Tilting At Windmills

tiltingatwindmills

Tilting At Windmills by Chris Green

There was always something about Karl Oscuro that didn’t fit. You couldn’t quite put your finger on what it was, but from the very first he seemed to be more than just the proverbial square peg. He had a pale complexion and always dressed in black, but then, so did many others. This was becoming a fashionable look around the campus, probably down to the influence of the Midnight television series. Everyone stayed up to watch Midnight.

Karl kept himself to himself and didn’t go for any of our organised activities. He didn’t even go to the Student’s Union, but then who could blame him? All those loud malingerers with inflated opinions of themselves. And the odious smell of Lynx mixed with beer. In lectures Karl always sat alone and when he spoke at all, which was seldom, he spoke softly, with no trace of an accent. He was tall and thin, but then my Uncle Angus was six feet seven and he was the most conventional man you could wish to meet. The word was that Karl listened to Bruckner and Mahler on his ipod, but none of us knew this for certain. None of us had got that close.

It was Louise who noticed it first. A group of us were leaving the Technology block in the late November sunshine. We were making our way in small groups or alone in the direction of the old gothic library building, not that any of us were going to the library. It was too early in the term for that. The Autumn shadows were long, but Louise saw to her alarm that Karl did not cast a shadow. She let out a silent scream, tugged at my arm and pulled me aside to point this out. I could see straight away what she was showing me. It was plain as the proverbial pikestaff. Karl had no shadow. All the other students’ shadows were behaving as they should, but Karl did not have one. My God! How was it we had not noticed this before? We were now nearly two months into the term.

Hanging back from the others so as not to draw attention to ourselves, we continued to silently register our horror. We did double takes and triple takes but each time we turned back, it merely became more apparent that Karl’s figure made no shadow. Why hadn’t the other students walking in the same direction spotted it? Karl was still only a few feet away from them. How could they be so unobservant? How had we been so observant for so long? Why could we see it now when the others still could not.

Louise and I made a decision there and then to keep this to ourselves for the moment, just in case. In campus life, embarrassment could take months to live down. Especially after our giant poodle sighting that turned out to be a tree. We did not want to be accused of tilting at windmills again.

I had an arts background but Louise had a science one.

‘What exactly is a shadow, I mean scientifically speaking?’ I asked. ‘Could there be something here we are missing?’

‘A shadow,’ Louise explained, ‘occurs when an opaque or translucent object lets say in this instance a human body blocks light.’

‘I think I get that much,’ I said.

‘As long as there is a light source there will be a shadow, Melanie,’ she continued. ‘Only transparent objects do not make shadows. The light passes straight through, you see.’

She carried on to tell me about umbra, penumbra and antumbra being three distinct parts of a shadow. And how Karl had none of these. The light must be passing straight through him as though he were transparent.

Louise and I decided to skip our early evening lectures and keep a low profile for the rest of the day while we tried to regroup our thoughts. We returned to our flat, situated in on the edge of the old town just a stone’s throw from the campus. In order to shut out as much of college life as possible, we turned off our phones. We did not want to be disturbed by Emma, or Amy or Jade blabbering on about Skins or Misfits, or even Tarquin or Hugh bringing round a cheap bottle of Shiraz and telling us how hot we were.

It is one thing seeing Karl without his shadow but that isn’t half so weird or scary as seeing Karl’s shadow without Karl. While we could not be sure that what we were seeing from our window moving stealthily across the courtyard under the street-light was Karl’s shadow, given the circumstances it did seem to us more than a possibility. The shadow was long and thin and distinctly Karl-shaped right down the shape of the drainpipe trousers and black leather biker’s jacket he was fond of wearing. It moved across the flagstones at walking pace until it was out of range of the light. But there was no Karl.

At first, we were completely freaked out. This was the stuff of The X Files. But we quickly realised we ought to find out what was going on. We needed a reality check here. Another quixotic gaffe would be disastrous.

‘Everyone should have a shadow,’ I said. ‘I have a shadow, you have a shadow. Why doesn’t Karl Oscuro have a shadow?’

‘Who knows?’ said Louise. ‘Perhaps it was a trick of the light.’

‘I know that you don’t think that,’ I said.

‘I guess you are right,’ said Louise.

‘So, we’ll follow him tomorrow and see where he lives,’ I said. ‘And introduce ourselves. He’s probably ……. very nice.’

We were offered our opportunity the following day. Karl was just leaving the campus by a side entrance into Bygone Street, striding out with his lumbering gait. The unseasonable late afternoon sun was once again behind him, but still he cast no shadow. There were not many people about, so Louise and I had to tail him from a respectable distance, so as not to arouse suspicion. Bygone Street turns into Yore Street and it was here that we lost him. It was not so much that he disappeared into thin air as there was a choice of several four storey nineteenth-century buildings into which he might have vanished. Divided into a warren of smaller units by exploitative landlords, this block would be housing perhaps hundreds of students. It would not have been easy to discover which one Karl had disappeared into, had it not been for the movement of a curtain on the lower ground floor of number 9. We caught a glimpse of the profile of a tall dark figure pulling them shut.

The following morning we lay in wait nearby, ready to accidentally bump into him. He recognised us and slowly we began to strike up a conversation with him as we walked to college. We chatted awkwardly about famous landmarks, motorcycles, and saxophones. We moved on to paintings. This was more fruitful ground. When I had time I liked to paint and it transpired Karl too was a keen amateur artist. He told us he had often visited the galleries since he had been here. He had a particular fondness for the work of Belgian surrealist, René Magritte. He loved the provocative kitsch of Magritte’s paintings, the whimsical juxtapositions of everyday objects. He explained that Surrealism had been outlawed in his country. It was only since coming here that he had come across it. I asked him if he liked Dali. He hesitated in his reply. I wondered if this might be because of all the foreboding shadows in Dali’s paintings.

I needn’t have worried. At that moment, the sun broke through and gave us the opportunity we were looking for. Our shadows were there standing up to be counted, but Karl’s was conspicuously absent from the party. When we pointed out this out in the nicest possible way, Karl was unexpectedly forthcoming.

‘In the country I come from,’ he said. ‘It is not uncommon for people to lose their shadows.’

With this, Karl began to tell us horror stories of shadows being forcibly cut from their owners by unscrupulous surgeons, broken down and dissolved by ruthless experimental chemists or driven away by arcane psychiatric practitioners.

‘How awful,’ I said. ‘And something like that happened to you?’

‘No. It was different for me. I managed to keep my shadow, but ironically it left me the moment I stepped off the boat having arrived here,’ he said. ‘Not so much as a by your leave. Perhaps it thought its chances were not good and it became fearful of what might become of it if it stayed with me. So I have not had a shadow since I’ve been here. I have learned to live with this but I am aware that from time to time people like yourselves must notice. That is why I keep myself to myself.’

Louise and I looked at one another. Was the time right?

‘I think I may have seen your shadow,’ I blurted out.

Karl was visibly shaken. ‘You can’t have,’ he uttered. ‘That is impossible.’

‘Perhaps your shadow has come looking for you,’ said Louise.

‘Are you sure it’s mine? Where did you see it? Where was it? Tell me,’ said Karl, urgently.

‘It was long and lean and was the same shape and size as you in the clothes you are wearing,’ I said, gesticulating to him. ‘And, it was making its way across the courtyard beneath our flat in Yesterday Street. It was lit up by the streetlights.’

‘Where’s Yesterday Street?’ said Karl.

‘It’s on the other side of the campus about half a mile from here,’ I said. ‘It’s in the old town, close to our flat. We can take you there if you like.’

There is a network of cobbled streets, Tudor buildings and the ruins of a castle on our side of the campus. This was part of the original walled city and it is steeped in antiquity and folklore. For much of the day, the three of us explored the narrow roads and alleys searching for Karl’s shadow, sheltering occasionally from an unwelcome November rain shower. We all realised there was no chance of seeing a shadow while there were clouds overhead. Karl continued to open up and gradually we got to know him. We found out he had come to this country to escape a vicious regime in his own. He explained that back home there was a clan system in place and the ruling elite looked down on the Oscuro clan and persecuted them mercilessly.

‘Only to find the same here,’ I joked. ‘It can happen even in a democracy.’ Quentin Thief’s elitist government had just been re-elected with a large majority, with just 35 per cent of the vote. Daily we were getting announcements on how they planned to deal with ethnic minorities and the poor. Shadow surgery had yet to be suggested but Quentin Thief was not a man you could trust.

Late in the afternoon, the sun came back out. We sat on a bench on Antediluvian Street by the old preparatory school building, that Brycks and Mortimer Developments had acquired to convert into retirement apartments. We watched the long shadow’s of passers-by, all neatly in step with their owners. Suddenly we caught a glimpse of a rogue shadow, darting behind the stone wall between the museum and the old saddler’s. Was this the moment we had all been waiting for? Karl became excited at the sight of his shadow. Understandably so, this was the shadow that he thought he had lost for ever. He lapsed into his native tongue. As for Louise and I, we felt a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. We really had no idea what to expect.

No sooner had we got a fix on the shadow however than it vanished. Being two-dimensional, shadows can disappear behind other shadows or make their way into places that we cannot reach. But there were other questions demanding answers. Were we talking material world here, or was this the realm of the spirit world? Was any of this really happening? Here and now? There were many things that Louise felt we could no longer be sure of.

After keeping us on tenterhooks for what seemed like hours but may have been a matter of seconds, the shadow appeared again from its hiding place. To our greater astonishment, it was now accompanied by a second shadow. This one was of a female form. The two shadows began shadow dancing.

‘Oh My God! That looks like Valentina,’ said Karl.

‘Who?’ I asked.

‘Valentina. Valentina Kohl, a girl that I used to see back home. She was training to be a dancer. The rulers encouraged performing arts. This should have helped to protect Valentina. But unfortunately, like the Oscuros the Kohls too were a persecuted clan.’

‘And Valentina came over on the boat too, did she? Louise asked.

‘That’s the thing. I don’t know what happened to her. You see the Oscuros and the Kohls may have both been out of favour with the elite, but they were also rival clans. A bit like the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet by your William Shakespeare. Valentina and I had to meet in secret. When I knew I was leaving, I was hoping I would see her one last time, but the guards prevented it.’

‘If this is her then she may have come over too,’ I said.

‘I’m certain that it is her,’ said Karl.

‘Well, what are we waiting for?’ said Louise.

‘I’m not sure what’s supposed to happen here. I don’t know how to get my shadow to come back to me and I don’t know where I might find Valentina.’

While we wanted to see this as a half empty view, we conceded that he did have a point. Things had suddenly become more complicated.

‘Supposing you were able to find Valentina, then you and Valentina could try to recover your shadows together,’ I said

‘But how am I going to find Valentina?’ said Karl.

‘What about social media? Kohl is not a common name,’ said Louise.

‘I’m afraid that it is a common name in my country.’ said Karl. ‘I had a look on Facebook and there were nearly fifty Valentina Kohls.’

‘Well, there you go then.’ I said.

‘Don’t you think I didn’t try that,’ said Karl. ‘None of them were the right Valentina Kohl.’

‘We will help you,’ I said, but I had to admit I did not know where to start.

We thrashed out the possibilities and agreed that we would continue to meet, but Louise and I never saw Karl again, or his shadow. He vanished without a trace. No one seemed to know where he had gone. In fact, the few people we asked around the campus did not know who we were talking about. In the end to save ourselves more embarrassment we stopped asking. Karl did not even show when in another twist of fate Valentina Kohl turned up at our local pub, The Blind Poet. Her band, Chimera were fabulous. Valentina had a voice like the singer of the Cocteau Twins. And she danced like Kate Bush. As she danced, she cast a shadow under the stage lights.

We were able to speak to Valentina after the set. She had not heard of Karl Oscuro.

‘I do not know this Karl Oscuro,’ she said. ‘Is he a taxi driver maybe?’

I told her I did not think so unless he had done it as a summer job.

‘He is at college with us,’ said Louise. ‘At least, he was.’

‘I think that he has a good name, though,’ said Valentina. ‘Perhaps one of you is a writer.’

I don’t know what to believe anymore. When I start to think about it, strange things have been happening since that week back in July. Neither Louise or I have any recollection of the events of the week. To this day no one can explain what happened to us. All I can recall is that we were on a backpacking holiday in Morocco and our coach got lost in the desert. I do not even know why we were in the desert. We were travelling from Casablanca to Marrakesh. Desert was not on the itinerary. Something must have happened to take us off course. The whole week disappeared thus.

Louise sometimes questions whether we even went to Morocco. She says she does not remember being on a coach, has no recollection of Casablanca except that it was a film, and thinks Marrakesh is a song by Crosby Stills and Nash, whoever they are. She says if we were on a coach that got lost there would have been others to corroborate our story and it would have been on the news. She thinks we may have spent the week busking in a Paris subway. She says that she has a vague recollection of Sacha Distel giving us a 50 Euro note. When I tell her that Sacha Distel has been dead for over ten years, she says ‘Oh well, so it goes.’ It can be difficult to get a grip on reality sometimes.

Whatever really happened, since that week we have encountered all manner of weirdness, people walking through walls, the television switching itself on in the middle of the night, a caracal sleeping at the foot of the bed, that sort of thing. I came home one day to find a cumulus cloud in the front room. Louise tells me the rubber plant sometimes talks to her. I suppose we should be prepared for occasional surprises until these anomalies sort themselves out.

‘Oh my God, is that a porcupine in the fridge, eating the cottage cheese?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Advertisements

The Moons of Uranus

themoonsofuranus

The Moons of Uranus by Chris Green

‘Look, Sean! There are some avocets,’ says Mara, excitedly. ‘They are avocets, aren’t they?’

Mara turns and notices that instead of looking out of the window at the expanse of estuary they are passing, Sean is studying his train ticket.

‘You’ve been poring over that ticket for about ten minutes,’ Mara says. ‘Is there a problem with it?’

‘Has it been that long?’ Sean says. ‘No. No problem, dear.’

‘Don’t you want to see the wading birds?’ Mara says. ‘This is the best time to see them. The tide’s just going out. Look! There’s a curlew.’

‘Sorry,’ Sean says. ‘I got distracted. I’ve not noticed it before but there’s lots of interesting information on a train ticket. For instance ….. ‘

‘You’ve been getting …… distracted a lot lately,’ Mara says. ‘We don’t have many days out together. You could at least try to enjoy it.’

I am enjoying it,’ Sean says. ‘It’s just …… ‘

‘I couldn’t help but notice you were studying the menu at the station café earlier, long after we had ordered. And we only went in for a cup of tea. You’re behaving rather strange lately. What’s the matter with you?’

‘It’s always worth knowing what a railway station café has on offer,’ Sean says. ‘This particular menu was well presented on good thick card and nicely laminated. And it was set in an unusual typeface. I was trying to work out what the font was. I think it might have been ……’

‘And I could be wrong but it looked to me as if you were counting the ceramic tiles on the kitchen wall yesterday. What was that all about?’

Sean is about to tell her that there are 5,096 one inch squares, made up of 104 blocks of 49. But, he stops himself. He doesn’t want to admit to Mara that he is aware he has become more anal of late. He can’t put his finger on what might be causing it but he finds he becomes interested in unlikely things that just a few weeks ago, he would not have given a thought to. He has to find out all he can. It’s like a compulsion. He can’t seem to help himself.

While Mara was away on a training course recently, he caught an episode of One Man and His Dog on the BBC and before he knew it, he was binge-watching all the episodes that were available on catch-up TV. Twenty four of them in all. He had to take a day off work to fit in all his viewing. He even took a trip around the local countryside to take photos of sheep and then made a collage of the best shots in the design program on his iMac. Then, for no apparent reason, he became fascinated by Quoits. He read up on the rules and the history of the sport and became familiar with the names of all the top players. He even joined one or two Quoits forums. Which somehow led him to snooker. After watching hours of the Masters tournament, he started to think about the trigonometry of the shots. In an attempt to calculate the precise angle of Neil Robertson’s long shot to the top right-hand corner pocket, he replayed the shot over and over on iPlayer. But then he became distracted by the design of the TV remote control and wanted to know how it worked so he dismantled it and could not get it back together again so he had to buy a new one on eBay. Even that was not straightforward because it led him into researching the history of PayPal.

Mara is quite often away on training courses. Apparently, there is a lot of tuition required these days to become an administrative assistant. New systems and the like, Mara has explained. Having so much time on his hands, though, is part of Sean’s problem. It wouldn’t be so bad if the children were still around but David is at Essex reading Computer Science and Debbie has moved in with Harry. Every day, Sean finds he needs to explore more subjects that he has not previously been interested in. In great detail. He feels the need to amass the information quickly, cramming he supposes you might call it, worried that if he doesn’t find out, he might die without ever knowing. Then, of course, while he is busy researching, he becomes fascinated by something else and finds he needs to understand this too. He hadn’t realised, for instance, that the cravat had enjoyed such a colourful history or that there were so many species of snails. Social media doesn’t help. How could he not be interested when he gets intriguing posts about Tuvan throat singing? Or the moons of Uranus? The Uranian moons, he discovers, are all named after Shakespearean characters. There are twenty seven of them. Twenty seven is apparently a significant number. It is the cube of three, the trinity of trinities. It is the result of a prime reciprocal magic square of the multiples of one seventh. It is the first composite number not divisible by any of its digits. There are twenty seven bones in the human hand. There are twenty seven books in the New Testament. Land mass makes up twenty seven percent of the planet Earth. Mozart was born on twenty seventh of January and wrote twenty seven piano concertos and twenty seven concert arias. Dark matter is thought to make up twenty seven percent of the universe. Then, there is the Twenty Seven Club. And, something else, oh yes, Sean and Mara have been married for twenty seven years.

‘You haven’t heard a single word I’ve said, have you?’ Mara says, interrupting his train of thought. The train is now pulling into their station.

It’s true. He realises he hasn’t been all that attentive. For the latter part of the journey, he has been busy counting the electricity pylons that line the track. There have been twenty seven of them, including some of those snazzy looking T-shaped ones by the Danish designer whose name escapes him.

‘Something about the work on the road bridge, was it, Mara?’ he says. This he feels is perhaps worth a try. It is a likely topic of conversation. They have frequently discussed the slowness of progress on the bridge widening scheme in recent weeks. On a bad day, it can take as long as half an hour to get across and they can’t remember when they last saw anyone actually doing any work. This is the reason they have taken the train for their day out today.

‘That was five minutes ago.’ Mara says. ‘We passed the bloody bridge five minutes ago, Sean. What I said was, it would be nice to have lunch at that whole-food place by the cathedral. Why don’t you ever listen?’

‘Sorry I was ……’

‘I know. You were ……. distracted,’ Mara says. ‘Look, Sean! I’ve been pretty tolerant but I think it’s time you went to see someone about this ……. distraction. Doctor Hopper, perhaps.’

‘I’m not sure about that,’ Sean says. ‘Besides, I normally see Doctor Bolt.’

‘Doctor Hopper’s better,’ Mara says. ‘He adopts a more holistic approach. Doctor Bolt will just say ah yes in that supercilious way he does and write a prescription for more pills. ……. By the way, are you still taking those ones he gave you for your ……. anxiety? …… Pira…. Para ….. Pramira….. Oh, what were they? You know, the ones with the long complicated name. …… Didn’t we discover they were a new experimental drug?’

A haunted look of realisation spreads slowly across on Sean’s face as it dawns on him that his random fascination for unlikely subjects started when he began taking the Piradictamyl27.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

No Windows

nowindows3

No Windows by Chris Green

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘if I don’t have red paint, then I use blue.’ You have to be able to adapt to changes of fortune. I did not plan my early retirement, but here I am on a Tuesday morning sitting in my recliner with a cup of green tea and a toasted teacake. I am listening to the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. I find Otto Klemperer’s interpretation on this digitally re-mastered recording both heroic and warmly tender.

The phone rings. I wait for it to go on to answer. It doesn’t. It keeps ringing. The caller seems to be determined. I make my way to the study. It is my partner, Amy. She has gone over to her friend Hermione’s house to go over the church flower arranging schedule and is phoning from there.

‘Why didn’t you answer the phone,’ she says. ‘I’ve been trying for ages.’

‘I was out in the garden,’ I lie.

‘We’re having trouble getting on to Hermione’s computer,’ she says.

‘Has she plugged it in?’ I quip. Neither Amy or Hermione are good with computers. Not so long ago I had to explain to Amy that there wasn’t an any key. When Hermione got her PC she thought the DVD ROM drive was a cup holder.

‘Ho, ho,’ she says. ‘Very funny.’

‘What is happening? Does the router need rebooting perhaps?’ I say.

‘The what?’ she says.

‘The router, the box with the flashing lights that gets you on the internet,’ I say.

‘No, no, it’s not that. It hasn’t got that far.’

‘You mean it’s still rebooting?’

‘No it’s not the box, it’s the monitor.’

‘Is the monitor plugged in?’

‘Yes, it’s plugged in, but it’s not working.’

‘Is there a message? What does it say on the screen?’

‘Can’t you turn the music down? I can hardly hear what you are saying,’ she says. It is the end of the first movement. I love the way Klemperer slows it down to realise the full majesty of the symphony. Not many conductors do this. They try to finish the movement at breakneck speed. I tell Amy that there is a quieter passage coming up.

She huffs.

‘There will be a message on the screen to tell you what Windows is doing,’ I say.

‘That’s just it,’ she says. ‘Windows isn’t doing anything. It says Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later.

‘But Windows isn’t something online. It’s resident on the hard drive,’ I say.

‘That’s what it says,’ she says.

I have never come across anything like this message before. It is a real puzzler.

‘It must be a trojan or a virus,’ I say. ‘What has Hermione been doing? Does she keep her firewall and virus checkers up to date?’

‘I shouldn’t think that she knows what they are. I know that I don’t. You always take care of that for me.’

‘Does she go on to any dodgy sites?’ The Andante Con Moto is just starting. This is divine. I am anxious to give my full attention to Beethoven, but I am equally keen to stay married, despite Amy’s shortcomings on IT and her lack of reverence for Ludwig, and her tendency to over-water the succulents.

I hear her asking Hermione about her browsing habits. She comes back to me to say that Hermione uses it mostly for celebrity gossip and gardening tips but sometimes Hermione’s daughter, Autumn goes on to youtube and spotify when she comes to stay.

‘No it won’t be that,’ I say. ‘Look, love, I’ll just fire up the laptop and see if I can find out anything.’

The main theme is just breaking out now. Klemperer handles this with a subtlety and grace that more recent interpreters of the work cannot manage. It is heavenly.

‘I’ll phone you back in five minutes when I’ve checked on google,’ I say.

I lose myself once again in the hymnal resonance of the Andante. It is sublime. Towards the end of the movement, I switch on the laptop. ‘Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later,’ my screen says. How bizarre! How can an operating system that is based in the kernel of the machine be temporarily unavailable? It is either there or not there. Where could this command originate? I try the Esc key and all the Function keys in the hope of Windows starting or resuming. Nothing!

I dig out Lance’s phone number. Lance handles all of my computer problems and upgrades. He is bound to know what is happening. The scherzo is just beginning. I pause it for a moment. I’m not sure Lance likes classical music. He listens to Kings Of Leon and Kasabian. Also, Lance baffles me with a lot of long technical words. He imagines that everyone understands what he is talking about when he talks about digitizers, bots, and crawlers. I listen and just say yes and no in the right places. He usually manages to come up with a solution.

‘Hi Robbie,’ he says. ‘Long time. You got a PC problem too?’

He knows that when I phone him it is not to invite him round for dinner.

‘Something like that, yes,’ I say. ‘I didn’t like the way you said, too’

‘You’re going to tell me that your Windows has gone AWOL aren’t you?’ he says.

‘That’s right,’ I say. How did you know? Hermione’s is the same too. What is happening?’

‘No idea, I’m afraid, mate. And I can’t get online to find out. I’m as mystified as you are. Android is down, and Blackberry is down. Even Palm OS is down. You will probably find that the OS on your mobile has vanished as well.’

I check my Nokia. Lance is right. The phone display just says. ‘No Symbian OS. Consult Your Nokia Dealer.’ Not that I use it much anyway. I preferred them when you just used them to make phonecalls. You don’t really need them to watch the sky at night or set the timer on the oven.

‘I’m going to check with my mate, Jago, to see if iOS, the Apple platform is down too,’ says Lance. ‘But I’d put good money on it being down.’

It occurs to me that I don’t use the computer that much either. I research family history sometimes go on ebay, but I don’t do twitter and Facebook or anything like that. My emails are nearly all spam. And I have to spend hours keeping the bloody thing updated. It would not be the end of the world if it did not work for a while. I suppose I had my fill of computers when I used to work for the civil service, before the accident. These days I prefer to read a good book.

Amy is not pleased with my progress report. She is used to my being able to fix things. She feels I should be able to work some kind of magic.

‘How are we going to work out the church rotas and what about the parish magazine that Hermione produces? Its due at the end of the week and she hasn’t started.’

‘I’m sure it will be sorted out soon,’ I say.

I’m not sure, of course. In fact I have a bad feeling about this. It does not seem an everyday kind of issue. We seem to be talking macro, not micro here. I wonder if there might be more important matters than Hermione’s church magazine that are affected.

Amy and I have not had that much to do with our neighbours. We don’t like the late night comings and goings and their noisy summer barbecues. We have regular conversations about how we can get them to move. It is a surprise, therefore, to find Guy Bloke on the doorstep.

‘Eh oop,’ he says. ‘Just wondering if you were having any problems with your telly, like.’

Like what, I am thinking. It is not snobbery or a North-South thing, or even a prejudice about the way his belly hangs over his trousers. Some people just don’t come across well and Guy is one of them. Why isn’t he at work anyway? Has he lost his job?

‘Only our telly is saying that it doesn’t work anymore,’ he continues.

‘Is that what it says?’ I ask. ‘On the screen……. like.’

‘What it actually says is we are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error, whatever that is when it’s at home.

I wait for him to add, like. He does not. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I hope that ours is working because they are screening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at the Proms tonight with that new Ukrainian conductor, whose name I can never pronounce. Do you know the one I mean?’

Guy doesn’t. I imagine he is thinking of buses in years gone by.

Guy clearly wants me to check ours. I invite him in and I turn on the new 42 inch internet TV that Amy insisted we buy to watch the new series of Cranford.

‘We are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error,’ the display says. I press a series of buttons but the message stays on the screen. The internet button displays ‘unable to connect with operating system, please try again later’

After Guy has left, I put on Einaudi’s Una Mattina, to calm myself. As I drift off to Ludovico’s soft piano, I try to put cares aside. I settle into the pranayama breathing technique that my acupuncturist, Li taught me during my course of treatment. I let the haunting hypnotic melodies wash over me with gentle waves of calm. I visualise white temples and imagine clouds drifting gently across the summer sky. Conjure of images of country lanes and babbling books. By the penultimate track of the album, Nuvoli Bianche, a melody even Ludwig would have been dazzled by, I am suitably chilled. Computers and mobile phones are but a distant memory lost in the mists of time.

During Ancore, the final track, Amy blusters in, bringing with her chaos and uncertainty. I obey her unspoken command to turn the music down.

‘Waitrose is closed because the tills aren’t working, and I couldn’t get any money out of the ATM because they are not working either,’ she screams. ‘And, they tell me that you can’t get petrol, although there is a big queue at the pumps of people who haven’t realised it yet.’

‘Calm down, dear.’

‘And, on the way back from the supermarket the traffic lights through the town had stopped working and there was a tailback after an accident on the roundabout so I had to take a detour and I got lost and the satnav’s not working. What’s going on?’

‘It’ll probably all be back to normal later.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘It’s just a blip, I’m sure’

‘And now the phones aren’t working either.’

‘But we spoke to each other on the phone earlier.’

‘Well! They’re not working now. Try it!’ She hurls the headset across the room at me. Fortunately, it misses.

‘I suppose phones need an operating system too. Everything’s digital these days, you see.’

‘How can you be so calm. With your head in your music as if nothing has happened.’

‘But nothing has happened, dear. The world’s still spinning. We’re still here.’

‘Is that your answer. Well! I’m glad the world’s not digital too. That’s all I can say.’

There is no TV, so there will be no broadcast news. Also, there will be no newspapers. I speculate as to what the emphasis of the stories they would be running with might be, as the country, indeed the whole world grinds to a halt. The redtops might be talking about the looting taking place with stores closed given the absence of CCTV, Facebook withdrawal syndrome and the postponement of the Got Talent final. The broadsheets might be saying what might happen with satellites spinning out of orbit, the collapse of the world’s financial system, and the pollution of the water supply. The Daily Mail would be banging on about the potential rise in immigration, given the lack of border controls. The Express, of course, would be unchanged. It would have a story about Diana’s death or new hope for finding Maddie on the front page, no matter what crisis is looming in the real world.

We live on a fairly quiet suburban street and people tend to keep themselves to themselves. We are not what you would consider a community. Each has his own separate interest group outside of the estate. There are few common interests. On our street, we get a handful of dog walkers, mostly in the morning and the evening, but otherwise very few people walking up and down. You become accustomed to the gentle trickle of traffic throughout the day. Periodically there is a delivery van. The houses all have driveways and there is no street parking. From the bay window, you get a good view of the street in both directions. It is unusual to see people gathering outside as they are this afternoon. By about 3pm, a sizeable group has gathered outside the Bassetts at number 42 and all seem to be talking over each other or gesticulating wildly. Around these parts a dozen people together in one place constitutes a riot. Having settled our differences, Amy and I go out to investigate. It is not hard to guess what has brought the assembly together.

Other than Julian and Debbie Bassett, we do not know many of the gathering by name, so we introduce ourselves. We are introduced in turn to Duncan Boss, Kirstin Canada, Dorsey Johansen, Cornelia Hawes, Rolf and Masie Harrison, Daryl and Bonita Callender, Mohandas and Maya Joshi, Tilda Bolton, and Mr and Mrs Stover. Assorted children belonging to the assembled and who have been sent home from school come and go.

No-one has any actual information about what has caused the catastrophe. Opinions range from an alien attack to the a blip in earth’s magnetic field. Duncan Boss thinks it is a scam by Microsoft and Apple to get more money from users. Kirstin points out that her open source Linux system has lost its operating system too.

‘I can’t even start my Mercedes,’ says Cornelia.

‘All the on-board gadgets,’ laughs Dorsey. ‘My Mondeo’s fine.’

‘We were booked on a flight to Dehli,’ says Mohandas.

‘Even The Gordon Bennett is closed,’ says Daryl, who having been given the day off work was keen to get a lunchtime pint with his friends.

‘Good thing too,’ says Bonita, under her breath. She would like his attentions to be on her.

‘Doesn’t anyone remember how life used to be before computers and mobile phones?’ asks Tilda.

‘We were still able to find out what was going on from the newspapers,’ says Dorsey.

‘Depends which newspapers you read,’ says Rolf.

‘Before newspapers, callers ran from city to city, town to town, shouting out the latest news,’ says Mr Stover. ‘Before that, jesters brought news about a recent conquest or disaster in song.’ Mr Stover, we discover, teaches History.

‘But only to royalty, of course,’ suggests Mrs Stover. ‘Commoners were kept in the dark.’ Mrs Stover, we discover, teaches Sociology.

‘I can remember the three day week coming in,’ says Guy Bloke, who has decided to join us. ‘My dad said, I’m not working an extra day for anyone.’

No one laughs.

Our gathering builds as more residents come along to attempt to find out what has turned their lives upside down. More speculative guesses are aired. Perhaps it is a new terrorist group. The Illuminati maybe. Might it be GCHQ? Having worked at the base, I keep quiet on this one.

Grange Road has not to my knowledge ever held a street party. Even the Queen’s Golden Jubilee passed by without teasing out community spirit. By eight o’clock, though, there is something of a party going down here. People have brought barbecues out to the street along with bottles of wine and cans of beer. I wonder if maybe the off licence has been looted. Some musicians have brought along guitars and we are having a singsong. The hardships of digital communication are being buried under a new festival spirit. Is that a piano that Julian and Debbie Bassett are wheeling out? Who could imagine that a gathering of relative strangers who just a few hours ago had been stressed out and despondent could be so carefree?

Our gatherings we are told are being replicated everywhere. A make do and mend mindset is spreading as people realise they are going to need to be more resourceful, but forty eight hours on, there is still no explanation for the technological failure. Digital radio, which might have helped to spread news in emergencies is of course off the air and FM and AM were closed down just a few months ago, a move primarily aimed at selling digital radios. The move, like many things changed under the label of progress, is beginning to look a little short sighted. The maxim, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it went out the window years ago. Nowadays it is more like if it isn’t broke it will be soon.

The initial release from responsibility is turning back once more to a sense of concern. The problems are becoming apparent. The supermarkets are closed and food supplies are running out. There are no planes or trains because the services are tied into central computer systems and road transport and private motoring are being run down because the lack of fuel. It may be in the pumps but no-one has worked out how to dispense it without the help of computers. With container ships navigation systems affected too, there is a lot of potential for disaster. Given the complete absence of global communication, Amy is worried about Emily in Florida and Justin in Australia. I keep telling her they work in safe environments. Emily works in design at Disneyland and Justin is a cricketer. It’s not like they are in the Everglades or the Outback. They can look after themselves.

Amy seems to have grown tired of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps I play it too often, but I can’t help it. Alfred Brendel’s elegant fingerwork is a delight.

‘I’m going down to the allotment,’ she says. ‘I noticed that the Bassetts were putting the canes up in the back garden for their runner beans earlier. We’re probably all going to need to grow vegetables, you know.’

The Largo in E Major is beginning. The solo piano opening is divine, an oasis in a sea of calm. ‘I’ll pop along later, love, if that’s all right,’ I say.

‘I understand you can’t do a lot of digging with your leg,’ she says. ‘I’ll get Hermione to come and help me turn the ground over.’

‘Is this to make me feel bad?’ I wonder. We took up the allotment last year before the incident and now it is overgrown with weeds. I have not been able to do much to it because of my leg. Twelve months on, I still get nightmares about the episode, sometimes in the middle of the day. It is not an experience you can put away in a drawer and forget about. I had finished my shift. I was coming home from work. Two men dressed in police-style fatigues grabbed me and bundled me into the back of a black Nissan Qashqai, not far from the base. I think they mistook me for someone else, someone higher up. At the lights at the Harry Palmer roundabout going out of town, I managed to open the back door and make a run for it. The first bullet shattered the bone in the upper leg and embedded itself in the flesh. The second bullet caught me in the back of the head and travelled the length of the left side of my brain and exited through the front of my head. I was in hospital for over a month, undergoing one procedure after another. As a result of the first bullet, I walk with a limp. They are still not sure of the extent of the brain damage from the second bullet, but it was enough though for the grandees to retire me from the service as a security risk. My abductors have never been apprehended.

Amy returns from the digging. She says that there were dozens of others down there getting their vegetables in. It was like a community event.

‘One thing was a bit odd, though.’ she says. ‘There was a large typed notice on the notice board which just said, ‘You have less time than you think.’

‘That’s all it said. Nothing about who it was from or anything?’

‘No! That’s all it said. What do you think it could mean?’

Mysteries are multiplying, answers are absent in this windowless world. ‘It is best not to think about it,’ I tell her.

We have a quiet evening listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata interrupted only by Guy Bloke wanting to borrow our strimmer so that he can start tomorrow on his vegetable patch. During the final notes of Ashkenazy’s strident arpeggios, the power suddenly goes off. I have been half expecting this. After all, the electricity grid must be centrally controlled and need a computer system. We content ourselves with an early night. I read Sir George Solti’s biography by candlelight and Amy reads The Self Sufficiency Handbook.

In the morning, we find a flyer on the door mat. It just says cryptically, Time is Running Out. Over the next hour or so we discover that everyone has had exactly the same one pushed through their letterbox and no has seen anyone delivering them. Normally you might think this was a prank, or Jehovah’s Witnesses announcing the end of the world once again. Not given present circumstances. We gather once again on the street to share our concerns.

We get occasional reports from places within easy reach, but word from farther afield is thin on the ground. Herschel Fowey and Scotch Jim, two radio enthusiasts live locally. Unfortunately, both might be considered as questionable sources, what might be seen in literary circles as unreliable narrators.

Herschel Fowey is a retired naval radio officer. He lives at the end of our street. He is the one with the Union Flag in his front garden. Herschel is old school. He still has non digital transmitters and receivers and a shed full of car batteries. He delivers his news with a megaphone from his bedroom window. He tells us that both his man, Ho in China and Nehru in India have gone off the air, since this morning. He does not know what has happened, but their last messages were anxious ones. He is still in touch with Eli in Tel Aviv and Abdul in Baghdad. Both are reporting tension and unrest. Nothing is coming from Ivan in Moscow but is often the case, he says. We can only hope that no news is good news. In my opinion, Herschel Fowey does not have a clue what day it is, let alone what might be behind the global OS outage.

Scotch Jim is not really Scottish. He isn’t even called Jim. No-one is sure how he got his moniker. He dresses like a cold war spy, dark raincoat with the collar turned up and lots of pockets and oversized thick rimmed glasses. Addressing a gathering of locals, he tells us he picks up messages from agents in the field on his bank of shortwave sets. He is not a great speaker. Some are drifting away. He recognises me, we have passed the time of day on occasions. He comes over to talk to me.

‘You have experience of this sort of thing, don’t you?’ he says. ‘You used to work at the spy base. Now, I’ve got lots of receivers but only got one pair of ears. You speak German or Italian, I expect.’

‘A bit rusty on both, I’m afraid,’ I tell him. ‘My main source of both languages is centred around musical terms.’

‘Never mind, better than nothing.’

‘I don’t like to leave Amy alone in the house.’

‘It will do you good to get out for a bit,’ says Amy, who has been listening. ‘And anyway, Hermione and I will be down at the allotment. We’re going to put the runner beans and spinach in.’

I wonder if Amy is trying to distract herself because she is worried that there is no news about Justin and Emily, but I do not want to draw attention to this. Australia and Florida do seem further away with each day that passes. I give her a hug and say I will see her later.

I don’t particularly want to accompany Scotch Jim but I can’t think of any other excuses. I’ve got to finish reading Sir George Solti’s biography might seem a bit selfish.

Scotch Jim’s flat is an emporium of junk. It is as if he has spent his life at car boots and jumble sales with the odd afternoon raiding antique shops and recycling centres. The main room is given over entirely to radio gadgetry. Antennae hang out of both sash windows. Lining three walls, from floor to ceiling are stacks of 1950s style valve radio equipment. Amongst a sea of static, echoing voices chatter away in an atlas of different languages. For some reason with the whistles and hisses, a lot of them sound Scandinavian.

‘Take a seat,’ he says. I can’t see a chair or anything, so I plonk myself down on an old box radio and survey the bank of receivers in front of me. The room is sweltering. I take off my jacket and unbutton my shirt.

‘It’s all the valves giving off the heat,’ says Jim. ‘You will get used to it.’ He still has his overcoat on.

It is difficult to describe what is taking place here. We monitor crackly voices coming out of the sets. The voices might be coming from another dimension or from the afterlife for all the sense they are making. Periodically Scotch Jim will say, ‘Sweden has gone’ or ‘I’ve just lost Helsinki’ or ‘are you getting anything from Rome?’ Rome says stiamo arrivando alla fine, or something. I have no idea what it means. I think fine might mean end.

The fumes from the generator beneath the window are making me feel nauseous. What on earth am I doing here? The guy is nuts.

One of the remaining shortwave transmissions is in German. I can’t make out anything that is being said. Fritz is probably not talking about classical music. Another is French. I could be wrong, but the French one seems to be talking about food. Le dernier repas, something about supper.

‘We are now left with just Germany and France,’ Jim says.

‘I think I’ve got that,’ I say, showing a little exasperation. ‘Why is this? What is happening?’

‘I was hoping you might be able to tell me, with your experience at the base and everything.’

Why is there this automatic assumption because I worked at the so-called spy base that I was some kind of secret agent? My job was to manage metadata. This involved me sitting in front of a screen making sure international internet traffic was mirrored properly and that there were no blockages in the pipe. While I am still subject to The Official Secrets Act, I can say that I never once got to see any of the data that was being gathered and I certainly did not take part in clandestine undercover work in the field or have a licence to kill.

‘I don’t think that I was in that particular section,’ I tell him, for simplicity.

I can’t help but bring to mind Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, where a group of people in Australia, maybe some of them cricketers, await the arrival of deadly radiation that is spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere.

‘Look! It’s getting late,’ I say. ‘I’m going to get back and see how Amy is.’

‘I think that we’ve just lost Germany,’ he says, as another transmission turns to static.

Amy says she is pleased with her work at the allotment, but I can sense something is wrong. She starts to talk about when Justin and Emily were little and we used to take them down round to grandpa’s piece of land where there was an old blue tractor and a rusty brown water pump. And a timber summer house full of chickens and cats. How they used to get excited by the runner beans growing up the canes and have snail races along the flagstones. There is a tear in her eye.

Suddenly, I cannot hear what she is saying, Her mouth is moving, but no words are coming out. I try to speak, but my utterances too are silent. Time is running out. I can no longer see outside. It is as if there are no windows. I glance at the clock. Its says 11:59. Is this it?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

SOMEONE LEFT THE CAKE OUT IN THE RAIN – Making Sense of Sixties Songs

someoneleftthecakeoutintherain

SOMEONE LEFT THE CAKE OUT IN THE RAIN – Making Sense of Sixties Songs by Chris Green

BUS STOP

The number 22 bus is late. As I stand there waiting, I find the song, Bus Stop by The Hollies running through my head. Call me anal but I now want to try to understand the song’s bizarre lyrics. It is one of those songs that is so catchy I can still remember them all.

It is a wet day and the fellow singing, Allan Clarke, I believe, is waiting at the bus stop. A pretty girl comes along, well let’s assume for the point of argument that she is pretty. Allan doesn’t want her to get wet and spoil her new hairdo so he offers to share his umbrella. It is presumably a standard black umbrella as the song came out in the mid sixties before golf umbrellas and the like were commonplace. He leads us to believe that his gesture is chivalrous. But, he soon forces himself upon her and makes her miss the bus. Perhaps he has her pinned up against the wall. If so, how is he managing to do this and still keep the umbrella aloft? Perhaps she is struggling to get free so she can catch the bus but he is preventing her. What if she now gets the sack for being late for work? He doesn’t seem to care.

Every morning he finds her waiting at the stop, we discover from the chorus, so I suppose that her employer must have overlooked her lateness and is giving her another chance. Also, she must have forgiven Allan’s predatory advances from that first rainy day. Perhaps deep down she feels flattered by the attention. He tells us that some mornings she has already been to the shops and she shows him what she has bought. This cannot be a new outfit as clothes shops, or boutiques as they were called back then, would not be open so early. So, what is it she is showing him? Her bits and pieces from the corner shop? Perhaps she has bought a Reveille magazine and some Basildon Bond stationery from the newsagents.

The sun comes out we are told and the ice is melting and they no longer have to shelter. Hang on! Where did the ice come from? In the song, we are led to believe that all through the summer they employ the umbrella and by August she is his. This unseasonal cold snap is a bolt out of the blue, a big leap in the narrative. I think that this deserves more of an explanation, Allan. Perhaps you could ask Graham who wrote the song. Graham Gouldman, later of 10cc.

But, to move on, the other people in the queue are now staring at the pair as if they are, to quote the singer, quite insane. We cannot be sure why this is. It is left entirely to our imagination. I imagine Allan is probably getting the girl to do a silly dance or something or perhaps he is showing her how to turn the umbrella inside out. But, he goes on to say that everything turns out well because his umbrella leads him to a vow. Maybe he promises to stop whatever embarrassing shenanigans it is that has been causing the others to stare at them. Perhaps he has been having a battle with the bottle and has vowed to give up drinking and start going to meetings. We just don’t know.

He goes on to tell us that someday his name and the girl’s are going to be the same. This, to me, is the most puzzling line in the song. Is she perhaps going to change her name to Allan or is the singer going to start calling himself Helen or whatever the girl’s name is? This is not made clear. It could even be that they are planning to join a cult that requires you take on a communal name.

The number 22 bus finally comes along and my thoughts turn to counting the number of empty seats there are and guessing how many stops it will take to fill them.

MATTHEW AND SON

The Earth tilts on its axis by 23.5 degrees. I wish this were a smaller number. It is this ridiculous wobble that causes it to still be dark at eight in the morning towards the end of October. The blackness in the morning makes it harder to get up. As a result, I miss the eight twenty three commuter train which is going to make me late for work.

While I’m waiting for the next train, the eight fifty seven and hoping that no-one at work has noticed that I’m not in, Cat Stevens’ Matthew and Son, starts going round and round in my head. Cat’s sad protagonist has to be up eight. He can’t be late because Matthew and Son, won’t wait. Because Cat refers to Matthew and Son in the singular, I am left to speculate whether it is Matthew or the son who won’t wait. Perhaps Matthew is semi-retired and the son takes care of the day to day running of the business. Or perhaps the son is a lazy loafer who spends all his time on the golf course. Or it could be that Matthew and his son are both retired or even dead and that the old established firm is now run by a tyrannical manager.

I can’t help wondering if it might be a good idea for Cat’s fellow to be up a little earlier than eight as he, along with the other workers, has to run down to platform one to catch the eight thirty train. Half an hour does not give him much time for his shower and ablutions and he almost certainly will have had to leave the house without having his cornflakes. And then he still has to get to the station. Who knows, this might be half a mile? Perhaps he should set the alarm for seven thirty or even seven. Then he would not have to run for the train. He would be able to saunter down to the station listening to a pirate radio station on his little Japanese transistor radio.

The work’s never done, there’s always something new, Cat tells us. Well, surely this is the nature of most jobs, Cat. If there weren’t something new to do then there would be no need for so many staff. Matthew would be able to lay workers off and then where would they be. There are perhaps not many openings for clerical workers locally. For some reason, that is not adequately explained, the workers have to take the files to bed. Back then, these would not have been Word or Excel documents that they could peruse on their laptops but great big lever arch files that they would have had to lug home on the train.

Now we come to the killer line of the song. The workers are only allowed a five minute break. Just five minutes to drink a cup of cold coffee and eat a piece of cake. Why is the coffee cold we are left wondering and what kind of cake is it? Fruitcake? Victoria sponge? Battenburg perhaps. And who supplies the cake? Is this an overlooked aspect of Matthew and Son’s generosity that Cat with his socialist principles does not want to mention? After all, things can’t be that bad because Cat says that M and S have people who’ve been working there for fifty years and this without a pay rise. If things really are bad then perhaps it is because the workers do not appear to have a union to represent them and are all too timid to challenge the poor pay that they get. While one wants to think the best, it is difficult to have sympathy with workers that are that so lily-livered, especially as Cat tells us that all of them have huge rent arrears. I can’t help thinking that his protagonist should try and find another line of work before it’s too late.

My eight fifty seven train arrives, a mere thirteen minutes late and I am able to concentrate instead on the music the ruffian on the adjacent seat is playing on his phone. Slipknot, I believe it is.

WALKING THE DOG

Everyone on the Esplanade seems to be out walking their dogs today. There are people from all walks of life in all shapes and sizes walking their German Shepherds, Poodles, Labradors, Labradoodles, Collies, Retrievers, Spaniels and Jack Russells. I seem to be the only one without a dog but since Kimble ran away last November, I haven’t been able to face the idea of getting another one.

As I’m making my way past the clock-tower feeling a little left out, the lyrics of Rufus Thomas’s Walking the Dog start to creep into my head. Baby’s back, dressed in black, silver buttons all down her back. What on earth is Rufus on about? Is Baby the name of his dog? Is she perhaps black with silver markings on her back? High, low, tippy toe, she broke a needle and she can’t sew. What’s this got to do with dogs or dog walking? What does he mean, she can’t sew? Of course she can’t sew, she’s a dog. Rufus seems to have completely lost the plot. In the chorus he tells us, he’ll show us how to walk the dog but if the truth be told, his mind seems elsewhere. He should be concentrating making Baby familiar with a few simple commands as he’s taking her through the streets of downtown Memphis, not coming out with a lot of mumbo-jumbo. The dog will need some dog leash training. I found Tom Golfer’s Dog Training for Idiots to be very helpful when I was starting out with Kimble. Kimble was quite a large dog and Tom’s excellent primer instructed me in just about everything from the system of rewards that I should apply to the effective use of a choke chain on a busy thoroughfare.

The song continues with more jive talking. Rufus’s pooch isn’t going to respond favourably to any of that nonsense. Utter gibberish to a dog. Baby, if that really is the dog’s name, will be looking to Rufus, as her pack leader, to give cool clear direction as to how he wants her to behave. He needs to reinforce the basics like sit and heel. All this stuff about jumping so high and touching the sky and not getting back till the fourth of July. It will only confuse the poor animal. Yet again Rufus choruses that if we don’t know how to do it, he’ll show us how to walk the dog. I’m thinking he must be out of his head on drugs. How else can you explain his nonsensical dog walking ideas?

I’m coming up to the entrance to Kimble’s favourite park. I have to walk through the park to get to the shops. Another old sixties song is trying to come through now. The one about the park melting in the dark and the sweet green icing flowing down because someone left the cake out in the rain.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Twinned with Area 51

twinnedwitharea51

Twinned with Area 51 by Chris Green

Warchester – Twinned with Area 51, the sign said. This ought to have triggered alarm bells but it didn’t. Area 51 was just a remote place in the US that I had heard reference to in random conversations. At the time, I knew little about the clandestine goings-on there. Ignoring the yellow and black notices of some clandestine activity that took place behind a barbed wire fence, I drove on into the centre of the town. I was not planning to spend much time in Warchester. I was just using it as a stop-off so what could possibly go wrong?

Warchester seemed quieter than you might expect for a town of its size but I put the lack of people down to the heavy rain we had had earlier in the day. On the plus side, it meant I had no trouble parking the car close to a nice looking café called Dreamland. There was no signal to be had on my phone but this did not surprise me greatly. Coverage was not so comprehensive back then and my network had been having problems. As I ate my mid-morning breakfast, some soft jazz music played, Theolonius Monk or Bill Evans perhaps. A middle-aged couple on a nearby table discussed the previous night’s night’s episode of The X Files and across from me, a geeky man with blue glasses was doing the Guardian cryptic crossword. There was nothing I could consider out of the ordinary. It was not until I got outside and found that my car was no longer there that I got the feeling that things might not be going to plan.

……………………………………….

The bizarre conversation that was going on in Warchester police station did nothing to ease my concerns.

‘Where was it again that you said the craft landed, Mr Spayne?’ Sergeant Sargent was saying.

‘Up by the reservoir,’ the man in the cream windcheater raincoat in front of me at the desk told him. ‘I was out walking Trevor.’

‘And Trevor is your dog, I take it.’

‘No,’ Mr Spayne said ‘Trevor is my ferret. My dog is called Fenton. He’s a terrier. Fenton is a good name for a terrier, don’t you think? Much better than Fido or Rover. I used to have two dogs, Sergeant but sadly now I only have the one, Fenton.’

‘To save time, Mr Spayne, I won’t ask what your other dog was called,’ the Sergeant said.

‘Oh, that’s all right, Sergeant. I’m not in a hurry,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘My other dog was called Flynn. Flynn was a retriever. He died last ……. ‘

‘So let me get this right, Mr Spayne, you were out walking …. Trevor when you saw the little green men emerge from the landing craft.’

‘That’s right, Sergeant, except they weren’t little, they weren’t green and they weren’t men. More like big black blobs.’

‘Mr Spayne. I do appreciate that you may feel that you have witnessed something strange but I’m wondering if the police are the right people to deal with this particular matter,’ Sergeant Sargent said. ‘Is it your belief perhaps that these …… aliens have committed a crime?’

‘I was coming to that, Sergeant but you kept interrupting me,’ Mr Spayne said. ‘These black blobs tried to abduct Trevor. They were after my ferret. Abducting a ferret is a crime, is it not?’

I had been waiting a few minutes now and was anxious to talk to someone. ‘I have a real crime to report,’ I said.

Mr Spayne seemed equally keen to continue with his science fiction story. Landing craft. Big black blobs indeed. What a load of twaddle!

Eventually, Sergeant Sargent managed to placate Mr Spayne with the promise that he would look into the attempted ferret abduction and he left. I joked that perhaps Mr Spayne’s elevator didn’t go right to the top but he just shrugged. Maybe there were a lot of crazy people around those parts. I began to tell the Sergeant about my stolen car.

‘We don’t do any of that stuff here, he said. ‘Car theft is with a ……. private contractor. You could have phoned the details through to them.’

‘No phone signal,’ I told him.

‘Ah yes. That can be a problem around here. You may have noticed there are no phone shops. They don’t do seem to do very well in Warchester. Look. As you’ve been kept waiting, I’ll log your information into CarCrime’s page for you.’

I gave him the details and he keyed these in. Chat was minimal, but I did not feel particularly chatty anyhow.

CarCrime will be in touch,’ he said.

‘When do you think that might be?’ I asked.

‘Difficult to say,’ he said. ‘If you don’t hear from them by ……….’

Should I stay or should I go? I wondered. I didn’t think I wanted to be there. I couldn’t imagine for the life of me why the directions I was given had sent me this way in the first place. There must have been a more convenient place to break the journey, closer to the motorway. But what was done was done. I could have hired a car and been out of here in no time at all. But, I would have still had to return to Warchester when they found my car. I decided it was best to hang around until I heard something. I asked Sergeant Sargent about hotels. He told me he was not a travel agent but directed me to an establishment down the road.

……………………………………….

I found myself at the curiously named Paradise Ranch Hotel. The lobby, although large was theatrical like a 1920s black and white film set but disarmingly dark. A lugubrious man dressed formally in a long-tailed coat and a dress shirt greeted me. He was long and lean, perhaps six foot six tall and moved slowly. He had a dome-shaped forehead which served to emphasise both his age and his baldness. He stopped short of saying, ‘we’ve been expecting you.’ But as his deep voice echoed around the calignous space, his presence felt menacing in an occult kind of way. He handed me the key to Room 109 which he told me was on the third floor. The lift was ancient and instead of floor numbers on the four buttons, there were strange runic symbols. Another theatrical frill, surely. I assumed they must equate to Ground, First, Second and Third but still I hesitated a little before pressing the top one. As the lift ascended, I had a sense of foreboding. I couldn’t help but wonder why Room 109 was on the third floor.

Room 109 must have been the only hotel room I’d taken that had no window. As a result, it felt claustrophobic. An unpleasant aroma pervaded, organic, yet at the same time oddly metallic. To add to this, there was a disturbing background hum, a low pitched sound that appeared to be all around me. I remembered reading that our ears have trouble determining the direction low frequencies are coming from. This is why you can hear the bass from the Reggae DJ down the road from a long way off yet have no idea which house it’s coming from. I tried to get online but no luck. Nor was there a phone signal. How would I know when they had found my car? I needed to get down to some research about what went on in this town. I made my way down to the lobby to ask about it and to see if perhaps I could change rooms but the horror film character had disappeared, I rang the bell on the desk and waited around but no-one appeared.

How had I got myself into this odd situation? Why was all this happening? I had had plans for a fun weekend. I needed to take stock. My head was doing cartwheels. I really needed to get on the internet to find out more about Warchester. What, for instance, was it that went on at the place with the barbed wire fence that I had passed on the approach road? The one that I foolishly had taken no notice of. Was it a surveillance centre? Was it a research establishment? How could I get any information about it? There must be a library in town. They would have computers and they would be bound to have stacks of reference books, then this would all begin to make sense.

……………………………………….

I managed to find the library without too much trouble but it was boarded up. Closed Until Further Notice, said a sign. Cutbacks, I supposed. They were happening all over the country. But, why were the post boxes on the main street all sealed up and why were there no public phone booths? Everything about the town seemed wrong. I made my way back to Dreamland café. At least there were signs of normality here when I had dropped by earlier, although now I thought of it, the coffee had tasted a little bitter. Perhaps I was now looking for further anomalies and shouldn’t get too carried away. I could ask the proprietor what was going on.

Alas, I found that the shutters were down. Dreamland had closed for the day. Strange, it was only 1:30. Perhaps it was siesta time in Warchester. This may not have been the Mediterranean but everything else here seemed out of kilter. I considered asking a stranger on the street for information but looking around me there was no-one about I could ask. I’d only seen three or four people since I’d left the hotel and each of these had looked a little creepy. One or two shops had sign-writing in a strange alphabet but these too seemed to be closed. No Conspiracy Theorists Here read a notice in the window of a Cancer Research charity shop. At least it was open. I was about to go in to look around when I was accosted by two sturdy police officers. This pair were altogether different to Sergeant Sargent. They were dressed in urban camouflage gear and they had guns.

‘Get your ass over there!’ ordered the one with the gallery of face tattoos.

There was really no need as the one with the shaved head and the funky badge on his tunic, brandishing the handcuffs was already escorting me by the collar in the direction of the armoured vehicle parked on the corner. I was terrified but also baffled. If they had wanted to pick me up so badly, why hadn’t they done so when I arrived in Warchester or at the police station when I had gone in to report my stolen car? If they wanted me out of the way, why had they taken my car? I would have been long gone by now.

The one with the face tattoos tied my hands behind my back and blindfolded me. They uttered a few more threats and threw me into the vehicle. In the short journey that followed, I tried to retrace my steps since I arrived in Warchester. To see if anything fell into place. I had noticed very little as I was driving in. I had had no reason to. I was not aiming to be in Warchester very long. The first thing I could remember was the sign. Twinned with Area 51, it had said. Hadn’t I once half-watched a television programme about it on Channel 4? There had been something about the Moon landings having been filmed in Area 51. And, hadn’t an alien spacecraft landed nearby? Weren’t they reported to have captured the aliens? I seemed to remember some excited geeks in woolly hats banging on about all the things that were kept hidden from them. But this was all I can dredge up from the depths. I’d never been good with documentaries. Short attention span.

……………………………………….

We arrived at our destination and I was roughly bundled up some steps and into a building and taken up in a screaky stop-start lift. Because of the blindfold, I could not be sure but I was pushed into what felt like a dark room. I could smell the same disconcerting aromas that I had been able to in the hotel earlier. Might this be the same hotel, I wondered? Might this be Room 109 again?

‘Why don’t you tell me who you are?’ I spluttered.

No response.

‘What have I supposed to have done.’

No response. These paramilitary cops did not seem to engage much in conversation.

‘Why don’t you tell me why I’m here?’ I continued.

There was a lot of shuffling around as if they were rearranging furniture or something. And then they were gone. The door closed behind them.

‘Just tell me what it is you want from me,’ I shouted after them.

‘You might as well save your breath,’ said a voice from behind me. A soft female voice.

‘What? …… Who?’

‘I kicked off a bit when they first left me here,’ she continued. ‘No-one came. ……… And before you ask, I don’t know why they’ve brought me here either. I only came to Warchester because I was told there was a Farfetch designer outlet here.’

‘And I’m guessing there isn’t,’ I said.

‘No bloody shops at all, are there?’ she said. ‘Unless you count that joke shop.’

‘Joke shop?’ I said.

‘The one that sells the quicksand and the chocolate teapots,’ she said.

Was this going to be another of those surreal exchanges that ended up going nowhere, I wondered. But, thankfully things quickly moved on. While we were both bound and blindfolded, we worked out that with a little effort and ingenuity, we would be able to free one another. As we were doing so, realisation began to take hold. This was all part of the plan.

‘I’m Maddie,’ she said, meeting my gaze. A powerful surge of electricity seemed to pass between us.

‘I’m Jon,’ I said. ‘Jon Straight.’

‘Right, Jon,’ she said. ‘I don’t imagine you’ve been bending spoons or have walked through any walls lately. So, any teeny weeny suspicion about why you might be here? ‘

‘Same reason as you, I’m hoping,’ I said.

Arguably circumstances played their part but I was instantly taken by Maddie’s breezy personality. I was surprised that you could actually buy floral dungarees like the ones she was wearing but she was certainly attractive.

……………………………………….

‘So that’s how the two of you met,’ Simon says. ‘Cool.’

‘Yes. son. The Mystery Adventure Weekend Dating Service. Although, neither of us expected that the adventure part would be so ……. surreal. We thought it might involve a little orienteering or white water rafting or something. We certainly didn’t expect to be spending the time in a nightmare place like Warchester. I still don’t know how they did that. It’s not on the map, you know?’

‘Oh well,’ Simon says. ‘You can’t have everything. But, do you know what? I think Mum’s still got those floral dungarees.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

Tequila Mockingbird

tequilamockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird by Chris Green

When Max turned out the light last night, he assumed he would wake up in the morning, pull back the chintz curtains to let in a little light and listen for a few moments to the birds singing in the back garden. Apart from a small corner in front of the greenhouse where the turf was recently lain, the lawn would look in pretty good shape. He would feel proud about the work he had put in over the winter months. He would tell Cheryl that she had another twenty minutes in bed and that he would bring her a cup of Earl Grey before he left for work. She would turn over and pretend to go back to sleep.

Max would then have a shower and a shave and make his way downstairs for his bowl of Honey Nut Clusters in front of the BBC News. Through overexposure to this daily doom and gloom, the impact of the news stories would be slight. He would wait for the weather report before leaving to catch the 7:45 train which would be 13 minutes late. He would pick up a copy of the Metro, check to see if Leyton Orient had won their evening fixture and try to avoid conversation with the other passengers, each entrenched in their own private universe, while the train made its way slowly along the familiar route westwards through the sad suburban sprawl to London Bridge.

Expectations, of course, can sometimes turn out to be unrealistic. The first thing Max notices when he pulls back the curtains is that the birds are not singing in the back garden. There are no birds. More critically, there is no back garden. Instead, where the raised beds and the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden ought to be, there stands a row of ramshackle mud huts. They look like remnants of a civilisation in a poor Central American country where they build out of adobe. He stares aghast at what he sees, rubs his eyes and tries to think of a plausible explanation. None comes to mind. He turns to wake Cheryl. Cheryl is not there. He shouts downstairs. There is no response.

Max concludes she must have already got up and gone out. This is unprecedented; Cheryl does not start work until nine thirty and likes her lie-ins. Anyway, surely he would have heard her in the bathroom. He toys with the idea that he might be in the wrong house, that something irregular has happened, something he cannot remember. He goes to the landing. The gaudily patterned purple stair carpet that Cheryl persuaded him was modish confirms that he is at home. Cheryl has curious tastes, favouring bright colours while he himself prefers muted, more subtle shades.

He’s at home, Cheryl is not, the garden has been built on. He feels a rising panic about what might have happened. Whatever it is, he needs to face up to it. His therapist, Otto frequently tells him that his reluctance to acknowledge a problem and surmount it are among his principal weaknesses. Otto says action is needed to affect any given situation. With Otto’s words ringing in his ear, Max goes downstairs. A glance around seems to show that, apart from Cheryl, home comforts are still in place. The big OLED TV is still there along with the red leather settee and the John Lewis bookcase with its modest library of modern fiction. The drinks cabinet seems to be fully stocked with the crystal decanters that have, since he moderated his intake, fallen into disuse. His prized original photograph of the 1966 England World Cup winning team, a gift to him from Sir Geoff when he worked in PR, still hangs on the wall.

He checks the kitchen. This seems to be pretty much as he remembers it. Lots of pans and kitchen gadgets, blenders, mixers and a sink full of dishes. There are, however, no Honey Nut Clusters in the larder. He reasons Cheryl must have finished them off and put the box in the recycling bin before she went out. Unusual though because Cheryl favours Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and he notices there are still three full packets.

Determined not to be phased by the unfolding mystery, Max sits down with a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and goes to turn on the news. In the face of adversity, routine is important. The TV though has no sound or picture. The light indicating that the TV is not in standby is displaying, but none of the channel numbers he keys in brings any response. He checks the aerial, pulls the plugs out of the wall, twice, finally gives the set a clout with his fist. Nothing. He tries the phone. No dialling tone. His mobile. No signal. The laptop. No broadband connection.

‘Obstacles are there to be overcome,’ Otto is fond of telling him when he is being obstinately negative about a setback. ‘If you do everything in the right order and keep the momentum going,’ Otto says, ‘things should turn out right.’ With this in mind, Max sets off purposefully for work. He finds himself at the station just in time to catch the 7:45 which, unusually, seems to be on time. He is also able to grab a window seat. He notices several passengers in his carriage are talking on their mobile phones, so he gives his another look. Still no signal. To distract himself, he picks up a copy of The Metro. He sees Leyton Orient lost 5 -0 at home to Crawley Town and now are at the foot of the table and relegation is now looking very likely. Crawley’s new striker, Jesús Zapata scored a hat-trick.

As the train pulls out of Dartford, Max’s thoughts turn once more to the appearance of the adobe huts at the bottom of the garden. While there might be rational explanations for all of the other anomalies, this is the hardest to explain. The birds in the garden might just have gone to another garden to offer their serenade. Perhaps he hasn’t filled the feeders lately. The remote control for the television might need new batteries. This was something he didn’t check. His mobile phone probably simply packed up. It was a cheap one. But how could a row of gardens disappear wholesale and a row of mud huts just appear in their place overnight?

He does not want to think it but Cheryl might have simply left him. He would be devastated but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. They have had a few disagreements of late, in fact, they had a little contretemps the previous evening. Cheryl suggested they might go to the retail park at the weekend to look for some new parquet flooring for the study. Cheryl’s brother, Bro had told her he would be able to lay it. Bro lived in Staines, a two hour drive away. This meant that he would probably want to stay for the duration and probably expect to smoke that awful smelling stuff he smoked. Max told her, perhaps a little forcefully, that he was not keen on the suggestion. After a little wrangling, they agreed to postpone Bro’s visit and perhaps look for some new curtains for the spare room instead. They had then settled for the night. Max read twenty eight pages of the latest Harlan Coben thriller and Cheryl read twenty four pages of her Jodi Picoult. They had a brief exchange of views on caravans, hydrangeas, and soap, then lights out. All was well, Max felt. But perhaps he had been mistaken. Perhaps all was not well. Perhaps Cheryl was still mad at him for his petulant reaction to her parquet flooring plan.

‘Twenty years of marriage is never without its ups and downs,’ Otto has made a habit of telling him. ‘Let her believe that she is the one making the decisions.’

Flawed reasoning, Max now thinks. Cheryl seems to be using this tactic on him.

He notices that the usual array of familiar faces seem to be absent from the train this morning. But, there again, it is possible that some of them might have missed the 7:45 because for once it was actually on time. But, today’s passengers do not conform to the profile of commuters he has become accustomed to. There are a disproportionate amount of flamboyant Hispanics on the train. And to his alarm, more of them get on at Belvedere and again at Abbey Wood. He does his best to tell himself that a few more Latinos than usual on a crowded train hardly constitutes an invasion, and may not have any connection at all with the adobe mud huts in the back garden. Perhaps the babble of Spanish has been a consistent feature on this line but he has not noticed it before. One can become desensitised to many things that form the background to daily life. Like the traffic furniture you pass every day on every street: you don’t notice it, but you probably would notice if it weren’t there.

Max is still gathering his thoughts when his train slows down and comes to an unscheduled stop just outside Plumstead. A train travelling in the opposite direction slowly comes into view. Max gazes out of the window as the carriages pass by. To his horror, he sees that in the second or third carriage, in the corresponding window seat, there is Cheryl, large as life, in her emerald green Crombie. She is talking to three sturdy figures in sombreros. He bangs on the window, but in the second or two that she is visible, finds himself unable to attract her attention, although his actions do attract the attention of his fellow passengers. A grey man dressed in a blue pinstripe business suit makes a motion to summon the guard. A man in his late forties with a fifties haircut grabs his arm. A nurse with a name badge bearing a formidably long name makes comforting gestures with her hands. A swarthy figure in a poncho looks at him menacingly.

‘It’s my wife,’ Max yells to all but no one in particular. ‘she’s on the other train.’

‘Pull yourself together,’ says the grey man in the blue pinstripe.

‘You a loony or something?’ says the man with the fifties haircut.

‘Take deep breaths,’ says the nurse with the badge.

No sabes lo que está pasando, ¿verdad?‘ says the swarthy figure in the poncho.

‘And they’ve built adobe shacks in my back garden,’ screams Max.

‘Get a grip,’ says the blue pinstripe.

‘Give him a slap,’ says the fifties haircut.

‘Imagine a sunset,’ says Nurse Zwangendaba.

Te preocupa que tu esposa tenga un romance,‘ says the poncho.

‘You’re off at the next station,’ says a massive guard, grabbing him by the lapel. Isn’t Hernandez a Spanish name, Max wonders as he is heaved against the window? Hernandez has a scar like a zip across his forehead and a remarkable big black droopy moustache. His build and his grip suggest that he might come from a long line of club bouncers.

On the platform of Woolwich Arsenal station where he finds himself, Max makes the decision to take a train back home. Cheryl will have been making her way back home on the other train when he glimpsed her. Perhaps she took the day off work and went out early to buy the new curtains from somewhere up West.

The revolving display on the platform notifies him that the next train is due in seven minutes. Max has never stopped off at Woolwich Arsenal before. The station he notices is of a pleasant design in steel and glass. But despite this, isn’t it a little Spanish looking? On the opposite platform, he can see a refreshment facility, its large illuminated advertising space given over exclusively to chilli, tortillas, and burritos. A poster for Cerveza Dos Equis has the caption, ‘Happy Hour is the hour after everyone from Happy Hour has left’. There is also an advert for Tequila Mockingbird. What on earth is that, he wonders?

Max takes out his phone once again to phone the office to say that he will not be coming in. He is sure that Roy Neptune will understand. Ted Drinker is always taking time off with his marital problems. Still no signal.

Along his platform beside a poster advertising a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros, a group of men dressed in dark charro suits begin to belt out a spirited Mariachi tune on guitars and a trumpet. It sounds to Max like La Bamba but could be some other upbeat Mexican song. ‘Construimos chozas de barro en su jardín,’ they seem to be singing. Something about a garden maybe. Max’s Spanish is not good.

The train duly arrives and Max jumps on. He finds a seat and begins to take deep breaths, hoping this will calm him. He tries to visualise a mountain stream, a still lake, a white temple. His efforts bring him no solace. Instead, his consciousness teems with menacing images of adobe mud huts. His discomfort grows as once again the carriage seems to fill up with Hispanics at Abbey Wood and Belvedere and he finds himself peppered with swift snatches of Spanish being barked into iPhones and Blackberrys. He feels as if all the air is being sucked out of the carriage and has difficulty breathing.

To his further distress, the train makes several unscheduled stops either side of Plumstead, and by the time he reaches Dartford, Max is desperate. He feels dizzy and is sweating profusely. He stumbles from the carriage, leaving a clutch of boarding passengers reeling in his wake. He badly needs some element of normality to reassure him. He must find out if Cheryl is back home. He frantically tries all of the phone booths at the station one by one, but each one has been vandalised. Dartford station has become lawless. A band of vaqueros is now raising the Mexican flag near the ticket office.

He spots a trainspotter alone at the end of the platform. He has noticed him taking down numbers on several previous occasions at the station. The fellow, who bears a passing resemblance to Jon Sergeant with an earring and a few days growth is now keying something into his mobile phone. Probably this is his new way of taking down train numbers, a digital version of Ian Allan.

Max summons up his courage and approaches him and asks if he can borrow the phone. It is an emergency, he says. The trainspotter, whose name Max discovers is Norman, clearly does not get a lot of company and seems pleased to have someone to talk to. Norman begins to regale Max with random information about Dartford station. Did Max know for instance that the original station building had an Italianate design? That the station is unique because, despite its location outside Greater London, London residents with Freedom Passes (but not regular Oyster Cards) can travel to and from the station. Or that this station is where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumped into each other by chance, an event that resulted in the formation of Rolling Stones.

Eventually, the information dries up and when Max prompts him again Norman hands him the phone. Max dials the home number and when there is no reply, Cheryl’s mobile number. No reply here either. It goes to Voicemail and Max leaves an incoherent message which would probably puzzle even GCHQ. It certainly seems to puzzle Norman, who in case anyone is watching is now making loony gestures with his index finger to his forehead. The only other number Max knows off the top of his head is Otto’s, so he dials this. He does so now without much hope as Otto has wall to wall appointments most days, but at least, he will be able to leave a message with his receptionist, Heidi. To his amazement, Otto himself answers.

Max outlines his predicament, his description of the day’s events delivered in an unpunctuated Joycean stream of consciousness.

‘Slow down,’ says Otto. ‘Just tell me step by step.’

Max explained about the adobe huts.

‘Uh hu,’ said Otto.

And Cheryl’s disappearance.

‘Uh hu.’

Max listens patiently as Max tells him about passing Cheryl in the train on the way to work, about the Mexicans on the train, the Mariachi band at Woolwich Arsenal and the vaqueros raising the Mexican flag.

‘We’ve been over all this before,’ says Otto finally. ‘You remember a week or two ago you came in when the Granaderos were outside your house and the Bank of Mexico cancelled your credit card. I diagnosed it then as ‘Brief Psychotic Disorder Without Obvious Stressor.’ I told you to look it up on the internet and you said you would. You have been taking your medication haven’t you?’

Max makes a grunt. He has not as it happens.

Otto tries another tack.

‘These are delusions brought on by irrational stress about a hypothetical event,’ he continues. ‘I realise that you’ve become anxious about The World Cup. But it doesn’t start for another month. And even if both teams get through the first stages, England aren’t scheduled to play Mexico until the semi-finals. It’s not a sentiment that in my professional capacity I often espouse but you’re going to have to get a grip. It’s only football, after all.’

‘Its only football,’ Max repeats. ‘It’s only football. And England might not even play Mexico….. So you don’t think that any of this happened?’

‘No,’ says Otto. Well, obviously, I can’t be certain about Cheryl. She has been rather, how can I put it, patient, through your little episodes, but I think you’ll find that there has not been a Mexican takeover and that when you get home that there will be no adobe huts in the back garden.’

‘So you think Cheryl may have left me,’ says Max leaping at once on the negative part of Otto’s remark.

‘No, of course not,’ says Otto. ‘But you need to acknowledge that your delusional states do put her under a lot of pressure sometimes. You have to start to appreciate that.’

‘So none of this happened and the World Cup isn’t for another month and England probably won’t even have to play Mexico,’ says Max.

‘That’s right,’ says Otto. He is about to add that Max should be more worried about England having to play Brazil or Germany, but he feels this would only add fuel to the fire.

‘You have to stop thinking about football,’ he says, instead. ‘Anyway, Max, it will be the cricket season soon.’

Max notices that the vaqueros have disappeared and the union flag is once more aloft, fluttering gently in the breeze. He thanks Otto, and Otto reminds him of his appointment on Friday. Feeling his burden had been lifted, he hands the phone back to the confused trainspotter and, not thinking about football, he makes his way along the Latino-free platform. There are nineteen missed calls on his mobile phone. He texts Cheryl to say that he was on his way home.

From the station, it was just a short walk. It is a warm day and the birds are singing. There is not a cloud in the sky. Wait. Is there just one tiny little cloud on the horizon? Is it coming this way? Max thinks it might be. It will be the cricket season soon, Otto said. The cricket season soon.

When he arrives home, to his alarm he finds a line of dusky women dressed in bright saris in the hallway, weaving a colourful piece of silk fabric on a giant loom. He cannot even get in the front door. He wonders how long it is until first Test Match starts. He can‘t remember when England last beat India at Trent Bridge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Legend Bemusement

legendbemusement

Legend Bemusement by Chris Green

Charlotte walks in on me packing a travelling bag. She suspects, quite rightly, that I am off on a mission. I have not told her. I was leaving this until later.

‘Going somewhere?’ she asks. It is not a polite enquiry, more like the opening salvo of a pitched battle.

‘I was going to tell you,’ I say. ‘Only you were busy with the …… hoovering.’

‘What is it this time?’ she says. ‘Another piece of junk for your collection?’

‘Well. You must have noticed that George died,’ I say.

‘Who?’

‘George Michael. Didn’t you hear me playing his tunes last week?’

‘Oh! Him. He’s dead, is he? Why is that important?’

‘His telescope is for sale.’

‘For God’s sake, Miles. What’s wrong with you? We haven’t got room for any more clutter.’

‘They are quite compact these days. It wouldn’t take up much room.’

‘What would you dowith the bloody thing, anyway? Look at Lucy Love getting ready for work in the mornings?’

‘We could view it as an investment.’

‘Look, Miles. I think I’ve been pretty tolerant about your ridiculous obsession up till now. It wasn’t so bad at first. When you just had a few bits of celebrity memorabilia. Bob Marley’s surfboard, Jimi Hendrix’s kite. A few little novelty mementos. I could handle that. But now you’re adding to your collection weekly. It’s getting ridiculous. You can hardly move downstairs. Tell me! Why do we need Syd Barrett’s bike or Prince’s trampoline in the conservatory?’

We’ve been over this one. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to come up with a solution but space is always going to be a problem for the collector. When Charlotte and I first moved a year or so back, it seemed we had enough room for a few more collectables, what with both Elton and John having left home. But, you soon fill the extra space. You always need more room.

‘I suppose I could move the bike and the trampoline,’ I say. ‘If you think they are getting in the way.’

‘And do we have to have Leonard Cohen’s pool table in the study? It’s not as if you’re ever going to use it.’

‘Well, if I move Syd’s bike and Prince’s trampoline, it could go in the conservatory.’

‘And, quite frankly, John Lennon’s ouija board on the dining room table gives me the creeps.’

‘OK. OK, I get the message,’ I say. ‘I’ll put that out into the conservatory as well. Anyway, I’ve made arrangements to see the telescope tomorrow.’

‘It would have been nice to have been told,’ Charlotte says. ‘How long are you going to be away?’

‘Well, Charlotte. I have to go to Cornwall. I shouldn’t be more than a day or two.’

‘And you really think it’s worth travelling three hundred odd miles to buy a boy’s toy just because it belonged to a second-rate, drug-addicted pop star with no road sense.’

Momentarily, I wonder whether Charlotte may have a point. After all, George Michael doesn’t enjoy the cult status of Prince. Nor does he have the mystique of David Bowie, whose jetski I was lucky enough to pick up at auction last month. George is an understated legend, perhaps most well known for regularly crashing his car. But there again, George had the courage to go outside when most of the other gay celebrities were staying in the closet, which surely earns him a certain cachet.

You might consider my contact, Izzy Eeing an entrepreneur. I’m not sure how Izzy comes across these rare collectables. I don’t like to think of him as a thief, more as a shrewd negotiator. His tax returns might not bear scrutiny but he is a straightforward geezer and a well-connected one. I have never had any reason to doubt the provenance or authenticity of any of the memorabilia he has sold me. He is far more trustworthy than the London wheeler-dealers. With Izzy, what you see is what you get. If Izzy phones me up and says that he has Kurt Cobain’s strimmer for sale then that is what it will be. Should I want Buddy Holly’s yoga mat, he will get me Buddy Holly’s yoga mat. If I asked him to come up with Roy Orbison’s Wayfarers or Marc Bolan’s wizards hat, I could guarantee results. Izzy is a resourceful man.

…………………….

With Charlotte’s words I may not be here when you get back ringing in my ears, I set off bright and early. I am becoming used to these little contretemps. The same old arguments. All these people are dead, Miles, why can’t you move on? You seem to be going further and further back. Why do you have to live in the past? Why don’t you get a life? So and so is doing this, so and so is doing that. We never do anything together. Charlotte refuses to acknowledge that our cultural heritage is something to be cherished. …… She will simmer for a bit but she will come round.

After a couple of hours of sluggish traffic on the M25, I join the M4. To break up the journey, I stop off at Reading Services for a Sidecar doughnut and Americano. I check my phone and find I have an alert that Frank Zappa’s food mixer is for sale. I have to admit I’m tempted. Who wouldn’t be? I wonder why it has come up now, though. Frank has been dead a while and surely his star must be fading. But, perhaps a food mixer might go some way to placating Charlotte. There again, she would probably just carry on her diatribe about me living in the past.

Charlotte keeps telling me I live in a fantasy world. I respond by saying that in one way or another, don’t we all live in a fantasy world? What about those who read books about a boy wizard performing magic tricks or those who watch movies where dragons and orcs fight for mythical kingdoms? What about the millions watching mind-numbing soap operas every night? What about the ones who believe the stories in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express? Everyone it seems is living in some kind of dreamworld. As T. S. Eliot says in his epic musing, Burnt Norton, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

On balance, best then to give Frank’s food mixer a miss and concentrate on the task at hand. The sooner I can get down to Cornwall, the happier I will be. I don’t like travelling as much as I once did, but it is necessary for collectors to get about. Tailbacks from accidents further impede my progress and I am forced to make an unplanned stop at Leigh Delamere Services. Despite my earlier hard-line stance, I don’t like to let things at home fester so I give Charlotte a call to see how the land lies. And perhaps apologise for being a little offhand with her, offer to make it up to her. The call goes straight to voicemail. I leave a conciliatory message.

My expensive Domino’s pizza has the consistency of scrunched elastic bands and I regret ordering the double espresso instantly. It tastes like charred wood. I can’t help but recall the days when motorway service stations consisted of no-nonsense greasy spoons and you could have a decent fry-up at any time of day. You could even enjoy a good strong cup of tea with a cigarette afterwards. There’s this assumption that progress is a good thing, but is it? I’m not one of those people that believes in a mythic golden age but so many things were better back in the day. There was more simplicity and honesty. These days you pay more for less so that less people can have more. There again, I could not help but notice that petrol seems remarkably cheap here and they have gone back to using those slower pumps. Safety, I suppose.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a woman at a table to the side of me looking in my direction, late twenties perhaps, dark hair, nice smile. It’s as if she recognises me. I do not recognise her but I smile back. She looks away and begins flicking through the pages of a local newspaper. I can only see part of the front page headline but it reads ‘dies of cancer’. I strain my head, curious to see who has died of cancer. It is Trogg’s lead singer, Reg Presley. Reg, of course, comes from around these parts. Andover, I believe. But, I remember that Reg died a few years ago. Why is she reading such an old paper? I am about to go over to try to find out when my phone rings. I imagine it is Charlotte returning my call but it is someone from the subcontinent wanting to talk to me about web domains. By the time I have explained that I am not interested, the woman reading the newspaper has disappeared. I search the service area high and low but there is no sign of her.

Confused, I get back on the road. I am behind schedule. Thankfully, the traffic as we come up to the M5 junction seems lighter. Sometimes this is what happens as motorists catch on that there have been accidents on a motorway. Traffic services on the radio and internet will have been putting out warnings and suggesting alternate routes for an hour or two and gradually the information filters through to drivers, keen to avoid the hold-ups. It’s not surprising that there are so many accidents on these motorways though. The carriageways are badly in need of an upgrade. I don’t recall the road surface being this bad though and they seem to have taken out some of the helpful signs and overhead displays. If you did not know your way, you might be going anywhere.

Curiously, there is hardly any traffic on the Avon bridge, which is normally a stretch of road that puts the fear of God into me. Four lanes in each direction with cars and trucks weaving in and out. As I head further south down the M5, through the elevated section there is even less traffic. I’ve never known it so quiet. It is interesting to see so many Vauxhall Cavaliers on the road though. Perhaps there is an owners’ club meeting in Weston Super Mare or somewhere. There’s a couple of Lada Rivas too. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. The Woolworths truck is puzzling. Woolworths ceased trading in, when was it? 2007, 2008? …….. There appear to be no roadsigns at all now, not even at the exit I am approaching. The satnav doesn’t seem to be working. A blank screen. But, I know where I am going, M5 to Exeter and then A30 across Devon to Cornwall. Anyway, I do have a map in case there’s a problem with the route.

I switch on the radio to keep me company and maybe get some traffic reports on too to see what is happening ahead. I am only able to pick up one station, a local one called The Breeze. Unusually for a local radio station, they are playing songs by The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go followed by London Calling. Not the usual middle of the road fare at all. I discover these are a tribute to Clash frontman, Joe Strummer, who lived in the Somerset Levels. Joe died yesterday, the disc jockey says. A sad loss to the local community. What is going on? Joe Strummer died back in 2002. I’m certain of this. I bought his yoghurt maker.

A few more bumpy miles and I pull nervously into Bridgewater Services at Junction 24. The operation has been drastically scaled down. The services seem to be undergoing a complete makeover. Even the Travelodge has gone. All that is left are a handful of prefabricated buildings and a gravel car park. The gravel car park is empty, except for a few contractor’s vans. Someone is erecting a Moto sign. Coming soon, it says. Something is very wrong. It wasn’t like this when I came this way with Charlotte last year.

‘Can I help you, guv?’ says a bruiser in orange fatigues and a hard-hat.

I tell him I am looking for the services. Somewhere to get a cup of tea and compose myself.

‘You’re about two years early, mate,’ he laughs. ‘Not scheduled for completion until 1999. That’s if you’re lucky. We’ve fallen a bit behind. The site was flooded here a couple of weeks ago. Big centrifugal pumps we had to hire to get rid of the water.’

1999. What is the fellow talking about?

‘No s’sssservices until …… 1999, I stammer. ‘What do you mean?’

‘If you want to get a cuppa or a bite to eat, bud,’ he says. ‘You’ll have to go on to Taunton Deane. That’s another twenty odd miles. ‘

‘But there were services here. I know there were,’ I say. ‘What have you done?’

‘You taking the piss, mate? Look! I should get back in your car before I set the dogs on you.’

I know there was a huge complex here at the A38 roundabout. You could access it from both carriageways. How can this have just vanished? This nightmare collapse of time is scaring the pants off me. I feel like I’ve inadvertently stepped into in a Philip C. Dark story. I desperately need something to hang on to, something I can believe, a shot of reality. My head is spinning. My mouth is dry. My stomach is churning. I reach into my pocket for my phone to call Charlotte. Or perhaps even Dr Self. He intimated that something unexpected might happen. He suggested I would not like it if it did. He did not go into detail. My phone is not in my pocket. I always keep in in my pocket but it is not there. I go back to the car and search frantically. I appear to no longer have a phone.

It is not until I‘m behind the wheel again that I realise that I am in a different car. It is still a Ford. I’ve always gone for Fords. But, this one is an older model. Like one that I owned years ago. Twenty years ago, perhaps. It is the one I owned twenty years ago. It’s the same car. Blue Ford Escort. No power steering. Oil light that stays on. The same broken radio cassette player. Even the same cassettes in the driver’s side door pocket. And, the same …….. dog on the back seat. My big black bulldog, Elvis. Elvis has been dead for…. Well, he’s been dead a long time.…….. He’s not dead now. He is barking like he does when he is greeting someone. He leaps over the passenger seat into the front of the car somehow knocking the rear view mirror and realigning it as he does so. I catch a glimpse of myself. I now have a full head of hair and I have lost the beard. It is said that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. I try to believe that things are still how they were when I set off but when I look in the mirror again, I find I still have a full head of hair and no beard. How can this have happened? How can any of this be happening? And, where has this thick fog suddenly come from? I can hardly see the road ahead.

When I emerge from the fog, sometime later (flexible, anonymous, irrational time) Elvis is no longer with me. Things appear to have once more moved on. Or back. Time it seems is in a bit of a tangle right now. I find I am in a Ford Cortina. A Mark 2 model. On a narrow windy country lane. Up ahead is a horse-drawn tractor. Princetown 7 miles, says a gnarled road sign. Princetown, I believe is in the middle of Dartmoor. Driving the car is a man that I recognise to be my dead father. He tells me he is taking me to a concert. In Tavistock.

‘It’s all right, he says. ‘I told your mother we would be late.’

‘A concert. You mean like people on a stage,’ I say. I cannot now recall having been to a concert before.

‘That’s right, son.’

‘Who are we going to see?’

‘Jimi Hendrix,’ he says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘No. Not The Who, lad,’ he says. ‘Jimi Hendrix. He’s just arrived in this country. He has a record called Hey Joe. He plays the guitar with his teeth. He’s going to be famous. You’ll probably be buying posters of him for your room and who knows what else before long.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved