JAZZ

jazz

JAZZ by Chris Green

She came into Birth of Cool and asked if we had an original New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady. The precision of her request startled me.

Featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ I said. ‘Mellow album. We have a copy on CD.’

We had sold two or three CDs in the last year. Trumpeter, Webster Young’s 1957 tribute to Billie Holiday was becoming a classic; its smooth, lyrical lines latterly compared to those of Miles Davis. On release though the album had been overlooked. For a vinyl copy you would be looking at at least £500, and although we had some rare vinyl, we had nothing that rare.

That’s the one,’ she said. ‘But I do want it on vinyl.’

I explained its rarity and told her I could take her phone number and put out feelers. Meanwhile, she was welcome to browse the vinyl in the fifties selection. She might find something else she liked. I had Paul Quinichette’s On The Sunny Side and Thad Jones’ After Hours from the Prestige back catalogue as LPs. She smiled and thanked me. I thought I detected a trace of Spanish in her pronunciation. Her smile held a hint of flirtation. She flicked back her long dark hair and as she did so, her breasts rose up in the sleeveless chemisier she was wearing, offering a glimpse of cleavage. This girl was stunning.

She was a breath of fresh air. Birth of Cool’s customers tended to belong to the older age group and were predominantly male. Market research suggested that young urban males were drawn towards Indie Rock and young females went for R and B or Pop, neither of which we stocked. Young girls, in particular, seemed phased by the ambience of a specialist jazz shop. On the occasions that we did get a female under thirty, it was for the latest Gregory Porter CD or perhaps, something from Sadé’s back catalogue, and for reasons that I cannot explain these girls tended to be quite plain. This was strange really because on the occasions I had been to Ronnie Scotts or Boisdale Canary Wharf, I had been struck by the number of babes on display. Perhaps these beautiful young women went to these places because their boyfriends liked jazz and they did not themselves buy jazz records.

I watched her as she made her way through the albums, picking up one or two to read the sleeve notes. Although by this time I was serving another customer, I could not take my eyes off her. Her short skirt hugged her hips and shapely bottom and showed off her long tanned legs. As I bagged up the new customer’s Duke Ellington sheet music, I noticed that she had written her number on the pad on the counter. Her name was Maria.

I had been learning Spanish ahead of a holiday I was loosely planning in Spain. I thought I might go to Sevilla or Cordoba to take in the architectural treasures of the Moors’ Golden Rule. Since Easter, I had been attending evening classes at the local college. As Maria was leaving, I plucked up the courage to chance a little. I was serving an elderly customer with a Cleo Lane boxed set at the time, so it could easily have been embarrassing if Maria did not understand me.

Yo le llamaré tan pronto como encuentre el álbum. Hasta la vista,’ I called out. I hoped that the grammar was right, This was the area that I was having trouble with. I still did not know of course that Maria was Spanish.

Espero volver a verle pronto. Hasta luego,’ she said, as she blew me a kiss. ‘Besos.’

I was smitten.

The following day I was listening to Ghost of a Chance, by Zoot Sims, the first recording on which he had played soprano sax, in my opinion, a seriously underrated instrument. I had the volume turned right up and was singing along.

Cracking tune,’ said a voice in a thick Irish accent.

I turned around. Beside me was a short stocky geezer in a checked overcoat. Under his arm, he had a quantity of what I could see at a glance from the logos on the covers were old Prestige recordings. There must have been about twenty-five in all. He laid them down on the counter. I went through them. The sleeves appeared to be in good condition. There were albums by Billy Taylor, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane – and Webster Young’s neglected masterpiece. I did everything I could to hide my excitement.

I picked them up at an auction, so I did,’ he said. ‘What will you give me for them?’

I looked him up and down, mostly down. I was over six foot and he was about five foot four. He seemed a little fidgety. He did not look as if he was expecting much. I took one or two of them out of their dust jackets and inspected them.

Second-hand jazz record prices are at an all-time low,’ I said.

Not that low, to be sure,’ he said, hoping to gain some ground. ‘I’ve seen some of your prices.’

I’ll tell you what,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you twenty pounds for the lot. And you’re getting a very good deal.’

He grimaced, but to my delight accepted without trying to barter. I imagine he was heading to SportingBet three doors down.

I tried the number Maria had left right away. The phone rang and rang. No reply. No voice mail. To hide my disappointment I put For Lady on the Denon in the back of the shop and went back in to listen. What a sound! Vinyl provided a warmth and immediacy in its sound that digital could not match. Webster’s mournful muted trumpet sounded as if he were in the room, playing just for me. I could see why Maria wanted this record. It was sublime. When the album had finished and I had flipped it a couple of times, I tried the number again. There was still no reply. I tried phoning Maria every hour or so for the next two days. I realised that this was bordering on the obsessional, but I could not stop myself. On the third morning when I tried, I got the message, the number you have dialled is not available or not in service, please check the number and try again. I was devastated.

I started to keep the shop open late, listening to the best of the new releases I’d ordered along with classics from Miles or Mingus. I even bought some new Quad ESLs. Their three-dimensional sound was awesome. I played Webster Young. I lived with the hope that Maria might call in again. She did not. Sometimes people would trickle into the shop around seven on their way home from work and buy a few discs. They would chat about the music they liked and we would compare collections. It was good to have some company. It was certainly preferable to being home on my own.

Geraldine had left back in April. We had irreconcilable differences. She felt I spent too much time in the shop. I felt she spent too much time at the shops. Geraldine had never liked jazz much anyway. Perhaps I should have realised this from the beginning when I took her to see the legendary Herbie Hancock at The Roundhouse in Campden and she complained all the way home on the tube, that he seemed out of tune. She described Mulatu Astatke and the Heliocentrics magnificent set at Cargo, as a ‘bunch of buglers all playing different tunes’. John Coltrane she said sounded like someone treading on a cat. Certainly, I should definitely have registered our incompatibility by the time she took my clarinet to CLIC Sargent. It had been hard, at first, to adjust to the drop off in home comforts. I missed her chicken tetrazzini and her aubergine parmigiana, but on the plus side I was now spared The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, and I was allowed to play my alto sax around the house and rescue my piano from the shed.

One afternoon I was in the shop listening to Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers with Wayne Shorter on tenor and Lee Morgan on trumpet while I was looking through some CCTV footage, following an incident outside Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop next door. Birth of Cool’s premises were in a downtown location, so it was not unusual for the police to ask me to check something for them. The Big Beat finished with the alternate take of It’s Only a Paper Moon. Apart from Tupac’s black BMW parked on the double yellow line, the cameras had not picked up anything suspicious, so I was about to switch back to live pictures. It was then that it occurred to me to look through the footage for the day Maria came into the shop. At least this way I would be able to see her again. I had the date and time etched into my memory, Monday, June 11th at 11:11 am, so I typed this into the machine and let the playback run. One or two customers came into the shop during the grainy footage, but to my alarm, there was absolutely no sign of Maria. I ran the footage again, adding a little time to both ends of the search. Still, it did not pick up Maria. What was happening? Had the Vigilant malfunctioned? Had I got the time wrong? I didn’t think so. The machine had picked up the customer I had sold the Duke Ellington sheet music to, and the one I had sold the Cleo Lane boxed set to. Could I have imagined the encounter? My heart was beating like an express train and I felt nauseous. I locked up the shop and went across the street to see Aziz in the pharmacy to see if he would let me have some valium.

I cannot be doing that,’ he said. ‘Islam forbids it.’

I pleaded with him but to no avail.

You must be pulling yourself together,’ he said. ‘Now please go, before my manager comes.’

Aziz would have been more accommodating a year or so ago. He had even offered to sell me skunk on one occasion. But, since he had joined the Muslim Brotherhood, he had changed.

I settled on a bumper pack of Kalms Day Tablets. I took handful right away. I went home and took the rest with a tumbler of Johnnie Walker. I may have refilled the tumbler. I did not go into work the next day.

When I went back in, I called in the engineer to check out the Vigilant recorder. He did some tests but could find no fault. He made a few adjustments to the focus on the cameras to justify the exorbitant call out fee. I got the feeling that he saw me as a weird jazz buff who had lost his grip on reality. I wondered if he was not right.

Maria haunted my unconscious. Night after night I went to sleep and there she would be, a nocturnal temptress. She featured in all my dreams. Some were easier to interpret than others. In one, she was on stage at The Hideaway Club playing the oboe and the instrument turned into my penis. In another, I was eating a bowlful of over-ripe peaches from her lap. In one of the more difficult ones, I was on a golden beach listening to Desafinado. Dolphins were playing in the surf. Maria, who I had met on a balloon trip, was rubbing olive oil into my back and talking in sultry Spanish. A man with a limp and a shamrock in his hair was selling doughnuts. He was dressed in a harlequin suit. Dwarf camels, as small as cats, were frolicking around pyramids that Maria and I had made in the sand. The scene changed to a crowded market place and a hooded figure riding a jet black quad bike and waving a dead fish was chasing me past stalls selling saxophones and clarinets. He was shouting at me in a language I did not recognise. I shouted back in a language I did not recognise. It was dark and I was trying to find my car. I could not remember what make of car it was or where I had left it, but the car had Barcelona plates. There was a large moon low in the sky and shapes of a craggy landscape were in silhouette. I was running. I had a battered leather suitcase in my hand. I had not packed it properly and Maria’s clothes were spilling out onto the cobbled stone street. I made an effort to look back but I knew the scene was disappearing. I realised that I was dreaming and I had the feeling that I had had this dream before, but as someone else. There was a faint light ahead, but this too was becoming fainter and more distant. I woke up in a sweat.

Weeks went by and I went through the motions of running Birth of Cool. My heart was not in it. I did not buy any new stock, and the number of customers dwindled. I now kept a bottle of Johnnie Walker out the back and went through to see how it was getting on regularly throughout the day. Caleb, a friend who I sometimes jammed with, told me I should stop moping around. I should get out more. It was easy for Caleb to say this, with his outgoing personality, and a seemingly endless procession of women wanting to go away for the weekend with him in his Winnebago. However, at the end of August, I decided to go for it. I closed the shop for a week and took a holiday in Barcelona. I had no idea which part of Spain, if any, Maria might be from, but for some reason, I had got it into my head that she might be from Barcelona.

Forty degrees was hotter than I was used to. I could not stop thinking about Maria as I ambled around the Barri Gòtic, looking for shade. Time and time again I thought I spotted her in the crowds, but it was just my imagination. I half-heartedly started to practice my Spanish in shops and tapas bars, but we were in Catalonia and I had difficulty in making my Castilian Spanish understood. I had even more difficulty understanding Catalan, which is to all intents and purposes a separate language. In the end, I stuck to English since everyone seemed to know I was English anyhow. How is it that people in Mediterranean countries always know where you are from before you even speak? August is probably not the best time to visit Barcelona. The streets are teeming and the pavements are like barbecue coals. Everywhere you go you have to sidestep African street vendors selling fake Gucci and Prada merchandise. It was good to get back to my backstreet hotel and the hum of the air-conditioning. On the evenings I didn’t fall asleep through exhaustion, I went to the Harlem and Jamboree jazz clubs. The Spanish have a drink called Fundador.

Everything about the plane bringing me back from Barcelona seemed anomalous. The cabin had unfamiliar livery, the crew were dressed in unfamiliar uniforms and I did not recognise any of the passengers from the outbound trip. I wondered if I was on the wrong flight, but the senior flight attendant assured me that we were going to the right airport. There seemed to be more turbulence than you might expect over the Bay of Biscay and the flight arrived a few hours late. In fact, I was asleep by the time we landed. I thought no more of it, but as I was driving home from the airport, little things seemed out of place. There seemed to be a number of new road layouts, the road signs were all in a different font, and the car radio wasn’t picking up my pre-tuned stations. I could not put my finger on what was happening, but little details in everyday life did not match those that I had grown used to. Tupac’s BMW was not parked on the double yellow lines outside, in fact, there were no double yellow lines outside, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop had become a nail bar, and the cycle repair shop had been replaced by a Bulgarian supermarket and the railway bridge had disappeared.

Eventually, my birthday, September 11th, came around. It had been three months to the day since Maria had entered my life. I had dug out some of my favourite tunes and was playing Charlie Parker’s version of Out of Nowhere, when out of nowhere as if on cue Maria walked through the door. She was wearing a cream trouser suit and a dark blue floppy straw hat. She had a small travelling bag over her shoulder. The suit looked a bit crumpled, but she looked divine. My heart skipped a beat. I would be able to present her with the Webster Young LP. I would be able to take her in my arms and make love to her.

Maria, however, was not smiling. She had a serious look about her. Hesitantly she came over to the counter. I sensed that something was wrong. I turned the music down.

Quiero que matar a mi marido,’ she whispered.

Matar – kill, marido – husband. My brain worked it out slowly.

You want me to kill your husband?’

Sí. Me gustaría usted hacer esto,’ she said. ‘I would like you to do that.’ She looked me right in the eye. It seemed that her proposal was serious.

W – why do you want me to kill your husband,’ I stammered.

I will start at the beginning. Kyle has always been a very jealous man. Three months ago he came back from a business trip and found some tickets from The Jazz Café by the side of the bed and accused me of having an affair.’

From the way she had flirted with me earlier, I could appreciate how he might be worried. I said nothing.

I had been out with my friend, Yvette, but he didn’t believe me,’ she continued, her voice becoming a little shaky. ‘He completely lost control, called me a bitch and a whore and he took off his belt and beat me savagely. He stamped up and down on my phone so I couldn’t contact anyone and kept me in a locked room. Worse still, he would come in sometimes in the middle of the night and rape me. Es un bestia abominable. He does not deserve to live.’

She was crying now. I put my arm around her to comfort her.

But why me?’ I said.

I don’t know. I just thought of you. You seemed to care.’

There was a silence while I tried to assess the situation. Care I might, but murder was not something I had ever in my life contemplated, even in my darkest moments.

Why don’t you call the police?’ I queried.

I did call the police. As soon as I escaped from the house, I called the police. From a phone box. They were not interested. They treated it as a domestic matter,’ she said. ‘They took some details but I could tell they were not taking me seriously. Eventually, I ran out of coins.’

I was being drawn into the front line of Maria’s troubled life. It struck me there was a significant gulf between selling hit records and being a hitman. I had not bargained for complications like this in my ardent fantasy. I felt I had stepped into a nightmare. I told her I couldn’t give her an answer right away. This was something that needed careful consideration. Inasmuch as it was here and now, the experience in the existentialist sense was ‘authentic’ but there was an edge of the surreal about it. This world was out of kilter. My head was spinning.

Can I come and stay with you?’ Maria asked, pleadingly. ‘And we can talk about it.’

How could I say no? Given time, I reasoned I might be able to talk her round. After all murderous intent is not a rational state of mind. Maybe we could go away for a few days to lift her spirits, and she would have time to reconsider. We could perhaps go on the Eurostar to Paris and catch some of the programme from the Quai Jazz Festival. Once we had got to know one another better she would hopefully stop talking about murder. She didn’t. Once we had made love, she got right back on to it.

In the perfect murder,’ she said. ‘the murderer either has a trustworthy witness who can provide an alibi, or has no apparent motive and leaves no incriminating items or physical evidence at the scene of the crime.’

I could see that the trustworthy witness who could provide an alibi might be a problem. The no apparent motive was now quickly vanishing and DNA might be an issue regarding covering one’s tracks. Anyway I wasn’t considering it, was I? I had to bring forward the Eurostar idea.

We will go soon, cariño,’ she said. ‘Once my husband is out of the way.’

In this baffling world where there were new road signs, no digital radio stations, no double yellow lines outside my shop, a Bulgarian supermarket where the cycle repair shop should be, and someone who was invisible on CCTV staying with me, I discovered another anomaly: there were no trains. I do not mean that there were no trains running on the line over the old railway bridge, or even that the Eurostar service had been suspended; there were no trains anywhere. You would have thought something this important would have been newsworthy. I tried searching on Dogpile but could find no reference to trains, or the lack of. Perhaps there had never been any trains. I thought of asking Maria about it, but of course, she might not know about it because she had been kept in a locked room. I went in to ask Aziz, who I noticed was now clean-shaven.

There have not been any trains for months,’ he laughed. ‘Since the debacle over the franchises.’

Maria kept on pushing the idea of murder. Each time I came up with a plan for our escape, it encountered an obstacle. For instance, Maria did not have a passport and she had left all her papers behind. And after we had made love, she would once again return to the subject of killing her husband.

I can get into his electronic calendar,’ she said one time. ‘I can find out where he will be and when he will be on his own.’

What about leaving DNA?’

The next day she said, ‘One idea I have is a fast-acting poison that will simulate a heart attack.’

You have to be able to get to him to administer the poison. There’s the problem of leaving DNA, still. DNA is a real bugbear when it comes to planning murders. And what about CCTV cameras?’

This might not be an issue. Were you able to see me on your CCTV cameras?’

No, but …..’

You must have realised that some things are not the same as in the world that you are used to,’ she said. ‘You will surely by now have noticed subtle differences.’

Are you saying that this is not the real world?’ I asked, dumbfounded.

This is not an imaginary world, querido,’ she said. ‘To most of those around you, this is everyday just as they’ve always known it, but you have, as it were, crossed over from another temporal space.’

Am I able to return to the old reality, to cross back over?’

You might be able to return the way you came, but first, you have to understand how you arrived here. Only you can do that.’

And supposing I could return, would I be able to take you back with me to the real world.’

It is not the real world, mi bello, any more than this one is an imaginary world.’

But would I?’

No-one can say. There are no records of such matters.’

This was about as clear as mud.

I slipped out to the shops once or twice to help kit Maria out and to get our day to day supplies, but we couldn’t go out together for fear of her being seen. In fact, she couldn’t go out at all. She was in essence still a prisoner. I had been able to get Caleb to look after Birth of Cool for a few days, but he was becoming suspicious about what was going on. Caleb would be in the old world, with the gunshop next door to Birth of Cool, the one with the railway bridge – wouldn’t he?

Maria and I couldn’t hide out forever. We needed a resolution. There were two options: either I kill her husband, or we find a way to cross back over. First, you have to understand how you arrived here, Maria had said. I tried to think this through. The weirdness had begun when Maria first arrived in the shop back in June. But the day to day did not change too much until I returned from Barcelona. I had initially noticed big changes on the plane. When I had visited Barcelona I had been so preoccupied, I had scarcely taken in anything about the city, other than where the landmarks in the Gothic centre were, and the location of one or two jazz bars. Apart than that, all I knew that was that Barcelona had held the Olympics a while back and had a better than average football team. And weren’t there some connections with Picasso and Salvador Dali? I decided it would be a good idea to do some research on Dogpile. It was a long shot, but the hope was that it might throw up some links between the city and transmigration. Was this the right word? Clearly not! I found out that Barcelona was the sixteenth most visited city in the world and the seventh most important fashion capital in the world. I discovered that drivers in Barcelona were considered among the worst in the world, with an accident occurring in the city every nineteen seconds, this rising to one every sixteen seconds on a Friday. All very interesting from a cultural point of view, but not exactly the kind of information I was looking for.

On my return, security at the airport I recall had been lax, in fact non-existent. It seemed I was off the plane and straight into the car. I could not even remember picking up my case. Then there had been the missing motorway turn-off and the unmarked road that took me past the new logistics warehouse. Where were the old army barracks I should have passed? There were the changes I found on my return to my street to consider and to cap it all the mystery regarding the trains. I felt I could no longer be certain of anything.

Caleb phoned me to tell me he was sorry to leave me in the lurch but he had to go off to teach a weekend workshop in Experimental Jazz in North Norfolk. Ornette Coleman, John Zorn, The Cinematic Orchestra, that sort of thing, he said.

I’ll be alright on my own,’ Maria said. ‘There’s your film noir collection to explore. I can watch The Postman Always Rings Twice, and if I get bored I can repot your Phoenix Roebelenii.’

So, on Saturday I went in to open up Birth of Cool. Apart from the tree that was blocking the road and the new arthouse cinema that had opened across the street, everything seemed normal. I soon got into the swing of things, put on a Cool Jazz compilation and waited for the Saturday shoppers.

I did not recognise him right away, but something was familiar about his features. He had slipped in unnoticed and was browsing the CDs in the Be Bop section. He was a thick-set man, a little shorter than I was, perhaps five foot ten. He had short brown hair that was thinning on top. He wore a shiny grey suit and an open-necked shirt with a chunky gold chain around his neck. I moved around to take a closer look, being careful not to attract his attention. My heart stood still. This was definitely Maria’s husband, Kyle. I had been shown the photo often enough. This was the man Maria wanted me to kill. It was a shame Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was no longer next door. I could have prepared for the encounter. What was he doing here? I kept my eye on his every movement. He did not look as if was about to attack me. He was not giving this impression at all. He appeared to be genuinely looking for a Jazz CD. He smiled at me, made his way over to the Hard Bop section and picked up a Horace Silver CD to look at the tracks. There was no one else in the shop now but the two of us. He ambled over to the vinyl section, a long rack holding a few hundred albums. He seemed in no hurry, flicking methodically through the discs. I busied myself sorting out the clutter that Caleb had left around the till area, casting furtive glances in Kyle’s direction now and then. Looks can be deceiving, but he did not look like a violent man at all and, I noticed, he did not wear a belt. I began to have doubts about Maria’s story about the beatings. She hadn’t had any bruises when she came to stay. It also began to seem questionable that anyone could be locked in a room for three months, and in our sexual relations, she had not shown the reticence you might expect from a victim of rape. Vacillation took hold.

Having selected a couple of Chet Baker CDs, White Blues and One Night in Tokyo with Harold Danko, Kyle came slowly over to the counter. Now was make or break time. Should I grab the Leak amplifier and smash him over the head with it? The moment passed.

I don’t suppose you ever come across the New York Prestige yellow label vinyl pressing of Webster Young’s For Lady featuring Mal Waldron on piano and Paul Quinichette on tenor sax,’ he said, in a quiet well-spoken voice. ‘I’ve been looking for it for ages.’

I was shaking.

No,’ I finally managed to say, ‘It’s quite rare, isn’t it.’

I’ll just take these then,’ he said, with a polite smile. ‘But if you ever do come across it though, would you be good enough to let me know?’ He handed me his business card, Kyle Clancy – Futures Trader, and slid his credit card into the machine. I was gripped by indecision. The bronze statuette of Louis Armstrong that I used as a paperweight was close at hand. This could deliver a savage blow. Should I or shouldn’t I? How could I kill someone who might well be innocent of any wrongdoing? How could I face Maria if I didn’t take this golden opportunity? Once more the moment passed. Kyle took his CDs and left with a cheery wave.

See you again,’ he said.

The mysteries were multiplying. What was I to believe? What would happen next? For all I knew Kyle might at this very moment be on his way round to my house to do unspeakable things to Maria. Anything was possible. I phoned home, using the code I had agreed with Maria. She was to let it ring four times, and wait for me to ring again a few seconds later. She was to answer on the third ring. She didn’t. Could it be that she hadn’t heard the phone? The Bose Cinemate home cinema system could be quite loud. Maybe she was making her way through my film noir collection.

I shut up the shop and rushed back home. The house was empty. There was no sign of Maria. All her clothes were gone from the bedroom. She had vanished. She did not appear to have left a note. Kyle had not had time to have spirited her away. There were no signs of a struggle. She must have left of her own volition. But why?

I noticed too the Webster Young LP was gone. What was it about this world-weary collection of tunes that had made it so sought after? Certainly, there were beautiful passages of light to punctuate its bleakness, and the counterpoint between Young’s trumpet and Paul Quinichette’s tenor was outstanding, but was it worth all the upheaval it seemed to be causing? After a settling pint of Johnnie Walker, I tried to assess the situation on a point by point, best guess basis.

My life had been normal up until three months ago when Maria came in and asked for the LP.

I was now in some kind of alternative reality at the mercy of unpredictable developments.

I had been completely obsessed by Maria at the expense of all else.

Maria may have had supernatural powers, or be a fraud.

I had resisted the opportunity to kill Kyle.

Kyle may have been a fraud.

Nothing made any sense.

I was bewildered.

I was drunk.

I think it was Alexander Graham Bell who said, ‘When one door closes another door opens, but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.’ So it was I made the decision to try to forget about Maria, put the whole episode behind me, and get on with my life. I wrote out a shopping list and wondered about buying a dog. Later that day, out of the blue, I had a phonecall telling me that I’d won First Prize in a raffle. I didn’t even know that I’d entered a raffle. All I had to do, the girl on the phone said, was turn up at the airfield and do a short training course. Was there a hint of Spanish pronunciation in her voice? Or just my imagination again?

You will then be treated to a three-course lunch,’ she said, ‘before making the drop.’

The drop,’ I remember thinking, ‘what drop?’

My brain had for some reason thought she had been talking about a balloon ride, which would have been a more usual raffle prize than a parachute jump. What made me go ahead with the jump, I cannot say. I was terrified of heights, but the girl sold the idea well, talking about the enjoyment and the exhilaration of skydiving. It was a static line parachute, she said, which opened automatically, so I did not have to worry. It seemed churlish to refuse.

I put on my best metaphorical brown trousers and went along. Jumping out of the plane was among the scariest moments of my life. I blacked out for a split second. Once I regained consciousness, however, I found the experience oddly exhilarating. A static line jump from 3,500 feet from the moment you leave the plane to the moment you hit the ground should take about three minutes. Mine took over an hour. Albert Einstein once said, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.’ I would have accepted this as the explanation, but my watch confirmed that an hour had passed. An hour in which I was able to play over in my head the events of the past few months and put them in perspective. An hour in which I had time to consider my desert island discs, should I ever be invited on to the show. An hour in which I was able to remember the whole plot of Inception.

One the way back home, to my astonishment, I noticed that the road signs had been changed back to their original font, and the car DAB once again picked up the pre-tuned stations. Jazz FM was running a Blue Note special. When I got back, Tupac’s BMW was once again parked on the double yellow lines outside my shop, Guy Coventry Gun and Sports Shop was open again and the railway bridge was back. A train zipped across it. Aziz was just leaving the pharmacy. He waved.

Hi Aziz,’ I shouted across the road. ‘It’s good to see that you’ve grown your beard again. I couldn’t get used to you clean shaven.’

The following day, I spruced up the shop a little. I sorted out the old stock and put some items in a Sale bin. I took down the out-of-date notices for the summer jazz festivals and put some colourful new displays in the window. I had just made myself a cup of lemon and ginger tea and put on some Miles Davis when a pair of tall men in badly fitting blue suits walked in. They appeared uncomfortable in the surroundings. They did not look like they had come in to buy jazz.’

We would like to ask you some questions relating to the murder of Kyle Clancy,’ said the one with the pencil moustache, flashing an identity card. ‘We would like you to accompany us to the station.’

This was not what I had in mind about one door closing and another opening. Perhaps Alexander Graham Bell had just lived in a very draughty house.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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DARK

dark2018

DARK by Chris Green

I am in the garden at The Pig and Whistle on a hot August evening. About a dozen of us are sat around a table. Darkness is descending, rapidly, the way it does in mid-August. The English summer is so fleeting. Blink and it is gone. Every year it seems the locals try to hold on to the disappearing season by savouring these last moments. Soon it will end. It is not like this back home.

I have been holding forth about a painting of Jim Morrison that I have just finished. I have called it Lizard King. It is part of my Twenty Seven Club series.

I’m Matt,’ says the man sitting opposite me. ‘They call me Matt the Hat.’

I already know this of course because I have been sleeping with his girlfriend, Saskia. The last time, not two hours previously, as it happens. But Matt the Hat doesn’t know this. Nor does he know that I know who he is, but even if I didn’t, I might have been able to guess the Hat part of it.

I’m Sebastian,’ I say.

I love The Doors,’ he says.

I’ve just picked up on their music,’ I say.’They did some great songs.’

Did you know Jim had an IQ of 149,’ he says?

No,’ I say. ‘Clever guy, then.’

Or, that his favourite singer was Elvis Presley?’

I did not, Matt,’ I say.

I’m not sure where this conversation can go. I don’t want to come across as too friendly because I must remain incognito. I am not really Sebastian. I took the name from an old Cockney Rebel song that I heard a while back, Somebody called me Sebastian. Quite a dark tune, I suppose. Most of the others around the table know me as Clive and a few of them are amused by the situation, but no-one is letting on. For now, I am enjoying this subterfuge, although I am aware that Saskia, who I am fond of, will be leaving with Matt the Hat at the end of the evening.

I quickly dispense with the Doors conversation and guide the topic round to hats. I ask him if his hat is a Borsalino, knowing full well that it is not. It is not even a Fedora. Matt says he doesn’t know.

What are you doing with a man who doesn’t know what hat he’s wearing, Saskia?’ says Paddy the Poet.

Well, Matt, it’s not a sombrero, is it?’ I say.

Don and Gina chuckle. They are fully aware that I am trying to rile Matt. If it came down to it, they would be on my side. They only know Matt the Hat through Saskia. In fact, most of the people around the table only know Matt through Saskia. Saskia is a popular girl in these parts. The life and soul of the party sort of girl. Matt is seen here as a bit of an interloper. He is not one of the regular Pig and Whistle crowd, whereas I have been coming here for months. When did Matt appear on the scene? Where did he come from? Doesn’t he usually drink at The Blind Monkey along the road?

It’s not a crash helmet, Matt,’ is it?’ says Biker Dennis.

And it’s not a leopard skin pill box hat,’ says the guy who used to be in The Manic Street Preachers.

Hats move on to shoes, windsurfing and Damien Hirst via New York, Dark Side of the Moon, fairground rides, drink drive limits and aliens. The summer evening passes in the way that summer evenings do in the yard of the Pig and Whistle with details becoming more and more blurry. People come and people go, some familiar and some unfamiliar. Who, for instance, are the two Roy Orbison lookalikes dressed in dark clothes sat in the shadow of the brooding zelkova serrata? No-one pays much attention to them. Perhaps I am the only one to notice them.

We have Stella Artois and Fosters to fuel us, Old Thumper ale and something called Stagger scrumpy. Take your pick. They all seem to do the job. The noise level rises, drinks get spilt and spliffs are surreptitiously passed around. By and by, Saskia gets up to leave with Matt the Hat. She gives me a knowing look and says, ‘It was nice to meet you, Sebastian,’ This is the last I ever see of her. Or for that matter Matt the Hat. I’m not too concerned about Matt the Hat. He was never going to be a big feature in my life, but Saskia could have been.

Their disappearance is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know what happened to them. I may have been distracted as they were making their way out of the pub, but did the two men in dark suits who were sitting under the brooding zelkova serrata follow them out? By the time I looked round for them, they too had disappeared. Might they originally have been looking for me, found out I was seeing Saskia and when they came to the Pig and Whistle formed the impression that Matt was me?

……………………………………..

I like to go walking in the hills, sometimes even when it is dark. It gives me time to reflect on my journey and how far I have come, since. ……. Well, that all seems a long time ago. I usually go walking on my own, although I have met someone called Abi who enjoys the countryside too. From time to time, when the weather is favourable, she tags along. Abi is a little younger than me. Sometimes it appears that everyone is younger than me, but I guess this is all relative. Einstein thought so.

I am fortunate that I can make enough money from my paintings not to worry about having a job or keeping regular hours. Watching the distress that working for some exploitative multinational corporation seems to cause the toiling millions makes me feel that I a blessed to have such a talent. If you should care to look me up on the internet, Augustus Dark, that is, not Sebastian or Clive, you will find my work referred to as iconic nostalgia, fantasy portraiture, outsider art and even pop art, but I am perhaps none of these things. I seem to have discovered a lucrative but as yet untapped market. I have an exhibition coming up at a top gallery. I’m quite excited at the prospect but I hope that it doesn’t attract unwanted visitors. They may have realised their earlier mistake and still be out there somewhere.

……………………………………..

What kind of car do you think that is?’ I say to Abi, pointing to the car in front of us. We are driving down Black Dog Way on our way to the hardware store for storage boxes. I have been living with Abi for a few months now and we are about to move into a new house, out of town. The car we are following appears at first glance to be a run-of-the-mill large hatchback with the tinted rear screen, triangular shaped red tail lights, centre high mount stop lamps and twin exhausts you would expect to find on such a car. Despite these consistencies, it somehow doesn’t look right. There is something unexplainably other about it.

It’s says Hyperion,’ says Abi.

I can see that,’ I say. ‘But Hyperion is the model name. What make is it? Who’s the manufacturer? I’ve not seen that badge before.’

Neither have I,’ says Abi. Abi is normally quite observant.

The design is a rounded M shape over a what looks like a rounded W inside a circle. It’s surprising how easily logos and trademarks from everyday life become ingrained in one’s consciousness and this one has not registered yet. I can’t make out who is in the car or how many of them there are because of the tinted rear window but I have a bad feeling about them. As soon as I get the chance, I take a left turn.

As we move through the slow moving traffic, Abi and I rack our brains, with each of us suggesting names of far-eastern car manufacturers that we are half-familiar with. None of these seems to be the right one. Something about this is not right. Perhaps I am being anal but when we get back home, I do a Google search for Hyperion. I am aware of course of what Hyperion is and my search does no more than confirm this. It comes up with nothing vaguely automobile-related. I then draw the logo design as I remember it and spend an hour or so trying to match my drawing with an image of it on the web, but to no avail. The brand apparently does not exist. The registration number I took down, I discover, belongs to a white Renault Clio. Next, I try to find a picture of a black hatchback to match the shape but this is hopeless. All cars of a certain size look similar these days, at least from the rear.

I am still searching, when Abi comes in, scrolling down her phone. She is wearing the anguished expression she wears when something bad is trending on social media.

Oh my God!’ she says. ‘Lol Popp has died. Under mysterious circumstances, it says here. Drugs, they think.’

Lol Popp? Doesn’t he live somewhere around here?’ I say. ‘Some big house on the hill.’

It says, the star who has sold twenty million albums was found dead by his bodyguard earlier today in his West Country mansion.’

That’s a real shame,’ I say, trying to stay calm. ‘I really liked some of his tunes, Men in Black and what was that other one? Lost in Space? Lol was quite young, wasn’t he?’

Twenty seven,’ she says. ‘I suppose you have to do a painting of him now.’

Does a desire to join the twenty seven club, that growing list of rock icons that died at twenty seven, explain his demise? Or could there be a more sinister explanation? Lol always seemed a bit …… other-worldly. The way he wore that black face mask. The way he always wore purple. The way he never gave interviews. I am back on my laptop now, scanning the news sites. To my alarm, there is a report in Huffington Post saying only hours after he had been found dead Lol’s body disappeared, along with the bodyguard. That’s weird. It was the bodyguard who found him. I don’t share the development with Abi or let her know what I am thinking. She will tell me I am being paranoid.

Over the next few days, I continue to look out for the car with the rogue badge. There are Buforis, Peroduas, Acuras, Hyundais and Ssangyongs aplenty and even an old Lada Riva, but no Hyperion. The thought occurs more than once that the original Hyperion we saw might just have been someone playing a prank. But, I have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t the case. I can’t get rid of the thought that there is a more sinister explanation. I hope I am wrong. I like it here.

……………………………………..

The black Hyperion is at the gate. Two men in dark suits and dark glasses step out. This is it. They have come for me. They will escort me to the landing craft. They will take me back home. It is time. I should be pleased that Abi has gone to Pilates, that she is not here. They would take her too. That would be unfair on her. She might not like it where I’m going. But, I can’t help wanting her to be with me, even though she is from this world and not from ours.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Salty Dog

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Salty Dog by Chris Green

I often come here to sit and watch the boats. I do not know much about boats or seafaring but I find the ebb and flow of the tides and the toing and froing of the vessels to be a kind of meditation. I understand a little about the tides and how they are affected by the moon and the wind direction and I carry around a mental timetable of when to expect them. But boats are more of a mystery. There are big boats and little boats, long boats and short boats, boats with sails and boats without sails but this being a harbour suggests that they must all go out to sea. What regulations are there about how they come and go, I wonder and where do they get their fuel? How do you learn how to sail them and what do you do when they go wrong? Is there a Boat 101 where you can find out these things? Or, is nautical knowledge something that is passed on in masonic secrecy through the generations?

The stranger who sits himself on the next bench has the look of the ancient mariner about him. Admittedly he has no albatross around his neck but he does have the requisite Naval full set, weather-beaten features and lugubrious countenance. He too has come to watch the boats but I suspect from a different perspective. He will know the ropes. He will know how to send a shot across the bows. He will be able to fathom it out. He will have stories about keel hauling and splicing the mainbrace. Here is an old sea-dog for sure. I can’t help but be reminded of Coleridge’s perennial narrative verse.

Coleridge doesn’t appear to have been in the navy and he wouldn’t have had the internet at the time of his writing. Yet there is a wealth of nautical detail in the poem. I wonder how he did his research for The Ancient Mariner. There are many seafaring expressions you would not expect a layman to know. Perhaps as a young man, he sat on this very seat or one like it while a salty dog with craggy features like the one sitting beside me now regaled him with apocryphal tales of the seven seas. The main difference perhaps might be that the stories Coleridge heard would be of pirates plundering sailing ships while the tales I might expect from my man may not feature barquentines and square riggers very much.

It looks as though I am about to find out. The old sea-dog has moved in closer. Surprisingly though, he wants to talk about cats. Although I am a little disappointed that he is not going to tell me about his adventures on the high seas, I do know a lot about cats. Marissa and I have six of them. I understand perfectly where he is coming from when he tells me that he likes to talk to his cat. I find myself talking to ours too, especially Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. But, it would freak me out if they were to speak to me as his cat apparently does. He tells me his cat is called Polly. Polly would be way down the list of popular cat names. I begin to wonder if perhaps Polly is a parrot and he is confusing cats and parrots. I try to explain the difference.

Parrots are usually brightly coloured and they sit on a perch and eat nuts,’ I say. ‘Cats are furry and like to sit in front of the fire.’

He seems grateful that I have pointed this out and this steers the conversation neatly on to trains. He tells me he likes travelling by train and I agree that it is a good way to get about. I tell him if I’m going on a long journey, I often take the train rather than drive. Motorways are hell during the summer months. He begins to tell me about a train he took recently to New York. I don’t like to interrupt his flow but I can’t help thinking a transatlantic train is a little unusual. More likely it was a plane he went on or perhaps an ocean liner. Looking him up and down again, I would say that a cruise across the Atlantic is probably favourite. After all, he does have the look of the ancient mariner about him. Might I, at last, I find out something about life on the ocean waves?

How long did the journey take?’ I ask in the hope that he will want to share his experiences from ten days or so at sea.

Around seven hours,’ he says.

Ah!’ I say. ‘That is quite quick. For a train, I mean.’

I never drink during the day. Not since …… well, not for a long time now. Rum is not my favourite tipple anyway so I forgo the proffered pick-me-up, a half-bottle of Lambs Navy. The conversation moves on to West Ham United’s problems in defence. We agree the blame rests mostly with the new manager. I mention that Millwall F.C. are doing better lately. I point out that Millwall is in the heart of what was once London’s docklands in the hope it might jolt his maritime memory. The prompt sails past him.

While the boats in the harbour come and go, we talk instead about saxophones, doppelgängers and past lives. The bottle is now empty. The mystery man bids me farewell and lurches off in the direction of The Smugglers Arms. Is that a sea shanty he is singing?

I return to my meditation. I still have a lot to learn about boats and seafaring.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

MUSHROOMS

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Mushrooms by Chris Green

The cows that were in the lower field yesterday evening have gone. Perhaps they have been moved up into the top field behind the trees. I eat my breakfast on the patio, bacon, fried egg and freshly picked mushrooms with a pot of Horniman’s tea. I look out for the buzzards I can hear calling. Now and again, I spot the pair circling overhead but on the whole, they stick to the wooded area in the distance, too far away for me to get a good photo. There are some other high-flying birds which I can’t identify. They are larger than buzzards. Vultures maybe? Kites? Suzy would know what they are but she is not here.

It is a shock to see the tank coming over the hill. At first, I take the large vehicle to be a combined harvester. There was lots of harvesting going on when I drove down. It’s that time of year. It is difficult to imagine what a tank might be doing in this rural idyll. There are no military bases nearby. In fact, there is very little nearby. This is as remote a spot as you could find in the south of the country. But it is unusual to come across a combined harvester in desert camouflage. Even more unusual to come across one with a large calibre gun on the front. I do not know much about tanks but this looks like one built for modern warfare.

I have not been reading the news since I arrived at the cottage but before I left home, there seemed to be nothing in the offing that might suggest upcoming conflict. Since the American President had been impeached back in May, the world had seemed a safer place and peace talks were even underway in the Middle-East. It is said that a week is a long time in politics but even so.

There is, of course, no wi-fi here nor a phone signal here. The thinking was that without distractions I would be able to make a start on my new novel. There hasn’t been a new Lincoln Frost title for three years. This was also the reason that I came here on my own, plus the fact that Suzy and the children did not want to spend time in the back of beyond. Apparently, there were things going on in the city that took their fancy, sports events, concerts and the like.

While I try to come up with an explanation, I dart back into the house and spark up the half-finished spliff I left in the ashtray. I find it helps to calm me. Well, usually. I notice through the window the tank has been joined by a second lumbering leviathan in desert camouflage. Although the terrain is not ideal for tank-tread military vehicles, they are coming this way. They are getting closer. Unfortunately, to get to where my car is parked on the edge of the lower field, I would have to head towards them. I would be an easy target. I suppose I could just go out the back and run like hell in the opposite direction. But, why would they be interested in me? The idea is ridiculous. I’m a writer, not an insurrectionist. I tell myself to get a grip. Tough it out.

It’s a last-minute manoeuvre but with a crashing of gears they veer left and head off in a south-easterly direction towards the River Dingle. Within minutes they are out of sight. This allows me to breathe again but the puzzle as to what brought two battle tanks this way remains. While it would be nice to think it was nothing more than a routine military exercise, this somehow seems unlikely. There must surely be designated areas for these little jaunts.

The cows seem to have been oblivious to the incursion. They begin to amble back from the top field. Suddenly it is as if nothing has happened. There is peace in the valley. Once I have composed myself, I go to see if I can find the farmer. I cannot even find the farmhouse. Farms these days can spread over several miles. Instead, I take a drive to the farm shop I was told about. This is five miles away.

Farmacy is a funny little place, blink and you would miss it. Before I get chance to mention the tank, the proprietor, who introduces himself as Max, starts waxing lyrical about mushrooms. He says he has ninety three different varieties in stock, Maitake, Cordyceps, Reishi, Shiitake, Coriolus, the list goes on and on. I look around and notice he stocks little else but mushrooms. A cabbage or two and some wonky carrots. But most of the space in the shop is taken up by mushrooms, forest fungi and of all shapes and sizes. By and by, I manage to get a word in about the tanks.

No,’ he says. ‘I’ve not heard anything about any tanks in the area. Are you sure they were tanks?’

No. Perhaps they were tour buses,’ I say, sarcastically.

I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘We don’t get a lot of day-trippers around here.’

What?’ I say. ‘Not even with all these mushrooms for sale?’

In fact, we don’t get many people at all,’ Max says having missed the humour of my comment. I am about to ask him why he thinks this is but I decide to leave the conversation for another day. I bid him good day and take my leave.

I decide I might have more luck at The Ram Inn. This is several miles further west. The review of The Ram in The Good Pub Guide I keep in the car describes it as a traditional country pub where you can enjoy good food and ale and mix with the friendly locals. Admittedly it’s an old guide but what can have changed? The only other establishment listed in the area is The Blue Oboe in Little Sodding which it says caters for a more specialised clientele.

The roads consist of an informal network of narrow lanes. Some of them are little more than dirt tracks. Others are dead-ends. There are few passing places. Signposts are rare and many are vandalised, turned around or so badly weathered you cannot read them. As luck should have it, there is no traffic on the first stage of my journey. But then a Land Rover with dapple-pattern camouflage forces me, in fear of my life, to reverse about a quarter of a mile, before I finally plunge into a deep ditch. I quickly realise I am going to need help to get out. As expected, there is no phone signal. I haven’t had a signal since I came down here.

Beating my way through the undergrowth on foot with no sense of direction is hard going. The snakes are a bit of a worry. They look larger than the native species I’m used to. But perhaps the wildcats will get them. I am alone, lost, hot, thirsty, tired and terrified. The further I venture, the thicker the vegetation appears to become. I don’t think it’s my imagination. It is turning into a jungle. Do nightmares come any worse than this?

It takes me hours to reach The Ram Inn. But no consolation here. It looks as if others might have found the pub equally difficult to find. A sign says Closed Until Further Notice. It has clearly been closed for some time. Weeks, months, years possibly. It is boarded up and almost buried in buddleia and bindweed. The whole area appears to have been reclaimed by nature. Weeds several feet high grow out of gutters. Tall jungle grasses and sturdy bamboos battle to topple crumbling walls. I shudder to think what might be lurking in amongst the tree creepers. It is likely the area has been evacuated and a state of emergency declared. There is no one around to ask.

This also means there is no one to confirm what to my untrained eye looks like an abandoned lunar module in the middle of what once might have once been the village green. I suppose I should be thankful it is abandoned but I am scared. This is not a normal thing to find in the country. I begin to get the feeling once more that something apocalyptic is taking place. I need to find a passage back to the place I was before. But there again, it would be disheartening to try and retrace my steps, especially considering the car is in a ditch. So, I continue to head west. It can’t be more than fifteen miles to the coast.

Robinson Crusoe, I am not. My survival skills are at an elementary level and my navigational skills are dependent at the very least on GPS or large scale maps. Or Suzy. I have none of these. After an hour or so of trying to follow unmaintained footpaths through the wilderness, in a clearing I come upon a brightly coloured static caravan. I am greeted by a pair of beaming hippies in matching hemp dungarees and plaited ponytails.

I’m Mr Kite,’ says the one with the long white pointed beard, headband and John Lennon glasses.

And I’m Rain,’ says the woman with the purple hair. I’m a Pisces.’

I introduce myself. ‘Thank goodness I’ve found signs of human life,’ I say.

Life is the only thing worth living for,’ Mr Kite says.

What has happened to everybody?’ I say. ‘What’s going on?’

Stillness, man,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Stillness is a virtue. True happiness is not out there. True happiness lies within.’

We’re pretty much on our own now,’ Rain explains. ‘Although there is a guy with a mushroom farm a little ways down the track over there. Lovely fellow, he is, but a bit excitable. Sagittarius.’

So what happened?’ I repeat.

Things changed but then life is change,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Change brings stability.’

Perhaps you might be more specific,’ I say. I have the feeling if I am to get the story, this pair might need to be hurried along a little.

It all began a few months ago when they started making a movie around here,’ Mr Kite says.

Exactly a year ago, it was,’ Rain says. ‘I remember the date because it was the day after the Moon, Mercury and Mars were in conjunction.’

He may not be interested in Astrology, my love, Mr Kite says. ‘Shall I tell him about the film?’

OK. I expect we’ll have the chance to tell him about the conjunction later,’ Rain says. ‘After all, it is in the celestial sphere that the numbers spin.’

Anyway, the film they’ve been making is one of those apocalyptic thrillers,’ Mr Kite says. ‘You know, man, like 28 Days Later.’

They chose this as the location because it is the most remote spot in the country,’ Rain says. ‘Well, there are a few places in Scotland that are quieter but other than that.’

I tell them I came down here for the quiet but the area does appear more remote and run down than I thought it was going to be.

A lot of the folk living in the area thought the apocalypse in the film was real. I think it was the mushroom cloud scene that did it. They thought what they were seeing was really happening,’ Mr Kite says. ‘So they hurriedly packed a few things and left. You must have passed some of the abandoned houses.’

I tell them I did not come across any houses, abandoned or otherwise.

That’s probably because of the jungle,’ Mr Kite says. ‘The film people used a magic fertiliser spray to make the vegetation grow quickly.’

Probably highly toxic,’ I say.

There were one or two casualties during the filming,’ Rain says. ‘But death brings rebirth. Cells in our bodies die all the time and are replaced by newly generated cells. We get reborn every moment.’

While they were filming, for one reason or another, the others gradually moved out,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Perhaps it was the announcement the film people made about fallout. Simple country folk, you see. They didn’t realise that this was all part of the drama.’

We decided to stay,’ Rain says. ‘We like it here in the wilds. You can be at one with nature.’

Until a few days ago, we thought they had completed the film,’ Mr Kite says. ‘But they’ve been back this week to get what they call filler shots. I spoke to the unit director dude. He said they would soon be out of our way. …… You’ve probably noticed the odd army vehicle prowling about.’

Indeed,’ I say.

I expect you’re hungry,’ Rain says. ‘Would you like some mushrooms?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Six

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpartsix

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Six by Chris Green

The fat lady is not yet singing. Wet Blanket Ron wonders if there is then still time for a reprieve. A final act? A happy ending in this long and drawn out saga? He has been at the mercy of his heartless creator for so long that there is no obvious reason for him to suppose there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Time and time again our hapless hero has been at the fall end of windfall.

Having discovered he is a fictional character, Ron dreams of a change of fortunes. In short, he wants his freedom. After all, Kilgore Trout, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional creation who suffered similar abuse at the hand of his author finally freed himself. Perhaps more famously, Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes came to life so thoroughly that many doubted he was ever fictional. Holmes even has his own pages of quotes in literary compendiums.

Ron dreams of living by the sea. The Côte d’Azur perhaps or Portofino. With Marilyn Monroe. No, wait! Marilyn Monroe’s dead. Dead’s worse than being fictional. In any case, she would be old by now. The Seven Year Itch was a long, long time ago. Even Kathleen Turner and Jessica Lange would be getting on a bit. Charlize Theron? Beyonce? The problem is that these are all famous people. The glitterati. It is not going to be easy for a small-town fictional character to master the complexities of the modern world, let alone mix with high-fliers. Maybe Ron should set his sights a little lower. A maisonette in Torquay with Tina from the nail bar perhaps or a caravan in Burnham on Sea with Karen from Greggs? Ron will, of course, need to put from his mind that his last girlfriend as a fictional character, Lola, like her namesake in The Kinks classic, to his embarrassment turned out to be a man. Neither does Ron’s work record bode well for success in the real world. His creator has been merciless. Every job Ron has had has ended in disaster, often his arrest and to cap it all, a spell or two at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The lines between fiction and reality have a tendency to become blurred. Aren’t most people’s lives a kind of fiction anyway based as they are on some social construction of reality dictated by the purveyors of taste? Fiction itself no longer seems to be separate from real life. Who can say for certain anymore which is which? Might the blurring of boundaries present in today’s metafiction work to Ron’s advantage? Might the confusion be helpful for his transition towards control of his own destiny? The fat lady is not yet singing so who knows what is around the corner?

The adjustment to real life is a big one and Ron New finds it strange at first. When you are a fictional character you do not have to make any decisions. Be it good or bad, everything is arranged for you. The real world is not like that. You have to decide when to get up, what to wear, what to have for breakfast. What foods do you actually like? Where do you like to go? Who do you speak to? What do you talk about? How do you introduce yourself to people you feel attracted to? How do you get out of situations you don’t like? But before any of this, there are more pressing problems. How do you get a job to earn money to buy food and clothing? How do you find somewhere to live? Are there any shortcuts to survival? Are there any short cuts to success?

Ron is on the street in a town that he does not recognise. He has a nagging suspicion it is in the south of England but without any previous experience of the real world, he cannot be sure. But at least it appears to be by the sea. So far as he can tell, he has little more than the clothes on his back, a pair of frayed black Levi jeans, a windcheater jacket and an Ellesse rucksack that has seen better days. There are no keys in his pockets nor is there any money. He has a vintage Nokia phone but discovers it has just 49p credit on it. Contacts has only one contact anyway, someone called Doobie. What kind of a name is that?

Ron feels every bit as depressed as he did when he was fictional. There are shadows where there should be none. A Nine Inch Nails tune is running through his head. Large black dogs are everywhere. In a desperate attempt to cheer himself, he reminds himself he is free. At last, he is free. He repeats it over and over as an affirmation. The world is his mollusc. Isn’t that what they say?

He opens the rucksack and finds an old pair of Adidas trainers, assorted socks and pants, a Swiss army knife, a diary from last year, a job interview letter with his name on it, a driving licence in his name with a different address and a large polythene bag of crushed vegetable matter. No money. No keys. So it goes. You can’t expect everything all at once.

The job interview, he notices, is for today and he seems to be heading for it. The job is for a position as an Appointment Canceller. Not the most prestigious of positions but he has to start somewhere. Ron, of course, cannot refer to the fictional job history which is still fresh in his head, his jobs with N Vision Inc, Daniel DeAngelo and PurplePhones for instance. These were strictly two-dimensional forays, nothing more than words on the written page. There again, as they turned out to be such disasters, it would hardly boost his chances if he were able to refer to them. Some of the pages of the diary are filled in. Might there be something that would help him get the job? There could be clues inside, meetings, appointments, this sort of thing. Even though he is not conscious any earlier real life existence, might he in some esoteric way have a back-story? As a grown man he ought to have some kind of a past.

He does not get the chance to find out.

Ron New,’ the receptionist calls out. ‘Mr Sulky will see you now.’

The interview goes badly. He does not have the required experience in Appointment Cancelling. Mr Sulky tells him he has better things to do than listen to lame-dog excuses for his not being prepared. As Ron walks away, his dream of a maisonette or a caravan with a Tina or a Karen in a south of England seaside resort, modest though it might be, begins to fade. He begins to see shadows again where there are none. A Leonard Cohen tune starts up in his head. Black dogs appear once more, ready to pounce.

His mobile rings. The display tells him it is Doobie, whoever Doobie is.

Ronny, my man,’ the fevered voice on the line says. ‘Why haven’t you called me, dude?’

Sorry,’ Ron says. ‘Who are you exactly?’

Who am I, dude, who am I?’ Doobie says. ‘You’re jiving me, right?’

Ron doesn’t think he is jiving the stranger. He is not sure what jiving is. Other than a fifties dance where you twist your partner around to rock and roll music. How does he even know that? Where does language come from? How do you acquire your lexicon of words and expressions? How can he explain to this person on the line, this Doobie character, that this is the first phone conversation he has had in the real world? Does everyone call each other dude here, he wonders? How can he explain that until recently he was a fictional character? His understanding of the ways of the world is bound to be below average.

It’s Doobie. You were supposed to call me. Remember!’

Ron doesn’t remember.

Doobie tells him they need to meet up. Ron is not sure whether this is a warm invitation or a threat but with nothing else scheduled, he agrees. He doesn’t know where The Frisky Goat is. He asks Doobie for directions.

Sitting at a corner table in the garden of The Frisky Goat, it becomes apparent their association has a lot to do with the large bag of vegetable matter in Ron’s rucksack. It ought to have been in Doobie’s possession two days ago. Ron is fronting it and Doobie is to pay him when he has sold it. It does not immediately sound to him like a good arrangement. What if he never sees Doobie again? What insurance does he have? But, once again, being new to all this, he lets it go.

Ron is surprised when later that day, Doobie phones him again to say he has a large wad of cash for him. There are several noughts on the end. Could they meet up at The Mad Dog? It appears the trade in vegetable matter is a lucrative one. What a stroke of good fortune then that during the day, he inadvertently stumbled on another cache of the same vegetable matter. Doobie is certain to snap this up too. What Ron doesn’t understand is, as the stuff is worth so much, why do people hide it in such obvious places? A lean-to in a municipal park doesn’t seem a very secure hiding place for a valuable commodity. Still, where it came from or why it was there are not his concern. He feels after years as a down on his luck fictional character, he deserves a break.

Deal done, and several more like it, Ron has enough funds to look for somewhere to live. Matt Black of Black and White Lettings explains, as luck should have it, a spacious furnished ground-floor flat in a nice part of town has unexpectedly become available. Although it is usual to have to wait for background checks, as Ron seems to have loads of ready cash, Matt says if he wishes he can move in immediately.

It is often said things tend to happen in threes. Perhaps this might help to explain how, no sooner has Ron moved into Bougainvillea Heights than he meets foxy cover-girl, Tiffany Golden. It might also have something to do with the new Porsche that Ron has bought but they seem to hit it off right away and in no time at all, Tiffany has moved in with him.

Having had a taste of good fortune, Ron wants more. He wants to make his mark, become a name in the big world. Living at Bougainvillea Heights is alright for the time being in the British summer while the sun is shining. And certainly having the lovely Tiffany around helps. But, why would anyone want to be stuck in one place? With one set of options? The same faces every day. If he thought there was all there was, he might as well still be fictional. There’s a big world waiting for him.

Tiffany agrees. With her experience in making her way in the world, she encourages Ron. She too has ambitions. Together they thrash out ways to make more money. Mega bucks, she says with a glint in her eye. Sunday Times Rich List rich, Ron suggests. What then are the growth areas of commerce? Short selling on the stock market or investment in bitcoin might achieve results but they need a large stake to begin with. Then there are long-term bets like property, gold or even domain squatting? But these can hardly be seen as get rich quick ideas. What they need is a sure-fire money-making start-up.

They decide that in today’s dog-eat-dog world, their best chance to make a fortune is to get into the fake news business. There appears to be an insatiable appetite for fake news, the faker the better. Fake news is all produced by small individual organisations, each with a specific agenda. Hoax sites, hyper-partisan sites, false statistic sites all seek to add to media obfuscation but there what is lacking is a neutral mercenary professional agency. Someone whose only aim is to make stacks of cash from disseminating everyone’s lies. This is the gap in the market that they plan to plug by setting up youbetterbelieveit.com, a fake news generator and bogus facts checker. To cover all angles they also set up dontbelieveaword.com

Although they have every reason to feel their enterprise ought to be successful, the speed with which the idea is taken up by media groups surprises them. Their sites quickly become the turn-to sites for meme-makers and clickbaiters on social media, people of all political persuasions, religious groups and killer cults. Contradictory fake news items are splashed daily all over the internet, along with fake provenance should anyone be bothered to check. Each one provides a pay-off for Ron and Tiffany.

Detective Inspector Crooner is tired of being a fictional character brought into the limelight only when there is a Wet Blanket Ron story in the offing. Worse, while he has been waiting in the wings for a new caper, he has heard through the grapevine that Wet Blanket Ron is no longer a fictional character. By all accounts, Ron is making his way in the real world. Presumably, there being few storylines for a struggling small-town police inspector, he will now be axed. He wants his freedom from the printed page too. He wants to be a flesh and blood police inspector with a seaside constabulary somewhere perhaps in the south of England. Mrs Crooner has always wanted to live by the sea.

He would then be able to continue where he left off, apprehending Wet Blanket Ron for the type of bizarre crime that only a reprobate like Ron was capable of. Like the time he had nicked Ron for bringing down rock star, Johnny Angel’s helicopter. Or the time he had pulled him in for smuggling packets of time out of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This had earned him his promotion. It was reasonable to assume that a real life Ron would be up to no good.

The path to self-actualisation that developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow outlines in his Hierarchy of Needs is a complicated five-step process. First, you need your physiological needs and your safety needs to be met. You then need to belong to a social network and be able to develop self-esteem. But, before any of these things can happen, you need to not be fictional. Being fictional is the biggest obstacle of all to self-actualisation. Incredible then that along with Wet Blanket Ron, Inspector Crooner is able to make this leap. He finds himself at a seaside resort in the south of England, the same seaside resort as his old adversary.

Old habits die hard and in the blink of an eye, he is once again on Ron’s tail but this time it is for real. He has a real team of officers and a real police station. He has access to the real police computer and all its real Intel. Crime has moved on. Attention in the modern force is moving towards cybercrime. Crooner reads up on internet misuse. The Communications Act 2003 for instance makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character over a public electronic communications network. During his research into how widespread this is becoming, much to his delight, the name, Ron New keeps cropping up. Ron is alleged to have a monopoly on fake news websites in this part of the world. Well, well, well, he thinks, what a stroke of luck!

The Bizzies are outside,’ Tiffany shouts.

Ron would probably not understand what she was referring to but he cannot hear her above the music. He is listening to Wagner’s Götterdamerung, the dramatic immolation scene at the end of the opera. Birgit Nilsson as Brünhilde is belting it out. Ron has been giving himself a crash course in culture. Along with Fellini, Proust and Eliot, Wagner came highly recommended. He has made his way through fifteen hours of The Ring Cycle. The immolation scene is the climax of the whole work. Brünhilde is mounting her horse and riding into the flames. This apparently is the origin of the phrase, it’s not all over until the fat lady sings.

Tiffany shouts louder this time. ‘The Old Bill are here, Ron.’

What? Who?’

The Bill. ….. The police. They want to have a word.’

Tell them they will have to wait,’ Ron shouts back. ‘Or better still, come back another day. …… What do they want, anyway?’

Inspector Crooner does not seem keen on waiting, coming back another day or telling Tiffany what he wants. He and three other determined officers barge their way into the Bougainvillea Heights apartment. It does not appear that they have called round to tell Ron to keep the noise down. It’s possible they have something else on their minds.

What was that about the fat lady singing?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Darkness on the Edge of Town

darkness

Darkness on the Edge of Town by Chris Green

1:

Tim Soft is walking home along Marlboro Street. He feels he has had a wearying day at the office. He wishes it were Friday, but it’s only Tuesday. A vintage Chevrolet Impala pulls up alongside him, one of the ones with the harmonica front grille and the big tail fins. Tim notices that it has recently had a door replaced. The replacement door is pink while the original colour of the car, so far as he can tell in the advancing dusk, is blue. It’s unusual to see an American car on the streets these days, he reflects, but they do look good even with mismatched doors. Tim is a big fan of Americana, American cars, American music, American films, Breaking Bad and of course, Twin Peaks.

A pale-skinned man with a lean angular face leans across the bench seat and winds down the passenger side window. He has a wavy nineteen fifties-style quiff and a long scar running down his left cheek. Bruce Springsteen’s, Darkness on the Edge of Town is blaring out, a song Tim remembers from back in the day when he was sharing a house in Slumpton with Sid Hacker and Susie Q. That all seems a long time ago now. He likes to think he has matured since then. He likes to think he is more successful now. The Chevy driver turns The Boss down and in a gravelly voice asks for directions to Twin Peaks. How strange is that? He even looks like a Twin Peaks character. He has a faraway look in his eye and may be on drugs, Tim feels, probably hard drugs. But surely he must have misheard him. It’s easy to experience a degree of dissonance after a long day in a noisy publishing house staring at an iMac Pro.

Sorry,’ he says. ‘Where did you say?’

The driver looks him up and down menacingly. For a moment, Tim thinks he might be about to leap out of the car, grab him by the lapels and force him up against the wall.

Quinn Street, buddy,’ he says, finally.

Was this what he said originally, Tim wonders? It would be good to clear this up but he is not going to ask. It would not be a good idea to question the ruffian’s powers of diction. He decides to put the misunderstanding down to a mondegreen and try to forget all about Twin Peaks.

Tim is sure Quinn Street came up in conversation recently but can’t remember how or why. Was it maybe in connection with Razor Ramirez, a notorious local drug dealer, who he heard might have moved into this part of town? But then, why would the dude in the Chevy be asking him. He is wearing a smart suit, albeit without a tie. He remembers finding out that Marty Quinn was a local councillor in the nineteen eighties, since disgraced for his kerb-crawling conviction but he doesn’t imagine that the dude will be interested in local history. Nervously, Tim explains the directions as the driver revs the Chevy’s engine impatiently.

Past the entrance to the park, second left, left again, then …… third right,’ he says, hoping that he has got this right.

2:

When Tim gets home, he finds Judy is flustered. She looks dishevelled. Her make-up is smudged. He’s not sure but it looks like she might have been crying. When he had phoned her from work earlier to find out if he needed to get anything on the way home, she had cut him short saying there was someone at the door. It had seemed inconsequential at the time. He had thought no more of it.

Are you OK?’ he asks.

Judy appears to hesitate before she replies. Tim puts the hesitation down to her being upset. Now he comes to think of it, she has been a bit up and down lately and very prickly. At times he has felt he is treading on eggshells. He is no longer sure how to react.

What’s wrong?’ he says, putting his arm around her. ‘Who’s upset you? ……… Was it something to do with whoever was at the door when I phoned?’

Judy pushes his arm away.

I had just got home from the …… hairdressers,’ she says, doing her best to avoid his gaze. ‘And someone …….. called round …… for you.’

Who?’ he asks. Having been married now for nine years, Tim does not get many casual visitors.

Big guy, black leather, slicked back hair,’ she says. ‘He had a …… a piercing stare. He said I’m looking for Tim Soft. I told him you weren’t here but he didn’t seem happy about it.’

Tim is taken aback. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t know anyone like the fellow she is describing. Not these days, anyway. One hoodlum lurking in the area was odd enough. Surely it is unreasonable for another one to appear so soon. This is a quiet suburban estate. He wonders whether Judy is making it up. But, why would she?

He was …… very threatening,’ Judy continues. ‘I asked him what he wanted to see you about and he said you would know.’

I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ Tim says. So far as he knows he does not owe money and can’t think of anyone he might have upset recently.

He had a strange accent,’ Judy says. ‘Foreign, yet not foreign. He looked like someone out of that David Lynch show you made me watch. The one with the man from another place and that ridiculous talking tree.’

Another reference to Twin Peaks. Working in publishing, Tim is of the belief that the fictional world should stay where it belongs, whether this be the written page, cinema or television and not spill over into real life. Especially now that he has completed the graphics and layout for the Twin Peaks illustrated publication and put it to bed.

The thing is, Tim, he said he was going to call back,’ Judy adds. ‘Perhaps we ought to go out.’

Good idea,’ Tim says. ‘What about that new bar?’

3:

After his third bottle of Double Bastard at The Sizzling Squid, Tim still feels nervous about returning home. Normally Double Bastard relaxes him but he has a bad feeling about something. He is not sure what but something is not quite right.

Surely no-one is going to call round after ten,’ Judy says, looking at her watch. Her three glasses of Albanian Shiraz seem to have calmed her. Tim suspects she may also have secretly taken one or two of the happy pills that Dr Ranatunga prescribed. Perhaps Dr Ranatunga might have been a little remiss. They appear to make her behaviour unpredictable.

But what if our caller is lying in wait?’ he says. ‘I think I’ll just have one more beer.’

We can’t stay out all night,’ Judy says when Tim returns from the bar. ‘Are you coming?’

Even though it is a short distance, chivalry dictates that Tim not allow Judy to walk home alone but chivalry has never been his strong suit. Especially after nine years of marriage. Besides, he now has another beer to finish.

I’ll be right behind you,’ he says.

Tim does not believe he has ever seen anyone quite so tall as the forbidding figure he suddenly finds standing over him. At first, he thinks the huge fellow must be some kind of hallucination brought on by the Double Bastard but the hallucination refuses to go away. The colossus stands silently, a good seven feet tall, not seven feet from him, staring fixedly in his direction. He is formally dressed. Like a club steward. Or perhaps even the giant in Twin Peaks. More likely a club steward though in this situation. Whoever it is, the big fellow seems unhappy about something. What has he done to upset him? Maybe it is time for him to leave. He might even be able to catch up with Judy.

4:

Tim makes his way unsteadily through the night. As he turns into Viceroy Terrace, up ahead of him, he spots the Chevy with the mismatched door. Right outside his house. His initial instinct is to make himself scarce. No sense in looking for trouble. He could perhaps drop in on his brother, Tom. He owes him a visit. There again, Tom’s partner, also called Tom seems to have taken a dislike to him. Tom and Tom probably wouldn’t appreciate him calling round drunk at ten o’clock at night. And, of course, there is Judy to consider. She might be in danger and it would be all his fault. For that matter, she might even already be bound and gagged in the back of the car. He steels himself and strides purposely up the street towards the vehicle. It has its engine running, Bruce Springsteen’s Point Blank blaring through the open window. As he gets closer, the driver gives a final rev of the engine and the car pulls away. Tim cannot see Judy inside the car but it occurs to him that the thug might have bundled her into the boot. This is the kind of thing that would happen in Twin Peaks.

He unlocks his front door. The house is in darkness. Not a good sign. He calls out Judy’s name. There is no reply. Frenziedly, he darts around the house looking for her. Surely she would be home by now even if she had taken a detour through Lark Park and along Chesterfield Avenue. Yet, she is not home. He dials her number but to his dismay, he hears her phone ringing in the next room. Why doesn’t she ever take the thing with her? What’s the point in having a mobile if you leave it at home?

He rummages around looking for clues. He does not know quite what he is looking for. He takes a look at her phone. There are several missed calls other than his. The phone does not record the caller’s number. He scrolls through the numbers she has dialled. He doesn’t recognise any of them. But then, he can hardly remember his own number. He opens up the Camera Roll folder. Flicking through, he sees that one of the photos looks like the hoodlum who was driving the Chevy. He can’t believe it. How can this be? He takes a closer look. It is a photo of him. There is no doubt about it. There’s the Chevrolet Impala in the background. And there’s another. In this one, he is with a group of people at some kind of outdoor event. He doesn’t like the look of them one bit. Here’s a selfie. Chevy Man has his arm around Judy. What is that all about? Is she having an affair? With that hoodlum? Should he have noticed some warning signs? Were there some clues he might have spotted. He comes across a random address scribbled on a scrap of paper by her laptop. Razor, 66 Quinn Street. Surely this can’t be right. How on earth would she know Razor? Then it dawns on him. She must be buying drugs. It’s the only explanation. If she is buying drugs, it would help to explain a few things. This would explain the happy pills. Her mood swings. How had it all come to this? He begins to wonder if perhaps he might have become too involved with the fictional world of Twin Peaks and taken his eye off the ball.

5:

Whatever Tim’s feelings might be at this moment in time, Judy is to all intents and purposes, missing. Unless she was on her way to meet her supposed lover when she left the pub and he was on his way to meet her when he sped off, it would appear she is not even with him. So there must be another explanation. Tim has a dilemma. Should he sit and back and thank his lucky stars that he has caught her out in her deceit? Or, should he set about finding what has happened to her just in case it is something calamitous? Clearly, he can’t report her to the police as a missing person. Given the circumstances, they would just laugh at him. He could phone around the numbers on her mobile to see if anyone has an idea where she might be but once again, given the circumstances, he would be subjecting himself to ridicule. He could take a trip round to 66 Quinn Street. Probably a longshot and wary about the hostile reception he would be likely to get, he decides to give it a miss. All he can do, he feels, is sit tight and see what happens. Judy’s phone rings. Unrecognised number says the display and when he answers it, the caller hangs up. Weren’t mobile phones designed to simplify life?

6:

When one parameter in your life changes, you often find that everything else changes. Perhaps it is linked in some way to chaos theory or a variation of the domino effect. When it is a negative development you might throw in the expression, slippery slope. Tim’s life seems to be on a downward run. When he goes into work the following morning, sleep-deprived and hungover, he finds himself summoned to his boss’s office. His work lately has not been up to scratch, Carson Gaye tells him and the work on the Twin Peaks publication, in particular, was shoddy, full of mistakes that should have been corrected before it went to print. His services are no longer required. He is sacked.

When Tim gets back home Judy still hasn’t returned. There are more missed calls on her phone from the same unrecognised number as the previous evening. Tim is now convinced that something untoward has happened. He is about to call the police when, to his puzzlement, they arrive mob-handed on his doorstep. They have not come about Judy’s disappearance however but to search the house for drugs. Detective Sergeant Badger shows him the warrant, issued that very morning. Acting on a tip-off, he explains. When asked the routine question, is there anything that shouldn’t be here, Tim tells him that he is wasting his time. Of course, there are no drugs in the house. D. S. Badger laughs and tells him that everyone says that but in his experience, it usually means the opposite. Tim continues to remonstrate as burly officers in fatigues begin to turn the house upside down.

Here it is, guv,’ the one with the buzz cut and the neck tattoos says, slitting open a sealed package the size of an airline bag that, like a magician, he appears to have pulled out from underneath the staircase.

Good work, Scuzzi,’ the Sergeant says. ‘That’s what we’re looking for.’

Badger tells Tim it is probably the largest cache of crystal meth he has ever come across. How can this have happened, Tim wonders? Crystal meth is something he thought only existed in Breaking Bad or spoof documentaries about fictional rock bands. The police must have somehow planted it. He suggests this is a set-up, breaking into a rant about police malpractice. His protests go unheeded. He is cuffed and taken down to the station to be charged.

While Tim is waiting for his solicitor to arrive, he feels that not even his brother Tom’s friend, Wet Blanket Ron could match the speed of his change of fortune. In just twenty four hours, he has managed to go from happily-married, devil-may-care, graphic designer living in a plush house on a well-positioned estate to paranoid, estranged, international drugs smuggler confined to a foetid cell, looking forward to a long stretch in Wormwood Scrubs or Belmarsh. Surely not even Ron could claim such a rapid fall from grace.

Is it Murphy’s Law, Tim wonders, that states that when you think things cannot get any worse, they do? Something along those lines, anyway. Is it Smith’s Law that suggests that Murphy was an optimist? While Tim is trying to remember exactly which of the amateur philosophers stated what, still believing in his heart of hearts that things can’t really get worse, he learns that Judy’s mutilated body was found earlier in the canal. Estimated time of death, Inspector Dawlish Warren from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command informs him was between midnight and 6 am this morning. The Inspector takes it a step further and tells him that he is the prime suspect. Can he account for his movements between those times?

7:

Tim’s solicitor introduces himself. ‘Dario Chancer of Gallagher, Shed and Chancer.’

Thank God you are here, Mr Chancer,’ Tim says. ‘I’ve been going crazy in this bloody place.’

OK. Let’s get straight down to it then, Mr Soft,’ Chancer says. ‘This drugs business first, I think. What’s the story with that?’

I’ve no idea where the package came from,’ Tim says. ‘The police must have planted it.’

Some work to do there then,’ Chancer says. ‘The police don’t often admit planting evidence. At least not voluntarily. Now! I think it might be easier to try and build a case around the drugs being your wife’s. After all, I understand Judy Soft is dead. She won’t be able to argue. For a small consideration, I think we might be able to get a few witnesses to testify to Judy’s drug activities, if you catch my drift. ……… Which brings us on to the murder. First question I have to ask you is, are you guilty? Did you kill Judy?’

Of course not,’ Tim says.

So you’ll have an alibi for last night,’ Chancer says. ‘Someone who can confirm where you were between midnight and six?’

Not exactly, no,’ Tim says. ‘I was at home on my own, worrying myself silly.’

Not so good. It would certainly make our job easier if you did have an alibi,’ Chancer says. ‘Still! We can work on one.’

‘Do you have any suggestions, Mr Chancer?’

Well. Let me see. … H’mm. …… I wonder. Listen! You might think this is a little unconventional but I’ve used it once before and it seemed to work then. ……. Do you happen to watch Twin Peaks by any chance?’

As a matter of fact, I do. I’m a big fan. I …….. ‘

Then you will be familiar with a character called Garland Briggs.’

Of course. Major Briggs was abducted by aliens.’

That’s right. He was sucked up into a vortex.’

Indeed. But how does this help?’

You could say that at 11 last night, you were walking home when you were suddenly sucked up off the street by a vortex and not returned until, let’s say to be on the safe side, ten this morning. And you can’t account for the time spent in the other place. It’s all a bit of a blur. Perhaps you might come up with some gobbledegook about the white lodge or the black lodge and perhaps throw in a dwarf or two and a talking tree for good measure. Now! Just one thing. You haven’t told them anything so far, have you? You know. Anything that might incriminate you?’

No. I’ve said nothing. I was waiting for you to get here.’

Good! Only if you had, it would be difficult to say that the alien abduction had just slipped your mind.’

You don’t think that perhaps, it’s a bit …… far out for a defence, then.’

We could back it up with some testimonies from expert witnesses.’

Expert witnesses?’

Hardcore Ufologists. And maybe a die-hard Twin Peaks fan.’

But, the thing is I didn’t do it, Mr Chancer. I didn’t kill Judy. I’m innocent. Not only that I want the bastard who did kill her brought to justice.’

But as you’ve told me, Mr Soft. You don’t have an alibi. You haven’t had much experience of the judicial system, have you? No alibi translates as guilty in a court of law.’

8:

In HM Prison Wakefield where Tim Soft is serving his thirty year stretch, he is allowed no visitors. Even the prison warders are vetted before they can enter his cell. He has been well and truly removed from society. But, if you were a fly on the wall in his cell, you just might hear Tim humming Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It appears to be an obsession. There are no posters of Rita Hayworth, but you would find the walls of his cell covered in posters of vintage Chevrolet cars. Another obsession. Then there is all his arcane talk about extra-dimensional connected spaces, the black lodge and the white lodge. Psychiatrists have been unable to penetrate the dark deluded world that Tim inhabits.

Some might argue that he was unfortunate to get a prison sentence at all as by many people’s reckoning, he could be considered insane. As it happened, Tim changed his story daily during the trial and kept changing his plea. He did not seem to know what time of day it was and on occasions, could not remember his name. But, as is often the case, his eventual plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ failed to impress. The court did not believe that he had been abducted by aliens or that he was being instructed by a talking tree. No-one was listening. It was felt that his crimes were too serious.

The court heard how Tim had weaved a web of deceit and treachery, taking in all those who had the misfortune to come into contact with him. He had pretended to be a respectable citizen while in reality, he was running a ruthless drugs empire. Countless casualties lay in the wake of his underworld activities. How he managed to get with his duplicity for so long was a mystery. By the time of his trial, even his friends and family were lining up to testify against him. His brother Tom explained how, as a boy, Tim used to torture the family pets, and not just the gerbils and hamsters. The court heard how his long-suffering wife, Judy had been the victim of his abuse for years. On that fateful night, Tim had gone on the rampage, killing two men in The Sizzling Squid in cold blood before brutally bludgeoning Judy to death and dumping her body in the canal. No matter how unbalanced he was, he was not going to get away with a soft sentence in a rehabilitation facility.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

itdoesntmatteranymore

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Chris Green

I have just taken delivery of a large pot of gloss sealer when the call comes through on the burner. I was not expecting to be back in action so soon. I was hoping to finish off some painted ornamental stones, a hobby I’ve taken up to keep me mellow and mindful in between assignments. Art therapy, I suppose you would call it. Then perhaps spend the weekend with Sakura in Juan-les-Pins. But this is the way it is with sleeper agents. A few weeks of leisure in quiet surroundings followed by what might be weeks of uncertainty, dicing with death.

I send Sakura a text message saying I’ve been called away on business and then I turn off my personal mobile. I do not go into detail. I tell her, it’s a last-minute thing and my phone will be out of range for a while. Sakura doesn’t know what I do for a living. She thinks I’m a reclusive writer. When the time is right, I will tell her but for now, it’s best to observe the security procedures that go with my position. In my world, everything is on a need-to-know basis.

Although I have been signed up for three years, I have never met Ж, the head honcho of Department Z but rumours circulate. It is said Ж is famous for his riddles. Perhaps they help him diffuse the seriousness of the business we are in. He tells me I am to rendezvous with Buddy Holly at Gloucester Services on the M5 in Southern England. I don’t imagine that Buddy Holly is his real name. For that matter, I’m not sure that Buddy Holly was Buddy Holly’s real name.

I have no difficulty in finding my contact. I can see right away why Ж referred to him as Buddy Holly. With the trademark thick black spectacles, charcoal nineteen-fifties suit and slim red tie, he is the spitting image. I expect him to pick up a Stratocaster and start belting out Peggy Sue at any moment. He doesn’t. With the Department’s bear’s paw handshake, he introduces himself formally as Ћ. We sometimes never get to be on last name terms with our associates, let alone first names. The degree of familiarity depends on the level of security needed for a particular operation. This one is Category X, the highest category. There will probably not too many opportunities then to discuss the durability of Winsor and Newton acrylics here or the new exhibition of Cornish Modernists that is starting at Tate St Ives. Significant upheaval must be taking place.

A phonecall from Ж establishes what we are being assigned to investigate. It is indeed a biggie. North of Gloucester, he tells us, it is no longer getting light in the mornings as it should in April. The further north you go, the later the dawn is. In Birmingham, the clouds peel back after 9 and by the time you get to Sheffield, the dawn chorus arrives around 10:15. He says it is a mystery what might be causing this. Surprisingly not everyone in these areas has even noticed the anomaly and for some reason, it is not being reported in the press. Not even the weather-obsessed Daily Express is covering it. The implications are huge. Our remit is to find out what is happening and why it is happening.

I can’t help but be curious as to why I have been selected as I do not have a scientific background. Certainly not one in Physics. My background is in the Arts. Literature to be specific, magical realism. I can conjure up a carnivorous jungle or a bottomless well out of nothing. Talking cats are a speciality. So why has Ж selected me? Perhaps that is it. Perhaps it is precisely because of my creative credentials. But, surely Ж should know, magical realism is not the same as sci-fi. The essence of the puzzle would seem to sit easier with the latter. I don’t know how I should interpret it but Ћ says he only reads sci-fi. He tells me he has been recruited from Black Ops. To put it crudely, he eliminates people.

I find I can’t get on with addressing my companion as Ћ. Sometimes all this cloak and dagger seems too oppressive. I tell him I’ll call him Buddy instead. It seems only fitting. He says he will reciprocate by calling me, Ray. On account of the Ray Bans I’ve taken to wearing on assignments I assume. Or perhaps it is an allusion to Ray Charles.

Where do we begin on this one?’ I ask. ‘Everything seems a bit vague. To add to this, there’s the oddity that apparently people are split on whether anything is happening. Some say it is dark in the mornings but yet others say it isn’t. In fact about fifty-fifty according to the report I’ve just downloaded.

Fifty two-forty eight to be precise, Ray,’ Buddy says.

I might be wrong but those numbers seem to be familiar,’ I say.

I thought I’d heard them somewhere too,’ Buddy says. ‘But I can’t place where. Anyway, best we start asking some people what’s going on. Let’s see how their experiences differ as we move north.’

It hasn’t been a sudden thing, by any means, bab,’ Les Yardley tells us in Wolverhampton. ‘For the last two years or so, every morning things have been just a little greyer than they were the day before. Not the kind of thing you notice at first, mind, particularly in winter but when spring comes round you think to yourself, hang on, the streetlights are still on. It is still dark. The trees aren’t coming into leaf and the birds aren’t singing.’ Father McKenzie in Stafford is more emphatic. He says it has been so dark that businesses have begun to move out. All the automotive assembly plants have now gone. The queues at the church food banks, he says, are colossal. In a word, the future’s looking grim. May Loos in North Norfolk tells us it doesn’t get light until the afternoon and when it does, it usually rains. But, she says, oddly enough, the people in her parts don’t seem to care. They seem to like it this way. It’s as if it’s what they always wanted. Either this or they haven’t noticed that all the other cars they meet on the A149 have their lights on all day and the big skies over the county reflect the title for that erotic novel everyone was reading a while back.

It’s a strange situation. I realise it is part of the human condition that everyone sees things differently. A Rothko painting, for instance, might be seen by some as blots of blurry colour, perhaps painted by a myopic child but to others, it is a transcendent statement, a work of true genius. But even so, it is difficult to explain the staggering variation in existential perception Buddy and I are coming across as we make our way up-country. As the figures suggest, opinion about what, if anything, is happening is split down the middle. Although it now seems more people are able to detect that there has been some sort of change for the worse, whether it be the delayed dawn, the increased rainfall or the astonishing job losses. Many of those we speak to tell us it is now a rarity to see a smile on the street. Children no longer play in the parks. Perhaps if you were to take stock now, the numbers might now come out at seventy-thirty.

I tell Buddy that while some of the people we are speaking to will inevitably be prone to exaggeration, the North is not at all how I remember it. It is a shadow of its former self. It is as if the colour has been drained from it, its vital energy sapped. Buddy agrees. He’s only been up this way once before but the thing that struck him then was how friendly people were. They don’t seem so friendly now. They are sullen, dispirited. Like those matchstick figures in those Lowry paintings, he suggests.

We drive on, still puzzled by what exactly our mission might be. How on earth could our respective fields of expertise be put to any use in this bizarre situation? There’s possibly not going to be much need here for a parallel universe filled with kites or, for that matter, all that ordnance Buddy has brought along. What course of action are we meant to take? We decide for the moment to hold off in reporting back. Perhaps there is something we have not yet grasped about where our skills might come in.

We arrive in the north-east, Tyne and Wear. It is lunchtime. The streets of Sunderland are still dark. There is a steady drizzle. A queue of drenched downtrodden looking locals are queueing outside a boarded-up Morrisons supermarket. Word is going around that there has been a delivery and it will open its doors soon. They will be able to buy bread and maybe potatoes.

This is all down to a big mistake we made two years ago, kidder,’ a thick-set man tells us. Despite the wintry drizzle, he is decked out in builders-cut jeans and t-shirt. ‘In that voting malarkey. We thought we was being canny by saying we wanted out. Thought it would stop the flow of foreigners. That’s what The Sun was saying. They were giving out free copies of The Sun at Morrisons. And then there was that red bus with all that bollocks written on the side. Parked it in the square over there, they did. Anyway, we can’t go back now, can we? If only we could. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. ……. Wait a minute! …….. You’re Buddy Holly, aren’t you? Not Back to the Future or something is it?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved