The Hurdy Gurdy Man by Chris Green
It is after midnight. Lois and I are watching a nail-biting episode of Bad Break on Horizon when the old man in the threadbare purple duffle coat calls round. He is selling violins. In these uncertain times, traders are likely to call round at any time of day or night but it is unusual for a violin seller to call so late. You expect people selling camping gear and kitchen utensils to knock on your door up until three a.m. And of course, carpet sellers. But we are usually in bed by then. As a rule, we go to bed at two, after Cricketers’ Wives on Bygone finishes, unless it’s a Thursday and we happen to be watching Black Lens on Extra. This does not finish until two-thirty.
Lately, there is a non-stop procession of hawkers, selling anything and everything. Fishing tackle, jet skis, garden gnomes, overspill from car boots, sometimes things that even charity shops won’t take. Having been encouraged to buy all manner of merchandise at every opportunity, people are constantly clearing out. Add to this the swathes of people who have been hit by the dramatic downturn, desperate to sell a few bits and pieces to be able to put food on the table and you begin to understand why you get so many callers. We now recognise some of the regulars. The late-night transient selling boxes of knock-off DVDs, the Frankie Dettori lookalike selling fake signed photographs of sports celebrities, the down-at-heel vagrant selling Lambretta badges and Gilbert O’Sullivan CDs. Sometimes we have to put the light out and pretend we have already gone up the wooden hill.
We don’t normally buy violins on the doorstep. Neither of us plays. Yet this does not stop me from purchasing a Cremona Premier. I have not seen a green violin before. And he is only asking ninety-nine pounds for it. I recognise a bargain when I see one and a green violin for ninety-nine pounds is a bargain in anyone’s book. The man in the purple duffle coat knocks off a catchy Fritz Kreisler tune and says that he will accept an IOU if necessary. Although money is tight, I don’t like the thought of being in debt so I pay him in cash. He says his name is Quinn and if we are interested, he may have some trumpets next week.
Buying from door-to-door sellers is all very well but you have to be on your guard. Life was easier when you could buy goods over the internet. You had eBay and Amazon and Gumtree where practically everything you could ever want was available. I knew someone who bought a bottlenose dolphin and Ravi next door used to buy all his drugs this way. In addition, most businesses had an online purchasing facility. Admittedly, you were deluged with adverts but with practice, it was easy to ignore these. And for specialised markets, there was the so-called darknet.
But all of this is gone now. It might only be six months or so but it is as if the internet never existed. It just goes to show how quickly you get used to things. It is surprising how easily a new common sense develops. Lois and I used to work for Google and now and again, we hear a rumour from an ex-colleague that the internet will soon be back. But then, we hear nothing further. This leads us to believe that whoever or whatever is blocking it is determined to keep it that way. While it is difficult to say for certain, it appears cyber-networks are down worldwide. It seems you would need the internet to find out why there is no internet. Without the internet, news media has struggled. The stories we get have become more localised, the re-routing of the bypass, the search for the missing teenager or the closure of The Goat and Bicycle.
People are throwing out their iPhones. With their functionality reduced to that of making calls, they are of little use. Even making calls is hit and miss due to the breakdown of communication links. Someone from the discount store in town called round last week in the middle of the final episode of Killing Steve offering a job lot. £50 for ten, he said.
When the internet was still up and running, you could stream your favourite TV programmes on your portable devices or on sixty-inch screens in the comfort of your living room. Lois and I used to watch our shows in the middle of the afternoon after we had finished our shifts at Google. We became accustomed to binge-watching box sets. We frequently used to watch three or four episodes of Twin Peaks or Black Widow on the trot. And we could get Alexa to put the kettle on or turn the central heating up while we looked through reviews of hundreds of new series that were available to stream. We took it all for granted. Without the internet, there is no catch-up television. You have to view everything in real-time and there are strict rules about what can be shown on TV before the nine pm watershed. Tame sitcoms and vapid soaps. Auctions of tat and tired quiz shows. Channels are required to put any programmes with adult content on after nine. So, Lois and I no longer enjoy our cosy early nights. Although today’s serial dramas are only poor imitations of those of yesteryear, each night we find ourselves in front of the TV until the early hours.
For some unexplainable reason, recording devices no longer work so we cannot time-shift programmes. Even the techies I know cannot understand why this is. But I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky. We still have television although from time to time there is talk of this too disappearing completely, in the same way that the internet did. You never know what to believe. In this post-truth age, it is nearly impossible to find out what is really going on.
Now there are no longer any internet-related services, Lois and I are unable to find work. We now grow much of our own produce in the garden and door-to-door grocers come around each morning to supplement this so we do not need to go into town often. When we do, we come across groups of noisy protestors, no doubt angry about what is going on. It means I have plenty of time on my hands to learn to play my new violin. The first few days are probably agonising for the neighbours. If you’ve ever had a son or daughter learning the instrument, you will understand. The violin in the hands of a novice does not immediately produce sweet music. I suspect Ravi is able to find a way to shut it out but once or twice, I hear the Domingos the other side of us banging on the wall.
In the middle of an episode of Found, Quinn calls round as promised with his trumpets. He plays a pretty little Chet Baker number on a shiny Selmer. Lois is transfixed and decides she wants it.
‘You can have it for ninety-nine pounds,’ he says. ‘And I’ll even throw in an interesting little primer.’
‘That’ll be a great help,’ Lois says. ‘No YouTube instruction videos these days, are there? I’ll take it.’
‘And next week I’ll be round again with a surprise,’ he says. ‘Something a little different.’
I make slow but steady progress on the violin but with her somewhat unusual primer, Lois’s trumpet playing comes on in leaps and bounds. In no time at all, she masters, Should I Stay or Should I Go and Rock the Casbah. The Domingos appear to be enjoying these Clash numbers as we hear no further knocking on the wall.
Without warning, television goes off the air. All the channels show static. None of our friends or neighbours has any information about what has happened. Who is behind it? What is their aim? At first, the hope is that the blackout is temporary but it continues day after day. There is no way of knowing but it gradually becomes apparent that it is a worldwide phenomenon. It looks like TV will not be back anytime soon.
Lois and I start going to bed at nine o’clock. It is often difficult to sleep though as more and more people knock at the door with goods for sale. Without the internet or television, perhaps there is nothing left for folks to do with their spare time but life-launder. We debate whether we ought to do the same. Should we have a big clear out? Should we get a handcart and go door-to-door, selling some of the teapots Lois has collected over the years and my model aeroplanes?
‘Where have you been?’ Quinn says. ‘I’ve called round several times.’
‘We don’t answer the door after three in the afternoon,’ I say. ‘Too many people selling things and we don’t need anything else. We don’t have room.’
‘You’ll want this,’ Quinn says. ‘I’ve been saving it for you.’
He opens his bag and pulls out the most curious musical instrument I’ve ever seen. It is shaped a little like a violin but has a silver crank at the butt end. Its strings appear to be covered by an ornate wooden board and it has a small but prominent keyboard on the underside of this. It is a work of art.
‘What is it?’ I say.
‘It’s a hurdy gurdy,’ Quinn says.
With this, he deftly knocks out an old English folk tune. So far as I can gather, the crank works like a bow and the keyboard blocks the strings to produce notes.
‘Ninety-nine pounds and it’s yours,’ he says. ‘You might find it a little tricky at first but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. No primer for this one, I’m afraid.’
It still seems remarkably cheap so once again I go to see what cash we have left under the mattress. There is just enough. I tell him I will have plenty of time to learn to play now that there’s no television to interrupt me. ‘
‘Of course,’ Quinn says. ‘The old goggle box has finally gone. Never watched it myself. Constant stream of babble. Frank Lloyd Wright called it chewing gum for the eyes. Anyway, you probably won’t believe me but I have a theory about what has happened to the internet and TV.’
Everyone, it seems, has a theory but no one is able to back up their thoughts. The Earth’s magnetism gone haywire. Mass malfunction of satellites. Divine retribution for our sins. The Illuminati perhaps. Religious zealots, Muslims, Jews, Seventh Day Adventists. Tech companies holding everyone to ransom to raise their prices. The Chinese or the Russians using it as a tool for world domination. The precursor to an alien invasion. Is Quinn’s theory going to be any different?
We hear him out. His idea is absurd. Surely he cannot be serious. How could it be down to a small bunch of anarchists to highlight climate change? Granted Google’s servers used the same amount of power as whole continents and televisions were getting larger and larger. Certainly, taking out the main channels of advertising would hit capitalism where it hurts. But how would they have had the funding or the means to take down secure well-established global communications networks? And how would the ensuing chaos benefit the Extinction Rebellion cause? Surely they would need a voice and a means to transmit their anti-capitalist, save the planet, peacenik, no nukes message. To to do so by word of mouth on a day-to-day basis worldwide would be a big ask for a small disorganised unit.
‘Nice try,’ I say. ‘But I really don’t think that’s likely.’
‘I did say you may not believe me,’ Quinn says. ‘After all, it does seem a bit fanciful. But, we shall see. Enjoy your hurdy gurdy and don’t forget to look out for me. I may be round again with another surprise.’
© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved