Behind the Times by Chris Green
It is a hundred miles to the holiday cottage in Myst, a small hamlet in the west country. Because of some last-minute things I have to attend to at the studio, I am late setting out. And for the last stretch of the journey, the satnav takes me on a wild goose chase. I spend a couple of hours seemingly going around in circles. How can there be so many narrow tracks with tall hedgerows leading to nowhere? In the end, I find Sycamore Cottage more by accident than design. I was lucky to get this place. It seemed to be the only let that was available. Everywhere else was block-booked for the season, and I was anxious to avoid the hustle and bustle of the coastal resorts.
I need to let Stacey know I have arrived safely. I don’t want her to worry. All being well, she is going to drive down to join me in a couple of days when term ends. I felt I needed the extra time and the solitude to complete the script for Darkness, the broody noir I’ve been working on for the last few weeks. I take out my phone to make the call. The screen is blank. I switch it off and on, take the sim card out and put it back in, but the screen is still blank. The display is back-lit, but there is nothing displayed on it, no text, no logos, no pictures, nothing. The laptop will not connect either. Perhaps there is a localised issue with the internet, although this would not explain why I can’t make a phone call.
There is a post office and general stores in the village and I have to get provisions for my stay. Perhaps the phone reception will be better there. Coverage is always patchy in rural areas, and Myst is nothing if not remote. If there is still no signal, someone at the store might have some information on the outage or be able to help in some way.
I drive down, but still, there is no display on the phone.
‘I can’t seem to get a signal,’ I say, showing the man behind the counter my Huawei smartphone.’
‘What on earth have you got there?’ he says.
‘It’s not a particularly new model,’ I say, thinking that perhaps he has an older device, and he is envious. ‘I’ve had it for over a year.’
‘But what does it do?’ he says.
‘Well, it’s got 5G, so the internet is not too sluggish,’ I say. ‘And it takes pretty good photos.’
‘The internet?’ he says. ‘The internet, eh? What’s that when it’s at home? And it’s a camera? I’ve not seen a camera like that. You’re not a spy, are you?’
‘It’s an ordinary smartphone,’ I say.
‘It’s a phone as well? You mean you can make calls with it?’
‘Well, I would be able to if it was working, but there doesn’t appear to be a signal around here.’
‘Come and look at this, Lil!’ he calls to the back of the shop.
‘What is it, Frank?’ she says. ‘I’m busy making up sandwiches.’
‘You’ll want to see this, love,’ Frank says. ‘This fellow has some kind of science fiction device. You can talk to people on it, and it takes photos. And it has something called the Internet. At least, I think that’s what he called it.’
I suppose you might expect a limited service in such a rural setting, but I’m beginning to wonder if I may have underestimated just how much of a backwater Myst is. The shop is old-fashioned and has a narrow range of stock. Looking at the walls, you might think that Frank and Lil had visited the packaging museum for their advertising material. Lipton’s Tea, Birds Custard, Park Drive Cigarettes, Omo Adds Brightness. You can probably buy stamps at the post office counter, but I wouldn’t imagine Frank and Lil would be much help with your passport application forms. But surely they can’t be oblivious to the existence of mobile phones. Other holidaymakers will have come into the shop with their phones, and Frank and Lil must have watched the odd TV drama where mobile phones are the main tool in plot development these days.
‘Is it a new type of torch?’ Lil asks. ‘It’s not very bright, is it?’
I try to explain to her what it is, but I can see that she doesn’t get it. It seems she hasn’t been paying attention to the world around her lately. It is clear I am not going to get to the bottom of what is happening with my phone here, so I tell Frank and Lil I’m in a bit of a hurry and quickly pick up a few provisions, bacon, eggs, tomatoes and a few cans of vegetables and in the complete absence of any wine, a bottle of Scrumpy cider. I am not surprised to discover they do not have bank card technology. Fortunately, I have sufficient cash to pay.
‘I will ask my friend Jago about your gadget,’ Frank says. ‘He knows about radios and things, and I’ll let you know. Where are you staying?’
‘Sycamore Cottage,’ I say.’
‘I thought you might be,’ he says. ‘We don’t get a lot of holidaymakers here now. Not since the accident.’
He has mentioned the accident in such a matter-of-fact way that I know if I take the trouble to enquire what he is referring to, I am likely to regret it. It will only prolong the conversation, so I take my leave.
I entertain the possibility that my phone has simply died. But on the whole, phones are reliable these days. And unless you drop them in the washing-up bowl or something, they don’t pack up without any warning signs. I drive around the narrow lanes looking for a phone box, but there doesn’t appear to be one. So I head back to the cottage and pour a glass of cider and make myself a simple meal from the bits and pieces I bought.
There is a knock at the door. It can’t be Stacey, surely. But no one else knows I’m here. Perhaps it is not for me at all. Wondering who it could be, I answer it.
‘Hello, I’m Jago,’ says a stocky, bearded man wearing a checked lumberjack jacket and a Troggs t-shirt. He is carrying a toolbox. ‘Frank said you wanted me to have a look at your odd-looking phone.’
‘OK. You’d better come in,’ I say.
‘You are the first visitor we’ve had staying here for a long time,’ he says.
‘Frank mentioned an accident,’ I say. ‘I think he was suggesting it might be the reason for people not coming.’
‘Did you not read about it?’ Jago says. ‘It was all over the papers. An unexplained explosion. Underground gases, they think. Killed a party of walkers. About fifty of them. After that, people stopped coming here. There was a rumour there might have been secret dumping of nuclear waste in the area too. Conspiracy theory, most likely though. Like the alien landings a couple of years back. Except I’m not sure there wasn’t something in that. But anyway, the suggestion that something bad might happen to them must have been enough to put people off coming. Not the best selling point for a holiday destination, is it? Myst is not the most fashionable location anyway, what with it being twenty miles from the coast. Would you like a glass of cider? I brought a bottle of the best in case you were thirsty.’
‘Why not!’ I say, handing him the glass that I’ve just finished.
I show him my phone.
‘My word!’ he says, turning it over and over. ‘I’ve never seen anything quite like this. Is it a military device? There are one or two army bases not too far from here. Well, about fifty miles, I suppose, but I wondered if perhaps it came from some experimental facility. You never know what’s going on around you half the time, do you? There are lots of things they don’t tell you. Do you mind if I take it apart?.’
‘The back slides off easily,’ I say.
‘Ah yes. You’re right. So it does.’
He takes the battery out, prods at the components with various screwdrivers and tweezers, talks about integrated circuit boards and comes out with a few terms I am not familiar with. Terms that I have never heard in connection with mobile phones. I’m not sure what he thinks he’s going to do with the soldering iron. I begin to realise that he knows little about cell phone technology. He rejects my suggestion that because of its isolation, Myst is behind the times. Or that other twenty-first-century developments seem to have passed him by. Meanwhile, as he tells me about his Ford Cortina and the short-wave radio he is building, we make our way through both bottles of cider. He offers to go and fetch another. I conclude that he is lonely and just wants someone to talk to. At this point in time, I just don’t want it to be me. I manage to put him off by telling him it’s getting late, and I need to get some sleep after a long day.
I decide that tomorrow I’m going to find out exactly what is going on around here. I passed through a place called Black Hollow on the way. Black Hollow is probably the equivalent of a big city in this secluded part of the country. It has a pub, a church and a Drive Carefully sign. Someone there should be able to tell me why things are so backward here in Myst.
I discover things are no better in Black Hollow. I park at The Last Post Inn, which boasts six types of draught beer and farmer’s cider. Sadly, there is a notice saying it is closed for renovation. No sign of any renovators, though. Perhaps they are off getting building materials. Thinking I might have better luck at the church, I take a stroll along there, but this too is locked. There is no traffic in Black Hollow. There are a few parked cars, but otherwise, the village seems deserted. I can’t recall if it was this quiet yesterday, as I was concentrating on getting to Myst without getting any more lost. By this time, the satnav had long since been of any help.
I spot a general store that looks as if it might be open. Inside though, as in Myst, there are lots of old adverts. Tizer the Appetizer, Go to Work on an Egg, A Hazelnut in Every Bite, Persil Washes Whiter. I am given the same spiel too as I was in Myst.
‘What the devil have you got there?’ Pascoe, the shopkeeper, says. I still have the phone in my hands. I have not even shown it to him. ‘Come and have a look at this, Annie.’
I detect that he is smirking. I’m not sure what is going on, but I smell a rat. Something is not right about the setup here. This is some kind of scam. To Pascoe’s surprise, I put my phone away, buy a pint of milk and leave.
I do not have to wait long before I find out what is going on. On the street outside, I bump into a tall stranger in the bold-checked suit getting out of his Discovery.
‘I can see you are from out of town,’ he says. ‘So I imagine you’re trying to find out what is going on in these parts.’
‘Exactly,’ I say.
‘Well, I’ll put you out of your misery,’ he says. ‘I’m Quentin Thief, by the way.’
‘Dave Hooks,’ I say.
‘Well, Dave. Let me give you the gist of it. We became fed up with all the grockles coming down here every summer, thinking they could have a cheap holiday instead of paying for the more expensive locations on the coast. Imagine if you will, SUVs towing caravans on these narrow lanes. I lost count of the number of times they got stuck. Then there were the motorhomes and all the campers with their tents. They behaved like they owned the place. They were rowdy and disrespectful. They left litter everywhere. It was a nightmare. They were ruining our little haven of peace. A group of us got together to decide what should be done. The overwhelming view was that the loss of trade would be a price worth paying. We came up with a strategy to get rid of them. We turned all the road signs around and in places ditched them altogether. We trickled stories about hazards and accidents that would be likely to put people off coming here into the local press. And we got a military technician to set up a jamming signal for all GPS, internet and phone signals for the duration of the summer months. It worked a treat, so we now do it every summer. To be honest, though, I am fed up with all the pretence. And although there is supposedly a workaround for the jamming signal, more often than not, we cannot get the internet either. And, of course, we had to shut the pubs. It makes life around here very boring. More and more of us are finding this now. Besides, I have a business to run which depends on the internet, saddles. Quentin Thief Saddles and Tack. It’s not helpful when the connection keeps dropping out.’
I point out that Frank and Jago in Myst went out of their way to help me get my phone working.
‘That’s what you are meant to think, Dave. Frank Trevithick and his old mate Jago are, of course, in on it too. They pretend to be helpful to throw you off the scent, in the safe knowledge that it will be of no use. If it looks as if anyone’s phone looks as if it might show signs of life, Jago steps in and disables it. He’s got this off to a fine art. People these days can’t live without their phones it seems, so they tend to leave. I expect you are making your way home now. I don’t know how you managed to book Sycamore Cottage in the first place, though. But rest assured, no one else will be able to book it now. They will have seen to that.’
I don’t feel it’s the right time to share it with Quentin, but I am seeing a lot of potential for a crime-drama here. Quentin and Jago are sound as the basis for characters. They are both larger than life. But I need to spice the other characters up a little, perhaps add some love interest, and make the location more ominous. The locals can still set up retro shops, jam the comms signal, and turn the signs around. But they will go the extra mile with a programme of attacks on motorhomes as they arrive, and perhaps actually arrange the fatal explosion that kills the walkers. I’m thinking this could add a new dimension to the formulaic Netflix serial thriller format. I would not even need to introduce the customary serial killer to drive the narrative along.
Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved