Hunky Dory by Chris Green
Writers of self-help books are fond of telling you that life always offers you a second chance, it is called tomorrow. This is all very well. It’s something you can look forward to. But what if you could have your second chance yesterday? This would mean that you still had the opportunity to avoid your untimely indiscretion, your unexpected misfortune, your sudden fall from grace. You might be inclined to think that such a proposition falls into the realms of science fiction. Time travel, you might say, is impossible. Ed West certainly thought so. This is until he found himself in a situation he was not able to explain. Déjà vu perhaps, but here he was about to make the same mistake he had made previously, namely putting all his money on Jumping Jack Flash, a horse in the Grand National. A horse, destined to fall at the first fence.
This time around, despite Jumping Jack Flash being the firm favourite, Ed has second thoughts about the horse’s chances. Maybe he sees it limping a little as it makes its way down to the start. Perhaps something at the back of his mind tells him that the money might be better spent. He could pay back the money he owes to Frank Fargo and still buy a decent second-hand AppleMac. He could perhaps spend a week at Ron and Anne’s place in the Algarve. He could even take the kids. Did he inadvertently peek at a pop-psych article in the out-patients waiting room and realise that his gambling was causing problems and was something that needed to be addressed? Was there perhaps a write-up about impulsiveness in The Daily Lark? Whatever the reason for his decision, Ed puts the two and a half grand he is about to pass through the grill at BetterBet back into his jacket pocket and walks out of the shop.
Suzy Kew may have glanced at the odd self-help book in the hairdressers at one of her monthly Tuesday afternoon appointments, but on the whole, she does not go for this sort of thing. Why would she need to? Friends often remark on her resilience, her unshakable air of self-confidence. She may have made the occasional bad decision. Everyone can be impulsive at times, but if you make a mistake, you have to live with the consequences of that mistake. This is an important lesson that it is a good idea to come to terms with early on in life. Whining about things never gets you anywhere.
To her recollection, Suzy has never read a sci-fi novel. She may have gone to see a Star Trek film at the multiplex years ago with Toby or Tony or whatever he was called. But, if she did, she cannot remember much about it. The suggestion that she or anyone else might be able to go back in time is something she would instantly dismiss as nonsense. There is only one reality, she would say. There is a TV world, of course, but the things that happen in screened dramas have little to do with everyday reality.
Yet Suzy finds herself driving the same Honda Jazz she wrote off the day before yesterday when she answered her phone while slowing down at the temporary traffic lights on Serendipity Street. She is in the same stretch of road behind the same truck that she ran into. The odometer reads 11111. She remembers noticing this shortly before the prang and the clock display says 11:11. The same as before. Once again, her phone rings. Although she is completely bewildered to find herself in the same situation, driving the car that by rights should be on its way to the breakers’ yard, she has the common sense this time around not to take the call. Instead, she parks the car a little way along the street. Conveniently, a space has just become vacant outside BetterBet.
She gets out and takes out her phone, just at the moment that Ed West, emerging from the bookies, is taking out his. They collide.
‘Sorry,’ Ed says. ‘I wasn’t looking where I was going.’
‘My fault,’ Suzy says. ‘I had my head in my phone trying to find out who called me. Would you believe it? It was a wrong number, anyway.’
The same number as just before the accident, she can’t help but notice. The caller then had spoken in a language she did not understand.
‘You look a little flustered,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps I might buy you a coffee or something in that café to settle you down’
‘That’s kind of you,’ Suzy says. ‘I was feeling a little strange back there. I don’t know what came over me. Yes, a camomile tea would be nice.’
Ed is not sure what camomile tea is, but it sounds calming. Although he doesn’t like to publicly admit it, life can be a little too cut-throat at times. Perhaps Suzy will introduce him to a gentler world. Suzy meanwhile is thinking the same. She always puts a brave face on but secretly, the adversity of life often gets to her.
A notice inside the café tells them it has waitress service so they take a table by the window. A Bad Suns track is playing. Disappear Here.
‘I like this one,’ Ed says.
‘Bad Suns are my favourite band,’ Suzy says. ‘I went to see them last month.’
Disappear Here is followed by Catfish and the Bottlemen’s Fallout. They both like this one too. Ed tells Suzy, he saw them at Community Festival last summer.
‘Amazing! What about that? I was there too,’ Suzy says.
‘About the only thing I can remember about the weekend,’ Ed says.
As they wait for someone to come and take their order, Ed and Suzy begin to discover more common ground. They were born in the same year, 1980. Uncannily, they were born on the same day too, February 29th. Both have recently become divorced from partners called Alex, even being represented by the same solicitor, Justin Case of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed. Both have 2.4 children and own dogs called Bailey. Both follow the band, Franz Ferdinand and are fans of Fargo. Could it be a match made in Heaven? Or might there already be a downturn in their fortunes? After all, things that seem too good to be true often are too good to be true.
Although the café is nearly empty, no one comes over to take their order. An elderly couple in matching grey zip-up jackets and a jute shopping bag come in and sit at the next table and immediately a slim young waitress in a black uniform is at their table to attend to them. A tall man with a briefcase and a smart-looking laptop comes in and places himself at a table by the specials board. He too gets prompt attention. His fancy coffee with the chocolate sprinkled on top is in front of him before he’s had a chance to check his emails. Dr Petrovic comes through the door and for a moment looks as if he is going to come over. It can’t be him, Ed thinks. My little problem was a long time ago. It isn’t him. It is a courier dropping off a parcel.
It is nearly lunchtime and a trickle of new customers come in and have the waitresses scurrying about. Meanwhile, no one so much as glances in Ed and Suzy’s direction. Why are these people being served before them, they wonder? Why are they being ignored? Is it all part of an elaborate conspiracy? Or could it be something more forbidding? A fresh problem to frustrate their happenstance? They can see and hear each other and everyone else around them as you would expect, but it appears that for some reason others are not able to see or hear them. They look around desperately hoping that something will occur to suddenly solve the riddle. Nothing does.
Possible explanations for the anomaly, it seems, might depend on whether you get your science low-down from Stephen Hawking or Black Mirror. Perhaps it is a question of quantum mechanics. Perhaps the space-time continuum has been breached. Perhaps they have been thrown into another dimension. Something to do with wavelengths or superstrings. Or perhaps there is a quirkier explanation. Something out of Kurt Vonnegut or J.G. Ballard, one might feel inclined to suggest. With their reality falling apart and nothing firm to hang on to, Ed and Suzy feel a sense of panic.
‘Someone called me on my phone just now, didn’t they?’ Suzy says. This means……’
‘You said it was a wrong number,’ Ed says.
‘That does not matter,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s important not to lose focus. It shows there must still be a connection with ….. what would you call it? The real world?’
‘Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.
‘On the other hand, the caller on that number did sound like he was from another place,’ Suzy says.
Like the queer voice that told me not to bet on that horse, Ed is thinking.
‘Well Suzy,’ he says, taking out his phone. ‘We have to try something. I’ll give my friend, Pete Free a ring.’
It is not Pete that answers. Pete is from Chudleigh. He has a broad Devon accent. This is not a Devon accent by any stretch of the imagination. Ed does not speak a lot of Russian, but years ago he had some Russian neighbours and picked up the odd swear word. From this, he recognises that the guttural voice on the other end is not pleased at being disturbed.
Suzy phones her friend, Kirsty and is greeted by an unexpected voicemail message. This too sounds like it might be a Slavic tongue. They get responses in Russian too from Vince, from Carol and even from Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed.
Russia’s cyber-warfare activities are well documented. There is widespread speculation that Russian signals intelligence have targetted vulnerable websites to influence democratic elections, breached sophisticated banking security systems and enabled fraudulent transactions across the globe. They have also probably interfered with personal information on social media sites for as yet undiscovered purposes. We might find out what these are one day or we might not. But are there any limits to how far these attacks can infiltrate our lives? According to the papers, the Russians are to blame for most things in recent times, the Brexit vote, the hike in gas prices, the bugs on the new iPhone, the recent snowstorms and for the Reds slipping down the table. Could the Russians’ influence in cyberspace possibly spill over into our everyday reality?
‘I know they can hack into Facebook accounts and emails and all that,’ Suzy says. ‘But surely they can’t manipulate our day to day experiences like this.’
‘They’ve been watching us through the cameras in our devices for years and they’re listening to us on our Alexa and Google speakers,’ Ed says. ‘They know everything about us.’
‘I guess that’s so,’ Suzy says. ‘Things are moving on all the time. Who knows what is possible?’
‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the people around us are speaking Russian too,’ Ed says. ‘I’ve only just noticed it.’
‘You’re right. And look! The logo on the waitress’s uniform says Chekhov’s,’ Suzy says. ‘I’m sure that’s different from when we arrived. Wasn’t the café called Bean Me Up or something like that?’
‘Things seem to be changing before our eyes,’ Ed says.
‘Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.
Back on the street, Ed and Suzy find things have changed dramatically. BetterBet is now a bicycle repair shop. Next door to it is a waxworks museum. Tesco Metro is now a funeral parlour. Suzy’s car has vanished. There are now no cars on the street. Ed and Suzy turn the corner. The street here is unrecognisable. There is nothing familiar about it. There’s nothing familiar about anything in the landscape. Things have been crazy for a while but now they are spiralling out of control. Nothing is as it should be. Nothing is how it was. Nothing makes any sense. How has this happened?
A sinister black helicopter hovers overhead. It is joined by another, swooping low. It has some strange lettering on the side. Secret Fear Research Unit. What can this mean? There are soldiers on the street. Where did they appear from? Who are they? Why are they here? Who is it they are shooting at? What has happened to bring about this surreal nightmare? Is this it, whatever it is? The end of things? Is there any way back for them from here? What will now happen to the 4.8 children and the two Baileys?
In the nick of time, they spot the beacon light of a self-help bookshop up ahead. It is called Hunky Dory. It occupies two floors. It boasts a large brightly lit double shopfront. Believe in Yourself, a banner says, Your Goals are Achievable. The windows are brimming with bold displays of new age books. Hunky Dory is a self-help extravaganza. The air outside is heavy with aromatic compounds. Inside the shelves are bursting with pop-psych treatises. Buy a Book that will Change Your Life, the advertising blurb says. Hunky Dory offers a warm welcome and has a plush seated reading area, flanked by a cool looking continental style café. A cornucopia of new age therapies is on offer, along with a bewildering array of medicinal herbs. The sweet smell of sativa hangs on the air.
‘There’s got to be something here to get things back on an even keel,’ says Suzy.
‘Never gone much on this new-age stuff, Suze,’ says Ed. ‘But needs must. And it’s a cool name, don’t you think? Let’s go for it. There’s not a moment to lose.’
Copyright © Chris Green 2022: All rights reserved