Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes by Chris Green
‘What happened to the old bus station, Geoff?’ I say. ‘While I was driving here, I couldn’t help noticing it had gone. I know it was a bit of a monstrosity, but it was a landmark. I grew up around there.’
‘God’s teeth, Vince!’ he says. ‘They knocked that old thing down years ago. Don’t you remember?’
‘It was still there when we moved away,’ I say. ‘That was two years ago. I remember Claire and I caught a coach to London from there to go to a Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern just before we left. We moved in September, so that would have been August.’
‘You’ve got it wrong, mate,’ Geoff says. ‘It went at least five years ago. Probably longer. The flats have been there for five years for sure. I remember because Stacey Looker bought one. I used to visit her there. Remember Stacey?’
‘I remember Stacey. Long black hair. Big ….’
‘I was going to say, heart.’
‘That too. Mind you, I haven’t seen Stacey for ages. Jo was beginning to suspect so I knocked it on the head. Anyway, National Coaches no longer stop off here. Budget restraints. And the local buses go from Jules Verne Street.’
Perhaps Geoff is right. Time is a slippery customer. With so many other distractions, it’s easy to miscalculate dates.
‘I guess it doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘Now, what about this drink?’
‘I thought we could go to The Bucket of Frogs,’ Geoff says. ‘They serve a good pint of SkullSplitter there, and perhaps we can have a game of Pool.’
‘The Bucket of Frogs?’ I say. ‘Is that new?’
‘Oh, come on, Vince!’ Geoff says. ‘Stop playing silly buggers. We used to go there all the time, back in the day.’
For the life of me, I can’t remember a pub called The Bucket of Frogs. With a name like that, you would think I would. Not wanting to embarrass myself, I let it go. I’m sure it will become clear.
‘We’ll walk then, will we?’ I say, hoping to get a hint at where it might be.
‘Not worth taking the car, is it, mate?’ he says, apparently still under the impression I know where it is.
On the way to the Bucket, the streets seem unfamiliar. I try to convince myself that the strangeness is no more than you would expect when you have been away from a place for a lengthy spell. Shops and business premises everywhere change hands and are renamed or revamped with monotonous regularity. Tastes change. Streams of warm impermanence and all that. Where did that come from? Anyway, the product life cycle applies to businesses, too. New houses and apartment blocks spring up, and more elaborate traffic furniture and more imposing mobile phone architecture appear without you realising it. You have to expect changes. Given today’s burgeoning homogeneity, doesn’t one town look much like any other? Yet the departure from the familiar I experience seems to go beyond changing tastes or environmental remodelling. These streets seem somehow alien. It feels like I’ve never been to this place before.
I try not to show my alarm. Instead, Geoff and I chat about this and that. Strange fascinations. Scandi noirs, René Magritte, wind turbines, the collapse of the pound, and West Ham United’s problems in defence. I remark that the colourful street art that has sprung up here and there on the walls of end-terrace houses is awesome. Much more sophisticated than our crude daubs in the bus station years ago. Geoff changes the subject as if he does not want to talk about the bus station. He tells me that to get out of the house when Jo is on a cleaning blitz, he has taken up fishing, something he swore he would never do. I tell him I’ve been upcycling old furniture that I’ve bought on eBay, and Claire and I have started a veg patch and are growing leeks and potatoes. I don’t mention the arguments we have had about planting, or our other disputes lately. I get the impression that Geoff has never approved of Claire. He says he has started mowing the grass again lately. He doesn’t have a lawn, so I take this to mean that he has started smoking weed again. Why didn’t he offer me a spliff earlier? I haven’t had a smoke in months.
I have definitely not been to The Bucket of Frogs before, or any pub in Lewis Carroll Street. I’m not even sure that Lewis Carroll Street was here when I lived around these parts. But in the absence of an explanation of what might have been here instead, I don’t mention it. The disorientation seems to affect my pool game, though. I lose all five games to Geoff, whereas in the past, nine times out of ten, I would expect to have beaten him.
Claire and I are staying at her friend, Lucy’s house on the outskirts of town. I cannot recall exactly where this is, so I head towards where the bus station used to be, hoping I will remember. After all, this is the way I came earlier. My sense of direction doesn’t return. I am forced to admit I am lost. I need to phone Claire for instructions. I’m sure I will get an earful, but it needs to be done. I stop outside one of the new blocks of flats where the bus station used to be, only to discover I don’t have my phone. I must have left it in The pub. I step out of the car to get my bearings.
‘Hello Vince,’ says a voice. ‘What are you doing around here?’
I turn around. It is Stacey Looker. Charlie Young from my class would probably put meeting like this down to synchronicity. Charlie has always been a serious-minded dude, forever talking about archetypes, the collective unconscious, and the like. But there again, he is often right. The more you look into synchronicity, for instance, the more sense it makes. Most of my life events have been the result of unexplained coincidences.
I look Stacey up and down. At least she doesn’t seem to have changed. I do my best to explain my predicament.
‘You’re sozzled, Vince,’ she says. ‘You definitely shouldn’t be driving. You’d better come in for a coffee and we’ll try to sort you out.’
Although Stacey might be exaggerating my inebriation, this seems like a good idea. It will give me a few minutes to take stock. I follow her up the stairs to her second-floor apartment.
‘Don’t you remember the name of Lucy’s road?’ Stacey asks.
‘All I remember is that it was a mile or two the other side of the old bus station,’ I say. ‘I was trying to follow the route I took, backwards.’
‘Well, that’s no help at all. I don’t even know where the old bus station was,’ Stacey says.
‘Until two years ago, the bus station was right here, where we are now,’ I say.
‘I’ve lived here six years, Vince,’ Stacey says. ‘I think I might have noticed a bus station, don’t you?’
‘I may have mentioned where I was staying in passing to Geoff,’ I say. ‘At least Lucy’s street name.’
‘I don’t seem to have a number for Geoff anymore,’ Stacey says. ‘We didn’t part on the best of terms. You could phone the pub, I suppose, but I’m not going to let you drive back there in your state.’
‘I only had a couple of pints,’ I say.
‘Come on! That’s not likely is it,’ she says. ‘Not if I know Geoff.’
I realise that on occasions such as this, there is no point in attempting to defy fate. You only sink deeper into its clutches. So when Stacey Looker tells me I am welcome to stay the night, I don’t argue. I expect that Lucy and Claire will be well into the Prosecco by now anyway, and laughing girlishly at things that don’t seem funny. They will probably have a selection of romcoms or worse still, romcom sequels lined up for streaming later. This trip was mostly for Claire’s benefit. For her to catch up with Lucy. I only agreed to come at the last minute when my Abstract Expressionist class was cancelled. But that hardly justifies coming all this way.
I’m not sure how I come to wake up in Stacey’s bed, but it doesn’t seem like a bad place to be. It seems we may have had a little wine last night. And apparently, we threw caution to the wind. And yes, we did all that. All my additional questions remain unasked. What’s done is done.
‘What did you say that pub was called?’ Stacey asks, scrolling down on her phone.
‘The Bucket of Frogs,’ I say.
‘I thought that’s what you said,’ she says. ’I don’t think there’s any such pub.’
‘That’s odd,’ I say. ‘Geoff made a big thing about us going to Bucket of Frogs. He said we always used to go there. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember it.’
‘So you didn’t look at the pub sign when you went there. Or notice any merchandising.’
‘I suppose I just took it for granted.’
I am comforted that at least I know where Geoff lives. After breakfast, I bid my farewells to Stacey.
‘You have my number,’ she says. ‘Any time you’re passing.’
I arrive at Geoff’s house in Franz Kafka Street and ring the doorbell. There is no reply. I try again. I am about to conclude that Geoff is at work and cursing myself for not having checked yesterday, when a wrinkled old lady with white hair answers the door. She looks puzzled, frightened even.
‘Is Geoff there?’ I ask, puzzled by what a wrinkled old lady might be doing in Geoff’s house.’
‘Who?’ she says, taking a step back. She looks as if she thinks I am a con man, come to rob her of her life savings.
‘Geoff, I say, ‘Mr Geist.’
‘There’s no one of that name here,’ she says. ‘And I’ve lived here for the last twenty years. On my own too, since Jack died. God, rest his soul.’
‘That’s strange,’ I say. I’m sure this was Geoff, Mr Geist’s house. 42 Franz Kafka Street.’
‘Sorry,’ she says, ‘This is number 42 but there’s no Mr Geoff here.’ With this, she closes the door.
I drive around the area looking for the pub we went to. There is no sign of it. I become more desperate by the minute. What is happening to me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Am I going mad? I need to locate Geoff urgently. He must have some kind of explanation. Sadly, I don’t even know where he works. We’ve never talked much about work, at least not lately. Perhaps he no longer works. In these days of high unemployment, who knows? Although I have to say, he didn’t seem to be broke.
Stacey is surprised to see me, but not too surprised, and I can’t help noticing, a little pleased. Bit by bit, we go over the mystery. Clearly, I saw Geoff in some form or other yesterday. We agree on this, yet for whatever reason, I don’t appear to know where he lives or where he works. I had a phone and now I don’t have a phone. The Bucket of Frogs does not exist, nor does Lewis Carroll Street. Perceptions of historical time can vary from person to person. I have no idea where Lucy’s house is. There is no way for me to contact Claire or for her to contact me.
Other than that, everything is hunky dory. Stacey and I seem to enjoy one another’s company. Why not go with the flow? Take it as it comes. Charlie Young says it is important to be prepared for the unexpected. Everything is in flux, he says. We live in a jumping universe. Sometimes things get turned on their head. You need to be ready to adjust to any new situation or circumstances you may find yourself in within fifty-five minutes. If fate decrees that changes are needed, you need to keep up or you are going to be left behind. Like it says in the David Bowie song, you have to turn and face the strange.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved