La Bamba by Chris Green
When Max turned out the light he assumed he would wake up in the morning, pull back the chintz curtains to let in a little light, notice that the birds were singing in the back garden, and apart from a small corner in front of the greenhouse where the turf was recently lain, the lawn would look in pretty good shape. He took a modest pride in the upkeep of the garden which he felt looked at its best when the morning sun rose over the gables of the neighbouring semis. He would tell Cheryl that she had another twenty minutes in bed and that he would bring her a cup of Earl Grey before he left for work. She would turn over, and pretend to go back to sleep.
He would then have a shower and a shave and make his way downstairs for his bowl of Honey Nut Clusters in front of the BBC News read by Charlie and Louise or Bill and Steph. There would be reports about the recession and the latest deaths in the ongoing conflict in the East. Through over exposure to these Max like everyone else he knew had become immune to bad news stories. Their impact was, therefore, slight. Compassion fatigue he believed they called it. The news was no more than verbal muzak in a world of burgeoning solipsism. He would wait for Carol’s weather report before leaving to catch the 7:45 train which would be 13 minutes late, pick up a copy of the Metro, notice that Leyton Orient had lost their evening fixture and were slipping down the table, and try to avoid conversation with the other passengers each entrenched in their own private universe while the train made its way slowly along the familiar route westwards through the sad suburban sprawl to London Bridge.
Before he had put out the light Max had read twenty eight pages of the latest Iain M. Banks and Cheryl had read twenty four pages of her Jodi Picoult. Earlier they had as usual alternated between The Fishing Channel and the Cooking Channel, commenting that despite having 128 channels to choose from, there was never anything on. In between they had had a brief exchange of views on caravans, hydrangeas, and soap. Cheryl had suggested they might go to the retail park at the weekend to look for some new parquet flooring for the study. Baz had said he would be able to lay it Cheryl had told Max. Baz was Cheryl’s brother. He lived in Staines. A two hour drive. This meant that he would probably come to stay for the duration. Max said he would think about it. Secretly he was worried about the disruption it would cause to his routine. Max was accustomed to his unvarying routine.
Routine, however, requires consistency from one day to the next and Max was about to sense that overnight things had changed.
The first thing Max noticed when he pulled back the curtains was that the birds were not singing, and more critically there was no back garden. Instead, where the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden ought to have been, and indeed the corresponding space in the neighbours’ gardens, there stood a row of a dozen or so ramshackle mud huts. They looked like remnants of a bygone civilisation in a poor South American or Central American country where they built out of adobe. He stared aghast at what he saw, rubbed his eyes a lot and tried to think of a plausible explanation. None came to mind. He turned to wake Cheryl. She was not there. He shouted downstairs. There was no response.
She must he concluded have already got up and gone out. This was unprecedented; Cheryl did not start work until 9 and liked her lie-ins, and surely he would have heard her in the bathroom. He toyed with the idea that he might be in the wrong house, that something irregular had happened that he could not remember and he had been taken somewhere overnight. His gaze took in the stairs with the gaudily patterned purple carpet that Cheryl had persuaded him was modish. She had curious tastes favouring bright colours while he himself preferred muted more subtle shades. There was no doubt about it; he was in his own home. He felt a rising panic about what might have happened or be happening.
He entertained the possibility that the anomalies were perhaps the residue of a dream, and that after breakfast things would seem clearer. Max’s inability to acknowledge and therefore try to surmount a problem, he had been frequently told by his therapist, was one of his principal weaknesses. Action, Marius had said was needed to affect any given situation.
With Marius’s words echoing in his mind, Max went downstairs to try to get to the bottom of what was occurring. A glance around seemed to show that, Cheryl aside, home comforts were still in place. The plasma screen TV was still there, the red leather settee and the John Lewis bookcase with its modest library of modern fiction. The drinks cabinet seemed to be fully stocked with the crystal decanters that had, since he had moderated his intake, fallen into disuse. His prized original photograph of the 1966 England World Cup winning team still hung on the wall. It had been a gift to him from Sir Geoff Hurst who he had the pleasure of knowing when he worked in PR.
He went to check the kitchen and this seemed to be pretty much as he remembered it. Lots of pans and kitchen gadgets, blenders, mixers and a sink full of dishes. There were, however, no Honey Nut Clusters in the larder. Cheryl he reasoned must have finished them off and put the box in the recycling bin before she went out. Unusual though because Cheryl favoured Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and he noticed there was still three full packets.
Determined not to be phased by what appeared to be developing into a multi-layered mystery, Max sat down with a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and went to turn on the news. There was no sound or picture. The light indicating that the TV was on and not in standby was displaying, but none of the channel numbers he keyed in brought any response. He went through the routine of checking the batteries in the remote, checking the aerial, pulling the plugs out of the wall twice, finally giving the set a clout with his fist. Nothing. He tried the phone. No dialling tone. His mobile. No signal. The Netbook. No broadband connection.
‘Obstacles are there to be overcome,’ Marius was fond of telling Max when he was being obstinately negative about a setback. With this in mind, Max set off purposefully for work. He found himself at the station just in time to catch the 7:45 which unusually seemed to be on time. He was also able to grab a window seat. He noticed several passengers in his carriage were talking on their mobile phones, so he gave his another look. Still no signal. To distract himself, he picked up a copy of the Metro. Leyton Orient he saw had lost 5 -0 at home to Stockport and now were at the foot of the table. Stockport’s new striker Zapata had scored a hat-trick.
As the train pulled out of Dartford, Max started thinking once more about the adobe huts at the bottom of the garden. While there might be rational explanations for all of the other anomalies that morning, most of which escaped him, this was the hardest to comprehend. The birds in the garden, for instance, might just be having a bad day or gone elsewhere to offer their serenade. Perhaps he had not filled up the feeders lately. Cheryl might, having out of some capricious enmity disabled all the technology around the house, have simply left him. He would be devastated of course but it was not beyond the bounds of possibility. They had had a few disagreements of late. Perhaps she had taken umbrage at his petulant reaction to the parquet flooring idea.
‘Twenty years of marriage is never without its ups and downs,’ Marius had told him. ‘Let her believe that she is the one making the decisions,’ was the solution he offered.
Flawed reasoning Max had thought as she already seemed to be using this tactic on him. His mobile phone, of course, had probably simply packed up. It was a cheap one. And he was with 3 Mobile, which according to ‘Whatfone’ had inferior coverage to all the other networks. But how could a row of gardens disappear wholesale and a row of mud huts just appear in their place overnight?
He noticed that the usual array of half-familiar passengers seemed to be absent from the train this morning, but there again it was possible that they might have missed the 7:45 because for once it was actually on time. Today’s passengers did not Max felt conform to the profile of commuters he had become accustomed to. There were, for instance, a disproportionate amount of flamboyant Hispanics on the train. And to his alarm more got on at Belvedere and Abbey Wood. He tried to channel his thoughts towards a more positive view. He told himself that a few more Latinos than usual on a crowded train hardly constituted an invasion, and may not have any connection at all with the adobe mud huts. Perhaps the babble of Spanish had been a consistent feature on this line but he had not noticed it before. One could become desensitised to many things that formed the background to daily life. Like the traffic furniture you pass every day on every street: you don’t notice it, but you probably would notice if it weren’t there.
Max was still gathering his thoughts when his train slowed down and came to an unscheduled stop just outside Plumstead. A train travelling in the opposite direction came slowly into view. Max gazed out of the window as the carriages gradually passed by. To his horror he saw that in the second or third carriage in the corresponding window seat there was Cheryl large as life in her emerald green Crombie, sitting talking to three sturdy figures in sombreros. He banged on the window, but in the second or two that she was visible, found himself unable to attract her attention, although his actions did attract the attention of his fellow passengers. A grey man dressed in a blue pinstripe business suit made a motion to summon the guard. A man in his late forties with a fifties haircut grabbed his arm. A nurse with a name badge bearing a formidably long name made comforting gestures with her hands. A swarthy figure in a poncho looked at him menacingly.
‘It’s my wife,’ Max yelled to all but no one in particular. ‘she’s on the other train.’
‘Pull yourself together,’ said the grey man in the blue pinstripe.
‘You a loony or something?’ said the man with the fifties haircut.
‘Take deep breaths,’ said the nurse with the badge.
‘Kieta el stupido maricón’ said the swarthy figure in the poncho.
‘And they’ve built adobe shacks in my back garden,’ screamed Max.
‘Get a grip,’ said the blue pinstripe.
‘Give him a slap,’ said the fifties haircut.
‘Imagine a sunset,’ said Nurse Zwangendaba.
¿Dónde está su cortacésped?’ said the poncho.
‘You’re off at the next station,’ said a massive guard grabbing him by the lapel. Wasn’t Hernandez a Spanish name, Max wondered as he was heaved against the window? Hernandez had a scar like a zip across his forehead and a remarkable big black droopy moustache. His build and his grip suggested that he might have come from a long line of club bouncers.
On the platform of Woolwich Arsenal station where he found himself, Max made the decision to take a train back home. Cheryl would he felt have been making her way back on the other train when he had glimpsed her. Here he would have it out with her about what was going on.
The revolving display on the platform notified him that the next train was due in seven minutes. Max had not stopped off at Woolwich Arsenal before and the station was he saw of a pleasant design in steel and glass, but despite this wasn’t it he wondered a little Spanish looking. On the opposite platform, he observed was a refreshment facility, its large illuminated advertising space given over exclusively to chilli, tortillas, and burritos. A poster for Cerveza Dos Equis had the caption, ‘Happy Hour is the hour after everyone from Happy Hour has left’.
Max took out his phone once again to phone the office to say that he would not be coming in. He was sure that Roy Neptune would understand. Ted Drinker was always taking time off with his marital problems. Still no signal.
Along his platform beside a poster advertising a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros, a group of men dressed in dark charro suits began to belt out a spirited Mariachi tune on guitars and a trumpet. It sounded to Max like La Bamba, but could have been some other upbeat Mexican song. ‘Construimos chozas de barro en su jardín,’ they seemed to be singing. Something about a garden maybe. Max’s Spanish was not good.
The train duly arrived and Max jumped on. He found a seat and began to take deep breaths hoping this would calm him. He tried to visualise a mountain stream, a still lake, a white temple. His efforts brought him no solace. Instead, his consciousness teemed with menacing images of adobe mud huts. His discomfort grew as once again the carriage seemed to fill up with Hispanics at Abbey Wood and Belvedere and he found himself peppered with swift snatches of Spanish being barked into Blackberrys and iphones. He felt as if all the air was being sucked out of the carriage and had difficulty breathing.
To his further distress the train made several unscheduled stops either side of Plumstead, and by the time he reached Dartford, Max was desperate. He was sweating profusely and felt vertiginous and dizzy. He stumbled from the carriage leaving a clutch of boarding passengers reeling in his wake. Max badly needed some element of normality to reassure him. He must find out if Cheryl was back home. He frantically tried all of the phone booths at the station one by one, but each one had been vandalised. Dartford station had become lawless. A band of vaqueros was now raising the Mexican flag near the ticket office.
He spotted nearby a trainspotter alone at the end of the platform. He had noticed him taking down numbers on several previous occasions at the station. The fellow, who bore a passing resemblance to Jon Sergeant with an earring and a few days growth was now keying something into his mobile phone. Probably this was his new way of taking down train numbers, a digital version of Ian Allan.
Max summoned up his courage and approached him and asked if he could borrow the phone. It was an emergency, he said. The trainspotter, whose name Max found out was Norman, clearly did not get a lot of company and seemed pleased to have someone to talk to. Norman began to regale Max with random information about Dartford station. Did Max know for instance that the original station building had an Italianate design? That the station was unique because, despite its location outside Greater London, London residents with Freedom Passes (but not regular Oyster Cards) could travel to and from the station. Or that this station was where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumped into each other by chance, an event that resulted in the formation of Rolling Stones.
Eventually the information dried up and when Max prompted him again Norman handed him the phone. Max dialled the home number and when there was no reply, Cheryl’s mobile number. No reply here either. It went on to Voicemail and Max left an incoherent message which would probably have puzzled even GCHQ. It certainly seemed to puzzle Norman who in case anyone was watching was now making ‘loony’ gestures with his index finger to his forehead. The only other number Max knew off the top of his head was Marius’s, so he dialled this. He did so now without much hope as Marius had wall to wall appointments most days, but at least, he would be able to leave a message with his receptionist, Heidi. To his amazement, Marius himself answered.
Max outlined his predicament, his description of the days events delivered in an unpunctuated Joycean stream of consciousness.
‘Slow down,’ said Marius. ‘Just tell me step by step.’
Max explained about the adobe huts.
‘Uh hu,’ said Marius.
And Cheryl’s disappearance.
Max listened patiently as Max told him about passing Cheryl in the train on the way to work, about the Mexicans on the train, the Mariachi band at Woolwich Arsenal and the vaqeuros raising the Mexican flag.
‘We’ve been over all this before,’ said Marius finally. ‘You remember a week or two ago you came in when the Granaderos were outside your house and the Bank of Mexico had cancelled your credit card. I diagnosed it then as ‘Brief Psychotic Disorder Without Obvious Stressor.’ I told you to look it up on the internet and you said you would. You have been taking your medication haven’t you?’
Max made a grunt. He had not as it happened.
Marius tired another tack.
‘These are delusions brought on by irrational stress about a hypothetical event,’ he continued. ‘I realise that you’ve become anxious about The World Cup. But it doesn’t start for another month. And even if both teams get through the first stages, England aren’t scheduled to play Mexico until the semi-finals. It’s not a sentiment that in my professional capacity I often espouse but you’re going to have to get a grip. It’s only football, after all.’
‘Its only football,’ Max repeated. ‘It’s only football. And England might not even play Mexico….. So you don’t think that any of this happened?’
‘No,’ said Marius. Well obviously I can’t be certain about Cheryl. She has been rather, how can I put it, patient through your little episodes, but I think you’ll find that there has not been a Mexican takeover, and that when you get home that there are no adobe huts in the back garden.’
‘So you think Cheryl may have left,’ said Max leaping at once on the negative part of Marius’s remark.
‘No of course not,’ said Marius. ‘But you need to acknowledge that your delusional states do put her under a lot of pressure sometimes. You have to start to appreciate that.’
‘So none of this happened and the World Cup isn’t for another month and England probably won’t even have to play Mexico,’ said Max.
‘That’s right,’ said Marius. He was about to add that Max should be more worried about England having to play Brazil or Germany, but he felt this would only add fuel to the fire ‘You have to stop thinking about football,’ he added instead. ‘Why don’t you take up that Thought Field Therapy course that I told you about? I’ll email you the details again.’
Max noticed that the vacqueros had disappeared and the union flag was once more aloft, fluttering gently in the breeze. He thanked Marius, and Marius reminded him of his appointment on Friday. Feeling his burden had been lifted, he handed the phone back to the confused trainspotter and, not thinking about football, he made his way along the Latino-free platform. There were nineteen missed calls on his mobile phone. He texted Cheryl to say that he was on his way home.
From the station, it was just a short walk. It was a warm day and the birds were singing. There was not a cloud in the sky.
When Max arrived home he found a line of dusky women wearing the bindi and dressed in bright saris in the hallway weaving a colourful piece of silk fabric on a giant loom. He could not even get in. When, he wondered, did the Test Match start. He couldn’t remember when England had last beaten India at Lords.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved