Tequila Mockingbird

tequilamockingbird

Tequila Mockingbird by Chris Green

When Max turned out the light last night, he assumed he would wake up in the morning, pull back the chintz curtains to let in a little light and listen for a few moments to the birds singing in the back garden. Apart from a small corner in front of the greenhouse where the turf was recently lain, the lawn would look in pretty good shape. He would feel proud about the work he had put in over the winter months. He would tell Cheryl that she had another twenty minutes in bed and that he would bring her a cup of Earl Grey before he left for work. She would turn over and pretend to go back to sleep.

Max would then have a shower and a shave and make his way downstairs for his bowl of Honey Nut Clusters in front of the BBC News. Through overexposure to this daily doom and gloom, the impact of the news stories would be slight. He would wait for the weather report before leaving to catch the 7:45 train which would be 13 minutes late. He would pick up a copy of the Metro, check to see if Leyton Orient had won their evening fixture and try to avoid conversation with the other passengers, each entrenched in their own private universe, while the train made its way slowly along the familiar route westwards through the sad suburban sprawl to London Bridge.

Expectations, of course, can sometimes turn out to be unrealistic. The first thing Max notices when he pulls back the curtains is that the birds are not singing in the back garden. There are no birds. More critically, there is no back garden. Instead, where the raised beds and the greenhouse at the bottom of the garden ought to be, there stands a row of ramshackle mud huts. They look like remnants of a civilisation in a poor Central American country where they build out of adobe. He stares aghast at what he sees, rubs his eyes and tries to think of a plausible explanation. None comes to mind. He turns to wake Cheryl. Cheryl is not there. He shouts downstairs. There is no response.

Max concludes she must have already got up and gone out. This is unprecedented; Cheryl does not start work until nine thirty and likes her lie-ins. Anyway, surely he would have heard her in the bathroom. He toys with the idea that he might be in the wrong house, that something irregular has happened, something he cannot remember. He goes to the landing. The gaudily patterned purple stair carpet that Cheryl persuaded him was modish confirms that he is at home. Cheryl has curious tastes, favouring bright colours while he himself prefers muted, more subtle shades.

He’s at home, Cheryl is not, the garden has been built on. He feels a rising panic about what might have happened. Whatever it is, he needs to face up to it. His therapist, Otto frequently tells him that his reluctance to acknowledge a problem and surmount it are among his principal weaknesses. Otto says action is needed to affect any given situation. With Otto’s words ringing in his ear, Max goes downstairs. A glance around seems to show that, apart from Cheryl, home comforts are still in place. The big OLED TV is still there along with the red leather settee and the John Lewis bookcase with its modest library of modern fiction. The drinks cabinet seems to be fully stocked with the crystal decanters that have, since he moderated his intake, fallen into disuse. His prized original photograph of the 1966 England World Cup winning team, a gift to him from Sir Geoff when he worked in PR, still hangs on the wall.

He checks the kitchen. This seems to be pretty much as he remembers it. Lots of pans and kitchen gadgets, blenders, mixers and a sink full of dishes. There are, however, no Honey Nut Clusters in the larder. He reasons Cheryl must have finished them off and put the box in the recycling bin before she went out. Unusual though because Cheryl favours Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and he notices there are still three full packets.

Determined not to be phased by the unfolding mystery, Max sits down with a bowl of Fruit ‘n’ Fibre and goes to turn on the news. In the face of adversity, routine is important. The TV though has no sound or picture. The light indicating that the TV is not in standby is displaying, but none of the channel numbers he keys in brings any response. He checks the aerial, pulls the plugs out of the wall, twice, finally gives the set a clout with his fist. Nothing. He tries the phone. No dialling tone. His mobile. No signal. The laptop. No broadband connection.

‘Obstacles are there to be overcome,’ Otto is fond of telling him when he is being obstinately negative about a setback. ‘If you do everything in the right order and keep the momentum going,’ Otto says, ‘things should turn out right.’ With this in mind, Max sets off purposefully for work. He finds himself at the station just in time to catch the 7:45 which, unusually, seems to be on time. He is also able to grab a window seat. He notices several passengers in his carriage are talking on their mobile phones, so he gives his another look. Still no signal. To distract himself, he picks up a copy of The Metro. He sees Leyton Orient lost 5 -0 at home to Crawley Town and now are at the foot of the table and relegation is now looking very likely. Crawley’s new striker, Jesús Zapata scored a hat-trick.

As the train pulls out of Dartford, Max’s thoughts turn once more to the appearance of the adobe huts at the bottom of the garden. While there might be rational explanations for all of the other anomalies, this is the hardest to explain. The birds in the garden might just have gone to another garden to offer their serenade. Perhaps he hasn’t filled the feeders lately. The remote control for the television might need new batteries. This was something he didn’t check. His mobile phone probably simply packed up. It was a cheap one. But how could a row of gardens disappear wholesale and a row of mud huts just appear in their place overnight?

He does not want to think it but Cheryl might have simply left him. He would be devastated but it is not beyond the bounds of possibility. They have had a few disagreements of late, in fact, they had a little contretemps the previous evening. Cheryl suggested they might go to the retail park at the weekend to look for some new parquet flooring for the study. Cheryl’s brother, Bro had told her he would be able to lay it. Bro lived in Staines, a two hour drive away. This meant that he would probably want to stay for the duration and probably expect to smoke that awful smelling stuff he smoked. Max told her, perhaps a little forcefully, that he was not keen on the suggestion. After a little wrangling, they agreed to postpone Bro’s visit and perhaps look for some new curtains for the spare room instead. They had then settled for the night. Max read twenty eight pages of the latest Harlan Coben thriller and Cheryl read twenty four pages of her Jodi Picoult. They had a brief exchange of views on caravans, hydrangeas, and soap, then lights out. All was well, Max felt. But perhaps he had been mistaken. Perhaps all was not well. Perhaps Cheryl was still mad at him for his petulant reaction to her parquet flooring plan.

‘Twenty years of marriage is never without its ups and downs,’ Otto has made a habit of telling him. ‘Let her believe that she is the one making the decisions.’

Flawed reasoning, Max now thinks. Cheryl seems to be using this tactic on him.

He notices that the usual array of familiar faces seem to be absent from the train this morning. But, there again, it is possible that some of them might have missed the 7:45 because for once it was actually on time. But, today’s passengers do not conform to the profile of commuters he has become accustomed to. There are a disproportionate amount of flamboyant Hispanics on the train. And to his alarm, more of them get on at Belvedere and again at Abbey Wood. He does his best to tell himself that a few more Latinos than usual on a crowded train hardly constitutes an invasion, and may not have any connection at all with the adobe mud huts in the back garden. Perhaps the babble of Spanish has been a consistent feature on this line but he has not noticed it before. One can become desensitised to many things that form the background to daily life. Like the traffic furniture you pass every day on every street: you don’t notice it, but you probably would notice if it weren’t there.

Max is still gathering his thoughts when his train slows down and comes to an unscheduled stop just outside Plumstead. A train travelling in the opposite direction slowly comes into view. Max gazes out of the window as the carriages pass by. To his horror, he sees that in the second or third carriage, in the corresponding window seat, there is Cheryl, large as life, in her emerald green Crombie. She is talking to three sturdy figures in sombreros. He bangs on the window, but in the second or two that she is visible, finds himself unable to attract her attention, although his actions do attract the attention of his fellow passengers. A grey man dressed in a blue pinstripe business suit makes a motion to summon the guard. A man in his late forties with a fifties haircut grabs his arm. A nurse with a name badge bearing a formidably long name makes comforting gestures with her hands. A swarthy figure in a poncho looks at him menacingly.

‘It’s my wife,’ Max yells to all but no one in particular. ‘she’s on the other train.’

‘Pull yourself together,’ says the grey man in the blue pinstripe.

‘You a loony or something?’ says the man with the fifties haircut.

‘Take deep breaths,’ says the nurse with the badge.

No sabes lo que está pasando, ¿verdad?‘ says the swarthy figure in the poncho.

‘And they’ve built adobe shacks in my back garden,’ screams Max.

‘Get a grip,’ says the blue pinstripe.

‘Give him a slap,’ says the fifties haircut.

‘Imagine a sunset,’ says Nurse Zwangendaba.

Te preocupa que tu esposa tenga un romance,‘ says the poncho.

‘You’re off at the next station,’ says a massive guard, grabbing him by the lapel. Isn’t Hernandez a Spanish name, Max wonders as he is heaved against the window? Hernandez has a scar like a zip across his forehead and a remarkable big black droopy moustache. His build and his grip suggest that he might come from a long line of club bouncers.

On the platform of Woolwich Arsenal station where he finds himself, Max makes the decision to take a train back home. Cheryl will have been making her way back home on the other train when he glimpsed her. Perhaps she took the day off work and went out early to buy the new curtains from somewhere up West.

The revolving display on the platform notifies him that the next train is due in seven minutes. Max has never stopped off at Woolwich Arsenal before. The station he notices is of a pleasant design in steel and glass. But despite this, isn’t it a little Spanish looking? On the opposite platform, he can see a refreshment facility, its large illuminated advertising space given over exclusively to chilli, tortillas, and burritos. A poster for Cerveza Dos Equis has the caption, ‘Happy Hour is the hour after everyone from Happy Hour has left’. There is also an advert for Tequila Mockingbird. What on earth is that, he wonders?

Max takes out his phone once again to phone the office to say that he will not be coming in. He is sure that Roy Neptune will understand. Ted Drinker is always taking time off with his marital problems. Still no signal.

Along his platform beside a poster advertising a bullfight at the Plaza de Toros, a group of men dressed in dark charro suits begin to belt out a spirited Mariachi tune on guitars and a trumpet. It sounds to Max like La Bamba but could be some other upbeat Mexican song. ‘Construimos chozas de barro en su jardín,’ they seem to be singing. Something about a garden maybe. Max’s Spanish is not good.

The train duly arrives and Max jumps on. He finds a seat and begins to take deep breaths, hoping this will calm him. He tries to visualise a mountain stream, a still lake, a white temple. His efforts bring him no solace. Instead, his consciousness teems with menacing images of adobe mud huts. His discomfort grows as once again the carriage seems to fill up with Hispanics at Abbey Wood and Belvedere and he finds himself peppered with swift snatches of Spanish being barked into iPhones and Blackberrys. He feels as if all the air is being sucked out of the carriage and has difficulty breathing.

To his further distress, the train makes several unscheduled stops either side of Plumstead, and by the time he reaches Dartford, Max is desperate. He feels dizzy and is sweating profusely. He stumbles from the carriage, leaving a clutch of boarding passengers reeling in his wake. He badly needs some element of normality to reassure him. He must find out if Cheryl is back home. He frantically tries all of the phone booths at the station one by one, but each one has been vandalised. Dartford station has become lawless. A band of vaqueros is now raising the Mexican flag near the ticket office.

He spots a trainspotter alone at the end of the platform. He has noticed him taking down numbers on several previous occasions at the station. The fellow, who bears a passing resemblance to Jon Sergeant with an earring and a few days growth is now keying something into his mobile phone. Probably this is his new way of taking down train numbers, a digital version of Ian Allan.

Max summons up his courage and approaches him and asks if he can borrow the phone. It is an emergency, he says. The trainspotter, whose name Max discovers is Norman, clearly does not get a lot of company and seems pleased to have someone to talk to. Norman begins to regale Max with random information about Dartford station. Did Max know for instance that the original station building had an Italianate design? That the station is unique because, despite its location outside Greater London, London residents with Freedom Passes (but not regular Oyster Cards) can travel to and from the station. Or that this station is where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bumped into each other by chance, an event that resulted in the formation of Rolling Stones.

Eventually, the information dries up and when Max prompts him again Norman hands him the phone. Max dials the home number and when there is no reply, Cheryl’s mobile number. No reply here either. It goes to Voicemail and Max leaves an incoherent message which would probably puzzle even GCHQ. It certainly seems to puzzle Norman, who in case anyone is watching is now making loony gestures with his index finger to his forehead. The only other number Max knows off the top of his head is Otto’s, so he dials this. He does so now without much hope as Otto has wall to wall appointments most days, but at least, he will be able to leave a message with his receptionist, Heidi. To his amazement, Otto himself answers.

Max outlines his predicament, his description of the day’s events delivered in an unpunctuated Joycean stream of consciousness.

‘Slow down,’ says Otto. ‘Just tell me step by step.’

Max explained about the adobe huts.

‘Uh hu,’ said Otto.

And Cheryl’s disappearance.

‘Uh hu.’

Max listens patiently as Max tells him about passing Cheryl in the train on the way to work, about the Mexicans on the train, the Mariachi band at Woolwich Arsenal and the vaqueros raising the Mexican flag.

‘We’ve been over all this before,’ says Otto finally. ‘You remember a week or two ago you came in when the Granaderos were outside your house and the Bank of Mexico cancelled your credit card. I diagnosed it then as ‘Brief Psychotic Disorder Without Obvious Stressor.’ I told you to look it up on the internet and you said you would. You have been taking your medication haven’t you?’

Max makes a grunt. He has not as it happens.

Otto tries another tack.

‘These are delusions brought on by irrational stress about a hypothetical event,’ he continues. ‘I realise that you’ve become anxious about The World Cup. But it doesn’t start for another month. And even if both teams get through the first stages, England aren’t scheduled to play Mexico until the semi-finals. It’s not a sentiment that in my professional capacity I often espouse but you’re going to have to get a grip. It’s only football, after all.’

‘Its only football,’ Max repeats. ‘It’s only football. And England might not even play Mexico….. So you don’t think that any of this happened?’

‘No,’ says Otto. Well, obviously, I can’t be certain about Cheryl. She has been rather, how can I put it, patient, through your little episodes, but I think you’ll find that there has not been a Mexican takeover and that when you get home that there will be no adobe huts in the back garden.’

‘So you think Cheryl may have left me,’ says Max leaping at once on the negative part of Otto’s remark.

‘No, of course not,’ says Otto. ‘But you need to acknowledge that your delusional states do put her under a lot of pressure sometimes. You have to start to appreciate that.’

‘So none of this happened and the World Cup isn’t for another month and England probably won’t even have to play Mexico,’ says Max.

‘That’s right,’ says Otto. He is about to add that Max should be more worried about England having to play Brazil or Germany, but he feels this would only add fuel to the fire.

‘You have to stop thinking about football,’ he says, instead. ‘Anyway, Max, it will be the cricket season soon.’

Max notices that the vaqueros have disappeared and the union flag is once more aloft, fluttering gently in the breeze. He thanks Otto, and Otto reminds him of his appointment on Friday. Feeling his burden had been lifted, he hands the phone back to the confused trainspotter and, not thinking about football, he makes his way along the Latino-free platform. There are nineteen missed calls on his mobile phone. He texts Cheryl to say that he was on his way home.

From the station, it was just a short walk. It is a warm day and the birds are singing. There is not a cloud in the sky. Wait. Is there just one tiny little cloud on the horizon? Is it coming this way? Max thinks it might be. It will be the cricket season soon, Otto said. The cricket season soon.

When he arrives home, to his alarm he finds a line of dusky women dressed in bright saris in the hallway, weaving a colourful piece of silk fabric on a giant loom. He cannot even get in the front door. He wonders how long it is until first Test Match starts. He can‘t remember when England last beat India at Trent Bridge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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Legend Bemusement

legendbemusement

Legend Bemusement by Chris Green

Charlotte walks in on me packing a travelling bag. She suspects, quite rightly, that I am off on a mission. I have not told her. I was leaving this until later.

‘Going somewhere?’ she asks. It is not a polite enquiry, more like the opening salvo of a pitched battle.

‘I was going to tell you,’ I say. ‘Only you were busy with the …… hoovering.’

‘What is it this time?’ she says. ‘Another piece of junk for your collection?’

‘Well. You must have noticed that George died,’ I say.

‘Who?’

‘George Michael. Didn’t you hear me playing his tunes last week?’

‘Oh! Him. He’s dead, is he? Why is that important?’

‘His telescope is for sale.’

‘For God’s sake, Miles. What’s wrong with you? We haven’t got room for any more clutter.’

‘They are quite compact these days. It wouldn’t take up much room.’

‘What would you dowith the bloody thing, anyway? Look at Lucy Love getting ready for work in the mornings?’

‘We could view it as an investment.’

‘Look, Miles. I think I’ve been pretty tolerant about your ridiculous obsession up till now. It wasn’t so bad at first. When you just had a few bits of celebrity memorabilia. Bob Marley’s surfboard, Jimi Hendrix’s kite. A few little novelty mementos. I could handle that. But now you’re adding to your collection weekly. It’s getting ridiculous. You can hardly move downstairs. Tell me! Why do we need Syd Barrett’s bike or Prince’s trampoline in the conservatory?’

We’ve been over this one. I’ve been tearing my hair out trying to come up with a solution but space is always going to be a problem for the collector. When Charlotte and I first moved a year or so back, it seemed we had enough room for a few more collectables, what with both Elton and John having left home. But, you soon fill the extra space. You always need more room.

‘I suppose I could move the bike and the trampoline,’ I say. ‘If you think they are getting in the way.’

‘And do we have to have Leonard Cohen’s pool table in the study? It’s not as if you’re ever going to use it.’

‘Well, if I move Syd’s bike and Prince’s trampoline, it could go in the conservatory.’

‘And, quite frankly, John Lennon’s ouija board on the dining room table gives me the creeps.’

‘OK. OK, I get the message,’ I say. ‘I’ll put that out into the conservatory as well. Anyway, I’ve made arrangements to see the telescope tomorrow.’

‘It would have been nice to have been told,’ Charlotte says. ‘How long are you going to be away?’

‘Well, Charlotte. I have to go to Cornwall. I shouldn’t be more than a day or two.’

‘And you really think it’s worth travelling three hundred odd miles to buy a boy’s toy just because it belonged to a second-rate, drug-addicted pop star with no road sense.’

Momentarily, I wonder whether Charlotte may have a point. After all, George Michael doesn’t enjoy the cult status of Prince. Nor does he have the mystique of David Bowie, whose jetski I was lucky enough to pick up at auction last month. George is an understated legend, perhaps most well known for regularly crashing his car. But there again, George had the courage to go outside when most of the other gay celebrities were staying in the closet, which surely earns him a certain cachet.

You might consider my contact, Izzy Eeing an entrepreneur. I’m not sure how Izzy comes across these rare collectables. I don’t like to think of him as a thief, more as a shrewd negotiator. His tax returns might not bear scrutiny but he is a straightforward geezer and a well-connected one. I have never had any reason to doubt the provenance or authenticity of any of the memorabilia he has sold me. He is far more trustworthy than the London wheeler-dealers. With Izzy, what you see is what you get. If Izzy phones me up and says that he has Kurt Cobain’s strimmer for sale then that is what it will be. Should I want Buddy Holly’s yoga mat, he will get me Buddy Holly’s yoga mat. If I asked him to come up with Roy Orbison’s Wayfarers or Marc Bolan’s wizards hat, I could guarantee results. Izzy is a resourceful man.

…………………….

With Charlotte’s words I may not be here when you get back ringing in my ears, I set off bright and early. I am becoming used to these little contretemps. The same old arguments. All these people are dead, Miles, why can’t you move on? You seem to be going further and further back. Why do you have to live in the past? Why don’t you get a life? So and so is doing this, so and so is doing that. We never do anything together. Charlotte refuses to acknowledge that our cultural heritage is something to be cherished. …… She will simmer for a bit but she will come round.

After a couple of hours of sluggish traffic on the M25, I join the M4. To break up the journey, I stop off at Reading Services for a Sidecar doughnut and Americano. I check my phone and find I have an alert that Frank Zappa’s food mixer is for sale. I have to admit I’m tempted. Who wouldn’t be? I wonder why it has come up now, though. Frank has been dead a while and surely his star must be fading. But, perhaps a food mixer might go some way to placating Charlotte. There again, she would probably just carry on her diatribe about me living in the past.

Charlotte keeps telling me I live in a fantasy world. I respond by saying that in one way or another, don’t we all live in a fantasy world? What about those who read books about a boy wizard performing magic tricks or those who watch movies where dragons and orcs fight for mythical kingdoms? What about the millions watching mind-numbing soap operas every night? What about the ones who believe the stories in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express? Everyone it seems is living in some kind of dreamworld. As T. S. Eliot says in his epic musing, Burnt Norton, ‘humankind cannot bear very much reality.’

On balance, best then to give Frank’s food mixer a miss and concentrate on the task at hand. The sooner I can get down to Cornwall, the happier I will be. I don’t like travelling as much as I once did, but it is necessary for collectors to get about. Tailbacks from accidents further impede my progress and I am forced to make an unplanned stop at Leigh Delamere Services. Despite my earlier hard-line stance, I don’t like to let things at home fester so I give Charlotte a call to see how the land lies. And perhaps apologise for being a little offhand with her, offer to make it up to her. The call goes straight to voicemail. I leave a conciliatory message.

My expensive Domino’s pizza has the consistency of scrunched elastic bands and I regret ordering the double espresso instantly. It tastes like charred wood. I can’t help but recall the days when motorway service stations consisted of no-nonsense greasy spoons and you could have a decent fry-up at any time of day. You could even enjoy a good strong cup of tea with a cigarette afterwards. There’s this assumption that progress is a good thing, but is it? I’m not one of those people that believes in a mythic golden age but so many things were better back in the day. There was more simplicity and honesty. These days you pay more for less so that less people can have more. There again, I could not help but notice that petrol seems remarkably cheap here and they have gone back to using those slower pumps. Safety, I suppose.

Out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of a woman at a table to the side of me looking in my direction, late twenties perhaps, dark hair, nice smile. It’s as if she recognises me. I do not recognise her but I smile back. She looks away and begins flicking through the pages of a local newspaper. I can only see part of the front page headline but it reads ‘dies of cancer’. I strain my head, curious to see who has died of cancer. It is Trogg’s lead singer, Reg Presley. Reg, of course, comes from around these parts. Andover, I believe. But, I remember that Reg died a few years ago. Why is she reading such an old paper? I am about to go over to try to find out when my phone rings. I imagine it is Charlotte returning my call but it is someone from the subcontinent wanting to talk to me about web domains. By the time I have explained that I am not interested, the woman reading the newspaper has disappeared. I search the service area high and low but there is no sign of her.

Confused, I get back on the road. I am behind schedule. Thankfully, the traffic as we come up to the M5 junction seems lighter. Sometimes this is what happens as motorists catch on that there have been accidents on a motorway. Traffic services on the radio and internet will have been putting out warnings and suggesting alternate routes for an hour or two and gradually the information filters through to drivers, keen to avoid the hold-ups. It’s not surprising that there are so many accidents on these motorways though. The carriageways are badly in need of an upgrade. I don’t recall the road surface being this bad though and they seem to have taken out some of the helpful signs and overhead displays. If you did not know your way, you might be going anywhere.

Curiously, there is hardly any traffic on the Avon bridge, which is normally a stretch of road that puts the fear of God into me. Four lanes in each direction with cars and trucks weaving in and out. As I head further south down the M5, through the elevated section there is even less traffic. I’ve never known it so quiet. It is interesting to see so many Vauxhall Cavaliers on the road though. Perhaps there is an owners’ club meeting in Weston Super Mare or somewhere. There’s a couple of Lada Rivas too. I haven’t seen one of those in a while. The Woolworths truck is puzzling. Woolworths ceased trading in, when was it? 2007, 2008? …….. There appear to be no roadsigns at all now, not even at the exit I am approaching. The satnav doesn’t seem to be working. A blank screen. But, I know where I am going, M5 to Exeter and then A30 across Devon to Cornwall. Anyway, I do have a map in case there’s a problem with the route.

I switch on the radio to keep me company and maybe get some traffic reports on too to see what is happening ahead. I am only able to pick up one station, a local one called The Breeze. Unusually for a local radio station, they are playing songs by The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go followed by London Calling. Not the usual middle of the road fare at all. I discover these are a tribute to Clash frontman, Joe Strummer, who lived in the Somerset Levels. Joe died yesterday, the disc jockey says. A sad loss to the local community. What is going on? Joe Strummer died back in 2002. I’m certain of this. I bought his yoghurt maker.

A few more bumpy miles and I pull nervously into Bridgewater Services at Junction 24. The operation has been drastically scaled down. The services seem to be undergoing a complete makeover. Even the Travelodge has gone. All that is left are a handful of prefabricated buildings and a gravel car park. The gravel car park is empty, except for a few contractor’s vans. Someone is erecting a Moto sign. Coming soon, it says. Something is very wrong. It wasn’t like this when I came this way with Charlotte last year.

‘Can I help you, guv?’ says a bruiser in orange fatigues and a hard-hat.

I tell him I am looking for the services. Somewhere to get a cup of tea and compose myself.

‘You’re about two years early, mate,’ he laughs. ‘Not scheduled for completion until 1999. That’s if you’re lucky. We’ve fallen a bit behind. The site was flooded here a couple of weeks ago. Big centrifugal pumps we had to hire to get rid of the water.’

1999. What is the fellow talking about?

‘No s’sssservices until …… 1999, I stammer. ‘What do you mean?’

‘If you want to get a cuppa or a bite to eat, bud,’ he says. ‘You’ll have to go on to Taunton Deane. That’s another twenty odd miles. ‘

‘But there were services here. I know there were,’ I say. ‘What have you done?’

‘You taking the piss, mate? Look! I should get back in your car before I set the dogs on you.’

I know there was a huge complex here at the A38 roundabout. You could access it from both carriageways. How can this have just vanished? This nightmare collapse of time is scaring the pants off me. I feel like I’ve inadvertently stepped into in a Philip C. Dark story. I desperately need something to hang on to, something I can believe, a shot of reality. My head is spinning. My mouth is dry. My stomach is churning. I reach into my pocket for my phone to call Charlotte. Or perhaps even Dr Self. He intimated that something unexpected might happen. He suggested I would not like it if it did. He did not go into detail. My phone is not in my pocket. I always keep in in my pocket but it is not there. I go back to the car and search frantically. I appear to no longer have a phone.

It is not until I‘m behind the wheel again that I realise that I am in a different car. It is still a Ford. I’ve always gone for Fords. But, this one is an older model. Like one that I owned years ago. Twenty years ago, perhaps. It is the one I owned twenty years ago. It’s the same car. Blue Ford Escort. No power steering. Oil light that stays on. The same broken radio cassette player. Even the same cassettes in the driver’s side door pocket. And, the same …….. dog on the back seat. My big black bulldog, Elvis. Elvis has been dead for…. Well, he’s been dead a long time.…….. He’s not dead now. He is barking like he does when he is greeting someone. He leaps over the passenger seat into the front of the car somehow knocking the rear view mirror and realigning it as he does so. I catch a glimpse of myself. I now have a full head of hair and I have lost the beard. It is said that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. I try to believe that things are still how they were when I set off but when I look in the mirror again, I find I still have a full head of hair and no beard. How can this have happened? How can any of this be happening? And, where has this thick fog suddenly come from? I can hardly see the road ahead.

When I emerge from the fog, sometime later (flexible, anonymous, irrational time) Elvis is no longer with me. Things appear to have once more moved on. Or back. Time it seems is in a bit of a tangle right now. I find I am in a Ford Cortina. A Mark 2 model. On a narrow windy country lane. Up ahead is a horse-drawn tractor. Princetown 7 miles, says a gnarled road sign. Princetown, I believe is in the middle of Dartmoor. Driving the car is a man that I recognise to be my dead father. He tells me he is taking me to a concert. In Tavistock.

‘It’s all right, he says. ‘I told your mother we would be late.’

‘A concert. You mean like people on a stage,’ I say. I cannot now recall having been to a concert before.

‘That’s right, son.’

‘Who are we going to see?’

‘Jimi Hendrix,’ he says.

‘Who?’ I say.

‘No. Not The Who, lad,’ he says. ‘Jimi Hendrix. He’s just arrived in this country. He has a record called Hey Joe. He plays the guitar with his teeth. He’s going to be famous. You’ll probably be buying posters of him for your room and who knows what else before long.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

FEDORA

fedorapic2

Fedora by Chris Green

It is often difficult for an author to appraise his own work. Sometimes a story that he thinks is the real deal, goes down like a lead balloon. Other times a throwaway piece of nonsense is acclaimed by readers as a masterpiece. There seem to be no rules. It can help the writer’s objectivity a little if, when he finishes a story, he puts it away for a couple of months and then goes back to reappraise it. This can offer a fresh perspective on the story. It is almost like reading someone else’s work. I have started to use this method as a means of quality control.

It is also beneficial to get someone else to have a look. With many of my stories coming from a male subject position, there is always the danger that one or two them might be a little sexist, so when I can, I like to run them past Jody to get a female perspective. Statistics show that more women than men read fiction, so there is no sense in alienating the female reader. It is common practice to get a second opinion on a written work. Some writers have a professional editor, some use a work colleague, others a close friend. Some are more unconventional in their approach. My friend, Dale Head, who you might describe as a bit of a loner, reads his stories to his macaw, Gerald, to get his view. It’s possible that Gerald doesn’t add a lot to Dale’s efforts. I can only guess but I think I may be the only one who actually reads Dale’s blog. I haven’t the heart to tell him that people don’t go a lot on stream of consciousness narratives these days.

I decide to take another look at a short story that I wrote back in February. It’s called Fedora and it is a mystery thriller. I read through it carefully and am pleasantly surprised by how well it reads. It has some inspired turns of phrase, the characters are believable, the dialogue is crisp and the theme is topical. It has intrigue, mystery, tension, and subtle humour here and there to break up the tension. Most of all, out of the blue, it delivers a clever twist. I think it might even be one of my best. It is surely a contender for the lead story in my next collection. To my surprise, Jody agrees. She waxes lyrical about the sexual tension that runs through the narrative. She keeps using the expression, frisson. She particularly likes the bit at the end where the mystery man in the hat appears unexpectedly out of the haze. It is archetypal, she says, although as a Jungian therapist, she does see a lot of things as archetypal. However Jody is my fiercest critic and if she likes Fedora that is good enough for me to post it.

I now need a dark, mysterious picture to use as a cover to attract readers to it on my website. The aim of my site is to try out my stories to see how they go down with readers, before presenting them for publication in printed form. Without this safeguard, self-publishing can be a bit hit and miss. When the time comes, I know I will have to come up with an original image for the book cover. Copyright considerations are paramount when it comes to the printed page. You can’t just use someone’s picture without permission. But, on a website these days, copyright with regard to images seems to count for very little. Anything goes. Very few writers create their own artwork from scratch and there are billions of images on the internet to choose from. When you search google images it’s almost impossible to judge which ones require licences. After all, their just being there for you to download, often from a number of different web addresses, is probably in itself an infringement of someone’s copyright. These people can’t all be licenced to display all the images.

What I am looking for is a striking image of a sinister figure. Alas, all the pictures of men in hats on the web seem to be of film stars or models posing and they all seem to be wearing either Homburgs or Trilbies. I cannot find a single photo of a nefarious character wearing a Fedora. While this detail may not matter to the average Joe, sartorial accuracy is something the writer takes seriously. A Fedora must be a Fedora. I briefly consider changing the style of hat in the story to a Homburg, but I decide I don’t really want to. The type of man that wears a Homburg is altogether different to the one who wears a Fedora and a Fedora definitely suits my character better.

Finally, after a few frustrating hours, I manage to come up with a picture. It is not exactly what I am looking for but with a little cropping and manipulation it might be OK. I get to work on it in Photoshop and end up with a dark foreboding image of a tall man in a long overcoat and a black Fedora hat. He hovers menacingly in the shadows with his back to the camera. It is reminiscent of the famous shot of Orson Welles in The Third Man. I add the title of the story along with my name in a nicely-kerned Gothic font in white and post it as a link to the story on my website.

In the first couple of hours of putting a post up, I like to keep a close eye on its progress. In no time at all, Fedora racks up an encouraging number of views and half a dozen likes. ‘Okay, I give up. You win,’ comments BravoYankee, a sporadic visitor to my site. ‘I could never imagine anything so clever. This is the best story I’ve read, on or off the internet, in a long time.’ BravoYankee’s words are indeed encouraging.

The email I receive just after lunch comes as a bolt out of the blue. It is from a Corey Hicks from Godmanchester in Cambridgeshire and it reads: ‘It has come to my attention that you have used my image Man in a Fedora Hat as the cover image for your story Fedora. I have no record of providing you with a licence to use my image in this way. Please let me know where you sourced my image and what rights you have to use it.’

I email Corey back to apologise and say that if there is a breach of copyright, it was an honest mistake. I point out that his image and others like it are available in many locations through a google image search.

Corey emails back almost straight away to say without prejudice that this is not the case. Man in a Fedora Hat was and is only available, he says, on two websites, one is an agent that provides commercial licences for the image and the other site is the one that manages his portfolio. His portfolio site clearly references his copyright and provides a means to discuss potential uses of his images with him. He says that I have used his image to promote my work without any discussion with him, no notification whatsoever, no acknowledgement of his work, no licence to do so and certainly no payment. In addition, I have taken the trouble to crop his watermark from the image that I used in order to hide the provenance. He offers me the opportunity to pay £250 to settle the copyright infringement out of court.

By this time, I cannot remember exactly which site I found the image on and now I cannot find its source at all. Half an hour’s trawling through the internet with a range of different search terms does not locate it. I am now panicking a little. I wish Jody were here to put a reassuring spin on things but she has a two-hour dream interpretation session with a troubled client. I do not feel I can interrupt and she is hardly going to respond to a text. But, I don’t feel I can leave the matter up in the air so I email Corey back to say that he is being a little dramatic and that in any case £250 is excessive. In his next email, he offers the location of the site and he has mapped out where and how I have cropped the original image. I see that I have only taken a small proportion of what is a much larger picture, so I let him know that this is the case. He is quickly back saying that the amount I have used does not matter in the slightest. He attaches reports of some legal case studies where thousands of pounds have accrued in cases where a small percentage of the original image were used. I get the impression that Corey Hicks has done this before. He is practised in the art. Perhaps this is even his main source of income. I scan through the attachments he has sent and slowly come to the realisation that he is right. The settlements mentioned involve colossal sums. And most of the cases involve self-publishers who appear to have made a genuine mistake. Under the circumstances, it seems to me that fighting the case would be foolhardy. I don’t have that kind of money to lose. In the cut-throat world of copyright law, £250 for an infringement is apparently small potatoes. I settle.

If my book sales pick up a bit, I should be able to recoup the sum in five or six years. All I can say is, please buy my books.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Marzipan Imbroglio

marzipanimbroglio

Marzipan Imbroglio by Chris Green

When I read the post on Facebook that striker, Gary Trevor has signed for Mars United FC for a record £300 million, my first reaction is, oh yeah, sure. I run it straight through the bullshit detector on my browser, expecting it to confirm it as a fake news story, like so many of the posts on Facebook these days. To my surprise, it doesn’t. Gary Trevor it seems really has signed for the interplanetary club. Admittedly, he has never shown Mensa potential but surely even for someone as thick as Gary, this move is nothing short of crazy. For one thing, he will he be likely to lose his match fitness during the long flight. For another, there will be no pitches suitable for a big fixture on the red planet, nor any teams except perhaps Mars Athletic for Mars United to play. And what will happen about Gary’s famously profligate private life?

To make sure everything is working correctly, I check out some old favourites. After all, you never know who might be moderating the news checking sites that seem to be springing up. Perhaps the one my browser uses may have been hacked. But, the results are pretty much what I would expect. The bs detector says there is only a two per cent chance that Elvis is still alive and a one per cent chance that the American president really is an alien. Yet, there is a hundred per cent chance that the news about Gary Trevor’s transfer to Mars United FC is correct. Higher even than the question as to whether the new Pope, Clive Christopher is a Catholic which comes in at ninety nine per cent.

‘There’s no point in going on social media any longer,’ Lenny says when I mention Gary’s bizarre move to him. ‘Every post you see is immediately contradicted by another.’

‘But bs detectors are supposed to have put an end to all that,’ I say. ‘They are meant to filter out misinformation.’

‘Yeah! Course!’ Lenny says. ‘But, it’s not just social media. The internet is littered with bogus information. You just have to suspend belief when you go online.’

‘You used to be able to see the internet as a means to correct all the lies you read in the daily newspapers,’ I say.

‘Not anymore,’ Lenny says. ‘What about this, Stan? I came upon a story about Chick Strangler on Google just now. Chick’s always been a heavy rocker. Right?’

‘The heaviest,’ I say. ‘Famous for his destructive stage act and ……. er, uncompromising lifestyle.’

‘Quite!’

‘Who could forget the hotel trashings and the wild orgies that set the tabloid press alight?’

‘Or his prodigious drug use?’ Lenny says ‘And all that stuff with reptiles? Anyway, I’ve just read that he’s recording an album of country classics. Chick Strangler. Country classics. Think about it. But, this too checks out on newscheck.com. To add credibility to the story, there is his new version of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, if anything a watered down version of the original. Lies Or Not even shows the album cover.’

‘You’re saying it’s not really Chick?’

‘What do you think? It’s difficult to tell the Daily Mail site from the Daily Mash.’

‘But it always has been, Lenny,’ I say.

Patti is not interested in the exploits of Gary Trevor or Chick Strangler. In the battle of the sexes, it may not always be reported this way around but Patti feels that women have more important things to think about.

‘I know you and Lenny go for all of this celebrity chit chat,’ she says. ‘You blokes put celebrity before substance. But it’s the serious stuff that worries me. Is Asteroid Kardashian going to hit us and are we really at war with North Vesuvia? In fact, is North Vesuvia really a country? Ain’t It The Truth says it is a country in Asia and FactFinder says it doesn’t exist.’

I suggest that perhaps we are both making the same point. Patti feels we are not. She maintains there is a big difference between the trivial and the afflictive.

‘What about the Shropshire famine, Stan?’ Patti says. ‘Thousands are dying in Ludlow and Oswestry.’

I don’t mention the woolly mammoth sightings that are all over the internet in case she thinks they might come under trivial.

Perhaps all the fake news is tied in with our fascination with fiction. Perhaps we have allowed fiction to spill over into reality. Reality? There’s a slippery customer. Albert Einstein maintained that reality was merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. If I looked up Albert Einstein on Whosthat now, I would probably find he was married to Queen Victoria and built a large concert hall in the middle of London to stage rock operas.

If we could only return to those days of honest no-nonsense reporting of the facts. To the time when there was universal truth. In the not too distant past, there was no such thing as fake news. There was no need for authenticity checks on everything you came across. Back then, you could believe what you read. There might have been reports of virgin births and people coming back from the dead, but you knew these were from a reliable source. If you read about someone walking on water or living inside a whale, you knew it was right. It was a golden age of honesty and trust. Nowadays, you just don’t know what to believe.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 5

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketron5

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 5 by Chris Green

DALE

‘Dale Loveless! What are you doing here?’ says Annette Lard. ‘Everyone thinks you are dead. Even that guy that writes the stories about you thinks you are dead. You know, the one that writes the Wet Blanket Ron stories. I can’t for the life of me think of his name. Anyway, he came into the bookies where I work about a month ago to tell me. Apparently, his friend, Marlin Snider told him. A hit and run driver in Black Dog Way, he said. Tracey Minger said the same thing when I saw her at BronzeTan. ……. It is really you, isn’t it? Only I’ve been feeling a bit funny since Doctor Gauguin put me on these new pills and I get confused easily. …… What are you doing here alive, anyway?’

‘Not a good to see you, Dale or a how are you, Dale, then,’ says the downbeat figure sitting with his black and white mongrel dog on the bench outside the railway station.

‘Look! Why don’t I buy you a coffee in that café over there? We can have a chat.’

‘Can’t drink coffee. Blood pressure.’

‘Perhaps a cider or something.’

‘I’ve been trying to stay off the pop since I’ve been out of prison.’

‘You living back round here then, Dale?’

‘For the time being. Ted Drinker is renting me a room above his car lot.’

‘I suppose he felt guilty about that Rover he sold you. The one that blew up.’

‘No, I don’t think so. Ted doesn’t do feelings. Anyway, I’ve bought another one off of him since that. A Kia.’

‘Oh, that’s nice. Good little motors, Kias.’

‘Well, no. Not really. That one blew up too. The day before yesterday.’

‘I don’t suppose you’re working or you wouldn’t be sitting around here in the middle of the day.’

‘I’ve got a job interview to go to tomorrow.’

‘That’s good. Where’s that?’

It’s at that new er, ….. phone shop down past the Scott Mackenzie roundabout.’

‘Oh yes,’ I think I’ve seen the one you mean. The one with the tinted windows and purple dishes on the roof. It’s quite an unusual …… structure isn’t it? But, of course! I remember now, Dale. You used to be an engineer of some sort before all your …… troubles started.’

‘Seems a long time ago now. Anyway, I don’t expect I’ll get the job but wish me luck anyway. Look! I’d better take Leonard here for a walk down by the canal before it starts to rain again.’

‘Well. It was good to see you, Dale. And you know where I am. I’m still at BetterBet. Look in anytime.’

‘Probably not a good idea after the last time.’

‘Oh, that’s right! I remember now. You had all that money on Can’t Lose and it fell at the last fence.’

AUTHOR

I don’t know where my ideas for stories come from. I just seem to pluck them out of the air. It’s as if authors are able to tune into a radio wavelength that non-authors aren’t aware of. Other writers, I’ve spoken to, like Philip C. Dark and Guy Bloke describe it as being like a sixth sense. They say their stories bear an uncanny resemblance to things that are really happening somewhere that they are not supposed to know about. Some might see it as sorcery. I’m not exactly sure what Zeitgeist means, but it might be best to think of inspiration in those terms. There’s something unexplainable out there in the ether.

The bottom line is I don’t know where my idea for the new Wet Blanket Ron story comes from. After all, in the last one, I killed the character off. Wet Blanket Ron was dead. What is it that makes me want to bring him back to life? One reason might, of course, be his popularity. I had angry letters from my readers when I killed him off. One fan, in particular, a long-term follower from the sub-continent stopped just short of issuing a death threat. I believe the same thing happened to J. K. Rowling when she threatened to kill off Harry Potter. I had only killed Wet Blanket Ron off because Dale Loveless, the fellow I had originally based Ron’s character on, was dead; killed in an unfortunate road accident.

But this is not the primary reason I am bringing Ron back. Quite simply, I wake one morning with the idea for a new Wet Blanket Ron adventure going round and round in my head and feel compelled to write it down. So I need to pretend that Ron’s accident never happened. Or maybe he survived it. Let’s get that bit out of the way. Ron was unconscious but came round in the ambulance taking him to hospital. He survived. Here he is.

RON

Arriving at PurplePhones for his interview, Ron finds the walls are lined with rows of futuristic-looking phones, tablets and other spectacular communications devices, all of them purple. Some funky music is belting out from invisible speakers. He thinks it might be Prince.

As Ron looks at the gleaming displays, bemused, a tall man in a purple suit twirling a cane comes across and greets him.

‘I’m Miles Highman’ he says.

It takes a little while for Ron to realise that Miles Highman is the man’s name and not a passing reference to recent drug abuse. Miles guides him into a purple pod. He gestures for Ron to sit down on a purple bucket chair, and invites him to stroke one of a menagerie of purple cats. This is not the direction an interview for a job usually takes but stroking the cats makes him feel less nervous.

Although Ron has deliberately tried to hide it away at the bottom of his CV, Miles Highman asks Ron straight away about his work with NVision Inc. This was an episode in his life that Ron was anxious to put behind him. His role had been to deliver bad news to people or relatives of people before it actually happened. This was supposed to prepare the victims for what was to come or enable them to take action to avoid it. Like so many things in his life, this project did not turn out well. Due to a series of mishaps, Ron was unable to alert the West Midlands mother to her son’s upcoming death in an explosion nor was he able to convince the Manchester businessman that he was to going be shot. Sadly both died as a result.

Because Ron badly needs a job, he keeps quiet about his disastrous record of outcomes with the company. He does not mention how he was unable to do anything about a plane crash in California that he was sent out to prevent. He merely tells Miles that working at Vision Inc. was an eye opening experience and he is sure he can get a reference from Amit if need be.

DALE

‘Hey! Dale!’ Marlin Snider calls out in the middle of the pedestrian precinct.’

‘Oh! It’s you. Hello, Marlin. What do you want?’ Dale says lugubriously. He has the air of a man who does not want to engage in small talk.

‘Annette told me you were …… er, alive. Good to see you. What are you doing, man? Did you get the new job?’

‘I did, as it happens, Marlin. In fact, I’m working now.’

‘Working? What are you doing exactly, Dale? …… It looks to me like you are standing around in the middle of the shopping centre waving your arms around.’

‘It’s called working, Marlin. I’m in telecommunications.’

‘Hey. What are you talking about?’

‘I’m in front line promotion. I’ve got to use this little device here to er …….. temporarily disable everybody’s smartphone. Look! This is how it works.’

‘It’s not a very ethical kind of job, Dale. That’s worse than …. ‘

‘Well! Needs must, Marlin. It’s all right. I’m not going to disable your phone.’

‘Still, Dale.’

‘Then later on, in about ten minutes, someone is going to do a fly by and drop thousands of flyers advertising PurplePhones new range of incorruptible new communication devices. The manager tells me that this is the way business is done in the modern world.’

AUTHOR

After the initial idea for the new Wet Blanket Ron story, I find myself struggling for a way to take the plot forward so it is fortunate that I run into Dale Loveless’s friend, Marlin Snider in the Goat and Bicycle. I am surprised to discover that Dale has found a job, but I am cheered by Marlin’s news. Not only has Dale found a job but it is the kind of job that is a gift to a writer of speculative fiction. A gopher for a colourful new phone company with plans to shape the future of telecommunications. The future might have once been Orange, but now it seems, the future’s Purple. And, imagine the trouble that Wet Blanket Ron will be able to get into for zapping peoples smartphones. I might as well tip Inspector Crooner off now and instruct Ron’s brief, Brent Diaz to expect a desperate phonecall from his dissolute client. I don’t. This would only spoil things for later.

To add to the bounty, Marlin tells me that Dale has a new girlfriend. He says he hasn’t met her but apparently, she is a stunner. Given Ron’s record on relationships, there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong here. After all, Wet Blanket Ron readers would expect nothing less than a car crash romance. I press Marlin for more information. He is unable to give me much more information but this does not matter. I can fill the details in as required. Here we go.

RON

Ron has never been out with anyone like Lola before. Lola is special. Lola must have the best. He has never been to L’Ultima Cena before. It is the top Italian restaurant in town. But, with the promise of being paid handsomely for his endeavours in promoting PurplePhone, he feels he can splash out. After Crostini misti con Sottoli, Straccetti di Pasta al Germe di Grano con sugo di Lepre, Cinghiale alla Cacciatore, Insalata Radicchio e Rucola followed by Torta della Nonna and helped down by two bottles of Amarone, Ron takes his vision of loveliness back to his flat with a view to taking the relationship to the next stage. He has taken down the black out blind, put away the magazines and carefully prepared a play list with no Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen. He has even hidden his self-help books and his copy of Jude the Obscure in case Lola should think he is a depressive.

Needless to say, things do not go according to plan. Picture if you will, Ron’s horror when he discovers that Lola, like her famous namesake from The Kinks song, is someone who needs to lift the toilet seat up. Perhaps, in hindsight, like Ray Davies, he should have spotted the tell tale signs, the dark brown voice, the physical hug, the five o’clock shadow. Perhaps even the name should have offered a clue.

Disgusted, Ron throws Lola out. Hardly has he wiped away the tears than there is a loud rap at the door. Thinking that it is probably Lola returning, remorseful and apologetic, he does not answer it immediately. The knock becomes more persistent and is accompanied now by a cry of ‘Police! Open Up!’ While nervous breakdown is fighting sense of déjà vu for control of Ron’s failing mental faculties, the door gives way to the enforcer or big key as it is referred to in the job. Not Inspector Crooner this time but a bunch of burly thugs dressed like Darth Vader. They are pointing guns and shouting in tongues.

DALE

‘Let me see if I’ve got this right, Mr Loveless,’ says Dale’s assigned solicitor, Dawlish Warren in the interview room at the central police station. ‘You were at home with your girlfriend, Deirdre watching Peaky Blinders when the police called round unexpectedly.’

‘That’s right, Mr Warren,’ Dale says.

‘And they said they wanted to talk with you about the work you were doing for ….. is that PurplePhones?’

‘Yes, PurplePhones. It’s a new mobile network.’

‘And what exactly was the work you were doing for PurplePhones? I thought for a moment back then you might have said you were disabling peoples smartphones so they no longer worked.

‘In a manner of speaking, that’s what I was doing, yes. But….. ‘

‘Aware that you were almost certainly committing a crime?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

‘In any event, the police weren’t happy with your explanation that you were just sending out a jamming signal and so they brought you here for questioning.’

‘Yes. That’s about it.’

‘Then, out of the blue, you yourself received a phonecall from a …… Wet Blanket Ron?’

‘Yes.’

‘Yet you say that Wet Blanket Ron is a fictional character.’

‘Yes. I know. Confusing, isn’t it? He said he was phoning on one of the new PurplePhones.’

‘And what did he want? This, Wet Blanket Ron?’

‘That’s just it, Mr Warren. He wanted to know what was going to happen next.’

‘What do you think he meant by that?’

‘He said that as his character in the stories was based on me, I would know what was in store.’

‘And what did you tell him?’

‘I told him I didn’t know what was going to happen but I didn’t think it would be good. He said that was pretty much the story of his life.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Banana Petroleum

bananapetroleum

Banana Petroleum by Chris Green

Banana petroleum,’ the caller says and then hangs up. Banana petroleum? It sounds like a cryptic crossword clue, or something. With the dull flat disconnected tone ringing in my ear, I continue to grip the receiver as if by registering my puzzlement, an explanation might be forthcoming.

I record all the calls we get on our landline, even the ones I answer. In these days of scams and hoaxes, you can’t be too careful. Thus I am able to play the message back. The man’s voice has no trace of an accent. Neither does it have that echoey sound you get from a robot voice. Predictably, the number has been withheld.

I decide that it’s best not to worry about it. Perhaps it is part of some leftfield promotional campaign to launch a new product. Perhaps this will become apparent in due course. I get back to my painting of the Aurora Borealis. Sarah will be home soon and I want to make it look like I’ve been productive while she’s been out. I haven’t actually finished a painting for weeks, let alone sold one.

Turban sophistry. 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 me? Why would a prankster be targeting me? 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 hardly life-threatening. Determined not to allow a trivial matter to halt my artistic undertaking, I get back to the Aurora Borealis. I dab some bold green swirls onto the canvas. When working in oils, I find it is best 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 really put some depth into the work. I am just mixing up some purple when I hear two emails ping on my laptop, one after the other. 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. Shrapnel perpendicular says the one and yarrow nucleon the other.

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 that 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 Sarah come in.

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

I mutter something about being as puzzled as she is. And I am. But, I am beginning to get a bad feeling that the message might relate to my past. I have not told Sarah 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 Sarah does not appreciate Wagner as much as I do. There again, I do not like Alanis Morisette. Or Laura Marling. Relationships, though, like other covenants are all about compromise. So, with Valhalla in flames and the Rhine overflowing its banks, I pause the opera. I give her a brief summary of the previous messages. As I do so, fresh emails ping on the laptop. noreply@nowhere.com No subject. Sedation complaisance. Leotard provincialism.

I try to shrug them off but Sarah 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 Gary 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.’

‘How about the bloke who wrote The Early Worm Catches the Bird? The one who was telling us about Philip C. Dark, when we were sat outside the cathedral. He was a bit 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 Sarah weighing up who she might be suspicious of. Our friend, Hoagy Platt possibly? He’s a bit of a joker. Might he do something like this, she might be wondering? Freda Mann, the poet or Dean Runner perhaps? As long as it’s someone like that and it’s innocent fun, then it will be all right.

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

I open up my Googlemail 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 is gone. The message on the phone too is missing. Is this good or is this bad? I’m hoping its good but I need time to weigh up the situation.

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 cold silence that follows this, 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 too have thought that Claude was keeping things from her and given him the silent treatment?

Late the following day, Sarah’s son, Jack calls in. We are not sure if Jack 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 Jack. I give him a summary of what has happened.

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

I give Jack’s interesting explanation some thought but reject it. After all, the people that had 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. Sarah now thinks that I may have imagined the earlier ones. I begin to entertain the idea that she may be right. She suggests that I ought to see someone to help me over my confusion, Dr Gauguin 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 my local gallery.

You get used to the interior of a car. Its features become so familiar that as you drive it around from day to day you hardly even notice them. But as I start the Nissan up, it slowly dawns on me that something is different. At first, I don’t seem to be able to put my finger on what it is. Then it hits me. A great big blow to the solar plexus. Alongside the various readouts for fuel, temperature and mileage on the instrument panel are the words Supernova tarpaulin in orange Helvetica script. It is difficult to see what this might have to do with the functioning of the car. Genocide presbyopia, it reads now. 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 shedload 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? It’s not going to be anyone from around these parts. They still think communication through the internet is a pretty smart idea. They can’t communicate person to person through random everyday materials. It must be my people coming to take me back home. 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?

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Old Man and the Sea

theoldmanandthesea

The Old Man and the Sea by Chris Green

Rain or shine, you will find the old man in the same spot on the beach, his back to the sea wall, gaze firmly fixed ahead, watching the ebb and flow of the tide. As you pass, you might remark to your companion that he is waiting for his ship to come in. But, this seems unlikely. Even if the forlorn figure in the dark grey duffle coat and the oily waders was once a sailor, his seafaring days are clearly long gone. Although this stretch of shingle is a long way from the main beaches of the town, if you mention the old man on the beach to anyone locally, they will know exactly who you are referring to. Yet, no-one seems to know or care who he is or why he is there.

Living by the sea, I suppose one becomes used to seeing oddballs and ne’er do wells about the place. Coastal towns get more than their share of crusties and vagrants. Since Cindy and I moved down a few months ago we have certainly come across a few. But, this one seems different. Somehow, he is not your stereotypical rough sleeper or street drinker. As he sits there quietly, he seems to be in a faraway place, removed from the concerns of the everyday, his air of detachment almost Buddha-like.

‘I have the feeling that this old fellow might have a story or two to tell,’ I say to Cindy on one of our strolls along the shore with our foxhound, Freddie.

‘So you keep saying,’ Cindy says. ‘Well, Ray! There’s only one way to find out.’

Before I know it, she has put Freddie on his lead and is down on the beach offering the man a cup of tea from our flask. With his unkempt grey beard and pock-marked skin, it is difficult to put an age on him, but close up he looks very old indeed. Years of living in the margins have obviously taken their toll.

‘Do you know, you are the first people to talk to me in over a year,’ the man says in a brittle voice. As he speaks, I detect a faint trace of an accent, Geordie perhaps, but not so much that I can be certain. He definitely doesn’t sound local though.

‘Surely not!’ Cindy says. ‘People seem so friendly around here.’

‘I did wonder if perhaps I had become invisible,’ he continues. ‘So excuse me if I’m not used to having conversations. In fact, it’s been so long that when you sat down, I wasn’t sure that I’d still be able to speak.’

‘Well, you are speaking and we are here to see if there’s anything that we might be able to do to help,’ Cindy says, the social worker in her coming out.

‘It wasn’t always this way,’ he says. ‘To look at me now you might not believe it but I’ve seen a bit of the world.’

I give Cindy a didn’t I tell you he would have a story glance. I am about to say. ‘See, he does have a story to tell.’ But sadly at this point, the old man clams up. Despite our efforts to get him to elaborate, we get no more details. He tells us instead that he has seen half a dozen seals and a dolphin that day. He then goes on to explain how important the wind direction is in predicting tides.

Despite his preoccupation with maritime matters, Cindy and I agree that there’s an interesting story hidden somewhere. It’s just a question of drawing it out of him. On Saturday, in spite of my mocking, Cindy prepares a packed lunch for him. He is bewildered that she has gone to all this trouble and says he hasn’t eaten anything like this for months. He says some days he doesn’t eat at all.

After he has devoured every last morsel and expressed his thanks, he tells us he used to enjoy his food and dined well. In fact, years ago he was something of a gourmet. He tells us about a nine-course banquet he once had at the Ritz in Paris, Vichyssoise, foie gras, salmon en croûte, poulet de Provençal, salade Landaise, plateau à fromage, poire à la Beaujolaise, red wine, white wine, cognac. The feast was never ending, he says, becoming quite animated. And there Parisian courtesans on hand to fulfil his every need.

This is more like it. A story at last.

He begins to run off a list of European cities, Stockholm, Hamburg, Madrid, Rome …….

Where is this leading?

He hesitates. Surely he is not going to leave us with half a story. But, he does. We attempt to find out about his European odyssey, but he tells us instead how the moon affects the height of the tides.

Cindy and I aren’t able to come down this way every day because we have other commitments, work, family and the like but on the occasions that we do, we now always stop by for a chat with the old man. Cindy always insists on bringing him something to eat for which he is always grateful. Not just leftovers or cold cuts either, she has taken to buying especially for him at Waitrose on the weekly shop. As he begins to relax with us, his regional accent is more noticeable. Now and again he expresses agreement with something with wey aye and occasionally he slips in expressions like marra and hinny. While he is certainly not open about his past, I notice every now and then he makes a vague reference to the music business with the odd mention of a musician or a rock concert. But, this is as far as it goes. Each time, details are withheld.

It is not easy to determine what anyone would have looked like when they were younger but from what the old man has said or not said, difficult not to speculate. It is clearly easier to digitally age a face than it is to un-age it. Nevertheless, Cindy takes a photo of the old man on her phone and runs it through a specialist app designed to do just that. The result looks like one of those police photofit pictures that resemble no-one in the slightest.

I decide to try a different approach. I tell him about a childhood holiday I had on the North East coast in the hope that he might confide that he had once had a slot machine empire in Newcastle before the Toon Mafia moved in or that he was the disgraced Mayor of Gateshead or some other tale of woe that would explain his downfall. But, all he wants to talk about are the curious tide patterns you get on the Tyne and Wear coast. Not many people know it, he says, but it’s a canny spot for surfing.

Cindy and I are visiting our friends, Errol and Cheryl, when we hear the track on a compilation shuffle. The song has a strong melody and haunting chorus.

‘Who is this?’ I ask.

‘Sweet limpin’ Jesus!’ Errol says. ‘You’re not heard Drowning. It’s a classic.’

‘Not until now, no. Who is it?’

‘You really don’t know. Go on! Have a guess!’

‘Mirage?’

‘No’

‘Blot?’

‘No.’

I give up.’

‘It’s by Twenty Seven. It was on The Sea, the last album they made before Joey Monroe went missing.’

‘Ah I see,’ I say. ‘I only know their later stuff. They became quite commercial, didn’t they? They had an orchestra on that tune about the Spanish Civil War.’

‘You’re thinking about the other lot, Ray,’ Errol says. ‘But I take your point. Twenty Seven did become more commercial after Joey …… went. Their best songs in my view are definitely the ones with Joey. After all, he was the main man. He wrote the songs and was the lead singer.’

‘I think I was aware of that,’ I say.

I recall Joey Monroe, the flamboyant former frontman with Twenty Seven disappeared in 1995 at the age of twenty seven. He was reported to have drowned in the North Sea. Suicide, it was suggested. Inevitably, his death was widely connected to the so called Twenty Seven club, that elite band of rockers that had died at the age of twenty seven. While, he was big in Europe, the band had not conquered the US. He was by no means as famous as Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, or even Kurt Cobain, who had shot himself, just the year before. As a result, Joey would always be considered a junior member of that select club.

Over the years, there were a number of alleged sightings of Joey, but none of these ever came to anything and in 2004, he was officially declared dead, even though his body had never been discovered.

‘Joey might still be alive of course,’ Errol laughs. ‘You know, like Elvis.’

‘You think so?’ I say.

‘You never know. He might be hiding away in some remote backwater and living a quiet life,’

‘But surely, wherever he was, someone would have found him by now.’

‘But he would look so much older now, wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t be wearing his stage clothes and make up.’ Errol says. ‘No-one would be able to recognise him. He might have matted grey hair and a salt and pepper beard, for instance, and wear a scungy old overcoat. Like that fella …….. ‘

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved