Summer Time by Chris Green
It was already the middle of July. Only a few moments ago it seemed it was June, or May even. The Bank Holiday Mondays, the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Summer Solstice, Glastonbury, Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix had come and gone like thieves in the night. In quick succession, each of my shrubs had flowered and gone over. Already the hydrangeas were out, and the sunflowers were opening. My life was playing on fast forward. Any day now someone would say, the nights are drawing in, somehow stating the obvious. A friend of mine was fond of saying, change is the only certainty. As I grew older, I was beginning to appreciate the wisdom of his words. ‘Now’ was forever slipping away. As Bob Dylan had observed back in the seventies, time was a jet plane.
It was polling time. A by-election had been called following the death of our local MP, Richard Hamilton, in a sword-fight with the landlord of The Goat and Bicycle. I had begun to receive political pamphlets through the door. Each day I would come home from work at the brass instrument advice centre to find a new pile of brightly coloured electoral fliers on the mat. There were more than a dozen candidates. There was a range of views on local issues, but most of them agreed that the country was in a bit of a mess. Some promised to put more police on the streets to help fight crime, while others wanted to see a volunteer police force to save money. One or two wanted to make such deep cuts they suggested closing hospitals, schools and libraries, and deporting the disabled and unemployed.
In my neighbourhood there seemed to be a predominance of VOTE WARHOL stickers in the windows of the houses, although there were half a dozen VOTE ROTHKO stickers, several VOTE POLLOCK and one or two VOTE EMIN.
I was cooking liver and onions for my supper one evening when Mr Warhol called round.
‘Hi! I’m Andy,’ he said. He was an odd-looking man with pale features and large glasses. I could not tell whether or not he was wearing a wig. I did not like to ask.
I asked him instead, ‘If you get in, will everyone be famous for fifteen minutes?’
‘That would be communism,’ he replied, circumventing the reference. Perhaps he had become immune to smart-alec remarks.
‘Or in fifteen minutes everyone will be famous?’
‘That sounds to me like liberalism.’
‘Or will fifteen people be famous for everyone?’
‘That would be an oligarchy, he said.
I could not fault Andy’s political theory.
‘Will I notice any difference if you get in?’ I asked.
‘Put it this way,’ he said. ‘If you like your life, I’ll be trying to keep things as they are; if you don’t like your life, I’ll be trying to change things. You choose.’
Very diplomatic, I thought. Despite my occasional propensity to complain, I liked my life. I forever wished I could hold back the relentless progress of time. This feeling was especially strong at this time of year. It seemed important to capture and hang on to those precious fleeting moments when summer was at its most vital, those few brief days when the celestial magic cast its powerful spell. Light evenings were nourishment to the soul. The Sunday at the seaside. The walk in the woods with the birds singing. These would be the times that one would look back to and remember as special in the dark winter months ahead.
‘If I could choose, I’d like things to stay pretty much as they are,’ I said.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Vote for me and I’ll see what I can do.’
He shook my hand and made his way across my front lawn to Mr and Mrs De Kooning’s next door. I suspected the De Koonings would give him a tougher time as they had a VOTE TURNER sticker in their window. Furthermore, I had always found them confrontational, particularly over the issue of my rhododendron, which they claimed spoilt their view of Hogarth Hill.
Despite his unconventional appearance and his lack of political conviction, or perhaps because of these attributes, I liked Andy. Although I seldom bothered to vote, I made my way down to the John Constable Primary School on polling day and voted for him. It was a close contest, but after three recounts, Andy Warhol was elected MP for Gainsborough South by a margin of two votes.
On Mondays, I go to a Flower Arranging class at the Francis Bacon Memorial Centre, and on Tuesdays, Snake Charming at the Hindu Community Centre. On Wednesdays, I have a head massage and on Thursday I attend a bricklaying course at the college. At the weekends, I spend time with my girlfriend, Yoni. I have been described as a creature of habit. While it is good to have varied interests, I like to keep to a routine. Most evenings I get home at 9 to 9.30, although sometimes Snake Charming goes on a little late. During the second half of July, the sun sets just over one minute earlier each evening so it was not until the end of July that I noticed it was still light as I drove home when perhaps it shouldn’t be.
I looked up the sunset times for Gainsborough and found that there indeed appeared to be a discrepancy between when the sun was due to set and when it was actually setting. As near as I could tell, the difference was twenty minutes. I checked my watch against the clocks in the house. All agreed the time to within a minute. Either there was a huge conspiracy to dupe me or something strange was happening.
It was hard not to feel a sense of panic, but in the interest of my sanity, I decided I would do my best not to draw attention to the situation. It was better to keep it to myself for the time being, in case there was a rational explanation that I might have overlooked. I did not even tell Yoni, although once or twice during our lovemaking, she remarked that I seemed distracted. I explained we were having a lot of intonation problems at the centre with four-valve euphoniums. Over dinner at Vettriano’s, she noticed I kept looking at my watch and looking out of the window.
‘Are we expecting someone or should I not be here?’ she asked.
‘Sorry darling,’ I said. ‘I thought I spotted Paul Gauguin from my Snake Charming class.’
I read the broadsheet newspapers thoroughly, kept a close eye on the television news and trawled the Internet to see if I could find any clarification, but drew a total blank. It appeared no one else had noticed the celestial upheaval that was upon us. Not even climate change sites had any helpful information. I alone had spotted that the seasons were playing up.
Shaving had never been an activity that I had particularly enjoyed. But, when around the beginning of August, I noticed I no longer needed to, I felt a little unsettled. Furthermore, while I felt that I would miss the convivial conversations about football, opera and pizza with Leonardo, my barber, this was not my prime concern when I found that my hair was no longer growing longer. Doctor Magritte, the only doctor at the Rembrandt Surgery I could get an appointment with, checked me over to ascertain whether I was dead, and after finding a pulse and a heartbeat, began to ask me questions. Had I been feeling any stress? Was I eating a balanced diet? Had I taken any narcotic drugs? Had I been near a source of nuclear energy? I told him that life had been fine, and I ate healthy meals like butternut squash bakes and sardine salads, made sure I ate an apple a day, and took regular exercise. He took a blood sample and said he would send it off for tests to be done.
‘How long will the tests take?’ I asked.
‘Well, the tests will only take a jiffy,’ he replied, a little smugly. ‘But there might be another 40,000 samples already waiting for tests at the lab. This is how the NHS works, unfortunately. Three to four weeks, maybe. In the meantime, I’ll just give you something to help. And I think I had better sign you off work.’
‘Is it serious?’ I asked.
‘It may be, but there again it may not be,’ he replied. ‘But I don’t want you to worry about it.’ Why could no one commit themselves these days?
I picked up the lithium that Doctor Magritte prescribed and took my sick note into the brass instrument advice centre. For the next few days, I sat in the garden taking stock of the floral inertia. The hydrangeas and the borders I had planted from seed were still in full bloom. The lawnmower had stayed in the shed and the grass was exactly the same length as it had been in the middle of July. I hadn’t had to water the garden, not even the rhododendron. While it must have rained during this time, it hadn’t rained excessively. I could think of absolutely no explanation for these phenomena.
I began dropping comments into conversations with friends and neighbours about it being a strange summer. Or about how manageable my garden seemed this year, hoping one might come back with something like, the night’s don’t seem to be drawing in at all this year, or fantastic isn’t it how the flowers are lasting this year, I haven’t had to deadhead my petunias once. However, there was no hint from any of them that they were experiencing anything untoward. The nearest to a result was when Graham Sutherland at number 44 had said his roses were doing well compared to last year. I was momentarily cheered, but it transpired that this was because last year they had been attacked by leafhoppers, spittlebugs and whitefly. It seemed I was alone in my predicament.
My waking turmoil reflected itself in my sleep. I began to have disturbing dreams at night. In one series of dreams, I was falling from a tall Gothic building. But whereas in such episodes I was accustomed to waking up before I hit the ground, in these dreams I didn’t. I splattered all over the pavement. In the one I remembered most vividly, people had come to stand around and watch me fall. A television crew filmed the spectacle. At one point I was watching their film of my fall on television and I tried to switch off the set with the remote control, but the batteries were flat, and I screamed as I watched myself hit the pavement. I woke up terrified. In another dream, I was driving along a very straight, featureless, dark road and all the other vehicles driving in both directions along the road were AA vans. In the next frame, they had all become ambulances. I could not control the car and was struggling to avoid a collision with the ambulances. In yet another I was trapped in windowless rooms in a dark house, unable to move or make any sound. People dressed in red with voices talking backwards were searching for me. I did not know whether they wanted to harm me or rescue me.
I began to dread going to bed. I found myself staying up later and later, binge-watching Bates Motel, Black Mirror and Mindhunter on Netflix.
One morning I got up and the green light on the phone was flashing. I played back the message on the answer machine. ‘Hello,’ it said. ‘This is Doctor Magritte. I hope you are OK. I have a feeling I may have prescribed you the wrong … beep beep beep.’ My answer machine was a cheap one I had bought at a car boot. It had had no instructions of how to reset the message allocation time. It did not matter anyway as I had looked up lithium on HealthLine, and decided that it might not be a good idea to take it, especially 1800 milligrams per day.
I am not one of these motorists who continually checks their mileage, but I could not help but notice that the odometer on my Citroen Xsara Picasso had been registering 33333 for several days, during which I had been to my acupuncturist twice, and had also driven to the health centre for an extra head-massage. There was nothing subjective about my perception of the mileage. This was entirely scientific; the car was moving along the road, the speedometer was registering the speed, but the odometer was not recording any mileage. In some ways, this seemed more sinister to me than some of the other examples of torpidity. I set the journey distance register to zero and drove off to buy a newspaper and some groceries. The register remained on zero.
It was the evening of my snake-charming exam. I had decided to confide in someone about what was happening to me. I had chosen Sanjay, my tutor, as the most appropriate candidate. Aside from being a damn good snake charmer, he was well versed in phenomenology. He seemed understanding, non-judgemental, and had a mystical presence.
Considering the stress I was under, my exam went well. I had the cobra dancing to the music of my flute as if I was a professional. This, of course, is not completely true. Snakes are deaf. They only appear to be dancing to the music. The thing to remember is that the cobra is expecting an attack, so you have to keep the flute moving from side to side as you play, and the snake will mimic the movements. A cobra’s striking range is roughly one-third of its total length, so it is also a good idea to keep a few feet between you and the snake in case it is having a bad day.
After the exam was over, Sanjay came over to congratulate me, presenting me with an ideal opportunity to have a chat. Once Sanjay had finished shaking my hand and bowing politely, I said, ‘Sanjay, something’s been bothering me for a while.’
‘Yes, I can see that,’ he said. ‘Would like to tell me what is this thing that is bothering you?’
‘Today is the eleventh of August,’ I continued. ‘And it’s still as light in the evenings as it was in the middle of July. It’s not dark until 10 o’clock. You must have noticed.’
‘No. I have not been noticing that,’ he replied.
‘Let me show you what I mean,’ I said. ‘It’s 9.15 now. If we go outside, you will see that the sun has not quite set.’
‘First, I have to put the snake basket away so they will not be escaping and poisoning the streetwalkers. But I can see from your expression that you have been worrying so I will not be long.’
Sanjay came back from putting the snakes away and I pushed open the double doors at the back of the community centre. I was about to say to Sanjay, ‘there, you see what I mean,’ but instead, I found we were confronted by almost total darkness. You could just detect a tinge of pink in the bottom corner of the sky over the moor, where the sun had set, but otherwise, the sky was a dark grey and the orange street-lights were shining brightly. I was stunned. I checked my watch. It confirmed that it was 9.15. It was August 11th. It was dark – as one would have expected. I did not know what to say, or what I should feel.
‘What is happening to me, Sanjay?’ I gasped.
‘I have observed for two or three weeks now that you have been stressing,’ Sanjay said. ‘You should not worry, you know. Many people are tense before their snake charming exam. Stress can make you imagine strange things.’
‘But yesterday at 9.15 it was still light.’
‘Life can be illusory,’ he said. ‘Reality is not necessarily what you are seeing.’
I took a detour on my way home and called in at The David Hockney for a drink. The journey was exactly 303 miles according to my milometer, which now registered 33636. I ordered a Carlsberg Special and phoned Yoni. She did not pick up, which probably meant she was researching for her dissertation on Dissertation Research Methods. I sat by the window, looking out across the moors, and noticed that there was a full moon. I had not seen a lot of the moon during the light evenings. I wondered whether the moon’s phases had been consistent over the past few weeks. I sipped at my drink, idly brushing my beard with my hand. Beard! I had a beard. Quite a thick one, too. Why had Yoni not remarked on it? She must surely have noticed. Why from day to day had I not noticed it growing?
I arrived home around midnight, after another two or three medicinal Carlsberg Specials. The first thing I noticed was that my neatly manicured front lawn was now like a wild meadow. The grass had grown several inches and there were weeds everywhere. Most of the flowers that were in bloom had dropped petals, and all the border plants needed dead-heading. It provided a complete contrast with my neighbours’ gardens, which were fastidiously well-maintained. I wondered if my nascent wilderness might be the reason behind the For Sale sign outside the de Koonings. I dreaded to think how much the rhododendron had grown.
I opened the door. The green light on the answer machine was flashing. I played back the message.
‘Hello. This is Andy Warhol. It’s now 8.30 pm on Wednesday 11th August. You may remember when I called round, you told me you’d like things to stay as they are. I expect if I asked you now, you might answer differently. So I’ve … beep beep beep.’
© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved