Tequila Mockingbird by Chris Green
When Max turned out the light last night, he assumed he would wake up in the morning, pull back the chintz curtains to let in a little light and listen for a few moments to the birds singing in the back garden. 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 would feel proud about the work he had put in over the winter months. 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.
Max 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. Through overexposure to this daily doom and gloom, the impact of the news stories would be slight. He would wait for the weather report before leaving to catch the 7:45 train which would be 13 minutes late. He would pick up a copy of the Metro, check to see if Leyton Orient had won their evening fixture 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.
Expectations, of course, can sometimes turn out to be unrealistic. The first thing Max notices when he pulls back the curtains is that the birds are not singing in the back garden. There are no birds. More critically, there is no back garden. Instead, where the raised beds and the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden ought to be, there stands a row of ramshackle mud huts. They look like remnants of a civilisation in a poor Central American country where they build out of adobe. He stares aghast at what he sees, rubs his eyes and tries to think of a plausible explanation. None comes to mind. He turns to wake Cheryl. Cheryl is not there. He shouts downstairs. There is no response.
Max concludes she must have already got up and gone out. This is unprecedented; Cheryl does not start work until nine thirty and likes her lie-ins. Anyway, surely he would have heard her in the bathroom. He toys with the idea that he might be in the wrong house, that something irregular has happened, something he cannot remember. He goes to the landing. The gaudily patterned purple stair carpet that Cheryl persuaded him was modish confirms that he is at home. Cheryl has curious tastes, favouring bright colours while he himself prefers muted, more subtle shades.
He’s at home, Cheryl is not, the garden has been built on. He feels a rising panic about what might have happened. Whatever it is, he needs to face up to it. His therapist, Otto frequently tells him that his reluctance to acknowledge a problem and surmount it are among his principal weaknesses. Otto says action is needed to affect any given situation. With Otto’s words ringing in his ear, Max goes downstairs. A glance around seems to show that, apart from Cheryl, home comforts are still in place. The big OLED TV is still there along with the red leather settee and the John Lewis bookcase with its modest library of modern fiction. The drinks cabinet seems to be fully stocked with the crystal decanters that have, since he moderated his intake, fallen into disuse. His prized original photograph of the 1966 England World Cup winning team, a gift to him from Sir Geoff when he worked in PR, still hangs on the wall.
He checks the kitchen. This seems to be pretty much as he remembers it. Lots of pans and kitchen gadgets, blenders, mixers and a sink full of dishes. There are, however, no Honey Nut Clusters in the larder. He reasons Cheryl must have finished them off and put the box in the recycling bin before she went out. Unusual though because Cheryl favours Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and he notices there are still three full packets.
Determined not to be phased by the unfolding mystery, Max sits down with a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and goes to turn on the news. In the face of adversity, routine is important. The TV though has no sound or picture. The light indicating that the TV is not in standby is displaying, but none of the channel numbers he keys in brings any response. He checks the aerial, pulls the plugs out of the wall, twice, finally gives the set a clout with his fist. Nothing. He tries the phone. No dialling tone. His mobile. No signal. The laptop. No broadband connection.
‘Obstacles are there to be overcome,’ Otto is fond of telling him when he is being obstinately negative about a setback. ‘If you do everything in the right order and keep the momentum going,’ Otto says, ‘things should turn out right.’ With this in mind, Max sets off purposefully for work. He finds himself at the station just in time to catch the 7:45 which, unusually, seems to be on time. He is also able to grab a window seat. He notices several passengers in his carriage are talking on their mobile phones, so he gives his another look. Still no signal. To distract himself, he picks up a copy of The Metro. He sees Leyton Orient lost 5 -0 at home to Crawley Town and now are at the foot of the table and relegation is now looking very likely. Crawley’s new striker, Jesús Zapata scored a hat-trick.
As the train pulls out of Dartford, Max’s thoughts turn once more to the appearance of the adobe huts at the bottom of the garden. While there might be rational explanations for all of the other anomalies, this is the hardest to explain. The birds in the garden might just have gone to another garden to offer their serenade. Perhaps he hasn’t filled the feeders lately. The remote control for the television might need new batteries. This was something he didn’t check. His mobile phone probably simply packed up. It was a cheap one. But how could a row of gardens disappear wholesale and a row of mud huts just appear in their place overnight?
He does not want to think it but Cheryl might have simply left him. He would be devastated but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. They have had a few disagreements of late, in fact, they had a little contretemps the previous evening. Cheryl suggested they might go to the retail park at the weekend to look for some new parquet flooring for the study. Cheryl’s brother, Bro had told her he would be able to lay it. Bro lived in Staines, a two hour drive away. This meant that he would probably want to stay for the duration and probably expect to smoke that awful smelling stuff he smoked. Max told her, perhaps a little forcefully, that he was not keen on the suggestion. After a little wrangling, they agreed to postpone Bro’s visit and perhaps look for some new curtains for the spare room instead. They had then settled for the night. Max read twenty eight pages of the latest Harlan Coben thriller and Cheryl read twenty four pages of her Jodi Picoult. They had a brief exchange of views on caravans, hydrangeas, and soap, then lights out. All was well, Max felt. But perhaps he had been mistaken. Perhaps all was not well. Perhaps Cheryl was still mad at him for his petulant reaction to her parquet flooring plan.
‘Twenty years of marriage is never without its ups and downs,’ Otto has made a habit of telling him. ‘Let her believe that she is the one making the decisions.’
Flawed reasoning, Max now thinks. Cheryl seems to be using this tactic on him.
He notices that the usual array of familiar faces seem to be absent from the train this morning. But, there again, it is possible that some of them might have missed the 7:45 because for once it was actually on time. But, today’s passengers do not conform to the profile of commuters he has become accustomed to. There are a disproportionate amount of flamboyant Hispanics on the train. And to his alarm, more of them get on at Belvedere and again at Abbey Wood. He does his best to tell himself that a few more Latinos than usual on a crowded train hardly constitutes an invasion, and may not have any connection at all with the adobe mud huts in the back garden. Perhaps the babble of Spanish has been a consistent feature on this line but he has not noticed it before. One can become desensitised to many things that form 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 is still gathering his thoughts when his train slows down and comes to an unscheduled stop just outside Plumstead. A train travelling in the opposite direction slowly comes into view. Max gazes out of the window as the carriages pass by. To his horror, he sees that in the second or third carriage, in the corresponding window seat, there is Cheryl, large as life, in her emerald green Crombie. She is talking to three sturdy figures in sombreros. He bangs on the window, but in the second or two that she is visible, finds himself unable to attract her attention, although his actions do attract the attention of his fellow passengers. A grey man dressed in a blue pinstripe business suit makes a motion to summon the guard. A man in his late forties with a fifties haircut grabs his arm. A nurse with a name badge bearing a formidably long name makes comforting gestures with her hands. A swarthy figure in a poncho looks at him menacingly.
‘It’s my wife,’ Max yells to all but no one in particular. ‘she’s on the other train.’
‘Pull yourself together,’ says the grey man in the blue pinstripe.
‘You a loony or something?’ says the man with the fifties haircut.
‘Take deep breaths,’ says the nurse with the badge.
‘And they’ve built adobe shacks in my back garden,’ screams Max.
‘Get a grip,’ says the blue pinstripe.
‘Give him a slap,’ says the fifties haircut.
‘Imagine a sunset,’ says Nurse Zwangendaba.
‘You’re off at the next station,’ says a massive guard, grabbing him by the lapel. Isn’t Hernandez a Spanish name, Max wonders as he is heaved against the window? Hernandez has a scar like a zip across his forehead and a remarkable big black droopy moustache. His build and his grip suggest that he might come from a long line of club bouncers.
On the platform of Woolwich Arsenal station where he finds himself, Max makes the decision to take a train back home. Cheryl will have been making her way back home on the other train when he glimpsed her. Perhaps she took the day off work and went out early to buy the new curtains from somewhere up West.
The revolving display on the platform notifies him that the next train is due in seven minutes. Max has never stopped off at Woolwich Arsenal before. The station he notices is of a pleasant design in steel and glass. But despite this, isn’t it a little Spanish looking? On the opposite platform, he can see a refreshment facility, its large illuminated advertising space given over exclusively to chilli, tortillas, and burritos. A poster for Cerveza Dos Equis has the caption, ‘Happy Hour is the hour after everyone from Happy Hour has left’. There is also an advert for Tequila Mockingbird. What on earth is that, he wonders?
Max takes out his phone once again to phone the office to say that he will not be coming in. He is sure that Roy Neptune will understand. Ted Drinker is 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 begin to belt out a spirited Mariachi tune on guitars and a trumpet. It sounds to Max like La Bamba but could be some other upbeat Mexican song. ‘Construimos chozas de barro en su jardín,’ they seem to be singing. Something about a garden maybe. Max’s Spanish is not good.
The train duly arrives and Max jumps on. He finds a seat and begins to take deep breaths, hoping this will calm him. He tries to visualise a mountain stream, a still lake, a white temple. His efforts bring him no solace. Instead, his consciousness teems with menacing images of adobe mud huts. His discomfort grows as once again the carriage seems to fill up with Hispanics at Abbey Wood and Belvedere and he finds himself peppered with swift snatches of Spanish being barked into iPhones and Blackberrys. He feels as if all the air is being sucked out of the carriage and has difficulty breathing.
To his further distress, the train makes several unscheduled stops either side of Plumstead, and by the time he reaches Dartford, Max is desperate. He feels dizzy and is sweating profusely. He stumbles from the carriage, leaving a clutch of boarding passengers reeling in his wake. He badly needs some element of normality to reassure him. He must find out if Cheryl is back home. He frantically tries all of the phone booths at the station one by one, but each one has been vandalised. Dartford station has become lawless. A band of vaqueros is now raising the Mexican flag near the ticket office.
He spots a trainspotter alone at the end of the platform. He has noticed him taking down numbers on several previous occasions at the station. The fellow, who bears a passing resemblance to Jon Sergeant with an earring and a few days growth is now keying something into his mobile phone. Probably this is his new way of taking down train numbers, a digital version of Ian Allan.
Max summons up his courage and approaches him and asks if he can borrow the phone. It is an emergency, he says. The trainspotter, whose name Max discovers is Norman, clearly does not get a lot of company and seems pleased to have someone to talk to. Norman begins 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 is unique because, despite its location outside Greater London, London residents with Freedom Passes (but not regular Oyster Cards) can travel to and from the station. Or that this station is 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 dries up and when Max prompts him again Norman hands him the phone. Max dials the home number and when there is no reply, Cheryl’s mobile number. No reply here either. It goes to Voicemail and Max leaves an incoherent message which would probably puzzle even GCHQ. It certainly seems to puzzle Norman, who in case anyone is watching is now making loony gestures with his index finger to his forehead. The only other number Max knows off the top of his head is Otto’s, so he dials this. He does so now without much hope as Otto has wall to wall appointments most days, but at least, he will be able to leave a message with his receptionist, Heidi. To his amazement, Otto himself answers.
Max outlines his predicament, his description of the day’s events delivered in an unpunctuated Joycean stream of consciousness.
‘Slow down,’ says Otto. ‘Just tell me step by step.’
Max explained about the adobe huts.
‘Uh hu,’ said Otto.
And Cheryl’s disappearance.
Max listens patiently as Max tells 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 vaqueros raising the Mexican flag.
‘We’ve been over all this before,’ says Otto finally. ‘You remember a week or two ago you came in when the Granaderos were outside your house and the Bank of Mexico 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 makes a grunt. He has not as it happens.
Otto tries another tack.
‘These are delusions brought on by irrational stress about a hypothetical event,’ he continues. ‘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 repeats. ‘It’s only football. And England might not even play Mexico….. So you don’t think that any of this happened?’
‘No,’ says Otto. 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 will be no adobe huts in the back garden.’
‘So you think Cheryl may have left me,’ says Max leaping at once on the negative part of Otto’s remark.
‘No, of course not,’ says Otto. ‘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,’ says Max.
‘That’s right,’ says Otto. He is about to add that Max should be more worried about England having to play Brazil or Germany, but he feels this would only add fuel to the fire.
‘You have to stop thinking about football,’ he says, instead. ‘Anyway, Max, it will be the cricket season soon.’
Max notices that the vaqueros have disappeared and the union flag is once more aloft, fluttering gently in the breeze. He thanks Otto, and Otto reminds him of his appointment on Friday. Feeling his burden had been lifted, he hands the phone back to the confused trainspotter and, not thinking about football, he makes his way along the Latino-free platform. There are nineteen missed calls on his mobile phone. He texts Cheryl to say that he was on his way home.
From the station, it was just a short walk. It is a warm day and the birds are singing. There is not a cloud in the sky. Wait. Is there just one tiny little cloud on the horizon? Is it coming this way? Max thinks it might be. It will be the cricket season soon, Otto said. The cricket season soon.
When he arrives home, to his alarm he finds a line of dusky women dressed in bright saris in the hallway, weaving a colourful piece of silk fabric on a giant loom. He cannot even get in the front door. He wonders how long it is until first Test Match starts. He can‘t remember when England last beat India at Trent Bridge.
© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved