PROG by Chris Green
I hadn’t seen Nick for many years when he got in touch with me on Facebook. My name, Chance DeVille, is of course so unusual that if someone were trying to look me up, I would not be hard to find. Few people had taken the trouble to look me up, so it was heartening to hear from Nick. I had just broken up with Lucy, and was at a bit of a loose end. Nick and I chatted online about old times, and he seemed concerned when I told him that Lucy had gone off to live with a carpet salesman in Wetherby. I couldn’t remember the exact order of events, but it might have been Nick that had introduced us all those years ago. Perhaps my posts about missing her evoked Nick’s sympathy, but out of the blue, he invited me to stay with him and Sophie in the Cotswolds for the weekend. They lived within a mile of the Cheltenham steeplechase course in a village called Southam. They had moved down there in the 1990s. With an empty calendar and the promise of country pubs and beautiful scenery, I accepted. I saw Nick and Sophie as the essence of stability. They had been married for thirty years. It would do me good to get out into the country. York could be stifling in May once the tourists started coming.
I took the train. There was a hold-up at Sheffield because of a points failure. Sitting there, I began to think back to the old days. Nick and I were in a band together. We were called Deadlock Bar. I can’t remember why. He played keyboards, and I played guitar. Nick and I were not especially close in the band. I tended to hang out with Jett, the bass player and Booker, the drummer, while he was more friendly with Colin, the saxophone and flute player, and, of course, Sophie, who sang and played occasional violin. We played progressive rock in venues all over West Yorkshire and a few times in Leeds and Sheffield as well. We were out of time even then. People wanted crisp two-minute tunes, and we gave them epics with five-minute synthesizer keyboard and flute solos. This was the post-punk era. For that matter, the post-New Wave era. We were years too late. We wore scooped neck shirts and billowing flared trousers. It must have been hard to pick up such clothes in 1987, even in Yorkshire. Our manager, Titch Barlow, a dreamer if ever there was one, imagined there was going to be a prog-rock revival.
Things that happened long ago could seem hazy and imprecise, especially since my ….. little problem last year. But after the band split up, so far as I could recall, Nick continued playing the increasingly unfashionable genre of music in increasingly obscure bands with names like Banana Bonanza and Tangerine Odyssey. Sophie had his babies and I drifted into not playing at all. I think I sold my Telecaster for twenty pounds. We didn’t have eBay back then.
There was another hold up at Derby, this time because of signalling problems. At least this being May we were spared the classic leaves on the line excuse. I phoned Nick to let him know I would be late arriving and would call him once we left Birmingham. There was a long delay at Birmingham. We had to leave our train and wait for another that arrived a few minutes later. I arrived in Cheltenham at around five.
Nick picked me up at the station in his new Lexus, and although it was only a short drive to their house, we encountered several sets of temporary traffic lights and finally got caught behind a slow procession of gipsy caravans in Hyde Lane. Nick didn’t remark on this. For all I knew, it was normal to be stuck behind a procession of gipsy caravans in these parts. He seemed preoccupied. I couldn’t help but notice that he had put on a few pounds and his hair, like my own, was noticeably thinner. It was a little difficult now to picture Nick jumping around on his Moog Modular Synthesizer in his flowing robes, swinging his long hair. Nick’s musical tastes too seemed to have mellowed. Was it Take That he was playing? I didn’t like to ask or comment, but it was certainly not Gentle Giant or Van der Graf Generator.
‘How’s Sophie?’ I asked.
‘Grand! She’s taken up a reflexology and massage course and Italian for Beginners. I don’t see that much of her,’ he laughed.
I nodded politely. I was not sure if I detected irony in his voice.
‘I suppose you are quite busy at this time of year,’ I said. Nick had said he ran a landscape gardening business.
‘Well, you know,’ he said. ‘These days I get others to do most of the graft. I’ve got eight day-tale men now. Plus a couple of work experience.’
There was a silence. Take That, or whoever it was, were signing a song about being up all night, in a way that gave you the impression that they had never been up all night.
‘Do you get to play the piano much?’ I asked, pointing to my guitar on the back seat. ‘I thought that maybe sometime over the weekend we might go over a couple of tunes.’
‘Aye, we could do that,’ he said, non-committally.
Each topic of conversation I introduced seemed to end quickly. I formed the impression that Nick was tense. It was as if something had happened since I had spoken to him earlier.
We arrived at Nick and Sophie’s house. The outside was covered in flowering Chinese wisteria. It looked idyllic. Nick explained that within walking distance there were two pubs, The Royal Oak and The Plough that served several prize-winning ales.
‘We could perhaps pop down later,’ he said, again non-committally.
We went inside the house. I was struck by how tidy everything was. It looked as if everything had been put away, like the houses you see on Escape to The Country. I remembered Nick in the days of Deadlock Bar being particularly untidy. In spite of the overall tidiness, the piano in the corner of the front room seemed to have a well-established layer of dust on the lid. I did not comment, but it looked as if our session might have to be put on hold for a while. We chatted about the weather. I suggested it would be nice to have a walk up on the hill that we could see from the front window, but for someone involved with plants and greenery, he showed remarkably little interest. He kept fidgeting with his phone.
Sophie arrived home a few minutes later. She worked as an estate agent in the town. She, too, seemed to be flustered.
‘Had to show a family of didicoys a house in Battledown,’ she explained, throwing her high-heeled pumps into the hall.
Didicoy was not a term I had heard a lot lately. Hadn’t the woke brigade seen it off?
‘Are Romani a particular problem around these parts?’ I enquired, thinking back to the caravans we had passed earlier.
‘They come down for the horse fair,’ she said, laying her
Daily Mail down on the coffee table. ‘What is so galling is that they can afford places in Charlton Kings. They lower the tone of the town.’ I recalled now that Sophie had shown airs and graces back in the days of the band. She would never sit in the back seat and would give door staff short shrift if they did not recognise her.
Nick had put on a James Blunt CD. James Blunt? I was expecting we might be listening to Jethro Tull or Yes. Or that his musical tastes might have moved on to avant-garde jazz. But surely not this vapid mediocrity. Over the next few minutes, there were a lot of entries and exits, a bit like a sitcom, as Nick and Sophie did their best to avoid one another. Their conversations seemed to be held one room apart. Perhaps this was how couples communicated once they had been together for thirty years. Nick went out onto the patio to make a call on his mobile. Above the painful sound of James Blunt screaming at the top of his voice that he would only make the same mistake again, I could just hear Nick’s hushed tones. I couldn’t make out any of the words. I got the impression that he didn’t want us to hear what he was saying.
He returned to the room.
‘Something has come up,’ he said. ‘I’ve got to go out. I might be quite a while. Sorry, Chance. Sophie will look after you. ….. See you later, darling.’
He moved towards Sophie as if he were going to plant a kiss on her cheek, thought better of it and left the room to get his coat.
‘See you later,’ he said finally.
I felt embarrassed. I did not know what to say.
Sophie went off to change.
‘I won’t be a minute,’ she said. ‘Make yourself at home, won’t you?’
I helped myself to a small scotch and looked around the room. The bookshelf housed a small collection of Alan Titchmarsh and Jodi Picoult hardbacks and a few books on reflexology and yoga. Sophie’s books, presumably; Nick probably didn’t read very much. I didn’t dare look too closely at the CD collection, but at a glance I could see Lionel Ritchie, Celine Dion and Taylor Swift. Surely that wasn’t Justin Bieber. I could see nothing I recognised from our years together.
Sophie returned. She had changed into a loose-fitting summer dress. She had filled out over the years, but in an attractive way, and when she smiled, which she did now Nick was out of the way, she looked quite stunning. For a moment, I wondered, for some weird reason that I could not explain, that Nick might be trying to set us up. What if he were seeing someone else? He had mentioned a woman in his karate class several times in our Facebook exchanges. He might be looking to put Sophie and me together to provide him with an excuse. For a second I was quite keen on the idea. She was, after all, a desirable woman. But, no, I couldn’t do such a thing to an old friend, not even with their approval. Anyway, the idea was preposterous. There was bound to be a reasonable explanation.
My phone rang. I Know What I Like by Genesis. It was Nick.
‘Can you talk?’ he said.
I wondered what he meant. Eventually, I took this to mean, was Sophie close by.
I told him she had gone to water the yucca.
‘Good,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t completely honest earlier. The reason I asked you down was to smooth things over with Sophie. We’ve been going through a sticky patch lately. I know I have lots of friends, but no one goes back as far as we do. And Sophie knows you from those heady days with the band. She trusts you. So, I want you to put in a good word for me over the next twenty-four hours. And everything should be hunky-dory again.’
‘I’ll do what I can, but I’m not sure how this is going to work,’ I said. ‘You have a very simplistic way of looking at things, you know, Nick.’
‘Of course, it will work. Sophie thinks the world of you,’ Nick said. ‘Anyway, I should be back by tomorrow evening, Sunday morning at the latest.’
‘You mean you’ll not be back tonight,’ I said, suddenly unnerved by the situation. ‘What are you doing, I mean, what are you really up to, Nick?’
‘Just do what you can for me please, for old time’s sake,’ said Nick.
I could hear Sophie coming back into the room. I said a quick goodbye to Nick.
‘Mr Popular, eh,’ said Sophie. I don’t think she knew that it was Nick I had been speaking to.
‘Just an old friend,’ I said, hoping to leave the matter there.
‘So how have you been keeping?’ she asked.
I was not sure how much Nick had told her about my break-up with Lucy, so I settled for a ‘pretty good,’ and began to tell her about my job as an archivist at the museum.
James Blunt was now shrieking that he didn’t know what to do.
‘Do you don’t mind if I turn this down a little?’ said Sophie.
‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘Nick put it on. Doesn’t he like music anymore?’
I heard a text message come in. I read it. ‘I’ll phone you again in ten minutes. If Sophie is with you, say hello Jeff or something otherwise, pick up. The musical query remained unanswered.
Sophie must have noticed my concern on reading the message.
‘Sometimes it’s better to turn them off when you are away,’ she said. ‘Let’s go out and eat. I think The Plough is best.’
We had just got into Sophie’s MX5 when the phone rang.
‘Hello Jeff,’ I said. ‘Can it wait? I’m driving.’
‘That’s the way to do it,’ said Sophie, laughing. ‘Now you can turn it off, or it will be ringing all weekend.’
Perhaps it was my ….. paranoia surfacing, but this only made me think Sophie might be in on the plot.
The Plough is a splendid thatch-roofed pub dating back to before the Civil War. Backing on to a picture-postcard, early thirteenth-century church, it oozes history. Bringing it up to date a notice at the bar states that on Gold Cup Day they sold 1750 pints of Guinness, 1400 pints of real ale and 2 bottles of still water. We ordered a bar meal and took our drinks to a table outside. It was a warm evening with only a handful of children running around and one or two dogs.
Under less pressured circumstances it would have been ecstasy to be sat out on a warm May evening with a captivating companion, the sound of church bells echoing as the ringers practised for Sunday Evensong.
‘Nick’s been telling me about all the evening classes you’re doing,’ I said. ‘I get the impression that he’s really proud of you.’
‘He hates me doing them. It means he has to get his own dinner,’ said Sophie.
‘No. I don’t think so. He was talking about you non-stop. I think that’s brilliant after being together so long. Shame he had to go off. I don’t expect that often happens, does it?’
‘He’s always going off, and he never tells me beforehand and never explains anything afterwards. I would think he’s seeing another woman, but then who would have him.’
‘I was only thinking how young he looked and how well he had looked after himself. I don’t mean that in the sense that another woman would fancy him.’
I could see I was digging myself into a hole. What line could I take in the situation?
‘You could certainly do a lot worse,’ I said, failing to give any examples.
I kept on emphasising how lucky she was to have such a stable relationship.
She kept on emphasising how mistaken I was.
‘You should thank your lucky stars that you are not in my position,’ I said, and I blurted out the sorry saga of Lucy and Vince, the hunky carpet man from Wetherby. I related how he had come round to price up fitting a new Wilton and within a week had taken Lucy off for a dirty weekend in Whitby. This too failed to get the desired reaction from Sophie. She took the view that I should have been a bit stronger, a bit more demonstrative.
‘You let her walk all over you,’ she said. ‘What are you, a man or a mouse?’
Over the meal, I switched back to my original tack, but each time I tried to sing Nick’s praises, a strained silence followed. Nick was clearly not flavour of the month. It was going to be hard to build up his credibility.
Eventually, after a couple more trips to the bar, which was by now filling up with Friday night drinkers, the mood mellowed, and we finally got to talking about the old days. I even managed to extract a few favourable remarks about Nick. After the third pint of Hobgoblin, I went to the gents and switched on the phone. There were fourteen texts from Nick. The first just said ‘phone me please’, the next eleven became progressively less polite, gradually being filled with expletives, but the final two were just blank screens. They had no text at all.
‘The number you have tried is unobtainable, please try again later,’ was the message I got. I went back to join Sophie, shaken. Had I missed something? Was Nick all right? I didn’t know what to think. The rest of the evening went by in a bit of a blur and despite my advice that Sophie had had too much to drink and should leave the car at the pub, she drove us back up the hill with the top down.
I feigned a headache and Sophie showed me to my room, not without a little flirting on the stairs. Once again, I wondered if everything here was part of an elaborate plan. It wasn’t that I didn’t want her tongue in my mouth, but I pulled away, to which she said, ‘Oh you’re no fun.’
I lay down on the bed. My head was spinning. Despite the soporific effect of the Hobgoblin, my thoughts were restless and philosophical. Situations, and indeed people, seemed to be much more complicated than they used to be years ago. I was beginning to grasp that our younger selves change out of all recognition as we become older. When you are in your twenties, you have no idea who you are or what you are going to become. Perhaps the governing factor for how well you come out of the changes is your level of determination. All the other parameters are subject to which way the wind blows. When you are younger you can pretend more easily, you can jump about the stage with abandon, but what is the purpose? As you grow older, there is less pretence and more purpose. But there is the danger that you may not discover any purpose, you may not uncover the secret. If you don’t, you are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Neither pretence nor innocence can protect you here. Perhaps this was where Nick now found himself, perhaps I was there too, perhaps Sophie was there. None of us had discovered who we were supposed to be, and we were all just trying to cover up. ‘Was I a man or a mouse?’ Sophie had said. This was uncalled for, below the belt. The line, ‘what made a man a man,’ came to me, ‘was it brain or brawn or the month you were born?’ It was from an old Who song about tattoos. Perhaps tattoos played a part. They were supposed to give you confidence. Confidence was arguably more important in the modern world than ability, so was it back to pretence after all?
I lay awake for hours, my wild reflections going round in circles. I have a tendency to blow things out of proportion, but knowing this did not seem to calm the whirlpool of rogue thoughts. I stared at the big moon and watched it cover about fifteen degrees of the night sky. Was it full, or not quite full? Was it true that the full moon caused strange behaviour and mental disorders, that the police put on more officers and hospitals extra staff to take account of the extra workload? It had something to do with there being more positively charged ions when there was a full moon. Blame It On The Moon. Who was that song by? I heard it in the supermarket the other day. Was it Katie Melua? Ha, ha. Nick probably had it in his new collection. Why had Nick jettisoned his musical taste? I still played Dark Side Of The Moon and Close to the Edge. They were great albums. I tried Nick’s number at periodic intervals. The status was the same. His phone was off.
Eventually, I must have drifted off. I dreamed I was at the curved end of a horseshoe-shaped row of tall stone houses. The houses had no features and had a heavy lean outwards. The light was fading fast. I was with Lucy, or was it Layne, a burlesque dancer I had had an affair with years ago. Her identity kept changing. We went into an apothecary to buy some powders. A group of people were sat in pairs around three sides of the room. The men and the women were all dressed in old-fashioned chocolate brown suits. They were all tall and thin, like figures in a Modigliani painting. There was pervasive silence about the room. This is The Illusory Club said a hollow voice. I turned around to see it was an emaciated figure with round glasses that had spoken. His skin seemed transparent. The Modigliani figures began chanting something in low tones. There was no band. I found myself outside. I was now riding a dark green bicycle on the cobbled pavement with two snow-white greyhounds on leads. I was ahead of my companion, navigating around the left side of the horseshoe terrace. A pair of jet black horses pulling two-wheeled sulkies with gipsy drivers came hurtling along. It was a race. An army of cars and vans followed behind them. Everyone was shouting. The vehicles turned into black cabs, or perhaps they were hearses. I lost control of the two greyhounds, and they ran across the road. I could not see the way ahead and was worried that they would be run over. Scared, I chased after them. There was a cemetery ahead behind a tall brick wall. I could not see the greyhounds. I woke up in a hot sweat. My nightmares have become more vivid since ……. my difficulty. Sometimes I can’t tell fact from fiction. I think this might have been the real reason Lucy left me.
The next morning Sophie and I exchanged brief hangover reports and Sophie found the Paracetamol. She offered to cook breakfast, but I could tell that she didn’t want to. I said I would stick with cereal. She did not talk about Nick’s continued absence, and I did not mention that I still could not reach him. In fact, she was not very chatty at all. After breakfast, she packed a sports bag and said she was off to the gym. I resisted the temptation to tell her how Nick supported her in her yoga and exercise regimes because it made her supple. I thought it was time to abandon the conciliation.
With Sophie gone, I poured another cup of tea and took it out onto the patio. The patio caught the morning sun, and I put the parasol up to shade my eyes. I had not taken in the garden last night. In marked contrast to the tidiness of the house, it was a mess. For someone who ran a landscape garden business, this was not a garden that had seen much love. The decking needed replacing, the lawn was overgrown and invaded by dollar-weed and crabgrass, the raised borders were riddled with weeds, and the fence panels were three different colours. I could not be sure, but that looked to me like Japanese knotweed down by the overflowing compost bin. Surely a landscape gardener would take a little care with his own garden. At this point, it occurred to me that I had seen nothing at all to demonstrate that Nick was a landscape gardener. A landscape gardener would have a working vehicle, yet I had seen no evidence of a truck or a van.
The anomalies were multiplying. A lot of questions needed answering. I decided to take a walk up the hill to clear my head. A good stiff hike always gave one a fresh perspective. It was something to do with oxygen flow to the brain. As I ascended the escarpment the views became more and more breathtaking. After thirty minutes or so, I had climbed to close on a thousand feet and I could see for miles. Already I was feeling more decisive. Later on, I would have it out with Sophie. I would tackle her straight on about matters. I would find out what was really going on. What did she and Nick think they were trying to do? Did they think I was some kind of fool?
I carried on walking, determined now to reach the summit. Part of the reason I had come down here was to explore the beautiful Cotswold countryside, and Cleeve Hill, the highest point on the Cotswold Hills was the pièce de résistance. I could see the Severn Valley, the Malverns and the Brecon Beacons and in the other direction the Vale of Evesham, and a range of hills I could not identify. I worked up a healthy sweat, I could feel the good it was doing me. Walking had been a great benefit to me over the past year, since my …. confusion started.
It was another hour before I realised I was lost on a high plateau that offered no views in any direction. Lucy had always maintained my sense of direction was hopeless; I had relied on her for navigation when we were out in the car. She had been a geography student. I stopped for water and got out my phone. It did not even register a low battery signal, the thing was completely dead. I had meant to charge it overnight but had forgotten to get the charger out of my luggage.
The plateau seemed primarily to be used as a place to exercise horses. The thunder of hooves behind me was unnerving. Again and again, I turned around to see a determined rider on a huge stallion galloping towards me. I remember reading that in the early nineteenth century the Cheltenham Gold Cup was staged here along with a carnival and sideshows. Thousands of people made their way up from the town and miles around. I was getting the impression that horses were central to life in the Cotswolds. I was surprised that Nick and Sophie hadn’t been drawn in.
I made a series of adjustments to my mental coordinates to take account of the path of the sun. I was sure that this way I would eventually arrive back at where I had begun. Once I was off the plateau, my route took me past limestone quarries, a spectacular golf course and over rough moorland to a large pool where cattle were bathing. I took a drink from the pool as I had run out of water. I could see a cluster of houses in the distance and assuming this to be Southam, headed towards it.
I cannot remember much about the nymphs and fairies in their festival wreathes or the peasants doing ritual dances in the afternoon heat. Or the May queen riding the white swan. Or the top-hatted figure taunting the Beltane horse. Could I have imagined it all? Perhaps pagan rites were still the norm in these remote parts. And the unicorn I saw may have just been an hallucination. If my phone had been working, I would have taken photos of the underground cavern and the crystal lake. All I can say for sure is several miles on and several hours later, I found myself dazed and confused in Winchcombe. I had an earworm of Mike Oldfield’s On Horseback running through my head. Big brown beasty, big brown face, I’d rather be with you than flying through space. over and over. I felt saddle sore as if I had just been riding a horse over the hill. Without a witness, the line between fact and fable could be a thin one since my …. episode.
I was exhausted. The street was empty as I moved wearily on. Outside The Corner Cupboard pub, I asked a dusky-skinned Roma for directions. He told me that I was a little off course. Southam was six miles away. ‘That way,’ he said, pointing in the opposite direction. Luckily he was headed that way, and he offered me a lift in his new Range Rover. I told him I was from York. Did I ever go to Thirsk or Catterick, he wanted to know?. There must have been a racing connection, because he talked about nothing but horses. I knew nothing about horses, so I contributed little to the conversation.
Although Southam consists of little more than one road, I did not recognise where I had set off from. I thought I should be looking for a house with flowering wisteria, but about half the houses in Southam seemed to have this. I started looking instead for a house that had an MX5 parked on the drive. I was not sure what colour it was. After a hundred yards or, so I spotted a gold one on the drive of a large semi-detached house in a small cul-de-sac off the main road. As I got closer I could hear King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King playing loudly. Next to the MX5 was Nick’s Lexus.
Nick opened the door to my knock. Perhaps I am naturally unobservant, but he seemed to have more hair than yesterday, and he had grown a beard.
‘Sophie said that you had gone off to the pub,’ he said. ‘Been quite a long time. We were beginning to get worried about you.’
‘I’ve been for a long walk over the hill,’ I said. ‘More to the point, where have you been?’
‘Me?’ Nick looked conspiratorially at Sophie. ‘We haven’t been anywhere, have we Sophie,’ he said, putting his arm lovingly around her. There was a sparkle in Sophie’s eye. The house looked lived in the way it would when you’ve been at home relaxing all day. Scattered newspapers, open DVD cases, plates and teacups and discarded items of clothing. The piano lid was up and a score was open on the music rack. One of them had been playing Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s The Endless Enigma. A bottle of red wine was open on the kitchen table. It was nearly finished. Looking out of the patio doors, I noticed the garden was immaculate. While I was away, Nick had laid down some new decking, mowed the lawn and painted the fence. I struggled to re-adjust my mental compass.
‘But all the missed calls and texts last night,’ I managed to utter, holding out my dead phone.
‘What are you talking about?’ laughed Nick. ‘Too much ale is it lad? Or too much sun?’
I took the charger out of my luggage and plugged the phone in. The screen fired up. There were no missed calls and the inbox had just one message, an insurance reminder from confused.com.
Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved
An earlier version of this story was published as ‘Cotswold Life.’