Unreliable Narraror

unreliablenarrator

Unreliable Narrator by Chris Green

A vermilion memo is circulating at the research establishment, one down from red. Red means evacuate. Tension levels are rising. I am glad it is time for my shift to end. Although I keep my head down at work, I have suspected for some time that there is something weird going on that the big guns do not want to get out. Information that does not belong in the public domain. For that matter, information not even to be shared with base security staff. An experiment gone wrong perhaps. I am accustomed to a quiet drive home along country lanes after the night shift. I usually drive straight home but as Donna is up north on a training course, I decide to take a detour. There is no traffic on the road at this hour. I can relax to my Borodin CD. Or my Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds compilation.

On occasions, I might come across an early morning dog walker en route or an agricultural worker, but this is rare. There is seldom anyone up. So, naturally, I am surprised when I catch sight of a woman struggling to climb out of a front window of Storm Clouds, the Gothic house on the edge of Compton Wilbury. Not only surprised but puzzled because, in my experience, cat-burglars tend to predominantly be male. My suspicious nature tells me I ought to investigate. It is my duty as a responsible citizen. I stop the car and approach the house. As I get closer, I can’t help noticing that my quarry is wearing a skirt and a chunky jumper and ….. seamed fishnet stockings and heeled pumps, hardly the outfit you would wear for cat burgling. There must be another explanation. Some fellow’s wife has returned unexpectedly and this is the other woman discretely leaving the scene? Or maybe she is the imprisoned wife fleeing from a catalogue of domestic violence. Unlikely in this neck of the woods though I would have thought.

‘Is everything all right?’ I call out as I approach.

‘No. Everything is not all right,’ the woman says, straightening her skirt and trying to regain some composure. ‘Nothing in my house is working and my keys have gone and my husband is away and ……’

‘Whoa!’ I say ‘Slow down!’

‘I’m being harassed in my home and someone has broken in and my phones have been cut off and …..’

‘One thing at a time, please,’ I say. ‘Perhaps, start at the beginning. I’m Lee by the way.’

‘Hello Lee,’ she says. ‘Anne.’

Perhaps she sees it as a good omen that our names go so well together. She now seems much calmer. Anne is someone that you would be likely to notice in a crowded room, thirty-something, blonde and well-rounded, a lady of some refinement. To be honest, I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. She proceeds to give a detailed account of a nightmare few hours.

It’s the middle of the night when she hears a knocking sound. She turns over to see if her husband, Curt has heard. But, Curt is not there. Maybe he has gone downstairs to find out what is going on. Then she remembers he is away on a business trip. Although Curt goes away often, she can’t seem to get used to him being away and she hates being alone in the big old house. Even with all its modern security, she does not feel safe. But she is reluctant to bring this up with Curt, in case he might consider her wimpish. Curt, she says, comes from a tough world. He doesn’t understand fear. He was brought up in the Bush.

Random nocturnal creaks and rattles are no more than you would expect in an old house, she says, especially on a rough night. But as soon as she starts to settle, she hears the noise again and it definitely sounds like someone knocking on the front door. No way is she going to get up and answer it. It’s nearly 3 am.

‘Why would anyone be calling on anyone at this time of night?’ I say. ‘Especially out here in the sticks?’

She agrees. She says she ought to have insisted they got a guard dog when they moved out here. An Akita or a Belgian Malinois perhaps. But, the fact remains, at this point in time, they do not have a dog and she is frightened. It probably didn’t help that she watched the penultimate episode of Killers on Netflix earlier in the evening.

I am familiar with Killers. I resist the temptation to tell her what happens in the final episode. Donna couldn’t hack it. She stopped watching half-way through.

Anne doesn’t feel she can phone Curt. He will be asleep and probably has an early morning meeting. For that matter, she has an early start too. She has to show the Muellers around Hope’s End at 8:30. This was the only time that both the Muellers were available and Hope’s End represents a big sale for Sellers and Sellers. Fortunately, whatever it was, the banging sound does not continue. But, she finds herself unable to get back to sleep. She tosses and turns trying to neutralise the dark thoughts that keep coming. She is just about to drop off when the phone rings. When did Curt change the ringtone to the Tales of the Unexpected theme music, she wonders? More importantly, why? Is this his idea of a joke? She goes downstairs to answer it but finds no-one on the other end. She replaces the receiver and dials 1471. She is told the caller did not leave their number.

…………………………………….

On occasions, most of you will have been plagued by an earworm. Annoying, isn’t it to have a tune stuck in your head? Sometimes the tune going around and around will be the last one you heard. Or the most catchy one on your last shuffle or however you listen to your music. Something you heard on the radio or in a shop. Think of those irritating Christmas tunes for instance. Various studies have been carried out as to what song is the most catchy ever, some of these claiming to be scientific. Among those frequently cited are Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Abba’s Dancing Queen, The Queen’s We are the Champions and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I am plagued with earworms all the time but none of these tunes features. Nor do Call Me Maybe or Gangnam Style or other more recent tunes that are claimed to be contenders. My earworms seem to be entirely random. Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man, a Bartók String Quartet or the Tuvan National Anthem. Last week it was MacArthur Park. They just seem to come out of nowhere. Bob Dylan’s tunes aren’t always thought of as being catchy so where has the one about the silver saxophones that is going around and around in my head come from? ……… Aha! I think I might know. But should I let on?

…………………………………….

As Bob Dylan moves on to the Queen of Spades and talks to his chambermaid, I try to catch up with what Anne has been saying. I may have missed something. She has taken her shower and brewed coffee. She is now switching on News 24. From the graphics darting around the screen, she tries to work out what the disaster story they are speaking about might be that has left so many dead, when the TV goes dead.

I suspect it is an update on the fire ripping through the conference centre but I do not interrupt. I’m not completely certain that this is where Curt is. But how many Curt Curtises can there be?

She discovers all channels are out. Even the twenty four hour baking channel is down. She really has to phone Curt now. To her horror, both the landline and her mobile phone are also dead and the router has a flashing red light. The stark realisation that she has no communication with the outside world strikes her, she says, like a blow to the head. She searches frantically in her bag for her keys. They are not there. Where can she have put them? The spare set from the kitchen drawer has gone too. She searches high and low, in coat pockets, in bags she has not used for months, underneath work surfaces, in cupboards, but finds no keys. This is impossible. She is locked in, a prisoner in her own home. She is terrified. The only way out is through the downstairs bathroom window.

She seems to be up to date with her account. It has been exhausting just listening. I tell her that she has been through quite an ordeal and do my best to comfort her.

‘Do you have a phone I could use?’ she asks.

‘You are welcome to try,’ I say. ‘My phone’s in the car. But, you probably won’t have a signal here. It’s a bit of an O2 black spot.’

‘Where is your car?’ Anne says.

‘It’s ……..’ I look around. To my astonishment, my Nissan Qashqai is no longer there.’

‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ I say. ‘Where has it gone?’

It is nowhere to be seen. It has completely vanished. What in God’s name is going on around these parts?

…………………………………….

Anne doesn’t have the keys to her Kia so we decide we must seek help in the village. Surely, someone must know what is happening.

We find no-one at home at any of the houses in Compton Wilbury. Speculation about where they might be is clearly going to get us nowhere. Does it matter that the Shipmans at Grey Gables have never been known to go away or that the Mansons in the barn conversion down the road might have just popped out? Is there any point in knowing that there is a de-consecrated church in the next village or that there was a full moon last Tuesday? Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is. My phone signal does not re-appear, nor does Anne’s. The village phone box is out of order. We find ourselves trudging along the lane to the neighbouring village of Myrtle Green.

‘How far is it to Myrtle Green?’ I say after about ten minutes. Not a single car has passed.

‘Not far,’ Anne says. ‘Half a mile or so. Be thankful you have sensible shoes on.’

‘The turning to Homiton should be round about here,’ I say. ‘We can’t have missed it.’

‘There are a lot of clumps of trees that look the same,’ Anne says.

‘Even so,’ I say. ‘We don’t appear to be making much progress.’

It doesn’t take long for the same thought to occur to Anne. Nothing in the landscape is as it should be. We should surely have passed the field with the abandoned red tractor by now, she says and where is the dry stone wall covered in lichen that you can peer over to get a glimpse of the distant hills? It’s as if the landscape is being pulled away from us.

‘You said that you were driving home from the …. uh, base,’ Anne says. ‘What is it that they do there?’ Is she thinking there might be a causal connection?

‘Even if I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,’ I say.

‘So, you are saying you’ve no idea?’

‘None.’

There are, of course, no CCTV cameras in the subterranean depths below Level D but rumours have been circulating that the boffins are doing research into random virtual infinity lapse and that they are developing a large-scale invisibility cloak down there. No smoke without fire, you might be tempted to say but it would be a mistake to believe all the rumours. I’m thinking that there might not be a causal connection with what’s happening to Anne and me. Occam’s razor suggests there should be a more obvious explanation.

Far from making any progress, we seem to be going backwards. It’s like the road ahead is being rolled up like a carpet. The scenery is disappearing. There is no longer a vanishing point. No horizon. There is nowhere to go. At this rate, before we know it we will be back where we started from. But I have the feeling that things may not be the same. The universe is in a permanent state of flux. Change is the only certainty. On this basis, there is a good chance we might already be somewhere else. We might have been there all along.

…………………………………….

How did we end up in bed together? Anne is asking the same question. How long have we been here? Since this morning? Last night? Time runs away with you when you are enjoying yourself. But, Curt will be home soon, Anne says, back from his business trip. He has probably been trying to contact her. Now the phones are back on, she needs to have her story ready. I remind her that this is what I do in my spare time, make stories up. Leif Velasquez, author and auteur. Look me up on Google, I say. I thought you were Lee, Anne says. Short for Leif, I tell her. She says that’s all very well but I’d still better go. It would be easier for her if I weren’t here. Perhaps I will have to break it to her about the fire at the conference centre. How her husband is now in custody. What was it that made him, Curt Curtis, a successful businessman, start the fire?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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DreamCatcher

dreamcatcher

DreamCatcher by Chris Green

Matt and Miranda make their way home after a bracing walk by the sea. They are striding out along Roald Dahl Avenue, one of a cluster of roads that are referred to simply as the mystery writers’ estate. All the roads here are named after masters of suspense. Although the morning mist is lifting, the features of the landscape still lack daytime definition.

‘I keep hearing footsteps behind me,’ Matt says. ‘But, when I turn around, there is no-one there.’

Miranda doesn’t respond. Her thoughts seem to be elsewhere. Maybe she has a new tune going round in her head. She and her friends, Harmony and Electra are writing a song cycle for an amateur production at the local theatre. Naturally, Matt tries to be as encouraging as he can but if you were to ask him he might say, ‘don’t expect the show to be opening anytime soon.’

Matt and Miranda are empty-nesters. Their son Ben has recently moved out. Ben is a mobile app developer, a bit of a whizz kid. On the back of the success of an app he designed that records dreams, he has gone out to California to work. But, instead of taking the opportunity to branch out, Matt and Miranda have stayed set in their ways. At least as far as their exercise patterns are concerned. They both belong to the same gym which they never use and most days do the same walk, whether alone or together.

‘Listen!’ Matt says. ‘Can’t you hear the footsteps?’

‘It’s probably just the wind blowing something about, in the derelict hotel site, Matt,’ she says. She is referring to the remains of the Black Rose Hotel, which was almost destroyed by fire last year. The site is fenced off while the insurance investigation is in progress.

‘It’s not that kind of noise,’ Matt says. ‘It’s a rhythmic left foot, right foot leather-soled shoes hitting the pavement kind of noise. It has an echo. Surely, you must be able to hear it.’

‘No, Matt, I can’t hear it,’ Miranda says. ‘You’re imagining things.’

‘I heard the same footsteps yesterday too,’ Matt says, this time with a little more emphasis. ‘On this same stretch of road. When I picked up my pace, the footsteps behind me picked up their pace too, to match my step. When I turned around to look, I heard the phantom feet shuffle as they came to a halt. There was no-one there.’

‘Next, you’ll be telling me you can hear a military band in the distance playing a haunting tune,’ Miranda says. ‘Or that there’s a lion on the loose in Parsons Park.’ Matt has noticed that Miranda is becoming more dismissive of his observations lately. He finds her cutting remarks hurtful. He doesn’t publicly acknowledge the possibility but he feels they might be drifting apart. Miranda seems to be in her own little world. All this amateur dramatics, mixing with people with names like Caramel and Sahara, Gunner and Caspian. But you can’t tell her. She knows best.

They take a detour along New Road. Perhaps it is a shortcut or maybe it’s just a way to stretch the legs but they always seem to go this way. Matt can no longer hear the footsteps. He begins to wonder if perhaps Miranda is right. Perhaps being followed is all in his imagination. Things have been pretty fraught lately, what with the closure of the kaleidoscope repair shop and the fridge magnet advisory centre. His business empire has definitely taken a tumble and now there is uncertainty over the future of the inanimate pet counselling service. These trials and tribulations are bound to have an effect on one’s state of mind. When things are out of kilter, it is easy to imagine things that aren’t there. He needs to take another look at the mindfulness book Miranda bought him as a stocking filler last Christmas.

But, as they turn into Daphne Du Maurier Way, to his dismay, the footsteps start up again. Heavy regular trudging footsteps, keeping pace with his own. Once more, he is unnerved. Once more, he stops and turns around. Miranda grabs him by the arm.

‘Will you stop doing that!’ she says. ‘You’re freaking me out.’

‘But there is something very odd going on, Miranda’ he says. ‘Don’t you ever get the feeling that there’s a secret invisible world just out of reach?’

‘You’re not going to start on that parallel worlds nonsense again, are you, Matt?’ Miranda says. ‘It’s bad enough that we had to buy a house in Stephen King Drive. I really liked that nice semi on the Rogers and Hammerstein estate. Or I could have settled on the one we looked at in Noel Coward Mews, next door to Archimedes and Thredony. It would have been within walking distance to the Lyric Theatre. Anyway, look! Once and for all, there’s nobody following you.’

With this, Miranda strides on ahead. Matt is left looking back at a long empty street. When, a second or so later, he turns back around, he is also looking at a long empty street. Miranda is nowhere to be seen. She has vanished into thin air. There is nowhere she could have secreted herself in so short a time. Yet she is not there. Matt reminds himself this is not a scene from Star Trek. Nor is it a cheap magic trick by a flashy illusionist at the Lyric. A living breathing five foot six woman wearing brightly coloured clothes has disappeared in the open and in broad daylight from a quiet suburban street in a coastal town in England. What manner of sorcery can have brought this about?

Matt’s experience of reporting matters to the police is not a good one. They don’t seem to be willing to deal with anything unusual. When he went in a couple of months ago to report the abduction of Major Churchill’s pet rock, Britannia, they were downright rude. Sergeant Tesco suggested he might try the psychiatric ward at the hospital. He can’t have been familiar with the field of inanimate pet care. Nor does Matt believe Sergeant Tesco was aware that Major Churchill is an influential figure in these parts and could easily bring pressure to bear.

Clearly, he will need to look elsewhere if he is going to find out what has happened to Miranda. But where exactly? It’s a job for a supernatural agency. He wonders if Aunt Julie’s old friend, Lucy Gaia might be able to help. Lucy can commune with spirits, talk with the dead and all sorts. She will surely have suggestions about what might be going on. Matt hasn’t seen Lucy in a few years but he believes her to be a creature of habit. He is sure he will still be able to find her mixing up some magic potion at Pennyroyal Cottage on the edge of the woods.

He discovers to his horror that according to a roaming woodsman, who introduces himself as Pete Free, Lucy has recently been eaten by a bear. Last Tuesday, Pete Free was returning from a mushroom collecting expedition in the woods when he spotted the large brown bear finishing the last bits of Lucy off. Brown bears, Pete tells him, have notoriously large appetites. This particular brown bear had been around the woods for a while.

‘I didn’t realise there were bears around these parts,’ Matt says.

‘There are bears everywhere,’ Pete says. ‘Specially in these ‘ere woods.’

‘Or that they were carnivores,’ Matt says.

‘Bears will eat anything if they are hungry,’ Pete says. ‘Anything at all. Even tough old harpies like your Lucy. And as I’ve told you, brown bears seem to always be hungry.’

‘Poor Lucy,’ Matt says. ‘Do you know what? This isn’t turning out to be a very good day.’

‘So, what shall we do about it?’ Pete says. ‘Do you want to go to the pub?’

‘Why not!’ Matt says. Sometimes a bevvy can be the best course of action when everything seems to be a blur. ‘I’ll get the car.’

On the way to The White Rabbit, he tells Pete Free about Miranda’s disappearance. Pete suggests that there are many ways to skin a cat. Matt wonders what skinning a cat has to do with it.

Matt has not been to The White Rabbit before. It is on the outskirts of the old town five miles away. He seldom ventures out this way. The first thing that strikes him when he walks in is the huge nineteen sixties jukebox. The second is that it is stocked with the best of sixties rock and the landlord likes it loud. While they are waiting to get his attention at the bar, Jumping Jack Flash is followed by Voodoo Child. And the bass on Get Back is like a rocket taking off.

Another thing he can’t help noticing is the room’s shifting sense of proportion. It’s as if the walls are breathing. Even before the first Special Brew, Matt wonders what it is about the lighting that causes those impossibly long shadows or why the mural of the lunar landscape on the far wall doesn’t stay in one place. And where is the fog coming from? His sense of disorientation isn’t helped by Pete Free trying, for no apparent reason, to explain the subtext of the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. As he casts his glance around the bar, he feels seasick. It feels as if his head is doing somersaults. By now he has all but forgotten about the cat and the skinning and the hungry bear and Sergeant Tesco and it’s as if Miranda was someone from a previous life.

At some point in the explanation, Pete too vanishes. One moment Pete is beside him talking about cabbages and kings and the next he is not. He is nowhere to be seen. Did Matt drift off and miss something?

‘Did you happen to see where Pete went,’ he asks the fellow in the space suit leaning against the bar.

‘What?’ the fellow in the space suit says. Apparently, he cannot hear Matt over Born to be Wild.

‘Pete Free,’ Matt says. ‘He’s disappeared.’

‘Who?’ the fellow says. It may not be a spacesuit after all. It seems to be an illusion brought about by reflections from mirrors behind the bar. Multiple images and superimpositions.

‘The guy who was just sitting here. The one with the big beard and the coonskin cap.’

‘There was no-one sitting there. Are you OK, mate?’

Matt stumbles around the bar in a confused state looking for his companion before deciding it would be best to get out of The White Rabbit.

Outside, he discovers that it is dark. How long has he been in there? With the maelstrom of dark thoughts bombarding his consciousness, it is difficult to see things in terms of the clock. Light My Fire was on a few times and Purple Haze more than once. In a Gadda da Vida alone is twenty minutes long. He takes out his phone to check the time. For some reason, it is switched off. Why is it switched off? He never switches it off. He activates it. There are fourteen missed calls and as many text messages. All but one of the missed calls are from Miranda. But, she has not left a single message. If you phone someone thirteen times, surely you have to leave at least one voicemail. Unless, for whatever reason, you can’t. But at least, Miranda is phoning. ……. Or could it be someone calling from her phone? But still, why no message? The other missed call is from someone called Walter Ego. Walter Ego keeps phoning him. Matt is not sure but he thinks he might have met him back in the day at an inanimate pets conference. Or perhaps it was the fantasy fiction workshop. Whichever, Walter seems to be on his case. He moves on to the text messages. Most of these are enquiries about outstanding kaleidoscope repairs or people wanting advice about fridge magnets. Sadly, none of the texts is from Miranda.

The reason he hasn’t tried to phone her, he can only suppose was down to the way in which she vanished. It seemed to him mobile communication would have no place in the void. He phones her now but the call goes straight to voicemail. In his desperation, he leaves a garbled message. Then another garbled message.

He needs to make his way back home to find out what is going on but he realises he has no idea where he left the car. The White Rabbit doesn’t have a car park, so he must have left the old Opel on a street nearby. The town is shabby, unloved. The railway, which was the town’s lifeline closed back in the nineteen sixties and, having no industry or commerce and no obvious attractions, the town fell into decay. It has yet to be rediscovered and gentrified. But, Matt is sure he can hear a train approaching. He can’t quite picture it but it’s making all those noises you expect from a large locomotive. It would be better if there were tracks and a station for it to stop at but the idea of a train is so powerful, it is coming in track or no track, station or no station. Matt thinks perhaps he can get on it instead of looking for the car.

……………………………….

Ben and his new friend, Rebel are relaxing in his apartment in the San Francisco Bay area. He is explaining to her how DreamCatcher works.

‘Its a bit basic at the moment,’ he says. ‘This is only a beta version of the app, remember, so there’s bound to be a glitch or two. Anyway, what you have just watched, babe, is a recording of Pops dreaming that I made on his phone when I went back home to Blighty last month. The old fella wasn’t even aware I was doing it. Didn’t even notice when I fitted the cap. He had had a few, I think. Mum was away visiting Aunt Julie, or something. ….’

‘More likely the something, I would say.’

Anyway, with the CGI enhancement it’s not too bad, is it? What do you think? And now there’s Silicon Valley finance behind DreamCatcher, and I can put together a team, I should be able to make the graphics more realistic and improve the voice simulation.’

‘That’s your dad? …… Woah! I guess he’s kind of cool in a messed up sort of way. Liking mystery writers and rock music.’

‘Cool? ….. Hey, steady on. I wouldn’t go that far.’

‘On the other hand, I can see why you wanted to cut out. Divorce on the cards, do you think?’

‘Who knows?’ Ben says. ‘But they do say that dreams help to shed light on one’s inner world.’

‘Perhaps I might have a go later,’ Rebel says. ‘I have to tell you, Ben, I do have some badass dreams.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Be Here Now

beherenow

Be Here Now by Chris Green

1:

‘I recommend you listen to two hours of Einaudi each evening,’ says Dr Hopper. ‘His soft piano music is perfect for quiet contemplation. You will notice a remarkable improvement in just a few days.’

‘Two hours of Einaudi?’ I repeat. ‘But I like listening to experimental jazz on my iPod, when I go jogging around the heath in the evening. John Zorn, The World Saxophone Quartet, The Kilimanjaro DarkJazz Ensemble, this sort of thing.

‘And cut out the jogging altogether,’ Dr Hopper continues. ‘Exercise is no good at all for relaxation. No wonder you feel so stressed out. You need to be still. Focus the mind. Get some Rothko prints on your walls to focus on.’

I point out that Rothko had suffered aneurysm of the aorta as a result of his chronic high blood pressure and committed suicide, overdosing on antidepressants. I watched a series recently on the tragic deaths of 20th Century American painters.

‘Did he now? H’mm interesting…. All the same, his paintings instil a sense of calm. His aim was to relieve modern man’s spiritual emptiness. Take my word! You will sleep much better with the influence of Rothko’s paintings and Einaudi’s music. Try some Gorecki some evenings as well. The Third Symphony is a good place to start’

‘Isn’t that The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs?’ I say.

‘That’s the one,’ he confirms. ‘Not sorrowful at all in my opinion, though, quite uplifting in fact. I like to listen to it when I am driving to the surgery. Now, let’s see. What else can we do? I expect you’ve got a houseful of unnecessary consumer durables, probably a 60 inch TV, a laptop and a kitchen full of white goods and gadgets. Am I right?’

I nod.

‘Be a good thing too if you get rid of those too. Clear the house a bit. Too much clutter is one of the principal causes of stress. What colour are the walls of the rooms in your house?’

I conjure up a mental image of each of the rooms, in turn, a mishmash of orange, pink and purple and explain that Sandy and I don’t have a unifying colour scheme.

‘Best to paint them all blue then,’ he says.

I have not seen Dr Hopper before. He is new to the practice, and I am beginning to feel his approach to medical matters is a little unconventional. My usual practitioner, Dr Bolt is on sabbatical. Dr Bolt would have blamed my symptoms of stress on the long hours I put in at the charity shop, written a prescription for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and left it at that, but Dr Hopper seems determined to pursue a more holistic approach.

‘Phones are the worst thing for stress,’ he continues. You are constantly on edge in case they ring and so you never get to completely relax. Mobile phones are producing a race of neurotics. I get half a dozen people in here a week suffering from various neuroses and I ask them, have they bought a new mobile phone recently, and the answer is invariably yes. I take it that you have just bought a new smartphone.’

‘Last week,’ I tell him. ‘A Samsung Galaxy. It does just about everything but I still can’t work out how to make phone calls with it.’

‘You need to get rid of it,’ he says. ‘You can leave it with me if you like and I will send it to Africa.’

Why do the people of Africa need these pocket neuroses, I wonder. Aren’t their own lives already stressful enough? But I keep quiet.

Over the course of the consultation, Dr Hopper tells me to avoid red meat, red peppers, red cabbage and red wine, in fact, anything red. He tells me where I can find an Auric Ki practitioner and where the nearest Buddhist meeting is. He even gives me the contact details of a group of Yogic flyers.

When I get home Sandy is hoovering the lounge carpet, a Mashad design in a mixture of reds blues and purples, which now given Dr Hopper’s insight, does seem to clash with the orange and yellow geometric pattern of the wallpaper. Sandy is always very thorough with the Dyson, so I escape to the kitchen, to try a cup of the jasmine oolong tea that Dr Hopper recommended and am struck by just how much clutter there is. It is quite a large kitchen with enough space for a dining table, but possibly not two. How long have we had the second one, I wonder? It does make it hard to get to the sink. All the work surfaces in the kitchen are covered in blenders and toasters, slicers and grinders, squeezers and juicers, coffee machines and waffle makers.

‘Why do we need three microwaves?’ I shout through to Sandy, but she is now cleaning up behind the brocade settee with one of the new attachments she has bought for the Dyson and she does not hear me.

While looking for the kettle to boil water for my tea, I find an arsenal of new kitchen devices, an ice cream maker, a yoghurt maker, a salami slicer. I don’t know what many of the gadgets are. Is this an avocado flesh remover or a fish descaler? The competition for the most useless kitchen device seems to be fierce. The drawers are crammed so full of pea podders, tin openers, knife sharpeners, garlic crushers and mango stoners that I can hardly get them open. I begin to realise that I might have a little trouble persuading Sandy that de-cluttering the home is a remedial imperative. Most days boxes from Amazon arrive, with more prospective chaos and confusion, and some days when I come home from work early, I find a collection of catalogues from couturiers piled up on the mat in the vestibule awaiting Sandy’s approval.

Clearly what I need is a strategy. While I am sipping my soothing cup of jasmine oolong, I weigh up my options. I could start moving things that we do not use up to the loft, except that the loft is already full of things we do not use, and the garage too. I could accidentally cancel the home insurance, disconnect the intruder alarm and arrange a burglary. Too risky. And there would be the guilt and the stress of being found out. I could, of course, come right out with it and say that Dr Hopper has given me three months to live if we do not embark on a life laundry.

Sandy comes into the kitchen.

‘How did you get on?’ she asks.

‘Dr Hopper says that I have to give up jogging,’ I begin.

‘What! After I bought you that new Le Coq Sportif jogging suit and those Nike trainers. Why’s that?’

She seems to be suffering from post-hoovering tension, so I proceed cautiously. I decide to leave the Einaudi part until later. I picked up The Essential Einaudi from the specialist classical music shop on Morricone Street, along with a couple of Philip Glass CDs that he recommended. Sadly, Gorecki’s Symphony of Sad Songs was out of stock.

‘And he thinks we might benefit from living more simply,’ I continue. Including her in those benefiting might help to get her on board with the idea of a life laundry at a later date. ‘And perhaps get a nice painting or two.’

‘It was a doctor you went to see, wasn’t it? she says. ‘Not a shaman or an art dealer.’

Sandy puts on her FatFace coat dismissively. ‘I’m going to Homebase to buy a new lava lamp for the alcove in the study,’ she announces. ‘I might have a look at the sales too. Can you think of anything we need?’

‘Forty litres of moonlight blue silk paint,’ is on the tip of my tongue, but I judge that the moment is not the right one.

It does not matter, because while Sandy is out at the shops, a trip that I judged from past experience of the January sales will take all afternoon, I find some blue paint in the shed. In no time at all, I have done a passable job in rag rolling the walls of the spare bedroom. Although the room is in estate agents’ terms, compact I feel it could serve, at least temporarily, as a meditation room. Sandy has been trying to get me to decorate the room for months, and while we have not decided on the colour scheme, I feel she will soon grow to like the calming effect of blue. I am pleased to find that there is sufficient space in the loft to accommodate Sandy’s exercise bicycle, the sunbed, the standard lamp and the writing desk, which breaks down quite easily. I then turn my attention to an internet search for the recommended art work. I discover a surprising number of Rothko prints available on eBay so I order several, all of which are enigmatically titled Untitled. I feel better than I have in weeks. I have no headache or nausea or anxiety. My body feels relaxed and my breathing steady. I can hardly wait to try out the Einaudi.

Sandy returns at about six and asks me to help her in with the bags. Accessorize, Blacks, Blue, Cargo, Clarks, Debenhams, Habitat, Heals, Homebase, Holland and Barratt, Jigsaw, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, The Body Shop, Waterstones, and White Stuff, I think, but I may have missed a few.

‘I’m exhausted,’ she says. ‘The shops were a nightmare. No evidence of austerity. I tried phoning you but the number was unavailable. Can I smell paint?’ From her tone, I detect an air of disapproval and can see trouble ahead.

2:

I meet Anisha at Transcendental Meditation classes at the community centre. We hit it off right away. We have so much in common; we both adore the music of Einaudi and Gorecki and love Rothko’s paintings, and we are both drawn towards the colour blue. Besides this, we both feel that jogging is pointless and both dislike experimental jazz. Anisha says that it sounds as if all the musicians are playing different tunes at different tempos. I agree that this just about sums it up. Anisha has also resisted the idea of having a mobile phone or even a landline and does not own a computer or a TV. It is through Anisha that I become properly introduced to the concept of minimalism as a lifestyle. Zen is a word she frequently uses.

‘Less is more,’ she is fond of saying.’An over-abundance of possessions breeds discontent. I feel free from the worries of acquiring and maintaining things that I don’t really need.’

Anisha does not ask me to move in with her immediately but at the end of February when she finds out I am sleeping in the spare room at home, she suggests it. Since her daughter has been at university, she says she misses the company and while she is at one with herself as she puts it, she would love to have a soulmate. Not that moving in with Anisha involves very much on my part. I take two holdalls of clothes, a toothbrush, my meditation mat, and a book of Haiku verse. And of course, my small collection of ambient CDs.

The interior of Anisha’s house is decorated entirely in complimentary shades of blue. Even her Rothko prints are primarily blue. The plan of the house is uncompromisingly minimalist with no bookcases, shelves or chests of drawers. All the hard furniture is built-in and the storage is behind false walls. The house is so tidy, one could be forgiven for thinking that no one has been living there. The bedrooms have foldaway beds. The living room has a blue rug and a solitary vase in one corner with a single artificial blue bloom. The kitchen shows no evidence of its culinary purpose. Even the kettle is tidied away. The only sound one can hear comes from a subtle water feature in the Japanese garden behind the contemplation room.

‘Hidden storage and a sense of order,’ she explains are the key. ‘All clutter is a form of visual distraction. Everything in our vision pulls at our attention at least a little. The less clutter, the less visual stress we have.’

She does not need to convince me. She is preaching to the converted.

Each evening after we have tidied away the wok, we listen to Einaudi in the music room. We sit in silence and let Ludovico’s trance-inducing melodies calm us. Sometimes we give each other massages with essential oils and twice a week make tantric love on the low deco bed. We both share the belief that it is beneficial to have a routine. We still go to Transcendental Meditation classes on a Monday evening. By diving within as he describes it, TM apostle, David Lynch says you can experience the field of silence and bliss and harness the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is exactly what Anisha and I are finding too. TM gives us stillness, serenity, and peace of mind. We discuss other approaches to spiritual awakening with our friends, Dream and Echo, who we met at the Monday classes. We find that they go to Tai Chi on a Tuesday, Angel Readings on Wednesday, Crystal Healing on Thursday, and Astral Projection on Friday. We briefly consider joining Dream and Echo for perhaps one of the extra classes but decide that it would be a mistake to allow our social calendar to become too crowded.

One evening, while Anisha and I are listening to Dolce Droga, I suggest that we buy a baby grand piano and learn to play. I have seen a second hand Yamaha at a reasonable price, I tell her. From Anisha’s reaction, you might think I was suggesting playing an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers CD.

‘Where would we put it?’ she screams. I can see what she means. It would be a difficult item to hide away.

This is the closest I have seen her to becoming agitated. As a compromise I suggest we might buy a small keyboard instead. She sulks all the way through Giorni Dispari. She is clearly against the idea of anything that takes up surplus space so I do not mention the subject again.

In May, I find I have to go back to the marital home to pick up some important papers. There have been changes. Gary, a soft furnishing salesman Sandy met when she was shopping in the Avarice Retail Park, has moved in. The house now resembles a DFS warehouse, but with all the furniture crowded into about a tenth of the space. The hallway is an obstacle course and the front room barely navigable. I find the clutter deeply upsetting and feel physically sick. I can’t even get into the study to find my papers. Sandy says that she will get Gary to clear some stuff and I can come round again another time. I very nearly stop at The Black Hole Inn on the way home for a Carlsberg Special. Fortunately, the New Age radio station I have taken to listening to while driving puts on a particularly soothing piece by Brian Eno just as I am coming into the car park.

With the arrival of summer, Anisha and I make the decision that we will both work part time so we can enjoy the shade of the Japanese garden through the long afternoons. After all our needs are few, it isn’t as if we need the money. Mindfulness is the key. Through the quiet contemplation offered by the garden, we feel we can harmonise the spirit with the essence of all things. We can in the words of the great Ram Dass, be here now.

This works well through June. Listening to the gentle trickling of the water feature we feel calmer and more centred day by day. The heat of July, however, seems to increase my libido and I find myself wanting to make love more frequently. Anisha is determined to that we should stick to the routine of Wednesday and Saturday evenings. ‘Breaking routine is not healthy,’ she says. One Wednesday evening she insists that it is too hot for any activity and that she wants us to wait until the heatwave has finished before we resume our passions. I consider trying to remind her of what she said earlier about breaking a routine being unhealthy but I let it go. It is never good to have an argument so late in the day.

A couple of evenings later that I feel the urge to go jogging and ask Anisha if she would mind.

‘Jogging,’ she yells. ‘I thought you hated jogging. I suppose you’ll be wanting to listen to experimental jazz next.’

I think it best not to tell her that I have been listening to a Mulatu Astatqe and The Heliocentrics CD in the car.

By way of an apology, I bring Anisha a large spray of blue carnations which I hope might heal the rift. She, in turn, apologises for shouting at me. It seems that things are back on an even keel. That afternoon, we sip valerian tea and listen to the soft cascading of the running water in the garden. The occasional fluted warble of a blackbird provides us with music. We cook a nourishing vegan stir-fry in the wok and settle down to listen to Einaudi. Later that evening, I find that the flowers I bought her have been tidied away.

3:

Before my initial visit to Dr Hopper, I had suffered from all the classic symptoms of stress and paranoia. I was forever anxious that the phone would ring or worrying that the computer might have a virus. Had I installed the latest anti-spyware? Was the firewall up to date? Anisha had steered clear of these things. She wouldn’t even have known what a firewall was or how to send a text message. At home, Sandy and I were always on the go and there was no space. It seemed that we forever waiting for a service engineer to come for one of the electrical items that had gone wrong, or choosing this item from a new range in a catalogue or sending an item back that had been wrongly described at Amazon. The hedges needed clipping or the lawns needed mowing. The house insurance needed updating or the one of the cars’ MOT was due. The HD TV needed retuning because there were fresh channels or we had to go shopping because there was a new coffee jug in House of Fraser. Life was too short for all of this nonsense.

Since my initial de-cluttering and the very first meditation classes, I have been able to think more clearly. Even my early experiences of Einaudi and Rothko in the blue room brought about a positive change in my thought patterns. I have fallen in easily with Anisha’s obsession with harmony and things being in their proper place.

‘Be empty, be still. Watch everything. Just come and go.’ is a favourite piece of Zen wisdom of hers.

With this as my mantra, I have found living in her space calming. I feel safe. I like order and tidiness.

But now and again, I have this nagging feeling that we are missing out on something. Maybe just once in a while, it would be nice to listen to some music that has words. Or occasionally, watch a film. Is there any room for growth with the unremitting stasis of a strict routine and everything in place? Perhaps there is no need to have everything apart from the Rothko prints hidden away out of sight. The incident with the flowers has made me realise that too much is being hidden. Not just around the house, but on a personal level too. There are too many secrets. Perhaps in the months we have been together, Anisha might have opened up a little about her background and her life before we met. What, for instance, has become of her daughter who has gone off to university? She never talks about her and there are no signs of her around the house. I do not even know her name and Anisha has never once mentioned the father. Admittedly I do not talk a great deal about my past, about Sandy, or for that matter Lucy or anyone else before Lucy. And of course, I have no children. But considering all the diving within that we have been doing, it does seem bizarre that so little about Anisha’s past has surfaced. If the relationship is going to continue to work, I have to find a way of bringing things out into the open.

An opportunity arises the next day. I have just finished raking the gravel in the garden into its wave pattern and Anisha has just brought out the Tibetan tea on a flower tray. I decide to try a gentle enquiry.

‘What is your favourite childhood memory?’ I ask.

Anisha looks at me as if I have just rapped her around the head with a rifle butt. …. After I have cleared up the broken cup, I go to find her in the meditation room. By then, she has stopped crying. I put my arms around her and she responds by putting her arms around me and we stay this way for some time.

‘I’m sorry for my outburst,’ she says, finally. ‘Things have just been getting on top of me lately.

I have been wondering for a little while if we might benefit from a holiday. Something to take us out of ourselves. I recall that Dr Hopper singing the praises of Mundesley, a quiet backwater in North Norfolk with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He goes there every year and describes it as the perfect place to relax and be in the present moment. As I massage Anisha’s shoulders, I suggest it. I tell her about Mundesley’s blue flag beach, its rural location, the bordering fields, and its proximity to the picturesque village of Trunch. To my great surprise, she says that she will think about it.

When I get home from work a few days later, Anisha tells me she has been to the doctors. She has never mentioned going to a doctor before and, given her views, I assumed that she had always avoided medical practitioners, preferring instead new age remedies to tackle ailments. I wonder momentarily if she might be pregnant. This might explain her recent mood swings. How would I feel about being a father? I’m not sure. First thoughts are that the wheels on the bus going round and round would put substantial pressure on our minimalist lifestyle.

‘I’ve never told you this but there’s a history in my family of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,’ Anisha says. ‘So I phoned for an appointment with Dr Bolt at the local practice, but he is on paternity leave, so they gave me an appointment with Dr Hopper. He’s a new doctor, I think. Quite young with green hair. Anyway, he was very understanding and once I had given some background details, he told me that I had nothing to worry about. My behaviour is perfectly normal, exemplary in fact. Rituals are healthy and to be encouraged and that my life sounds very harmonious. He was pleased to hear that I did not overdo the exercise or go jogging.’

I decide there is nothing to be gained by telling her about my earlier visit to Dr Hopper.

‘He approves of Einaudi,’ she continues. ‘In fact, he lent me a new CD. And he feels it is good that I am a vegan. But he told me to be careful of red peppers and red cabbage.’

‘Which we don’t eat anyway,’ I say.

‘He suggests I might need a holiday, a change being as good as a rest. He said he knows just the place and you’d never guess where he goes every year with Mrs Hopper.’

‘No,’ I lie. ‘I probably wouldn’t be able to guess.’

‘Go on! Guess!’ she prompts.

‘All right, Poland.’ I say. It is good to see that she is being playful. The meditative life can be a little intense at times.

‘Now you’re being facetious. They go to Mundesley, in North Norfolk,’ she beams excitedly. ‘Dr Hopper describes it as a quiet backwater with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He says he thinks I would enjoy it there. He says that there is a meditation centre nearby and a Reiki practitioner in the village. So, I think we should go. This is synchronicity, don’t you see.’

I agree that it is an astonishing coincidence.

‘How did you hear about Mundesley?’ she asks.

I am prepared for this. ‘My parents used to take me to Cromer,’ I lie. ‘Just a few miles up the coast.’

I go on the internet at the library and do a search on Mundesley to make sure that it is going to be quiet enough for us at the end of September. I discover little of any note happens after the end of the summer holidays. All of the accommodation in the area appears to be vacant and I have no trouble in finding us a small cottage in between Mundesley and Trunch with a super-king sized double bed and a French window which opens out onto the patio. It does not have a TV or a telephone I am told by Margery Gedge when I enquire. And it is, she confides, a long way from a shop, so we would need to bring provisions. It sounds perfect.

4:

The cottage is pretty much as it was described, compact but offering peace and quiet in beautiful scenery. Tranquil and secluded were the favoured terms in the brochure Mrs Gedge sent. The cottage is built of Norfolk flint and has a small flagged patio with a cherry tree. The rooms are small but quite tidy. Even so, Anisha manages to find a few items that need putting away, kitsch ornaments, pictures of boats, and the rubber plant. There is enough room under the stairs for most of the unsightly bric-a-brac, but the glass fronted bookcase with its collection of Danielle Steel and Dick Francis paperbacks does not fit and she has to cover it with a throw. We read through the visitors’ book and notice the cottage had been occupied infrequently over the summer months. Among the comments was one from a Sandy and Gary, saying kitchen poorly equipped, no cappuccino machine and only one microwave. We are briefly taken aback but reading on we notice that this pair are from Essex, so it must be a different Sandy and Gary.

Sadly there is no CD player to play the Debussy CD I bought Anisha for her birthday. Although Debussy is a bit of a departure for her, she seems happy with the present, and she has even read the cover notes about the composer and the pentatonic scale. Having no meditation music in the evening worries Anisha a little at first, but we just cannot face the thought of going to Cromer to buy a player. Cromer would be bustling with fractious shoppers and unruly day trippers, probably a pensioners coach trip or two, and nowhere to park. Instead, we listen to the silence and gaze at the Rothko painting we’ve brought along.

Experimental jazz is not something that I expected to find much of in North Norfolk but on Monday when we are in the store in a nearby village to buy rice and vegetables, I notice a flyer in the window for JazzNorfolk. An experimental jazz workshop is taking place at the Overstrand Parish Hall at 10.30 on Thursday. It is only a small poster that blends in with the rest of the ads in the window so I do not think that Anisha notices it. I realise that it is likely that she would disapprove if I tell her about it and express a wish to go to such a function. Before we came away, I had been playing a Groove Collective CD in the car and began to realise how much I had missed the edgy unpredictability of contemporary jazz. I have not told Anisha of course. I have however managed to introduce Erik Satie into our small repertoire and had slipped in a Ravel piano piece one evening but there is perhaps a long way to go before she stops thinking of radical artists like Groove Collective as the devil’s music.

We fall into a daily ritual of a morning walk along Mundesley’s endless stretches of beach, our bare feet sinking in the soft sand. Apart from the occasional dog walker most days, we have the beach to ourselves. Anisha seems particularly relaxed on the walks and once or twice begins to open up about her past. I discover her daughter’s name was Gaia. She went off to university in Vancouver and is living close to Anisha’s ex-partner, Gideon. Gaia has not replied to any of her letters for nearly a year. Anisha finds this upsetting, which is why she has never mentioned it to me. While it is encouraging that Anisha has started to confide in me, each time I try to dig deeper she clams up. I am only able to find out snippets of information. She once owned a Coventry Eagle bicycle and liked to go cycling in the country. She was a girl guide young leader and had been good at netball. But I still do not know where she grew up or if her parents are alive. This does not bother me I realise as much as it should. I wondered if Anisha’s apparent lack of baggage was not part of the initial attraction. She had no past for me to wrestle with.

As the week goes by, I find myself wanting to go to the experimental jazz workshop more and more. It is so tempting. An opportunity too good to miss. Overstrand is just a mile or two up the coast. The late-night improvisation sessions after hours at Ronnie Scott’s all those years ago go through my head. All you had to do was take along an instrument and you could join in and play some avant-garde jazz. I used to take along my bass clarinet. I was not very good but that didn’t seem to matter. None of the musicians at these sessions would be playing in tune anyway. This was the heyday of free jazz with its contrapuntal tempos, polyrhythmic drumming, honking saxophones, washboards, bass clarinets and muted trumpets. You might get a band made up of two basses, violin, and kazoo. Someone came along one time with a conch shell into which he’d drilled a mouthpiece and played a cracking duet with someone else on musical saw. I remember a composition of mine for slide guitar, clarinet and garden strimmer. My favourite unusual improvised instrument from those sessions was Ronnie Scott’s floor polisher. We had the blues player, Big Bill Broonzy on floor polisher one time with Memphis Slim on hatstand.

All Tuesday and Wednesday, I try to think of a way that I might be able to slip out for a few hours to go to the workshop. Anisha and I do everything together so she is unlikely to go off on her own to the hairdressers or the shops for the day as Sandy might have done. I wonder if I might go on an errand to get some runny honey or some Greek yoghurt and pretend that the car has broken down in Overstrand and that I am waiting for the AA to come. Not that I have a phone to phone the AA, or any means to let Anisha know.

‘I’m just going out to buy you another birthday present,’ I could perhaps say ‘It’s a special surprise.’

Or what about a sudden toothache and the nearest dentist would be in Cromer. Or I could, of course, come right out with it, say I am going to the workshop, and face the consequences.

On Thursday morning, we are pacing briskly along Mundesley beach, bright and early. The wind has turned round to the east and it feels bitterly cold. It is nearly ten o’clock.

‘Not a day for being outside,’ the lone dog walker on the beach called. ‘Come on Tarquin!’

A dishevelled schnauzer stops sniffing the clump of seaweed that has been detaining it and moves on to inspect a piece of driftwood. Anisha and I agree that on a day like this we ought to be indoors and draw our coats around us in a demonstrative shiver.

‘Wind’s coming off the North Sea,’ the dog walker shouts back. ‘It’ll be raining cats and dogs by midday. Leave it, Tarquin!’

We feel a few spots of rain. We quicken our pace until we are almost jogging. Out of the blue, Anisha says ‘ I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we go along to that experimental jazz workshop in Overstrand?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Give Chance a Piece

givechanceapiece

Give Chance a Piece by Chris Green

If Dalton Ripley had not stayed up until the early hours watching The Shining on Netflix, he would probably not have been late leaving for work that fateful Monday in late September and if he had not been late leaving for work he would not have been speeding along Nine Bends, the windy B road he took as a short cut and if he had not been speeding along Nine Bends he would not have skidded off the road at its notorious fifth bend, the so-called Elbow Bend and taken out the power line that supplied the power to much of the neighbouring town, Porchester and if he had not taken out the power line that supplied the power to much of Porchester then things might have been very different. As it is, you can but speculate.

Had Porchester not been without power, for instance, the Royal visit that was scheduled for that late September day would not have been cancelled. The Duke and Duchess of Burberry would have opened the prestigious new sports centre as planned and the town would have received a much-needed boost after a decade or two in the doldrums. Dalton Ripley, of course, would still be alive, his late night viewing of The Shining perhaps scheduled for a later date. More importantly in the big scheme of things, Charise Lapointe, the scientist who was on the verge of discovering a cure for the common cold who was booked in for a routine procedure at Porchester General Hospital would probably not have met her maker that day. She died on the operating table when the power suddenly went off and the backup generator failed. If this had not happened then Charise would have continued with her ground-breaking research and you might not be sniffling so much next winter. The irony is that Charise Lapointe was not even scheduled to have her procedure at Porchester General Hospital, nor was it originally supposed to be on this day but a series of unexpected delays and cancellations came into play. But, these things happen.

If we go delve a little deeper, had Dalton’s wife, Diane not been away visiting her mother in Farrowgate, Dalton would in all likelihood not have stayed up late watching The Shining as Diane hated scary films. She preferred family dramas. When she was at home the Ripleys mostly watched historical drama series like Downton Abbey or Grand Hotel. Or wholesome documentaries like The Blue Planet. If this had been the case they would probably have had an early night and Dalton would have been up early for work as usual that late September morning. They say that hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it is an unhelpful dictum in a world where chance and coincidence are constant agitators, the best laid plans of mice and men and all that.

All the same, one can’t help but be curious as to how it is that calamitous events unfold. At what point can it be said that this particular chain of events or any other is inevitable? Chance is defined as the occurrence of events in the absence of any obvious intention or cause. Where do cause and effect come in? Is chance in any way related to what we think of as fate? Are we just talking semantics? Perhaps all views on the matter are subjective. Eighteenth century, German philosopher, Friedrich Schiller, for instance, claims there is no such thing as chance and what seems to us merest accident springs from the deepest source of destiny. Twentieth century icon, Marilyn Monroe agrees with him saying that life is pre-ordained, like Kismet. Bernie McBurnie, the former manager of BetterBet in Brewcastle takes the opposite view, this based on a lifetime in making the wrong call setting the odds in his shop.

Fortune favours some people. They appear to be defy the odds. They are described as being born lucky. I recently read about a man called Lloyd Banks who was a serial lottery jackpot winner. He only played the lottery three or four times a year but each time he did he won one of the big prizes. A spin of the wheel or a roll of the dice and Lloyd seemed to know what would come up. Long odds meant nothing to him. He had such a successful record on the Blackjack tables that he found himself banned from all the casinos in the country. Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you get the Wet Blanket Rons of this world. Everything they touch turns to dust. Ron, having just lost his job, was knocked down by a hit and run driver and hospitalised with a catalogue of injuries. In hospital, he went down with Norovirus. While he was in the isolation ward, his wife, Heather ran off with his best friend, Frank who had been giving her lifts to work. On release from hospital, Ron was given notice on the flat by their unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros, who saw Heather’s disappearance as an excuse to subdivide the deceptively spacious two bedroomed apartment and make more money. To cap it all Kostas Moros ordered Ron to pay £2000 for damage incurred to the flat during the tenancy, which cleaned Ron out. Patti says you make your own luck, it’s all down to mental attitude but I’m not sure it’s that simple. Chance seems to be lurking in the mix somewhere.

Whether attributable to chance or not, the chain of events set in motion by Dalton Ripley’s misjudgement of the notorious Elbow Bend that late September day gives us a perfect illustration of the domino effect. If the untimely death of the biologist in the hospital were the most serious consequence of the power outage, tragic though this would be, it would not be catastrophic. But, worse was in store for the town that day. Despite Herculean efforts on behalf of the power company, they were unable to restore the power. With surveillance cameras disabled and all aspects of everyday life disrupted, a group of sophisticated terrorists, apparently not aligned with any of the usual suspects, spotted an opportunity and decided to target the beleaguered town. You did not hear about this at the time. There were no reports because the event was deemed so serious and so mysterious, a D notice was immediately issued. There was a total news blackout and parts of the town were sealed off for weeks, while the inexplicable massacre was investigated.

But, in this age of social media leaks, it is difficult for the authorities to silence a story indefinitely. Gradually, the scale of the atrocity that took place that Monday in late September began to emerge. It is now being suggested that as many as a thousand people were killed in Porchester that day. Yet, it seems no-one is certain who the anonymous group of terrorists that carried out the attack were or even by what method the attack was carried out. No-one has been able to establish what the cause of death was and despite the numerous dead being found in a number of different locations, there appears to have been a puzzling absence of witnesses. Sonic waves are currently being suggested as an explanation along with laser beams and mind control. If the medics do know any more about the cause they are not letting on.

There have now been several similar attacks at various locations around the country, each one occurring during a lengthy power outage. Yet, each of the power outages is unplanned, unpredictable, a chance happening, a random event. There is no common cause to them. Although you can read odd posts on the internet about the attacks, almost all the questions remain unanswered. How can whoever is responsible for the deaths predict that Dalton Ripley or someone like him is going to plough through a power line? How can they know that some inexperienced employee of one of the power giants is going to flick the wrong switch? Who are the terrorists, what powers do they have and what is it they are doing? Strangely, not so much as a single amateur iPhone video of any of the incidents has come to light. People are just dropping dead in random locations where security cameras are down and without any survivors seeing them. You are not able to get near any of the sites as they are crawling with soldiers and spooks.

The government appear to have accepted that the public is finding out about the atrocities that have been taking place and are now using this as an excuse to impose greater border control, restrictions on freedom of movement and that kind of stuff. Imposing curfews. For our protection. Reports are appearing too about plans to police the internet. They are suggesting doubling the size of the workforce at the so-called listening centre, out in the sticks somewhere. Patti thinks I am being paranoid but I wonder if the government themselves are not the ones trickling information about the mysterious terrorist attacks down to us so they can justify these draconian new measures. Business as usual then, Guy Bloke suggests, like one of Philip C. Dark’s political thrillers. Perhaps the government are even the ones behind the attacks or maybe they are just making them up to make us feel that we need them to protect us. We live in those kind of times.

What would Casey Boss of the Special Ideas Squad make of it all, I’m wondering? Let’s give it over to him and his sidekick, Jagger to bat about for a while.

‘So, what have we got to go on, Jagger?’ Casey Boss says. ‘How much of this improbable story can we verify?’

‘Dalton Ripley’s accident looks sound, guv,’ Jagger says ‘There are dozens of pictures of the crashed car.’

‘But, how do we know it is Dalton Ripley’s car?’ Boss says.

‘Does it matter whose car it was that took out the power line?’ Jagger says.

‘And what has happened to Diane Ripley?’ Boss says. We have heard nothing of her.’

‘The Ripleys don’t matter,’ Jagger says. ‘Those kind of details are not important.’

‘I take your point, Jagger,’ Boss says. ‘So, where do you think we ought to start?’

‘The power line was definitely down, guv,’ Jagger says. ‘We can say that much.’

‘So, let’s move straight on to what happened when the power was out in Porchester,’ Boss says.

‘Don’t you think we should take a look at the chance elements first?’ Jagger says. ‘There do seem to be quite a lot of random connections.’

‘You mean, give chance a piece?’ Boss says.

‘Ha, ha! Very droll,’ Jagger says. ‘But it’s the …… other fellow you’re thinking of. He’s not been with us for a while now.’

‘I would be happy to put it down to a series of accidents, were it not for the scale,’ Boss says. ‘This would seem to imply some intent. ……… Where are we getting all the information from, anyway, Jagger?’

‘It’s from a book I’ve been reading,’ Jagger says.

‘What sort of book?’

‘A collection of short stories.’

‘Short stories, eh? And who are they by?’

‘Chris Green. He’s a new writer. He’s very good.’

‘And where is he getting it from?’

‘He’s making it up, obviously. He’s a writer.’

‘So, we’re fictitious.’ Boss says.

‘Of course.’ Jagger says.

‘Oh shit, Jagger!’ Boss says. ‘What are we going to do now? What’s going to happen to us?’

‘Lap of the Gods, I’d say, guv.’

‘It’s up to him, isn’t it? This ….. This, Chris Green.’

‘Perhaps it would help our chances, guv, if we could solve this mystery behind all these fatalities,’ Jagger says. ‘Then we might get an outing in another story.’

‘What about ……….?’

‘I do believe I know what you are thinking, guv,’ Jagger says.

I was, of course, surprised to get the call from Casey Boss. Surprised perhaps doesn’t adequately describe my bewilderment. My consternation. Here was a fictional character, one of my fictional characters, contacting me. Before I had a chance to steady myself, Casey Boss began to tell me that he thought he had the explanation to the mystery of the attacks. He and Jagger were investigating an unrelated incident, he said, regarding a blue Ikea bag full of science fiction plots. He explained that Ikea bags were common in his line of work as villains found they could easily conceal insurrectionist ideas, Ikea and idea having lexicographic similarities. He and Jagger had intercepted the consignment a month or so previously and had hoped they had put the case to bed. But they had recently discovered that one of the plots had gone missing from the Special Ideas Squad evidence room. It would appear to be a perfect match. But, he said he was unable to tell me the rest of the details as he was saving these for when I wrote the sequel.

But, as my namesake, the great Graham Greene says, a story has no beginning or end. Arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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

 

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