The Early Worm Catches The Bird

wormbird2

The Early Worm Catches The Bird by Chris Green

You’re telling me you found it in the car park and you thought you’d just plug it into your workstation,’ says Frank Flint. ‘It’s a fucking data stick. What did you suppose it might be doing lying there in the car park of a high-security organisation like this?’

I had an idea that this was coming. Sir Frank Flint, MBE does not call you into his office for a chat about the weather.

You’ve heard of Stuxnet, right?’ he continues.

I haven’t,’ I tell him. Should I ask him if it is an internet service provider? Perhaps not.

The CIA or Israeli Intelligence left random memory sticks with logos in Iranian script printed on them outside their nuclear compound at Parachin. One of the operatives working on the Uranium Enrichment Programme there apparently expressed the same kind of curiosity that you have shown. He picked one of them up and plugged it in.’

I’m tempted to ask whose side we are supposed to be on at this point, but I don’t.

The Stuxnet worm that was on the data stick got to work on the programmable logic controller,’ he continues. ‘And destroyed a large chunk of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The rootkit the stick contained rendered it undetectable to Windows.’

I’m not sure whether it’s in my best interests to express admiration. Surprise or shock horror might be better.

So why do you think that our network might have suddenly crashed?’ he says.

Stuxnet?’ I ask.

No it is not fucking Stuxnet. If it were Stuxnet, we might be able to do something about it. We don’t know yet what it is, but Mr Kusnetsov is coming in later to help us find out. Tech support tell me with some degree of certainty that whatever it is originated on this stick.’

I know exactly what’s coming. Sir Frank just wants to humiliate me a little more first. In fact, were the positions reversed, I would probably do the same.

Summarily dismissed, I gather up a few belongings from my desk and make my way home. Over the next couple of hours, as I listen to the news on the car radio, similar glitches are reported at telecoms firms and at a government base. There are it seems a number of people losing their jobs because they were curious about flash drives they found in works canteens, car parks or railway carriages.

Maria may view it a little differently, but I am not bothered by the prospect of having time on my hands. I am not one of these career-minded people who are always looking for new openings, which is probably just as well as my CV will have been dealt a blow by my dismissal. I can use the time to brush up my saxophone playing while Maria is at work. She does not like me running through my Charlie Parker tutorial in the evenings. But for me, Bird is the greatest.

Maria is not overjoyed by the news of my dismissal but she says it will give me the chance to do the jobs around the house that I’ve been promising to do, like clear out the attic and mend the garden fence. In no time at all, she has written a list. I didn’t realise so many things were broken and nearly everything we have needs repainting. There are curtain rails to be fixed, light fittings that need replacing, paving slabs that need laying, the old harmonium needs to go to the tip and the dead cat needs burying. The conservatory too features quite heavily. It’s a wonder that it’s still standing. Perhaps Maria is over-reacting. I can always tell when she has the hump though because she slinks off to the art room and puts her Sparklehorse CD on. It calms her down, she says.

Next morning, after Maria has gone off to work, I bury the cat at the bottom of the garden. This is probably the most urgent task on the list. The rest can wait until later. Then, I watch the news while I assemble and polish my instrument. It is a Selmer Prelude alto, which while it is not a professional sax, does give a lovely rich sound. The celebrity newsreader who has just married the celebrity chef makes reference briefly to yesterday’s computer glitches but quickly moves back to their main story, the child abuse scandal that is rocking the political world. I turn it off and get started on the intro to Cool Blues. This is one of my favourite of Bird’s tunes and I am anxious to get the embouchure right.

After several attempts, I feel that I have got the feel of the first few bars, perhaps not with the panache of the master, but the tune is recognisable. I make myself a cup of tea. After lunch, I move some furniture around, line up some cans of paint in the spare room and hide the harmonium behind some dust sheets in the shed. I am then able to make some progress on the solo of Bird of Paradise before Maria gets home. Maria is pleased with my day’s work. After dinner, she lights the scented candles in the bedroom. I make a mental note to go on to the Agent Provocateur website.

The following day I manage to get the first wall of the spare room painted. There is no sense in hurrying these things. I then have time for a good run through of Night in Tunisia. It is quite a complex tune, one that is going to take a lot of practice. I’ve read that Bird used to practice up to fifteen hours a day, not on this one tune of course. I turn next to Lover Man. The slow tempo of this makes its fingering easier to master. It sounds good.

I would have liked to have lived in the 1950s, with the slower pace of life. Things must have been much simpler before digital technology took over our lives. There were no needy netbooks and tablets and no attention-seeking smartphones. People talked to each other, face to face. You probably even had proper friends and not just Facebook friends. You would not have had to press 1, 2, 3,4 and 5 on your keypads every time you made a phonecall and then be put be on hold listening to Orinocco Flow over and over again for twenty minutes before you were put through to the wrong department. Or be called day and night by robotic machines wanting to handle your mis-sold insurance claim.

Most of all, though, in the 1950s everyone would have listened to jazz. Swing, Bebop, Hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, there was a type to suit every mood. Even on the estate where I grew up, they would have been listening to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Stan Getz. You would have gone down to the Palais on a Saturday night and danced to a jazz band. You would have met your partner there. The music was special which is why it is so enduring.

I am just putting the instrument away when I hear Maria’s car pull up. I quickly open the paper at the jobs pages. Maria storms in. She appears to be a little flustered.

The roads are gridlocked,’ she says, throwing her heavy bag down. ‘And those traffic lights at the Longditch roundabout were completely crazy.’

They are always bad there,’ I say, giving her a hug. ‘Its a wonder there aren’t more accidents.’

They were going off and on like a strobe light,’ she says, pushing me away. ‘There was just this endless chorus of car horns and drivers getting out of their cars and shouting at other drivers. I was there for ten minutes, too frightened to move.’

Probably water has got into the works or something,’ I say.

She breezes through to the kitchen. There is a clatter of dishes and I hear the microwave go on.

You could be doing this,’ she calls through to me.

I’ll do dinner tomorrow,’ I say.

And, when I was in the hairdressers,’ she says, her voice raised above the rumble of the microwave. ‘Louise was saying that the bloody trains have stopped running, something to do with signalling failure.’

There’s always something, isn’t there?’ I say. ‘I expect they will sort it out.’

She huffs loudly and goes on upstairs to change. She puts her head around the door of the spare room. She doesn’t comment on my progress. I see little prospect of a scented candle after dinner tonight.

It is 10 am and I am in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird when the phone rings. At first, I leave it, but it carries on ringing. On the basis it might be important, I answer it, the saxophone still around my neck.

Hello. I’m Brice Cromer from the Gazette,’ says the voice. ‘Am I speaking to Brendan Rogue?’

Yes, you are,’ I say. Instantly I have reservations about acknowledging my identity, but what’s done is done. I swing the instrument behind my back.

And until two days ago you were working for the security organisation who don’t like to be named,’ he says. I imagine he thinks the description is humorous. The joke, however, is a little stale.

What is this about?’ I say in as challenging a manner as a mellow musician can muster.

It’s being reported that you are responsible for their little computer problem,’ Brice says.

He is referring to the data stick episode. How would he have got hold of the information and connected it back to me? It seems unlikely that any of my colleagues would have offered it voluntarily. They are a tight-lipped bunch and everyone as straight as a die. I can’t imagine how I got the job there in the first place with my record. They must have had a work experience student working in HR that day. I put the phone down. In case Brice calls again, I leave the receiver off.

I can’t concentrate on Bye Bye Blackbird any longer. I need a quiet place to think. I get the roller and brushes and resume painting the spare room. I seem to have a talent for digging myself into a hole. Ever since I was a boy I have landed myself in trouble by doing a succession of remarkably injudicious things while at the same time drawing attention to them. The expression hiding in the light comes to mind, not a great idea. Why did I get thrown out of school for smoking dope when none of my contemporaries did? How did I get into stealing cars before I was old enough to drive? Why did I always get arrested on protest marches? Did I even know what I was protesting about back then? Was it the need to be noticed? Perhaps I would never change. Perhaps I was born for trouble.

Before I know it, I have finished two more walls in blue planet. I am going to use Tibetan gold as an accent colour on the fourth wall, a combination I have seen on a design programme on television. I am planning now on finishing the room today. When Maria comes home she will be impressed by my achievement. After dinner, she might even light the scented candles again.

Maria arrives home unexpectedly at lunchtime. Is she checking on me, I wonder? Have I broken my word so many times that she feels she needs to monitor my progress? She clumps up the stairs. She has not even taken her boots off. Something is amiss.

Why are all those reporters outside?’ she demands.

W’what!’ I splutter. I had not imagined that this would happen so soon.

I go to the master bedroom to take a look. There are about a dozen of them on the driveway, big burly bastards with microphones and notebooks at the ready. There is also a TV camera crew, jostling for position. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with my musings to have heard the disturbance. But how could I have possibly missed them? Admittedly, getting the bell to work is one of the jobs on Maria’s list that I’ve not got round to yet, but, surely one of the hacks would have worked out that the bell wasn’t working and hammered on the door. Perhaps I was away with the fairies.

To my surprise, Maria agrees to go to the front door and keep the press busy while I dart out the back. She cannot know what I am up to. Can she? I grab my canvas messenger bag and make a run for it. Fortunately, my Jeep is parked in the back lane. I hadn’t planned it this way, but now time is probably short. I check my texts. ‘Guinness tastes better in the afternoon,’ says the one I am looking for. It is time to get started.

My next step is to find the locations where I am to deposit the rest of the flash drives. There are twenty-four in all to carry out the cyber attack, each bearing the deadly DuneWorm which regardless of platform will burrow into your system like an Alaskan mining drill. I have the map here showing the favoured targets. These I am told have been selected to cause maximum disruption. Others will be delivering the same message elsewhere round about now.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

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You Never Can Tell

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You Never Can Tell by Chris Green

Annie and I are sitting in a café called Lemon Jelli sipping peppermint tea. The space is laid out to look like a continental bar with comfortable seating and 1930s French travel posters on the wall. We have come to Newton Abbot for the market. Annie is shopping for shoes. The flimsy ones she bought last week have not lasted well.

How old do you think I am?’ says a swarthy stranger sitting on the table next to us. ‘Go on! Have a guess!’

We have not registered his presence up until now. We exchange glances. By the tone of the question, we assume that he is probably older than he thinks he looks. In truth, with his hair greased back like a fifties icon and his short-sleeved plaid checked shirt, he looks about seventy four.

Sixty?’ Annie says, diplomatically.

No,’ he says, smiling. ‘I’m seventy four. I don’t look it, do I?’

No, you don’t. You must live a healthy life,’ I say, turning away and hoping to end the conversation.

It transpires that he lives in Torquay, but he comes from Somerset, Taunton to be precise. Taunton is about sixty miles north of Torquay. He used to be married but is not anymore. He says he doesn’t want to talk about this. He has an eighteen year old daughter, but he doesn’t see her very often except on birthdays and Christmas. She lives in Somerset somewhere but he doesn’t specify where. He used to be an electrical engineer with a company that makes microwave ovens but he retired early at sixty four after his triple heart by-pass.

What’s Torquay like?’ Annie asks, before I can stop her. ‘We were thinking of going there one day while we’re down here.’

Torquay is great,’ he says. ‘I like living in Torquay. A lot of people say bad things about it, but really its very nice. I know there are lots of druggies, hanging around the streets, but you get that everywhere now, don’t you? I don’t take drugs. I never have, well, only prescription drugs for my heart condition. I’m on twelve different sorts. That’s why I don’t drive anymore. I nearly crashed the car and thought, sod this for a game of soldiers. So I sold the car. That was nine years ago. I’ve got my bus pass of course. I can get around with my bus pass. That’s how I got here today. On the bus. It’s a good service from Torquay to Newton Abbot. And I can get to Exeter and Teignmouth. I can even get back to Taunton, but I don’t like to do that often. You can’t live in the past, can you? You’ve got to move on.’

I start to realise the conversation is going to be a more of a monologue.

Torquay Man doesn’t like gambling either.

It’s another addiction, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You can bet on anything, these days, can’t you?’

Anything,’ I agree. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the Pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship…..’

My humour is lost on him. He is not listening. He begins to talk over me.

I still bet on horses,’ he says. ‘But I don’t stay in the bookies anymore, I put my bet on and then leave. If I stayed and the horse won, I would probably put the money on another horse and it would probably lose. Sometimes I come here to go to the races. I do like to see the horses running around the track and Newton Abbot is one of the best summer jumps courses.’

I didn’t know there was a racecourse,’ Annie says.

It’s just up the road. Are you staying around here?’

Teignmouth,’ I say, giving Annie a conspiratorial wink. We are actually staying in Dawlish, a few miles north of Teignmouth, but do not want Swarthy Stranger to get wind of this, just in case he finds out where we are and decides to call in.

Ah Teignmouth!’ he says. ‘I lived in Teignmouth for a while. In the 1980s. It was a nice place back then. Clean white beaches. Trips around the bay. But now it’s all street drinkers. In the bus shelters. On the prom. On the pier. Everywhere, they are. It’s all right to have a drink, but some people don’t know when to stop, do they? My Uncle Albert was one who liked a drink. I would say to him when he’d had a few, like, Albert, I’d say, I can’t understand a bloody word you’re saying. ……. I used to drink too, mind you, back in the day, when I came back from Aden. Saw some terrible things out there, I did. Make your hair curl. I was a Scammel driver in the Sappers, you know. You don’t hear them called Sappers anymore do you? You wouldn’t believe it now, would you? But all those years ago I was in the Royal Engineers.’

I don’t think it can be anything we say, because Annie and I aren’t been given the opportunity to say very much, but something seems to darken his narrative. A free-floating malice creeps into the monologue. What we took as the friendly banter of a lonely old man becomes a platform for his intolerance and bigotry. The idle youths that hang around the shopping centre ought to be rounded up and sent to boot camps in the Bristol Channel. Benefits scroungers should be put to work cleaning out the sewers, and immigrants should be turned back at Dover or shipped to concentration camps in the Channel. Prisoners should all be put on treadmills and the treadmills linked to the National Grid. It is if he has just read a year’s worth of Daily Mail headlines.

I am now hurrying to finish my peppermint tea and Annie is putting on a few of her scarves and cardigans. Torquay Man can see we are getting ready to leave.

Just one more story before you go,’ he says. ‘You’ll want to hear this one.’

Another time,’ I say, and with this we are out of the door and walking along Queen Street in the direction of the car.

What an awful man!’ I say to Annie. ‘You didn’t have to encourage him so much.’

I thought, at first, he just needed someone to talk to,’ Annie says. ‘It’s not easy being old and lonely with nothing to look forward to and time slipping away.’

But he didn’t even seem to have time for his family,’ I say. ‘Anyway, let’s get out of here.’

We are parked in the multi-storey car park, a few streets away. We normally avoid these, but when we arrived in Newton Abbot this morning we found ourselves corralled into it. We cannot get near it now. The streets on the approach to the car park are cordoned off. Ahead of us, there is a carnival of flashing blue lights, as police cars, fire engines and ambulances line the streets. People meander this way and that in confusion. No-one seems able to tell us what is going on. Rumours are circulating about a there being a bomb and some local residents have been evacuated.

The first I knew about it was these two men in flak jackets in my back yard,’ the lady in the unseasonable raincoat with the black and white cat on her shoulder says. ‘They said I had to leave right away. I asked them what was going on and all they could tell me was that they had their orders.’

East Street and Tudor Road are closed off, bloody pigs everywhere.’ the man in the orange boiler suit and the Jesus beard says.

They’re shutting down the market,’ the man with the Sticky Fingers t-shirt and the battery of nasal jewellery says. ‘Can you imagine. The market never shuts. This is Newton Abbot.’

We can’t get anywhere near the multi-storey,’ I say.

There’ll be a few hundred cars in there at a guess,’ the corpulent traffic warden with the limp says. ‘God help us if that goes up.’

Probably another suicide bomber, like the one in Plymouth last week,’ the thick-set man with the bull terrier says.

I didn’t hear an explosion,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

You don’t always hear them these days,’ Jesus Beard says. ‘They have silent bombs.’

A new task force in army fatigues arrives to move us back further.

Could you tell us what’s going on, please?’ I say.

What about my market stall?’ Sticky Fingers says. ‘I didn’t lock it up. I got thousands of pounds worth of rare albums there.’

I think I may have left the iron on,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

All comments are greeted with a taciturn silence from the surly militia. Methodically they kettle us like protesters at an anti-capitalist rally.

Get your hands off me,’ Jesus Beard yells.

He is forced into a doorway and handcuffed.

This provides the incentive for rest of us move back behind the barricades. These guys are serious about security.

You might imagine that emergency situations like would be tense, but in reality very little happens. Soon, because they can do nothing about it, people accept the situation and start drifting away. Dog Walking Man is probably miles away with his bull terrier and Sticky Fingers Man has probably found a welcoming pub, somewhere where he can tell his tales of the glory days with the blues band that never quite made it.

I expect Lemon Jelli is full up now,’ I say to Annie. ‘They’re probably all going there.’

Do you want to go back?’ Annie asks.

We take a look at each other and decide to give it a miss. We listen to the busker making his way through the Paul Simon songbook instead.

Shame about the shoes,’ I say.

‘We can get some in Exeter tomorrow,’ Annie says.

Eventually, without any explanation, we are given the all clear. It takes half an hour or so to get out of the car park and then we find ourselves in a formidable queue of traffic. Everybody is trying to get out of Newton Abbot. Annie is on her iPhone, trawling the news sites to find information about the incident.

It says here that explosives experts were called to two suspect packages found in the town centre,’ she reads from the Exeter Express and Echo website. ‘This prompted a large area to be evacuated. Both devices were detonated safely in controlled explosions. Police are looking for an elderly man with a swarthy complexion and slicked-back hair who was seen acting suspiciously near in the vicinity earlier today. There are reports of a man fitting this description at both of the crime scenes. More details will follow as the information comes in.’

You think it was him?’ Annie says.

It does sound like it, doesn’t it?’ I say.

Shouldn’t we let the police know?’

Let them know what? That we had a conversation with a seventy four year old man from Torquay. Besides, he’s not still going to be at Lemon Jelli now, is he,’ I say. ‘He’s long gone.’

Do you think that this was the one more story that he was going to tell us?’ Annie asks.

You mean like he might have wanted us to turn him in?’ I say. ‘I guess we’ll never know.’

Who would have thought?’ Annie says. ‘He’s not what you think of when you think of terrorists.’

It goes to show that you never can tell,’ I say. ‘Terrorists don’t all have big beards and unpronounceable names.’

He never did say his name, did he?’

But he was definitely clean shaven.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

nowyouseeitnowyoudont2019

Now You See It, Now You Don’t by Chris Green

The arbiters of taste are notoriously fickle. While The Moody Blues were cool in 1968, if you listened to their music a few years later, you would be considered a bit sad. But if anything their musical powers had grown. Their tunes became even better. Perhaps this was the problem. They became too musical. They no longer fitted in. As in other fields, fashions in music are fleeting. A case of now you see it, now you don’t.

I didn’t pick up on The Moody Blues again for years. In fact, it was the week before last. I came across a couple of their albums on CD in the CLIC Sargent charity shop. In Search Of The Lost Chord and On The Threshold Of A Dream. Not casual purchases, you would have thought. Perhaps the owner had died and their CD collection was part of a house clearance.

Mike Pinder is not a household name, but perhaps he ought to be. He was a pioneer, introducing the mellotron, the pre-runner of the keyboard synthesiser, to the musical world. Before he formed the Moody Blues, Mike worked as a tester for the company that invented the mellotron, so he knew the difficult instrument well. He subsequently introduced the instrument to The Beatles, a popular combo of the time, who used it to great effect on Strawberry Fields Forever and then on virtually every recording they made until their breakup. Despite the instrument’s ethereal sound being such an emblem for the times, The Moody Blues were the only band to regularly use it on stage.

But …… What I am doing back in ………. 1968? Somehow I’m back in 1968, listening to In Search Of The Lost Chord. …… I am used to the year being 20 something. ….. 2019, wasn’t it? Isn’t it? How can 1968 be happening now, as if it is present time? In sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch actuality. …… I haven’t seen Yvette for over forty years. She is exactly how I remember her. Mia Farrow hair, flared jeans and cheesecloth smock. What is Yvette doing back in 1968? How did we come to be here? ……… We are in a large murky room lit only by a single red light bulb suspended from the ceiling. There are something like twenty people crowded in here, sitting around on beanbags and cushions. Incense and patchouli compete with the acrid hash smoke, that hangs in the air like captured stratocumulus. Someone has just passed me a joint and I am smoking it. I do not know him, or is it her. In the haze, it is difficult to tell the gender beneath the crusty hair and the Afghan coat. House Of Four Doors is playing, with the volume on the Super Dansette record player turned up. As I look around, I think I recognise one or two of the others in the room, but I can’t put names to the faces. Things were like that back then. People came and went. We were eighteen. ……… In this scenario, we are still eighteen.

The expression, the Lost Chord refers to a song by Arthur Sullivan,’ Yvette says.

Who?’ I say, passing her the joint.

Arthur Sullivan. You know. From Gilbert and Sullivan.’

Ah,’ I say. I find it difficult to imagine that The Moody Blues would have listened a lot to Gilbert and Sullivan.

Sullivan wrote the music at the bedside of his brother Fred when he was dying. The words come from a verse by Victorian poet, Adelaide Procter,’ Yvette says. She was always the clever one. Straight ‘A’s for Yvette. I always struggled with my grades.

Ah,’ I say.

It is about a divine chord that she hears when playing the organ that she cannot find again and imagines she will only rediscover when she reaches Heaven.’

Now you see it, now you don’t,’ I say.

The song about Timothy Leary flying his astral plane is now playing. I want to remark that people don’t write songs about Timothy Leary and astral planes anymore, but the place I want to make this comment from is fading fast. The idea about what I should regard as now is retuning like a random radio scan.

Across the room, or perhaps it is from across the universe, it is difficult to focus in on scale, they are talking about a story by the writer Jorge Luis Borges called The Garden Of Forking Paths.

The story is about the construction of a labyrinth that folds back upon itself in infinite regression,’ an adenoidal voice says. ‘All possible futures happen simultaneously, man’

Man says that this can be explained by quantum mechanics, man.

Yeah, like Einstein said it, man,’ says someone else. ‘Or was it the other guy? Dirac. Paul Dirac.’

No-one seems to know, but the conversation rolls around like thunder in the hills.

I continue to have difficulty working out who is who. It does not help that everyone in the room, male or female seems to be called man. No, wait, one of them is called Buzz and another is called Doggo.

Doggo begins to talk about Schrödinger’s Cat. It is both dead and alive apparently. I lose the drift as other conversations begin to drift in and out, just as my consciousness is doing. Someone has turned the LP over. Voices In The Sky begins. The mellotron sounds like a symphony orchestra.

Am I really here?’ I ask Yvette.

She thinks this is a strange question. She puts her hand on my forehead as if feeling my temperature. She laughs and tells me I shouldn’t get so stoned. Perhaps Yvette is still living in this time as her present time. Perhaps she has not grown up yet. I cannot remember if we saw each other much after 1968, or even at all. Perhaps she has not left the room yet. …….. Perhaps I have not left ……. I want to be able to feel that I have lived long enough to understand reality. But now I’m not sure that I have lived long enough. What if I’m only eighteen? ……. I might be imagining the irregular shift patterns of the job at the kaleidoscope repair shop. I might be imagining those years of living with Fabula and the twins in the Stroud valleys. I might be imagining Dr Alkerdahji’s diagnosis. Or, all this might still be in the future. …… Or, what if everything is happening simultaneously as in man’s story? Perhaps John Lennon was right and nothing is real. Might all of our experiences be an illusion? The universe could be a mental construction, a great thought rather than a great machine. After all, if matter is energy condensed to a slow vibration, then we are all one consciousness experiencing itself subjectively. Life is a dream, and we’re the imagination of ourselves.

I remember something about quantum theory that I saw, or am one day going to see, on television, or perhaps I am watching it now. It is known as the double-slit experiment. In the experiment, when scientists watch a particle pass through two slits in a barrier, the particle behaves like a bullet and goes through one slit or the other. Yet if a person doesn’t watch the particle, it acts like a wave. This means it can go through both slits at the same time.

Now you see it, now you don’t.

Dr Alkerdahji tells me I am improving. It is a good sign, he says, that the hallucinations are becoming less frequent. So long as I keep taking the medication, I might even be able to return to work at the kaleidoscope repair shop in a week or two. I am in CLIC Sargent again, looking through the CDs. £1 for A Saucerful Of Secrets and £1 for Dark Side Of The Moon. Another house clearance probably. Fashions in music are fleeting but somehow Pink Floyd always managed to circumvent the arbiters of taste. Roger Waters is not a household name but ………

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Everyone is Dead

everyoneisdead2

Everyone is Dead by Chris Green

Everyone is Dead,’ the headline poster outside the newsagents reads. You can’t miss it. It is in big bold capitals.

What can it mean? How can everyone be dead? I am alive for a start. The person who put the notice up could not have been dead. They must have put it there as a joke. Fake news. In poor taste for sure. But against my better judgement, I’m intrigued. What if there is some substance to it? Even if it is an exaggeration.

I stop the car and get out to take a look. The newsagent’s door is wide open but there are no customers in the shop and no-one behind the counter. I call out but I get no reply. Concerned now, I explore the place, downstairs and upstairs. There is definitely no-one around. Not even looters taking advantage of the empty shop. Could the person who put the notice up be the killer? Some deranged egotist perhaps.

There are no copies of any newspaper around to explain the headline. Is it stating that everyone locally is dead? Or is it suggesting some disaster has occurred that has wiped out the entire human population? Or there has been an outbreak of a deadly disease for which there is no cure? Or perhaps the scaremongers were right about 5G. ……. This is ridiculous! Insane. Why am I going down this road? What am I thinking? I admit I don’t follow the news closely but I am not aware of any catastrophic event that might have been on the horizon. Although, it has been very hot the last few days. Much hotter than usual. Forty degrees yesterday. And it’s shaping up to be another scorcher today. Some folks cannot take the heat. People up and down the country have been moaning about it. Even so, no matter how hot it became, there would be survivors. I recall Andy Mann at work mentioned something a while back about an asteroid being on its way. A dirty great big one, he said. And it could hit us. But it can’t be that. I would have heard something or felt the impact as something like that crashed into the Earth. There would be far more evidence of devastation.

My heart is going nine to the dozen. I am shaking, sweating. …… I must get a grip. This is what Alex, my support-worker is forever telling me. But I don’t know what to think. I am racked with uncertainty.

I might be imagining it but it seemed the roads were deserted when I drove into town earlier. I can’t recall seeing another moving vehicle. Yet it seems even quieter now. There is a deathly silence. My phone isn’t working so I can’t call home and I can’t even call Alex for re-assurance. This is scary. It no longer seems like a misunderstanding or a joke. I need to go home and check that Daryl and Hannah aren’t dead. They were alive when I left earlier. But that was a few hours ago. Although, they weren’t exactly chatty. When I said see you later, there was no reply from either of them. There again, teenagers aren’t always communicative.

Some people are lying in the road outside the Co-op store. They are not moving. It is possible, even likely, they are dead. I am desperate to get home now so I don’t feel I can stop to check. Instead, I drive around them. There are dozens more strewn across the pavement at random intervals. Quite likely they are dead too. There are no signs of life. What cataclysmic event has taken place? Could this be the apocalypse? I am finding it difficult to breathe. I feel dizzy, out of control. I am beyond terrified. Is this it?

I hear some commotion up ahead. Several people dressed in green jumpsuits with the Extinction Rebellion logo jump out from a bus shelter. They hoist a banner that reads There is No Planet B. They have movie cameras and sound equipment. I also notice a small camera attached to the back seat of my car.

Cut!’ the tall one with the megaphone calls out. ‘I think that’s a wrap, guys.’

The people on the road and the pavement begin to get up.

Megaphone man comes over to the car. I wind the window down. To my surprise, he offers me a sheet of paper and a pen.

You did very well, buddy,’ he says. ‘Much better than the others. Now if you’ll just sign this, we will go ahead and use the footage in our film.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Black Hats

blackhats2

Black Hats by Chris Green

Promise and I are looking out onto a rocky outcrop in Es Calo de Sant Agustí in Formentera. We are sitting under a sun-bleached parasol outside a small café in the secluded bay. We are staying a hostal nearby. Beyond the pier, a handful of fishing boats rock gently in the shimmering sea. The afternoon sun is beating down on this modest paradise. We have not ventured far today. Most people here are having their siesta at this time of day. We had ours this morning, twice.

Formentera has been described as Ibiza’s shy little sister. For centuries it was adrift from the rest of the world, unknown and unvisited, a desert island made almost uninhabitable by pirate raids from the African coast. Accessible only by boat, it has submitted to tourism less than other Mediterranean islands. Pink Floyd pitched up here in the nineteen seventies but little else has happened since. Our sleepy resort seems especially tranquil. It is a small fishing village on the east of the island at the foot of La Mola mountain. It is built around a tiny pier where slipways carved into the rock slant to allow boats to be beached. It encourages indolence. You are already where you want to be. But we may take the bus to the hippy market at El Pilar de la Mola tomorrow. Promise thinks she might be able to buy some lapis lazuli earrings. It doesn’t look far on the map. I wonder if I might buy a hat. A Sevillano perhaps with a band or a black Cordobes.

We are the only people left at the café. Through the shutters of a window nearby, we can hear soft violin music playing. It has a melancholy air. Do violinists feel sad when they play like this or does playing sad music make them feel happy? The sun goes behind a cloud but only for a few seconds. It is the only cloud in the sky. As Promise and I sip our glasses of anis del toro, we watch a pair of feral cats scrapping over someone’s leftover escabeche, a few tables away. The singing waiter who seemed so convivial at lunchtime has not been around to clear the mess up. Might he be the source of the violin music?

I had a cat that liked listening to Vivaldi,’ I tell Promise. ‘His favourite was the Double Violin Concerto in D. RV511. He used to sit on the arm of the settee purring, his back arched confidently, his head tilted slightly upwards, a picture of contentment.’

Really?’ she smiles. ‘RV511, eh?’

I had to make several trips to the music library to build up my Vivaldi collection.’

You’re winding me up.’ she says.

She pushes my shoulder with both arms, nearly upending my blue metal chair.

No. I’m not. ……… You’re probably wondering what my cat was called. His name was Dave. He was black with a discrete patch of white under his chin. Forget T. S. Eliot! Dave is a proper name for a cat, don’t you think?’

Promise agrees Dave is a great name for a cat, much better than Skimbleshanks or Macavity, and definitely better than Shaun or Simon. Apparently, she knows people that have called their cats Shaun and Simon.

Another favourite of Dave’s was Largo from Winter from The Four Seasons. He would stretch out in front of the fire and roll over to have his tummy rubbed.’

A bit like you then. Except it’s not really your tummy you want rubbed, is it?’

Dave was not keen on jazz. If I played Charlie Mingus or Miles Davis, he slunk off to the kitchen. If I put on The Velvet Underground’s White Light White Heat, which I didn’t that often, he spat and snarled.’

I don’t blame him,’ said Promise. ‘I might spit and snarl if you put that on.’

When Tara was about sixteen, she played CDs by metal bands with names like Gutworm, and Fleshcrawl. Dave didn’t like that at all. He used to claw at the window trying to get out. Music clearly affected his mood. …… Dave disappeared last year. Just like that, one day there, the next gone. I was beside myself for weeks. He was like a member of the family.’

It seems remarkable I only met Promise a month ago. We hit it off straight away and despite both being married, began a clandestine liaison. We were perhaps less than discreet and it was not long before her husband, Craig began to suspect something was going on. He followed us on one of our assignations but rather than tackle us head-on, paid a visit to my wife, Chantelle. Without listening to whatever limp excuse I might try to come up with, Chantelle threw me out. The double-whammy was that Chantelle’s father, Trent Madison was my boss. He fired me. Craig meanwhile took to sulking in their spare room. Promise said she could not stand the atmosphere. He watched her every move and made sarcastic comments every time they met in the shared space. Out of spite he took the scissors to one of two of her dresses. She had to get away. We decided to escape to the quietest place we could find, take time out, and try to work out what we should do. After three days on Formentera, we still have no plan of action.

Formentera wasn’t our first choice but there were plenty of flights to Ibiza and Formentera was just a short boat ride away. Our cab from the airport, an old red Fiat that kept breaking down, took us through a patchwork of pine plantations and uncultivated scrub. The ten kilometres took over two hours. Javier kept us entertained with self-deprecating jokes and let us share his empanadas. As we approached the east of the island, we were treated to an array of brightly coloured shacks, with bohemians buzzing around on funky mopeds with didgeridoos on their back, evidence of Formentera’s hippy heritage.

It is late September. Despite the blistering heat, this is considered to be out of season. The locals tell us they expect the weather to break soon. We have not come across any Brits. The few tourists there seem to be German. The locals took us to be German at first, which is unusual. Mediterraneans have an uncanny knack of spotting where you are from before they hear you speak. I have dark skin, so it must be Promise’s blond hair and startlingly blue eyes that throws them. Although they might get Promise’s blond hair and startlingly black sunglasses most of the time. I am probably the only one who has seen her blue eyes lately.

I met Promise inauspiciously at ETB. She was having a new set of tyres fitted to her Tigra for its MOT, and my Toyota had just picked up a puncture. Our fascination for the AutoCar magazines on offer in the reception area was short-lived, which meant that my gaze met hers and vice versa and we struck up a conversation. The conversation began with camomile tea. Promise was disappointed that the drinks dispensing machine suppliers had overlooked its popularity. Camomile tea led on to a wider discussion of beverages and before we knew it we were at a wine bar sharing a bottle of red. The speed at which our relationship developed shocked us both. We were both touching forty, although I was touching it from the wrong side. For our first arranged date, we watched a Senegalese quintet play a lunchtime session at The Jazz Bass. See what they’ve done there, bass/base. I hadn’t until Promise pointed it out. Our second date was at Promise’s. Craig was away and I suppose that was where it really began. I stayed over and we took the next day off work and had lunch at Soups On and went to see a Spanish movie, El Hombre del Sombrero Negro, at the arts centre.

A German couple in their fifties wearing walking boots and crumpled fatigues place themselves at a nearby table. They take off their matching khaki rucksacks and place them on the table. With an exchange of grunts, they pass the remains of a two-litre bottle of water between them. The woman makes a facial gesture to suggest that the water is warm. They both turn and look towards the café, as if this might make someone appear. I try to tell them that probably no-one is going to serve them. They do not understand my English, or in fact my German, es gibt keine herum. Not a good translation, or perhaps not a good accent. I make appropriate gestures. They ignore the gestures. Perhaps they think I am crazy. The woman takes out an H and M cigarette pack and lights one. We return to our cultural divide. Out in the bay, an incoming boat sends a gentle ripple of water towards us. A clump of cirrus cloud is forming now in the northern sky. A black dog is playing in the surf. It does not appear to have an owner.

When I was little, I had a dog,’ says Promise. ‘You’re probably wondering what my dog was called.’

No,’ I say.

I know you are, really. He was called Murphy. Murphy’s a good name for a dog, don’t you think?’

Great name for a dog, Murphy. Better than Graham. I know someone who has a dog called Graham,’ I tell her.

Listen, will you? Murphy kept running away, so I bought a dog whistle.’

A Day in the Life by The Beatles is one of my favourite tunes,’ I say.

And I’m supposed to guess the connection,’ Promise says. ‘What’s that got to do with Murphy?’

I’m told that between the final crashing E major piano chord and the backwards tape loop, there is an ultra high-frequency sound that alarms dogs. ….. I tried it out on Dave but he is completely un-phased by it. He just carried on grooming himself, or sleeping, or whatever he was doing at the time.’

I suppose it’s all down to the frequency of the sound,’ Promise says.

I suppose so,’ I say. ‘Dave seemed to be most in tune with the sound of the fridge door opening. In D minor, I think.’

But what about Murphy? Don’t you care what happened to Murphy?’

I expect he kept coming back when you blew your dog whistle.’

We walk around the bay. It is now late afternoon. There are a few more clouds in the sky and a stiff breeze coming in off the sea. It will be dark around seven and we are looking for somewhere to have our evening meal. If we time it right we will catch the sunset. We pass two mature agave plants. They have magnificent flower stalks several metres high.

It is an agave Americana,’ I explain to Promise. ‘It’s sometimes called the century plant because of the time before it flowers. In actual fact, it is nearer to twenty years.’

Still, that is a long time to wait.’

It stores up enormous food reserves in its leaves, flowers, and then dies.’

That’s sad.’

In Mexico, they make a drink called pulque by cutting off the flower head and collecting the rising sap, as much as a thousand litres per plant! They distill pulque to make the spirit mescal.’

That’s like tequila, isn’t it?’ Promise says. ‘That’s deadly.’

Mescal’s more so. And it has a worm in the bottom of the bottle which you can eat.’

Yuk.’

Some say it’s an aphrodisiac.’

If you’re not sick first.’

And others claim it is a hallucinogen.’

But it’s just a marketing gimmick, right?’

Probably. Most people who are going to drink the stuff are macho lunatics, so why not take it to the max?’

We watch a pair of seagulls dive in and out of the water. Quickly the whole flock catch on that something worthwhile is happening below the surface and the air is alive with squeals.

Seagulls are very clever,’ I say. ‘They learn behaviours, remember them and even pass on behaviours, such as stamping their feet in a group to imitate rainfall and trick earthworms to come to the surface.’

Has anyone ever told you, you’re a bit like Google,’ Promise says. ‘You have an answer for everything.’

Thank you,’ I say.

I never said it was an attractive quality. You can be a know-all sometimes. I bet you were one of those nerds that were always top of your class that no-one wanted to play with.’

For the record, I was always near the bottom,’ I say. ‘And I had lots of friends.’

I had a dream last night that I was lost,’ Promise says, after we have finished our gazpacho manchego.

The remains of the sunset turns from red to indigo on the western horizon.

It is nighttime and you and I have gone for a drive and the car is not handling well. I’m not sure which of us is driving, but the car is going all over the road. There are tramlines and potholes, and barriers where there should not be. I think that it’s you and me in the car but I’m not sure as your identity keeps changing. One minute it is you and the next minute it is someone else. We are on the outskirts of town in a place that is half familiar but at the same time, it is not. The dream narrator says I have been there many times before. I recognise the places although they have changed, and try to bring to mind what they are called. There is no-one else about. It is as if there is actively no-one about, like an energy of there being no-one about. Like you can feel before an electronic storm. It is high up and I can see over a precipice where it is light. It is a yellow-orange light and it has sharp edges. Everything is cast into silhouette by the glow. I can hear the hum of distant traffic but it has a strange echo like you get in the cinema. The whole dream has this rumbly echo. I am scared.’

I see a break in her narrative and start to relate my recurring dream about the man with the black hat who wants to steal my fly-fishing rod.

Shut up for once and listen,’ she says. ‘Now you have gone off with the car and I am alone or I have gone off with the car or there was no car and I am walking around in a big old stone building that I do not know. I think I have been in the building before, but I don’t know now what it is. It has many floors and stairways that only go up one floor at a time and I am walking along a long dark corridor and a hollow voice says you should not be here. I have to get out of the building but I cannot as the stairs do not take me to the exit and I keep coming back to the same place and I’m frightened and when I do get out of the building I am even more lost and now there is a dark wood. The wind is whistling through the pines. Over here says a voice and then a man in a black hat grabs me from behind and ties me up and I am unable to move. I think I have been kidnapped. ……. And then I wake up. And you have your arm around me. What do you think it means?’

I don’t know baby,’ I say, wondering if I should get back to explaining my recurring dream. I decide against it.

We arrive back at the hostal. We have had quite a lot of wine and we lurch up the stairs and fall onto the bed. We left the windows open when we went out and the shutters are now rattling. It seems that the locals were right, the wind is getting up. A storm is brewing. Who would have thought this afternoon that the island’s weather could change so quickly?

We lie on the bed, silent for a while, listening to the wind.

What do you want?’ Promise shrieks, suddenly. ‘We have to behave like grownups sometimes, you know. Everyone wants something from someone. What do you want from me?’

This has come out of the blue. I am taken aback. I think about a reply, but I’m not sure where to pitch it. I want love, affection, approval, understanding, and lots of sex. I’m not sure this is the appropriate answer. By the time I have composed a suitable reply, she has passed out.

I lie there for a while wondering what she might be trying to say. Is there something I have missed? She has been behaving strangely this evening. The lightness of our usual rapport has been absent. Do I not listen to anything, she said. You are completely self-obsessed, she said. Am I solipsistic? Are we all solipsistic? Am I so unused to emotion being expressed? Perhaps we have had too much to drink. The Fundador brandies after the meal were probably a bad move. Have I misjudged the intensity of our relationship? Could it be I have made a mistake investing so much faith in Promise? Should I maybe have stayed with Chantelle? Could I have stayed with Chantelle? Could we have made up? It crossed my mind I had probably been self-obsessed most of the time with Chantelle, constantly putting up a front or dismissing her suggestions to hide my insecurities. These thoughts go round and round in my head before finally, I fall asleep.

I wake at 5 a.m. with a head like a Birkenhead building site. Hard rain is pounding against the window. It is still dark. A rumble of thunder is followed a second or two later by a flash of lightning that lights up the room. Promise is no longer with me in bed. …… She is nowhere in the apartment. I open the window to the balcony. The driving rain forces me back. Why on earth would Promise have ventured out in this? It would be suicidal to go out in this. She must be somewhere in the building. I call out her name over and over but get no response.

Our hostal only has about eight rooms and most of these seem to be vacant, probably due to the early end to the summer season in Formentera. There are no night staff so I am unable to ask if anyone has seen Promise. I put on my parka and begin a search. It is still dark and the powerful rain makes it even more difficult to see but I manage to make round it to Punta Grossa where Promise sketched the rocks on the first day we were here. She could see faces in the rocks, she said and pointed some out. She told me how Salvador Dali used the figures he saw in the rocks at Cadaqués, when he was a boy, in his later paintings. Despite all logic, I call out her name in the hope that she might have come here. Even if she were here, she probably would not hear me. The waves crashing against the rocks sound like an avalanche. I am wondering already if I will ever see Promise again.

As I push against the wind, a succession of images of the past few weeks flash through my mind, snippets of our brief time together. The time we caught the wrong tube from Victoria late at night and ended up in Brixton. We got home just in time to see the sunrise. The time at The Black Hat Café when Promise knocked a bottle of wine over and it went all over the waiter. Somehow she managed to get us a free meal because a little of the wine had spilt on to her dress. The way she smiled when introduced to someone. The warmth of her skin, the touch of her fingertips. The way she flicked her hair back when she was excited and the way she bit her bottom lip when she was nervous. The time I remarked how organised she was, and she said ‘I write down tasks after I have done them so I can cross them off my list.’ All this gone.

A slither of daylight appears on the horizon, beneath the banks of black clouds. I carry on around the coast to Racó de s’Anfossol, where Promise and I sat on a bench looking out to sea. I took photos of the sunset. For a moment, I think I see the silhouette of a figure in a black hat and go over to investigate, but it is a rock sculpture. There are several others nearby. Balancing rocks on one another is a local pastime here.

By 8 o’clock, I have searched the bay area and I am absolutely drenched. The hostal reception is now open. Serafina who has just started says she has not seen the senora today but says she will ask the others later. What others, how much later, I enquire. Serafina is the only person we have seen behind the counter since we have been here.

She was talking with man in black hat two days time.’

Two days ago?’

Si, two days ago. You were in sleep, I think’

Black hat, you say?’ I think back to the phantom figure I saw earlier but dismiss the thought.

Senor, senora has iPhone? You could call her perhaps.’

Why hadn’t this been the first thing I thought of? Admittedly, there hadn’t been much of a signal on this end of the island. I phone her now. Through the open door, I can hear the opening bars of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly theme start up, so Promise has not taken her phone. For some reason, Promise has allocated me this ring-tone. What is it with black hats? Serafina goes through the motions of looking in the rooms that are unoccupied and knocks up the two gay Germans in the room across the corridor from ours. They don’t seem pleased to be disturbed. There is no sign of Promise.

All manner of possibilities raise their heads. I really do not know all that much about Promise’s history. Does she have any enemies? Who is the man in the black hat? Has she been kidnapped by hippies? Does she have suicidal tendencies? Or has she just walked out on me? Had I missed clues? Were there signs I should have spotted? If someone was planning a disappearance, they would be likely to go about it in a systematic way. The same applies to finding someone who has disappeared. Blind panic will get me nowhere. I need to be methodical.

I check the room. She appears to have taken nothing. Her money and passport are here. All her clothes so far as I can tell are all still here along with her floral tote bag. Her makeup, her toiletries, her jewellery are all still here. The only thing I cannot account for are her sunglasses. Why would she just take her sunglasses in the middle of a raging storm? I check her phone. It is a relatively new phone. She only has a few numbers on it. Craig trashed her old one – with extreme prejudice. Apart from the call from my number just now, there are no calls in or out from the last three days. Contacts contains several of her friends whose names I am familiar with but have not met, her doctor and dentist, Ticketmaster, and Donald Finch. Is that the Donald Finch, the Wizard of Weird?

There are just ten messages received and sent, all about a week ago. I note that all of my texts seem to have been deleted. There is an exchange of messages with her friend Cadence about the dialogue from Pulp Fiction. You know what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris, Royale with cheese, etc. Is this some kind of secret code I wonder, before dismissing the idea. Promise talks about movies a lot. She used to teach Film Studies. I understand Cadence was her colleague at the technology college. Still very odd, though, not a very girly conversation. And, there is a message from Donald Finch which says cryptically, the man with no name wears the black hat.

All in all, I don’t have a lot to go on. Is it time to call in the police? Or would they just laugh at me saying something sarcastic like: ‘Dios mío, ella se ha ido por seis horas, es mejor que Interpol contacto.’ Although my Spanish is passable, it would be difficult to convey the gravity of the situation. How many British couples have a row after drinking too much in a Spanish bar and get separated? I’m not even sure there is a police station on the island.

When someone has gone missing, do you stay where you are hoping they return or do you go looking for them and risk missing them if they return? There are strong arguments for both. Clearly, if there are more than two parties involved, the remaining parties can make an arrangement and you can take both courses of action. But here there are not more parties, there is only me, and I am beginning to get a very bad feeling about everything concerning Promise’s disappearance. Easy explanations are out of the window. It is as if some occult force is at work.

It is 11 o’clock before I come to a decision. The storm has now blown over and the wind has died down. There is a calm and it is as if the storm never happened. Waiting here in the hope that Promise may return also as if nothing has happened is driving me nuts so I think I may as well go the hippy market in El Pilar de la Mola as we talked about. It is a longshot but I’ve nothing better. I discover that for some reason there is no bus to the market today and begin to walk. I have a map.

I am heading inland. It is mostly uphill through a wooded area. After a few hundred metres I run into Jesus with a guitar across his shoulders where the cross should be.

Buenos dias senor.’

Buenos.’

I show Jesus a photo of Promise that I have on my phone. It is a full face one, complete with sunglasses that I took yesterday. ‘¿Has visto a esta mujer?’

Probablemente ha sido llevado a S’Espalmador por los cultistas,’ he says.

Que?’

She has probably been taken to S’Espalmador by the cultists.’ he says, in English ‘Los Elegidos, The Chosen Ones.’

His delivery is so deadpan, it is hard to tell if he is joking.

Where?’ I ask.

S’Espalmador, it is an island to the north of Formentera. At low tide, you can wade across to it. es deshabitada tal vez.’

He lights a joint, takes a pull on it and offers it to me. I take it. Things can’t get much stranger, can they?

He sits down on a rock in a clearing and starts playing a tune. I’m not sure I know it at first then I recognise the line, don’t think twice it’s alright.

Perhaps she needed to get away from you to find herself. Did you think of that,’ Jesus says, when he has finished playing.

I hand him back the joint. I have not smoked dope since about 1941 and it may not have been so potent back then. My thoughts are racing like a chariot while time itself has come to a standstill. Everything around me is changing colour and dissolving into fractals. It takes me a while to respond to Jesus’s question, if indeed it was a question.

What?’ I say.

She may have thought you were robbing her of her spirit,’ he says and with this starts strumming again. This time, it is Cat Stevens’ Wild World. The same sort of theme really, goodbye and good luck with your new life. I thought I was Promise’s new life.

What is Jesus trying to do and why is he doing it? Does he know something about the situation that I don’t, or is he just playing with my head? I have the joint back now. The jangling guitar chords are echoing around my head, doing cartwheels and somersaults. It is as if a small orchestra is playing. After another toke, the landscape takes on the appearance of a blurred impressionist painting but at the same time, has sharp clear edges. I am transported back to a time before the big bang. What is this stuff we are smoking?

There is another tune coming from my pocket. I finally realise it is my phone from back in the twenty-first century. My heart stops. It will be Promise calling to let me know what has been happening. But it is not Promise, I see from the display. It is Chantelle. Calling from the old planet. What kind of conversation can I have with Chantelle over such distances?

I am talking to Chantelle but I have no idea what I am saying or what she is saying. I’m not even sure if it is friendly or unfriendly; I left these concepts behind on Earth. We talk about something or other for several minutes, but afterwards, I have no recollection of what it was. When we have finished talking, I am alone again. There is no sign of Jesus. He has vanished.

A trickle of holidaymakers in cars and on mopeds pass me on their way to the hippy market and some of them beep their horns or wave in a friendly manner. The sun is nearly overhead already. The chirping of cicadas reverberates in the still air. I remember reading that this is the mating call of the male and can be heard by the female a mile away. Ahead, in the distance, I can see colourful hints of a festive gathering, but as I move towards it, it seems to get further away. A bent old crone in widow’s weeds appears out of nowhere and approaches me. Up close, her skin is like leather and her wrinkles look as though they might have been furrowed by a shoemaker.

You’re looking for the girl, aren’t you?’ she says. ‘You’re looking for Promise.’

I wonder if I have unwittingly entered the twilight zone.

Have you seen her?’ I blurt out.

She’s no good, you know,’ the crone continues. ‘She’s trouble, that one. Sold her soul to the devil, she has.’

It is hard to see what connection there might be between this hysterical witch and Promise.

Do you know where she is?’ I ask, resisting the urge to grab her by the throat.

Harpy ignores my question and carries on with her tirade. I stride off purposefully to put distance between this nonsense and me. When I was very young I remember having nightmares about a hag like this. Night after night I would wake up in a sweat. I hear her ranting now until her chatter gets drowned out by the sound of music from beyond. The music is getting louder but I don’t seem to be getting any closer. They are playing Dark Side of the Moon. I recall that Dave loved Pink Floyd. I can picture him clearly, on the rug in front of the fire, purring contentedly when I put this on. I might not get the chance to mention Dave’s love of classic prog-rock to Promise. I seem to be going backwards in time and space. I may never reach the market in El Pilar de la Mola.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Food of Love

thefoodoflove

The Food of Love by Chris Green

1:

I’m Clinton Stroud. Some of you will have heard of me but for those of you who have not, I am composer, multi-instrumentalist and musical coach. A long-standing one to boot. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday. This is a little longer than I expected to live, I can tell you. I have now had twenty two telegrams from the Queen, and I still think of her as the little girl stroking the corgi on the Newsreels that accompanied the double features in the nineteen thirties. It is said you can tell you are getting old when policemen start to look younger. Even Chief Superintendents have seemed like schoolchildren to me for as long as I can remember. But there are benefits to being old. As Mark Twain once said, ‘Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.’ It is best perhaps to think of youth as a malady from which we all recover. Old age isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative.

In my lifetime, I have seen the birth of the motor car, the aeroplane, radio and television, antibiotics and sliced bread. Let us not forget the ballpoint pen, the electric guitar, the microwave oven and the atomic bomb. I have witnessed the collapse of Empire, the rise of secularism and the provision and destruction of the welfare state. Oil and petrochemicals have become crucial resources to human civilisation and transformed the balance of power the world over. Oil, of course, is running out. Oil production per year has been greater than oil discoveries every year since 1980. One day soon there will be a lot of disappointed people.

When I was born, Queen Victoria was on the throne, most families had no bathroom and there was horse-muck on the streets. In cities, gas street-lights cut through the ubiquitous smog. Yet you could walk for miles in the countryside in the cool clean air in awe of the bucolic splendour. I have seen the landscape change out of all recognition. Our green and pleasant land has lost out to electricity pylons, motorways, and suburban sprawl. Communication in all forms has been revolutionised. When I was born, we had the penny post and the Daily Mail. Now twenty-four-hour television, mobile phones and superfast broadband are all things we take for granted. The population of the UK back then was twenty nine million. Today it is sixty seven million. People are living longer. I feel I am not helping.

Things change gradually. Except in the case of monumental events, you are not aware that it is happening. The changes are so subtle that you do not notice from moment to moment, day to day. Age creeps up on you with clandestine stealth, as months, years and decades slide inexorably by. You can perhaps only measure change through a succession of befores and afters. Even then, time acts as an unreliable witness, leaving you unsure of precise chronology. But the uncertainty could be exaggerated by my circumstances. I have lived rather a long time. I have been married four times, to Emma, Natalie, Lucy and Sakura. I have, to my knowledge, twenty two great-great-grandchildren and twenty eight great-great-great-grandchildren, and, no, I cannot remember all of their names.

2:

Music goes back a long way. It means literally the art of the muses. Ancient Greek philosophers understood the healing effects music has on the body and soul. Rhythm and harmony represent a universal language: rhythm the heartbeat, the voice the song. Music has been my inspiration. Through my musical calling, I have had the good fortune to meet some of the people who have overseen the historic changes.

Few people realise that David Lloyd George was a keen saxophonist. This does not appear in any of the numerous biographies. The biographers concentrate disproportionately on his political career, with a nod here and there to his Welshness. Not a mention of his musical interests. It was I who taught the Welsh Wizard the saxophone, at the time a marginal instrument even in jazz orchestras. Lloyd George possessed a natural ability and could have easily mastered the clarinet. But he preferred the saxophone. He saw himself as a trailblazer. He bought one of the first Selmer Modele 22, saxophones to come to the UK, and guested in jazz ensembles which, although there are no records of this, played at dance halls in the Manchester area.

Why did we have to fight the war?’ I asked Lloyd one day. I had spent a majority of World War One in Italy with a military band, fortunately well south of the front.

I will tell you why, boyo,’ he said. ‘National pride. Germany expected to find a lamb and found a lion.’

No question of sitting around the table and discussing things first then?’ I said.

Diplomats were invented simply to waste time,’ was his response.

This did not seem like a Liberal view, but I let it go. I was more interested in his progress on the saxophone.

Mohandas Gandhi never really mastered the blues harmonica. But on a visit to London in 1931, he came to me for tuition. Harp players at the time had started experimenting with new techniques such as tongue-blocking, hand effects and the most important innovation of all, the second position, or cross-harp. Mohandas felt the harmonica was an instrument associated with the poor and being able to play it to the starving masses back home would lend support to his great mission.

History would turn out for the better if our leaders learned that most disputes can be resolved by a willingness to understand the issues of our opponents and by using diplomacy and compassion,’ he said.

It is a shame that history has the habit of repeating itself,’ I said.

Mohandas thought this a negative view to take. He was optimistic that a new common sense would eventually emerge if you kept plugging away.

We must become the change we want to see, Clinton,’ he said.

Mahatma’s teachings stayed with me through the years of conflict that lay ahead. He was only four foot nine but he was a huge and inspirational man. I can still picture him, sitting in the lotus position, his bony fingers clenching his Hohner, blowing for all he was worth. I would have loved him to have been able to play Hoochie Coochie Man properly on the harp, but sadly he had to leave to catch his boat back to India for an important fast.

The nineteen thirties are usually associated with the Depression, but I look back on the decade as a happy time. I married my first wife, Emma, and my first two children, Darius and Diana, were growing up. I enjoyed a modicum of success with my work, completing an octet and a jazz concerto. We moved to Pimlico, which then was up-and-coming. It was a great shame to see the clouds of war gathering at such a positive time, but politicians the world over are a stubborn breed.

World War Two may never have happened if Churchill has been better at playing the piano. He showed initial promise when he came to me. I took him through a few easy pieces, early Mozart sonatas and the like. But when we moved on to Chopin, his interpretations were clumsy and heavy-handed. Winston had what we sometimes refer to as butcher’s fingers, not suited to deliver the delicate passages of the Preludes and Nocturnes. He seemed to display a disdain for the instrument in the fortissimo passages. On the occasions I tried to explain this to him he usually stormed off in a huff. He did not take criticism well. His famous Hush over Europe speech in August 1938 came right after I told him that he played Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations with all the subtlety of a tank commander. He growled something unintelligible at me, finished his Remy Martin and went straight off to the House of Commons. Had he been able to control these rages, he may have backed off a little on his warmongering. While we may now all be speaking German, Winston may have gracefully embraced retirement with his Steinway and his watercolours.

3:

How did you come into music, Clint?’ Orson Welles asked me once when he was driving me home after his zither lesson in his big Buick. ‘Do your family have a musical tradition?’

It was 1948. Alfred Hitchcock had introduced us. I had taught Hitchcock to play a weird instrument called the theremin. To be honest, Hitchcock did not really want to learn but thought he might use the sound effects it made in one of his films. Orson, on the other hand, became a bit of a virtuoso on the zither. I heard a rumour it may even have been Orson and not Anton Karas who played the soundtrack music for The Third Man, which went on to be one of the most successful films of all time.

I did not often talk about my background. Not that I was ashamed of my humble beginnings, but somehow I felt it destroyed the mystique. I tried to dodge the question by talking instead about my early musical influences, but Orson had a persuasive way about him.

Are you going to answer my question, god-dammit?’ he said.

I come from a railway family,’ I told him. ‘Both my father and my grandfather worked on the railways. I came into music entirely by accident. I started playing when I was three on a penny whistle that was left in a railway carriage. It had probably belonged to a travelling navvy. I’m entirely self-taught.’

I explained that I quickly found out I was able to play any musical instrument I picked up. It was like opening a box of chocolates and finding all soft centres. I had what my music teacher at primary school, Miss Schnabel, called a precocious talent. I learned to read music before I could read my Jolly Animal ABC.

I got to know Orson quite well. In fact, it was through Orson that I met my second wife, Natalie. Natalie was a nutritionist treating Orson for his recurring obesity. Orson was a large man in every sense and, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying, obsessed with his weight. He had flown Natalie in from America to keep an eye on his constitution while he was looking for film locations in the UK.

Natalie introduced me to the benefits of wholegrain cereal, bee pollen, goji berries and noni juice, all of which I have retained in my diet ever since, and are among the things to which I can attribute my longevity. These along with a positive attitude to life, regular exercise and an active sex life. I subscribed to my friend Pablo Picasso’s philosophy that a young partner helped to keep you young. Natalie made me feel like a teenager again. She was nearly thirty years my junior. I was fifty one and she was twenty four. Our extended honeymoon took advantage of the opportunities opening up in air travel and took in all six continents. We were stunned by many unforgettable sights, the multicoloured reefs and cays of The Great Barrier Reef, Machu Picchu in the middle of a mountain rainforest, the boat ride through The Blue Grotto Cave in Capri, the summer sun setting on The Grand Canyon, and the great migration of gazelles and wildebeests sweeping across the Serengeti plain in the early morning, to name but a few. But some less obvious sights were equally pleasing. The colourful paddle steamer chugging down the Orinoco, the silhouette of a camel train crossing the Arabian desert, the reflection of the houseboats on the Dal Lake in Kashmir on a Spring evening. Yes, the air miles were clocking up a little, but young love knew no bounds.

Although always modest about her talent, Natalie was an accomplished pianist. With a youthful ear, she was an inspiration to my music. She helped to take it in new directions. The nineteen fifties were productive. I was on a roll. My compositions began to incorporate dissonance and atonality. In a few short years, I wrote a concerto for orchestra using a small orchestra as a solo instrument against a larger orchestra, a quintet (four cellos and a flute), a jazz ballet, and a tone poem based on The Seventh Seal. I may not have become a household name, but these unusual pieces were well received. Miranda Miercoles, Melody Maker’s classical music critic, not one that one associates with praise of any sort, referred to my work at the time as groundbreaking. I framed the notice.

Natalie persuaded me that we should spend time in America. She was from New York ans suggested we buy somewhere in the city. Money was coming in steadily and we were able to buy a comfortable apartment in Manhattan on The Upper East Side close to Central Park. We were within strolling distance of the museums and galleries that were beginning to prosper and the jazz clubs on 52nd Street. One day, while I was in the apartment tinkling away on the ivories, I had a call from a magazine illustrator. Orson had given him my name, he said. He told me he drew whimsical sketches of shoes. He wanted to learn how to orchestrate. I explained there weren’t any rules as such. You learned mainly through experience and spontaneous discoveries.

It’s very much a hands-on art,’ I said. ‘You have to be aware of point and counterpoint and of the families of instruments, timbres of each instrument in the family, and of course, tonality, but beyond that, it is up to the individual.’

Good!’ he said. ‘That’s uh what I wanted to hear. It should be easy then.’

You mean like major for happy and minor for sad,’ I quipped.

Uh yes,’ he said. ‘Exactly.’ He seemed perfectly serious about this being the case.

I’m not sure orchestration’s something I can teach you,’ I said. ‘What was it you had in mind to orchestrate?’

I have a big plan,’ he said. ‘They say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself. That’s uh, what I’m going to do.’

Well, we can’t do it over the phone, can we?’ I said. ‘You’d better come on over.’

The figure across the threshold had a ghost-like quality. he seemed to be there and not there at the same time. He wore a white suit and a blue and white hooped Breton sweater. His tortoiseshell dark glasses and platinum blond hair made him look a little effeminate. My first impression, as he limply shook my hand, was that he was incredibly shy, but despite this shyness, he had astounding charisma.

Hi, I’m Andy,’ he said. ‘Andy Warhol.’

I invited him in and sat him down.

I’m going to be famous one day,’ he said, deadpan.

How do you know?’ I asked.

In the future, everyone will be famous,’ he laughed.

What? For fifteen minutes?’ I joked.

That’s good,’ he said. ‘I might use that.’

I found Andy’s philosophy interesting and some of the things he said had yet more resonance in retrospect.

We moved on to the subject of orchestration. I told him in terms of musical composition Mozart and Beethoven were a good place to start. Mozart for his precision and flow and Beethoven for his bold innovations.

Andy felt it might be better to start with Debussy and Ravel because they were more contemporary and therefore it would not take so long to learn.

You need to be able to put an idea on one side of Letter paper,’ he explained.

I asked if he had met the minimalist composer, John Cage. 4’33 consists of the pianist going to the piano, and not hitting any keys for four minutes and thirty-three seconds,’ I told him.

Cool!’ he said.

We spent the next session putting together a bullet point list and the one after that at Boosey and Hawkes music store where Andy bought a selection of instruments. He showed no interest at all in playing them; I think they were peripheral to his mission. What he wanted to orchestrate was an Art Movement.

6:

The times, they were a-changing. At least, Bob Dylan thought so. He wanted me to teach him how to play electric guitar to fit in to the changes he felt were taking place. The real reason Bob wanted to learn may have been that he was not very good on the acoustic guitar. Going electric seemed to be a good move. It suited his casual approach to the instrument. And the rest is history. He became the stuff of legend.

It was time too for me to move on. It had been over with Natalie for a while and it was with great sadness, I returned to England leaving her and our son, Adam, and daughter, Charlotte, in New York. I took a flat in fashionable Cheyne Walk, overlooking the Thames.

Hearing I was now in London, Julie Christie called me up. Darling had been a big hit for her and she wanted to stay in the limelight. She was reading the script for Doctor Zhivago. She was wondering whether to take the part of Lara that the great David Lean had offered her. She thought learning to play the balalaika might help her get into the role. Julie was sensual and intelligent. She possessed a luminous beauty the cameras loved. The thing was, she was even more stunning in the flesh. Julie was also a terrible flirt. Most days, it seemed, the balalaika I borrowed from the Russian embassy lay untouched.

What is it that inspires you?’ she asked.

I hear music in the flow of the river, the rain on the window, the clinking of glasses, the hum of late night traffic.’ I said. ‘I hear music in everything, in the everyday and that is what sustains me. I have a tune in my head the whole day long.’

Play me your favourite piece of music,’ Julie said.

I had lots of favourite pieces of music. I had turned down Desert Island Discs as I felt unable to decide on just eight tunes. I wondered what I could play for Julie. The great violin concertos of the nineteenth century were out of the question, as clearly they needed an orchestra. I could have picked Bach or Mozart, but I thought that Julie was hoping for something more contemporary. Despite an age difference of forty years, there was definitely a mutual attraction. Bill Evans My Foolish Heart seemed appropriate. I wondered if we might be going to have a full-blown affair. But we didn’t.

Popular music upped its game in the nineteen sixties. Record producers like Phil Spector, George Martin and Brian Wilson pushed back the boundaries of the art. Pop music spearheaded a huge social change. What had once seemed throwaway now seemed important and vital. London was the new capital of the cultural world. Pop stars, models and photographers were the new elite. Ray Davies was a friend of Julie’s and Julie invited me along to a show The Kinks were filming at Twickenham Film Studios. It was here I met Lucy, who would be my partner for the next fifteen years.

Lucy was on the fringes of the music business. The closest I could come to describing her role would be, musical muse. She hung around gatherings of musicians and had a mystical presence. She was someone you noticed; someone who stood out in a room. She was beautiful; with her deep and lustrous eyes and long dark flowing hair, she looked like a Greek siren, without of course the wings. She was twenty one. My paramours seemed to be getting younger. What was it Shakespeare said about music being the food of love? It was time to play on.

Lucy moved in with me right away. For the next year or two, we played host to the pop world at Cheyne Walk, as young musicians dropped by to learn exotic new instruments. Brian Jones and George Harrison were regular visitors, as were four young lads up from Cambridge who called themselves Pink Floyd. I like to think that in a modest way we changed the direction of rock music. It moved away from the established format of two guitars, bass and drums to utilise a more colourful palette. I appeared, uncredited, on many of the classic albums from this period including Aftermath, Piper at the Gates of Dawn and Sergeant Pepper, playing dulcimer, tsabouna, musical saw and serpent. I also composed my Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Mandolin and my famous Wind Chimes Concerto over the so-called Summer of Love.

In 1968, in a nod perhaps to the hippy ideal, Lucy and I moved to Lanzarote. The ten years we spent living there were among the happiest of my life. Undeveloped at the time and minimalist in its colour palette, Lanzarote offered a perfect spiritual retreat. It was a place for the mind to focus. Our traditional whitewashed casa rural was in an isolated setting on the south-western coast. The artist and architect, Cesar Manrique, lived nearby and was a frequent visitor. His project was to transform the desert landscape, harmonising his vibrant modern design with the traditional architecture and colours of the island. A huge interest in alternative power was developing in the Canaries and through Manrique’s civil engineering team we had both solar panels and a wind turbine to deliver power to our house and the surrounding community. We were pioneers. Why not? Lanzarote is both windy and sunny. The rest of the world seems to still be resisting this somewhat obvious solution to our power needs.

Occasionally our mutual friend, Picasso came over to see us. Although he would not return to Spain, he was happy to visit us in Lanzarote. Other than this, we had few visitors. Darius and Diana and their respective families came over now and again (grandchildren growing in number and it seemed quickly growing up), and once or twice Natalie brought Adam and Charlotte. Mostly though it was just the two of us and a handful of alternative free-thinkers. It was possible to concentrate on the moment, enjoying each minute of every day without rushing towards the next. I gradually found a profound stillness take over my being. I felt young and invigorated. Lucy became a gifted painter of abstract landscapes. As for me, my music began to develop a profound simplicity.

How many Zen masters does it take to change a lightbulb? The cypress tree in the courtyard.

I have always been a great admirer of Erik Satie. He called his Dadaist-inspired musical explorations Furniture music. He saw it as the sort of music that could be played during a dinner to create a background atmosphere, rather than serving as the focus of attention. Satie is the link between early twentieth century Art movements and the work of Brian Eno. Recognising me as a fellow innovator, Brian sought me out and came over. Together we composed music that synthesised melody and texture. Although the expression, ambient music is often attributed to Brian Eno, I like to think I coined the phrase. Ambient comes from the Latin verb ambire, to surround. Our collaboration produced sonic landscapes, atmospheres and treatments. Film directors came knocking. We had inadvertently created the template for movie soundtracks and background to television drama and documentaries for many years to come. You will have heard my music from this period many times without realising it.

4:

The nineteen eighties can be summed up in one word: greed. Why was everyone so blind to the dangers of uncontrolled consumerism? It could only lead to disaster. A new set of guidelines regarding conglomerates, power generation, air travel, transport, and waste management was needed to rein in the excesses. Sadly, those brave enough to challenge Thatcherism and its free market sensibility were picked off and crushed. Lucy and I moved to the New Forest. At least here, we could show our respect for trees.

The politics of the day were reflected in its music. The decade was a singularly poor one. Popular music reduced itself once more to a succession of bland, artless nursery rhymes. Cheap Yamaha synthesisers and drum machines programmed by greedy, tone-deaf computer programmers produced monotonous, predictable, exhaustible and hackneyed three-minute jingles. Flamboyant, androgynous models with streaky makeup and spiked hair pranced around in fancy dress to unrelated storylines in fast-cut short films produced by yuppie film directors. It was a case of nice video, shame about the song. And those awful drum machines at the front of the mix. Even established rock acts became mainstream and mediocre issuing insipid power ballads. And jazz began to sound like elevator music. How could you have smooth jazz? This is an oxymoron. Classical music fared no better during the period. With its fetish for dissonance, it became all but inaccessible.

Zeitgeist means the spirit of the times, but can also be related to the concept of collective consciousness, which describes how an entire community comes together to share similar values. Was this the explanation for the decline in musical quality perhaps? Subliminally, people had agreed that music was no longer important. It was better to get rich, and quickly.

When Tariq Ali came around for his violin lesson. I put this idea to him. ‘What do you think, Tariq?’ I asked.

In times of peace, the arts gravitate towards mediocrity,’ he said.

There was no war in the sixties,’ I said. ‘But there was lots of great music.’

No war in the sixties?’ he laughed. ‘There was the Vietnam War. We may not have been on the front line but as a culture, we were involved. Didn’t you go on any demonstrations?’

I was living in Lanzarote at the time,’ I told him. ‘We had just moved out. But I do remember the Battle of Grosvenor Square. You and Vanessa Redgrave were leading the march weren’t you?’

Indeed. And Mick Jagger wrote Streetfighting Man,’ he said.But to get back to my point. Do you not recall the famous line in The Third Man about the Swiss?’

Not word for word,’ I said.

In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.’

Ah yes, I remember now. That was my old friend, Orson Welles,’ I said. ‘Perhaps we will have another war soon. There are some mad people in charge.’

It won’t a war with The Eastern Bloc,’ Tariq said. ‘Russia is not a country you can invade and occupy. War is about occupation and colonisation. The next war will be against Islamic states, where they can send in an occupying force. And, of course, there’s the oil. Iraq’s my guess.’

In retrospect, it seems he was right.

5:

The days get longer and the days get shorter. As you get older, the heat of summer makes you uncomfortable, so you look forward to the winter, but you can’t cope with the long dark nights and the cold, so you look forward to the spring, and your life passes by, with this contradiction. You are getting older but you are willing the time to pass. Seasons replace one another in a relentless procession as the northern hemisphere tilts towards or away from the sun.

According to Luigi, my barber in Ringwood at the time, the planet Mercury has no tilt and therefore no seasons. Luigi was a prototype Google. He knew everything. He had been a contender on Mastermind, his specialist subject, String Theory.

No seasons,’ I said. ‘That’s good then, isn’t it? Why couldn’t we live on Mercury?’

There is a little problem my friend. It has no atmosphere,’ he said.

Not so good for the old breathing then.’

And its four hundred degrees during the day and minus two hundred at night.’

Bit hard to get used to.’

You’ll like this, though,’ Luigi said. ‘Mercury has a crater called Beethoven which is the largest in the solar system. They have also named craters after Puccini, Verdi, Vivaldi, Schubert, Sibelius and Wagner. It is riddled with craters. You name me a composer and they have probably named a crater on Mercury after him. I’ll find out if they have named one after you, my friend.’

He never did find out. Sadly Luigi died when the steering on his Fiat gave out as he was overtaking an articulated truck near Basingstoke on the M3. He was only sixty two. No age at all.

When you reach your eighties, you understandably find those you have known or admired are dying with increased regularity. When you get a call from a friend you have not heard from in a while, you know it will be to inform you that someone you both know has died. The receptionist at the funeral directors gets to recognise your voice, as you order wreaths for lost friends and colleagues with increasing frequency, and you start getting Christmas cards from the undertaker. You find you know all the words to The Old Rugged Cross and Abide With Me, and your copy of The Times falls open at the obituaries. Death is all around. When you visit the doctors with a routine chest infection, you imagine the grim reaper is sitting next to you.

Following Lucy’s death from a rare blood disease, I became acutely aware of my own mortality. It became obvious that one day I would die and although I seemed to be in remarkable health, I began to speculate on how I would die and when. None of the ways seemed especially pleasant and most involved a protracted period of pain. Cardiovascular disease was statistically the most likely cause for someone of my age, although hot on its heels were cancer and strokes. Then there were lower respiratory infections, tuberculosis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And worse. How bad could old age be? Constantly worrying about when the door would open and whether you would know when it was going to open. Nostalgia too, I found, was something that could fuel later-life depression. Don’t look back!

Irving Berlin helped to lift my gloom. Irving was a legend. Throughout the twentieth century, Irving had had a greater influence upon American music than any other one man. If anyone could deliver a pearl of wisdom, it was Irving. I was fortunate to gain an audience with the great man on a stopover trip to New York to see my grandchildren, as he was by then famously uncooperative. I asked Irving his secret.

Music is the key,’ he said. ‘Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. It enhances memory and helps with concentration. It boosts the immune system, lowers blood pressure, relaxes muscle tension, regulates stress hormones, elevates mood, and increases endurance. That’s what my doctor tells me. And he’s older than I am.’

I knew Irving to be in his late nineties, so this made his doctor very old indeed.

I’d better start writing some music soon then,’ I said.

Another thing,’ Irving said. ‘I presume you suffer from earworm, where the last tune you hear stays in your head.’

Indeed,’ I said. ‘I don’t even have to hear a tune. Just reading the title of a song I know can set it off.’

The secret is to make the tune in your head a joyful one with happy words.’

What about the old blue musicians?’ I queried. ‘They seem to all live to be a ripe old age despite all the baby left me lyrics.’

What! you mean lived to be twenty seven, like Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix.’

He had a point. I was probably being selective. For every John Lee Hooker or Muddy Waters, there was a Blind Boy Fuller or Freddie King.

Look at me as a living example of someone who keeps a happy song going round in his head,’ said Irving. ‘It has worked for me.’

OK, I will try it.’ I said.

At the same time, don’t avoid thoughts of death,’ Irving continued. ‘Remind yourself your death is guaranteed. Facing death should be something that empowers you and heightens your senses. Feel the inevitability of it. Feel the horror of it. And then open your eyes and realise you are now alive. But try not to do this every day.’

It took a little application, but after a while, I arrived at a view whereby death offered an increased opportunity to see what was important. But, as Irving had suggested, music was the way to make my mark. This realisation provided me with motivation. I kept a happy tune in my head and entered a new creative phase. My Tenor Saxophone Concerto was popular, as was my Sextet for Four Pianos, Oboe and Harp. But the piece that gained the most recognition was my opera, Gatto di Schrödinger (Schrödinger’s Cat), which played at opera houses around the world. Who could forget the rousing fortissimo chorus for one hundred voices, ‘Il gatto è tanto vivi e morti.’

7:

Tim Berners-Lee may have been considerably richer had he not come to me for lessons on the cor anglais. Having invented the model for the internet, he was faced with a dilemma. Should he patent the idea and become rich, or should he put it in the public domain for the benefit of all? In between run-throughs of Schumann’s Reverie for Cor Anglais and Piano, we discussed the pros and cons of both viewpoints. It may have been my suggestion that the World Wide Web be royalty-free so that networks could adopt universal standards without having to pay their inventors. He argued that others would make billions out of the idea.

How would you best like to be remembered?’ I asked him. ‘As a universally reviled figure or as a benefactor to humankind?’

Tim must have taken my point. The next day, after we had been over Respighi’s Pini di Roma, He seemed to have come off the fence. He used the very arguments I had used.

The World Wide Web must have an open standard,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, there will be incompatible forms of media, backed by Microsoft and Apple and the like.’

I met Sakura at The Saatchi Gallery in St. John’s Wood at an exhibition called Young British Artists. The show featured work by the little-known Damien Hirst, Mark Wallinger and Rachel Whiteread, all of who would go on to win the Turner Prize. I had not particularly wanted to see the exhibition, having read the press write-up about tiger sharks immersed in formaldehyde. But a friend whose view I respected told me I had to go.

Something important is happening here,’ my friend had said. ‘Damien Hirst’s work is an examination of the fragile boundaries between life and death.’

Sakura caught my look of puzzlement as I took in The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (the fourteen-foot tiger shark in the tank). What was Art, I wondered? Where were the boundaries? Paul Gauguin had once said ‘Art is either plagiarism or revolution.’ I could accept that Art constantly needed to re-define itself. But in my cynicism, I wondered if was just a question of a dealer or curator saying something was important art, a prominent critic supporting him, and collectors with their megabucks being persuaded. It was becoming like an investment bank.

The shark is a metaphor for mortality,’ Sakura said.

I found myself no longer looking at the unsettling spectacle in the tank. Sakura was a much more attractive prospect for my gaze. She possessed an exquisite beauty. She had long raven black hair, obsidian eyes and rich nut-brown skin with a flourish of red across her cheekbones. Her body pushed in all the right places against the fabric of the tight floral print dress. I was transfixed. I felt a profound surge of well-being. Another bout of rejuvenation was on the way.

I must have come up with a clever riposte, because the next thing I recall, we were eating dinner at Claridge’s. Before I knew it, we were living together. I wondered later if our meeting had not been set up as a blind date. Sakura wondered the same. It appeared she had had a phonecall from the same mutual friend recommending the exhibition. Sakura worked in television. I did not watch a lot of television, so I was not aware of any of the programmes she had been involved with. In no time at all, she suggested writing my biography.

I don’t think I’m famous enough,’ I said. In fact, I had many times thought of writing my autobiography, but I was too lazy to start. With so many years to cover, such a project seemed daunting.

Everyone knows who you are,’ Sakura said. ‘But no one knows very much about you. The world is crying out for some insight into your life.’

Sakura had formidable powers of persuasion. The chapters charting my childhood in the Cotswolds were in the bag in a few days. However, after the move to North London, sister Susanna joining the Suffragettes, Walter and I going off to war, and Emma and I marrying, we reached the point where retrieval of memories was becoming more of a challenge. Looking back was becoming vertiginous. It was a long way down.

You should have kept a diary,’ said Sakura.

I started to keep one,’ I said. ‘A long time ago. After the First World War……. I think that they may be up in the attic somewhere in an old leather bag.’

Sakura dug them out, four gnarled Evening Standard Diaries from 1918 to 1921, and eagerly began to devour them.

Why did you stop writing the diary after June 1921?’

It was a fair question. Had my pen run out of ink? Had I had an unexpected illness? Had I sold my soul to the devil? I couldn’t remember.

The biography progressed more slowly documenting the years after 1921. I had some recollection as to when I had met celebrity figures. I had dates for my recordings. But with regards to my personal life, there were no records. All of my contemporaries were dead. Even my children had difficulty remembering with any precision. Either that or they had not wanted to cooperate. To my great sadness, none of them had taken well to Sakura. I could recall the big events like the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley (I had been introduced to one of my early heroes, Sir Edward Elgar) and the General Strike (I was stuck in Dover with Aleister Crowley for twelve days). But the devil was in the detail. You wait until you are my age and Alzheimer’s starts gently kicking in.

Looking back made me question whether the quality of life had changed for the better over the years. We were now able to travel fast over large distances and get information at the click of a mouse. Every year technological gadgets were becoming, smaller, faster, cheaper, and more convenient. But hadn’t we lost our sense of wonder? We seemed to have sacrificed a fundamental simplicity. The time and effort spent learning how to use our time and effort saving technology raised the question, at what point would the cost-benefit ratio no longer be in support of our technology? When I was a child, listening to someone reading the story of Alice in Wonderland aloud, without the benefit of even pictures to look at, would have filled me with awe. Nowadays, if a six-dimensional, four-headed Kraken suddenly materialised in a ring of fire in the room in front of a young child, it would engender no surprise, they would probably just see it as a continuation of a computer game.

Around the time of the millennium, Sakura and I took a walk in the Cotswold Hills. I was showing her some of my childhood haunts. It was a clear day and you could see for miles. We came across a family having a picnic. They were tucking into plastic-wrapped supermarket lunches. The two youngsters played games on hand-held devices, while the parents thumbed through an Argos catalogue looking at domestic appliances, oblivious to the beauty around them. Nowadays they would be able to dispense with the family outing, the countryside and the picnic and buy the Dyson online.

Do you ever regret parts of your life?’ Sakura asked. She was still trying to keep the idea of the biography going.

Of course!’ I said, not going down the Edith Piaf or Frank Sinatra routes. ‘Many things.’

If you could live your life over again, what would you change?’ she asked.

I would get up earlier and I would take more time to smell the roses,’ I told her enigmatically.

8:

One morning I pulled back the curtains and saw a ball of bright light blazing brilliantly in the Southern sky. I was mesmerised. I began to understand how the expression, bright as the morning star came about. The man in Jessops told me that what I was seeing was Jupiter and, what I needed was a Celestron 8 inch Schmidt-Cassegrain computer-controlled telescope. He just happened to have one in stock. It was simple to operate, he said. I would be able to use it right away to discover the delights of star-watching. Once I got it home, I did not find it easy and it sat in the conservatory unused for several months. I had an arts background. I had never learned even the basics about the universe. Finally, with the help of The Beginners’ Guide to the Cosmos, I began very slowly to pick things up.

Each of the billions of stars that I now had access to through the telescope was another sun. The problem was I had no idea where to look. There were so many of them. After a crash course in constellation spotting on the Internet, I could pick out the Plough and use this as a reference point. I was able to distinguish an endless array of spectacular celestial sights. I could now see Jupiter up close, with its four largest moons, Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto, strung out alongside it, Saturn and its unmistakable rings, the forever changing crescent of Venus and the fiery red of Mars. I was also able to see distant nebulae, star clusters and the Great Andromeda galaxy that lies about two million light years beyond our own galaxy, The Milky Way.

I learned that our sun is four million times as big as Earth and produces so much energy, that every second the core releases the equivalent of one hundred billion nuclear bombs. Also that a supernova is a luminous stellar explosion that occurs when a massive star dies, releasing a huge amount of gamma rays, which can outshine an entire galaxy. After the supernova, the once massive star becomes a neutron star, white dwarf, or if it is large enough, a black hole. Black holes are so dense and produce such intense gravity that even light cannot escape. We are talking really big numbers when it comes to space. The Universe is at least one hundred and fifty billion light-years in diameter. I had to reconsider my definitions for large. The word that came to mind was astronomical.

The relationship between music and the cosmos probably began with Holst’s The Planets. The work was composed around 1914, just ten years after The Wright Brothers’ first powered flight, and Holst had no idea what was going on out there in space. Little more than fifty years later, we had landed a spacecraft on the moon. The piece of music I always associate with this momentous event is Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, from Stanley Kubrick’s visionary film, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The Voyager spacecrafts launched in 1977 contained sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth, intended for any intelligent extraterrestrial life form finding them. The music included Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Stravinsky and Chuck Berry. These have left the Solar System and are now in empty space. In around forty thousand years if things go to plan some unsuspecting alien will be playing air guitar to Johnny B. Goode. In 2008, NASA beamed The Beatles, Across the Universe at the speed of 186,000 miles per second towards The North Star, just four hundred and thirty one light years away. Lately we have been pinging stars all over the cosmos in the hope that there is someone out there. Time is not on my side, so I am having my entire back catalogue beamed to Enceladus, a moon of Saturn, which Stephen Hawking (who incidentally was hopeless on the accordion) once me was the most likely place to find life in the Solar system. I am told this will take a mere seventy six minutes.

There are signs that our four hundred thousand year tenure of Planet Earth could be coming to an end. Earth may not be able to support the violations of our stewardship. The forest fires that raged for months in Australia this year were the worst in history, finally doused by storms of biblical proportions, bringing, in turn, the worst floods in history. Bangla Desh was reclaimed by the ocean, after all the rivers that drained the Himalayas cascaded into one. Fourteen million people died in the famine in the African country no one knew was there. I see on the news this morning that an iceberg the size of France has just detached itself from Antarctica. It’s all happening. As the writer, Kurt Vonnegut once said, ‘Dear future generations: Please accept our apologies. We were rolling drunk on petroleum.’

What will tomorrow bring? The answer is up to you. It doesn’t matter much to me. I will be one hundred and twenty three next birthday.

Copyright: Chris Green, 2019: All rights reserved

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents herein are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

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 2019: All rights reserved