Magic and Loss

magicandloss

Magic and Loss by Chris Green

Let me introduce myself. I’m Miles London. I am a collector of specialist celebrity memorabilia. Primarily things that have belonged to dead A-List rock stars. I do not go for the obvious trophies like guitars or jackets. Nor do autographed photos interest me. I like items that tell a story. In my collection I have John Lennon’s ouija board, Jimi Hendrix’s kite and Bob Marley’s surfboard.

But as a collector it is important to understand the marketplace and take advantage of it when you can. As long as you don’t let sentiment take over, trading in collectibles can be profitable and certainly beats working for a living. Naturally, I was sad to see it go but Syd Barrett’s bike made a handsome profit for me and the sales of Buddy Holly’s yoga mat and Marc Bolan’s cricket bat for respectable prices meant I was in the black.

When I heard about Lou Reed’s death, I felt profoundly sad. Although I did not know Lou, it felt like I had lost a friend. I had long been a fan. The Velvet Underground and Nico was the only record I can remember us playing at our squat in Queen’s Parade, back in 1971. How old would I have been then? 18? 19? We played the album over and over. It is one of those indefinable masterpieces. Brian Eno is quoted as saying ‘while the album may have sold only ten thousand copies in its early years, everyone who bought one of those ten thousand copies started a band.’

Lou seemed to be immortal, someone who could walk on the wild side, flirt with danger, defy the odds and go on forever. My partner, Josie, who is perhaps not such a devotee, was away at a photo-shoot, so to console myself, I played New York and Magic and Loss in tribute to this legend. I then got on the phone to my contact in New York, Macy Hoff.

What’s the word, Macy?’ I said. I knew Macy would have been expecting my call.

A-yo Milo, I know why you’re calling, Macy said. ‘Listen! Lou’s dog lead and his coffee grinder have gone, but I have something hot. Lou’s set of worry beads.’

I never asked how Macy came by his acquisitions. It was probably better not to know.

Can you email me some photos?’ I said. From experience, I found it helped keep the price down if you showed a little hesitation.

Fo shizzle dude,’ he said. ‘By the way, how did the Warhol Gotham restaurant tab go down?’

Gotham was a trendy place off Fifth Avenue and Macy had sold me Andy’s bill for a list of French dishes and wines with fancy names. The bill had been a four-figure sum even back in the 1980s and I had only paid a three-figure sum for this rarity. Legendary painters are also a fascination of mine and I have one or two bits and pieces of twentieth-century artists memorabilia, including Picasso’s wind chimes and Dali’s dreamcatcher. I told Macy I had framed the Warhol bill and had it hanging on the wall of the red room, next to Jackson Pollock’s driving licence and Mark Rothko’s prescription for tricyclic antidepressants.

I hadn’t had Lou down as a great worrier, perhaps not happy-go-lucky, more of a pragmatist, someone who attacked life’s problems head-on. Macy Hoff’s photos arrived in my inbox and I took a good look. Lou favoured a traditional Greek evil eye Komboloi set of beads. I could tell that Lou had done a lot of worrying. The beads were hand-painted but the pattern was worn down in places which had the effect of making each of the eyes look sunken. Three other attached photos taken over a period of twenty years showed Lou in various poses, with furrowed brow, working the beads. While you can never be one hundred percent sure of authenticating a purchase, by zooming in on Lou’s hands, the beads seemed to match those in the first photo.

I found out you could buy a set of evil eye Komboloi on the internet for as little as £3.99. While I felt that this should have a bearing on what I would offer Macy, these were Lou Reed’s Komboloi we were talking about, the very ones that had helped him to write Dirty Boulevard and The Great American Whale. They had untold psychic value. I discovered that the evil eye was a malevolent look that could cause injury or misfortune for the unsuspecting person at whom it was directed. Belief was strongest in the Mediterranean region. Both Greeks and Turks carried worry beads all the time.

Handling beads did not seem an obvious New York custom. I had only been to New York once, this when I was touring with Trousersnake in the eighties (guitar and keyboards, Max Frontman was the singer you may recall) but I could not remember seeing men with worry beads. I wondered how Lou had come by his. Might they have perhaps been a gift from his friend, Leonard Cohen, who had spent many years on Hydra in the Aegean? I dismissed the thought that Leonard, now in his eightieth year, might be the next to go, although I couldn’t help speculating what might come up for sale when this happened.

The following morning I read through Lou’s obituaries. ‘He was a master,’ David Bowie said, expressing what we all felt. Fittingly Lou died on a Sunday morning like the one described in the opening song on the first Velvet Underground LP, looking at the trees and doing Tai Chi with just his musician hands moving through the air. This gentler side of Lou was at odds with urban myth. One of the most telling tributes came from the author Salman Rushdie who, after Laurie Anderson had put him on the phone to Lou in the eighties, said, ‘It was like having God’s unlisted cell phone number.’ On a religious theme, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi tweeted on behalf of The Vatican, ‘It’s such a perfect day, I’m glad I spent it with you.’ His short message suggested Lou’s appeal was far-reaching.

It is often overlooked that for many years Lou was unacknowledged as a creative talent. The Velvet Underground did not achieve commercial success at the time. For years I was the only person I knew who owned a Velvet Underground album, although it seems everyone jumped on the bandwagon, later on, claiming that they had always followed them. Lou’s great legacy as an artist was nearly lost after he left The Velvet Underground suddenly following an acrimonious dispute with the band in 1970. He spent the first forty eight-hours asleep, plagued by nightmares, as if in post-traumatic stress. That autumn, he became a typist in his father’s accountancy firm, something singularly unimaginable. He planned to make it as a poet but his music career was resurrected by devotees of his ground-breaking songs, potential collaborators like David Bowie.

I called Macy.

I’ll give you £545,’ I said. When bartering, the psychological importance of the opening bid cannot be overestimated. It acts as a mental anchor for the sale price. The key is to start with a precise figure rather than a rounded one. This tends to throw the other party.

There was a pause. Macy was clicking away at his calculator.

That’s Seven-forty,’ he said. Don’t jerk my chain, dude. I couldn’t take less than fifteen oh oh.’

I slowly raised my offer and each time Macy had to calculate it into dollars. The anchor seemed to hold and we settled at £833. I felt pleased with the deal. This was cheap for a major item of celebrity memorabilia. If he had put them on eBay, he might have expected to get twice that.

I began collecting celebrity memorabilia by accident when in 1991 I moved into a house where Steve Marriott had lived. Steve had recently passed away and had left a lot of his knick-knacks lying around. I was staggered at the amounts that a few signed photographs of a dead rock star could sell for or a pair of trousers he had perhaps worn on a TV show. He wasn’t even very famous by this time. His star had faded. He was yesterday’s hero. When Freddie Mercury died later the same year, I was on to the game. Freddie was clearly a big star. I made a tidy sum buying and selling his tennis rackets and feather boas. Gradually I built up my collection of memorabilia to invest in the icons that really interested me. By the time George Harrison died in 2001, I had enough in the kitty to splash out on George’s 1966 A to Z of London.

Let me say a little about our house. Functionalist in style and at odds with its suburban surroundings, it was designed in the 1920s by Sanford Mayo, a disciple of the great Adolf Loos. Each room is a different colour blue, red, yellow, green, white and black. These colours provide the perfect background for exhibits and displays. I have a music studio in a purpose built annex. Although I do not play so much these days, twenty years ago I was with several bands that nearly made it. Royalty cheques still come in from one or two of the minor hits I wrote back then. Some of you might remember Forgotten Who You Were or Nightmares in the Day.

While it would be stretching the imagination to suggest there was a causal connection, Lou’s departure heralded a disturbing series of weird experiences for me. As I sat in my chair in the green room, I developed the sensation that someone was watching me. I felt a shiver creeping up my spine. Josie was still away at a photo-shoot somewhere in France so as far as I knew I was alone in the house. I could see no-one but I could definitely feel a presence. As I went from the green room to the yellow room and from the yellow room to the white room, the eerie sensation of being observed clung to me. The skin on the back of my neck tingled. This prickly somesthesia was most pronounced in the blue room. A winter chill filled the space. It felt as if invisible daggers were punching into the back of my head, in fact not just the back of the head. It felt as though some demon was possessing me. The gaze now was almost physical. The door behind me slammed shut. I thought I could hear cracked laughter from the black room next door. I was terrified. An invisible force pinned me into position against the display cabinet, housing Jim Morrison’s embalmed dragon lizard. I hoped it would turn out to be a dream, but this had all the sharp edges of reality.

When I was about seven, sometimes in winter I would walk home from Martin Appleby’s in the dark. It was about half a mile. Usually my elder brother, Raif would be with me, but on the occasions he wasn’t, I would have to walk home alone. Rudd Naseby, who was in my brother’s class had told me about the bogeyman. The bogeyman came out at night, Rudd said. The bogeyman would follow you home in the dark and when he found a suitable place where no-one was looking, would grab you around the neck and slowly strangle you. One night the streetlights were out and there was no moon or stars. I could hear the regular click-clack of footsteps behind me. They appeared to be getting closer. I broke into a run but the footsteps speeded up too, still getting closer. I was too scared to turn around. I could sense the bogeyman’s piercing gaze. His evil eyes would glow in the dark. I could almost feel his breath on my neck. I would never reach home. I would be there lying dead on the pavement, strangled by the bogeyman. Finally, I plucked up all my courage and stopped in my tracks. I turned around. There was no-one there. Was this the same feeling I had now?

Without warning, the pressure lifted, the room stopped spinning and everything snapped back into place. The light poured reassuringly through the Venetian blinds into the white room and I could hear birdsong from the arbour, that backed onto the green room. It felt as though I had woken from a leisurely siesta. Had I imagined the episode? I walked around the house to see if anything seemed out of place. But, everything seemed as it should be. All the exhibits seemed to be intact. The house seemed particularly tidy. Perhaps this was because Josie was away, there were no random piles of catalogues, unopened mail, and assorted paraphernalia. I tried Josie’s number. I felt that speaking to her might settle me. She would tell me I was being ridiculous, and that everything was all right. She would have a rational explanation for what had happened.

The number you have dialled is currently unavailable, the message said. I thought about phoning her agency but as she was mostly freelance, I did not know which agency to phone. She was doing promotion shots for a new band called Mars A and they were shooting somewhere in France, Provence maybe, or was it Dauphine? I did a search on Mars A, but like a lot of artists these days, the band’s website was short on detail. There were no contact numbers to be found. I sent them an email and kept trying Josie’s number. After the third or fourth attempt, I did not even get the try again later message. The phone was completely dead. I phoned around some of her friends. Ophelia did not know where she was, and I was unable to contact Modeste or Asia. Lesleigh asked me if I’d like to come round. She had just put some lunch on, she said. I declined.

The rest of the day passed with no news about Josie’s whereabouts. She did not phone me and I found myself still unable to contact her. When I took a walk to Waitrose (not exactly the wild side) in the early afternoon to buy some wine, I had the feeling that someone was stalking me, and found myself constantly looking over my shoulder. This feeling was so strong that I instinctively got into character by turning up my collar and putting on my dark glasses (twenty-six dollars in my hand). The checkout girl kept her head down and did not engage me in conversation. As I had not bought any food, perhaps she thought I was a street drinker, or perhaps, as they were expensive bottles, a rich old wino. But, at least, she stopped short of calling the manager.

To stimulate my paranoia, in the early evening, the lights in the house went off unexpectedly. This was a heart-stopping moment. I eventually realised it was a power cut to the whole area. Nevertheless, it left me a little shaky. I made inroads into the second bottle of wine, took several of Josie’s benzodiazepines and went off to bed. I told myself that Josie would be back in the morning and there would be a logical explanation about why her phone was off.

If things went bump in the night, I was blissfully unaware of them. I woke at about five with a thumping head. I got up, found the Paracetamol and checked the phones. There were no messages and Josie’s phone was still dead. I would have looked at Josie’s email and private data but I did not know how to get into her profile. She kept changing her password. Once I had had a shower, I checked my emails but there was no word. Nor was there anything from Macy. I had heard nothing since the money had left my PayPal account. I managed to reach Modeste and Asia on their mobiles, but neither of them even knew Josie was away. They asked me if I was all right and wished me well. Ophelia was unavailable and Lesleigh said she had just opened a bottle of Chablis, did I want to come round? I told her it was a little early for me. I listened to some of Mars A music on YouTube. It was terrible. Why didn’t guitarists learn to play the guitar these days, before they made recordings?

There were more tributes to Lou Reed on Twitter. ‘When Lou said goodbye, his dark eyes seemed to contain an infinite and benevolent sadness,’ Patti Smith said about their recent meeting. ‘Sad to hear about Lou Reed passing. Such a star. RIP Lou, and thanks for giving us Perfect Day for Trainspotting,’ Irvine Welsh said. There were many others, each adding to the sense of loss. I listened to Coney Island Baby and found myself in tears. I brushed the dust off my Epiphone acoustic and gave a heartfelt rendition of Pale Blue Eyes. It felt like I had an audience. I was being watched again. From where I was sitting at my desk in the red room, I was sure someone was just outside the window peering in. I crept over to the curtain and took a look from behind it, but I could see no-one, just the empty street in the distance behind the fence. I got the binoculars out. I could still see no-one, but the sensation of being watched grew stronger. I went from room to room and round the garden and down the street. Wherever I found myself, I felt this silent piercing gaze. By lunchtime, I was panicking. Where on earth was Josie? She would be able to make some sense of it all.

Are you sure you want to report her as a missing person’ Sergeant Lugosi said. ‘Seventy-two hours is not very long.’

I wasn’t sure at all, but I had just wanted to talk to someone about it.

And you did say that she had told you she was going. She might have been delayed. Flights, transfers, all these things are unpredictable.’

But she never turns off her phone. I mean, never!’ I thought of all the times her phone had rung when we’d just started making love.

Mr London. Has your mobile phone never gone offline for some reason? Have you never found yourself in the Middle of Wales without a signal?’

Yes, but…’

Mr London, it may have escaped your notice, but we are very busy in the police without having to chase up every individual whose phone isn’t turned on.’

And I think I’m being stalked,’ I blurted out.

Oh, really, Mr London? And what makes you think that then?’ Sergeant Lugosi said. I had to admit it sounded a little pathetic, a grown man telling a Police Sergeant that someone was following him.

It was only early afternoon, but I thought it might help to call in at The Goat and Bicycle for a pint before going home.

Hiya Milo, long time!,’ Ivo said, from a table by the door.

I tried to ignore him. I had never had much time for Ivo.

How’s Josie?’ he said. ‘I saw her on the High Street yesterday. I waved but I don’t think she saw me.’

That’s impossible,’ I was about to say, but instead, somehow ‘Where was that?’ came out.

She was going into that new phone shop. EE, isn’t it? She was with a tall guy. Looked a bit like you. Thought maybe it was your brother.’

I haven’t got a brother,’ I said. Raif had died in an accident at work several years previously.

Ah, then it probably wasn’t. I’m sure it was Josie though.’

I didn’t like how he leered when he said this.

She had on a red jacket,’ he added. ‘And a short skirt.’

It had crossed my mind more than once over the past few months that Josie might be having an affair. With all the time she spent away, this was certainly a possibility and after all, she was twenty years younger than me and by anyone’s standards, attractive.

I phoned my techie friend, Ram, to ask for advice about computer security and he told me that John the Ripper and Cain and Abel were the password cracker programs that he used and he let me know where I could download them. After several hours of trying, I could still not get into Josie’s profile. Her phone was still dead and none of her friends who had said they would get back to me if they heard anything had done so. Keeping busy seemed to have helped discourage whoever was watching me or I had just become accustomed to the feeling. As soon as it became dark though and I drew the blinds, the pins and needles started up again. It was a different checkout girl at Waitrose, but I was looking over my shoulder all the way there and back. I bought six bottles this time, just in case.

I was so tired, I only needed one of them. I awoke refreshed and ready to get on with business, except there was no business to get on with. Josie’s phone was dead, and all her friends were on voicemail. There were no email updates, just the usual adverts for goods or services, and one from a fellow collector wondering if I might be interested in buying Kurt Cobain’s cigarette lighter. Kurt Cobain memorabilia didn’t interest me. I saw him as a B-Lister. Granted, I had recently purchased Keith Moon’s chainsaw, Brian Jones’s hair-dryer and a jar of Roy Orbison’s tears, but you had to draw the line somewhere.

New York time is five hours behind UK time, but I thought if I left a message on his voicemail, Macy would pick it up when he got up. To my alarm, his phone was dead too. The number you have dialled does not exist, was the reply, yet this was in my phone and had been the number I reached him on two days ago. My own phone rang a few times and each time my heart leapt, but each time it was an unwanted marketing call. Reg, a friend of mine found a way to make money out of these calls. He set up a premium rate number and gave this out every time he had to supply details online, knowing that these numbers would be sold on. Every time he gets an unsolicited call he makes 10p a minute. Sometimes he keeps cold callers talking for ages about their services. Macy finally called late in the evening and told me how I could track the parcel he sent.

I’ve been trying to get hold of you, Macy,’ I said. ‘Your phone’s dead.’

I use disposable cellphones, Milo,’ he said. ‘Burners. Don’t you have them over there yet?’

But the number you gave me worked for weeks,’ I protested.

Sometimes I keep the number, sometimes I don’t. Security issue,’ he said.

Uh-huh,’ I said, adopting a neutral tone.

I’m getting the vibe you didn’t trust me,’ he said. ‘Anyway, the beads are on their way. I’ll let you know if I get anything else. Wonder who’s next to bite the big one, eh.’

We speculated for a while, but my heart was not in it. There was Josie’s absence to worry about. Josie would never go for disposable phones and would probably relinquish her iPhone only at gunpoint. She had left on Saturday morning and I had heard nothing since. It was now Wednesday evening. I called Modeste, Ophelia, and Asia again to check if they had heard anything, but I got the impression from each of them that they were short on sympathy and getting fed up with me phoning. Lesleigh wondered if I might like to come round and watch Friday the 13th with her. She was just about to put the DVD on, she said. I passed on the invitation.

I felt a chilling presence in the room, watching me. I tried to move my head so I could look around but found I could not. My body was completely numb. No matter how hard I tried, I was incapable of moving. The impression that I was being watched intensified. It was very dark. I could not see at all. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could make out the shape of an eye. An eye suspended in space. It did not seem to be attached to any flesh and blood being. I tried to scream, but I could not open my mouth. I tried to wake up, but I was not asleep. Finally, I was able to move. I got up and ran from the room. I did not look over my shoulder. I felt the gaze from the eye on the back of my neck but I did not dare turn around. I’ve no idea what happened but I found myself cowering on a patch of waste ground by the Jewish cemetery, with Lou Reed’s song Magic and Loss running through my head. A crowd of people had gathered. They seemed to be concerned. I could not explain to them that I was the victim of the evil eye. One of them said an ambulance was on its way. I said I did not need an ambulance and staggered off.

Back home, after trundling through the music press sites on the internet, I found out that Mars A were managed by Seamus Dark. Because Dark was something of a self-publicist, it was relatively easy to find a number for his management company, AfterDark Promotions. I was shunted around or cut off by feckless subordinates before I spoke to Seamus, who it turned out was not Irish.

Sorry about Lisa cutting you off there. She’s a mare, work experience. What can I do for you?’

I mentioned the band.

Oh that’s right, Lisa said you wanted to talk about Mars A. Great band, aren’t they? I did good signing them. Single’s at number 39 in the charts, already.’

I wanted to talk to you about the photo-shoot for their new album cover.’

Already taken care of, my son.’

Yes! Josie London is doing them in France, I understand.’

No mate. Didn’t go for Josie London. Her work is, how can I put it, a little restrained. We was looking for something more radical. We went for Bud Olsen, diamond geezer – and France! No France is too twee. So we went for Hamburg. More edgy. Know what I mean.’

So you wouldn’t know where Josie is?’

What are you, some kind of weirdo?’

Perhaps I was a weirdo.

I put the phone down.

The checkout girl at Waitrose asked me why I was wearing two pairs of sunglasses. Was it that sunny outside? Was I alright? I tried to laugh it off and thanked her for her concern.

They say dreams can be the territory for unwelcome upheaval when you are having a difficult time and can add to your disturbed mindset. The odd thing is, I didn’t have any dreams, just the vague impression through my sleeping hours that someone was with me in the room.

Morning sleepyhead,’ Josie said, snuggling up to me. ‘It was late when I got in, so I didn’t wake you.’

Relief and disbelief jockeyed for prime position.

Where have you been? I’ve been trying to phone you day and night.’ I said.

My phone got swallowed by the airport scanner.’ she laughed. ‘I’ll be looking for you to help me with the insurance forms.’

But you weren’t in France on a photo-shoot with Mars A. I checked. Seamus Dark told me he didn’t take you on. ……. And none of your friends knew where you were.’

Who? What? I don’t know why I tell you anything. You never listen to me properly do you? It was Marseilles, not Mars A. I was shooting for Bande A Part. It’s a French film magazine. I phoned you but you didn’t pick up so I spoke to Lesleigh. Asked her to let you know about the phone and not being able to contact me. Didn’t she say?’

She invited me over to hers quite a lot, but no, she didn’t mention it.’

Anyway. ….. What have you been up to? Have you missed me? …….. Oh my word, I can see that you have. I should go away more often. …… By the way, I found this package in the mailbox ……. In the dark, I thought was it for me so I opened it, but it’s for you. …….. It’s some beads with beady eyes on. Are they worry beads? Is it the evil eye? You don’t believe in that, do you?’

I wondered if I might hang them in the hall alongside Muddy Waters’ mojo. Just in case.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Aardvark of Uncertainty

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The Aardvark of Uncertainty by Chris Green

I appear to have swapped the cow for a handful of beans. My memory of the transaction is a little hazy but here are the beans. It seems a strange kind of bargain to have made. Why would I do such a thing? Looking on the bright side, at least these are magic beans. It says so here. So their yield is likely to be bountiful. And if it is to survive, the planet needs vegetation far more than it needs cattle. In any case, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. There won’t be any now the cow has gone, will there? I’d better get on and plant the beans.

The internet doesn’t have a lot to say about how or when to plant magic beans. There are pages on pages about growing runner beans, kidney beans, aduki beans, mung beans and other kinds of beans that I’ve never heard of but nothing whatsoever on the magic variety. I am in the garden wondering where I should plant them when I have a visitor. At first, I think it must be the cleaner calling round to give the house a going over but then I realise it is Karma. I am pleased she has called round. Things have been a bit up and down since she left. I become easily confused. Otto is working on this with me. Otto is not from the village. He’s a professor of something and has letters after his name. He has been helping me for a couple of months now. Reality, he says, is a slippery customer but if I follow his regimen, there is every chance I will begin to see things more clearly.

Karma doesn’t appear to have noticed that the cow has gone. Perhaps she thinks that Daisy has just wandered up the lane again and will soon be back. She wants to talk instead about how politicians and the media have adapted the Alice in Wonderland interrogation technique to everyday life to keep us all in a heightened state of confusion.

We are accustomed to a world of logic and predictability, Geoff,’ she says. ‘But we are now bombarded day and night with layer upon layer of contradictory information.’

Perhaps you should talk to Otto about it,’ I say. ‘He probably understands this sort of thing. But I’ve no idea what you are talking about. Has anyone actually seen an aardvark?’

The Alice in Wonderland technique,’ Karma says, ‘is a method of interrogation pioneered by the CIA designed to break down the familiar and normalise the strange. Several interrogators pepper the subject continuously with unrelated nonsensical questions until they are no longer sure what is going on. This technique is now being used on us in our daily lives. There are zillions of narratives coming at us every minute through advertising, the media and the internet, each claiming to be common-sense, helpful or right. Conflicting messages, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fighting to bury themselves in our consciousness. We find ourselves on a battlefield of ideas. With all our boundaries breached, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. In such a state, we are ready to accept and comply with many things we would otherwise reject.’

Is Karma in her roundabout way trying to tell me that she doesn’t believe there ever was a cow? Is that where this is heading? To prove to her that there was a cow but now there is not, I show her the magic beans. How much more proof does she need? I ask her where she thinks I should plant them. She points here and there but she doesn’t seem that interested. We don’t manage to stay on the subject very long because Karma has another rant at the ready.

The social theorist, Michel Foucault posits that where there is a discourse, there will be a reverse-discourse,’ she says.

What is a discourse?’ I ask because I honestly don’t know what she is talking about. ‘Discourse is simply a medium through which power flows,’ she says. ‘This flow can be reversed via the discourse without challenging the fundamental assumptions or concepts on which the discourse relies. Realising this to be the case, people in power the world over now set the reverse discourse in motion at the same time they launch their idea. By taking charge of the whole narrative, they are then able, at any time, to direct the narrative around the subject back to the original discourse.’

Karma can be intense at times. This was one of the issues we had when we were together. She would often go off on one when all I wanted was a little peace and quiet so I could read my book. As a result, I learned to switch off. A lot of what she says comes in one ear and goes out the other. Despite this, if and when I look at what she has said, I find that she is often right. She was right about the revolution in Stanistan. It was never going to change anything for the masses. All revolutions ever do is replace one dictatorial elite with another dictatorial elite which acts exactly the same as the one they replaced. She was right about the travels companies going broke. It was to do with product life cycle. They hadn’t re-invented themselves sufficiently to take account of changing travel arrangements. Karma’s analysis of situations is usually spot on. I used to rely on her explanations of complex issues. At the moment, though, I just want her to stop talking so I can concentrate on the garden. I am not sure what to do with the seeds. And I don’t imagine Foucault is going to be much help. Karma though seems determined to keep plugging away.

The creators of the discourse can plunder the reverse discourse at any time,’ she says. ‘If their idea becomes unpopular, so long as they control the reverse discourse as well, they maintain their hold on the balance of power. They are thus able to set the agenda.’

I’m sure she is right. I have always felt that things seem to be out of our control so someone must be pulling the strings. All of them. I nod my agreement.

Perhaps the beans could just go in the old veg patch where the potatoes were,’ I say. ‘I will need to dig it over first though and fertilise it a bit.’

What people don’t realise,’ she continues, ‘is that most protest groups are actually financed and run by those they are protesting about. They fool you into thinking there is an active campaign to stop whatever it is they are doing. But the campaign is never likely to succeed because the perpetrators themselves are running it. The weapons industry run peace groups, the oil barons finance Extinction Rebellion and so on.’

I am still a little lost as to where this might be heading but for some reason, it reminds me that Otto and I are off to see the wizard later.

……………………………..

I don’t know what has happened to Otto. We got separated somewhere along the yellow brick road. I think I became distracted by the black buzzards circling overhead and lost my bearings. I was unable to find the road again. The flask of tequila may not have brought out the best in my orienteering skills. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere, I came across a railway station. I am slowly making my way back home aboard the Bob Dylan coach of the night train. I am searching for the right track. I need a tune that’s going my way or who knows where I might end up? Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again perhaps or It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like a Rolling Stone come to mind but Shelter from the Storm seems a safer bet.

But even so, there’s blood on the tracks and I am not able to settle. The Tom Waits coach is no better. Downtown Train and Tom Traubert’s Blues don’t settle me so I’m not expecting God’s Away on Business or The Piano Has Been Drinking to do it.

I hear footsteps and a door opening.

Why are you listening to Leonard Cohen?’ Karma says.

I am no longer aboard the train, it seems. I am back at home and Karma has let herself in.

Tom Waits,’ I say.

What?’ she says.

Not Leonard Cohen,’ I say. ‘It’s Tom Waits.’

Why are you listening to Tom Waits, Geoff?’ she says. ‘He’s so depressing. Especially that one about sleeping in a boxcar.’

Swordfishtrombone,’ I say. ‘Brilliant lyrics.’

It’s about shell shock,’ she says. ‘Anyway, I thought I’d better check on you. You’re not answering your phone.’

I appear to have lost my phone,’ I say. I think Otto may have it but he’s disappeared. You haven’t seen him, have you?’

No I haven’t,’ she says.

We were on our way to see the wizard,’ I say. ‘And Otto just vanished.’

This Otto doesn’t seem to be someone you can depend on, does he?’ she says. ‘Never mind. I see you managed to plant the beans. You can see their purple flowers from way down the road. They’re towering over the clump of bamboo hedging already. That’s in what, forty-eight hours? They were magic, after all. ……. By the way, Geoff, I’ve been meaning to ask. Where’s the dog? Where’s Daisy?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Watership Down

Created with GIMP

WATERSHIP DOWN – a cautionary tale by Chris Green

I’m round at Margot’s and her computer isn’t working, Adam,’ Suzy says. ‘We thought you might be able to help.’

Ask her if she has hit the any key again,’ I say.

She says she doesn’t know which key the any key is,’ Suzy says.

Oh! Never mind,’ I say. Clearly, the joke has fallen flat. ‘Look! You’d better put Margot on.’

I had hoped to be getting on with my gardening. It’s that time of year when there are lots of little jobs to be done and this is the only day off I have this week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have answered the phone. This could be a long one.

Hi Adam,’ Margot says. ‘My laptop’s not working.’

Yes, Suzy told me,’ I say. ‘What’s it doing?’

Well, that’s the thing, Adam,’ Margot says. ‘It’s not doing anything.’

Is it booted up?’ I say. ‘Has Windows loaded?’

I’m not sure,’ Margot says. ‘How can I tell?’

There will be pictures on the screen,’ I say. ‘Icons and the like.’

There are no pictures,’ Margot says. ‘There’s just a blank screen.’

Hit a key,’ I say.

Which key?’ she says.

Any key,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

I’ve already said I don’t know where the any key is,’ she says.

Try the z key,’ I say.

There’s still a blank screen,’ she says.

Are you using it on battery or is it plugged in?’ I say. ‘The battery might be flat.’

I’ve got it plugged in,’ she says.

Is the power light on?’ I ask.

I can hear Margot in the background asking Suzy where she should look.

I’ll have a look on my PC and check to see if there’s a network problem,’ I say. ‘And I’ll get back to you.’

I realise if the machine isn’t even booting up this is not going to be what is causing the problem but I figure that the matter can wait until I’ve at least planted the potatoes and the carrots. And done some weeding. And perhaps transplanted the fatsia. It’s getting too big for the pot. It needs to go in the ground. Margot probably only wants to get online to buy a pair of shoes or a handbag or something. I expect she can do everything else she needs on her phone. It is probably a gender-specific tech issue anyway. I don’t mean this in a sexist way but I think it’s fair to say that while women are great in the metaphorical driving seat, they are more reluctant to get under the hood when something goes wrong. It could simply be that Margot’s laptop has packed up. The build quality is poor these days. Anyway, she is going to have to wait.

There are more weeds than I thought in the veg patch and I need to tie back the daffodils that have gone over and top-dress the containers on the patio. And it looks as if it is going to rain soon. I decide to ask Ben if he will sort Margot’s laptop problem out. I don’t know why Suzy didn’t phone him in the first place. Youngsters are much more computer literate than our generation are. And Ben only has about three lectures a week on his media course. He has plenty of spare time.

I give him a call from my mobile.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to do anything about it, Dad,’ he says.

Oh, and why is that?’ I say. ‘Too busy deconstructing superhero films?’

My laptop is not working either,’ he says. ‘And the network at uni is down too. There seems to be a serious problem. To be honest, I was surprised to get your call. We’re lucky our phones are working. None of my tutor group’s are. I thought all networks were down. By the way, Dad, while you’re on the phone, could I borrow …….’

The call drops in mid-sentence. I try to call him back but my phone is now dead. No matter. Ben is always trying to borrow something. Usually money.

I find that my laptop won’t boot. Or the tablet. I can’t even interrupt into setup to see what might be wrong. This is not something I’ve come across before. I don’t have the expertise to diagnose what might be causing it. What else might not be working, I wonder? I find I have a dialling tone on the landline but most of my contact numbers are mobiles. All the numbers I try to call come up with an unable to connect voice message. Please try again later.

Finally, I try my old friend, Rick O’Shea’s landline in the hope that he might have an explanation. If anyone knows what’s going on, surely it will be Rick. Before his breakdown, he used to be a Systems Analyst for MI5. I got to know Rick when we were both involved in a campaign to free the wrongly-imprisoned activist, Iskariot Santé. I feel guilty as I haven’t been in touch since then. How long would that be? Two years? Three years? Quite a while anyway. But life moves on. Circumstances change. I believe Iskariot Santé was finally released last week. I wonder what he’s up to. Perhaps Rick will know. But first matters first.

Hi Rick,’ I say. ‘Long time! How are you?’

I know exactly what you are going to say, old buddy’ Rick says. ‘My answer is I don’t have a clue what’s going on in cyberspace. Everything seems to be down. The internet, the outernet, the fishing net, the whole damn watership probably. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before the phones are out too. The exchanges are bound to be run by a digital operating system. Just think, mate, we might be taking part in the last ever phonecall. This could be the end of remote communication, in fact, life as we know it. All it needs is one genius hacker and that’s it, old friend. Bye-bye technology. I’m thinking this could well be the Armageddon virus we’ve heard is on its way. The one that is claimed will be hundreds of times more virulent than Stuxnet or MyDoom.

I assume he is joking. With Rick, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Suzy arrives home in a bit of a funk. She storms in and starts shouting at me.

What the fuck have you been playing at?’ she screams. ‘Margot and I were sitting around like lemons waiting for you to ring back. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.’

There is more. I don’t get the chance to get a word in.

The roads are hell too,’ she continues. ‘All the traffic lights are out. I expect someone has drilled through a cable at those road works on Bram Stoker Street. It’s chaos. There are cars careering over the place. There’s a hideous pile-up at the junction of Somerset Maugham Street and Orwell Avenue. ……. And, I couldn’t get the new radio you put in the car to work. You’ll have to have a look at it after you’ve fixed Margot’s laptop. Here it is! I’ve brought it home so you can work on it here. Since you couldn’t find the time to call us back. I don’t know why. After all, it’s probably something simple.’

Yeah! Course! Just like that! Do I let her know now or do I keep her in suspense? Perhaps I could wait until she goes to turn the heating on with the remote control. Wait until Alexa doesn’t turn on the relaxing music for her yoga workout? Wait until she switches the TV on and discovers there are no programmes? We are in the age of the internet of things, Suzy. When the internet goes down, it’s not just your Google that goes, it’s the whole caboodle. I expect Margot would be phoning right about now to find out why she can’t turn her cooker on if she could use her phone. Perhaps she has been to the ATM and found this is no longer working or gone to the delicatessen down the road for her pok choi or matsutake mushrooms and found it’s cash only, if indeed the delicatessen is still able to stay open.

If Rick O’Shea is right, there is far worse to come than a few well-to-do people missing a few home comforts. I’m not sure exactly how worldwide communications work, how the complex mix of satellites and underground cables connects and there is no way to find this out at the moment. The thought occurs that the genius hacker that Rick refers to, whether real or potentially real, would know exactly how it all works and would be able to exploit it to the max. Cyberspace would be just space, no cyber. If he were designing the Armageddon virus then it would in all likelihood be just that. Something that would knock everything out in order to devastate humanity. It would be calculated to blow out all means of communication. With no internet, no TV, no news, no fuel, no movement of supplies, no aeroplanes, no travel, no information on what is happening would be available and there would no time to assess the next step.

Suzy interrupts my reverie to tell me the tumble drier is not working. I hadn’t realised this was one of our smart devices. It turns out I was right. It isn’t. The tumble drier is not working because the electricity has gone off. Suzy looks puzzled. Perhaps she thinks this is a ruse I’ve come up with so I don’t have to fix Margot’s laptop.

I imagine our substation has gone down, love,’ I say. ‘This will have a digital operating system just like everything else. I suppose it’s quite likely that the entire National Grid is now down.’

Suzy’s resolve is wavering. She is coming round to the idea that there might be a real crisis and it is not just me coming up with a series of excuses to get me off the hook. An apology is of course out of the question. Suzy does not do apologies but I can detect a softening of her attitude. She is clearly uneasy. I am uneasy. It is impossible not to have a bad feeling about what is happening. It might just be a power cut but if you put everything together, it feels like something more sinister. This is the stuff of apocalyptic TV thrillers, the stuff of nightmares. And here it is on the doorstep. What if it is happening everywhere? How would we know? When would we know?

Out in the street, a crowd of people is gathering. A selection of our neighbours, who have barely spoken to one another in the past, are massing outside the Robinsons’ at number 42. Some are gesticulating with their phones, others clutching small electrical appliances that have presumably stopped working. I think they’ll find no community repair café is scheduled for this week.

As we approach, we pick up garbled snippets of the of conversation, references to the tech items that are now dead with suggestions of conspiracy theories creeping in. It is fascinating to witness how a group of people, who in the normal run of things have little to do with one another, interact. Their awkwardness with one another. The jostling for position in the street hierarchy. At least, it would be fascinating if the situation were not so grave.

As if that weren’t enough. I can’t get my Audi TT started,’ Pearson Ranger from next door but one is saying. What a shame, I’m thinking, and after all that polishing too.

It probably has electronic ignition,’ May Loos says. ‘My daughter’s moped won’t start and there’s nothing electronic about that.’

We’ve got beer if anyone would like one,’ Mrs Robinson says. ‘Or wine if you’d prefer. Could you bring some drinks out, Tony?’

Does anyone have any idea how widespread the power outage is?’ the Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike from number 48 says. ‘That’s what we need to establish.’

No way of finding that out, is there?’ Basil Fawlty says, still desperately trying to bring his Samsung Galaxy to life. I wonder how long it will be before he throws it to the ground and stamps on it.

It could be terrorists,’ the young reporter with the acne who lives across the street says. ‘Looking for a headline.’

On the other hand, it might just be a localised problem, don’t you think?’ Ted Drinker says. ‘Probably nothing to worry about. We’ve had power cuts before.’

I spoke to my sister in St Kitts on the house phone not half an hour ago,’ Joan Armatrading says. ‘Well, perhaps it was a little longer. Maybe an hour. Two hours tops.’

But things have moved on since then,’ the Buddy Holly lookalike from the big white house with all the building materials in the garden says. He looks around for support.

It was bound to happen one day,’ Wet Blanket Ron from number 13 says. ‘I’ve been expecting something like this. I’m only surprised it didn’t happen sooner.’

It’s most probably a coup d’état,’ Major Tom says. ‘This is exactly the way a coup would happen. Take out all means of communication. Take out the power. When I was in Zimbabwe ……..’

You think there might be something strategic about disabling my daughter’s moped then?’ May Loos interrupts.

Probably unrelated,’ Major Tom says. ‘Have you checked the plugs?’

What we need is a plan,’ Tony Robinson says. Wasn’t he the fellow who played Baldrick in Blackadder?

Food and medicines will quickly run out,’ Wet Blanket Ron says. ‘Mine already have. My fridge is empty and I took my last anti-depressant earlier.’

We must be able to defend ourselves,’ Major Tom says. ‘We’ll need guns.’

Good, that’s a start,’ Tony Robinson says. ‘What have we got, guys?’

I wouldn’t normally share this with you but I’ve stockpiled odd bits of artillery over the years in my shed,’ Major Tom says. ‘And I know where we can get ammunition.’

I have an air rifle,’ Buddy Holly says. ‘I use it to scare the pigeons away. It’s quite powerful. You may have noticed a few dead pigeons on my lawn.’

A sudden chorus of phone tunes breaks out. Burglar alarms and car alarms start up. A veritable cacophony. Lights everywhere come on. Major Tom’s military radio crackles. Pearson Ranger’s Audi TT springs into life.

I have a message on my phone,’ the Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike says.

So have I,’ Joan Armatrading says. ‘It’s from my sister in St Kitts. Oh, wait! I have another one. ……. It’s quite long.’

I have one too. It’s about the shutdown. We probably all have the same message. I’ll read it out, shall I?’ Tony Robinson says. ‘It says:

You have just experienced a PlanItEarth technology shutdown. Not a lot of fun, was it? It was calculated to cause maximum disruption. Until you start using resources responsibly and show some restraint on the size of families, similar shutdowns will occur worldwide regularly at ever-shortening intervals. There will be no warning beforehand. Nor will there be any announcement of how long each might last for. It could be minutes, hours, days or weeks. Resign yourself to a number of technology shutdowns.

There’ll be air disasters,’ Wet Blanket Ron says. ‘Planes will fall out of the sky.’

Rail crashes and pile-ups on motorways,’ Benedict Cumberbatch says.

There will be robberies and looting,’ Mary Loos says. ‘Law and order will collapse’

We’ll need to get a generator,’ Pearson Ranger says.

Wait! There’s more.’ Tony Robinson says.

You will now be thinking you can prepare for these shutdowns but whatever backup plans you come up with will be of no use. We have every contingency covered. We can suspend or disable everything including batteries and generators. We appreciate that many people may die as a result of these actions. This is regrettable. But it is a small price to pay. At PlanItEarth we can see to be no other way to our planet and with it humankind. This message will appear on all digital platforms including personal computers and television channels when you switch them back on and will stay in place for ten minutes.

Instructions on how to use resources responsibly will be broadcast regularly and reactions carefully monitored.

This communication has gone out simultaneously to others around the globe in all major languages.

For some reason, the name Iskariot Santé comes into my head. I find myself wondering what he’s up to. Perhaps I’ll give Rick another call.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

O Sole Mio

osolemio

O Sole Mio by Chris Green

Sophie and I wonder why, at around the same time every Saturday evening, the ice-cream van makes its way up the Close. At about seven-thirty, we hear twenty seconds of O Sole Mio as the van comes around the corner. The initial chime is followed by another ten-second burst of the Neapolitan classic as it nears the top of the Close. Each time, the van stops outside the last house. Back in the summer, the visits did not need an explanation. Clearly, people were going to buy ice-cream on a hot day. But on a cold wet November evening, why Bocelli’s Ices would even come out, let alone make a detour up this quiet cul-de-sac is puzzling. No-one is going to want ice-cream on a night like this.

He’s probably selling drugs, don’t you think?’ Sophie says.

If he is selling drugs, he is hardly going to advertise the fact with a chiming ice-cream van, is he?’ I say.

The ice-cream van would be perfect cover,’ Sophie says.

In July, possibly,’ I say. ‘But look at it out there. It’s like the end of the world.’

I disagree,’ Sophie says. ‘It’s exactly the opposite. July would be more difficult. But only those who know about his drop are likely to come out to the van on a night like this.’

I suppose doing deals this way would save all the time spent sitting around inspecting the goods and sampling,’ I say. ‘There would be no chit-chat. It would just be a straightforward exchange of money and drugs.’

My point exactly, Ben,’ Sophie says. ‘Mr Bocelli is probably able to fit in three times the number of drops.’

So, how would it work in July, when all the families in the Close want ice-creams?’

I suppose the ones in the know would say something like, can I have an extra flake with that. Or perhaps they hang back until the others have bought their ice-creams.’

I wonder who lives at the end house,’ I say ‘We’ve had no reason to go up there, have we?’

We could ask Annie,’ Sophie says. ‘She’s bound to know. She knows everything that goes on around here.’

Who is Annie?’ I say. I haven’t spent as much time getting to know the neighbours as Sophie.

She’s the one with the cats who sits in her front garden all day.’

……………………………………

The numbers go up one side of the Close and down the other so that you must mean number 27,’ Annie says. ‘The one with the big brown truck on the drive.’

Yes, that’s the one,’ Sophie says. We have been curious about the truck since we moved in back in the summer. It somehow doesn’t fit in with the floribundas, the manicured lawns and picket fences.

That’ll be the Morrisons.’ Annie says. ‘Jimmy and Pam. To be honest, I don’t know much about them. Although I’m often outside in the garden, I never see them. They keep themselves to themselves. You’ve probably noticed that the old truck doesn’t move. Why don’t you take a wander up there and have a scout around? See what you can find out.’

The place is pretty much as Annie suggested. There are no signs of habitation. The curtains are drawn, top and bottom. The space at the front is laid to paving with mature weeds poking through. The truck is a left-hand drive American Ford F100 pickup, in other hands probably a classic, but this one doesn’t look cared for or even roadworthy. There is a tall fence around the side of the house which blocks out the space to the back. Perhaps, after all, there is no-one in residence. Perhaps the ice-cream van calls around for the benefit of a family at one of the other houses at the top of the road.

Sophie and I decide to think no more about it. It isn’t as if an ice-cream van coming along our road on a winter’s evening, whether bringing drugs or not, is a matter of life and death. If we choose to, we can take a peek out of the window to see what is going on when it calls next Saturday. Until then there are more important things to think about like when my winter socks, the new battery for the smoke alarm and my book on modern philosophers from eBay will be delivered. And Sophie is expecting her quarterly watercolour magazine and a new sports bra from Etsy.

But, when on Wednesday morning at 2 am, we are woken by the strains of O Sole Mio as the Bocelli’s Ices van turns the corner, our curiosity is raised once more. It is difficult to come up with a plausible explanation.

I thought I was dreaming,’ Sophie says. ‘But I’m not, am I? You heard it too.’

We go over to the window. The ice-cream van is all lit up, waiting at the end of the Close, outside number 27.

Let’s go and get one,’ I say.

What?’ Sophie says.

An ice-cream.’

But I’m not dressed.’

You can sling a coat on and some loafers. Come on! If he’s not selling ice-creams, we can call his bluff.’

We make our way up to the van. The engine is idling and when we arrive, Mr Bocelli is playing with his phone. He doesn’t seem surprised to see us and makes no remark on how we are kitted out.

Can we have a double rum and raisin and a double mint choc chip, please?’ I say.

Flake or no flake?’ Mr Bocelli says.

Sophie casts a knowing glance in my direction. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps this is how it’s done.

Oh, go on then!’ I say. ‘I’ll have a flake with mine.’

Why not?’ Sophie says.

With his back to us, it is difficult for us to see exactly what Mr Bocelli is doing but when he has finished, he hands us two splendid looking ice-creams.

That will be ninety-six pounds,’ he says. ‘Cash or card?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Shipping Forecast

theshippingforecast

The Shipping Forecast by Chris Green

I am listening to the Shipping Forecast when the phone rings. Not that I am a seafarer. I don’t have a boat or even live by the sea. It does not matter that much of the detail goes over my head. I find the poetry of the teatime forecast captivating. All those lyrical names like Lundy, Dogger and Fastnet. Rockall, Viking and Cromarty. German Bight. I do not want to be interrupted. I am not expecting a call. I leave the phone but it keeps on ringing. On the basis that it must be important, I finally answer it. No one is there. Another of those automated calls. When I put the receiver down, all the lights in the house go out.

The laptop goes over to battery so the Shipping Forecast continues uninterrupted. In fact, it is more atmospheric listening to it in the dark. It is easier to concentrate. Perhaps this is something to bear in mind for the future. It could be my imagination but the reports from coastal stations seem to be clearer. Even Stornoway and Lerwick have good prognoses for later.

At first, I put the outage down to a more widespread power-cut. We have had one or two of these since the November storms. But I can see the lights from neighbours’ houses are still on. Dan isn’t a very good electrician so I figure it is probably down to something he has done, or not done, when he fitted the new sockets under the stairs. We only used Dan for the work because he was Ellie’s cousin. He was a fairground worker before he became an electrician. He is in what is referred to as the gig economy. I do not have a number for Dan so I will have to wait until Ellie gets home from her class. Meanwhile, I can practice some tunes on my duduk. Light My Fire needs a little work. Then I can have a go at Mary Jane. And perhaps, Marrakesh Express. Omar feels this would sound good on the duduk.

Without warning, two tall dark figures dressed in black let themselves in through the back door. I can’t see who they are. Paranoia take over. I don’t imagine they have come to listen to me playing the duduk. Over the years I have seen one or two noir films about unsuspecting victims being taken off for interrogation so I feel I know more or less what to expect. They will threaten me a little, perhaps point a gun at me, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and bundle me into the back of an unmarked vehicle. They will take me to a dark basement somewhere a twenty minutes drive away, tie me to a chair and leave me to stew for a while. Later on, the principal interrogators will arrive. For simplicity let’s say they will be Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta lookalikes. They will tell me they know I know why I am here so I might as well come clean. They will ignore my protestations of innocence, threaten me some more and perhaps club me round the head.

Why are you sitting in the dark, playing that flute thing, Dad?’ Matt says. ‘By the way, this is Andy.’

Hello Mr Lorenzo,’ Andy says. ‘That flute thing is a duduk, isn’t it?’

Oh, I see,’ Matt says, having tried a few light switches. ‘The electrics have gone. What happened?’

With a sense of relief, I explain the chain of events.

That’ll be a trip switch,’ Andy says. ‘Unusual for all the rings to go at once though. ‘Where’s the consumer unit?’

I show him. He puts the switch back on. I thank him and think no more about it.

The following day, I am listening to the Shipping Forecast again when the same thing happens. The phone rings, I answer it and the lights go out. Once again two dark figures appear out of nowhere.

Hi, Matt. Hi, Andy,’ I say.

This time it is not Matt and Andy. It is a pair of gangsters and they appear to have read the script. They threaten me a little, point a gun at me, tie my hands behind my back, blindfold me and bundle me into the back of an unmarked vehicle. They take me to a dark basement somewhere a twenty minutes drive away, tie me to a chair and leave me to stew for a while. Later on, the principal interrogators arrive. Pulp Fiction’s Jules and Vincent lookalikes. They tell me they know I know why I am here so I might as well come clean. They ignore my protestations, threaten me some more and club me round the head.

If I knew why you’d brought me here, I’d be completely co-operative. I’d tell you everything you want to know’ I say, taking the initiative. ‘But as it is, I have no idea.’

OK. We’ll try it another way, shall we?’ Vincent says. ‘Let’s start at the beginning. You’ve been listening to the Shipping Forecast.’

Regularly, Mr Lorenzo,’ Jules says. ‘We know because we’ve been keeping tabs on you.’

But you don’t have a boat,’ Vincent says. ‘So tell me, Mr Lorenzo. Why have you been listening to the Shipping Forecast when you don’t have a boat?’

I find it relaxing,’ I say.

You find it relaxing, do you?’ Jules says, coming at me with the butt end of his pistol. ‘Let’s see if you find this relaxing.’

Now, why do you like listening to the Shipping Forecast when you don’t live by the sea?’ Vincent says.

It’s like a mindfulness meditation,’ I say. ‘I just like listening to those mystical names. Shannon, Lundy, Sole, Fastnet.’

And why exactly is that, Mr Lorenzo?’ Jules says. ‘Why do you like those mystical names? It’s to find out where our shipments are coming in, isn’t it?’

So you can intercept them,’ Vincent says. ‘Like your people did with the last shipment three weeks ago. That didn’t go down to well with the boss.’

What shipment?’ I say. ‘What are you talking about?’

Our shipment from Morocco, Mr Lorenzo, as if you didn’t know,’ Jules says. ‘You somehow found out that we have been sneaking coded instructions about our drugs drops into coastal stations’ reports on the teatime shipping forecast for the benefit of our runners. And you have been listening in to crack the code.’

I don’t know what you are talking about,’ I say. ‘I know nothing about any drugs.’

And obviously, clever though you might be to crack the code, as you don’t have a boat, you too must be part of a larger operation,’ Vincent says. ‘So you’re going to give us names.’

What about those two young bucks that arrived the first time we called round for instance?’ Jules says. ‘The ones dressed in black.’

We would have taken them out then,’ Vincent says. ‘But the boss said, deal with you first. But we can always call back.’

Perhaps Mr Lorenzo needs a little more time to think about it,’ Jules says. ‘Let’s leave him to sweat for a couple more days. I think he might decide to be more talkative then.’

With this, they are gone. It takes me a while to spot it but I notice Jules appears to have left his phone. Can I somehow reach it? Is it perhaps a trick? Are they trying to find out who I might contact? I need to be cautious and if I ever get out of this hell hole, I need to be more careful about how I operate. Perhaps there is another way to find out about future shipments from Morocco to make sure my people are in position to intercept them.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

Dog Gone by Chris Green

It is Friday evening. Zoot has gone out with his friends and Stacey and I have the house to ourselves. Outside there is the persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week when you’d like to go for a walk on the hill. Not that we go for a walk on the hill that often since the dog died. Once in a while, we make it to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden with a pint or two. This gives us a pretty good view of the common. It’s probably a mile there and back. Just the right amount of exercise. We did talk about joining the gym but decided to put it on hold. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we wait for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary about obesity in taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days.

What’s the date?’ I ask Stacey. The linking of taxi drivers’ obesity with road accidents is jogging my memory.

May 26th,’ she says.

Oh shit! I think Geoff said he was going to kill himself round about now. When we spoke, he said if Abi wasn’t back in two weeks, he was going to end it. …….. Or was it three weeks.’

When did he phone?’

I can’t remember. I thought I’d get the chance to check him out before he did it, but with Gnarls having to be put down, it just slipped my mind.’

You’d better ring him then,’ Stacey says, taking a large pull on her brown ale.

Although she has never said as much, I get the impression that Stacey is not keen on Geoff, even though she has never actually met him. ‘Your friend Geoff called she will say if she comes home to find he has left a message, in the same tone she might use if it was the Yorkshire Ripper that had called.

As the dialler is ringing, I try to piece together Geoff’s distressed phonecall. Abi had left him for a Bulgarian plastics entrepreneur and he had lost his job at the fishing tackle museum. He was anxious about the bank repossessing his house and was being driven mad by the round the clock drum and bass music from his neighbours. His doctor had put him on anti-depressants but the anti part seemed not to be working. And to cap it all his ulcer had flared up again. He could take no more.

Hang on,’ I had said, ‘I’ll give you a list of things worth living for. Pick any letter.’

B’ he had said.’

OK. The Beach Boys, Breaking Bad, big boobs, barbecues, BB King …….’

He was dismissive of all my suggestions, even big boobs. They got in the way he said. He ranted on for a bit and said he would give Abi two weeks, or was it three weeks, and if she wasn’t back, he was going to run his car into the side of a truck. Not any old truck mind you, he had one particular truck lined up. A DHL Iveco Stralis, I seem to recall. If I were so inclined, this is not the way I would want to do it. An overdose or a lethal injection would be much more comfortable. But Geoff seemed to be quite determined about the collision and always one to concentrate on the detail, as well as the vehicle, he had worked out a date and time.

There are a lot of self-help sites on the internet,’ I remember saying.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had gone with CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. After I suggested it, however, we had nothing but problems with CheapNet. I finally cancelled our contract with them just two days ago, having become exasperated by the slowness of the connection and the language barrier when dealing with their helpline in Turkmenistan. Now we are with FreeSurf, which of course is not free but it does seem quite speedy.

At the time, I did not take Geoff’s suicide threat too seriously. But perhaps I should have. He is not picking up. Am I too late?

I think I ought to go round to see if things are …… all right,’ I say to Stacey, who has finished her brown ale and is now opening a bottle of advocaat. I have to admit that I have no idea what I will do if things are not all right.

I get the Fiesta out of the garage, tie the front bumper back on and set off, wondering if I am over the limit. True, Stacey drank the lion’s share of the Belgian cider earlier, but there is always that risk. Geoff’s place is about fifteen miles away, so just in case any police might think a brown Fiesta with no front number plate, a dent in the side and the bumper hanging off looks suspicious, I decide to go the back way.

The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way up Prospect Hill. At the summit, perhaps summit is an extravagant description for a rise of a hundred feet, a cyclist in rain-drenched Day Glo Lycra eases past me. The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way down Prospect Hill. Its days are numbered. I have seen a lovely little Daewoo for sale, but what with the extra hours at the balloon repair workshop and Zoot’s problems with his Maths teacher, I have not had chance to look at it. I resolve to make time over the weekend.

Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout has a board saying 20% OFF SNAKES. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it didn’t say snakes, but you never know. Ashoka’s seems to sell just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmuid Gavin, even Percy Thrower. BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, says another sign, although I cannot make out what this is for. Inflatable Buddhas, perhaps.

I have to wait at the temporary traffic lights in Long Lane where they are rebuilding the railway bridge. The lights have been there for months, if not years. How hard is it to strengthen a bridge? I try to get something on the radio to distract me. There is a choice between teeny pop, Wayne Rooney’s Desert Island Discs, Brahms, or a discussion on downsizing. I switch it off. We were forced to downsize a year ago when Stacey’s eldest, Irie, moved in with Mojo. Irie’s money from her job at Morrisons had helped keep us afloat. It does not seem likely that Zoot will ever pass his GCSEs let alone be in a position to leave home. But perhaps I am being a little unfair. He is only seventeen.

The lights change and I drive on. The Fiesta seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR the sign outside The Bucket of Eels says. I remember that Geoff and I used to play skittles there years ago. When it was a real pub, with a choice of twenty real ales, with expressive names like Feck’s Original and Old Badger. Before it was taken over by Wicked Inns. The year Geoff and I were on the team, The Bucket nearly won the County Skittles League, losing narrowly to The Pig in a Poke in the final match. Admittedly the season was quite short that particular year as only four pubs entered, but we were proud of our achievement.

In the four years I have been with Stacey, I have only seen Geoff two or three times. When you are in a relationship, there is a tendency to neglect old friendships. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. It is probably ten years since we went to the dogs, and nearly as long since we went fishing. What a strange contrivance time is. It does not seem to follow a linear course, certainly not when viewed retrospectively. The memory constantly plays tricks. On the one hand, Geoff’s cry for help phonecall, if that is what it was, seems like it had happened months ago. Could it have really been only two or three weeks? On the other hand, it seems only last year that Geoff and I went boating in France to celebrate his forty-fifth birthday, and my divorce from Donna. But now Geoff is fifty-one or perhaps it is fifty-two, as he is two years older than me. The folding of time, the inability to identify the correct order of events relative to one another is something that becomes more worrying with age. Temporal confusion will presumably happen more and more with each passing year. I will have to accept it, along with receding gums and decreasing libido. I am dreading being fifty. This is only a few months away. Fifty is a watershed. Did hitting fifty mark the beginning of Geoff’s decline, I wonder?

Even if one should feel the inclination to end it, there are the ethical implications to overcome. Committing suicide in western culture is regarded as a crime and in Christianity a mortal sin. Not that Geoff was particularly religious, but he had been brought up as a Catholic. I try to speculate how suicide might this affect one’s life after death status? Because you are in essence taking a life, do you go to hell? Purgatory? Are you perhaps allocated a shabby damp basement in Rotherham with fifties furniture, a shared kitchen and the lingering smell of yesterday’s cabbage?

My mobile rings, breaking me out of my reverie. Perhaps Geoff has got the number and is phoning me back. Why do I always put the thing on the passenger seat? Now it has fallen down the side. I have to pull over to retrieve it. It is not Geoff, but Stacey asking if I can pick up some eggs, and if I pass an off-license, a bottle of ouzo. I tell her I will lookout for a farm shop, but it is unlikely that they will sell ouzo. ‘Pernod will do,’ she says. ‘Just a small bottle.’

Before Gnarls was put down, Stacey would buy a bottle of Lambrusco with the shopping and this would last her a week. Gnarls was a sweet dog. He was a cocker spaniel retriever cross. He was just seven years old. An inoperable tumour. His passing has affected Stacey badly. She has all his doggy toys lined up on the mantelpiece and she keeps getting his basket out from under the stairs. Last week I got home to find her cuddling his blanket.

I arrive at Geoff’s, having passed nowhere that sells comestibles. The Fiesta retches and rattles as I bring it to a stop outside the house. I notice immediately with a degree of alarm that there is an estate agents board in the front garden. SOLD by Jackson and Pollock. Has it been more than three weeks since Geoff’s phonecall? Why didn’t I phone back sooner? Maybe there would have been something I could have done. My heart racing. I get out of the Fiesta and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? Or has he already done so? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I got the date wrong and it was May 16th or something and things have moved on. I fear the worst. I feel sick in my stomach. There is an eerie silence.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle over to look in the front window. A translucent waxy green film is forming on some of the bricks around the front door. I remember in an earlier conversation Geoff referring to this. In his paranoia, he wondered if it might be radioactive. Perhaps Geoff had been on the slide for a while and I had failed to notice.

At this moment, a blue Seat with tinted windows approaches and pulls in. Geoff and Abi step out, looking fit and tanned.

Hello Al,’ says Geoff, striding over to shake my hand. ‘Long time. What are you doing out here?’

I am lost for words. Eventually, I mutter something about the phonecall, three weeks ago. ‘I thought I might have been too late’

Have you started smoking the wacky-baccy again, Al? What phonecall? Anyway, three weeks ago Abi and I were in Dubai. Had a brilliant time as it happened. Magnificent architecture! You should go. Tell you what Al; I think that our life is starting to take off. When Abi and I got back from Dubai, we found we’d had a big win on the premium bonds and decided we would sell up. Fantastic, eh? House was on the market for less than twelve hours and we got a cash buyer offering the full asking price. What about that? From Bulgaria, he is, some sort of entrepreneur.’

I am flabbergasted.

Good thing you caught us. We’re moving next week. Anyway, how are you, must be six months at least. You better come in and have a drink.’

Fine,’ I say. ‘Just a little bit shell shocked.’

Last time we spoke you sounded pretty desperate,’ Geoff says. ‘I was quite worried about you. Thought you might do something silly. The bank didn’t repossess your house in the end I take it.’

I kept saying that Geoff should phone you to make sure you were all right,’ Abi says.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ Geoff says. Although he has never met her I have formed the impression that Geoff in some way disapproves of Stacey.

I stay and have a beer with Geoff and Abi while they show me a VideoSpin film that Geoff has put together consisting of photos of staggering post-modern skyscrapers.

Those are the Dubai Emirates Towers, that’s the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and that is the Etisalat building.’

These are punctuated with photos of dramatic mosaics and water features from the Dubai marina. He has even dug out some authentic oud music for the soundtrack. I feel it is a little self-indulgent. I don’t imagine that they listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days. I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits but at the same time, confused. I can think of no explanation for the misunderstanding and Geoff offers none except that I seem to have been overdoing it lately. As soon as it seems courteous to do so, I take my leave.

I decide to drive back along the main roads. It is late. There won’t be any police on the roads at this time of night. I am making good progress and have just passed the Crossroads Motel when the phone rings. It is Stacey. She sounds excited, but before I can make out what she is trying to tell me the line goes dead. Probably my battery. I keep forgetting to charge it. Whatever it is will have to wait. Up ahead there is a blanket of flashing blue lights. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty-five in third might seem a bit conspicuous, I see that there has been an accident and that all the emergency services are in attendance. A car has driven into the side of a truck. A DHL Iveco Stralis. My mind races. What on earth is going on? Why is there so much strangeness in my life?

When I get home Stacey is still up. She has found a bottle of homemade fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother on catch-up. Anne Widdecombe has just been evicted, which leaves Ayman al-Zawahiri, Paul Gascoigne and Vanilla Ice in the house.

I’ve just bought a dog on eBay,’ she says. ‘How was Geoff?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

ODDS

oddsOdds by Chris Green

Having worked at BiggerBet, Rick O’Shea knows a little about odds. Rick knows, for instance, the bookmakers’ odds of West Ham winning the Premier League are 1,000 to 1. The mathematical odds of being dealt a Straight Flush at five-card Draw Poker are 72,192 to 1. The odds of winning the jackpot on the six ball Lottery by getting each number correct are roughly 14 million to 1. But the odds of Billy Chance turning up on his doorstep in his Tottenham Hotspur strip bouncing a football are incalculable, especially as Billy doesn’t appear to have aged since Rick last saw him over thirty years ago. As far as Rick knows, Billy is dead. He heard Billy met his maker when his Sierra Cosworth came off the road at Fiddlers Elbow, a notoriously dangerous bend that over the years has claimed many lives.

If Billy is dead, he doesn’t seem to realise it because he wants to know if Rick is up for a kick-around in Farmer Flynn’s field. This is not going to work out as Farmer Flynn’s field has long since been built upon. It is now a mixed development of three and four bedroomed town-houses and deceptively spacious starter apartments. In any case, Rick’s arthritis means that kicking a ball around is all but impossible these days. He has an appointment with the doctor later.

You’d better come in, Billy,’ he says, hoping that something will come to light to help solve the mystery.

It looks different,’ Billy says once they are in the hallway. ‘What happened to the poster of Gazza?’

Billy doesn’t look different. He still looks ten years old. He is exactly how Rick remembers him. The same ginger hair parted harshly at the side. The same scar on his left cheek which has not quite healed, this from the scrap he had had in the playground with Johnny Keating. He isn’t sure how he should play it. There is too much of a gap between logic and what is happening here. Can Billy not see that he is no longer ten years old? That things have moved on? Rick tries to explain to him that this is not the old house he used to visit. That all happened a long time ago.

Oh! I see. You’ve moved, have you, Rick?’ Billy says. ‘When was that?’

Rick tells him in the simplest way he can that he has moved several times. And furthermore …..

If you like, we could go along to the double bridge instead,’ Billy says.

Rick recalls they sometimes used to go trainspotting in the old days. The double bridge was a place you could see the trains coming in both directions from a long way off.

No. I don’t fancy that, Billy,’ he says, hoping he will not need to explain railway developments over the last four decades.

OK,’ Billy says. ‘But I think I’ll go along. The express will be coming through soon. I’ll leave the ball here then, shall I?’

With this, Billy is gone.

……………………………………….

Too much sitting at a desk,’ Dr Baccarat says. ‘You need to get more exercise. But I have an under-the-counter spray that I think might help. And I’ll see what I can do about that other matter.’

Rick is pleased he was able to see Dr Baccarat. He is always more helpful than Dr Hopper or Dr Bolt. They usually send him away with a flea in his ear.

After the appointment and a blast of Dr Baccarat’s spray, he stops off at The Gold Cup for a Special Brew. He has a chat with his former colleague, Dean Runner. Dean has also lost his job with BiggerBet. Dean says the problem is you can bet on anything. Bog snorkelling, cheese rolling, the discovery of life on Mars, when the end of the world would be. How can you honestly offer objective odds on unusual bets? It is easy to see how Rick made a mistake offering odds on the winner of the Home Counties Conker Semi-Finals. While he probably shouldn’t have accepted such a large bet at such long odds and certainly not to someone he was acquainted with, BiggerBet could afford the payout. Besides, they themselves had not done too badly. Both Rick and Dean had frequently taken advantage of insider knowledge and backed unlikely winners.

When Rick returns home, he finds an old Fiat Uno parked on the drive. A rare sight these days but the car seems somehow familiar. He assumes it must belong to a friend of Amy’s. Amy has probably returned from work early. Since Brexit, there has been a reduced demand for eyebrow tinting. People can no longer afford such luxuries. But there is no sign of Amy’s Mini.

Inside the house, he becomes aware of a sweet perfume he doesn’t immediately recognise. Someone is shuffling about upstairs.

Is that you, Ricky?’ a female voice calls down. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I let myself in.’

It takes him a while to recognise the voice. He has not heard Donna’s voice for a long time. But it certainly sounds like her. It is then he remembers she had a Fiat Uno back when he used to see her. As he recalls, it kept breaking down. But he hasn’t seen Donna for years. What can she possibly be doing here?

He goes up to the bedroom. Donna is slipping out of her dress. She looks exactly as she did years ago. Lithe and youthful.

Shall we get in?’ she purrs, gesturing towards the bed.

Dr Baccarat’s under-the-counter spray has offered some relief to Rick’s arthritic limbs and the Special Brew has perked him up. But an under-the-sheets romp with a twenty-something Donna is an altogether different proposition. He remembers she was always what one might describe as lively. Also, it might be difficult to get Amy to be understanding if she comes home early from the salon. Meanwhile, it is difficult for him to understand what is going on. This isn’t merely a question of the odds being incalculable. They have somehow entered the realms of impossibility. What crazy shit is going down in his world?

To buy some time, he tells Donna he is going to take a quick shower. He urgently needs to gather his thoughts.

Don’t be too long,’ Donna says. ‘I’m feeling very horny.’

Rick goes into the spare room and calls Amy, this on the pretext of asking her to drop by Tesco on her way home to buy plum jam as they have run out. She tells him she is meeting Nicky after work. She told him this morning. Doesn’t he remember? He tells her not to worry, he will go out and get the jam. On the plus side, she isn’t going to suddenly come through the door.

When he goes back into the bedroom, he discovers Donna is no longer there. He hears the sound of a car starting up outside. He looks out the window and sees the Fiat disappearing up the drive.

……………………………………….

Years ago, Rick’s psychotherapist, Hoagy Platt taught him the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Remembering this, he uses it now to try to calm himself. It seems to work. As the minutes pass, he feels more centred. He questions whether either of today’s curious visits actually happened. Perhaps he was simply mistaken. This has happened before. The mind can sometimes play tricks. If you give it free rein, imagination is apt to run wild. Perhaps the visits were nothing more than illusions brought on by stress.

He checks the bedroom again. At first glance, nothing appears to be out of place. It looks as it usually does, the bed neatly made, the pillows on either side correctly stacked and the sheet folded over the duvet at the top. But then he notices a large pink hooped earring on the floor. This is not the type of thing that Amy would wear. She only ever wears studs or discreet dangles. This is a younger person’s jewellery and pink is Donna’s colour. There are traces of perfume lingering in the air, the same one he caught a whiff of earlier. While neither of these things in themselves is conclusive, together they present a strong case for Donna’s having been here. Billy’s football on the floor by the coat-rack in the hallway suggests that he too was here.

Weird though the day has been, Rick tells himself that no actual harm has been done. Whether real or not, these were his own private experiences and so long as he can put them behind him, life can return to normal. He has overcome lapses in reason before. When you consider it, life itself is strange. Many things happen to people every day for which there is no plausible explanation. Why would he be exempt from the whims of unpredictability and strangeness? Who can tell what is real and what is imaginary anymore? What is genuine and what is fake?

How’s the job hunting going?’ Amy asks when she comes home.

Rick tells her he has applied for a senior position at YouBet. He hasn’t. He had thought about putting in an application but with everything else happening, this had taken a back seat.

That’s good,’ Amy says. ‘All this sitting around at home is not good for you. Haven’t you noticed you are putting on weight? By the way, someone called Donna came in to have her eyebrows done earlier. She said she remembered you from years ago. Knew you quite well, apparently. It seems strange you’ve never mentioned her. Around fifty, I’d say, although she dressed much younger. Skimpy little dress, bleached blonde hair, lots of make-up. Mutton dressed as lamb, to coin a phrase. Ring any bells?’

No,’ Rick says. ‘I don’t think I know anyone like that.’ The Donna that Amy is describing seems to have little in common with the vision he caught a glimpse of earlier. And yet ……

……………………………………….

I wonder who that creepy old fellow is that’s been hanging around outside,’ Amy says at breakfast the next morning.

Who?’ Rick says. ‘I haven’t noticed anyone.’

The one with the long ginger hair and the scruffy white football shirt,’ she says ‘Every time I go out, he seems to be there. He talks to himself. He’s definitely strange.’

No. Can’t say I’ve seen him,’ Rick says.

Mutters to himself, Gazza’s great or something like that,’ Amy says. ‘I always give him a wide berth. Perhaps you might have a word.’

I can’t see him,’ Rick says, going over to the window. ‘Where is he?’

He’s doesn’t seem to be there at the moment but he was first thing when I got up,’ Amy says. ‘Look. I’ve been meaning to ask. Where did that football in the hallway come from?’

Don’t know,’ Rick says. ‘Your nephew, Adrian?’

But Adrian hasn’t been here for months.’

Don’t know, then. Perhaps it’s that crazy old man’s and he’s been looking for it.’

Very funny! Anyway, I have to get to work. Hope you hear about that job.’

Hoping for a less traumatic day, Rick settles down to do some research. He isn’t sure what terms to use but time shifts and false memory seem like good starting points. He finds pages and pages of results, each repeating the same things, no matter what he types in as qualifiers. Time shifts are more related to science fiction than hard science and false memory is a self-explanatory psychological phenomenon. Not exactly revelations. The internet is so frustrating. He is glad he has the cat to keep him company.

But wait, they don’t have a cat. Amy must have accidentally let this one in when she left for work. Yet Rick can’t help thinking the cat looks like Zorro. But don’t all black and white cats look the same? And Zorro died over twenty years ago. He would be about forty by now. That would be two hundred and eighty in human years. The cat has the same red collar that Zorro used to have. With a name tag. It is called Zorro. The odds against there being more than one black and white cat called Zorro with a red collar would have several noughts on the end.

Granted, these are short odds compared to the appearances of Billy Chance and Donna Betts. But still. This can wait until later. The cat is not doing any harm. It is time to find out what he can on Billy and Donna. He is about to try some targetted internet searches when he is interrupted by the arrival of a white van and a knock at the door.

You’ll have to give me a hand with this one, guv,’ the delivery driver says. ‘You’ll see why.’

The package turns out to be a three-foot by three re-enforced cardboard box. It is addressed to Rick but he feels he would remember if he had ordered anything this bulky. It is clearly not the windcheater jacket he bought on eBay or the DVDs from Amazon. The package has no return address. Rick is reluctant to accept it but the driver hovers over him threateningly and mouths something about having come all this way. Between the two of them, with a lot of huffing and puffing, they manage to get it inside the house and Rick signs for it.

Nor is it simple to open the box. Rick has to call upon most of the items in his toolbox. To his puzzlement, despite its huge size and weight, the box appears to be empty. He tries to turn it on to its side but it takes all his strength just to move it a few inches. How can an empty cardboard box be so heavy? Science and sensibility are out the window.

As Rick sits staring at the box wondering what to do with the thing, the hidden contents begin to emerge. Slowly at first. A smell, a taste, a pattern. Then a trickle. A song here, a picture there, a candle, a potted plant. A flip-top mobile phone, a new book about a boy wizard, a family pack of Honey Nut Clusters. Soon there is a settee, a chair, a CD rack, laughter and chatter. A card table, beer cans, a stack of newspapers, open at the sports pages. A TV in the corner with a chef shouting abuse at the others in his kitchen. Someone buzzing about saying something about taking the children to see Shrek. The news channel showing live pictures of planes hitting New York towers. The desktop computer is slow and clunky but it has the Internet and the facility to bet online. You can get odds of 6 to 4 on there being a third plane. A good price for a certainty. A no-brainer, Rick thinks.

He attempts to make a large bet. The site won’t accept any of his credit or debit cards. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? He cannot decide which. If, on the one hand ….. But, there again ….. The box in the room is still regurgitating the past. More clutter. The room is filling up with stuff. Tables and chairs, a backgammon set, half-empty coffee cups, discarded clothes, wine bottles, overturned ashtrays. The dog is barking. He doesn’t have a dog. Alarms are sounding. There are intruders. Everything is closing in. He feels claustrophobic. There are more shots of the burning towers on the TV. He finds it difficult to breathe from the smoke inhalation. He needs to go outside to get some air.

He makes his way out onto the street. To his relief, there are no suspicious people from the past hanging around. There are no unexpected cars on the drive. The traffic on the street is flowing orderly in both directions. A normal day here. A number 28 bus passes. It has an advert for YouBet on the side with their tag-line, you’ll get the best odds.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved