Just My Imagination by Chris Green
There is a knock at the door. I am not expecting anyone. I do not get visitors these days. Since the misunderstanding, people tend to stay away. Even Donna has stopped calling. While I try to think who might be at the door, they knock again. Harder this time. Probably a cold caller, but no sense in ignoring it. It’s best to face things head-on. It could be a delivery. I haven’t ordered anything lately, but these days, you never know what might arrive.
I need a break from the crossword, anyway. A new compiler, Rigoletto, and I am finding him tricky. I am stuck on 9 across; Event for which one is late (7), first letter F seventh letter L. I can come back to it later.
I have a full pane frosted glass front door, so I can see the shape of anyone on the doorstep. This is usually sufficient to identify the caller, or at least for me to figure out the likely nature of the call. I can see this one is a short stocky fellow in dark clothes. He is standing back from the door and holding a square package. Hesitantly, I open the door.
‘Parcel requires a signature, guv,’ he says, thrusting his tablet device at me. ‘Initials will do.’
I am about to tell him I haven’t ordered anything, but he looks as if he might be in a hurry and someone who not is blessed with patience. There’s no sense in complicating matters. It has my name on it, so I allow gift horses and mouths to spring to mind, say thank you and offer a lukewarm smile.
The taped cardboard package is remarkably light for its size. As DPD-Man makes his quick getaway, I examine it, turning it over and over. It has no return address to show who might have sent it.
The box seems to be full of loose-fill polystyrene packaging chips. I take layer on layer of them out without revealing anything. While I can’t imagine who would bother to go to the trouble, I wonder if perhaps this is an empty parcel, and it has been sent to me as a joke. Eventually, after emptying a large pile of chips onto the floor, I uncover a single Tarot card – Death. It is much thicker than the average card, about the weight of mount board. While I know little about the ins and outs of the Tarot, I can’t imagine this is a card that you want to see when you have your cards read. The sender is clearly trying to scare me. It suddenly occurs to me what solution to 9 across in the crossword, Event for which one is late (7) first letter f, seventh letter l, is. Funeral. I find two more board-like tarot cards amongst the chips, The Hanged Man and The Hermit, neither of which offers any cheer. Do I put it down to hate mail or is it something more sinister?
I decide to call Nancy. She knows a little about magic and esoteric matters. She should be able to interpret what is going on here. The call goes through to voicemail. Perhaps Nancy is avoiding me, too. Once word gets around and all that. I leave a message.
To distract myself, I get back to the crossword. I manage to work out that Army swimmer (7), first letter O, fifth letter P is Octopus, and that Frank had more than Edith (7) first letter R, third letter G is Regrets. But I am now stuck on Depression of jet-setter (5,3), first letter of first word B, first letter of second word D, third letter G. The phone rings. It is Nancy.
Nancy tells me the Death card does not simply mean the grim peaper. That is a common misunderstanding. It can also signify major changes in one’s life. So it is best not to worry too much when it comes up in a reading. The Hanged Man means you are trapped in a situation, but you have the power to release yourself. And The Hermit indicates some kind of soul-searching, so is not a bad card. Regarding the cards’ appearance in the parcel, Nancy says, it sounds as if someone is playing a prank. They are trying to make it sound worse than it is to scare you.
‘Have you offended anyone lately?’ she asks.
I do not mention the incident, and neither does she, so perhaps she is unaware of the misunderstanding surrounding it.
Nancy says she doesn’t get my fascination for cryptic crosswords, but she tells me I’m being totally paranoid if I draw any significance into random clues.
‘Best to ditch that idea, PDQ,’ she says. ‘And start living in the real world. A bad attitude is like a flat tyre, Max. You can’t go anywhere until you fix it. You need to stop being a recluse. Get out a little more. Did you know, for instance, that there is an exhibition of Savanna Guerin’s paintings at the Essoldo Gallery? Well worth a look if you are in the area. Or what about taking Donna to see The 911s at The Retro?’
I explain that Donna has left me.
‘Ah well, la donna e mobile, as they say,’ Nancy says.
The reference is lost on me, but Nancy is right. I have been letting things get to me recently, so my judgement may not have been the best. Watching season after season of Mindhunter on Netflix with a bottle of Jameson’s for company has done little to help my state of mind. Drinking alone never did anyone any good, and mixing it with the medication that Dr Hopper prescribed for my nervous exhaustion was not a great idea. And opening the account with Bet365 was a big mistake. I should have returned to work instead. With my defences down, the Bet365 account was always likely to lead to reckless online gambling and an uncertain bank balance. Well, let’s be honest, taken to its logical conclusion, with my luck, it was always destined to result in a large overdraft and loans from no-credit-check internet loan sharks. There’s no end to what you can bet on. It’s not just horse racing and football. In their novelty bets section, you can bet on politics, TV shows, film awards, celebrity deaths, bog snorkelling, cheese rolling.
My landlord, Mr Cudgell is proving difficult. We used to get along fine, but our relationship has been in free-fall since the incident. Surely he must realise that it had nothing to do with me, but he no longer calls me Max and I no longer call him Nick. Most of the conversation now centres around how he wants me out. He says he is running out of patience. He has given me a fortnight to come up with my back rent.
Thank goodness for the crosswords. They have offered a much-needed distraction. They are perhaps the one thing that has saved me from a complete breakdown. But I can see now, I need to get a grip. I need to take control of my life and move on.
‘OK, Nancy,’ I say. ‘I will try to get along to the gallery and check out Savanna Guerin’s paintings tomorrow.’
‘I’ll meet you there,’ Nancy says. ‘Then I can give you a run-through. Shall we say 11:30?’
I haven’t been out for weeks. I am on foot. I sold the car last week on We Buy Any Car, and put the money on a horse. Hungry Heart, a dead cert according to The Daily Lark tipster. It wasn’t. It didn’t even finish. Although there is little traffic and there are few people on the street, it feels like it might be New York City. The Essoldo Gallery is about two miles away, and as I make my way through the streets, people I don’t know seem to recognise me. Individuals in groups point me out to the others in their group like I’m some kind of pariah.
I begin to see why. They still have a Wanted poster up, in fact, a whole bank of them, on the boarded-up Oriental supermarket. Have you seen this man? I don’t think I look anything like the fellow in the picture. Well, a little, I suppose, but I don’t have that facial scar or those mean eyes. Why would anyone mistake me for him? But the damage is done. In a small town, it is difficult to stop the momentum once the word gets around. Anyway, they caught Kieran Wahl. They made a big thing about it. Wahl has been in custody for weeks. It is crazy that anyone could still think it was me, when here I am walking the streets. What is wrong with the people in Littleton? Don’t they keep up with developments in local news? Can’t they see a contradiction here?
I pull my hood up to shield my face and don my sunglasses for the rest of the walk. Fortunately, Nancy is at the gallery to meet me and I try to get her up to speed about what has been going on.
‘But what is this mysterious incident that you are getting the blame for, Max?’ Nancy asks. ‘To be honest with you, this is the first I heard about it.’
‘It was all over the news,’ I say. ‘It was a big story for days. It put Littleton well and truly on the map.’
‘I’ve been away,’ says Nancy. ‘But I never watch the news or read the papers, anyway. I’m not interested in all that stuff. You can’t believe mainstream media these days.’
‘That’s the way of the world,’ I say. ‘The other thing here is, whatever this Wahl guy is supposed to have done has never been specified. They named the victim. Stacey Looker. She was described as a white female in her twenties, so you are led to believe it was a sexual assault. But there have been no details of how it came about or what happened. It is merely referred to as the incident or occasionally, in one of the red-tops, the attack, with a trickle of speculative posts appearing on social media. You are left to draw your own conclusions. But as it was not a murder, the level of news coverage it generated seems to be disproportionate. It suggests it must have been something terrible, don’t you think?’
‘Look, Max,’ says Nancy. ‘I’ve just got this up on my phone from the Littleton Live website. It says that the incident took place a week ago. Just seven days. And yet in this time, Donna has dumped you, you have given up your job, incurred huge debts from gambling on anything and everything, sold your car, been evicted by your landlord and started to receive elaborate hate mail.’
‘It does seem longer than a week.’
‘There’s no easy way to say this, Max. But don’t you think there’s a chance you’ve got this wrong and your alcohol-induced paranoia gave rise to a flight of fancy?’
‘You mean its just my imagination running away with me? Nothing more than that?’
‘Exactly. In your whiskey-addled bubble, you imagined the persecution for the attack on Stacey Looker? That in reality, no-one is making any connection between you and the incident, which in any event doesn’t seem to have got the blanket coverage you described? And that Donna simply had enough of your negative attitude and your drinking? Black dog, by the way, the (5,3). And people don’t come around to visit because they know they will find you in a state? And your landlord just wants someone who pays the rent?’
‘But what about the crosswords? How would I have been able to do complicated cryptic crosswords?’
‘Well, granted, that is a mystery. But by your own admittance, you have laboured over some of them. And there’s no guarantee, you got the answers right. OK, off the top of my head, try this one! It shouldn’t be too difficult. Rome flays me at sea for paramnesia (5,6). First word begins with F, second word begins with M.’
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