STRINGS by Chris Green
The goat is not supposed to be in the house. My daughter Jessica has let it in with the cats. Properly speaking, we only have one cat, a ginger tom called Thomas. But Jessica is of an age that she likes animals, her enthusiasm fuelled by a plethora of wildlife programmes on TV. There are a lot of cats in the neighbourhood and one by one she has taken to adopting them. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have read her Six Dinner Sid so often when she was little. She entices the cats in with pouches of gourmet cat food that she puts in the basket when we do our shopping. I think the goat has been attracted by the neighbours’ overgrown vegetable garden.
There are not supposed to be any animals in the house according to the tenancy agreement, which for the most part is a standard short let tenancy agreement. I am not permitted to sub-let, smoke, decorate, hold parties, use the property as a business address, etc. Additional clauses stipulate that I am required to raise the Union Jack on a flagpole on patriotic saints days, VE Day and the Queen’s birthday and sound the air-raid siren at midday every Saturday. My landlord is called Raif by the way and he likes to dress as a Naval Lieutenant.
I am putting the goat out into the back yard when I first notice something odd. I am putting the goat out – and simultaneously driving to work in the city. ‘I expect I will wake up in a minute,’ I think….. I don’t. I am already awake – and so it seems is the other.
‘What in the blue hell is going on?’ I wonder. ‘There are two of me.’ It feels as if I have split, or multiplied. I am in two places at the same time. My attention moves from goat to car and car to goat. I can see from the outset that this is going to present a colossal challenge to my multitasking abilities. And shatter my reliance on logic and reason. Given that I have not taken any hallucinogenic drugs since my youth, and do not have a history of psychosis, this is a troubling insight.
My car is painted lilac. I can’t decide whether it is comforting or unsettling that all the other cars on the streets are painted lilac too. This distraction causes me to drive through a couple of red lights on my way to work in the city. I, that is the second I, the one that is not putting out the goat, do not seem to have got to grips with the complexities of chromatics yet. To add to my state of confusion, the radio is locked into a Russian radio station and the hazard lights will not turn off. And there is a large red spider on my shoulder. With a careful swipe, I get rid of it with a copy of Mojo I find lying on the floor.
Despite my being acutely disorientated, the car seems to know where I am heading. The route I am taking is instinctive. I am not making navigational decisions. I pass familiar landmarks: the Liebeskind Tower, the Lennon Monument, the billboard advertising John Cage’s 4 Minutes 33 Seconds scored for Full Orchestra at the Orange Theatre, the tattooed bridge, the sculpture of the bungee jumper, the SKB (Smith Kline Beacham) Superstore….. I come this way daily. I work for a company called Alpha Pigeon and we publish computer manuals and telephone directories. Taking the sharp left into Coppola Avenue, I lose the police car that has been on my tail since Bunuel Square. I can hear the siren fading as having missed the turn it carries on along Besson Street. Burl Finch, a town planner a few years ago was a bit of a film buff, in case you are wondering.
The telephone rings. It takes me a little time to find it as it is buried among a pile of sweaters that some of the cats are lying on. I have reset the ringtone to a new tune, and I am trying to recollect whether it is Delibes or Cantaloube. I have a large collection of classical music, so I feel I ought to know. ….. or Puccini…. I am still speculating as I pick the phone up.
‘Hello,’ I say.
‘Hello,’ says a woman’s voice in an accent I can’t quite place. There is an echo on the line as if the call might be coming from far away. ‘Is that Mr Stewart?’
I say that it is.
‘You are being prosecuted for crossing a fence.’
What on earth is she talking about? She does not elaborate. She just says that her name is Chandra and I will be getting a summons in due course.
I arrive at Alpha Pigeon and strike a stocky blue badger as I drive through the avenue of yuccas into the car park, the beast evidently camouflaged by the blue and white chessboard pattern of the tarmac. I cannot remember badgers in the car park being usual at AP, blue badgers perhaps even more surprising. But then I am in a state of shock and disbelief about everything. I move the badger’s body onto a pile of telephone directories that we threw out last week (printed with duplicate sections under the letter C) while I go to find a black bag to put the badger’s body in. When I return the body has disappeared. It has started to drizzle and the car park is now a mottled violet.
I find the local directory and look for the number of Citizen’s Advice. There is no number, in fact, no listings at all under the letter C, so I look up the number for Stipe and Juttner, Solicitors instead. I am not sure how to approach the enquiry, as Chandra did not mention on whose behalf she was calling. I just feel it would be helpful to talk to someone about the summons.
A woman answers the phone at Stipe and Juttner introducing herself as Coral. She asks how she can help.
‘I wonder if you could tell me, what does crossing a fence mean? Is it some kind legal vernacular?’ I ask her.
Coral has not heard of crossing a fence. Do I perhaps mean a crossing offence? A crossing offence might relate to a traffic violation. She adds that she has a legal database on her computer and she can do a search.
The search draws a blank.
At lunchtime, I leave the office and take a walk up Zimmerman Hill to clear my thoughts. I have felt oddly vacant all morning as if I were in the process of being disassembled. I have felt as if I was somewhere else, or even someone else. Several times in the middle of phonecalls, I forgot who it was I was talking to and had to ask. In fact, at times I was not sure who it was that was talking to me. I found my voice coming out with words and expressions I never used. Something very strange was happening to me. I remember that a little while back my neighbour Mystic Mike said to me, ‘whatever it is you’re seeking won’t come in the form you’re expecting.’ This had seemed very cryptic, but Mike often spoke in riddles. Without being specific, I was looking for my life to change. I hoped this change would come in a more conservative form, a gentle progress from where I was to where I would be. Something that was more planned, where cause and effect were at the same party. Something that I had some influence over like changing jobs or moving house. What I am now experiencing seemed more like schizophrenia.
At the top of Zimmerman Hill, you look down on several red-bricked blocks of modern apartments at a lower level. These have decorative cream bricks cut in to great dramatic effect. The blocks are staggered in their elevation, and across their flat roofs, you get a spectacular framed view of the city. One of the lower roofs has a garden with a variety of tall ornamental grasses, which make stunning patterns against the sky. I take the spectacle in, breathing deeply to calm myself. Fluffy white clouds drift across the sky like childhood memories. It is quiet, with just a faint hum of distant traffic. A man in a dark suit and a black trilby with a yellow band comes into view. As he passes me he politely takes off his hat by way of acknowledgement. I feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Although this is an unusual colour for a hatband, I myself wore such a hat many years ago. I can remember wearing it on the occasion that Juanita introduced me to her eccentric family in a tumbledown old house with no furniture. A couple of de Chirico prints hung on dusty magnolia walls, These were the only decoration. It was an embarrassing occasion. The family were huddled around a television watching an old episode of The Prisoner. I cannot recall having worn the hat since then. I think I may have left it there.
I walk slowly back down the hill and back to the office via Painter’s Lake. In the past few weeks, this has been transformed from classic Capability Brown into a sharp angled post-modern creation. Building work is going on in earnest on the far side, the sound of this muted by the large sheer waterfall that has been constructed. A barn owl sits motionless in a tree. Barn owls are only seen at night, and this is the middle of the day. I have the strange sensation that I am being watched, but I also feel at the same time that I am the one doing the watching. It is a very disconcerting feeling.
Although Raif bangs on constantly about the importance of testing the air raid siren, he does not bother much with health and safety in the house. The gas equipment for instance would horrify an inspector. Sometimes the pressure is up and you nearly burn your arm lighting a ring and other days the pressure is down and it takes nearly an hour for the kettle to boil. On this particular morning, it is up. I nearly burn my arm. After I have adjusted the pressure on the gas supply to a level that I feel will be safe to use, cleaned up the yard, and tethered up the goat, I make myself a couple of slices of toast and a cup of honeybush tea, and put my feet up to catch up with the news on TV. In the aftermath of the assassination of the England football manager, it seems a slow news day, so I flick through the channels. I settle down to watch a programme on waterfalls on Discovery 3. I have recently had the full cable package installed largely through the persistence of the DigTel representative who insisted that I would save large sums on my bills. He did show me the figures, three or four times as I recall. On DigTel rep’s fourth or fifth visit I relented. I now have five hundred channels to choose from. The programme on waterfalls appears to have traced the history of their construction in parks and gardens in the UK and in summing up is now showing recent examples. One of these is in Painter’s Park, not far from where I live. Only recently I took the dog for a walk around there (I forgot to mention the dog earlier in the pets inventory. He is a teacup schnauzer and he is called Albert). Seeing Painter’s Park on the television brings about a second wave of detachment, the same feeling I had that morning when I felt I had split, or multiplied.
To add to my bewilderment on Discovery 3 a programme on synchronicity is just starting. Synchronicity is used to describe an apparently meaningful coincidence in time of two or more similar or identical events that are causally unrelated. The presenter gives an example, which I feel seems a little weak, if not downright pretentious. He was riding in a crowded car with friends one evening, debating about whether or not to speak on the topic of Infinity for a group the following day. As they got out of the car, he stepped on a string that was in the shape of a figure 8, the infinity sign in mathematics. They all stopped and stared in amazement. He gave the talk, and it was well received.
Outside Alpha Pigeon, on the pavement, four men dressed in ecclesiastical robes stand facing one another in the form of a cross. They have ceremonial staffs and seem to be performing some kind of a ritual, chanting something unintelligible in low voices. One of them is swinging an ornate thurible and a powerful smell of incense hangs on the air. I think; surely this sort of behaviour should be confined to within a church. I pull my collar up and pass them quickly without turning my head to look round.
Back in the office, I feel disorientated. Someone else’s consciousness seems to be cutting in like a crossed line on a telephone. I find myself thinking about going to do some work on my allotment, walking the dog, picking my daughter up from school, things that have no place in my life. I do not have an allotment, or a dog, or a daughter at school. Concentration on work is impossible.
‘Are you all right, Mr Stewart,’ Candice says, bending over my desk. ‘We’ve been a little worried about you.’
There is a knock at the door. For some unaccountable reason, I think it might be four men dressed in ecclesiastical robes. But it is my friend, Jack. Jack tells me he is having trouble with the Internet. He logs on, type in an address for instance ebay and this opens up dozens of windows and each time he closes one down it generates another two.
‘I have the same problem,’ I tell him. ‘When I log into yourgoat.com, I get congratulated on winning prizes. I get loan offers, gaming sites, adverts for every conceivable item of lingerie and even paedophile grooming sites. In fact, particularly paedophile grooming sites. You close one down and the screen splits and up come another four. It’s hopeless. The only way round it I have found is to turn it off and not bother.’
‘Oh! I just put a hammer through the screen on mine,’ Jack says.
‘Anyway apart from that, Jack, I think that I’ve split, or multiplied,’ I say.
I can tell that Jack is surprised, although he is doing his best not to show it.
‘I’ve just bought a new Saab,’ he says.
In my dislocated state of mind, it is obvious that I am not going to get any work done. I tell Candice I am leaving for the day, ask her to take messages, and go to check my car. The bonnet is not too badly dented, a mere scratch really. I start the engine. The impact of the badger seems to have turned off the hazard lights and the radio has retuned itself to Radio 4. In case the other voice in my head starts up again I decide to drive home by way of the scenic route, taking me along Tambourine Road and Harmonica Way, a detour that I sometimes use when I need to unwind. There is hardly a murmur of traffic and only a small proportion of the cars are lilac. The air is still and evening seems to be descending even though it was mid-afternoon. On the radio, they are discussing Surrealism. This is oddly relaxing. Phrases like the disinterested play of thought and the omnipotence of the dream float over me as I drive along. There is so much mental chewing gum on the radio. It is refreshing to hear an intellectual debate. The merits of Magritte, Miro and Dali are discussed in terms of their disdain for the thesis. I have visited a few galleries recently and have been in awe of the Surrealist works on show, so I can relate to much of what the art aficionados are saying. I am driving alongside the river. I stop, feeling it would be therapeutic to listen to the rest of the programme with the window wound down watching the river flow. The programme ends and I get out and sit on the riverbank.
As if I don’t have enough to occupy my mind; no sooner has Jack left – in his new Saab – than he phones.
‘Hi,’ he says ‘It’s Jack.’
My immediate thought is that he must have left something behind.
‘I’m just dropping some woodwind instruments off in Scorcese Street, round the corner from you.’
Jack sells musical instruments.
‘I thought I might pop round for a cuppa afterwards if you’re in. Be nice to have a chat.’
I look at the clock. It is 11.22.
‘OK s,see…. you in a bit,’ I stammer.
While I might be able to appreciate modern art movements, I am old fashioned when it comes to temporal matters. I am comfortable with the idea of time moving forwards in a logical progression, numbers ascending as I was taught at school. Until midday. And then starting again. I like novels to have a linear narrative and get confused when the plot of a movie is told in flashbacks. I found the film, Memento incomprehensible.
I try to take stock of the situation as I put some more cats out. Not only have I split – or multiplied – but I have regressed. Time is going backwards. I switch the TV on to Discovery 3 to see how their scheduling is matching up. A programme on Renaissance Art is just finishing.
‘We continue,’ says the presenter dressed in a crimson suit,’ with our exploration of English Landscape Gardens, and at 12.30, we have a new series called ‘Waterfalls.’
After a short while, I wander along the riverbank to The Black Hole public house. The pub is not facetiously named. A Nobel Prize-winning quantum physicist lives nearby. No-one is sitting in the garden and the pub is almost empty. I order a half of Old Growler, take a sip and leave it on the bar while I go to the toilet. I wash my hands and look in the mirror. To my horror, I have no reflection. It would be easy to say I turned a whiter shade of pale, but there was no way of confirming this. I frantically check the mirror to see if it is some kind of trick device. It isn’t. I feel the panic rising.
I leave my drink and practically run out of the pub. Outside it is very still and eerily quiet. There seems to be no background noise at all. I drop the proverbial pin. I look around me anxiously. The river has stopped flowing. The ripples on the water do not change. Ducks and gulls sit motionless on the surface. Boats move neither upstream nor downstream. A pair of swans are suspended in flight a few inches above the water. It is as if the riverscape had been captured in a painting. I stand dumbfounded for what might be a few minutes, but time seems to have lost some of its meaning. Suddenly, from out of nowhere a large group of sweating cyclists in a rainbow of pulsating colour comes hurtling down the road. The river starts up again and the air is full of birds, all eager to express their avian attributes with squawks and shrills. I go to check to see if my reflection has returned in the wing mirror of the car.
Jack’s visit is very bizarre because I know in advance everything that he is going to say, and everything that I am going to say too. I find myself laughing a little ahead of his putting the hammer through his computer screen, but otherwise, the time passes without event. Eventually, he leaves – in his Saab.
Cable TV has a wealth of attractions. It is not all tacky game shows and repeats of British sitcoms from the 1970s. Amongst the irredeemable pap, there are channels devoted to programmes you just wouldn’t find on terrestrial TV. So it is that I find String Theory and You on Science and Technology channel.
It seems that the universe is shaped like a thin membrane, surrounded by higher dimensions that transcends the familiar dimensions of height, width and depth. Other universes are stacked alongside it. The membrane universe repeatedly folds over on itself, resulting in multiple universes adjacent to each other.
Inasmuch as time and space would be arbitrary, String Theory appears to be ideal in explaining how there were two of me, or how I can be in two places at once, living two separate lives in parallel universes very close to one another. Coincidences occur where two universes touch. Parallel lives are the result of a small fissure at this point. I am a little comforted by this explanation as I get the car out for the school run, and sit watching the river flow, simultaneously.
My car is painted primrose. As there is a small hole in the membrane of my universe and I have slipped through, all the other cars on the street are painted primrose too. Fortunately, there are no arachnids in the car but it is still difficult to concentrate. I am glad that it is only a short drive to Jessica’s school.
© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved