The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron by Chris Green
Fortune has not favoured Ron Smoot recently. He has suffered one setback after another. He was just coming to terms with losing his job in the drawing office when he was knocked down by a hit and run driver on Black Dog Way. Hospitalised with a catalogue of injuries, he went down with Norovirus. While he was in the isolation ward, his wife, Heather ran off with his best friend, Frank who had been giving her lifts to work. How long had they been having the affair, Ron wondered. On release from hospital, he was given notice on the flat by their unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros, who saw Heather’s absconsion as an excuse to subdivide the deceptively spacious two bedroomed apartment and make more money. Perhaps he too had been having an affair with Heather. To cap it all Kostas Moros ordered Ron to pay £2000 for damage incurred to the flat during the tenancy. This had cleaned him out.
Ron is looking after his friends’ house in Queen’s Road while they are away. Tom and Tom are honeymooning in California. They are due to return in two weeks, after which Ron has nowhere to go. He has been looking for a flat, or even a bedsitter, but the letting agencies all want formidably large deposits these days. Unlike his friends, he has no money. His Jobseeker’s Allowance barely covers the storage for his furniture.
Ron is beginning to notice that when things are going badly, friends tend to distance themselves. He has had such a bad run now that he has no friends left, apart from Tom and Tom and he has no credit on his phone to speak to them. He feels he does need to speak to someone. He finds he does not have a wide choice of 0800 numbers on his network.
‘Is that the Samaritans?’ he says. He has been trying to get through for an hour. The line has been engaged.
‘Sorry, but office is closed now,’ says Magda, the office cleaner. ‘Can you try please tomorrow?’
As a temporary measure, he decides to double the dose of the anti-depressants that Dr Bone has prescribed.
Cheered a little, he reasons that Tom and Tom might not actually throw him out on the street. But does he want to impose further on their hospitality? A newly married couple need privacy to bond, without having to feel inhibited about there being a person in the next room. While Tom Carlevaro, a computer technician does go out to work, Tom Soft, an interior designer works mostly from home. He is not going to want Ron under his feet all day long.
Ron is at his wits’ end. He is desperate for a job. Although his CAD is up to speed and he is well qualified in both engineering and architectural drawing, he has had no luck here. With labour so plentiful and openings so scarce, employers no longer see the need to reply to applications. The few that have replied have all said the same thing. Perhaps there is a regret to inform template in Microsoft Word.
One afternoon, after he has thoroughly scanned the vacancies column in The Gazette, he spots an unusual ad in MidweekMag sandwiched between an article on origami and an advert for hair remover. The ad says simply N Vision Inc. is recruiting and gives a mobile phone number. He phones the number and without interrogation or ceremony, a man with a Farsi accent gives him an address and asks him if he can come along right away. He doesn’t even ask Ron for his name. Although this seems highly irregular, Ron feels he has nothing to lose. After all, it is the first interview he has been offered.
N Vision Inc. offices are situated in La Traviata Heights, a prosperous part of town. Ron is encouraged by this. It suggests they are not fly by nights. Ron presses the buzzer and is admitted by entryphone. He finds himself in large quirky office space. It is open plan with an outdoor theme featuring an abundance of greenery. A tall olive skinned man with a neat balbo beard wearing a shiny white suit appears. He has a peregrine falcon on his arm. He introduces himself as Amir.
‘Have a seat,’ he says. There is no formal arrangement of office furniture to suggest where he should sit, but Ron senses it would be prudent to put distance between himself and the tiger that has just walked in.
‘Don’t worry about Felix,’ laughs Amir. ‘He’s quite domesticated.’
Ron feels a little overawed by the plush surroundings. It is a far cry from the sterile drawing offices he is used to. He nervously brushes his grey Burton’s suit which he forgot to iron while Amir talks cryptically about balance and power and balance of power. He talks about courage and destiny and death. His colleague, Majid duly arrives in a flowing djellaba with a cup of sweet mint tea.
‘The post requires you to deliver bad news to victims before the event actually happens,’ continues Amir. ‘Timing is the key.’
While Ron does not believe in fate, he feels too intimidated by the situation to ask the obvious questions, how do you know that something is going to happen and what is the purpose of letting the victim know. Instead, he nods politely. After all, he does need a job, no matter what it entails. On the plus side, he is an old hand at delivering bad news, in fact, he has something of a reputation for being a wet blanket. Someone once described listening to him as being like reading Hank Williams’ diary. Hank Williams he discovered was a country singer. For years he had not realised that he gave off that impression, but since he found out that people cross the street to avoid him and actually hide when he calls round, he has begun to accept that he is not the cheeriest of mortals. The position might have been made for him.
‘Now, Majid will take your details and then we can get you started,’ continues Amir.
‘You mean, I’ve got the job,’ says Ron. He wonders whether he should really be stroking the tiger.
‘Yes, you have the job.’ says Amir. He does not tell Ron that he has been the only applicant. ‘Welcome aboard. You start tomorrow. 9am.’
I wonder what kind of snake that is, Ron thinks when he arrives for work the following morning. It is yellow and black. It is skulking in the corner, behind the coconut palm. Aren’t the yellow and black type the ones that wrap themselves around you? Fortunately for Ron, the snake is either very tired or seems to have already eaten. He takes in his surroundings. The ornamental ginger is flowering and, is that brightly coloured one a paradise plant? There is no sign of Amir, but Majid looks debonair in his fitted white Islamic thobe. He is clean shaven and has on an expensive fragrance, a little like the woody eau de toilette that Tom Soft favours.
However, Majid is not as chatty as his colleague. There is no mint tea today. It is straight down to business. After typing vigorously into his laptop, the wireless printer purrs into life and he hands Ron the printout which has the instructions for his assignment.
‘Phone this number when you’re done so that I can process it,’ Majid says.
Before setting off for the West Midlands in his ageing Saxo, Ron reads the brief over and over. He is perplexed by the instructions. Who could benefit from Eileen Loveless knowing that her son Maxwell will die in a gas explosion at their house in Conduit Street early tomorrow morning? Perhaps the warning will mean that Eileen Loveless and Maxwell will take heed and stay somewhere else. But what if they take no action? Much could depend how he delivers the news, on whether Eileen Loveless regards him as a reliable source of information or whether she sees him as a crank. He has to tread a fine line. After all, the last thing he wants is for Eileen Loveless to report him to the police. He draws on his experience of telling Tania that her friend Speedy had died of a heart attack a couple of years ago. The key is not to beat about the bush or engage in preamble, but to come right out with it.
Although she seems a little vacant, Eileen Loveless seems to take the news very well. She seems unphased that her son might be going to die. Perhaps she is on very strong anti-depressants that make her indifferent to everything. Mrs Loveless seems so disinterested, Ron wonders if her GP actually has a licence to practice. However, he is just the messenger. It is not his job to reason why He phones N Vision Inc. to report back as instructed. The answering machine comes on. In this cloak and dagger world, is it indiscreet to leave a message about his errand? He settles by saying ‘Spoke to Mrs G. All OK.’ No-one returns the call.
When he goes in to NVI the next day, Amir shows him the headline on the news website. Gas Explosion Kills Budding Young Research Scientist. He scans the report. It appears that Maxwell Loveless was the only casualty. The report says that British Gas were unavailable for comment and Chief Inspector Truss could not confirm whether or not they were treating the death as suspicious.
‘So it goes,’ Amir says. ‘Kazumi will be here shortly then we will find out what she has for you today. Do have a seat.’
Ron is about to ask where was Eileen Loveless when the explosion took place, and why she didn’t get her son out of the house if she knew this was going to happen, but he does not feel that Amir will give him the answers. Anyway, he had done what he was asked to do and he does want to keep his job. There is no sense in rocking the boat. He sits down and a marmoset jumps onto his lap and starts playing with his paisley kipper tie.
Kazumi breezes in wearing a bright red full-length floral kimono and wooden geta sandals. She places a tea tray on a low wooden table. She bows, to which Ron stands and makes a similar if less graceful gesture. She offers him a cup of Japanese green tea.
‘You are enjoying your new job, yes?’ she says.
Ron is not sure what to say. Does enjoyment feature much in the job that he does? It is a far cry from the drawing office, from the world of straight lines and precise measurements. He replies politely that he is finding it very interesting.
‘Good,’ she says. ‘Let us see what we have for you today.’ She sits down at her laptop.
‘Today you are to tell the entrepreneur, Garret Wing that he will be shot twice in the head outside Stockport Masonic Guildhall tomorrow morning. Can you make it to Manchester by midday today? He will be in his office until then. Here is Mr Wing’s address.’
It is now 9:30. Manchester is about a hundred miles. He has no satnav, the Saxo has 110,000 miles on the clock and struggles to get up to seventy. ‘It will be touch and go,’ he says.
Kazumi is not familiar with English idioms. ‘That is good,’ she says. ‘Let me know please when you have informed Mr Wing.’
While Ron appreciates that the phone is not a subtle form of communication, as he is driving up the M6 he begins to question why it is so important for him to deliver the news face to face. Who exactly are N Vision Inc? He could find no reference to the company on the Internet. What are they up to? How can they be getting this information? Perhaps they are arch villains. This raises another concern. Is he actually going to get paid? They have not yet spoken about salary. He must mention it next time he goes in to the office. He should be getting a substantial amount for what he is doing; he is one step away from a being a hit man.
He comforts himself that Amir had referred to it as a job, so perhaps he doesn’t need to worry unnecessarily. Tom and Tom will be back in less than two weeks and even if he hasn’t been able to find somewhere to live by then, at least, he will be able to offer to pay for his keep. Perhaps he might be able to put the deposit down on a new car, he thinks as the Saxo coughs and splutters in a tailback at the Stoke on Trent junction.
Having in his haste driven down at least two one way streets the wrong way, Ron arrives at Garret Wing’s offices just before 12. Garret’s secretary, Chloe finishes doing her nails and asks if he has an appointment, knowing full well that he doesn’t.
‘No,’ Ron says. ‘But it is incredibly important.’
‘I’m afraid he’s about to go into a meeting,’ says Chloe.
‘I think he would want to see me,’ says Ron.
‘Can I ask what it is about?’ says Chloe.
At that moment, Garret emerges from his office.
‘This gentleman is here to see you, Mr Garret,’ says Chloe, sliding her black skirt up an inch or two. ‘Mr ….’
‘Smoot,’ says Ron. ‘Ron Smoot.’
Garret Wing looks Ron up and down disapprovingly. He is not used to seeing square toed brown slip ons with a grey suit. ‘Yes, what is it?’ he says. ‘It had better be good. I’m late for a meeting,’
‘Do you think we could go somewhere quiet for a moment?’ says Ron.
Garret is anxious to avoid a scene. He asks Chloe to take go and polish her face or whatever it is she does on her breaks.
‘I’m afraid it is not good,’ says Ron. ‘You are going to be shot outside Stockport Masonic Guildhall tomorrow morning. Twice. In the head. You are going to die.
‘Is this some kind of threat?’ says Garret.
‘Not a threat, Mr Wing. I’m just passing on a message from …… from people who know that this is going to happen. Might I make the suggestion that you avoid the venue tomorrow, then it cannot happen.’
‘Get out of my office,’ yells Garret. ‘Before I call the police.’
Where did it all go wrong with Heather, he wonders in the tailback near the Keele service area? He remembers last Christmas at the works Christmas party his colleagues were ribbing him about how downbeat he was. Here he comes over the hill, dragging his wet blanket behind him. And has Christopher Robin forgotten to give you your haycorns today, they were saying. He remembers becoming very upset about it and leaving the party early. When he got home, their friend, Frank was in the shower. Heather had explained that Frank had got dirty helping her in with the Christmas tree. While he didn’t put two and two together there and then, he had the feeling something was wrong. Only latterly did he remember that Heather had greeted him in her dressing gown and there were two wine glasses on the dressing table alongside with the empty bottle of Blue Nun.
‘Thank you for reporting back yesterday,’ says Amir. ‘I see from WebNews that Mr Wing ignored your advice. His death is causing quite a stir. I see also that the marksman seems to have avoided capture.’
Amir shows no emotion as he reads the report, so Ron cannot tell what his preferred outcome might have been or whether he was completely indifferent either way. In which case, what exactly is the point in NVI sending him to tell these people about the peril they face? Are they just testing out the old question if you tell someone about something, do they take heed?
‘Can I introduce you to Kojo,’ says Amir. The newcomer is resplendent in an African print grand boubou and a brightly coloured kufi hat.
Kojo stops feeding the pygmy goat and shakes Ron’s hand firmly.
‘You have struck lucky this time, my friend. You must have the djinn,’ he says, offering a Cheshire cat grin. ‘You’re off to sunny California.’
‘Yes, Cal-eef-or-ni-ay, the land of orange groves, The Golden Gate Bridge, and The Beach Boys. But of course you will not be seeing much of that. You have a job to do. In three days time, Tom Carlevaro and sixteen other passengers will die when a flight from Los Angeles to Chicago comes down in Kansas.’
Ron’s heart skips a beat.
‘Oh my God!’ he says. ‘Where are you getting that from? Let me have a look’
He pushes the sturdy African out of the way and goes over to the computer. On the screen is the front page of the Daily Telegraph dated June 13th, three days time.
‘N Vision Inc. look at tomorrow’s news stories,’ says Amir. ‘Or in this case, the newspaper from three days time and, although we cannot intervene directly, we can take measures to alert the victims that something is going to happen. If the victim takes notice then the page will never have existed. A different page will be there instead. That’s just the way it is. Reality isn’t a straightforward business.’
‘You mean this is actually the newspaper that will appear on June 13th, says Ron.’
‘Unless you manage to change it, yes it is,’ says Amir. ‘As you will see if you read down the actual crash happens the previous day, June 12th. Time isn’t linear, you know.’
‘But I know this ….. person, this Tom Carlevaro,’ says Ron hysterically. ‘And another of the passengers, Tom Soft. They are friends of mine.’
‘Then you had better get your ass out to California, how do you say, PDQ,’ laughs Kojo.
In the departure lounge at Heathrow, Ron speculates at what point an outcome is decided. On the plane that is apparently destined to plunge into Lake Michigan, perhaps two hundred outcomes are dependent on a chance happening. It is possible that the whole course of events could be changed by persuading his friends not to travel, but it is more probable that it will not. It is more probable that the actual crash is not dependent on the movements of Tom and Tom. In which case the Daily Telegraph report will merely need minor changes to its passenger list. On the seat opposite Ron, a man dressed in a Drizabone overcoat and a Bute hat is reading a book entitled In Search of the Multiverse. Perhaps he is planning to catch all of the planes simultaneously. Perhaps there is always more than one answer to a question.
‘Oh my God! It’s Wet Blanket Ron,’ says Tom C taking a peek through the chinz curtains of their Hermosa Beach bungalow. ‘What the fuck is he doing here?’
‘Christ on a bicycle! You’re right,’ says Tom S.
‘Get down! He may see you,’ says Tom C.
‘I thought we’d seen the last of that loser,’ says Tom S. ‘Didn’t you say he’d be gone by the time we got home?’
‘Why did we ever let him stay with us?’ says Tom C.
‘We? It was your idea,’ says Tom S. ‘You felt sorry for him because Heather left him for your freaky friend, Frank.’
‘OK. I realise it was a mistake,’ says Tom C. ‘God knows what state the house is in.’
‘He’s probably let it burn down and has come over here to tell us,’ says Tom S.’
There is a brief lull, before the battering on the door continues with renewed intensity. Ron is hollering out loud for them to open up. A crowd begins to gather as curious residents from adjacent bungalows try to find out what manner of disturbance has shattered their tranquillity.
‘The whole world and its neighbour is out there,’ says Tom C. ‘Perhaps we ought to just see what he wants.’
‘No way! He’s bound to give up eventually.’
‘Yeah, like when. He must have come all this way for a reason. He’s hardly likely to just leave it and get back on a plane.’
‘We are not going to answer the door and that’s final.’
‘It’s three o’clock now. We will miss our flight to Chicago if we are not careful.’
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved