Cor Anglais by Chris Green
Sea mists have been building in strength over the last few weeks, and this is the worst one we’ve had. It’s a solid sheet of dense grey. Visibility is down a matter of feet. It is foolhardy to be walking along the narrow path. But the dogs next door were barking furiously. I could no longer concentrate on the chess video I was studying. The so-called game of the century, Bobby Fischer versus Donald Byrne. We had reached Fischer’s famous Queen sacrifice on move seventeen. I had paused it to assess the options. There were just four moves to go, but I had to get out of the house.
Most of you won’t have had someone following you in the fog playing The Diabelli Variations on the cor anglais. Beethoven’s piano pieces aren’t something you expect to hear on a double reed woodwind instrument in a concert hall, let alone while you are taking a morning walk along the coastal path. You will be able then to appreciate my bewilderment. Here I am on my way to Red Rock with a mystery cor anglais player in pursuit.
When I stop to allow him to draw level so that I can catch a glimpse, he stops too. He continues playing. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of music, but my understanding is that the range of the English horn is a little under four octaves while the pianoforte spans seven octaves. As Beethoven was one to make full use of the keyboard, this is where this interpretation of the Diabelli Variations falls short.
My phone rings. ‘Bonjour Monsieur Dulverton,’ the caller says.
He continues speaking in French but slowly, as if it is not his main language. Not that this helps. My knowledge of French is almost non-existent. I blame this on my old language teacher, Mr Bachelor. His heart wasn’t in it. He spent the Thursday afternoon double French talking about cricket or telling us about the time he met Harold Macmillan or some such meandering. I learned little French. But argent means money, doesn’t it? And I can make out, fils and tuer. Son. Kill. I don’t much like where the conversation is heading. I was wondering why Adam hadn’t phoned me, but I had put it down to his being too busy with his Environmental Science assignment and not because he was being held hostage. But what else can otage mean? I try to get the caller to speak English but to no avail. When he hangs up, I still have no idea who he is, how or why he might be holding Adam or what his demands are. Why does he imagine that I have any money, anyway? Since I lost my job at the logistics company, I have been living on handouts. The call was most probably a scam, but it would be irresponsible of me to let the matter go. I ought to report it, but I don’t have much credit on the phone.
It is getting murkier by the minute. The cor anglais is struggling with the triple fugue variation. It is becoming difficult to think. My old chess buddy, Krzysztof, lives nearby, in a static home in the holiday park. He rents it cheaply during the winter months and I haven’t seen him for a while. Krzysztof is a resourceful man. He will know what I should do. I use the last of my credit to call him.
‘Strange things are happening all over, Colin my friend,’ Krzysztof says. ‘These days, black is white and day is night.’
I agree with him. Things are indeed upside down. Until recently, Adam’s future seemed guaranteed. The world was crying out for environmental scientists. But how quickly things change. Unlike climate, which is supposedly no longer changing, even though everyone with an education can see it is. I am not a great one for reading the papers, but the outlook hasn’t looked good since the rigged referendum. It’s a shame young people did not get out to vote because it will be worse for them. It’s already happening. Zero hours contracts. Poor prospects. Rocketing prices. Fuel shortages. Curfews. Censored internet. And to add to it, they are fracking on farmland and selling you radioactive fish. Town centres are boarded up, packs of dogs roam the streets, and you can no longer buy red wine. You can probably remember those halcyon days when you could see the art treasures in Europe or book a holiday in the sun. The days before the fanatical flag shaggers seized power. When there was still the illusion that things made sense. Thing are so bad that chess players from my club can no longer compete against players from overseas.
When I arrive at Krzysztof’s, to my great horror, I find he has no face. I look at him, but no one is looking back at me. Between the collar of his shirt and his hat, there is a void. No eyes. No ears. No mouth. He did not warn me his appearance had changed. Would it have been better if he had given me the heads-up? I don’t know. It would still have been a shock. You may not have experienced it, but until you get used to talking to a hat bobbing up and down and stranger still, the hat talking back, it can be deeply disorientating. I try not to draw attention to it, but Krzysztof senses I am uncomfortable and tries to put me at ease.
‘It’s not as unusual as you might imagine, Colin,’ he says. ‘Many of my people have no faces now. It’s one way we are able to stay here.’
‘On the other hand, it must be more difficult to leave now flights to the continent have been cancelled and the ferries are suspended,’ I say. ‘I understand they don’t even have a rail link anymore.’
‘Trust me! There are still deportation transport ships. But apart from that, there are just regulated container vessels criss-crossing the channel along with a few nighttime pirate ships with colourful cargoes keeping a lookout for clandestine vigilante patrols keeping a lookout for anything with people-smuggling potential. That’s just the way it is, my friend. …… Now, about your son.’
‘I’m thinking it must be a scam. Why would anyone kidnap Adam?’
‘Not a great deal they could hope to get out of the situation, is there? Game of chess while we wait for the fog to clear?’
‘Where’s that strange music coming from? Is it an oboe?’
‘Cor anglais,’ I say. ‘The English horn. My guess is we are going to hear a whole lot more of it. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.’
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