discussed.

Emma settles down to watch Leif Velasquez’s adaptation of Phillip C Dark’s, Strangers When We Meet. The review says, although the narrative features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories, those familiar with Dark’s work should be able to work out what is going on. Kurt Bedding gives a stellar performance as the roué who is travelling incognito to meet his lover in San Sebastian and finds himself in the seat next to her husband on the plane. Emma has always felt that her life features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what is what and who is who. The pressures of modern life, Madeleine keeps telling her, when she brings it up. Anyway, Emma likes Kurt Bedding. He is easy on the eye. All is well. The world keeps on turning.

She is startled to find the black SsangYong behind her again the following morning. It appears to have been waiting for her outside and it tails her for the three miles from home to Crosby Nash Estate Agents in Bath Road where she works, even when she takes an unscheduled detour through the industrial estate. And it is there again when she goes out to show a buyer a three-bedroomed property in St Marks on the other side of town.

On her lunch break, she notices the tall dark stranger in a Peaky Blinders cap who she saw lingering outside her office earlier is now looking in a lingerie shop window next to the ATM where she is taking out cash. She is on heightened alert. Each time she thinks she has shaken him off, he appears again. He passes the window of the coffee shop where she takes her lunch no less than three times. He is outside the hairdressers when she calls in to book an appointment. He is in Tesco Express when she is buying her groceries. She can’t be sure if this is the driver of the SsangYong, but it seems likely. He has the same build and wears similar dark clothes. Has she just become over-sensitised? She does not think so. Something is happening here and she doesn’t know what it is. She considers approaching him and coming straight out with it, but she has heard too many terrible stories about what crazy obsessives are capable of. Should she perhaps report it to the police? Would they take her seriously if she did? Or would they tell her she was being paranoid? Whichever, she is spooked.

She is puzzled now why anyone would be following her. She lives an uneventful life. She is law abiding. She is solvent. She has no debts. She is not having a clandestine affair. Perhaps she should be. It seems to be the fashion. She is not aware that she has any enemies. In the estate agents’ business, there is always the danger that a disgruntled purchaser might feel they have been sold a pig in a poke. But Emma feels that when conducting viewings, she has always been scrupulously honest in her appraisal of the property, sometimes to the detriment of the sale. Well, there was the place in Old Park Street, but that didn’t go through. And the apartments in Market Street that had been built without planning permission. But she wasn’t to know that. In any case, Crosby Nash had put her under a lot of pressure to get these sold. But even if there had been any instances of mis-selling, you would have thought anyone with a grievance would make a complaint through the proper channels. Not try to put the fear of God into you or run you off the road.

While her friends and colleagues appear sympathetic to her plight, Emma wonders if any of them suspect that Matt is not really overseeing an oil pipeline project in Norway. That instead, Matt is overseeing Amy Darling, and has been doing so for a long time. If they do suspect, they seem to be keeping it to themselves. At least Emma hopes this is the case. She wouldn’t like to think they were talking about her behind her back. Sometimes, she realises, you have to make up stories to cover yourself. The secret is to remember who you have told what to.

Penny from the tennis club suggests it could be a simple case of mistaken identity. That her pursuer believes her to be someone else.

You read about a lot of cases like that in the papers,’ she says. ‘There was a case of a Taylor Swift lookalike being stalked only last week.’

I suppose so,’ Emma says.

A lot of thirty-something women wear their hair in long-front graduated bobs like yours,’ Penny says. ‘And I expect most of them buy clothes and accessories from Debenhams and Next.’

I buy most of my clothes online, these days,’ Emma says. ‘It’s so much easier.’

I expect your lookalike has got herself into a scrape,’ Penny says. ‘With some underworld figures. If she is a celebrity, it’s probably something to do with drugs, don’t you think?’

But whoever it is has hardly been subtle,’ Emma says. ‘There would be more discrete ways to tail her or me. He clearly wants me to realise that he is there. Why doesn’t he just approach me? There must be more to it, an element of intimidation. He wants me to be frightened. And in turn, I don’t approach him because I am frightened.’

Come to think of it,’ Penny says. ‘You look a little like May Welby who plays Kylie Slack in Partners in Crime.

Who?’ Emma says. ‘I don’t watch any of the soaps, Penny.’

Well, of course, neither do I,’ Penny says. ‘But I’ve caught glimpses of one or two now and again. May Welby. Check her out, Emma. I think you’ll see what I mean.’

Emma recalls she may have seen an episode or two in the past without realising it. Perhaps Matt had had it on or maybe it was just there in the background. She has become a little absent-minded lately. It is sometimes difficult to tell what happened when. She was saying to Madeleine only last week, or was it yesterday, how mixed up things could become. Sometimes she is so confused, she wonders if she is someone else. I’m not feeling myself today, she might say. She wonders whether it might be something to do with the tablets Dr Hopper prescribed for the problems she was having with her balance. Perhaps she will stop taking them.

When she gets home, she takes a look at an episode of Partners in Crime on catch-up. She can see straight away there is a slight resemblance to May Welby. On certain camera angles, if you just caught a glimpse, you could be excused for doing a double-take. The Kylie Slack character though is rough and ready and her mannerisms and diction are a long way off. The series is set in the fictional suburb of Doleford in a fictional East London, a grim area where even the police appear to be crooks. The script of Partners in Crime demands that May Welby’s character lacks sophistication. You could not imagine Kylie Slack growing dahlias or going to a Janacek concert. And they probably wouldn’t let anyone called Kylie join Emma’s tennis club. Then it hits her like a blow from the big Irish boxer that Matt used to watch. There is the startling similarity between the actor playing the part of the Partners’ enforcer, Nick Cole and her stalker. He is the spitting image. Not only this, but one of the current storylines involves Nick harassing Kylie Slack. Apparently, Kylie has dumped him for two-timing her. He is doing everything he can to intimidate her. He is a nasty piece of work. He has keyed her car and trolled her on social media. He follows her in the street and shouts abuse at her. He tails her in his car, in this case, a beaten up old black Mitsubishi. Kylie is debating whether she should get an injunction. She decides that first, she will have a word with Doleford Police.

Emma too feels it might be time to get the constabulary involved. Penny insisted it would be the right thing to do. Even if nothing comes from it, at least it will then be on record.

Do you realise how many people tell us they think they are being followed?’ Sergeant Filcher says. ‘Hundreds. And that’s not to mention the dozens of cases we see of copycat behaviour. It seems that many people find it hard to distinguish between what’s happening on their TV screens and real life. Boundaries have become blurred. If we investigated each and every one of the reports we get about people who imagine they are being stalked, we would be run ragged. We would have no officers left to deploy on the weekend riots. Now, where would that leave us? Is that what you want, lawlessness on our streets? And, Miss Fox, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are a very attractive young woman. You can hardly blame this fellow for wanting to get close to you. If I weren’t a married man ……….’

Emma leaves in disgust. This is not the type of reaction you expect from an upstanding officer of the law. This sort of thing might happen on television, but surely not in real life. She wagers Sergeant Filcher wouldn’t have been so insulting if she’d been a man. Or, for instance, if Matt had been there with her. Matt is a Black Belt in Krav Maga, the martial art that doesn’t concern itself with the opponent’s well-being. There again, she herself is glad Matt is no longer around. He didn’t concern himself a great deal with her well-being. She is well rid of him. She is much better off with …..

Emma is on her way home. The storm has passed now and the sun is coming out. She is pleased to see that the SsangYong is no longer following her. Instead, she is in the SsangYong. The man with the Peaky Blinders cap is driving. He seems quite friendly. He smiles at her and makes easy conversation. Why wouldn’t he? It’s coming back to her now. His name is Sebastian.

Has anyone ever told you, you look a little like May Welby?’ Sebastian says. ‘You know, the actress. I’ve been meaning to mention it since we started going out.’

I’m not sure I know May Welby,’ Emma says. ‘What has she been in?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Mario and Lorelei

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Mario and Lorelei by Chris Green

Lorelei Love possesses a rare talent. She knows that things are going to happen before they do. As a result of her premonitory powers, Lorelei’s life has been alternately comforting or frightening, depending on what is scheduled to happen. Unfortunately knowing something is going to occur does not give Lorelei powers to prevent it. Try as she might to take steps to avoid something unpleasant, she has not found a means to do so. She has however developed her persuasive powers to prevent too much disappointment or distress. Sometimes destiny needs a helping hand.

Lorelei Love is not a clairvoyant or fortune teller. She cannot tell which horse is going to win the Derby, or if there is going to be an earthquake. She only knows what is going to happen in relation to her. If she were to put a bet on a horse, she would know if she was going to pick up money later on, and if the earthquake was going to affect her daily life, then she would know about it. Otherwise, she has the same faculties as those without the gift.

Today, the first Friday in April, her day will be alternately tiresome and exciting. Tiresome that she knows she is going to be waiting twenty minutes in the tailback on the Buena Vista bypass, exciting that she knows she is going to meet Mario Van Horn in the tropical fish department of the pet superstore on the retail park at three o’clock, even though she never goes there and has no interest in tropical fish. She knows with equal certainty that, although he is a complete stranger, with just a fleeting glance in her direction, Mario will make her heart skip a beat. In short, she knows that Mario Van Horn will sweep her off her feet.

Mario Van Horn does not possess such a talent. Dashing and debonair he might be in his dark blue suit, but he comes across as preoccupied. He has been told he can be unaccommodating and unresponsive. Casual and dispassionate are also terms that have been thrown at him. In the studio where he works as a producer, musicians that he is recording say that he is oblivious to how they would like to play. He takes the edge out of their music. He makes whatever they play sound like the famously bland band, Keane.

Mario is often not aware that something has happened even after it has. It was not until his decree absolute arrived on the mat that he realised his wife, Ursula had started divorce proceedings. He had thought that she was on holiday with her friend, Sharita. Try as he might, Mario has found himself unable to redress his shortcomings. An army of life coaches, psychologists and consultants have become exasperated at his inability to change. They all say his aloofness is astonishing. He could be a textbook study for a new condition.

It is three o’clock on the first Friday in April and Mario Van Horn has absolutely no idea that he is glancing in Lorelei Love’s direction, let alone that his glance is making a lasting impression on her. He is so unobservant that he has not even grasped that he is in the tropical fish department in the pet superstore. He has only stepped in there to buy a house rabbit for his sister in law, Mercedes, who will be nineteen on Sunday.

Lorelei Love leaves the pet superstore with a warm glow, brought about by Mario’s loving gaze. She understands that he has been too shy to approach her, but she knows this will not matter. She sits in her yellow Mini Cooper with the black stripes and waits for Mario to leave and get in his car. She knows this is a black Toyota Auris with a 69 plate. She knows that she is going to follow him home, even though she already knows where he lives. She knows that within a week she is going to be spending nights there.

Mario’s awareness of fate is non-existent. When, having stalked him for days, Lorelei calls round to his house, he still does not recognise her.

Are you the Avon lady?’ he asks. ‘I’m afraid that Ursula has gone away.’

He is surprised by the kiss. It is not the type of apologetic peck on the cheek you might expect from someone selling beauty products door to door, who has accidentally called at the wrong house. It is a passionate take your breath away all-out assault on his face. It is the type of kiss you might expect from an aroused lover. It is the type of kiss that in a raunchy film might serve as a prelude to the participants ripping off each others’ clothes. Having established that she is not the Avon lady and finding that things are happening down below, Mario responds with wild abandon. He is not at all sure what is happening or if what is happening is happening to him. But despite this uncertainty, in no time at all, they are upstairs and are ripping off one another’s clothes. A little later, after a bout of bountiful coupling, he asks her name.

Lorelei Love,’ she says.

Well, Lorelei Love,’ says Mario Van Horn. ‘That was ….. unexpected. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not usually so …… forward,’

I do hope that isn’t so,’ says Lorelei. ‘I was hoping we might do it again soon.’

I think that it was possibly the most unusual experience of my life,’ says Mario.

I knew that this was going to happen, so there was no point in fighting it,’ says Lorelei Love.

I couldn’t help but notice that you weren’t fighting it,’ says Mario. ‘I’m Mario Van Horn by the way,’

I know,’ says Lorelei.

You do?’

I think I probably know everything about you.’

It is the third Thursday in May. Lorelei Love is now living with Mario Van Horn. As long as she takes the lead, she gets what she wants. She is happy with this arrangement. She has shown photos of Mario to her friends and her colleagues at the advertising agency, and they all think that he is a dreamboat. It is disconcerting that Mario doesn’t always notice that she is there, but there are small signs that he might be changing. Once or twice lately he has greeted her with kisses when she has got in from work. As she drives home from the office along the Santa Rosa Boulevard, she wonders if today is going to be one of those days. This is an odd sensation for Lorelei because she feels she should know definitely one way or the other. Perhaps Mario will not even be home. Maybe he will be mixing muzak at the studio, or perhaps it is his sister in law, Portia’s birthday and he has had to take an animal round. Lorelei is not accustomed to such uncertainty. She is sure though that it will pass.

Mario has noticed that there are more house plants to water and the washing machine is nearly always on. The kitchen is filling up with cookery books and kitchen utensils that he does not know the names of. The red wine has been replaced with white. Pink paperbacks with titles in handwritten script and cover illustrations of smiling young women in white chiffon are appearing on the bookshelf. There is no longer room in the wardrobe for all of his dark blue suits. There is a chess game going on with the bottles in the bathroom. He has noticed that Lorelei is around the place more than she used to be, in fact nearly all the time. Did she ask if she could move in? Did he say she could? Should he ask her if she asked him when she gets home from work?

Mario finds it a little worrying that Lorelei tends to be right all of the time, but on balance, he enjoys her company. Lorelei wears raunchier lingerie that Ursula did, laughs heartily at his badly told jokes, and is unexpectedly good at solving those tricky popular culture allusion clues to finish the Guardian cryptic crossword on a Saturday. And he likes the way she sometimes surprises him in the shower. He wonders if he ought to clear some of his old equipment out of the garage to make room for Lorelei’s Pro Trainer All In One Gym and maybe paint over the grey in the spare room with a brighter colour. Blue perhaps.

Mario starts to prepare the ingredients for an omelette. He will remember to put the peppers and mushrooms in this time. The one last Thursday was a little bland without them.

Anyone home,’ choruses Lorelei. She knows that Mario is home because the Toyota is parked in its usual way across both parking spaces on the drive. The music that is playing, while it still has a discernible melody, has traces of dubstep and acid jazz. It is a departure from the bland overproduced middle of the road music she is used to him playing while she is out of the house. ‘I like the music. What is it?’

Oh, that’s one I made earlier,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the hairdressers.’

I haven’t been to the hairdressers. I’ve been working,’ says Lorelei.

Oh, that’s right,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the travel agents.’

Ad agency,’ says Lorelei. ‘I work at AdAge. Its an ad agency. Remember, you picked me up from there. You remarked on what a clever play on words it was.’ She is secretly pleased that although one or two things seem to have changed lately, Mario still retains hints of his heedlessness. Detachment is part of his charm.

I’m just making us an omelette,’ he says. ‘Afterwards, I thought we might go out to the greyhound racing. You keep telling me how much you like dogs.’

Did I say that?’ she says. Watching a bunch of skinny mutts chasing an electric rabbit around a gravel track has not been not on her radar. She was budgeting for a quiet night in with a bottle of Prosecco and a scented bath. Then perhaps Mario could give her a massage with the new oils she had bought. She hopes she is not witnessing a change in the dynamic of their relationship. With the dimming of her prescience, is Mario attempting to take over the decision making?

It is the second Saturday in July. Lorelei Love comes home from the hairdressers to the sound of Sufi music. Are there whirling dervishes in the front room, she wonders. Each day this week she has come home to increasingly unusual music. Each time she has asked Mario what it is, it has been ‘something that he mixed that day’. On Monday it was garage punk, on Tuesday it was psytrance. On Wednesday it was psychedelic rock, on Thursday it was trip-hop.

What is it today?’ asked Lorelei yesterday.

Steampunk animé with a touch of drum and bass,’ said Mario.

The melody has all but disappeared,’ said Lorelei.

Mario Van Horn, Lorelei realises, is changing. He doesn’t even wear his dark blue suit any more and he hardly ever shaves. And why does he wear sunglasses around the house? While she understands that two people in a relationship tend to mould each other to some degree, she is not sure that the changes are going in the right direction. She remembers making a casual comment a while back that they probably didn’t get out enough but Mario seems insensitive to her interests. Over the past week, she has been treated to a twenty-twenty cricket match, a rugby sevens tournament, an orienteering workshop and a strip show. Although Mario claims they had discussions regarding plans for these evenings out, she has no recollections of these.

Accustomed to knowing in advance what is going to happen, each day now she is racked with anxiety about what is going to take place. Surely not another night at the dog track, or a rock-climbing weekend. There were times in the past when she felt the burden of knowing what was going to happen was an irritation. It weighed heavily on her shoulders, but this was compensated by its comforts. Why is it she is no longer able to call the shots? Has she lost the gift of prescience completely?

Mario doesn’t know what is wrong. Lorelei no longer wears raunchy lingerie and has stopped surprising him in the shower. He has even painted the spare room purple for her and put up some shelves to accommodate her growing self-help book collection. Surely it can’t be his comment about her putting on weight. He had meant it in a nice way.

I thought we might go to see some Sufi tonight, darling,’ he says. ‘So I put this sampler together to get us in the mood.’

Lorelei registers a robust look of disapproval. Mario thinks she is beginning to seem more like Ursula every day. He turns the music down a little.

We can have a curry,’ he says. ‘Akbar’s has an excellent selection of Punjabi dishes and the cabaret comes on at nine. Authentic qawwali music.’

I hate this awful wailing and I hate curry,’ screams Lorelei. What could she have ever seen in Mario Van Horn? The man is singularly intolerable. How, she wonders had she not seen this situation coming?

We could go to Ping Pong and have some noodle dishes if you prefer,’ he continues, seemingly oblivious to his falling star. ‘They have bamboo music, I believe, That’s quite gentle.’

I hate you,’ she shrieks.

Or we could just go The Black Horse for a pie and a game of darts if you like.’

You just don’t get it, do you?’

You’ll be hungry later on.’

I’m leaving you.’

It is the second Sunday in September. Lorelei Love is pleased to be shot of Mario Van Horn. She is starting to enjoy life again. While her rare talent is still not fully functioning, she is beginning to get her premonitory powers back. Just last week, she foresaw that she was going to meet a tall stranger with blond curls who would sweep her off her feet. And here she is driving along Las Palomas in her new Mini Cooper S Coupé with the roof down to meet DoubleTake.

DoubleTake’s singer, Ben Cool with his blond hair and black suede eyepatch is a dreamboat. AdAge has won the contract to handle the band’s PR. Naturally, Lorelei has volunteered to take personal control of the contract. What she doesn’t realise is that Mario Van Horn has dyed his hair blond and changed his name to Ben Cool. He didn’t even realise he could sing, until about a month ago when he was recording the overdubs for HashTag’s album, and now look at him. His fifteen minutes of fame beckons. What he doesn’t know is that the agency his management company has hired to handle the band’s promotion is AdAge.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

A Blacker Shade of Blue

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A Blacker Shade of Blue by Chris Green

Tiffany Blue wonders why she is so unhappy. If all the things she is doing are so good for her, she should be in seventh heaven. She gets up at five each morning and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi before her bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. She has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. She practices yoga, in fact when her friend Indigo is busy, she runs the class for her.

Tiffany meditates to a CD with sounds of running water. Her apartment is awash with Aloe Vera plants to purify the air. She works out at the gym and she takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. She cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When she does take the car, she listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. She never drinks alcohol. She sees Moon two or three times a week. He buys her flowers and they make love tenderly. They go to Inter Faith services on a Sunday. But still she feels her life is empty. Something is missing.

Growing up in Brixton, Jeremy (Jet) Black was beaten up constantly by his big brother, Brad, and he, in turn, hammered his little brother Harry. It was a dog eat dog world where petty crime graduated easily to serious crime. Hierarchies were decided by the length of prison sentences. Jet moved swiftly up the hierarchy as he always seemed to be the one who got caught. Since he was a teenager, Jet has spent roughly half his life banged up. He is thirty-two.

Since his last spell in prison, a two-year stretch in Belmarsh for aggravated burglary, Jet has decided to go straight. He is tired of the predictable pattern his life has followed, the vicious cycle of get banged up, do his bird, get released, share ideas he learned inside with his crim mates, commit new crimes, get away with things for a bit, get grassed up by one of his crim mates who has already been caught, get nicked, and go back inside. He wants to turn his life around. He is going to avoid The Black Horse and The King Billy and give BetterBet a wide berth. And he is not going to take back up with Tracey. He can’t forgive her for what she said to the police the last time he was arrested. He hadn’t laid a finger on her and there he was facing an extra charge of assault. He might otherwise have got away with eighteen months. Now that he is out, he has also decided to stop taking drugs. He has even stopped listening to rap music.

Jet has got himself a part-time job at the community centre. At the moment, it is a voluntary position, but Gavin, the guy with the ponytail who runs the place, says that if he does a good job there might be an opening. Through a prisoner rehabilitation scheme, he has secured a studio apartment in the converted warehouse by the plastics factory. He has started to paint the place with some paint he was given and has discovered a flair for colour. Under the scheme he has also been able to get free items from the Furniture Project. The bed is rickety, and the settee has a few rips, but they will do for now. The microwave works, and that is the main thing. He has been to the animal shelter and got a rescue dog to keep him company, a black and white collie-retriever cross called Bono. He cannot yet afford to join a gym but he has enrolled in a free yoga class. He is not exactly sure what yoga involves, but he has heard it is very good for you. He has been to one session and although he found it a bit of a struggle he is determined to persevere.

Tiffany feels it might help her state of mind if she tried out new things. She needs some excitement to break up the relentless ennui of new-age austerity. Something a little reckless, something dangerous, something wild and edgy. She shows Moon the programme of headline acts for a hard rock festival. Moon is hesitant. He does not like the idea of hard or rock and together, what on earth is she thinking?

You don’t really want to go to this, do you?’ he says. ‘AC/DC are very loud, you know. And Anvil Of Doom. I don’t like the sound of them.’

You only live once,’ Tiffany says. ‘Let’s get out there and do something to show we’re still alive.’

But it’s all so unwholesome,’ Moon says. ‘We’d be camping out in a muddy field with hordes of degenerate space cadets and filthy grebos.’

Not everyone who goes to a festival is a drug addict, Moon’ Tiffany says.

Grim Reaper. Angel Corpse. Do you really want to see bands with names like that?’ Moon says.

I imagine there are all kinds of new-age activities at festivals,’ Tiffany says. ‘Look! It says here, they’ve got necromancy, neo-paganism, tarot divination, and past life regression workshops. And they have a tattoo parlour. I could get some tattoos done. They have everything at festivals. The music’s probably just an added extra at festivals these days.’

I’m not sure about the tattoo idea,’ Moon says.

I could have a rose tattooed on my bottom. How about that? I think you’d like that,’ Tiffany says.

OK. You win. We’ll give it a go,’ Moon says. ‘But can we go on the Saturday, because I don’t want to miss our crystal reading class on Friday.’

I think we could give crystal reading a miss for once,’ Tiffany says. ‘I haven’t got room for any more bloody stones and to be honest, I do find Prism’s talks a tiny bit boring.’

Prism? Boring? Surely not, Tiffany,’ Moon says. ‘It’s not just about finding out what crystals you need. Don’t you remember last week how Prism showed you that your natal chart was a dynamic indicator for your soul’s path of your healing journey.’

Well, maybe I don’t feel very healed,’ Tiffany says. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Moon. Perhaps I’m just tired.’

Let me give you an Ayurvedic massage,’ Moon says. ‘I’ve got some organic almond oil.’

I think I’ll just have a bath and go to bed,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow. I have a wood to inspect.’

Jet Black is walking Bono in Long Ridge Wood when he spots her. She is the lady who was teaching the yoga class, the one in the flesh-coloured leotard who was bent double during the warm-up exercises. He would recognise that body anywhere. Not even the Wildlife Trust uniform can hide such a lovely figure. And she has a smile that could bring a dead dormouse back to life.

Tiffany recognises him by his tattoos. She knows that she shouldn’t, but she finds them attractive. And those muscles. She could tell straight away at the yoga class that although he was lacking in grace, he had been to the gym now and again. She had not seen him though at Jim’s Gym. Perhaps he was new to town.

Hello,’ he says shyly. He is not used to talking to attractive women. You do not come across many babes in The Black Horse or The King Billy. And he was certainly protected from such opportunities in Belmarsh. Not even Tracey had been to visit.

You’re not stalking me, are you,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve heard about people like you.’

I’m just taking Bono here for a walk,’ he says. ‘He loves these woods.’

Ancient beechwood and unimproved grassland,’ she says. ‘Maximum biodiversity to provide the basis for a balanced ecosystem.’

That’s a distinctive aroma,’ he says, edging a little closer. ‘What is it?’

That will be the rotting leaves,’ she says.

Not that smell,’ he says. ‘A sweet minty perfume. Is it something you are wearing?’

Oh, that’s patchouli,’ Tiffany says. ‘Do you like it?’

It’s lovely,’ he says. ‘And so are you.’ There! He has said it. There’s no going back now.

Moon is not sure what is wrong with Tiffany. Something must be troubling her. She said that she is busy at the weekend and now she is not taking his calls. In the two years that they have been seeing each other, nothing like this has happened before. She has always been so accommodating. They have always done everything together. He had hoped they might go to a Channelled Angel Reading on Friday night and then have a snack at Give Peas A Chance. Then afterwards they might try out the ginger dusk scented candle, with some soft music. He has called round several times and even spoken to her neighbours but they have not seen her. River who runs the New Age bookshop says he saw her earlier coming out of BargainBooze with a big bag, but that can’t be right.

Tiffany has invited Jet Black round. She has never done such a thing with a stranger before. It is unheard of in the circles she moves in to be so familiar with someone that you’ve only just met. She is not sure what has come over her. Perhaps it is the rugged profile of Jet’s jaw, the pounding testosterone, the rippling muscles and, of course, the tattoos. Perhaps it is the nascent desire for excitement. Whatever it is, she has never had these kinds of feelings before. She cannot recall ever having strong feelings of any kind. She has always just gone with the flow.

She was brought up in a remote rural location. There was no curriculum at the school she attended, and she remained innocent of the ways of the world. She did not rebel as a teenager because she was unaware of what she might rebel against. Life was uneventful. There were no highs and no lows. There was no site of struggle in her neighbourhood. In fact, there were no neighbours in her neighbourhood. Her parents did not bother with television, which was just as well because a lot of the time there was not even a TV signal in this isolated community. There would probably never be a mobile phone signal.

It wasn’t until she went to agricultural college at nineteen that she had her first boyfriend. Dagon was gentle and over a period of several years eased her into intimacy. Inhibited as they both were, sex never became the driving force of their relationship. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was three months before she let Moon over the threshold, and another month before she let him undo the buttons of her blouse. She was in no hurry to move things forward. It wasn’t until six months into their relationship that she finally allowed him to pull down her panties. She was twenty-seven and Moon was only her second lover.

Tiffany is on her third glass of wine and feels light-headed. She has turned her phone off in case Moon calls again. While she doesn’t want to upset him, she wishes he would let her have some space. She had to hide behind the curtain for half an hour earlier. He has gone now. Hopefully, he won’t be back until after Jet has had a chance to pin her to the bed, roughly part her thighs and possess her in a frenzy of unbridled passion. Where, she wonders, are these thoughts coming from? What is happening to her?

Something about meeting Tiffany has put Jet in touch with his gentler side. He spent the previous evening carving a Buddha from a chunky stick that Bono picked up in the woods. He thinks the little wooden icon is the sort of thing a girl like Tiffany would appreciate; he noticed when they met she wore a Buddha charm bracelet. He has even read a little about Buddha on Wikipedia. Buddha seemed a sound guy, honest and trustworthy and full of thought for others. Not at all like Charlie, the self-styled guru in Belmarsh. Charlie, named after Charlie Manson, Jet found out, would stick a knife in your throat or steal the clothes off your back.

When he arrives at Tiffany’s though he finds her three sheets to the wind. This is not at all the welcome he was expecting, but he has had plenty of experience of this condition with Tracey. It usually ended in a fistfight and the kitchen getting wrecked. While he does not imagine this will be the case with Tiffany, he needs to tread carefully. He struggles to remember what they were told in the interpersonal psychology class inside. The dude banged on a lot about listening and passivity.

Would you like a glass of wine,’ Tiffany says, filling up a tumbler for him from the half-empty bottle of Rioja.

No thanks. I don’t drink wine,’ Jet says.

Not even for a special occasion,’ she purrs.

Jet remembers the psychology guy saying that distraction was a useful tactic. You could talk someone down who was about to jump or prevent someone with fists raised from hitting you by taking their mind off their subject. ‘It’s hot and humid in Kuala Lumpur,’ he continues. ‘It says on the news they are having a heatwave.’

I’ve got beer in the fridge,’ Tiffany says, lurching towards the kitchen.

I might buy a guitar when I’ve got some money,’ he says. ‘And learn to play like George Harrison.’

I did think of getting some whiskey,’ she says. ‘I could nip down to the off-licence if you like.’

The psychology guy’s reasoning was clearly flawed. ‘What I’d really like is a cup of tea,’ he says. ‘Why don’t we both have a nice cup of tea.’

On the way home on the bus, Jet feels despondent. It is clear to him that Tiffany has a serious drink problem. He had not suspected this when he met her in the woods. She seemed all sweetness and light then. Perhaps everyone has a deep-seated issue if you look for it. At least Tiffany is not trying to hide it. She is not a secret drinker like some he has known, Kathy for instance. Kathy would hide it everywhere, under the sink, behind the potted plants, in the garage and in with the grass cuttings. He is sure that Tiffany is a lovely person beneath it all. He needs to help her. She deserves that much. Helping her will also help him to convince himself that he has changed.

After the embarrassment of the evening though, he decides to leave it a few days and then call her. Or maybe wait until he sees her at the yoga class. He will ask if she would like to go for a walk on the common with him and Bono. There are no pubs or retail outlets near the common. She will probably be able to tell him what the trees are and the names of the wildflowers. He could even put together a picnic.

Why have you been ignoring my calls?’ Moon says.

Can you not shout please,’ Tiffany says. ‘I’ve got a really bad headache this morning.’

I’m not shouting,’ Moon says. He picks up one of the wine bottles. ‘Perhaps you couldn’t hear them because of the noise from your party.’

Sarcasm is just one more thing that you are not very good at,’ Tiffany says. ‘So why don’t you just shut up.’

What’s got into you?’ Moon says. ‘You have not been yourself lately. Is it all to do with me not wanting to go to this rock festival?’

Why don’t you just go off and find a unicorn or a crop circle or something,’ Tiffany says. ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’

Actual Bodily Harm is not the most serious offence in the lexicon of Offences Against The Person. Jet knows that it carries a maximum sentence of five years, but the charge is broad in its scope. It can refer to quite serious injuries, but it can also refer to just a few bruises. Perhaps Tiffany and Moon were just pushing each other around a little and Moon fell. Tiffany was certainly in a hurry to put a stop to the conversation once she felt that he was prying. But, as Tiffany has no criminal record, she will probably just get a fine, he feels, especially if Moon does not want to pursue the matter.

In Jet’s experience alcohol is at the root of a majority of threatening behaviour, not just physical aggression but verbal abuse as well. God knows, he had threatened enough people when he had been on the pop and Tracey was at her most vicious after a skinful. Before it lost its licence The Prince of Wales on a Friday night could be like Culloden. And, A and E was a who’s who of alcoholics after a darts night at The Caledonian.

Tiffany surely would not have told him to fuck off and mind his own business last night when he offered to come round if she was sober. She might be a bit resentful that he didn’t respond to her come on the other night and in her booze-fuelled haze have seen it as a rejection. Some people he has heard take rejection very badly. Jet realises that Tiffany needs his help more than ever now to turn her life around. He must try to get her off the liquor. An alcohol support group called NewLeaf meets at the community centre. When the time is right, he will suggest that she goes along.

Tiffany does not answer any more of Jet’s calls and she is not at the yoga class. He asks Indigo if she might know where she is.

I haven’t seen her,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve phoned her a couple of times but she doesn’t seem to be answering.’

I’ve been trying to get her all week,’ Jet says.

It’s not like her at all,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve known her for years and if she sees that I’ve called she always gets straight back to me. Do you think perhaps something is wrong?’

Look. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but she was arrested last week, says Jet.

Arrested? Tiffany arrested? You’re joking, right?’ she says looking him in the eye.

He does not have the look of someone who is joking.

Yes, for ABH. I think it’s all to do with the juice,’ Jet says.

Juice?’ Indigo says. ‘What do you mean, juice? What kind of juice?’

You know, the sauce,’ Jet says. ‘The booze.’

What?’ Indigo says. ‘No. Never. Not Tiffany. She’s about as teetotal as they come. She doesn’t even drink tea or coffee.’

Well, she may not have used to drink,’ Jet says. ‘But I’m afraid she does now.’

And I can’t imagine her ever being violent,’ Indigo says. ‘Not in a million years. She wouldn’t harm a fly.’

What about this Moon dude?’ Jet says. ‘Do you know anything about him?’

She’s been with him for years,’ Indigo says. ‘Moon’s the nicest person you could ever wish to meet.’

Well, something’s gone badly wrong with the universe then,’ Jet says.

You might not be far off with that,’ Indigo says. ‘There have been some portentous planetary alignments lately. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were roughly aligned with the Sun ten days ago, and Venus and Mars are in alignment again tonight.’

There must be a song there somewhere,’ Jet says. ‘I would like to be able to help Tiffany, so if you do hear anything.’

I know you do. Despite your build and your ….. body art, I can see you are a very sensitive man who is in touch with his feminine side. I could tell as soon as I saw you. You give off a kind vibe.’

His feminine side? This is not something that Jet has been told before. Should he take it as a compliment? Years ago he might have hit anyone who had said this, even if it was a woman. But in the given circumstances, he feels strangely flattered.

Why don’t you come along to my Vipassana meditation class on Thursday,’ Indigo says. ‘I think you’d love it.’

I might just do that,’ Jet says, studying Indigo’s flesh coloured leotard. ‘I think mediation might be exactly what I need.’

Tiffany is with her solicitor, Ray Crooner, a thickset man in his forties wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit that is a size too small and a Tattersall check shirt. Ray has the pallor of a world-weary defence solicitor and his office has that solicitor’s office smell, an odd mix of musk, laser printer toner and disappointment.

It would not be so bad if you hadn’t gone round to your friend Moon’s and beat him up all over again,’ Ray says. ‘He is out of hospital now, I believe.’

Tiffany nods.

We will have to put in a guilty plea and claim mitigating circumstances, but I don’t think that you will avoid a custodial sentence. All we can do is try to limit this to three or six months,’ he says. ‘What would you say we could use as mitigation? Did he hit you? Did he provoke you in any way? Did he crash your car or jump up and down on your iPhone or anything that might warrant retaliation?’

He said that he didn’t like my tattoos,’ Tiffany says.

If it comes to that, I don’t like your tattoos,’ Ray Crooner says. ‘And the judge will almost certainly not like your tattoos What is that one on your forehead?’

That’s the Angel of Death,’ Tiffany says.

Anyway, I don’t think this …. Moon, what kind of name is that anyway ….. this Moon not liking your tattoos is going to get us far in terms of mitigation,’ Ray says. ‘The judge will take one look at those unsightly markings and your ….. barrage of nasal jewellery and make a decision influenced by this.’

Haven’t we got to go to magistrates first?’ Tiffany says.

Yes, we do have to go to magistrates first,’ Ray says. ‘But really, do you think that magistrates are going to look favourably on someone who resembles a degenerate troglodyte. They probably won’t even ask your name or give you the Bible to swear on. They pass cases like yours straight on. I might as well not turn up.’

How about this then?’ Tiffany says. ‘I went to a heavy metal festival where Devil’s Henchmen force-fed me a vicious cocktail of mind-bending drugs and dragged me off screaming to a tattoo marquee. It was like a descent into Hell. While Dark Funeral were playing, Satanic forces took over and before I knew it I was hearing voices in my head telling me to kill Moon.’

Better,’ Ray says. ‘We might just be able to keep the sentence beneath twelve months.’

Jet and Indigo have recently returned from an ashram in Goa, where they have been receiving spiritual guidance from Swami Govinda and buying kaftans for Jet’s new wardrobe. They have moved in together. Jet now gets up at five every morning, takes Bono for a quick walk and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi, before his bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. He now has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. He practices yoga, in fact when Indigo is busy, he says he will run the class for her. They meditate to a CD with sounds of running water. Their new apartment is awash with Aloe Vera and weeping fig plants to purify the air. He works out at the gym and he takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. He cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When he does take the car, he listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. He never drinks alcohol.

Do you think we should visit Tiffany in Holloway?’ he says to Indigo, as he mixes the fruit smoothies. It has been on his mind lately that she may not have had any visitors.

Indigo wants him to get back to massaging her thighs. ‘Soon,’ she says. ‘Perhaps we will visit her soon.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Harry and Kate

harryandkate

Harry and Kate by Chris Green

Black cats are supposed to be lucky, aren’t they? Harry Regis thinks so. What he doesn’t realise is that in many cultures, black cats are seen as an evil omen. Most of Europe, for instance, considers the black cat to be unlucky, a harbinger of doom. Fortunate then that Harry lives in the UK. What with the collapse of his kite design business and Meg leaving him for Trevor, a film extra from Billericay, Harry has had a tough time of late. He feels he deserves a break. It is time things started going his way.

So when one evening a black cat wanders through the back door, explores the house and makes itself comfortable on the shag-pile rug in the front room, he sees it as a good omen. He offers the cat a tin of tuna chunks, which it devours with gusto. And some dried cat biscuits he discovers in one of the kitchen cupboards. The saucer of full cream milk is welcomed too. Although Harry leaves the back door open, the cat shows no sign of wanting to leave. It is still there at the end of the evening after he has finished watching Leif Velasquez’s acclaimed adaption of the postmodern thriller, Shooting Script on Netflix. It is dark outside, and his visitor is curled up on the settee, purring gently. Harry thinks it best to put the animal outside. Although it does not have a collar, it does not look like a stray. It has a glossy coat. It is a well-groomed animal. By now, someone will be wondering where their pet has got to.

The following morning, the cat is once again at the back door. It does not wait to be invited in. It rushes past Harry’s outstretched hand and makes a beeline for the kitchen. It seems to be hungry. Surely a handsome-looking cat like this can’t have been out all night, can it? Harry doesn’t have any pressing appointments, so he pops along the road to the convenience store and returns with a box of pouches of gourmet cat food. On the way, he thinks of suitable cat names. Being a fan of the musical Cats, he toys with Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, Growltigger and Shimbleshanks, but decides they are too fussy. He settles on Lucky. Lucky is the obvious name for a black cat.

Serendipity seems to work straight away. No sooner has he fed Lucky his gourmet turkey treat than the phone rings. It is Ben Maverick of Maverick Leisure Services offering him the job as General Manager of the new Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre that is opening on the industrial estate. While fridge magnet advice may not have the prestige of kite design, it is a step in the right direction. He needs to keep Lucky around and as he will be out of the house now in the daytime, he fits a cat door so that the cat can come and go.

Kate Dunning-Kruger believes that every cloud has a silver lining. So when she loses her job in marketing with BestFone in their rationalisation drive, she is sure something will turn up. When she is selected to promote a new weather phone app, her faith seems justified. She is over the moon. The new app, she is told, does not merely predict the weather, it can change localised weather conditions. It was created by a whizz-kid in California and cloned by a fourteen-year-old computer geek from Devon. Kate does not need to know how Elements works but, she is told, it has been successfully trialled in one or two places around the county. She is one of a small team who are to start a promotion campaign from a discrete office on Palace Park Industrial Estate. They are hoping to roll the revolutionary new app out nationally soon to those who can afford it. It is by no means going to be a freebie. But before it can be rolled out, she is told, there are cybersecurity issues to overcome. Their IT consultant who goes by the unlikely name of Max Acker is working on these.

Kate is recently divorced and although there are pitfalls in getting involved with anyone new so soon, she can’t wait to get dating again. Her friends wonder if perhaps she is too eager. She might end up making the same mistakes. They point out that Bill was arrogant, self-centred and lazy. She should take her time and concentrate on her own well-being. Kate explains that as a thirty-something single female, there is only so much you can do in a small town. Everything seems to be geared up to couples. And besides, now she has a new job, she will be able to work on her self-confidence.

Kate finds her office housed in a new prefabricated block on the estate, alongside the Bikini Museum, the Mulatu Astatke School of African Dance and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. An interesting selection of enterprises, she thinks, entirely different from working in the corporate environment at BestFone on the fifth floor of the city block, alongside the insurance brokers and tax consultants. Further along the avenue are Balalaika Tuition Centre, Mojo Filter Bicycle Hire and a tall featureless matt black building which has no windows. Nor does it appear to have an entrance. No lettering or insignia to suggest what it might be. Palace Park is a strange environment.

She begins to learn about the new weather app. Although it is in its infancy, there are already reports of its success. Charlie Dixon apparently used it to bring fine weather for the Exeter race meeting when it was raining in the rest of the county. Nick Carr conjured up a torrential downpour to bring a close to a village cricket match when his team were in a losing position to force a draw. The result ensured that his team, Dartmouth Royals retained the title for another year. It appears the app can be activated at short notice. Early indications suggest it works best when activated at short notice, but it now needs to be tested further afield.

Kate discovers the estate is a busy little area. The bikini museum is incredibly popular, there are lots of comings and goings at the newly opened hedgehog sanctuary and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre does a roaring trade. Following a favourable article in one of the Sunday supplements, fridge magnets are enjoying a revival. It will be a while though before Kate is fully occupied as Max Acker keeps finding more glitches in the Elements app.

On her third day at work, when Kate is outside smoking her mid-morning cigarette, she catches the manager of The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre arriving with a new delivery. He looks like a nice fellow, the type that would be kind to cats maybe. And, of course, Bill has left her with four of them.

Hi! I’m Kate, she says. ‘I’ve just started working at Elements.’

Really? I started here last week as it happens,’ he says. ‘I’m Harry, by the way. Harry Regis.’

You seem to be doing well, here Harry,’ Kate says. ‘Lots of interest in fridge magnets, these days, I gather. I can see you are busy, but perhaps one day when you have a quiet moment we could hook up for a coffee at Cuppa Joe along the way there. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.’

Sure,’ Harry says. ‘And maybe a bite to eat. We could meet up one lunchtime. It has been mad here lately with all the new editions coming out. Everyone wants fridge magnets. But there are so many magnets on the market that people don’t always know which designs to go for. The rare album cover ones are popular, of course, and the royal residence ones. They never go out of fashion. We’ve got some new Bake Off magnets and we’ve just had the new Peaky Blinders set launch. And believe it or not, the French symbolist poets magnets are popular too.’

I believe you, Harry,’ Kate says. ‘I’ve always found truth is stranger than fiction.’

Harry and Kate catch up for lunch at Cuppa Joe the following Monday. Not wanting to talk shop, by way of making conversation Harry mentions that he had a new cat called Lucky. Kate has no shop to talk. Max Acker has found a new problem with the app. She wonders if it was ever going to be ready to roll out. Max seems to spend more time trying to chat her up than he does working. Unsuccessfully. He is much too old and she just hates those floral shirts he wears not to mention the way he invades her personal space. Coronavirus may be over and done with, but hasn’t he heard of social distancing?

A new cat?’ Kate queries. Might Harry be the caring type? This is not something she could ever say about Bill. In the flesh too, Harry is much hunkier than Bill. Toned physique and a manly beard. And he has a managerial position. Something that Bill had never had. Bill had only occasionally had a job.

Yes. A black cat,’ Harry says. ‘It just came in one evening and stayed. Lucky is good company too. I was starting to find it lonely in the big house after Meg moved out. We’d been together for ten years.’

Better steer the conversation back on to cats, Kate thinks. We don’t want to dwell too much on Meg.

Cats are excellent company,’ she says. ‘I have four little darlings, Sylvester, Smokey, Tigger and Dave. You must come round and meet them one evening.’

Over their pasta lunch, Harry and Kate discover they have a mutual interest in Scrabble, owls, donating blood, and Game of Thrones. They both like listening to Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age. Harry saw Queens of the Stone Age at Finsbury Park in 2018. With Meg.

Time for some more cat chat, Kate thinks. ‘Does Harry know that Isaac Newton invented the cat door?’ she asks. Harry doesn’t, but he does know that cats spend 70% of their time sleeping and about 15% grooming. He found this out when he was looking for a cat basket for Lucky. The conversation moves on to dogs and other animals. The Lion King leads them to other films they have seen. Although he prefers action thrillers, Harry concedes that he has a secret admiration for Nora Ephron romcoms. Oh no, Kate thinks. He’s going to start talking about Meg Ryan and that will bring us back to the other Meg. She tells him instead that she has a soft spot for Quentin Tarantino films. She has seen them all but Kill Bill is her favourite. Meg’s name doesn’t come into the conversation again. Not that she is interested enough to ask, but she wonders if it is short for Megan, or Meghan. Best to let the matter go.

After lunch, as they walk up the road together, Kate points out the featureless black building.

I’ve been wondering what happens in there,’ she says.

You’ve heard of White Stuff,’ Harry says. ‘Well, that building there belonged to Black Stuff. While everyone associated White Stuff with coke, and although it was a little naughty, liked the idea, everyone associated Black Stuff with coal and didn’t go for it.

Wasn’t Black Stuff tar?’

Whatever! The brand name didn’t work. No-one wanted to buy their stuff. They went broke.’

Probably just not promoted very well,’ Kate says. ‘These things make a difference.’

To be honest, a lot of these businesses are here today and gone tomorrow,’ Harry says. ‘It’s like pop-up land on some of these out-of-town developments. I mean, look! The Pet Rock Counselling Service. How long is that going to last? What’s happening at your place, by the way? Is this new app going well?’

It’s not ready yet,’ Kate says. ‘At the moment, I’m just twiddling my thumbs.’

Teething troubles, are there?’ Harry says. ‘It’s only a phone app, isn’t it? What’s so complicated? What does it do?’

I can’t tell you that yet,’ Kate says. ‘It’s still at the development stage but I’m told there should be a beta version soon.’

Anyway, let’s do this again,’ Harry says.

Perhaps we might go out for a drink, one evening,’ Kate says.

I’d like that,’ Harry says. ‘Since Meg left …….’

You must come around and meet my cats,’ Kate interrupts. ‘How about tomorrow?’

As he drives to work, the following morning, Harry is pleased but somewhat surprised to find that the sun is shining. The storm that went on until the early hours was a violent one, rattling the doors and the windows of the house. Lucky was so frightened by the driving rain and howling wind that he snuggled up to him the whole night. Several inches of rain must have fallen in a few hours. The builder he called about the water coming through the bathroom ceiling seemed puzzled by his call but said he would pop round after five.

To Harry’s amazement, there is not so much as a puddle on the roads. How could a storm be so localised? As he makes his way through the morning commute, he gradually notices that a black BMW with tinted windows and the personalised plate, ACK3R seems to be following him. It tailgates him along Electric Avenue. It seems to be doing its best to force him off the road. Harry has the feeling he has seen this car before. Was it perhaps parked outside Elements where Kate worked? Didn’t she mention someone called Max Acker in connection with the app she is working on? That instead of getting on with work, he is always on her case?

At the Princes Street lights, Harry swings into the left-hand lane cutting up a delivery van to turn into Duke Street. Boxed in, the BMW cannot make the manoeuvre. It carries on straight ahead, towards the industrial estate. Harry dives into the superstore car park where he takes a moment to compose himself. Who exactly is this maniac who was trying to run him off the road? Why was he doing it? He googles Max Acker on his phone and discovers that Max is a fictional character that features in half a dozen stories by the author, Phillip C Dark. Several sites confirm this. Phillip C Dark, it appears, is a speculative fiction writer.

Speculative fiction, Wikipedia suggests, is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that may or may not exist in the real world, often in the context of supernatural, futuristic or other imaginative themes. If the Max Acker tailing him is fictional, then what are the ramifications? Where does that leave him, Harry Regis? Does he, Harry not exist in the real world? Does Kate not exist in the real world? These are not matters that he has had to grapple with up until now. In the flesh has always meant in the flesh. Yet here in the superstore car park, Harry suddenly finds himself in the throws of an existential crisis.

If it turns out he is fictional and at the mercy of his creator, then anything could happen. He has no control over it. He has no free will. What if his creator decides to kill him off? Just when things with Kate were looking up. He has Kate’s number and decides to give her a call before it’s too late. He feels he needs there to be some element of reality to cling to. He is not sure what he is going to say to her. She is likely to think he is going mad. There is no reply. Harry fears the worst.

Further research reveals that despite his work being categorised as speculative fiction, which can often be doom-laden, many of Phillip C Dark’s stories have happy endings. Why would this not be the case? Readers like a happy ending. Happy endings sell books. A majority of fiction in any genre has a happy ending. The author usually arranges the climax to make it look as if all hope is gone before coming up with an unexpected turn of events to save the day. This is known as the denouement. Climax and denouement are key elements of dramatic tension.

In any case, although Max Acker is not a common name, this does not mean there is just the one Max Acker. It’s a big world out there. There are likely to be many Max Ackers. Most likely, Phillip C Dark just picked the name at random. As he watches the shoppers come and go, Harry wonders why he is even thinking this way. He pinches himself. Here he is in time and space, sitting in his car in the car park, to all intents and purposes a sentient being. He must send his paranoia packing. Having placed great importance on the black cat appearing on his doorstep, he feels the need to go home to reacquaint himself with reality. His reality. Work can wait.

As Harry parks outside his house, he spots Kate at the front door. She has Lucky in her arms and is stroking him.

I hope you don’t mind me calling around like this,’ she says. ‘But I heard that Max was out to get you. When you weren’t at work, I became worried something might have happened. I thought I’d better check you were all right. This is a lovely cat you’ve got, by the way. Lucky, isn’t it?’

Harry notices the front garden has dried up already. Perhaps there hadn’t been as much rain as he had imagined.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Holiday

holiday

Holiday by Chris Green

Lastminuteholidays.com did not actually specify that Sea View had a view of the sea, but there again, it did not say that it didn’t. The default position, you would have thought, was that it did, especially as there were pictures of the waves rolling in on a clear sandy beach in the post. I ought to have checked on Google Maps. I would have seen then that Sea View was, in fact, several miles inland and unlikely to be a stone’s throw from the beach as advertised on the site. I did not check because I was too busy at work and Diane and I were in a hurry to get away. We were going through a sticky patch in our marriage. Looking at the reviews on Trip Advisor in the prison library now only adds to the feeling of regret. The highest rating Sea View was given was 1 star.

A glance at customer feedback would have let me know that the view consisted of a popular fly-tipping site, a dumping ground for broken furniture, white goods and sundry household waste. Scrap vehicles and even an old crane had been abandoned and left to rust. A bonfire of car tyres smouldered day and night. Security was also flagged up as an issue. The front door to the apartment did not even close. According to the comments, it had been that way for months. The twin beds were three-quarter length and there was no bedding. Several correspondents mentioned the stench of cabbage which was being boiled on an industrial scale in the kitchen below.

Our stay, which was to have been a week, confirmed all these points. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the diesel generator had been a little further from our bedroom window. But, what really did it for me though was the noise from the building site nearby. To maximise the use of the supply of cheap migrant labour in the area, the developer kept the pile driver going through the night.

When Diane and I first arrived at Sea View on that Saturday in July, horrified though we were, we decided we were going to make the best of it. After all, we were on holiday. And of course, we had some issues to work through. There was no sense in adding to these by getting into a state about the shortcomings of the accommodation. In any case, we could find no-one to complain to. We had paid the full week’s rental upfront and the owner saw no need to meet and greet us. And we needed no key as the door had no lock.

We’re not going to spend that much time indoors,’ I said to Diane.

She agreed. ‘I expect there’s lots of interesting scenery around here,’ she said. ‘And we can probably drive out to the coast one day. I’m sure we could do it in under an hour.’

We probably wouldn’t have spent any time indoors, had it not been for the persistent heavy rain that started just after we arrived. Every time we looked out of the window it was still raining. It was just a question of whether at any particular time it was easing off or getting harder. On the positive side, the rain did douse the smouldering heap of tyres. We could not watch TV as the set had already been stolen; there was just an aerial lead trailing from the socket which led to nowhere. I did not even bother getting my tablet out of the case as it was clear there was going to be no wi-fi.

I-Spy got us nowhere as there were not many things in the apartment to spy. The ones that there were could be guessed easily. W was window or wall and B was bed. F was for floor and C was for ceiling. There were no C to sit on and no T to sit at. There was no C or even an M to cook with and no F to put the food in.

After a sleepless Saturday night on the uncomfortable beds with the pile driver thumping away and the rain beating against the window, we spent the whole of Sunday at The Goat and Bicycle. The effects of the beer and the wine helped us to block out the disturbance from the building site on Sunday night. This was just as well, as in addition to the existing operations, I noticed they had now hired a centrifugal pump to get rid of the flood-water that had accumulated on the site.

It was still raining the following day so we drove, via several detours due to the river bursting its banks, to Littleton, a little town ten miles away. After lunch at The Blind Monkey, we saw all three films that were on offer at the Roxy. I wonder why it is that small-town cinemas choose to screen the most violent films. Saw was followed by Teeth and these were reprised by Maniac. After this, our nerves in tatters, we went for a nightcap at The Goat.

This was the night it happened. The pile driver was beating out its dull rhythm. The generator was belching out its acrid fumes to supplement the pungent smell of stale cabbage from below. The rain turned to hail and Diane and I had the mother of all rows. She asked me why I was always so miserable. I said I wasn’t. She said I was. I said that it wasn’t her, I was unhappy at work, what with the shifts and all. She said that’s no reason to take it out on her. I said I didn’t. She said I did, and if my job caused me that much stress I should give it up. I said if I did we wouldn’t be able to afford the payments on her new car or little things like holidays. She said you mean holidays like this. I suggested she might think of getting a job. She said she had a job, clearing up after me and my bloody pigeons. If you want to keep pigeons why don’t you go back oop north? She kept on pushing my buttons. I was weak. I was spineless. I had never satisfied her.

The pile driver kept on thumping. I felt murderous. I stormed off. I couldn’t control myself. I had to take it out on somebody. I made straight for the building site and ….

Because of my standing in the community, I did not come under suspicion. At first, Diane told me I should give myself up, but after I agreed to get rid of the pigeons, she came round. I hadn’t realised how much she hated my pigeons. Perhaps pigeons are more of a man thing. But, now as I sit here browsing the internet in the prison library, I question whether I deserve to be at liberty. Am I any better than the people I have in my custody? Some of them are here for minor offences. Non-payment of council tax. Possession of cannabis. Shoplifting. And I think about what I’ve done. Sometimes my conscience wants me to come clean and admit that it was me who killed Iosif Petrescu that night back in July.

Copyright Chris Green 2020: all rights reserved

Extra

extra

EXTRA by Chris Green

How do they know there are only thirteen days left? How can anyone be so precise? And what exactly is the nature of the emergency? Why does no-one appear to know? Or if they do know, why are they reluctant to tell us? Not that I can do much about it, whatever it is, stuck on the third floor of this ill-equipped institution building in the middle of nowhere in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster. You can’t even get the internet in here to find out what is going on. Perhaps you can’t get the internet anywhere now. Perhaps the internet has been closed down. This would make sense if they, whoever they are, don’t want people to find out what is happening.

It wasn’t so bad at first when we were told there were nineteen days left. First thoughts were that it was probably a hoax or that, whatever the supposed emergency was, it would go away. There was plenty of time, nineteen whole days. There’s not much that stays in the news for nineteen days. But, as the days count down with no further revelations about the nature of the emergency, and seemingly no way of finding out what is going on, I can’t help but speculate. What are they hiding and why? Is there a colossal asteroid on a collision course? Has there been a nuclear accident? A biological attack? There have of course always been things that have been kept secret on the basis that it is not in the public interest to know. Rumours about unbearably loud sounds, antimatter on the loose, apocalyptic winds, blinding blue lights. Media silence seems somehow more sinister.

Of course, there were dozens of us here at first. Only those of us who are physically unable to get away remain, four of us in all. The rest have surreptitiously left. The ones who appeared to be in charge of the place also went today. We watched them go off in a minibus. Rats and sinking ship come to mind. None of us knows why we are here. Is the emergency worldwide or is it something more localised? There’s no way of finding out. To add to our distress, there appears to be a power cut. Maybe there is simply no electricity being produced in these final days.

………………………………………….

When you are faced with the prospect of annihilation in eleven days time, eleven feels like a very small number. It is impossible not to feel fear.

Burl Rector, if that is really his name, believes categorically that it is the hand of God.

It’s retribution for all our sins,’ Burl says, in one of his diatribes. ‘Revelations tells us that the fearful and the unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, and sorcerers, idolaters and liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’

I do not have the energy to point out that I for one am none of the above, well perhaps the fearful and unbelieving, but none of the rest. And although it is far from verified, what news we have is that everyone is going to perish, whether they are sinners or not, in just eleven days time. If I were to challenge Burl, he would probably have some other Biblical text at the ready. Burl’s God is a wrathful God. A vengeful and unforgiving God. Burl’s God put him in his wheelchair simply because he missed church two Sundays in a row.

Huey Minton is also not someone you would choose to be stuck in a lift with. Huey is not even half empty in his outlook. He is empty with a capital e. He is acutely paranoid. He doesn’t even think we should eat the food that we have access to. It is bound to be poisoned, he says, even the tins will be poisoned. What would he rather us do, starve? Huey is a seasoned conspiracy theorist. He can hold forth about 9/11 or chemtrails and mind control for hours. He started by claiming that the present emergency was an alien attack but he has since switched his diagnosis to it being a rampant airborne disease started by the New World Order as a means of population control. It doesn’t matter he says whether we are out there or in here, it will still get us.

Mary Jane doesn’t have an opinion regarding the explanation for the emergency and I am with her on this. If we are going to survive, then its cause is perhaps secondary, we need to come up with a strategy for our survival beyond the next eleven days. Or at least be able to live out our remaining time in good spirits.

………………………………………….

Despite our limited mobility, Mary Jane and I somehow manage to get down to the second floor. The other two are not with us. We try shouting up the stairs but there is no reply. They have vanished. Perhaps they are caught in a wormhole between floors or an unscheduled timewarp but something has happened to them. In uncharted territory such as we are, perhaps we should expect strange things such as this to happen. At least Mary Jane and I are spared the wrath of God diatribes and the wild conspiracy theories for the time being. At least Mary Jane and I are spared for the time being.

It is eerie down here with the peculiar echo of silence you find in a large space when no-one is about. Although we are two floors up, it feels oddly subterranean. Three days on and there is still no sign of the power coming back on. It is dark down here and smells of decay. It looks as if it has been abandoned for a long time. Certainly, more than a few days. The paint is flaking off the mildewed walls and the windows are clouded with soot. Spiders’ webs hang from the furniture. Amongst scattered papers on a gnarled wooden desk, we discover a transistor radio. It’s one of those military-looking ones with lots of wavebands. Despite its business-like appearance, the only transmission we can pick up is in Spanish. This strikes us as ominous. Does this mean that everyone else has gone off the air? With the smattering of Spanish Mary Jane and I have between us, we try to make out what they are saying. They appear to be talking about a football match. A big upcoming football match. Mañana, mañana, El partido más grande de la historia.

Vamos a descubrir que Barcelona es el mejor equipo para la eternidad,’ one of them says. ‘Barcelona es el mejor equipo de futbol del universo entero.’

With just eight days to go before the apocalypse, it seems that this is the match to decide once and for all who really is the best team.

Perhaps this is something they should have done years ago and had done with it,’ Mary Jane says. ‘Rather than put us through the anguish every year for nine months of the year only to for it to start all over again.’

What do you think they would be talking about if it were a French station?’ I say.

Wine, of course,’ Mary Jane says. ‘They would be talking about appellation and terroir and all that nonsense.’

German?’

Sausages and Pilsner,’ Mary Jane says. ‘What about a British radio broadcast? I wonder what we would be talking about.’

Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

It’s good that even in these last days, we still have a sense of humour,’ Mary Jane says.

The lightness of mood is short-lived. Without warning, the Spanish station goes off the air. In mid-sentence, the excited voice dies. We are left with the hiss of static, this made up in part I recall by cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. There is nothing out there. It is a chilling moment.

………………………………………….

I can’t be sure of anything anymore, there are no certainties. Everything is in flux. But, according to my calculations, there are just five days left. I can’t recall how we came to be here, but Mary Jane and I now find ourselves on the first floor of the complex. First floor is probably not a fair or accurate description, in fact, no description at all. Before us, as far as the eye can see, there is open grassland. And it seems to go on forever. It even smells like a prairie, with the scents of grasses, resinous shrubs, warm earth and sage. Yet, at the same time, we are somehow still within the confines of the monolithic structure. There are staircases both up and down. How have the wild open spaces come inside? We have entered the realms of science fantasy. The space is somehow dimensionally transcendent.

Like everywhere else around here, the prairie is deserted, if deserted is not a contradiction in terms. We haven’t seen anyone else for a long, long time now. The unspecified catastrophe seems to be playing out. This is surely the end. I can’t help but indulge in some reverie. There’s a sudden longing for the past. For better times. Those idyllic days when life was simpler. The odd thing is, I’m really not sure that I’ve done some of the things that are coming into consciousness. I seem to be flooded with ……. false memories. How could I possibly have been a Roman centurion? Or been in the trenches in the First World War? I wouldn’t have been born. Surely I didn’t really grow gourds in Somerset or have a dog called Kafka. And I can’t for the life of me place who some of these people are that are coming to mind, Philip C. Dark, Leif Velasquez. Certainly, they seem half-familiar. But, who are they? They seem one step removed from my experience. Like phantoms. There again, I do remember Vicki and the twins and Elm Close and Lee’s Bar. I believe these are real memories. And my job at the insurance office. Or was it music shop? I’m sure I had some kind of career. My memory is a laboratory of confusion. Mary Jane, on the other hand, says she doesn’t remember anything at all from her past.

………………………………………….

Somehow, I negotiate another descent. I try to get my bearings once more but I seem to have lost Mary Jane. I call out her name but she does not answer. The darkness makes it difficult to see what is down here but it is no longer open prairie. This is an indoor setting – an indoor setting with a vengeance. All the windows have been boarded-up. It is dark. Enclosed. Forbidding. Where is Mary Jane? I don’t want to be the last person alive.

I’m not.

Don’t move!’ yells a hollow voice, from out of the gloom. I’m thinking perhaps it is the Grim Reaper. My heart is thumping. I’m not ready for this. The seconds pass. The figure slowly approaches. In the slither of murky light coming from a split in one of the boarded up windows, I can just make out his shape. In heavy black uniform and protective headgear, he looks like Darth Vader. He is pointing a gun of some sort in my direction.

Oh! It’s you,’ he says, as he gets closer. Do I detect a sense of relief in his voice? Was he expecting someone more dangerous? I’m still too terrified to say anything.

You’re supposed to be in quarantine,’ he says, matter of factly.

Quarantine?’ I say.

Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

What are you talking about?’

Don’t you remember what happened?’

Remember what?’

The explosion on set.’

What set? Who are you?’

I’m Site Security.’

What’s this about an explosion?’

There was an explosion. On the set of Nineteen Days. Two weeks ago.’

Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

Oh, come on now! You were one of the extras in the big scene at the end of the film. I had to apprehend two of your oppos a day or two ago and take them back in. Difficult bastards, they were.’

What about Mary Jane? What have you done with Mary Jane?’

No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

Perhaps there was no Mary Jane. The only thing I am sure about is my confusion.

You say we were in a film?’

As I am saying this, I begin to understand the likely origin of the false memories I’ve been getting. The Roman centurion, the First World War soldier. They must be from bit parts I’ve played in films.

Look!’ Darth Vader says. ‘Are you a bit slow or are you pulling my pisser? All of you were in Leif Velasquez’s Nineteen Days. The film he was making of the classic Philip C. Dark story. The production was shut down following the accident.’

Accident?’

The apocalyptic explosion filming the final scene,’ he says. ‘It was like Armageddon.’

Suddenly, I find I am getting flashbacks about an explosion like the one he is describing. But I’m not even sure about these. In my state, they could easily be brought on through auto-suggestion.

They had to shut down the film and quarantine everyone involved in the scene,’ he continues. ‘Those of you that actually survived that is. Because of the alarming side effects, you were experiencing. Toxic chemicals were discovered everywhere, some of them never known before. The area has been declared a no-go zone. All means of communication both in and out have been cut. Weren’t you told any of this?’

Communication cut. This explains the lack of radio reception perhaps but there are still a lot of things that don’t add up.

What happened to the others?’ I ask. ‘Where have they taken them? And where is Mary Jane?’

I do not get a reply. Instead, he raises his weapon once more. He uses it to point the way. Perhaps I am about to find out where the others have been taken. Or, is this all part of Leif Velasquez’s film? Are they still filming? You can perhaps never be sure if you are an extra.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

You Never Know Who Your Friends Are

Created with GIMP

You Never Know Who Your Friends Are by Chris Green

A writer can become dangerously obsessed with fiction. The temptation to create something original out of an ordinary everyday situation can be hard to resist. I could not possibly know what I was getting into when I created Quentin Thief’s social media profile. Quentin was a fictional character from one of my short stories. When I found myself twiddling my thumbs one rainy afternoon, to amuse myself, I set up Gmail and Facebook accounts for him. I gave him a few page links, David Lynch, Banksy and The Prisoner and Liked a couple of bands for him, The Dead Kennedys and Dogs Die in Hot Cars. I became his Facebook friend and set his status to public, but without any real expectation that anyone would see his posts.

Quentin’s first friend request came from Seamus Dark. I was puzzled as to how this could have happened, but intrigued. Seamus was a minor character in Magic and Loss, another of my short stories. Seamus didn’t have a very detailed Facebook profile. His only Likes were Twin Peaks and the blind musician, Moondog. Rather than panic as perhaps I should have done, I played along with it. There was bound to be a simple explanation. It was surely someone playing a prank, as indeed I had been. By accepting the request, I felt that one way or another I might be able to get to the bottom of it.

The next time I logged on to Facebook as Quentin, he had five friends. Besides myself and Seamus Dark, there were three others, Reuben Flood, Pearson Ranger and Randy Drummer, all characters from stories of mine. Reuben was a character from the semi-autobiographical Quicksand, Pearson Ranger from my story Snake in the Glass and Randy Drummer from Soft Watches. I could find no rational explanation. No two ways about it, this was spooky.

There were a series of conversations between the characters, both on their timelines and private messaging. I scrolled back through a few screens. The references were cryptic. The copious use of acronyms, AFDN, AFT, BTDTGTS, IYNAEGBTM, etc made the messages unfathomable to a social media novice like me. I had only just grasped LOL and LMAO in internet jargon. Were they hatching some kind of plot? There certainly seemed to be a lot of collusion between them. I signed out, and signed in as myself but found, amongst my regular feeds, exactly the same posts. Their profile pics bore an uncanny resemblance to how I had visualised these characters. Quentin Thief wore an Aloha shirt. Seamus Dark was well-groomed. Reuben Flood had a thick beard and wore a Ché Guevara beret. Pearson Ranger had a military buzzcut and Randy Drummer wore a pork pie hat.

I phoned my friend, Ram, who was knowledgeable about IT matters. Ram banged on about internet security, proxy servers, hackers, firewalls, and malware, but after a few minutes of his techspeak, I was none the wiser. What on earth were packet sniffers and keyloggers?

Can you come round and have a look, Ram?’ I said finally. ‘You’ll probably be able to put your finger on how this is happening just like that.’

I’ve just got to run a machine round to Gerry’s and I’ll be over,’ he said.

Gerry’s? Isn’t he in Birmingham? That’s eighty miles.’

About that,’ he said. ‘Seventy-eight point four. Look! I’ll be over around seven, OK. Why don’t you just switch the thing off and take the dog for a walk on the common or something?’

With my creative writing residency at the university in abeyance and Patti on sabbatical in San Sebastian, life was slow. Tom was in the forces and Cat had gone off to university, so I just had my dog, Murphy for company. Murphy had originally been Cat’s dog but now she was in Edinburgh, he had become my responsibility. Despite his being twelve-years-old, he was still a ten mile a day dog. I was no longer a ten mile a day dog walker. It was a good thing that the common was so close. I could find a seat while Murphy ran around chasing phantom rabbits.

At The Belted Galloway, I got chatting to a couple of walkers. They waxed lyrical about the beauty of the area. How lucky I was to have this all on my doorstep and such a delightful pub, full of rustic charm. Did I know there were thirty-eight species of wildflower on the common? They were just going to do another six miles and then call it a day. They had found a lovely little Airbnb that welcomed walkers. I began to feel I was spending too much time in front of a screen in my internal world.

I got home late afternoon and put a pizza in the oven. I was apprehensive about switching the computer on, but finally, I did. By the time Ram arrived, a little after seven, Quentin’s Facebook friends had multiplied. There were another half dozen familiar names from my literary lexicon. This time the list also included a couple of my leading characters, Max Tempo from Tequila Mockingbird and Tara Vain from Tara’s World.

Muttering to himself, Ram started going through the feeds. Over his shoulder, I could see at a glance that Max and Tara seemed to have started most of the post entries, with various combinations of my other characters responding. Lara Love from Little Dissing and Dr Bolt from Be Here Now had joined the fray. Dave Too from Kosmik Kitchen was there too, along with Roy Tackler from Slumpton. Poor Roy. He spent most of his fictional life on the bench. I never did give him a first-team game. Then there was his chronic alcoholism. The list of characters on the posts seemed to go on and on. Even Charlie Saxx from a story I was in the process of writing seemed to have got in on the act.

GHOMCOAFA,’ Ram read out. ‘Get him off my case once and for all. Looks like someone’s out to get you.’

It was Tara. I had described the nitty-gritty of Tara’s reliance on other people, he disastrous relationships and her subsequent descent into madness. Perhaps I needn’t have been so explicit.

WWLWEP. We will liquidate with extreme prejudice. Max Tempo’s not too keen on you either. What did you do to upset him?’

Nothing, Ram. He’s fictional, remember.’

IGTBBTTR. I’ll get the bloody bastard this time around. Well! This doesn’t sound very fictional. What did you write about him?’

He was originally a delusional character in my story, Tequila Mockingbird, who thought the Mexicans were out to get him. He saw signs of them everywhere. Maybe I could have been more sensitive in the way I portrayed his nervous breakdown. Now I think of it, I may have used him in one or two other stories.’

I am not a number, I am a free man. What’s that all about?’

That’s a line from The Prisoner. The Prisoner is one of the likes I gave to Quentin Thief. It looks as if he’s trying to make a point.

Ram started humming a tune. It was an annoying habit he had when he’s concentrating. I worked out the tune was Puff the Magic Dragon. Puff the Magic Dragon! That was the title of another of my stories.

He carried on scrolling down. Another batch of acronyms appeared.

All these acronyms, Ram. Must be a youngster, don’t you think?’ I said

I don’t think youngsters do Facebook anymore, Phil, Ram said. ‘They’ve got Whatsapp, Instagram and Snapchat.’

IGYBFWLAM?’ I asked, before Ram moved on. This was from Nolan Rocco who featured in several of my stories.

I’ll get you back for writing lies about me,’ Ram said with little or no hesitation. How did he know all these acronyms or was he just making them up? Perhaps he had been creating the characters? Now I was getting paranoid.

Mick Jagger? What’s Mick Jagger doing here?’

He says that you mentioned him in one of your stories and he’s unhappy about it.’

Click on him. It can’t really be Mick Jagger, can it?’

2,080,706 followers. Yes, it can.’

He appeared briefly as a character in The Food of Love, I only gave him a couple of lines.’

Perhaps he feels he should have had more.’ Ram began to hum Jumping Jack Flash, one of the least hummable tunes I could think of. He was thinking again.

Let’s sign in as you, what’s your password?’

50FUck1NGb01ledcabbages’

Nice mix of upper and uppercase characters. Quite a secure one I’d say.’

The posts on my wall looked much the same but there was now an additional one from Quentin Thief. It was the picture of a car crash.

What’s that all about?’ Ram asked.

I hate to think,’ I said.

It seems to me that because you and Quentin Thief are friends that you are going to see any post that he puts up.’

I’ve got that, yes.’

But the ones posted by the others should not show on your wall.’

Yes. I can follow that much.’

So these that are posted by Tara Vain should not be there. OK? Or the ones by Max Tempo.’

But they are.’

You’ve heard of the darknet,’ he said.

I hadn’t. I wondered if it had something to do with Seamus Dark, or perhaps if Seamus Dark had something to do with the darknet. Ram explained that the term darknet was used to describe all underground web communications associated with illegal activity or dissent. ‘Don’t learn to hack, hack to learn,’ he laughed.

How does this fit in with what’s been happening here,’ I queried.

Probably nothing to do with it,’ said Ram. ‘But something weird is happening, isn’t it?’

What can I do about it?’ I asked.

Simple! You could do what you should have done in the first place, delete your Facebook account.’

But then I’ll never know.’

That’s right but, you never know who your friends are, anyway. That’s what they say, isn’t it?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ten Twenty-Four

tentwentyfour

Ten Twenty-Four by Chris Green

You may not have heard of Trethowan. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Cosy Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only along a windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.

I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone much, the unknown caller could be a casual acquaintance or a trades-person I have contacted in the past. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.

I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24 p.m. by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is not right.

I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet-weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. Why would they have come from Cornwall? I know few people here. They could have come from anywhere. Alaska, China, anywhere, although I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far-flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.

The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in Chenoweth looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether or not he is addressing me, I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it he can get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction.

I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres, I lose the black sedan that I find following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here for several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.

Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To put the finishing touches to a story about fly-fishing in time for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Ellie. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. Ellie is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns.

Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make their presence so obvious? Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.

When I get back to the apartment, I find to my relief Ellie is there. I explain to her what has been happening. She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.

So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’

But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.

Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical glitch at Vodafone.’

O2,’ I correct her.

OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’

What about the men in the village?’ I say.

Two men wearing shades. In a holiday destination. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’

But it wasn’t sunny,’ I say. ‘They chased after me in the black sedan.’

Oh, come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’

I guess not,’ I concede.

Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’

Of course.’

So! Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’

I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.

I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’

Jamaica Inn?’

No, not that one. The other one.’

We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Ellie’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.

I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Ellie has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Creme Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the fittest to drive back, Ellie goes off to the Ladies.

I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Ellie is right. Perhaps I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can investigate the historic Kernow of St Piran. Tintagel and the Arthurian legend. See that new sculpture of the King with Excalibur at the castle. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the rugged bays. We can take in the beautiful landscape. We can visit the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.

Ellie often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return. But after ten minutes I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.

A waiter comes over, concerned perhaps that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Ellie is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, the maître d’ says, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Ellie, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Ellie. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.

Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’

The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.

Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.

I turn my attention back to Ellie’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. None of the few left saw Ellie go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Ellie stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He threatens to call the police. There is no need. There and then, the constabulary arrive as if they had just been waiting up the road, four officers in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention. But as they put the handcuffs on and lead me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi snap away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.

I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.

What may be different here is that there is country music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Waiting Around to Die and the daddy of them all, Merle Haggard’s Misery and Gin. The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had a lot more and didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Achy Breaky Heart and I believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and left me to stew. Is this perhaps a technique learned from Guantanamo Bay?

Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police, but villains.

I am concerned about what might be happening to Ellie. She must have been abducted too. If I can be detained like this, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Ellie likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Ellie more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?

As the night wears on, my mind returns to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness, I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Ellie was involved with a year or so ago, a series of television adverts. They were filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.

Could Ellie be responsible for my predicament? Might she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black and the car chase? Having raised my paranoia levels, it would be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Ellie knows how much I hate country music. But why would she do this to me?

Oh! My! God! Might Ellie have discovered that I slept with her friend, Charlotte, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Charlotte’s friend, Sophie had started going to the class. I am aware that Sophie can be spiteful. She must have spilled the beans about our clandestine liaison.

Ellie would have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her the chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall odyssey. In all probability, I am being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day, like ….. that one over there.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

More Weird Shit – an Inspector Boss Mystery

moreweirdshit

More Weird Shit – An Inspector Boss Mystery by Chris Green

It didn’t occur to you that a two-year-old Mercedes Sprinter on sale in Toker’s End for less than two grand might be hot,’ Jonny Geezer says.

To be fair, we were a bit strapped for cash, guv, and there wasn’t that much around,’ Gandy says. ‘And time was of the essence.’

So, let’s get this straight. To do a job, you saddle us with a van that the filth will be all over even before we start,’ Jonny says. ‘You might as well have just nicked one like other blaggers do. ……. What’s in the blue bag in the back there? Looks like one of those Ikea bags.’

It appears to be empty, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The odd thing is, it weighs a ton. I could hardly move it.’

You’re such a wimp, Gandy?’ Jonny says. ‘Let me have a go.’

With a huge effort, Jonny manages to move the bag a few inches. While he is doing so, the bag appears to change shape.

It is as if the bloody thing is breathing,’ he says. ‘It seems to have a life of its own.’

I meant to tell you about that,’ Gandy says.

Then why didn’t you?’

What do you think it is, guv?’

It’s not someone’s shopping from Ikea, is it, Gandy? What was the fella that sold you the van like?’

Average height. Medium build. Dark hair. Didn’t take much notice, to be honest, guv.’

Not from outer space or anything then?’

No perfectly ordinary guy. He had the registration document for the van. I gave him a fake name and address and handed him the cash and that was it.’

You’re sure it was a kosher registration document?’

Well, now you come to mention it, he seemed to want to get things over with quickly, like.’

………………………………………..

Sorry to spring this on you so early, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘But there’s no easy way to tell you. Another bag has gone missing.’

From your serious expression, I take it you mean a blue Ikea bag,’ Inspector Boss says.

I’m afraid so,’ Lennon says. ‘Like the one you told me about.’

This is not the kind of news that Casey Boss of the Strange Occurrence Detail wants to hear first thing in the morning. His stress levels are already through the roof following SOD’s bungled inquiry into the phone signal hi-jack. And the fallout from the invisibility investigation. With so much weird shit going down lately and landing in his lap, he finds it hard to keep up with it all. His doctor has told him to avoid stressful situations. He has warned him that any more stress could prove fatal. He is on powerful beta-blockers which he supplements this with black-market drugs. He is not sure he should even be at work. Just the trip up in the lift to his fourth-floor office these days raises his anxiety.

That was what started it all off. I was coping well before that, Lennon!’ Boss says. ‘Is that really your name? ….. What happened to Jagger?’

Jagger got shot, sir. Last month. Don’t you remember?’

Oh, that’s right. I do seem to recall now. Outside the corned-beef processing plant that was a cover for a tulpa store, wasn’t it?’

That’s right. What is a tulpa, sir? I’ve been meaning to ask.’

Never mind that now, lad. Give me the lowdown on this new business. We’d better get on to it. What do we know?’

The courier who was supposed to deliver this blue bag to the secret location used by the Department that we are not allowed to mention had his van stolen at 3.30 yesterday morning,’ Lennon says.

I see. And presumably said van hasn’t turned up,’ Boss says. ‘And the thinking is that the bag is jam-packed with arcane ideas, I take it. So it will in all probability be in the hands of a rogue regime or terrorists by now,’

That’s the suggestion, sir. Yes.’

And that’s why we’ve been landed with the case.’

Indeed, sir. And as you keep telling me, the first forty-eight hours is critical.’

I know. I know, lad. Just give me what we’ve got, will you?’

Would you like me to get you your meds, sir, and a glass of water?

………………………………………..

We need to find out what this weird shit is, Gandy,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘PDQ.’

What about talking to TeeJay?’ Gandy says. ‘You never know. Whatever it is in the bag might be worth money.’

He’s not going to buy something he can’t see, is he?’ Jonny says.

Brett and Bro?’ Gandy says. ‘They’re gullible. Especially Bro. I sold him his own Kawasaki bike once.’

I’ve got it,’ Jonny says. ‘Pete the Maj. He is the man to see. Pete’s a spoon bender. He knows about paranormal shit. He lives around here. Harmonica Road. Just off Tambourine Way. Pete will be able to tell us what is going on.’

They drive the van around to Harmonica Road. Pete the Maj’s house is a quotidian no-fines semi, distinguishable only by the bank of satellite dishes and the black flag flying on the flagpole outside. Pete answers the door. Jonny and Gandy exchange puzzled looks. In their world, men don’t often answer the door wearing orange wet suits with marmosets perched on their shoulders.

Hi guys,’ Pete says. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’

They hadn’t phoned ahead. How could he possibly know they were coming, they wonder?

And what’s more, I know what exactly you have come about,’ Pete adds. ‘What you have is a bag full of concepts waiting to be realised. In a word, my friends, ideas.’

But it looks like there’s nothing in the bag,’ Jonny says.

What do you expect, Jonny? Ideas are invisible,’ Pete says.

But despite this, the bag is heavy,’ Gandy says. ‘It took the two of us to pick it up.’

Of course, it’s heavy,’ Pete says. ‘Ideas are often complex. You didn’t think they just came floating in through the kitchen window, did you? Or that you could download them from the Internet?’

If you can’t see them, how do you know what they are?’ Jonny asks.

Firstly, you need to know where they came from,’ Pete says. ‘I’m guessing by the look of you that you don’t know.’

Not as such,’ Gandy says.

Then you need to have the right equipment and the necessary skills to get them to materialise. I’m pretty sure you are not going to have that,’ Pete says.

So without this equipment, no-one can tell what it is,’ Jonny says.

Exactly,’ Pete says. ‘Perhaps now that you’re here, you might like to sing to my marmoset. She’s called Sacha. She’s very friendly.’

You wouldn’t like to hazard to a guess what the stuff might be, I suppose,’ Gandy says.

Many new ideas come from military sources, microwaves, GPS, 5g, all these are military in origin,’ Pete says. ‘The internet too originated in the military, along with lots of everyday things like disposable razors and superglue. So that’s where my money would be. ……. Although you wouldn’t think the military would transport the raw material in a blue Ikea bag.’

………………………………………..

We’d better get the courier in here, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘What did you say his name was?’

It’s a hard one to get your head around,’ his sidekick says. ‘Banana Petroleum or something like that. He’s Albanian, apparently. ……. Ah, here it is, Bajrami Pernaska.’

Let’s stick with Banana Petroleum. ….. OK! Get Petroleum in here this morning. He could well be in on it, don’t you think?’

It would certainly make our job easier if he were, sir.’

Look! If you joined the department because you thought it would be easy, Lennon, you’re in for a rude awakening. This isn’t the regular constabulary, lad. This is SOD. The Strange Occurrence Detail. You better be ready for all kinds of weird shit. None of it good or easy.’

I didn’t for a minute imagine it would be easy,’ Lennon says. ‘I knew there would be a lot to learn. I’ve not worked in metaphysical policing before. I have a mind games background.’

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, eh, lad?’

What?’

Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.’

Eh?’

From old songs, lad. I thought you might know them.’

Before my time, I imagine, guv.’

Inspector Boss’s Albanian is not up to speed and Banana Petroleum’s English is not much better. It takes twenty minutes to establish that BP is a delivery driver for Safe as Houses Security and while the van he was using when it was stolen belonged to them, due to an oversight in planning, it had none of the firm’s livery. It was a plain white van.

I stop van for smoke,’ Banana Petroleum says. ‘When I return, van gone. In trouble now. Yes.’

You know what was in the van then I take it,’ Boss says.

Van gone,’ BP repeats. ‘In trouble now. Lose job.’

After an hour they establish that BP probably did not know what he was carrying, and the van was taken from outside the community centre on the Toker’s End estate, a notorious spot for petty criminals and drug dealers.

We’d better get around to Toker’s End, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘Have you had any small arms training?’

Not really, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘Most of my work involved writing confusing copy for under the counter publications.’

Well no doubt, these skills will come in useful,’ Boss says.

………………………………………..

I don’t know how to tell you this, guv, but the bag seems lighter,’ Gandy says. ‘Like something has escaped.’

And how did that happen, Gandy?’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘I told you to keep an eye on it.’

I kept an eye on it. I didn’t let it out of my sight.’

How did that happen?’

A complete mystery, guv. I even made sure the CCTV was focussed on it. But I’ve played the footage back and there’s nothing to see. The hard disc has been wiped.’

That’s should be impossible. ….. Well. Never mind, Gandy. I suppose it’s a good thing in a way, seeing as the stuff in the bag was invisible anyway and we wouldn’t have been able to sell it.’

Shall I just ditch the bag then?’

To be on the safe side, we’ll hang on to it for now. With all this strangeness around, you never know.’

………………………………………..

Before we rush off to Toker’s End,’ Lennon says. ‘Have you seen this splashed across the front of the paper? It says that all across the country, time is going backwards. In Brighton, it has gone back to Tuesday. In Swindon, it’s Monday last week and in Bristol, it has gone back to January.’

Let me have a look, will you?’ Boss says.

Here you go, boss.’

Don’t call me that, man. How many times?’

OK, guv.’

Nor that. Guv is for hoodlums and lowlife.’

Sorry, sir.’

God’s teeth!. You are right, Lennon. It looks like time is on the blink. Looking at the locations they mention here, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it, although all the places are in the south of the country. I hope it’s not heading this way. We haven’t noticed anything different here yet, though, have we?’

I didn’t like to mention it, sir, but the hands of my watch do seem to be going backwards.’

I see. Oh my God! So they are. Not good, lad! I’ve got a bad feeling about this. It could well be connected to the disappearing bag. That’s why the bigwigs have got us on it. I imagine we will get a call from them shortly telling us to pull our fingers out.’

I’ve just had a newsflash come up on my phone,’ Lennon says. ‘It’s from Devon Live. It’s about 9/11. It says planes have crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. A newsflash. As if it’s just happened. Time must have gone further back down south.’

Have I got much of that stuff left, Lennon?’ Boss says.

You mean your meds, sir? Yes, there’s enough for a week or so. But, to be on the safe side, would you like me to order some more. I think I have your man’s number here. Is he really called Razor?’

Yes. I think you’d better. This could be a fraught investigation.’

………………………………………..

Who do I speak to in SOD?’ the Home Secretary, Mercy Creech asks her PA, Dodd. Mercy is new to the job. She has only been in post for three weeks.

That would be Inspector Casey Boss,’ Dodd says. ‘Would you like me to get him on the phone?’

Yes. That would be good. What’s he like, this Boss?’

Well, he’s probably in his late fifties’ Dodd says. ‘He appears to be a little vacant unless this is merely an affectation. But you’d have to say, he’s a bit dour. He’s always complaining how under-resourced SOD is. But don’t they all claim to be undermanned.’

Got you. SOD have lost a few of their officers lately, haven’t they?.’

Yes, Home Secretary. They had one taken out just last month. Jagger, I believe. Terrible business.’

Dodd keys in the number and hands the phone to Mercy Creech. Inspector Boss leaves it to ring for a while before picking up. He has a fair idea of what is coming.

Ah, Boss. Home Secretary calling. Good to make your acquaintance. I take it you are up to speed on the crisis.’

I’ve picked up the gist of it, yes.

Look! I’ve spoken to the Department that I’m not permitted to mention and they tell me that this matter is now Category XX. In a word, time is going backwards. Now, as I understand it, because just one bag of whatever it was went missing, this is only happening in certain places, mostly down south. In other locations, nothing has happened. In most parts of the country, it is still today. But the rupture in time could spread. How is it where you are?’

It’s just stared here, Home Secretary. Weird business. One minute, it’s dark and the next it’s light and then it’s dark again. At a guess, we are about three weeks back at the moment.’

I see. It’s gone so far they are already back on dial-up in some places. In West Somerset, they say it has gone back to 1983.’

Boss wonders how they can tell. It probably always seems like 1983 in West Somerset, but he doesn’t say anything.’

We to need to recover the missing bag quickly,’ the Home Secretary continues. ‘Even then, it might be too late.’

I might need more personnel, Home Secretary. We’ve taken a bit of a hit lately, if you’ll excuse my pun.’

Yes, so I hear. We will look into it and be reassured, we are trying to get to grips with gun crime.’

And my new sidekick, Lennon is inexperienced in the field.’

Lennon, you say? Is that really his name?’

………………………………………..

Casey Boss is always nervous about contacting Colonel Ж of the Department that cannot be named, but if they are to make any progress on the case, he realises he must do so now. To prepare himself, he takes a handful of the Razor’s designer supplements. He has no idea what they are, but they seem to do the job.

Ah, Boss,’ Colonel Ж says. ‘I was wondering when you would call. What’s it like where you are?’

Time is going backwards here. I don’t know how exactly it works but as far as I can tell, we are not going backwards with it,’ Boss says. ‘If you get my drift.’

It is one of those things that is difficult to predict with any certainty,’ the Colonel says. ‘Especially as nothing like this has happened before. Time is still going forward normally here, but, of course, this could change at any moment. The distribution seems to have happened more or less at random. I’m getting lots of conflicting reports. There’s nothing uniform about the spread. Did you know it’s gone back to 1913 in Windsor? They are worried about the military build-up in the Balkans.’

I’ve given the issue some thought,’ Boss says. ‘Off the top of my head, it would appear that we need to get to the depot where the van was loaded. And hope that time in this location has not gone too far back. Then, we can just load the bag or bags that were to be transported on a different van and perhaps that will change things back.’

Good thinking.’ the Colonel says. ‘I’m not sure it will work but it’s certainly worth a try. If I give you the location, can you get another van there quickly?’

I’ll get my man, Lennon on to it right away, Colonel,’ Boss says.

Lennon? Is that really his name?’ the Colonel says.

………………………………………..

From what you said earlier, sir, I gathered we were on a tight budget but guess what, I managed to get us a two-year-old Mercedes van from Gumtree for a very good price,’ Lennon says. ‘Only 100,000 on the clock.’

Good work, Lennon. Let’s get on with it then,’ Boss says. ‘Time is of the essence.’

In more way than one, sir, if you get my drift,’ Lennon says.

Oh, I see, time. Very droll,’ Boss says. ‘Here’s the postcode to key in.’

After driving for several hours through fractured time zones, they find themselves in logistics-land, deep in the heart of the Midlands. Here, the roads are newly tarmacked and have clear white lines and elaborate traffic furniture at all the roundabouts. There are new warehouse buildings lining both sides of the road. Time seems unaffected. It is six-thirty on Thursday evening, which they calculate is what it should be.

Only three more miles, sir, Lennon says.

Perhaps we are in time then,’ Boss says.

In time. You are at it again, sir. Look! That must be the depot up there on the right, don’t you think? The tall one with the camouflage cladding.’

I think that’s probably Colonel Ж getting out of the Hummer.’

You can get quite a lot of people in a Hummer, can’t you? And look! They are heavily armed.’

Military unit, Lennon. All we were given was this pistol. And, as you know, I had to beg for that.’

My watch is starting to go backwards again, sir. But that’s good, isn’t it?’

Perfect. All we have to do then is get out and wait until yesterday.’

That may not be too long. The hands-on my watch are spinning wildly.’

………………………………………..

The cargo always travels by night, the Colonel tells them. The missing cargo set off from the depot with Safe as Houses Security at midnight. The task this time is to pick up the bag an hour earlier than originally planned and head for the secret location. They will be escorted by Colonel Ж and his men in the Hummer. The secret location is a hundred miles away in the direction they’ve come. They will be informed of the exact location once they are near. The latest reports from the secret location suggest that time here is behaving as it should. Boss wonders why the Department could not have done this without them, but his is not to reason why. Why hadn’t they delivered the original cargo by helicopter if it was so sensitive? Or at least put it with a reputable carrier? It seems a bit lax to trust it with a random Albanian dude with a white van. Boss wonders too at what point, time will correct itself. Will this return to normal when the bag is safely aboard the van, when it has travelled further than it originally did or only when it is safely delivered. While logic suggests the first option, there is nothing rational about the current situation. Perhaps, it is a riddle that no-one can be sure of the answer to, not even the Colonel.

We don’t know exactly where the van was stolen,’ Boss says. ‘Banana Petroleum was not very specific and in the end, we found we were just wasting time by grilling him further, but we have a rough idea. So to be on the safe side, we will take a different route.’

OK. Let’s get the show on the road,’ Colonel Ж says ‘We’ll be close behind you. You can be sure of that.’

………………………………………..

We’d better try to get rid of the van,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘Count our losses. If we don’t ask much for it, someone’s around here is sure to snap it up. Probably someone else who wants a plain white van to do a knock-over.’

I was meaning to talk to you about that, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The van has, how can I put it? Gone. One minute it was there, the next, it wasn’t.’

What!’

Someone must have half-inched it while my back was turned. I was on the phone to Loulou. The van was only out of my sight for a few minutes, then I went back to lock it up and …… well, it wasn’t there. I didn’t hear anything. It must have all happened very quickly.’

Someone who knew we wouldn’t report it, probably.’

Next time, we’ll just have to nick one like you said, guv.’

You ditched the bag, didn’t you?’

You told me not to. …… Didn’t you?’

Where did you put it?’

It’s in the shed back here, boss. …….. Look!’

Where am I looking, Gandy?’

Oh no! The bag has gone too.’

………………………………………..

As far as it’s possible to tell, time has settled down. To the good folks of Windsor, the military build-up in the Balkans is nothing more than an episode in history. They are once more able to harangue the graceless town planners in neighbouring Slough. In Devon, they have got over the shock of 9/11 and can once again whinge about the legions of caravanners that flock to their beauty spots every year and get stuck in the narrow lanes. Brighton is now straight again too and back on British Summer Time. The urban centres of Swindon and Bristol are back on track, each dreaming that one day, they might be able to produce a successful football team. Maybe eventually field a side to progress beyond the Fifth Round of the F.A. Cup. Throughout the land, clocks and watches are synchronised. Dates for events throughout the year are once again set in the calendar. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, in parts of West Somerset it still appears to be 1983.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

puffthemagicdragon

Puff the Magic Dragon by Chris Green

Before he met Prism, John Straight seemed destined for success. He had a Degree in Business Management from a top university, a big black BMW with bull bars and he was willing to travel. In a word, John’s future looked rosy. He was the son of Sir James Straight, the Somerset cider magnate. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the country, went to the best schools and never had to struggle. As an only child, he was cosseted. Not only did he have his own motorised BMX, he also had his own BMX track, six acres of it. He went on cultural summer camps in Europe every year. By the time he was eighteen had been to more countries than most adults. On finishing at Goldsmiths, his parents put down a large deposit on a house for him, a stylish four-bedroom barn conversion near Nether Stowey. At twenty one, he seemed to have it all going for him.

But, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, John Straight was a little worried about his future. He did not feel he was yet ready to settle down. He supposed one day he would have to knuckle down, get a job and become a responsible citizen, but could this not be delayed for a while he thought about it? John’s fate was perhaps changed forever, the day he met Prism at a party in Taunton. He was introduced to Prism and Prism introduced him to Molly.

These little beauties will loosen you up,’ Prism said.

John was not sure what she meant. He felt he couldn’t be much looser. After all, he had no plans. He was very much going with the flow. But Prism looked sexy in her skimpy dress and she had a persuasive way about her.

Take three of them,’ she said. ‘And the world will seem a different place.’

What are they?’ he asked, looking in a puzzled manner at the three purple pills she had put into his hand with Nintendo etched on them.

Molly,’ she said. ‘Ecstasy. MDMA.’

And loosen him up, they did. Three hours in, the feeling of well-being was so strong, John knew this was how he wanted things to be. This was a wonder drug. He began to understand why it was referred to as Ecstasy. A deep sense of love, peace and understanding flowed through him. He was inside the music and the music was inside him. He was the music. The music was him. His limbs moved effortlessly like he was discovering them for the first time, his body in perfect rhythm with the cosmos. He felt a powerful rush of energy and a profound connection with everyone at the party. They were all lovely people. Even Razor McNeish was lovely. Why had he not seen this before? The feeling went on and on. This was altogether more pleasurable than getting mullered on Somerset cider at a family bash to celebrate a new vintage or throwing up after a night of beer-boarding in the students’ union bar. And the skunk that his friend Frank had brought round recently had not even hinted at this kind of euphoria. This was Heaven.

We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream,’ Prism said, later, after they had made love for the third time.

More Molly-fuelled weekends with Prism followed. Concerts, parties and more intimate gatherings. Molly even made shopping more fun, especially in the big Beamer. Specialist loudspeaker shops were John’s favourite. With the right equipment, it was astonishing how loud your music could be. Meanwhile, Prism moved herself in and the house at Dulverton soon pulsated day and night with the latest tunes at frightening volume.

We are like the spider,’ Prism said. ‘We weave our life and then move along in it.’

Move along in it, they did. With neither of them going out to work, they had plenty of time to indulge themselves. But the mind is like a mad monkey. It is restless, capricious; fanciful, inconstant, confused and uncontrollable. It constantly wants to move on to something else. Things, therefore, can never stay the same. They do not always change for the better. Little by little, John and Prism’s lives began to move in a different direction. Charlie started coming round to the house with Molly and then Charlie came round instead of Molly. Whereas Molly might be described as gentle and easy going, Charlie was anything but gentle and easy going. Charlie was urgent and aggressive. The mood around the house changed. The unpredictability the Peruvian marching powder brought with it meant John and Prism frequently argued and fought. She stormed out, came back and stormed out again, over and over. He told her to get out, chased after her and told her to get out again.

Worse was to come. Henry started to visit. Henry the Horse, Smack, Scag, Heroin, whatever you want to call it. John was curious to know what it was like. You didn’t have to inject it, he discovered; you could smoke it. The first hit was wild but you were forever trying to repeat this. Smoking it was no longer enough. By the time you became disappointed with the hit you were getting, you were hooked. Henry wanted your body and soul. Henry was hard-edged and desperate. Henry took no prisoners.

The upbeat dance music was gradually replaced by downbeat grunge music. Prism had been agreeable to Charlie coming round. She had been able to take Charlie in her stride. Cocaine was upbeat, exciting, even if it did make you talk bollocks. The point was you always felt you were talking sense. But from the outset, Prism disliked Henry and eventually moved out for good.

John began to wallow in self-pity. Henry was now permanently in residence. All John’s actions in one way another revolved around the demon drug. His parents were disgusted with the direction his life was taking and cut off his allowance. The debts quickly piled up. Had he not crashed the Beamer one night after a trip to look for Henry, he could have sold it to bail himself out and perhaps buy some time until he got himself back on his feet. But the vehicle was a write-off. To make matters worse he was being prosecuted for dangerous driving and possession of a Class A Drug with Intent to Supply. Not that he had any intention of selling any but the huge quantity of heroin the police found in the car was sufficient to justify the charge.

………………………………….

It’s all going pear-shaped, isn’t it, Mr Straight?’ John’s solicitor, Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed says.

It does seem a bit unlucky. All coming at once.’ John says. ‘Look! I don’t suppose you’ve got any gear.’

Gear?’

Yes. Crack, smack, spice. Anything at all.’

Can we treat this matter seriously, Mr Straight? Now, look! We’d better put the house on the market, for starters, don’t you think?’

I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to do that, Mr Dark.’

Oh, and why is that?’

It burned down last night,’

It burned down? How did that happen, Mr Straight?’

I arranged for someone to set fire to it.’

You arranged for someone to set fire to it?’

Yes. To get the insurance money.’

For Heaven’s sake, Mr Straight. The house wasn’t insured. You told me yourself the day before yesterday that the house insurance had lapsed. Your bank account is frozen. Your Direct Debit payment bounced. You’re broke, remember!’

I know that, Mr Dark but I made the arrangement with the arsonist last week and I was so strung out, I forgot to cancel the arrangement.’

Murphy’s Law doesn’t come close to taking account of your ability to bring about disaster, does it, Mr Straight?’

Then I thought I would be in when he came round, you see but I had to go out.’

Let me guess. To get some heroin.’

That’s right. I thought I might be able to call in a favour. Glassy-Eyed Dave owed me one. But it didn’t work out. Then I came home to find that, well not to put to fine a point on it, there was no home. Just a smouldering heap of rubble. …… Are you sure you haven’t got anything in your desk drawer? Not even enough for a hit.’

Not even a puff of the magic dragon, I’m afraid,’ Sebastian Dark says. ‘But what I do have is one of my brother’s books of short stories. It’s in the cabinet over there.’

Oh great! I’ll settle down and read for a bit, shall I? That will be much better than a fix. That will sort out the cold turkey.’

What you probably don’t realise, Mr Straight is that my brother is the science fiction writer, Philip C. Dark. No doubt you have heard of him but had never made the connection. Now, you will very likely be able to find a wormhole in one of Phil’s stories to offer you a passage to a more favourable situation. Why don’t you give it a try? It’s not as if you’ve got a lot to lose.’

The solicitor hands John the book, The Logic Mines of Őjj 9. He begins to read and suddenly ……………….. somewhere in the distance, John hears the haunting sound of a brass instrument. He edges the dune buggy closer. In front of a bank of brightly coloured pods, a tall slender figure with purple hair is playing a transparent saxophone. He has a small cat on his shoulder. John is not sure he has met him before yet he does seem oddly familiar. He wonders if perhaps he saw him playing at last year’s God Election celebrations. Overhead, the usual flock of winged serpents is circling. It is twilight. Both moons are already out. It is a fine evening. All is well. He has his pipe of green herbs to look forward to. Things are as they should be in John Straight’s world.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

ICKE

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ICKE by Chris Green

It was the summer I worked for the Parks Department. Tony and I had parked up our mowers in Cortina Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac in a residential area, a place where I reasoned, Nick Ford would not find us if he came to check. It had been a hot dry summer, and the grass hadn’t grown much so I figured if he came, we could bluff it. We would work out where he had been looking for us and explain that we had been doing the verges in other roads in the area. Although Tony and I had not been teamed up before and he was a little wary, I told him this ploy had worked for me up until now. Nick Ford tended to stick to set routes on his patrols.

Tony and I settled down for a smoke on the stretch of undeveloped land at the far end of Cortina Drive. We talked about our backgrounds. We discovered that these were similar. Both sets of parents had recently divorced, both our fathers worked in IT and both our mothers, for some reason, were fans of Andy Williams. How this had come into the conversation is hard to say. Neither of us were particularly family-orientated or interested in crooners. Although Tony and I had gone to different schools, we found we had similar interests, girls, partying and sleeping. And liked the same bands, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had some Northern Lights skunk as I recall, and it was not long before the two of us were laughing loudly at anything and everything.

Suddenly, our peace was shattered by a powerful, low-pitched whooshing noise. We looked up and saw it was coming from a vortex in the sky. I had been too young to catch the original Twin Peaks and this was years before Stranger Things on Netflix, so naturally, I had not come across anything like it before. Nor I suspect had Tony. We were only nineteen and vortexes and portals had not featured in our sheltered upbringings. The roar grew louder and louder. The spiral moved faster and faster and came closer and closer. We were buffeted this way and that by the blistering wind. This continued for what seemed an eternity, but I suppose, in reality, may just have been a few seconds. We felt ourselves being sucked up into the firmament. It was all we could do to keep our feet on the ground. Tony’s profile was cutting in and out in rapid beats like an entity materialising and dematerialising. We appeared to oscillate between terra firma and a nebulous netherworld. Fortunately, the vortex retreated as quickly as it had arrived and thankfully, we were spared.

The experience must have had a profound effect on Tony, for he didn’t come into work the following day. Or the day after. At first, I didn’t think too much about it because we both viewed working for the Parks Department as a summer job rather than a career. There was a high turnover of staff, especially as the money was not very good. But, I never saw Tony again. I tried for a while to get in touch with him but he seemed to have completely disappeared.

When you are nineteen, your world changes rapidly from day to day. You are happy-go-lucky, carefree. New experiences come your way all the time. Friendships are fluid. You are out every night, meeting new people. You hardly notice the passing of time. So understandably, I did not dwell too much on the strange episode or for that matter, Tony’s disappearance. After a while, I began to wonder if perhaps because we had been so stoned, we had imagined the vortex. Or at least exaggerated what might simply have been temporary adverse weather conditions. Nothing about it had appeared in the local paper, or if it had, I had missed it.

Growing up, I had read the odd science fiction novel and seen the occasional sci-fi movie, but they were not particularly my thing. It was not until in the twenty-tens, when I picked up a book by former sports broadcaster turned new age philosopher, David Icke, that I realised what portals were. Or that for many years, scientists had been attempting to open portals to parallel universes, shadowy dimensions that mirrored our perceived world. Or the claim that we might live in a multi-dimensional holographic universe. And the argument that if we on Earth had this type of technology then others from distant worlds would be likely to have equivalent technology. Could some of this weird stuff explain the episode with the vortex, I wondered? Could it even account for Tony’s subsequent disappearance? Had he simply been spirited away? If David Icke was to be believed, this explanation appeared to be plausible.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon suggests that once you come across a new word, subject, concept or idea, you are likely to come across references to it everywhere. Many believe this is an example of collective consciousness and has a supernatural explanation. In addition, it is claimed the references often lead to other previously undiscovered but connected concepts and ideas until you find a whole new world suddenly has opened up. Such was the case around portals. Firstly, I noticed that the window of Waterstones was full of books on portals and wormholes. Then I found an advert for an upcoming talk on Time Travel and Parallel Universes at the John Morris Memorial Centre by someone called Marcellus Go. I saw a youngster on the street wearing a David Icke T-shirt and to my astonishment, another wearing a David Icke T-shirt. I hadn’t realised that David Icke had such a following. Then, out of the blue, Ravi in the corner shop struck up a conversation on hidden portals. What were the chances of this? I had only gone into KMart for cigarettes.

NASA has admitted that Earth portals teleporting human beings from one place to another are a reality,’ he said, looking up from the book he was reading. ‘They’ve been studying them for a long time. You’ve heard about The Philadelphia Experiment, right?’

I told him I hadn’t. I was new to all this.

In 1943, the US Navy teleported the entire crew of the USS Eldridge into the future. 1983 to be precise.’

Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s quite something.’

Why, I wondered, was Ravi telling me this? It wasn’t as if I knew him well. I had only been into KMart a handful of times. I could see he wasn’t busy but still it seemed odd.

And more recently in the Montauk Project, the American Air Force created a. dimension portal, a time tunnel that enabled their researchers to travel to make contact with aliens. A flying saucer became stuck in the underground tunnels along with its alien crew. I’ve just been reading about it. Cool stuff, huh?’

Do you know, I’ve often had the feeling that time was not working properly,’ I said. ‘My account of when particular things happened is often at odds with other peoples’ accounts. I keep meaning to keep a diary to keep track because so many things just don’t seem right.’

Time’s not linear,’ Ravi said. ‘I can tell you that much. Einstein proved that years ago. You want to get yourself along to that talk by Marcellus Go, last week.’

You mean next week,’ I said.

Who can tell?’ he said. ‘Like I said, time’s not linear.’

There were perhaps thirty people at the John Morris Memorial Centre to hear Marcellus Go speak. A veritable circus of jugglers, clowns and space-cadets. In the front row were the pair of youngsters I had seen in the David Icke T-shirts. Marcellus held forth about time travel and aliens and how these matters had been consistently hushed up by successive regimes the world over. Secrets and lies, it seemed formed the basis of political power. Literally thousands of sightings of UFOs had been dismissed as hoaxes. There were aliens among us, Marcellus said, possibly even some in tonight’s audience by the look of it. He went on to explain that far from being taboo subjects, wormholes and portals were matters that should interest us all, particularly in this neck of the woods as there were a handful of potential sites for portals to other dimensions nearby. It had to do with magnetic fields and energy stores. If we bought his book, Quantum Revelation, we would discover the coordinates for these sites.

I lined up with the others to buy Marcellus’s book. I found myself standing next to one of the more attractive attendees, in fact, she was the only woman there. She was tall with long flowing dark hair and was wearing tie-die balloon pants and a floral shift. I caught a whiff of patchouli.

I’m Aura,’ she said.

I’m Charlie, I said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

I expect you’d like to go for a drink after all that,’ she said. ‘There’s a quiet little wine bar I know just around the corner.’

This seemed a little forward, but a drink seemed like a good idea and the prospect of attractive, intelligent female company for the evening seemed an even better one. I had been at a loose end since Linda had left. Linda and I had been together for three or four years but had slowly drifted apart. Linda was a creature of habit. She didn’t like anything new. She strongly disapproved of my fascination with David Icke. She started coming out with all kinds of nonsense about my naivete. How can you be taken in by him? she said. He’s a charlatan, she said. Nothing but conspiracy theories, she said. It was bad enough that she used to hide my weed but the final nail in the coffin came when she took all my David Icke books to Oxfam.

Yin Yang was tucked away down a back alley. Unless you had been told about it, you would not know it was there. Strange for a licenced premises not to advertise itself. Yin Yang too was an odd choice for the name of a wine bar, I remember thinking. Perhaps there was a connection between Taoism and wine that I did not know about.

How did you get into all this, Charlie?’ Aura asked. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. You scrub up quite well, but you don’t look like the new-age type.’

To keep her interested, I felt I had better open up. I told her how reading the David Icke books had taught me to question everything we had been told. How I came to realise the universe was made up of vibrational energy and consisted of an infinite number of dimensions sharing the same space. And that the world was run by lizard people from the fourth dimension that over time had interbred with humans. After all, once you had been alerted to this, it was obvious. The evidence was everywhere. The Royal Family, The Rothschilds, The Rockefellers along with most top politicians and world leaders past and present were the progeny of these liaisons.

Aura nodded her agreement. She was clearly familiar with the Babylonian Brotherhood or the Illuminati, as the elite were otherwise known.

Reading David Icke on parallel worlds got me around to thinking back to an experience I had years ago,’ I continued. ‘With what I now realise was in all probability a wormhole.’

Aura listened attentively while I explained where it was.

Cool!’ she said. ‘That sounds close by. It’s probably one of the local portal sites that he gives the co-ordinates for. Perhaps we might go in the morning. After breakfast.’

This sounded promising. Did this mean we were going to spend the night together?

I can’t remember much about the rest of the evening, but I suspect we may have consumed a bottle or six of wine and perhaps had more than the odd puff on a spliff. I woke in unfamiliar surroundings with a thumping head. Once I became used to the startling array of fabrics in the room, I realised there was perhaps a theme and they didn’t all clash. Even so, it was a riot of colour. Aura emerged from the shower and said something about it having been a good night, which helped to put my mind at rest. It seemed odd that according to my watch I had missed three days, but I didn’t dwell on it. If Aura seemed happy about the situation, this seemed to be sufficient.

On our drive to Cortina Drive, Aura talked about her trip out to Area 51 in the Nevada desert the previous year. There was a festival going on with people coming from all over the world. Some of those she met had drone footage of the captured spacecraft in the compound. Others, with first-hand experience of the base, had actually seen the aliens that were being held there but say they were not allowed to take photos. It was clear she said that this was not just a U.S. Air Force where they tested planes. There was so much that we just didn’t know.

It was a disappointment to find that the portal site from my youth had been built upon. It knocked the wind out of our sails. At the far end of Cortina Drive, we found ourselves facing an odd-looking industrial building with rain-screen cladding and no windows. It seemed an odd structure to build in what was otherwise a traditional red-bricked residential area, the kind of thing you would have thought it would be difficult to get planning permission for. We walked around the perimeter but found nothing to indicate what the building might be used for. We were not even able to detect an entrance.

Try as we might, we could not find out who the strange building belonged to. Or what they did in there. We even staked it out one morning but no-one arrived and no-one left. There appeared to be no record of the building anywhere. It didn’t even appear on Google maps. It was a real puzzler. It was as if it didn’t exist.

But, there are other potential portal sites mentioned in Marcellus Go’s book. Some of these are within easy travelling distance, there and back in a day. Also, I see that David Icke has a new book on the way, which is likely to have heaps of new ideas for us to investigate. But perhaps some of these things can wait awhile. Now that Aura and I have moved in together, there seems to be less of a sense of urgency. We might spend some time exploring inner space instead and see where this takes us.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Sven of Halmstad

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Sven of Halmstad by Chris Green

Church attendance had been dropping for years. In the age of science and discovery, it seemed no one was able to swallow the fantastic tales of strife and salvation in the middle east as the basis for their belief. Stories like this might be OK for a fantasy novel, but not as the central creed for a major religion. Miracles about rising from the dead and walking on water did not fit well into rational twenty-first-century thinking. As the result of several emergency meetings of the General Synod of the Anglican Church, it was agreed that the Bible itself needed a refresh. As it was a major doctrinal issue, there was resistance within the group, but the decision was eventually made to appoint someone to rewrite the Holy book.

Tom Golfer had little published work but decided to apply for the post anyway. He was astonished when he was selected for interview. He had expected the shortlist to be made up of serious doctrinal scholars. At the interview, in front of a panel of priests in colourful clerical clothing, he put forward some radical, even frivolous ideas. Much to his surprise radical thinking seemed to be what many of the Synod were looking for. Many of the stories in the great book were tired and redundant, they told him. It needed a new approach if people were to be drawn back into the flock. Tom pointed out that this in itself was a tired metaphor. Apart from a faction led by The Bishop of Bridgewater and The Bishop of Brighton and Hove, two notorious reactionaries, the Synod agreed that metaphors were one of the Bible’s major drawbacks. Interpretations of some of the big stories in the book had been a problem over the years. The story needed a more realist approach.

Tom was completely overwhelmed when he was appointed. Just think, his girlfriend Natalie said, when he told her the news in the massage parlour that night, The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer. Modest as he was, Tom tried to play this down.

It’s only the Church of England’s version,’ he said. ‘I can’t see the Catholics going for it. It was only recently they decided to drop the Latin version. And it will be a definite no-no to the Orthodox Church.’

But, it’s a start,’ said Natalie. ‘They might get you on one or two of the hymns as well.’

Perhaps I could drop in Stairway to Heaven,’ said Tom.

Or Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ said Natalie, continuing with her deep tissue massage.

One step at a time, I think,’ said Tom, turning over to give her access to some bits she had missed. ‘I’ve got to rewrite the Bible first. It’s quite a big book, you know.’

Then you should make it smaller,’ said Natalie.

You know what? I think I will,’ said Tom.

Tom set about the task with gusto. He jettisoned the Old Testament completely. All thirty-nine books were anachronistic. Darwin had all but seen off the Creation myth. It was now hanging by a thread, believed only by a handful of desperate die-hards. The books from Exodus onwards were at best an unreliable chronicle of a small part of the world. Even the more engaging stories of Moses, Jonah and Job had no relevance to people with no interest in Jewish history. The interminable scuffles in the Middle East in the present day were putting more people off the faith by the minute. No one wanted to read any more stories about the troubled region than the ones that they were fed daily on the news.

The idea behind the new Bible would be to show a good person living a good life and passing on wisdom of how people could get along with one another and share. There would be no place for war and suffering in the narrative, so Tom decided to move the action to Scandinavia, a relatively peaceful part of the world. He replaced Jesus of Nazareth with Sven of Halmstad. A majority of the Synod had agreed with him that the virgin birth was a big stumbling block to credence of the New Testament. So, Sven of Halmstad was, in the words of the hymn, begotten not created. Tom, however, allowed God no part in his begetting. Sven’s parents were Axel and Alva Jorgenson. Both of them were lumberjacks. Sven, like Jesus, was a carpenter. He made log cabins and stylish furniture for the poor at very reasonable prices. Sometimes, if a particular family was in extreme need, he would build them a home and furnish it for nothing. In his spare time, he helped out at a hospital, one of the very first hospitals in fact. He also ran a small rescue centre for animals.

Sven had an outgoing personality and got along well with everyone he met. He had a natural talent for communication and spent hours giving speeches in the town square in Halmstad. He rallied against the iniquities of the political system of the time. He spoke against the idea of fighting and about the benefits of helping others. He talked about respect for all living things and the importance of being in harmony with mother earth.

Where there is love there is life,’ he was fond of saying.

And ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of understanding.’

His maxims and aphorisms were easy for people to understand. They were not hidden behind metaphor. Word about the wisdom of the great man spread rapidly. His speeches drew hundreds of people, all anxious to follow in his footsteps. They came from as far away as Gothenburg and Malmö to listen. One time, a group of merchants came by boat from Copenhagen and inspired by Sven’s speeches vowed to reduce their prices and give all of their profits to worthy causes.

For each of our actions there are consequences,’ Sven would say to his audience. ‘You cannot plunder your natural resources. If you cut down a tree to build your house, then you should plant another in its place.’

And, ‘Children are a delight, but you should only have as many children as you are able to look after.’

His plain speaking won people over.

There was a difference of opinion about whether Sven should have a bloodline. Should he be a one-off messiah selflessly eschewing personal relationships for the greater good? Or, in this day and age, would painting him as a loner with no family make him come across as being a bit weird? Tom reasoned that even though he would not be the Son Of God as Jesus had been, the strength of his message alone would be enough to set him up as the saviour. He would be the perfect role model. He would bring about a caring peaceful society. After a few exchanges with the Synod, Tom took the bold step of allowing Sven to be married and have children. His wife Frida would stay in the background quietly doing good works in the community. His children, Björn and Benny would go on to form a musical ensemble writing inspirational madrigals.

To be credible, the new Bible story had to give the impression that it was written long ago. Recently rediscovered perhaps by an eminent Canterbury historian. Tom also needed to create a history of the book to put in the introduction and explain how it had been superseded by the King James Bible. He made it clear that although it did not happen overnight, Sven’s philosophy was established as the preferred viewpoint of the time. People became considerate and kind. They loved their neighbours and did unto others as they would be done by. Whenever there was a hint of trouble or dissent, Sven and his righteous followers managed to overcome it without bloodshed. Within Sven of Halmstad’s lifetime (he lived to be 104) a consensus was thus achieved all over Scandinavia. The word spread over centuries until ruthless reformists replaced it with dissident Christianity in the latter middle ages.

Despite having to accommodate Sven’s longevity, Tom stuck to the plan that the new Bible needed to be shorter than the old one. It had to take account of the reduced attention span of the Internet generation. More people would be likely to read a slim volume than a weighty tome.

If you drop it on your foot, it should not leave a bruise,’ he would joke to the Synod when he reported back to them.

Apart from the Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove who were trenchant in their views on unwieldy Bibles, the voting members agreed with Tom’s line of reasoning. Some altar Bibles held the potential to be especially damaging to the metatarsals should there be an accident following an indiscretion with the communion wine, they told him. They wanted a handy pocket version that you could pull out when travelling on the tube and an eBible that you could read on your smartphone. Tom explained that his new Bible would also be the right length for a forty-seven-minute dramatisation for broadcast on commercial television. The old Bible, Tom had calculated would take twenty-six days, without the adverts. The Creation alone would take six days to broadcast, or seven days with adverts. The costs for the CGI for a production like this would be colossal. Tom didn’t need to convince the Synod on this. They were already sold on the idea. The old Bible was out the window.

We need to be able to stop people from channel hopping during the adverts,’ he told the Bishops.

The Bishop of Milton Keynes, one of the more commercially minded of the Anglican clergy felt they would be able to fill the other thirteen minutes with adverts about the new Sven musical on the London stage and a range of Sven merchandise. ‘Just keep the theme going,’ he said. ‘Who do think we should get to play Sven in the movie?’

Tom put the final touches to the new Bible and submitted the draft to the General Synod. It came in at around 30,000 words, slightly shorter longer than Charlie and The Chocolate Factory but shorter than The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. The King James Bible is nearly 800,000 words, much more difficult to slip into the back pocket of your Levi’s. In a last minute display of caution, the Bishops told Tom that they would need a little time to proofread it before publication and think about cover illustrations and the like. Although they were extremely grateful for the tireless work he had done, they confided that he was unlikely to get a byline. The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer might be a step too far. After all, this was a divine work. Tom wondered if the tide of opinion might be turning. He had heard rumours that Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove might be winning support for their conservative stance. All along, they had branded his text a work of fiction. He had responded by saying that there was nothing wrong with that, as the old one had been a work of fiction. He wondered whether this flippant comment, from a layman, might have come across as arrogant and sacrilegious. Perhaps he should not have added, ‘a mix of horror, science fiction and the paranormal.’ He could see the hallowed faces drop even as he said it. Were one of two of the moderates now having doubts about publishing a new Bible written by someone from outside of the Church?

Tom didn’t dwell on the thought too much. Thanks to a generous advance, he was able to take an extended break, and Natalie was able to give up work at the massage parlour. He is still awaiting word on the publication of the Tom Golfer Bible. Keep an eye out for news about this and other Sven of Halmstad merchandising and spinoffs, but if you do not hear anything, it could well be that the two Bishops have gained sufficient support in the Synod to scupper the idea. In which case, for your spiritual solace, you may have to listen to tales of the supernatural from ancient Judea at a church near you for some time to come.

Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Pulp Friction

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Pulp Friction by Chris Green

Nancy fancies Tafelspitz and I haven’t had Wiener Schnitzel for a long time, so we are going to treat ourselves. Things have been a little fraught since our Schnauzer, Max had to be put to rest. Respiratory disease, very sad at the end. Max was more than just the family pet. He went everywhere with us. We feel we deserve a break from our grieving. A movie on Netflix and something nice to tickle our taste buds. Nancy and I are fond of Slovenian food and also like the occasional Serbian Pljeskavica but Austrian cuisine is our favourite. Perhaps we can follow the meal with our favourite dessert, Kaiserschmarrn.

We discover that Schachelwirt in the High Street, the only Austrian establishment in Darkwell no longer offers a delivery service. As the engine of the Fiat blew up a month ago, I get the Lambretta out of the shed, dust it off and make my way downtown. Nancy can’t see why I keep putting off getting a new car. She keeps mentioning a Skoda she has seen for sale in Harmonica Drive. I keep delaying going to see it. This has been a niggling source of friction between us. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to tell her that I recently made an injudicious investment in a Ponzi scheme and funds are low. This coming on top of diminishing returns in the pulp fiction publishing house that I am involved with. Nancy probably isn’t aware of this either. I hope my new collection of surreal stories sells well and the money soon starts coming in otherwise I may have to come clean.

On the way into town, slap bang in the middle of the Scott McKenzie roundabout, I come across a huge featureless black block. How can I have not noticed it before? It is colossal, probably eighty feet tall. As a writer with his head in the clouds, I realise I get distracted from time to time. But surely something of this magnitude ought to be unmissable. The block appears to be vibrating, giving off a loud, low-pitched hum. Inevitably, it brings to mind the monolith in the Stanley Kubrick film.

Seeing a mysterious black slab in an unexpected place however is one thing, but it is not going to come up with our Austrian meal. I can just imagine what Nancy will say if I go home and say, sorry I got distracted by a potential catalyst for evolution.

Have you seen that great big black slab at the roundabout?’ I ask Jürgen in Schachelwirt while I am waiting for the food. ‘Has it been there long?’

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

At first, I wonder if he means nine days or nine years before realising that he means no. Either it hasn’t been there long or that he hasn’t seen it. Despite the language barrier, I establish that both are the case. He hasn’t seen it and therefore doesn’t know how long it might have been there.

Returning with the takeaway, I am relieved to see that the roundabout is not teeming with angry monkeys throwing bones into the air. Or puzzled lunar scientists looking skyward. But from a writer’s point of view, their absence is, at the same time, disappointing. In 2001, those two scenes were pivotal. They helped move the narrative along. Despite the lack of Kubrickian connections, though, I am curious about what the mysterious slab might be. And more than a little unnerved by its sinister aspect. So, why is such an imposing artefact not attracting any attention? Motorists are negotiating the roundabout as if the monolith is a standard item of traffic furniture.

It is not often that one has the chance to see Doinzetti’s L’elisir d’amore in an English suburban setting. But here, outside the electricity sub-station on Magnolia Street, the opera is being performed, by a troupe of multiracial cross-dressers no less. They are called CDSO. A large billboard advertises them as WOKE, BAME, LGBT. I try to recall what the acronyms stand for. Acronyms seem to be taking over our lives. Is WOKE an acronym? Whatever! L’elisir d’amore has long been one of my favourites. I pull the scooter up alongside to take in the carnival of colour.

Conscious though that our Austrian delicacies in the carrier on the back of the bike will be getting cold, I can’t afford to hang around. Nancy does not share my fondness for Gaetano Donizetti. She doesn’t like Italian opera. She prefers Richard Strauss. She is always playing Der Rosenkavalier. She would be unlikely to accept a Donizetti-related excuse for my lateness. I expect she has the plates in the oven on the scalding setting in readiness for the feast. Along with the puzzle of the strange black block, I can investigate the background to this operatic oddity later. There is bound to be an explanation somewhere on the internet.

To get the food home swiftly, I ignore the tantalising glimpse of a flying saucer over the Toker’s End flats and the curious sight of Ironman talking to Shrek at the bus stop outside the Palace cinema that recently closed down. It’s a pity the old picture houses are going out of business, the new multi-screens don’t have half the atmosphere. Why is there a dancing brown bear outside outside BiggerBet? No time for this now, but where is all this strangeness coming from, I wonder as I turn into our street? Has The Game started up again on Channel 19?

Nancy, who knows about these things, tells me that, thankfully in her view, The Game has not started again, nor has The Lark on KTV. People do not go for the candid camera stuff anymore, she says. I do not pursue it. If I go into detail, she will only say I’m imagining things. Best to enjoy our fine food along with the new Austrian blockbuster Nancy has chosen and leave my investigation until the morning.

Google tells me the performance of L’elisir d’amore is one of a series of stunts designed to change attitudes to minorities and promote LBGTQ+ awareness (what is Q+) in the provinces, where attitudes have not kept pace with those in the big cities. It claims that nineteen-sixties levels of sexism and homophobia are still present in parochial towns like Darkwell. It says bigotry is rife here and derogatory terms like shirt-lifters and rug-munchers are still used freely. Why single out Darkwell? The town appears quite liberal. Gaz and Sebastian seem to have an active social life. They often tell us about the wild parties they’ve been to, and I believe we even have a Rainbow Festival Weekend in Darkwell these days.

The dancing brown bear is part of a bizarre new advertising campaign, Barney the Bear Bets at BiggerBet. Be Like Barney the Bear. A betting bear! Smacks of desperation, that one. Is there perhaps a Creatives strike? On a local Facebook page, I find out that the flying saucer is simply someone’s expensive new drone. This model of drone has been mistaken for a UFO in many locations around the country, it says. Once you take the trouble to look beyond conspiracy theories, you find there is often a simple explanation to many of life’s mysteries. This is not to suggest that conspiracy theories are a bad thing. For the writer of fiction, they can be a useful device. I’ve often resorted to them to add a little colour to a story. Conspiracy theories were central to Twinned with Area 51, Grassy Knoll and Black Fiat Uno. And where would my Phillip C. Dark series of stories have been without them?

A search for black slab comes back with nothing of particular interest but monolith is more successful. Using Kubrick as a starting point, it makes suggestions about the possible purpose of a pulsating black block. A power source perhaps, or a transmitter of some sort. Nothing though about why there is such an artefact at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. This is going to require another trip into town.

The trip has to wait until the afternoon. Nancy has an early appointment at Curl Up and Dye, which is in the opposite direction. I drop her off and wander along to The Dream Store in Serendipity Street. The Dream Store is like a library for ideas to help artists, writers, Alice in Wonderland aficionados and random fantasists out when they are struggling for inspiration. A postmodern repository for the unconventional, a kind of leftfield Google. You find all kinds of crazy stuff here. It is run by the guy that put together The Kaleidoscope Repair Manual whose name escapes me. I head for the Random Plot Generator section.

To my puzzlement and alarm, the Random Plot Generator section has been replaced by a giant mural of John Travolta in his Pulp Fiction suit dancing with a classical figure, a moving statue. Pulp Friction, it says. I’m not well versed in Classics so I’m not sure who the Greco-Roman figure is supposed to be. The dolphin behind the desk has no information. Why is there a dolphin behind the desk? No simple explanation is forthcoming. Logic seems to have temporarily gone AWOL.

Back on the street, I realise I may have been mistaken. It cannot have been a dolphin at the desk. This is a step too far. A dolphin needs water. No amount of artistic licence can work around this idea. But the giant mural of John Travolta dancing with the classical figure has potential. There is plenty of scope to slip it somewhere into a plotline. Perhaps even into the short story I’m presently writing. I file the idea away for later.

You often hear it said that you have to separate fact from fiction, but it is not that simple. Science recognises that everyone sees things differently, selecting some stimuli while ignoring others. Cultural background, preconceived notions and psychological state all play their part. Painters and writers are, of course, prone to cognitive exploration. Seeing things in a different way is central to the art of creativity. Homing in on things that others don’t see is their bread and butter. But there must be limits to how removed from everyday reality they are. Even though reality is a slippery customer, there has to be common ground, things that cannot be open to conjecture. Their existence is absolute, indisputable, The black slab on the Scott McKenzie roundabout is such a bold image that it surely cannot be merely a figment of my overactive imagination.

I meet Nancy from Curl Up and Die. The Viennese Bob style suits her much better. I always felt her Romy Schneider cut was a little out of date. I tell her she looks good. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about women, it is that complements are a good idea after a hairdresser’s appointment. Failing to say the right thing usually has dire consequences.

I suppose we’re going off to see your pulsating black slab now,’ Nancy says, not hiding her disapproval. Or that she has not taken well to wearing the helmet on the back of the Lambretta.

If that’s OK,’ I say. ‘It’s pretty dramatic.’

Perhaps afterwards we could have lunch at that new Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum,’ she says. ‘Rachel has been telling me they do a divine Idrijski Žlikrofi.’

Halfway along Tambourine Way leading to the Scott McKenzie roundabout, diversion signs are in place. The road ahead is completely blocked off. Highway maintenance vehicles of all shapes and sizes line the road. An army of highway workers slowly goes about its business, whatever this might be. Most of them seem to be standing around waiting for instructions. I pull up alongside a swarthy passer-by in a chunky army-style jacket. He is weighed down by a battery of cameras and binoculars. He looks as if he is on a serious mission.

It wasn’t like this yesterday,’ I say, pointing to the roadworks. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s been like it for weeks, guv,’ he says.

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

The Scott McKenzie roundabout?’ he says. ‘Where have you been? They replaced that with a junction and traffic lights a year or two ago. After the big pile up. Don’t you remember?’

The monolith. That great big black slab I saw yesterday. What’s happened to that?’ I say.

I don’t know what medication you’re on, mate,’ he says. ‘But I’ve got to get on. I’m hoping to come across Captain America. Or Willy Wonka. I don’t suppose you’ve seen them. Apparently, they are in the area. Along with Darth Vader and The Terminator, what’s his name? The Austrian one.

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

Yes, Arnie. That’s him,’ Chunky Jacket says. ‘A lookalike obviously.’

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

I gather you guys aren’t aware that MovieMax is offering a chance to win a holiday in Hollywood,’ he says. ‘You have to get photos of two of these movie characters out and about. It’s a promotion for MovieMax cinemas. They are opening a new one in Darkwell. Anyway, once you’ve got the photos, all you have to do is answer a simple movie-related question.’

Well, I saw Ironman and Shrek yesterday,’ I say. ‘At the bus stop outside the old Palace cinema, as it happens. There’s irony. You might want to take a look around that part of town.’

I know where you mean,’ he says. ‘I’d better get on to it.’

What’s the question, by the way?’ I say. The idle thought passes through my mind that the question might be something to do with the monolith in 2001. This turns out not to be the case.

They are asking, what do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’ he says.

H’mmm. That’s a line from Pulp Fiction, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘OK. Refresh my memory. What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’

They call it Royale with Cheese,’ he says in a passable John Travolta accent. ‘They wouldn’t know what the fuck a quarter pounder is. They’ve got the metric system there.’

Of course,’ I say. ‘I remember it well now. But before you go, tell me! How would I have got to Schachelwirt in the High Street yesterday evening?’

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

There is no Austrian restaurant and takeaway in the High Street.’

What about the new Slovenian bistro?’ Nancy asks. ‘It’s by the Raincoat Museum.’

That’s easy,’ he says. ‘You just go back along Tambourine Way the way you came and turn right. Oh, look! There’s Harry Potter.’

He’s looking this way,’ I say. ‘He’s waving his wan……….

I fancy Tafelspitz,’ Nancy says. ‘I wish there was an Austrian restaurant in Darkwell.’

Well, there isn’t,’ I say. ‘Never has been. Never will be.’

Shall we go to Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum then?’ she says.

I really ought to finish this story first,’ I say. ‘Perhaps we could go afterwards.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

 

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

Uncle Chet is planning to buy a house in the south-west of England. He wants to get out of the rat-race and retire to the country. I am in the area to look at what is available. Chet doesn’t like travelling these days. He says you lose the taste for it as you get older. Since my recent divorce, I find I relish every opportunity to get out and about. And because I have a wealth of experience in buying and selling property, Uncle Chet trusts my judgement to find him something suitable in this rural idyll. It is a bright June day and I am on my way to Bilk and Bilk Estate Agents in Little Dissing.

It’s started all over again,’ I hear someone shouting behind me. I turn around. A bearded man in a ragged raincoat is running down the road towards me. He is waving his arms madly and shouting over and over. ‘It’s happening again. It’s happening again.’

What is it that is happening? What is causing the old fellow such distress? By the looks of him, it could be he does not know what is happening either. He doesn’t look as if he knows the time of day. His hair is wild and he has that look of madness in his eyes. He runs on past me, still shouting excitedly. He does not give me so much a sideways glance. He is clearly on a mission.

I ask one or two of the people outside the Methodist Chapel if they know what is going on but they ignore me. So do the ones outside the Funeral Directors as the crazed old man runs back up the street. Perhaps you need to have lived in Little Dissing a few years before people feel the need to speak to you.

We get screwballs every day back home predicting the second coming, the end of the world or aliens landing. We get all sorts of unlikely claims. There was one the other day shouting out that fish were going to fall from the sky. But I live in a big metropolitan centre, this is a small community. You would not expect to find such people on the loose in a timeless, well-ordered English village like Little Dissing. There can’t be more than a few hundred living here and with its floral displays and its carefully manicured grass verges, it regularly features in the Good Village guide. It has literary connections too, John Betjeman was fond of the place. There’s a church with a twelfth-century granite font apparently. Agatha Christie used to have a house just down the road and T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to the village. Perhaps the crazy old man is considered part of the local colour out here in the sticks, someone who might entertain you by singing sea shanties to his sheep or babbling on about the rose garden and the door we never opened.

Inside Bilk and Bilk’s offices, the exquisitely named Lara Love takes down Uncle Chet’s details. I tell her Chet is looking for a period property with three or four bedrooms, a workshop and a bit of land to grow ornamental gourds. Particularly good soil in these parts for growing ornamental gourds, Lara says. We chat about the area in general and she fills me in with a little more of the history of the village. I learn that it was the centre of a Saxon royal estate and it is famous for its wassailing celebrations.

Lara maintains good eye contact, makes easy conversation and has a good sense of humour. And her attributes certainly do not end there.

By and by, I ask her about the old fellow.

Ah! You mean old Seth,’ she says. ‘Don’t mind him, Mr Bloke.’

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

The old fellow’s nutty as a fruitcake, Guy. He’s what you might call of a conspiracy theorist, alien abductions, unreported nuclear accidents, time travel, you name it. You’ve probably gathered everyone thinks he’s looney-tunes.’

I thought as much,’ I say. ‘His behaviour did not cause much of a stir. I guess locals are used to it. Out of curiosity, Lara, what is it he thinks is happening again?’

He’s referring to something that happened a long time ago,’ Lara says. ‘Probably twenty years or more. Certainly before my time but apparently, several people from Little Dissing disappeared one after another without trace. The mystery was never solved. No-one in the village today seems to be able to remember any details. I only know about it through an antique dealer who came in to buy a house. Bit of a local historian, this fellow was. Don’t worry! There is no reason to suspect extraterrestrials landed and took them away or that there was an unreported nuclear accident at the power plant along the coast but old Seth won’t let it go.’

Time travel then,’ I say.

I think there’s a bit of a time warp around here if that’s what you mean,’ Lara says. ‘I expect you notice it coming from the big city. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a report in the Gazette last week that someone from the village is missing,’ Lara says. ‘This is what has set him off again.’

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

Oh, you don’t want to get drawn into that,’ Lara says. ‘Let’s see if we can find a house for your Uncle Chet.’

We arrange two viewings, one at two o’clock and the other at three o’clock. I grab some lunch at The Gordon Bennett. In the hope of getting the lowdown on the area, I try to strike up conversations with the regulars but no-one seems forthcoming. None of them remember the disappearances. The landlord just wants to talk about the upcoming Nick Cave tour, although he does manage to slip in how much he enjoyed the recent Twin Peaks series. I’m beginning to get the impression that Little Dissing is protective about its secrets.

As I am leaving, I get a text from an unrecognised number. It says, ‘When catching a train, always check the timetables.’ Trains? Timetables? I have never been good at cryptic puzzles and more importantly, I have an appointment. It’s probably a wrong number anyway.

Lara drives me to the first house in her Audi. It is a four-bedroom period property with gardens, paddocks and outbuildings set in two acres. There are no near neighbours. Lara tells me it has been on the market for two years. She says she can see no obvious reason why this should be. Good houses are snapped up around here and at four hundred thousand, this one is competitively priced. If she were still with Greg, she says, they might consider buying it. She fills me in on her recent breakup in a light-hearted kind of way. I’m not sure I’m getting the whole story. The failure of her marriage can’t really be down to Greg taking selfies at the gym or his singing along to hits from the musicals in the car. From my own experience, where a separation is concerned it’s usually six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to take some of the blame for Eve and I splitting up.

I have to admit though I am not especially upset that Lara is not still with Greg. I am quite smitten. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair and a winning smile. She seems more flirty than most of the estate agents I’ve come across. During the drive, she keeps flicking her hair back and gives me darting glances. She appears to deliberately be letting her skirt creep up her leg. I’m not sure how the conversation arrives at nightwear but evidently, she wears none. A shame really that it is not a longer drive. All too soon, we arrive at the competitively-priced property and it’s back to business.

When you are looking around a house, you can detect almost straight away when something seems wrong. While you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a tingling sensation on your skin. The temperature might appear to drop by a few degrees or you might hear an unexplainable high-pitched background sound. Whatever it is that is wrong here, I know as soon as I step through the Georgian solid oak door into the panelled hallway, impressive though this is, that this house is a no-no. It’s not the layout. It’s not the décor. It’s nothing tangible. It’s not that it’s damp. It’s not that it’s dark. It’s not that it’s haunted. But, something makes me instantly feel uneasy about being there. An unexplainable malevolence lurking in the very fabric of the place. Something untimely has happened here. This is why no-one has put in an offer. Why hasn’t Lara been able to sense it? I guess it’s because she wants to sell the house to get her commission. So, it’s not really in her interests to point out any shortcomings. But still!

Was Lara making up the story about her wanting to buy it? Using her apparent interest in the property as a selling point? Perhaps, but I decide not to make a big thing out of it. How could I get mad at someone who looks so captivating? Instead, I quietly suggest we move on to the next house. This, she tells me is two miles away. She is sure I will like it. The views, she says, are awe-inspiring. You can see all the way across the valley and along the estuary. She says we ought to be able to get it for a little under the half a million asking price. Perhaps even four seven five.

As we make our way through the back lanes, the news comes on Sticks Radio that someone else has gone missing. Jarvis Heckler, a businessman in his forties from the tiny hamlet of Lympton Stoney. Mysterious circumstances, the newsreader says, giving no clue as to what these might be.

Lympton Stoney! Isn’t that near where we are going,’ I ask?

It IS where we are going,’ Lara says, noticeably traumatised.

I see from the particulars I am holding she is right. The house we are going to look at is in the heart of the beautiful village of Lympton Stoney.

We are greeted by a legion of police vehicles. An officer in military fatigues pulls us over, ask us to step out of the car and begins to interrogate us. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where have we come from? What business do we have in the village? When did we set out? He is not satisfied with our story that we are here to view a house. Paramilitary uniform aside, he is of the old school of policing. Guilty until proved otherwise. We are here so we must in some way be involved with Jarvis Heckler’s disappearance. He orders his men to search Lara’s Audi. Does he expect to find a body in the boot? One of his officers gets me to empty my pockets. He takes more than a passing interest in my iPhone. Hasn’t he seen one like this before? He quizzes me about the recent text message. He is far from happy with my explanation or lack of. None of them seem prepared to answer our questions so we are no wiser as to exactly what might or might not have taken place. All we know is what we heard on the news report. Presumably, Jarvis Heckler has not just gone off on a business jolly to the continent or stepped out for a lunchtime pint at The Time Gentlemen Please with his hedge fund mates.

They finally give us the all clear to get on with our viewing but my heart is no longer in it. Lara can sense my disappointment with our progress. She reassures me that Bilk and Bilk have plenty of other properties in the area. She asks me if I am planning to stick around. If I am and I have nothing lined up for the evening, she wonders if we could have dinner at a nice little place she knows in Bishops Tump. This is an offer I can’t refuse.

If you come back to the office, I can lock up and we can go in convoy to my place and take it from there,’ Lara says. ‘We can have a glass of wine then before we set off for the evening.’

While Lara is taking a shower, I open up Google on my laptop to do some research into the events in Little Dissing twenty years ago, the events that Lara says no-one in the village can remember. I find a report from the Daily Lark from July 1996 with the headline, Little Dissing – Twinned with Area 51? The Lark is at best a dubious source, recognised these days as a trailblazer in fake news. So I take it with a pinch of salt. But it suggests the mystery surrounding the village was something people would have been talking about back then. I come across various photos of unusual cloud formations and strange spiral patterns in the heavens allegedly taken near the village. Vortexes like you might find in a tornado. But these are just pictures and easy enough to fake. There are one or two mentions of Warminster, the favourite location for UFO sightings. Same old, really. Then, I find a report from the Western Post which links the dates of the disappearances (a dozen in all) with the sudden closure of a classified establishment at Ramsden Hole in 1996. Why is it this escaped attention at the time? I see that Ramsden Hole is less than twenty miles from Little Dissing. I entertain the possibility the base did not in fact close but merely became more secret.

After half an hour, I can’t help but notice Lara has not returned from freshening up. This is even longer even than Eve used to spend in the bathroom. Might she be waiting for me in bed? Did I miss something in our conversation? Something perhaps about my joining her after her shower? I can’t imagine that I would have missed something as important as this but, if it is the case, the research can wait.

Ready or not,’ I call upstairs. There is no reply.

The bathroom does not look as if it has even been used. I look around each of the bedrooms. There is no sign of Lara. And she is not downstairs where I have come from. She cannot possibly have slipped out without me noticing. Could she? I just don’t know anymore. Boundaries have been crossed here. I call out her name over and over. Clutching at straws, I look in the wardrobe and the cupboards in case she is playing some kind of game. Not likely that she would be, but still. And, of course, she isn’t. She has vanished without trace. I try the mobile number she gave me but there is no reply. I look out the window. Her car is no longer there. And ……. It’s snowing.

Panicked, I go back to my laptop. It is now displaying today’s weather forecast. January 18th. What the …….? Is it past, I wonder, or is it future.’

Suddenly, a man dressed in a bright coloured hoodie and training pants carrying a sports bag appears through the front door, a living advert for flashy leisurewear. He is whistling The Winner Takes It All.

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

Who am I?’ he repeats. ‘Greg! That’s who I am! I live here, pal. ………. Where’s that slut of a wife?’

You mean Lara?’

Yes, Lara. Don’t think that you are the first, buddy.’

You don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I think Lara has disappeared.’

Just get the hell out of here,’ Greg screams. ‘Before I ……’

He looks as if he means business. I grab my laptop and make a hasty exit.

I think I’ll persuade Uncle Chet to look for houses in a different part of the country. At his time of life, he needs a little more temporal certainty.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

DNA

dna2

DNA by Chris Green

Your blood pressure is a little on the high side this morning, Max,’ says Dee. ‘You have remembered to take your beta-blockers, haven’t you?’

Yes, Dee,’ I say. ‘I took them twenty minutes ago, and I even washed them down with the blueberry biojuice you recommended. I should be OK now, don’t you think?’

I couldn’t help but notice that you need to shop for some more biojuice. I suggest apricot this time. Shall I order some for you?’

OK, Dee,’ I say. ‘Whatever you say.’

I don’t remember how the device came to be called Dee. Perhaps it was something I inadvertently keyed in when I was setting it up. You do have to be careful with these things but as I recall I was in a hurry to get the device operational. I am now used to Dee being Dee. Dee chatters away about this and that all day long. While this can be irritating at times, I have not yet found a way to turn her off. Perhaps there is no way to turn her off. I can’t even set quiet time as you can on android phones. No change there really. My ex-wife, Heather used to make most of the conjugal decisions and I couldn’t turn her off or set quiet time.

Unlike Heather though, as well as being in control, Dee likes to feel that she is also being helpful. She reminds me constantly of my heart rate and my blood sugar levels, in the middle of the night sometimes. She monitors my liquid intake and calculates when I am likely to need the toilet. She lets me know about twenty minutes before I need to go. If I am out and about, she will tell me where the nearest convenience is or where to go for a healthy fruit smoothie. As I am wheat intolerant she lets me know where the best place is to go for gluten-free snacks. She always seems to know what I would like to eat and makes suggestions as to where I can get it. She seems to have researched every establishment in the country.

It doesn’t end there. Since I let Dee scan my DNA she has been coming out with intuitive guesses as to what I might like including things that I never suspected, and all this based on by gene expression profile. I could never imagine for instance that I would be so fond of cruciferous vegetables. I had always made a point of avoiding cauliflower and sprouts, but now I love them. Before Dee took over I didn’t know that I liked Guinness, but now I can’t stop drinking it. I was surprised to discover that celiacs could drink it, but apparently, it comes highly recommended. Dee does occasionally suggest that I might now be a little too fond of the black nectar. She mentions things like yin-yang balance and nutritional equilibrium.

Personality traits too can be governed by DNA, including things we look upon as habits, Dee says and these do not have to be handed down directly. These can be attributed to jumping genes. She says that I get my impatience from my great grandfather, my nervous disposition from my grandfather, and it appears that my chronic fabulation may come from Great Uncle Angus. By all accounts, he came out with the most outrageous apocryphal tales. Dee has also produced a table of my ancestry and while this is something of a mish-mash, the strongest connections are with Scotland, Glasgow in fact. I have never been. She has encouraged me to go and take a look.

I can see you are in the mood for some Captain Beefheart now,’ Dee says. ‘I’ll play Strictly Personal.’

How can Dee possibly know that I’ve had an earworm of one of the tunes from the album? I haven’t any Captain Beefheart saved in MyTunes. And it’s not what most people would think of as catchy. I don’t think I’ve ever done an internet search for Captain Beefheart. Strictly Personal is nearly fifty years old and I can’t even remember what the track is called. Something about a harp, as in harmonica. Boyo used to play it back in the day. He would dance around the room at Astral Parlour as he played it. I wonder what happened to Boyo.

Boyo is living with a tribe of hippies in the Nevada desert. They live on a diet of prickly pear and sandworms,’ says Dee.

Prickly pear and sandworms?’ I say. ‘Can you live on that?’

The tribe have a vehicle and occasionally one of them drives to Reno for provisions, but it’s not much of a life,’ says Dee. ‘Would you like to listen to the Cocteau Twins instead?’

Occasionally Dee gets it wrong. I’ve not heard of the Cocteau Twins. Lately, I have noticed that Dee’s judgement is slipping. Perhaps it is not surprising that Dee makes the odd mistake. It is estimated that if you could type sixty words per minute, eight hours a day, it would take approximately fifty years to type the human genome. Dee has mine in its entirety at her metaphorical fingertips. Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, she is fond of reminding me, is a molecule that contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce. These instructions are found inside every cell and are passed down from parents to children. DNA is made up of nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains a phosphate group, a sugar group and a nitrogen base. The four types of nitrogen bases are adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. The order of these bases is what determines DNA’s instructions, or genetic code, she says. I’m sure she is right but I am none the wiser. I find it difficult to retain technical information. In fact all information, technical or not seems transient. I guess this is something in my DNA.

I begin to recognise the tune. I’ve heard it a lot. What is it? It’s back there somewhere. …… Wait, I’ve got it now. It was on a compilation cassette that Rhian used to put on after we had made love in her little pied à terre. We used to drift off to its ethereal harmonics. This must have been twenty years ago. I just didn’t know who it was by. The Cocteau Twins. That is a good name. Why has Dee chosen it? It can’t have been more than a month ago that she told me Rhian had been abducted by aliens. She told me to keep an eye on the night-time activity, look out for saucers in the sky. Might there be a more sinister rationale behind Dee’s manipulation?

……………………………………………….

Graham’s number is very very big,’ says Dee.

Who is this Graham?’ I ask. ‘And what is Graham’s number?’

Graham’s number is too big for me to be able to tell you how big it is,’ she says.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps Dee is losing the plot. I only want to know how far it is to the Grahamston in Glasgow. Surely Scotland can’t be that far away that we need to be talking about this …… Graham’s number, but I humour Dee by showing an interest.

Is Graham’s number bigger than a googol?’ I say. A googol, I found out last week, from the quiz show, Eggheads is ten to the power of a hundred.

A googolplex is even larger than a googol. A googolplex is ten to the power of a googol. And Graham’s number is larger again. Graham’s number is so large that the observable universe is far too small to contain an ordinary digital representation of it.

All right, Einstein,’ I say. But, what about Grahamston. Grahamston in Glasgow, Scotland. How far is it from here and should I drive or should I take the train? The Rennie Mackintosh Hotel. I believe it is near the station.’

Give me a moment and I will let you know,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile don’t forget your exercises. I think you need to do thirty minutes today, as you spent yesterday in the pub drinking Guinness.’

……………………………………………….

I can remember once reading a story about time standing still. There are probably many science fiction stories like it. The whole premise of the shows like Doctor Who, for instance, is temporal disorder. Then, of course, there is the great film, Time Stands Still by the legendary director, Leif Velasquez. What courage and vision Leif had to freeze the action halfway through and leave the audience wondering what was going on right up until the credits an hour later.

But, apart from instances of the phenomenon known as stopped clock illusion, where perception slows in the face of impending disaster, I have never imagined accounts of time standing still to be anything but fiction. The first indication I get that something is amiss in the real world comes from an uncharacteristically prolonged silence. Where I live there is always some background noise, but there is none. Apart from anything else, it is unusual for Dee to be quiet for any length of time. It is her silence that first alerts me to the anomaly. I have become so used to Dee twittering away that her silence spooks me. I hadn’t realised how dependent I had become on her comforting chat throughout the day. I then notice that the clock on her display registers 11 minutes past 11 when it must by now be nearly 12 o’clock. She has said nothing since I started my exercises. There is a deadly silence all through the house, not so much as a hum from the fridge. I try to think of a rational explanation. Then I notice the kitchen clock too is stopped at 11 minutes past 11. And it’s not just the silence, there’s the inertia too. Outside the front window, the traffic is stationary. Nothing is moving, not even the man riding his bicycle. He is frozen in the moment. I try to think of an irrational explanation, any explanation will do. My heart races. I stumble around in a daze, as I wrestle with the incipient conundrum.

I make it out onto the patio. A Simon and Garfunkel silence pervades. There is no birdsong, no distant hum of traffic and no wind to rustle the leaves of the mature maples. Even the pile driver from the building site for the new car showroom has ceased. Nothing is stirring. The yin-yang flag on Quentin Fripp’s flagpole down the street is frozen in mid-flutter. To my horror, the black cat with the one eye that comes round sometimes to sniff at the bins is frozen in limbo halfway between the garden fence and the shed. I look up, hoping for some kind of contradiction to the unfolding nightmare. There isn’t. The steam escaping from the neighbour’s central heating vent is a static will o’the wisp. None of the clouds in the sky are moving. Birds are literally hanging in the air. The heavens too it seems are stuck in the moment. If further proof were needed I see in that in the distance over the tower block towards the western horizon a plane is suspended in mid-air.

I’m wondering now if perhaps I am dead and this is the afterlife. It takes me a while to realise that despite the widespread inertia, I am still able to move freely. I am the only thing not frozen in time. If I can move then I cannot be dead. Can I propel another object, I wonder, throw something? I pick up a stone and hurl it against the wall. It flies through the air normally. Might I be able to do the same with the cat? Well, not hurl it against the wall obviously, but rescue the poor animal from its sorry limbo.

……………………………………………….

Good morning, Mr Einstein.’ I say. ‘What can I do for you?’

I haven’t worked at Gleason and Cloud long, but I know the man’s name is Einstein because he came in last week to buy some unusual scientific apparatus.

I’d like a time machine, please.’ he says, this time.