Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice by Chris Green

I haven’t seen Sophie for years. Not since she moved up north. So, I am surprised to find her in the wines and spirits aisle in my local Tesco. She is looking at the Sauvignon Blanc range. This was always her favourite tipple. I would always go for Italian red. Chianti, Valpolicella. Bardolino. So many varieties to choose from. And good quality control. Although Sophie and I parted on bad terms, I am pleased that at last, we may have the chance to catch up. It will give me the opportunity to try to clear up a misunderstanding or two. It wasn’t my idea to break up. This was Sophie’s choice.

Hi Sophie,’ I say. ‘Lovely to see you. You’re looking good. What are you doing in these parts?’

Do I know you?’ she says.

Come on, Soph! It’s Matt,’ I say. ‘You can’t have forgotten. We were together for three years. Well, on and off.’

You’re mistaking me for someone else,’ she snaps. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get on with my shopping.’

For a moment, I entertain the idea that I might be mistaken, and this is not Sophie. After all, it is several years since I have set eyes on her. And the mind can sometimes play tricks. But this woman’s appearance is ticking all the boxes. She is a little fuller of figure perhaps, but she looks about thirty-three, which would be about right. She is about five foot five and wears her skirt and fitted jacket in the way Sophie used to wear them. Sophie was fond of charcoal tights like these too, and block heels. Although her hair is shorter, the style is the same shape. Slightly darker, but like most women today, Sophie was forever changing her hair colour. In Line of Duty terms, this person would represent a 99.9% match.

Having added a couple of bottles of wine from the top shelf to her shop, she pushes her trolley in a determined fashion towards the checkout. I follow with my basket a few steps adrift and line up behind her. I try once more to initiate a conversation.

If you don’t back off and stop harassing me, I’m going to call Security,’ she says.

A burly uniformed security guard is hovering nearby. In case she gestures for him to come over, I pick another checkout, while keeping an eye on Sophie’s movements. I’m certain it is her. Why is she giving me the brush-off? Our breakup had been sudden. Up until then, things had been fine. We had our spats. All couples do. But we had some memorable times together. We had many great holidays in exotic locations, a stimulating social life and sensational sex. We did not even have the responsibilities that come with having children. We were free to do what we wanted, when we wanted. I felt we had a good life.

I make it through my checkout ahead of her. I wait outside. When she comes out, I try once more to clear the air.

I was only thinking about you the other day, Sophie,’ I say. ‘In fact, it was just yesterday. I remembered the time you got stranded on the platform on the Izmaylovo station on the Moscow metro with the balalaika you had bought at the market. The train left the station without you and you couldn’t contact me because your mobile phone didn’t work. I was on the train, heading west, but you weren’t. But as you know, I had the foresight to get off at the next station and come back to rescue you. I saw a balalaika in a Russian Week window display in Bigelows Department Store and remembered the problems we had getting yours back through customs. Did you ever learn to play the thing?’

What are you talking about?’ she says. ‘Who are you?’

A man in a black BMW drives around to the short-stay parking bay and beeps his horn. Sophie strides off towards it. The man opens the boot, ready to take the shopping. He is a large fellow wearing skinny-fit jeans and a muscleman t-shirt. He has tattoos up both arms. I have a bad feeling about what might happen if I don’t make myself scarce. Fortunately my car is parked close by.

It may be a foolish thing to do, and something that I have never attempted before, but as they draw out of the car park, I decide to follow them. Sophie won’t know that I drive a grey Tiguan, and it is a pretty nondescript car, the type you would not notice. It is so inconspicuous, I imagine it is probably the private detective’s model of choice. I expect Billy Hats drives one. It is early afternoon, and there is not much traffic on the road at this time of day, so I have little difficulty in keeping a safe distance behind.

We arrive at Descartes Avenue, a leafy suburban road on the Philosophers’ estate, and the BMW pulls into a driveway. I make a note of the house number, and keeping my head down, drive on by. I have no plan of what I might do with the information. I’m not thinking of becoming a stalker, but I feel Sophie’s address is something I ought to be aware of. I had not even known the name of the northern town she ran off to when she left. As we each had our own group of friends and Sophie did not do social media, I never discovered her whereabouts.

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I see Magda. She comes around after work, and we have something to eat and go to bed, or go to bed and have something to eat. There is no set pattern. It depends on how we feel. But the relationship is probably going nowhere. Magda is married. I don’t know why it has to be Tuesdays and Saturdays. This is Magda’s choice. Perhaps her husband has a similar arrangement on those days. I don’t ask. It is none of my business.

Our schedule gives me scope to do other things on the evenings I don’t see her. On Mondays, I have a class in The Roots of American Jazz at the college, and on Fridays, I usually go to The Old Dog Inn or The Blind Monkey for a pint or two. But for the rest of the week, I am often left twiddling my thumbs. At thirty-six, I fall into that category between the more gregarious younger interest group and the glad to have got all of that over with older age group. People my age are likely to either be in settled relationships with young families or are socially inept.

On Thursday evening, I am driving home from work with nothing on my agenda. On the spur of the moment, I decide to take a detour along to Descartes Avenue to see if anything is going on. There is a silver Mercedes A-Class parked on the drive at number 66. No sign of the black BMW. Not sure what conclusions to draw from this, I park up a little way down the road under the shade of a London plane. I can wait here a while to see if there are any developments. Perhaps the Mercedes is Sophie’s car and her tattooed lover is out somewhere in the Beamer. But the Merc was not there the other day. Maybe lover boy is a dealer in luxury cars. But it doesn’t feel right. After all, this is suburbia. There must be something more sinister going down.

I don’t have to wait too long for a development. Another Tiguan draws up, this one a top of the range model with dark tinted windows. Nobody gets out. Could this be Billy Hats on a stake-out? If in the unlikely event it is, why is he too watching Sophie’s house? I’m not even sure that Billy Hats exists, or whether he is a fictional private detective. Perhaps it’s a name I picked up from a Darius Self thriller. But it is clear someone is watching someone here. And number 66 seems to be the focus. Perhaps it is part of an undercover police operation. I can’t hear the blues and twos yet, but I need to stick around to find out what is going on.

A broader, more tattooed version of last week’s bruiser emerges from the house and gets into the Merc. Sophie’s choice in men has apparently taken a tumble in the years since she we split up. These guys look like seasoned gangsters. There is no sign of Sophie. The Merc drives off at a pace. Seconds later, the Tiguan follows. If I were a betting man, I would back the Merc to lose the VW pretty easily, should it to come down to it. I don’t see any point in my joining the pursuit. I’m not sure what to do about Sophie, though. Is she part of some underworld gang? Might she be in danger? What could I do about it if she were? Probably nothing. She may of course be in the house. But, even if she is home, she is not likely to be in the mood for a visit from me. After a few more minutes without further incident, I head for home.

There has been a jazz revival lately, so I am kept busy at Brass and sometimes have to work late. Along with Magda’s visits on Tuesday and Saturday and my evening class, my week suddenly seems quite full. I stop off at Tesco some evenings for a bottle of wine on the off-chance of bumping into Sophie again. But other than this, my amateur sleuthing takes a back seat.

Lee Shirt comes in to Brass buy a new mute for his trumpet. Lee is an old friend. We go back to our days in The Hat Band, a colourful jazz combo. I don’t play in a band any longer, but Lee has stuck with it. The Hat Band sound good. I don’t think they miss me that much. If you get the chance, you should go and see them.

I saw Sophie last week,’ Lee says. ‘She was with this huge fellow with a shaved head. I tried to get her attention, but I don’t think she saw me. They were going into Barclays.’

I am tempted to ask what kind of weapon her friend was carrying, but I resist.

Are you sure it was her?’ I ask, instead.

Not one hundred percent, mate, but Sophie is pretty stunning and always dresses like she’s going somewhere special, so I’m fairy sure. Don’t know what she was doing with this mean-looking dude, though. He was built like a WWE wrestler. He didn’t seem like her type at all. It seems a bit odd, don’t you think?’

Magda remarks that I seem distracted during our lovemaking.

You used to give me big rogering and make me sing out,’ she says. ‘Now I am left waiting for that good seeing-to. Have you been visiting Valentina Vamp?’

I apologise and begin to tell her about Sophie and the hoodlums.

So you want this Sophie too,’ she says. ‘Am I not enough for you? Or perhaps you are liking these big boys now. Is that what it is? Anyway, it’s up to her who she hangs out with. That’s Sophie’s choice.’

Once you are on the lookout for someone, you imagine you see them everywhere you go. On the street, in the pub, in the queue at the post office, at the waste disposal site, in the back garden, everywhere. Wish fulfilment, I suppose. Sophie isn’t remotely interested in jazz. Years ago, she threatened to take my saxophone to British Heart Foundation if I didn’t stop playing it around the house. So when one morning I imagine I see her come through the door of Brass, I let Django go across to see what she wants. Django has just started, and he is keen to make an impression. Obviously this is not really her. Sophie wouldn’t be seen dead in baggy jeans and a John Coltrane t-shirt for a start. She ignores Django and comes over.

I’ve been the victim of identity theft, Matt,’ she says. ‘They have cleaned me out. They hacked my email, and most other accounts are connected to email, even bank details, etc. But somehow they even managed to crack my facial recognition stuff. Someone around here is impersonating me. There must be a lookalike. I got a fellow on to it, a private detective, but I haven’t heard from him for a while. ’

Not so good, but that might help to explain a few things.’

Look, Matt! I was hoping you might be able to help me reclaim my identity. I haven’t even got my birth certificate. I know you’re bound to have some of my old paperwork. I know what you’re like. You never throw anything away. Anyway, I didn’t have a phone number for you, or any other way to contact you. So I’ve driven all the way down from Yorkshire to come and see you. I know it was my choice, but I’m sorry I left you like I did with no warning, not so much as a note or a forwarding address. Water under the bridge I suppose, but I want you to know I do feel bad about it. I hope you haven’t been too miserable.’

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved
 

Back in Time for Tea

Back in Time for Tea by Chris Green

It was Monday morning, but I was not pressed for time. I was off work. An old Tai Chi injury had flared up, and I had been told to rest. I was sorting out things that in my busy schedule at the kite repair workshop, I never got around to. I had installed all the Windows updates on the laptop and the tablet, run virus checks, and got rid of the junk. I had arranged for a tree surgeon to take a few feet off the weeping willow in the back garden, switched to a new green energy supplier, booked the car in for its MOT, and cleared the mouldy vegetables from the back of the carousel. Although on the face of it, my partner Danuta was very thorough in cleaning the house, the kitchen cupboard seemed to escape her attention.

I spent the rest of the morning watching On Your Bike on Yesterday, along with a welcome repeat of The History of the Harmonica. I had just turned over to watch Back in Time for Tea on Now and Then when there was a knock at the door. I let it go. I was not expecting anyone. But Alan, our Labradoodle, started barking feverishly, so I got up to answer it. Perhaps it was Danuta, home early from her part-time job at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Perhaps she had forgotten her key again. She had been in a bit of a fluster this morning after Alan had vacated on the hall carpet.

You should take him for more walks,’ she had shouted up the stairs.

I reminded her that I had been told to take it easy. Dr Shipman had been quite specific on this point.

I answered the door to find Eddie standing there. To say I was shocked would not be an adequate appraisal of the situation. I hadn’t seen Eddie since I was twelve years old. Not since the incident with Mrs Pocock’s cat. I did a quick calculation. This would have been 1966. The thing was, the Eddie that stood across the threshold with a football under his arm still seemed to be twelve years old. He even wore the same red Manchester United football shirt that I remembered with long sleeves and the number 11 on the back and the same green and white Gola Harrier trainers he had been so proud of back then. He hadn’t changed a bit. He had the same lank ginger hair and freckles. And the small mark over his left eyebrow where Nick had punched him outside our house and the blood had run down his face. The same gap between his front teeth which seemed too large for his mouth and made him look a little goofy.

Hi, Chris,’ he said, as if he had seen me yesterday.

There was no hint of surprise on his face. He did not seem to have noticed that I was fifty years older, with a fuller figure, less hair and one or two facial scars.

Wanna come down the rec,’ he asked?

Eddie had always been the one to organise the kick-arounds. He was the one who owned the football. If his team was losing or if he was having a poor game, he would say it’s my ball and head off home with it, leaving me and Marty, Mike and whoever else was playing, stranded. Before that, he had been the one who owned the Scalextric or the train set. He was the only one whose house we could visit freely. He was an only child, so his parents spoiled him. He was always the first one to have the new trainers or the new football shirt or the new Kinks LP.

Eddie was bouncing the ball now with some vigour, waiting for a reply. I thought that going to the rec was a little impractical, as the rec he was referring to was two-hundred miles away. And of course, there was my Tai Chi injury to consider. I asked him to come in for a minute, hoping that the improbable situation would somehow resolve itself.

He came in and made his way through to the kitchen. I offered him a glass of Tizer. He remarked on the groovy new bottle. This was the first sign that he might be noticing a time warp.

The phone rang. I let it ring, thinking it might make Eddie feel he was being ignored if I took the call. The phone kept on ringing and Alan started barking, so I went into the front room to answer it. It was Danuta to tell me she would be working late. Magda and Kinga had not turned up for work, and things were pretty manic at the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. Fridge magnets had featured on a lifestyle programme on Sky and there was a run on them. She had to go, she said, as there was a queue of people at the desk wondering what would be the best thing to put on their Smeg. I did not get the chance to tell her about our visitor. I wondered momentarily whether Danuta might be having an affair. This was the third time this month that there had been a television-led demand for fridge magnet advice. I dismissed the thought. If she were playing away, there would be other signs, like lingerie catalogues coming through the mail, or new bottles of perfume with inappropriate names like Bitch or Hussy appearing on her dressing table. I made a mental note to phone the centre later to see who answered. Meanwhile, I had to get back to Eddie.

On returning to the kitchen, there was no sign of Eddie. Just an empty glass on the work surface by the fridge. I scurried around the house, then the garden, but there was no trace of him. He had vanished.

I did not think I would be able to concentrate on Back in Time for Tea, so I thought I might pop to the supermarket to buy some garbanzo beans and some taboule. I had also noticed when I was cleaning out the carousel that we were getting a little low on guacamole and cactus leaf strips too. Although Waitrose was not far, I decided to drive. Against advice of my friend Steve, I had recently bought a 2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser. It was not until later that I found out to my chagrin that the Honest John website had likened it to a Ford Prefect on steroids. And John’s was one of the better reviews. Now, even the novelty of its retro styling had worn off, which explained why I had got it so cheap. It seemed to get from A to B though, albeit with alarming under-steer on corners.

I had not seen Holly since the spring of 1974, when we had had a brief fling. So imagine my surprise when there she was at the delicatessen counter. With her shoulder-length reddish-blond hair and flirtatious smile, she was unmistakable. She was exactly as I remembered her. She had not changed a bit. Her eyes still sparkled the way that they had, and she still wore the same pale blue eye shadow and a light coat of black mascara around them. Everything about her seemed familiar. She even had on the same cheesecloth top that I had bought her from Jean Machine and a pair of flared FU’s jeans with a wide Biba belt. I remembered our first date. We had gone to see The Way We Were, and halfway through I had said, this film is rubbish, let’s go back to my place. To my surprise, she had agreed.

Back then she was studying to be a chef, and around May time, she had found herself with a heavy schedule of exams. With Holly busy revising, I had time on my hands, and one night went to the Uzi Bar. I came home somewhat worse for wear with a barmaid called Rosie. Holly found out that I had slept with Rosie when she came round the next day and found a bracelet in my bed. I did not hear from her again.

However, despite the intervening years, she now appeared to instantly recognise me. And despite my erstwhile infidelity, she greeted me with a big hug. She seemed keen to catch up. Still in a state of disbelief, I struggled hard to find the right words to say, in fact, any words at all. When finally I managed to ask her what she was doing now, she said she was studying to be a chef and had a heavy schedule of exams.

I don’t know if Holly became distracted by the new range of retro tableware in the store or if she was just spirited away. But during the time the delicatessen assistant was weighing out my pitted green olives and taramasalata, she disappeared. I searched the store high and low and even got the shift supervisor to ask for her on the tannoy, but there was no sign.

As I drove away from the store, my head was in turmoil. I ran through a red light by Bygones, narrowly missing a Murco tanker, and almost mowed down an old lady and her Jack Russell on the zebra-crossing by the Fat Elvis burger restaurant.

I had read enough of the self-help books that Danuta brought home from the community library to know that I had to pull myself together and get a grip. Perhaps Deepak Chopra or Eckhart Tolle had not expressed it exactly in these terms, but I took this to be the general gist of their message. I put my Brian Eno CD on to relax me and tried breathing deeply as I had learned in Yoga. I pulled in by the stretch of water by the leisure centre and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the calming cries of the coots and the moorhens. I closed my eyes and tried to gather my thoughts. I told myself that whatever was happening, I was not in a life-threatening situation. Everything could be resolved in fifty-five minutes. This according to someone, whose name escaped me, was the time it should take to adjust to any new situation over which you had no control.

I stretched my legs with a gentle stroll around the park to gain my self-control. A few joggers were out taking their early evening exercise and one or two people were out walking their dogs. When I noticed that the black collie-retriever bounding towards me looked a lot like Barry, my first thought was that I must have been daydreaming. A lot of dogs look alike. I made a quick calculation. Barry would be at least 35. He would surely have died years ago. The dog barked excitedly as he approached. He nuzzled against my leg and then stood on his hind legs with his front paws against my chest, licking my arm affectionately. I identified the heavily chewed black leather collar and the gouge on his neck where the fur was missing, the result of Barry’s tussle with a Staffordshire Bull Terrier in the car park at The Gordon Bennett. In the next instant, we heard a loud whistle and Barry went bounding back across the park. I called out to the disappearing figure of Janice in the distance. Janice seemed not to hear. I called again. She did not look around. She was a hundred yards away. Yet I felt sure it was her, even though she had to the best of my information, moved to Spain shortly after we split up in 1991. The tie-dyed green denim jacket and the hennaed hair gave it away. This was how Janice would have looked in around 1991. She had a Discman on. Probably the one that she used to listen to her Joni Mitchell CDs on. I stumbled on a patch of rough ground, and before I knew it, she and Barry were getting into the black Orion that we had bought together at the car auction. I remembered our bidding nervously. Neither of us knew much about cars. We had bought it for £550. I hadn’t seen an Orion in years; they were not renowned for their durability. This one though seemed to be running well. It moved away with a healthy purr. I looked back. My car was parked too far away to think about driving after her.

The irregularities of space-time were disturbing. Supernatural forces should remain in the realm of the fanciful. But this temporal upheaval was seemingly real. It was happening, now, and to me. I was scared. I felt like vomiting, my hands were shaking, and I was sweating profusely. Had I unwittingly uncovered a portal for parallel worlds, been sucked into the hypothetical wormhole? I had read about such things in Asimov and Ballard short stories, but not given them much credence. It took a good deal of Pranayama breathing and another fifty-five minutes of consolidation before I could get up from where I was now crouching. People were coming up to me and asking me if I was all right. A gnarled old crone with a Bichon Frise attempted to call an ambulance, a scarecrow with a limp offered me a pull on his hip flask, and a rangy Goth tried to sell me some ketamine.

No amount of deep breathing, philosophical principles or stress management techniques could have prepared me for my next encounter, however. Returning to the Chrysler and noticing that the fuel gauge was low, I stopped at the filling station. There, at the adjacent pump, someone was putting fuel into a black Fiat Uno. I recognised the registration plate instantly. It was the Fiat I had owned in 1997. It took a split second, while I did a double-take, before I recognised that the figure in the brightly coloured paisley shirt and combat fatigues bore an uncanny resemblance to me, as I would have looked around twenty years ago. A lot slimmer and with considerably more hair. I felt a chill run the length of my spine. This was not like looking at old photos of oneself or a video. This was watching a real living, breathing human being in real-time. Wasn’t it? Reality was a fragile concept, it seemed. Albert Einstein called reality an illusion but a very persistent one. But even this statement suggested there was room around the edges of reality for leakage. Facing myself over a few feet of garage forecourt defied any rational explanation. I was frozen to the spot. I couldn’t move.

I watched as my doppelgänger fed the fuel into the tank. I studied his mannerisms and his gestures in slow motion, and one by one acknowledged them as my own. I recognised the flick of the neck, the squint against the light showing the lines etched on the forehead, the nervous shifting of weight from one foot to the other as he stood. I remembered buying those red Converse All Stars cut-offs from Clic Sargent. My heart raced, and I felt a tightness in my chest. No doubt about it; the individual I was looking at was me. Amidst the inner turmoil, rational questions like why hadn’t my 1997 personification noticed that the petrol was a little pricey or did the old Fiat run on unleaded tried to find a place in my consciousness. These were swept away by a tsunami of blind panic as I sensed my whole life might be collapsing into a single moment.

My doppelgänger replaced the nozzle in the pump, and as he did, he appeared to look right at me, or right through me. I couldn’t decide which. Could it have been that he did not recognise me? Or to look at it another way, should that be I did not recognise me, now that I was older. No one knew exactly what form their ageing would take. It was not something you would give a lot of thought to. But of course, Eddie had recognised me, and Holly had recognised me, despite my having changed significantly. And my smell must have been the same to Barry, although this in itself was inconclusive. Barry had always been what you might call a friendly dog.

My other swivelled round. I thought he was about to come over. What would he do? Introduce himself? What would I do? I felt my legs buckle. This was not like one of those dreams where you dream about a past episode, and the texture of the scenario as it unfolds is surreal. This was in clear focus in the here and now. I was watching myself in an everyday situation in broad daylight. He did not come over. He seemed to hesitate in mid-stride and turned to walk in the opposite direction towards the BP shop.

I determined that in 1997, I would have been with Saskia. We were happy back then in our second-floor apartment overlooking the park. At weekends, we would take the children to the pool or go walking in the woods. I remembered Saskia and I going to see As Good As It Gets at the Empire, and thinking how appropriate this seemed. Our contentment was of course not to last. I had been to see Saskia’s commemorative cherry tree in the park recently. Someone had tied a ribbon around it with a bow. It had made me feel neglectful of her memory. I had lost touch with Natalie and Josie. They would have left school long ago. At least none of them were in the Uno parked at the neighbouring pump. Their presence would have cranked my present nightmare up another notch.

My other emerged from the shop with an evening newspaper. I read the headline. It was about Diana’s death. Something about a mystery white car in the Alma Tunnel. As he passed, he seemed to look directly at me, or through me again. He could not have been more than twenty feet away. He got into the car. As he wound down his window, I detected a hint of recognition…. I didn’t detect a hint of recognition…. I wasn’t sure. My mouth opened to call out to him, but no words came. He drove off. The exhaust from the Fiat was still blowing, exactly as I remembered it. I put the pump back without having put any fuel in the car and set out to follow him.

He turned left down Hegel Avenue. I used to live on the Philosophers’ estate. I had lived there for over fifteen years, and it occurred to me that wherever we were headed was a run that I had made many times. I thought back to the types of journey I would have made in the Fiat in 1997. Mostly on account of the Fiat’s unreliability, these would have been short journeys. To and from work. To the shops at Kierkegaard Court. Where would I have been likely to have been going at six in the evening? I would usually be back in time for tea. But sometimes I didn’t finish until late. Perhaps I was going to visit Mick or Charlie. They both lived in the Schopenhauer Court flats. I might have been going to pick Saskia up from work. I tried to recall if she had her own car back then. Memories of her came flooding back once again. We passed the Occam’s Razor pub, where we used to sit out on summer evenings for a couple of halves of Old Poets.

The exhaust of the Fiat in front of me was now belching out black smoke. We seemed to be heading back on ourselves as we forked right into Rousseau Gardens. A Brimful of Asha (On the 45) read a poster outside The Codfather takeaway. This surely was an old poster. Shouldn’t they have taken it down? We passed the Mahatma Gandhi Primary School where Natalie and Josie used to go, and then right at the Karl Marx roundabout. It began to dawn on me where we were headed. Usually, I would have turned left at the Karl Marx roundabout, taking me home along Darwin Road. Turning right meant we were ………..

I woke up in the Lewis Carroll Memorial Hospital. I had sustained multiple head injuries in the accident. I could not remember much about the actual collision, but after a few sessions with Dr Trinidad, I recalled a little about the events leading up to it. An overweight elderly man driving an ugly black Chrysler had been tailgating me. It was a model I had not seen before. It was shaped like a hearse, and its registration plate was in an unusual format.

I had first noticed this sinister character with his receding hairline and unsightly facial scars at the BP filling station. My attention was drawn to him because he was behaving strangely. He stood there at the pump pointing the fuel hose into the air. He stared at me the whole time I was filling up. For a second I thought he seemed familiar, but I could not place where I might have seen him. The more I contemplated this, the more I imagined I had been mistaken. I put my imagined recognition down to the intensity of his gaze.

When I pulled off, he got into his car without putting any fuel in, and started following me. He kept his distance at first. I took a right at the Karl Marx roundabout into Nietzsche Avenue and ducked into Spinoza Crescent to make certain that he was really tailing me. He was closer now. I slowed down to give him the chance to overtake, but he stayed behind. I sped up trying to lose him, but the Fiat was not very fast. The last thing I remember, I was driving down Descartes Drive. He was tailgating me. Right up against my bumper, driving like a madman.

… heading for Descartes Drive, where years ago I had been rammed by an old maniac in a forties-style gangster getaway car. About fifteen years ago. I had been trapped in my …. Fiat Uno.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

One-Eyed Jack

One-Eyed Jack by Chris Green

Most people associate the name, Jack Dempsey with Boxing. He was the undisputed World Heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. He was a legendary puncher and won most of his fights by a knockout. Few fighters in history have been so feared. But I will always think of Jack Dempsey as my Biology teacher from 1991 to 1996. A different Jack altogether. At around five feet six, with monocular vision and a limp, a lighter and less aggressive Jack. He was a Dubliner and spoke with a lilting Northside accent, something I had not heard much of in my sheltered life in provincial England.

Apart from being a Biology teacher, Jack was a prodigious gambler. For much of the time that he was supposed to be preparing us for our exams, he could be found in Ladbrokes, the betting shop down the road from the school. He seemed to do well. He was the only teacher at the school to drive a Lexus. Whether he should have been driving at all with his impaired vision was a moot point.

I had developed a passing interest in horse racing and liked to pick out winners. One day, Jack found a copy of The Sporting Life from my paper round secreted in my desk. He took me under his wing and began to coach me in the subtleties of betting. He taught me how to assess risk and how to spot bookmakers’ tricks. He taught me when to punt and when to leave. Pick your moment, he told me, and never bet with your heart. He seemed to enjoy having me as a protégé. Later on, he introduced me to the ins and outs of Blackjack and Poker, of which he appeared to have an encyclopaedic knowledge.

Sadly, along with the rest of the class, I learned little Biology in his years of teaching. Every one of us failed our GCSE. Hardly surprising considering I was third in the class in the mock exam with just 9%. A lot of the questions were on the human eye, and we hadn’t covered that particular topic in class. The only surprise was that the school let us sit the real Biology exam. I did exceptionally well at Maths, however, and took it at A-Level.

If my memory serves me correctly, Jack was not even his real name. He was Seamus Dempsey. But to my knowledge, no-one called him Seamus. He was and would always be known as Jack. For all I know, his passport probably had him down as Jack. He appeared to be a solitary man, but rumour had it he had a wife and daughter. But given his gambling interests, I imagine they didn’t see much of him.

After I left school, I lost touch with Jack. I heard through the grapevine that following a year of particularly poor exam results, he lost his job. Just how bad could these be, I wondered? My guess would be that Jack wouldn’t miss teaching too much. He was probably looking for an excuse to leave to become a professional gambler. As for me, I went off to university where I was able to finance my stay through clandestine poker schools and reeling in fellow undergraduates with sucker bets. When it came to working out odds, it was surprising how easy it was to fool even the most intelligent students. I didn’t try it on with the Statistics students, but the rest were taken in hook, line and sinker. Popular I was not, perhaps, but unlike the others, I did not have to worry about whether my student loan would come through on time or how long it might last.

If I had applied the principles I used in gambling to my relationships, I might have fared better with the fairer sex over the years. But here the heart seemed to be boss. Every time I thought I had it made, I found the taste was not so sweet. Rachel was a stunner and clearly impressed by my success at the tables at the casino. I frequently came away with a substantial sum. She liked substantial sums, especially when they were spent on her. She was quick to put herself at my disposal, should I ever want a good luck charm hanging on my arm. It was difficult to turn her offer down, so I didn’t. I was smitten, and after a particularly fruitful night at the casino, I asked her to marry me. She accepted and for the next two years wrapped me around her little finger. I still had some money left after our divorce, but a fraction of what I had before it.

It would have helped if I had learned my lesson there and then. Once bitten and all that. Suffice to say, I didn’t. Next up was Natasha. I met Natasha on King George Day during the July festival at Goodwood. It followed a familiar pattern. I was celebrating my success on a long odds accumulator in the hospitality tent when Natasha made her presence known. Immaculately dressed and tall with long black hair and a summer tan, she was in many ways similar to Rachel. Yet this did not put me off. The similarity encouraged me. She moved in almost straight away. The strength of the feelings I developed for her took me unawares. I mistakenly thought she felt the same way, but it seemed she just liked my S-Class Mercedes and the holidays in the Caribbean. The weekends in Paris and visits to Fabergé. And the endless gifts I showered her with day in, day out. All those unimaginative, sad clichés. How could I have fallen into the age-old honey trap?

After Natasha had all but cleaned me out and moved on, I vowed to replace the heart on my sleeve with a more guarded stance. It was clear that my conspicuous consumption attracted the wrong kind of attention. If I were to avoid gold-diggers in future, I would need to be more discreet about how I celebrated winning at the races. I needed to take a leaf out of Jack’s book. In my experience, Jack consistently came out well from his wagers, but no-one would ever suspect he was raking it in. He was the most unassuming of men. While he may have been lonely as a result, at least he seemed to be in control of his finances and didn’t have to re-mortgage his house.

I had to see this as a turning point. I decided to seek help to get me through my crisis. I researched what was available locally and found there were dozens of counsellors and therapists advertising their services. It was a minefield. Cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic therapy, neurofeedback therapy, hypnotherapy, kinesiology, behavioural activation. The options were endless. The human psyche was clearly going through a bad patch.

What does polarity therapy involve?’ I asked Celeste at the Alternative Therapy Centre.

It focuses on the interdependence of mind, body and spirit, and how they interact with each other based on the universal laws of energy, attraction, repulsion and neutrality,’ she said. ‘It balances the body’s flow of energy.’

What about trans-cranial magnetic stimulation?’

TMS is a non-invasive therapy that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate the area of the brain that controls your emotional reactions and regulates mood,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come along for a taster?’

I think I might leave it for now,’ I said.

Although Joe Louis did not qualify his practice method, I decided he would be as good a bet as any to knock me into shape. His name instilled confidence. For some reason, it reminded me of Jack.

Joe was old school with a vengeance. He belonged to the get a grip school of psychotherapy. He had no time for all this non-directive therapy nonsense that he said was taking over the profession. He believed in telling it like it is. Avoiding issues only wasted time. You ended up talking yourself round in circles. You needed to get right down to the nitty-gritty. If something was wrong, you faced it head-on. Joe must have been about eighty years old, but he still ran six miles before breakfast every morning. He had fought in the Second World War. Or was it the First?

Get over it,’ he would say each time I complained about something. ‘Pull yourself together, man. Don’t you realise, some people have real problems? Some are deaf, dumb and blind or have no arms or legs. You’re nothing more than a weekend paranoid.’

I learned early on that but wasn’t a word he acknowledged. Six sessions in, I decided I was ready to face the world on my own terms. From now on, I would be the master of my destiny. I was better.

But I was penniless and soon to be homeless. Some disciplined gambling was called for. No casinos, no poker, just carefully researched punts on the horses. Jack Dempsey maintained that there were never more than three or four safe bets a month at worthwhile odds. Despite these horses not being favourites to win, you could nevertheless pen them in as certainties. You would often find them at smaller meetings like Fontwell Park or Wincanton. Only those who knew what they were looking for would spot them. But once you knew how to do this, all you had to do was check the race fields from day to day. To keep the starting price respectable, you kept the knowledge to yourself and spread your stake around several bookmakers. Any other bets you placed, especially speculative accumulators or Yankees, were an indulgence. These were vanity projects. This did not mean you should ignore them, but you needed to understand they were just for fun. The more bets you planned to make, of course, the more background work you would need to do. Even so, the risk element increased. If you wanted to stay ahead, you stuck to the certainties.

But how was I to get started again? I could hardly go to the bank to ask for a loan. What is the purpose of the loan, they would ask? They would be unlikely to accept, to bet on My Lovely Horse in the 2:30 at Fakenham as a legitimate reason to lend money. Not even an understanding branch manager like Mr Cleghorn would approve that. I could pretend the money was to build an extension or install a new boiler, but I would be required to provide paperwork to back this up. As the house was being re-possessed, getting this would have been difficult. Instead, I sold my camera equipment and my scuba diving gear. Neither had had much use and in any case, I had nowhere to store them. With the proceeds, I could put a thousand on Light Fandango at 10-1 in the 3:15 at Hexham. It romped home. I was on my way.

Wish You Were Here at Catterick at 100-8 and Bunny Boiler at Haydock Park at 16-1 kept up the winning run. I was able to put a deposit down on a flat and buy a second-hand Corsa. Pulp Friction coming in at 8-1 at Wetherby enabled me to take a short break in Cornwall. I avoided all frivolous wagers. It was a minimum risk strategy. It was still possible to become overconfident and miscalculate a certainty, and when Heisenberg was beaten by a short head with two grand riding on it, I resolved to be more cautious. I would stake no more than five hundred at a time. Three bets a month maximum.

Restraint doesn’t suit everyone. Within a week I was climbing up the walls with boredom. I was doing Sudoku puzzles and watching Big Brother and repeats of Countdown. The longer I exercised self-control, the crazier I became. I bought a poncho and started reading bobsleigh magazines. I took up fork bending and painted the fridge green. I joined the Bee Gees fan club. I shaved my eyebrows off and was about to have a tattoo of a fairground scene on my forehead when I stopped myself. Enough was enough. This was madness. It was time to get back in the metaphorical saddle.

Five grand on the nose on New Romance at 20-1 with minimal research beforehand put me back on track. I followed it up with a successful night at the casino, and it was here I met Siobhan. She stopped me right in my tracks. The light was shining on her. Her long golden hair was bright and luxuriant. Perhaps I had had a glass or two, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was more petite than Rachel and Natasha and had a gentler demeanour. She had fair skin, dreamy bliss-blue eyes and a smile like the morning sun. Nervously, I approached her and introduced myself. She seemed pleased and accepted my offer of a drink.

I don’t know why I came here tonight,’ she said. ‘I don’t normally come to places like this, but I was curious about what went on here.’

Neither do I,’ I said. ‘Well, I haven’t been here for a long time.’

I’m glad you are here though, as it is quite intimidating when you don’t know your way around. My friend Emma was meant to meet me here, but she cancelled at the last minute, and I was left stranded. I was about to leave when you came over.’

I suppose it is more of a man’s thing.’

I did not see much of my da while I was growing up,’ she said. ‘I spent a lot of time away at boarding school and summer camp. But I know he used to come to this casino, and he seemed to do rather well. You look as if you’ve had a good night too now.’

Beginner’s luck, I suppose,’ I said, not wishing to give anything away.

Ah, I see. I don’t think Da was a beginner,’ she said. ‘Not by a long chalk. He was obsessed with gambling. I suppose I’m here because I wanted to see what the fascination was. By the way, what happened to your eyebrows?’

The eyebrows? Do you know, I’ve been asking myself the same question?. But I’m sure they will grow back.’

I was surprised when Siobhan invited me back to hers for a nightcap, but naturally I was flattered. Things were looking up again. In the taxi, we found out a little more about each other. She had recently moved back to the area, having spent a year in Brussels. She worked in finance. Her family were from these parts, she said, although she did not elaborate.

Siobhan’s apartment was in a modern, purpose-built block on the outskirts of town. It was well appointed with brightly coloured furniture and abstract prints on the walls. She put on a shuffle of late night music and without asking, poured me a glass of Jameson’s Whiskey, along with one for herself. She said she was going to freshen up, she would be back in a minute. While she was out of the room, I noticed a selection of framed photos on a shelf in the corner. Curious, I went over to investigate. The pictures appeared to be random shots of Siobhan and friends, and there was one alongside them that looked like it might be an old family photo. Something about it seemed familiar. I picked it up to investigate. It hit me like a thunderbolt. It was so out of context, I had difficulty taking it in. There was Siobhan, and next to her was Jack. Jack was a little older than I remembered him, but with his slate grey herring-bone suit, his swept-back red hair, and his cloudy eye, he was unmistakable.

There seemed to be only one explanation. Siobhan must be Jack’s daughter. When she had told me earlier that her da used to be a teacher, I had thought no more of it. Why would I have? But what mysterious forces were at work to bring about this unlikely synchronicity? How should I read it? Was it a good omen? Did it bode well for a meaningful relationship with Siobhan or should I be wary?

…………………………………………………………………………. 

It is early days, but all I can say is so far, so good. Things appear to be working out. Jack is back in Ireland. We are going over to Dublin to visit him next week. Perhaps we might have a day out at Leopardstown races.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

 


The Cat’s Tale

The Cat’s Tale by Chris Green

Where’s the cat, Zack wonders? And what is that enormous snake doing in here?

The snake curled up in the corner of the room appears completely out of context and instantly intimidating. Zack is terrified. Keeping a safe distance from the beast, he googles big fat yellow snake on his phone. This is an instinctual reaction. He belongs to the internet generation. His phone is like an extra limb. The search comes back with Burmese python. A large yellow and white snake that can grow up to fourteen feet. In the wild, Burmese pythons can devour antelopes and monkeys along with rodents and domestic fowl. As far as Zack is aware, there are no antelopes or monkeys on the estate, and while there may be rats and mice, he cannot help but worry that Roger is inside the huge reptile. He draws some consolation from the information that pythons do not eat every day, and he had seen Roger that morning when he fed him before setting off for work at the fast-food outlet. He draws less consolation from the fact that the huge snake appears to be contentedly sleeping, and in all probability digesting Roger.

Zack has not had to deal with many problems in his young life. Although he is twenty-three, he still lives at home with his parents. He has not had the complications that can come with wives and children. However, two distinct problems present themselves here. The first, but arguably the easier to solve, is how to get rid of the snake. He can phone Wild Things. They will send a trained operative out and collect it. The second problem is not so straightforward. How is he going to explain Roger’s disappearance to Mrs Donnelly?

Zack offered to come in to feed the cat while Mrs Donnelly was on holiday in Magaluf with her friend from the sewing circle. She will not appreciate it if he has fed the cat to a yellow and white monster. He remembers the conversation he’d had with Mrs D before she went away.

I don’t want to put Roger in a cattery,’ she had said, ‘He doesn’t get on well with other cats.’

Don’t worry. Your cat is in safe hands,’ Zack had said. ‘After all, I only live a few doors away.’

Thank you ever so much, Zack. You are a good boy,’ Mrs D had said. ‘I do appreciate it and I’ll bring you back a nice bottle of Spanish brandy.’

That’s kind of you, Mrs D.’

Roger’s more than a pet to me, you see. I don’t know what I’d do without him.’

Keeping a close eye on the snake in case it decides is still hungry, Zack makes the call and waits nervously. Within a few minutes, the large green Wild Things Zoo van arrives. Deputy Reptile Manager, Brett Samson, introduces himself. Brett is aptly named. He is huge. It takes Zack a moment or two to recover from the handshake.

What a magnificent specimen,’ Brett says. ‘Lovely markings. Mature adult male Burmese python. One of the largest snakes in the world, you know. I think this may be the one that went missing from SnakeWorld. He’s called Arthur. You may have seen it on the news. But SnakeWorld is a long way away. I wonder how Arthur ended up here. And how would he have got in?’

I’ve got this sneaking suspicion I may have left the back door open this morning,’ Zack says. He goes to check. The back door is open.

Brett meanwhile is getting friendly with Arthur.

Can you tell if Arthur has eaten lately?’ Zack asks. ‘I’m worried that he might have swallowed Roger.’

Oh no! They don’t eat humans.’

Roger is a cat.’

Ah!’

Brett picks up the snake, skilfully heaves it over his shoulder, wraps it around his neck and feels its stomachs.

Well, Arthur certainly seems to have eaten recently,’ Brett says. ‘How big was Roger?’

Well. Standard cat size,’ Zack says, holding his hands out in front of him to approximate Roger’s dimensions. ‘He is a mackerel tabby.’

I can’t say for definite what the snake has eaten. I would say that if Roger doesn’t appear within a day or so, he is not going to. Had you had him long?’

Zack finds it disconcerting that Brett is already talking about Roger in the past tense.

The thing is that Roger is, or was, not my cat,’ Zack says. ‘I am, was, looking after him for a neighbour.’

Oh dear! That’s unfortunate. What will you do?’

I don’t know. Mrs Donnelly was very fond of Roger. I suppose I will have to try to get a replacement. I’ll have to look on the internet or something.’

Luckily Mrs D has a framed photo of Roger on the mantelpiece. From this, Zack can flesh out his shaky recollection of what the cat looked like. It is at times like this he wishes he had taken more notice of Mr Bacon, his art teacher at St Mawgans. Mr Bacon had said, ‘don’t rely on what you think you should see, take a mental photograph of it.’ He had left at sixteen. Art was not one of his five GCSEs.

With some further research, he discovers that mackerel tabbies often have an M shape on their forehead just as Roger has and also the same pink nose with peppered black dots. This he feels will help with his search for a replacement. Just in case Roger shows up, Zack takes a day off work, but there is no sign of him. Meanwhile, he gets on the case. He finds from the internet and the local paper that kittens are plentiful. They come in all shapes and sizes, breeds and markings. Even within a radius of a few miles, there are half a dozen litters of mackerel tabby kittens available, from which it would be likely he would be able to find one to match Roger’s markings. But Mrs D is only away for a week and this does not give the kitten much chance to grow into a Roger lookalike. There are no fully grown tabby cats available.

Zack is beside himself with worry. It is now Tuesday. Mrs D gets back from Magaluf on Saturday. Time is of the essence, so he decides he must adopt a more proactive approach. He places an ad on Gumtree. Urgently Wanted: Neutered Male Mackerel Tabby Cat. He specifies a radius of 100 miles. The rest of the day and the following day bring no response. In the meantime, Zack keeps hoping against hope that Roger will suddenly come bounding up to him when he bangs the cat food tin with a spoon and calls out his name. But he is concerned that too much cat-calling will attract attention and make the neighbours suspicious, so he limits his overtures to ten minutes at a time. To make sure he does not miss Roger, should he appear, he stays around the house watching movies from Mrs D’s collection of old films on DVD.

On Thursday, in a desperate attempt to get a result, he amends the Gumtree ad. He adds Un-neutered Cat Also Considered and ups the distance he will travel to pick up the cat to 200 miles. It brings results. A Vera Mundy from Northallerton has an un-neutered mackerel tabby called Barry.

Now that I am in a wheelchair, I’m finding it a struggle to look after Barry,’ she says.

Can you send me a photo?’ Zack says.

How do I do that? I can tell you what Barry looks like.’

I would prefer a photo, if you could please.’

But I haven’t got a photo of him,’

Could you take one on your mobile phone?’

But I’m talking to you on my phone.’

Or you could email a photo.’

Oh, I don’t think I’ve got email, whatever it is when it’s at home.’

Zack manages to talk Vera through how to take a photo on her phone and send it. Moments later, a picture of Barry arrives on his phone. It is not a perfect angle to distinguish Barry’s key features, and it is difficult to judge the cat’s size, but Barry seems to be an approximate match to Roger. Zack calls her back, takes down the address and tells her he will be up to collect Barry shortly after lunch.

There are several local vets on yell.com. Before setting off, Zack books Barry in for a vasectomy for the following afternoon.

Vera Mundy is tearful about saying goodbye to Barry.

You will look after him, won’t you?’ she keeps repeating. ‘He’s a good cat, really. It’s just sometimes he can be a bit boisterous, if you know what I mean. And now I’m in a wheelchair ………’

Don’t you worry,’ Zack says. ‘I will take good care of Barry.’

Barry is not happy about being put in a cat box and bounced around in the back of Zack’s Skoda for a hundred and twenty miles. He expresses his disapproval with a lexicon of hisses and snarls and claws wildly at his cage for most of the journey. He celebrates his freedom with a lurch at Zack’s neck, which leaves a nasty gash. Zack locks the animal in Mrs D’s utility room overnight. Once again Barry is not happy at this, but even less happy at being put back in the cat box the following morning and taken to The Affordable Vet.

While Zack does not know what experience Barry has had of vets in North Yorkshire, he is certain that it is not a positive one. No sooner has Dr Mabombo recovered from the first assault, than he has his cheek gouged by a second attack. In desperation, he calls for Zack, who comes to his assistance. Between them, they manage to hold the feral animal down long enough for Dr Mabombo to get the needle in.

While he is in the waiting, Zack catches up with his missed calls from the previous day. There are eleven, seven from the fast-food outlet, the last of which was probably to let him know when he could pick up his p45, and four from Mrs Donnelly. He cannot face speaking to Mrs D just yet so he sends her a text saying sorry he missed the calls, but that Roger is well and everything at home is fine.

The good news is that Barry felt no pain,’ Dr Mabombo says. ‘The bad news is that you have had a wasted journey. Your cat had already been snipped. I suppose that I should have checked before putting him under. But he was kicking off a bit. …… Don’t worry, though, I won’t charge you for the operation.’

I see,’ Zack says. ‘I suppose that I should have checked too.’

Don’t you remember getting him neutered then?’

I’ve only just got him. Until yesterday he was someone else’s cat,’ Zack says. He tries to remember what Vera Mundy had said in their first telephone conversation. He was sure that she had said he was a tom, but there again she may not have. He might have got it wrong. His stress levels were high at the time.

Anyway. I’ve given him another sedative so that you can get him home,’ Dr Mabombo says. ‘But he will be right as rain tomorrow.’

That’s good,’ Zack says. ‘Tomorrow’s Saturday.’

When Zack gets the cat back to Mrs Donnelly’s, he puts heavy duty gaffer tape over the cat-flap. He wants the cat to stay indoors overnight. He carefully examines the sedated cat, comparing its markings to the photo on the mantelpiece. He satisfies himself that there is a reasonable likeness. He leaves a large bowl of dried food and a saucer of milk and takes the cat box back to his dad’s shed.

After a sleepless night, he arrives in the morning to feed Barry-Roger, ha, ha, Badger for short. There is hardly a whimper. The animal is still groggy, a complete contrast to the feral pre-op beast of yesterday. Whatever sedative Dr Mabombo used must have been powerful. The dried food and the milk that he left last night have not been touched and the animal isn’t interested in the fresh bowl of venison Gourmet he puts out for it. He comforts himself that Mrs Donnelly won’t be back until three o’clock. This gives him plenty of time to perk the animal up.

Zack looks to google for advice. There are a number of sites like thecatsite.com and consciouscat.net offering post-op advice, but the advice seems to concentrate on the effects of the surgery, not the sedation. He cannot find any instances of the cat being put under anaesthetic and not operated upon. A flash of inspiration comes to him. He remembers reading somewhere that cats respond to music. Perhaps it was an article in his parents’ Daily Mail.

He gets his boombox and connects it to his phone and tries out different genres from his Spotify account, pop, classical, jazz, reggae, soul, indie, hip-hop. None of these seems to do much to animate the sulky animal. Badger remains curled up on the basket of jumpers. In a do or die attempt to get the cat moving, he sets the playlist to heavy metal. This is something of a longshot as the cat can’t have heard much of this sort of music at Vera Mundy’s. To his amazement, Badger starts to show signs of life. His ears prick up to Axl Rose’s screaming vocals. He’s up on his feet and is joining in with the chorus of Paradise City, meowing spiritedly. And inspired further it seems by the wailing guitar he makes it over to his food bowl. What an unusual animal he is, thinks Zack. What is he going to do to surprise him next?

Mrs D phones to say that she is in the taxi from the airport.

Is everything OK? she says. ‘What’s that dreadful noise?’

Noise? Oh, that’s some music I was playing. I’ll turn it down.’

You haven’t been having parties, have you, Zack?’

No, Mrs D. I was just listening to a new song on my Spotify.’

I know you haven’t, pet. I was only joking. You’re such a good boy, looking after my Roger. How is my little treasure?’

He’s fine. He’s got quite an appetite sometimes, hasn’t he?’ Zack says, watching Badger demolish the bowl of Gourmet and then set about the dried food.

I hope you haven’t been overfeeding my baby. I don’t want him getting fat.’

No, Mrs D. Just what you said to feed him.’

I bet he’s missed me. I can’t wait to see him. Look. I’ll be back in half an hour. We’re stuck in traffic at the moment. I’ve brought you back a sombrero for all those sunny days The Express says we are going to get.’

Zack starts to remove the gaffer tape from the cat-flap. Badger eyes it up, planning his escape. Zack leaves the rest of the tape on until he hears the cab pull up outside. Badger spits and snarls.

Anyone home?’ calls Mrs D.

In the kitchen, Mrs D,’ Zack calls back, making a ball from the remaining gaffer tape while blocking the cat’s exit.

Mrs D joins them and plonks some bags down on the kitchen table.

Are you sure that Roger is all right?’ she says. ‘He looks different.’

That’s because you’ve been away, Mrs D. Things always look a little different when you come back to them.’

And he doesn’t seem all that pleased to see me. He normally comes bounding over when I come through the door.’

He’s probably a bit upset that you went away. Cats are very sensitive, you know.’

I suppose you are right, Zack. Thank you for looking after him, anyway. Do you like your sombrero?’

It’s fantastic, Mrs D. I have always wanted one.’

Roger’s dramatic entrance through the cat flap at this moment surely owes a debt to the movies. The shark’s entrance in Jaws springs to mind, or The Thing bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. Mrs D is thunderstruck. Before her are two identical cats. Two Rogers. What arcane wizardry can have brought this about?

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Summer Time

Summer Time by Chris Green

It was already the middle of July. Only a few moments ago it seemed it was June, or May even. The Bank Holiday Mondays, the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Summer Solstice, Glastonbury, Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix had come and gone like thieves in the night. In quick succession, each of my shrubs had flowered and gone over. Already the hydrangeas were out, and the sunflowers were opening. My life was playing on fast forward. Any day now someone would say, the nights are drawing in, somehow stating the obvious. A friend of mine was fond of saying, change is the only certainty. As I grew older, I was beginning to appreciate the wisdom of his words. ‘Now’ was forever slipping away. As Bob Dylan had observed back in the seventies, time was a jet plane.

It was polling time. A by-election had been called following the death of our local MP, Richard Hamilton, in a sword-fight with the landlord of The Goat and Bicycle. I had begun to receive political pamphlets through the door. Each day I would come home from work at the brass instrument advice centre to find a new pile of brightly coloured electoral fliers on the mat. There were more than a dozen candidates. There was a range of views on local issues, but most of them agreed that the country was in a bit of a mess. Some promised to put more police on the streets to help fight crime, while others wanted to see a volunteer police force to save money. One or two wanted to make such deep cuts they suggested closing hospitals, schools and libraries, and deporting the disabled and unemployed.

In my neighbourhood there seemed to be a predominance of VOTE WARHOL stickers in the windows of the houses, although there were half a dozen VOTE ROTHKO stickers, several VOTE POLLOCK and one or two VOTE EMIN.

I was cooking liver and onions for my supper one evening when Mr Warhol called round.

Hi! I’m Andy,’ he said. He was an odd-looking man with pale features and large glasses. I could not tell whether or not he was wearing a wig. I did not like to ask.

I asked him instead, ‘If you get in, will everyone be famous for fifteen minutes?’

That would be communism,’ he replied, circumventing the reference. Perhaps he had become immune to smart-alec remarks.

Or in fifteen minutes everyone will be famous?’

That sounds to me like liberalism.’

Or will fifteen people be famous for everyone?’

That would be an oligarchy, he said.

I could not fault Andy’s political theory.

Will I notice any difference if you get in?’ I asked.

Put it this way,’ he said. ‘If you like your life, I’ll be trying to keep things as they are; if you don’t like your life, I’ll be trying to change things. You choose.’

Very diplomatic, I thought. Despite my occasional propensity to complain, I liked my life. I forever wished I could hold back the relentless progress of time. This feeling was especially strong at this time of year. It seemed important to capture and hang on to those precious fleeting moments when summer was at its most vital, those few brief days when the celestial magic cast its powerful spell. Light evenings were nourishment to the soul. The Sunday at the seaside. The walk in the woods with the birds singing. These would be the times that one would look back to and remember as special in the dark winter months ahead.

If I could choose, I’d like things to stay pretty much as they are,’ I said.

Good,’ he said. ‘Vote for me and I’ll see what I can do.’

He shook my hand and made his way across my front lawn to Mr and Mrs De Kooning’s next door. I suspected the De Koonings would give him a tougher time as they had a VOTE TURNER sticker in their window. Furthermore, I had always found them confrontational, particularly over the issue of my rhododendron, which they claimed spoilt their view of Hogarth Hill.

Despite his unconventional appearance and his lack of political conviction, or perhaps because of these attributes, I liked Andy. Although I seldom bothered to vote, I made my way down to the John Constable Primary School on polling day and voted for him. It was a close contest, but after three recounts, Andy Warhol was elected MP for Gainsborough South by a margin of two votes.

On Mondays, I go to a Flower Arranging class at the Francis Bacon Memorial Centre, and on Tuesdays, Snake Charming at the Hindu Community Centre. On Wednesdays, I have a head massage and on Thursday I attend a bricklaying course at the college. At the weekends, I spend time with my girlfriend, Yoni. I have been described as a creature of habit. While it is good to have varied interests, I like to keep to a routine. Most evenings I get home at 9 to 9.30, although sometimes Snake Charming goes on a little late. During the second half of July, the sun sets just over one minute earlier each evening so it was not until the end of July that I noticed it was still light as I drove home when perhaps it shouldn’t be.

I looked up the sunset times for Gainsborough and found that there indeed appeared to be a discrepancy between when the sun was due to set and when it was actually setting. As near as I could tell, the difference was twenty minutes. I checked my watch against the clocks in the house. All agreed the time to within a minute. Either there was a huge conspiracy to dupe me or something strange was happening.

It was hard not to feel a sense of panic, but in the interest of my sanity, I decided I would do my best not to draw attention to the situation. It was better to keep it to myself for the time being, in case there was a rational explanation that I might have overlooked. I did not even tell Yoni, although once or twice during our lovemaking, she remarked that I seemed distracted. I explained we were having a lot of intonation problems at the centre with four-valve euphoniums. Over dinner at Vettriano’s, she noticed I kept looking at my watch and looking out of the window.

Are we expecting someone or should I not be here?’ she asked.

Sorry darling,’ I said. ‘I thought I spotted Paul Gauguin from my Snake Charming class.’

I read the broadsheet newspapers thoroughly, kept a close eye on the television news and trawled the Internet to see if I could find any clarification, but drew a total blank. It appeared no one else had noticed the celestial upheaval that was upon us. Not even climate change sites had any helpful information. I alone had spotted that the seasons were playing up.

Shaving had never been an activity that I had particularly enjoyed. But, when around the beginning of August, I noticed I no longer needed to, I felt a little unsettled. Furthermore, while I felt that I would miss the convivial conversations about football, opera and pizza with Leonardo, my barber, this was not my prime concern when I found that my hair was no longer growing longer. Doctor Magritte, the only doctor at the Rembrandt Surgery I could get an appointment with, checked me over to ascertain whether I was dead, and after finding a pulse and a heartbeat, began to ask me questions. Had I been feeling any stress? Was I eating a balanced diet? Had I taken any narcotic drugs? Had I been near a source of nuclear energy? I told him that life had been fine, and I ate healthy meals like butternut squash bakes and sardine salads, made sure I ate an apple a day, and took regular exercise. He took a blood sample and said he would send it off for tests to be done.

How long will the tests take?’ I asked.

Well, the tests will only take a jiffy,’ he replied, a little smugly. ‘But there might be another 40,000 samples already waiting for tests at the lab. This is how the NHS works, unfortunately. Three to four weeks, maybe. In the meantime, I’ll just give you something to help. And I think I had better sign you off work.’

Is it serious?’ I asked.

It may be, but there again it may not be,’ he replied. ‘But I don’t want you to worry about it.’ Why could no one commit themselves these days?

I picked up the lithium that Doctor Magritte prescribed and took my sick note into the brass instrument advice centre. For the next few days, I sat in the garden taking stock of the floral inertia. The hydrangeas and the borders I had planted from seed were still in full bloom. The lawnmower had stayed in the shed and the grass was exactly the same length as it had been in the middle of July. I hadn’t had to water the garden, not even the rhododendron. While it must have rained during this time, it hadn’t rained excessively. I could think of absolutely no explanation for these phenomena.

I began dropping comments into conversations with friends and neighbours about it being a strange summer. Or about how manageable my garden seemed this year, hoping one might come back with something like, the night’s don’t seem to be drawing in at all this year, or fantastic isn’t it how the flowers are lasting this year, I haven’t had to deadhead my petunias once. However, there was no hint from any of them that they were experiencing anything untoward. The nearest to a result was when Graham Sutherland at number 44 had said his roses were doing well compared to last year. I was momentarily cheered, but it transpired that this was because last year they had been attacked by leafhoppers, spittlebugs and whitefly. It seemed I was alone in my predicament.

My waking turmoil reflected itself in my sleep. I began to have disturbing dreams at night. In one series of dreams, I was falling from a tall Gothic building. But whereas in such episodes I was accustomed to waking up before I hit the ground, in these dreams I didn’t. I splattered all over the pavement. In the one I remembered most vividly, people had come to stand around and watch me fall. A television crew filmed the spectacle. At one point I was watching their film of my fall on television and I tried to switch off the set with the remote control, but the batteries were flat, and I screamed as I watched myself hit the pavement. I woke up terrified. In another dream, I was driving along a very straight, featureless, dark road and all the other vehicles driving in both directions along the road were AA vans. In the next frame, they had all become ambulances. I could not control the car and was struggling to avoid a collision with the ambulances. In yet another I was trapped in windowless rooms in a dark house, unable to move or make any sound. People dressed in red with voices talking backwards were searching for me. I did not know whether they wanted to harm me or rescue me.

I began to dread going to bed. I found myself staying up later and later, binge-watching Bates Motel, Black Mirror and Mindhunter on Netflix.

One morning I got up and the green light on the phone was flashing. I played back the message on the answer machine. ‘Hello,’ it said. ‘This is Doctor Magritte. I hope you are OK. I have a feeling I may have prescribed you the wrong … beep beep beep.’ My answer machine was a cheap one I had bought at a car boot. It had had no instructions of how to reset the message allocation time. It did not matter anyway as I had looked up lithium on HealthLine, and decided that it might not be a good idea to take it, especially 1800 milligrams per day.

I am not one of these motorists who continually checks their mileage, but I could not help but notice that the odometer on my Citroen Xsara Picasso had been registering 33333 for several days, during which I had been to my acupuncturist twice, and had also driven to the health centre for an extra head-massage. There was nothing subjective about my perception of the mileage. This was entirely scientific; the car was moving along the road, the speedometer was registering the speed, but the odometer was not recording any mileage. In some ways, this seemed more sinister to me than some of the other examples of torpidity. I set the journey distance register to zero and drove off to buy a newspaper and some groceries. The register remained on zero.

It was the evening of my snake-charming exam. I had decided to confide in someone about what was happening to me. I had chosen Sanjay, my tutor, as the most appropriate candidate. Aside from being a damn good snake charmer, he was well versed in phenomenology. He seemed understanding, non-judgemental, and had a mystical presence.

Considering the stress I was under, my exam went well. I had the cobra dancing to the music of my flute as if I was a professional. This, of course, is not completely true. Snakes are deaf. They only appear to be dancing to the music. The thing to remember is that the cobra is expecting an attack, so you have to keep the flute moving from side to side as you play, and the snake will mimic the movements. A cobra’s striking range is roughly one-third of its total length, so it is also a good idea to keep a few feet between you and the snake in case it is having a bad day.

After the exam was over, Sanjay came over to congratulate me, presenting me with an ideal opportunity to have a chat. Once Sanjay had finished shaking my hand and bowing politely, I said, ‘Sanjay, something’s been bothering me for a while.’

Yes, I can see that,’ he said. ‘Would like to tell me what is this thing that is bothering you?’

Today is the eleventh of August,’ I continued. ‘And it’s still as light in the evenings as it was in the middle of July. It’s not dark until 10 o’clock. You must have noticed.’

No. I have not been noticing that,’ he replied.

Let me show you what I mean,’ I said. ‘It’s 9.15 now. If we go outside, you will see that the sun has not quite set.’

First, I have to put the snake basket away so they will not be escaping and poisoning the streetwalkers. But I can see from your expression that you have been worrying so I will not be long.’

Sanjay came back from putting the snakes away and I pushed open the double doors at the back of the community centre. I was about to say to Sanjay, ‘there, you see what I mean,’ but instead, I found we were confronted by almost total darkness. You could just detect a tinge of pink in the bottom corner of the sky over the moor, where the sun had set, but otherwise, the sky was a dark grey and the orange street-lights were shining brightly. I was stunned. I checked my watch. It confirmed that it was 9.15. It was August 11th. It was dark – as one would have expected. I did not know what to say, or what I should feel.

What is happening to me, Sanjay?’ I gasped.

I have observed for two or three weeks now that you have been stressing,’ Sanjay said. ‘You should not worry, you know. Many people are tense before their snake charming exam. Stress can make you imagine strange things.’

But yesterday at 9.15 it was still light.’

Life can be illusory,’ he said. ‘Reality is not necessarily what you are seeing.’

I took a detour on my way home and called in at The David Hockney for a drink. The journey was exactly 303 miles according to my milometer, which now registered 33636. I ordered a Carlsberg Special and phoned Yoni. She did not pick up, which probably meant she was researching for her dissertation on Dissertation Research Methods. I sat by the window, looking out across the moors, and noticed that there was a full moon. I had not seen a lot of the moon during the light evenings. I wondered whether the moon’s phases had been consistent over the past few weeks. I sipped at my drink, idly brushing my beard with my hand. Beard! I had a beard. Quite a thick one, too. Why had Yoni not remarked on it? She must surely have noticed. Why from day to day had I not noticed it growing?

I arrived home around midnight, after another two or three medicinal Carlsberg Specials. The first thing I noticed was that my neatly manicured front lawn was now like a wild meadow. The grass had grown several inches and there were weeds everywhere. Most of the flowers that were in bloom had dropped petals, and all the border plants needed dead-heading. It provided a complete contrast with my neighbours’ gardens, which were fastidiously well-maintained. I wondered if my nascent wilderness might be the reason behind the For Sale sign outside the de Koonings. I dreaded to think how much the rhododendron had grown.

I opened the door. The green light on the answer machine was flashing. I played back the message.

Hello. This is Andy Warhol. It’s now 8.30 pm on Wednesday 11th August. You may remember when I called round, you told me you’d like things to stay as they are. I expect if I asked you now, you might answer differently. So I’ve … beep beep beep.’

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Travelling Light

Travelling Light by Chris Green

It didn’t work out at first. Things often don’t the first time you try them. Suzi and I only got into it because Milo and Clover gave it the hard sell. It was simple, they told us.

You just lay down, close your eyes, relax your muscles, channel your thoughts, and gradually let go.’ Clover said. ‘You will experience a feeling of lightness of body and mind, and in no time at all, you will be able to witness your astral body floating across the ceiling.’

Once you can do this, with a little practice, you can go anywhere,’ Milo said. ‘So long as you can visualise the space, you can transport yourself to wherever you want.’

It is called astral travelling,’ Clover said. ‘It is cool.’

Perhaps it would help you to know that astral travelling is natural,’ Milo said. ‘It is something we do all the time, in dreams for example. And what you create on the astral plane brings about changes on the physical plane. It is true magick. Everyone should try it.’

Think of it as flying without wings,’ Clover said.

I was a little hesitant, but Suzi couldn’t wait to give it a go. It was time we tried something new; she said. She was excited by the idea of having an out-of-body experience, or OBE as they were referred to. When we failed miserably on our first attempt, she suggested we try again the following day.

I think I felt something happening that time, Adam,’ Suzi said after our third or fourth attempt. ‘I definitely seemed to drift off somewhere.’

I’m not sure I did,’ I said.

I felt like giving up there and then. It was fine for old hippies like Milo and Clover. They were probably taken in regularly by nonsense like this. But as I saw it, astral travelling had little place in our lives. It was not much more credible than many of those conspiracy theories that did the rounds on social media. I liked to think Suzi and I were more grounded, less gullible.

You’re probably trying too hard,’ Suzi said. ‘You need to relax. Try those breathing exercises I showed you.…… Anyway, I think we ought to stick with it, don’t you? Can we do that?’

I wondered if it would be better to just stick with smoking weed. If you wanted to get mystical about it, you could say that this provided us with our Dreamtime. It was much more straightforward. But it did not seem worth mentioning it. Once Suzi got the bit between her teeth about something, there was no stopping her. I could tell she was determined to push this one. She was eager to please Clover, with whom she had been friends since university.

Not many people were aware of it, but Clover was the heir-apparent to the FlowerPower fortune. I had only recently been introduced to her and Milo when Suzi took me along to their wedding at Scott McKenzie Hall, a month or two previously. Clover seemed to possess an almost childlike naivety. She was the archetypal hippie, all paisley pattern peasant prints and patchouli oil. But I could not make out Milo at all. He was something of an enigma. He dressed in a bohemian manner and talked the talk, but he came across as rude, edgy, opinionated, and overbearing. In a word, he appeared to be a bully. It didn’t seem the pair were suited at all, but when I had mentioned this to Suzi back then, she told me to stop being a wet blanket.

Maybe I will read up on astral travelling on the internet to see if I can get any tips,’ I said now to placate her.

Good idea!’ Suzi said. ‘Do some research. There will be lots of information about astral projection online. It always helps to get some background when you are starting something new. You never know, Adam. This could change our lives.’

I discovered from Mystic Arts that astral travelling and astral projection were overarching terms used to describe an intentional out-of-body experience that assumed the existence of a soul or astral body separate from the physical body. Connected by an invisible silver cord, one’s astral body could travel outside the realm of the physical body. There were no limits to where the experienced traveller could go. You could travel beyond the earthly bounds of your physical body to anywhere in the universe. I entertained the possibility that it had been Milo that had written this.

To please Suzi, I persevered. While she claimed her astral body had made it as far as the botanical gardens, I told her mine had hovered above my head and looked down on me. This seemed to satisfy her. She told me I was doing well. Wasn’t she right, she said, to get me to stick with it? 

However, the next time Milo and Clover came to visit, we found them too excited to even listen to how we were getting along with our astral projection. Clover was especially animated. They had moved on; she told us. They had taken the exercise a step further.

Listen to this, guys,’ she said. ‘While our subtle bodies were travelling, we decided to try swapping them. To take possession of each other. Just imagine that for a moment if you can.’

To be honest, I don’t think Clover expected it to work,’ Milo said. ‘After all, it was a pretty far-out proposition of mine. But I had faith. I knew we could do it.’ 

And it worked,’ Clover said. ‘We only occupied each other’s bodies momentarily, but it was a mind-blowing experience. I was Milo and Milo was me.’

You have to work at it, of course,’ Milo said. ‘Don’t get the impression that it’s easy. But I have no doubt at all that eventually, Clover and I will be able to swap bodies whenever we want to. And to do it for longer spells.’ 

You two should try it,’ Clover said.

Call me perverse, but I had never had any desire to be in Suzi’s body in any way other than the more accepted method of entry. I was perfectly happy with this setup. Men were men and women were women. And so far as I could tell, this worked out well. It was the natural order of things. I found all these bizarre new permutations of gender you read about in the papers sickening. But Suzi wanted to know more. She seemed fascinated by Milo and Clover’s crazy idea. Why would anyone want to swap, I wondered? What would be the purpose? It could be for good intentions or it could be for evil motives, couldn’t it? What if one of the parties decided to make the arrangement permanent against the other’s wishes? What would happen then? More importantly, what did Suzi feel she was missing out on? What was she expecting to get from it? What could she possibly have in mind? 

It was all academic, of course. I had yet to even manage the astral projection part of the manoeuvre, let alone take matters further. This latest development seemed to me like yet more new-age hocus-pocus. In order not to disappoint Suzi, I had so far pretended to be well on my way to spiritual freedom, dropping in all the buzz words they had mentioned in Mystic Arts at appropriate moments. I could not now admit my deceit, so reluctantly I agreed to give the transmigration malarkey a try. 

It was clear from the outset that it would not be a great success. Suzi’s astral body was apparently zipping all around the room, but as I expected, mine seemed determined to stay put.

You’re not trying hard enough, Adam,’ she said, returning to base.

Well, first I’m trying too hard and now I’m not trying hard enough,’ I said. ‘Come on, Suzi! Which is it?’

I don’t think your heart is in it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to see what it’s like to be inside me?’ 

Perhaps it would help if we tried the other way again first,’ I said. ‘That seems to usually go well.’

I enjoy it too, Adam. You know I do,’ she said. ‘But there’s more to life than sex. We need to treat astral projection as something entirely different. If we are going to get anywhere, I think you need to take it more seriously.’ 

To help things along, Suzi took me round to Milo and Clover’s to pick up some tips. 

We need to find out what we are doing wrong,’ she said. ‘More specifically, what you are doing wrong.’

Suzi seemed pleased to find that Clover appeared to be alone. No explanation was offered about where Milo was, but we both felt that without him, Clover would be easier to talk to. Milo had a way of controlling the conversation, of always being right and not giving you the chance to get your point across.  

Within the first few minutes, both of us noticed that something about Clover was different. She was dressed in her usual boho chic and her hair and make-up looked the same, but her manner had changed. Normally she was easy company, light and breezy and pleasant to talk to. She had hardened. Her voice sounded the same, but her delivery was different. She came across as rude, edgy, opinionated, and overbearing, the very traits I had previously attributed to Milo. Suzi and I exchanged glances. I got the impression she had never seen her friend like this. Something was definitely wrong. It seemed Clover couldn’t wait to get rid of us. Why were we standing in the hallway? Why was the door to the main part of the house bolted? Why hadn’t she offered us a cup of tea or invited us into the front room? Had something happened? If it had, why couldn’t she tell us? Where was Milo? What was that rank smell of rotting flesh and where was it coming from?

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved


Small Island

Small Island by Chris Green

I am walking our cocker spaniel, Trevor on Gold Dust Hill when we come across the stranger. Trevor spots him first. He is very sensitive to changes in his surroundings. We get a few hill walkers around these parts, so at first I imagine the shadowy figure in the distance is a hiker, enjoying the peace that this beautiful stretch of upland offers. But cocker spaniels were bred to be gun dogs, and Trevor can tell straight away that this is a gunman coming out from behind the clump of trees to the east towards Cascade Falls.

Milo keeps telling me not to go out on the hills on my own in case there are snipers, but he has been away a lot lately. Something to do with the merger, apparently, or is it the takeover? I don’t get into that side of things.

I won’t be on my own,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll have Trevor.’

A fat lot of good Trevor will be when you are faced with a battalion of bloodthirsty rebels,’ he says. Sometimes Milo’s outlook verges on paranoia, but it looks as if he may have got it right this time. Although perhaps he has overestimated the scale of the threat. The lone figure is ambling towards us, rifle cocked. Have I got the right word? Is cocking something that you do with a rifle? Whatever, it’s still a man with a rifle. And cocking or not, he’s getting closer.

Run, Trevor!’ I shout.

The stupid mutt starts running towards the sniper. At times like this, I wish I’d continued with his obedience classes at Sit Happens.

Not that way, Trevor,’ I call out.

I might be pushing fifty but I can still manage a canter if need be. The problem now is we’re heading in the wrong direction for the car park, but I dare not double back.

When I feel we are a safe distance from the ridge where we caught sight of the sniper, I get the phone out of my shoulder bag. My heart is racing. Trevor is now barking furiously. He can smell my fear. How on earth are we going to get out of here? It’s no good phoning Milo, of course. Even if he were to answer, he would just rant and rave about me going up on to the hill despite his warnings. Not that he’d be able to get here, anyway. He’s out of the country on business. Most of the people I know live in Richmond which is a good ten miles away or Freeport which is even further. In any case, most of them would probably be tied up at this time of day. People have work to do or people to see. I decide to phone Doobie. He will be able to get here quickly, and he is streetwise. Unconventional certainly, but resourceful.

Within a matter of minutes, Doobie, his long straggly hair blowing like Bob Dylan’s answer, arrives in a curiously customised Jeep at the arranged spot along the dirt-track lane by the derelict grain store. Crashing guitar chords ring out from an improvised onboard speaker system. I don’t believe that this is Bob Dylan. Thrash metal, perhaps. Or nu-metal. Whichever, you don’t hear a lot of this kind of music on Iescos. The Rolling Stones are still considered to be new kids on the block here. I have often wondered how someone who draws so much attention to himself as Doobie does can get through life in such a cavalier fashion without requital. But he appears to do so. I believe it is called hiding in the light.

I lift Trevor into the vehicle and jump in beside him. With a spin of wheels, we speed off, hopefully out of danger.

What was happening back there, Nattie?’ Doobie says. ‘You seem a bit shaken up.’

There was a gunman coming for us and Trevor was running towards him and …….’

Slow down, will you, Nats? You’ll give yourself a heart attack.’

But he had a rifle and ….. ‘

Oh, I wouldn’t get too alarmed about that,’ he laughs. ‘If it was a sniper, he’s not going to waste a bullet on you. Ammunition is precious when you are a renegade in hiding. You worry too much, Nattie, you know that? Time for a cold one at Mojo, I think.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I got to know Doobie through a mutual interest in experimental cinema. We met at a screening of a Leif Velasquez film in Freeport. I read about Velasquez in Artz online magazine, and went along to the Freeport show out of curiosity. Doobie is an artist of sorts, although, by his own admission, not an easy one to categorise. Milo is not one for the arts, but Doobie and I have now been to a few exhibitions together. Few, because events on Iescos are rare. If you google ‘Iescos’, it will come back with, ‘did you mean Tescos?’

To look at the two of us you would think we were polar opposites, me in my tweeds and Doobie in his denim cut-offs with the Error 404 t-shirt. Who or what is Error 404? Is it a band? An artists’ collective? A group of writers? I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. I keep meaning to look on the internet but have not yet got around to it. But, anyway, Doobie and I seem to get along.

The recent uprising was a bit of a joke. Most of the rebels were rounded up within twenty-four hours. Iescos is a small island and because of this it has since its colonial days been relatively easy to govern. A few of the more enterprising insurgents escaped capture and most of these headed this way, the cover of the hills providing a treasury of hiding places. As it was such a shambles, I’m not sure that mastermind is the right word here, but nobody I have spoken to seems to know for sure who the mastermind behind the uprising was.

Around two hundred ill-equipped rebels stormed the government building and imprisoned the government officials. To announce the change of leadership to that of a popular co-operative and to manage the flow of information, they took control of the radio station and the press. What they overlooked was that hardly anyone on the island listens to the local radio station and even fewer read the newspaper. This is the internet age, even on Iescos. Unfortunately, there was not a skilled webmaster among the band of insurgents. So, unaware that we had to acknowledge a change in fortunes, we all went about our business as usual. By the time the rebels realised what was happening, or in this case not happening, outside help was at hand. GCHQ had already processed the information and, almost before the uprising had started, a pair of British boats were in Freeport harbour. The freedom fighters who were not captured by their former colonial oppressors took to the hills.

We pull up outside Mojo. It is almost buried beneath lush vegetation. It looks like a former colonial trading post. As we make our way through the greenery, we are greeted by colourful adverts for exotic herbs, hummingbirds, parrots, livestock, alligators and two-headed snakes. Island Sweet Skunk and Gurage Khat. It appears you can buy anything here. Or in Doobie’s case, it seems you can just help yourself. He ushers me inside to the darkened interior, Trevor at my heels. He directs us to a table, nods to a shadowy figure behind the counter, takes two glistening bottles of Sol Original out from a giant peppermint green fridge and places one in front of me. Clearly, he is a man of standing in these parts.

The gin here is fresh too if you would like one in a bit,’ he says, pointing to a still, visible, despite a beaded curtain, in the corner. ‘And duty-free.’

We settle into a conversation about the complicated topography of Iescos, all the peaks and promontories, twists and turns, ridges and rills, swales and dingles. Or in plain language, the ups and downs.

Although Milo and I have been here for three years and the island is less than forty miles across, I still get lost,’ I say. ‘Even with satnav. Some roads are little more than tracks or paths and even out in the open there are next to no road signs.’

The road signs all but disappeared in the uprising,’ he says. ‘One of the rebels’ tactics.’

This is why I take Trevor out on to Gold Dust Hill,’ I say. ‘It’s an easy journey from the house and it has a safe place to park the car.’

Doobie says he doesn’t need satnav or road signs. He knows every inch of the island. He knows which parts are safe and which bits might be rebel hideouts. I tell him it is just as well he knows his way around because I don’t have a clue how to get back to my car. We have probably only come five or six miles from where he picked me up, but I would never have been able to find my way to Mojo in a million years. I did not know that places like this existed.

Most of the people on the island never make it out of the towns,’ he says.

In breaks in our conversation, I overhear the murmur of two men in conversation at a nearby table. They are speaking in their native tongue. It is something that you could easily miss, in fact, it is Trevor who draws my attention to it, but their conversation seems to be interspersed with occasional utterances of Milo’s name. Trevor’s ears prick up and he gives out a little yelp each time that Milo’s name is mentioned. He misses Milo. At first, I wonder if the pair might be referring to a different Milo. Or perhaps Milo or something that sounds like it is a word in their language. But when Doobie goes off to speak to someone at the bar, I distinctly hear one of them say the name, Milo Lorenz. He repeats it several times. No doubt then that it is my Milo. This is disconcerting. What connection could they possibly have with my husband?

I look around discreetly, anxious not to draw more attention to myself than I might already be doing. I am aware that a lady dressed in country clothing as I am might look out of place in a bar like this. A lady of any sort might look out of place. Except possibly a lap dancer. This is a male domain. I’m not at all comfortable that Doobie has brought me here. The lightness of the atmosphere earlier when we were sipping our Sol Original has vanished. Dressed in torn fatigues and baseball caps, the two men don’t look like the kind of associates I would expect Milo to have. They would not fit easily into the world of commerce. For one thing, I don’t imagine that you are allowed to spit on the floor in the meetings that Milo goes to. But, it occurs to me I know little about what Milo actually does and he is around so infrequently that there is not much opportunity to find out. I do not believe that he has been home now for nearly a month, in fact, he hasn’t phoned for a week or so.

The longer Doobie spends talking to the sinister man at the bar, the more nervous I become. They have sneaked away into a corner of the bar and I am unable to see what they are doing. The two men on the table behind me now have raised voices. They seem more menacing by the minute. I call over to Doobie, but he completely ignores me. I have a bad feeling about what might be happening here. What if I have been lured into some kind of trap? What if they are all in on it? What if I am being kidnapped? It is perhaps not the conventional way of doing it, but then there has been nothing conventional about today. They might be using me as a way to get money out of Milo. I take the phone out to give him a call but, predictably, it goes straight to voicemail. I can no longer see Doobie. He has disappeared.

Trevor begins to bark. One of the men at the table, the one with the scar running the length of his cheek, mouths something guttural at him. The other man, the one with the dental problems, then addresses me threateningly. He spits. I don’t understand Iescan but I think I understand the gesture. It is aimed at me. I am not welcome. I look around me for support. There is none. I am scared. I get up quickly and go over to where Doobie disappeared. I push open a door, Trevor following at my heels. We go down a couple of wooden steps and find ourselves in a murky room. Parrots call out as we enter. There is an overpowering aroma from a pot-pourri of herbs and spices, tarragon and eucalyptus, coriander and nutmeg. It is like a bazaar. Shelves are stacked with a dizzying assortment of strange artefacts. Trevor is spooked by the two-headed green snake that peers out from its glass tank. Next to it in another glass tank is a writhing congregation of baby alligators. Are those bats circling overhead? Or are they large moths? This is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sign of Doobie.

I backtrack and along a corridor find another door. I push it open. This is a much larger room. There are no parrots. No two-headed snakes. No alligators. Instead, dominating the space and looking completely out of context is a Heidelberg offset printing machine. I do not know much about printing, but this looks like a serious piece of kit. Although it is not in use, it appears to have done its job. Stacked alongside it are bales and bales of printed material wrapped in polythene, newspapers, posters, flyers. I move in closer, brush the dust off the nearest pile and take a look. To my alarm, they have Milo’s photo on. President Lorenz, it says. So do the other bales. President Lorenz? What on earth? Is this some kind of joke?

It gradually dawns on me that Milo must have been the one behind the failed uprising. This must have been the takeover that I heard him talking about in those clandestine phonecalls late at night. This would explain why he hasn’t phoned me. This must be why his phone is off. He must be in detention somewhere. This will be why I was being spat at in the bar. I can see straight away why the plan might have failed. Milo’s big problem is that he never thinks things through. He has an idea and thinks that this is enough; the job is then done. Not that Milo would have made a good president, anyway. His politics are too fickle. He has a low boredom threshold. One thing one day, the opposite the next. He would have been quickly overthrown.

But why haven’t the authorities contacted me? And why has Doobie brought me to this godforsaken place?

As if summoned, Doobie sidles into the room. His aura seems to have darkened a little.

There was no easy way of telling you, Nattie,’ he says, apologetically. ‘When you called me, I wasn’t sure what I should say. Not a lot of people in respectable circles realised who was behind the uprising. And it was seen as important that they didn’t find out. We’re no different here on Iescos than anywhere else when it comes to secrecy. The fewer that know the truth the better.’

I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.

You wouldn’t have believed me anyway,’ he says. ‘So, I thought it would be best if I brought you here and let you find out for yourself.’

I am about to point out that all the people here seem to know about Milo, but, I think I am beginning to get it. After all, the peasants here in the interior don’t have a voice, do they? They don’t have access to one. Nor will they have. The printing press is shut down for now.

So, Doobie. Whose side are you on,’ I say.

Sides, Nattie? I don’t do sides, Nattie,’ he says. ‘I’m too smart for that.’

I put too much faith in people, Doobie. I always expect to find things how I left them. But life isn’t like that. It’s full of surprises. From now on, I’m going to see which way the wind blows.’

I think that’s the answer, Mrs L.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

An early version of this story appeared as Blowing in the Wind

Cover Story

Cover Story by Chris Green

A vermilion memo is circulating at the research establishment, one down from red. Red means evacuate. Tension levels are rising. I am glad it is time for my shift to end. Although I keep my head down at work, I have suspected for a long time something weird is going on that the big guns do not want to get out. Information that does not belong in the public domain. Information too sensitive even to be shared with base security staff. An experiment gone wrong perhaps. I am accustomed to a quiet drive home along country lanes after the night shift. I usually drive straight home, but as Donna is up north on a training course, I decide to take a detour. There is no traffic on the road at this hour. I can relax to my Borodin CD. Or my Nick Cave compilation.

On occasions, I might come across an early morning dog walker en route or an agricultural worker, but this is rare. There is seldom anyone up. So, naturally, I am surprised when I catch sight of a woman struggling to climb out of a front window of Storm Clouds, the Gothic house on the edge of Compton Wilbury. Not only surprised but puzzled because, in my experience, cat-burglars are predominantly male. My suspicious nature tells me I ought to investigate. It is my duty as a responsible citizen. I stop the car and approach the house. As I get closer, I can’t help noticing that my quarry is wearing a skirt and a chunky jumper and ….. seamed fishnet stockings and heeled pumps, hardly the outfit you would wear for cat burgling. There must be another explanation. Some fellow’s wife has returned unexpectedly, and this is the other woman discretely leaving the scene? Or maybe she is the imprisoned wife fleeing from a catalogue of domestic abuse. Unlikely in this neck of the woods though I would have thought.

Is everything all right?’ I call out as I approach.

No. Everything is not all right,’ the woman says, straightening her skirt and trying to regain some composure. ‘Nothing in my house is working and my keys have gone and my husband is away and ……’

Whoa!’ I say ‘Slow down!’

I’m being harassed in my home and someone has broken in and my phones have been cut off and …..’

One thing at a time, please,’ I say. ‘Perhaps, start at the beginning. I’m Phil by the way.’

Hello Phil,’ she says. ‘Claire.’

Now we have introduced one another, she seems calmer. Claire is someone you would be likely to notice in a crowded room, thirty-something, blonde and well-rounded, a lady of some refinement. To be honest, I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. She gives a detailed account of a nightmare few hours.

It’s the middle of the night when she hears a knocking sound. She turns over to see if her husband, Max has heard. But Max is not there. Maybe he has gone downstairs to find out what is going on. Then she remembers he is away on a business trip. Although Max goes away often, she can’t seem to get used to him being away, and she hates being alone in the big old house. Even with all its modern security, she does not feel safe. But she is reluctant to bring this up with Max, in case he might consider her wimpish. Max, she says, comes from a tough world. He doesn’t understand fear. He was brought up in the Bush.

Random nocturnal creaks and rattles are no more than you would expect in an old house, she says, especially on a rough night. But as soon as she starts to settle, she hears the noise again and it definitely sounds like someone knocking on the front door. No way is she going to get up and answer it. It’s nearly 3 a.m.

Why would anyone be calling on anyone at this time of night?’ I say. ‘Especially out here in the sticks.’

She agrees. She says she ought to have insisted they got a guard dog when they moved out here. An Akita or a Belgian Malinois, perhaps. But, the fact remains, they do not have a dog, and she is frightened. It probably didn’t help that she watched the penultimate episode of Killers on Netflix earlier in the evening.

I am familiar with Killers. I resist the temptation to tell her what happens in the final episode. Donna couldn’t hack it. She stopped watching half-way through.

Claire doesn’t feel she can phone Max. He will be asleep and probably has an early morning meeting. For that matter, she has an early start too. She has to show the Muellers around Hope’s End at 8:30. This was the only time that both the Muellers were available and Hope’s End represents a big sale for Sellers and Sellers. Fortunately, whatever it was, the banging sound does not continue. But she finds herself unable to get back to sleep. She tosses and turns trying to neutralise the dark thoughts that keep coming. She is just about to drop off when the phone rings. When did Max change the ringtone on the landline to the Tales of the Unexpected theme music, she wonders? More importantly, why? Is this his idea of a joke? She goes downstairs to answer it but finds no-one on the other end. She replaces the receiver and dials 1471. She is told the caller did not leave their number.

…………………………………….

On occasions, most of you will have been plagued by an earworm. Annoying, isn’t it to have a tune stuck in your head? Sometimes the tune going around and around will be the last one you heard. Or the most catchy one on your last shuffle or however you listen to your music. Something you heard on the radio or in a shop. Think of those irritating Christmas tunes, for instance. Various studies have been carried out as to what song is the most catchy ever, some of these claiming to be scientific. Among those frequently cited are Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Abba’s Dancing Queen, The Queen’s We are the Champions and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I am plagued with earworms all the time, but none of these tunes features. My earworms seem to be entirely random. Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man, a Bartók String Quartet or the Tuvan National Anthem. Last week it was MacArthur Park. They just seem to come out of nowhere. Bob Dylan’s tunes aren’t always thought of as being catchy so where has the one about the silver saxophones that is going around and around in my head come from? ……… Aha! I think I might know. But should I let on?

…………………………………….

As Bob Dylan moves on to the Queen of Spades and talks to his chambermaid, I try to catch up with what Claire has been saying. I may have missed something. She has taken her shower and brewed coffee. She is now switching on News 24. From the graphics darting around the screen, she tries to work out what the disaster story they are speaking about might be that has left so many dead, when the TV goes dead.

I suspect it is an update on the fire ripping through the conference centre, but I do not interrupt. I’m not completely certain that this is where Max is. But how many Max Curtises can there be?

She discovers all channels are out. Even the twenty-four hour baking channel is down. She really has to phone Max now. To her horror, both the landline and her mobile phone are also dead and the router has a flashing red light. The stark realisation that she has no communication with the outside world strikes her, she says, like a blow to the head. She searches in her bag for her keys. They are not there. Where can she have put them? The spare set from the kitchen drawer has gone too. She searches high and low, in coat pockets, in bags she has not used for months, underneath work surfaces, in cupboards, but finds no keys. This is impossible. She is locked in, a prisoner in her own home. She is terrified. The only way out is through the downstairs bathroom window.

She seems to be up to date with her account. It has been exhausting just listening. I tell her that she has been through quite an ordeal and do my best to comfort her.

Do you have a phone I could use?’ she asks.

You are welcome to try,’ I say. ‘My phone’s in the car. But, you won’t have a signal here. It’s a bit of an O2 black spot.’

Where is your car?’ Claire asks.

It’s ……..’ I look around. To my astonishment, my Nissan Qashqai is no longer there.’

Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ I say. ‘Where has it gone?’

It is nowhere to be seen. It has completely vanished. What in God’s name is going on around these parts?

…………………………………….

Claire doesn’t have the keys to her Kia so we decide we must seek help in the village. Surely, someone must know what is happening.

We find no-one at home at any of the houses in Compton Wilbury. Speculation about where they might be is clearly going to get us nowhere. Does it matter that the Shipmans at Grey Gables have never been known to go away, or that the Mansons in the barn conversion down the road might have just popped out? Is there any point in knowing that there is a de-consecrated church in the next village or that there was a full moon last Tuesday? Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is. My phone signal does not re-appear, nor does Claire’s. The village phone box is out of order. We trudge along the lane to the neighbouring village of Myrtle Green.

How far is it to Myrtle Green?’ I say after about ten minutes. Not a single car has passed.

Not far,’ Claire says. ‘Half a mile or so. Be thankful you have sensible shoes on.’

The turning to Homiton should be round about here,’ I say. ‘We can’t have missed it.’

There are a lot of clumps of trees that look the same,’ Claire says.

Even so,’ I say. ‘We don’t appear to be making much progress.’

It doesn’t take long for the same thought to occur to Claire. Nothing in the landscape is as it should be. We should surely have passed the field with the abandoned red tractor by now, she says, and where is the dry stone wall covered in lichen that you can peer over to get a glimpse of the distant hills? It’s as if the landscape is being pulled away from us.

You said that you were driving home from the …. uh, base,’ Claire says. ‘What is it they do there?’ Is she thinking there might be a causal connection?

Even if I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,’ I say.

So, you are saying you’ve no idea?’

None.’

There are, of course, no CCTV cameras in the subterranean depths below Level D. But rumours have been circulating that the boffins are doing research into random virtual infinity lapse and they are developing a large-scale invisibility cloak down there. No smoke without fire, you might be tempted to say but it would be a mistake to believe all the rumours. I’m thinking that there might not be a causal connection with what’s happening to Claire and me. Occam’s razor suggests there should be a more obvious explanation.

Far from making any progress, we seem to be going backwards. It’s like the road ahead is being rolled up like a carpet. The scenery is disappearing. There is no longer a vanishing point. No horizon. There is nowhere to go. At this rate, before we know it, we will be back where we started from. But I have the feeling that things may not be the same. The universe is in a permanent state of flux. Change is the only certainty. On this basis, there is a good chance we might already be somewhere else. We might have been there all along.

…………………………………….

How did we end up in bed together? Claire is asking the same question. How long have we been here? Since this morning? Last night? Time runs away with you when you are enjoying yourself. But Max will be home soon, Claire says, back from his business trip. He has probably been trying to contact her. Now the phones are back on, she needs to have her story ready. I remind her that this is what I do in my spare time, make stories up. Philip C. Dark, author and auteur. Look me up on Google. She says that’s all very well, but I’d still better go. It would be easier for her if I weren’t here. Perhaps I will have to break it to her about the fire at the conference centre. How her husband is now in custody. What was it that made him, Maxwell Conner, a successful businessman, start the fire?

In case anything about my involvement should come to light, this can serve as my cover story. I’m reliably informed that, somewhat paradoxically, the more you embellish your account, the more credible it becomes.

An earlier version of this story was published as ‘Unreliable Narrator.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

Bus

Bus by Chris Green

The bus isn’t supposed to go this way. What is happening? Where is it taking me?

You’re going the wrong way,’ I call out to the driver.

She takes no notice. Perhaps she cannot hear me over the noise of the engine. I try again.

I have an appointment and I’m going to be late,’ I add.

Still no response. I walk up the aisle to the front the bus to tell her she has made a mistake, and needs to turn back. Otherwise, I will miss my meeting.

There is no driver. She is no longer there. I look around to see where she can have gone. Not only is she missing, but the other passengers have disappeared. I am now the only one aboard. Suddenly, there is no bus. Instead, I am walking along the road. A featureless straight track that stretches into the distance. I don’t recognise where I am. Darkness is descending. I feel panic setting in. I need to turn around and go back and somehow retrace my steps. Now there is no road at all. And I am no longer walking. I appear to have changed state. I have no physical form. To all intents and purposes, I no longer exist.

I would normally expect to wake up around about now. But I don’t wake up. I cannot wake up. Is this it?

When you are accustomed to physical existence, non-existence comes as something of a shock, I can tell you. I start to think of all the things I will no longer be able to do. I will not be able to play the saxophone. Or the clarinet. I won’t be able to hug my badger. No, that can’t be right. I don’t imagine I have a badger. I must mean my cat. Wait! I don’t have a cat either. It’s Kat. That’s it. I won’t be able to hug Kat. I will never get to find out what happens in the final episode of Revenge of the Tulpas. There will be no-one to let the dogs out. The parrot will starve.

I hear my phone ringing. It is the ringtone I assigned to Kat last month to make sure I took her calls. But I don’t know how this can be happening, or what I can do about the call now that I am inchoate. It’s not as if I can even see my phone, let alone answer it.

Once again, I imagine I should be waking up about now. But I am not asleep. I am something else, somewhere else. Neither asleep nor awake. I am in a state of limbo. Insubstantial and distant.

You appear to be lost,’ a man’s voice says. It has an echo which makes it sound both far away and close. Where can it be coming from? Can he actually see me or is he using a different method to detect my presence? If he can see me, why can’t I see him or see myself? Does this suggest that, however tenuous, I still have contact with the real-world? Or is this how things happen in the afterlife?

The tall figure slowly materialises. Like an old newspaper photo made up of dots, his grainy presence hovers before me against the otherwise featureless backdrop. He is within twenty feet of me. I’m desperately hoping he doesn’t come closer.

What we call the beginning is often the end,’ he says, cryptically. ‘And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’

His intonation is a curious combination of Thor, RP, and automated telephone voice. The effect is otherworldly. I want to ask him what he means, but I am unable to speak. Whatever state it is I am in has very limited functionality, but somehow I’m hanging in there.

I see that you are confused,’ he continues, ‘Maybe it will become clear to you later.’

It seems he wants to keep me in suspense, as with this, his presence slowly fades. Nothingness once more. Silence pervades. A prolonged silence. Minutes pass and then hours. Perhaps days. Time has lost its meaning. Isolation training could not prepare you for this lack of stimulation. The pandemic lockdown offered nothingness and silence. But there was rationality about what was taking place. You had an idea of its boundaries and you knew it would end. There is nothing rational about this situation. I feel as if I am inhabiting a Samuel Beckett story. I am reminded of the one where the narrator is chained to a leaking boat with his life slowly draining away. Or the one told by a nameless man lying in darkness and mud, unable to move. Scared doesn’t cover what I am feeling. I am terrified.

I resign myself to my grisly fate. But out of the blue, I hear the faint sound of a brass band in the distance. They are playing a Sousa marching tune, but with a jazz arrangement. My brass tutor, Hari, used to be in a jazz band. I don’t imagine there’s any connection, but it is heartening to hear something familiar breaking through at last. Blown on the wind, the music fades in and out. I begin to hear the hum of traffic coming from somewhere. It grows louder. I can hear one distinct engine rising above the rest. The sound of a bus. Better still, I am aboard the bus. It seems like the same bus I was on earlier. Whenever earlier was. The other passengers on board seem familiar.

I am having a conversation with the driver. Her name is Maya. Maya is an avid reader, and we are talking about books. I tell her I like Haruki Murakami. You never know what to expect in his books. He is full of surprises. Magical realism, weird worlds with deep wells and talking cats. Jazz arrangements colour his prose. She hasn’t read him, but to my surprise, she likes Jorge Luis Borges. His characters are cast adrift in unfamiliar alien worlds, she says. She adds that a friend lent her a collection of Samuel Beckett stories, but she didn’t get on with those. All those protagonists who are devoid of hope.

A little horror is OK,’ she says. ‘So long as it’s well written. Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft are my favourites. I like Daphne du Maurier too. Her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.’

I ask her if she has read Phillip C Dark. She says she has not heard of him. I do not tell her it is one of my pseudonyms.

She tells me she has written a few short stories

I’ve been plotting one in my head today, as it happens,’ she says. I woke up feeling creative and thought I would drive the bus a different way to see what came to mind. This then could form the basis of the story.’

How’s that going,’ I ask?

The story I’ve come up with is about how we are so used to our routines that the slightest deviation can cause panic. I thought the action might as well take place on a bus. It’s simpler that way. One passenger, in particular, freaks out when the bus driver takes a wrong turning. Perhaps it is going to make him late for an appointment or something. He becomes deranged. In his paranoia, he sees himself as a victim of some diabolic force, and imagines all kinds of crazy scenarios. He descends further into his nightmare until he’s no longer sure who he is, or whether he will survive. ……. You could play the part if you like. You could be that passenger. You could bring in ideas from some of those writers we’ve been talking about. What do you think?’

It’s good,’ I say. ‘I suggest you don’t reveal that this is what is happening until the last moment. The disclosure of the writing process could provide the twist.’

I think I see,’ she says. ‘You mean the end would then be the beginning.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

Blues Harp

Blues Harp by Chris Green

Man Eats Goldfish at County Fair, the headline poster outside the newsagents says. At first, I assume this must refer to a report in the local paper. A light-hearted line to draw you in and get you to buy the paper. Lord knows The West Country Gazette needs all the help it can get. But as I get closer, I see the headline is from The Times. What kind of slow news day would warrant such a headline in The Times? This is the equivalent of saying, nothing of any note has happened or is happening anywhere, no pandemics, no wars or skirmishes, no political upheaval, no extreme weather events, no financial irregularities, no robberies, no gun or knife crime. Nothing. Zilch. I go into the shop to buy my cigarettes and find that The Daily Telegraph and The Independent carry the same story. Ben Brickley from Bideford washed down a goldfish he won at the fair with a pint of Old Stonker. The Guardian leads on a story about a cat from Cullompton that was trapped in a lift. All four papers look thin and the tabloids don’t seem to have published at all. The lad in the torn Bolt Thrower tee-shirt behind the counter is unable to elaborate. He seems to be there under duress.

I can get no signal on the phone and when I get home, I find the internet is dead. I switch on the TV. The 24-hour news channel is concentrating on the goldfish story, interviewing someone from Fish Protection, who is trying to explain the stress the goldfish would have experienced as it made its way through Ben’s digestive tract. The usual rolling reports running along the bottom of the screen have updates on the cat from Cullompton. Apparently Poppy is recovering from her ordeal. Were it not for the comms outage, I’d be tempted to feel someone was playing a prank. But I get the feeling it’s something altogether more sinister.

I have to break off to go to my Harmonica class at the community centre. I’ve been looking forward to this. Last week we covered Junior Wells’s technique. Junior is a master of bends and diatonic phrasing. This week, it is to be Little Walter. I imagine we will be concentrating on the tongue-block style that Walter pioneered. Blues harp needed for this I imagine but I am taking a selection of my harps along just in case there are any surprises.

As we wait for our tutor to arrive, I mention the story about the goldfish to the other students.

They spent a whole hour talking about it,’ Mac says. ‘I’ve no idea what happened in last night’s football.’

If he had swallowed a whale, now that would be news,’ Ronnie says. ‘But a goldfish?’

I couldn’t get a TV signal at all,’ Ed Toker says. ‘Just static.’

Something’s being hushed up, don’t you think?’ I say.

There’s been a lot of terrorism lately,’ Mac says. ‘Perhaps the security services have shut everything down as a precaution.’

It could be that a very sophisticated hacker has taken out all the communication networks,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps someone has launched a hacker satellite that has knocked all the others out.’

I doubt if that’s possible,’ I say. ‘There would always be some kind of backup system. It’s some kind of news blackout. I’m sure of it.’

Best not to think about it,’ Ronnie says. ‘I expect we’ll find out soon enough.’

Our tutor, Duke arrives and we go on into the Little Walter session. For the next hour and a half, we blow our harps with gay abandon. The class lifts our spirits. How could it not? Walter was the Jimi Hendrix or perhaps the Charlie Parker of the blues harp. The world would be a poorer place without Walter’s contribution to music. By the end, I’m reasonably pleased with the progress I’ve made on Hoochie Coochie Man and My Babe. I decide I might even go along to the open mic night at The Gordon Bennett at the weekend.

After class, we switch our phones back on but still find none of us has a signal or internet. Duke is now up to speed with the situation and turns on the community centre TV to see if there have been any developments. On the news channel, they are still talking about goldfish. There has been a copycat incident in Barnstaple. Outside the Pannier Market, Bernie Burton has swallowed a goldfish and washed it down with a pint of Dark Horse. The rolling updates meanwhile have moved on to another cat story. Thomas from Tavistock has been named Mouser of the Year. Chelsea Kiss comes on the air to say that reports are coming in from Plymouth of a man in a pet shop swilling down the contents of the fish tank with litres of Badger’s Arse. Duke tries switching channels but there appear to be no other channels on the air.

When I get home, I turn the TV on again. Things have moved on a little. News is breaking about more widespread recreational fish swallowing. The Fowey Aquarium and The Lyme Regis Marine Aquarium are the latest to suffer. Not just goldfish now, but tropical fish. Dwarf gouramis, guppies and angelfish.

It seems no small fish in the south-west is safe,’ Chelsea remarks. ‘The outbreak is becoming uncontainable.’

I can’t tell whether or not her co-presenter, Giles Fawning is hiding a smirk. Is he in the know? Have the pair of them been told what is really going on? Are they complicit in the proceedings?

There are still no other channels available and it seems that the news channel is getting fainter. Something is obviously very wrong in the big wide world. I decide not to dwell on it. Over the years I have learned that if I can do nothing about the situation, there is no point in worrying about it. Whatever it is they are hiding behind the fish story might quickly blow over. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I am becoming accustomed to a little adversity. Since Annie ran off with her Taekwondo trainer, Tyrone, my life has been a catalogue of misfortune. Losing Annie was one thing but when the job, the house and the car followed, I formed the impression that someone upstairs didn’t like me. I am used to living in the bed-sitter now despite the noise from the trains and the erratic behaviour of the psychotic junkie next-door-neighbour. After a while, you convince yourself that hearing Feral Scorn blaring out at 3 a.m. is normal. But hopefully it won’t be forever. Circumstances change. In fact, change is the only thing that can be guaranteed in life.

Whatever is thrown at you, cliched it might be, it is best to keep calm and carry on. Adversity is said to be character-building. Tell yourself there are many examples of famous people who didn’t give up when their backs were up against the wall. Stephen Hawking for example. Despite his crippling disabilities, he became a groundbreaking theoretical physicist. Or another Stephen. Stephen King. His first novel was rejected thirty times but he kept going and went on to be one of the most successful writers of all time. Beethoven went deaf quite early on in his composing career but was still able to create a staggering catalogue of sublime music. Nelson Mandela was able to bring about the end of the apartheid regime from his prison cell. And let us not forget Tom Crews, the surfer who despite being blind, won the Wipeout Classic in Hawaii three years in succession. Perseverance is the key.

I am not aiming at such giddy heights. I just want my life to get back to normal. A few home comforts and a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss. You don’t realise how much you miss these things until they are gone. I was hoping that Nisha, who I met at Ward Swisher’s critically acclaimed new play, The Dream Library would get back to me. We seemed to get along well in the bar afterwards. But perhaps she is not interested. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You never can tell. In the meantime, I have my harmonicas to help me through. I switch off the TV and take out my Larry Adler chromatic and run through It Ain’t Necessarily So, the George and Ira classic. My favourite tune on my favourite harp. The lyrics about Jonah living in a whale are a bit silly but perhaps that’s the point the song is trying to make. The Bible is full of silly stories. That’s probably why it has fallen out of favour. People are looking for truth in this post-truth age. But for me as a harmonica player, it is the melody that matters. Once I am happy that I have got the rhythm right, I go back over the Junior Wells tunes and the Little Walter tunes from class on my Hohner blues harp, make myself some lunch and as it seems to be quiet next door, settle down for a well-earned nap. Whatever it might be that is happening in the outside world can wait awhile.

I had always imagined they would be tall and green. They would be skeletal perhaps with angular pointed heads and disproportionally large eyes. Or maybe short and squat like ET. But they are not. They are nothing like that. The creatures I see through my window when I wake are amorphous. It is difficult to get a handle on how they are formed. Some jelly-like substance perhaps. They are black, so dark in fact that they absorb all the available light. They appear to spot I am looking their way and in a flash, they are at the window, thrashing the panes of glass with their scaly black tentacles. Or are these leathery appendages, fins of some kind or wings? Whichever, these beings are clearly not from around here. These are extraterrestrials. This is an alien invasion. My nervous system can find no adequate response to register the panic I feel. I have had no instruction as to what one is supposed to do under these circumstances. The popular viewpoint in my lifetime has been that, outside of Doctor Who and Star Wars, aliens do not exist.

Suddenly, the opening chords of Feral Scorn’s Behemoth X ring out at frightening volume. The psychotic junkie next-door neighbour appears to have surfaced. The alien creatures are clearly not accustomed to Feral Scorn’s pummelling riffs. They immediately back off. Perhaps in their world, battles are fought through sound. If so, I can appreciate that on hearing Feral Scorn for the first time, they might be terrified. This is as heavy and threatening as grunge metal gets.

Without my phone or the internet, it is not going to be easy to share my experience about the extraterrestrials with the authorities. Or more pertinently perhaps, how to get rid of them. I drive around to the police station to pass on the information for the benefit of others. Fortunately, the streets are quiet and I do not encounter any aliens on the way.

Sergeant Golfer seems less than impressed with my story.

Perhaps you would be good enough to describe these ….. extraterrestrials, Mr Dark,’ he says, chuckling. ‘Then maybe we can circulate a photofit picture of them.’

I don’t think a photofit picture is going to do it, Sergeant,’ I say. ‘They’re black and jelly-like and they keep changing shape.’

I see,’ he says. ‘And you say they are frightened by something called Feral Scorn. What exactly is that?’

Feral Scorn is a band,’ I say. ‘A heavy grunge band from Seattle. Look! Is there any way you could get in touch with the military? In case they are not aware of it. They probably know about the invasion but you never know. And can you put it out on police radio for your officers to keep a lookout for the aliens? And if they encounter any, get them to play some very loud music, preferably grunge metal.’

You want me to stop my officers policing serious goldfish-related incidents to look for marauding gangs of black blobs, do you, Mr Dark?’ Sergeant Golfer says, sharing the joke with his fellow officers at the desk. ‘And play them some hit tunes.’

I can see I’m going to get nowhere with these small-minded fools. I decide to leave them to it. Given their attitude, it is little wonder that so little crime is solved. I’m not sure what my next step should be but as I am getting into the car, my phone springs into life. Notification upon notification come up one after another on the screen, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates, emails and WhatsApp messages. Most noticeable of all is an ad that fills the screen for the latest Feral Scorn album, Cthulhu. Guaranteed to scare the pants off you is the tagline.

I turn the ignition and the radio comes on. A communications expert is explaining that while it is relatively easy to knock out a couple of rural counties in the south-west of England for a short time, it would be much more difficult to bring the world to a standstill. In a small discrete area, you can jam all means of communication, put together some fake copies of the newspapers, come up with a few fake stories, in this instance about goldfish and cats. Then get actors to play the real hosts of a fake news station to help circulate the fake reports. Maybe you can close the main arterial roads and get the local authorities to play along. But it would be impossible to replicate this on a large scale.

I listen for a while as they talk about the operational parameters of television transmissions, data, bandwidth and stuff. It’s all very technical. There is no news as to who was behind it. And curiously, they mention nothing about the extraterrestrials. Surely something this important should come into the discussion. Who are they? What are they? Where did they land? What is their mission? Or is their presence still something they are trying to keep from us? With the communications mystery now explained though, I suppose the idea of an alien invasion restricted to one small rural area in the west country does seem a little unlikely. Had I perhaps imagined them? Was I in that confused state between sleeping and waking when they appeared? Or were the creatures fake, a publicity stunt for Cthulhu, Feral Scorn’s new album? While there appears to be a significant following for metal music in these parts, it is difficult to see a big enough return for the band to justify such random extravagance but still.

I begin to check my messages. Quite a few showing alarm at the communications blackout. One or two harmonica-related ones. News about an extra open mic night at The Gordon Bennett. And there is one from Nisha. Which is nice. Why don’t I come over later, she says? She will cook me a meal. Would fish be alright? Or squid? How about six-o’clock? And perhaps we could share a glass or two of Pinot Grigio. Then later, we might settle down to a leisurely dessert. While squid can be a little difficult to swallow and Pinot Grigio might not be my favourite wine, this sounds like an offer I would be a fool to turn down.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All Rights Reserved

Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll

Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll by Chris Green

1:

The best things in life are three. At least Charlie Tooting thinks so. They are sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. Many others of his generation agree. After all, we are talking about the nineteen-seventies. Nineteen-seventy-three to be exact, and Charlie is twenty-two years old. It would be fair to say though that Charlie’s appreciation of the best three things goes further than many of his contemporaries. To the exclusion of almost anything else, perhaps.

The Pavilion, a new music venue, has opened in Charlie’s town. The Pavilion features live bands three or more times a week. If Charlie could sing or play an instrument, he would be in a rock band, but as he cannot, he is in awe of those that can. Not that he is without ambition, but Charlie’s ambition is more of a notches on the bedpost affair. He can resist everything except temptation. He might be described as vain. He is the type who probably thinks this song is about him.

He has a regular girlfriend, Annika. At least Annika believes she is his regular girlfriend. But Charlie is more than happy to stray when the opportunity presents itself. As Annika is more of a folkie than a hard rock fan, Charlie sees the new venue as somewhere that will provide him with opportunities for playing away. He has recently given up his job at Jean Machine, and makes a living by selling a little of this or that, here and there, mostly hash. The demand is high in the town where Charlie lives. Charlie doesn’t actually know anyone that doesn’t smoke. Over the years, he has built up good supply lines and never allows himself to run out. It beats working for a living and affords him a certain status, which helps him to ramp up the notches.

Rose works behind the bar of The Pavilion. She is just twenty. She has long blond hair, a magazine figure, and an outgoing personality. She notices Charlie in his new leather bomber jacket and starry Cockell and Johnson shirt. Charlie notices her in her revealing barmaid’s top. When no-one is looking, she slips him a double Glenmorangie. On the house, she says, smiling. To reciprocate, at a quiet moment when everyone is watching the band, Charlie passes her a joint. Because Snafu Celebration are especially loud, it is impossible to have a proper conversation. So, they conduct their overtures through eye contact and gestures. Towards the end of the evening, Rose hands him a scrap of paper with her phone number written in red lipstick. Call me, it says. Charlie pre-empts the outcome and instead, waits for her outside.

Rose is a newbie toker, so at his flat, while they listen to Goats Head Soup on his new stereo, Charlie gives her a world tour of the principal growing areas. She pretends to be interested, but in reality, the origin is of little importance to her. It’s not a girl thing. She doesn’t care if the stuff comes from Nepal or Afghanistan, Morocco or Lebanon, so long as it does the job. What they are smoking is something called Kashmir Twist, and it definitely seems to work. In no time at all, they find themselves between the sheets, getting it on. This is exactly what she had in mind, anyway.

Linzi, Suze, and Janice follow in quick succession to add to the notches on the bedpost. But they are little more than wham, bam, thank you, mam encounters. And then there is Verity. Charlie meets Verity at The Shed, another new rock venue that has opened in the town. She is blonde and shapely, a sophisticated version of Rose. FUBAR, an up-and-coming local band are playing. They too are very loud, this especially noticeable in a cramped, low-ceilinged space like The Shed. The volume makes it difficult to have a conversation, and Verity seems to want to chat. This gives Charlie the excuse to lure her back to his for a nightcap.

Verity has just passed her test and has her own car, a blue Fiat 500. The Fiat is her pride and joy. She tells Charlie she loves driving it. It’s a nippy little town car. She seems quite happy to ferry Charlie around. She is surprised by the number of drops he needs to make. Charlie is surprised at how good business is, but it seems that everyone smokes hash these days. Like Rose, Verity is relatively new to recreational cannabis, but she seems to take to it like a duck to water. It gives you a whole new way of looking at the day, she says.

Annika is still on the scene, and Charlie sees her from time to time. But now, not so often. Her job requires her to travel, so she is not always on hand to fulfil his needs. While Annika frequently remarked on his chauvinism, Verity does not appear to care. Perhaps she mistakes his arrogance for self-confidence. Charlie likes to be seen out with her. She is well-dressed, urbane and sexy. She is now the nearest thing Charlie has to a regular girlfriend. They make a perfect pair, he tells her.

Rose, however, has not disappeared. When Charlie returns to the flat with Verity one night after a curry at Namaste Garden, Rose is waiting outside with an overnight bag. A tricky situation. But not one that Charlie is unfamiliar with. The successful roué must be prepared for such circumstances. Charlie recalls the time that he was in bed with Coral when Annika called around unexpectedly. He had Coral throw a few clothes on, and explained her away as a neighbour who was looking for her lost dog, hence the delay in answering the door. Remarkably, he got away with it. On this occasion, he is not so successful. After some harsh words, Rose leaves. Charlie’s explanation that she was just returning some books, while not completely convincing passes for now. But Charlie is not out of the woods. Back in the flat, while Charlie is making coffee, Verity starts poking around.

Whose pants are these?’ she calls out, waving a pair of skimpy black panties.

Don’t know,’ Charlie says. ‘Perhaps they belonged to the girl who lived here before.’

It looks like she left a whole drawer full of lingerie’ she says holding up a lacy bra.

Could be,’ Charlie says. ‘I’ve been meaning to have a clear out, but I never seem to get around to it.’

And I suppose the girl who lived before left these photos too,’ Verity says. ‘That was nice of her. Do you know, she looks a little like the one who just left.’

Verity, once she too has issued some more harsh words, leaves.

Within a matter of days, though, Charlie somehow manages to patch it up with first one and then the other, and tentatively resumes his duplicity.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, it might be considered unfortunate if, at twenty-two, you get your girlfriend pregnant. To get your two girlfriends pregnant in the same month might, to echo Oscar Wilde, be seen as careless. Especially so considering his poor recent record on cautious planning. But this is the position that Charlie finds himself in. Unfortunate too that he discovers that both Verity and Rose are pregnant just days before he gets busted by the police at a rock-and-roll revival night The Pavilion with a large amount of hash and a couple of wraps of speed.

2:

How many roads must her man walk down, Sian wonders? The answer may or may not be blowing in the wind, but she thinks it is eleven. She has looked at the map and counted the number of roads on the route. She is following her husband, Marvin, and the zig-zag path he is taking suggests he is going round to see Rose in Wessex Avenue. As she always does when she is out walking, she is wearing her Sony Discman. She loves her music, and this top of the range model is her pride and joy. She is listening to Oasis, a new band she feels will make it big by the end of the year. After all the techno music of the last few years, she feels it is time for a change. Time to get back to some serious rock. Eighties synth-pop was bad enough, but the repetitive beats of house music left her cold.

Why hasn’t Marvin taken the car, she wonders? Whatever, he must be heading for Rose’s. But she needs to be sure of her facts before she thinks about taking any action. Her suspicions are confirmed. Marvin arrives at Rose’s, and she opens the door and greets him shamelessly with a big hug, and not a casual friend type hug. This is a raunchy let’s go upstairs embrace.

It all begins to add up. Rose’s Eric has been stepping out with someone called Gina, and clearly, Marvin has stepped into the breach. He has been disappearing a lot lately with lame excuses, and on two or three occasions, not made it home. Typical of him to take advantage of the situation. He has always had the hots for Rose. With her long blond hair, shapely figure, and fuck-me pumps, she can understand the attraction. She is not bad for a woman of forty. But even so, the dirty rat might have had the decency to be upfront about it.

She should have seen it coming. There were telltale signs. Apart from the unexplained absences, there were secret phone calls. Are all relationships based on secrets and lies, she wonders? Perhaps she should look elsewhere for a distraction, too. What’s good for the goose and all that. She has recently found out that Charlie and Jo have split up, and she has always had a soft spot for Charlie. He seems sweet and caring and seems to have overcome the problems he had in the past. People say he is too laid back. Yet he found the time to get a Masters’ degree in Music Media. He shares her love of rock music and seems to like the same bands. They could go to gigs. It’s a long time since Marvin took her anywhere. He has a great sense of humour and he is pretty yummy too. And, while he has never come right out with it, she is reasonably sure that Charlie fancies her.

But there are the children to consider. She and Marvin have two daughters, Chloe and Zoe, six and four respectively. Eric and Rose have a daughter at primary school, and Charlie and Jo have a little one in the same year. Surely, too much swapping around would not be good for any of them. But they are not the only ones chopping and changing. She recalls her recent conversation with Ms Blyton, Chloe’s form teacher.

You don’t know who is with who outside the school gates these days,’ Ms Blyton says.

No-one seems to stay with the same partner for long these days,’ Sian says. ‘I’m afraid it’s a sign of the times,’

I know. And there’s so much infidelity on TV, too,’ Ms Blyton says. ‘Especially in the soaps, EastEnders and Emmerdale. They’re like a partner swap shop. And those terrible Australian ones, where no-one takes their relationship seriously. It has to be a bad influence on young parents.’

I hardly know anyone who hasn’t had a break-up recently,’ Sian says. ‘You never know what to say to your friends any more in case you accidentally put your foot in it.’

Some children don’t even know who to look for when they come out of class,’ Ms Blyton continues. ‘And when you ask about their mum, they say, which mum? Families are becoming so dysfunctional. Some days, when you look at the parents lined up outside, it seems like half of them are in another world. Out of their heads on crack cocaine, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s a big worry, I can tell you. Chloe seems fairly settled though, and that’s good.’

In addition to the little ones, Sian thinks Charlie has one or two older children from earlier relationships. There is a possibility Rose does too. She is faced with a dilemma. Should she file for divorce or not?

After sleeping on it, she bites the bullet and phones Jutner, Pringle and Bloke, Solicitors for advice and speaks to Miranda Dyke. Miranda feels she should get on to it right away and go for the house, possession of everything, sole custody of the children and gargantuan maintenance payments.

It’s always best to aim high to get the outcome you want,’ she says. ‘You want the miserable little worm to genuinely regret his infidelity.’

But Marvin wasn’t all bad,’ Sian says ’We did have some nice times,’

Stop right there!’ Miranda says. ‘You need to forget all of that. Trust me! Sentimentality will get you nowhere. You need to be absolutely ruthless in divorce cases like yours or else you will end up with nothing.’

Sian discovers that by coincidence or fate, Miranda is also representing Charlie in his divorce from Jo. She is cheered by this. Jo had better look out, as Miranda is taking the same uncompromising stance re their divorce settlement. If it goes according to plan, Charlie is set to come away with everything. This bodes well for their future together.

3:

It’s probably not the time to say it, but despite all the bad feeling, I was sorry to hear about Marvin,’ Charlie says.

He always drank too much,’ Sian says. ‘I suppose I knew it from day one, but I didn’t want to believe it.’

And his death coming so soon after Eric,’ Charlie says.

Sian is afraid the conversation is going to lead back to Verity, who died from a heroin overdose not so long ago. Now is not the time to go down that road. They’ve been over this too often. Better they stick with Eric.

Eric was another one who was never out of the pub,’ Sian says. ‘I guess when Gina upped and left, that did it for him.’

Still sad though,’ Charlie says. ‘I’m lucky I managed to get my act together. Well, of course, with your help. If it wasn’t for you, you know, I might be joining them. Wherever it is, they have ended up.’

Down below, I should think,’ Sian says, looking out the window of the plane as it taxis into position for take-off. ‘Anyway, let’s not get too maudlin. We’re on our way to New York. And September is the best time to go according to the Guide. The summer heat will have subsided. Just think, Manhattan! I’ve always wanted to see Manhattan.’

Well, it is my fiftieth birthday. I’m not going to get another one,’ Charlie says. ‘After that successful promotion campaign for Muse, I felt we could push the boat out. I’m looking forward to seeing all those iconic buildings. Where we are staying is a stone’s throw from the World Trade Centre. The Twin Towers.’

I saw that in the Guide,’ Sian says. ‘Perhaps we could have breakfast at that restaurant on the 107th floor.’

Good idea,’ Charlie says. ‘It’s called Windows on the World and it says here it’s a bit formal. But there’s a more intimate one on the floor below called Wild Blue. That would be a better bet and you can book it for breakfast on the 11th. It’s still a little pricey, but why not? You only live once.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All Rights Reserved

A Sword in Every Pond

A Sword In Every Pond by Chris Green

You have never in your life been to Stockport. You weren’t even aware that it was a town in Greater Manchester. So where are these phantom thoughts coming from? Conversations about black puddings with Ruby Leighton in the Asian convenience store off Warren Street. Supping stout in the snug at The Whippet with Beryl Braithwaite. Teaching textiles to truculent sixteen-year-olds on Tuesday evenings at Stockport College. These visitations, if you can call them that, started earlier today, when you and Lance were walking along the Cornwall coastal path between Bedruthan Steps and Porthcothan. Your consciousness was breached by rogue meanderings about Stockport. You have been unable to stop them since. Several times you have found yourself lapsing into Mancunian dialect with something being dead this and dead that, and coming out with ee oop and our kid.

So far you have managed to cover these slips so that Lance hasn’t noticed. He’d just say that you were being a hysterical woman. Sometimes you wonder if Lance notices anything about you, or whether he regards you as part of the furniture. But, where is all this coming from? You are scared. Cornwall is said to be the spookiest place in Britain but there’s spooky and there’s spooky. You mostly read about things going bump in the night in remote smugglers’ inns or legendary beasts roaming misty moors, not daemons fighting for control of your consciousness on coastal cliff paths.

The hallucinations continue most of the night. False memory cuts in and out, like a short-wave radio signal in a tropical storm. You are bathed in sweat. You’ve never got past page ten of Finnegan’s Wake, but this is like a cerebral implant of the whole novel. The spiritual turbulence just goes on and on. Eventually, you get up and do an hour’s Tai Chi. This seems to help to exorcise the daemon. Things are a little quieter this morning. Your thoughts have returned to received pronunciation.

……………………………………….…

You have driven along the coast to settle yourself. You are in Tintagel.

Mon Dieu!’ You have not spoken in French before, not even in France. ‘Ici on parle Français,’ the shop said, so you are parling Français. You are telling the shop assistant that you are from Bretagne and that your name is Camille. Where has this come from?

Nous recevons beaucoup de gens ici de Bretagne,’ she says.

Votre français est très bon,’ you say.

Merci,’ she says. ‘Je suis allé en Bretagne l’année dernière.’

Cornwall et Bretagne partagent une riche histoire maritime,’ you say.

Nous sommes les mêmes personnes,’ she says. ‘Les Cornish et les Bretons.’

You tell her that you are here to learn about the mythical kingdom of Avalon.

Many French people come here because they are fascinated by the Arthurian legend. Everything in Tintagel has some connection with it’ she says. ‘You will have noticed The King Arthur Arms next door. All the shops are named Camelot or Pendragon. Locals even name their pets after the Knights of the Round Table.’

You should be in a state of utter panic at becoming Camille, one set of thoughts and words being replaced by another, but this time you seem to be going with the flow. You are a teacher and you have come to Cornwall with your partner, Luc. Luc is a keen surfer and has gone off to Fistral for the day to catch the swell and you are taking photos of Tintagel for a course on Avalon you are planning.

This is why I have come,’ you say, taking out your Canon Eos.

You must expect strange things to happen while you are here,’ she says.

Is Cornwall then still a place of magic and sorcery?’ you ask.

There is magic in the air. You live it and breathe it,’ she says. ‘You cannot escape it. There is a sword in every pond.’

……………………………………….…

You can’t remember where you have left the car. In fact, you can’t remember what car it is you’re looking for. And you’ve bought a metal detector. Not to look for the car, but to look for hidden treasure. Perhaps you are seeking the Holy Grail. And …… you’ve turned into a man. You have checked. You have all your man bits. Your Santander bank card says that you are called D. A. Knight and your …… Gay Pride card confirms this. You are Daniel Knight. But, you can’t remember what car you’re supposed to have. You’re not sure even where you are. You think you are in Padstow. At least this is where you bought the metal detector, or was it Newquay? You remember thinking it was an odd item to find in a surf shop. Anyway, you have a pocketful of coins that you have found. This is how you discovered that you had turned into a man. What car should you be looking for? You have a recollection of a black Silhouette and a white Apparition but for some reason, you think it might be grey. Most cars are grey, so this does not help. Perhaps it’s a grey Golf. You need to phone Arthur. Arthur will know. Wait, you think, who is Arthur?

……………………………………….…

My partner, Patti is reading the visitors book. It is a habit she has when we go away. She likes to know what to expect. We are staying in West Cornwall. We have driven a long way and have just arrived at our accommodation.

Listen to this,’ she says.

Natasha and Lance say great holiday everything perfect except for the noisy people from Stockport who were staying next door.’

I shouldn’t worry too much. I expect the people from Stockport will have gone back by now,’ I say. ‘Where is Stockport, anyway?’

Camille and Luc from Brittany, France say Avoid Tintagel if you can. It’s no good at all for surfing.’

I don’t expect you can get much of a Wi-Fi signal with all those granite rocks,’ I say.

The visitors’ book has given me an idea though. I squeeze in beside Patti on the striped canvas settee to read it with her.

What about this one?’ I say. ‘Daniel and Arthur from Glastonbury, Somerset say great holiday except for the ironing board cover which lifts up with the shirts.’

Too much information,’ says Patti.

But, don’t you see? There is potential here,’ I say. ‘And ….. Look! They all stayed here in consecutive weeks.’

You mean, turn it into a story.’

Absolutely!’ I say.

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Apocalypse No

Apocalypse No by Chris Green

1:

At first, Ingrid and I think the explosion may have come from Dmitri’s place further down the lane. We live out in the sticks and Dmitri is our nearest neighbour. He is always tinkering with something questionable in his makeshift workshop at the bottom of his garden. With his moth-eaten suit, his wiry hair and his wayward gaze, he is the archetypal mad scientist. It wouldn’t be the first time he had had an accident with one of his experiments. But it gradually becomes apparent this is not just a local issue. The devastation is more widespread. The phones are out, the internet is down, we have no power, and the sky has turned black. The kind of black that absorbs all visible light. And it is deathly quiet.

Having eliminated Dmitri’s shenanigans, we have no idea who or what might be responsible for the burgeoning cataclysm. I make my way outside and find the 4 by 4 won’t start. Ingrid is tut-tutting. I tell her there could be more at stake than her missing her appointment at Cutting It Fine, and there’s a good chance her Amazon parcel will not arrive today. There don’t seem to be any other cars on the road. Half an hour passes. No vehicles drive past. Even out here you would expect a couple of dozen, even on a quiet day. But no sign of any. Does this mean that motor vehicles too have somehow been disabled? I have the feeling we are witnessing something apocalyptic. We are in the thrall of an all-consuming, mute darkness.

Like the 9/11 attacks and the coronavirus pandemic, I imagine we will once again be measuring everything in terms of before and after. Before the bang, everything works, after the bang, nothing works. While we are searching for the candles that Ingrid is sure we have somewhere in the house, I try to recall if there has been anything on the news lately that might help to explain what is going on. A nuclear build-up perhaps, an asteroid that was about to hit us, or some other dire threat to our way of life. Predictably, nothing springs to mind. With the coronavirus in retreat and a less volatile American president, things have been settling down recently. Could it be something they were too afraid to warn us about?

Our clocks and watches have stopped, so we have no way of measuring the passing of time. In our bleak isolation, we lose all sense of time. They say your eyes gradually become accustomed to the dark and adjust, but it is not true. At least not with darkness on this level. And you definitely don’t get used to the loss of TV and the internet. You begin to miss people more than you thought you would too. At least with the coronavirus lockdowns, you could speak to people on the phone or WhatsApp. And pass the time of day with those you met on your daily exercise walk. Naturally, we are worried about our Emma at University in Edinburgh. We were hoping she might be home for Easter in two weeks’ time. And what about Matt and Lucy in Melbourne with the baby on the way? How will they be coping? We don’t know, of course, that this is happening worldwide, Ingrid points out. I don’t want to dampen her optimism, but I have a growing feeling that it just might be. There is nothing we can do to find out the extent of it. All we can do is stay with it and somehow survive.

2:

According to our best guess, the blackout conditions continue for nearly a fortnight. Days filled with morbid thoughts of when and how we might face the final curtain. When sleep comes, the grim reaper is there waiting in our dreams. Are we perhaps already dead? It feels that way. Perpetual darkness feeds unimaginable demons. It is wall-to-wall torment.

About halfway through our nightmare, Ingrid manages to locate the candles and we are once again able to light the house. But it is still pitch black outside. The illumination of the house brings a trickle of evangelists to the door gripped by an intense religious fervour. The darkness is a punishment for our sins, Reverend Dudgeon tells us, a clear sign from the Almighty that we need to repent. Ingrid and I decide we are not ready to repent just yet. We just want our normal life back. We want the car to start. We want the heating to come on at night. We want to be able to cook a nice meal. We want Facebook and Netflix. We want WhatsApp to be able to talk to Matt and Emma. More urgently, we want food. We are running out of the basics. Even the tea has run out. If the Almighty could come up with some provisions, we might be able to strike a deal.

By the time an unexpected slither of daylight appears on the horizon some days later, we are wretched and on the verge of starvation. Like a miracle, the electricity comes back on and the heating kicks in. Our phone batteries are dead and the internet seems to still be down, but at least, we now have power. The SUV hesitates a little, but at the third or fourth turn of the key, it starts. Gingerly, we make our way out into the big wide world to find out what is going on and attempt to locate much-needed supplies. Further up the lane, we come across a bunch of confused, desperate people. We stop to say hello and to see if they have any helpful information. None of them knows any more details about what it is that has happened than we do. As nothing like it has happened before, it defies all logic and human experience. But we are all on a shared mission to replenish our supplies, and hopeful that now we can get life back on an even keel.

3:

At first, provisions in the shops are scarce, so we have to get by with tinned produce. The disruption to supply lines has been huge. Farmers more than anyone have taken a hit, along with wholesalers and retailers. Light, power and transport are crucial here. But gradually fresh food begins to appear on the shelves again, and perhaps for the first time, we realise how lucky we are to be provided for in this way. We now appreciate things we once took for granted.

We can now once again talk to Emma in Edinburgh and Matt and Lucy in Melbourne, which is a huge relief to us all. We look forward to reunions as soon as such things are possible. The internet comes back online but in a limited capacity. Gone is the political mudslinging. Gone are the overabundance of fake news sites and false flag posts. Gone are the conspiracy theory bots and the sites where opinion is passed off as truth. Gone are the endless ads for things you could never possibly want. Hopefully, this also means that the criminal activity that increasingly blemished the web’s reputation will also have been reduced.

We remain in the dark about the details of exactly what has taken place, and there seems to be a determination on someone’s behalf to keep it this way. We have no way of knowing who this might be or how they managed it. All we can glean from reports is that it appears to have happened worldwide, including in Russia and China. No data is available about the number of fatalities. But perhaps this lack of information is no bad thing. The historical tendency to dwell on disaster and misfortune is a trait that has few benefits. Going endlessly over old ground has been the mistake we have made all too often in the past. This explains why history has the habit of repeating itself. Surely no-one wants to revisit their ordeal. They want to move on. Few people we speak to are even curious now about what happened.

Are you still on about that old thing?’ Andy Mann, who services the SUV, says. ‘I saw it as a chance to catch up on some sleep.’

I’m too old to worry about stuff like that,’ Rosie Parker at the village shop says. ‘I’m too busy here for one thing, and I have my cats to look after.’

I’m pleased we’ve moved on,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘It means I can pretend to go to the office again in the mornings.’

It is best to view the cataclysm in terms of before and after, and draw a line under it,’ Stanislav, the gap-year student who delivers the root vegetables and brassicas for the farm shop says. ‘Don’t you see? This is an opportunity for great change. Time to forge a new paradigm.’

Stanislav’s positive outlook is reflected in the flavour of the material social media algorithms now prioritise. Love and peace are being promoted again, along with protecting the environment. Let’s work together is the message. The daily newspapers are slow in reappearing, and when they do, they too seem to have tempered their morning vitriol. Instead of the screaming banner headlines, there are stories of human achievement and inside, features on self-sufficiency, tree planting, personal growth and transcendental meditation. Spiritual leader, Eckhart Tolle, has been given a regular column in one of the red-tops. Another is starting a flower power renaissance. I’m not sure who The Incredible String Band are, but there is a revival of their music, along with someone called Donovan. He’s a folk singer, apparently. And the Hari Krishnas will be visiting a park near you soon to fill your hearts with joy.

There has been a sea change in thought. Perhaps for the first time, people seem to want to get along with one another and not to be so ready to open up divisions. Maybe they never did, but were continually being told by ruthless manipulators from both sides of the political spectrum that it was ‘us and them’. 9/11 opened up the floodgates for hate and violence and reduced the capacity for tolerance. Back in 2021, Coronavirus appeared to offer an opportunity to change to a more sustainable way of living, but the opportunity was missed, and it was soon business as usual. With this latest before and after moment, we must be careful to maintain the change in consciousness that has taken place. We cannot afford to return to our destructive ways. This is it.

We haven’t seen Dmitri for a while,’ Ingrid says.

Old Tom Montgomery who lives at The Beeches down the road tells me Dmitri is working on an invisibility cloak,’ I say. ‘I hope it works out better than the other fellow that tried. The H.G. Wells one. What was his name? Griffin?’

I think so,’ Ingrid says. ‘They made a film of it.’

The Invisible Man. Several films and a TV series, I think.’

We watched one of them quite recently. Oliver Jackson-Cohen played Griffin. Elizabeth Moss was in it. The one with lots of CGI ……. Oh No! What was that loud bang, Kurt?’

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved













Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes by Chris Green

What happened to the old bus station, Ricky?’ 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 Tasha 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,’ Ricky 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 ….’

Indeed!’

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 Ricky 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 Goat and Bicycle,’ Ricky says. ‘They serve a good pint of SkullSplitter there, and perhaps we can have a game of Pool.’

The Goat and Bicycle?’ I say. ‘Is that new?’

Oh, come on, Vince!’ Ricky 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 Goat and Bicycle. With a name like that, you would think I would. But 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 Goat, 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 while. Shops and business premises everywhere change hands, 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 new traffic furniture and mobile phone architecture appear without you realising it. You have to expect this. And given today’s burgeoning homogeneity, doesn’t one place 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, Ricky 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 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. Ricky 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 Tasha 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 Ricky has never approved of Tasha. 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 Goat and Bicycle 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, I don’t mention it. The disorientation seems to affect my pool game, though. I lose all five games to Ricky, whereas nine times out of ten, I would expect to have beaten him.

Tasha and I are staying at her friend, Debbie’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 Tasha 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 Goat and Bicycle. 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 explain a meeting like this as synchronicity. Charlie has always been a serious-minded dude, 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 Debbie’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 Ricky,’ I say. ‘At least Debbie’s street name.’

I don’t seem to have a number for Ricky 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 Ricky.’

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 Tasha and Debbie 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 Tasha’s benefit. For her to catch up with Debbie. 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 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 Goat and Bicycle,’ I say.

I thought that’s what you said,’ she says. ’I don’t think there’s any such pub. According to Google, there’s a Goat and Tricycle in Bournemouth. As that’s over a hundred miles away, I don’t imagine it is that one.’

That’s odd,’ I say. ‘Ricky made a big thing about us going to The Goat and Bicycle. 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 Ricky lives. After breakfast, I bid my farewells to Stacey.

You have my number,’ she says. ‘Any time you’re passing.’

I arrive at Ricky’s house in Franz Kafka Street and ring the doorbell. There is no reply. I try again. I am about to conclude that Ricky 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 Ricky there?’ I ask, puzzled by what a wrinkled old lady might be doing in Ricky’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.

Ricky, 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 Ricky, Mr Geist’s house. 42 Franz Kafka Street.’

Sorry,’ she says, ‘This is number 42 but there’s no Mr Ricky 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 Ricky 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 Ricky 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 Goat and Bicycle does not exist, nor does Lewis Carroll Street. Perceptions of historical time can vary from person to person. I have no idea where Debbie’s house is. There is no way for me to contact Tasha 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 turn and face the strange.

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Such Stuff

 

Such Stuff by Chris Green

When I read the news about traces of cannabis being found in clay pipes from William Shakespeare’s garden, I was surprised, but then again, not too surprised. After all, many literary figures have been known to use drugs, Wordsworth and Coleridge for instance. Shelley and Byron too had famously indulged, not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. To bring the list up to date we could add William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King. Artists and musicians too have dipped into the medicine jar for inspiration. In recent times we have the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. You could easily come up with a very long list. While drugs have been frowned upon by respectable society, creative people seem to have been excused their indulgence, it seems almost expected of them.

I suppose the biggest surprise regarding the clay pipes revelation was that cannabis was available back in Shakespeare’s day. I imagine the drug was moved along established trade routes from the far-east in much the same way that it is today. Or perhaps it came back from South America with Sir Walter Raleigh, along with the tobacco. Perhaps Raleigh had meant to just bring back marijuana, but the natives had stipulated that he could only have this if he took back a few tons of tobacco too. Shakespeare being a stoner was probably surprising only because cannabis doesn’t get a mention in the history books, or for that matter, in the Bard’s plays.

Moving on from the revelation, I wondered what other discoveries I might make about the drug habits of famous literary figures on the internet. I was astonished by what I found. I would not have thought that Thomas Hardy took more than the odd infusion of laudanum and then purely to treat his ailments. Surely Thomas Hardy, the ultimate in realist writers was straight. Surely he had not written Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure under the influence of psychoactive substances. I had to dig deep to find the information, but it transpired that recently a large sack of cocaine was discovered in Hardy’s old writing desk. It was of course past its best, but analysis confirmed that the contents of the sack were definitely cocaine. Hardy’s biographers, keen to paint the author in a good light had up until this point not alluded to his recreational drug use.

I always had the hunch that J. R. R. Tolkien was on something. He didn’t seem to know what day it was. And his stories are a bit weird to say the least. But who would have thought that he was on crack. Who knew crack was even around at the time he was writing? But, once you start looking, there are pictures of Tolkien with his crack pipe all over the internet. With so much evidence, it is difficult to argue. No wonder that Lord Of The Rings is so violent. This is a clear symptom of Tolkien smoking too much crack.

While one might have suspected that some children’s writers, Lewis Carroll, for instance, or Norton Juster who wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, had taken the odd substance to create their dreamlike worlds, who would have suspected that the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books was a drug fiend. The web page I landed on explained that Reverend Awdry had a voracious appetite for drugs. He took everything that was going, from angel dust to ecstasy. He was out of his head twenty-four seven. The bio went on to say that in the original manuscript of Thomas the Tank Engine all the engines’ puffing was a reference to their smoking dope and The Fat Controller character was a drug dealer and, but at the publisher’s insistence all this was edited out. Nevertheless, Reverend Awdry’s collection of bongs and chillums recently sold at auction for a four-figure sum.

So there you have it. I’m now wondering what Franz Kafka was on. It’s a shame that he has been deleted from the internet.

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 8

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Eight by Chris Green

1:

When Picasso said everything you can imagine is real, he was presumably referring to his art. But could this also be the starting point for fiction? How else can we build a believable world out of something that doesn’t exist? How else can we become absorbed in the tale we are telling? Somewhere it is necessary to cross an invisible line, and it needs to be a line that is at least temporarily imperceptible to the reader. Surely more difficult, I hear you say, for the writer of speculative fiction or magical realism. But is it? Surely the same dictum still applies. Everything you can imagine is real. 

This is, of course, good news for Wet Blanket Ron, who must have thought that, as he had not appeared in print for nearly two years, he had probably had his final fictional outing. Although at the end of Part Seven, I had set Ron up in Ocho Rios, Jamaica with glamour model, Lara Lascala and a state-of-the-art catamaran at his disposal, I had not revisited him to see how he was getting along. My final words had been, what could possibly go wrong? 

As this is Wet Blanket Ron, the answer is plenty. The unexpected earthquake which destroys his ganga plantation in the hills and drew the attention of the Jamaican police is only the beginning of his misfortune. The generous legacy I have left him to establish himself on the island enables him to escape prosecution. Had Ron been better trained in seafaring, he might have been able to save his catamaran when he becomes caught in the unseasonal tropical storm off Pedro Cays. It is difficult to capsize a catamaran, even in the roughest of waters, but Ron manages it with consummate ease. He and Lara have to be rescued by the Haitian coastguard. They had been in the water for nearly an hour, hanging on for dear life to the remains of the vessel. This is the final straw for Lara. She has had enough of Ron’s contretemps. She ups and leaves. 

2:

I decide it is time for Ron to leave the good life behind. No more swimming in the warm tropical waters. No more pina coladas on the sun terrace. No more lazy spliffs in his God size bed. It’s time to curtail his Caribbean adventure and bring him back home to Blighty. 

We join our hapless ne’er-do-well in the middle of winter in a small bedsit in Toker’s End, a notorious housing project in the West Midlands. He has run out of money and is on the phone chasing up his Universal Credit payment. There is no sign of this and he is becoming desperate.

I haven’t eaten for three days,’ Ron says. He has a cupboard full of stolen tins of sweetcorn, but they don’t need to know that.

There are food banks, you know, Mr Smoot,’ the benefits advisor says.

It’s been two weeks since I filled in the bloody forms,’ Ron says, trying hard to keep his cool. ‘When am I going to get my money?’

He is put on hold for the third time. Your call is important to us, the recorded voice tells him mockingly, in between a scratchy recording of Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give You Up. Before anyone comes back on the line, the credit on Ron’s PAYG mobile runs out. 

Ron has few friends. No, let me rephrase that. Ron has no friends. He has no-one he feels he can try to borrow money from. He needs to get a job, PDQ. This is not going to be easy as his work record is poor. Apart from a handful of casual jobs, his recent CV comprises a spell working for NVision Inc breaking unwelcome news to people, and a few weeks promoting PurplePhones. His role here was to permanently disable users’ iPhones and Samsungs so they would buy a new PurplePhone. Not exactly ethical, but while it lasted, it was well paid. He feels that neither Daniel DeMarco at NVision nor Miles Highman at PurplePhones would be likely to welcome him back with open arms. But of the pair, Miles Highman might be the better bet for a chat about his current situation. With his underworld connections, he might know someone who could offer him a no questions asked, cash-in-hand opportunity. 

Ron finds the Toker’s End Community Foodbank is closed until further notice. No reason is given. He returns home in the rain only to discover the door to his apartment has been kicked in. Who would want to burgle a dismal bedsit on a run-down estate like this? But someone has, and they have taken not only his supply of tinned sweetcorn and his tin opener but his bedding and his spare pair of jeans. They have taken his Leonard Cohen CD too and his paperback copy of Jude the Obscure. Even his Merle Haggard poster has gone. What kind of person steals a Merle Haggard poster?

Once he has dried out, Ron walks the three miles into town to PurplePhones’ offices, and in an uncharacteristic spot of good fortune runs into Miles Highman in the car park. Miles is getting into his shiny purple Porsche and does not recognise Ron at first, but then it dawns on him who he is. It is the poor posture that gives it away, along with the hangdog expression. Ron’s spell promoting the new network had been brief and had ended badly with his arrest. At least Ron had had the sense not to implicate him directly. Inspector Crooner had been satisfied that Ron’s behaviour had not in any way reflected PurplePhones’ marketing strategy. 

Ron explains that he is looking for work. Anything will do, he says. While Miles does not feel he wants to take another chance with Ron at the moment, it occurs to him that he might be of use to his associate, Darius Bro, who is looking for an admin assistant for his timeshare scam. An off-the-book employee who, if push came to shove, could be the fall guy. Miles arranges for Ron to meet up with Darius Bro at The Goat and Bicycle public house.

When Ron arrives at the pub, there is no sign of Darius Bro. Having no money to buy himself a drink, he sits himself down at a quiet table in the corner and waits. The bartender is about to come over to check him out, but in the nick of time, Bro arrives and joins him. In contrast to Ron’s ripped jeans and grey zip jacket, he is wearing a fitted Thom Sweeney Prince of Wales check three-piece suit.

You will be Ron, I take it,’ he says, looking him up and down. ‘We’ll have to get you kitted out in something more presentable if we’re to do business. But, first things first. What are you drinking?’

No-one has asked Ron this for a long time. He takes advantage of the offer and asks for a large single malt.

Bro returns with the drinks and explains the details of his scheme. Prestige Timeshares aims to sell fifty monthly shares in a villa he has on rental on the Isle of Wight. He is to sell the allocations at competitive prices, but not that competitive, giving buyers the impression that they are part owners of the luxury property. He tells Ron that it is a tried and tested scheme. Although it is new to the UK, it has worked a treat in locations around the Mediterranean and the Canaries, Once Prestige has reached its target, or if there are any signs of their being rumbled, they will close the operation down and disappear without trace. Then later on, they can take the idea somewhere else and set up a similar scheme.

But won’t someone’s name be there as a signatory to the deals?’ Ron says, his mind conjuring up things that are likely to go wrong. ‘Mine perhaps?’

We’re not going to use real names now, are we, son?’ Bro says. ‘That would be dumb. You will be John Smith or something. And there will be no actual face-to-face meetings. You can do it all online or over the internet and phone, and I have a bottomless supply of burners for you to use. You just have to remember which phone matches which client. And don’t worry, I have the legal side of things taken care of. Now! Are you in?’

Although he has reservations, because in his experience things have a tendency to go wrong, Ron feels he has few options. He agrees.

By the look of you, I imagine you will be needing some cash upfront,’ Bro says. No-one has made this kind of offer for a long time. Ron expresses his thanks. 

Not that it’s a question of being cool, you understand,’ Bro says. ‘Who can be cool these days? Unless you are in a transgender relationship with a beached whale, you are no longer cool in these barmy woke times. But you do look a bit scruffy, mate.’

Having the burner phones is all very well, but Ron doesn’t actually have a PC to conduct the online business, and by the time he has kitted out the flat a little, he has nothing left from Darius Bro’s advance. The public library seems to offer the answer. They have a dozen machines that you can use for free. The problem is that on public machines, Ron cannot download the Tor browser that Bro has told him will be necessary to protect his anonymity. As a result, each transaction Ron makes leaves a paper trail that is easily traceable back to the ip address of the library. For instance, his timeshare sales to George and Louise Cross. Captain Newport-Black and Reverend Harry Webb. The librarian, May Wynn, is only too willing to assist Inspector Rommel of the Cyber Fraud Squad with his investigation. Several times she has caught Ron using his mobile phone in the library and gone over to ask him to stop, but as soon as her back was turned, he has carried on with his call. He is a bad one for sure. 

The mobile phone in Bent Diaz’s office drawer rings. The one with the Leonard Cohen ringtone that he assigned to calls from Ron Smoot, Wet Blanket Ron. He thought this one was dead. His legal secretary must have re-charged it. He will eed to have words with her. Of all his clients, Ron is by far the most exasperating. He is one of life’s victims. What can it possibly be about this time?  

Diaz answers it with a sense of foreboding. He has dreaded this moment. He listens while Ron explains in his dull monotone the details of his arrest and asks how he can come up with a defence against the charges he now faces of fraud and embezzlement. Fraud and embezzlement? Fake timeshares? How does Ron get himself into these predicaments? He’s not a seasoned criminal. How does he manage to get involved with these underworld characters? Daniel DeAngelo, Miles Highman and now Darius Bro. And his lifestyle choices? The women he gets mixed up with, Tracey Minger, Kirsty Tickler. Isn’t it time he took some responsibility for his own wellbeing? 

His initial instinct is to tell Ron he cannot take the case. But it dawns on him that if he can get Ron put away for a long stretch, then it will get him off his back. Furthermore, by sparing others Ron’s wet blanket negativity, he would be doing everyone a favour. Perhaps he can come up with a reverse plea bargain, whereby Ron pleads guilty to a more serious charge. But there again……..

The new plan comes to him in a flash. He can use the occasion to make a name for himself. When the case comes to court, he can argue that Wet Blanket Ron is fictional. No-one to the best of his knowledge has used this line of defence before. If he can prove beyond doubt that Ron is a fictional creation, then he cannot be tried. The case will be thrown out of court. He will make headlines. All he needs to do is order a few copies of The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron on Amazon to give out to the judge and jury. You should buy a copy too. Good book!

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Heidi

HEIDI by Chris Green

I am stuck at the Scott McKenzie lights when I notice the car in front of me is the same model and colour, a blue Mazda 3. Not too unusual perhaps. It is a popular model. But this one somehow looks too familiar. Before I can put my finger on what it is, the lights change and the other car turns left into Mandolin Way. I drive straight on. It is Tuesday and I have deadlines to meet at work. Only then does it dawn on me that the other car had the same registration number as mine. How can it have had the same registration? Surely I must have imagined it. Perhaps I read one digit wrong. Manufacturers probably buy blocks of consecutive plate numbers.

There’s no point in going after it. It will be long gone. Mandolin Way is a fast road. But I have my Dash Cam set to record as a precaution in case of accidents. The Dash Cam was Heidi’s suggestion. She was aware of my fondness for gadgets and this was one gadget I didn’t have. I don’t recall ever having checked anything on it before. Like a Smart Meter to monitor electricity consumption, it’s one of those things that you install and then forget about.

As soon as it is safe to do, I pull over to check the other car’s plate on replay. VX09 YRG. No doubt about it. It is the same registration. To all intents and purposes, it’s the same car as the one I’m driving. I try to come up with an explanation, rational or otherwise. I cannot. I’ve owned the car for six years. It’s never been stolen, never been in an accident or written off. It’s unlikely DVLA or whoever regulates licence plates would have made a mistake and not noticed it. I am spooked. We are in the X Files, Twilight Zone territory here.

I phone the office to say I will be in a little late. Perhaps very late, I’m thinking or maybe not at all. I need time to reflect. No-one would take me seriously if I came right out with a crazy story like this. They would say they’ve noticed I’ve been acting strange lately or perhaps I ought to go easy on the wacky-backy. They are an unforgiving bunch at Zeitgeist Designs.

The feeling of unease is not going to go away. A little light refreshment in The Gordon Bennett is called for.

Probably pranksters, Charlie,’ Big Al behind the bar suggests. ‘After all, it’s only licence plates. You can get them made up anywhere.’

Sure! But why my car?’ I say. ‘What would be in it for them?’

Maybe you’ve pissed someone off and they want to get back at you,’ Al says.

If I had, surely there would be better ways to make a point,’ I say.

Perhaps it’s someone who wants to avoid paying road tax,’ Malone says.

A bit extreme,’ I say. ‘It’s an eco model, anyway.’

Perhaps it’s some kind of mega-scam and they have a whole fleet of cloned cars,’ Malone says. ‘Anyway, a Mazda, Charlie? I would have thought you could do better than that. What happened to the fast car Heidi wanted you to get?’

Back burner,’ I say.

Whatever is happening, I shouldn’t worry about it,’ Al says. ‘There’s bound to be an explanation. Another pint, is it?’

Heidi must realise from my demeanour that I have been drinking and driving but she does mention it. She does not ask what is bothering me and I do not tell her. In the end, she successfully manages to distract me. I am fortunate her libido more than matches my own. I wake the next morning with a fierce determination to return to normality.

As soon as I get in the car, yesterday’s incident comes back to me. But, I tell myself it’s a new day and there’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it. In the big scheme of things, this is small potatoes. It is too easy to become paranoid. The slightest little thing will send some folks into a spin. I have friends for instance who believe the thought police at Facebook are controlling what they see in their feeds and forcing unnecessary purchases on them. If they could be bothered to do a little research they would discover they had complete control over their profile page. Then there are all of those conspiracy theories you get popping up in conversation. The Illuminati and the New World Order. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The white Fiat Uno in the Alma Tunnel. No end of paranoid fixations. People need to loosen up.

I plug my iPod in and set it to a random shuffle. It plays some lilting Dave Brubeck. Traffic is light this morning. Wednesdays are often quiet. For some reason, the rush hour doesn’t kick in so much mid-week. I’m straight through the Scott McKenzie lights and in no time at all, I’m on Tambourine Way. It isn’t until I’m halfway along Reg Presley Street that I encounter any congestion. Had I had a clear run along Reg Presley, I might not have noticed it. But there, parked on the left-hand side of the road is the duplicate Mazda. VX09 YRG.

My heart is going nineteen to the dozen. I try to remember the deep breathing exercises my old Tai Chi instructor, Lars Wimoweh taught me. The 4-7-8 pranayama technique. I tell myself this could be my chance to find out once and for all what is going on. I can park up and wait until it’s owner comes along. It will be tense and the outcome will be unpredictable, possibly even dangerous but this is it. I may not get a better opportunity.

I find a space on the opposite side of the road twenty yards away. I phone the office to tell them I might be late in, something has come up. I nip into the Italian café for a large latte macchiato and a few pastries to keep me going during my stakeout. Bean Me Up’s Ciarduna con crema is to die for. You won’t find anything like this on Bake Off.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit slow but while I am in Bean Me Up it occurs to me the best way to find out what is going on would not be to wait until the owner comes along but to get in there and give the vehicle a close examination. There’s bound to be something to help solve the mystery. Might my key fob even open it?

My fob doesn’t open it. But the similarities don’t end with the number plate. It has the same My Other Car is a Porsche sticker in the back window. Heidi ordered this as a joke to try to get me to buy a more prestigious car. I may not be able to manage a Porsche but there’s a silver Sirocco GTS at Honest Joe’s I have my eye on. I bet that’s quite quick. …… What else? There’s the same unsightly key scratch along the front passenger door. Coincidence? Maybe but it has the same split in the same place on the rear bumper, the same crack on the passenger side tail-light and the same stain on the petrol filler-cap. Perhaps most spooky of all, the same book lying open face-down on the back seat. The paperback edition of Philip C Dark’s Now You See It. Granted Philip C Dark is a popular author but surely this level of coincidence is too great.

I suddenly feel dizzy, light headed. Things are becoming blurry. …… I’m slipping away ………

When I come round I find myself once more in Bean Me Up. Gianni is hovering over me.

Grazie Dio!’ he says. ‘I was just about to call an ambulance.’

My head is doing somersaults. I have no idea how I came to be here.

What?’ I say. ‘How?’

Someone brought-a you in here, my friend,’ Gianni says. ‘A fellow with a foreign accent. Not like a-mine, more ……. Eastern European.’

When?’ I say. ‘Who?’

He had big black sunglasses and a neck tattoo,’ Gianni says. ‘He said he found you lying in the gutter. Across the road there. ……. He didn’t seem to want to stay around.’

Sounds like a weirdo? Where did he go?’

More gangster than weirdo, Charlie. Mafioso or something. ……. Are you sure you’re OK? You’re not in any kind of trouble, are you? You have been acting strange lately. Perhaps you ought to lay off the papania.’

I try to regain my composure. It comes back to me that I’m looking for the duplicate car. I’m not sure I want to explain this to Gianni just yet. He’s already brought the Mafia into the conversation. I’m hoping there’s a more innocent explanation. After all, I felt dizzy and I fainted. That’s all, isn’t it? It could happen to anyone any time.

I’ll pop back in later,’ I say ‘Perhaps then I’ll try one of your sfogliatellas.’

Gianni ushers me towards a seat and gestures for me to sit down.

Later, my friend. Why not now?’ he says, bringing me a plate with a tasty looking sfoglietella on it. ‘Gratis. New recipe.’

Some things are hard to resist. Sweet pastries are near the top of the list. It all began back at Frank Portrait Secondary School with the rich sweet hot drippers they used to sell at break time. Devouring Gianni’s sfoglietellas is like bathing in syrup.

When, minutes later, I make my way out on to the street, it hits me like a blow to the solar plexus. The rogue car has gone. There is a generous parking space where it stood. Not only has the rogue car disappeared but so has mine. A big gap here too. What in Heaven’s name is going on around here?

I realise I am going to have to be very careful how I report the matter to the police. I’d probably better stick with one stolen car. I don’t want them to think I’m a sandwich short of a picnic.

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to a scratchy recording of Pachelbel’s Canon played on a ukulele, a bored-sounding girl takes down my details. Her casual response to my loss does nothing to inspire confidence. Maybe hundreds of cars are stolen in these parts every day. But when one has just lost their means of getting about, who wants to be told the police will be in touch if they hear anything? If they hear anything? You want the lazy gits to be out actively looking for your missing vehicle.

Back in The Gordon Bennett, Big Al tries to console me.

Everyone it seems is having a tough time lately, Charlie,’ he says.

He runs through a list. Spiky Pete, Billy, Wet Blanket Ron, even Tiffany Golden. All of them are apparently down on their luck. Al is telling me about the trials and tribulations of his old mate, Dylan Song when I get a call from Inspector Boss. He says he’s from the Weird Crimes Squad. When I reported the incident, I must have accidentally slipped in something about the duplicate car because he’s straight on to this.

Pleased to have someone who is actually interested in my case, I give the Inspector a detailed report on my sightings.

Lots of this kind of thing lately,’ Boss says, cryptically.

Is that right?’ I say, hoping he might elaborate.

Indeed,’ he says. ‘Strange shit accounts for nearly a quarter of all crime today. People don’t realise what a mad world we live in.’

Really?’ I say. ‘Do you know, before you phoned, I hadn’t even heard of the Weird Crimes Squad.’ I make a mental note to ask Heidi.

We are instructed to keep a low profile,’ he says. ‘A lot of the stuff we investigate has to be kept under wraps. The bigwigs maintain it would be dangerous if the public were to find out what’s really going on in their cosy little suburbs. Because of our low profile, we are underfunded. Added to which the regulars don’t always pass information about the crazy stuff they encounter on to us. So occult crime has a tendency to slip through the net. No-one is even aware of Dr Salt’s experiments or the malevolent things the Houdini Illusionists get up to. You were fortunate we picked up on your little anomaly. Sergeant Spacey just happened to be in reception at HQ when Chloe was taking your call. Something weird going on here, he thought to himself. Spacey has a sense for these things. He’s a phi beta kappa in weird. A regular David Lynch. He can read auras and interpret dreams.’

Good man to have around then,’ I say.

Between you and me, I think he’s got a bit of a thing for Chloe,’ Boss says. ‘She hasn’t got brain one but she has got big tits.’

I ask Boss what he thinks is happening.

Spacey’s wife left him recently, you see,’ he says. ‘Because of his ….. infidelities. Well, that and the stuff she found on his computer. So, I guess he’s looking for someone to….. Oh, you mean what’s the score with these cars? Well! Let’s start with the man who took you into the café. Are you quite sure you fainted? Did you perhaps catch sight of this man and not register it? Was there not some interaction between the two of you? A fracas or something maybe? An unexplained connection of some kind?’

I don’t think so, Inspector. I suddenly felt very weak and passed out.’

When I get home, Heidi manages to distract me. A different outfit this time, but just as seductive. She does not at any stage ask why I am home early or where my car is and I don’t tell her. Heidi is respectful of a man’s need for a little privacy. In the morning, I leave for work at the usual time although I am not planning on going in as I have to meet up with Boss and Spacey to talk about the missing cars.

The bus makes slow progress along Harmonica Avenue. There appears to have been an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As we edge closer, I see that two cars have collided. Two blue Mazdas. I cannot make out the registration numbers amongst the heap of twisted metal but I feel I can hazard a guess. I dial the number Boss gave me only to be told by a trembling female voice that he and Spacey have been delayed. She does not want to elaborate but when I push her, she discloses that the pair were involved in an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout and the early signs are not good.

To calm my nerves, I drop in at The Gordon Bennett. While Big Al sympathises with my plight, he reminds me it is always a mistake to trust a policeman. I point out Inspector Boss was not an ordinary policeman. I find I am already speaking about Boss in the past tense. Al seems to want to get back to yesterday’s conversation about everyone being down on their luck. Dirk Acker has gambling debts like you wouldn’t believe, Ugg Stanton’s parrot has died and Josh Jenkins is going blind. I suppose this is the mindset you develop working in a bar all day. People just want to offload. It could be that The Gordon Bennett is simply that sort of pub. Perhaps I ought to start going to The Mojo Filter instead. Or The Rose and Dalek.

Heidi has been coming up with adverts for fast cars for weeks. I decide it is time to take another look at the Sirocco. Honest Joe says for a down payment of just £1000, he will be able to arrange the finance. I tell him my Mazda was stolen and I need to wait until the insurance cheque comes through. Honest Joe tells me he can arrange this too. He says he will give me a call in a day or so. I do not mention the duplicate car. Perhaps there was no duplicate car. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. Perhaps Gianni was right about the papania.

It’s too late to go in to Zeitgeist now. What I need is a little distraction. I head home on the bus. They have now cleared the debris at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. The road crews have been very thorough. You could be forgiven for thinking there had never been an accident. Traffic is flowing freely along Mandolin Way. No news yet on the cars or of the casualties but you can’t hurry these things. As we pass the familiar landmarks that I see day in day out, the embryo of a thought starts to form about my having sold the Mazda. For £2000. I remember filling in the slip on the registration document to someone called Ward Swisher. Where is this idea coming from? Who is Ward Swisher? How could I have sold the Mazda? False memory perhaps? If it is, there’s no sense in dwelling on it. If something is important, you remember it in due course. The truth will always out. Where does this come from? Shakespeare? The Merchant of Venice? Lancelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant said it or something like it, didn’t he? One way or another, at least for the time being, the Mazda has gone, so there’s no point in thinking any more about it. As Lars Wimoweh was fond of telling me, whenever you are faced with uncertainty, it’s best to adopt a zen approach. Open yourself up to the universe, he used to say, go with the flow. It saves time and energy.

I arrive home in the mood for a little distraction. I’m wondering what today’s surprise érotique might be. To my alarm, there is no-one to distract me. Heidi is no longer online. The site appears to have been taken down.

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Heroes

Heroes by Chris Green

The pandemic has been a devastating time for everyone. You don’t have to look too hard to find heartbreaking real-life stories. They are everywhere. And the horror of losing loved ones continues with no end in sight. In addition to the carnage, millions more have lost their livelihoods, and the lockdown has been difficult for families the length and breadth of the country. Apart from the obvious effects, the mental health consequences of the isolation are incalculable. Everyone is becoming a little stir crazy. 

It would be wrong to look for too much sympathy in terrible times like these, but spare a thought for us writers of imaginative fiction. Admittedly, we should be more at home than most with the solitude. We need quiet time to craft our stories, but more importantly than this, we need inspiration. We have to come up with ideas in the first place, and these usually come from being out there amongst people. All fiction is based to some extent on real-life experiences. The germ of the idea might come from a snippet of conversation we accidentally overhear, an unusual event, the juxtaposition of two contradictory views, glimpses of peculiar behaviour or an idiosyncratic character. Locked down as we have been, we have largely been deprived of these prompts. There has been nothing to spark our imagination. You will probably have noticed that there have been few novels or short stories on the shelves worth reading this year. This is not a coincidence.

With the escalating numbers of fatalities, you might argue that there is plenty of human drama we could draw upon. This is as maybe, but only for writers that like to rub your nose in the ordure. This is not the time to get stuck into a Toni Morrison or Cormac McCarthy novel. In troubled times like this, I’m pretty sure my readers would not appreciate a dystopian narrative. I have avoided any reference to the virus in all of my work since the pandemic began. There is more than enough of this on the daily news bulletins. People need no more reminders. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through. Something lighter and more entertaining is called for. 

The quiet rural area Lucy and I live in offers little obvious raw material for a punchy plotline. Chekhovian realism is important, of course, but no-one wants to read about dull characters whose actions are predictable. It may have worked for Hardy, but rural pursuits do not have a place in speculative fiction. My readers don’t want to read about farmers ploughing fields, horses being mucked out, or cows clumping in pastures. And counting sheep sends you to sleep. The fellow with the Dodge pickup, who produces the 13% green rough cider in his compound of makeshift outhouses, might have a story or two to tell. Similarly, the clientele of The Horse and Horse which may or may not be a focal point for county-lines trafficking might have interesting experiences to relate. 

But given the reports of how easily the virus spreads, why would I take the risk? Lucy and I don’t even go out. We get everything delivered. We are on the vulnerable list and are shielding. I’m used to being able to travel around freely to find my source material, at least for the initial inspiration. Most writers of fiction will tell you that exploration is the principal driver of narrative development. But there are other sources. I suppose I could stare at the night sky in search of inspiration, or scan the heavens with the telescope I bought when many years ago when I thought there might be starmen waiting in the sky. I could perhaps scour the archives for an interesting memory to get me started, although I may find I have already dug deep into my stock. Dreams are another wellspring of ideas for a writer. I have called on my own nocturnal adventures once or twice, that’s for sure. But even in the world of speculative fiction, dreamscapes need to be used sparingly, a backup rather than a primary resource.

Names are sometimes a good place to start. A well-chosen character name can get the ball rolling. My Roy Saxx and Guy Bloke stories started in this manner. Snappy names, like Nick Carr in Fantastic Voyage, and Frank Fargo in Ashes to Ashes have also helped me to move plotlines along when I have been stuck. But frivolous names ought not to detract from the primary aim, which is to tell a story, Ultimately it is the subject that will decide whether readers persevere. It needs to be something they can relate to, and in this current climate, it needs to have the feelgood factor. Something hunky dory. Sun, sea and sand, maybe. Retail therapy. Sweet things. My story could be about cakes. Master pâttisiers, Errol and Cheryl could be holding a buy-one-get-one-free cake sale at their shop. You can have a layered pound cake filled with raspberry jam and lemon curd topped with buttercream frosting along with a Dobos torte or with a chocolate cake with icing or a mascarpone cheesecake along with a cranberry coffee cake. The choice is yours, and the selection of delicacies is endless. I run the idea past Lucy. She is knowledgeable when it comes to cakes.

It doesn’t exactly lend itself to dramatic tension,’ she says.

Perhaps Errol and Cheryl might run out of cakes,’ I say. ‘And find themselves under pressure to come up with more before the customers queuing outside take matters into their own hands and start trashing the shop. Or they could find themselves in the middle of a full blooded layer-cake war with rival pâttisiers, Larry and Carrie.’ 

Ditch the cake idea, Matt,’ Lucy says. ‘It smacks of desperation. No matter how you dress it up, it isn’t going anywhere. To keep the reader interested, you need to come up with an idea that can accommodate reversals of fortune. A page-turner.’ 

So what do you think would work?’ I say. ‘Some kind of adventure story? Hero, quest, villain, risk, transformation, that kind of thing?’

Something along those lines,’ Lucy says. ‘With a happy ending, this time. Please!’

But don’t you think that’s too predictable?’ I say. ‘I mean, rules are there to be broken. What about an element of magical realism? That usually shakes things up. Or a quirky story that draws attention to its construction?’ 

Isn’t that what you are doing here, anyway?’ Lucy says. 

Perhaps I am. Lucy is usually right. Even in a crisis, she remains level-headed. She seems to be able to stay focussed when sometimes I can’t see the woods for the trees.

Why don’t you throw in some time travel and maybe a talking cat or two?’ she adds.

H’mmm,’ I say. Even if Lucy is being facetious, it’s not a bad idea. ‘I haven’t had a talking cat for a while. Or an invisible train. Or a magic tree.’

Maybe you could feature a real-life celebrity,’ she says. ‘Or do you think you’ve overused that one?’

Have I got Lucy on board with the idea of a postmodern narrative now? I’m wondering if I might introduce Aldo Jett too, or Benito Pond, and resurrect Wet Blanket Ron. No, perhaps not Wet Blanket Ron. He is not the right sort of character to have around in an ongoing global pandemic. But metafiction is definitely the way to go. 

Perhaps I might write you in as a character, Lucy,’ I say. 

You could be in it too,’ Lucy says. 

Why not? We could spring ourselves out of here.’

Exactly! We’ve been in one place too long.’

We could be whoever we want.’

We could be powerful people.’

I could be King and you could be Queen.’

I think I see where this is heading. We could be heroes. Just for one day.’

Or for ever and ever. What do you say?’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved


MURDER MYSTERY – a murder mystery

MURDER MYSTERY – a murder mystery – by Chris Green

My head is pounding. My mouth feels like a dried-up drainage ditch. I am used to more formal surroundings when I wake. A comfortable bed, and if I’m lucky, a cup of tea. This room is unfamiliar. I have no recall of how I came to be here. A few feet away, lies a naked woman with a snake tattoo running up one of her thighs. She is asleep amongst a heap of Film Noir print cushions. She has her back to me. At first, I do not recognise her.

Slowly I realise this is Scarlett. But what is this weird place? A black bakelite telephone sits on a small rococo table beside Scarlett’s recumbent body. Above the table hangs a zebra-patterned rug. A large aloe vera plant skulks in the corner. Four identical black cats sit in different parts of the room at exactly the same angle in the same upright position, looking towards the window. It takes me a few moments to realise that they are stuffed. There is a musty smell in the air. I go over to the open window. It looks out on to a pool of dark water, rich with rotting vegetation.

Another woman comes into the room. My partner, Anya. A little of the puzzle falls into place. Scarlett is a friend of Anya’s. Scarlett has recently taken up with Ivan, an Albanian taxi driver, or is it a taxidermist. We suspect Ivan may be using his taxi driving or taxiderming as a cover for his work for the Albanian Mafia. Anyway, this must be Ivan’s flat.

Anya and I must have arrived last night, although I remember very little. I feel something is wrong. I don’t want to be here.

We need to get back, Anya,’ I say.

What!’ she says. She looks as dazed as I feel. Her eyes are sunken and her hair is matted. Her dark mesh tights are laddered and her pale jacket is smeared with something. There is probably no point in asking her anything about last night at present.

I think it would be good if we got on home,’ I say.

Back home,’ she says. There is something strange about the way she emphasises home. I am not sure why. Perhaps she does not consider our flat as home. Technically, I suppose it is my flat, although Anya has been living there on and off for nearly twelve months. Perhaps she feels she has somewhere else to go. Maybe this is why we are here at Scarlett’s. I try to remember what has happened.

Yes, back home,’ I say. ‘I feel weak. I think I may need to eat soon.’

And having breakfast is going to solve everything, is it?’

Well, perhaps we could have a talk at the same time. Find out what’s happening between us.’

Anya greets this with an icy stare. She goes into another room and returns with a scuffed black leather overnight bag. She throws it across her shoulder. I do not seem to have any baggage. I am clearly missing something about the situation. Until I can discover what this is, I decide I must back off.

Scarlett is still asleep. Anya scribbles a note for her. We take our leave along a dark corridor. It is difficult to get one’s bearings. A succession of rooms leads off. Some have doors but others do not. No light comes through from the rooms. It looks as if the space might be used as a storage area. It must be a very large building. Perhaps it is a converted warehouse. Maybe a warehouse in the process of conversion. In the nineties, it may have been used for art shows or parties. There is a menacing echo to our footsteps as we tread the floorboards. I cannot find a light switch. I bump into a large spider’s web and send its occupant goes scurrying across the floor.

Anya is several steps ahead. She is definitely in a mood about something. I wonder if it is about something that happened last night. The freight train running through my head no longer stops at last night’s station.

We find ourselves at a staircase and go down some steps. We make it out into the daylight. Where is the car? Did we not come in the car? I go through my pockets. I do not have the car keys.

Have you got the keys?’ I ask. No reply.

Did we come on foot?’ I ask. No reply.

Where are we exactly?’ No reply. Anya is giving me the silent treatment. Lately, it seems like I’m treading on eggshells. The problem is I can’t remember what it is I’m supposed to have done. Did I buy the wrong type of gin? Did I not notice her new hairdo? Did I delete something from her phone? Did I say something bad about her degenerate son? From her expression, I get the impression that it may have been something worse.

The streets are flooded. It has been raining heavily, but it is not raining now. I recognise where we are. It is Toker’s End, a part of town I have not been to often. It must be two or three miles from where we live.

Toker’s End is named after the nineteenth-century philanthropist Sir Charles Toker. While similar areas in other parts of the country have been subject to gentrification, Toker’s End has bucked the trend and is heading towards dereliction. With its tall Victorian buildings, it was once a well-to-do area, but over the years it has been bought up of Greeks and Macedonians and converted into flats and bedsits. Legendary slum landlord, Dinos Costadinos (Costa) I believe owns the whole of Prince Albert Street and according to urban legend has never once called in a contractor to take care of any maintenance or repairs.

As we walk along, I feel an odd sensation of disengagement. I feel like I’m floating. Street sounds seem muted. A muffled soundtrack of distant voices seems to play in a loop. This is punctuated by the hiss of tyres as the early morning traffic eases its way through the surface water. I feel a sense of doubt about my surroundings. At any moment the scene might evaporate. The lines of everything I cast my glance upon seem hazy and indistinct. The brightly coloured street art daubed on the run-down apartments in George Street is blurred like an impressionist painting. The torn poster of the neo-noir movie, Dead Ringer in the bus shelter is dissolving. The shopfront of the Bangla convenience store looks frosted over. The roadsigns are melting.

After several blocks, we come to the river. It is a fast-flowing stretch before it reaches the old mill. The river is normally shallow here, but the water has come up over the low stone bridge. We look for another place to cross. There are one or two places we might wade through, but then we might as well cross over the bridge. Whichever way we cross, we are going to get wet. We would need to double-back the way we came to reach the main road bridge.

Why have we come this way? In my daze, I realise I have just been following Anya. It occurs to me we are heading for Finnegan’s Wake, where Irish poets with a lunchtime thirst vent their anger in Open Mic sessions. Finnegan’s is one of Anya’s haunts when she wants to give life a miss. She has been struggling with sobriety lately. A visit to Finnegan’s is unlikely to help. I suspect that soon we are going to break up. I cannot live this way. I cannot take Anya’s mood swings any more. Should I tackle it head-on right now or leave it for later? I feel at forty years old I should have left all of this behind. I don’t like to have arguments in the street. I decide to leave her to it and go home instead. The riverbank seems as good a place as any. If Anya doesn’t come back later, fine. This is the end of the road as far as I am concerned.

When I get home, there is no sign of the car. I cannot be sure where I left it, but I report its disappearance to the police. I tell them it was taken from my home address. Twenty-four hours later, much to my astonishment, they return it.’

It was taken by joyriders,’ Detective Sergeant Lucan says. ‘The forensic boys have gone over it but come up with nothing.’

There’s a lot of it about,’ his oppo, D.C. Hammer says.

Happens every Saturday night,’ says Lucan. ‘Car theft should have become harder with more sophisticated locking systems, but still, it is on the rise.’

Fords are the easiest cars to steal,’ says Hammer. For some reason, he seems to be pleased about this.

I check the car over. There appears to be no damage. They have even left my Cocteau Twins CDs in the glove compartment. I sign the form to say that the vehicle has been returned and congratulate them.

Anya does not come back that night or the next. At first, I am a little concerned, but this quickly passes. When something no longer works, it is good to move on. Presumably, the feeling is mutual. I get into a routine of going to work and coming home. Gradually I begin to feel better, but I still have no recollection of what happened that night at Toker’s End. I imagine it involved some kind of intoxication, but I have overindulged on many occasions in the past with complete recall afterwards. There is something about the blackout, and the abstraction I felt the following day that disturbs me.

It is nearly a week later that I read in the local paper about Ivan’s corpse being found. The report is splashed across the front page. There is a grainy photo of him. It looks as though it was taken a while ago. He looks younger. While they have not established the cause of death, the police are treating it as suspicious. They are appealing for information. They do not know the actual day or time of his death, but they want anyone who saw him over a three-day period to come forward. Or anyone who may have witnessed anything suspicious in the vicinity last weekend. I cannot recall exactly when I last saw Ivan, but I have a strong hunch that it may have been last Saturday evening. The report mentions a blue Ford Mondeo. My heart starts thumping like Tyson Fury in training. Phlegm rises in the back of my throat. I feel I am going to be sick.

I try first to contact Anya, but as expected her phone is dead. She has not picked up the charger. I have a number for Scarlett and try ringing it, but it goes constantly on to voicemail. It may not even be the right number, so I do not leave a message. I would not know what to say anyway, under the circumstances. I wonder what I can do about the car. While there are many blue Ford Mondeos on the road, my burgeoning paranoia tells me it is mine they might be looking for. After all, it was unaccounted for last Saturday night. Surely soon one section of the CID will cross-reference it with the other section and come looking for me. I do not know what to do for the best. My memory of events has not returned.

That the police have not established the cause of death worries me. I appreciate that there are procedures that must be followed, but how difficult can it be? If the body is found chopped up and put in the freezer, then you can rule out suicide. If the victims head is caved in then you know that he has been hit over the head with a heavy object. If there is a bullet hole in his chest then you can assume that shooting was the cause of death. If the victim is found face down in water, then he probably drowned. Why am I thinking that Ivan did not die in any of these ways? Why am I thinking that he was suffocated by someone pulling a bag over his head? Where is this coming from? Perhaps it is a thriller I have read recently, or a movie plot is leaking into my consciousness. Surely it is a common theme in the thriller or horror genres, but despite racking my brain, I cannot come up with an example.

I comfort myself that no matter how wasted I was last weekend, killing someone is not something I would be capable of. It is not in my character. While Anya is a little unpredictable and has been known to hit out occasionally, I cannot imagine that even if she lost control this would run to murder, and what would be the motive? Scarlett, on the other hand, is every bit as volatile as Anya. In fact, she is possibly more unpredictable in both appearance and behaviour. Furthermore, she has had a one-on-one relationship with the deceased. There would be both more of a motive and more of an opportunity. Designer drugs might have played a part. Ivan comes up with all sorts of things I’ve never heard of. Both of them could just flip in the blink of an eye. I remember the time that Anya and I went with them to the Stealing Banksy exhibition at the BankRobber Gallery in Notting Hill. They were laying into each other so much that the stewards had to pull them apart. After that, they wouldn’t let any of us in to see the stolen street art.

Ivan’s death could have been an accident, of course. Probably not if it were suffocation with a bag, but then you never know. Until the cause of death is announced, it is pointless to speculate. The problem I have is that the announcement is only likely to come when the police come and speak to me. What do I have for an alibi? Any way you look at it, whether I committed the act or whether I witnessed it, I am in trouble. Even if it was nothing to do with any of us, I am stuck for an alibi. What if there is DNA evidence in the back of my car or the body was carried in the boot. How am I going to get out of this one?

I haven’t seen my therapist, Daniel DeMarco in a long time. Not since my oneirophrenia cleared up, and I stopped having hallucinations. He probably won’t be able to get me off the hook for a murder charge. He may not even be able to re-stimulate my memory about last Saturday night, but he will be able to lend an ear. Daniel is good at listening. He uses what he describes as non-directive therapy. He is so laid back that sometimes he is asleep by the end of the session. The remarkable thing is that by this time you’ve resolved the issue that you came with. Admittedly with my oneirophrenia, it took a little longer, but on other occasions when I’ve gone to him with a problem, he has neutralised my anxiety in a blink of the eye.

He sits me down in a comfortable chair and seats himself opposite me. As he does so, he hums a little tune. I think this is designed to relax me. Or maybe he suffers from earworm and has just been listening to John Denver.

I open up about my predicament. Everything just comes pouring out in a torrent of wild emotion.

Hmm,’ he says when I have finished.

What do you think that I should do?’ I say. ‘Should I get rid of the car in the canal and get on a plane? Should I tell the police it was me? Or perhaps I should just end it all.’

Yes. I see,’ he says. ‘Which one of those makes you feel most comfortable?’

Comfortable! None of them makes me feel comfortable. Nothing about the situation makes me feel comfortable. Splitting up with Anya doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Having blackouts doesn’t make me feel comfortable. Being a wanted man doesn’t make me feel comfortable. I’m at my wit’s end. I don’t know where to turn. I’m desperate, Doctor DeMarco.’

Dan. Dan. You can call me Dan.’

I’m desperate, Dan.’

It is the middle of the night. Anya has let herself in and has sneaked into bed beside me. I am still awake. I cannot sleep much at the moment. She snuggles up to me and we make love as if nothing has happened. It may not be the tenderest of couplings, but we are both happy with the result. There has never been anything wrong with the physical side of our relationship. It’s all the rest that is the problem. Is has often puzzled me how the physical and the emotional can be so separate.

It’s all very well lying here sated, but I can’t ignore the problem at hand. It will not go away that easily.

Ivan’s dead,’ I say. ‘Someone killed him.’

Anya studies my face for a moment and sees that I am not joking. ‘What are you saying?’ she says. ‘That you think it was me. Is that it?’

It seems our peaceful reconciliation is going to be short-lived.

No that’s not what I’m saying. I’m just trying to find out what happened.’

He probably had it coming,’ she says, giving no indication of what this means.

So you know nothing more about it than what the papers say. What happened last Saturday night?’

That’s typical of you, isn’t it? You fuck my best friend and then you claim you can’t remember.’

What!’

I suppose you thought that I was sleeping with Ivan. That’s why you slept with Scarlett. Is that what you are going to say? And now that Ivan’s dead, you think I killed him. Perhaps it was you who killed him. Have you thought of that?’

As it happens, I have thought of that. I’ve been thinking of little else.’

I suppose you can always blame it on that condition of yours. You have an excuse for everything, don’t you?’

She is already putting her clothes back on. I try a more gentle approach and ask her to calm down.

Whatever it is, we are in it together,’ I say, but this does not stop her walking out on me again.

I am no further forward. If anything, things have moved backwards. I still have not eliminated myself or Anya from the murder suspects, but there is the additional complication of my apparent clandestine liaison with Scarlett to consider.

I get up and do some research into Ivan Luga on the internet. Perhaps there will be a clue buried in there somewhere. There are a number of references to people with this name. I home in on the Facebook profile of an Ivan Luga in the UK. This is our man. His profile photo shows him with the head of a stuffed tiger. He likes David Lynch films and death metal music. He reads Haruki Murakami and nihilistic poetry. I would have thought he might be a little challenged by the language barrier with some of his choices. He has posted some pictures of circus freaks. There is a shot of him brandishing a Remington hunting rifle and another of him posing with a pistol. He has sixty-four friends, about fifty of whom have Eastern European names. The photos of them suggest that these are shady characters. There are some statuses in a language I take to be Albanian. The English expression crystalline powder occurs in the middle of one or two of the posts, along with the name, Molly. It seems an odd subject to mention on social media. But this is an odd profile. What sinister world am I uncovering? I feel a chill run down my spine.

It occurs to me that whatever I might reveal here, I will not get anywhere with it, as I cannot go to the police. Anyway, Ivan is dead, isn’t he? I am just about to leave the site when I notice that one of the statuses is dated yesterday. That’s impossible. There must be some mistake. I take another look. The content of the post seems to be of little significance. It is just some gobbledegook about SHADOWCAT and TOR. I have no idea what it means, but it is a status and it was definitely posted yesterday. The Keyser Söze that has commented on it is presumably an alias. It cannot be the real Keyser Söze. There is no real Keyser Söze. But this is a development in the puzzle. Either someone else has taken over the account or Ivan Luga is not dead.

Scarlett’s arrival is a bolt out of the blue. There she is on my doorstep. She has on a little red dress showing nearly the full extent of her snake tattoo. She has a smile that would get her noticed in any crowd and a twinkle in her eye. This does not look like a woman who has recently murdered someone, but then neither did Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct.

Didn’t we have a great time last weekend,’ she says? ‘We ought to do it again. Why did you leave so suddenly?’

I explain to her about Anya and I going our separate ways.

I wondered if that might happen,’ she says. ‘Never mind. I’m here now.’

I start to explain to her about developments since we last saw each other.

No! I haven’t read the paper,’ she says. ‘What do you mean, Ivan is dead?’

But he may not be,’ I add.

He hasn’t called me,’ she says. ‘I think perhaps he has gone off travelling somewhere and couldn’t take me. But you are saying he is dead.’

But may not be,’ I repeat.

Show me the paper!’ she says.
I show her the report.

That’s rubbish,’ she says. I don’t even think that the photo is of him. He has younger brothers. It might be one of them.’

You’d better let me in on what happened last weekend,’ I say.

I don’t remember too many of the details,’ she says. ‘But I do remember us ending up in bed together.’

I don’t remember this,’ I say.

Well, then you should,’ she says. ‘You were sensational. The Molly probably helped though, don’t you think?’

Who’s Molly,’ I say.

Not who, it’s a what. I thought you had taken Molly before,’ she says. ‘Don’t you remember? We’re not talking MDMA here. This was the real deal, straight out of the lab. Ivan brought a new batch of it round.’

Did he? And I took some?’

Yes! We all did. It was dynamite. Anyway, we all went out to Frenzy and then that new club, Vertigo. And we ……. I wonder what has happened to Ivan.’

I can’t tell from her expression if she is trying to be ironic or not. She doesn’t seem to want to elaborate. It seems her present intentions are elsewhere. I try to remember what happened in Basic Instinct. Catherine Tramell, the Sharon Stone character, got away with it, didn’t she? Also, I seem to recall that there was a sequel.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Every Picture Tells a Story

Every Picture Tells A Story by Chris Green

1:

I bought my first SLR camera, a Canon EX, in 1977. I had been asked to take some shots of Ibiza. Ibiza wasn’t chav central back then. It was a magic white island populated by bohemians and artists. The photos came out well, and I used a couple of them for promotion of a rock band I was involved with. I carried on taking pictures, and even invested in a darkroom. As time passed, though, I became distracted by other things and my interest in photography became more peripheral.

I continued snapping, of course, and over the years I had a few pictures blown up for display, and a few more made their way into family albums. The rest got stored, unsorted, in the back of a series of cupboards or in attics in various houses I lived in through my serial relationships, eventually ending up in the attic. The prospect of sorting through them became more and more daunting until eventually, I didn’t consider it anymore. Last month I retired and Rachel and I started to talk about moving house, downsizing.

After watching a life laundry programme on TV, we decided we need to clear out the attic. It seemed destined to stay at the resolution stage, but a week later, Rachel reminded me by subtly leaving the loft ladder down, and went out. I took a look at the storage crates of photo wallets. One by one I took them down and began to organise them. I realised straight away that it would be a time-consuming exercise. But hopefully, a cathartic one. My photos suggested that I have had a good life. Admittedly, you did not take photos of grey clouds over Grimsby or blizzards in Swindon. Also, unless you wanted the camera broken over your head, you didn’t tend to take photos of your partner during a domestic dispute or on a bad hair day. In short, you did not think to take photos unless you were feeling good.

2:

But as I look through them, I realise that I have been fortunate. There are some memorable moments captured on film. Here’s one of Lori and me in Colombia. In Barranquilla on the coast. At the Carnival. Lori was half my age. God knows why we went there. To get away from Saskia, maybe. Saskia and I had just split up and she was in a dangerous state of mind. There was no telling what she might do. But back then, Colombia was probably the most dangerous place on Earth. And we had our luggage stolen at El Dorado airport in Bogota. Did I really have hair that short? ….. There are some here from a punk wedding in late 70s. And in this one, I have a huge thick beard. Late1980s, I imagine. I don’t remember going to the FA cup final. I’ve always hated football. Life is full of surprises. And hundreds here of my exhibition of paintings at that downtown gallery. I’m glad I always insisted on 7 by 5 prints and used good quality Kodak or Fuji film; the colours have endured.

There are several sets here of Tangiers. With Bob Mohammed, Ahmed and Ali. I think those were the names. If not they were similar. God, it’s so long ago, I can hardly remember who I went with. 1988, it says on the back. It must have been Julia. Before James and Dean were born. Yes, here Julia is on the bicycle we used as transport up and down the beach for provisions. The bike belonged to Ali, I recall. Bob Mohammed and the others worked at a beach hotel, but it was closed for renovation and they had nothing to do all day, so they became our Morocco guides. Where did all that come from? I haven’t thought about any of it for years. It’s amazing what you can remember with a visual stimulus. Suddenly I can put the details to the story like the flick of a switch. We spent two weeks on the beach with the sun beating down and the Atlantic rolling in. We drank mint tea and our Moroccan guides kept coming up with stronger and stronger hash. I suspect they wanted to get into Julia’s pants. And she always was a bit of a flirt.

Rachel comes in and sees that every inch of the floor is covered with piles of photos.

Glad to see you are getting on with it,’ she says. It was a good idea getting you to watch Life Laundry.’ Does she imagine that I haven’t noticed that she has just come home loaded down with shopping bags, Cath Kidston, Monsoon, Habitat, HomeSense? I can see them lined up in the hall. There is no point in mentioning this. More is less, Rachel will say, or something equally baffling to justify her purchases.

It may take quite a while,’ I say. ‘There are more than I thought.’

You have to be brutal,’ she says, bringing the kitchen bin into the room.

I have already thrown some out,’ I say.

I’ll leave you to it,’ she says. I think she secretly feels guilty. She has been talking so much about clearing out, about selling things at car boots and on eBay, but this has so far remained at the talking about stage.

Rachel goes off to play with her shopping, and I continue with my sorting. I uncover a shoebox packed tightly with photos. There’s a pic of me in front of the Here’s Johnny mural in Berlin, one of a camel race along the Champs-Élysées. That can’t be right, perhaps it’s not the Champs-Élysées, perhaps they are not camels. Here’s one of Saskia standing in the doorway of Hitler and Son Jewellers. That was in Cyprus. It really was called that. I wasn’t with Saskia very long. Probably a good thing. Life was too chaotic. All the people we knew seemed to have crises every minute of every day back then. Children were shuffled around and families formed and reformed like a swap shop.

On with the show. Someone in this pic sleeping in the jib of a JCB. I can’t imagine who that might be. Where did I take that? …….. A pile of loose photos here of a Rolling Stones concert. Great one of Keith. That’s an iconic rock star photo. Attitude and poise …… James and Dean doing somersaults on the beach at Broadstairs. Strange isn’t it how James was always long and lean while Dean was always short and stocky. Here’s are some more of the children. At EuroDisney. 1995 at a guess. How did they get mixed up with the ones of Joi in the buff? Joi was much later. Joi was attractively built, though. Rachel has always been jealous of her. I’d better not let her see these. But I don’t want to bin them. Joi ran off with an Italian pasta magnate, so I guess she’s a little less trim now. ….. Did I really have hair that long? …… Who are those people dressed as circus clowns outside The Feathered Fish? You would think I would have had some method to storing my photos in years gone by, but there doesn’t seem to be. They are completely random. Every picture tells a story.

I regret having been so reluctant to catalogue them, but now I can do what I want with them. I have executive control. I can edit my life. I can just throw away the ones I don’t want, like the ones of Joi’s hairdresser’s dog or the ones of the parquet floor at our house in Serendipity Street being laid. More importantly, I can scan the ones I like on to the computer and enhance them with PhotoShop. I have given myself an advanced tutorial, and it is brilliant. Much better than the darkroom was back in the day. The sunrise at Scarborough quickly becomes the moment of creation, and the lightning over Lostwithiel looks like the end of the world. You can move people from one photo to another or cut them out completely. Perhaps I should do some of that.

It feels great to be in control like this. Why then do I have this sense of foreboding? I feel unaccountably sad. Is it like that Stephen Dunn poem? Happiness, a state you must dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes, and all.

3:

Here’s a green Harrods photo wallet. I don’t remember ever getting prints developed at Harrods. I don’t think I’ve ever been to Harrods. Department stores aren’t really my thing. The distinctive Harrods colour is still the same, but this packet looks quite old. Julia might have gone there a few times. It’s probably one of Julia’s. ……. That’s strange. All the photos all seem to be of Dr Gauguin. That looks like Lyme Regis. I don’t recall ever going to Lyme Regis. I only recognise it from that film with Jeremy Irons. There’s one of Julia with The Cobb in the background. What is Julia doing there? I’m sure I’ve never seen these. There’s one of Dr Gauguin and Julia together. Oh my God, they are kissing in this one. Kissing. With arms around one another. And she had the front to get someone to take a photo of the two of them together, like this. And here’s another one of them in a telling embrace. …… I am in shock. What is going on? Did they just end up in the photo box by mistake? Julia and I split up in the mid nineties. They must have been there for over twenty years, being transported from cupboard to attic. Perhaps she meant that I should find out.

That this happened a long time ago doesn’t seem to matter. If anything it makes it worse. I try to work out how the affair could have happened, without me realising it. Julia seemed to have a disproportionate number of relatives in remarkably poor health. They would suddenly become ill, and it would be better if I didn’t go with her to see them. They only had small houses with single spare beds. Or caravans, even. And she took up new hobbies with consistent regularly, canoeing, geocaching, ghost hunting, pursuits that seemed to take her away at weekends. Why hadn’t I been more observant?

These photos would have to have been before the children were born. Julia wore her hair shorter later on. In one photo, I notice there is a poster advert for The Marine Theatre. The production of The Importance of Being Earnest it says begins on May 14, and elsewhere it refers to other entertainment taking place in 1991. May 1991. I do a quick calculation in my head. ………. Oh My God! May 1991. That would make it nine months before Dean was born. He was born in February 1992. I feel faint. …….. I always wondered why Dean looked so little like me. But it would explain why we saw so much of Dr Gauguin. He was always around the house after Dean was born. Any excuse. If he’d had any sense of decency, he would have stayed well away. And then there were extravagant birthday gifts that used to arrive for Dean’s birthday. ….. Wait! There are more. …… I think I’m going to be sick.

What’s the matter?’Rachel says. She is not used to seeing me like this. I am usually the embodiment of composure. ‘Are you all right?’

I show her the photos I have just found.

Oh! I see!’ she says. ‘I always thought you knew.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Walking the Dog

Walking The Dog by Chris Green

Ellie and I often see Dog Walking Man passing our front window with his bull terrier. He has a ruddy face, wears his hair short and has a look of determination. Whatever the time of year, he wears the same white zip-up jacket, black Adidas pants and brown boots with yellow laces. At all hours of the day and night, in all winds and weathers, he strides out with his faithful dog by his side. The dog is thickset and muscular, white with a chunky collar and a distinctive brown patch around its left eye.

When we drive to Asda, two miles away to do our shopping, we usually spot Dog Walking Man somewhere along the journey, his purposeful gait giving him away from a considerable distance. Asda does not sell very good wine, and Ellie likes her wine, so to stock up, we shop at Sainsburys, which is three miles in the opposite direction. More often than not, we pass Dog Walking Man somewhere along this route too. I see him on my way to and from work, and Ellie sees him on her way to her art classes. We see him on the way to the recreation centre and we see him walking along the dual-carriageway when we take a trip out to the tropical fish centre. I see him on the way to the match on a Saturday, sometimes even if it is an away game. He clearly covers a lot of miles with his dog.

We can’t keep calling him Dog Walking Man,’ Ellie says to me as he trudges by one evening while we are watching Pointless. ‘He seems so familiar. Why don’t we give him a name?’

What about Ivan?’ I say.

How about Eric?’ she says.

Ivan’s better,’ I say.

OK,’ she says. ‘Ivan it is. Now, what shall we call the dog?’ I see a gleam in Ellie’s eye. She is like T. S. Eliot when it comes to the naming of animals.

Rocky is a good name for a bull terrier, don’t you think?’ I say as an opener.

Rocky is a terrible name for a bull terrier,’ she says.

What about Clint?’ I say.

He doesn’t look like a Clint to me,’ says Ellie. ‘How about Axel?’

Axel. H’mm, Axel,’ I say ‘OK. You win. Axel, it is.’

Ivan always keeps a firm grip on Axel’s studded leather lead. He never lets Axel sniff at the things you imagine a dog might take a fancy to on the verges or at the foot of lampposts. There is no doubt about who is the pack leader. Axel has accepted that sniffing at things is not what a dog is supposed to do. If another dog approaches, they both ignore it. They carry on walking as if the animal isn’t there. Ivan never lets Axel off the lead. God knows when Axel gets to do his business.

Despite the names we have given the pair of them, we still refer to them as Dog Walking Man and the dog. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps old habits die hard.

Ellie and I sometimes speculate on the story behind Dog Walking Man and his dog. Although they make a tough-looking team, we have dismissed our original idea that they could be patrolling the area for a security company. The places we see them are too random and the area too large. Ellie thinks it might be part of Ivan’s Anger Management Plan. I wonder if he is in training for an event. It may of course be that he just enjoys walking the dog.

Ellie and I decide to drive down to the coast. It is thirty-seven miles as the crow flies to the little seaside town. We park the car on Marine Parade by Tropicana and put on our sun cream. We can smell the sea. Gulls are circling overhead. We watch them as they home in on a man sitting on the sea wall eating a pasty from its paper bag. His partner spots the danger and tries to warn him. One gull swoops. The man ducks. Suddenly our attention is drawn away by the sight of Dog Walking Man, stepping out at his familiar steady pace, bull terrier by his side. It is a hot June day, but Dog Walking Man still has on his white zip-up jacket and his trademark black Adidas pants. It is, of course, conceivable that he has a car and has driven the dog down to get a breath of sea air. But, it is just as likely that he has not. We have never seen Ivan driving a car.

The small brown and yellow cat that flies across the front lawn most evenings is a bit of a freak. Ellie and I think it may belong to the people who have moved into number 42. We first noticed the strange cat a couple of weeks ago while we were watching Eggheads. By the way, it streaked past, we thought that it might be chasing another cat, or trying to catch a bird. Perhaps it was being chased by a dog. It turned out to be none of these. It is just the way the crazy animal propels itself from A to B. It doesn’t saunter and stop to look around like other cats. It zips this way and that like grease lightning. It is much smaller than the average cat, about the same size as a rabbit, which makes its appearance even more bizarre. I fear it is only a question of time before Ellie gets out Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to help with some naming. When she does, I’m ready with Bennie and Whizzer.

Are Ellie and I the only ones who saw the spaceship land yesterday? We caught sight of it through the mezzanine window. We had just watched Only Connect and were on our way up the wooden hills. The craft appeared in the western sky in front of the blue hills. We thought it was a balloon at first. As it got closer, we could see that it was shaped like a sombrero. It floated gently down and landed gracefully on the heath. We watched intently for ten minutes. No little green men got out. It gradually faded until it became invisible. We have asked the neighbours, but no one else caught so much as a fleeting glimpse. There is nothing about it in The Chronicle, although they have a lengthy feature on Dog Walking Man. He has won a prestigious national award for his dog walking.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Dunning-Kruger for Dummies

Dunning-Kruger for Dummies by Chris Green

Real knowledge is knowing the extent of one’s ignorance’ – Confucius

The Dunning–Kruger Effect posits that people with low ability at a task are likely to significantly overestimate their ability. It draws on the cognitive bias of illusory superiority which acknowledges the incapacity of people to recognise their shortcomings. Reading about the case of McArthur Wheeler, who in 1995 robbed a Pittsburgh bank in broad daylight, believing he had rendered himself invisible because he had rubbed lemon juice on his face, social psychologists, David Dunning and Justin Kruger got cracking on their research. They hypothesised that, while most people hold favourable views of their abilities in various social and intellectual domains, some mistakenly assess their abilities to be higher than they actually are. 

For their research, Dunning and Kruger tested participants on logic, grammar, and sense of humour. They found that those who performed in the bottom quartile rated their skills way above average. The middle two quartiles overrated their abilities but by smaller amounts, while those in the highest quartile underestimated their abilities. Subsequent studies of participants’ self-perception produced similar results.

The pair concluded that confidence is so highly prized that many pretend to be skilled rather than risk looking inadequate and losing face. Not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes, but those same deficits also prevent them from recognising they are making mistakes, and that other people are choosing more wisely. They remain ignorant of their own ignorance. This tendency frequently occurs because gaining a small amount of knowledge in an area about which one was previously ignorant can make people feel as though they are sufficiently informed to hold a view. Alexander Pope’s aphorism, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ made in 1709, seems just as relevant today. 

We are all open to exploitation by the media. With universal access to the internet, everyone has become an expert on anything and everything, because they found out about it on Facebook or Twitter or read it online. It does not matter that the source might validate someone’s prejudices, paranoias or biases without having been properly cross-referenced or checked. It’s not surprising then that people who think that they know so much easily dismiss experts, expertise, and facts. 

It is easy to find high profile examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson immediately spring to mind. Not to mention countless airhead celebrities from the world of sport and entertainment. But perhaps it might be more helpful to look around you and see who it might apply to in everyday life. This is an area that the theorists seem to have ignored. They are shy about giving real-life examples of DKE. Rather than build a dossier, they endlessly return to McArthur Wheeler and the lemon juice. You can trawl through dozens of pages on Google and you will find no further examples. You will therefore need to decide for yourself who suffers from illusory superiority. In these days of fast-track enlightenment, there must be plenty of scope. 

You might find the crass Brexiteer who constantly questions your diligently researched views on Facebook would qualify, or the conspiracy theorist, anti-vaxxer, who sees it as a ruse to insert microchips into the populace and insists it will change your DNA and make you imagine you are an iguana. You might see the elderly gent in front of you at the supermarket queue clutching his Daily Express with its ill-informed banner headlines as a likely candidate, or your colleague at work who reels off the solution to the middle-east situation. You yourself might not be exempt from the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I hold my hand up. There have been occasions when I have wanted to appear better informed than I was on some matter or other and have tried to blag it.

The incompetent can, of course, gain insight into their shortcomings, but paradoxically this comes by making them more competent, thus providing them with the meta-cognitive skills necessary to realise that they have performed poorly. Mostly, though, this is not the case. You could be forgiven for concluding that some even seem to take pride in their nescience.

Let us join Lenny Fusco. Having discovered the Moon no longer exists, Lenny believes the lizard people are responsible for its disappearance. He has been instructed that by keying in a series of sixty-six numbers in the correct order into his iPhone, a shape-shifting reptiloid from Alpha Draconis will pick up. So far he has little success, but he remains hopeful.

Lenny posts regular updates on his mission to discover the truth on a blog. He has four thousand followers. Dunning-Kruger is not mentioned on the blog, but one or two of the comments on his posts draw attention to the possibility that the DKE might help to explain Lenny’s delusions. Lenny puts these comments down to trolls. He maintains you are bound to get trolls when you have a popular blog. Other followers vigorously defend Lenny’s sagacity. Several of them even claim to have met with shape-shifting lizard people. Often in car parks late at night.  

Lenny is sure too that it was the lizard people who took his bike from outside BetterBet. The police are not so sure, but what do they know? Lenny feels they are out of touch. They need to renew their CrimeStoppers training. Besides, who else could have taken it? Several of his followers confirm they saw the shape-shifters lurking around outside the bookmakers shortly before his bike disappeared.

Perhaps we could introduce Lenny to Shane Duffy. I’m sure they would get along famously. Shane may not be a conspiracy theorist per se, but the two of them seem to share a staggering gullibility. Shane gets his fake news from The Sun newspaper, which also helps him to consolidate his myopic, misogynist, racist views. If anyone disagrees with Shane or tries to reason with him, they are referred to as a mongo. Rhymes with bongo. The term puzzled me at first, so I looked it up in the urban dictionary. A person who lacks intelligence, an actual idiot. Pot calling the kettle black? The expression could easily be used to describe Shane. Unable to hold down a regular job, Shane is a small-time criminal in an unremarkable English town. A spectacularly unsuccessful one to boot. In a classic example of Dunning-Kruger over-confidence, he publicly boasted about his criminal activities on Facebook. Following a tip-off, the police apprehended him and charged him with an array of offences to which he had effectively already confessed. On remand, Shane made the mistake of getting into a fight with an argumentative mixed-heritage mongo about benefit-scrounging asylum seekers. He is currently in custody awaiting trial. 

The desire to impress our peers is part and parcel of our way of life. With this come the pitfalls of attempting to do so should you be ill-equipped. The Dunning-Kruger Effect sits at the very heart of the contemporary zeitgeist. If I were to make a prediction, I would argue that as gullibility is actively encouraged, DKE is going to be around for a little while yet.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved

Glitch

 

Glitch by Chris Green

Heliotrope destination,’ the caller says and then hangs up. Heliotrope destination? It sounds like a cryptic crossword clue. What does that mean? What on earth is he talking about?

 In these days of scams and hoaxes, I record the calls we get on our landline. I play the message back. A man’s voice. No trace of an accent. Nor does it have that metallic sound you get from a robot voice. The number is withheld. 

I try not to dwell on it. Perhaps it’s part of a bizarre promotional campaign to launch a new product which will become apparent in due course. I get back to my painting of the Aurora Borealis. Izzy will be home soon and I want to make it look like I’ve been productive while she’s been out. She keeps reminding me I haven’t finished a painting for weeks, let alone sold one. 

Multilingual interface. It’s a text on my mobile this time. Once again, an apparently meaningless pairing of random words. Number withheld again. Troll? Prankster? But why would a prankster target me? Nutcase? Someone bearing a grudge? I can’t think of anything I’ve done to upset anyone. I’ve led a very low profile life since I’ve been here.

Bewildering they may be, but the messages are not life-threatening. I get back to the Aurora Borealis. I dab some bold green swirls onto the canvas. When working in oils, you need to be decisive. The more layers of paint you can get into the painting, the better the result. That’s the beauty of oils. You can put some depth into the work. I am just mixing up some purple when I hear two emails ping in quick succession on my laptop. At first, I ignore them, but curiosity gets the better of me. The sender for both of them I discover is noreply@nowhere.com Neither of them has any subject, so there’s not a lot to go on. The messages too are becoming weirder. Corporation horn and nervous subsidiary.

Strange is never good. I learnt that a long time ago. My mind is racing. Surely, it couldn’t be …….. No, the idea is absurd. But, there again….. To distract myself, I slip a Wagner CD into the Bose. Götterdämmerung, Twilight of the Gods. I turn the volume up so I won’t be disturbed again and continue with my painting. I apply some viridian green straight from the tube and shape it with a palette knife, hacking at the canvas. I mix some with a little titanium white and cut that in. I step back to take a look. I do not hear Izzy come in.

‘I found this on the mat.’ she says. She is holding a plain postcard with the words, harlequin fancy written on it. ‘What is that all about?’

I mutter something about being as puzzled as she is. But I am getting a bad feeling the message might relate to my past. I have not gone into detail with Izzy about my past. I cannot.

‘I can’t hear you,’ she says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful racket down?’ 

For some time, I’ve been getting the impression that Izzy does not appreciate Wagner as much as I do. There again, I do not like Billy Joel. Or Elton John. Relationships, though, like other covenants, are all about compromise. Admittedly, I have had to compromise more than most, but that’s another story. With Valhalla in flames and the Rhine overflowing its banks, I pause the opera. I give her a summary of the previous messages. As i do so, fresh emails ping on the laptop. noreply@nowhere.com no subject. Incidental hejira. Aggregate reception. 

I try to shrug them off, but Izzy is having none of it. Perhaps she detects that beneath it all I know something is wrong.

‘What about that chap you met a couple of weeks ago in the market?’ she says. ‘The geeky one with the snake called Stanley, who started talking to you about that number that’s too big to tell you how big it is?’

‘Graham’s number. It’s called Graham’s number.’

Yes. That’s the one. Might it be him?’ 

‘What, Norman? No, I think Norman is just an ageing trainspotter with learning difficulties.’

‘How about the bloke who wrote The Early Worm Catches the Bird? The one who was telling us about Wet Blanket Ron, when we were in the pub. He was creepy.’ 

‘Just a lonely old author, I think. I can’t imagine many people read his books. Pretty harmless, though. Anyway, whoever it is knows my number, my mobile number, our house number and my email.’

‘You mean, it might be someone we know well?’

‘There is that possibility,’ I say. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, though. There’s bound to be a reasonable explanation.’ 

The room goes quiet. I can sense Izzy weighing up who she feels might be suspicious. Our friend, Hoagy Platt possibly? He’s a bit of a joker. Might he do something like this? Freda Mann, the poet or Dean Runner, perhaps? He’s a strange one.

‘Let me have a look at the emails,’ she says, finally. ‘Perhaps there’s something about these communications you haven’t spotted.’

I open up my Gmail account for her. 

‘Where are they?’ she says, scrolling up and down the page. ‘Where are these messages?’

I take a look. To my alarm, there is no longer any sign of them. They are not even in Trash. They seem to have somehow been completely deleted. I take out my phone. The text message too has gone. The message on the phone too is missing. Is this good or is this bad?

If you have been in a relationship for any length of time, you will be familiar with that look you get when your partner feels that you have been trying to deceive her. You will be familiar too with the stony silence that follows, in most cases for the rest of the day. Sometimes the following day, too. But it’s an ill wind and all that. Without any of her interruptions and with no further unsolicited messages, I am able to make significant progress on my painting. Could this be the secret of great artists? Might Mrs Monet have thought Claude was keeping things from her and given him the silent treatment? Might Mrs Matisse have been a frequent sulker?

Late the following day, Izzy’s son, Ben, calls in. We are not sure if Ben is living with us or not. He appears from time to time to raid the fridge and then is gone again. He is off to a festival this time, apparently. 

‘Mum gone to bed, has she?’ he says, as he munches his way through a slice of pizza. ‘She not speaking to you again?’ 

Having no children of my own, I get on pretty well with Ben. I give him a summary of what has happened.

‘Probably a password generator,’ he says. ‘Good idea! You and Mum are always forgetting passwords.’

I give Ben’s explanation some thought, but reject it. The people who offered you the password would also know it, which would immediately compromise its security.  

To my relief, there are no more unexplained messages over the next few days. Izzy now thinks that I may have imagined the earlier ones. I entertain the idea that she may be right. She suggests I ought to see someone to help me over my confusion, Dr Strummer perhaps. But as time passes, she backs down and things around the house return to normal. I even manage to finish my Aurora Borealis painting, and decide to take it along to Gallery 9. 

You get accustomed to the interior of a car. Its features become so familiar that as you drive it around from day to day, you hardly notice them. But as I start the Nissan, I feel something is different. At first, I can’t put my finger on what it is. Then it hits me. Alongside the various readouts for fuel, temperature and mileage on the instrument panel are the words supernova trampoline in blue Sans Serif script. It is difficult to see what this might have to do with the functioning of the car. Independent momentum, it reads now. It changes to perpendicular freefall. These might be just words, but there is no rational explanation for these muddled phrases appearing on the dashboard display. Someone is messing with my head. Someone with a shitload of technology and guile at their fingertips. Could it really be my comrades returning to spirit me away? Surely, after all this time, they would have forgotten about me. But who else could be behind it? No-one from around these parts. They are still working on the understanding that there are just three dimensions. And they have only just come up with the internet. They would not be capable of such diverse communication. It must be my people arriving to collect me and take me back home. They are probably having a few teething troubles with the comms equipment. After all, wasn’t it a glitch in the Earth translation widget on the landing craft that left me stranded here in the first place?

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved


 

 

Call Me Lottie

Call Me Lottie – by Chris Green

LOTTIE

‘Pale blinds, drawn all day, I’m afraid,’ says Landon Truitt. ‘Upstairs and down.’

‘I remember getting those blinds fitted,’ I say. ‘Local fellow. He called himself The Blind Man, which at the time I thought was amusing.’

‘The Blind Man. Good name. Very droll, Mrs Crenshaw.’

‘Lottie. You can call me Lottie,’ I say. ‘Please. You can’t imagine how much I hate the name, Crenshaw.’

Landon Truitt has dropped by to update me on his progress. He is a private detective of sorts. I found his card on the notice board at Waitrose. It read, Landon Truitt – Private Detective, Honest and Trustworthy, All Types of Investigation Undertaken. I have hired him to find out what’s happening with my soon to be ex-husband, Dwayne. No-one has seen Dwayne in the flesh since I left him last August. He doesn’t appear to have left the house in Bougainvillea Heights. He does not answer the door to me and has changed all the locks. He was behaving oddly for a while before I left him, but I put this down to business pressure. Then of course there were the experimental drugs he was taking for his rare blood disease. Dwayne has always been a bit of an enigma.

‘In all the time I’ve been watching, I haven’t seen him once, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie. Not so much as a glimpse of him.’

‘Have there been any comings and goings?’

‘Oh yes …… Lottie. There were, let me see ……. eighteen visitors yesterday. I’ve got photos of some of the visitors and I’ve written down descriptions of the others.’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ I say. ‘Others have told me the same. People seem to keep calling round to the house, but Dwayne never appears.’

‘I thought I recognised one of them,’ says Truitt. ‘Charlie Gunn. I was in uh, …. I knew Charlie years ago.’

‘Charlie Gunn. Charlie Gunn. No. Don’t know him. Let me see the photos, would you?’

Landon Truitt hands me the contact sheets he has printed off. I don’t recognise any of the visitors from the shots, although the figure in the brightly coloured boiler suit looks vaguely familiar. On second thoughts, probably not. I wouldn’t know anyone who would dress in an orange boiler suit, would I?

‘They’re not very clear, are they, Truitt?’ I say, holding one of the contact sheets up to the light.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie, but I had to move the car. A candy car was cruising up and down. I thought it best to park further away from the house. But then the digital zoom on my phone was playing up a bit.’

‘Is that one wearing a spacesuit?’

‘I believe so, Mrs Crenshaw. Your husband appears to be a strange man if you don’t mind me saying so.’

‘Lottie, please. Yes. You could definitely say that Dwayne Crenshaw is a very strange man.’

‘I get the feeling that you are hiding something from me. Would it help, do, you think, if you told me a little more about him? This seems a bit different from my usual cases.’

I am not sure how much I should tell Landon Truitt. For that matter, I’m not sure how much I know about Dwayne. We were never lovey-dovey close. It was more a marriage of convenience. My family had lost its fortune on Black Wednesday, and Dwayne Crenshaw’s star seemed to be in the ascendency at the time. Dwayne for his part seemed to be attracted to my …… full figure. To please him, when he was entertaining clients, I wore dresses that showed this off.

‘What kind of cases do you usually handle, Truitt?’ I say, to dodge the subject.

‘All kinds,’ he says. ‘Mainly surveillance work. But this is usually connected with suspected infidelity or something like that. Would I be right in thinking that this is not why I’m keeping an eye on your husband’s house? A plush house like this in the suburbs must be worth megabucks. Is he a pop star or something, perhaps? If he is, I haven’t heard of him.’

I feel that there might be some mileage in pursuing this line. ‘You’ve not heard of Dwayne Crenshaw?’ I say. ‘Where have you been living?’

LANDON

Had it not been my first case in weeks, well apart from some identity checks and a search for Mrs Floyd’s missing cat, Dillinger, I would have told Lottie Crenshaw to sling her hook. Attractive she might be, but that is no excuse for rudeness. ‘Was she going to get a proper service?’ she asked, ‘was I a professional?’ What a cheek! The woman is clearly loaded. You can tell that a mile off by the designer clothes she wears, taupe skirt suits and crocodile pumps. I’m surprised she knew how to find my gaff above the garage in Corporation Street. She certainly turned some heads when she arrived in her little Lotus.

It was clear she was hiring me because my rates are cheap. I charge £25 an hour plus expenses. Much cheaper than she would get elsewhere. Even then she wanted to negotiate the price. I shouldn’t have been so casual with my business card. Perhaps it was also a mistake to put the card in Waitrose. Would Tesco have been a better bet? Reverse psychology and all that. Maybe I should have picked another line of work. I could easily have gone back to internet security, well hacking, when I was released in January.

Lottie Crenshaw doesn’t realise how difficult surveillance is in a quiet suburban area. She thinks it’s like it is on the TV, where the detective and his oppo sit posing in their Raybans in a comfortable car, listening to Chet Baker, with tea and sandwiches brought along by a girl from the agency. Admittedly shades are pretty much compulsory for a private eye, but at the same time, it’s really hard not to look conspicuous. I had to keep moving the car to avoid suspicion. I saw my old mate, Charlie from Pentonville. What was the old reprobate doing round here? Not the kind of location you would expect to find him. Unless ….. I kept my head down. I think I know where to find Charlie should I ever need him.

There have been a handful of people visiting her husband. Well, quite a lot, actually, but you can’t just get out of the car and say ‘Excuse me guv, but do you mind if I take your photo. Hold still, will you?’ And Lottie has the nerve to criticise my pictures. I expect she has an all singing, all dancing Canon Eos or something like that. Since the altercation with Mrs Nelson’s enraged husband last month when I was trying to get his picture, all I have is my smartphone. The thing is, I’m not even sure what I am supposed to be looking for. Lottie Crenshaw’s instructions were vague. She just told me to watch the house and report back. Now she tells me her husband is some kind of nut. Shouldn’t she be paying me more for the added risk?

‘I did wonder if Dwayne Crenshaw might be a bit of an oddball, Mrs C,’ I say, looking at the contact sheet of photos I printed before the printer gave up on me. ‘I think that’s a man in a spacesuit going into the house in this photo.’

‘Yes. It could well be a spaceman’ she says. ‘It does look as if the blurry figure in your picture might be wearing a spacesuit. Dwayne is a little, what do you call it? Leftfield? It could be for a photoshoot. Dwayne was a ….. pop star. Big in the eighties.’

‘I guess if he were making a video or something, that might explain the spaceman.’

‘And the man in the orange boiler suit.’

‘What about Charlie though?’

‘You keep on about Charlie. Who is Charlie?’

‘Charlie is a fixer. A clean up man.’

‘Oh! I see. I think. ……. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of my husband though.’

‘Can’t say I have, Lottie. I don’t listen to a lot of music though.’

‘You must have heard Life On Jupiter. That was massive.’

‘No. I don’t think I have heard that one,’ I say, trying to assess if she is having me on. I mean, Life on Jupiter, what a stupid title, even for the nineteen-eighties. ‘How does it go?’

Looking at her reaction, I can tell that I’ve embarrassed her. She isn’t going to sing it. I don’t want to dig myself into too deep a hole here. Peanuts it might be, but I do want to get paid. I am at the limit of my overdraft and I have bills upon bills. Not to mention the maintenance payments. I can’t see Anna being understanding about a cessation of those. Not that I ever get to see the children these days.

‘I could do some rooting around on the internet, Lottie,’ I say, to win her back round. ‘It’s amazing what you can find out if you know where to look.’

‘And you know where to look, do you?’ she says.

‘Yes ma’am,’ I say. ‘I was in the security services back in the day.’

LOTTIE

Deep down there might be something endearing about Landon Truitt or I wouldn’t have hired him. Not only is he resourceful, but he also seems honest and trustworthy. In today’s world, these are rare qualities in a man. I wish I could say I was honest and trustworthy. They say opposites attract. What am I thinking? I’m not attracted to him in the slightest. Not in the slightest. How could I be? He’s a back street private detective. There’s just an overlap in our lives’ narratives. That’s all.

I imagine he will be a little puzzled he can’t find any reference to Dwayne’s pop career on the internet. But there again, this might motivate him to look a bit harder, dig a bit deeper into his treasure trove of secret websites to find traces of him. This way, he may find something useful. He might actually discover what my husband has been up to recently. After all, I’m paying him good money to come up with information. Good money to him anyway. He’s broke. I can tell. He has a hangdog look about him. Along with the doe-eyed look of infatuation. But he still has to earn his £100 a day.

Maybe I should have mentioned my financial position before, or perhaps you’ve guessed. I’m a little strapped for cash at the moment. I had to sell a diamond ring last week to pay the rent on the flat in Compton Mews. The big worry for me is that Dwayne might spend all his money before our divorce comes through. The Aston Martin that is parked around the side of the house can’t have been cheap. There’s also the danger that when his judgement is impaired by the psychoactive properties of his life-saving drugs, he might lose it in a dodgy deal. He has made his money doing dodgy deals, buying and selling dodgy businesses. By definition, wheeling and dealing in this way is a risky enterprise. He’s certain to fall foul of the law one of these days. To live outside the law, you must be honest and no-one could ever accuse Dwayne Crenshaw of being honest.

‘All businesses are untrustworthy,’ Dwayne was fond of saying. ‘What’s the difference between selling established ones and selling less established ones, or even bogus ones? Nothing. No-one is upfront these days. They all make up the figures. Where do you think we would be if people suddenly started telling the truth?’

This may well be, but I have to look after my settlement. I’m hoping that this will be a high six-figure sum. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic of a good result, but he’s probably saying that because I am paying him a lot of money. When it comes down to it he can only do so much to plead my case, and the other side is likely to bring up a number of indiscretions I haven’t told Guy Bloke about.

LANDON

‘I stand corrected, Mrs C …. Lottie. You were right. Dwayne Crenshaw was huge, worldwide. Or at least his alter ego Dean Callisto was. Thirty-one consecutive top ten hits in the UK, and six number ones on the Billboard chart. Life On Jupiter was a minor hit compared to Sex Machine or Descent Into Madness. Not to mention Dean’s collaboration with the legendary George Toot. I can’t imagine how I overlooked him. Well, actually I can. You didn’t tell me that Dwayne changed his name, did you?’

Lottie looks a little confused. Or she pretends to look confused. I never know what to believe with her. I’d probably go so far as to say that women are a mystery to me. I will never be able to understand the perverse logic of their thought processes. How their expressions never give away what they might be thinking. Or their actions. I can’t help but think about the time I took Anna to The Coach and Horses for our anniversary. She spent hours getting ready, and then in the middle of dinner she told me she was planning to leave me. Any man who claims he can see through a woman is probably missing a lot.

‘Did you manage to find what Dwayne Crenshaw has been up to recently?’ Lottie asks.

‘Aha!’ I say. ‘All the sites seem to suggest that Dean Callisto …… alias Dwayne Crenshaw is living in New York with his new wife, Tara. She is seventeen, according to the whatsheuptonow.com site. He’s working on a new album and is planning a comeback tour later in the year.

‘Really?’

‘Yes, Lottie. Do you think the person living in the house in Bougainvillea Heights that I’m watching may not be your husband? Could he be an impostor? ……. Or is there something you are not telling me?’

LOTTIE

How on earth did he come up with all that wish-wash about Dwayne Crenshaw being Dean Callisto? Has he been researching on uncyclopedia.com or something? ……. Wait a minute! I see what’s going on. Having discovered that I was spinning him a yarn, he is now trying to get one over on me. I may have underestimated Landon Truitt. He might be smarter than he looks. Not that he looks too bad now that he’s smartened up a bit. But still.

‘OK. You’ve called my bluff on that one,’ I say. ‘What did you really find out?’

‘It may seem odd, Lottie, what with Dwayne Crenshaw being such an unusual name, but there are literally hundreds of Dwayne Crenshaws and each one of them seems to live a complicated life.’

‘I would have imagined there would be only one or two in the world.’

‘So would I. There are sixty-four in the UK alone. However, the good news is that I’ve managed to isolate our Dwayne Crenshaw.’

‘And ….’

‘He sold the house in Bougainvillea Heights six months ago to a film company. Funnily enough, the film company he sold it to is owned by Dean Callisto.’

‘Bloody hell! You are kidding, right?’

‘Not this time. Truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?’

LANDON

We are in Lottie’s plush apartment in Compton Mews to discuss my findings on the case. She says she doesn’t have any tea. She has poured me a gin and tonic instead. Gingerly, I fill her in on the house sale.

‘Dean Callisto?’ she says. ‘Good Lord!’

I come out with ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ or some such platitude to try to minimise the impact.

There is a momentary silence. I wait nervously for her reaction. Lottie gets up and walks around the room.

‘Six months ago, you say?’

‘That’s right.’

There is a more prolonged silence. I take a gulp at my G and T, wondering whether I should elaborate. Lottie continues to pace up and down. I imagine I might now be off the case. I’ve had cases like this before. Too many of them. Cases where I haven’t come up with the desired result and haven’t been paid. Not to be paid is the last thing I need right now. And I can hardly send Nolan Rocco or Charlie Gunn round to sort Lottie out. While I haven’t up to now intimated that I have a cash flow issue, I suggest politely that she might want to settle the account early. Get it out of the way. Get it off her chest. Perhaps she takes this too literally.

‘I was wondering if we couldn’t negotiate that,’ she says, unbuttoning her blouse.

Lottie is certainly an attractive woman. I have been struggling with this feeling all along, but surely there is professional etiquette to be considered. Isn’t there? …… Oh well, perhaps not. It seems we are quickly able to overcome this obstacle.

To my surprise, there is little embarrassment afterwards. It seems like it is the most natural thing in the world for Lottie and I to be sipping a post-coital cocktail with a fancy name and talking about how we can market my investigative skills to make some real money. If I am to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed, she feels I need to make some changes. Get some new cards made up for a start.

‘Ditch honest and trustworthy,’ she says. ‘Sentimental advertising regarding scruples gets you nowhere in the twenty-first century. You don’t want to be chasing around after Mrs Floyd’s cat forever, do you?’

‘What about deceitful and arrogant?’ I suggest.

‘Ha ha. Let’s see,’ she says. ‘Licensed and Bonded inspires confidence and implies a level of trust.’

‘Landon Truitt, Private Detective, Licensed and Bonded’
Get rid of Private Detective. Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded is better or perhaps Private Investigations Agency. Clients like to feel that there is a team working for them.

‘Landon Truitt Private Investigations Agency.’

‘Perhaps change Landon Truitt. How about Simon Alexander or Jonathan Steel?’

‘I don’t know …..’

‘That’s settled then, but first things first. Dwayne Crenshaw. What are we going to do about Dwayne Crenshaw?’

‘Find him would be a good start.’

‘You’ll be able to do that, won’t you? Now that you have a little incentive.’

‘I can’t see a problem there. I’ll get on to it right away.’

‘Well. …… Perhaps you might leave it for a few minutes, don’t you think?’

LOTTIE

Men are simplistic creatures. God may have given them both a penis and a brain, but sadly only enough blood supply to use one at a time. They might as well just have an on-off button. And they are so incredibly self-absorbed they never realise that they are being manipulated. However, that said, Landon shapes up better than most. He is a sweetie. He understands something has to be done about my husband. He thinks his friend Charlie might be able to persuade Dwayne that it is in his best interests to offer me a generous settlement. I think Landon and I are going to get along just fine.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cover Illustration by ArtTower on Pixabay


NIGHT

night3

NIGHT by Chris Green

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs blown in on the wind, or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the noise from the night workers laying the new cables for the listening centre and the beefy Alsatian from two doors down barking at a visiting fox in the garden. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block out the noise, but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away. Even if the voices stop, the door is open and they come flooding in. He is at their mercy. 

The voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank realises he will not get back to sleep. Finally, he wakes Linda up. It annoys him sometimes that Linda can sleep through anything, even Mrs Oosterhuis’s television on loud at 3 a.m. 

‘Can you hear anything,’ he asks?

‘You’re not going to go on about Randy what’s-his-name again, are you?’ says Linda, moving restlessly in the bed. ‘Look! I can’t hear a thing. Now, can we go back to sleep?

Are the voices in his head, perhaps, Hank wonders, not for the first time? Nothing more than figments of his imagination? 

Clint, a colleague of Hank’s at Desperados, the country and western club where he helps behind the bar at weekends, tells him about Rose Pink, a therapist that his wife, Betsy Lou has been seeing. He suggests Hank makes an appointment to see her. Betsy Lou has come on in leaps and bounds, he says, and can now even go to the gun shop on her own. 

Hank makes an appointment to see Rose Pink the following Thursday morning. He is a little apprehensive as he has done nothing like this before. He has always seen therapy as some kind of punishment for drug addicts and psychopaths. Not something for average Joes who live a normal life. Despite his reservations, he steels himself and goes along to the house in the suburbs where Rose Pink practices. At first, she does not appear to hear him over the Black Sabbath track that is playing, an odd choice, he feels, for a psychotherapist. In the break between tracks, he gets her attention. She comes to the door. She is wearing ripped jeans and a Breaking Bad t-shirt. Hank guesses she is a few years younger than him, the right side of forty, perhaps.

She turns the music off and apologises for keeping him waiting. She sits him down in a comfortable chair and after a shaky start, Hank tells her about his nocturnal demons.

‘Who is this …… Randy Van Wormer,’ Rose Pink asks? 

‘Van Warmer. It’s Randy VanWarmer,’ says Hank. ‘He’s a singer-songwriter. From Colorado but he grew up in Cornwall. He’s a one-hit-wonder. He had his big hit back in 1979. It was called Just When I Needed You Most. When my father left her and ran off with a waitress from Hungry Jacks, my mother played it over and over for days. It’s a truly heart-wrenching song. Have you never heard it?’

‘No, I don’t believe I have,’ says Rose Pink.

‘You are lucky,’ says Hank. ‘The ultimate unwelcome earworm.’

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

‘Anyway, Randy VanWarmer died in January 2004 on the same day that my mother died. I was seven years old. From that time I became aware of his ghost.

‘Come on now, Hank!’ Rose Pink says. ‘You don’t believe all that crap, do you? You’re a grown man. I mean, look at you. You must be six foot, even without your Stetson. Don’t you think it’s time to get a grip? Pull yourself together!’

This is not the type of response that Hank expects. It says on the Internet that empathy and understanding are the bedrock of psychotherapy. Rose Pink’s take on it seems to be an unnecessarily aggressive one.

‘Look, here’s an idea,’ she continues. ‘Before you go to bed, why don’t you play Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City a few times. That’s what I do if I feel stressed. Paradise City will see off any other potential earworm. Guaranteed! Now! About these other things that stop you sleeping.’

Although he is losing faith in Rose Pink, Hank gives her a brief account of the things that keep him awake at night, the night workers laying the cables for the spy base, the singsong of chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television, the neighbour’s Alsatian.

‘Let’s look at these one at a time,’ Rose Pink says. ‘There’s not much you can do about the cabling, or perhaps the revellers, but the other issues are easily resolvable. You could threaten Mrs Oosterhuis. You could tell her that the next time you hear her TV you’ll come round and put a hammer through the screen. And the fellow with the Alsatian. Why don’t you just go round and punch his lights out?’

‘But once I get the idea that I’m not going to be able to sleep, it stays there,’ Hank says.

‘For Christ’s sake, man! The answer to that one is easy,’ Rose Pink says. ‘Don’t get the idea in the first place. Drink a tumbler of rum or something before you go to bed.’

Hank suddenly realises why Clint’s wife Betsy Lou is usually swaying from side to side when he sees her. 

Despite this, Hank decides to give the rum cure a go. He buys a bottle of Captain Morgan from BargainBooze and, while Question Time is on, pours himself a generous tumbler. Although Linda gets upset about him shouting ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ at the politicians, the public, the pundits and even the presenter throughout the programme, the rum seems to do the business. By 11:30, he is sleeping like a baby. He did not even need Guns n’ Roses.

Hank wakes at 3 a.m. however. Against the background of the neighbour’s Alsatian dog barking madly at a fox in the garden, he can hear the raised voices of revellers coming back from the late-night clubs and Mrs Oosterhuis’s television turned up louder than ever. Perhaps she has been out and bought a new 56-inch model. As if this weren’t enough, he can hear Randy VanWarmer’s ghost belting out his erstwhile hit. And more. The elaborate sonic picture reverberates around his aching head. Next to him, Linda is sleeping the sleep of the just. 

Hank gets up and makes himself a cup of tea but it is no good. The demons are with him now. No matter what he does, he knows he will continue to be at their mercy. If just one of them would stop. For instance, why can’t the fox just slink off somewhere and what are people still doing coming home from clubs at 5 a.m.?

Although it is the busiest time of year at the surfboard repair centre, Hank tells them he is sick. He says it must be something he ate. He phones Rose Pink and she finds a lunchtime slot in her schedule, one that she says she sets aside for emergencies. At first, she does not hear his knock, but eventually, the Sonic Youth track ends, and he knocks again. This brings Rose Pink to the door in her black t-shirt and punk Goth leggings. He notices her hair is a different colour to the previous day, more purple.  

‘This had better be good,’ Rose Pink says, by way of a greeting.

‘Thankyou for seeing me at such short notice,’ says Hank. ‘It’s very good of you.’

‘Just get on with it, will you?’ Rose Pink says. ‘Did you do what I said?’

‘I did. I drank nearly half a bottle of rum, but I woke in the night and there was what I can best describe as a new intensity to the disturbance,’ Hank says. ‘As if it’s all closing in. And getting louder. And going on for longer. Added to which, Randy VanWarmer seems to have also found a new song. It’s called I Never Got Over You.’

‘Sounds pretty miserable,’ Rose Pink says. ‘But you seem to like this …… slit your wrist country music.’ 

‘I like real country music,’ Hank says. ‘George Jones, Merle Haggard …… ‘

‘Now you are splitting hairs,’ Rose Pink says. ‘It’s all indulgent, self-pitying drivel. You have to distance yourself from all of that crud. You need to rock a little.’ 

‘But …… ‘

‘You have to take the rough with the smooth. Tackle things, head-on. Take control of the situation.’

‘But ….. ‘

‘Christ, Hank! What are you, a man or a mouse?’

‘I thought therapists were supposed to show understanding and compassion.’

‘Oh, that’s what you read, was it? Well, buster! That’s not therapy, that’s babysitting. Real therapy requires shock and awe tactics. Goddammit! How else is anyone ever going to address their shortcomings? How do you think anyone is ever going to change if someone constantly mollycoddles them and says there, there?’

Following the session, Hank decides it is time he did something about his sorry situation. He wants to be a man, not a mouse. He begins by phoning Clint.

‘I’m not going to be able to help out at Desperados any longer, Clint,’ he says.

‘That’s a shame,’ Clint says. ‘Why’s that, Hank?’

‘All the songs we play at the club are so depressing,’ Hank says.

‘What! Willie Nelson depressing? Surely not,’ Clint says.

Next, Hank goes around to see his next-door neighbour but one. 

‘About your dog,’ he says.

‘What dog?’ says the neighbour. ‘Bruiser died three months ago.’

‘Why have you brought that hammer round?’ says Mrs Oosterhuis on his next call.

‘I’ve come to give you an ultimatum about your television,’ Hank says.

‘I don’t have a television,’ Mrs Oosterhuis says. ‘A television wouldn’t be much use to me. I’m blind.’

Hank thinks he spots a flaw in her argument.

‘If you are blind, how did you know I had a hammer?’ he says.

‘I have very good hearing,’ Mrs Oosterhuis says. ‘I grew up in the veldt in the Transvaal.’

Following on from his bout of assertiveness, Hank finds things are a little better that night. Just a trickle of revellers speaking in hushed tones make their way home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television is much fainter, and the dog comes out with little more than a muted ruff when the fox comes in the garden. And Randy VW barely gets past the opening line of his hit. This is, of course, comforting, but Hank wonders why he can still hear any of these noises at all. At breakfast, Linda suggests he must face the possibility that he is delusional. Forcefully, he feels. 

Hank debates whether he might need another session with Rose Pink to clarify exactly what is wrong. Her unconventional approach to therapy appears to have given him a nudge in the right direction, but perhaps there are more holistic ways to address his …… what should he call it? Confusion? Anxiety? Phobia? Neurosis? Not that he thinks it is going to be a walk in the park, but half the battle, as he understands it, is admitting that you have a psychological problem. He is pleased to see on Facebook that a group of neuroscientists have discovered a song that reduces anxiety by sixty-five percent. If he could perhaps replace Randy VanWarmer’s heartfelt lament with this, then he might be in business. He could play the tune, say five or six times during the day and then another five or six times before going to bed. 

After several hours of listening to Weightlessness, Hank’s breathing is barely discernible. When Linda comes home late from the salon and finds him motionless in his chair with his eyes closed, she thinks he is dead. She turns off the ethereal music that is coming from the hi-fi system and calls the NHS out of hours’ service. She tells them she does not know what has caused Hank’s catatonia but that lately, he has been showing signs of ……. confusion. 

‘Don’t do anything until the doctor gets there,’ she is told.

To steady herself, she pours herself a glass of the rum that Hank brought home. She calls out his name repeatedly to try to rouse him, but he remains immobile. 

‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ she says. ‘You haven’t gone and done anything silly, have you? You haven’t taken anything?’ 

She goes over to him and puts her hand on his wrist. She thinks she can detect a faint pulse, but not being medically trained, she can’t be sure. She might also be imagining it, but thinks she senses a slight movement in his chest.

‘Hank!’ she says, gently shaking him. ‘Hank! Wake up, Hank!’ 

 There is still no response. It is at this moment that the doorbell rings. Linda rushes to the door.

‘I’m Dr Spurlock,’ says the diminutive man in the overcoat and the large black bag standing there. 

‘Thank God you’ve come,’ Linda says. ‘Come on in.’

‘Any changes with your husband, Mrs Hank?’ Dr Spurlock asks.

‘No. No changes.’

‘Shall we take a look?’

Dr Spurlock puts his bag down and examines Hank. He feels for a pulse and then takes out his stethoscope.

‘Now, tell me,’ he says. ‘How long has your husband been like this?’

‘It is hard to say, Doctor,’ says Linda, pushing her tumbler of rum out of sight, behind a potted plant. ‘He was like it when I came home from work a little while ago.’

‘It looks as if he is …… floating, Mrs Hank. My guess is that Mr Hank is somewhere up there on the ceiling. Not usually a common condition but we’ve come across this a lot lately. Has he been listening to …… Weightlessness by any chance?’

‘He did have some strange music on when I got home, yes.’

‘That will probably be Weightlessness, Mrs Hank,’ Dr Spurlock laughs. ‘Now if you’ll just stand back, I’ll just give your husband a shot and that should do the trick. It will bring him round and in no time, he will be as right as rain.’

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of people coming home from the night shift at the foundry blown in on the wind, or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the thumping bass from the Reggae sound system at number 44 and the fierce Rottweiler from across the way howling defiantly at the moon. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out, but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away, even if the voices stop. But the voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank realises he will not be able to get back to sleep. Nor is there any point in waking Linda. There’s something inherently treacherous about night. Time to get up and listen to Motörhead again or perhaps the Pestilential Goat Live in Saigon album that Rose Pink suggested he keep back for emergencies.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved

Home Alone Too

 

Home Alone Too by Chris Green

Was it a knock that had woken her? Anna doesn’t like being alone in the big old house at the best of times, but knowing that Ron is on the other side of the world makes her more edgy. She takes a look at the clock. It is 3:13. Much too late for anyone to be calling, even if it were an emergency. Perhaps it was the wind rattling the window. She remembers that the weather forecast had not been a good one.

But she is wide awake now. It is too far into the night to be able to go straight back to sleep. She puts on her white full-length Féraud dressing gown and goes down to the kitchen. There is nothing like a cup of tea and a slice of chocolate cake to settle you when you are on edge. While she waits for the kettle to boil, she has the nagging feeling that something is not right. She can’t quite put her finger on it, but something feels different. She makes a quick check around the front room, the study, the utility room. Although nothing seems to be out of place, it feels as if there has been recent movement. She is familiar with this feeling. It’s not something you can put into words. There’s an energy field, a cold spot, something along those lines. She shivers. She recalls reading that the saying about someone walking over your grave originates from the Middle Ages when the distinction between life and death was less distinct.

She checks the conservatory. The lemon tree seems to have been moved. She cannot be sure, but she does not remember leaving the patio doors unlocked. She is careful about things like this. Ron’s work in security and surveillance has instilled this sensibility in her. But whether she locked them or not, they are unlocked now. And if they are unlocked, then someone could have got in, in fact, they could still be in the house. Instinctively, she picks up the nearest blunt object, in this case, the cast iron frying pan that she left on the hob. There are no obvious hiding places in the house but still, the fear remains.

She switches all the lights on and nervously patrols the rest of the house. She looks behind dressers, in cupboards, under the stairs. Nothing. She takes a torch out into the garden. Nothing. With a sense of relief, she pours the boiling water onto a camomile tea bag and sits herself down at the dining room table. She is about to give Ron a call, but she thinks better of it and puts the phone back in its cradle. There is no point in worrying him unnecessarily. He would not be able to fly back from Singapore just like that, and anyway what is all the fuss about. There is no-one in the house and she doesn’t want to let Ron know that there has been a security lapse, even one so minor.

Anna goes back to bed, but she can’t settle. Rebel thoughts about an intruder keep up their campaign. She tosses and turns. She wishes that Ron were there. He would comfort her. Perhaps they might make love. Making love usually helps to calm her when she is troubled. They say climaxing re-balances the chakras. But Ron is not there, she tells herself, nor is he going to be for a while, so she has to take command of the situation. She must pull herself together.

Ron has probably had his chakras re-balanced out east,’ says annA.

There’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it,’ Anna counters

But you’re resentful and jealous,’ says annA.

If you can’t do anything about something you should let it go,’ her protector offers.

You could even the score.’

But what would that prove.’

Of course, you are on your own and you are scared,’ says annA.

Free your mind from the judgements of others and gently go your own way in peace,’ adds Anna. ‘Things will work out if you trust reason and logic.’

The see-saw continues to rock her emotions. The wind continues to rattle the window. Eventually, at around 6 a.m. Anna manages to get off to sleep. But, after a nightmare about being held captive in a dark, dank basement in Blackheath by a one-eyed hunchback, she wakes up in a sweat. She does not normally inhabit such ghoulish dreamscapes. Her night-time world is typically occupied by people from the office or her friends from her decoupage class or the gym where she does her Pilates – in mash-ups of random everyday situations.

She showers and gets ready for work. Her stomach is churning a little, and she doesn’t feel like breakfast but forces down an oatcake with her cup of tea. She straightens her skirt and puts on a bright summer coat. She fobs her Mini Cooper, but it seems to already be unlocked. Now, this is something she never does. The car is her pride and joy and she would never leave it unlocked. Not even on the occasions, she has to go back into the house for something she has forgotten. She is spooked. The plain white envelope on the dashboard sets her heart racing even faster. It has her name on the front in fine black italic capitals. With trepidation, she picks it up and examines it. Finally, she opens it. It is empty.

She needs to get to work. Her line manager, Maurice, will know what she should do. Even before she slept with him last Christmas he was supportive, and afterwards, even though she didn’t sleep with him again. Maurice is a rock. He will put his arm around her and reassure her. He will tell her that there is nothing to worry about. He will probably tell her it is just someone having a prank. It happens all the time, he will say. She sets off, trying hard to keep this thought in mind.

Another thing she always makes sure of is that the Mini has fuel. She is so cautious that as soon as the level reaches halfway, she fills the tank. But, when the car shudders to a standstill going along the back lane onto the by-pass, she notices that the fuel gauge is registering empty. Why didn’t the red light come on? Emergency Calls Only reads the display on her phone. What is wrong with the thing? She only changed providers last month.

Lovers’ Lane, as it is affectionately known, is not what most people would think of as a sinister place. It has arable fields on both sides with well-tended hedgerows, and further along there is a pleasant area of woodland. Anna gets out of the car. The winds that were blowing through the night have died down and there is a stillness in the air. She cannot even hear the hum of traffic that you might expect to hear coming from the dual carriageway. She is about halfway along the lane. She looks up and down. Should she head back home on foot to phone the AA Roadside Assistance from there? Has her breakdown cover lapsed, she wonders? Ron is the one who takes care of these matters and he has been away such a lot lately. Should she wait for someone to come along? Even though the road is not well used, her car is blocking the highway. She can’t leave it where it is. And she hasn’t the strength to move it to a passing place on her own.

Hello, my lovely,’ says a voice from out of nowhere.

It is not the knight in shining armour or the good Samaritan she is hoping for. It is the one-eyed hunchback from her dream. He is carrying some kind of axe.

Dozens of stories she has heard of mad killers on the loose momentarily flash through her consciousness. The one who butchered his killers and kept them in the deep freeze. He escaped from prison a year ago. He is still on the loose. The one who skinned his victims? Was he ever caught, or is it just a character from a film she is thinking of? The cannibal murderer that was in the news recently. The line from the song by The Doors Ron sometimes plays in the car, there’s a killer on the road, his brain is squirming like a toad runs through her head.

The axeman is over her now. He has raised his weapon. Anna feels she is going to pass out. The last thing she remembers is …….

She is startled by a knock on the driver’s side window.

Is everything all right, love?’ the stranger says. This one is not carrying an axe. He is well dressed and has a winning smile.

What? How?’ she says, as she winds down the window. ‘Where am I?’

Are you all right?’ he asks, in soothing tones.

What happened to ….. the ….. the ….. I was …… What’s going on?’

I’m sorry I startled you,’ he says. ‘It’s just that I need to get by …… and, well, my sweet, you are blocking the road.’

Sorry,’ Anna says, finally realising where she is. ‘I’ve …….. uh. I’ve run out of petrol.’

Start it up. Let me have a look,’ the man says. ‘It may not be the fuel.’

Anna turns the key, and the engine fires up.

Look! See! It started, first time,’ he says ‘And, you’ve got over half a tank.’
Thank you. Thank you. ……. How did that happen? I could have sworn it was empty. I don’t know what to say. I get anxious sometimes when my husband is away.’

You do seem a bit shaken,’ the man says. ‘I understand. I’m alone too. Look! I live just along the lane, there. Why don’t you come in for a cup of tea to settle you?’

Yes. I think I’d like that,’ Anna says, meeting his gaze. He really is quite handsome.

I’m Hugo, by the way,’ he says.

Anna notices his shirt is almost the same blue as his eyes. ‘Pleased to meet you, Hugo,’ she says. ‘I’m Anna.’

My house is that white one on the right, past the row of poplars there,’ he says, pointing. ‘The one with the gables.’

I know that house,’ Anna says. ‘The one that used to belong to the mystery writer. I pass by it every day. It has a distinctive tree on the lawn. A cedar of Lebanon I believe. I’ve often admired it.’

Cedrus Libani. It originates in The Levant. In the eighteenth century they used to be planted in the gardens of every stately home in England, but they have fallen out of favour lately, probably on account of their size.’

I’ve read they can live to be over a thousand years old,’ Anna says.

Yes,’ he laughs. ‘This one will certainly outlive you or I. Just pull into the drive, and I’ll be right behind.’

Anna manoeuvres the Mini the hundred yards along the lane to the white house, followed by Hugo in his black Mercedes Coupé. Under the shade of the cedar tree, they exchange glances. Anna feels something is in the air. It is a feeling she has had before, one involving weakness and knees, her weakness, her knees. Inside the house, one thing quickly leads to another. Before she knows it, they are in one another’s arms, kissing.

Perhaps you would like a glass of white wine,’ Hugo says. ‘Or would you prefer red?’

Maybe later,’ Anna says.

As they make their way upstairs, the magazine feature, The Secret Lives of the Ruling Classes, open on the hall table escapes her attention. This relates the gruesome tale of the Victorian serial killer, Lord Derringer. Anna may not discover, therefore, until it is too late, how in the 1860s, the 7th Earl of Derringer brutally butchered his victims with a broad axe and buried them beneath a shady tree, in many respects, similar to the one she can see through Hugo’s bedroom window as she slips off her skirt.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved


No Dark Side of the Moon

No Dark Side of the Moon by Chris Green

Don’t blow in a bear’s ear.’ the stranger in the Astrakhan coat says, as he passes me on October Avenue.

I am puzzled. Does he not realise there are no bears in these parts? The nearest thing to a bear is the Sonny Liston lookalike who works at Gary Geary’s garage, and there is no way I am going anywhere near him anytime soon. His stare is enough to floor you, not to mention the prospect of this hulk of a man coming towards you bearing a spider wrench. I always get my repairs done at Floyd’s Motors on the industrial estate. They are more friendly there.  

The stranger turns around and comes after me. ‘The bear and the bear hunter have different opinions,’ he calls out.

I pick up my pace to put distance between us. I have better things to do than listen to some wacko banging on about bears. I have to be at my Tai Chi class at six. I have ten minutes, and I have to stop at the ATM outside the SPAR on the way. We have to pay for our lessons weekly, and Yin Yan only takes cash. Yin has not been in the country long and has yet to get to grips with the British banking system. 

My partner, Emily, feels Yin is a fraud. She doesn’t recognise any of the routines he has me practice at home. She tells me I ought to join her Yoga class instead to help me relax. But it seems to me, there is more to Yoga than breathing and being present. There’s all the bending and stretching. I don’t feel my limbs are supple enough to cope with all the contortions this requires. Although she keeps mentioning it, surely Emily doesn’t believe there is anything going on between me and Freya in the Tai Chi class and that this is the reason I am so keen to attend. Admittedly Freya is a stunner, but I’m old enough to be her father. And with a busy subliminal message consultation service to run, how does she imagine I could find the time to conduct an extramarital affair? Emily picked up on a Freudian slip I made when I referred to the Pink Floyd album, Wish You Were Here as Wish You Were Her and she hasn’t let it go. It could of course be a double bluff, and Emily is having an affair with someone in her Yoga class. Rick perhaps, or Roger. She keeps talking about how accomplished these two are. Or it could be a double-double bluff and she realises this is what I will think she is having an affair so I will elect to join the class. It’s hard to read women’s thoughts. I came across a meme which said that even the condensed edition of A Guide to Women’s Logic would run to hundreds of pages, while the expanded edition of What Men Understand about Women would be a very short book.

To live with wolves, you have to howl like a wolf,’ the man in the Astrakhan coat yells as I come out of the community centre after my class. He moves in closer. His pock-marked face and black eyepatch make him appear more menacing than he did earlier. Where is Emily? She was supposed to pick me up in the car, but it seems to have slipped her mind. My call goes to voicemail, so I start to make my way homeward on foot. The madman follows. I tell him to bugger off. He takes no notice. 

I wouldn’t normally frequent The Purple Parrot. When it was The Rose and Crown. I sometimes took our dog, Elvis, in there. In an attempt to lose my pursuer, I dive in there now, hoping for a refreshing pint of Pedigree. It turns out that The Purple Parrot does not serve draught beer. Surely a pub has to serve a proper pint to call itself a pub. What has happened to the place? Is it a case of change for change’s sake? The Rose and Crown used to be a great pub. Friendly crowd of people. Good selection of ales. It was a thriving business. 

By contrast, The Purple Parrot is nearly empty and the few that are there seem to want to keep themselves to themselves. The one in the pink jumpsuit with the tri-coloured cocktail looks across at me suspiciously, but he seems harmless. At least the nutcase has not followed me in here. As I sip my outrageously priced Belgian Pilsner, my phone rings. It is Emily. She apologises for not picking me up earlier. Her meeting went on longer than planned. She says she will come and collect me now. I keep an eye out for the car and when she arrives, manage to dodge the weirdo waiting outside. I explain what has been happening. Emily feels that as usual I am over-reacting. 

Oddballs are everywhere,’ she says. ‘It’s a sign of the times. You should get used to it, Syd. And just because he wears an eyepatch, doesn’t make him dangerous.’

I can’t help thinking Emily’s dress is low cut for a logistics and stock control office meeting, and she looks a little dishevelled, but I say nothing. I do not want her to think I am becoming paranoid again.

At home, I ask Alexa who the man in the Astrakhan coat is, and she tells me he is Blofeld. I think this is improbable, not least because Blofeld is fictional. But these days, who knows? Nothing has any meaning anymore. The boundaries between reality and fiction have become blurred. You can’t rely on anything these days. We are bombarded with contradictory information day and night through advertising, the news media, Twitter and Facebook, Alexa, the graffiti on the underpass, and the know-all behind us at the supermarket checkout. Conflicting narratives, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fight for a place in our consciousness. Each idea tries to pass itself off as common-sense, helpful or normal. No longer sure what to believe, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. 

A number of unlikely phenomena have come to my attention lately. I read that abandoned mobile phones communicate with each other. How weird is that? Near the Equator, the sun sets twice on alternate Sundays. Atlantis has risen from the deep, and it is not where we expected to find. Researchers have discovered that paradox-free time travel is possible. You could now in theory go back in time, kill your own grandfather, and still exist. As Picasso said, everything you can imagine is real. Science, after all, is only magic that works. We are all made out of stars, and there is no dark side of the Moon.


© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Me and My Shadow

 

Me and My Shadow by Chris Green

The late October greyness means the beach is deserted. Now the season has ended, the beach-hut owners have shut up shop for the winter. Row upon row of these bijou coastal retreats stand empty. Many have security shutters down or are boarded up and padlocked. Perhaps it is too early, but not even the dog-walkers are out on the beach this morning. The silence is palpable. Miles and miles of sand and shingle are disturbed only by parcels of oystercatchers making the most of the retreating tide. Sara and I enjoy walking along this stretch on mornings like this when it is quiet. It acts as a meditation. It gives us the chance to reflect, and we can gather buckets of seaweed for the garden without it attracting too much attention. Seaweed is great for growing gourds.

We have never heard a gunshot in these parts before, so at first, we assume there must be another explanation for the loud retort that echoes around the bay. We see no reason why it should make any difference to our enjoyment of our lovely morning stroll. But then, up ahead behind a clump of rock, we see a figure lying face down in the sand. He does not appear to be moving. As we get closer, we see he is drenched in blood. It has soaked through his quilted lumberjack-checked shirt.

He’s been shot,’ we say simultaneously, this after a short delay in which we search for a more plausible explanation for his predicament. Something less savage than being gunned down. After all, this is not the penultimate episode of an Australian crime noir on Netflix, this is the sleepy English coast on a Sunday morning in real-time. How can the shooting have happened here? Worse, how can it have happened in plain sight without us seeing it? Did the shot come from the boat that is now speeding away? Where did the boat appear from? Why hadn’t we noticed it before now? Or see who may have boarded it? Was it in the bay all along? Or did the shot come from inland? There are plenty of places in amongst the clumps of trees where a gunman could conceal himself.

We’d better see if he’s still alive,’ Sara says, just as I am considering how best we can conceal ourselves in case we are next on the hitman’s list. Doesn’t she understand how these things work? If we are potential witnesses to the incident, then we will also be potential targets for the perpetrators.

Despite my reservations, my humanity gets the better of me. I help Sara turn the man over.

Be careful, Sean!’ she says. ‘We don’t know what damage moving him might do.’

We discover that although he has lost a lot of blood, he is still breathing. I don’t know that much about anatomy, but the bullet appears to have gone straight through him. In through the front and out at the back. Is that even possible?

I’ll call an ambulance,’ Sara says, as she tries to staunch the flow of blood. ‘They should be able to land an air ambulance somewhere around here.’

Better get the police too,’ I say.

Same number, isn’t it?’ Sara says.

Emergency numbers are not as straightforward as they used to be. Sara is put on hold while they try to find someone who can deal with her enquiry on a Sunday morning. Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the poor fellow we are trying to help looks oddly familiar. It takes me a few moments to realise where I’ve seen him before. He works at the shadow repair centre in the indoor market. He is a licensed shadow surgeon. He tailors people’s shadows and silhouettes. I come across him now and again when I pop down to the flag exchange in the market to get a new flag for the mast in the front garden. I think he must have separate premises where he does the surgery. As I recall, his name is Eddie.

Shadows have been in the news lately. Do we still need them? The Shadow Reform lobby group wants to do away with them once and for all, and apparently they are becoming a powerful force. Perhaps they have changed their tactics and upped their degree of militancy. Perhaps the attempted killing here is connected to their campaign. But surely these people are nothing more than narrow-minded reactionaries or misguided fools. Shadows are vital to inter-personal communication. Studies published in both medical journals and the liberal press have consistently shown that shadows also make a significant contribution to self-esteem. With the onset of winter, it is important to make sure your shadow looks good. On a crisp winter’s day, with the sun low in the sky, there is nothing so dispiriting than a sad-looking shadow. An ill-fitting one with the wrong proportions. Or worse still, no shadow at all.

Eddie recovers sufficiently to utter a few words. He doesn’t know who shot him, he says, or where the shot came from. But he has received death threats recently. He is clearly very weak. Fortunately, within minutes, the air ambulance arrives. Working quickly, the paramedics bandage him up, give him injections and take him away to St Thomas Hospital in Highton. The police response is markedly slower. Detective Inspector Gaffer and his sidekick, D.C. Newby, call on us shortly before lunch the next day.

Mr and Mrs Alexander, isn’t it?’ D.I. Gaffer says, reading from his handheld device. ‘Let’s see what we’ve got. Edward Rosso, aged thirty-eight, works at Highton market, shot we believe with a high velocity rifle at Mudsea beach yesterday. We have the two of you down as the only witnesses.’

Should we be thankful that we are not suspects?’ I say, cynically. ‘But if we were, I imagine you would have been around yesterday, with the caution and the cuffs. Even if it was a Sunday.’

OK! OK! I take the point, Mr Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘But we are here now. What can you tell us about the incident?’

Not very much,’ I say. ‘It all happened so quickly.’

We know that Mr Trimmer has had threats on his life,’ Newby says. ‘He reported these to us a week or two ago.’

Did you not follow these leads up?’ Sara says.

The threats were anonymous, Mrs Alexander,’ Gaffer says. ‘Added to which, BCU only passed the information on to us the day before yesterday. What we have determined though is that a substantial body of people do not approve of Eddie Rosso’s line of work.’

He’s a shadow surgeon,’ Newby adds. ‘Whatever this is.’

But sadly, that’s all we have to go on,’ Gaffer says.

I choose not to tell them that when I go to the market to buy my flags, if he is around, I pass the time of day with Eddie. This would only complicate matters. I know Gaffer and his oppo are only doing their job, but nothing I say about any conversations Eddie and I might have had is going to shed any light on who shot him. I tell them we saw a boat leaving the scene, but I know nothing about boats so there’s nothing I can add to this. It was blue and white, or was it red and cream? It wasn’t the sort of boat that had a sail. Eventually the detectives lose interest and we get away with giving brief statements. With the usual, if you think of anything else that might help, they take their leave. I ask Sara if she could phone the hospital to check on Eddie’s progress. But I feel our lives will be simpler if we try to put the matter behind us.

.…………………………………..


In the days that follow, we hear reports of other isolated shootings that might be connected to shadow abolitionist groups. Concern begins to grow in the press about their activities. They are perhaps affiliated to home grown far-right terrorist organisations. The Daily Mail though shows sympathy with the group, and questions whether in this day and age shadows are needed. Were they ever needed, asks the Express editorial, taking it a step further? We also notice one or two reports about people unexpectedly losing their shadows. It’s possible that stories like this have been circulating for a while, but we have had no reason to notice them until now. Some people think it’s primarily psychological, but these are principally psychologists. There is a suggestion on Spiked-Online that losing one’s shadow might be down to evolution, and eventually we will all lose our shadows. But the overriding view of the phenomenon from within the scientific community is one of scepticism. In these days of fake news, charlatans abound.

Sara and I are walking side by side through the grassy meadow near the Iron Age hill-fort. As we are trying to get our lives back on an even keel, we have decided to avoid Mudsea beach for the time being. We are fortunate that we have a choice of picturesque countryside close by for our Sunday morning walks. Autumn leaves on distant trees with shades of yellow, gold, orange and red add a touch of drama to the landscape. A gentle breeze blows from the south-west and the sun is low in the sky. Not bad conditions for the beginning of November.

Sara spots it first. Her long dark shadow stretches out proudly in front of her. By contrast, I have no shadow. She lets out a scream. As she grabs my arm to point this out to me, I can see she is horror stricken. But this is nothing compared to how I feel as I become aware of my loss. Until you find you have no shadow, you can’t possibly imagine how devastating it feels to lose it. It is like losing a limb. It is worse than losing a limb. At least you know what you have lost when you lose a limb, losing your shadow is uncharted territory. At first I don’t accept it. How can it have happened? There must be a mistake. All of that talk about people losing their shadows was surely nothing more than talk. Those reports in the papers were not to be taken seriously. This is the real here and now. It’s a misunderstanding. It’s a trick of the light, maybe. There has to be a rational explanation.

None is forthcoming. Sara’s shadow remains intact, but mine is not there. I no longer have a shadow. Sara is often more level-headed than I am in difficult situations. She offers to find out if Eddie is out of hospital. If he is, she will see if he has any ideas about what has happened and what can be done about it. Perhaps he knows an easy way to get a shadow back.

Eddie thanks us for saving his life. If there’s anything he can do, he says. In answer to my query, he explains that shadow recovery isn’t an exact science. It is a little like reverse engineering. It’s a step-by-step experiment. Every case is different. Trial and error, suck it and see. Apart from the physical, there is also a psychological element. I’m not sure what he means by this. Is he referring to shadow in the Jungian sense? But there’s no need for me to pursue it. I have to trust his judgement. If he is unable to reconstruct my original shadow, he says, he should be able to cobble something together. As soon as he is up and about again, he will do his best.

.…………………………………..

As Sara and I stroll along the coastal path in the January sunshine, my new shadow is on display for all to see. It is remarkable what a skilled technician can achieve. Eddie has pulled out all the stops. I am, of course, sworn to secrecy as to how he does it, but he has recovered my shadow. If you were to look at it too closely, you might spot that is not completely symmetrical. And it is perhaps a little broader than my original one. But, if anyone should draw attention to this, I could put it down to festive overindulgence. But these are minor imperfections. I am just thankful to once more have a shadow.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Lenticular Clouds

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

Lenticular clouds hang over Mount Dante in the distance. Disc-shaped and silver, they have an air of the surreal about them. You expect clouds to move across the sky with the wind, but these are stationary. Here in the town below, the inhabitants are in the midst of a heatwave. It has been searingly hot for two weeks now. Chet wishes the clouds would come over and deposit their load. His friend, Raul tells him they will not come this way. Lenticular clouds are only there because of the mountain. They could stay in place for days, hovering. They will gradually morph as the air currents push them towards the troposphere. Raul knows about weather. Before his accident, he used to be a pilot. He says they can expect another two weeks of this heat. With high pressure systems like this, rain-bearing clouds do not form, he says. There is not even a hint of a breeze. Chet wishes he were by the coast. Being landlocked in a heatwave is the worst.

Before the battery went flat, the weather app on Chet’s phone showed 44 degrees Celsius. He cannot charge the phone now. There has been no power in the town for seventy-two hours. There has been no explanation for the outage. There was talk of it being a terrorist attack, but why would terrorists target a backwater like this. News travels slowly in these parts. Rumours abound instead. The next town is forty miles away. Conditions were bad enough before the power went off, but if you had air conditioning you could stay indoors. If you did not, you could, at least, circulate the hot air with a barrage of fans. Chet did not have air conditioning and by the time he got round to thinking about fans, the stores had all sold out. He could have perhaps eaten humble pie and gone back to his parents, but anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Not even they with all their resources will have any protection against the interminable heat. A little discomfort will do them good, he reckons. What they did was unforgivable. He is better off staying with Raul. The accommodation may be basic, a collection of shacks tacked on to one another, with the occasional rat scurrying around, but the company is good.

The town has ground to a halt. The tar on the roads is turning to liquid. The air smells of creosote. Cracks are appearing in the concrete of buildings. The river bed has dried up. Blue-green algae have formed on the town’s swimming pool. There are warning notices posted outside. The water smells awful. Food is rotting in overflowing waste bins and on the streets. Everywhere is closed. No-one is going anywhere. Buses are no longer running and petrol stations are closed. The nearest airport is over a hundred miles away near the border, and the coast is the same distance in the other direction. Banks, offices and schools are closed. Even Bashir’s convenience store which is open 24/7 is closed. The hospital is closed and rumour has it that dozens are dying daily from the effects of the extreme heat. There is no way to confirm these rumours. Stores are being looted. Chet wonders how anyone can summon up the energy to loot. This would not be a prime pillaging place at the best of times.

Chet sits in the shade beneath a wilting zelkova tree on a lone patch of grass that the blistering heat has spared. He is decked out in shorts and flip flops. He has taken his CoolDude t-shirt off and is wearing it like a bandana. He is trying to read a book about the stars that Raul has lent him. Since the lenticular clouds appeared he has taken an interest in the sky. He finds he cannot concentrate on the book. The heavens are a celestial smorgasbord of byzantine complexity. It is too hot for long words to sink in. He puts the book down.

She appears as a mirage. She comes out of the sun in a thin white silk dress. Chet has never seen her before. He would remember. This is not a large town. There are perhaps five thousand people living here. He has never seen anyone like this before. She is stunning. She approaches him. She has a waterfall of obsidian hair and skin like porcelain. She has a smile like springtime. Her eyes are deep brown and look like they are made out of glass. How does she manage to look so cool in the sweltering heat? She looks as if she has stepped out of an ice cream parlour.

She puts her finger up to her lips in a gesture to signify that she requires silence for her mission. Chet is lost for words anyway. Where could he begin? She takes his hand and leads him off as if they were familiar lovers. With clandestine stealth, she bypasses the main square and the roads leading off it, through a series of narrow winding streets and labyrinthine alleys. He does not know where they are. Although it is a small town, he has not been this way before. It seems abandoned. Many of the buildings are falling apart. They arrive at a small white town-house. It is entirely in the shade. It is noticeably cooler. The sun never reaches these parts. They enter through a stuccoed courtyard. Chet finds they are in a small shuttered room, with ethnic tapestries hung on the walls. They are on a soft bed with brightly coloured linen. She draws him towards her and kisses him passionately. It is not until after they have made love that the silence is broken when his vision speaks softly to him in a language that he does not understand. To Chet, this is a small matter. Conversational consonance cannot compare to the poetry of the senses. For now, he’s going to stay.

Chet wakes with a start. He is disorientated. The room is dark and unfamiliar. There are slatted shutters on the windows but no light is coming through. It must be night-time, he decides. He is alone. He is naked. He is lying on a dishevelled bed. He cannot remember how he came to be here but he has had the most erotic dream. He is all sticky from the emission. He cannot find any clothes. Where are his clothes? There is no power for the light, so he stumbles around in the darkness. He finds the door is locked. It feels like quite a flimsy door, but he cannot move it. It must be strengthened with something to keep it firm. He is trapped. His mouth is dry. He is incredibly thirsty. A sense of panic mixed with despair rises in him. He listens for a sign of life outside of the room. There is a profound silence. It is still, not even the sound of the wind. He finds a bottle of water. It is a litre bottle and it is nearly full. There is nothing he can do but wait and hope. The last thing he remembers is reading Making Sense of the Heavens, the book that his friend, Raul lent him. He was sitting under a zelkova tree near the dried up river bed. And then …… And then …… Nothing. Then ….. the dream, if it was a dream – about an exotic temptress in white.

At dawn, he can just see out of a small crack in one of the window slats. He can see the peak of the mountain. The lenticular clouds still hang ominously over its summit.

…………………………………………..

Raul is secretly pleased with the lack of power in the town. It means that he does not have to go to work in the plant. He is painting a landscape in oils. Since he has not been able to get up in a plane, painting is the pastime he most enjoys. He would like to give up work and take up painting full time and sell his work. Although his art is accomplished, there is not a big demand for it since the recession. He has been told his brooding, haunted style is reminiscent of metaphysical Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. Although flattered, Raul doesn’t really like comparison to anyone. He feels his art is highly original. The landscapes with the elongated shadows of the town’s old decaying buildings are ideal source material for his moody studies. The emptiness of the streets since the power outage has also been inspirational. The painting he is working on has chimerical Iberian towers and arches leading to a desolate rocky desert landscape with lenticular clouds hanging over a mountain peak in the background. A lone silhouetted figure holding a broken wheel by the dried up fountain hints that all is not well. The stacked saucer shape of the clouds today is perfect for the balance of the composition.

He has to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly. He slapped it on the canvas yesterday and it cracked and blistered in the high temperatures. He daubs an arc of coral red at the base of the clouds and mixes in a dab of zinc white in situ on the canvas. It is a technique he uses a lot. He pauses to let the paint dry. He steps back to look at the work from different angles. He is pleased with its progress today. The scene has a dreamlike quality. The clouds with their otherworldliness add an air of mystery and menace.

He wonders what has happened to Chet. He did not come back last night, which is unusual as Chet likes to sit down with him for a chat over a bottle of wine. He was going to show Chet how to find the constellations, Hercules and Indus in the night sky. They are going through the celestial alphabet. Chet does not have a lot of friends. He is a bit of a loner. Surely he would not have gone back to his parents’ house. They disowned him when they found his drugs stash. And he would surely never have forgiven them for going to the police. After all, most young people around here smoke cannabis. It grows like a weed out in the badlands. The police probably smoke cannabis. They probably smoked Chet’s cannabis. They let him off with a caution.

…………………………………………..

Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

Brush still in hand, Raul turns around. He is dumbstruck. Standing there is Salvador Dalí. His handlebar moustache is fully waxed and despite the heat, he is wearing a dark three-piece suit. The immense bird of prey perched on his gloved hand is a bit of a shock too. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Raul struggles with an explanation. Not least in the mystery is the small matter that Dalí has been dead for many years. This could be an impersonator, but why would he be here? Raul can see and hear this substantial figure before him, who to all intents and purposes is the legendary painter, with an avian friend. Until a better explanation comes along, he must go by his senses.

I love the clouds,’ says Dalí, scanning the painting. ‘They are like how you say, objeto volador no identificado, yes?’

Raul composes himself for a reply. He manages, ‘Whuyuh,’ or something similarly devoid of language.

Rocks and clouds. They are the secret to a successful painting,’ Dalí continues. ‘If you remember this then your art will sell the millions and you will become famous. Let me see some more of your paisajes.’

How does one address the master, Raul wonders? The raptor on Dalí’s gauntlet is fidgeting. It looks as if it might lunge at him. The prospect makes him nervous.

Raul leads the artist into his small studio. There on rickety wooden easels are two landscapes that he has been working on. One canvas is of a seashell suspended from a classical arch in a desert landscape. In the middle of the orange sands is an oversized mannequin in black sunglasses. The other features two columns of arches set at impossible angles casting geometric shadows, in the background the silhouette of a steam train set against a yellow and green sky. Dalí walks up and down smoothing the ends of his moustache pensively.

I am thinking that I see Giorgio,’ he says. ‘I should not say this, but I did copy a lot from Giorgio. All I added really were rocks and trees. And the soft watches, of course. Oh, and tigers.’

Whilst trying to resist the comparison with de Chirico once again, Raul can’t help but feel flattered that the great Avida Dollars is appraising his work. This gives him the confidence to enter the conversation a little.

I was wondering about a perigee moon over the train in this one,’ he says. ‘And maybe darkening the sky to compensate.’

I designed a tarot pack,’ says Dalí. ‘I was very pleased with The Moon card. You cannot go wrong with a big red moon in a painting.’

When I was a boy I wanted to go to the moon,’ says Raul. ‘I asked my parents and they said that NASA weren’t recruiting in these parts, so I trained to be a pilot instead.’

When I was a boy I wanted to become Dalí,’ says Dalí. ‘So that is what I did.’

You can never tell how things are going to turn out, can you,’ says Raul. ‘Sometimes in life, there is great irony. I was taking aerial photographs of the moon when my plane crashed.’

I could tell how things were going to turn out,’ says Dalí. ‘I knew I would be a great painter. I knew I would be famous. It was my destiny. It was in the stars.’

I study the stars,’ says Raul. ‘I’ve been teaching my friend, Chet how to read the night sky. I am showing him where to find the constellations. But he has disappeared.’

People come and go. Things appear and disappear,’ says Dalí. ‘All things must pass. My good friend, George Harrison told me that.’

He did not come back last night.’

Last night I could see the stars. The night sky is very clear,’ says Dalí. ‘What has happened to the lights? Is there no electricity here?’

No-one knows why the power is off,’ says Raul. He disappears behind a curtain to fetch some other canvases to show Dalí. When he returns there is no sign of the artist. He is fanned by the wings of a large black raptor as it flies off with a small rodent in its talons.

…………………………………………..

Time passes slowly for Chet in the locked room. After initial attempts to break down the door and dismantle the shutter, he has given up. He has disturbed the shutter enough to allow a shaft of light through and if he puts his face up against it, he can see out. He is facing a whitewashed wall. He can just see the peak of the mountain and the lenticular clouds capping it. He has given up shouting for help too. He is wasting valuable energy by doing so. It is clear that no-one is around.

He tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. How much of it was real and how much of it a dream? Being brought to a secret lair and seduced by an exotic angel is certainly the territory of dreams, but here he is. In this unfamiliar room. How did this happen? Was he drugged? Perhaps the water he is drinking contains some potion. According to transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Raul is fond of quoting, reality is a sliding door. His friend would probably have an explanation for what is going on. He has a far greater experience of life. Growing up in a household where he was never encouraged to think for himself, Chet finds clarity elusive. All things seem shrouded in mystery. He has few answers. There are many questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea salty? Why do fools fall in love? And presently, and most importantly, why is he being held captive? He can think of no reason. His imprisonment would seem to benefit no-one. Also, it contradicts the initial experience where he was made more than welcome by the libertine lorelei who brought him here.

How long will a litre of water last, he wonders? It is either half full, or half empty now.

…………………………………………..

Raul takes a long pull on his beer. The warm bottled beer in the Agave Bar is unpleasant, but he feels he needs one. He has no wine at home and everywhere else is closed. The Agave never closes. It would take an earthquake. Sol, the barman seems to live at this dark and dingy bar. Raul asks him if Chet has been in.

No. I don’t believe he has,’ says Sol. Not seen him since you brought him in a while back.’ He explains that since the power outage hardly anyone has been in. He is ready to launch into a rant about the loss of trade that the power outage is causing. Sol is not aptly named. His disposition is anything but sunny.

Noah, who has been sat at the bar listening, interrupts him. ‘Is that the posh kid?’ he asks Raul.

Guess that’s who you mean,’ says Raul. ‘Why, Noah? Have you seen the lad?’

Think I did, now you come to mention it,’ says Noah. ‘He was with a pretty girl. I was sure surprised. Never seen him with anyone but you before. Had him down as a ….. well, a bit of a loner.’

When was this?’

Yesterday afternoon it must have been. They were heading for the old town. Did you see him, Jake?’

Jake looks up from the bottle of tequila he is nursing. ‘No, Noah, can’t say I did.’

Where do you think they were going?’ says Raul.

Well, I have no idea. I’m not going to be following them, am I, although she was quite a stunner,’ says Noah.

Nobody goes up there much since the ….. uh, emergency, do they?’ says Sol. Sol doesn’t get out anywhere that much. He has the pallor of a dedicated barman.

What actually happened?’ asks Raul. He has heard all kinds of rumours, but small towns can generate fanciful stories.

Noah and Jake look at one another. Neither of them says what they are thinking.

The outbreak,’ says Sol. ‘There was an outbreak of something, wasn’t there?’

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

I’m going up there,’ says Raul doggedly. ‘Thank you, boys, for the information.’

…………………………………………..

It is morning, or perhaps it is afternoon. Chet cannot tell. Daylight is spilling through the shutter. He is woken up by a noise of someone outside. He hasn’t slept much. He is drowsy. With a rattle of keys the door opens. With the light now from the open door, he sees her standing there in all her finery. The same little white dress, the same waterfall of obsidian hair. She has brought a basket of fruit. She hands him a peach. He devours it ravenously. She slips out of her dress. She joins him on the bed and kisses him passionately. He responds to her touch. She responds to his. She is wet. Ardently they make love. It is as if nothing has happened since the previous time they were together. They are just resuming the assignation, where they left off. There are no recriminations.

Afterwards, as they share the fruit, she speaks to him in the language that she spoke to him before. The difference is, now, he finds he can understand her. This is inexplicable. It is the same language, but it is no longer foreign to him. His mind is buckling with incomprehension. How can this be happening?

She tells him that although she is made up of flesh and blood, she is insubstantial, like a spirit. She can only appear in the material world under a particular set of circumstances. She says that she cannot explain any further for now, as it would only confuse him more. What she requires from him is his trust.

When you appear, can everyone see you?’ asks Chet.

No, not everyone.’

When you disappear, where do you go?’

Please do not ask any more questions, as I cannot answer them,’ she says. ‘Just trust me is all that I ask of you. You will be rewarded if you put your faith in me. Let’s go and get your clothes. We have to go. Time is short.’

…………………………………………..

The church clock is stopped at eleven minutes past eleven as Raul makes his way through the town. The scorching heat saps his strength. The streets are still deserted. There may be no power, but where is everyone, he wonders. Where do they all go? Life cannot stop because there is no electricity. He notices that the sky over the mountain top is changing. Normally the wind blows right through lenticular clouds. They form in the crest of the mountain wave where the rising updraught of the wave has cooled and moisture has condensed. The clouds dissipate in the downdraught of the wave where the air has descended and warmed to the point where the moisture evaporates. The stacked saucer effect of the lenticular clouds above Mount Dante has gone. They are scattered. They are brightly coloured, almost psychedelic. The shape that is forming and the rich hue of the clouds suggest they are dispersing. When he was flying, Raul was careful to avoid cloud banks like this. They could cause dangerous turbulence.

As he approaches the crumbling ruins of the old town he becomes conscious of an eerie hush. It is like entering another world, a world of spirits perhaps. It has been a no-go area for so long, he cannot remember why the townsfolk abandoned it, but Noah and Jake’s conspiratorial silence seemed to have suggested he should avoid it. Apprehensively, he enters the network of narrow winding streets. The cobbled road surface is covered in sand and strewn with assorted debris. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper compete for space on windowless ruins and gutted houses. Tumbleweed grows amongst the rubble. A path leads off to the right into a labyrinthine series of alleys, each lifeless and silent. It is a much larger area than it first appears. He feels his hopes of finding Chet here evaporating.

…………………………………………..

Chet and his revenant run hand in hand out of the dark void and into the light. The lenticular clouds over the mountain look spectacular. The whole sky is alive in a fluid chromatic explosion. It is as if the heavens are hosting a titanic light show for the Gods by a mythic rock band. It is breathtaking. Alas, all things must change. Nothing is permanent. Dreams fade, bubbles pop, and clouds evaporate. The carnival will soon be over. The lenticular clouds over Mount Dante will be gone by the end of the afternoon.

We have to be quick,’ Chet’s vision says. ‘Soon the power will come back on, and I too will disappear.’

He asks a thousand questions, all at once. She does not hear. Already her form is fading.

…………………………………………..

Chet and Raul sit on the stoop taking in the evening sunshine over a glass or two of red from Bashir’s new delivery. A gentle breeze rustles the canopy. Chet is pleased that it is a little cooler. The heat really got to him, he says, and he didn’t know where he was without the internet. Anything could have been happening and he wouldn’t know about it. He had some very strange thoughts. He wondered if he was going mad. Raul says that the heat didn’t bother him, nor the lack of electricity.

I’m glad the clouds have gone, though,’ he says. ‘There’s something about lenticular clouds that makes me uneasy.’

I know exactly what you mean,’ says Chet. ‘They don’t bring any rain. It’s a bit like thunder without the lightning. It throws you off balance.’

And they are there for days, just hovering.’

Bound to have an effect’

Like the moon and the stars.’

We’ll probably never know the full story.’

Mysteries should remain mysteries. The universe is full of secrets.’

We’ll have to get back on to the constellations tonight. We were up to H, weren’t we?’

That’s right, Hercules is next, and Indus.’

What about another glass of wine?’

I did manage to get some painting done, though,’ says Raul. ‘I don’t expect you noticed.’

I love the new picture,’ says Chet. ‘It reminds me of one I saw by Salvador Dalí.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Tomorrow Never Knows

Tomorrow Never Knows by Chris Green

Vicky was finding it difficult to remember things. Friends of hers, in their fifties and sixties, suggested that her memory was unlikely to get any better. As you grew older, they said, those peripheral places where the past was stored were harder to find. They told her how they constantly forgot important dates and events, and often asked for the same information over and over. They increasingly needed to rely on the internet and other memory aids to remind them of things they thought they knew.

A diary is essential,’ said Naomi, who was fifty-eight. ‘How else would I know where I have been, or who I have seen?’ Vicky did not see Naomi as someone who led a particularly chaotic life. Taking the dog to the vet was a bit of an outing.

You can use a diary to express your feelings,’ said Emily, who was sixty-one. ‘You can let off steam when you put your mind to it, and I find this helps a lot.’ Married, as Emily was, to Colin, Vicky could see that she might sometimes need this outlet.

A’ve kept a diary since Ah was a wee lassie. an’ noo a’ve got no-ain tae gab tae at nicht, Ah fin’ mah diary’s a stoatin comfort,’ said Fiona, who was sixty-four and recently widowed. Murdo had died last year as a result of a hunting accident in the Highlands, or was it a rare blood disease.

Vicky, who was still only forty-eight, began to put aside five or ten minutes each night before she went to sleep to record the day’s events and to put down her thoughts. She became quite disciplined about this ritual. She quickly found that writing a diary simplified her life. No matter how late she went to bed, she would find time to put pen to paper.

Memory is a fickle apparatus, its performance imprecise and unpredictable. Vicky could remember some things from long ago clear as a bell and she was able to reconstruct large sections of her life around a particular episode from way back. But when she tried to remember what happened last week or earlier that day, she drew a complete blank. Sometimes the reverse was true. This was particularly frustrating. She would lie awake at night trying to piece together what happened in the Summer of 1994 or the Spring of 2001. Or what she had done in the months between splitting up with Hugh and meeting Grant. She would get so far and then draw a blank. She could feel a pulsing ache from the feverish activity taking place in far reaches of the hippocampus as the fruitless search for information progressed. As well as gaps in her recollections, Vicky was also faced with the bewilderment brought on by false memory. Where did random rogue recollections come from? There appeared to be no way of checking the accuracy of her account of anything that happened long ago. She wished that she had started keeping a diary sooner.

It was June 6th, a Friday. Vicky had had a full-on day. It had started well with the news that Alice and Alex were going to make her a grandmother, but had gone downhill with the shunt in the Lexus at lunchtime, and got worse when she found out her car insurance had lapsed. Why hadn’t she had a reminder? Perhaps she had had a reminder. Why hadn’t she put the renewal date in her diary? The office in the afternoon had been a nightmare. Her computer picked up a virus and the photocopier broke. Dinner with Doug at the Dog and Duck had been a disaster. Doug drank far too much and had embarrassed her in front of clients. The phone call from Phil at eleven asking her to work in the morning was all she needed.

To put down her reflections on the day, she took out her diary, which she kept in a drawer in her bedside cabinet. To her astonishment, she found that the page for June 6th had already been filled in – in her neat handwriting, as had the pages for June 7th, June 8th and June 9th, in fact, every day up until July 5th. She read the day’s entry in horror. It gave an accurate description of her day, complete with an up to date appraisal on how she was feeling towards Doug. Those were the exact words she had used when he had asked her to run him home.

Charlotte, Vicky’s friend from the amateur swimming club, was not pleased to get the call. She had been in the throes of passion with her new friend, Piers, at the time, and had only answered on the premise that any call after midnight must be important. It was a few minutes before she put Vicky’s call into this category. But Vicky had been a friend for years and she could tell that she was distraught. Pleas for her to calm down only brought on another outburst.

What does it say for tomorrow?’ Charlotte asked finally. ‘I mean today.’

Vicky read out the diary entry for June 7th.

Simple! Don’t go to work in the morning, then the diary entry will be proved wrong,’ said Charlotte.

I think I do have to go to work. Important deadlines, and all that. June, as you know, is always a busy time at East Asian Travel.’

Then you must make sure that you do not go to town in the afternoon and then the rest cannot happen,’ Charlotte said. ‘You don’t have to buy the surrealist painting of the naked saxophone player with the New York skyline by the unknown Spanish artist.’

I suppose not, but it’s one of a pair along with a blind trumpet player looking out to sea that I’ve already got. The pictures are quite amazing.’

Vicky!’

OK. You’re right, Charlotte. I won’t go, and I won’t buy the cinnamon-scented wax plant from Tree Hugger Nurseries. I won’t even pick up the Lexus from the panel beaters.’

And you don’t really need to get a wetsuit from Albatros Diving, do you? So that’s your diary day cancelled out.’

After a night of tossing and turning, and a dream about drowning in a rip-tide off the Bay of Biscay, Vicky made it into work. Her in-tray reflected the busyness of the summer season. She was faced with a long list of people to phone about their travel plans, and hundreds of tickets and letters to be sent out. Why couldn’t East Asian Travel make greater use of the Internet like everyone else did these days?

Phil, normally so aloof, was being exceptionally helpful and had even brought in some cakes.

I’ll give you a lift in to pick up your car, my sweet,’ he said, putting his arm around her shoulder. Was he flirting with her? No, it turned out. He was just softening her up to work Sunday. She did not find this out until after they had picked up the wetsuit. bought the painting, been to the garden centre and she had helped choose a birthday present for Phil’s wife.

If Vicky had remembered her diary entry for the day, depending on viewpoint, she would have seen that she was going into work, or according to what was written, had been into work, on the Sunday. She would also have anticipated, or recalled, Doug’s unwelcome call in the afternoon. And what was she doing at Frankie and Benny’s with Toni? She never went out on a Sunday evening and she hated pizza.

Following this, Vicky decided to read the entries carefully for the whole period that was filled out. She tried to commit the events of each day to memory. But, over the next few days, no matter how hard she tried to contradict her proscribed schedule, circumstance conspired against her. She ended up doing exactly what was written in her journal. Even the most unlikely episodes took place. How could you predict that a TV celebrity was going to die in a balloon accident? And what were the chances of meeting your primary school teacher who you hadn’t seen for forty years in the traffic-free area outside Monsoon?

I can’t see what the problem is,’ said Naomi. ‘It takes the hard work out of keeping a diary if it’s already filled in.’ Naomi hated surprises. She liked everything to be just so.

It makes it seem like fate,’ said Emily. ‘I met a clairvoyant the other day. She does readings over the phone. Colin says its a load of old crap but I believe things happen for a reason.’ In Emily’s world, everything from tarot to teacup readings could help to simplify life’s great mysteries.

Fiona was more sympathetic. ‘Ah can ken wa yoo’re scared,’ she said. ‘Ah woods be terrified. Quantum leaps ur somethin’ ye expect tae bide in science fection where they belang.’

Much of Vicky’s diary-week was predictable, inasmuch as it consisted of regular activities, like go swimming after work on Tuesday, or go to her evening art class on Wednesday. She did not know why she wrote it down. Half of it was meaningless. Did it matter that she had cooked a casserole or had an erotic dream? Or that the cat had been in a fight or the parlour maple was flowering? After all, it flowered every June at about this time. Because it was written in the diary, she made a special effort not to call Eric, the cooker repairman in to replace the faulty oven fan, but he called around anyway on the off-chance that she might need a domestic appliance repair done. However, some of what she had apparently written for the week was unusual. She had the same dream that she had recorded in the diary of her travelling, as a man, on a bus in Barcelona, listening to The Cinematic Orchestra on a music player with oversized headphones, while the Christmas dinner was cooking. She was looking out for the railway station where she had to catch the 5:25 train to take her back to the place where she caught the bus. She calculated she would just about make it on time. The family, not her family but a family put together from unconnected people remembered from childhood, were waiting in the Las Ramblas apartment and when she arrived back the pheasant roast would be ready to serve. Not the kind of dream you would expect to have twice.

The Mariachi band marching past her house playing Bésame Mucho every morning was a bit random too, and the dead owl on the doormat, unexpected. And what were the chances of finding yourself in a lift with the author, Frank Biro? For the whole week, the mundane and the exceptional matched exactly what was recorded in the diary. It seemed her free will was gradually being broken. By Friday, she was in panic mode.

Confusion of this nature is commonly caused by overwork,’ said Dr Chandrasekar, the young locum who was filling in for her regular GP, Dr Sadness. ‘What is your job?’

Vicky told him she was in the travel business.

Ah!’ he said. ‘This is one of the worst jobs for work-related stress and anxiety. And of course, it’s worse in the summer months, am I right?’

Vicky thought that perhaps he was stating the obvious, but agreed.

Do you drink alcohol regularly?’ he asked. ‘Alcohol as you probably know can make one delusional.’

Vicky confessed that she had popped an extra bottle of red or two into the supermarket trolley in the past few days, to help cope with the trauma, but as a rule, she didn’t overindulge.

How many units a week on average would you say?’

There was a time for honesty, but she felt this wasn’t it. ‘About eight or nine,’ she said.

No recreational drug use, I take it.’

Absolutely none. Not for many years.’

I think what I’ll do is write you out a prescription for some tablets. Now you take six a day and in a few days, I think you should start to feel less anxious.’

Risperdal!’ said Charlotte. ‘He gave you Risperdal! That’s what they give to people with schizophrenia. Six a day! Definitely not, Vicky.’ She listed the side effects. They included hypersalivation, insomnia, mood disorders and suicidal tendencies.

So what do you suggest?’ said Vicky.

I’ve started seeing a Sand Tray therapist,’ said Charlotte.

What on earth?’

She gets me to alter the positions of miniature objects which represent people and events. She says that will help me make the same changes in real life.’

And has it helped?’

Well it’s early days, but I do enjoy playing in the sandpit.’

Vicky went instead to Aurora, a non-directive psychotherapist she found in Circles of Light. Sessions consisted of Aurora listening to a free-flowing narrative of Vicky’s inner world while she clicked a set of coral worry beads.

I am in a large institution, a sort of self-contained metropolis, and I am being initiated into an elaborate catalogue of rules and regulations and procedures that apply there,’ said Vicky. ‘Leader issues me with instructions for classes I have to attend. When I have finished one, he tells me I have to attend the next one which will start at 10 p.m. and then the next one at midnight and then one at 2 a.m. and so on. I accidentally miss one and am reprimanded. He tells me I will have to go to extra classes as a result. The procedures are very rigorous. I have to walk this way or that way along corridors and up staircases by following arrows. I have to take particular colour-coded emblems that I have been issued with along to each class. It has to be the correct colour, and I do not know how to choose. No one has told me and I keep making mistakes. I have to keep a record of my progress. In my small room, I spend hours filling out a spreadsheet, which in turn makes me late for my next class. Other people I meet seem to accept the regime as normal.’

And how do you feel about it?’ asked Aurora.

I feel trapped of course, as if I am imprisoned. I want to get out,’ said Vicky.

Go on,’ said Aurora.

I am walking through one of the large covered spaces and I see a sturdy figure swimming with powerful strokes through a central channel, helped by the flow of a fast-flowing stream. I try to point this out to one of the acolytes and he says there is no stream, it is a gravel path. I mention it to Leader, and he is pleased that I have told him. It means that someone is trying to escape and now he will be able to stop them. As a result, my status within the institution seems to change. I no longer have to go to classes. I am now in a massive glass atrium. I am sitting on the grass along with some others, eating doughnuts, with a texture like styrofoam. The atmosphere here seems much more relaxed. I notice there are tall glass sliding doors at the front of the atrium. I see people on the outside going about their daily life. They appear sketchy, like figures in an architect’s drawing. Someone in a harlequin suit says to me that it is an illusion, fate has no outside. You are always inside. I do not want to believe him, and I make for the doors, which slide open, but close just as I am about to reach them. I try this several times but there is no way out….. Then I wake up.’

I will see you again next Tuesday,’ said Aurora. ‘We can talk more about it then.’

Phil felt Vicky might be able to distract herself by working longer hours while Doug suggested she ought to stop being so selfish and think about others for a change. Vicky wondered if it might not be better to just go with the flow and see what happened. After all, according to the diary, nothing fatal was about to happen before July 5th. She decided that she would not deliberately try to follow what was written, but neither would she try and avoid it.

This scheme worked well for a few days. Everything went according to plan. What was written in her diary and what happened each day continued to match, but on Thursday she noticed an anomaly. She had gone to see True Story at The Plaza and not Never Lose Focus at the Savoy. When she looked through the diary entry again, the original entry had changed, which would mean that in her absence the diary was rewriting itself. It had changed, hadn’t it? Vicky could not be sure of anything anymore. Her memory was not to be relied upon. This was the reason she had started writing her diary in the first place.

The cheque from the insurance company didn’t arrive on Friday and she didn’t win the eBay auction for the Gaggia Espresso machine. It seemed that her real life and the diary account were getting out of sync. When she checked later, however, there was no record of the cheque or the coffee machine on the page for Friday. She was certain there had been. And it was not the hottest day of the year on Saturday as reported; in fact, it was cold wet and windy. On checking, she found this entry too had changed. On Monday she noticed that there had been an omission in the diary account. Surely she would have recorded something as important as winning tickets for Ladies Singles Final Day at Wimbledon.

You’re not sure, are you?’ said Naomi. ‘I told you this would happen to you.’

Join the club! I can’t remember what happened yesterday,’ said Emily.

It’s an early sign ay Alzheimers,’ said Fiona. ‘Age creeps up oan ye, ye ken.’

You’ll have to start making copies of your diary,’ said Naomi.

I don’t think Colin approves but I know someone who does remote viewing,’ said Emily.

Ye coods keep th’ diary oan line,’ said Fiona. ‘An’ save it tae google clood.’

On Monday evening, Vicky scanned the remaining eighteen completed pages on to her PC. She felt pleased with her resolution and that night slept without the usual apnoea or bad dreams. The next morning before work, when she checked, she found that the diary had an updated entry ‘scanned the remaining eighteen completed pages of the diary’. Her meticulous script (the rounded s, the well-formed c, the curls on the a, the lazy elongated n) was unmistakable. The scanned version, to her alarm, also had the same entry. Summer it might have been, but Vicky felt a January chill run through her. She was spooked.

Her apprehension was about to get worse. Vicky had not given much consideration to why the diary entries finished on July 5th. When a possible explanation occurred to her, it hit her like a bombshell. It came as the result of a dream in which she was driving fast towards a level crossing. It was a crossing that she was familiar with. She drove through it most days. Without the warning of the red flashing lights, the gates ahead of her closed. Realising the stopping distance at the speed she was travelling would not bring her to a halt, she tried to turn away from the crossing into a road to the right, but the car’s steering was not functioning, and when she tried to apply the brakes, she found the vehicle only had bicycle brakes. The car pushed through the gates and came to a halt in the middle of the tracks. Large black steam locomotives pulling freight headed towards her from both directions. They were approaching at breakneck speed. She had no time to get out of their path. She was going to die. On waking, it occurred to her that the out of control car signified that she had no control over her life. This was perhaps why her diary finished on July 5th. There being no record of July 6th, she was overtaken by a powerful foreboding was going to die the following day.

She examined the diary once more. The dream was now recorded in detail in both the diary and the scanned document. She unplugged the scanner and took it up to the attic. She shut down the computer. Files could not be updated and no new files could be created if it was not switched on. She turned her attention to the diary. She contemplated destroying it. She decided that this might not be the best solution, but from now on she would keep it with her at all times. She read each page again carefully, looking for clues. There was no mention of a degenerative illness or a scenario that would put her life in peril anywhere. She paid particular interest to the page for Thursday, July 5th. What was written here now became of great importance to her? She felt she had to avoid the sequence of events on this day at all costs.

For the next two weeks, she did not let the diary out of her sight except when she was asleep. Even then, although it was uncomfortable, she had it strapped to her waist under her nightdress. Except for a few omissions and oversights, her day to day experience and the account in the diary matched each other. The same things happened at work and she went to the same activities that the diary said she would. The Mariachi band now played El Jarabe Tapatio each morning and she had lunch at the new Albanian restaurant that no-one had heard of. She even had the same unexpected phone call from Doug in the middle of the night. While the synchronicity was still spooky, she was relieved that nothing untoward seemed to be happening. She appeared to have established an equilibrium. She even wondered whether she now had to avoid the events of July 5th.

On Friday, July 4th in the early evening, Vicky was taking a shower after a hot sticky day at the office. Before stepping into the shower, she had left the diary face down on the top of the laundry basket, but when she stepped out, it was gone. There had been a few seconds that she had her eyes closed while she rinsed her hair, but no one could have got into the bathroom and taken it. The door was bolted and she had not even closed the shower curtain. Caught between panic and desperation, she emptied the linen basket and threw discarded clothes and bath towels this way and that, but there was no sign of the diary, and yes, the door was still locked. She was absolutely certain that she had put the diary face down on the top of the basket, hadn’t she? Once she had given up the search and composed herself, she booted up the PC to check the diary files. These too had disappeared.

That night, in her brief spell of sleep, she dreamt that she was on holiday in a foggy former Eastern bloc country. It was the last day of her holiday and her flight was due to leave in two hours. She had not packed, and her belongings were scattered everywhere. They had a charred look about them as if they had been in a fire. She could not remember who she was with. Her travelling companion’s identity kept changing. Alice was with her now and she produced a large shiny old fashioned black pram with lots of chrome fitments. She wanted to take it on the plane. Vicky wondered how such a large item would fit into the luggage. It did not look as if it would fold away. Next, she was driving to an old church, which had recently been restored. Suddenly the sun visor in front of her dropped down. Somehow, it covered the whole of the windscreen. She could not see where she was going. She could not take her foot off the accelerator. She could hear the loud hum of the traffic ahead. She realised she was heading towards a busy main road. She woke with the sheets bathed in sweat.

Despite her shattered mental state, she made it into work. To her surprise, the day started well with the news that Alice was, in fact, expecting twins. But it went rapidly downhill with a knock in the Audi at lunchtime, and got worse when she found she had not transferred her insurance from the previous vehicle. Clearly, her memory too was going from bad to worse. The afternoon in the office was a nightmare. She spilt coffee over a customer’s suit. Her mobile phone fell into the toilet bowl. Her laptop died. The day did not improve. Her dinner date with Danny at Dino’s was a disaster. Unlike Doug, Danny did not drink. But after a bottle of Argentinian Malbec and a large brandy, Vicky embarrassed herself with her outpouring of emotion. At the end of the evening, Doug did not ask if he might see her again. Phil’s phone call at eleven-thirty, telling her that East Asian Travel was to cease trading and that she was out of a job, was the final straw.

Vicky reached into the drawer of her bedside cabinet for her diary to record the day’s events. It was an instinctive reaction. Even though it had been the mother of all bad days, it had to be done. She had somehow forgotten that the diary had gone missing. Yet, there it was in its usual place. She opened it up where it was bookmarked, only to discover that there were blank pages. Why, she wondered, had she not written in it for nearly a month?

Charlotte was exasperated to get yet another call. She had just put out the light. What was the most diplomatic way way, she wondered, to tell her friend that she was off her rocker?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ceci n’est pas Une Batte

Ceçi n’est pas une batte by Chris Green

Not many people realise that the surrealist painter, René Magritte was a big fan of English cricket. He discovered cricket by accident in a newspaper article in the 1930s. Although he had a reasonable command of English, the unfamiliar language baffled him. Innings, runs, overs, wickets, stumps, and bails. There were no equivalents to these in his native Belgium. The game was not played here. He was amused too by the names of the fielding positions, short leg, silly mid-on, gulley, backward point, first and second slip, etc. And the rules of the game were not only complicated but surreal.

He learned that there were two sides of eleven men, one in and one out in the field. Each man on the in side went out to bat and the fielding side tried to get him out. When he was out, he came in. Then the next man went in until he was out. When he was out, he too came in. When they were all out, the side that was out came in and the side that had been in went out and tried to get those coming in out. In addition, there were many ways in which the fielding side could get the batsmen, namely bowled, caught, stumped, run out and leg before wicket, whatever this was. When both sides had been in and out twice, the game finished. The team with the most runs won, unless they had not had enough time to finish because of bad light or rain, in which case it was a draw. Runs were made by the two batsmen that were in running between two sets of stumps after the one on strike had hit the ball and the ones in the field had not stopped it. Games lasted for three or five days.

René felt he had to experience this theatre of the absurd first hand. It sounded a lot more interesting than hockey or volleyball. He took a trip to England to watch a local weekend game at a village on the Kent coast. Although he had a little difficulty understanding everything that was going on, he felt it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. He was hooked. He began to make regular trips across the Channel to watch Kent play County Cricket at Canterbury. With his dark suit and signature bowler hat, René fitted in easily with the well-to-do spectators in the Members’ Enclosure and the hospitality tents. As he chatted away to his fellow fans, most did not realise they were in the presence of a famous artist.

He gradually got to know the Kent cricketers. As luck should have it, Kent’s captain, Bryan Valentine was a keen amateur artist and knew who René Magritte was. Bryan was aware that new art movements were springing up in Europe and eager to keep up with developments. René became a regular guest in his quarters, where they discussed the connections between art and cricket long into the night.

As cricket looked so much fun, it was only natural for René to want to have a crack at it. He bought all the kit and arranged for a few sessions in the nets. With a little coaching from the Kent players, he mastered some of the batting strokes, the cover drive, the hook, the sweep and the late cut. They told him he was a natural. Encouraged by this, René persuaded Bryan to let him play in a Sunday charity match.

The only reservation René had was in the game’s presentation. If, as he hoped, cricket was ever going to take off in Belgium, this needed a little tweaking. It would need to drop some of its formality. To add a little humour, instead of the standard cricketing cap, he wore his trademark bowler hat for the charity match. Although this was greeted with puzzlement at first, the boozy Sunday crowd soon caught on. It would not be appropriate for regular county fixtures, but once in a while, it was good to break with tradition.

With her husband disappearing regularly, Georgette Magritte began to suspect he was having an affair. The explanation for his absences that he was watching cricket was an unconvincing one. She insisted the next time he went on his travels, he took her along. René tried to put her off. He explained that the shopping opportunities in Canterbury might fall short of her expectations. It was not exactly London. She would be better off going to the department stores in Brussels for her frocks. But this did nothing to convince Georgette. She was going with him and that was that.

René was right. Georgette did not enjoy their wet week in Kent in early September one bit. Canterbury was something of a backwater. It was completely lacking in culture and had no dress shops. The weather made it worse. The sight of twenty-two men sitting around in white trousers and sweaters waiting for the rain to stop seemed to be the ultimate pointless activity. The rain was clearly not going to stop. What could it possibly be about cricket that so fascinated René?​ When she put her mind to it, Georgette could become the incredible sulk. A model of passive aggressive manipulation. René had no defence against this. He capitulated. They returned home early.

September marked the end of the cricket season, so to keep his enthusiasm for the game alive over the winter months, René embarked on a series of surreal cricket paintings. He felt these would help to promote the game in Belgium and who knows, perhaps even France. He used all of his signature themes, cricketers in bowler hats, cricketers with green apple faces, cricketers with bowler hats and green apple faces. Cricketers with fluffy clouds as faces. A picture of a cricket bat with the title, Ceçi n’est pas Une Batte. Sadly, few of these paintings have survived. The ones that have are in a private collection belonging to the reclusive Sebastian Bose-Harrington at Harrington Hall, where the public cannot view them. These were originally a gift to the less reclusive Colin Bose-Harrington, a senior Kent Cricket Club board member in the days leading up to World War 2.

With the outbreak of war, cricket in England came to an abrupt halt. Even had it continued, the Nazi occupation of Belgium would have made it difficult for René to travel. His last cricket painting is believed to have been completed in early September 1939, just days before Belgium fell. The Nazi occupying force considered his work to be degenerate art and destroyed this one along with many others.

It is not clear why René did not resume his passion for cricket after the war, but artists are restless souls. Change for them is a driving force. This versatility, in turn, adds kudos to their work. If, for instance, Picasso had had just one period, he would surely not have stood the test of time. We would no longer be talking about him in such elevated terms today. Similarly, through Magritte’s ability to re-invent himself, his paintings have increased in value logarithmically over the years. His Le Principe du Plaisir recently sold for 27 million dollars in New York. Because of their rarity, the six surviving cricket paintings in the Bose-Harrington collection might expect a similar return should they ever come onto the market. In the meantime, be comforted that the great Belgian painter was once a big fan of English cricket.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

666 – The Number of the Bus

666new

666 – The Number of the Bus by Chris Green

Mr Saxx who taught us Maths in Year 11 was obsessed with probability. In his classes, we were required to calculate the probability of many unlikely scenarios. Based on historical performance and the profile of those players currently available for selection, what was the probability that Chamberlain House would win the Fives trophy this year, he might ask? What were the chances that Jarvis Vest would beat Dish Price in the Upper School Middleweight Boxing Final? Would Bogey Yates win Bully of the Year again, or would it go to Marty Wheeler? Mr Saxx even started up a class bookmakers so that we could practice calculating odds and understand how to be successful in beating them. Each day we had to read The Sporting Life to learn the ins and outs of bookmaker’s odds. I won a tidy sum of money when Bucket of Rum won a Handicap Chase at Fontwell Park at 66-1. This was enough to spark my interest in Maths. I came top of the class that year. Sadly, Mr Saxx was struck off for malpractice, but I was on my way.

Many people see chance and probability as slippery customers, hard to pin down. To make progress here, you need to understand a little about how they operate. Let’s look at probability. How many people would you imagine it would need to be in a room before there was a 50/50 chance that two of them would share the same birthday? You might think at least 50 people would be necessary. After all, there are 365 days in a year. There are a lot of possibilities. But the answer is just 23. It’s the 50/50 element of the question that catches you out. This is possibly why many people are afraid of mathematics and steer clear of numbers. Numbers, it is true, can be treacherous.

A car travels a distance of 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. How fast would the car have to travel the same 60-mile distance home to average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip? Most people say 90 miles per hour, not realising it is a trick question. The first leg of the trip covers 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. So, this means the car travelled for two hours (60/30). For the car to average 60 miles per hour over 120 miles, it would have to travel for exactly two hours (120/60). Since the car has already travelled for two hours, it can’t average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip. It is important to read the question carefully and not rush into coming to a conclusion.

With a basic understanding of mathematics, I learned to avoid sucker bets like the lottery and scratch-cards. These were a complete con. A large proportion of the pot was creamed off to give to worthy causes. Not good at all for the punter. Maths also enabled me to quickly calculate the odds of my hand winning in any given situation when playing poker. While I may have missed out on the excitement of bluffing with a pair of jacks, this was more than compensated for by a fatter wallet at the end of the night. But where was the fun in being risk-averse? What on earth was the point of having a fondness for numbers and a skill with them without looking for ways to beat the odds? Surely, life without taking chances was no life at all.

I was leaving the casino one evening when, to my surprise, I bumped into Mr Saxx. He was getting out of a shiny silver Bentley. I hadn’t seen him since he was dismissed from my school, several years previously.

Hello, Mr Saxx,’ I said. ‘Nice motor.’

Ah, Davy, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘You’ve just come from The Flamingo, have you?’

I told him I had.

How did you get on?’ he asked. ‘Not too well, I hope.’

Why’s that, Mr Saxx?’ I asked.

It’s my casino, Davy,’ he said. ‘It’s one of a chain that I own.’

You’re not teaching Maths any more then, Mr Saxx.’

Charles! Call me Charles!’ he said. ‘No, Davy. Those days are in the past. You like my new car then. Better than the old Mazda I used to drive, isn’t it?’

I had heard of high-yield investment schemes, of course. They were basically Ponzi schemes. Initially, the operator pays high returns to attract investors and entice current investors to invest more money and in turn, new investors. When new investors join, a cascade effect begins. The operator pays a return to initial investors from the investments of the new participants, rather than from genuine profits. I was surprised when Charles Saxx suggested I might like to manage such a venture for him.

It’s all right, lad,’ he said. ‘You won’t need to put a penny in. I’m offering you the opportunity because I recall how good you were with numbers back when I used to teach you. I still remember the conversation we had in class about Graham’s number, the biggest number ever used in maths, a number so big that even if each digit were written in the tiniest writing possible, it would still be too big to fit in the observable universe. Way bigger than a googolplex, I remember you pointing out.’

At first, I was wary. I had grown up in a world where the common-sense view was that if something seemed to be too good to be true, it probably was too good to be true. But I quickly discovered this was no longer the case. Now everyone seemed to believe they could get something for nothing. With the carrot of easy money dangled before them, it was remarkable how gullible people could be. Even when we called one of the investment opportunities Scammer, they still lapped it up. And it wasn’t just the punters. This one got a recommendation on YourMoney.com. Their advisor, Dudley Bills described the initiative as the perfect place for your nest-egg.

Could it be that people simply didn’t understand the basics of arithmetic, I wondered? Without inspiring teachers like Mr Saxx, had Maths in their schools been so dull that they could not recognise sleight of hand? That because of their lack of insight into how numbers worked, they were always destined to be victims of their ignorance? It was certainly a possibility, but not one that I would lose sleep over. When you are rich, you never have to take responsibility for your actions. Others with a lesser understanding of figures will always be there to carry the can for your misrepresentation when the time comes. So, exit strategies for this scheme and others like it were merely a formality.

Yet it was not plain sailing. Like many others, I had been led to believe that money could buy you happiness. If you were wealthy, your life would be easy. You would have infinite leisure time. You would be the picture of health. You would have beautiful women falling at your feet. As it turned out, not all of these were true. Certainly, money could act as a women magnet, but what was often overlooked was that the women wealth attracted were likely to have their own agenda. In a word, they tended to be gold-diggers. I discovered this to my cost. My leisure time disappeared. Life was anything but easy. And each time the inevitable acrimonious break-up occurred, my assets were halved. As a result, my health deteriorated. I should have learned when Rachel took me for a pretty penny, but I didn’t. Charmain was charming and Desirée desirable, but both had the same idea. They were not interested in happy families, they both wanted money. That’s what they wanted. My money. And now the same thing was happening with Sarah.

I decided to seek Charles Saxx’s advice. I had from time to time read about his successes in the paper. Hardly a week went by without the launch of some new venture. Charles was clearly loaded and yet he seemed to manage to keep his boat afloat. How had he avoided the gold-diggers? What was his secret? Although I hadn’t seen Charles for a year or two, I dug out the number he had given me and called him. He seemed pleased to hear from me. It had been too long, he said, and he invited me round for canapés. I found his large new house, Robles Altos, a mile or so along a steep, private road leading to the common. His new McLaren was parked on the drive. I pressed the button on the entry phone on the iron gates and he let me through.

I did not think it was appropriate to come right out with my problem. This was something that needed to be slowly worked into the broader conversation. I allowed Charles to tell me a little about his background. He told me he grew up in the west country. He was an only child and had had few friends. He said he had always been in awe of his cousin, Roy.

Roy had six siblings and lots of friends, he said. Not only that, but Roy also had vision. He was an innovator. I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with a USB frog, an invisible kettle, or a luminous badger. Or a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog.’

I knew I had heard the name Saxx somewhere else,’ I said. ‘So, Roy, the inventor of the inflatable Buddha and the bouncing tortoise is your cousin.’

From an early age, Roy was always creative,’ he said. ‘I realised I could not compete. The best I could come up with was a digital mojo.’

What on earth was a digital mojo? I began to wonder if perhaps all the Saxx family were oddballs. Might Trevor Saxx, the presenter of Underwater Football on The Marine Channel also be related? However, kookiness didn’t seem to have been a significant handicap to the Saxx’s success.

Not being able to compete with Roy was what drew me to mathematics,’ Charles continued. I needed something I could rely on. I did well at Maths at school so naturally, I went for Maths at university and came out with a First. Even the notoriously difficult Numerology module presented no challenge. My degree should have opened up opportunities right away,’ he continued. ‘But I guess I was a bit lazy. I saw the post at the school advertised and thought I’d give it a go. I could have plodded along, teaching calculus to spotty fifteen-year-olds, but I thought I could put my own stamp on it. Make it more interesting. Then as you know, I was dismissed. This was what spurred me into action. I realised that everything in this material world revolved around numbers. Understanding numbers gave me a huge advantage over others. So I thought, why not go for it?

You’ve certainly done very well for yourself since you ….. moved on, Charles,’ I said. ‘I wish I could say the same. But each time I think I’ve got it made, it seems to get taken away again.’

What do you mean?’ he said.

In a word, women,’ I said ‘Either I’m a poor judge of character or they spot that I am rich and home in on me with one thing in mind. To exploit my vulnerability and make themselves a quick buck. In quick succession, Rachel, Charmain and Desirée all fleeced me. When the time came, they all came up with up fearsome matrimonial solicitors. And now Sarah is doing the same, and we are not even married. When my solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed heard we were up against Mr Glock of Stipe, Stipe and Juttner, he told me we might as well throw in the towel. We stood no chance of getting a result.’

Do you think you maybe wear your heart on your sleeve, Davy?’ he said.

I had to acknowledge Charles had a point. Once I became attracted to someone, I tended to dive straight in. I may have even proposed to Desirée on the first night.

You think I play my cards too early, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Would it be better if I were to apply poker tactics?’

Exactly,’ he said. ‘Or the same attitude you had with regard to our investment scams. Take no prisoners. Now, look! What’s done is done but you must get a more ruthless legal representative this time around. Don’t go for a regular divorce solicitor. What you need is a different approach. Nolan Rocco is good. He will be more than a match for this Mr Glock. He will surprise you, that’s for sure.

Nolan Rocco, it turned out, was a pseudonym for the speculative fiction writer, Phillip C. Dark. Phillip spotted straight away what was required. He didn’t even need to face Mr Glock. He had a novel solution. He was going to get rid of him completely, along with Rachel, Charmain, Desirée and Sarah. To do this, he would use a mathematical sleight of hand. Numbers, he said, were the key. Naturally, this met with my approval.

I was 36 years old. So Phillip C. Dark planned to rewrite my story by adding 1 to 36, halving the high number to get the number of pairs, 18, then multiplying 37 by 18. This, as I knew it would, came to the magic number, 666. He then simply deleted 666 words from my biography. This took the story back to exit strategies for my investment scams being a formality. I was once again in a good position. From here, I could move on to better things. No need to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part or any of the other commitments that came with getting one’s rocks off. These were optional extras and ones I would not be signing up for.

Paul Gauguin trailblazed the idea of leaving his old life behind and starting afresh on a tropical island. In search of meaning in my own life, I made the decision to follow in his footsteps. I needed a new direction. Having been a stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin too had a numbers background. There, alas, the similarities ended. Art was something I had little talent for. But to let this get in the way would be defeatist? After all, I had money to support me and I had plenty of time to learn how to paint.

I headed for the volcanic island of La Gomera, the least populous of the Canary Islands. La Gomera was Columbus’s last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships. He stopped here for a month to replenish his crew’s food and water supplies. Since then, little of any note had happened on the island. La Gomera was Trip Advisor’s idea of a quiet place. It was described as the perfect place to look at the night sky. There were usually clear skies and little light pollution. It seemed like an ideal spot to take stock and regroup.

I had not been on the island very long when walking though San Sebastian de la Gomera, among the brightly coloured shopfronts, I came across a darkened single-storey building, set back a little from the others. It was painted black with thick blinds drawn. Above it was a dark display board with 666 written in large white Gothic numerals. No letters, just the number 666. Not exactly what you would expect to find among the market stalls, cheese shops and tapas bars. 666 is, of course, the magic sum of the first 36 digits, the sum if you like of the numbers on a roulette wheel. Was this then a gambling den? Or something more sinister? 666 was also the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, the so-called Devil’s Number. Although 666 appeared to be closed, it seemed reasonable to assume something iniquitous took place here.

I had rented a house close to the town and in the short time I had been resident, I had got to know one or two of the locals. None of them seemed to have any idea what went on at 666. It never seemed to be open, they said. Perhaps it was used to store contraband. Perhaps something of a maritime nature. It would be closed for months on end while ships were at sea. Pablo, however, who was teaching me how to paint landscapes, was sure there must be a Satanic connection.

It’s all too easy to jump to Satanic conclusions,’ I said. Was this an attempt to get him to elaborate or was I trying to be clever?Some people take the diabolic associations of 666 so seriously that they avoid anything related to the digits 6-6-6. This is known as hexakosioihexekontahexophobia. I think I’ve got that right. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? 666 has zillions of references in popular culture, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Phantom of the Opera, Escape from LA, to name but a few. But look, Pablo! The number 666 has other associations too. Apart from being the number of the Beast, it is the sum total of the numbers 1 to 36, which is known in mathematics as a triangular number. In Roman numerals, it is DCLXVI, all the numeric symbols in decreasing order. And there are any number of biblical connections. And what about the trigonometry of the Golden Mean? It is an all-round special number. And 666 is the number of the bus to Oxborough where I used to live.’

But, my friend, none of these would explain the dead goats that have been found around here,’ he said. ‘Miguel from the panadería tells me he has seen them at night in their dark cloaks.’

Did I really want to think about dead goats? I had come to La Gomera for a quiet life and to learn to paint. I couldn’t recall seeing dead goats in any of Gauguin’s pictures. 666 could wait.

Anyway, Pablo, what do you think of this painting I’ve done of the hills over the back?’ I said to change the subject. ‘Perhaps you could tell me a little more about chiaroscuro.’

I wasn’t expecting Phillip C. Dark to call me, but I was pleased he did. I had no idea how my Canary Island adventure was going to turn out. He had obviously given it some thought, after all, as a writer, this was his job. He told me he had it in hand but I would have to wait and see.

Will it be a happy ending?’ I asked. From what I could remember, some of Phillip’s stories ended happily and some of them didn’t. I estimated the percentages might work out at about 52 – 48, although some of the endings were so enigmatic, it was difficult to tell.

Like I said, you’ll have to wait and see,’ Phillip C. Dark said.

I waited. As I distanced myself from the idea of 666, my painting came on in leaps and bounds. Spring was perfect for capturing the landscapes of La Gomera. I especially relished painting the spectacular sunrises. At first light each day, I would make the effort to be in place to take advantage of the natural beauty. I got up early as usual on June 6th and found my spot. At 6 a.m. the sun was just coming up when I noticed a group of hooded figures in dark cloaks coming over the crest of the hill. They were heading my way. They were carrying lighted wooden torches. They appeared to be chanting something in low voices. Were they returning from some nefarious night-time activity or were they just setting out? While I was debating which way I should run, I woke up. To my alarm, I was back in England. At home in Crowley Crescent in Oxborough. At the breakfast table with Sarah. She was angry about something I had done. Some unforgivable transgression. She had had enough, she said, she was leaving me. I had better think about getting myself a good solicitor. Even though we hadn’t been together long, were not married and her name was not on the deeds, Mr Glock had told her she ought to be looking to come away with at least half of everything.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Le Dernier Mot

lederniermot2

Le Dernier Mot by Chris Green

As I walk along the coastal path early on a sunny Sunday morning, a light breeze blows from the south-west and the tide rolls gently in. There is no-one about at this hour. I take in the tranquillity. Having recently completed a story, I am hoping to draw inspiration for a new one. From past experience, these are perfect conditions to get the creative juices flowing. A sentence here, a sentence there, a character, a phrase, or just the germ of an idea. Many of my short stories have started this way. Not just material that reflect the current location and circumstances either. There is no telling what form the inspiration will take. Postcards from the Moon, De Chirico Shadows, Jazz, Beware of the God, and Sunday Girl, to name but a few, have come to me in this way on my coastal walks. A diverse selection of work. To remember the flashes of inspiration from my walks, I now make voice recordings on my phone.

Historically, many famous writers from Dickens and Wordsworth to Joyce and Hemingway took solitary walks to get inspiration for their work, although of course these luminaries of yesteryear either had to stop and write their ideas down or rely on memory. Graham Greene went for walks in towns and cities all over the world to get his background material. J. K. Rowling likens walking to dreaming, drawing a parallel between the REM dream state and the meditative-like state attained by exercise. Her walks around Edinburgh are legendary and have inspired many of the clever plot twists in her books.

But sadly today, mile after mile of the beautiful coastline brings nothing of interest. I seem to be going over and over old ground. I have experienced writer’s block before and have come through it. So, when I stop for a cup of tea and a bun at the beach cafe which is just opening for the day, I do not worry too much about the lack of progress. Inspiration is something that happens naturally. Creativity is not a process you can force. It has no sense of time. If you open yourself to the universe, they say, you will receive its bounty. It is a little like tuning in to the radio. The ideas are out there. You just have to be receptive to them. This has always worked for me up until now. Something will probably come floating in as I retrace my steps along the coast path later, but if it does not, there is always tomorrow.

As I make my way back, I take in the lapping sounds of the waves breaking gently on the shingle beach. Apart from the odd dog walker, the coastal path is still deserted. People seem to get up later on a Sunday. At the water’s edge, a parcel of oystercatchers keeps an eye on the progress of the tide. Perhaps it is about to turn. Are oystercatchers incoming tide feeders or outgoing tide feeders? I can’t remember. On a rocky outcrop up ahead, a cormorant is drying its wings. In heraldry, this pose represents the Christian cross. Scandinavians consider cormorants to be a good omen. Should I too see this as a sign? Somewhere far off, I hear the sounds of children playing and the echo of a dog barking. A procession of cumulus clouds paints a pleasing pattern against the azure sky. A brightly coloured boat criss-crosses the horizon as if posing for a child’s painting. It is an idyllic setting, a perfect stretch of coastline. Yet still, no inspiration for a story is forthcoming.

Like an apparition, the stranger appears out of nowhere. Suddenly he is there, facing me. He is over six feet tall and has a funereal aspect. He is thin as a rake and the long black coat and stovepipe hat he is wearing make him seem even taller. He has piercing blue eyes, a long white beard and a deathly pallor. His appearance would be startling anywhere, but here on a sunny morning on the Devon coast, this is certainly the case. I am more than startled. I am terrified.

You will not find it,’ he says.

Nervously, I ask the wraithlike stranger what he means.

You are looking for a story,’ he says. ‘But I’m afraid you are going to be disappointed.’

What are you talking about?’ I say.

There are no more stories,’ he says.

Of course there are,’ I say. ‘There will always be more stories.’

You are wrong, my friend,’ he says. ‘There were only ever a finite number of stories and the last one has gone. There will not be any more.’

How can there only be a finite number of stories?’ I say, defiantly. ‘There are stories everywhere. You and I meeting here today could be a story. It would be quite a dramatic story. What do you say to that?’

I’m afraid this has already been a story,’ he says. ‘It has been a story many times over.’

Do you then mean there will be no new stories in the philosophical sense?’ I ask. ‘As in there are only seven basic plots. Everything ever written falls into one or other of these.’

That is not what I mean,’ he says. ‘Believe me! There are no more stories, period. You will not find another story.’

From his body language, it looks as if he feels our business is done. But I can’t leave it there. I tell him I want more details.

As I said, there were only ever a finite number of stories,’ he says. ‘For a while, it looked as if the stock might last longer, but there has been a run on them lately. There are simply too many writers. Armand Ziegler, a Swiss magical realism author, who you’ve almost certainly never heard of, took the last one yesterday with his story, Le Dernier Mot. The Last Word. That’s it, my friend. There is nothing more to say.’

There must be more stories,’ I say. They can’t have all ……………..

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


‘Sunsets on Mars are blue,’ says the man’s voice coming from behind her. It is too loud for her to ignore.

Suzy turns around to see a stranger in a badly creased seersucker suit has sat down at the next table. He is alone. Is he talking to her or talking to himself, she wonders? Perhaps he is practising lines for a play. The Apollo is just down the road and he has that theatrical air about him. Dishevelled hair. Lined face. Goatee beard. Wild eyes. Probably best to ignore him. But, what an odd thing to say, out of the blue!

Iguanas have three eyes,’ he says. He definitely seems to be addressing her. He is staring right at her. Intently. Might he be coming on to her? If he is, she doesn’t think much of his chat up lines. Or his style. He is looking her up and down, leeringly. She had thought this morning when she got up that wearing her red dress might lift her spirits. She had been feeling a bit low. With Lev gone, everything seemed to be getting on top of her. But in hindsight, perhaps the dress was a mistake. It makes her stand out too much at this time of the morning. Luigi’s Café is not a dressing up kind of place. Supermarket shoppers mainly. And it seems, the odd weirdo.

She looks around for a waitress to ask for the bill for her Profiterole and Macchiato but they have all temporarily disappeared. She takes out her phone and pretends to make a call hoping this will deter the stranger. It doesn’t.

The brain is composed of 60% fat,’ he says. ‘Did you know that?’

He’s just plain creepy, she concludes. Looney Tunes. A basket-case. She should leave. There is still no sign of a waitress and the other customers all appear to be engaged in conversations. She pushes a ten-pound note under her plate, gathers up her bags and makes a hasty exit.

On the street, she is relieved to discover the creep has not followed her. Just the other day, her friend Yvonne told her she had had a stalker. This had all started off with someone leering at her in Starbucks when she was on her own. He began to follow her everywhere and she had to bring in the police.

Suzy is about to get into her Ssangyong when her phone rings. She does not recognise the number. She decides to answer it, anyway. Kurt, her eldest was talking about getting a new phone.

Bluetooth was named after King Harald Bluetooth who united Denmark and Norway in the tenth century,’ says the now familiar voice. Bluetooth? Is this how the creep from the café has obtained her number? A bit tecky but how else would he know it?

I understand you feel intimidated,’ Holly at the hairdressers says. ‘But really, all you have to do is steer clear of Luigi’s and not answer the phone.’

I’ve already blocked the number,’ Suzy says.

It’s not as if he knows where you live, is it?’ Holly says.

I hope not,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s not something you could find out from a mobile phone number, is it, Hol?’

No. He was just some geek trying to be clever,’ Holly says. ‘You get them all the time.’

‘I guess you’re right,’ Suzy says. ‘He was talking nonsense.’

It is Friday night. Kurt and Axel are out with their mates taking drugs or two-timing their girlfriends or whatever teenage lads get up to these days. Either way, they are likely to be out all night. Suzy is alone in the house. At times like this, she wishes Lev had not gone off like he did. It has been nearly a month now but she cannot get used to being alone. At the time, she felt she wanted him out of her life but now she is not so sure. She is all over the place. It only takes the slightest thing to upset her. Perhaps they should have given it another try. Her friends keep telling her she should move on but in the meantime, she is finding it can be very lonely, especially as all of them are in relationships. She decides there’s nothing really for it but to mix a gin and tonic and see what’s on TV. On a Friday night! How sad is that!

She sips her drink and presses the on-button on the remote. Without warning, his face fills the screen. This is impossible. Yet, there’s no mistaking him. The dishevelled mop of hair. The goatee beard. The Keith Richards creases that line his face. The intense stare. This is the creepy man from the café. In high definition and larger than life on her 56 inch TV. How can this be happening?

A tarantula can live without food for more than two years,’ he says. To add to her disorientation and distress, the freak is coming out with more surreal rubbish too. What kind of game is this? What can it all mean? What does he want?

She tries changing channels but to her horror, he is still there staring straight into the camera and, by extension, directly at her.

Earth has travelled five thousand miles in the last five minutes, Suzy’ he says.

He is even addressing her by name now.

She tries random buttons. He stays on the screen, leering menacingly at her.

There are too many black holes to count,’ he sneers.

Panicked, Suzy pulls out the plug. He is gone. She pours herself another drink. No tonic this time.

Andy Mann, the aerial installation technician who used to work with Lev assures her what she is describing is impossible. But as she seems distraught and he happens to be in the area, he says he will call around and take a look.

Take me through it,’ he says. ‘Show me exactly what you did.’

Suzy is a little reluctant, in fact, she is bricking it as she plugs the TV back in. She stands back and presses the button on the remote. BBC1 comes on as you would normally expect. The One Show. She changes the channel over and over. Each number brings up the correct station showing its normal Friday night fare.

Suzy does not know what to feel, vulnerable, confused, relieved, embarrassed.

Now that you’re here, Andy, why don’t you stop for a drink?’ she says.

SATURDAY

Thank you for staying over, Andy,’ Suzy says. ‘That was good of you.’

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

And you’re sure Amy won’t have wondered where you were.’

No. Amy’s visiting her mother. Anyway, I could always say my van broke down or something. It’s worked before.’

You mean I’m not the first. You are bad, Andy.’

The main thing is, do you feel better? You were in a bit of a state when I arrived.’

I do, Andy. Much better. Perhaps you could make me feel …… better again before you go.’

What about Kurt and Axel? Won’t they be back soon?’

You must be joking. It’s Saturday. Wherever they’ve been or wherever they are now, they won’t be up this early.’

You’re having trouble with this one, aren’t you, Phil,’ Patti says.

It’s ground to a halt the last couple of days,’ I say. ‘And I don’t know where to take it. The Philip C. Dark brand relies upon shock and surprise and this one has run out of steam.’

You could introduce a talking cat,’ Patti says. ‘That would move the story forward.’

Funnily enough, I was thinking of a talking cat,’ I say. They are always a good stand-by. I could call it Dave. Dave’s a good name for a cat, don’t you think?’

SUNDAY

Dave has been out all night. His people have left him and gone away on holiday. The lad who is supposed to be letting him and out and feeding him his pouches of Gourmet chunks has not been since Friday afternoon. Young people are so unreliable at weekends. Not the best of nights to be out either as it has been pouring with rain and he has had to sleep in a leaky old shed. It is now light and thankfully the rain has stopped. Dave sees an opportunity of some warmth and who knows, perhaps even a tasty breakfast from the lady at number 42, the one whose husband has left her. Nice smells are coming from her kitchen.

Suzy is unnerved by the scratching sound at the door. Not being accustomed to talking cats, she is freaked out when the ginger and white tom asks her if he can come in and snuggle up by the radiator to get warm.

I’m quite partial to bacon too if you have a spare rasher or two,’ Dave says. ‘And perhaps a sausage.’

Perhaps, in the wake of her recent experiences, she is becoming de-sensitised to strangeness. Rather than slip once more into panic mode, she finds herself quietly amused by the idea of a chatty moggy.

I’ve not seen you around here before,’ she says. ‘What’s your name?’

I’m Dave,’ Dave says. ‘Would you like to talk about magic carpets?’

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

I thought magic carpets would make a change,’ Dave says. ‘All my people want to talk about are cabbages and kings.’

OK,’ Suzy says. ‘Let’s talk about magic carpets.’

Or if you prefer we could talk about Red Sails in the Sunset,’ Dave says. ‘Do you know that song? I could sing it for you.’

I think I might have it somewhere,’

There are thirty nine recorded versions of Red Sails in the Sunset. Did you know that? My favourite is Fats Domino’s’ Have you got that one or did Lev take it with him when he left?’

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

OK. As you probably know, magic carpets originate in the area from Egypt to Iraq known as the Fertile Crescent, which of course is also where domestic cats come from.’

Uh huh.’

Not going well with the talking cat, is it?’ Patti says.

It does need a little work,’ I say. ‘And a title.’

Would you like to read my Richard Brautigan book?’ Patti says. ‘Trout Fishing in America. I think it might help.’

Good title,’ I say. ‘I’m guessing it’s not about trout fishing, right?’

Not completely, no,’ Patti says. ‘It’s a series of sketches of a strange yet strikingly familiar world.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Snow

Snow by Chris Green

It’s getting very cold. I wonder if it’s going to snow,’ the text message reads.

It’s an odd message and I do not recognise the number. But to get into the spirit of things I reply, ‘It’s only August.’

This appears to strike a chord because immediately I get a reply which reads, ‘Meet me in Providence Park by the lake in twenty minutes, the third seat in.’

I am now curious as to what this is about. Perhaps it is someone I know playing a prank. Perhaps not. But whatever it is, there is a sense of intrigue about it. As I am close by and not due to pick Hannah up from the hairdressers for an hour, I make my way along to the park. I approach the lake, trying to make the best use of the trees for cover. I don’t want to walk into some kind of trap. The third bench is the only one that is occupied. Beneath the fedora and dark glasses, the woman sitting there looks as though she might be quite attractive. Surely, there is no need for the overcoat at this time of year though. Curiosity gets the better of me. Throwing caution to the wind, I go across and say hello. She gestures for me to sit alongside her.

I think it is going to snow very soon,’ she says, deadpan, as she slides me a large brown envelope. With this, she gets up and leaves. I call after her, but it seems the lady is not for turning.

This appears to be textbook spy-spoof behaviour. Cloak and dagger stuff. With all the electronic media available, this cannot really be how espionage is carried out in this day and age. And what could it possibly have to do with me? Where would I fit into the clandestine world of the secret service? I’m a heating engineer.

The envelope contains a 12 by 8 black and white photo. A name, Grigoriy Zakharov. An address, 19 Len Deighton Drive. An instruction, use the Glock.

I am perplexed as I have never heard of Grigoriy Zakharov, have no idea where Len Deighton Drive is or even what town it is in, and as far as I can remember I don’t own a Glock, which as I understand it is some kind of handgun. There is not much need for small arms in central heating installation or boiler maintenance. Admittedly, since the downturn in the economy, money is tight and people are struggling to make ends meet. But we have not yet had to resort to such drastic measures to collect our fees.

If it’s not someone having a lark, it must be a case of mistaken identity. It’s easy to get a digit wrong when you are keying in a mobile phone number. I found myself talking to Ed Sheeran once. It turned out Ed didn’t need his Baxi combi-boiler serviced. I expect the woman who contacted me has by now realised she has slipped up. I don’t imagine I will hear any more about the matter. It would be too embarrassing for her to admit her mistake and contact me again. I feel it is sensible not to tell Hannah about the incident though. In case something is awry. I know if I mention it, she will worry. Hannah hates strange.

While I am sitting in the car outside Cutting Edge waiting for Hannah, I decide to change the CD in the car player. The Coldplay one has been in the player for several days. Perhaps we could have Snow Patrol instead. I am one of those old-fashioned people who has not yet embraced the digital revolution of in-car entertainment. For one thing, I have hundreds of CDs at home that I have paid good money for. What would I then do with them?

To my astonishment, in the front of the glove compartment instead of a selection of CDs, I find a gun. I don’t know much about guns. I’m more used to handling pumps and valves, but this matt black Glock pistol looks and feels like the real deal. The odd thing is, it somehow doesn’t seem out of place. It’s a scary idea, but it is almost as if I expected to find it in the glove compartment. My head is reeling with conflicting thoughts. Who, why and how? But speculation is difficult once logic goes out the window. I don’t have time to dwell on these matters. I need to conceal the gun before Hannah gets into the car.

Perhaps it is the sign of a skilled hairdresser, but Hannah’s hair looks exactly the same as when she went in. It never seems to look any different after her appointments. I tell her it looks lovely. I have learned it is always a good idea to compliment a woman emerging from the hairdressers on her coiffure.

Three text messages ping in quick succession on my phone as we are driving along Tambourine Way.

Shall I see who that is?’ Hannah says.

No,’ I say, trying hard not to show signs of panic. ‘I’ll pull in at the supermarket car park. We need a few bits and pieces, don’t we?’

I did the shopping first thing this morning. Don’t you remember?’ she says, giving me a quizzical look.

I come up a few things that weren’t on the list. Things that I know Hannah won’t have thought of. Garibaldi biscuits, Baby Bio, shaving soap, drawing pins, WD40, and Special Brew. The quizzical look morphs into a contemptuous look. I can tell she does not want to be doing this after an arduous hour or so at the hairdressers. If it comes to that, neither do I want to be doing it. There are better ways of spending a Saturday afternoon. But this is a situation that needs careful handling.

While I am getting a shopping bag out of the boot, I check the text messages. To my relief, they are all spam. But while I am looking for a more suitable place to hide the gun, I get an incoming call.

It is nearly September. Is it going to snow?’ the caller says. She does seem to want it to snow.

To pacify her, I tell her that it might still snow.

I do hope so,’ she says. ‘A lot of things depend on it. You won’t be able to ski if it doesn’t snow.’

Before I have the chance to respond, she ends the call.

Hannah says she will pop into the art supplies shop next door while I tackle the supermarket. This gives me breathing space to contemplate my course of action. Should I inform the police? Not such a good idea. While I still have the gun, this could easily backfire. Should I let Hannah in on what is going on? Probably not, if I can avoid it? Especially as I don’t have a clue what it is. At the supermarket checkout, I buy a new Sim card and put this into my phone. If my mobile phone is the perpetrator’s only means of contact, then this should be sufficient. If it is not, then who knows?

Hannah seems cheered by her visit to the art shop. She has several packages.

Let’s go to Mangia e Beve for lunch, Nick,’ she says. ‘Emma in the hairdressers says they do an excellent involtini di melanzane ripieni di uva passa, capperi e noci.’

Sounds complicated,’ I say. ‘What is it?’

Rolled aubergines stuffed with raisins, capers and walnuts,’ she says. ‘But I’m sure they will have some tasty meat dishes too.’

While I am still looking through the menu, the woman from the park comes in and sits down at a nearby table. She seems to have ditched the overcoat but is still wearing her hat and sunglasses. She looks across at me. It is not a happy, smiley look. I feel a chill run down my spine. She keys something into her phone and I receive a text message about the snow clouds forming. I’m not sure how this can be happening. How can she have found out the new number? It should be impossible. I suppose, in my confusion, I may have accidentally put the old Sim back into the phone and disposed of the new one. This is the kind of thing anyone might do when they are under stress. The message is followed by another, saying that unless it snows soon, there will be no tobogganing.

Hannah is busy texting one of her friends so I take the opportunity to google Grigoriy Zakharov. The only two matches it comes up with are a Soviet architect and a commodities trader from Minsk. Perhaps the world of international espionage has changed, but it would be stretching the imagination a little to think that spooks would be interested in this pair. Especially as according to Google, Grigoriy Zakharov the architect died in 1982. I can find no-one with that name closer to home. But, perhaps I ought not to expect there would be. The whole point of secret services is that they are secret. They operate undercover. If he were an agent, whoever Grigoriy Zakharov is would use a code name.

Having delivered her message, without further ceremony, my handler gets up to leave. But there is no reason to suspect that this means she is letting me off the hook. I get the impression she will keep appearing until the deed is done.

That was Rosie Parker from number 42,’ Hannah says. ‘She says there’s been a lot of strange activity outside our house. Men in dark suits and dark glasses getting in and out of black BMWs with tinted windows. She is worried one of them might have a gun. She wonders if we have any idea what might be going on.’

I decide that I have no choice but to come clean. I explain about the text messages concerning snow, the woman in the overcoat and dark glasses, the mysterious Grigoriy Zakharov, and the Glock pistol in the glove compartment.

You fool,’ she says. ‘What have you landed us in? If you had ignored the original message, none of this would be happening.’

We don’t know that,’ I say in my defence. ‘She does seem pretty persistent.’

So, how do you account for it, Nick?’ she says.

I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But it looks like we are in trouble.’

There is a protracted silence while Hannah seethes. I stare at the menu in the vain hope that by avoiding her gaze, the problem might somehow disappear.

I think I may have an idea about what has happened,’ Hannah says, finally.

You do?’ I say, looking up. Is she going to offer me a lifeline?’

Do you remember when we went to see that Tim Burton film at the multiplex?’ she says.

That was months ago,’ I say.

I know, but as we were leaving, you picked up a flyer about the new cold war thriller that the production company were planning to make. Don’t you remember?’

Vaguely,’ I say. ‘It was going to be based on an Ian McEwan novel.’

There was a competition in the flyer, wasn’t there?’ she says. ‘As I remember it, you had to answer questions about spy films, and this gave you the opportunity to become an extra in the film and have dinner out with the stars. It mentioned some of the ones they hoped to cast. Benedict Cumberbatch. Liam Neeson. Emily Blunt. Scarlett Johansson. ……. You didn’t happen to fill it in by any chance, did you?’

I may have,’ I say. ‘Now you come to mention it, I believe I did.’

Well, that explains it,’ she says. ‘You are slow on the uptake, you know, Nick. Don’t you see the connection? Snow. Cold. Cold War thriller. It all adds up. She couldn’t have given you more obvious clues. She’s telling you that you’ve won the competition. I expect they are ready to start shooting the film. This is probably your audition for the part. Perhaps it’s even part of the film.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

‘e’

 

e’ by Chris Green

There is not a lot to do in Builth Wells when the weather is wet. Wales is, of course, famous for its damp climate. But this year was exceptional. April had been a washout, and now May looked like breaking all records. Ifan Griffiths was unsettled by it. With all the changes taking place in the country, the birds returning to nest, and the sap rising, Spring should be the best time of year. Ifan yearned to get out into the Cambrian Mountains which were right on his doorstep. They were his patch. But on the few occasions he had set out this year, not even his expensive North Face waterproofs were up to the task of keeping him dry.

Recently divorced, Ifan lived alone in a traditional lime-wash cottage on the edge of the village. It was a particularly wet night and he could not sleep because of the rain pounding on the roof. At 3 a.m. he found himself watching SyFy, one of the many new channels he was able to turn to for relief since signing up for the Sky Entertainment Extra package. As the low budget film, Syfy was showing progressed, Ifan began to feel there was something naggingly familiar about the plot. The main character in the film, Judson Cleary, was living his life in an iPod shuffle. Days were sequenced randomly after one another. And the actor playing the part stumbled about the screen looking puzzled at each turn of events. A dizzying sense of déjà vu consumed Ifan. His heart began to race.

Had he not had a similar experience two weeks previously, Ifan might have thought nothing more about the sense of familiarity. Sky Cinema Drama had shown a film called King of the Jungle, which seemed to have plundered the depths of Ifan’s unconscious for its source material. As the slow-moving kidnap drama unfolded, each scene had been familiar, and the lion appeared out of nowhere to save the day at exactly the time Ifan was expecting it. He had not seen the film before. This was its first outing on television. He checked his DVD rental account to confirm that he had not rented it and forgotten about it. Shuffle was also not on his list. Perhaps he had read the book. Memory could be an unreliable servant, but he felt he had not read the book.

Ifan came to the gradual realisation that the sense of familiarity of the two films owed itself to one simple fact. He had written the stories on which they were based. When he was not wandering the gentle slopes of the Cambrian Mountains with his binoculars and camera trying to get prize-winning shots of harriers and kites, Ifan spent much of his time writing short stories. He had started writing during a childhood bout of jaundice and had been knocking out stories for over thirty years. He had built up quite a collection, all of them, including the two that seemed to form the basis of the two films, unpublished. He had not tried very hard to get his stories published. It is fair to say he had not tried at all. He just enjoyed writing. Writing for him was almost an involuntary process. The wide-open spaces of mid-Wales fired his imagination. When he was out walking, he found himself inundated with ideas, and on returning home needed somewhere to deposit them. He frequently ended up working on several stories at once, cutting and pasting from one document to another. He loved the way words danced on the page, the way the sentences coupled and uncoupled. Hours passed without him realising it.

Ifan’s solitary pastimes were one of the reasons that Cerys had left. She felt that he did not pay her enough attention. She told him he was entirely self-obsessed. He was either up in the hills or away with the fairies. Ifan’s argument that if she didn’t spend so much time quilting and embroidering, then he would not spend so much time rambling and writing, was a weak one. She countered easily with, he never asked about her day or offered to take her out to dinner. They had not been on a proper holiday for three years and, except for a day trip to Oswestry, had never been outside Wales. Last year he had forgotten her birthday This was the final straw. She upped and left. Ifan was heartbroken. They had been together for five years.

From time to time Ifan had shared his stories with friends. They usually put them aside to read at a later date but never seemed to get round to it. Most of those in the village, those he might have a pint with in the local pub for instance, like Dafydd, Iolo and Hywel did not share his literary interests. So Ifan attended a monthly book club in Llandrindod Wells. Here he was sometimes persuaded to read a story to the group. Occasionally he photocopied one to hand out. While they gave him encouragement, Eiffon or Tegwen did not give the impression that they understood what he was writing about. Bryn felt the story about the Owlman was too long, and Nerys wondered if the story about the jungle in Cornwall might have ended differently. Dewi questioned whether drawing attention to postmodern theory was a legitimate device in short fiction.

Ifan revisited the drafts of the two television stories, both of which he had written around ten years ago. He re-read them carefully. He was prepared to admit that he had a tendency towards paranoia. His former therapist, Aura, had told him so. Although the two films had not followed the plots word for word, or scene for scene, there were too many similarities for it to be put down to coincidence. Even supposing that the idea of the days of the year playing out like a music shuffle lacked exclusivity, the explanation that time is not linear being the accidental result of a malfunctioning video installation by a Belgian nu-surrealist, did not seem the kind of idea that would be doing the rounds. This being the case, how would the film-makers have got hold of the stories? He had not sent them to any publishers. His colleagues in the book club would be aware of the penalties for plagiarism. He considered each of the group in turn but concluded they were beyond suspicion. Eiffon and Tegwen were among the last of life’s innocents, Bryn had his own literary ambitions, Nerys and Dewi only came along to the book club for company. He had not had much to do with Huw, Mfanwy or Giancarlo, and Rhodri Llewelyn didn’t speak English at all.

Ifan found out on the Internet that the screenplays for both King of the Jungle and Shuffle had been written by Corrina Herzog. Surely a pseudonym. There was no bio for Corrina on Wikipedia. Her name was notably absent on web searches. There was not even a Corrina Herzog on Facebook. Perhaps whoever it was had written these two screenplays and changed their name again. He tried different spellings for her but still turned up nothing. This brought his research to a shuddering halt.

One night after a few pints of Double Dragon, Ifan confided in Dafydd.

You’re beginning to sound like Jones the Dark Side, mind you, Dafydd said. ‘He thinks they’re tapping his phone and that Jones the Post is following him.’

I’ll give my head for breaking if I’m not right. Those are my stories, see,’ Ifan said. ‘Someone must have hacked into my computer.’

You must have emailed them to somebody. What about that girl you met at university?’

You mean Andrea?’

Yes. Andrea. You were hoping to light a fire in her hearth.’

It was all the dream of a witch according to her will.’

What?,’ said Dafyd.

Despite the leeks growing in your window box, you’re not very Welsh, are you Dafydd?’ Ifan said. ‘Wishful thinking it is. I don’t think I stood a chance.’

Ifan had met Andrea Evans at university in Aberystwyth. He was there as a mature student on a Joint Honours path of Countryside Planning and English. Andrea was on a Media Studies course and they had been on a Modern and Postmodern module together. They seemed to get along and had gone to see The Smashing Pumpkins together in Swansea. For a while, Ifan had thought that given time they might even become an item. They did not, and after University they lost touch but caught up years later on Facebook. Andrea was by then a creative with an up and coming company in London. Ifan asked her if she would like to read some of his stories and Andrea gave him her email address. Ifan sent her pdfs of some of his stories, and later when Andrea said she hadn’t received them, sent them again. Weeks passed and Ifan heard nothing from Andrea. He resigned himself to the possibility that Andrea hadn’t really wanted to read his stories but was just being polite, as so many others had been before her. Short stories were out of favour. They were not the books that you saw advertised on Amazon. Was it possible that Andrea had sold on his stories?

Since a recent bout of paranoia, Ifan’s Facebook privacy level was set to Only Me, the highest level. This meant he was the only one who could see his posts, not that there had been any. He opened up the program and changed the settings and saw that Andrea Evans was still a friend. He posted a private message, asking her how she was, hoping that she would remember him and perhaps comment on the stories he had emailed her.

I’m good,’ she replied. ‘How are you? Never did receive your stories by the way.’

Ifan responded saying that he had sent them to her email address – twice.

At this point, it occurred to Andrea that he had probably sent them to an incorrect email address. She replied saying that they should have been sent to andreaeevans@hotmail.com

Perhaps someone is this very moment getting a big fat royalty cheque from their publication.’ she joked.

Oh bugger!’ thought Ifan. He had missed the central ‘e’. ‘E’ for Elizabeth perhaps.

He remembered thinking at the time that andreaevans@hotmail.com was a very convenient address, unless she had been one of the first to register for email. Ifan’s address was ifangriffiths193@btinternet.com You wouldn’t imagine Ifan was a common name, but there must have been at least 192 other Ifan Griffiths signed up for email with his provider before him.

The email Ifan sent to the original recipient demanding an explanation for the blatant plagiarism of his work was returned undelivered. Andrea Evans’s Hotmail account was closed.

It has however stopped raining in Mid-Wales.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Waterfalls

waterfalls2

Waterfalls by Chris Green

1:

Through thick and thin, Barney Cisco has followed Bristol City’s fortunes, travelling up and down the country in all winds and weathers to watch his team play. He has been able to finance his fanatical support through a lucrative stall at Compton Regis market selling cheap foreign mattresses at inflated prices. While Bristol City, or the Robins as they are known, might not have the glamour of Manchester United or Chelsea, the club has occasionally excelled. Although he was just a lad, Barney remembers the heady days in the late seventies when City enjoyed top flight football and although they lingered near the foot of the table the entire time, he became hooked by the excitement of their annual relegation battle.

Bristol City’s purple patch was in bitter contrast to what was to follow. In 1982 they became the first club to suffer three consecutive relegations, ending up in what was then Division 4. Remarkably, the young Barney remained undeterred. He watched City yo-yo up and down the divisions over the decades without missing a single match, not even the Third Round FA Cup tie against Carlisle that was abandoned after ten minutes when the north-west suffered the worst blizzard in its history.

As soon as he was old enough, Barney took his son, Sonny to matches with him, that is until Sonny got caught in possession of a thousand ecstasy tablets and was sentenced to three years at Exeter Crown Court. Sonny claimed he was looking after the drugs for a friend, but Judge Girley in his summing up suggested that this may have been his imaginary friend, Pluto.

Barney was shocked by Sonny’s arrest and imprisonment. In his self-absorption, he had failed to notice Sonny’s disappearances after Saturday matches or his recurrent mood swings. Rather than look a little deeper into the possible causes of his downfall, he blamed Sonny’s waywardness on Dolores. Dolores had walked out on them when Sonny was just seven, acknowledged by child psychologists to be a key age in a boy’s development. She went off to live with Shaun O’Shea, a scaffolder from Skibareen. She said she hated football. She said that Shaun was a sensitive man who played the harp. Drank the Harp, more like, Barney told her. Still, Dolores would find out about Shaun’s drink problem and come running back, tail between her legs. Dolores didn’t. Barney was left to look after Sonny’s welfare. He never forgave Dolores.

With Sonny now incarcerated, Barney felt bereft.

Darren Spurlock, a friend of his, told him about Lorelei Angel, a life coach that had helped him to turn his life around.

‘She will take you from where you are to where you want to be,’ he said, over a pint or two at the Dog and Duck one Sunday lunchtime. ‘She worked on my self-confidence and fitted me out with the tools to secure a pizza delivery franchise. Although I had not realised it before, running a pizza delivery operation was something that I had secretly always wanted to do.’

Darren managed to persuade Barney to go along to Lorelei for a consultation.

Barney spent a while nervously explaining to Lorelei how he felt. To his surprise, he found that she actually listened to what he was saying and after the first few minutes, he found it easy to open up to her. He told her how he had put his life on hold to bring little Sonny up. How he had worked every day, except for match days, to put a roof over Sonny’s head with not a word of encouragement from Dolores. How heartbroken he had been when Sonny was sentenced. He had nearly cried outside the court. How he realised that it was now time to put his life in order. Start taking care of himself.

‘You need to make some changes in your life in order to bring about the transformation,’ Lorelei told him.

‘I suppose I could start selling cheap foreign settees at the market along with the mattresses, and perhaps bucket chairs and maybe some rugs’ said Barney.

‘Well, that would be a start,’ said Lorelei. ‘But it’s not what you’d call a big change, is it, Barney? You may find you need to branch out a little more than that. OK. Let’s leave the career change for now. You might want to look into changing some of your habits. What do you do at weekends?’

‘I go to watch the Robins play,’ Barney said. Had she not been listening? ‘That’s Bristol City.’

‘Bristol City. That’s a football team, isn’t it?’ Perhaps she had been listening after all.

‘That’s right.’

‘And you go every weekend?’

‘Well, yes, every weekend from August to May.’

‘There you go then. There’s are unlimited opportunities for some change there.’

‘Oh, I think I see what you are getting at,’ Barney might have been tempted to say. ‘You mean sometimes I could go to watch Bristol Rovers, instead? That would be funny. That would make it a pair of Bristols. Get it! Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. Pair of Bristols.’

‘I can see why your wife left you,’ Lorelei might have said, head in hands. ‘You might want to work a little on your misogyny too. And your sexist humour.’

But such a final exchange did not take place. That Barney showed a new found restraint was testament both to Lorelei’s motivational skills and to his willingness to learn. The session with Lorelei had brought home to him how predictable and unfulfilling his life was. He deserved better. He was tired of playing the victim. If he was to feel fulfilled, he recognised that he needed to change. He made the decision there and then not to renew his season ticket. After all, the Robins had only just seen off relegation – yet again, finishing eighteenth in the table. This was hardly something to get excited about. They would probably do just as badly next year. Into the bargain, season tickets prices were set to rise. He needed to get things in perspective. There had to be better ways to spend his weekends. Perhaps he could go to country fairs or take up yoga. There again, perhaps not. But he would find something that worked for him. What about Art? He could go and visit some galleries or try his hand at painting.

2:

Stacey Jayne has long wanted to be an artist. In such spare moments as family life has allowed, she has got her brushes out and painted tentative watercolours. She has concentrated on subjects around the house and in the garden, still lifes and flowers. To prevent her partner, Dorsey, local councillor and Mayor-Elect from belittling her attempts, she has kept these hidden. Although she has always been uncertain of her ability, one or two of her friends who have happened to call in have caught her working and complimented her on her efforts. Lindy Lou loves her subtle study of the kitchen utensils in the washing up bowl and suggests that she try the classes at the local community centre. They are not expensive and she has heard that the tutor, Lamaar Fike is very good.

Stacey Jayne decides to go along to check out the opportunity and as luck should have it, a new course is due to start the following day. She signs up for a term. From her very first effort, Lamaar tells her that she has a good eye for detail. He says that she might be ready to move on to acrylics or oils and that she should have a proper space at home to paint in, so she buys an easel and sets up a makeshift studio in the spare room. Having arranged the space to her liking, she decides what she needs is a bucket chair to be able to sit comfortably at her easel.

The man in the David Hockney tee-shirt at the stall at Compton Regis market is very helpful. He shows her a range of comfortable looking bucket chairs.

‘I rather like this red one,’ she says, after she had tried a few. ‘But ….. it says, Made in Romania. Romania? Is that good?’

‘It’s a little-known fact but all the best bucket chairs are made in Romania,’ he says. ‘And of course, I only stock the best. I have my reputation to think of.’

‘I think, I’ll take it, then,’ she says. ‘I hope you don’t mind me inquiring, but I couldn’t help noticing your tee-shirt. I love David Hockney. Do you paint?’

All that Barney knows about Hockney is that he is some kind of painter, a pop artist he thinks or is he an Impressionist? Perhaps they are the same thing. He is not sure. Nor has Barney actually started his venture into art yet, he thought he would buy the tee shirt first. This, however, is not the time for him to admit these shortcomings. His customer is a very attractive woman. And, she seems to be taking an interest in him. This is not something that has happened very much lately.

‘A little,’ he says, with a shrug, hoping that hinting at modesty might suggest he has insurmountable talent. ‘I paint a little.’

Deceit does not come naturally to Stacey Jayne. Perhaps this has something to do with her convent education. She is anxious therefore not to exaggerate her artistic prowess. But, at the same time, she would like to show this talented painter with the sideline in market trading that she is versed in the language of fine art techniques. ‘I’ve just started a course,’ she says. ‘I’m learning acrylics and oils. We’re doing stippling, dabbing and flicking at the moment.’

Acrylics? Stippling? Dabbing? Flicking? Oils? H’mm, thinks Barney.

‘That’s good,’ seems the safest response. He goes with it.

Stacey Jayne’s ‘What kind of things do you paint?’ is parried with Barney’s ‘Well, you know. A bit of this, a bit of that.’

Her bold ‘Oh really! I’d love to see some of your work,’ meets with an uncertain ‘Sure.’

‘That’s great,’ she says. ‘I look forward to that.’

Her phone rings and she moves away a little. A voice appears to be shouting down the phone at her. Her serenity vanishes. Her posture changes. Her brow furrows. Her fists clench.

‘You’re going to do what?’ she screams. ‘If you do, that’s it!’

Perhaps things at home are not hunky dory for Stacey Jayne, he thinks. Might this present him with an opportunity, later on? Probably not. But then, you never know.

3:

Stacey Jayne has been bothered by Dorsey’s petulance for some time. Toys, pram and propulsion spring to mind. If he doesn’t get his own way, he goes into infant mode and throws a tantrum. He is controlling, dictatorial. He has always shown a deep resentment of her having hobbies of her own. She recalls the time that she went a cake decorating demonstration when, apparently, she should have been raising the Union Flag in the garden for the Queen’s birthday. Dorsey went ballistic. And the occasion that she wanted to go to a belly dancing class with Donna. He hid her house keys and locked her in the house. But, returning home to find that her husband has torn up her watercolours and trashed her easel is the final straw. What would the people of the town think if they knew that Councillor Dorsey Pitts, Mayor-Elect was guilty of such wanton destruction over his pretty wife wanting to express herself? She had only joined an art class, not boiled his favourite bunny or slept with Satan.

But if she really wants to bring Dorsey’s name into disrepute, she will bring the public’s attention to his connections with the English Defence League, the English Volunteer Force, or the one with the Germanic name. When she had taken the matter of his involvement up with him, he had tried to pass his clandestine communications off as freemasonry, but bit by bit Sarah Jayne discovered his connections were more sinister. While he might not be a leading light in any of these far-right organisations, the fact that he has associations with them at all would surely be enough to ruin his mainstream political career. After all, this is a cosmopolitan town, not somewhere where a local politician of any party should be holding extreme views. However hidden Dorsey’s connections or however convincing his subsequent denial of them might be, suspicions about him would remain. The old saying there’s no smoke, and all that.

But, this is something to keep back for later, a negotiating tool if you like. He can communicate with her from now on through solicitors. She is leaving him. What he has done is unforgivable. She can go and stay with Donna until she finds somewhere. And she will give Barney Cisco a call. He is bound to know where she can rent some studio space to paint in.

4:

Hi. Barney Cisco speaking,’ he says. He does not recognise the number.

‘Hello, Barney. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Stacey Jayne,’ she says. ‘I bought a bucket chair from you a few days ago.’

Remember her? Of course he remembers her. He’s been thinking about nothing else since their meeting. Not even Bristol City’s problems in defence or Sonny’s upcoming parole hearing. ‘Ah, yes. I think I do remember you,’ he says, trying to muster up cool indifference.

‘I was just wondering if you might be able to help me,’ she says. ‘What with your connections in the art world. My circumstances have uh …… changed and I wondered if you might know of a small studio space to rent where I could paint.’

‘I’ve think I might have the very thing,’ he says, trying desperately to think of the very thing he might have.

‘Could I come and have a look?’ she says.

‘I’ll tell you what, Stacey,’ he says. ‘Give me a day or two and I will get back to you. Is this the best number to get you on?’

Barney is thrown into a panic. Facilitating the space for Stacey Jayne to paint presents no problem. He can set aside a couple of rooms at the back of his warehouse. He will need to clear it out a bit of junk, and clean up, but this can easily be done. He can buy some easels and paints from Nicki Bello’s artists’ supply stall. But, what about the paintings? He needs to make it look like it is a working studio and that he has completed a few canvases and has others in progress. Where on earth is he going to get hold of these? Suddenly, he has the light-bulb moment. There is a prestigious exhibition on at Art Attack by an overseas artist with an unusual name. He knows this because his friend and fellow Bristol City supporter, Jarvis Vest works as a security guard there. Given favourable circumstances, and a little guile, he can borrow some paintings from there.

5:

‘These paintings are brilliant, Barney,’ says Stacey Jayne, as she moves slowly round the four large canvases of Tuscan landscapes in the makeshift studio. ‘You are so talented. I don’t know how my poor daubings will look alongside these.’

‘It’s good of you to say so, Stacey Jayne,’ he says. He is pleased with how he easily he managed to blot out Lili Stankovich’s signature and replace it with Barney Cisco using some black paint on the wrong end of a small brush. You can hardly notice the alterations.

‘What are you working on at the moment?’ she asks.

‘I’m doing another landscape in oils,’ he says. ‘I took it home to do a bit on it last night. Sometimes I find that the light is better in my conservatory.’

‘Ah, I see.’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘Look! I’ve got my bits and pieces in the car. I’ll bring them in, if that’s OK, then if you are interested, I was wondering whether you might want to go and see that Lili Stankovich exhibition that’s on at Art Attack.’

‘I’ve a lot on today, maybe next week,’ says Barney. Procrastination is a tried and tested strategy and in his line of work maybe next week means never.

‘Oh look, Barney!’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘Isn’t that the police outside?’

‘What?’ says Barney. ‘Oh my God!’

He busies himself trying his best to cover up the canvases that are on show while he tries to remember what Sonny’s solicitor was called.

‘They’re peering through the window, now,’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘I wonder what they might want. I hope you are not in trouble, Barney.’

Why, oh why had he listened to Lorelei Angel? Why had he tried to better himself? And what made him think he had a chance with a babe like Stacey Jayne? He should have followed the advice of that song that was always playing on Tonya Ludovic’s bric-a-brac stall. ‘Don’t go chasing waterfalls,’ it went, or something like that. ‘Stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to.’ He should have stuck to what he was good at, supporting Bristol City through thick and thin and selling cheap foreign mattresses at inflated prices at his market stall.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Nightswimming

Nightswimming by Chris Green

On the face of it, Nightswimming is about someone’s fond memories of skinny-dipping in their younger days. Surely though, the song is about dreaming. You couldn’t get a more haunting tune or a more dreamlike arrangement. And the band are called REM. Rapid Eye Movement. What more do you need? It’s a perfect fit. They’re using nightswimming as a metaphor for the mystifying world of dreams. That fugitive landscape where nothing is what it seems. That dark space on the edge of town where the silence echoes and characters change in front of you without warning.

Gino, the café owner may not be aware of this. He is probably just playing the song because he likes REM. This is not surprising. Not so long ago they were the biggest band in the world. Every album went platinum. I suspect the girl with the multi-coloured hair who Gino is talking doesn’t know what Nightswimming alludes to either. She probably just thinks it’s a pretty tune about a group of young people taking a naughty dip at the lido on a summer night after a heavy session at The Goat and Bicycle.

I finish my mint tea and go over to the counter to pay.

Do you know what this song’s about?’ I say.

Gino looks me in the eye and laughs. He thinks it is a trick question.

It’s about going for a midnight swim,’ he says. ‘Listen!’

I think it’s about dreaming,’ the girl says. ‘It has that ethereal feel to it.’

So do I,’ I say. ‘He appears to be recalling a real-life experience. Nostalgia, you might say. But in dreams, memories become confused with fable. Hence the random stream of consciousness lyrics.’

Nightswimming gives way to Man on the Moon. On the album, they appear the other way around, so this must be a hits compilation.

What do you make of this one?’ I say.

It’s about the moon landing,’ Gino says.

All their songs have more to them than meets the eye,’ the girl says. She looks up the lyrics on her phone.

Man on the Moon. It couldn’t be clearer,’ Gino says. ‘Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins.’

It seems to jump from one subject to another,’ the girl says. ‘It’s quite a complicated song.’

It is a tribute to the actor, surrealist comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman,’ I say. ‘Andy was a prankster and there is a suggestion that he faked his own death. Haven’t you ever wondered about the line, Andy did you hear about this one? The singer links his death with the conspiracy theory about the moon landings.’

What about the goofing on Elvis line?’ the girl says.

Andy used to do an Elvis impersonation that even Elvis was alleged to have praised,’ I say.

Some new customers come into the café. Gino turns his attention to them.

I’m Maya,’ the girl says, moving closer. ‘I expect you know this means illusion or dream.’

Hello Maya,’ I say. ‘I’m Phil.’

I can’t help wondering about your interest in lyrics, Phil,’ Maya says. ‘Are you perhaps a songwriter or a lyricist?’

In a way, I suppose,’ I say. ‘At least, the words bit. I write fiction. I’m Phillip C. Dark.’

Cool!’ she says. ‘I may have read a story of yours. Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

That one is by Chris Green,’ I say. ‘But you are not far off. It is in the same anthology as one of mine.’

Are you writing anything at the moment?’ she says.

I’ve just started a short story where the Twin Towers aren’t destroyed in 9/11 but the White House is,’ I say. ‘As a result, the USA falls into the hands of terrorists, one of whom is the former TV show host who sets about running the country through social media.’

Sounds good,’ Maya says. ‘Hey, look! If you are not doing anything, why don’t you come and meet my cat, Ronnie? He’d love to meet you.’

I was going to get my kaleidoscope repaired and then go to look for some fridge magnets,’ I say. ‘But I guess that could wait until later.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is very close to my house,’ she says. ‘So we could go there together afterwards, and I could help you choose.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is on the same side of town as Maya’s house, but it is a few miles further on. If Maya had not been travelling with me, it would have been nigh on impossible to find it. It is set in a clearing in the middle of a wood which in itself is off the beaten track. I park some distance away, and we have to beat our way through the undergrowth to reach it. It is more of a log cabin than a house. The location reminds me of a story of mine where people can teleport themselves over long distances simply by thinking about where they want to go. All they need to have is a physical picture in their mind of the desired destination. To keep criminals and thieves away, the wealthy build homes without windows in elaborate woodland mazes to confuse the ever more sophisticated Google maps. They become so reclusive that they live their entire lives within the confines of their homes. They become afraid to communicate with anyone in case they give away their location. Not that Maya seems to be rich or reclusive.

Ronnie, it turns out is large for a domestic cat, measuring around six feet from tip to tail. Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life, but Ronnie is the first cat I’ve come across that you can have a conversation with. I had thought that talking cats only existed in Haruki Murakami novels. Not only does Ronnie talk, he seems to know his REM tunes too. When Maya mentions we’ve been listening to Nightswimming and Man on the Moon, he becomes animated.

Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite is my favourite,’ he says ‘There’s a lot going on in there. It’s about a drifter. With its roadside motel, instant food, payphones and oddball characters, it describes his transient lifestyle. Sidewinder is a metaphor for the drifter, don’t you think?

REM songs always have double meanings,’ I say, thrilled to have found a cat that is knowledgeable about popular culture. ‘A sidewinder is a snake, of course, but also an old style of telephone with a winding handle on the side.

Their singer, Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics,’ Ronnie says. ‘I don’t think the others in the band were sure what the rest of the song meant.’

He’s dreaming about the things he misses,’ I say. ‘The candy bars, falling stars and the Dr Seuss stories.’

He mentions The Cat in the Hat. That’s my favourite Dr Seuss story too,’ Ronnie says. Did You know that he was a big fan of Syd Barrett? Dark Globe was his favourite. Do you know that one? REM recorded it too.’

That’s the one that starts off, Oh where are you now, pussy willow, isn’t it? I say. ‘I like Octopus. Trip, Trip to a dream dragon.’

I knew you two would hit it off,’ Maya says. ‘Ronnie has always been a fan of dream-pop.’

It was lovely to meet you, Mr Dark,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’d love to talk to you some more, but I must be going or I will be late for a very important date. I’m taking my friend Alice to an exhibition at The Looking Glass Gallery.’

What are you going to see?’ I ask. Cats appreciating art as well as music. It is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

We are going to see some new work by abstract artist, Jenny Westbrook,’ Ronnie says. ‘Jenny’s paintings are organic and very colourful. The exhibition is called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

What a great title for an exhibition!’ I say. ‘I hope you enjoy them. It was good to talk to you, Ronnie.’

I’ve made a double layer bilberry upside-down cake,’ Maya says when Ronnie is gone. ‘Would you like some?’

I would love some,’ I say, suddenly aware that I haven’t eaten since breakfast.

Then we can go upstairs and you can help me with some buttons,’ Maya says.

Having known Maya for less than an hour, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit forward.

I have to get my kaleidoscope repaired,’ I say.

I haven’t forgotten,’ Maya says. ‘We can do that afterwards, and we will still have time to go and choose some fridge magnets.’

In the experimental fiction writers’ circles I move in, you become accustomed to heightened levels of strangeness. We are a pretty weird bunch with some pretty weird ideas. While most people try to fashion order out of chaos, we try to fashion chaos out of order. But when you experience elements of this strangeness first hand, you can’t help but be phased. You try to match it to some of the staples of the sci-fi or fantasy genres, parallel worlds, time travel, simulated consciousness, virtual reality, illusions, etc. But even so, you don’t expect to encounter anything as bizarre as a blue six-feet long talking cat with an interest in music and art in everyday, waking life. Might this not lead you to question reality? What is it about your situation or circumstances that has changed, you may wonder? You might question whether you are awake. What if you are dreaming? If you are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream, who is the dreamer?

Maya’s buttons prove to be a big distraction, and before we know it, it is late afternoon. I think it needs to be said that although time pretends to be regular and move in a linear fashion, it sometimes falls flat on its face and embarrasses itself. Time would be better described as flexible, elastic, malleable. It is only a reflection of change and from this, our brains construct a sense of time as if it were flowing. But it’s an illusion. Time is all over the place. Einstein was on the right track. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, he said, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. Not that Maya and I did a lot of sitting.

If we hurry, we will have just enough time to get to the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. The kaleidoscope repair will probably have to wait until another day. I take a look out of the window. The woodland seems to have thinned considerably. There are now hardly any trees. All I can see is a large lake. It is already getting dark. The moon is coming up.

Perhaps we’d better forget about the fridge magnets too,’ Maya says.

I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. The lake does look inviting.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ben Maceo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Maceo by Chris Green

Ben Maceo told me about the clock last week. Ben has special powers, you see. He can tell when things are going to happen. Had it been anyone else, I would never have believed them, but as it was Ben, I knew that it would happen and so I was able to prepare. Ben knew that the big clock in the town’s main square was going to explode and that there would be fragments of time scattered everywhere. He knew you would no longer be able to rely on your watch or the numbers you saw on your phone display to tell the time. He knew that time being the key to practically everything, the chaos would spread. Perhaps I should have shared his warning with others, but I did not. I find that not many people are ready for unpleasant truths, and especially not to hear them before the event. The others on the campus already think that I’m a bit weird for hanging around with Ben.

Anyway, time is all over the place now. Not just hours and minutes, but years and months are coalescing, or separating. No-one knows what is going on and from what I can see from the television pictures, there is panic on the streets. Film crews have been shipped in from far and wide to take a look at the chaos that is happening in the town. Many of course have not been able to get here as time is buffeted around, but some have arrived, or are arriving. But others who have arrived are stuck here, whether they want to be or not.

Every aspect of our everyday lives, as Ben points out, is time-dependent. I am not going to even venture outside until things get back to normal. Perhaps they will never get back to normal, but this is a chance that I have to take. In the meantime, I can take some cuttings from my agave plants and practice some Janacek on my ukulele, and there’s that Schopenhauer essay I have to finish off. Schopenhauer’s view on time is that we spend too much of it ruminating on the past or planning for the future that our lives quickly pass us by. So, I’m going to try to get on with mine. After all, Ben has my phone number. He will let me know if and when there is any change. Perhaps he might even call round. We could listen to my new Ozric Tentacles CD. And, who knows what else?

I have learned to trust Ben’s intuition. It was Ben who told me about the man in the Homburg hat’s arrival at the railway station last June. Ben was aware that the stranger’s very presence in the town would bring about the worst snows on record, and this in the middle of summer too when the rest of the country was basking in the seasonal sunshine. The mystery man was also responsible for the disappearance into thin air of the 11:11 train from the capital to the west country on November 11th, somewhere between the ancient burial sites and the land sculptures by the artist with the unpronounceable name. Ben told me this was going to take place days before it happened.

His gift is that he can detect what is happening behind the scenes. He can see the invisible threads that connect all things. He knows that when one of those threads gets broken that something anomalous will happen. By tracing the path of the broken thread, he says, he can tell exactly what will happen, along with when and where it will happen. He does not do any of this consciously. He says that it’s just like having the radio on in the background. This is how he knew that we would have blizzards in June and he knew the train would disappear.

There is more strangeness in the world than most people realise,’ he is fond of saying. ‘Most people cannot see the mechanics of things happening. They just put events down to cause and effect, without understanding what cause might be or what happens in between cause and effect or else they come up with some claptrap about theoretical physics to explain things.’

I’m right with Ben on this one. Theoretical physicists seem to know very little about the universe. Their theories change every five minutes. They talk about red shifts and blue shifts, expansions from the big bang and contractions down to gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, but despite all this blather, their understanding of what is really going on never seems to become any clearer. The great Karl Popper summed it up by saying, ‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’ Ben Maceo takes it a step further and argues that there is no point at all in universal theories, each event is unique and has its own explanation.

……………………………………………….

Time is still all over the place. So far as I can tell, it has been three days, give or take, so far as I can tell since it all went down and Ben still hasn’t been round to see me. He hasn’t so much as called me. You would think that given his intuitive powers, he would have detected the undeniable chemistry between us. Surely he has spotted that I always sit next to him in Paradox and Plurality. He must have noticed that I hang on his every word. What can he possibly be doing that is getting in the way of our blossoming romance? Especially now. He can’t be busy. College has been closed since the upheaval. He has no excuse not to get in touch.

I left several messages on Ben’s phone, but amidst all of the temporal disorder, I suppose he may not have got them. Perhaps he will get them tomorrow or maybe he got them and thought they were from last week. From before the clock exploded. This could explain why I haven’t had a call. On the other hand, the messages may still be up there in the ether, struggling to find its way, along with all the other communications that have been disrupted. They said on the news that messages from weeks ago were still bumping around out there, trying to find their destination. I suspect some people will have made it out of town, but the newsman said that this would be a risky undertaking because of the wormholes. I imagine the term wormhole is perhaps being used here because they have no idea what is going on.

Ben would be able to explain what is going on, but he probably wouldn’t want to tell them. Perhaps they would not understand it if he did. If you can’t understand something without an explanation, then you can’t understand it with an explanation. I read that somewhere. I wonder where it was. There is an innate tendency to feel that things have always been as they are now and always will be. This is the way the human mind seems to work, but there was always a before and there will always be an after. It’s just a question of learning to think this way. We need to take a more Zen approach.

It is dark much of the day. Sometimes light breaks through for a few minutes but then the sky blackens again. With nothing to regulate them properly, night and day seem to be entirely arbitrary. My laptop is continually doing a system restore and my bedside clock is like a random number generator. I keep picking up numerals off the floor from the various clocks around the flat. Living without the certainty of time takes a lot of getting used to.

Ben did say that in the beginning, at least for the first few days, the aftermath of the explosion in the town would be difficult to live with. Perhaps he has left town. He knew that it was going to happen and seemed to understand the effect it would have, so this would make sense. And this is why he can’t communicate. Bit he should have taken me with him. Instead, I am stuck here. Oh well, no use dwelling on it. If it stays light for a while, I think I will paint some yantric mandalas to focus my mindfulness.

……………………………………………….

The stranger in the Homburg hat. …… The one that Ben described. ……. He is outside my house. ……. He’s looking in the window. ……. He has something in his hand. He is holding it up for me to see. It looks like an envelope, a black envelope, one of those A4 folding ones that you use to keep documents in. …… Oh my God! I can see his silhouette through the frosted glass of the front door. He is wearing a long black overcoat and with the hat looks about seven-feet tall. He’s knocking on the door. ……. What should I do? I’m not ready for this. I am terrified. He knocks again and shouts something. I can’t make out what he is saying. His diction is not good, but it does sound like a threat. ……. Suddenly, there is another rupture in time and to my great relief, the man in the Homburg hat is no longer there. But, the black manilla wallet is lying on the coir doormat inside the door, in front of me. Anxiously, I pick it up and inspect it, afraid to open it to see what is inside.

Finally, I pluck up the courage to take a look. The wallet contains nine sheets of A4 paper, each with several paragraphs of text on, but it is like no writing that I have ever seen before. It is perhaps a little, but only a little, reminiscent of Arabic script. In any event, it looks to the untrained eye as unintelligible as Kurdish or Urdu might be. At the bottom of the last page, as if acting as a signature, there is a line-art graphic of a shattered clock. How am I supposed to make anything of this arcane communication? We covered Theosophy and The Golden Dawn and all that Zoroastrian mysticism in a module last semester, along with Rosicrucianism and the Kabbalah, but I can’t pretend that I followed it that closely. It was too easy to get one mixed up with the other and I drifted off a lot. I think I may have just sat in on the module to be around Ben.

The curious thing is, I find that I am able to read this bizarre communication. Not all of it, certainly, but I can make out passages of the strange text. Where has this remarkable ability sprung from? The letter contains none of the mumbo jumbo from esoteric teachings that the blocks of arcane lettering suggest. Instead, it mentions a meeting. I am to meet an undisclosed party, by the statue of Neil Diamond. The statue of Neil Diamond? Crackling Rosie? Sweet Caroline? Why is there a statue of Neil Diamond? The statue, it says, is located next to the harmonica museum. I didn’t realise there was a harmonica museum in the town. Where on earth is the harmonica museum? The letter doesn’t offer a map. Oh well, I expect I will find it. It is not a large town. The main problem might be the one concerning the specified time, midday. Time has not settled down yet, so how will I know when it is midday and if I do find out, will it still be midday when I get there.

……………………………………………….

Light doesn’t necessarily travel at the speed of light,’ says a muted voice. I cannot see where it is coming from and, at first, think it might just be a voice in my head. After all, it is an odd line in conversation.

The slowest recorded speed for light is thirty-eight miles per hour,’ the voice continues. Is it perhaps some kind of coded message? I turn around to see a short stocky one-armed man in a Pablo Picasso blue and white hooped sweatshirt and black sunglasses emerging from behind the statue of Neil Diamond. He has a Siamese cat perched on his shoulder. Even though there is a lot of competition for strange, if this fellow is going for strange, he has surely succeeded.

Would you like to sing to my cat?’ he says. ‘He likes sea shanties best.’

I don’t think I know any sea shanties,’ I tell him. ‘Sea shanties aren’t a very girlie thing.’

Of course, you do,’ he says, dancing on the spot. ‘Everybody knows at least one sea shanty. What about Blow the man down?’

No sorry,’ I say. ‘I don’t know it.’

What about a folk song then,’ he says. ‘My cat likes Wimoweh. My cat is called Trevor, by the way.’

OK I’ll give it a go,’ I say, finding myself somehow being drawn into Pablo Picasso’s veil of nonsense.

Wimoweh is easy as it doesn’t have a lot of words, but as soon as I start singing, Pablo Picasso disappears along with his cat. One minute they are here and the next they are gone like thieves in the night. I am still no wiser as to what the meeting might have been about, or indeed if this was the meeting at all. I wait outside the harmonica museum for a while, but no-one else turns up to meet with me.

I notice that some men are trying to rebuild the town clock. It is a great brute of a thing, much bigger than I remember it being. It is surrounded by crude scaffolding and one of the men is struggling to carry the minute hand up an improvised ladder while another holds the hour hand in place at three o’clock. Perhaps time will soon be back to normal and I will see Ben again. After all this singularity, I’m looking forward to some straightforward metaphysics and philosophy.

……………………………………………….

By the new saxophone shop? Yes, Ben. Of course, I can meet you there. I’ve got my bicycle. The new saxophone shop, though? I’m not sure where that is…… Ah, I see. Jack of Clubs Street. That’s around the corner from the kaleidoscope repair centre, is it?’

At last, to my great relief, Ben has called me. It’s so good to hear his voice. Since he’s been away, I have had to suspend belief with some of the things that have been happening.

Yes, up Jack of Clubs Street and about a hundred yards on the left,’ he says. ‘You can’t miss it. It has a large Selmer saxophone hanging outside. I’ll meet you in an hour.’

I’m concerned that if I let him off the phone then he will be gone out of my life again. ‘Look! I’ve been worried about you,’ I say. ‘And I’ve been living a nightmare. Where have you been?’

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and I’ve been in between,’ he says. ‘You’re right. Things got a bit mad back there for a while, didn’t they? But, I believe the man in the Homburg hat has gone now.’

Thank God,’ I say. ‘He was sinister.’

I hope the dancing painter with the cat wasn’t too much bother,’ he says. ‘He comes out of the woodwork sometimes when he sees an opportunity. I expect you had to sing a song or two.’

It is uncanny the way Ben knows what has been happening, even though he has not been in town. Or has he? He did say he’s been here and he’s been there and he’s been in between. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be meeting him again. I can hardly contain myself.

I pass the clock and see that the hands are now in place and the men are taking the scaffolding down. A small group of cheery vagrants are gathered around it, celebrating with their bottles of cider. I pass the new statue of Neil Diamond, although I have to say, it doesn’t look a bit like him. I take a detour to avoid some men putting up a hoarding to advertise a new blockbuster called Rocket Man, or something. I’ve not been this way often, but eventually I manage to find Jack of Clubs Street. It is a long narrow street and it is enveloped by a haze so I cannot immediately make out where the saxophone shop is. Then, I spot the silver Selmer saxophone shimmering through the murk. It seems to have fallen from its mount onto the pavement.

But, where is Ben? There is no sign of him. What can have happened? I get off the bike and I look frantically up and down the street. Through the haze, I can see the man in the Homburg hat. He is walking slowly towards me. On his shoulder, he is gripping something with both hands, It is difficult to make out what it is. Is it a balloon? Or, is it a surfboard? It seems to be changing shape. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Surely it’s not a rocket launcher! Why has Ben brought me here? Jack of Clubs Street does not seem a safe place to be. The haze clears a little. The man keeps coming towards me. He is close now and I see that what he is carrying is carrying is a bucket of dreams. He offers it to me.

It doesn’t have to be bad,’ he says. ‘You can pick one with a happy ending if you like.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret by Chris Green

Van Morrison wanted to be a vet,’ the man says.

Who?’ says the girl, not looking up from the book she is reading.

Van Morrison, you know. Brown Eyed Girl, Bright Side Of The Road.’

Oh! Him!’ the girl says, hoping this will put an end to the conversation. She is not here to listen to geeky middle-aged men in paisley shirts talking about portly crooners. She has aspirations. She just needs a little downtime at the moment to get over a disappointment.

When he was at school, he wanted to be a vet. Then his father bought him a saxophone.’

That’s nice,’ the girl says, pulling her black sunglasses down from their resting place on her forehead.

The man doesn’t take the hint. ‘I was using close on 50 gigabytes a week just browsing on my iPhone and I was texting and messaging non-stop. And then there was the streaming. That took it up to 100,’ he continues. ‘What about you? Tracey, isn’t it?’

I think I was probably on more than that,’ says Tracey. ‘If I had used my phone any more they would have had to surgically remove it. Now. …… Can I get back to my book?’

I don’t know how I became so addicted,’ Dirk says. ‘I’m more of an outdoor person really.’

Tracey continues to blank him.

I had to bite the bullet and come along here,’ he says. He doesn’t tell her that his partner, Domino was knocked down texting a friend while crossing a busy London thoroughfare. Domino died from the injuries she sustained. Although this was six months ago Dirk can’t bring himself to talk about it. Instead, he continues to elaborate on his own habit, which through his days and nights of loneliness became worse.

When I wasn’t on the phone,’ he says. ‘I was on the laptop. When I wasn’t on the laptop, I was on the tablet. I took the phone to bed. I had an app to wake me if there were any status updates, another to tell me if I had any messages, another to let me know if I had any tweets. In the end, I was awake all night. I don’t like being awake all night.’

He awaits some kind of response. None is forthcoming.

Unless of course, it’s with someone nice,’ he adds, boldly. ‘I’m Dirk, by the way.’

Tracey doesn’t respond. She feels he is getting more creepy by the minute. Why is it that men feel that she is another country to be conquered or colonised? Where did she read this?

They are at Best Kept Secret, a digital detox retreat in Cornwall. There is no phone signal here and no Wi-Fi. You would have to drive several miles to get any kind of reception on your device. It is so remote that even the postman has trouble finding it. In addition, no TVs or radios are allowed here. You are permitted to bring just three books for a week-long stay. The centre has the express aim of changing people’s habits. Best Kept Secret goes one step further than Unplugged Weekend, reSTART and other establishments dealing with Internet Addiction Disorder. It is not interested in weekenders. It is so serious in its aims that during your stay it doesn’t allow you off-site. They store your car keys in a safe in case you are tempted to leave.

Katie …. Price,’ Dirk reads from the cover of the novel that Tracey is holding aloft. ‘The …. Comeback ….. Girl. Is it good?’

I’m enjoying it, yes,’ Tracey says.

I’m reading Van Morrison’s biography,’ he says. ‘You can borrow it when I’ve finished if you like.’

Well, Dirk, did you say? Perhaps, Dirk, you might want to get back to it and let me get on with my novel.’

Have you reached an exciting bit?’ he asks.

Tracey ignores him. She pulls her faux leather jacket around her to cover her cleavage and turns away.

Dirk looks around for someone else to talk to. There is no-one. Some of the guests are in the life drawing class and some are in the Pilates session. Others are in NLP therapy or else in the quiet meditation room. A couple of them are in physiotherapy for RSI. Dirk finds the whole atmosphere of withdrawal within the centre claustrophobic. He prefers it out here on the patio. He can listen to the birdsong and take in the aroma of wild roses and pennyroyal.

……………………………………………………

Although one usually thinks in terms of videos, anything can go viral on the Internet. Whether it’s a photo, an animation, an article, a quote, a tweet, a person, an animal, an idea, an argument, a coupon or an upcoming event, virtually anything that is shareable can go viral. Such is the power of hyperspace. All it takes is a handful of shares on social media and the right target audience to trigger an avalanche of sharing. News items, genuine and fake flash round the globe. If the American President were shot it is reckoned that three-quarters of the people in the world would know about it within fourteen minutes.

This is of course under normal circumstances. As it happens the American President has not been shot, but the transatlantic internet pipeline that joins Europe to the US has been down for two days. This is unprecedented. The world is waiting for something to happen. The crisis has generated record sales of newspapers but they have no news. Instead, there is a wealth of speculation. There are suggestions that terrorism is behind the breach in the pipeline. The Telegraph says it has all the hallmarks of a Russian cyber attack. The Sun blames it on Jihadis. The Express is torn between blaming in on illegal immigrants and the storms that are coming this way. The Mail doesn’t refer to it. concentrating instead on statins and house prices.

………………………………………………………….…

Dirk is unaware of the turn of events in the wider world. He doesn’t know that there has been a hiccup in hyperspace. All he knows is that he is completely at a loss in the non-digital world. Without his devices, he finds it difficult to bond with the others at the centre. Most of them seem to come from the corporate world, whilst he himself is a bit of a dreamer. He has always eked a living in the margins of society, drifting aimlessly from one job to another. Domino shared his quasi-alternative views. The irony of her demise is that she was an eco-campaigner. She hardly used her phone. Life, he feels, is full of contradictions.

Being in the confines of the centre has only served to remind him how much he misses Domino. Some of the others at Best Kept Secret have managed to find a modicum of solace in treatment or quiet contemplation, but he has not. In three days there he has become increasingly restless and edgy. He is desperate for some human contact, some love and understanding.

Tracey has now finished her Katie Price, her Sophie Kinsella and her Jojo Moyes novels. Dirk finds her once again on the patio. With nothing left to read, she stares into space.

It is against the law to have a pet dog in Iceland,’ Dirk says, hoping that Tracey might either be a dog lover or a dog hater in which case he has interesting facts about cats at the ready.

Tracey does not seem to have a view about the Nordic lack of tolerance for man’s best friend. She continues to stare into space. This provides a cue for Dirk to play his cat card and also refer to Tracey’s gaze.

The first cat in space was a French cat named Félicette in 1963,’ he says. ‘She was black and white.’

Tracey has no view about feline celebrities.

Dirk has other facts at his fingertips. Before he came in here, he often spent the whole dayspent many an afternoon browsing trivia sites. He is about to tell Tracey that Coca-Cola would be green if colouring weren’t added to it, when they are joined on the patio by Echo.

Echo looks tanned and sporty and is probably nearer his age than Tracey. She has beautiful brown eyes and a winning smile. Dirk feels he might be able to get along with Echo. And what a great name! He noticed her earlier when she arrived in a brightly coloured VW camper earlier. She came over to him to introduce herself. He was further encouraged when she showed a preference for the mung bean dahl over the oatmeal power bowl at lunch. And he might have imagined it. But didn’t she compliment him on his floral print shirt? She seems more relaxed than most of the burnt-out event organisers and ad executives inside. It is hard to imagine that she has Internet Addiction Disorder. She is even able to keep from fidgeting her fingers.

Without a device to play with, most of the others, himself included, do not know what to do with their hands. This is one of the often overlooked difficulties of digital device withdrawal. They don’t tell you about all of the side effects associated with Internet Addiction Disorder when you arrive. Some are fiddling with their spectacles, their zips, their shoelaces, or rearranging the salt and pepper pots and the cutlery on the table. Dirk has found himself playing a lot with the loose change in his pocket.

Following her break up with Blake, the last thing Echo needs is another alpha male who has to be the centre of attention. Nor does she want someone who will stare with wonder at her hair or hang on her every word. She is looking for a sensitive man who will understand her needs. She looks Dirk up and down. They smile at one another.

What is your favourite Dr Seuss book?’ she asks.

It is not a question that Dirk has often been asked, but as the only one that he knows is The Cat In The Hat, this is his answer.

You’ve not read The Butter Battle Book then,’ Echo says.

What’s it about?’ asks Dirk. He is anxious to keep this conversation going.

It is about a land where two hostile cultures, the Yooks and the Zooks,’ Echo says. ‘They live on opposite sides of a long curving wall. The Yooks wear blue clothes and the Zooks wear orange. The dispute between the two cultures is that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. The conflict between the two sides leads to an arms race where each comes up with ever more deadly weapons, the result of which is mutually assured destruction.’

There is a moral to the tale then,’ Dirk says. ‘I will have to read it when I get out of here. I’ve nearly finished Van Morrison’s biography, so it’s a shame that I didn’t know about it before I signed up.’

Van Morrison. You like Van Morrison?’

Well yes. I do, rather.’

I adore Van Morrison,’ Echo says.

That’s great. Only some women find him ….. a little …..’

Dreamy?’

No, not exactly.’

Transcendental?’

No. ….. I was going to say, shouty. Some women find him a little shouty.’

Surely not,’ Echo says. ‘Van is the man.’

Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance.’

It’s the middle of the day,’ Echo says. ‘But you are right. Why not?’

………………………………………………………….…

It seems improbable that all the global communication pipelines could be breached at the same time. There are around five hundred different submarine cables spanning every ocean. But this is what appears to be happening. One by one they are failing. With just the transatlantic pipelines out, the possibility of some kind of rational explanation remained, excessive movement in a major tectonic plate causing sudden or greater than expected continental drift, perhaps. But what about those spanning the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? The likelihood of the failings being from natural causes has now completely disappeared. There must be a more sinister explanation. And what is happening to the satellites in orbit? Little by little the digital world is breaking up. Sabres rattle, but then this is nothing new. Power struggles seem to be part of the human condition. The internet pipeline crisis is unlikely to fuel much of a conflict as most of the weapon systems will no longer function.

While across the board the younger generation starts to experience withdrawal symptoms, many of the older generation can remember that just twenty or so years ago, there was no internet. Perhaps it is a case of selective memory, but many reflect that life was better. Things were simpler. There was not the urgency to be in communication with everyone all the time. You could put things off, chill out. Up and down the country older people experience a feeling of relief that they do not have to check their missed calls and emails, respond to social media statuses or put updates on to their computers. Before all this technology took hold, things still got done. In many ways, it was easier to get things done. Back then there were a few mobile phones, but all you could do with them was make person-to-person calls. And you had to be in range. And even then you had to shout loudly. And they were not what you would call compact. You would have difficulty getting one in your jacket pocket.

………………………………………………………….…

Do you know, I don’t miss my devices at all,’ Dirk says. They are about to leave Best Kept Secret after their stay. Dirk has been there ten days and Echo a week.

Nor do I,’ Echo says. ‘I don’t think I will even switch my phone back on.’

Better off without them. I’ll think I will give my tablet away.’

Gives you a different perspective on life, doesn’t it?’

What does?’

The freedom to say no.’

Not that you did too much of that.’

Ha, ha,’ says Echo, hitting him on the arm with her Quicksilver backpack.

Just think of all those poor people that still have to grapple with that insane deluge of trash in their feeds day in day out.’

They will find out one day …… or not.’

Anyway, here we are, footloose and fone free,’ Dirk says.

Shall we go surfing to celebrate?’ Echo says. ‘I think Summerleaze Beach would be good. It’s west facing. The swell should be just right.’

Don’t know it,’ Dirk says. ‘Is it far?’

It’s north of here. Bude,’ Echo says.

Bude? Isn’t that where the secret listening base intercepts the traffic from the transatlantic internet pipeline?’ Dirk says.

You are still doing it,’ Echo says. ‘You have to let go of all this mental floss.’

But don’t you wonder what’s been happening in the world while we’ve been in there?’

Same old, I should think. Political posturing, smouldering racism, celebrity indiscretions. Nothing ever changes really, does it?’

You’re right.’ Dirk says. ‘Let’s go and get some air into our lungs.’

Then perhaps we can book into that nice hotel that looks out on to the ocean,’ Echo says. ‘And you can show me that thing you want to do with dark chocolate.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Clumpton

clumpton

Clumpton by Chris Green

Having taken several wrong turns on our way to the coast, Holly and I find ourselves in Clumpton. We start to blame each other for unforgivable navigation errors. We need a break from driving to get our bearings and compose ourselves. We park up on one of the narrow streets and go looking for somewhere where we might get a cup of tea. If you have ever been to Clumpton, the chances are you arrived here by accident. It is unlikely to have been the place you were heading for. It has no Wikipedia page, and there is no reference to it on Trip Advisor. We feel, in a sense, we are pioneers.

The first thing we notice is that the streets are deserted. No cars, no people, no background noise. We can hear the proverbial pin drop. Eventually, we come by an old fellow with a suitcase sitting by the side of the road. It does not appear to be a bus stop. It would be surprising if any buses came this way. He does not return our greeting. It does not seem our business to pry. Perhaps he is waiting for Godot. The further we venture into the village, the eerier the silence becomes. The houses do not seem neglected, yet there are no signs of life. Surely Clumpton has not simply been abandoned.

We pass a Post Office and General Stores, but this is closed. It looks as if it might have been closed for a long time. Has the village been evacuated on account of a radiation leak at a nearby power plant? Perhaps there has been a news item about it we have missed. There has to be a rational explanation for the deathly quiet. There is no mobile phone signal and no internet so we are unable to google Clumpton to get any information.

If only there were someone to ask,’ Holly says. ‘Where is everyone?’

Let’s take this turning here,’ I say. ‘Long Street. That’s bound to lead somewhere. If we don’t find anywhere open, we’ll head back to the car.’

Charlies does not look like much from the outside. Were it not for a weathered sign advertising delicious home-cooked food, we might take it for an ordinary terraced house. From the outside, it looks small, but once inside, it is deceptively large. Dimensionally transcendent perhaps, like a sci-fi creation.

In stark contrast to the empty streets, Charlies is buzzing with life. It is packed. There are probably fifty people crowded in here. The café appears to double as an informal craft market. In amongst the tables, there are quirky upcycled items of furniture along with displays of scented candles and curiously shaped crystals, soapstone figurines and wind-chimes. A kaleidoscope of home-made jams and preserves.

Judging by the inter-table bonhomie, the diners all appear to be locals. Charlies has the feel of a village hall. It is clearly the hub of the community. There is none of the hesitant small talk and nervous looking around you might expect from strangers to the area waiting for their baguette to arrive. Despite the quirkiness of the place, the people look remarkably conventional. They are clearly comfortable with one another. Even the youngsters seem chilled. I can’t help but notice a pronounced homogeneity in the facial features. Clumpton does not appear to have a large gene pool.

We squeeze in at a small table in the corner. A notice says Charlies offers Table Service. But given the demand, it looks like this might be a little slow. There don’t seem to be any menus, so I pick up a Clumpton newsletter. It features an update on the recently introduced Clumpton Pound. I find it difficult to see where you might spend such a currency, given that there are no shops. But the editorial is full of optimism that it will catch on. The people on the next table, a local committee of some kind, talk about starting a Clumpton Free Press and restricting news about the outside world. Too many bad things going on, they say. Snatches of conversation we catch begin to sound a little sectarian.

Meanwhile, we make hesitant small talk and look around nervously. Eventually, a young waitress in a charcoal uniform comes across to our table. Her name badge says, Sharon. It looks as if she has put this on as an afterthought.

I haven’t seen you in here before,’ she says. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

We were on our way to the coast and we took a wrong turning or two,’ I say.

I see,’ she says. ‘We don’t get many visitors in Clumpton.’

I couldn’t help noticing that all the people in here seem to know one another,’ I say. ‘Is it always this busy like this?’

Yes,’ she says. ‘Pretty much. Clumpton is a close-knit community. People look out for one another.’

But the rest of the village is very quiet,’ Holly says. ‘I don’t think we saw anyone on our way here.’

That’s odd,’ Sharon says. ‘I always think of Clumpton as a bustling little place. There’s always something happening. Now, what can I get you?’

We’ll have two teas, please,’ I say.

Sorry, we don’t do tea,’ she says.

Two Lattés then,’ Holly says.

That’s coffee, isn’t it?’ Sharon says. ‘I’m afraid we don’t do coffee either. There’s no call for it. How about home-grown camomile cordial or perhaps you’d prefer fresh apple juice, grown from our local orchards?’

We settle on the apple juice.

A middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed jump-suit comes across to our table.

We’ve got an offer on dream-catchers,’ she says. ‘Three for the price of two. Or how about a nice decoupaged occasional table?’

Perhaps another time,’ I say. ‘Look, I’m curious. The streets are empty and everyone is crowded in here on a Tuesday morning. There are lots of new-age touches to the place yet most of the people look pretty traditional. What’s going on?’

I don’t see any contradiction,’ she says. ‘Everyone gets along really well in Clumpton.’

That’s nice,’ Holly says, anticipating that I might be working up to suggesting there is some kind of cult. As it happens, this was exactly what I am thinking. Holly gives me one of her don’t you dare glances.

But, surely Charlies can’t be in reference to that Charlie. And Sharon can’t be a reference to that Sharon. That would be absurd. Where are these crazy thoughts coming from? These are just a bunch of inward-looking little Englanders. Isolationists. Extreme Brexiteers, if you like.

Holly and I finish our juice, pay the heavily inflated bill, and make our way back to the car. The silence still echoes on the empty streets, and the man with the suitcase is still waiting for Godot. Once again, he does not return our greeting.

What a bizarre place!’ Holly says. ‘It’s difficult to pick out one thing. Everything about it was odd.’

For sure,’ I say. ‘But definitely a story we can dine out on. Did you get any photos?’

One or two,’ Holly says.

To our horror, our Sandero doesn’t start. I take a look under the bonnet and fiddle around with a few leads, but to no avail. The engine is dead.

I’ve got the number for Our RAC insurance here,’ Holly says. ‘I remember we added Breakdown Cover to the policy when we renewed it.’

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to Status Quo’s hits and five minutes of talking to an obstructive customer service operative, it appears our Breakdown Cover doesn’t cover us for roadside assistance. And no, we can’t upgrade over the phone. Not even if we pay an admin fee.’

What if everyone were to go for the basic cover and only decide to upgrade it when they had an accident or broke down in the middle of nowhere?’ the Advisor says.

I would have thought roadside assistance was included in the basic cover,’ I say.

You only have cover within a radius of fifty miles from your postcode,’ she says. ‘And it looks like Clumpton is nearly three times this. I can’t even find it on the map.’

It looks as if we’ll have to go back to the café to see if there’s a mechanic in the village,’ I say to Holly. ‘There again, I don’t think we’ve seen a single car since we’ve been here.’

Don’t be so negative,’ Holly says.

Not wishing to go back to the blame game, Holly and I head back to Charlies in silence. We have been going through a sticky patch lately. She maintains I’m the reason that our Lucy left home. Even though she was seventeen, I still treated her like a child. Who could blame her for moving in with Kurt? Meanwhile, I have been finding it difficult to forget Holly’s fling with Phil, even though this was months ago. But having agreed to put all this behind us, I don’t want to now point out that it was Phil’s brother Sam who sold us the Sandero and presumably, she is holding back from telling me I ought to know more about cars. More recriminations are not going to be helpful.

The village is still deserted and although it is a small place, we have difficulty getting our bearings. We keep arriving back at the No Entry sign in Hope Street. We are going round in circles. We blame each other for poor orienteering skills. We ask the man with the suitcase for directions, but he just looks at us blankly. We carry on with our search, but the café seems to have simply disappeared. We find ourselves back at the car.

You’ve got the photos though, haven’t you?’ I say. ‘I mean, we weren’t imagining it.’

Of course, we didn’t imagine it,’ Holly says, taking out her phone. ‘Look! …… Hang on! The pictures have gone. Where are they? I couldn’t have accidentally deleted them, could I?’

Let me have a look,’ I say. ‘Here they are. Charlies, inside and out. It’s at the end of North Street. I can’t imagine how we could have missed it.’

Do you want to go back to see if you can find it then?’ she says.

Not really,’ I say. ‘But, unless we get the car started. ….. Let me just try it one more time.’

I turn the key and the Sandero bursts into life. We are in business. As we head back towards civilisation, Holly and I start to compose a Trip Advisor review for Clumpton.

What about Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma for a title,’ Holly says

Is there such a place?’ I say.

Yes there is,’ Holly says. ‘And there’s a Nothing, Arizona.’

OK Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma, it is then,’ I say ‘’Then perhaps we could say something about it being a close-knit community of cousins.’

Perhaps we don’t need to say anything at all,’ Holly says. ‘The title is probably enough to discourage people, don’t you think?’

Not even a Turn Back or Don’t Bother?’

OK! One or the other then.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Wish You Were Here

wishyouwerehere3

Wish You Were Here by Chris Green

The huge red and green trucks thunder along the carriageways of the two-lane motorway in both directions. There is something both hostile and haphazard about the way they cross from lane to lane, throwing up dense clouds of dust from the parched road surface. The trucks are military in design with names like KRAZ and URAL, spelt out in assertive typefaces over sinister radiator grilles, their menace tempered only by their remarkable luminosity through the haze. On each wagon, the red and the green bodywork sparkles as if neon-lit.

I have had no sense of smell for years, but the powerful stench of rank diesel from these precipitate leviathans somehow overcomes this and makes me feel nauseous. We are close to the side of the road and we are on foot, which seems somewhat foolhardy out here in the fading light. Although we are apparently miles from civilisation, it has not occurred to us that we might hitch a ride in one of the trucks: they seem to exist only in a virtual sense as if they belong to a separate realm. Perhaps it is through fatigue, but we do not speculate what the mission of the ominous convoys might be, even though there seems to be a complete absence of private cars or buses on the road. The featureless terrain stretches out all around us for miles in every direction. We pass road signs, but these are in Persian script. Not that it would help us much were they not. We do not know the name of anywhere in these parts.

I form the view that I probably blacked out at some point earlier because I have no idea how we have ended up in Iran, close now to the border with Iraq. I have the recollection that Kora and I booked a holiday, but I have a strong feeling that this is not what we had in mind. I remember sitting at home on the terrace of our apartment, looking through brochures filled with pictures of blue seas and beaches resplendent with sturdy coconut palms.

Towards dusk, we follow a rough track towards what looks like a small village, and after a few hundred yards arrive outside a gnarled wooden shack with an illuminated sign with an orange and red logo and some Arabic writing. Hesitantly we step inside hoping that we might be able to buy something to eat. A group of men in brightly coloured djellabas sit around a long table playing some sort of communal board game. They do not appear to register our arrival. A television mounted high up in the far corner of the room playing an Arab news station is thrashing out an issue with some malevolence. A map of the UK comes up on the screen. The attention of the men is captured by this. There are one or two guttural mutterings from the table, followed by an angry shout and a burst of waving of arms in the air. It seems suddenly prudent for us to leave. Once outside, we hear a shot ring out. Kora and I run. There is altogether too much going on here, none of it fortuitous. I begin to feel very tired.
………………………………………………………………….…

I awake with a start and switch on the light, bringing to life a flickering fluorescent tube. I establish that I am alone. The room I find myself in is familiar in an ambiguous kind of way, although it occurs to me, deeply unattractive. The walls are deep purple and most of the furniture is black. In the corner is a lacquered rococo dresser on which are a vase of dead flowers and a stuffed marmoset in a glass case. I form the impression that I have been here a few days, perhaps emerging now from a protracted slumber. I notice I have several days’ growth of beard. Was I clean-shaven before? I sense that I was. Some of the clothing scattered around the floor looks like it might belong to me, which seems a reasonable assumption. I struggle for some moments with my short term memory. My recall is, in fact, close to zero. I am on holiday perhaps. I have in the back of my mind, quite a long way back admittedly, the recollection that this is the case. It occurs that people do not often go on holiday alone. So, one of the key questions is who, if anyone, am I on holiday with? What might my partner’s name be? Here I have considerable difficulty. I cannot remember. I call out several names in turn. Kora! Natasha! Mercedes! Each of these names seems to hold a significant association. I try others. Sharon! Tracey! Rover! Rover is something of a longshot. I have no memory of having owned a dog.

No one replies. I push back the duvet, which sends the Gideon bible and a wooden ocarina hurtling to the floor. I have a quick swill in the blackened enamel sink, slip on my jeans and Iceman hoody and search for some clues. I look for items that might be useful in my present situation like a mobile phone, map, passport, tickets or money. I conduct a thorough search and come up with a registration document for a Dodge Challenger and some Barclaycard receipts for night-time lingerie, neither of which seems particularly helpful. I venture down the stairs. Dusty etchings reminiscent of Jake and Dinos Chapman hang on the walls, and the empty echo of a lingering silence hangs on the air. There is a small lobby at the foot of the stairs. I ring the bell more as a gesture than with any real hope of someone appearing. I can’t help noticing there is a 1983 A-Team calendar on the wall. Am I perhaps in some kind of time warp?

I take a hesitant walk outside. I experience the feeling of being outside myself, like an onlooker on my situation. It is dark, but although it is dark, objects still cast a stubborn shadow as if it were light. The half-standing buildings and piles of collapsed masonry and rubble suggest to me that the place has been bombed and abandoned. Maybe some while ago; there are no signs of recent habitation. No vehicles. No bodies. I wonder momentarily how it happened. Is it a terrorist attack, or is there a war going on at this very moment, whenever this is, in whatever country I am in? In whatever year? The building I have come from is the only one still standing. Remarkable, I think, that it still has electricity. But this is far from the only peculiarity. In the distance, the old man in a long overcoat and homburg hat calling to his cats has a distinctly spectral aspect. I wave to him and call out but he did not seem to see or hear. I approach him and call again, but still, he does not acknowledge me.

I move on down the street, if street is not too grandiose a description for this cluster of rubble. I speculate further as to where I might be and how I came to be there (by road, rail or inter-planetary craft maybe) but to little avail. My memory refuses to join in with the exercise. On finding a signpost in a script I do not recognise, for no lucid reason, I ignore the more likely roads back to civilisation and take a narrow path where the marker on the sign has been broken off. Tall berberis hedging flourishes on either side of the path. A little too abundantly perhaps. It quickly becomes difficult to see anything at all in the unmitigated gloom. The ground is uneven and several times I stumble and have to break my fall.

After covering a few hundred yards with only minor scratches and bruises I reach a clearing. Amidst the faint shafts of light, I can make out a dozen or so small igloo-shaped buildings some constructed of regular light-coloured wooden blocks, and others made out of wicker so that they looked like large baskets. A voice tells me this is ‘where the children lived’. I look around. I imagine it might be the old man with the cats that has spoken, but no-one is there. What children? Where were they? What is this place?

I continue on my way, taking a track through a shallow wooded area. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes grow in the spaces between the trees. I recognise the red and white spotted ones from children’s’ stories. Stories I recall I have read to my daughter. I have a daughter. My partner is called Kora and I have a daughter named Sierra. She is five, or is it twelve? Pretty much everything else seems hazy, though. Like where we live or what has happened or how the holiday, if it is a holiday, has turned out like this. Something about red and g