The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist

thesadnessoftheposttruthpianist

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist by Chris Green

You don’t hear Mozart a lot on the radio these days. While his music isn’t officially banned like that of Beethoven and Bach, playing it is strongly discouraged. You can no longer buy decadent European music in the shops. No Fauré, No Debussy, no Chopin and certainly no Sebelius. Jingoism has spread to most areas of culture but it is perhaps most noticeable in music. Fed daily by post-truth sound bites, prejudice is now rife. England’s isolationist stance has strengthened its grip. Classic FM now feeds its listeners on a diet of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and even the latter is a bit suspect because of his Welsh sounding name. Wales and Scotland are of course long gone, this by mutual agreement in the aftermath of Brexit, so no Karl Jenkins or …… William Wallace. No, I guess you’ve not come across William Wallace all that frequently either. Perhaps the bagpipes were a natural obstacle for Scottish classical music that was never successfully overcome.

For those of us that really love music, it is thrilling to hear Wolfgang Amadeus’s Piano Concerto no. 23 again. It is heart-warming that in this stifling climate of fanatical bellicism, one or two broadcasters like Miles London still risk playing European music. Miles, despite his British-sounding name, has always been a champion of free speech. It could be argued that he gets away with his stance by virtue of his name. John Schafernaker was imprisoned for playing Shostakovich, this before the Russians actually appeared on the blacklist. Others, like Martin Paris and Michelle DuBois, were not only taken off the air but deported. Boys born today are required to be called Hugh or Rupert, Trevor or Nigel while girls must be named Audrey or Doris, Millicent or Lesley. In exceptional circumstances, Mary and Jane are allowed but notice has been issued to Registry Offices up and down the country to no longer allow names like Jennifer or Anne that have their origins across the Channel.

I used to enjoy going to Ristorante Rossellini for a Caprese salad with pesto sauce followed by tagliatelle Genovese and tiramisu. My partner, Patrizia and I would share a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. Puccini or Donizetti would be playing gently in the background. Luigi would come over during the meal and ask if everything was a tuo piacimento. Sadly, Italian restaurants have all been closed down and Patrizia has been repatriated. Cheese on toast with a bottle of brown ale on my own at the Dog and Duck with whippets running around and Ed Sheeran blaring out is just not the same.

Puzzled by how the wave of nationalism grew so rapidly, I decided to investigate its origins. What had happened to the idea of the global village? Jingoism seemed to be going against the general tide of cultural exploration. After all, until recently we had been all too willing to go on Mediterranean holidays. We couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sex. We were quick to develop a taste for wine, olive oil and garlic. We readily took to café society and al fresco dining and brought it home. Pizza parlours proliferated and late night kebab houses opened in every town. We didn’t even baulk at eating snails or some of the unsavoury things Germans put in their sausages. We eagerly participated in European sporting events and brought over so many European footballers that it was difficult to find a British one in any of our top flight teams.

The turn of the tide appears to have been the outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s which prompted the EU to refuse to buy our beef. This struck at the heart of the British psyche. Cows, it appears were the linchpin of our culture. British beef, British beef, British beef, we chanted. We railed and railed but to no avail. Our continental comrades refused to listen. Brussels quickly became branded as the root of all evil. We wanted a life without the interference of Johnny Foreigner. Everything bad that happened could now be blamed on the foul capital of that slimy little lowland backwater that nobody wanted to visit.

But, to fully explain the demonisation of all things European, perhaps we might turn our eyes once more to music. Every year the United Kingdom, as it was then, would carefully craft the perfect song to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Each year it was announced in the press that this time we stood a realistic chance of taking the trophy but each year we would get fewer and fewer points. This was a travesty as we felt, with some justification I understand, that we produced the best pop music in the world. This was the area in which we excelled.

I wish I could go back to those days before the ignominious tabloid headline about bovine TB. To the days when you could hop across the Channel on Eurostar. To when you could peruse the Picasso paintings in the Tate or buy an Alfa Romeo legally. To those days when Bruch’s Violin Concerto was number 1 on the Classic FM Countdown. To the time when I was a dazzling young pianist, fresh from an Amadeus Scholarship and enjoying the first fruits of success. I had hopes and dreams. I did not need self-help books or a prescription for anti-depressants. Things were better then.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Hat Band

hatband

Hat Band by Chris Green

A jazz musician making his way down an Exeter street on a Wednesday morning with a charity shop bag full of bargain books can hardly be blamed for failing to notice that he is being tailed by a tall, thin man in a dark overcoat. Musicians are more accustomed to being looked at than looking, a matter which helps to explain why the thin man in the dark overcoat has been able to keep an eye on Max Tempo’s movements unnoticed for a day or two. Max is simply not aware that there is anything untoward in his world and why would he be? His quintet has a full diary of bookings, the promise of a recording contract and he has the beginnings of a new tune in his head. This is what preoccupies him as he approaches RAMM in Queen Street, where he feels he might drop in and have a cup of tea and sketch out the chords of the new tune on the pad he carries around with him. Maybe afterwards he can have a look at the paintings in the new exhibition by the modern artist whose name temporarily escapes him. Belinda mentioned him that morning over breakfast. Portraits assembled from cut up phone books or something like that, she said.

Max Tempo is not even curious when he catches the tall, thin stranger casting furtive glances from the corner of the café in RAMM, where he is enjoying his lemon polenta cake. The man probably recognises him from one of his gigs. This happens all the time. People are just too shy to come over and say they enjoyed the set. Or, is he merely admiring his brightly coloured African blazer and striped Jazz cap. It does register with him however when he encounters the same stranger waiting outside the gents toilet, but he does not give this a second thought. After all, there are gay men everywhere these days.

‘I wonder who that fellow in the black Jaguar is,’ Belinda says, looking out of the bay window of their townhouse. ‘He’s been sitting there all afternoon.’

‘Probably broken down or something,’ Max says. Max is working on the arrangement for his new tune on his iMac. The piano part is coming along well but the guitar part is proving trickier than he first thought it was going to be. This is the trouble when you try to put in too many minor chords.

‘Now I come to think of it, he was there yesterday afternoon too,’ Belinda says. ‘When I came back from the leisure centre. I noticed it because it’s quite an old car, isn’t it? Fellow in a dark coat and hat with his head in Jazz Weekly. Peering over the top of it, he was. I remember the banner headline Big Fifties Jazz Revival. I thought he must have been a friend of yours. There were some instruments in the back of the car too. Saxophones, I think.’

‘Perhaps he’s with Green Flag,’ says Max, who has not been listening. ‘They are pretty slow in coming out.’

‘He keeps looking over this way, Max.’

‘You want me to go and ask him what he’s doing, is that it? Perhaps I should invite him in for a tea and cake. Maybe, he can stay for dinner.’

‘No need to be like that, Max.’

‘I’m trying to finish this tune, Bee.’

Max feels It is always a good idea to open the set with a good old jazz standard. So, at Cool for Cats, the Max Tempo Quintet open with Goodbye Pork Pie Hat. As he looks around, Max feels pleased that there is a healthy turnout for a weekday, a couple of hundred perhaps, a good mix of all ages, couples and singles, a few gays and a few hipsters thrown in. So, Max feels they might try out the new number, now that Buck has put in the new guitar part and Bram has the tenor saxophone solo worked out. Max has given it the working title, Borsalino.

The band’s set, featuring highlights of their own material along with reworked standards, goes well. There is a good response from the audience to the new number. Although it is sometimes difficult to see everything that is going on from behind the piano, during the last few numbers, Max can’t help noticing that there are two men with no rhythm dressed in dark vintage overcoats sitting at a table towards the back. Alongside the revellers, they seem oddly out of place and out of time. As Max leaves Cool for Cats after the set, humming a new tune that is coming to him, he finds the same two men are waiting for him by his car. Is that a Fedora the one pointing the gun is wearing?

‘Nice and easy now!’ the other one, the stockier of the two says, stepping out of the shadow.

Definitely a Trilby, the stocky one is wearing, thinks Max. Wait! He’s also got a gun. What’s happening to people in this sleepy corner of the country? It’s always been so peaceful and laid back down this way. The Max Tempo Quintet have been able to get away with more slow numbers here than anywhere else in the country. You wouldn’t be able to follow Misty with The Nearness of You in Bristol or Swindon.

‘You are coming for a little ride with us,’ Fedora says, without the menace you might expect from a seasoned gunman. He ushers his Max towards a Jaguar with blacked out windows. Against his weak protests, he is bundled into the back. Without ceremony, Fedora and Trilby get in and the car speeds off.

………………………………

Ella Valée plays jazz singer, Liv Golden in the long-running television series, High Tide. In case you’ve not seen it, High Tide takes place over an indeterminable time frame and is set on an imaginary island where nothing is what it seems. When Ella is snatched from the set at Shepperton during filming by two thugs with bad manners in dark suits and nineteen fifties hats, she takes it to be an unscripted development in the plot. Surprises like this often take place in High Tide. Director, Leif Velasquez does nothing in a conventional way. Uncertainty, he says, keeps actors on their toes. The series plays around with alternate realities, multiverses, sadomasochism and jazz. A typical episode of High Tide will feature flashbacks and flash-forward sequences, secret agents, doppelgängers and speaking dolphins. Liv Golden usually gets to sing a number or two, in a carefully selected hat. This is one of the regular features of the show, probably the only regular feature the show.

Ella Valée first begins to suspect that something might be wrong on the silent drive away from the studio in the big black Jaguar. Neither the stocky gangster in the Trilby who forces her in at gunpoint or the long, lean one in the Fedora has anything to say. It would be unusual, she thinks, to place such a protracted silence in a prime time TV drama. Not that the unusual phases Ella these days. She has learned that anything can happen shooting High Tide. But, why are they going so fast and where are the cameras? She looks around her. She can see none of the usual paraphernalia for filming inside the car and the vehicles that usually accompany them with kit for the shoot are nowhere to be seen. This is not something that is scheduled to happen. These goons are for real. They are abducting her.

For miles upon miles, the forbidding silence in the car persists. Why don’t the two goons speak, Ella wonders? They could at least threaten her or swap stories with one another about buying hats or gunrunning. She notices they are keeping to windy B roads. Back lanes these might be but she recognises the some of the place names. Stockbridge, Middle Wallop, Winterslow. They seem to be heading south west. It would help to have some idea what was happening. It’s not likely to be good but it would be helpful to know.

………………………………

Whichever genre of popular music, drums and bass represent the driving force of a band. There have been some great rhythm sections over the years. Depending on your proclivities. Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce, or Sly and Robbie might be ones that spring to mind. Sticks Mullins and Bernie McCoy may not enjoy the same stature as the aforementioned, in fact, you have probably not heard of them but for years they have been the backbone of the jazz combo, the Zoot Norris Seven.

Sticks and Bernie are puzzled as to why two burly hoods should seize them in the middle of the day from the Pannier Market in Tavistock where they were innocently trying on hats and bring them to this big old house in the middle of Dartmoor. Questioning their captors on route about what was happening met with the cryptic, you’ll find out soon enough, sunshine. They haven’t. The hoods appear to have just dropped them off here and left them. Not a clue as to why they might be here. However with the doors triple-locked and the windows barred and boarded, they are unable to escape. Apart than this, it seems they have free run of the place.

Someone is tinkling the ivories in an upstairs room. They follow the direction of the notes and find a showy pianist playing a catchy jazz number on a Yamaha.

‘You need a bit of a beat behind that, bud,’ says Sticks. Secretly he quite likes it. Zoot doesn’t come up with melodious arpeggios like this.

‘And perhaps a nice hat instead of that bandana?’ says Bernie. ‘Something with a brim. And a hat band. How about a Panama?’

‘I’m Sticks and he’s Bernie, by the way,’ says Sticks. ‘Other than hat advice, we might be able to help you out with some drums and bass.’

‘That’s what we do, bro,’ says Sticks. ‘I’m drums and he’s bass.’

‘Cool!’ says Max, surprised but pleased by the intrusion. ‘There’s a string bass in the closet and a set of drums.’

‘Seriously?’ says Bernie.

‘And a cupboard full of saxophones along with a trumpet or two,’ says Max.

‘Really?’ says Bernie. ‘All we need now is a chanteuse,’

‘I can be your chanteuse,’ says the beguiling woman in the wide-brimmed pink hat who seemingly appears out of nowhere. ‘I’m Ella Valée.’

‘I bet you are, babe’ says Sticks.

‘Very droll, Casanova. Ella Valée is my name. You may have seen me in High Tide. I play Liv Golden, the jazz singer.’

They begin to share stories about being picked up off the streets by hoodlums. Max Tempo and Ella Valée it transpires have been at the house for two days. They too were just dumped there. ‘Wait for developments,’ they were told and then left to their own devices. Both were a little frightened at first when they found the doors and windows barred. But, they discovered running water, food, electricity, musical instruments and even some recording equipment, not exactly state of the art but even so, serviceable. Certainly, a better state of affairs than you might expect after being abducted. They even found changes of clothes and toothbrushes. So, instead of thinking of escape, they settled in. There are no phones of course. The captors took away their mobiles. Max hopes that Belinda isn’t worrying too much but he imagines she will be and Ella, if she is honest, is glad of a break from her fiancé, Brad. Brad has become a bit serious of late, she feels, and she’s not sure she’s ready for that level of commitment.

‘Why do you think these geezers have brought us all here then?’ asks Bernie. ‘And who the fuck are they?’

‘Exploitation,’ says Ella. ‘They must think they are going to get something out of us. Some kind of performance or product.’

‘The music business is a more cut-throat game than it was back in the day, for sure’ says Max.

‘Agents in the music business all behave like gangsters these days,’ says Sticks. ‘Managers and promoters too. Crooks, the lot of them.’

‘But, the geezers who brought us here are a throwback to the fifties,’ says Bernie. ‘They are wide-boys, spivs, whatever you want to call them.’

‘Perhaps they have brought us all here to form some kind of retro band,’ says Sticks. ‘Apparently, vintage jazz is making a comeback. I read about it in Jazz Weekly. And they’re keeping us prisoner here to cut some tracks and make some money for them. That’s what I reckon.’

‘Bit of a longshot though,’ says Ella. ‘We’ve not even played together.’

‘But they would have seen you sing every week in High Tide,’ says Bernie. ‘So not completely a longshot. And clearly, they’ve seen Max play. And the dude’s damn good.’

‘I already have a band,’ says Max. ‘The Max Tempo Quintet. And we’re doing pretty well. We might even have a record deal. Clint Snider of CPS Recordings should be in touch any day now. Come to think of it, he was supposed to get back to me last week. I probably missed Clint’s call through being here.’

‘We’re in a jazz band too,’ says Bernie. We’re the Zoot Norris Seven.’

‘Sorry, I don’t think I’ve heard of you,’ says Max.

‘I guess Zoot’s not that ambitious,’ says Bernie. ‘But we get gigs locally. The Nobody Inn and The Jolly Yachtsman last month. And we’ve had one or two good reviews.’

‘Hey! Look at the name on the bass drum,’ says Sticks. ‘Hat Band! It’s all beginning to make sense now.’

‘What?’ says Max.

‘Don’t you see, fellas?’ says Sticks. ‘Bernie is right. Those rogues are setting us up as Hat Band. What kind of name is that?’

………………………………

Do you really think those bozos will make us a million?’ says Frankie.

Of course, Frankie,’ says Duke. ‘No doubt about it.’

It’s just that I’m not sure that many people watch High Tide so they may not know who Ella Valée is.’

You worry too much, Frankie.’

Also, I think that the pianist might be a fairy like that Elton whatshisname.’

It hasn’t done Elton whatshisname any harm, has it?’ says Duke. ‘Anyway, this is jazz we’re talking about. Jazz isn’t about image.’

I know that, Duke. Jazz is all about the music.’

And, fifties Jazz is going to be the next new thing, remember.’

I guess you are right, Duke. We are due a bit of good luck, aren’t we?’

Luck’s got nothing to do with it, Frankie. Certainly you have to be able to take advantage of a situation. But, it’s all to do with calculation and confidence. But, with a name like Hat Band, they can’t fail. …….. I wonder who the original Hat Band were.’

We’ll probably never know, will we? But it was dead lucky you came across that job lot of their instruments, Duke. By the way, how did you know that big old house on Dartmoor was empty and the owner was away in Japan?’

I keep my ears open, Frankie.’

The best bit was you coming up with the toy guns, though, They all really went for it. Scared the living shits out of them.’

Shall we finish our drinks and go back and see what they’ve got for us? They are bound to have got a number or two by now. We’ll tell them they need to have enough tunes for the album before we let them go. Got your gun, Frankie?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

NIGHT TRAIN

nighttrain

Night Train by Chris Green

No matter where you might be, the night train rumbles through every night at 3:05 am. Its low-pitched drone makes the whole room quake. Every time this happens, you find it disturbing. You briefly speculate as to what its ominous cargo might be and vow to find out, before going back to sleep. Your dreams for the remainder of the night are tinged with an air of menace but in the morning you are too busy to investigate what the lumbering leviathan that wakes you each night might be carrying.

Now and again you find yourself in conversation with a friend or a colleague about being woken by the train and they will tell you that they were woken by a train at the same time, but it never occurs to either of you that it might be the same train. The laws of physics suggest that this would be impossible. Yet, each conversation you have with anyone, anywhere about this will be a replica of every other one. The train woke you at 3:05 am, the train woke them at 3:05 am, even though you might live fifty miles apart, even though you are the other side of the continent. It never occurs to either one of you to investigate how this might have happened, what sorcery might have brought this about.

Explosives, spontaneously combustible substances and radioactive material are all on occasions transported by rail. You might imagine that the night train might be carrying one or other of these, but most likely it does not. We are talking here of a heavy, heavy cargo, a dark mass of considerable magnitude. Heavy metals would probably pale into insignificance beside the weight of what this sinister transport of the night is likely to be conveying.

Anyone really wanting to know what is aboard could do worse than to ask Stanislav Ruby. Stanislav Ruby is allegedly the leading authority in these matters. But nobody asks Stanislav Ruby. So the train keeps on coming, unobserved, determined, relentless. You will hear it tonight at 3:05 and there will be an air of menace in your subsequent dreams. Your friends and family will hear it too, along with the talk show host that you like, the jockey who rode the horse you backed in the Gold Cup, the man you bought your car from and all the people you met on holiday in Portugal last year.

……………………………………

I spend most of the day writing the introduction to a book on the history of the blues. I am writing about how the music originated from African spirituals and work songs, share-croppers singing in a call and response pattern to dull the monotony and pain of working long hours in the plantations of the Southern states. Early blues took the form of a loose narrative, relating the troubles experienced in Afro-American society. Ma Rainey, one of the first professional blues singers claimed to have coined the term, blues, although the term might originate from the pre-coital shuffle known as blues, popular in Southern juke-joints around the turn of the century. The twelve-bar delta blues format that we are familiar with was introduced by William C. Handy in his 1912 sheet music, Memphis Blues.

The 1920s brought big names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Leadbelly, names that are remembered as blues greats today. Robert Johnson at the crossroads enacting the Faustian myth but still dead at 27, the first of many to join that club. The music then began to spread out from the Mississippi delta, upriver to Chicago where it became amplified and spawned legends like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. But it is getting late and this is something that Heather, who fresh from mixing herbs has joined me, feels I should leave for another day. She has some other ideas about what we might be doing on an April evening. I am pleased that she does. By and by, we play a post-coital shuffle. Before turning out the lights, we have our nightly chat about the nature of the night train. We conclude once more that there are many things we don’t know.

…………………………………

At 3:05, right on cue, the bedroom begins to vibrate with the portentous approach of the night train. It’s as if someone has left their eighteen-wheeler truck underneath the bedroom window with the engine running. The sound gradually grows louder. The walls begin to emit a bassy hum. Plates and cutlery in the kitchen begin to rattle. It feels as if the train is actually inside the house now. Just as she does ever night, Heather turns over and moans. Her wax earplugs offer little defence against the thunderous roar of the engine. In my head, I visualise the leviathan, shiny black with a bright, piercing headlight up front to signal its presence as it powers its way up the line. Or might its headlight be not light at all but dark like a massive black hole, sucking in everything in its path? Whichever, it leads the way to the murky depths of the night. The store of nightmares seems intact.

I find myself descending into a crepuscular netherworld. I am being led down into the abyss by a shadowy figure who seems half-familiar yet completely unrecognisable. He is dark with reptilian features. He carries a large hammer in his right hand and his left hand is hidden beneath a black leather duster overcoat. He takes his hand out to direct me down the steep steps. His hand is a scaly raptor’s claw.

The abyss is immense, a maze of stone stairs and echoing corridors. What rooms there are serve only to lead from one gloomy corridor to another gloomy corridor and we go, round and round, down and down yet somehow end up back at the beginning where the half-familiar man with the clawed hand utters something in some arcane guttural language.

The scene switches. We are now outside, on the edge of an old deserted town. I can wolves howling in the distance. The man who has been leading me has turned into a giant or have I become a dwarf. He motions for me to lie down. He points to a stretch of railway track. Hear my train a’coming, he sings, as he ties me to the track. What is the train carrying, I ask, although this seems irrelevant. He lets out a blood-curdling laugh. I wake up, screaming. But, this is not the end. I find I am not awake, I am still asleep. I cannot wake. There is another level, a dream within a dream. I am on a battle-scarred hillside now and insurrectionists are throwing American Civil War uniforms on to a huge fire. They are blue uniforms. The blues. Which side in the Civil War is that? The Union of the Confederates? It’s the Union. The Yankees wore blue. Wait! There are soldiers in the uniforms they are throwing on the fire. They are black soldiers. One of the insurrectionists points at me. I look down. To my astonishment, I am black and I am wearing a blue uniform. I turn around to flee. There is a resounding crash. …….. Heather has knocked the bedside light onto the floor.

‘I was having a terrible dream’ she says, clinging to me for dear life. ‘Has the night train gone?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘The night train has gone.’

‘But it will be back again tomorrow night, won’t it? Why does it keep coming? And what is it carrying?’

‘I wish I had the answer,’ I say.

The thing is, no-one knows what the night train is carrying. Not even Stanislav Ruby is sure. It could be carrying a colossal cargo of cosmic consciousness, he might say. Or, it might be loaded with metaphors, allegories, symbolism. There is the possibility that what is in tow is unknowable. But, wherever you are, be certain that the night train will rumble slowly through tonight and every night at 3:05 am.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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Weatherman

weatherman

Weatherman by Chris Green

I shouldn’t be writing this. The organisation I work for is very conscious about security. And rightly so, when you consider that we control the weather. Security is so tight that I don’t know who runs WeatherCorp. I was head-hunted online by them through an anonymous encrypted email. They had heard about my skills and felt they could use them. Initially, I did some research to try to find out who might be behind it and discovered that both the Americans and the Russians had weather manipulation projects on the go but curiously it was the Swiss who were the most advanced in the field. This in a way made sense as their tourist industry would collapse without snow. I decided that all things considered it probably didn’t matter who I was working for so long as they were able to use my skills for the greater good.

As it is risky to share sensitive information over the internet, I get my instructions through the Wessex Examiner. Normally these appear on Page 9 or Page 10. They are, of course, coded, buried in the body of random news stories. Occasionally, the instructions appear in a story on one of the earlier pages of the newspaper and once or twice I’ve even found them hidden in a cryptic crossword clue. In these days of cybercrime, our organisation needs to be prudent in case they should fall into the hands of unintended recipients. If the wrong people should stumble upon the messages and work out what is really going on, we would be in trouble.

The tools of my trade include a meteorological wand, an industrial atomiser and a bespoke selection of powerful projectiles. I also have access to a wide range of medicinal compounds. With these, I am able to get most jobs done. I can redirect the clouds, produce scattered showers, bring in a cold front or create a pressure drop to create localised flooding or conjure up tidal winds. Chances are, without realising it, you have at some time or other been a victim of one of my atmospheric disturbances.

I look through today’s copy of the Examiner. I am principally on the lookout for typos. These are not really typos, of course. The errors are put in there deliberately. Ah! Here we are! On Page 9. In the story about hospital closures. They have spelt casualty as causality. And here on page 10, a missing letter, explosion spelt as exposion. I’m not sure but I think this means I may have to use more than my meteorological wand. I may have to cause an explosion which produces gale force winds to disrupt an as yet unnamed event. I will have to wait until tomorrow’s paper to find out where and when I have to do this. But this is more exciting than just having to stir up a squally shower or bring in a cold front. This is proper weather.

WeatherCorp has no explicit political agenda but as disruption is one of the main aims of the programme, I sometimes detect a little bias creeping in. On the whole, though, I like to think that a balance is achieved with the work that I do. It’s not all derangement and insurrection. Sometimes I have to bring about sunshine in order to facilitate a life-affirming experience, a charity fête or a chocolate festival. Occasionally, things do not go according to plan. I might accidentally bring about a thunderous downpour for an open air concert instead of the required blanket sunshine or a warm clear night for an inner-city riot. Experimental technology is never perfect.

My psychiatrist, Malachi McCool doesn’t understand. He thinks I’m crazy but what does he know? Only last week he was telling me about the freak storm he was caught in on the way to his kickboxing class, the same storm that I helped to arrange to delay the take-off of the politician’s plane. I rest my case.

‘Why do you think you have been chosen for the weather manipulation programme, Kenny?’ he is fond of asking me. He hopes that if he discourages me enough I will give up my role but then where would we be?

‘It’s obvious, isn’t it?’ I tell him. ‘It’s because I have the rare capability and focus necessary for such vital work. Only a handful of people are able to do what I do, you realise. We’ve been hand-picked.’

‘What about your colleagues in this secret organisation?’ he asks. ‘You have met the others at WeatherCorp, I take it.’ Is this his way of casting doubt on the process? Or is he suggesting that we cannot be trusted with such an important job as manipulating the weather? It’s hard to know with Malachi. He has a habit of playing mind games.

‘In the interests of security,’ I say. ‘I haven’t met the others. But I’m certain that they are just as focussed as me. We can all be trusted with the great responsibility that rests on our shoulders. After all, there’s a lot at stake.’

Sometimes I question why I am seeing Malachi McCool. It’s not as if there’s anything greatly wrong with me. I began seeing him after Cazz moved out of our narrowboat last year. I was distraught. Even the strongest people sometimes need support. At least, that’s what Malachi’s advert said, so I gave him a call and although he seemed to be in a bit of a dither, he said to come along. Cazz didn’t seem to be able to grasp the importance of my work. She said it was selfish that I had the TV tuned to the new weather channel twenty four seven. Not even true. JustWeather goes off the air at 10 pm. Listening to the Shipping Forecast was also vital and I couldn’t help it that it was on at the same time as Home and Away. I can’t imagine why she wanted to watch that rubbish anyway. She said I ignored her for days on end, but I often used to take her out. We went to the Meteorological Office once and the Science Museum. She said we argued constantly. Admittedly, I did occasionally shout at her if she hung the washing too close to the anemometer on deck but I felt we got along fine most of the time.

Malachi disapproves of my use of cannabis. He feels it makes me paranoid. He keeps pushing this idea that I might be suffering from deep trauma brought about by a disappointment, or some such. He says that while I am basically honest, there is a deep-rooted desire to be deceitful. He feels that I have developed selective memory to repress some unpleasant truths. In order to bury events from the past, he says, I have become a fantasist. To be honest, I can’t remember what I might have said to him from one session to the next. Memory is not my strongest suit.

While he is out of the room, ostensibly taking a call from his darts coach, Alessandro, I discover a little red notebook on his desk and pocket it. It’s not a report, exactly. It’s too flowery for a report. It’s as if he’s writing a short story. I find I’m automatically looking for a typo as if I’m reading the Wessex Examiner. As I read it, parts of what he’s written seem oddly familiar. In fact, I distinctly remember some of it. It’s eerie. He’s writing about me. All he has done is changed my name.

………………………………………………….

Kenny Cope wasn’t in the habit of lying but when he met Renée, all this went out the window. Somehow, Kenny could not help himself. He told Renée he was single when in fact he was married, albeit not living with his wife, Wendy. That he was married might not have mattered had he not found himself so smitten with Renée that on their second date, he proposed to her. Renée, herself also smitten, accepted. Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, Kenny ignored the obvious danger and went straight ahead and arranged the wedding. None of the carefully selected guests at the ceremony knew of any just cause why he and Renée should not be joined.

Kenny’s deceit might not have come to light so easily had he not been a public figure. Kenny was a TV weatherman and a household name, a personality much loved up and down the country for his genial manner and straightforward approach to weather presentation. So, when the shit hit the fan, it spread more widely. Although there were plenty of people willing to stand up in court to give him a character reference, Kenny was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment for Bigamy. The tabloids went to town on him. Bringing down a public figure is pretty much their raison d’être. Not content with the bigamy scandal, they delved into his private life and came up with evidence of his recreational drug use, credit card fraud and tax evasion.

Prison loves to humiliate a disgraced public figure and Kenny Cope was no exception. The inmates of Belmarsh belittled him mercilessly. He was only able to get through the day to day by taking more and more of the vast array of drugs that, thanks to drone drops, were freely available in Belmarsh. Meanwhile, his family were hounded by the press and he received no visits during his stay. His months behind bars slowly began to take their toll. Kenny Cope couldnae cope, as they say, north of the border, he was a broken man.

On release, he found himself with two fewer wives and a colossal solicitor’s bill. With what little money that remained from the sale of the marital homes, he bought a narrowboat which he moored on the Bridgewater canal. Here he gradually withdrew from the world. For a short while, he was befriended by a woman called Cazz, whose appetite for skunk weed matched his own. But as Kenny gradually descended into paranoia, he imagined he was being sent secret messages through the Wessex Examiner about manipulating the weather. He developed an unhealthy obsession with cloudbusting and bought a congress of meteorological paraphernalia. This was altogether too weird for Cazz. She upped and left.

Originally Kenny had answered my classified ad in the Wessex Examiner. ‘Even the strongest people sometimes need support,’ the ad began. Apparently, he did not read or misinterpreted the rest of it, about me being a Psychology Research Fellow looking for case studies for a thesis. Acting on impulse, he phoned the number and came along to see me, in the hope that I could help him.

I detected from the outset that Kenny was a hopeless case torn between raging paranoia and self-destructive impulses. While he clearly wanted me to be able to help, I could see that I would be up against it. With little now to distract Kenny and a seemingly endless supply of skunk to smoke, with each visit, he seemed to have become more and more delusional. He had become a disciple of some imaginary guru who wanted to put the world to rights by creating catastrophic weather events.

It became clear that I was not getting through to Kenny, either in what his issues were or what my role was. So, in one session, I surreptitiously drew attention to a notebook in which I had sketched out a few thoughts. I could see that it had piqued his interest so, excusing myself, I left him alone with it, in the hope that he might take it away and read what I had written and take stock.

………………………………………………….

I know I’ve not been thinking straight lately and I’d be the first to admit that my memory is not as good as it was. But, a lot of what Malachi says here seems familiar. I can vaguely recall those reckless days when I fell for Renée and conveniently forgot that I was still married. Most red blooded males would have done the same. Renée had that kind of allure. And it’s not as if Wendy and I were living together at the time, we were divorced in all but name. Although I have tried my best to shut them out, I can also still recall the terrible beatings I used to get in Belmarsh. And, yes, drugs were freely available. Everyone was taking them, even the screws. On low wages and anxious to supplement their income, the screws were the suppliers. They would arrange for drones to drop the drugs in the prison yard.

But by no means all of what Malachi has put down rings true. A lot of it simply doesn’t add up. After all this time, he’s still questioning my abilities, suggesting that I am unable to bring about what he refers to as catastrophic weather events. Does he not realise that I have a proven track record? Or is he just in denial? I don’t trust him. Perhaps it’s time to take some action of my own. A pre-emptive strike, as it were.

………………………………………………….

I take a look out of the window. The storm clouds are still overhead, the streets are flooded and the torrential rain doesn’t look like it is going to stop anytime soon. I phone Ravi. ‘I’m sorry I’m not going to be able to get over to your snake charming class at the community centre today,’ I say.

‘Oh deary me! Why is that, Malachi,’ he asks? ‘You have not had trouble with the cobra I lent you, I hope.’

‘It’s the floods, Ravi,’ I say. ‘Have you not looked outside?’

‘It is odd that you should say that, my friend’ Ravi says. ‘We are having brilliant sunshine here. Not a drop of rain all day and the forecast is good. The community centre is only about four miles from you as the crow is flying. I wonder what can be happening.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

White Stuff

whitestuff

White Stuff by Chris Green

The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men. Gang aft agleyRobert Burns

It is said that accident is the real the director of life. Accident, of course, is not the same thing as destiny or fate and has nothing at all to do with synchronicity. Accident is pure random chance.

It is by accident that Sergio Blanco and Chelsea Moon’s paths should cross at Bilbao Airport as neither Sergio’s flight from Bogotá or Chelsea’s flight from Milan is scheduled to land there. That they both do is due to freak weather conditions over the Iberian peninsula which prevents them navigating Spanish air space. Sergio’s flight was heading for Madrid and Chelsea’s, London Heathrow. Pure random chance that both Sergio and Chelsea have picked identical black Samsonite luggage to travel with, more so for Chelsea perhaps as her original colour choice was red but the small town department store were waiting on a delivery. Accident that they both find themselves temporarily housed in the same section of the same Departure Lounge waiting to hear about the revised schedules for their flights. Under normal circumstances, in this striking modern airport designed by the audacious architect, Santiago Calatrava, doubling up on departures would simply not happen. Pure random chance that Sergio Blanco and Chelsea Moon pick adjacent seats, each hoping for reasons of their own that they will not have to engage in casual conversation with anyone. Accident too that when the time comes to move, each picks the other’s suitcase mistaking it for their own. Neither has thought to try to replace the weather-beaten baggage tags, an action which more than likely would have prevented such an error or at least minimised the consequences.

It is up to the airlines now to replace the unreadable tags at the check-ins for their revised flights. Part of the service, of course, along with sugary apologies for the circumstances beyond their control which forced the delays. With so many flights daily such matters have become routine. Neither Sergio or Chelsea have the slightest suspicion at this stage that anything might be amiss with their cases. Why would they? They are told that the blizzards over Spain have now eased and the snow on the runways is being cleared. They will shortly be able to board their onward flights.

………………………………………

Relieved to finally be back on home soil, Chelsea makes her way through Passport Control in Heathrow Terminal 2. She retrieves her suitcase from the carousel. She makes her way to the Nothing to Declare blue channel but hangs back to adjust a contact lens. One of the customs officers, a family man called Norman Daley views Chelsea’s hesitation as suspicious. Hanging back and looking nervous are things that he has been trained to look out for. He calls Chelsea over and politely asks her to accompany him to a side room, where he and a female officer, Bethany Chambers, a mother of two, inform her of the procedure they are about to carry out.

‘Did you pack this suitcase yourself,’ Norman asks, while Bethany goes through Chelsea’s hand luggage and prepares her for a body search.

‘Of Course,’ she says.

That Chelsea shows surprise when Norman Daley discovers the false bottom in the Samsonite suitcase does not phase him. He is an experienced customs officer. Feigning surprise is something that suspects usually do. The three kilos of cocaine he discovers in the secret compartment is also something that is becoming more commonplace for arrivals at Heathrow, if not usual on flights from Milan, albeit an interrupted flight. Despite Chelsea’s vigorous protests, the thing that seals her fate is that the suitcase does appear to be hers. Sergio Blanco has taken steps to cover his own tracks, should he be pulled over at Madrid by filling the suitcase with random ladies clothes. He could then claim that the suitcase had been switched without his knowledge. Unfortunately for Chelsea, the random clothes in the suitcase just happen to be her size and match the style of outfit she is wearing. The have the same labels, FatFace, Boden, White Stuff, mostly White Stuff. Even the underwear that he has chosen to pack is similar to that which Chelsea is wearing, Agent Provocateur, Janet Reger. Her protests fall on deaf ears. Norman Daley informs her that she is under arrest.

Sergio Blanco arrives at Madrid Airport. Understandably, given the circumstances, he is extremely nervous. He is physically shaking as he approaches Customs, and sweat is pouring from his brow. He has had a few practice runs in the past with small amounts of cocaine, secreted as everyday items like talc and dried food. But, he has never done anything remotely on this scale. This is big league. This is make or break time.

To his great relief, he makes it though Nada Que Declarar with little more than a nod. Feeling buoyant, he takes a cab to his hotel. He settles down with a cool glass of orujo and begins to make calls on the anonymous pay as you go phone he purchased at the airport. He is arranging to make drops of the drug for the following day. He is a happy man. Soon he will be rich.

When he opens the case he finds that it is full of ladies apparel. Familiar labels, FatFace, Boden, White Stuff, mostly White Stuff. But, to his horror, these are different clothes. The same labels but different clothes. More critically, the case has no false bottom. No secret compartment. No ….. well, no white stuff, no cocaine. It is a different case. How can this have happened? Whose case could it be? He goes through the contents, over and over but finds nothing that might help to identify its owner. The person who packed the suitcase is to all intents and purposes untraceable.

Without his product, Sergio has no way of paying his sizeable debts. Debts accrued largely through setting up his present venture. The gangsters he owes money to are unlikely to be understanding about his inability to pay them. They are not the kind of people who listen to excuses. He sees little choice but to go on the run.

………………………………………

Accident does not conform to universal laws. It can unleash an unstoppable chain of events. You might call it the domino effect. Once one goes, the others will follow. When this happens you cannot refer to fate or destiny. You cannot say this was not in the plan. This is a departure from the plan, a spiral of descent driven by a chance happening.

Chelsea Moon’s plea of Not Guilty is laughed out of court. Her barrister, Grayson Willoughby, Q. C. embarrassed to be taking such an obvious no-hoper of a case is more than a little half-hearted in his presentation. He wants to quickly bury this one and take on something that will win him acclaim, a case that he has a realistic chance of winning. His defence that the black Samsonite case must have been switched is quickly torn apart by the prosecution. The prosecution acknowledges that in theory the case could have been switched but as there is no evidence of this, the allegation is absurd. It is indisputable that it was Chelsea Moon’s case. The check-in desks at both Milan and Bilbao airports have supplied CCTV video evidence for the court. The footage shows Chelsea Moon checking in with this very same black Samsonite case. It is clear too that the clothes found in the case belonged to her. All the clothes were the right size and a search of her home revealed many similar outfits with the all too familiar labels, Boden, FatFace, White Stuff, mostly White Stuff.

‘And isn’t white stuff also a slang term for cocaine?’ says prosecution barrister, Roland Silk, Q.C. ‘Isn’t it the case, Ms Moon, that you were trying to be clever with your choice of brands?’

Judge Stover’s summing up is brief and the jury needs little persuasion. The jurors unanimously agree that Chelsea Moon is guilty of Importing commercial quantities of a border controlled drug and Judge Stover has no hesitation in handing down a six year sentence.

If you are going on the run there are a number of things you must first consider. You cannot afford to trust anyone so you need to cut all ties with friends and family. This is hard for Sergio as he has a large and varied network of friends in and around Madrid but fortunately, he has no long term partner and so far as he knows, no children. He now needs to stop using his email, social media accounts and all the other online accounts that might be traceable and he needs to liquidate his assets. The assets part is easy for Sergio. For assets, read debts but it is not until he is faced with the idea of closing accounts that he realises how tied into email and the like his life is. He needs to move out immediately leaving no trace of where he might be going.

With this in mind, Sergio makes his way to his apartment and under the cover of night takes off in his Seat Leon with just a couple of holdalls. He abandons the car at a small town near Toledo and takes a series of trains to the coast where he hopes he can blend in for a few days while he considers his options. The important step as he sees it is to change his appearance as quickly as he can and establish a new identity. This cannot be done overnight, but growing a beard and wearing big black sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat will help in the interim.

Sergio manages to call in a favour and his long term associate, Hugo Perez sets him up with a Canadian passport and Social Insurance number with the name, Charlie Snow. Charlie is able to travel to Nova Scotia where he is slowly able to build up his identity and blag a job with a small garage as a car mechanic. From here he manages to get to grips with the language and settle in. after a year or so, in keeping with his name perhaps, he manages to become a ski instructor at Ski Martock, a small undertaking near Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ski Martock is remote. He is able to rest easy in the belief that no one will find him here.

Ironic then that Chelsea Moon’s sister, Siena should decide to treat her to a skiing holiday, following her release after serving three years of her six year sentence. Siena might have chosen a European ski resort, Courchevel or Val d’Isère. Madonna di Campiglio or Val Gardena. But, accident continues to show its hand. Siena chooses a small resort in North West Canada.

‘It’s called Ski Martock,’ she tells her sister, as they drive up in the hire car. ‘We can ease you in here as there will not be many people about and the slopes are gentle.’

‘Looks nice. I’ve always wanted to come to Canada,’ Chelsea says. ‘But I would have been thinking more of Toronto, or Vancouver perhaps.

‘You’ll be the height of fashion here,’ Siena says. ‘That White Stuff jacket you’re wearing, for instance.’

‘You like it?’ Chelsea says.

‘I was going to say, it’s quite apt for the piste,’ Siena says. ‘That’s where the idea for the White Stuff label came from, isn’t it?’

‘What! I thought it was ….. ‘

‘Oh! Sorry, sis. You thought it meant ……. the other white stuff. How insensitive of me!’

‘It’s all right, Siena. There’s nothing can be done about it now. I have to put all that behind me.’

‘Still, it must have a big impact on how you think about everything.’

‘Of course, but I have to move on. Hey! I do like the look of that fella. That beefy one with the beard. Do you think he’s going to be our instructor?’

‘What are you like! You’ve only been out five minutes and you’re lusting after the first hunk you set eyes on.’

Charlie is flattered by all the attention he is getting from the two sisters that have just arrived, especially the younger one, Chelsea. She is dark, beguiling, mysterious. He has not had too many chances to form a relationship in this far-flung corner of the North American continent so he is still footloose and fancy free. He guides Chelsea through the easy slopes and in no time at all she is ready to broaden her horizons. On the second night of their stay, she finds her way to his cabin and they make love. This becomes the pattern over the next ten days. Skiing, dinner, drinks in the bar, goodnight Siena, reconvene in Charlie’s cabin. Charlie is a little secretive about his background but as Chelsea is not anxious to share her recent history, she does not probe too deeply. She imagines though that he must have some Spanish blood. He has the faint traces of a Spanish accent.

The problem with holiday romances is that they don’t tend to last. They are based on nothing more than chance meetings. Seldom could such random encounters be considered destiny. Charlie Snow and Chelsea Moon’s brief affair, although passionate to begin with, is in this respect no different. As soon as distance separates them once more, they begin to forget one another. None of the promised letters. No phone calls. Not so much as a text. As neither of them are aware of the coincidence of their paths crossing twice, how could they imagine that their destinies might be entwined? Things do not necessarily happen for a reason. The real director of life is accident. Life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

EXTRA

extraEXTRA by Chris Green

How do they know there are only thirteen days left? How can anyone be so precise? And what exactly is the nature of the emergency? Why does no-one appear to know? Or if they do know, why are they reluctant to tell us? Not that I am able to do much about it, whatever it is, stuck on the third floor of this ill-equipped institution building in the middle of nowhere in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster. You can’t even get the internet in here to find out what is going on. Perhaps you can’t get the internet anywhere now. Perhaps the internet has been closed down. This would make sense if they, whoever they are, don’t want people to find out what is happening.

It wasn’t so bad at first when we were told there were nineteen days left. First thoughts were that it was probably a hoax or that, whatever the supposed emergency was, it would go away. There was plenty of time, nineteen whole days. There’s not much that stays in the news for nineteen days. But, as the days count down with no further revelations about the nature of the emergency, and seemingly no way of finding out what is going on, I can’t help but speculate. What are they hiding and why? Is there a colossal asteroid on a collision course? Has there been a nuclear accident? A biological attack? There have of course always been things that have been kept secret on the basis that it is not in the public interest to know. Rumours about unbearably loud sounds, antimatter on the loose, apocalyptic winds, blinding blue lights. Media silence seems somehow more sinister.

Of course, there were dozens of us here at first. Only those of us who are physically unable to get away remain, four of us in all. The rest have surreptitiously left. The ones who appeared to be in charge of the place also went today. We watched them go off in a minibus. Rats and sinking ship come to mind. None of us knows why we are here. Is the emergency worldwide or is it something more localised? There’s no way of finding out. To add to our distress, there appears to be a power cut. Maybe there is simply no electricity being produced in these final days.

………………………………………….

When you are faced with the prospect of annihilation in eleven days time, eleven feels like a very small number. It is impossible not to feel fear.

Burl Rector, if that is really his name, believes categorically that it is the hand of God.

‘It’s retribution for all our sins,’ Burl says, in one of his diatribes. ‘Revelations tells us that the fearful and the unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, and sorcerers, idolaters and liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’

I do not have the energy to point out that I for one am none of the above, well perhaps the fearful and unbelieving, but none of the rest. And although it is far from verified, what news we have is that everyone is going to perish, whether they are sinners or not, in just eleven days time. If I were to challenge Burl, he would probably have some other Biblical text at the ready. Burl’s God is a wrathful God. A vengeful and unforgiving God. Burl’s God put him in his wheelchair simply because he missed church two Sundays in a row.

Huey Minton is also not someone you would choose to be stuck in a lift with. Huey is not even half empty in his outlook. He is empty with a capital e. He is acutely paranoid. He doesn’t even think we should eat the food that we have access to. It is bound to be poisoned, he says, even the tins will be poisoned. What would he rather us do, starve? Huey is a seasoned conspiracy theorist. He can hold forth about 9/11 or chemtrails and mind control for hours. He started off by claiming that the present emergency was an alien attack but he has since switched his diagnosis to it being a rampant airborne disease started by the New World Order as a means of population control. It doesn’t matter he says whether we are out there or in here, it will still get us.

Mary Jane doesn’t have an opinion regarding the explanation for the emergency and I am with her on this. If we are going to survive, then its cause is perhaps secondary, we need to come up with a strategy for our survival beyond the next eleven days. Or at least be able to live out our remaining time in good spirits.

………………………………………….

Despite our limited mobility, Mary Jane and I somehow manage to get down to the second floor. The other two are not with us. We try shouting up the stairs but there is no reply. They have vanished. Perhaps they are caught in a wormhole between floors or an unscheduled timewarp but something has happened to them. In uncharted territory such as we are, perhaps we should expect strange things such as this to happen. At least Mary Jane and I are spared the wrath of God diatribes and the wild conspiracy theories for the time being. At least Mary Jane and I are spared for the time being.

It is eerie down here with the peculiar echo of silence you find in a large space when no-one is about. Although we are two floors up, it feels oddly subterranean. Three days on and there is still no sign of the power coming back on. It is dark down here and smells of decay. It looks as if it has been abandoned for a long time. Certainly, more than a few days. The paint is flaking off the mildewed walls and the windows are clouded with soot. Spiders’ webs hang from the furniture. Amongst scattered papers on a gnarled wooden desk, we discover a transistor radio. It’s one of those military looking ones with lots of wavebands. Despite its business like appearance, the only transmission we can pick up is in Spanish. This strikes us as ominous. Does this mean that everyone else has gone off the air? With the smattering of Spanish Mary Jane and I have between us, we try to make out what they are saying. They appear to be talking about a football match. A big upcoming football match. Mañana, mañana, El partido más grande de la historia.

‘Vamos a descubrir que Barcelona es el mejor equipo para la eternidad,’ one of them says. ‘Barcelona es el mejor equipo de futbol del universo entero.’

With just eight days to go before the apocalypse, it seems that this is the match to decide once and for all who really is the best team.

‘Perhaps this is something they should have done years ago and had done with it,’ Mary Jane says. ‘Rather than put us through the anguish every year for nine months of the year only to for it to start all over again.’

‘What do you think they would be talking about if it were a French station?’ I say.

‘Wine, of course,’ Mary Jane says. ‘They would be talking about appellation and terroir and all that nonsense.

‘German?’

‘Sausages and Pilsner,’ Mary Jane says. ‘What about a British radio broadcast? I wonder what we would be talking about.’

‘Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

‘It’s good that even in these last days, we still have a sense of humour,’ Mary Jane says.

The lightness of mood is short lived. Without warning, the Spanish station goes off the air. In mid-sentence, the excited voice dies. We are left with the hiss of static, this made up in part I recall by cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. There is nothing out there. It is a chilling moment.

………………………………………….

I can’t be sure of anything anymore, there are no certainties. Everything is in flux. But, according to my calculations, there are just five days left. I can’t recall how we came to be here, but Mary Jane and I now find ourselves on the first floor of the complex. First floor is probably not a fair or accurate description, in fact, no description at all. Before us, as far as the eye can see, there is open grassland. And it seems to go on for ever. It even smells like a prairie, with the scents of grasses, resinous shrubs, warm earth and sage. Yet, at the same time, we are somehow still within the confines of the monolithic structure. There are staircases both up and down. How have the wild open spaces come inside? We have entered the realms of science fantasy. The space is somehow dimensionally transcendent.

Like everywhere else around here, the prairie is deserted, if deserted is not a contradiction in terms. We haven’t seen anyone else for a long, long time now. The unspecified catastrophe seems to be playing out. This is surely the end. I can’t help but indulge in some reverie. There’s a sudden longing for the past. For better times. Those idyllic days when life was simpler. The odd thing is, I’m really not sure that I’ve done some of the things that are coming into consciousness. I seem to be flooded with ……. false memories. How could I possibly have been a Roman centurion? Or been in the trenches in the First World War? I wouldn’t have been born. Surely I didn’t really grow gourds in Somerset or have a dog called Kafka. And I can’t for the life of me place who some of these people are that are coming to mind, Philip C. Dark, Leif Velasquez. Certainly, they seem half-familiar. But, who are they? They seem one step removed from my experience. Like phantoms. There again, I do remember Vicki and the twins and Elm Close and Lee’s Bar. I believe these are real memories. And my job at the insurance office. Or was it music shop? I’m sure I had some kind of career. My memory is a laboratory of confusion. Mary Jane, on the other hand, says she doesn’t remember anything at all from her past.

………………………………………….

Somehow, I negotiate another descent. I try to get my bearings once more but I seem to have lost Mary Jane. I call out her name but she does not answer. The darkness makes it difficult see what is down here but it is no longer open prairie. This is an indoor setting – an indoor setting with a vengeance. All the windows have been boarded up. It is dark. Enclosed. Forbidding. Where is Mary Jane? I don’t want to be the last person alive.

I’m not.

‘Don’t move!’ yells a hollow voice, from out of the gloom. I’m thinking perhaps it is the Grim Reaper. My heart is thumping. I’m not ready for this. The seconds pass. The figure slowly approaches. In the slither of murky light coming from a split in one of the boarded up windows, I can just make out his shape. In heavy black uniform and protective headgear, he looks like Darth Vader. He is pointing a gun of some sort in my direction.

‘Oh! It’s you,’ he says, as he gets closer. Do I detect a sense of relief in his voice? Was he expecting someone more dangerous? I’m still too terrified to say anything.

‘You’re supposed to be in quarantine,’ he says, matter of factly.

‘Quarantine?’ I say.

‘Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Don’t you remember what happened?’

‘Remember what?’

‘The explosion on set.’

‘What set? Who are you?’

‘I’m Site Security.’

‘What’s this about an explosion?’

‘There was an explosion. On the set of Nineteen Days. Two weeks ago.’

‘Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

‘Oh, come on now! You were one of the extras in the big scene at the end of the film. I had to apprehend two of your oppos a day or two ago and take them back in. Difficult bastards, they were.’

‘What about Mary Jane? What have you done with Mary Jane?’

‘No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

Perhaps there was no Mary Jane. The only thing I am sure about is my confusion.

‘You say we were in a film?’

As I am saying this, I begin to understand the likely origin of the false memories I’ve been getting. The Roman centurion, the First World War soldier. They must be from bit parts I’ve played in films.

‘Look!’ Darth Vader says. ‘Are you a bit slow or are you pulling my pisser? All of you were in Leif Velasquez’s Nineteen Days. The film he was making of the classic Philip C. Dark story. The production was shut down following the accident.’

‘Accident?’

‘The apocalyptic explosion filming the final scene,’ he says. ‘It was like Armageddon.’

Suddenly, I find I am getting flashbacks about an explosion like the one he is describing. But I’m not even sure about these. In my state, they could easily be brought on through auto-suggestion.

‘They had to shut down the film and quarantine everyone involved in the scene,’ he continues. ‘Those of you that actually survived that is. Because of the alarming side effects you were experiencing. Toxic chemicals were discovered everywhere, some of them never known before. The area has been declared a no-go zone. All means of communication both in and out have been cut. Weren’t you told any of this?’

Communication cut. This explains the lack of radio reception perhaps but there are still a lot of things that don’t add up.

‘What happened to the others?’ I ask. ‘Where have they taken them? And where is Mary Jane?’

I do not get a reply. Instead, he raises his weapon once more. He uses it to point the way. Perhaps I am about to find out where the others have been taken. Or, is this all part of Leif Velasquez’s film? Are they still filming? You can perhaps never be sure if you are an extra.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

SOUTH

south

SOUTH by Chris Green

On occasions, just for a moment, everything seems in place. For this brief spell of time, a supernatural force seems to be at work. There is equilibrium in the universe. It might be referred to by some as an epiphany, an insight through the divine. Here at the top of the mountain, Gregory North enjoys such a moment. Gregory’s mountain may be metaphorical, as might the moment, but briefly, space and time conspire to offer him that sentient feeling of arrival. He is where he wants to be. It, of course, cannot last. Destiny cannot allow contentment. All actions from here on in are bound to burst the bubble.

So, how is it that Gregory finds himself at the summit of the metaphorical mountain? What is the back story? Gregory is born into a steady middle-class family in a small town in the south of England. From an early age, he displays an inquisitive nature and a creative spirit. He passes all the right exams with appropriate distinctions and wins a scholarship to a revered English university. His tutor describes him as a genius. He quickly lives up to this weighty kudos. He invents a life-saving product that the world desperately needs. The life-saving product not only makes him at twenty five the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, it makes him a multi-millionaire. Money does not necessarily buy you love or indeed happiness, and fame and fortune are notoriously fickle. Nevertheless, Gregory meets a beautiful woman who in addition he feels he can communicate with on a spiritual level. He marries her. Fairy tales proliferate. Clichés abound. He has his crock of gold. There is equilibrium in his universe. The fame of a Nobel scientist, however, is low key. You will not have heard of Gregory North. His name is never in the papers.

Where there is light, there must also be shadow. They are interdependent. Gregory might like to stay exactly where he is but life insists on change. Change is the only certainty. Hidden forces are already at work. It can only be downhill from here. There are different paths down the mountain. The west would be the best but Gregory North might go for the east putting himself in peril. The compass points may be metaphorical. The trouble that lies ahead may not be metaphorical.

Crime can take many forms. The view that crime is the province of those that do not have a large enough stake in the system, or that there is some biological or psychological explanation that accounts for deviant behaviour misrepresent the evidence. Criminals lurk everywhere. There is one not far from you now. There are many in the vicinity of Gregory. He is right in the firing line. They want to plunder his ideas, hack his computer, or forge his documents. They want to steal his money, burgle his house or steal his identity. They want to beat him up, burn his house down or kidnap his wife.

The descent begins. Gregory gets a phonecall. He does not recognise the voice. It has been disguised by software called geocrasher. You can download geocrasher for free. It makes your voice sound like a robot. The robot voice tells him that they have kidnapped his wife. The caller does not specify what the demands are for her safe return. He says he will call later. He tells Gregory he is not to contact anyone about the call and he should not try to trace it. The whole strategy is calculated to cause maximum uncertainty, something that the kidnappers have been working on. This is not something that should be happening to a Nobel Prize winner who has invented a life-saving product that the world needs. He does not want to be heading south.

Gregory’s wife is Italian. She is called Allegra, which translates as happy. Allegra is not happy, as she is locked in a windowless space miles away from home. She is being held captive by two ruthless villains. One of them seems to do all the talking. He barks orders at her. His accent is hard to place but may be eastern European. The consonants seem to crowd the vowels. His Heckler and Koch handgun has the look of one that has been fired. He is covered in tattoos and has a scar running down one side of his face. He is disarmingly tall and has to stoop to get through the door. His drainpipe trousers are tucked into a pair of jackboots, somehow making him look even taller. He does not look like he would blend in easily anywhere. The stocky one wearing the camel coloured overcoat with the fur collar and the large white Stetson does not say anything. He just slaps her now and again to establish his authority. His eyes seem to point in opposite directions. His skin is pale, like an albino. Allegra thinks perhaps he may be wearing a mask. She is not sure which of the pair is the more sinister. She is terrified.

Psychology is an important weapon in the kidnapper’s arsenal. Abduction can be viewed as a transaction. The relationship is between captor and prisoner, owner and chattel. The captor holds absolute power. He knew the moment was coming. The captive who had no idea the moment was coming holds no power. To show his cards too soon can take away the obvious advantage in negotiations that the kidnapper has. The mechanics of human nature is something these kidnappers have been working on.

Gregory waits for the follow-up call with the ransom demand, but this does not materialise. He waits by the phone. He checks his emails and his social media. He even checks the newspapers, but the Hollywood celebrity divorce and the resignation of the England football manager over match-fixing allegations have kept everything else of the front pages. But even if it got out, it would not be here, would it? Nobel prize winners are not household names.

The finger that arrives in the mail comes as a shock to Gregory. This is not what he expected the next step to be. He thought that there might be a phonecall asking him to meet at a remote location with a case full of unmarked notes, as it is in films. This is much more horrifying. He is violently sick. He cannot help himself. Whoever has sent it wants him to believe that it is his wife’s finger. It is Allegra’s finger, isn’t it? He cannot be sure. It is the little finger of the left hand. It looks about the right size. There is no message to accompany it, but an hour later the robotic voice comes on the line.

‘You’ve got the message, I believe,’ says the menacing voice. ‘Stay put. Don’t talk to anyone. We will be in touch later.’

Gregory attempts a reply but the call ends. How can things have changed so much in just twenty four hours, he wonders?

Allegra has not told Gregory she is pregnant. She was saving it for the coming weekend when they would be away together. They were going to their favourite hideaway, the one that no one else seemed to have discovered. The fact that Gregory does not know she is expecting makes her situation seem all the more wretched. There are two lives at stake. Jackboots and Overcoat, of course, do not know. It would probably up the ransom demand if they did. Allegra has no idea what their plans are. They have not mentioned the reason for her internment or what any ransom demand might be. She is in a dark room, about ten feet by ten feet. The room has a hollow sound. It could also be below ground level. Although she was blindfolded, she recalls going down some steps when they arrived. She is no longer blindfolded but she cannot see anything except when her captors visit. She can hear them approaching now. She shivers with fright.

Gregory’s phone rings. He picks it up. The scrambled voice issues a demand.

‘Twenty four hours is not long to come up with five million,’ Gregory protests.

‘In used notes,’ spits the voice. ‘None of your electronic transfer or bitcoin.’

‘That will be impossible,’ says Gregory.

‘Each day you don’t deliver you will get another finger through the post.’

Gregory mumbles something. He is not sure what he is saying. He has the idea that he needs to keep the conversation going. To what ends, we can only speculate. No-one is tracing the call. The phone goes dead. Black clouds tower in the morning sky. There are distant rumbles of thunder. The forecast is not good.

Gregory takes his portfolio and every form of identification he can muster to his local bank branch. He has never actually visited the bank before. He knows nothing about banking. He is not optimistic that he will be able to liquidate his investments, but he feels he has to try something. His wife’s captors seem to be uncompromising, but at this stage, he does not want to risk going to the police. Mr Leach, the bank manager is unavailable without an appointment and he is told there is a three week waiting list. Mr Cash, the deputy bank manager sits him down and goes on at length about money laundering. Every question or request that Gregory makes is greeted with a round the houses no. Mr Cash is full of suspicion. He clearly knows that something is amiss, but will not come right out and say so. Gregory gets up to leave. He wonders if Mr Cash will call the police as soon as he has gone. He returns to the Pay and Display to find his Lexus has been stolen. The rain is torrential now.

Sergeant East seems more concerned about the theft of the Lexus than about Allegra’s kidnapping.

‘Which model is that, Mr North?’ he says.

Gregory tells him it is the Lexus LS.

‘Very nice motor, sir. Would that be the LS460 or the LS 600?’

‘The 460, but what about my wife’s kidnapping?’

‘One thing at a time sir. Is that the long wheelbase model or the sport model?’

‘How many Lexus 460s do you see on the road around here? Look! You’ve got everything you need to know you have the registration and the colour and even the chassis number, now what about my wife?’

Jackboots holds Allegra down. Despite her struggles, he begins to force her rings off over her swollen knuckle.

‘We need these, lady’ he barks. ‘I think they might help with our negotiations.’

It is only when they are being taken away that Allegra realises that rings are more than just tokens of affection. They represent her marriage. Everything that she and Gregory have built together. Ties that bind in this way are sacred. She experiences the symbolism of the loathsome act that is taking place. It feels to her like murder. She screams. Jackboots covers her mouth with his hand. Her instinct tells her she should bite it. Quick as a flash, Overcoat pulls out his pistol. It is now pointing at her. She has never been more terrified. A trickle runs down her leg.

Jackboots has the rings in his hand now. He holds the engagement ring up to catch the light that filters through the open door. He forms the impression that it is a valuable one. Allegra knows it is a valuable one. It is a single stone Cartier diamond.

‘You’ll get your money,’ stammers Allegra. ‘My husband will give you the money. For my safe return.’

‘You think so,’ barks Jackboots. ‘You don’t know how much we are asking for, lady.’ Overcoat stands there, pistol still raised. Unlike the pistol, his eyes still seem to point in both directions.

‘I could speak to him if you like and tell him that I am safe.’ Allegra bursts into tears once more.

‘That will not be necessary, Jackboots says, a smile emerging from the wreckage of his features. ‘He will get the message soon enough,’

Using his pistol, Overcoat motions her over to the back of the room. Without further ceremony, they leave. She is thrown into darkness once more. According to historian Thomas Fuller, things seem darkest before the dawn. Is he stating the obvious or is this axiom more profound?

The ring finger with Allegra’s engagement ring and wedding ring on it arrives by courier, early next morning. It is freeze wrapped in muslin inside a small cardboard package. The courier does not have the sender’s address. He seems a bit vague on everything. Gregory suspects he is not a real courier, but before he has chance to quiz him further he has disappeared on his Honda. Gregory does not have a car to pursue him.

Max Tempo of The West Detective Agency is not what Gregory expects a private detective to look like. The West is the Best is the agency’s slogan, but the diminutive middle-aged figure with the receding hairline, the crumpled blue linen suit and the red and orange striped sunglasses, that the agency has sent along, does not seem to fit with this image at all. As he introduces himself, Gregory who is six foot tall towers over him. Max cannot be more than five foot two.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ says Max, offering Gregory some chewing gum. ‘How did you find out about the abduction?’

‘I got home and found a crude note in red marker pen, at least I hope it red marker pen blu-tacked to the fridge. It said, ‘We’ve got your wife! Stay put!’

‘Any sign of a struggle?’ Max asks.

‘Now you come to mention it, no,’ Gregory says.

‘Could mean nothing. Could mean nothing. Does she have a laptop, tablet or anything? Any sign of her phone?’

‘I’ve looked through her phone, but found nothing out of the ordinary, but laptop and tablet both have passwords.’

‘You don’t know what they are. Am I right?’

Gregory says he does not.

‘No worries,’ says Max. ‘Let’s have a look, we’ll be on in no time.’

Max is able to get in straight away. ‘John the Ripper,’ he says. ‘Great little app.’

In no time at all Max has scanned the emails, recent documents and pictures. Nothing remarkable shows up. This is often what he finds in cases like this. The good detective has to come up with more imaginative methods, he says. Meanwhile, he has wired up a device to record the phone.

Time, of course, is of the essence here. Gregory is impressed with the speed that Max works. First impressions can be misleading. He lets Max know.

‘It’s not every day I get a Nobel Prize winner as a client,’ says Max.

‘How do you know that?’ asks Gregory.

‘I just sensed it,’ says Max, cryptically. ‘Now tell me about the phonecalls, and while you’re at it show me the fingers. We can get to the bottom of this I’m sure.’

Gregory explains the phonecalls and how he is unable to cash in his portfolio.

Max nods, while he examines the two fingers. He draws no conclusions from these. He is more interested in the diamond ring. Why have they returned the ring, he wonders, when it could be worth a hundred thousand in itself?

‘It can mean one of two things, he says. Either they are very confident that they will get the money or they are amateurs.’

It would be difficult for the observer to guess the power relations between Jackboots and Overcoat. Although Overcoat does not, perhaps cannot speak, they communicate effectively. They are a good fit as a team. They operate with a strange telepathy. Perhaps Overcoat has peripheral vision and his function in the team is to be watchful. The observer would not be able to pinpoint their country of origin. Jackboot’s accent might make Romania favourite. His tattoos too are in an Eastern European language. If you are looking for sartorial clues, you wouldn’t know where to begin. There is something theatrical, perhaps filmic about their bizarre appearance. In everyday life, they would be as inconspicuous as a pair of tarantulas in a bowl of fresh cream. All in all, they are an enigma. The indications are that, as in many kidnapping cases, the motive is money. It is time for Jackboots to make another phonecall. He once again makes it over VoIP using geocrasher.

Allegra wonders how it has come to this. How has she moved from her work with Dior and Dolce Gabbana in the high-flying fashion world of Milan, weekends on Lake Garda and skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo to being held captive in this darkened room, not knowing if she will live or die? It is quite a descent. It all started when she came to London for a fashion shoot. How had she come to meet a Nobel scientist? She didn’t have the slightest interest in science. She was into the arts. Gregory might cut a dashing figure but perhaps she should have found someone that looked after her better. Why hadn’t he come up with the ransom? It was hours since they had taken the rings as a bargaining tool. Why had she fallen for him? Certainly, he had a lot of money, but she was not exactly poor herself. The fashion work brought in a decent income. And she gave all this up. They didn’t even socialise that much. Gregory was always working on some paper or had a meeting with the board. If he hadn’t been working, these two murderous villains would not have been able to just walk in and bundle her into the van. She thinks she has been here now for nearly two days. She is hungry. She has had nothing but water for the duration. Even if she could find a way to relax, she cannot sleep. The room gives off a continuous hollow sound like amplified tinnitus.

‘You will have taken delivery of the ring finger,’ says the metallic voice. A green light appears on Max’s device to show it is recording. ‘Quite generous of us to return the valuable rings, do you not think. But, my friend, that is all we will be returning until we have five million.’

Gregory says that he is working on this. Max has advised him to do so. He has said that you should never show defiance in such a situation.

‘Good! I’m glad you are beginning to see things our way. I expect your lovely wife will be glad too. I will call at exactly five o’clock and we will arrange a time and place to pick up. You will have the money by then I am sure.’

Gregory says that he will do his best.

‘I expect you would also like your nice car back too. When you deliver the money, we will deliver your wife in the boot of your car.’

On that note, the conversation ends. The green light on the device changes back to red.

‘That was great,’ says Max. ‘Watch this!’

He presses a couple of keys on his device and plays the recording. It is now a proper sounding human voice. ‘ModulatorPlus. Great little app,’ he smiles.

The voice, they both agree, does sound Eastern European. Max explains that Eastern European languages have consonant clusters so they tend to shorten the vowels when speaking English. To Gregory, it just sounds Eastern European. Max takes a gigantic pair of Sennheiser headphones from his bag to listen more closely. His bag must be dimensionally transcendental, Gregory thinks. He appears to have a whole workshop in there. Max says he is listening for background noise. He closes his eyes in concentration and begins playing with the frequency sliders on the side of the headphones. Finally, several minutes later, he takes them off.

‘I think I’ve got it,’ he says. ‘The call was made by a mobile phone redirected from an unlisted landline from a blue Ford transit van near a railway station, but what I’m not getting is which railway station or the registration of the van.’

Gregory wonders how Max can tell that the transit van is blue but he doesn’t like to ask.

Iancu Emanuel Constantinescu’s career as a lion tamer ended when circuses stopped using wild animals. The Romanian International Circus, which had built its reputation on dangerous stunts, folded. Iancu’s appearance, the legacy of years of taming ferocious big cats and a long relationship with Silvia Daciana Vacilescu, the circus’s tattoo artist, left him with little prospect of getting a job. In a word, he looked scary. He felt he might as well use his intimidating stature to frighten people. Kidnapping seems to be the obvious place to use his skill set. His friend, Dragomir Stan Antonescu had been a clown with the circus. As he was mute, his chances of getting a job when the circus folded were also slim. Dragomir’s lack of speech was however compensated by remarkable eyesight. He had long been a collector of handguns and was a crackshot. It seemed natural that he should team up with Iancu.

The only way that you can learn kidnapping is by going ahead and doing it. There are no training manuals or kidnappers’ colleges. If you get it right, you can make a good living and you do not need to work long hours. Iancu and Dragomir start small by kidnapping a pub landlord in a popular seaside town and asking for £500. They find that this does not cover their expenses. Their next outing is a football manager of a Championship team, where they manage to get £5000. They brush up their technique by watching a number of kidnapping films. After watching Fargo, it occurs to them that it might be a better idea to abduct a partner rather than the target himself. They get £20,000 this way by kidnapping a minor celebrity’s wife. They manage to convince the celebrity to pay up when they send him a lock of her hair. Allegra is only their fourth victim. They are thinking of asking £50,000 when they find out that Gregory is an incredibly rich man. He has reaped the benefits of inventing a life-saving product that the world needs. To up the ante, Iancu feels that they need to employ scarier tactics, so he purchases a preserved hand from Stelian Serafim Albescu, a former reptile trainer with the circus who is now working as a mortuary assistant. With so much inexperience, the potential for disaster is immense.

‘How do we find the blue van and what do we do if we find it?’ Gregory asks.

‘We follow it,’ says Max. ‘What we do when it takes us to Allegra is probably the question you should be asking. But don’t worry I’ll think of something. That’s what you are paying me for. Now come on! Let’s get to the station. They might still be there.’

‘But, you said you couldn’t tell which station.’

‘Have you any better ideas? Next, you will be saying what if there are two blue vans. There! I’ve diverted your phone. Now let’s get going.’

Max packs his bag, cracks open a new pack of chewing gum and off they go in Max’s grey Yaris.

‘Nobody notices you in one of these,’ he explains. ‘Not even with tinted windows. Inconspicuous but fast.’

Allegra’s miscarriage is sudden. Jackboots and Overcoat arrive just after it has happened. She is covered in blood. At first, J and O have no idea what has happened. It slowly dawns on them both. She seems hysterical. They do not know how to handle the tirade of verbal abuse she subjects them to.

‘ I need a fucking doctor,’ she screams at them. ‘Get me a doctor, You fucking scum.’

They sense that pointing guns is not the appropriate response, but are not in a position to offer understanding and tenderness. They back off. They decide they can wait in the van. It is parked just down the road by the railway station. They can go back in a few minutes. Allegra, they reason, will have calmed down by then.

Max and Gregory arrive at the railway station car park just in time to see Jackboots and Overcoat getting into the blue van. There is only one blue transit van. They must be the captors. What an odd looking pair they are, though.

‘How’s that for timing,’ says Max.

He parks the Yaris a few bays behind the van, in preparation for it driving off. He can follow at a discreet distance. The van, however, does not move. Although the van is fifty feet away, Max manages to rig up a device up to listen to their conversation.

‘A friend of mine borrowed the device from the secret government base,’ he explains.

Jackboots and Overcoat’s conversation comes through loud and clear. Unfortunately, they are not speaking English.

‘It will come with a translator in a couple of years,’ Max says by way of apology.

One voice seems to do all the talking. It is the same voice that made the phonecall earlier. The one wearing the overcoat and the Stetson seems to be nodding or using sign language.

Had Max’s hypothetical translator been operational the conversation they would hear would go something like this.

‘Perhaps we should reduce the demand.’

Silence

‘Count our losses.’

Silence

‘Down to ten thousand. What do you think?’

Silence.

‘We can make a bit more on our next job, maybe.’

Silence.

If Max’s hypothetical translator had been operational, the substance of the phonecall that Gregory receives on his mobile would not have been so unexpected. As it is, he feels he has been let off the hook somewhat. He is sure that Mr Cash will let him have ten thousand pounds from his assets. Why, he wonders, have they reduced the sum so drastically. It feels like bargain basement.

‘Three hours time, that’s five o’clock, Used twenty pound notes’ says Jackboots, establishing the upper hand once more. ‘At the entrance to the disused airfield. Look out for a blue van. Your car will be close by. You won’t be able to see your car from the road. Your wife will be in the boot. No funny business or you know what will happen.’

No-one makes a move. Max wants to stay put so as not to lose sight of the villains. Gregory thinks that he should probably be at the bank, but is dependent on Max for transport, and it seems J and O are in no hurry to move business along.

Max has been in stakeouts before. He understands the terrain. A good deal of patience is necessary. You need a cap to pull down over your forehead. And a pack of cigarettes. Gregory is a stranger to the underworld, university did not prepare him for this. To him, the underworld is something that Orpheus got himself into in Offenbach’s operetta. Gregory does not have a cap to pull down over his forehead. And he has never smoked.

Jackboots and Overcoat sense that they still have a lot to learn. Things are not going as planned. And now a police car has drawn up a few cars away. How long will it be until they spot the stolen blue van they are in, or for that matter the stolen Lexus 460 about a hundred metres away, and who are those people in the grey Yaris? Are they watching them?

Miscarriages can be psychologically damaging. It is said that the attachment to the foetus begins very early into pregnancy. Women are often reported to lose themselves after such an event. Given the circumstances of Allegra’s loss, this might be the expected consequence, but she finds that there are immediate and more profound results of this cruel termination. Her soul has gone. Science now believes that the soul could be the link that connects individuals to the universe, a dynamic connection that explains consciousness. If nothing else, the soul is a poor thing to be without and Allegra’s has parted company with her physical body and disappeared into the ether. When she screams it is not now her that is screaming but something that is happening as a result of a bodily impulse. She does not inhabit the scream. It is no longer her scream. It is not her who finds that she can push the door to her prison open, where Jackboots and Overcoat have not secured properly. It is not her who finds herself staggering up an unfamiliar street.

Whoever it is that has managed these things finds herself in the vicinity of a railway station. Something tells her she should recognise it, but she can’t connect with this part of her. The link has been severed. There are a lot of people about. She spots a blue van and a police car. The police seem to be asking the people in the van to step out of it.

‘My God! There’s Allegra,’ shouts a shell-shocked Gregory, making a move to jump out of the Yaris.

‘Stop! No! Don’t,’ yells Max, grabbing him by the shoulder to restrain him. ‘Kidnappers have guns, remember.’

This is a pivotal moment. From here, it could go any way. It depends on how competent the police are. It depends on how desperate Jackboots and Overcoat are. It depends on whether Max has anything up his sleeve. Certainly, Max is aware that the kidnappers would recognise Gregory, but perhaps he should have let Gregory go and talk to the police. Is it his professional pride that is urging against this?

Max seems to have subdued Gregory for the moment and they duck down out of sight. J and O seem reluctant to get out of the van. Allegra lurches on zombie-like and disappears into a throng of people emerging from the station. Gregory and Max’s attention is drawn away by a squeal of tyres and a scattering of police officers. In a daring attempt at escape, the blue van speeds off. With a squeal of tyres to match, the police car gives chase. By the time Gregory and Max focus back on the station, Allegra has disappeared out of sight. There are hundreds of people now, jostling one another for position around the station entrance. Why hasn’t Max got an app on one of his devices that can find someone in a crowd?

As he and Max dash here and there searching for Allegra in the bustling station, Gregory asks himself how this reversal of fortune has come about. Circumstance has up till now always favoured him. He rose to elevated heights with so little effort. There was never a struggle. Doors opened easily. His discovery of a life-saving product that the world desperately needed felt as if it were something he just plucked out of the air. He has never knowingly taken advantage of anyone or abused his position. He has always looked for the best in people. He has paid his taxes, given to charity and been kind to animals. He has even on occasions said his prayers. What is happening in the cosmos to deliver such a cataclysmic volte-face?

The station has a staggering seven platforms, each one swarming with restless passengers. Trains are arriving from everywhere. Trains are leaving to go to all points of the compass. Allegra finds herself on one of the trains. She does not know where she is heading. She may be going east or she may be going west. It does not matter to a person who has no soul. People stare at her. They do not understand what has happened. Everyone keeps their distance. They know that something is wrong. They make up their own stories about her from the true life magazines in their heads. Gregory North continues frantically to search the station but cannot spot her. He will never find her. He has lost her. He will continue on his way on a train of his own. It will be heading south.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved