The Startling Discovery of Phlogiston

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The Startling Discovery Of Phlogiston by Chris Green

Things started getting weird around here some time ago, following the startling discovery of phlogiston. The previous belief, kept alive for many years by charlatans, was that everything was made up of 118 elements, all arranged neatly by the number of protons, electron configurations and recurring chemical properties, into something they called the Periodic Table. What nonsense this seems now! How on earth did they get away with such poppycock for so long? It is now accepted worldwide that phlogiston, a substance without colour, odour, taste, or weight, is present in all materials.

Certainly, chemists struggled against the facts at first, insisting on their complex explanations of matter. I suppose this was understandable. After all, they were trying to protect their lucrative research posts. But, they were finally forced to admit that they had made up all of the mumbo-jumbo. We now know there are just four elements.

Since the startling discovery of phlogiston, things tend to be much more random. Here’s a snapshot.

Chris Christ, my housemate is watching the brilliant blind surfer, Tom Crews in the final of the water-sports on his screen. Crews is going for Gold.

Oh My God.’ CC screams as with the help of his guide dog, Marvin, Crews manages to get himself upright on the board and ride the huge breakers of the Boogaloo Bay swell.

CC tends to be easily impressed so I ignore his outburst. I am more interested in the Octathlon which is playing on the other channel. I am rooting for Curt Tarver in the Quoits. He is already twenty points ahead after an heroic performance in the Shin Kicking but his close rival, Bud Register has his best events, the Moonwalking and the Cheese Rolling still to come. And you can never rule out Benito Pond. He is the World Bog Snorkelling champion.

It is hard to believe that just a few years ago people played mindless team games like football and cricket and bet money on horses running around a wet track, jumping over hedges. And that silly game where they hit a ball backwards and forwards over a net for a few hours.

Imagine now, driving forty miles in a slow moving queue of traffic to an out of town retail park to buy a car-load of stuff that you didn’t need. These days everything just arrives as you need it. You don’t even have to go on the Internet. The Internet. What a waste of time that was!

Look! Here’s a delivery now! It’s simply uncanny how they know I need forty pounds of kelp and a rusty mangle. I greet Bryn, the driver of the Scammell Scarab. Bryn and I chat about sandstorms and gravy and, of course, about the benefits brought about by the startling discovery of phlogiston. Quite thoughtful of Bryn to have brought the bucket of snakes too. CC will be able to cook them up later and make a nice stew.

Bryn says he’s off down the road to Tequila Hawks’ caravan next. Tequila has entered the Poison Your Neighbour’s Pet competition and she needs henna to lace the neighbour’s ferret’s coca cola with. If she wins she is going to use her prize money to take the hovercraft to Rangoon.

Enjoy the sunshine,’ Bryn says as he gets into the Scammell.

I wonder why we are still pretending that the earth orbits the sun. How stupid is that? It’s clear that the sun moves around the earth. You can see it every day crossing the sky. It’s amazing just how much we are duped.

Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Quad Bike

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Quad Bike by Chris Green

If you don’t buy me a quad bike,’ Kylie says. ‘I will stop going to school and join Danny Rocco’s gang.’

Doug and Tracy Little are becoming exasperated by their daughter’s outbursts. Children are more defiant than they used to be when they were growing up. Do they learn their no-nonsense negotiating skills at school along with cyber-bullying and mendacity? Or does rebellion come through peer pressure outside school?

In days gone by it might have been a pony. Not that this would make any difference. In fact, a pony would be even more expensive. But a quad bike? For a girl? At twelve years old? Doug hadn’t managed to get a bicycle by then.

To further her case, Kylie shows them videos on her iPhone of Danny and his gang terrorising shoppers in the town centre on a Saturday afternoon, Danny urinating on a street beggar, and …… surely that isn’t a real gun that Danny is pointing at the security man in the gaming shop.

That’s what it will be like,’ she says. ‘If you don’t buy me a quad bike.’

Whoever gave the parenting advice remember who is the adult and who is the child needs to be updated on developments in the parent-child dynamic. Now the child seems to be the one with the power. Several of Doug and Tracy’s friends’ teenage children have joined gangs like Danny’s. Every day you hear stories on the news about out-of-control teenagers. And not just in the cities. Only last week there was the siege at a school in a small market town down south, and the following day a gang of thirteen-year-old girls held up a village post office in Norfolk and shot the volunteer postmistress.

Kylie has decided she wants a quad bike and that is that. Tracy tries to reason with her. She says, ‘Where do you think we are going to get the money, Kylie? We have a cash flow crisis. You know your Dad lost his job at the warehouse last month.’

This might have worked for children of previous generations, but it cuts no ice with Kylie.

Bring on the violins,’ she says.

And my Disability Allowance has been stopped,’ Tracy says. Tracy was injured by a falling awning in the Lower High Street in a freak blizzard last winter.

This doesn’t work on Kylie either. She comes right back with, ‘D’uhh. Haven’t you heard of payday loans? KwikKwid is only up the street.’

But there’s not going to be a payday,’ Doug says.

Then you’ll have to sell something,’ says Kylie. ‘You sold your motorbike to buy Kiefer’s Stratocaster last year. And he doesn’t even play it. That’s it! You can sell Kiefer’s Stratocaster.’

Neither Doug nor Tracy dare tell her that Kiefer has already sold the guitar to buy drugs.

Brendan Shirt had not always wanted to work in a bank. When he was younger, he dreamed of being a footballer, or a pop star, but like most dreamers, he found the openings for footballers and pop stars gradually close before him. Football was out as his ball skills were limited and he got out of breath easily. While in the pop world, not being able to sing might not necessarily have presented a problem, Brendan was also overweight and unattractive.

So, after some poor A level results, banking it was. It was this or insurance. Or something where you had to get your hands dirty. And he didn’t want that. After ten years of checking documents and sucking up to his superiors, he was put in charge of loans at the local branch of the bank that likes to say yes. This tag line, of course, originated in the days before banks became more likely to say no. Although the bank’s slogan is now the less snappy Local Banking for Britain, it is one of the few where you can still talk to an actual human being.

Doug Little is Brendan’s first client on a Monday morning. Brendan has his details up on screen. They are not impressive and Mr Little has come up with an unusual loan request.

An off-road quad bike, eh? And you say that the one your daughter wants is nearly two thousand pounds,’ he says. ‘Well, at least you are honest, Mr Little. Not that this particular quality counts for very much in banking. ……. That was a joke, by the way.’

Doug tries to force a smile. He has had to wait three weeks for the appointment. He is not at his cheeriest. Things have been going badly at home. Over the weekend the police came round looking for Kiefer. As if this weren’t enough, he suspects that Kylie has stopped going to classes. Surely the torn cut off jeans she went out in this morning aren’t acceptable as uniform at Meadow Lane, and he couldn’t help but notice she had some new nasal jewellery. What might Mr Gaffney, the Deputy Head think about nasal jewellery, he wonders?

I see from your statement that payments into your account seem to have dried up lately,’ Brendan Shirt says.

A temporary cash flow hiccup, Mr Shirt. I’m afraid I was laid off last month.’

I see. Perhaps you have some other information that will support your application. An income that doesn’t show up here, maybe.’

Not exactly. …… but I have plenty of options open to me. I think I may get a job offer later on in the week.’

That will be in packaging, will it? I see that you worked in a packaging plant.’

Yes. RapidPost. But I’m hoping to work for a larger organisation.’

That will be a zero-hours contract too, I’m guessing.’

They haven’t specified the terms.’

You do understand what I’m trying to get at. We can’t lend money with the ease that we did a few years ago.’

The phone rings.

Excuse me, I’d better take this,’ Brendan says. ‘I’m expecting a call from Head Office.’

Doug gets up to leave the room, but Brendan gestures for him to stay. He goes over to the window. Through the window, he has a good view of the municipal gardens. Some youths wearing three-stripe track pants and hoodies are throwing stones at the windows of the Town Hall. A riot seems to be breaking out.

Brendan meanwhile is having a difficult phone conversation. ‘I thought we were supposed to tighten our belts,’ he says, raising his voice.

Danny Rocco is urinating up against the war memorial. A stocky figure in a black balaclava is spraying red aerosol paint on to the statue of Brigadier Barrington-Smythe. Doug cannot be sure, but his build looks remarkably like Kiefer’s. And there is a girl with green hair riding a yellow quad bike through the municipal flower beds. ……… Bloody hell! It is Kylie.

Thank You, Mr Gilligan,’ Brendan barks. He slams the phone down. He seems angry.

Kiefer has turned his attention to the walls of the office block. Black paint this time. Where did he pick up these racist views? Kylie, meanwhile, is driving the vehicle around in circles, churning up the dianthus beds.

Oblivious to what is going on outside, Brendan turns to face Doug.

You’ve got your loan, Mr Little,’ he says. ‘Your daughter can have her quad bike. Apparently, the bank is not lending enough money. I do wish they would make up their minds.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cat Town

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Cat Town by Chris Green

Chet’s train to Chatton has never been this late. It is seven o’clock. He has been on the platform for an hour and a half without seeing a soul. Where are the other passengers? Admittedly, Dark Hollow is a quiet backwater, but in the six weeks he has been working at the secret research establishment here, Chet has never known the station to be completely empty. At this time of day, there are usually a steady stream of people on their way home from the base. For that matter, where are the trains going up the line to Everwinter? Even if there are delays on the southbound track, surely there should have been a northbound train or two in the time he has been waiting. Where are Vlad and Dmitri, he wonders? They always take the northbound train.

Chet puts away his paperback of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and gets up to check the timetable on the wall. According to this, it should be the busiest time of the day. Half a dozen trains are scheduled to stop. Something is badly wrong. He tries to phone Mandy to let her know that he will be late, but he does not have a signal. He takes the battery out of the phone and the SIM card and puts them back in. He fiddles around with Settings. Still nothing. No signal, no wi-fi, nothing.

It is Friday, so Mandy will be setting off for her Pilates class about now. Chet remembers that he has sometimes seen a taxi waiting outside the station. It is a long journey and will be expensive, but it will be worth it. He takes the exit to investigate. There is no taxi waiting today. But there is a phone box. He can phone Mandy on her mobile and find out what is going on. If she is in the middle of her spine stretches or leg circles and does not answer, he can phone Doug or Pete. One of them will surely have some information about what is going on. He inserts his debit card, but the machine spits it out. He tries his other cards. The same thing happens.

The streets are empty, no people, no vehicles anywhere. The air is gripped by a Simon and Garfunkel silence. Has the village been evacuated in the time he has been waiting in the station? Chet considers walking back to the base, but it is getting dark now, and it is coming on to rain. The base itself is half a mile away and he would be able to contact someone from there. But as he does not have to work tomorrow, he does not feel the inclination to retrace his steps. Perhaps next week he will start driving to work like some of his colleagues do. He could do a car share with Kobayashi perhaps. He also lives in Chatton. In truth, he is a little scared by the idea of going back into the underground base at night. It is quite a sinister place at the best of times. He has not yet discovered what its actual function is. All he knows is that the information he handles is Classified.

He crosses the footbridge to the other platform. The door to the station office is locked, but it submits easily to a gentle nudge from his shoulder. He tries the phone. It is disconnected. After a few deep breaths to calm himself, he concludes there must be a simple explanation. Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but to stay put. If the worst comes to the worst, he can sleep on the bench in the waiting room. If a train turns up in the night then fine but if not, whatever emergency is causing the delays is certain to be sorted out by morning.

Chet has a night of fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of searching for missing cats and being trapped at the bottom of dried-up wells. This is only broken by an announcement over the public address system that the 5:29 train to Ramwood, calling at Fool’s Marsh and Little Holbeck and Cat Town will be 11 hours and 41 minutes late, due to an irretrievable loss. The 5:29? This is his train from yesterday evening. Clinging to the hope that the 11 hours and 41 minutes has elapsed, Chet wearily makes his way on to the platform to see what is going on. But really, the excuses they come up with for train delays. Irretrievable loss, what is all that about? And the announcer. Cat Town. Surely he means Chatton.

The platform is empty. Overnight, clumps of weeds have sprung up between the paving. A few of the station’s windows have been broken and there is some fresh graffiti. It is in a language that he does not understand. To his greater astonishment, the railway tracks have disappeared. For as far as he can see up and down the line in both directions, there are no tracks. It is as if the line has been closed for years. The space has been taken over by bramble and bindweed, burdock and bracken. There are prize-winning marsh thistles and even some sizeable sycamore trees growing.

Chet feels a surge of panic. While he is aware that the work he does at the base might be sensitive, none of his training has prepared him for any eventuality like this. Any prospect of a rational explanation appears to have vanished. Anxiously he investigates the area outside the front of the station. Here again, things have changed since yesterday. There is random debris strewn on the tarmac, a buckled bicycle wheel, a torn rubber boot, a shattered picture frame and a washing-up bowl. There is broken glass on the pavement here and there and a build-up of litter in the gutter. Yet, there is no sign of life. The streets are in the grip of the intimidating mute stillness they were yesterday.

Mandy must be worried sick by now. Either that or she is thinking he is having an illicit affair. Perhaps she thinks that he has run off with her friend, Lucy again. It was last Christmas, but Mandy doesn’t seem to have completely forgiven him for his transgressions. He needs to get back to reassure her, and soon. He takes the phone out again, but now it won’t even power up. How is he going to get back home? Back to reality? Also, might whatever has happened here be happening everywhere? Might what was accepted by everyone as reality yesterday now be gone forever?

Back on the platform of the station, Chet spots the lone figure of a man in the distance. He is a few hundred yards along the track, or what yesterday would have been the railway track. Today it is a veritable jungle. The man has a stick and is beating back the bracken. He seems to be searching for something. The railway track perhaps? Disorientated Chet might be, and terrified, but at least he has not lost his sense of humour. He chuckles. Slowly he makes his way through the undergrowth. He can hear a faint voice. The man is calling out something, a name maybe. Perhaps he has lost his cat. Or his parrot. Or his pig. Or his monkey.

With each step, the vegetation becomes thicker until it is so dense it threatens to envelop him. The more Chet moves towards Doctor Dolittle, the further away he seems to get. Doctor Dolittle grows fainter and fainter as if he is evaporating. Finally, he vanishes altogether. Was he nothing more than a phantom, Chet wonders? Is he losing his mind? At least, the station was a place of relative safety. He turns around to make his way back there. To his horror, the station has disappeared. He is faced with an unfamiliar terrain. He cannot even work out where the station might have been.

Chet stumbles through the wilderness, in search of something, anything, that will offer hope of escape from this surreal nightmare. He successfully avoids the swarm of wild bees that comes at him, but he does not see the gap in the ground cover until it is too late. There is nothing he can hold on to. He finds himself at the bottom of what seems to be a dried up well. The air is chilling and has the smell of damp earth, mould, moss, lichen. He is dazed. He tries to pick himself up. His legs feel weak and his shoulders, arms, and chest hurt from the impact. He tries to examine the grazes on his arms, but he cannot see his body at all. He looks up. He can only see is a thin slither of daylight.

He is now shaking with fear. How is he going to get out of here? The gap is narrow and the walls are sheer. There is no way he will be able to scale them. And surely the chances of someone happening by in this wilderness are minuscule. Is this it, then? A slow lingering death? He will never see Mandy again. He will never again touch her soft skin or taste her sweet lips. Nor Lucy’s, for that matter. He will never make that trip to Venice. Or see the final episode of Black Mirror. He will never own that small jazz club that he has dreamed about. He will never live to see West Ham win the Premier League. Well, no change there then.

Hello! …… Chet!’ calls an echoey voice from up above.

God, am I glad to hear a voice,’ Chet shouts back.

I’m sorry that you fell down the well,’ the voice says. ‘I should have covered it up. Are you OK?’

Get me out, can you please,’ Chet shouts.

Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I will soon have you out of there. Let me go and get some rope.’

No. I don’t need any dope. I just want to get out of here.’

Rope! I will throw down a rope for you. ……. Just hang on there a moment.’

With this, the stranger goes off. Chet is nervous that he will not return. But he is given little chance to indulge his dark despair. In no time at all the man is back and has secured a length of rope. He tosses it down. Chet catches it and climbs up to daylight.

I am sorry about that, Chet,’ he says. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m Haruki Murakami. I noticed that you were reading a book of mine, back there at the station.’

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Yes, I was. I love it.’

Now! Chet! I’m doing some research around here for a new novel. It has the usual themes, murder, sex, war, jazz from the nineteen fifties, lost cats and, of course, dried-up wells, but this time there are going to be some English characters. It has a protagonist who works in covert operations, has a dark foreboding character, dreams of owning a jazz bar and is having a clandestine liaison with his wife’s friend. I do apologise, but you seem to have walked into my novel.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Strangers When We Meet

strangerswhenwemeet

Strangers When We Meet by Chris Green

How many miles do you need to have the same car in your mirrors before you become suspicious? How many turnings before alarm bells ring? Emma Fox has no idea, but the black SsangYong appears to be tailing her. At times right up her rear bumper. SsangYongs are quite common, but not that common. It is not a car that stands out. She is only able to identify the badge because she recently took one for a test drive. But she is sure this is the same car that drew up behind her when she left work and having taken the same circuitous route, it is still here as she nears home. She makes a note of the registration plate. She pulls into her drive. The SsangYong stops outside but eventually drives off. Emma is unnerved.

Matt is overseeing a gas pipeline construction contract in Norway and the phone link is a bit hit and miss, so she is unable to share her concern with him. At least, that’s the story. Matt would probably tell her she was imagining things, anyway. Perhaps he might bring up other instances where she has over-reacted. Like the many occasions she had called him to say she had blown the house electrics when it was just a tripped switch. And the time she thought the telephone engineer had come to rob them. Easy mistakes to make when you have a hundred other things to think about.

Emma settles down for the evening, cooks herself a pasta meal and tries to forget the matter. She does not mention her pursuer to her friend, Madeleine, when she calls to ask Emma about getting tickets for the Janacek recital at the music festival next month. They chat about what plant food is best for dahlias, the new drama releases on Netflix, and whether they should have axed Snow White in support of the BLM protests. Where would it end? Would White Christmas be next? They arrange to meet up at the weekend. Matt’s absence is not discussed.

Emma settles down to watch Leif Velasquez’s adaptation of Phillip C Dark’s, Strangers When We Meet. The review says, although the narrative features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories, those familiar with Dark’s work should be able to work out what is going on. Kurt Bedding gives a stellar performance as the roué who is travelling incognito to meet his lover in San Sebastian and finds himself in the seat next to her husband on the plane. Emma has always felt that her life features an unreliable narrator and jumps around to take in shifting viewpoints and multiple backstories. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what is what and who is who. The pressures of modern life, Madeleine keeps telling her, when she brings it up. Anyway, Emma likes Kurt Bedding. He is easy on the eye. All is well. The world keeps on turning.

She is startled to find the black SsangYong behind her again the following morning. It appears to have been waiting for her outside and it tails her for the three miles from home to Crosby Nash Estate Agents in Bath Road where she works, even when she takes an unscheduled detour through the industrial estate. And it is there again when she goes out to show a buyer a three-bedroomed property in St Marks on the other side of town.

On her lunch break, she notices the tall dark stranger in a Peaky Blinders cap who she saw lingering outside her office earlier is now looking in a lingerie shop window next to the ATM where she is taking out cash. She is on heightened alert. Each time she thinks she has shaken him off, he appears again. He passes the window of the coffee shop where she takes her lunch no less than three times. He is outside the hairdressers when she calls in to book an appointment. He is in Tesco Express when she is buying her groceries. She can’t be sure if this is the driver of the SsangYong, but it seems likely. He has the same build and wears similar dark clothes. Has she just become over-sensitised? She does not think so. Something is happening here and she doesn’t know what it is. She considers approaching him and coming straight out with it, but she has heard too many terrible stories about what crazy obsessives are capable of. Should she perhaps report it to the police? Would they take her seriously if she did? Or would they tell her she was being paranoid? Whichever, she is spooked.

She is puzzled now why anyone would be following her. She lives an uneventful life. She is law abiding. She is solvent. She has no debts. She is not having a clandestine affair. Perhaps she should be. It seems to be the fashion. She is not aware that she has any enemies. In the estate agents’ business, there is always the danger that a disgruntled purchaser might feel they have been sold a pig in a poke. But Emma feels that when conducting viewings, she has always been scrupulously honest in her appraisal of the property, sometimes to the detriment of the sale. Well, there was the place in Old Park Street, but that didn’t go through. And the apartments in Market Street that had been built without planning permission. But she wasn’t to know that. In any case, Crosby Nash had put her under a lot of pressure to get these sold. But even if there had been any instances of mis-selling, you would have thought anyone with a grievance would make a complaint through the proper channels. Not try to put the fear of God into you or run you off the road.

While her friends and colleagues appear sympathetic to her plight, Emma wonders if any of them suspect that Matt is not really overseeing an oil pipeline project in Norway. That instead, Matt is overseeing Amy Darling, and has been doing so for a long time. If they do suspect, they seem to be keeping it to themselves. At least Emma hopes this is the case. She wouldn’t like to think they were talking about her behind her back. Sometimes, she realises, you have to make up stories to cover yourself. The secret is to remember who you have told what to.

Penny from the tennis club suggests it could be a simple case of mistaken identity. That her pursuer believes her to be someone else.

You read about a lot of cases like that in the papers,’ she says. ‘There was a case of a Taylor Swift lookalike being stalked only last week.’

I suppose so,’ Emma says.

A lot of thirty-something women wear their hair in long-front graduated bobs like yours,’ Penny says. ‘And I expect most of them buy clothes and accessories from Debenhams and Next.’

I buy most of my clothes online, these days,’ Emma says. ‘It’s so much easier.’

I expect your lookalike has got herself into a scrape,’ Penny says. ‘With some underworld figures. If she is a celebrity, it’s probably something to do with drugs, don’t you think?’

But whoever it is has hardly been subtle,’ Emma says. ‘There would be more discrete ways to tail her or me. He clearly wants me to realise that he is there. Why doesn’t he just approach me? There must be more to it, an element of intimidation. He wants me to be frightened. And in turn, I don’t approach him because I am frightened.’

Come to think of it,’ Penny says. ‘You look a little like May Welby who plays Kylie Slack in Partners in Crime.

Who?’ Emma says. ‘I don’t watch any of the soaps, Penny.’

Well, of course, neither do I,’ Penny says. ‘But I’ve caught glimpses of one or two now and again. May Welby. Check her out, Emma. I think you’ll see what I mean.’

Emma recalls she may have seen an episode or two in the past without realising it. Perhaps Matt had had it on or maybe it was just there in the background. She has become a little absent-minded lately. It is sometimes difficult to tell what happened when. She was saying to Madeleine only last week, or was it yesterday, how mixed up things could become. Sometimes she is so confused, she wonders if she is someone else. I’m not feeling myself today, she might say. She wonders whether it might be something to do with the tablets Dr Hopper prescribed for the problems she was having with her balance. Perhaps she will stop taking them.

When she gets home, she takes a look at an episode of Partners in Crime on catch-up. She can see straight away there is a slight resemblance to May Welby. On certain camera angles, if you just caught a glimpse, you could be excused for doing a double-take. The Kylie Slack character though is rough and ready and her mannerisms and diction are a long way off. The series is set in the fictional suburb of Doleford in a fictional East London, a grim area where even the police appear to be crooks. The script of Partners in Crime demands that May Welby’s character lacks sophistication. You could not imagine Kylie Slack growing dahlias or going to a Janacek concert. And they probably wouldn’t let anyone called Kylie join Emma’s tennis club. Then it hits her like a blow from the big Irish boxer that Matt used to watch. There is the startling similarity between the actor playing the part of the Partners’ enforcer, Nick Cole and her stalker. He is the spitting image. Not only this, but one of the current storylines involves Nick harassing Kylie Slack. Apparently, Kylie has dumped him for two-timing her. He is doing everything he can to intimidate her. He is a nasty piece of work. He has keyed her car and trolled her on social media. He follows her in the street and shouts abuse at her. He tails her in his car, in this case, a beaten up old black Mitsubishi. Kylie is debating whether she should get an injunction. She decides that first, she will have a word with Doleford Police.

Emma too feels it might be time to get the constabulary involved. Penny insisted it would be the right thing to do. Even if nothing comes from it, at least it will then be on record.

Do you realise how many people tell us they think they are being followed?’ Sergeant Filcher says. ‘Hundreds. And that’s not to mention the dozens of cases we see of copycat behaviour. It seems that many people find it hard to distinguish between what’s happening on their TV screens and real life. Boundaries have become blurred. If we investigated each and every one of the reports we get about people who imagine they are being stalked, we would be run ragged. We would have no officers left to deploy on the weekend riots. Now, where would that leave us? Is that what you want, lawlessness on our streets? And, Miss Fox, if you don’t mind my saying so, you are a very attractive young woman. You can hardly blame this fellow for wanting to get close to you. If I weren’t a married man ……….’

Emma leaves in disgust. This is not the type of reaction you expect from an upstanding officer of the law. This sort of thing might happen on television, but surely not in real life. She wagers Sergeant Filcher wouldn’t have been so insulting if she’d been a man. Or, for instance, if Matt had been there with her. Matt is a Black Belt in Krav Maga, the martial art that doesn’t concern itself with the opponent’s well-being. There again, she herself is glad Matt is no longer around. He didn’t concern himself a great deal with her well-being. She is well rid of him. She is much better off with …..

Emma is on her way home. The storm has passed now and the sun is coming out. She is pleased to see that the SsangYong is no longer following her. Instead, she is in the SsangYong. The man with the Peaky Blinders cap is driving. He seems quite friendly. He smiles at her and makes easy conversation. Why wouldn’t he? It’s coming back to her now. His name is Sebastian.

Has anyone ever told you, you look a little like May Welby?’ Sebastian says. ‘You know, the actress. I’ve been meaning to mention it since we started going out.’

I’m not sure I know May Welby,’ Emma says. ‘What has she been in?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Mario and Lorelei

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Mario and Lorelei by Chris Green

Lorelei Love possesses a rare talent. She knows that things are going to happen before they do. As a result of her premonitory powers, Lorelei’s life has been alternately comforting or frightening, depending on what is scheduled to happen. Unfortunately knowing something is going to occur does not give Lorelei powers to prevent it. Try as she might to take steps to avoid something unpleasant, she has not found a means to do so. She has however developed her persuasive powers to prevent too much disappointment or distress. Sometimes destiny needs a helping hand.

Lorelei Love is not a clairvoyant or fortune teller. She cannot tell which horse is going to win the Derby, or if there is going to be an earthquake. She only knows what is going to happen in relation to her. If she were to put a bet on a horse, she would know if she was going to pick up money later on, and if the earthquake was going to affect her daily life, then she would know about it. Otherwise, she has the same faculties as those without the gift.

Today, the first Friday in April, her day will be alternately tiresome and exciting. Tiresome that she knows she is going to be waiting twenty minutes in the tailback on the Buena Vista bypass, exciting that she knows she is going to meet Mario Van Horn in the tropical fish department of the pet superstore on the retail park at three o’clock, even though she never goes there and has no interest in tropical fish. She knows with equal certainty that, although he is a complete stranger, with just a fleeting glance in her direction, Mario will make her heart skip a beat. In short, she knows that Mario Van Horn will sweep her off her feet.

Mario Van Horn does not possess such a talent. Dashing and debonair he might be in his dark blue suit, but he comes across as preoccupied. He has been told he can be unaccommodating and unresponsive. Casual and dispassionate are also terms that have been thrown at him. In the studio where he works as a producer, musicians that he is recording say that he is oblivious to how they would like to play. He takes the edge out of their music. He makes whatever they play sound like the famously bland band, Keane.

Mario is often not aware that something has happened even after it has. It was not until his decree absolute arrived on the mat that he realised his wife, Ursula had started divorce proceedings. He had thought that she was on holiday with her friend, Sharita. Try as he might, Mario has found himself unable to redress his shortcomings. An army of life coaches, psychologists and consultants have become exasperated at his inability to change. They all say his aloofness is astonishing. He could be a textbook study for a new condition.

It is three o’clock on the first Friday in April and Mario Van Horn has absolutely no idea that he is glancing in Lorelei Love’s direction, let alone that his glance is making a lasting impression on her. He is so unobservant that he has not even grasped that he is in the tropical fish department in the pet superstore. He has only stepped in there to buy a house rabbit for his sister in law, Mercedes, who will be nineteen on Sunday.

Lorelei Love leaves the pet superstore with a warm glow, brought about by Mario’s loving gaze. She understands that he has been too shy to approach her, but she knows this will not matter. She sits in her yellow Mini Cooper with the black stripes and waits for Mario to leave and get in his car. She knows this is a black Toyota Auris with a 69 plate. She knows that she is going to follow him home, even though she already knows where he lives. She knows that within a week she is going to be spending nights there.

Mario’s awareness of fate is non-existent. When, having stalked him for days, Lorelei calls round to his house, he still does not recognise her.

Are you the Avon lady?’ he asks. ‘I’m afraid that Ursula has gone away.’

He is surprised by the kiss. It is not the type of apologetic peck on the cheek you might expect from someone selling beauty products door to door, who has accidentally called at the wrong house. It is a passionate take your breath away all-out assault on his face. It is the type of kiss you might expect from an aroused lover. It is the type of kiss that in a raunchy film might serve as a prelude to the participants ripping off each others’ clothes. Having established that she is not the Avon lady and finding that things are happening down below, Mario responds with wild abandon. He is not at all sure what is happening or if what is happening is happening to him. But despite this uncertainty, in no time at all, they are upstairs and are ripping off one another’s clothes. A little later, after a bout of bountiful coupling, he asks her name.

Lorelei Love,’ she says.

Well, Lorelei Love,’ says Mario Van Horn. ‘That was ….. unexpected. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not usually so …… forward,’

I do hope that isn’t so,’ says Lorelei. ‘I was hoping we might do it again soon.’

I think that it was possibly the most unusual experience of my life,’ says Mario.

I knew that this was going to happen, so there was no point in fighting it,’ says Lorelei Love.

I couldn’t help but notice that you weren’t fighting it,’ says Mario. ‘I’m Mario Van Horn by the way,’

I know,’ says Lorelei.

You do?’

I think I probably know everything about you.’

It is the third Thursday in May. Lorelei Love is now living with Mario Van Horn. As long as she takes the lead, she gets what she wants. She is happy with this arrangement. She has shown photos of Mario to her friends and her colleagues at the advertising agency, and they all think that he is a dreamboat. It is disconcerting that Mario doesn’t always notice that she is there, but there are small signs that he might be changing. Once or twice lately he has greeted her with kisses when she has got in from work. As she drives home from the office along the Santa Rosa Boulevard, she wonders if today is going to be one of those days. This is an odd sensation for Lorelei because she feels she should know definitely one way or the other. Perhaps Mario will not even be home. Maybe he will be mixing muzak at the studio, or perhaps it is his sister in law, Portia’s birthday and he has had to take an animal round. Lorelei is not accustomed to such uncertainty. She is sure though that it will pass.

Mario has noticed that there are more house plants to water and the washing machine is nearly always on. The kitchen is filling up with cookery books and kitchen utensils that he does not know the names of. The red wine has been replaced with white. Pink paperbacks with titles in handwritten script and cover illustrations of smiling young women in white chiffon are appearing on the bookshelf. There is no longer room in the wardrobe for all of his dark blue suits. There is a chess game going on with the bottles in the bathroom. He has noticed that Lorelei is around the place more than she used to be, in fact nearly all the time. Did she ask if she could move in? Did he say she could? Should he ask her if she asked him when she gets home from work?

Mario finds it a little worrying that Lorelei tends to be right all of the time, but on balance, he enjoys her company. Lorelei wears raunchier lingerie that Ursula did, laughs heartily at his badly told jokes, and is unexpectedly good at solving those tricky popular culture allusion clues to finish the Guardian cryptic crossword on a Saturday. And he likes the way she sometimes surprises him in the shower. He wonders if he ought to clear some of his old equipment out of the garage to make room for Lorelei’s Pro Trainer All In One Gym and maybe paint over the grey in the spare room with a brighter colour. Blue perhaps.

Mario starts to prepare the ingredients for an omelette. He will remember to put the peppers and mushrooms in this time. The one last Thursday was a little bland without them.

Anyone home,’ choruses Lorelei. She knows that Mario is home because the Toyota is parked in its usual way across both parking spaces on the drive. The music that is playing, while it still has a discernible melody, has traces of dubstep and acid jazz. It is a departure from the bland overproduced middle of the road music she is used to him playing while she is out of the house. ‘I like the music. What is it?’

Oh, that’s one I made earlier,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the hairdressers.’

I haven’t been to the hairdressers. I’ve been working,’ says Lorelei.

Oh, that’s right,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the travel agents.’

Ad agency,’ says Lorelei. ‘I work at AdAge. Its an ad agency. Remember, you picked me up from there. You remarked on what a clever play on words it was.’ She is secretly pleased that although one or two things seem to have changed lately, Mario still retains hints of his heedlessness. Detachment is part of his charm.

I’m just making us an omelette,’ he says. ‘Afterwards, I thought we might go out to the greyhound racing. You keep telling me how much you like dogs.’

Did I say that?’ she says. Watching a bunch of skinny mutts chasing an electric rabbit around a gravel track has not been not on her radar. She was budgeting for a quiet night in with a bottle of Prosecco and a scented bath. Then perhaps Mario could give her a massage with the new oils she had bought. She hopes she is not witnessing a change in the dynamic of their relationship. With the dimming of her prescience, is Mario attempting to take over the decision making?

It is the second Saturday in July. Lorelei Love comes home from the hairdressers to the sound of Sufi music. Are there whirling dervishes in the front room, she wonders. Each day this week she has come home to increasingly unusual music. Each time she has asked Mario what it is, it has been ‘something that he mixed that day’. On Monday it was garage punk, on Tuesday it was psytrance. On Wednesday it was psychedelic rock, on Thursday it was trip-hop.

What is it today?’ asked Lorelei yesterday.

Steampunk animé with a touch of drum and bass,’ said Mario.

The melody has all but disappeared,’ said Lorelei.

Mario Van Horn, Lorelei realises, is changing. He doesn’t even wear his dark blue suit any more and he hardly ever shaves. And why does he wear sunglasses around the house? While she understands that two people in a relationship tend to mould each other to some degree, she is not sure that the changes are going in the right direction. She remembers making a casual comment a while back that they probably didn’t get out enough but Mario seems insensitive to her interests. Over the past week, she has been treated to a twenty-twenty cricket match, a rugby sevens tournament, an orienteering workshop and a strip show. Although Mario claims they had discussions regarding plans for these evenings out, she has no recollections of these.

Accustomed to knowing in advance what is going to happen, each day now she is racked with anxiety about what is going to take place. Surely not another night at the dog track, or a rock-climbing weekend. There were times in the past when she felt the burden of knowing what was going to happen was an irritation. It weighed heavily on her shoulders, but this was compensated by its comforts. Why is it she is no longer able to call the shots? Has she lost the gift of prescience completely?

Mario doesn’t know what is wrong. Lorelei no longer wears raunchy lingerie and has stopped surprising him in the shower. He has even painted the spare room purple for her and put up some shelves to accommodate her growing self-help book collection. Surely it can’t be his comment about her putting on weight. He had meant it in a nice way.

I thought we might go to see some Sufi tonight, darling,’ he says. ‘So I put this sampler together to get us in the mood.’

Lorelei registers a robust look of disapproval. Mario thinks she is beginning to seem more like Ursula every day. He turns the music down a little.

We can have a curry,’ he says. ‘Akbar’s has an excellent selection of Punjabi dishes and the cabaret comes on at nine. Authentic qawwali music.’

I hate this awful wailing and I hate curry,’ screams Lorelei. What could she have ever seen in Mario Van Horn? The man is singularly intolerable. How, she wonders had she not seen this situation coming?

We could go to Ping Pong and have some noodle dishes if you prefer,’ he continues, seemingly oblivious to his falling star. ‘They have bamboo music, I believe, That’s quite gentle.’

I hate you,’ she shrieks.

Or we could just go The Black Horse for a pie and a game of darts if you like.’

You just don’t get it, do you?’

You’ll be hungry later on.’

I’m leaving you.’

It is the second Sunday in September. Lorelei Love is pleased to be shot of Mario Van Horn. She is starting to enjoy life again. While her rare talent is still not fully functioning, she is beginning to get her premonitory powers back. Just last week, she foresaw that she was going to meet a tall stranger with blond curls who would sweep her off her feet. And here she is driving along Las Palomas in her new Mini Cooper S Coupé with the roof down to meet DoubleTake.

DoubleTake’s singer, Ben Cool with his blond hair and black suede eyepatch is a dreamboat. AdAge has won the contract to handle the band’s PR. Naturally, Lorelei has volunteered to take personal control of the contract. What she doesn’t realise is that Mario Van Horn has died his hair blond and changed his name to Ben Cool. He didn’t even realise he could sing, until about a month ago when he was recording the overdubs for HashTag’s album, and now look at him. His fifteen minutes of fame beckons. What he doesn’t know is that the agency his management company has hired to handle the band’s promotion is AdAge.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

A Blacker Shade of Blue

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A Blacker Shade of Blue by Chris Green

Tiffany Blue wonders why she is so unhappy. If all the things she is doing are so good for her, she should be in seventh heaven. She gets up at five each morning and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi before her bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. She has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. She practices yoga, in fact when her friend Indigo is busy, she runs the class for her.

Tiffany meditates to a CD with sounds of running water. Her apartment is awash with Aloe Vera plants to purify the air. She works out at the gym and she takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. She cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When she does take the car, she listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. She never drinks alcohol. She sees Moon two or three times a week. He buys her flowers and they make love tenderly. They go to Inter Faith services on a Sunday. But still she feels her life is empty. Something is missing.

Growing up in Brixton, Jeremy (Jet) Black was beaten up constantly by his big brother, Brad, and he, in turn, hammered his little brother Harry. It was a dog eat dog world where petty crime graduated easily to serious crime. Hierarchies were decided by the length of prison sentences. Jet moved swiftly up the hierarchy as he always seemed to be the one who got caught. Since he was a teenager, Jet has spent roughly half his life banged up. He is thirty-two.

Since his last spell in prison, a two-year stretch in Belmarsh for aggravated burglary, Jet has decided to go straight. He is tired of the predictable pattern his life has followed, the vicious cycle of get banged up, do his bird, get released, share ideas he learned inside with his crim mates, commit new crimes, get away with things for a bit, get grassed up by one of his crim mates who has already been caught, get nicked, and go back inside. He wants to turn his life around. He is going to avoid The Black Horse and The King Billy and give BetterBet a wide berth. And he is not going to take back up with Tracey. He can’t forgive her for what she said to the police the last time he was arrested. He hadn’t laid a finger on her and there he was facing an extra charge of assault. He might otherwise have got away with eighteen months. Now that he is out, he has also decided to stop taking drugs. He has even stopped listening to rap music.

Jet has got himself a part-time job at the community centre. At the moment, it is a voluntary position, but Gavin, the guy with the ponytail who runs the place, says that if he does a good job there might be an opening. Through a prisoner rehabilitation scheme, he has secured a studio apartment in the converted warehouse by the plastics factory. He has started to paint the place with some paint he was given and has discovered a flair for colour. Under the scheme he has also been able to get free items from the Furniture Project. The bed is rickety, and the settee has a few rips, but they will do for now. The microwave works, and that is the main thing. He has been to the animal shelter and got a rescue dog to keep him company, a black and white collie-retriever cross called Bono. He cannot yet afford to join a gym but he has enrolled in a free yoga class. He is not exactly sure what yoga involves, but he has heard it is very good for you. He has been to one session and although he found it a bit of a struggle he is determined to persevere.

Tiffany feels it might help her state of mind if she tried out new things. She needs some excitement to break up the relentless ennui of new-age austerity. Something a little reckless, something dangerous, something wild and edgy. She shows Moon the programme of headline acts for a hard rock festival. Moon is hesitant. He does not like the idea of hard or rock and together, what on earth is she thinking?

You don’t really want to go to this, do you?’ he says. ‘AC/DC are very loud, you know. And Anvil Of Doom. I don’t like the sound of them.’

You only live once,’ Tiffany says. ‘Let’s get out there and do something to show we’re still alive.’

But it’s all so unwholesome,’ Moon says. ‘We’d be camping out in a muddy field with hordes of degenerate space cadets and filthy grebos.’

Not everyone who goes to a festival is a drug addict, Moon’ Tiffany says.

Grim Reaper. Angel Corpse. Do you really want to see bands with names like that?’ Moon says.

I imagine there are all kinds of new-age activities at festivals,’ Tiffany says. ‘Look! It says here, they’ve got necromancy, neo-paganism, tarot divination, and past life regression workshops. And they have a tattoo parlour. I could get some tattoos done. They have everything at festivals. The music’s probably just an added extra at festivals these days.’

I’m not sure about the tattoo idea,’ Moon says.

I could have a rose tattooed on my bottom. How about that? I think you’d like that,’ Tiffany says.

OK. You win. We’ll give it a go,’ Moon says. ‘But can we go on the Saturday, because I don’t want to miss our crystal reading class on Friday.’

I think we could give crystal reading a miss for once,’ Tiffany says. ‘I haven’t got room for any more bloody stones and to be honest, I do find Prism’s talks a tiny bit boring.’

Prism? Boring? Surely not, Tiffany,’ Moon says. ‘It’s not just about finding out what crystals you need. Don’t you remember last week how Prism showed you that your natal chart was a dynamic indicator for your soul’s path of your healing journey.’

Well, maybe I don’t feel very healed,’ Tiffany says. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Moon. Perhaps I’m just tired.’

Let me give you an Ayurvedic massage,’ Moon says. ‘I’ve got some organic almond oil.’

I think I’ll just have a bath and go to bed,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow. I have a wood to inspect.’

Jet Black is walking Bono in Long Ridge Wood when he spots her. She is the lady who was teaching the yoga class, the one in the flesh-coloured leotard who was bent double during the warm-up exercises. He would recognise that body anywhere. Not even the Wildlife Trust uniform can hide such a lovely figure. And she has a smile that could bring a dead dormouse back to life.

Tiffany recognises him by his tattoos. She knows that she shouldn’t, but she finds them attractive. And those muscles. She could tell straight away at the yoga class that although he was lacking in grace, he had been to the gym now and again. She had not seen him though at Jim’s Gym. Perhaps he was new to town.

Hello,’ he says shyly. He is not used to talking to attractive women. You do not come across many babes in The Black Horse or The King Billy. And he was certainly protected from such opportunities in Belmarsh. Not even Tracey had been to visit.

You’re not stalking me, are you,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve heard about people like you.’

I’m just taking Bono here for a walk,’ he says. ‘He loves these woods.’

Ancient beechwood and unimproved grassland,’ she says. ‘Maximum biodiversity to provide the basis for a balanced ecosystem.’

That’s a distinctive aroma,’ he says, edging a little closer. ‘What is it?’

That will be the rotting leaves,’ she says.

Not that smell,’ he says. ‘A sweet minty perfume. Is it something you are wearing?’

Oh, that’s patchouli,’ Tiffany says. ‘Do you like it?’

It’s lovely,’ he says. ‘And so are you.’ There! He has said it. There’s no going back now.

Moon is not sure what is wrong with Tiffany. Something must be troubling her. She said that she is busy at the weekend and now she is not taking his calls. In the two years that they have been seeing each other, nothing like this has happened before. She has always been so accommodating. They have always done everything together. He had hoped they might go to a Channelled Angel Reading on Friday night and then have a snack at Give Peas A Chance. Then afterwards they might try out the ginger dusk scented candle, with some soft music. He has called round several times and even spoken to her neighbours but they have not seen her. River who runs the New Age bookshop says he saw her earlier coming out of BargainBooze with a big bag, but that can’t be right.

Tiffany has invited Jet Black round. She has never done such a thing with a stranger before. It is unheard of in the circles she moves in to be so familiar with someone that you’ve only just met. She is not sure what has come over her. Perhaps it is the rugged profile of Jet’s jaw, the pounding testosterone, the rippling muscles and, of course, the tattoos. Perhaps it is the nascent desire for excitement. Whatever it is, she has never had these kinds of feelings before. She cannot recall ever having strong feelings of any kind. She has always just gone with the flow.

She was brought up in a remote rural location. There was no curriculum at the school she attended, and she remained innocent of the ways of the world. She did not rebel as a teenager because she was unaware of what she might rebel against. Life was uneventful. There were no highs and no lows. There was no site of struggle in her neighbourhood. In fact, there were no neighbours in her neighbourhood. Her parents did not bother with television, which was just as well because a lot of the time there was not even a TV signal in this isolated community. There would probably never be a mobile phone signal.

It wasn’t until she went to agricultural college at nineteen that she had her first boyfriend. Dagon was gentle and over a period of several years eased her into intimacy. Inhibited as they both were, sex never became the driving force of their relationship. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was three months before she let Moon over the threshold, and another month before she let him undo the buttons of her blouse. She was in no hurry to move things forward. It wasn’t until six months into their relationship that she finally allowed him to pull down her panties. She was twenty-seven and Moon was only her second lover.

Tiffany is on her third glass of wine and feels light-headed. She has turned her phone off in case Moon calls again. While she doesn’t want to upset him, she wishes he would let her have some space. She had to hide behind the curtain for half an hour earlier. He has gone now. Hopefully, he won’t be back until after Jet has had a chance to pin her to the bed, roughly part her thighs and possess her in a frenzy of unbridled passion. Where, she wonders, are these thoughts coming from? What is happening to her?

Something about meeting Tiffany has put Jet in touch with his gentler side. He spent the previous evening carving a Buddha from a chunky stick that Bono picked up in the woods. He thinks the little wooden icon is the sort of thing a girl like Tiffany would appreciate; he noticed when they met she wore a Buddha charm bracelet. He has even read a little about Buddha on Wikipedia. Buddha seemed a sound guy, honest and trustworthy and full of thought for others. Not at all like Charlie, the self-styled guru in Belmarsh. Charlie, named after Charlie Manson, Jet found out, would stick a knife in your throat or steal the clothes off your back.

When he arrives at Tiffany’s though he finds her three sheets to the wind. This is not at all the welcome he was expecting, but he has had plenty of experience of this condition with Tracey. It usually ended in a fistfight and the kitchen getting wrecked. While he does not imagine this will be the case with Tiffany, he needs to tread carefully. He struggles to remember what they were told in the interpersonal psychology class inside. The dude banged on a lot about listening and passivity.

Would you like a glass of wine,’ Tiffany says, filling up a tumbler for him from the half-empty bottle of Rioja.

No thanks. I don’t drink wine,’ Jet says.

Not even for a special occasion,’ she purrs.

Jet remembers the psychology guy saying that distraction was a useful tactic. You could talk someone down who was about to jump or prevent someone with fists raised from hitting you by taking their mind off their subject. ‘It’s hot and humid in Kuala Lumpur,’ he continues. ‘It says on the news they are having a heatwave.’

I’ve got beer in the fridge,’ Tiffany says, lurching towards the kitchen.

I might buy a guitar when I’ve got some money,’ he says. ‘And learn to play like George Harrison.’

I did think of getting some whiskey,’ she says. ‘I could nip down to the off-licence if you like.’

The psychology guy’s reasoning was clearly flawed. ‘What I’d really like is a cup of tea,’ he says. ‘Why don’t we both have a nice cup of tea.’

On the way home on the bus, Jet feels despondent. It is clear to him that Tiffany has a serious drink problem. He had not suspected this when he met her in the woods. She seemed all sweetness and light then. Perhaps everyone has a deep-seated issue if you look for it. At least Tiffany is not trying to hide it. She is not a secret drinker like some he has known, Kathy for instance. Kathy would hide it everywhere, under the sink, behind the potted plants, in the garage and in with the grass cuttings. He is sure that Tiffany is a lovely person beneath it all. He needs to help her. She deserves that much. Helping her will also help him to convince himself that he has changed.

After the embarrassment of the evening though, he decides to leave it a few days and then call her. Or maybe wait until he sees her at the yoga class. He will ask if she would like to go for a walk on the common with him and Bono. There are no pubs or retail outlets near the common. She will probably be able to tell him what the trees are and the names of the wildflowers. He could even put together a picnic.

Why have you been ignoring my calls?’ Moon says.

Can you not shout please,’ Tiffany says. ‘I’ve got a really bad headache this morning.’

I’m not shouting,’ Moon says. He picks up one of the wine bottles. ‘Perhaps you couldn’t hear them because of the noise from your party.’

Sarcasm is just one more thing that you are not very good at,’ Tiffany says. ‘So why don’t you just shut up.’

What’s got into you?’ Moon says. ‘You have not been yourself lately. Is it all to do with me not wanting to go to this rock festival?’

Why don’t you just go off and find a unicorn or a crop circle or something,’ Tiffany says. ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’

Actual Bodily Harm is not the most serious offence in the lexicon of Offences Against The Person. Jet knows that it carries a maximum sentence of five years, but the charge is broad in its scope. It can refer to quite serious injuries, but it can also refer to just a few bruises. Perhaps Tiffany and Moon were just pushing each other around a little and Moon fell. Tiffany was certainly in a hurry to put a stop to the conversation once she felt that he was prying. But, as Tiffany has no criminal record, she will probably just get a fine, he feels, especially if Moon does not want to pursue the matter.

In Jet’s experience alcohol is at the root of a majority of threatening behaviour, not just physical aggression but verbal abuse as well. God knows, he had threatened enough people when he had been on the pop and Tracey was at her most vicious after a skinful. Before it lost its licence The Prince of Wales on a Friday night could be like Culloden. And, A and E was a who’s who of alcoholics after a darts night at The Caledonian.

Tiffany surely would not have told him to fuck off and mind his own business last night when he offered to come round if she was sober. She might be a bit resentful that he didn’t respond to her come on the other night and in her booze-fuelled haze have seen it as a rejection. Some people he has heard take rejection very badly. Jet realises that Tiffany needs his help more than ever now to turn her life around. He must try to get her off the liquor. An alcohol support group called NewLeaf meets at the community centre. When the time is right, he will suggest that she goes along.

Tiffany does not answer any more of Jet’s calls and she is not at the yoga class. He asks Indigo if she might know where she is.

I haven’t seen her,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve phoned her a couple of times but she doesn’t seem to be answering.’

I’ve been trying to get her all week,’ Jet says.

It’s not like her at all,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve known her for years and if she sees that I’ve called she always gets straight back to me. Do you think perhaps something is wrong?’

Look. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but she was arrested last week, says Jet.

Arrested? Tiffany arrested? You’re joking, right?’ she says looking him in the eye.

He does not have the look of someone who is joking.

Yes, for ABH. I think it’s all to do with the juice,’ Jet says.

Juice?’ Indigo says. ‘What do you mean, juice? What kind of juice?’

You know, the sauce,’ Jet says. ‘The booze.’

What?’ Indigo says. ‘No. Never. Not Tiffany. She’s about as teetotal as they come. She doesn’t even drink tea or coffee.’

Well, she may not have used to drink,’ Jet says. ‘But I’m afraid she does now.’

And I can’t imagine her ever being violent,’ Indigo says. ‘Not in a million years. She wouldn’t harm a fly.’

What about this Moon dude?’ Jet says. ‘Do you know anything about him?’

She’s been with him for years,’ Indigo says. ‘Moon’s the nicest person you could ever wish to meet.’

Well, something’s gone badly wrong with the universe then,’ Jet says.

You might not be far off with that,’ Indigo says. ‘There have been some portentous planetary alignments lately. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were roughly aligned with the Sun ten days ago, and Venus and Mars are in alignment again tonight.’

There must be a song there somewhere,’ Jet says. ‘I would like to be able to help Tiffany, so if you do hear anything.’

I know you do. Despite your build and your ….. body art, I can see you are a very sensitive man who is in touch with his feminine side. I could tell as soon as I saw you. You give off a kind vibe.’

His feminine side? This is not something that Jet has been told before. Should he take it as a compliment? Years ago he might have hit anyone who had said this, even if it was a woman. But in the given circumstances, he feels strangely flattered.

Why don’t you come along to my Vipassana meditation class on Thursday,’ Indigo says. ‘I think you’d love it.’

I might just do that,’ Jet says, studying Indigo’s flesh coloured leotard. ‘I think mediation might be exactly what I need.’

Tiffany is with her solicitor, Ray Crooner, a thickset man in his forties wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit that is a size too small and a Tattersall check shirt. Ray has the pallor of a world-weary defence solicitor and his office has that solicitor’s office smell, an odd mix of musk, laser printer toner and disappointment.

It would not be so bad if you hadn’t gone round to your friend Moon’s and beat him up all over again,’ Ray says. ‘He is out of hospital now, I believe.’

Tiffany nods.

We will have to put in a guilty plea and claim mitigating circumstances, but I don’t think that you will avoid a custodial sentence. All we can do is try to limit this to three or six months,’ he says. ‘What would you say we could use as mitigation? Did he hit you? Did he provoke you in any way? Did he crash your car or jump up and down on your iPhone or anything that might warrant retaliation?’

He said that he didn’t like my tattoos,’ Tiffany says.

If it comes to that, I don’t like your tattoos,’ Ray Crooner says. ‘And the judge will almost certainly not like your tattoos What is that one on your forehead?’

That’s the Angel of Death,’ Tiffany says.

Anyway, I don’t think this …. Moon, what kind of name is that anyway ….. this Moon not liking your tattoos is going to get us far in terms of mitigation,’ Ray says. ‘The judge will take one look at those unsightly markings and your ….. barrage of nasal jewellery and make a decision influenced by this.’

Haven’t we got to go to magistrates first?’ Tiffany says.

Yes, we do have to go to magistrates first,’ Ray says. ‘But really, do you think that magistrates are going to look favourably on someone who resembles a degenerate troglodyte. They probably won’t even ask your name or give you the Bible to swear on. They pass cases like yours straight on. I might as well not turn up.’

How about this then?’ Tiffany says. ‘I went to a heavy metal festival where Devil’s Henchmen force-fed me a vicious cocktail of mind-bending drugs and dragged me off screaming to a tattoo marquee. It was like a descent into Hell. While Dark Funeral were playing, Satanic forces took over and before I knew it I was hearing voices in my head telling me to kill Moon.’

Better,’ Ray says. ‘We might just be able to keep the sentence beneath twelve months.’

Jet and Indigo have recently returned from an ashram in Goa, where they have been receiving spiritual guidance from Swami Govinda and buying kaftans for Jet’s new wardrobe. They have moved in together. Jet now gets up at five every morning, takes Bono for a quick walk and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi, before his bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. He now has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. He practices yoga, in fact when Indigo is busy, he says he will run the class for her. They meditate to a CD with sounds of running water. Their new apartment is awash with Aloe Vera and weeping fig plants to purify the air. He works out at the gym and he takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. He cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When he does take the car, he listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. He never drinks alcohol.

Do you think we should visit Tiffany in Holloway?’ he says to Indigo, as he mixes the fruit smoothies. It has been on his mind lately that she may not have had any visitors.

Indigo wants him to get back to massaging her thighs. ‘Soon,’ she says. ‘Perhaps we will visit her soon.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Harry and Kate

harryandkate

Harry and Kate by Chris Green

Black cats are supposed to be lucky, aren’t they? Harry Regis thinks so. What he doesn’t realise is that in many cultures, black cats are seen as an evil omen. Most of Europe, for instance, considers the black cat to be unlucky, a harbinger of doom. Fortunate then that Harry lives in the UK. What with the collapse of his kite design business and Meg leaving him for Trevor, a film extra from Billericay, Harry has had a tough time of late. He feels he deserves a break. It is time things started going his way.

So when one evening a black cat wanders through the back door, explores the house and makes itself comfortable on the shag-pile rug in the front room, he sees it as a good omen. He offers the cat a tin of tuna chunks, which it devours with gusto. And some dried cat biscuits he discovers in one of the kitchen cupboards. The saucer of full cream milk is welcomed too. Although Harry leaves the back door open, the cat shows no sign of wanting to leave. It is still there at the end of the evening after he has finished watching Leif Velasquez’s acclaimed adaption of the postmodern thriller, Shooting Script on Netflix. It is dark outside, and his visitor is curled up on the settee, purring gently. Harry thinks it best to put the animal outside. Although it does not have a collar, it does not look like a stray. It has a glossy coat. It is a well-groomed animal. By now, someone will be wondering where their pet has got to.

The following morning, the cat is once again at the back door. It does not wait to be invited in. It rushes past Harry’s outstretched hand and makes a beeline for the kitchen. It seems to be hungry. Surely a handsome-looking cat like this can’t have been out all night, can it? Harry doesn’t have any pressing appointments, so he pops along the road to the convenience store and returns with a box of pouches of gourmet cat food. On the way, he thinks of suitable cat names. Being a fan of the musical Cats, he toys with Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, Growltigger and Shimbleshanks, but decides they are too fussy. He settles on Lucky. Lucky is the obvious name for a black cat.

Serendipity seems to work straight away. No sooner has he fed Lucky his gourmet turkey treat than the phone rings. It is Ben Maverick of Maverick Leisure Services offering him the job as General Manager of the new Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre that is opening on the industrial estate. While fridge magnet advice may not have the prestige of kite design, it is a step in the right direction. He needs to keep Lucky around and as he will be out of the house now in the daytime, he fits a cat door so that the cat can come and go.

Kate Dunning-Kruger believes that every cloud has a silver lining. So when she loses her job in marketing with BestFone in their rationalisation drive, she is sure something will turn up. When she is selected to promote a new weather phone app, her faith seems justified. She is over the moon. The new app, she is told, does not merely predict the weather, it can change localised weather conditions. It was created by a whizz-kid in California and cloned by a fourteen-year-old computer geek from Devon. Kate does not need to know how Elements works but, she is told, it has been successfully trialled in one or two places around the county. She is one of a small team who are to start a promotion campaign from a discrete office on Palace Park Industrial Estate. They are hoping to roll the revolutionary new app out nationally soon to those who can afford it. It is by no means going to be a freebie. But before it can be rolled out, she is told, there are cybersecurity issues to overcome. Their IT consultant who goes by the unlikely name of Max Acker is working on these.

Kate is recently divorced and although there are pitfalls in getting involved with anyone new so soon, she can’t wait to get dating again. Her friends wonder if perhaps she is too eager. She might end up making the same mistakes. They point out that Bill was arrogant, self-centred and lazy. She should take her time and concentrate on her own well-being. Kate explains that as a thirty-something single female, there is only so much you can do in a small town. Everything seems to be geared up to couples. And besides, now she has a new job, she will be able to work on her self-confidence.

Kate finds her office housed in a new prefabricated block on the estate, alongside the Bikini Museum, the Mulatu Astatke School of African Dance and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. An interesting selection of enterprises, she thinks, entirely different from working in the corporate environment at BestFone on the fifth floor of the city block, alongside the insurance brokers and tax consultants. Further along the avenue are Balalaika Tuition Centre, Mojo Filter Bicycle Hire and a tall featureless matt black building which has no windows. Nor does it appear to have an entrance. No lettering or insignia to suggest what it might be. Palace Park is a strange environment.

She begins to learn about the new weather app. Although it is in its infancy, there are already reports of its success. Charlie Dixon apparently used it to bring fine weather for the Exeter race meeting when it was raining in the rest of the county. Nick Carr conjured up a torrential downpour to bring a close to a village cricket match when his team were in a losing position to force a draw. The result ensured that his team, Dartmouth Royals retained the title for another year. It appears the app can be activated at short notice. Early indications suggest it works best when activated at short notice, but it now needs to be tested further afield.

Kate discovers the estate is a busy little area. The bikini museum is incredibly popular, there are lots of comings and goings at the newly opened hedgehog sanctuary and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre does a roaring trade. Following a favourable article in one of the Sunday supplements, fridge magnets are enjoying a revival. It will be a while though before Kate is fully occupied as Max Acker keeps finding more glitches in the Elements app.

On her third day at work, when Kate is outside smoking her mid-morning cigarette, she catches the manager of The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre arriving with a new delivery. He looks like a nice fellow, the type that would be kind to cats maybe. And, of course, Bill has left her with four of them.

Hi! I’m Kate, she says. ‘I’ve just started working at Elements.’

Really? I started here last week as it happens,’ he says. ‘I’m Harry, by the way. Harry Regis.’

You seem to be doing well, here Harry,’ Kate says. ‘Lots of interest in fridge magnets, these days, I gather. I can see you are busy, but perhaps one day when you have a quiet moment we could hook up for a coffee at Cuppa Joe along the way there. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.’

Sure,’ Harry says. ‘And maybe a bite to eat. We could meet up one lunchtime. It has been mad here lately with all the new editions coming out. Everyone wants fridge magnets. But there are so many magnets on the market that people don’t always know which designs to go for. The rare album cover ones are popular, of course, and the royal residence ones. They never go out of fashion. We’ve got some new Bake Off magnets and we’ve just had the new Peaky Blinders set launch. And believe it or not, the French symbolist poets magnets are popular too.’

I believe you, Harry,’ Kate says. ‘I’ve always found truth is stranger than fiction.’

Harry and Kate catch up for lunch at Cuppa Joe the following Monday. Not wanting to talk shop, by way of making conversation Harry mentions that he had a new cat called Lucky. Kate has no shop to talk. Max Acker has found a new problem with the app. She wonders if it was ever going to be ready to roll out. Max seems to spend more time trying to chat her up than he does working. Unsuccessfully. He is much too old and she just hates those floral shirts he wears not to mention the way he invades her personal space. Coronavirus may be over and done with, but hasn’t he heard of social distancing?

A new cat?’ Kate queries. Might Harry be the caring type? This is not something she could ever say about Bill. In the flesh too, Harry is much hunkier than Bill. Toned physique and a manly beard. And he has a managerial position. Something that Bill had never had. Bill had only occasionally had a job.

Yes. A black cat,’ Harry says. ‘It just came in one evening and stayed. Lucky is good company too. I was starting to find it lonely in the big house after Meg moved out. We’d been together for ten years.’

Better steer the conversation back on to cats, Kate thinks. We don’t want to dwell too much on Meg.

Cats are excellent company,’ she says. ‘I have four little darlings, Sylvester, Smokey, Tigger and Dave. You must come round and meet them one evening.’

Over their pasta lunch, Harry and Kate discover they have a mutual interest in Scrabble, owls, donating blood, and Game of Thrones. They both like listening to Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age. Harry saw Queens of the Stone Age at Finsbury Park in 2018. With Meg.

Time for some more cat chat, Kate thinks. ‘Does Harry know that Isaac Newton invented the cat door?’ she asks. Harry doesn’t, but he does know that cats spend 70% of their time sleeping and about 15% grooming. He found this out when he was looking for a cat basket for Lucky. The conversation moves on to dogs and other animals. The Lion King leads them to other films they have seen. Although he prefers action thrillers, Harry concedes that he has a secret admiration for Nora Ephron romcoms. Oh no, Kate thinks. He’s going to start talking about Meg Ryan and that will bring us back to the other Meg. She tells him instead that she has a soft spot for Quentin Tarantino films. She has seen them all but Kill Bill is her favourite. Meg’s name doesn’t come into the conversation again. Not that she is interested enough to ask, but she wonders if it is short for Megan, or Meghan. Best to let the matter go.

After lunch, as they walk up the road together, Kate points out the featureless black building.

I’ve been wondering what happens in there,’ she says.

You’ve heard of White Stuff,’ Harry says. ‘Well, that building there belonged to Black Stuff. While everyone associated White Stuff with coke, and although it was a little naughty, liked the idea, everyone associated Black Stuff with coal and didn’t go for it.

Wasn’t Black Stuff tar?’

Whatever! The brand name didn’t work. No-one wanted to buy their stuff. They went broke.’

Probably just not promoted very well,’ Kate says. ‘These things make a difference.’

To be honest, a lot of these businesses are here today and gone tomorrow,’ Harry says. ‘It’s like pop-up land on some of these out-of-town developments. I mean, look! The Pet Rock Counselling Service. How long is that going to last? What’s happening at your place, by the way? Is this new app going well?’

It’s not ready yet,’ Kate says. ‘At the moment, I’m just twiddling my thumbs.’

Teething troubles, are there?’ Harry says. ‘It’s only a phone app, isn’t it? What’s so complicated? What does it do?’

I can’t tell you that yet,’ Kate says. ‘It’s still at the development stage but I’m told there should be a beta version soon.’

Anyway, let’s do this again,’ Harry says.

Perhaps we might go out for a drink, one evening,’ Kate says.

I’d like that,’ Harry says. ‘Since Meg left …….’

You must come around and meet my cats,’ Kate interrupts. ‘How about tomorrow?’

As he drives to work, the following morning, Harry is pleased but somewhat surprised to find that the sun is shining. The storm that went on until the early hours was a violent one, rattling the doors and the windows of the house. Lucky was so frightened by the driving rain and howling wind that he snuggled up to him the whole night. Several inches of rain must have fallen in a few hours. The builder he called about the water coming through the bathroom ceiling seemed puzzled by his call but said he would pop round after five.

To Harry’s amazement, there is not so much as a puddle on the roads. How could a storm be so localised? As he makes his way through the morning commute, he gradually notices that a black BMW with tinted windows and the personalised plate, ACK3R seems to be following him. It tailgates him along Electric Avenue. It seems to be doing its best to force him off the road. Harry has the feeling he has seen this car before. Was it perhaps parked outside Elements where Kate worked? Didn’t she mention someone called Max Acker in connection with the app she is working on? That instead of getting on with work, he is always on her case?

At the Princes Street lights, Harry swings into the left-hand lane cutting up a delivery van to turn into Duke Street. Boxed in, the BMW cannot make the manoeuvre. It carries on straight ahead, towards the industrial estate. Harry dives into the superstore car park where he takes a moment to compose himself. Who exactly is this maniac who was trying to run him off the road? Why was he doing it? He googles Max Acker on his phone and discovers that Max is a fictional character that features in half a dozen stories by the author, Phillip C Dark. Several sites confirm this. Phillip C Dark, it appears, is a speculative fiction writer.

Speculative fiction, Wikipedia suggests, is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that may or may not exist in the real world, often in the context of supernatural, futuristic or other imaginative themes. If the Max Acker tailing him is fictional, then what are the ramifications? Where does that leave him, Harry Regis? Does he, Harry not exist in the real world? Does Kate not exist in the real world? These are not matters that he has had to grapple with up until now. In the flesh has always meant in the flesh. Yet here in the superstore car park, Harry suddenly finds himself in the throws of an existential crisis.

If it turns out he is fictional and at the mercy of his creator, then anything could happen. He has no control over it. He has no free will. What if his creator decides to kill him off? Just when things with Kate were looking up. He has Kate’s number and decides to give her a call before it’s too late. He feels he needs there to be some element of reality to cling to. He is not sure what he is going to say to her. She is likely to think he is going mad. There is no reply. Harry fears the worst.

Further research reveals that despite his work being categorised as speculative fiction, which can often be doom-laden, many of Phillip C Dark’s stories have happy endings. Why would this not be the case? Readers like a happy ending. Happy endings sell books. A majority of fiction in any genre has a happy ending. The author usually arranges the climax to make it look as if all hope is gone before coming up with an unexpected turn of events to save the day. This is known as the denouement. Climax and denouement are key elements of dramatic tension.

In any case, although Max Acker is not a common name, this does not mean there is just the one Max Acker. It’s a big world out there. There are likely to be many Max Ackers. Most likely, Phillip C Dark just picked the name at random. As he watches the shoppers come and go, Harry wonders why he is even thinking this way. He pinches himself. Here he is in time and space, sitting in his car in the car park, to all intents and purposes a sentient being. He must send his paranoia packing. Having placed great importance on the black cat appearing on his doorstep, he feels the need to go home to reacquaint himself with reality. His reality. Work can wait.

As Harry parks outside his house, he spots Kate at the front door. She has Lucky in her arms and is stroking him.

I hope you don’t mind me calling around like this,’ she says. ‘But I heard that Max was out to get you. When you weren’t at work, I became worried something might have happened. I thought I’d better check you were all right. This is a lovely cat you’ve got, by the way. Lucky, isn’t it?’

Harry notices the front garden has dried up already. Perhaps there hadn’t been as much rain as he had imagined.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Holiday

holiday

Holiday by Chris Green

Lastminuteholidays.com did not actually specify that Sea View had a view of the sea, but there again, it did not say that it didn’t. The default position, you would have thought, was that it did, especially as there were pictures of the waves rolling in on a clear sandy beach in the post. I ought to have checked on Google Maps. I would have seen then that Sea View was, in fact, several miles inland and unlikely to be a stone’s throw from the beach as advertised on the site. I did not check because I was too busy at work and Diane and I were in a hurry to get away. We were going through a sticky patch in our marriage. Looking at the reviews on Trip Advisor in the prison library now only adds to the feeling of regret. The highest rating Sea View was given was 1 star.

A glance at customer feedback would have let me know that the view consisted of a popular fly-tipping site, a dumping ground for broken furniture, white goods and sundry household waste. Scrap vehicles and even an old crane had been abandoned and left to rust. A bonfire of car tyres smouldered day and night. Security was also flagged up as an issue. The front door to the apartment did not even close. According to the comments, it had been that way for months. The twin beds were three-quarter length and there was no bedding. Several correspondents mentioned the stench of cabbage which was being boiled on an industrial scale in the kitchen below.

Our stay, which was to have been a week, confirmed all these points. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the diesel generator had been a little further from our bedroom window. But, what really did it for me though was the noise from the building site nearby. To maximise the use of the supply of cheap migrant labour in the area, the developer kept the pile driver going through the night.

When Diane and I first arrived at Sea View on that Saturday in July, horrified though we were, we decided we were going to make the best of it. After all, we were on holiday. And of course, we had some issues to work through. There was no sense in adding to these by getting into a state about the shortcomings of the accommodation. In any case, we could find no-one to complain to. We had paid the full week’s rental upfront and the owner saw no need to meet and greet us. And we needed no key as the door had no lock.

We’re not going to spend that much time indoors,’ I said to Diane.

She agreed. ‘I expect there’s lots of interesting scenery around here,’ she said. ‘And we can probably drive out to the coast one day. I’m sure we could do it in under an hour.’

We probably wouldn’t have spent any time indoors, had it not been for the persistent heavy rain that started just after we arrived. Every time we looked out of the window it was still raining. It was just a question of whether at any particular time it was easing off or getting harder. On the positive side, the rain did douse the smouldering heap of tyres. We could not watch TV as the set had already been stolen; there was just an aerial lead trailing from the socket which led to nowhere. I did not even bother getting my tablet out of the case as it was clear there was going to be no wi-fi.

I-Spy got us nowhere as there were not many things in the apartment to spy. The ones that there were could be guessed easily. W was window or wall and B was bed. F was for floor and C was for ceiling. There were no C to sit on and no T to sit at. There was no C or even an M to cook with and no F to put the food in.

After a sleepless Saturday night on the uncomfortable beds with the pile driver thumping away and the rain beating against the window, we spent the whole of Sunday at The Goat and Bicycle. The effects of the beer and the wine helped us to block out the disturbance from the building site on Sunday night. This was just as well, as in addition to the existing operations, I noticed they had now hired a centrifugal pump to get rid of the flood-water that had accumulated on the site.

It was still raining the following day so we drove, via several detours due to the river bursting its banks, to Littleton, a little town ten miles away. After lunch at The Blind Monkey, we saw all three films that were on offer at the Roxy. I wonder why it is that small-town cinemas choose to screen the most violent films. Saw was followed by Teeth and these were reprised by Maniac. After this, our nerves in tatters, we went for a nightcap at The Goat.

This was the night it happened. The pile driver was beating out its dull rhythm. The generator was belching out its acrid fumes to supplement the pungent smell of stale cabbage from below. The rain turned to hail and Diane and I had the mother of all rows. She asked me why I was always so miserable. I said I wasn’t. She said I was. I said that it wasn’t her, I was unhappy at work, what with the shifts and all. She said that’s no reason to take it out on her. I said I didn’t. She said I did, and if my job caused me that much stress I should give it up. I said if I did we wouldn’t be able to afford the payments on her new car or little things like holidays. She said you mean holidays like this. I suggested she might think of getting a job. She said she had a job, clearing up after me and my bloody pigeons. If you want to keep pigeons why don’t you go back oop north? She kept on pushing my buttons. I was weak. I was spineless. I had never satisfied her.

The pile driver kept on thumping. I felt murderous. I stormed off. I couldn’t control myself. I had to take it out on somebody. I made straight for the building site and ….

Because of my standing in the community, I did not come under suspicion. At first, Diane told me I should give myself up, but after I agreed to get rid of the pigeons, she came round. I hadn’t realised how much she hated my pigeons. Perhaps pigeons are more of a man thing. But, now as I sit here browsing the internet in the prison library, I question whether I deserve to be at liberty. Am I any better than the people I have in my custody? Some of them are here for minor offences. Non-payment of council tax. Possession of cannabis. Shoplifting. And I think about what I’ve done. Sometimes my conscience wants me to come clean and admit that it was me who killed Iosif Petrescu that night back in July.

Copyright Chris Green 2020: all rights reserved

Extra

extra

EXTRA by Chris Green

How do they know there are only thirteen days left? How can anyone be so precise? And what exactly is the nature of the emergency? Why does no-one appear to know? Or if they do know, why are they reluctant to tell us? Not that I can do much about it, whatever it is, stuck on the third floor of this ill-equipped institution building in the middle of nowhere in a wheelchair with both legs in plaster. You can’t even get the internet in here to find out what is going on. Perhaps you can’t get the internet anywhere now. Perhaps the internet has been closed down. This would make sense if they, whoever they are, don’t want people to find out what is happening.

It wasn’t so bad at first when we were told there were nineteen days left. First thoughts were that it was probably a hoax or that, whatever the supposed emergency was, it would go away. There was plenty of time, nineteen whole days. There’s not much that stays in the news for nineteen days. But, as the days count down with no further revelations about the nature of the emergency, and seemingly no way of finding out what is going on, I can’t help but speculate. What are they hiding and why? Is there a colossal asteroid on a collision course? Has there been a nuclear accident? A biological attack? There have of course always been things that have been kept secret on the basis that it is not in the public interest to know. Rumours about unbearably loud sounds, antimatter on the loose, apocalyptic winds, blinding blue lights. Media silence seems somehow more sinister.

Of course, there were dozens of us here at first. Only those of us who are physically unable to get away remain, four of us in all. The rest have surreptitiously left. The ones who appeared to be in charge of the place also went today. We watched them go off in a minibus. Rats and sinking ship come to mind. None of us knows why we are here. Is the emergency worldwide or is it something more localised? There’s no way of finding out. To add to our distress, there appears to be a power cut. Maybe there is simply no electricity being produced in these final days.

………………………………………….

When you are faced with the prospect of annihilation in eleven days time, eleven feels like a very small number. It is impossible not to feel fear.

Burl Rector, if that is really his name, believes categorically that it is the hand of God.

It’s retribution for all our sins,’ Burl says, in one of his diatribes. ‘Revelations tells us that the fearful and the unbelieving, the abominable, murderers, whoremongers, and sorcerers, idolaters and liars shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.’

I do not have the energy to point out that I for one am none of the above, well perhaps the fearful and unbelieving, but none of the rest. And although it is far from verified, what news we have is that everyone is going to perish, whether they are sinners or not, in just eleven days time. If I were to challenge Burl, he would probably have some other Biblical text at the ready. Burl’s God is a wrathful God. A vengeful and unforgiving God. Burl’s God put him in his wheelchair simply because he missed church two Sundays in a row.

Huey Minton is also not someone you would choose to be stuck in a lift with. Huey is not even half empty in his outlook. He is empty with a capital e. He is acutely paranoid. He doesn’t even think we should eat the food that we have access to. It is bound to be poisoned, he says, even the tins will be poisoned. What would he rather us do, starve? Huey is a seasoned conspiracy theorist. He can hold forth about 9/11 or chemtrails and mind control for hours. He started by claiming that the present emergency was an alien attack but he has since switched his diagnosis to it being a rampant airborne disease started by the New World Order as a means of population control. It doesn’t matter he says whether we are out there or in here, it will still get us.

Mary Jane doesn’t have an opinion regarding the explanation for the emergency and I am with her on this. If we are going to survive, then its cause is perhaps secondary, we need to come up with a strategy for our survival beyond the next eleven days. Or at least be able to live out our remaining time in good spirits.

………………………………………….

Despite our limited mobility, Mary Jane and I somehow manage to get down to the second floor. The other two are not with us. We try shouting up the stairs but there is no reply. They have vanished. Perhaps they are caught in a wormhole between floors or an unscheduled timewarp but something has happened to them. In uncharted territory such as we are, perhaps we should expect strange things such as this to happen. At least Mary Jane and I are spared the wrath of God diatribes and the wild conspiracy theories for the time being. At least Mary Jane and I are spared for the time being.

It is eerie down here with the peculiar echo of silence you find in a large space when no-one is about. Although we are two floors up, it feels oddly subterranean. Three days on and there is still no sign of the power coming back on. It is dark down here and smells of decay. It looks as if it has been abandoned for a long time. Certainly, more than a few days. The paint is flaking off the mildewed walls and the windows are clouded with soot. Spiders’ webs hang from the furniture. Amongst scattered papers on a gnarled wooden desk, we discover a transistor radio. It’s one of those military-looking ones with lots of wavebands. Despite its business-like appearance, the only transmission we can pick up is in Spanish. This strikes us as ominous. Does this mean that everyone else has gone off the air? With the smattering of Spanish Mary Jane and I have between us, we try to make out what they are saying. They appear to be talking about a football match. A big upcoming football match. Mañana, mañana, El partido más grande de la historia.

Vamos a descubrir que Barcelona es el mejor equipo para la eternidad,’ one of them says. ‘Barcelona es el mejor equipo de futbol del universo entero.’

With just eight days to go before the apocalypse, it seems that this is the match to decide once and for all who really is the best team.

Perhaps this is something they should have done years ago and had done with it,’ Mary Jane says. ‘Rather than put us through the anguish every year for nine months of the year only to for it to start all over again.’

What do you think they would be talking about if it were a French station?’ I say.

Wine, of course,’ Mary Jane says. ‘They would be talking about appellation and terroir and all that nonsense.’

German?’

Sausages and Pilsner,’ Mary Jane says. ‘What about a British radio broadcast? I wonder what we would be talking about.’

Still talking about Brexit, probably,’ I say.

It’s good that even in these last days, we still have a sense of humour,’ Mary Jane says.

The lightness of mood is short-lived. Without warning, the Spanish station goes off the air. In mid-sentence, the excited voice dies. We are left with the hiss of static, this made up in part I recall by cosmic microwave background radiation from the Big Bang. There is nothing out there. It is a chilling moment.

………………………………………….

I can’t be sure of anything anymore, there are no certainties. Everything is in flux. But, according to my calculations, there are just five days left. I can’t recall how we came to be here, but Mary Jane and I now find ourselves on the first floor of the complex. First floor is probably not a fair or accurate description, in fact, no description at all. Before us, as far as the eye can see, there is open grassland. And it seems to go on forever. It even smells like a prairie, with the scents of grasses, resinous shrubs, warm earth and sage. Yet, at the same time, we are somehow still within the confines of the monolithic structure. There are staircases both up and down. How have the wild open spaces come inside? We have entered the realms of science fantasy. The space is somehow dimensionally transcendent.

Like everywhere else around here, the prairie is deserted, if deserted is not a contradiction in terms. We haven’t seen anyone else for a long, long time now. The unspecified catastrophe seems to be playing out. This is surely the end. I can’t help but indulge in some reverie. There’s a sudden longing for the past. For better times. Those idyllic days when life was simpler. The odd thing is, I’m really not sure that I’ve done some of the things that are coming into consciousness. I seem to be flooded with ……. false memories. How could I possibly have been a Roman centurion? Or been in the trenches in the First World War? I wouldn’t have been born. Surely I didn’t really grow gourds in Somerset or have a dog called Kafka. And I can’t for the life of me place who some of these people are that are coming to mind, Philip C. Dark, Leif Velasquez. Certainly, they seem half-familiar. But, who are they? They seem one step removed from my experience. Like phantoms. There again, I do remember Vicki and the twins and Elm Close and Lee’s Bar. I believe these are real memories. And my job at the insurance office. Or was it music shop? I’m sure I had some kind of career. My memory is a laboratory of confusion. Mary Jane, on the other hand, says she doesn’t remember anything at all from her past.

………………………………………….

Somehow, I negotiate another descent. I try to get my bearings once more but I seem to have lost Mary Jane. I call out her name but she does not answer. The darkness makes it difficult to see what is down here but it is no longer open prairie. This is an indoor setting – an indoor setting with a vengeance. All the windows have been boarded-up. It is dark. Enclosed. Forbidding. Where is Mary Jane? I don’t want to be the last person alive.

I’m not.

Don’t move!’ yells a hollow voice, from out of the gloom. I’m thinking perhaps it is the Grim Reaper. My heart is thumping. I’m not ready for this. The seconds pass. The figure slowly approaches. In the slither of murky light coming from a split in one of the boarded up windows, I can just make out his shape. In heavy black uniform and protective headgear, he looks like Darth Vader. He is pointing a gun of some sort in my direction.

Oh! It’s you,’ he says, as he gets closer. Do I detect a sense of relief in his voice? Was he expecting someone more dangerous? I’m still too terrified to say anything.

You’re supposed to be in quarantine,’ he says, matter of factly.

Quarantine?’ I say.

Yes, quarantine. You are contaminated.’

What are you talking about?’

Don’t you remember what happened?’

Remember what?’

The explosion on set.’

What set? Who are you?’

I’m Site Security.’

What’s this about an explosion?’

There was an explosion. On the set of Nineteen Days. Two weeks ago.’

Nineteen Days? Two weeks?’

Oh, come on now! You were one of the extras in the big scene at the end of the film. I had to apprehend two of your oppos a day or two ago and take them back in. Difficult bastards, they were.’

What about Mary Jane? What have you done with Mary Jane?’

No idea what you are talking about, pal.’

Perhaps there was no Mary Jane. The only thing I am sure about is my confusion.

You say we were in a film?’

As I am saying this, I begin to understand the likely origin of the false memories I’ve been getting. The Roman centurion, the First World War soldier. They must be from bit parts I’ve played in films.

Look!’ Darth Vader says. ‘Are you a bit slow or are you pulling my pisser? All of you were in Leif Velasquez’s Nineteen Days. The film he was making of the classic Philip C. Dark story. The production was shut down following the accident.’

Accident?’

The apocalyptic explosion filming the final scene,’ he says. ‘It was like Armageddon.’

Suddenly, I find I am getting flashbacks about an explosion like the one he is describing. But I’m not even sure about these. In my state, they could easily be brought on through auto-suggestion.

They had to shut down the film and quarantine everyone involved in the scene,’ he continues. ‘Those of you that actually survived that is. Because of the alarming side effects, you were experiencing. Toxic chemicals were discovered everywhere, some of them never known before. The area has been declared a no-go zone. All means of communication both in and out have been cut. Weren’t you told any of this?’

Communication cut. This explains the lack of radio reception perhaps but there are still a lot of things that don’t add up.

What happened to the others?’ I ask. ‘Where have they taken them? And where is Mary Jane?’

I do not get a reply. Instead, he raises his weapon once more. He uses it to point the way. Perhaps I am about to find out where the others have been taken. Or, is this all part of Leif Velasquez’s film? Are they still filming? You can perhaps never be sure if you are an extra.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

You Never Know Who Your Friends Are

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You Never Know Who Your Friends Are by Chris Green

A writer can become dangerously obsessed with fiction. The temptation to create something original out of an ordinary everyday situation can be hard to resist. I could not possibly know what I was getting into when I created Quentin Thief’s social media profile. Quentin was a fictional character from one of my short stories. When I found myself twiddling my thumbs one rainy afternoon, to amuse myself, I set up Gmail and Facebook accounts for him. I gave him a few page links, David Lynch, Banksy and The Prisoner and Liked a couple of bands for him, The Dead Kennedys and Dogs Die in Hot Cars. I became his Facebook friend and set his status to public, but without any real expectation that anyone would see his posts.

Quentin’s first friend request came from Seamus Dark. I was puzzled as to how this could have happened, but intrigued. Seamus was a minor character in Magic and Loss, another of my short stories. Seamus didn’t have a very detailed Facebook profile. His only Likes were Twin Peaks and the blind musician, Moondog. Rather than panic as perhaps I should have done, I played along with it. There was bound to be a simple explanation. It was surely someone playing a prank, as indeed I had been. By accepting the request, I felt that one way or another I might be able to get to the bottom of it.

The next time I logged on to Facebook as Quentin, he had five friends. Besides myself and Seamus Dark, there were three others, Reuben Flood, Pearson Ranger and Randy Drummer, all characters from stories of mine. Reuben was a character from the semi-autobiographical Quicksand, Pearson Ranger from my story Snake in the Glass and Randy Drummer from Soft Watches. I could find no rational explanation. No two ways about it, this was spooky.

There were a series of conversations between the characters, both on their timelines and private messaging. I scrolled back through a few screens. The references were cryptic. The copious use of acronyms, AFDN, AFT, BTDTGTS, IYNAEGBTM, etc made the messages unfathomable to a social media novice like me. I had only just grasped LOL and LMAO in internet jargon. Were they hatching some kind of plot? There certainly seemed to be a lot of collusion between them. I signed out, and signed in as myself but found, amongst my regular feeds, exactly the same posts. Their profile pics bore an uncanny resemblance to how I had visualised these characters. Quentin Thief wore an Aloha shirt. Seamus Dark was well-groomed. Reuben Flood had a thick beard and wore a Ché Guevara beret. Pearson Ranger had a military buzzcut and Randy Drummer wore a pork pie hat.

I phoned my friend, Ram, who was knowledgeable about IT matters. Ram banged on about internet security, proxy servers, hackers, firewalls, and malware, but after a few minutes of his techspeak, I was none the wiser. What on earth were packet sniffers and keyloggers?

Can you come round and have a look, Ram?’ I said finally. ‘You’ll probably be able to put your finger on how this is happening just like that.’

I’ve just got to run a machine round to Gerry’s and I’ll be over,’ he said.

Gerry’s? Isn’t he in Birmingham? That’s eighty miles.’

About that,’ he said. ‘Seventy-eight point four. Look! I’ll be over around seven, OK. Why don’t you just switch the thing off and take the dog for a walk on the common or something?’

With my creative writing residency at the university in abeyance and Patti on sabbatical in San Sebastian, life was slow. Tom was in the forces and Cat had gone off to university, so I just had my dog, Murphy for company. Murphy had originally been Cat’s dog but now she was in Edinburgh, he had become my responsibility. Despite his being twelve-years-old, he was still a ten mile a day dog. I was no longer a ten mile a day dog walker. It was a good thing that the common was so close. I could find a seat while Murphy ran around chasing phantom rabbits.

At The Belted Galloway, I got chatting to a couple of walkers. They waxed lyrical about the beauty of the area. How lucky I was to have this all on my doorstep and such a delightful pub, full of rustic charm. Did I know there were thirty-eight species of wildflower on the common? They were just going to do another six miles and then call it a day. They had found a lovely little Airbnb that welcomed walkers. I began to feel I was spending too much time in front of a screen in my internal world.

I got home late afternoon and put a pizza in the oven. I was apprehensive about switching the computer on, but finally, I did. By the time Ram arrived, a little after seven, Quentin’s Facebook friends had multiplied. There were another half dozen familiar names from my literary lexicon. This time the list also included a couple of my leading characters, Max Tempo from Tequila Mockingbird and Tara Vain from Tara’s World.

Muttering to himself, Ram started going through the feeds. Over his shoulder, I could see at a glance that Max and Tara seemed to have started most of the post entries, with various combinations of my other characters responding. Lara Love from Little Dissing and Dr Bolt from Be Here Now had joined the fray. Dave Too from Kosmik Kitchen was there too, along with Roy Tackler from Slumpton. Poor Roy. He spent most of his fictional life on the bench. I never did give him a first-team game. Then there was his chronic alcoholism. The list of characters on the posts seemed to go on and on. Even Charlie Saxx from a story I was in the process of writing seemed to have got in on the act.

GHOMCOAFA,’ Ram read out. ‘Get him off my case once and for all. Looks like someone’s out to get you.’

It was Tara. I had described the nitty-gritty of Tara’s reliance on other people, he disastrous relationships and her subsequent descent into madness. Perhaps I needn’t have been so explicit.

WWLWEP. We will liquidate with extreme prejudice. Max Tempo’s not too keen on you either. What did you do to upset him?’

Nothing, Ram. He’s fictional, remember.’

IGTBBTTR. I’ll get the bloody bastard this time around. Well! This doesn’t sound very fictional. What did you write about him?’

He was originally a delusional character in my story, Tequila Mockingbird, who thought the Mexicans were out to get him. He saw signs of them everywhere. Maybe I could have been more sensitive in the way I portrayed his nervous breakdown. Now I think of it, I may have used him in one or two other stories.’

I am not a number, I am a free man. What’s that all about?’

That’s a line from The Prisoner. The Prisoner is one of the likes I gave to Quentin Thief. It looks as if he’s trying to make a point.

Ram started humming a tune. It was an annoying habit he had when he’s concentrating. I worked out the tune was Puff the Magic Dragon. Puff the Magic Dragon! That was the title of another of my stories.

He carried on scrolling down. Another batch of acronyms appeared.

All these acronyms, Ram. Must be a youngster, don’t you think?’ I said

I don’t think youngsters do Facebook anymore, Phil, Ram said. ‘They’ve got Whatsapp, Instagram and Snapchat.’

IGYBFWLAM?’ I asked, before Ram moved on. This was from Nolan Rocco who featured in several of my stories.

I’ll get you back for writing lies about me,’ Ram said with little or no hesitation. How did he know all these acronyms or was he just making them up? Perhaps he had been creating the characters? Now I was getting paranoid.

Mick Jagger? What’s Mick Jagger doing here?’

He says that you mentioned him in one of your stories and he’s unhappy about it.’

Click on him. It can’t really be Mick Jagger, can it?’

2,080,706 followers. Yes, it can.’

He appeared briefly as a character in The Food of Love, I only gave him a couple of lines.’

Perhaps he feels he should have had more.’ Ram began to hum Jumping Jack Flash, one of the least hummable tunes I could think of. He was thinking again.

Let’s sign in as you, what’s your password?’

50FUck1NGb01ledcabbages’

Nice mix of upper and uppercase characters. Quite a secure one I’d say.’

The posts on my wall looked much the same but there was now an additional one from Quentin Thief. It was the picture of a car crash.

What’s that all about?’ Ram asked.

I hate to think,’ I said.

It seems to me that because you and Quentin Thief are friends that you are going to see any post that he puts up.’

I’ve got that, yes.’

But the ones posted by the others should not show on your wall.’

Yes. I can follow that much.’

So these that are posted by Tara Vain should not be there. OK? Or the ones by Max Tempo.’

But they are.’

You’ve heard of the darknet,’ he said.

I hadn’t. I wondered if it had something to do with Seamus Dark, or perhaps if Seamus Dark had something to do with the darknet. Ram explained that the term darknet was used to describe all underground web communications associated with illegal activity or dissent. ‘Don’t learn to hack, hack to learn,’ he laughed.

How does this fit in with what’s been happening here,’ I queried.

Probably nothing to do with it,’ said Ram. ‘But something weird is happening, isn’t it?’

What can I do about it?’ I asked.

Simple! You could do what you should have done in the first place, delete your Facebook account.’

But then I’ll never know.’

That’s right but, you never know who your friends are, anyway. That’s what they say, isn’t it?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

666 – The Number of the Bus

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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

 

Ten Twenty-Four

tentwentyfour

Ten Twenty-Four by Chris Green

You may not have heard of Trethowan. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Cosy Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only along a windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.

I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone much, the unknown caller could be a casual acquaintance or a trades-person I have contacted in the past. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.

I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24 p.m. by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is not right.

I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet-weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. Why would they have come from Cornwall? I know few people here. They could have come from anywhere. Alaska, China, anywhere, although I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far-flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.

The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in Chenoweth looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether or not he is addressing me, I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it he can get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction.

I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres, I lose the black sedan that I find following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here for several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.

Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To put the finishing touches to a story about fly-fishing in time for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Ellie. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. Ellie is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns.

Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make their presence so obvious? Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.

When I get back to the apartment, I find to my relief Ellie is there. I explain to her what has been happening. She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.

So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’

But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.

Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical glitch at Vodafone.’

O2,’ I correct her.

OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’

What about the men in the village?’ I say.

Two men wearing shades. In a holiday destination. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’

But it wasn’t sunny,’ I say. ‘They chased after me in the black sedan.’

Oh, come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’

I guess not,’ I concede.

Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’

Of course.’

So! Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’

I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.

I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’

Jamaica Inn?’

No, not that one. The other one.’

We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Ellie’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.

I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Ellie has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Creme Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the fittest to drive back, Ellie goes off to the Ladies.

I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Ellie is right. Perhaps I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can investigate the historic Kernow of St Piran. Tintagel and the Arthurian legend. See that new sculpture of the King with Excalibur at the castle. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the rugged bays. We can take in the beautiful landscape. We can visit the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens of Heligan. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.

Ellie often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return. But after ten minutes I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.

A waiter comes over, concerned perhaps that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Ellie is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, the maître d’ says, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Ellie, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Ellie. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.

Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’

The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.

Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.

I turn my attention back to Ellie’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. None of the few left saw Ellie go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Ellie stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He threatens to call the police. There is no need. There and then, the constabulary arrive as if they had just been waiting up the road, four officers in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention. But as they put the handcuffs on and lead me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi snap away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.

I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.

What may be different here is that there is country music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Waiting Around to Die and the daddy of them all, Merle Haggard’s Misery and Gin. The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had a lot more and didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Achy Breaky Heart and I believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and left me to stew. Is this perhaps a technique learned from Guantanamo Bay?

Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police, but villains.

I am concerned about what might be happening to Ellie. She must have been abducted too. If I can be detained like this, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Ellie likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Ellie more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?

As the night wears on, my mind returns to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness, I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Ellie was involved with a year or so ago, a series of television adverts. They were filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.

Could Ellie be responsible for my predicament? Might she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black and the car chase? Having raised my paranoia levels, it would be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Ellie knows how much I hate country music. But why would she do this to me?

Oh! My! God! Might Ellie have discovered that I slept with her friend, Charlotte, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Charlotte’s friend, Sophie had started going to the class. I am aware that Sophie can be spiteful. She must have spilled the beans about our clandestine liaison.

Ellie would have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her the chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall odyssey. In all probability, I am being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day, like ….. that one over there.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

More Weird Shit – an Inspector Boss Mystery

moreweirdshit

More Weird Shit – An Inspector Boss Mystery by Chris Green

It didn’t occur to you that a two-year-old Mercedes Sprinter on sale in Toker’s End for less than two grand might be hot,’ Jonny Geezer says.

To be fair, we were a bit strapped for cash, guv, and there wasn’t that much around,’ Gandy says. ‘And time was of the essence.’

So, let’s get this straight. To do a job, you saddle us with a van that the filth will be all over even before we start,’ Jonny says. ‘You might as well have just nicked one like other blaggers do. ……. What’s in the blue bag in the back there? Looks like one of those Ikea bags.’

It appears to be empty, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The odd thing is, it weighs a ton. I could hardly move it.’

You’re such a wimp, Gandy?’ Jonny says. ‘Let me have a go.’

With a huge effort, Jonny manages to move the bag a few inches. While he is doing so, the bag appears to change shape.

It is as if the bloody thing is breathing,’ he says. ‘It seems to have a life of its own.’

I meant to tell you about that,’ Gandy says.

Then why didn’t you?’

What do you think it is, guv?’

It’s not someone’s shopping from Ikea, is it, Gandy? What was the fella that sold you the van like?’

Average height. Medium build. Dark hair. Didn’t take much notice, to be honest, guv.’

Not from outer space or anything then?’

No perfectly ordinary guy. He had the registration document for the van. I gave him a fake name and address and handed him the cash and that was it.’

You’re sure it was a kosher registration document?’

Well, now you come to mention it, he seemed to want to get things over with quickly, like.’

………………………………………..

Sorry to spring this on you so early, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘But there’s no easy way to tell you. Another bag has gone missing.’

From your serious expression, I take it you mean a blue Ikea bag,’ Inspector Boss says.

I’m afraid so,’ Lennon says. ‘Like the one you told me about.’

This is not the kind of news that Casey Boss of the Strange Occurrence Detail wants to hear first thing in the morning. His stress levels are already through the roof following SOD’s bungled inquiry into the phone signal hi-jack. And the fallout from the invisibility investigation. With so much weird shit going down lately and landing in his lap, he finds it hard to keep up with it all. His doctor has told him to avoid stressful situations. He has warned him that any more stress could prove fatal. He is on powerful beta-blockers which he supplements this with black-market drugs. He is not sure he should even be at work. Just the trip up in the lift to his fourth-floor office these days raises his anxiety.

That was what started it all off. I was coping well before that, Lennon!’ Boss says. ‘Is that really your name? ….. What happened to Jagger?’

Jagger got shot, sir. Last month. Don’t you remember?’

Oh, that’s right. I do seem to recall now. Outside the corned-beef processing plant that was a cover for a tulpa store, wasn’t it?’

That’s right. What is a tulpa, sir? I’ve been meaning to ask.’

Never mind that now, lad. Give me the lowdown on this new business. We’d better get on to it. What do we know?’

The courier who was supposed to deliver this blue bag to the secret location used by the Department that we are not allowed to mention had his van stolen at 3.30 yesterday morning,’ Lennon says.

I see. And presumably said van hasn’t turned up,’ Boss says. ‘And the thinking is that the bag is jam-packed with arcane ideas, I take it. So it will in all probability be in the hands of a rogue regime or terrorists by now,’

That’s the suggestion, sir. Yes.’

And that’s why we’ve been landed with the case.’

Indeed, sir. And as you keep telling me, the first forty-eight hours is critical.’

I know. I know, lad. Just give me what we’ve got, will you?’

Would you like me to get you your meds, sir, and a glass of water?

………………………………………..

We need to find out what this weird shit is, Gandy,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘PDQ.’

What about talking to TeeJay?’ Gandy says. ‘You never know. Whatever it is in the bag might be worth money.’

He’s not going to buy something he can’t see, is he?’ Jonny says.

Brett and Bro?’ Gandy says. ‘They’re gullible. Especially Bro. I sold him his own Kawasaki bike once.’

I’ve got it,’ Jonny says. ‘Pete the Maj. He is the man to see. Pete’s a spoon bender. He knows about paranormal shit. He lives around here. Harmonica Road. Just off Tambourine Way. Pete will be able to tell us what is going on.’

They drive the van around to Harmonica Road. Pete the Maj’s house is a quotidian no-fines semi, distinguishable only by the bank of satellite dishes and the black flag flying on the flagpole outside. Pete answers the door. Jonny and Gandy exchange puzzled looks. In their world, men don’t often answer the door wearing orange wet suits with marmosets perched on their shoulders.

Hi guys,’ Pete says. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’

They hadn’t phoned ahead. How could he possibly know they were coming, they wonder?

And what’s more, I know what exactly you have come about,’ Pete adds. ‘What you have is a bag full of concepts waiting to be realised. In a word, my friends, ideas.’

But it looks like there’s nothing in the bag,’ Jonny says.

What do you expect, Jonny? Ideas are invisible,’ Pete says.

But despite this, the bag is heavy,’ Gandy says. ‘It took the two of us to pick it up.’

Of course, it’s heavy,’ Pete says. ‘Ideas are often complex. You didn’t think they just came floating in through the kitchen window, did you? Or that you could download them from the Internet?’

If you can’t see them, how do you know what they are?’ Jonny asks.

Firstly, you need to know where they came from,’ Pete says. ‘I’m guessing by the look of you that you don’t know.’

Not as such,’ Gandy says.

Then you need to have the right equipment and the necessary skills to get them to materialise. I’m pretty sure you are not going to have that,’ Pete says.

So without this equipment, no-one can tell what it is,’ Jonny says.

Exactly,’ Pete says. ‘Perhaps now that you’re here, you might like to sing to my marmoset. She’s called Sacha. She’s very friendly.’

You wouldn’t like to hazard to a guess what the stuff might be, I suppose,’ Gandy says.

Many new ideas come from military sources, microwaves, GPS, 5g, all these are military in origin,’ Pete says. ‘The internet too originated in the military, along with lots of everyday things like disposable razors and superglue. So that’s where my money would be. ……. Although you wouldn’t think the military would transport the raw material in a blue Ikea bag.’

………………………………………..

We’d better get the courier in here, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘What did you say his name was?’

It’s a hard one to get your head around,’ his sidekick says. ‘Banana Petroleum or something like that. He’s Albanian, apparently. ……. Ah, here it is, Bajrami Pernaska.’

Let’s stick with Banana Petroleum. ….. OK! Get Petroleum in here this morning. He could well be in on it, don’t you think?’

It would certainly make our job easier if he were, sir.’

Look! If you joined the department because you thought it would be easy, Lennon, you’re in for a rude awakening. This isn’t the regular constabulary, lad. This is SOD. The Strange Occurrence Detail. You better be ready for all kinds of weird shit. None of it good or easy.’

I didn’t for a minute imagine it would be easy,’ Lennon says. ‘I knew there would be a lot to learn. I’ve not worked in metaphysical policing before. I have a mind games background.’

Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, eh, lad?’

What?’

Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower.’

Eh?’

From old songs, lad. I thought you might know them.’

Before my time, I imagine, guv.’

Inspector Boss’s Albanian is not up to speed and Banana Petroleum’s English is not much better. It takes twenty minutes to establish that BP is a delivery driver for Safe as Houses Security and while the van he was using when it was stolen belonged to them, due to an oversight in planning, it had none of the firm’s livery. It was a plain white van.

I stop van for smoke,’ Banana Petroleum says. ‘When I return, van gone. In trouble now. Yes.’

You know what was in the van then I take it,’ Boss says.

Van gone,’ BP repeats. ‘In trouble now. Lose job.’

After an hour they establish that BP probably did not know what he was carrying, and the van was taken from outside the community centre on the Toker’s End estate, a notorious spot for petty criminals and drug dealers.

We’d better get around to Toker’s End, Lennon,’ Boss says. ‘Have you had any small arms training?’

Not really, sir,’ Lennon says. ‘Most of my work involved writing confusing copy for under the counter publications.’

Well no doubt, these skills will come in useful,’ Boss says.

………………………………………..

I don’t know how to tell you this, guv, but the bag seems lighter,’ Gandy says. ‘Like something has escaped.’

And how did that happen, Gandy?’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘I told you to keep an eye on it.’

I kept an eye on it. I didn’t let it out of my sight.’

How did that happen?’

A complete mystery, guv. I even made sure the CCTV was focussed on it. But I’ve played the footage back and there’s nothing to see. The hard disc has been wiped.’

That’s should be impossible. ….. Well. Never mind, Gandy. I suppose it’s a good thing in a way, seeing as the stuff in the bag was invisible anyway and we wouldn’t have been able to sell it.’

Shall I just ditch the bag then?’

To be on the safe side, we’ll hang on to it for now. With all this strangeness around, you never know.’

………………………………………..

Before we rush off to Toker’s End,’ Lennon says. ‘Have you seen this splashed across the front of the paper? It says that all across the country, time is going backwards. In Brighton, it has gone back to Tuesday. In Swindon, it’s Monday last week and in Bristol, it has gone back to January.’

Let me have a look, will you?’ Boss says.

Here you go, boss.’

Don’t call me that, man. How many times?’

OK, guv.’

Nor that. Guv is for hoodlums and lowlife.’

Sorry, sir.’

God’s teeth!. You are right, Lennon. It looks like time is on the blink. Looking at the locations they mention here, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to it, although all the places are in the south of the country. I hope it’s not heading this way. We haven’t noticed anything different here yet, though, have we?’

I didn’t like to mention it, sir, but the hands of my watch do seem to be going backwards.’

I see. Oh my God! So they are. Not good, lad! I’ve got a bad feeling about this. It could well be connected to the disappearing bag. That’s why the bigwigs have got us on it. I imagine we will get a call from them shortly telling us to pull our fingers out.’

I’ve just had a newsflash come up on my phone,’ Lennon says. ‘It’s from Devon Live. It’s about 9/11. It says planes have crashed into the Twin Towers in New York. A newsflash. As if it’s just happened. Time must have gone further back down south.’

Have I got much of that stuff left, Lennon?’ Boss says.

You mean your meds, sir? Yes, there’s enough for a week or so. But, to be on the safe side, would you like me to order some more. I think I have your man’s number here. Is he really called Razor?’

Yes. I think you’d better. This could be a fraught investigation.’

………………………………………..

Who do I speak to in SOD?’ the Home Secretary, Mercy Creech asks her PA, Dodd. Mercy is new to the job. She has only been in post for three weeks.

That would be Inspector Casey Boss,’ Dodd says. ‘Would you like me to get him on the phone?’

Yes. That would be good. What’s he like, this Boss?’

Well, he’s probably in his late fifties’ Dodd says. ‘He appears to be a little vacant unless this is merely an affectation. But you’d have to say, he’s a bit dour. He’s always complaining how under-resourced SOD is. But don’t they all claim to be undermanned.’

Got you. SOD have lost a few of their officers lately, haven’t they?.’

Yes, Home Secretary. They had one taken out just last month. Jagger, I believe. Terrible business.’

Dodd keys in the number and hands the phone to Mercy Creech. Inspector Boss leaves it to ring for a while before picking up. He has a fair idea of what is coming.

Ah, Boss. Home Secretary calling. Good to make your acquaintance. I take it you are up to speed on the crisis.’

I’ve picked up the gist of it, yes.

Look! I’ve spoken to the Department that I’m not permitted to mention and they tell me that this matter is now Category XX. In a word, time is going backwards. Now, as I understand it, because just one bag of whatever it was went missing, this is only happening in certain places, mostly down south. In other locations, nothing has happened. In most parts of the country, it is still today. But the rupture in time could spread. How is it where you are?’

It’s just stared here, Home Secretary. Weird business. One minute, it’s dark and the next it’s light and then it’s dark again. At a guess, we are about three weeks back at the moment.’

I see. It’s gone so far they are already back on dial-up in some places. In West Somerset, they say it has gone back to 1983.’

Boss wonders how they can tell. It probably always seems like 1983 in West Somerset, but he doesn’t say anything.’

We to need to recover the missing bag quickly,’ the Home Secretary continues. ‘Even then, it might be too late.’

I might need more personnel, Home Secretary. We’ve taken a bit of a hit lately, if you’ll excuse my pun.’

Yes, so I hear. We will look into it and be reassured, we are trying to get to grips with gun crime.’

And my new sidekick, Lennon is inexperienced in the field.’

Lennon, you say? Is that really his name?’

………………………………………..

Casey Boss is always nervous about contacting Colonel Ж of the Department that cannot be named, but if they are to make any progress on the case, he realises he must do so now. To prepare himself, he takes a handful of the Razor’s designer supplements. He has no idea what they are, but they seem to do the job.

Ah, Boss,’ Colonel Ж says. ‘I was wondering when you would call. What’s it like where you are?’

Time is going backwards here. I don’t know how exactly it works but as far as I can tell, we are not going backwards with it,’ Boss says. ‘If you get my drift.’

It is one of those things that is difficult to predict with any certainty,’ the Colonel says. ‘Especially as nothing like this has happened before. Time is still going forward normally here, but, of course, this could change at any moment. The distribution seems to have happened more or less at random. I’m getting lots of conflicting reports. There’s nothing uniform about the spread. Did you know it’s gone back to 1913 in Windsor? They are worried about the military build-up in the Balkans.’

I’ve given the issue some thought,’ Boss says. ‘Off the top of my head, it would appear that we need to get to the depot where the van was loaded. And hope that time in this location has not gone too far back. Then, we can just load the bag or bags that were to be transported on a different van and perhaps that will change things back.’

Good thinking.’ the Colonel says. ‘I’m not sure it will work but it’s certainly worth a try. If I give you the location, can you get another van there quickly?’

I’ll get my man, Lennon on to it right away, Colonel,’ Boss says.

Lennon? Is that really his name?’ the Colonel says.

………………………………………..

From what you said earlier, sir, I gathered we were on a tight budget but guess what, I managed to get us a two-year-old Mercedes van from Gumtree for a very good price,’ Lennon says. ‘Only 100,000 on the clock.’

Good work, Lennon. Let’s get on with it then,’ Boss says. ‘Time is of the essence.’

In more way than one, sir, if you get my drift,’ Lennon says.

Oh, I see, time. Very droll,’ Boss says. ‘Here’s the postcode to key in.’

After driving for several hours through fractured time zones, they find themselves in logistics-land, deep in the heart of the Midlands. Here, the roads are newly tarmacked and have clear white lines and elaborate traffic furniture at all the roundabouts. There are new warehouse buildings lining both sides of the road. Time seems unaffected. It is six-thirty on Thursday evening, which they calculate is what it should be.

Only three more miles, sir, Lennon says.

Perhaps we are in time then,’ Boss says.

In time. You are at it again, sir. Look! That must be the depot up there on the right, don’t you think? The tall one with the camouflage cladding.’

I think that’s probably Colonel Ж getting out of the Hummer.’

You can get quite a lot of people in a Hummer, can’t you? And look! They are heavily armed.’

Military unit, Lennon. All we were given was this pistol. And, as you know, I had to beg for that.’

My watch is starting to go backwards again, sir. But that’s good, isn’t it?’

Perfect. All we have to do then is get out and wait until yesterday.’

That may not be too long. The hands-on my watch are spinning wildly.’

………………………………………..

The cargo always travels by night, the Colonel tells them. The missing cargo set off from the depot with Safe as Houses Security at midnight. The task this time is to pick up the bag an hour earlier than originally planned and head for the secret location. They will be escorted by Colonel Ж and his men in the Hummer. The secret location is a hundred miles away in the direction they’ve come. They will be informed of the exact location once they are near. The latest reports from the secret location suggest that time here is behaving as it should. Boss wonders why the Department could not have done this without them, but his is not to reason why. Why hadn’t they delivered the original cargo by helicopter if it was so sensitive? Or at least put it with a reputable carrier? It seems a bit lax to trust it with a random Albanian dude with a white van. Boss wonders too at what point, time will correct itself. Will this return to normal when the bag is safely aboard the van, when it has travelled further than it originally did or only when it is safely delivered. While logic suggests the first option, there is nothing rational about the current situation. Perhaps, it is a riddle that no-one can be sure of the answer to, not even the Colonel.

We don’t know exactly where the van was stolen,’ Boss says. ‘Banana Petroleum was not very specific and in the end, we found we were just wasting time by grilling him further, but we have a rough idea. So to be on the safe side, we will take a different route.’

OK. Let’s get the show on the road,’ Colonel Ж says ‘We’ll be close behind you. You can be sure of that.’

………………………………………..

We’d better try to get rid of the van,’ Jonny Geezer says. ‘Count our losses. If we don’t ask much for it, someone’s around here is sure to snap it up. Probably someone else who wants a plain white van to do a knock-over.’

I was meaning to talk to you about that, guv,’ Gandy says. ‘The van has, how can I put it? Gone. One minute it was there, the next, it wasn’t.’

What!’

Someone must have half-inched it while my back was turned. I was on the phone to Loulou. The van was only out of my sight for a few minutes, then I went back to lock it up and …… well, it wasn’t there. I didn’t hear anything. It must have all happened very quickly.’

Someone who knew we wouldn’t report it, probably.’

Next time, we’ll just have to nick one like you said, guv.’

You ditched the bag, didn’t you?’

You told me not to. …… Didn’t you?’

Where did you put it?’

It’s in the shed back here, boss. …….. Look!’

Where am I looking, Gandy?’

Oh no! The bag has gone too.’

………………………………………..

As far as it’s possible to tell, time has settled down. To the good folks of Windsor, the military build-up in the Balkans is nothing more than an episode in history. They are once more able to harangue the graceless town planners in neighbouring Slough. In Devon, they have got over the shock of 9/11 and can once again whinge about the legions of caravanners that flock to their beauty spots every year and get stuck in the narrow lanes. Brighton is now straight again too and back on British Summer Time. The urban centres of Swindon and Bristol are back on track, each dreaming that one day, they might be able to produce a successful football team. Maybe eventually field a side to progress beyond the Fifth Round of the F.A. Cup. Throughout the land, clocks and watches are synchronised. Dates for events throughout the year are once again set in the calendar. Yet, for some unaccountable reason, in parts of West Somerset it still appears to be 1983.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

puffthemagicdragon

Puff the Magic Dragon by Chris Green

Before he met Prism, John Straight seemed destined for success. He had a Degree in Business Management from a top university, a big black BMW with bull bars and he was willing to travel. In a word, John’s future looked rosy. He was the son of Sir James Straight, the Somerset cider magnate. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the country, went to the best schools and never had to struggle. As an only child, he was cosseted. Not only did he have his own motorised BMX, he also had his own BMX track, six acres of it. He went on cultural summer camps in Europe every year. By the time he was eighteen had been to more countries than most adults. On finishing at Goldsmiths, his parents put down a large deposit on a house for him, a stylish four-bedroom barn conversion near Nether Stowey. At twenty one, he seemed to have it all going for him.

But, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, John Straight was a little worried about his future. He did not feel he was yet ready to settle down. He supposed one day he would have to knuckle down, get a job and become a responsible citizen, but could this not be delayed for a while he thought about it? John’s fate was perhaps changed forever, the day he met Prism at a party in Taunton. He was introduced to Prism and Prism introduced him to Molly.

These little beauties will loosen you up,’ Prism said.

John was not sure what she meant. He felt he couldn’t be much looser. After all, he had no plans. He was very much going with the flow. But Prism looked sexy in her skimpy dress and she had a persuasive way about her.

Take three of them,’ she said. ‘And the world will seem a different place.’

What are they?’ he asked, looking in a puzzled manner at the three purple pills she had put into his hand with Nintendo etched on them.

Molly,’ she said. ‘Ecstasy. MDMA.’

And loosen him up, they did. Three hours in, the feeling of well-being was so strong, John knew this was how he wanted things to be. This was a wonder drug. He began to understand why it was referred to as Ecstasy. A deep sense of love, peace and understanding flowed through him. He was inside the music and the music was inside him. He was the music. The music was him. His limbs moved effortlessly like he was discovering them for the first time, his body in perfect rhythm with the cosmos. He felt a powerful rush of energy and a profound connection with everyone at the party. They were all lovely people. Even Razor McNeish was lovely. Why had he not seen this before? The feeling went on and on. This was altogether more pleasurable than getting mullered on Somerset cider at a family bash to celebrate a new vintage or throwing up after a night of beer-boarding in the students’ union bar. And the skunk that his friend Frank had brought round recently had not even hinted at this kind of euphoria. This was Heaven.

We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream,’ Prism said, later, after they had made love for the third time.

More Molly-fuelled weekends with Prism followed. Concerts, parties and more intimate gatherings. Molly even made shopping more fun, especially in the big Beamer. Specialist loudspeaker shops were John’s favourite. With the right equipment, it was astonishing how loud your music could be. Meanwhile, Prism moved herself in and the house at Dulverton soon pulsated day and night with the latest tunes at frightening volume.

We are like the spider,’ Prism said. ‘We weave our life and then move along in it.’

Move along in it, they did. With neither of them going out to work, they had plenty of time to indulge themselves. But the mind is like a mad monkey. It is restless, capricious; fanciful, inconstant, confused and uncontrollable. It constantly wants to move on to something else. Things, therefore, can never stay the same. They do not always change for the better. Little by little, John and Prism’s lives began to move in a different direction. Charlie started coming round to the house with Molly and then Charlie came round instead of Molly. Whereas Molly might be described as gentle and easy going, Charlie was anything but gentle and easy going. Charlie was urgent and aggressive. The mood around the house changed. The unpredictability the Peruvian marching powder brought with it meant John and Prism frequently argued and fought. She stormed out, came back and stormed out again, over and over. He told her to get out, chased after her and told her to get out again.

Worse was to come. Henry started to visit. Henry the Horse, Smack, Scag, Heroin, whatever you want to call it. John was curious to know what it was like. You didn’t have to inject it, he discovered; you could smoke it. The first hit was wild but you were forever trying to repeat this. Smoking it was no longer enough. By the time you became disappointed with the hit you were getting, you were hooked. Henry wanted your body and soul. Henry was hard-edged and desperate. Henry took no prisoners.

The upbeat dance music was gradually replaced by downbeat grunge music. Prism had been agreeable to Charlie coming round. She had been able to take Charlie in her stride. Cocaine was upbeat, exciting, even if it did make you talk bollocks. The point was you always felt you were talking sense. But from the outset, Prism disliked Henry and eventually moved out for good.

John began to wallow in self-pity. Henry was now permanently in residence. All John’s actions in one way another revolved around the demon drug. His parents were disgusted with the direction his life was taking and cut off his allowance. The debts quickly piled up. Had he not crashed the Beamer one night after a trip to look for Henry, he could have sold it to bail himself out and perhaps buy some time until he got himself back on his feet. But the vehicle was a write-off. To make matters worse he was being prosecuted for dangerous driving and possession of a Class A Drug with Intent to Supply. Not that he had any intention of selling any but the huge quantity of heroin the police found in the car was sufficient to justify the charge.

………………………………….

It’s all going pear-shaped, isn’t it, Mr Straight?’ John’s solicitor, Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed says.

It does seem a bit unlucky. All coming at once.’ John says. ‘Look! I don’t suppose you’ve got any gear.’

Gear?’

Yes. Crack, smack, spice. Anything at all.’

Can we treat this matter seriously, Mr Straight? Now, look! We’d better put the house on the market, for starters, don’t you think?’

I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to do that, Mr Dark.’

Oh, and why is that?’

It burned down last night,’

It burned down? How did that happen, Mr Straight?’

I arranged for someone to set fire to it.’

You arranged for someone to set fire to it?’

Yes. To get the insurance money.’

For Heaven’s sake, Mr Straight. The house wasn’t insured. You told me yourself the day before yesterday that the house insurance had lapsed. Your bank account is frozen. Your Direct Debit payment bounced. You’re broke, remember!’

I know that, Mr Dark but I made the arrangement with the arsonist last week and I was so strung out, I forgot to cancel the arrangement.’

Murphy’s Law doesn’t come close to taking account of your ability to bring about disaster, does it, Mr Straight?’

Then I thought I would be in when he came round, you see but I had to go out.’

Let me guess. To get some heroin.’

That’s right. I thought I might be able to call in a favour. Glassy-Eyed Dave owed me one. But it didn’t work out. Then I came home to find that, well not to put to fine a point on it, there was no home. Just a smouldering heap of rubble. …… Are you sure you haven’t got anything in your desk drawer? Not even enough for a hit.’

Not even a puff of the magic dragon, I’m afraid,’ Sebastian Dark says. ‘But what I do have is one of my brother’s books of short stories. It’s in the cabinet over there.’

Oh great! I’ll settle down and read for a bit, shall I? That will be much better than a fix. That will sort out the cold turkey.’

What you probably don’t realise, Mr Straight is that my brother is the science fiction writer, Philip C. Dark. No doubt you have heard of him but had never made the connection. Now, you will very likely be able to find a wormhole in one of Phil’s stories to offer you a passage to a more favourable situation. Why don’t you give it a try? It’s not as if you’ve got a lot to lose.’

The solicitor hands John the book, The Logic Mines of Őjj 9. He begins to read and suddenly ……………….. somewhere in the distance, John hears the haunting sound of a brass instrument. He edges the dune buggy closer. In front of a bank of brightly coloured pods, a tall slender figure with purple hair is playing a transparent saxophone. He has a small cat on his shoulder. John is not sure he has met him before yet he does seem oddly familiar. He wonders if perhaps he saw him playing at last year’s God Election celebrations. Overhead, the usual flock of winged serpents is circling. It is twilight. Both moons are already out. It is a fine evening. All is well. He has his pipe of green herbs to look forward to. Things are as they should be in John Straight’s world.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

ICKE

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ICKE by Chris Green

It was the summer I worked for the Parks Department. Tony and I had parked up our mowers in Cortina Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac in a residential area, a place where I reasoned, Nick Ford would not find us if he came to check. It had been a hot dry summer, and the grass hadn’t grown much so I figured if he came, we could bluff it. We would work out where he had been looking for us and explain that we had been doing the verges in other roads in the area. Although Tony and I had not been teamed up before and he was a little wary, I told him this ploy had worked for me up until now. Nick Ford tended to stick to set routes on his patrols.

Tony and I settled down for a smoke on the stretch of undeveloped land at the far end of Cortina Drive. We talked about our backgrounds. We discovered that these were similar. Both sets of parents had recently divorced, both our fathers worked in IT and both our mothers, for some reason, were fans of Andy Williams. How this had come into the conversation is hard to say. Neither of us were particularly family-orientated or interested in crooners. Although Tony and I had gone to different schools, we found we had similar interests, girls, partying and sleeping. And liked the same bands, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had some Northern Lights skunk as I recall, and it was not long before the two of us were laughing loudly at anything and everything.

Suddenly, our peace was shattered by a powerful, low-pitched whooshing noise. We looked up and saw it was coming from a vortex in the sky. I had been too young to catch the original Twin Peaks and this was years before Stranger Things on Netflix, so naturally, I had not come across anything like it before. Nor I suspect had Tony. We were only nineteen and vortexes and portals had not featured in our sheltered upbringings. The roar grew louder and louder. The spiral moved faster and faster and came closer and closer. We were buffeted this way and that by the blistering wind. This continued for what seemed an eternity, but I suppose, in reality, may just have been a few seconds. We felt ourselves being sucked up into the firmament. It was all we could do to keep our feet on the ground. Tony’s profile was cutting in and out in rapid beats like an entity materialising and dematerialising. We appeared to oscillate between terra firma and a nebulous netherworld. Fortunately, the vortex retreated as quickly as it had arrived and thankfully, we were spared.

The experience must have had a profound effect on Tony, for he didn’t come into work the following day. Or the day after. At first, I didn’t think too much about it because we both viewed working for the Parks Department as a summer job rather than a career. There was a high turnover of staff, especially as the money was not very good. But, I never saw Tony again. I tried for a while to get in touch with him but he seemed to have completely disappeared.

When you are nineteen, your world changes rapidly from day to day. You are happy-go-lucky, carefree. New experiences come your way all the time. Friendships are fluid. You are out every night, meeting new people. You hardly notice the passing of time. So understandably, I did not dwell too much on the strange episode or for that matter, Tony’s disappearance. After a while, I began to wonder if perhaps because we had been so stoned, we had imagined the vortex. Or at least exaggerated what might simply have been temporary adverse weather conditions. Nothing about it had appeared in the local paper, or if it had, I had missed it.

Growing up, I had read the odd science fiction novel and seen the occasional sci-fi movie, but they were not particularly my thing. It was not until in the twenty-tens, when I picked up a book by former sports broadcaster turned new age philosopher, David Icke, that I realised what portals were. Or that for many years, scientists had been attempting to open portals to parallel universes, shadowy dimensions that mirrored our perceived world. Or the claim that we might live in a multi-dimensional holographic universe. And the argument that if we on Earth had this type of technology then others from distant worlds would be likely to have equivalent technology. Could some of this weird stuff explain the episode with the vortex, I wondered? Could it even account for Tony’s subsequent disappearance? Had he simply been spirited away? If David Icke was to be believed, this explanation appeared to be plausible.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon suggests that once you come across a new word, subject, concept or idea, you are likely to come across references to it everywhere. Many believe this is an example of collective consciousness and has a supernatural explanation. In addition, it is claimed the references often lead to other previously undiscovered but connected concepts and ideas until you find a whole new world suddenly has opened up. Such was the case around portals. Firstly, I noticed that the window of Waterstones was full of books on portals and wormholes. Then I found an advert for an upcoming talk on Time Travel and Parallel Universes at the John Morris Memorial Centre by someone called Marcellus Go. I saw a youngster on the street wearing a David Icke T-shirt and to my astonishment, another wearing a David Icke T-shirt. I hadn’t realised that David Icke had such a following. Then, out of the blue, Ravi in the corner shop struck up a conversation on hidden portals. What were the chances of this? I had only gone into KMart for cigarettes.

NASA has admitted that Earth portals teleporting human beings from one place to another are a reality,’ he said, looking up from the book he was reading. ‘They’ve been studying them for a long time. You’ve heard about The Philadelphia Experiment, right?’

I told him I hadn’t. I was new to all this.

In 1943, the US Navy teleported the entire crew of the USS Eldridge into the future. 1983 to be precise.’

Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s quite something.’

Why, I wondered, was Ravi telling me this? It wasn’t as if I knew him well. I had only been into KMart a handful of times. I could see he wasn’t busy but still it seemed odd.

And more recently in the Montauk Project, the American Air Force created a. dimension portal, a time tunnel that enabled their researchers to travel to make contact with aliens. A flying saucer became stuck in the underground tunnels along with its alien crew. I’ve just been reading about it. Cool stuff, huh?’

Do you know, I’ve often had the feeling that time was not working properly,’ I said. ‘My account of when particular things happened is often at odds with other peoples’ accounts. I keep meaning to keep a diary to keep track because so many things just don’t seem right.’

Time’s not linear,’ Ravi said. ‘I can tell you that much. Einstein proved that years ago. You want to get yourself along to that talk by Marcellus Go, last week.’

You mean next week,’ I said.

Who can tell?’ he said. ‘Like I said, time’s not linear.’

There were perhaps thirty people at the John Morris Memorial Centre to hear Marcellus Go speak. A veritable circus of jugglers, clowns and space-cadets. In the front row were the pair of youngsters I had seen in the David Icke T-shirts. Marcellus held forth about time travel and aliens and how these matters had been consistently hushed up by successive regimes the world over. Secrets and lies, it seemed formed the basis of political power. Literally thousands of sightings of UFOs had been dismissed as hoaxes. There were aliens among us, Marcellus said, possibly even some in tonight’s audience by the look of it. He went on to explain that far from being taboo subjects, wormholes and portals were matters that should interest us all, particularly in this neck of the woods as there were a handful of potential sites for portals to other dimensions nearby. It had to do with magnetic fields and energy stores. If we bought his book, Quantum Revelation, we would discover the coordinates for these sites.

I lined up with the others to buy Marcellus’s book. I found myself standing next to one of the more attractive attendees, in fact, she was the only woman there. She was tall with long flowing dark hair and was wearing tie-die balloon pants and a floral shift. I caught a whiff of patchouli.

I’m Aura,’ she said.

I’m Charlie, I said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

I expect you’d like to go for a drink after all that,’ she said. ‘There’s a quiet little wine bar I know just around the corner.’

This seemed a little forward, but a drink seemed like a good idea and the prospect of attractive, intelligent female company for the evening seemed an even better one. I had been at a loose end since Linda had left. Linda and I had been together for three or four years but had slowly drifted apart. Linda was a creature of habit. She didn’t like anything new. She strongly disapproved of my fascination with David Icke. She started coming out with all kinds of nonsense about my naivete. How can you be taken in by him? she said. He’s a charlatan, she said. Nothing but conspiracy theories, she said. It was bad enough that she used to hide my weed but the final nail in the coffin came when she took all my David Icke books to Oxfam.

Yin Yang was tucked away down a back alley. Unless you had been told about it, you would not know it was there. Strange for a licenced premises not to advertise itself. Yin Yang too was an odd choice for the name of a wine bar, I remember thinking. Perhaps there was a connection between Taoism and wine that I did not know about.

How did you get into all this, Charlie?’ Aura asked. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. You scrub up quite well, but you don’t look like the new-age type.’

To keep her interested, I felt I had better open up. I told her how reading the David Icke books had taught me to question everything we had been told. How I came to realise the universe was made up of vibrational energy and consisted of an infinite number of dimensions sharing the same space. And that the world was run by lizard people from the fourth dimension that over time had interbred with humans. After all, once you had been alerted to this, it was obvious. The evidence was everywhere. The Royal Family, The Rothschilds, The Rockefellers along with most top politicians and world leaders past and present were the progeny of these liaisons.

Aura nodded her agreement. She was clearly familiar with the Babylonian Brotherhood or the Illuminati, as the elite were otherwise known.

Reading David Icke on parallel worlds got me around to thinking back to an experience I had years ago,’ I continued. ‘With what I now realise was in all probability a wormhole.’

Aura listened attentively while I explained where it was.

Cool!’ she said. ‘That sounds close by. It’s probably one of the local portal sites that he gives the co-ordinates for. Perhaps we might go in the morning. After breakfast.’

This sounded promising. Did this mean we were going to spend the night together?

I can’t remember much about the rest of the evening, but I suspect we may have consumed a bottle or six of wine and perhaps had more than the odd puff on a spliff. I woke in unfamiliar surroundings with a thumping head. Once I became used to the startling array of fabrics in the room, I realised there was perhaps a theme and they didn’t all clash. Even so, it was a riot of colour. Aura emerged from the shower and said something about it having been a good night, which helped to put my mind at rest. It seemed odd that according to my watch I had missed three days, but I didn’t dwell on it. If Aura seemed happy about the situation, this seemed to be sufficient.

On our drive to Cortina Drive, Aura talked about her trip out to Area 51 in the Nevada desert the previous year. There was a festival going on with people coming from all over the world. Some of those she met had drone footage of the captured spacecraft in the compound. Others, with first-hand experience of the base, had actually seen the aliens that were being held there but say they were not allowed to take photos. It was clear she said that this was not just a U.S. Air Force where they tested planes. There was so much that we just didn’t know.

It was a disappointment to find that the portal site from my youth had been built upon. It knocked the wind out of our sails. At the far end of Cortina Drive, we found ourselves facing an odd-looking industrial building with rain-screen cladding and no windows. It seemed an odd structure to build in what was otherwise a traditional red-bricked residential area, the kind of thing you would have thought it would be difficult to get planning permission for. We walked around the perimeter but found nothing to indicate what the building might be used for. We were not even able to detect an entrance.

Try as we might, we could not find out who the strange building belonged to. Or what they did in there. We even staked it out one morning but no-one arrived and no-one left. There appeared to be no record of the building anywhere. It didn’t even appear on Google maps. It was a real puzzler. It was as if it didn’t exist.

But, there are other potential portal sites mentioned in Marcellus Go’s book. Some of these are within easy travelling distance, there and back in a day. Also, I see that David Icke has a new book on the way, which is likely to have heaps of new ideas for us to investigate. But perhaps some of these things can wait awhile. Now that Aura and I have moved in together, there seems to be less of a sense of urgency. We might spend some time exploring inner space instead and see where this takes us.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Sven of Halmstad

sven3

Sven of Halmstad by Chris Green

Church attendance had been dropping for years. In the age of science and discovery, it seemed no one was able to swallow the fantastic tales of strife and salvation in the middle east as the basis for their belief. Stories like this might be OK for a fantasy novel, but not as the central creed for a major religion. Miracles about rising from the dead and walking on water did not fit well into rational twenty-first-century thinking. As the result of several emergency meetings of the General Synod of the Anglican Church, it was agreed that the Bible itself needed a refresh. As it was a major doctrinal issue, there was resistance within the group, but the decision was eventually made to appoint someone to rewrite the Holy book.

Tom Golfer had little published work but decided to apply for the post anyway. He was astonished when he was selected for interview. He had expected the shortlist to be made up of serious doctrinal scholars. At the interview, in front of a panel of priests in colourful clerical clothing, he put forward some radical, even frivolous ideas. Much to his surprise radical thinking seemed to be what many of the Synod were looking for. Many of the stories in the great book were tired and redundant, they told him. It needed a new approach if people were to be drawn back into the flock. Tom pointed out that this in itself was a tired metaphor. Apart from a faction led by The Bishop of Bridgewater and The Bishop of Brighton and Hove, two notorious reactionaries, the Synod agreed that metaphors were one of the Bible’s major drawbacks. Interpretations of some of the big stories in the book had been a problem over the years. The story needed a more realist approach.

Tom was completely overwhelmed when he was appointed. Just think, his girlfriend Natalie said, when he told her the news in the massage parlour that night, The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer. Modest as he was, Tom tried to play this down.

It’s only the Church of England’s version,’ he said. ‘I can’t see the Catholics going for it. It was only recently they decided to drop the Latin version. And it will be a definite no-no to the Orthodox Church.’

But, it’s a start,’ said Natalie. ‘They might get you on one or two of the hymns as well.’

Perhaps I could drop in Stairway to Heaven,’ said Tom.

Or Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ said Natalie, continuing with her deep tissue massage.

One step at a time, I think,’ said Tom, turning over to give her access to some bits she had missed. ‘I’ve got to rewrite the Bible first. It’s quite a big book, you know.’

Then you should make it smaller,’ said Natalie.

You know what? I think I will,’ said Tom.

Tom set about the task with gusto. He jettisoned the Old Testament completely. All thirty-nine books were anachronistic. Darwin had all but seen off the Creation myth. It was now hanging by a thread, believed only by a handful of desperate die-hards. The books from Exodus onwards were at best an unreliable chronicle of a small part of the world. Even the more engaging stories of Moses, Jonah and Job had no relevance to people with no interest in Jewish history. The interminable scuffles in the Middle East in the present day were putting more people off the faith by the minute. No one wanted to read any more stories about the troubled region than the ones that they were fed daily on the news.

The idea behind the new Bible would be to show a good person living a good life and passing on wisdom of how people could get along with one another and share. There would be no place for war and suffering in the narrative, so Tom decided to move the action to Scandinavia, a relatively peaceful part of the world. He replaced Jesus of Nazareth with Sven of Halmstad. A majority of the Synod had agreed with him that the virgin birth was a big stumbling block to credence of the New Testament. So, Sven of Halmstad was, in the words of the hymn, begotten not created. Tom, however, allowed God no part in his begetting. Sven’s parents were Axel and Alva Jorgenson. Both of them were lumberjacks. Sven, like Jesus, was a carpenter. He made log cabins and stylish furniture for the poor at very reasonable prices. Sometimes, if a particular family was in extreme need, he would build them a home and furnish it for nothing. In his spare time, he helped out at a hospital, one of the very first hospitals in fact. He also ran a small rescue centre for animals.

Sven had an outgoing personality and got along well with everyone he met. He had a natural talent for communication and spent hours giving speeches in the town square in Halmstad. He rallied against the iniquities of the political system of the time. He spoke against the idea of fighting and about the benefits of helping others. He talked about respect for all living things and the importance of being in harmony with mother earth.

Where there is love there is life,’ he was fond of saying.

And ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of understanding.’

His maxims and aphorisms were easy for people to understand. They were not hidden behind metaphor. Word about the wisdom of the great man spread rapidly. His speeches drew hundreds of people, all anxious to follow in his footsteps. They came from as far away as Gothenburg and Malmö to listen. One time, a group of merchants came by boat from Copenhagen and inspired by Sven’s speeches vowed to reduce their prices and give all of their profits to worthy causes.

For each of our actions there are consequences,’ Sven would say to his audience. ‘You cannot plunder your natural resources. If you cut down a tree to build your house, then you should plant another in its place.’

And, ‘Children are a delight, but you should only have as many children as you are able to look after.’

His plain speaking won people over.

There was a difference of opinion about whether Sven should have a bloodline. Should he be a one-off messiah selflessly eschewing personal relationships for the greater good? Or, in this day and age, would painting him as a loner with no family make him come across as being a bit weird? Tom reasoned that even though he would not be the Son Of God as Jesus had been, the strength of his message alone would be enough to set him up as the saviour. He would be the perfect role model. He would bring about a caring peaceful society. After a few exchanges with the Synod, Tom took the bold step of allowing Sven to be married and have children. His wife Frida would stay in the background quietly doing good works in the community. His children, Björn and Benny would go on to form a musical ensemble writing inspirational madrigals.

To be credible, the new Bible story had to give the impression that it was written long ago. Recently rediscovered perhaps by an eminent Canterbury historian. Tom also needed to create a history of the book to put in the introduction and explain how it had been superseded by the King James Bible. He made it clear that although it did not happen overnight, Sven’s philosophy was established as the preferred viewpoint of the time. People became considerate and kind. They loved their neighbours and did unto others as they would be done by. Whenever there was a hint of trouble or dissent, Sven and his righteous followers managed to overcome it without bloodshed. Within Sven of Halmstad’s lifetime (he lived to be 104) a consensus was thus achieved all over Scandinavia. The word spread over centuries until ruthless reformists replaced it with dissident Christianity in the latter middle ages.

Despite having to accommodate Sven’s longevity, Tom stuck to the plan that the new Bible needed to be shorter than the old one. It had to take account of the reduced attention span of the Internet generation. More people would be likely to read a slim volume than a weighty tome.

If you drop it on your foot, it should not leave a bruise,’ he would joke to the Synod when he reported back to them.

Apart from the Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove who were trenchant in their views on unwieldy Bibles, the voting members agreed with Tom’s line of reasoning. Some altar Bibles held the potential to be especially damaging to the metatarsals should there be an accident following an indiscretion with the communion wine, they told him. They wanted a handy pocket version that you could pull out when travelling on the tube and an eBible that you could read on your smartphone. Tom explained that his new Bible would also be the right length for a forty-seven-minute dramatisation for broadcast on commercial television. The old Bible, Tom had calculated would take twenty-six days, without the adverts. The Creation alone would take six days to broadcast, or seven days with adverts. The costs for the CGI for a production like this would be colossal. Tom didn’t need to convince the Synod on this. They were already sold on the idea. The old Bible was out the window.

We need to be able to stop people from channel hopping during the adverts,’ he told the Bishops.

The Bishop of Milton Keynes, one of the more commercially minded of the Anglican clergy felt they would be able to fill the other thirteen minutes with adverts about the new Sven musical on the London stage and a range of Sven merchandise. ‘Just keep the theme going,’ he said. ‘Who do think we should get to play Sven in the movie?’

Tom put the final touches to the new Bible and submitted the draft to the General Synod. It came in at around 30,000 words, slightly shorter longer than Charlie and The Chocolate Factory but shorter than The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. The King James Bible is nearly 800,000 words, much more difficult to slip into the back pocket of your Levi’s. In a last minute display of caution, the Bishops told Tom that they would need a little time to proofread it before publication and think about cover illustrations and the like. Although they were extremely grateful for the tireless work he had done, they confided that he was unlikely to get a byline. The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer might be a step too far. After all, this was a divine work. Tom wondered if the tide of opinion might be turning. He had heard rumours that Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove might be winning support for their conservative stance. All along, they had branded his text a work of fiction. He had responded by saying that there was nothing wrong with that, as the old one had been a work of fiction. He wondered whether this flippant comment, from a layman, might have come across as arrogant and sacrilegious. Perhaps he should not have added, ‘a mix of horror, science fiction and the paranormal.’ He could see the hallowed faces drop even as he said it. Were one of two of the moderates now having doubts about publishing a new Bible written by someone from outside of the Church?

Tom didn’t dwell on the thought too much. Thanks to a generous advance, he was able to take an extended break, and Natalie was able to give up work at the massage parlour. He is still awaiting word on the publication of the Tom Golfer Bible. Keep an eye out for news about this and other Sven of Halmstad merchandising and spinoffs, but if you do not hear anything, it could well be that the two Bishops have gained sufficient support in the Synod to scupper the idea. In which case, for your spiritual solace, you may have to listen to tales of the supernatural from ancient Judea at a church near you for some time to come.

Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Pulp Friction

Created with GIMP

Pulp Friction by Chris Green

Nancy fancies Tafelspitz and I haven’t had Wiener Schnitzel for a long time, so we are going to treat ourselves. Things have been a little fraught since our Schnauzer, Max had to be put to rest. Respiratory disease, very sad at the end. Max was more than just the family pet. He went everywhere with us. We feel we deserve a break from our grieving. A movie on Netflix and something nice to tickle our taste buds. Nancy and I are fond of Slovenian food and also like the occasional Serbian Pljeskavica but Austrian cuisine is our favourite. Perhaps we can follow the meal with our favourite dessert, Kaiserschmarrn.

We discover that Schachelwirt in the High Street, the only Austrian establishment in Darkwell no longer offers a delivery service. As the engine of the Fiat blew up a month ago, I get the Lambretta out of the shed, dust it off and make my way downtown. Nancy can’t see why I keep putting off getting a new car. She keeps mentioning a Skoda she has seen for sale in Harmonica Drive. I keep delaying going to see it. This has been a niggling source of friction between us. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to tell her that I recently made an injudicious investment in a Ponzi scheme and funds are low. This coming on top of diminishing returns in the pulp fiction publishing house that I am involved with. Nancy probably isn’t aware of this either. I hope my new collection of surreal stories sells well and the money soon starts coming in otherwise I may have to come clean.

On the way into town, slap bang in the middle of the Scott McKenzie roundabout, I come across a huge featureless black block. How can I have not noticed it before? It is colossal, probably eighty feet tall. As a writer with his head in the clouds, I realise I get distracted from time to time. But surely something of this magnitude ought to be unmissable. The block appears to be vibrating, giving off a loud, low-pitched hum. Inevitably, it brings to mind the monolith in the Stanley Kubrick film.

Seeing a mysterious black slab in an unexpected place however is one thing, but it is not going to come up with our Austrian meal. I can just imagine what Nancy will say if I go home and say, sorry I got distracted by a potential catalyst for evolution.

Have you seen that great big black slab at the roundabout?’ I ask Jürgen in Schachelwirt while I am waiting for the food. ‘Has it been there long?’

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

At first, I wonder if he means nine days or nine years before realising that he means no. Either it hasn’t been there long or that he hasn’t seen it. Despite the language barrier, I establish that both are the case. He hasn’t seen it and therefore doesn’t know how long it might have been there.

Returning with the takeaway, I am relieved to see that the roundabout is not teeming with angry monkeys throwing bones into the air. Or puzzled lunar scientists looking skyward. But from a writer’s point of view, their absence is, at the same time, disappointing. In 2001, those two scenes were pivotal. They helped move the narrative along. Despite the lack of Kubrickian connections, though, I am curious about what the mysterious slab might be. And more than a little unnerved by its sinister aspect. So, why is such an imposing artefact not attracting any attention? Motorists are negotiating the roundabout as if the monolith is a standard item of traffic furniture.

It is not often that one has the chance to see Doinzetti’s L’elisir d’amore in an English suburban setting. But here, outside the electricity sub-station on Magnolia Street, the opera is being performed, by a troupe of multiracial cross-dressers no less. They are called CDSO. A large billboard advertises them as WOKE, BAME, LGBT. I try to recall what the acronyms stand for. Acronyms seem to be taking over our lives. Is WOKE an acronym? Whatever! L’elisir d’amore has long been one of my favourites. I pull the scooter up alongside to take in the carnival of colour.

Conscious though that our Austrian delicacies in the carrier on the back of the bike will be getting cold, I can’t afford to hang around. Nancy does not share my fondness for Gaetano Donizetti. She doesn’t like Italian opera. She prefers Richard Strauss. She is always playing Der Rosenkavalier. She would be unlikely to accept a Donizetti-related excuse for my lateness. I expect she has the plates in the oven on the scalding setting in readiness for the feast. Along with the puzzle of the strange black block, I can investigate the background to this operatic oddity later. There is bound to be an explanation somewhere on the internet.

To get the food home swiftly, I ignore the tantalising glimpse of a flying saucer over the Toker’s End flats and the curious sight of Ironman talking to Shrek at the bus stop outside the Palace cinema that recently closed down. It’s a pity the old picture houses are going out of business, the new multi-screens don’t have half the atmosphere. Why is there a dancing brown bear outside outside BiggerBet? No time for this now, but where is all this strangeness coming from, I wonder as I turn into our street? Has The Game started up again on Channel 19?

Nancy, who knows about these things, tells me that, thankfully in her view, The Game has not started again, nor has The Lark on KTV. People do not go for the candid camera stuff anymore, she says. I do not pursue it. If I go into detail, she will only say I’m imagining things. Best to enjoy our fine food along with the new Austrian blockbuster Nancy has chosen and leave my investigation until the morning.

Google tells me the performance of L’elisir d’amore is one of a series of stunts designed to change attitudes to minorities and promote LBGTQ+ awareness (what is Q+) in the provinces, where attitudes have not kept pace with those in the big cities. It claims that nineteen-sixties levels of sexism and homophobia are still present in parochial towns like Darkwell. It says bigotry is rife here and derogatory terms like shirt-lifters and rug-munchers are still used freely. Why single out Darkwell? The town appears quite liberal. Gaz and Sebastian seem to have an active social life. They often tell us about the wild parties they’ve been to, and I believe we even have a Rainbow Festival Weekend in Darkwell these days.

The dancing brown bear is part of a bizarre new advertising campaign, Barney the Bear Bets at BiggerBet. Be Like Barney the Bear. A betting bear! Smacks of desperation, that one. Is there perhaps a Creatives strike? On a local Facebook page, I find out that the flying saucer is simply someone’s expensive new drone. This model of drone has been mistaken for a UFO in many locations around the country, it says. Once you take the trouble to look beyond conspiracy theories, you find there is often a simple explanation to many of life’s mysteries. This is not to suggest that conspiracy theories are a bad thing. For the writer of fiction, they can be a useful device. I’ve often resorted to them to add a little colour to a story. Conspiracy theories were central to Twinned with Area 51, Grassy Knoll and Black Fiat Uno. And where would my Phillip C. Dark series of stories have been without them?

A search for black slab comes back with nothing of particular interest but monolith is more successful. Using Kubrick as a starting point, it makes suggestions about the possible purpose of a pulsating black block. A power source perhaps, or a transmitter of some sort. Nothing though about why there is such an artefact at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. This is going to require another trip into town.

The trip has to wait until the afternoon. Nancy has an early appointment at Curl Up and Dye, which is in the opposite direction. I drop her off and wander along to The Dream Store in Serendipity Street. The Dream Store is like a library for ideas to help artists, writers, Alice in Wonderland aficionados and random fantasists out when they are struggling for inspiration. A postmodern repository for the unconventional, a kind of leftfield Google. You find all kinds of crazy stuff here. It is run by the guy that put together The Kaleidoscope Repair Manual whose name escapes me. I head for the Random Plot Generator section.

To my puzzlement and alarm, the Random Plot Generator section has been replaced by a giant mural of John Travolta in his Pulp Fiction suit dancing with a classical figure, a moving statue. Pulp Friction, it says. I’m not well versed in Classics so I’m not sure who the Greco-Roman figure is supposed to be. The dolphin behind the desk has no information. Why is there a dolphin behind the desk? No simple explanation is forthcoming. Logic seems to have temporarily gone AWOL.

Back on the street, I realise I may have been mistaken. It cannot have been a dolphin at the desk. This is a step too far. A dolphin needs water. No amount of artistic licence can work around this idea. But the giant mural of John Travolta dancing with the classical figure has potential. There is plenty of scope to slip it somewhere into a plotline. Perhaps even into the short story I’m presently writing. I file the idea away for later.

You often hear it said that you have to separate fact from fiction, but it is not that simple. Science recognises that everyone sees things differently, selecting some stimuli while ignoring others. Cultural background, preconceived notions and psychological state all play their part. Painters and writers are, of course, prone to cognitive exploration. Seeing things in a different way is central to the art of creativity. Homing in on things that others don’t see is their bread and butter. But there must be limits to how removed from everyday reality they are. Even though reality is a slippery customer, there has to be common ground, things that cannot be open to conjecture. Their existence is absolute, indisputable, The black slab on the Scott McKenzie roundabout is such a bold image that it surely cannot be merely a figment of my overactive imagination.

I meet Nancy from Curl Up and Die. The Viennese Bob style suits her much better. I always felt her Romy Schneider cut was a little out of date. I tell her she looks good. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about women, it is that complements are a good idea after a hairdresser’s appointment. Failing to say the right thing usually has dire consequences.

I suppose we’re going off to see your pulsating black slab now,’ Nancy says, not hiding her disapproval. Or that she has not taken well to wearing the helmet on the back of the Lambretta.

If that’s OK,’ I say. ‘It’s pretty dramatic.’

Perhaps afterwards we could have lunch at that new Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum,’ she says. ‘Rachel has been telling me they do a divine Idrijski Žlikrofi.’

Halfway along Tambourine Way leading to the Scott McKenzie roundabout, diversion signs are in place. The road ahead is completely blocked off. Highway maintenance vehicles of all shapes and sizes line the road. An army of highway workers slowly goes about its business, whatever this might be. Most of them seem to be standing around waiting for instructions. I pull up alongside a swarthy passer-by in a chunky army-style jacket. He is weighed down by a battery of cameras and binoculars. He looks as if he is on a serious mission.

It wasn’t like this yesterday,’ I say, pointing to the roadworks. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s been like it for weeks, guv,’ he says. ‘Where have you been?’

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

The Scott McKenzie roundabout?’ he says. ‘Where have you been? They replaced that with a junction and traffic lights a year or two ago. After the big pile up. Don’t you remember?’

The monolith. That great big black slab I saw yesterday. What’s happened to that?’ I say.

I don’t know what medication you’re on, mate,’ he says. ‘But I’ve got to get on. I’m hoping to come across Captain America. Or Willy Wonka. I don’t suppose you’ve seen them. Apparently, they are in the area. Along with Darth Vader and The Terminator, what’s his name? The Austrian one.

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

Yes, Arnie. That’s him,’ Chunky Jacket says. ‘A lookalike obviously.’

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

I gather you guys aren’t aware that MovieMax is offering a chance to win a holiday in Hollywood,’ he says. ‘You have to get photos of two of these movie characters out and about. It’s a promotion for MovieMax cinemas. They are opening a new one in Darkwell. Anyway, once you’ve got the photos, all you have to do is answer a simple movie-related question.’

Well, I saw Ironman and Shrek yesterday,’ I say. ‘At the bus stop outside the old Palace cinema, as it happens. There’s irony. You might want to take a look around that part of town.’

I know where you mean,’ he says. ‘I’d better get on to it.’

What’s the question, by the way?’ I say. The idle thought passes through my mind that the question might be something to do with the monolith in 2001. This turns out not to be the case.

They are asking, what do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’ he says.

H’mmm. That’s a line from Pulp Fiction, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘OK. Refresh my memory. What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’

They call it Royale with Cheese,’ he says in a passable John Travolta accent. ‘They wouldn’t know what the fuck a quarter pounder is. They’ve got the metric system there.’

Of course,’ I say. ‘I remember it well now. But before you go, tell me! How would I have got to Schachelwirt in the High Street yesterday evening?’

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

There is no Austrian restaurant and takeaway in the High Street.’

What about the new Slovenian bistro?’ Nancy asks. ‘It’s by the Raincoat Museum.’

That’s easy,’ he says. ‘You just go back along Tambourine Way the way you came and turn right. Oh, look! There’s Harry Potter.’

He’s looking this way,’ I say. ‘He’s waving his wan……….

I fancy Tafelspitz,’ Nancy says. ‘I wish there was an Austrian restaurant in Darkwell.’

Well, there isn’t,’ I say. ‘Never has been. Never will be.’

Shall we go to Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum then?’ she says.

II really ought to finish this story first,’ I say. ‘Perhaps we could go afterwards.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

 

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

Uncle Chet is planning to buy a house in the south-west of England. He wants to get out of the rat-race and retire to the country. I am in the area to look at what is available. Chet doesn’t like travelling these days. He says you lose the taste for it as you get older. Since my recent divorce, I find I relish every opportunity to get out and about. And because I have a wealth of experience in buying and selling property, Uncle Chet trusts my judgement to find him something suitable in this rural idyll. It is a bright June day and I am on my way to Bilk and Bilk Estate Agents in Little Dissing.

It’s started all over again,’ I hear someone shouting behind me. I turn around. A bearded man in a ragged raincoat is running down the road towards me. He is waving his arms madly and shouting over and over. ‘It’s happening again. It’s happening again.’

What is it that is happening? What is causing the old fellow such distress? By the looks of him, it could be he does not know what is happening either. He doesn’t look as if he knows the time of day. His hair is wild and he has that look of madness in his eyes. He runs on past me, still shouting excitedly. He does not give me so much a sideways glance. He is clearly on a mission.

I ask one or two of the people outside the Methodist Chapel if they know what is going on but they ignore me. So do the ones outside the Funeral Directors as the crazed old man runs back up the street. Perhaps you need to have lived in Little Dissing a few years before people feel the need to speak to you.

We get screwballs every day back home predicting the second coming, the end of the world or aliens landing. We get all sorts of unlikely claims. There was one the other day shouting out that fish were going to fall from the sky. But I live in a big metropolitan centre, this is a small community. You would not expect to find such people on the loose in a timeless, well-ordered English village like Little Dissing. There can’t be more than a few hundred living here and with its floral displays and its carefully manicured grass verges, it regularly features in the Good Village guide. It has literary connections too, John Betjeman was fond of the place. There’s a church with a twelfth-century granite font apparently. Agatha Christie used to have a house just down the road and T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to the village. Perhaps the crazy old man is considered part of the local colour out here in the sticks, someone who might entertain you by singing sea shanties to his sheep or babbling on about the rose garden and the door we never opened.

Inside Bilk and Bilk’s offices, the exquisitely named Lara Love takes down Uncle Chet’s details. I tell her Chet is looking for a period property with three or four bedrooms, a workshop and a bit of land to grow ornamental gourds. Particularly good soil in these parts for growing ornamental gourds, Lara says. We chat about the area in general and she fills me in with a little more of the history of the village. I learn that it was the centre of a Saxon royal estate and it is famous for its wassailing celebrations.

Lara maintains good eye contact, makes easy conversation and has a good sense of humour. And her attributes certainly do not end there.

By and by, I ask her about the old fellow.

Ah! You mean old Seth,’ she says. ‘Don’t mind him, Mr Bloke.’

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

The old fellow’s nutty as a fruitcake, Guy. He’s what you might call of a conspiracy theorist, alien abductions, unreported nuclear accidents, time travel, you name it. You’ve probably gathered everyone thinks he’s looney-tunes.’

I thought as much,’ I say. ‘His behaviour did not cause much of a stir. I guess locals are used to it. Out of curiosity, Lara, what is it he thinks is happening again?’

He’s referring to something that happened a long time ago,’ Lara says. ‘Probably twenty years or more. Certainly before my time but apparently, several people from Little Dissing disappeared one after another without trace. The mystery was never solved. No-one in the village today seems to be able to remember any details. I only know about it through an antique dealer who came in to buy a house. Bit of a local historian, this fellow was. Don’t worry! There is no reason to suspect extraterrestrials landed and took them away or that there was an unreported nuclear accident at the power plant along the coast but old Seth won’t let it go.’

Time travel then,’ I say.

I think there’s a bit of a time warp around here if that’s what you mean,’ Lara says. ‘I expect you notice it coming from the big city. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a report in the Gazette last week that someone from the village is missing,’ Lara says. ‘This is what has set him off again.’

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

Oh, you don’t want to get drawn into that,’ Lara says. ‘Let’s see if we can find a house for your Uncle Chet.’

We arrange two viewings, one at two o’clock and the other at three o’clock. I grab some lunch at The Gordon Bennett. In the hope of getting the lowdown on the area, I try to strike up conversations with the regulars but no-one seems forthcoming. None of them remember the disappearances. The landlord just wants to talk about the upcoming Nick Cave tour, although he does manage to slip in how much he enjoyed the recent Twin Peaks series. I’m beginning to get the impression that Little Dissing is protective about its secrets.

As I am leaving, I get a text from an unrecognised number. It says, ‘When catching a train, always check the timetables.’ Trains? Timetables? I have never been good at cryptic puzzles and more importantly, I have an appointment. It’s probably a wrong number anyway.

Lara drives me to the first house in her Audi. It is a four-bedroom period property with gardens, paddocks and outbuildings set in two acres. There are no near neighbours. Lara tells me it has been on the market for two years. She says she can see no obvious reason why this should be. Good houses are snapped up around here and at four hundred thousand, this one is competitively priced. If she were still with Greg, she says, they might consider buying it. She fills me in on her recent breakup in a light-hearted kind of way. I’m not sure I’m getting the whole story. The failure of her marriage can’t really be down to Greg taking selfies at the gym or his singing along to hits from the musicals in the car. From my own experience, where a separation is concerned it’s usually six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to take some of the blame for Eve and I splitting up.

I have to admit though I am not especially upset that Lara is not still with Greg. I am quite smitten. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair and a winning smile. She seems more flirty than most of the estate agents I’ve come across. During the drive, she keeps flicking her hair back and gives me darting glances. She appears to deliberately be letting her skirt creep up her leg. I’m not sure how the conversation arrives at nightwear but evidently, she wears none. A shame really that it is not a longer drive. All too soon, we arrive at the competitively-priced property and it’s back to business.

When you are looking around a house, you can detect almost straight away when something seems wrong. While you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a tingling sensation on your skin. The temperature might appear to drop by a few degrees or you might hear an unexplainable high-pitched background sound. Whatever it is that is wrong here, I know as soon as I step through the Georgian solid oak door into the panelled hallway, impressive though this is, that this house is a no-no. It’s not the layout. It’s not the décor. It’s nothing tangible. It’s not that it’s damp. It’s not that it’s dark. It’s not that it’s haunted. But, something makes me instantly feel uneasy about being there. An unexplainable malevolence lurking in the very fabric of the place. Something untimely has happened here. This is why no-one has put in an offer. Why hasn’t Lara been able to sense it? I guess it’s because she wants to sell the house to get her commission. So, it’s not really in her interests to point out any shortcomings. But still!

Was Lara making up the story about her wanting to buy it? Using her apparent interest in the property as a selling point? Perhaps, but I decide not to make a big thing out of it. How could I get mad at someone who looks so captivating? Instead, I quietly suggest we move on to the next house. This, she tells me is two miles away. She is sure I will like it. The views, she says, are awe-inspiring. You can see all the way across the valley and along the estuary. She says we ought to be able to get it for a little under the half a million asking price. Perhaps even four seven five.

As we make our way through the back lanes, the news comes on Sticks Radio that someone else has gone missing. Jarvis Heckler, a businessman in his forties from the tiny hamlet of Lympton Stoney. Mysterious circumstances, the newsreader says, giving no clue as to what these might be.

Lympton Stoney! Isn’t that near where we are going,’ I ask?

It IS where we are going,’ Lara says, noticeably traumatised.

I see from the particulars I am holding she is right. The house we are going to look at is in the heart of the beautiful village of Lympton Stoney.

We are greeted by a legion of police vehicles. An officer in military fatigues pulls us over, ask us to step out of the car and begins to interrogate us. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where have we come from? What business do we have in the village? When did we set out? He is not satisfied with our story that we are here to view a house. Paramilitary uniform aside, he is of the old school of policing. Guilty until proved otherwise. We are here so we must in some way be involved with Jarvis Heckler’s disappearance. He orders his men to search Lara’s Audi. Does he expect to find a body in the boot? One of his officers gets me to empty my pockets. He takes more than a passing interest in my iPhone. Hasn’t he seen one like this before? He quizzes me about the recent text message. He is far from happy with my explanation or lack of. None of them seem prepared to answer our questions so we are no wiser as to exactly what might or might not have taken place. All we know is what we heard on the news report. Presumably, Jarvis Heckler has not just gone off on a business jolly to the continent or stepped out for a lunchtime pint at The Time Gentlemen Please with his hedge fund mates.

They finally give us the all clear to get on with our viewing but my heart is no longer in it. Lara can sense my disappointment with our progress. She reassures me that Bilk and Bilk have plenty of other properties in the area. She asks me if I am planning to stick around. If I am and I have nothing lined up for the evening, she wonders if we could have dinner at a nice little place she knows in Bishops Tump. This is an offer I can’t refuse.

If you come back to the office, I can lock up and we can go in convoy to my place and take it from there,’ Lara says. ‘We can have a glass of wine then before we set off for the evening.’

While Lara is taking a shower, I open up Google on my laptop to do some research into the events in Little Dissing twenty years ago, the events that Lara says no-one in the village can remember. I find a report from the Daily Lark from July 1996 with the headline, Little Dissing – Twinned with Area 51? The Lark is at best a dubious source, recognised these days as a trailblazer in fake news. So I take it with a pinch of salt. But it suggests the mystery surrounding the village was something people would have been talking about back then. I come across various photos of unusual cloud formations and strange spiral patterns in the heavens allegedly taken near the village. Vortexes like you might find in a tornado. But these are just pictures and easy enough to fake. There are one or two mentions of Warminster, the favourite location for UFO sightings. Same old, really. Then, I find a report from the Western Post which links the dates of the disappearances (a dozen in all) with the sudden closure of a classified establishment at Ramsden Hole in 1996. Why is it this escaped attention at the time? I see that Ramsden Hole is less than twenty miles from Little Dissing. I entertain the possibility the base did not in fact close but merely became more secret.

After half an hour, I can’t help but notice Lara has not returned from freshening up. This is even longer even than Eve used to spend in the bathroom. Might she be waiting for me in bed? Did I miss something in our conversation? Something perhaps about my joining her after her shower? I can’t imagine that I would have missed something as important as this but, if it is the case, the research can wait.

Ready or not,’ I call upstairs. There is no reply.

The bathroom does not look as if it has even been used. I look around each of the bedrooms. There is no sign of Lara. And she is not downstairs where I have come from. She cannot possibly have slipped out without me noticing. Could she? I just don’t know anymore. Boundaries have been crossed here. I call out her name over and over. Clutching at straws, I look in the wardrobe and the cupboards in case she is playing some kind of game. Not likely that she would be, but still. And, of course, she isn’t. She has vanished without trace. I try the mobile number she gave me but there is no reply. I look out the window. Her car is no longer there. And ……. It’s snowing.

Panicked, I go back to my laptop. It is now displaying today’s weather forecast. January 18th. What the …….? Is it past, I wonder, or is it future.’

Suddenly, a man dressed in a bright coloured hoodie and training pants carrying a sports bag appears through the front door, a living advert for flashy leisurewear. He is whistling The Winner Takes It All.

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

Who am I?’ he repeats. ‘Greg! That’s who I am! I live here, pal. ………. Where’s that slut of a wife?’

You mean Lara?’

Yes, Lara. Don’t think that you are the first, buddy.’

You don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I think Lara has disappeared.’

Just get the hell out of here,’ Greg screams. ‘Before I ……’

He looks as if he means business. I grab my laptop and make a hasty exit.

I think I’ll persuade Uncle Chet to look for houses in a different part of the country. At his time of life, he needs a little more temporal certainty.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

DNA

dna2

DNA by Chris Green

Your blood pressure is a little on the high side this morning, Max,’ says Dee. ‘You have remembered to take your beta-blockers, haven’t you?’

Yes, Dee,’ I say. ‘I took them twenty minutes ago, and I even washed them down with the blueberry biojuice you recommended. I should be OK now, don’t you think?’

I couldn’t help but notice that you need to shop for some more biojuice. I suggest apricot this time. Shall I order some for you?’

OK, Dee,’ I say. ‘Whatever you say.’

I don’t remember how the device came to be called Dee. Perhaps it was something I inadvertently keyed in when I was setting it up. You do have to be careful with these things but as I recall I was in a hurry to get the device operational. I am now used to Dee being Dee. Dee chatters away about this and that all day long. While this can be irritating at times, I have not yet found a way to turn her off. Perhaps there is no way to turn her off. I can’t even set quiet time as you can on android phones. No change there really. My ex-wife, Heather used to make most of the conjugal decisions and I couldn’t turn her off or set quiet time.

Unlike Heather though, as well as being in control, Dee likes to feel that she is also being helpful. She reminds me constantly of my heart rate and my blood sugar levels, in the middle of the night sometimes. She monitors my liquid intake and calculates when I am likely to need the toilet. She lets me know about twenty minutes before I need to go. If I am out and about, she will tell me where the nearest convenience is or where to go for a healthy fruit smoothie. As I am wheat intolerant she lets me know where the best place is to go for gluten-free snacks. She always seems to know what I would like to eat and makes suggestions as to where I can get it. She seems to have researched every establishment in the country.

It doesn’t end there. Since I let Dee scan my DNA she has been coming out with intuitive guesses as to what I might like including things that I never suspected, and all this based on by gene expression profile. I could never imagine for instance that I would be so fond of cruciferous vegetables. I had always made a point of avoiding cauliflower and sprouts, but now I love them. Before Dee took over I didn’t know that I liked Guinness, but now I can’t stop drinking it. I was surprised to discover that celiacs could drink it, but apparently, it comes highly recommended. Dee does occasionally suggest that I might now be a little too fond of the black nectar. She mentions things like yin-yang balance and nutritional equilibrium.

Personality traits too can be governed by DNA, including things we look upon as habits, Dee says and these do not have to be handed down directly. These can be attributed to jumping genes. She says that I get my impatience from my great grandfather, my nervous disposition from my grandfather, and it appears that my chronic fabulation may come from Great Uncle Angus. By all accounts, he came out with the most outrageous apocryphal tales. Dee has also produced a table of my ancestry and while this is something of a mish-mash, the strongest connections are with Scotland, Glasgow in fact. I have never been. She has encouraged me to go and take a look.

I can see you are in the mood for some Captain Beefheart now,’ Dee says. ‘I’ll play Strictly Personal.’

How can Dee possibly know that I’ve had an earworm of one of the tunes from the album? I haven’t any Captain Beefheart saved in MyTunes. And it’s not what most people would think of as catchy. I don’t think I’ve ever done an internet search for Captain Beefheart. Strictly Personal is nearly fifty years old and I can’t even remember what the track is called. Something about a harp, as in harmonica. Boyo used to play it back in the day. He would dance around the room at Astral Parlour as he played it. I wonder what happened to Boyo.

Boyo is living with a tribe of hippies in the Nevada desert. They live on a diet of prickly pear and sandworms,’ says Dee.

Prickly pear and sandworms?’ I say. ‘Can you live on that?’

The tribe have a vehicle and occasionally one of them drives to Reno for provisions, but it’s not much of a life,’ says Dee. ‘Would you like to listen to the Cocteau Twins instead?’

Occasionally Dee gets it wrong. I’ve not heard of the Cocteau Twins. Lately, I have noticed that Dee’s judgement is slipping. Perhaps it is not surprising that Dee makes the odd mistake. It is estimated that if you could type sixty words per minute, eight hours a day, it would take approximately fifty years to type the human genome. Dee has mine in its entirety at her metaphorical fingertips. Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, she is fond of reminding me, is a molecule that contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce. These instructions are found inside every cell and are passed down from parents to children. DNA is made up of nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains a phosphate group, a sugar group and a nitrogen base. The four types of nitrogen bases are adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. The order of these bases is what determines DNA’s instructions, or genetic code, she says. I’m sure she is right but I am none the wiser. I find it difficult to retain technical information. In fact all information, technical or not seems transient. I guess this is something in my DNA.

I begin to recognise the tune. I’ve heard it a lot. What is it? It’s back there somewhere. …… Wait, I’ve got it now. It was on a compilation cassette that Rhian used to put on after we had made love in her little pied à terre. We used to drift off to its ethereal harmonics. This must have been twenty years ago. I just didn’t know who it was by. The Cocteau Twins. That is a good name. Why has Dee chosen it? It can’t have been more than a month ago that she told me Rhian had been abducted by aliens. She told me to keep an eye on the night-time activity, look out for saucers in the sky. Might there be a more sinister rationale behind Dee’s manipulation?

……………………………………………….

Graham’s number is very very big,’ says Dee.

Who is this Graham?’ I ask. ‘And what is Graham’s number?’

Graham’s number is too big for me to be able to tell you how big it is,’ she says.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps Dee is losing the plot. I only want to know how far it is to the Grahamston in Glasgow. Surely Scotland can’t be that far away that we need to be talking about this …… Graham’s number, but I humour Dee by showing an interest.

Is Graham’s number bigger than a googol?’ I say. A googol, I found out last week, from the quiz show, Eggheads is ten to the power of a hundred.

A googolplex is even larger than a googol. A googolplex is ten to the power of a googol. And Graham’s number is larger again. Graham’s number is so large that the observable universe is far too small to contain an ordinary digital representation of it.

All right, Einstein,’ I say. But, what about Grahamston. Grahamston in Glasgow, Scotland. How far is it from here and should I drive or should I take the train? The Rennie Mackintosh Hotel. I believe it is near the station.’

Give me a moment and I will let you know,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile don’t forget your exercises. I think you need to do thirty minutes today, as you spent yesterday in the pub drinking Guinness.’

……………………………………………….

I can remember once reading a story about time standing still. There are probably many science fiction stories like it. The whole premise of the shows like Doctor Who, for instance, is temporal disorder. Then, of course, there is the great film, Time Stands Still by the legendary director, Leif Velasquez. What courage and vision Leif had to freeze the action halfway through and leave the audience wondering what was going on right up until the credits an hour later.

But, apart from instances of the phenomenon known as stopped clock illusion, where perception slows in the face of impending disaster, I have never imagined accounts of time standing still to be anything but fiction. The first indication I get that something is amiss in the real world comes from an uncharacteristically prolonged silence. Where I live there is always some background noise, but there is none. Apart from anything else, it is unusual for Dee to be quiet for any length of time. It is her silence that first alerts me to the anomaly. I have become so used to Dee twittering away that her silence spooks me. I hadn’t realised how dependent I had become on her comforting chat throughout the day. I then notice that the clock on her display registers 11 minutes past 11 when it must by now be nearly 12 o’clock. She has said nothing since I started my exercises. There is a deadly silence all through the house, not so much as a hum from the fridge. I try to think of a rational explanation. Then I notice the kitchen clock too is stopped at 11 minutes past 11. And it’s not just the silence, there’s the inertia too. Outside the front window, the traffic is stationary. Nothing is moving, not even the man riding his bicycle. He is frozen in the moment. I try to think of an irrational explanation, any explanation will do. My heart races. I stumble around in a daze, as I wrestle with the incipient conundrum.

I make it out onto the patio. A Simon and Garfunkel silence pervades. There is no birdsong, no distant hum of traffic and no wind to rustle the leaves of the mature maples. Even the pile driver from the building site for the new car showroom has ceased. Nothing is stirring. The yin-yang flag on Quentin Fripp’s flagpole down the street is frozen in mid-flutter. To my horror, the black cat with the one eye that comes round sometimes to sniff at the bins is frozen in limbo halfway between the garden fence and the shed. I look up, hoping for some kind of contradiction to the unfolding nightmare. There isn’t. The steam escaping from the neighbour’s central heating vent is a static will o’the wisp. None of the clouds in the sky are moving. Birds are literally hanging in the air. The heavens too it seems are stuck in the moment. If further proof were needed I see in that in the distance over the tower block towards the western horizon a plane is suspended in mid-air.

I’m wondering now if perhaps I am dead and this is the afterlife. It takes me a while to realise that despite the widespread inertia, I am still able to move freely. I am the only thing not frozen in time. If I can move then I cannot be dead. Can I propel another object, I wonder, throw something? I pick up a stone and hurl it against the wall. It flies through the air normally. Might I be able to do the same with the cat? Well, not hurl it against the wall obviously, but rescue the poor animal from its sorry limbo.

……………………………………………….

Good morning, Mr Einstein.’ I say. ‘What can I do for you?’

I haven’t worked at Gleason and Cloud long, but I know the man’s name is Einstein because he came in last week to buy some unusual scientific apparatus.

I’d like a time machine, please.’ he says, this time.

Mr Cloud did warn me that due to the nature of the establishment, odd customers might occasionally come up with strange requests. Of course, Gleason and Cloud don’t have a time machine. I am tempted to humour Mr Einstein and say I will have a look out the back and see if there is one lying around, but in the interests of honesty, integrity and good customer relations, I say ‘I’m afraid we don’t have those in stock at the moment.’ instead.

Not even a time displacement sphere?’

No, sorry.’

What about a time-turner?’

No, I’m afraid not.’

But I do need a time machine before Thursday,’ he says. ‘You probably don’t realise it, but my Uncle Albert was a famous physicist.’

Well, your uncle may have been famous, Mr Einstein. In fact, do you know what? I do believe I may have heard of him. But I’m still not sure we will be able to get a time machine in before Thursday.’

Not before Thursday eh?’

That’s right!’

Not even one of those, what do you call them, Tardises?’

Not before Thursday, no. Is Thursday a big day?’

What seems to be the problem? Has there been a run on time machines recently?’

Mr Cloud stipulated that to protect the good name of Gleason and Cloud I should steer clear of saying we categorically don’t stock any particular item since all of our clients are influential people. To be seen to be out of touch with market trends would reflect badly on the company. But with Mr Einstein, this approach is becoming increasingly difficult.

Mrs Einstein is not going to be happy,’ he says. ‘And when Mrs Einstein is unhappy, there are usually consequences.’

……………………………………….

What am I doing in …….. Glasgow? And, is this the right train to get me back to …..

Where is it I am going, Dee?’

There is no reply. Where is Dee? Dee travels everywhere with me. She plans my itinerary. I depend on her for all my decisions. Perhaps I packed her away in my luggage. She is not in my luggage. I don’t have any luggage. Dee arranges my luggage. Where is she? Hello. Is Dee anywhere? How can I have mislaid her?

Ah cannae fin’ mah Dee. DNA o’ ye ken whaur mah Dee is? Whit hae ye thievin’ picts dain with mah Dee? …….

I feel suddenly sick as if I have eaten too much haggis. I feel unsteady as if I have been on the buckie. Glasgow Central railway station is a dark and threatening place. There are platforms upon platforms. Platforms as far as the eye can see, but no train information displays. I’m not even sure now where it is that I am supposed to be going. ……… And yet, the train coming in looks as if it might be going my way. I think I am heading south and it seems to be heading in the right direction. It is a big lumbering brute of a thing. A veritable leviathan, with coaches stretching the full length of the platform.

As I pass the news-stand, I notice the tabloid headlines are going on about the Royal wedding. Wait a minute! What Royal wedding? I wasn’t aware there was a Royal wedding. Oh, I see. Its Andrew and Fergie’s wedding being splashed all over the front pages. The grand old Duke of York. He had ten…………… Wait! That was ……. 1986. This can’t be right. It was ….. It was ……. It was …… is …… later than 1986. I’m certain of that. Time seems to be behaving very oddly. I noticed it earlier, or was it later. In the shop. With that difficult customer. But I do need to get out of here. Now, is this my train? They’re doing that stuff with the whistles and flags. It’s getting ready to pull out now. I’d better get on board.

I get on the train. There are no other passengers and the train rattles its way through the dark. Like Harry in the night, my father used to say, when we took the late train back from London. I never did find out who Harry was. I can’t see much out the windows. It’s black out. It must be a blackout. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, wheels on the track. In no time at all, I am in ……. what’s this place called? It’s Edinburgh. Do I want to be in Edinburgh? I don’t think so. Where I want to be is four hundred miles south. But already the train has departed again and left me stranded. Everything is happening so quickly, or perhaps it is not happening at all. This does not look like a busy mainline station. It does not even look like a station. It is a long stone engine shed with a single track, overgrown with weeds running up to it. Perhaps there is a bridge or a tunnel to the mainline station.

……………………………………….

I’m so relieved that the malware has been removed and Dee is fully operational again. It was touch and go there for a while.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Soft Watches

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Soft Watches by Chris Green

Google seemed a little under the weather when she greeted me this morning,’ Rosie says, ‘I thought she sounded croaky last night too when I asked her who did the painting with the soft watches hanging from trees. I hope she isn’t going down with something.’

Who did the painting with the soft watches?’ I say.

Salvador Dalí,’ Rosie says. ‘It’s called The Persistence of Memory. I remembered. That’s good, isn’t it?’

Well done!’ I say. Apparently, testing one another’s memory helps to slow down the ageing process. At our age, we need all the help we can get.

Anyway, I asked Google how she was,’ Rosie says. ‘And she said she was feeling fit as a fiddle. But I think she might have been putting on a brave face. She could just be a little run down. She works very hard.’

Indeed,’ I say, ‘We can’t be the only people asking her for information. And at any time of day, she answers straight away. It must be an awfully long day for her.’

I couldn’t believe it at first, but I now realise that Rosie thinks the person voicing the Google Home speaker is real. An everyday person just waiting to respond to our queries. I know I should tell her. We’ve only had the speaker for a few days. We bought it from someone at the door. He had a job lot of them and was selling them along our street. For the time being, it’s fun to play along with Rosie’s misapprehension. It is purely for my own amusement. I haven’t shared it with anyone. I just want to see how long it will take Rosie to realise it’s not a real person. I didn’t imagine it would take her so long.

It’s worrying though, isn’t it, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘What with coronavirus spreading like it is. What if Google’s caught coronavirus?’

If she goes down with coronavirus, we will certainly have difficulty with the questions on Pointless and Eggheads, my sweet,’ I say.

But surely they could get someone else to fill in for her,’ Rosie says.

It might be difficult though,’ I say. ‘After all, Rosie. Google knows everything.’

She must have holidays though,’ Rosie says. ‘I wonder what happens when she goes on holiday.’

As it happens, I asked her where she likes to go on holiday,’ I say, spotting an opening. ‘She said Costa del Sol, the Algarve, Jersey and Fuerteventura. Oh, and Morocco. She said she loves Morocco.’

She must get quite a lot of time off then,’ Rosie says.

She probably doesn’t go to all of them all every year,’ I say. ‘She probably goes to Costa del Sol or The Algarve in April or May and Jersey or Fuerteventura in September. And maybe Morocco now and then for something more exotic.’

I suppose so,’ Rosie says. ‘Perhaps we might bump into her if we go to Jersey with Lon and Doris.’

I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that,’ I say. ‘I thought we might go to Morocco this year. We ought to try something new. Bernie Zimmer went last month and said how great it was. He said that we ought to go. In Tangier, he says you can get this awesome hash. Fifty per cent THC, he says. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but it sounds pretty strong. He says it gives you a whole new way of looking at life. You should see how Bernie’s changed, Rosie. He’s no longer the hopeless loafer in the grey cardigan slumped in his chair over a half of Guinness in the lounge at the Legion. You wouldn’t recognise him in his djellaba and fez, chatting away about his African adventures. He’s like a new man. He’s even started going to Jazz Echo and Circle Eight.’

Oh, you’re not going to go off on one of those again are you, Jim?’ Rosie says. ‘Remember what happened when you grew those plants in the greenhouse.’

That was two years ago.’

In any case, I don’t imagine you can get Pointless or Eggheads in Morocco.’

Oh, come on, Rosie! We could manage without quizzes for a week. And let’s face it, Lon and Doris are deadly dull. They would be so tired after the flight to Jersey, they would probably be asleep in their room all week. We need an adventure. Look! Tangier is a shoppers’ paradise. In the markets, you can buy everything you ever dreamed of. They sell jewellery, shoes, pottery, rugs, perfumes, spices. You name it. You could stock up. You could probably buy everyone’s birthday and Christmas presents for the next five years.’

Our holiday planning is interrupted by a knock at the door, a sharp rat-tat-tat. We look at each other quizzically. We do not get many visitors and it is 4:30, too late in the day for it to be a delivery. I make my way to the door and find myself face to face with a large, serious-looking man in a black uniform. The jacket has badges and insignia on the front that I do not recognise. My first thoughts are to tell him that whatever it is we don’t want any, but he puts his foot in the door and it looks as if he might be carrying a gun.

We are evacuating the area,’ he says. ‘You have ten minutes to gather up all you and your family will need for a week or two. Transport is being arranged.’

I try to engage him in conversation to find out what is going on, but he hurries off along the street to tell the people in the other houses. A thick-set colleague of his appears to be alerting others across the road about the evacuation. I call out to him, but he does not respond.

What was that all about?’ Rosie asks.

Some kind of ……. emergency,’ I say. ‘We have er …… Well, he said we have ten minutes to get out.’

What are you talking about?’ Rosie says. ‘What emergency?’

The fellow did not explain what it was, Rosie,’ I say. ‘Look! He sounded as if he was serious and he had that look about him. We’d better hurry.’

Rosie asks Google what is happening.

Google says, ‘I do not know how to answer that.’

Rosie tries over and over with various phrases around emergency but uncharacteristically, Google seems at a loss for an answer.

A big black bus draws up outside. There are scuffles and raised voices as neighbours are bundled inside. The enforcer or big red key as it is colloquially known seems a little heavy-handed for seniors like us but the menacing figure in dark fatigues coming up the path is bearing one. I spare him the trouble. I open the door. I have managed to throw a few practical things in a suitcase and packed the laptop, leads and chargers and the bedroom TV in a holdall. Having spent too much of the ten-minute window asking Google unanswerable questions and fretting, Rosie is not so well prepared for our journey into the unknown. She struggles with a hastily packed bag or two with everyday essentials, including the Google speaker. We are ushered to the waiting bus.

Is it to do with coronavirus?’ someone asks once we are all aboard, and the hubbub has died down.

No. It is nothing to do with coronavirus,’ the armed marshal says.

Where are we going?’ I ask. I get no reply.

When will we be able to return?’ Stanton Polk from number 42 asks.

Look! I know you are all here under duress,’ the marshal says, keeping a firm grip on his pistol. ‘But believe me, you will all find it easier if you just settle down,’

He looks remarkably like someone I’ve seen recently. Perhaps someone on the TV, but for the life of me, I can’t think who it is.

There’s no easy way to explain,’ he says, ‘but we’re all in the same boat. It is probably best not to think too much about returning. None of what you are looking at now is likely to be here. Later on, you might not even have any memory of it. All we can say for certain is that things will never be as they were.’

What is he talking about?’ Rosie asks me.

Absolutely no idea,’ I say. ‘The man appears to be talking gibberish.’

He’s trying to scare us,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘I think the gist of what he is saying is that we might never see Straight Street again.’

It must be to do with coronavirus,’ Rory Vincent says.

But he just told us it wasn’t.’ I say.

Never believe anything until it’s officially denied,’ Rory says.

Nuclear incident, probably,’ Quincy Maddox says. ‘Those Chinese-built reactors were always going to be dodgy. We need to get as far away from Chinkleigh Point as possible.’

And the area will be contaminated for hundreds of years,’ Katie Guy says. ‘That’s why they are telling us not to think too much about returning.’

Wayne is worried about his dog, Rover, Cathy is concerned about the cats she has left and Fee wonders what will happen to her tropical fish. Barry Barrett doesn’t see why he wasn’t allowed to bring his BMW. He could have easily followed the buses, he says.

My neighbour, Russ Conway, thinks it’s an alien invasion. He used to be in the RAF. He tells us they regularly saw UFOs on night flights.

The alien craft always arrive under the cover of darkness,’ he says. ‘The landings are always hushed up of course.’

It’s a pity we can’t ask Google what is going on,’ Rosie says. ‘But there’s nowhere to plug her in.’

Could be a terrorist group using new tactics,’ Randy Drummer says. ‘Some new setup trying to make a name for themselves. They will probably blow the bus up outside a prominent landmark to drive their message home. We’re all going to be blown to kingdom come.’

There are no landmarks. It’s …….. desert outside,’ I say. ‘How did that happen?’

Think of all of this, everything you can see, everything that you have become used to, as a story,’ a deep voice says.

I cannot make out where it is coming from. It seems to just be hovering in the air. It is more like a thought in the head than a voice. Is everyone else hearing it, I wonder? Or is it just me? I notice that others are looking around with puzzled expressions. They must be hearing it too.

Imagine that from here on in, there is going to be a different story by a different writer,’ the phantom voice continues. ‘You may not even feature in the new story. As we speak, you might not even exist. We just don’t know. You may have heard of the dream library. But whether you have heard of it or not, it would be helpful to think in those terms. You might not understand the syntax of the dream sufficiently to realise who, what or where you are. There will be few points of reference. You drop in but you don’t know what you will find or what you might remember afterwards about what you have found.’

Stanton Polk once again tells us they are using scare tactics. The type of thing he used to engage in when he was working on Black Ops in the Secret Service in the Cold War. Alice in Wonderland technique, he says it is called. It is designed to obliterate the familiar and replace it with the weird. With their defences down, the victims enter a state of cognitive dissonance.

I see that outside the desert has turned to chaparral. Big brown bears are feasting on the remains of a raccoon. Is it my imagination or are there soft watches hanging from the distant trees?

Although we are on the same bus, maybe we are all on a different journey and we are each fleeing the thing we are most afraid of,’ the man with no face says.

The man has no face. Where did he spring from? Who is he?

We are like the dreamer who dreams the dream and then lives inside the dream, but who is the dreamer?’ he says. ‘Are we the dreamer or are we the dream?’

I hope that snake isn’t the poisonous kind,’ Katie Guy says, pointing to the large yellow one slithering down the aisle towards us.

Burmese python, I think,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘Not poisonous. And in any case, they are afraid of people.’

Rosie meanwhile has passed out. She has always had a phobia of snakes.

Scary, strange and sinister seem to be jockeying for position. I’m thinking, one at a time, please, I’m too old for this confusion. The man with the sparkly jacket at the back of the bus gets out his trumpet and starts playing a Herb Alpert tune. Spanish Flea, I think it’s called. This offers a little light relief.

The relief is short-lived though because it is then and only then that I realise we are being filmed. Initially, I spot a single camera in the ceiling fascia. It looks like a sophisticated one, the type that is equipped with HD and sound. Looking around carefully, I notice similar cameras are placed all around the bus. In all likelihood, these people have filmed us from the outset. I’m not the most observant person. But why has no-one else aboard noticed the cameras? Maybe we’ve all become so used to surveillance cameras in our everyday lives that we no longer register when they are there. They blend in. They become invisible.

Perhaps they also secretly wired all the houses in our street to make a clandestine television programme. There seem to have been a lot of extra visits from tradespeople and meter readers lately. TV aerial installers and window cleaners too. And contractors were putting those new telegraph poles in. And of course, all the unexpected Google devices arriving at our doors. Why did no-one in the street work out that there was something untoward going on? The film-makers will have a record of everything Rosie and I and all our neighbours have been up to, including all our embarrassing Google conversations. The Google speaker voice was probably down to them too, and not the bona fide Google Home app. I thought at the time that one or two of the answers she gave were a little suspect. Shanghai is not the capital of China, and Jeff Beck was never in Led Zeppelin.

The film-makers will have a candid picture of day-to-day life on Straight Street. They will have footage of our reactions to being rounded up and to all the freak show activities on the bus on film. This bizarre charade could only have been carried out for a TV show. They will probably have manipulated all the elements of our daily lives in order to put together a cheap programme offering the prurient sensation today’s viewers seem to go for. Programmes like You’ve Been Conned, Space Cadets, and Mad World. Disgraceful no-holds-barred intrusions into the lives of ordinary people.

My suspicions are confirmed when we suddenly leave the dense dark woodland behind and arrive at the Channel 19 studio. A bespectacled executive in a seersucker suit boards the bus and introduces himself as Milton Chance. He offers a brief explanation about the project. It is a mix of reality and strange, he says. This is the way television is set to go. This is what the viewers want. Sense and Surreality was one of theirs and it attracted record viewing figures. He’s hoping this new series, Soft Watches will do the same. He offers his sincere apologies for any distress they might have caused by their unorthodox approach. He thanks us for our patience and promises we will be handsomely paid for our participation and will be put up in a five-star hotel while we are here. Our homes meanwhile are being protected by a security firm.

The director, who I now recognise as the thick-set fellow who was overseeing the evacuation, ushers us out of the bus. We find ourselves faced with a film crew, ready to shoot additional footage for the show. A few of the faces look familiar from their former roles as meter readers and aerial installers. Rosie has by now caught on to what is happening. She recognises the couple from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that called around a week ago. They are now carrying sound equipment. She wonders if perhaps the woman who told her so much about the Church’s illustrious founder, Joseph Smith might be Google. She also recalls thinking how odd it was that the Tesco delivery man had shown so much interest in the house electrics when he called. He is here in his role as gaffer of the film crew.

That’s pretty much the story so far. It goes to show things are not always what they seem. You need to be vigilant. Meanwhile, look out for the first episode of Soft Watches, The Story of Straight Street coming to your screens soon.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Stake-Out

stakeout

Stake-Out by Chris Green

The black Mitsubishi has been parked there for several days now. Les Rubio first noticed it on Monday, when he came back from a business lunch at The Whistle Blower. The big SUV has been there in the same position, on the opposite side of the road fifty yards from his house, day and night. It has not moved once. The tinted windows have made it difficult for him to get a clear view inside but from occasional sorties to the park with his dog, Murphy, he has noticed that the two suspicious-looking characters occupying the front seats are not always the same ones. They seem to be working in shifts. But, whichever pair is skulking behind their newspapers, they seem to be watching his house. What else could they be doing in this quiet suburban neighbourhood? Who else would they be watching? This is a select residential area. House prices start at about half a million.

There are only a handful of houses in Oleander Drive and the others are all occupied by respectable families. It’s a little difficult, Les feels, to imagine they would be looking out for Brice Shipley, who goes off to work at his dental practice at 8:30 sharp every morning or his wife Sally who so far as he can tell spends her time putting together the parish magazine. Equally hard to suspect Mr Masterson, the headmaster at St Sampson’s or Mrs Masterson who puts the little Mastersons on the red bus to Acme Academy every morning. And, as far as he knows, Dr Pilsner’s house has been empty for a while now. Les feels he is definitely the square peg in the round hole, here in this enclave.

The pair surely cannot be private detectives paid by Grace to see if he has another woman dropping by. Les and Grace have been separated for months. In any case, chance to get his rocks off would be a fine thing. He has been too busy trying to find ways to settle the galaxy of outstanding bills she left him with, not to mention having to deal with the descent into darkness that follows a break-up when it was not your decision or preference. At the same time, he has had to keep up with the changes to his way of life that the new government has brought in. They seem to have got it in for entrepreneurs and small businesses. All the forms you have to fill in and all the things you have to register for. Tax returns and VAT receipts. Are they kidding? This is not his forte. He is a wheeler-dealer. He’s been so snowed under by all the bureaucracy he hasn’t even had time to put the house on the market.

It’s equally hard to conceive that they might be hitmen, hired to eliminate him. He hasn’t, so far as he knows, upset anyone. He conducts business in a straightforward way. He might be a bit behind with his paperwork but that would be no reason for HMRC to send in the boys and even if this were the case, surely one marksman would be sufficient. It wouldn’t need Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta to put the bullet through his chest, or wherever it is professional hitmen choose to aim. And the hitmen would hardly be hanging around. They would have made the hit by now and gone back to their lonely hotel rooms to wait for instructions on further missions.

Les has become so paranoid, though, he’s not driven in to his warehouse for the past few days in case they tail him. Granted, he can do much of his day-to-day work at home over the phone or online. He is fortunate too that he can ask his oppo, Zak to step in for a pick-up or a delivery, like the fake Alibaba rugs or the bogus Sennheiser sound equipment that arrived yesterday.

You’ve got a bit of skirt up there, ain’t you, Mr Rubio?’ Zak said when he told him he wasn’t coming in.

I wish,’ he said. ‘Look, Zak! I will be in soon. In a day or two. Three, tops. Definitely Friday.’

I can come over if you like and we can go over things,’ said Zak.

You’d better stay away, Zak,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the …… Zika virus.’

He thinks it best not to let them see someone like Zak visit him. Zak is more Trotters’ Trading than reputable entrepreneur. He wouldn’t look right in Oleander Drive. He’s from Toker’s End. That’s the other side of the tracks. The Mitsubishi men would pounce on him straight away.

I thought you only got that Zika thing in Brazil,’ said Zak.

It has spread, mate, Haven’t you heard?’ Les told him. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’m on the mend now.’

…………………………………………

On one of this reccies with Murphy, Les manages to get a better look inside the SUV. They have the windows wound down and he can almost make out the men’s features. Just a feeling he has, but they do look like they might be police. They have police sunglasses and police haircuts. Beyond that though he is at a loss. There are so many facets to police work these days it’s pointless to speculate which squad these might be from. He recalls being woken by the resonant thrum of the police helicopter hovering over his house on Wednesday night. He pulled back the curtains and could just make out its shape above the back garden. It was so black it was practically invisible, but certainly not silent. His friend, Jimmy Jazz says it was probably a Chinook. The modern police see themselves as a military unit, Jimmy says. It’s to do with all those movies.

Les phones his friend, Robyn Constable downtown to see if she knows what might be going on. Sergeant Constable has helped him out several times before for a small consideration and makes sure a blind eye is turned to his nefarious schemes. Les does not like to think of it as bribes. It’s a bit like paying insurance premiums. Sergeant Constable does not think of it as bribes. It’s just another aspect of police procedure in these troubled times.

I’m being watched night and day,’ Les tells her.

That doesn’t sound good, Les,’ she says. ‘For a man in your position.’

It’s not anything to do with your …… officers, is it?’

I’ve not heard anything,’ she says. ‘But you better fill me in with a few details so that I can check if we’ve got the word out on you. No guarantee I will be able to stop it if its another squad, though, you understand.’

Two men dressed in dark clothes. Parked up in a black Mitsubishi outside my house. Round the clock, 24/7,’ Les says. ‘They do look like they might be plain-clothes if you know what I mean. But it’s not always the same two.’

What are you saying, Les?’ she laughs. ‘Do we look different to others? Is it the prognathous jaw, or the third eye, perhaps? I tell you what. I will ask around and let you know if there’s a match. Your payment is due by the way.’

Again?’

Every three months, Les. The payment is due every three months. Unless of course, you want me to…’

No, it’s OK. I will get it to you. Just find out about these guys, please.

They might, of course, be security services, Les. Had you considered that?’

Sergeant Robyn Constable has a point. They could be from the nearby spy base, the so-called listening centre. There are thousands of people working at the base. Les has often wondered what they find for them all to do all day. Perhaps this is part of their outreach programme. Might it be something to do with the dodgy domain names he bought, the ones with the sensitive addresses? This is the kind of thing that perhaps might be of interest to intelligence services. But there again, given the nefarious things that go on in cyberspace, would the security services be especially excited over the innocent purchase of a few domains with names like bombisrael(dot)com? There was, of course, the domain he purchased that actually had gchq in the name.

Les hasn’t set up websites on any of the domains. He wouldn’t know how to. He just bought the domain names for his amusement after coming back from The Whistle Blower one night. There was a pop-up ad for buy one get one free offer on domain names. He bought forty-eight of them for the price of twenty-four. He bought them purely to see how far he could go with the names before someone would try to stop him. No-one did. He realises he shouldn’t have done it, but when you are drunk sometimes crazy ideas come into your head, and he was very drunk, he recalls. Grace had not long packed her bags.

To cut a long story short, Les Rubio spent time in la-la land. Whisky and gin, along with his appointed psychiatrist Dr Pilsner’s powerful prescription drugs, temporarily got the better of him. He was in such a bad way, he feels lucky now to have pulled through. It was a mistake to stock those cheap spirits from China. You never know what you are drinking and God knows what the pills were. Perhaps he just took too many. It’s so easy to get a digit wrong when you are under stress. He might have taken ten a day rather than one a day. He wonders what has happened to Dr Pilsner. He hasn’t seen him around since his discharge. Perhaps he has taken a sabbatical to write a primer on anxiety disorders or taken a lucrative teaching post in his native Vienna or something.

Whoever the mysterious emissaries in the Mitsubishi are, if they want him, why don’t they just come and get him? What are they waiting for? Surely they don’t imagine he’s armed and dangerous. And why he wonders are they drawing attention to themselves? There must be subtler ways to spy on him. What about drones? Or a rotation of cars parked in different places. A plain white van. Bogus workmen digging up the road. There must be any number of ways for surveillance operatives to look anonymous, even in an exclusive residential area like Oleander Drive. Perhaps he should have driven normally past them a moment ago, then they would have followed him and then they would have to have it out. At least then he would know what was what.

Les is astonished that the well-to-do neighbours haven’t said something to him about it all. It’s not as if the surveillance could have escaped their notice on such a quiet street. Jarvis Heckler lives in the large detached house opposite where they are parked. He is a retired civil servant and he is always outside washing his Jaguar or manicuring his box hedges. You would have thought he would have been around or at least gone over and had a word with them. And the Mitsubishi is practically parked outside Stacey Aragon’s house. She is forever asking him about Grace and when she might be coming back, waiting to see what his reaction is. There only has to be an unexpected conversation in the street for Stacey to be rustling her Cath Kidston curtains to see what’s going on. But somehow the parked vehicle seems to have escaped her attention. Has she gone away to see an ailing relative or something, Les wonders? Why have none of the neighbours registered the intrusion to their settled lives? Perhaps they have all gone off to see ailing relatives. Might they all be in collusion? Maybe the mystery men in the car have phoned them all and got them all on side with the assurance that it will soon be over and they will be gone.

…………………………………………

Today is Friday and Les Rubio does have to go in to the warehouse and the men in the Mitsubishi are still outside. He drives slowly past, hoping that they will realise that he has spotted them and they will realise that he will be expecting them to follow him. So they won’t. Reverse psychology. He thinks that it is the original pair casting a furtive glance over their red-tops, the ones he spotted on Monday. To his relief, no-one tails him and there is no black stakeout vehicle waiting to intercept him at the warehouse. Inside the premises, everything seems to be as it should be. He logs into the computer, half expecting to find some gremlin in the system or some horror in the inbox, but there is nothing. Everything seems to be running smoothly. There are even some new orders. He takes a look around the stock. The silver saxophones are still in the storeroom along with the multicoloured Gucci handbags. The Alibaba rugs and the new sound equipment are there. He needs to get on to moving some of the internet TVs later to make room for the Japanese clarinets that are arriving.

Zak arrives in his beaten up old van, the one he uses to ferry his band, Corpse around. They are death metal or thrash metal or some kind of metal, Les can’t remember which. Zak keeps asking him to go along to gigs but he is delaying this particular pleasure. He comes in with his headphones on, singing along to some crashing guitar chords. With an air of distraction, Les greets him.

Whatcha, Mr R,’ says Zak, taking off his phones. They look suspiciously to Les like one of the sets that came in yesterday, but he lets it go. ‘You recovered from the Zika bug a bit quick.’

Well, you know, Zak. I do keep myself in shape,’ Les says, puffing out my chest and holding his stomach in. ‘Takes more than a virus to get the better of me.’

I drove by your place on the way in, Mr R.’

But you live in Toker’s End.’

I know. I took a bit of a detour. I was going to call in to see how you were, but there were dozens of Old Bill around.’

What?’

Old Bill. You know, the bizzies.’

What? Outside my house?’

Difficult to tell, Mr R. There were shitloads of candy cars around and more of them seemed to be arriving, so I didn’t hang around to find out. Some funky shit is going down, I’d say.’

Come on! We’d better go and see what’s happening.’

Are you sure, Mr R. What if……. You know ….. All right. We’d better go in the van, then. Incognito, like.’

No. It’s too late for that now. Get in the Merc!’

Over the three-mile journey, traffic is slow. The atmosphere is strained. Conversation is sporadic and staccato.

How many police cars, Zak?’

Lots of them. ……. Wasn’t that a red light, Mr R?’

Can’t you stop blowing that in my face, Zak? What do you put in those….. joints?….. Wait. Pass it here! It might help.’

It’s called Northern Lights, Mr R.’

That’s skunk, is it?’

The best. ….. Are you OK, Mr R?’

I’ve not been thinking straight lately, Zak. I’m not sure what is real and what is not.’

I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Mr R. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’

I don’t know if I’m in a state to make decisions anymore.’

I can’t help but notice that you have seemed a little weird recently, Mr R. In fact, you’ve not been the same since Grace left.

Is it that noticeable? Tell me, Zak! Why am I going into the lion’s den?’

I think if it were me I might be doing a runner or at least lying low. ……. Didn’t you see that woman in the Toyota pulling out?’

Despite the advice, indecision persists. The Mercedes makes it way westward and before they know it they are approaching Oleander Drive. They are greeted by a battery of flashing blue lights. Police vehicles are everywhere. A bustling crowd has gathered to watch the unfolding drama, including a pack of press reporters and a TV crew. Amongst the confusion, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on. As Les and Zak push their way through the mêlée, it slowly becomes clear that a handcuffed man is being led kicking and screaming by a pack of burly police officers to a riot wagon.

Mad doctor. Multiple murder. Motive unknown,’ says a disarmingly young reporter, bringing the new arrivals up to speed. ‘I’ll have my own byline.’

The thing is, they had been watching his house for days,’ says another whippersnapper, with a bag full of hi-tech accessories. ‘They were on to him a week ago and waiting for him to return home. What they didn’t know was that he was there all the time. This one is going to run for days.’

And night by night, he managed to get into his neighbours’ houses and murder them in their sleep,’ says the first one, as he keys the story into this phone. ‘Right under the noses of the surveillance team.’

Dr Pilsner,’ Les manages to say. ‘That’s Dr Pilsner. What…..’

Dr Pilsner. Yes, that’s his name,’ says the whippersnapper. ‘He’s a psychiatrist, apparently. This is going to sell some papers. They’ll fly off the news stands. Do you live around here by any chance?’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Listening Centre

listeningcentre

Listening Centre by Chris Green

Sandwich Man walks past our house at five to six every evening, just before the end of Pointless on television. He passes on his way home from the listening centre where he works. From the back entrance of the base, Cheltenham Close offers a short cut to Connery Way and Goldfinger Drive for those leaving the centre on foot. Sally and I can tell what kind of day Sandwich Man has had by the way he walks. If he has had a good day then there is a spring in his step as he passes our front window. He will smile as he gazes across at our Japanese cherry tree. His head will be up and he will be humming an Eastern European national anthem or perhaps mouthing the chorus of a sea shanty. He will be wearing a smart blue anorak and gripping his Tupperware sandwich box. This is of course how he got his soubriquet.

But if he has had a bad day then he walks with a limp. He will not be smiling. His brow will be furrowed. His shoulders will be hunched. His grey hair will be tousled. He will be in shirtsleeves and carry just an empty water bottle. This probably means he forgot to pack sandwiches for his lunch. He will be starving after working a seven-hour shift at the spy base. He will be anxious to get home to put his stroganoff in the microwave. He is after all not a young man and must feel the cold, especially if it is raining and he did not take his anorak or an umbrella to work that morning. Perhaps the weather was fine earlier and the rain only came on later in the day.

Every now and then Sandwich Man is late and Sally and I begin to worry about him. The minutes tick by. Is he perhaps unwell? Have his migraines started up again? Has he been attacked leaving the base? If he hasn’t walked past by the end of Eggheads, at 6:30 then we go over to the window or open the front door to look out for him. He might be lying in the street after a targeted assault by an enemy agent. After all, he works in a very sensitive area. He is a code breaker and, according to Rhonda at number 48 his real name is Jakob Olev. It is mainly out of habit Sally and I continue to call him Sandwich Man.

Jakob has a friend at the base called Peter. Rhonda doesn’t know Peter’s surname, nor have we come up with a suitable moniker for him yet. Peter lives next door to Sandwich Man in Goldfinger Drive, which is through the pedestrian alley from Cheltenham Close and a couple of streets away. We accidentally followed them home one evening a year or so ago, when we still had the dog for protection and found that Sandwich Man lives at number 18 and Peter at number 19. We don’t go out so much since Murphy was put down. There’s no need now that you can order all your shopping online.

Sometimes Sandwich Man waits for Peter so that they can walk home together. Peter works in a different department, Telephone Surveillance, European Section, according to Eddie at number 52. Now and then he is delayed. He has to stay behind to finish logging phonecalls from the German Chancellor to her crystal reader in Dusseldorf, or text messages from the Italian Premier to his paramours. Eddie used to work at the base and he tells us there is a lot of cross-referencing to be done when it comes to high profile cases. Perhaps when this happens Peter ought to tell his friend to go ahead without him.

We do not believe that Peter takes sandwiches to work. He is perhaps ten years younger than Sandwich Man and only just starting to go grey around the temples. Sally thinks that Peter probably gets by on chocolate bars and cake. He has a chocolate bars and cake kind of build. Maybe he has a high energy drink, a can or two of Red Bull or Iron Bru at lunchtime.

Sandwich Man is not normally late going home on Friday. Sally thinks Friday is his goulash night. Whether or not he has remembered to take his sandwiches that day, he likes to get back in good time to enjoy his succulent Sainsbury’s goulash. It makes a nice change from stroganoff. Stroganoff can be so boring when you have it day after day. Some Fridays we see him breaking into a trot as he makes his way towards the alley. You can almost sense his mouth watering in anticipation of his treat.

But, this Friday Eggheads finishes and there is no sign of him. Peter slinks past our window on the opposite side of the road and casts a furtive glance at the cherry tree, but still, there is no sign of Sandwich Man. I switch the television off. Sally and I begin to speculate as to what might have happened. Might he have been electrocuted by the new high voltage cabling they have installed at the base? Has he been caught by the grandees passing information to the other side, whoever that is? Whistleblowing, I believe it is called. Sally wonders if perhaps he didn’t heat yesterday’s stroganoff through properly and has E Coli or Salmonella.

You have to be so careful with microwave meals,’ she says.

We go outside and look anxiously up and down the street. We notice that Drew Carlson who lives at number 42 is polishing his new Nissan. I’m not sure that he has actually taken it out for a spin yet. You would think that he would be out driving in the hills or something on a nice evening like this, but perhaps now that he is retired he too likes to stay put, as we do. Of course, he has his hobbies. Flags are the big one. It is hard not to spot that Drew has a new flag flying on the pole in his front garden. It is quite an unusual flag, blue white and green, with a hat in the centre of the white horizontal.

I bet you don’t know what this one is,’ he says smugly, as we approach. This is a game he likes to play. Last month we had Comoros and Chad. Drew seems to have a penchant for African flags lately. We all refer to him simply as Flagman.

Mozambique?’ Sally says. ‘No, no! Wait! I know. It’s Lesotho.’ Sally does know her flags. She has a book on vexillology.

Flagman looks crestfallen. ‘How did you know that?’ he says. He does not know that Sally has a book on vexillology. She bought it to help with questions on Pointless.

I don’t suppose you’ve seen Sandwich Man,’ I say.

I was going to ask you the same,’ he says. ‘It’s not like him to be late on a Friday.’

Perhaps Sally and I should go round to his house to see if he’s there,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing much on television until Only Connect.’

Good idea,’ says Flagman. ‘I would join you but I’d like to finish waxing the car first.’

Sally and I look at each other. We are a little apprehensive about the idea but we agree to go ahead without him. We make our way cautiously through the alley. It is more overgrown than we remember it. It is a veritable jungle. Connery Way looks distinctly unfamiliar. Admittedly we have no reason to come this way so we do not know the area very well. There are no obvious landmarks. There are no cars on the street. After a while, Connery Way leads on to Goldfinger Drive. This is even more desolate. There are rows of houses, but they look abandoned. A deathly hush prevails. I don’t recall it looking this way the time we followed Sandwich Man and Peter home. Now I think of it, I do not now remember following Sandwich Man and Peter home, but I do not say anything to Sally. She might make another comment about the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

I see what appears to be a Sainsbury’s van in the distance. Outside number 18 Goldfinger Drive, probably. I draw some comfort from this. I imagine that it must be Sandwich Man’s home delivery of stroganoffs and goulashes and cheese and ham and sandwich fillers with maybe a case or two of energy drinks in case Peter drops round. Perhaps Sandwich Man has been waiting in for the delivery all day, which would explain why he hasn’t been to work.

Are you sure that we are going the right way?’ says Sally. She can’t have spotted the Sainsbury’s delivery van.

I think so,’ I say. ‘But I could be wrong.’

There are no houses,’ she says. ‘Where are all the houses?’

It is true. What I took to be houses are ramshackle farm buildings. The closer we get I can’t help but notice that the Sainsbury’s van is not a Sainsbury’s van ….. but a bear, a big brown bear.

Sally has a book on bears. ‘This one,’ she says, ‘is not the cuddly type.’

This is not the news that I want to hear. Does it also explain what has happened to Sandwich Man? No wonder Flagman didn’t want to come. It’s a dangerous world once you get out of Cheltenham Close. Unpredictable and hostile. Admittedly, we do not get out much, but we had no idea that this was such a wild area. How could Sandwich Man possibly live in an environment like this?

We are about to run, well in our case possibly not run, but the bear doesn’t seem to be interested in us. It steals off to investigate a bandicoot in the undergrowth. A bandicoot? Sally confirms that it is, in fact, a bandicoot. She has a book on Antipodean marsupials. They are always coming up on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Perhaps we should be getting used to surprises but the train hurtling towards us comes as a bit of a shock. We never realised there was a railway so close by. And this one isn’t a Thomas the Tank Engine or one of those light rail metro trains, this is a big blue freight train pulling a long line of those trucks that carry volatile liquids. There was a question about them on In It To Win It a week or so ago. Are they called tank cars or something? Whatever, the train is getting closer and although we are not on the railway track, it is scaring the hell out of me. At my age, I don’t tend to swear a lot. It is something that I’ve grown out of but here I make an exception.

Let’s get the fuck back to Cheltenham Close,’ I shout.

Sally is with me on this one. I’ve never heard her swear before but she does so now.

Turning around, we find to our horror that the landscape has changed again. We are now faced with barren, featureless scrubland, giving us little indication of which way we should go. But we have just come this way. It wasn’t like this. Nor was it like this the time we came with Murphy. This can’t be Goldfinger Drive. Surely! This can’t be happening. These things do not happen in our world. We just watch the quizzes and give answers when we are able. Something must have happened to rupture the space-time continuum.

We are not given chance to take stock of our queer situation. A crack of thunder like the end of the world rocks the heavens. A frightening figure in catholic robes appears to be opening up the sky. Is that a hand reaching down? It can’t be that time already. We have some time left, don’t we? I do believe we are actually running now, in defiance of our arthritic limbs. Literally running for our lives.

With an immense effort of will, we retrace our steps through the changing terrain of the hinterland, and back through the freshly clipped privet of the alley leading to Cheltenham Close. Flagman is still polishing his car. He waves. We do not want to have to explain to him what we have been through. We would not know where to begin. We dive into the house to avoid him. I switch on the TV. Only Connect is about to start.

I do hope that Sandwich Man comes by on time on Monday,’ says Sally, pouring the gin. ‘And things get back to normal.’

Me too,’ I say, holding out my glass. ‘I don’t think I could go through that again.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Shooting Script

shootingscript3

Shooting Script by Chris Green

1:

The headline on the front page of The Independent, Shot Down in Downing Street came as a shock to Catherine Larsson. It was accompanied by a grainy picture of the Prime Minister clutching his shoulder. A trail of blood appeared to be trickling down his white shirt. Unaware that he was being scrutinised, Matt continued to turn the pages of his paper. PM Fighting for his Life, was emblazoned across the centre spread. This was big, big news. Assassination attempts on British Prime Ministers were unheard of. Why had it gone unnoticed? Catherine had heard nothing about the shooting on the news when she drove in to work, it was not reported in her tabloid, and curiously, no one in the office had mentioned it during the morning. Yet a story of this magnitude would be something that spread like norovirus. It ticked all the boxes for good newspaper copy, bad news, head of state, bloodshed and closeness to home. This was something you would expect everyone to be talking about.

Having only been briefly introduced to Matt earlier in the day, Catherine was a little nervous of him. His having possession of the newspaper with the dramatic headline seemed to give him extra charisma but also made him more unapproachable. She occupied herself with some desk tidying while she weighed up the situation. She was about to ask Matt for a look at the paper, or at least get him to clarify what was going on, but at that moment a call came in. When she had finished on the phone, Matt was nowhere to be seen. She had not noticed him leave. Having just started at Total Eclipse Events Management a week ago, Catherine was still finding her feet. She could not remember what position Matt held or where she might find him. She had never seen him around before. Perhaps he was just a visitor. She looked around for her colleague Maddie who had introduced them but now Maddie had vanished too.

Another call came in, and before Catherine knew it, it was lunchtime. Although she liked to keep up with current events, the attempted assassination of a public figure was perhaps in the big scheme of things not going to affect her greatly. It was only politics after all. And furthermore, she didn’t care much for the Prime Minister anyway. He was smug and mendacious. Since her divorce eighteen months ago, Catherine was more concerned with keeping her own boat afloat and making sure that her teenagers, DJ and Jessica were keeping away from the deadly new skunk parties she had heard were sweeping the country. All the same, it was very odd that news of this significance had not circulated more measurably.

Since starting at Total Eclipse, Catherine had begun to take her lunch at Gino’s, a small café around the corner from the office and down a side street. Here she could listen to jazz, enjoy a baguette and a cappuccino and generally chill out. She felt that it was important to put all work thoughts out of her head for a spell, so she usually went alone. She put in her order and took a seat. Miles Davis was playing It Ain’t Necessarily So. Miles was one of her particular favourites. She loved the melodic style of the muted trumpet and the way his quintet filled in the harmonies.

While she was waiting for her order, as she looked around at the jazz posters that hung on the walls, she noticed that Gino’s offered a range of newspapers. Curious once more, Catherine scrutinised them one by one for any news of the assassination attempt. To her puzzlement and alarm, none of them carried the story, not even the Independent, which instead led on the earthquake in the Middle East, with a feel-good picture of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge in Australia on the right-hand side of the page for balance. Catherine was not comfortable with things she could not explain. They made her head spin and gave her a feeling of nausea in the stomach. She did not touch her baguette.

During the afternoon, when she had a few quiet moments, Catherine zipped around the news sites on the internet. There was not a mention of an assassination attempt anywhere. Had the whole thing been a wind-up? But what would the motive have been? Surely there was no point in such an elaborate hoax, for her benefit. She felt too cautious to bring it up with any of her colleagues. She was the new girl and did not want them to think she was doolaley. There was still no sign of Matt. Had she imagined him too? She thought back to the moment when she had been introduced. There had only been a brief exchange. They had shaken hands. Her mind had misted over and she had felt dizzy, she recalled. She had thought nothing of it at the time as she was in the middle of some printing, and the printer had jammed. She could now bring to mind next to nothing about Matt, other than he was a large thick set man with, she thought, a trace of an accent. She could not recall what the accent was. He was wearing a grey suit, or was it jeans and a sweatshirt, or was it a diver’s wetsuit. She was not sure. It might have been any of these. She remembered only that their eyes had met briefly. This was shortly before he had disappeared. She recalled she had sensed a charge of electricity. Something strange was definitely happening.

As Catherine was getting into her Micra at 5 o’clock, she noticed a black BMW leaving the car park. Although the windows were heavily tinted, behind the wheel was a large shadowy figure. As he sped off, she noted the registration. It was a 68 plate with the first two letter area code being LK. A 68 plate!! But this was 2017. The plate would not be due for another year or so. She experienced that feeling of nausea again like she was slipping away.

Stanmore, London,’ Devinder said, in response to Catherine’s question about the plate’s origin. She had phoned him on her hands-free while waiting for the temporary traffic lights to change at the St Georges junction. ‘But 68 is impossible. You must have misread it.’

No, it was definitely LK 68 something,’ she said.

It is easily done,’ he countered.

Catherine was determined she had not been mistaken.

Would you like me to come over?’ Devinder said, sensing that Catherine was more than a little distressed. ‘I can leave Ravi to look after the shop.’

Catherine did not consider her and Devinder to be an item, but after the dating agency had matched her with a series of chain-smoking lorry drivers, balding insurance salesmen with paunches and sixty year-old thirtysomethings, she had found Devinder to be a breath of fresh air. She had taken to seeing him once or twice a week. She found him knowledgeable, witty, understanding and very good company, except when the cricket was on. Perhaps it was the lavish gifts he bestowed on them on occasions, or some under the counter activity that she was unaware of, but even DJ and Jessica seemed to accept him. Devinder’s biggest plus point, however, was his ability as a lover. No-one had understood her body and pressed all the right buttons like Devinder. It was as though he knew what she was thinking. But of course it was early days and she was careful to remind herself that her ex-husband, Hilmar had once seemed like the man of her dreams.

When Catherine arrived back at her flat in Cardigan Street, she found it empty. Perhaps DJ and Jessica were at the library. There again, more likely they weren’t. There were plenty more unsavoury places to hang out. What could you do with teenagers? Whatever you told them, they would be likely to ignore. They would negotiate their own terms of engagement with life’s great mysteries.

Devinder duly arrived and while Catherine expressed her confusion, administered much-needed comfort. Before long, they found themselves in an uncontrollable embrace. This seemed to happen every time they met lately. There was only one place to go. Afterwards, Devinder attempted to put Catherine in the picture about reality.

Reality is an illusion,’ he said. ‘Even the teachings of the Ten Gurus will tell you that this is so. For instance during sleep dreams seem very real, but upon awakening, you realise that they were just dreams. So it is with this world that we call reality. It is possible to wake from it too. Sri Ramana Maharshi, the great Indian teacher, maintained that the difference between a dream while sleeping and the dream we call wakefulness is only of duration, one short and the other one long.’

So you are saying I did not meet a man called Matt today, who had a unique newspaper and a car from the future,’ Catherine protested. There had been she realised now something strange about Matt’’s presence. It was difficult to explain; it was as though he was there but not there. Although he was broad, he was at the same time, insubstantial, like an apparition.

We never directly experience the world around us,’ Devinder said. ‘All we ever know are the contents of consciousness, the thoughts, feelings, perceptions and sensations that appear in the mind.’

2:

It was just after six in the evening. Dennis and Audrey Crick were enjoying Eggheads on TV, when they heard a loud knock at the door. Living as they did on a suburban estate, the Cricks quite frequently had cold-callers at this time of day, so they did not immediately answer. At their time of life, they did not get a lot of friends casually coming round and their own family had over the years spread out. Besides, people that Dennis and Audrey knew would always phone before calling round. This caller seemed persistent, so on the third or fourth knock, with a grunt of disapproval, Dennis got up and went to the door. The figures he was faced with across the threshold, a man and a woman, did not look as if they were representatives from a power supplier trying to get customers to switch or speculative callers on behalf of a charity. They wore dark blue quasi-military uniforms and had a grave look about them. The man introduced himself and flashed an ID card. Dennis did not have his reading glasses, so just took it on trust that it was genuine.

You may have heard that there’s been a nuclear accident,’ the man said. He did not give the impression that he was joking.

No,’ Dennis said.

We’re here to let you know about the arrangements for your safe evacuation,’ the woman said.

What?’ Dennis said, astonishment now mixed with perplexity.

We would like you not to panic, but to be ready with the things you need to take in one hour,’ the man said. He barked something cryptic into his chunky radio pack. The pack Dennis noticed had a bold stencil stamp on it, MKEF or something.

Transport is being arranged,’ the woman said. ‘We’ll be taking you to the closest reception centre.’

Any questions?’ the man said.

Dennis was too stunned for enquiry. His rational mind was dissolving. He stood on the step with his mouth open.

We’ve got other calls to make,’ the woman said. ‘One hour! Please be ready!’

Dennis closed the door and went back inside. Barry for The Eggheads had just won the Arts and Books round, having correctly identified that it was Picasso who had said, ‘he wanted to tear reality apart’.

Who was it, love?’ asked Audrey. ‘You’ve gone very pale.’

I think we’re being evacuated,’ Dennis said. ‘A nuclear accident.’

There must have been a radiation leak,’ said Audrey, applying a phrase she remembered from the news coverage of the French nuclear plant crisis.

But I don’t think that there is a nuclear power station within a hundred miles,’ said Dennis. ‘But then, I couldn’t be sure.’

Didn’t you buy a Geiger counter at the car boot last year?’ Audrey said.

No dear, that was a metal detector. I don’t think that would work. Anyway, it hasn’t got any batteries. I was meaning to get some.’ Dennis did not get out much since the rheumatoid arthritis had worsened. It was over a year now since he had been to a Milton Keynes Dons home game. He had not been since they lost 4-0 to Yeovil. The Don’s Montenegrin keeper had been responsible for all four goals in a nightmare game, but the following week he had played a blinder against local rivals, Stevenage in a narrow 1-0 win and even got away with a blatant trip on Stevenage’s Sudanese striker. Dennis found things had a way of working towards a balance. A friend of his was fond of saying, ‘go with the flow.’ Dennis found that this made a lot of sense and saved a lot of time and energy. You could not expect to get a run of green lights all the way to the superstore. And if you did, there would be road works on the way to the garden centre. Dennis attempted to adapt this principle about dynamic equilibrium to their present situation.

Shall I turn over to the news?’ Audrey said. ‘There’s sure to be something about it.’

There was no mention of anything about the emergency on the BBC News or Sky. The military build up on the Turkish border with Iraq and the floods in North America were the main stories and there was a report about a beached whale in the Outer Hebrides. Nothing anywhere about radiation. Perhaps security issues were involved, and the authorities wanted to keep it a secret. If this was the case, how could anyone hope to find out?

Dennis went round to see the Lockharts next door, knocked several times, and peered through the front window, but it appeared they were out. Perhaps they had already been evacuated, he thought. He was about to go round to see if the De Koonings had heard anything when Audrey called him.

I’ve just phoned Alison and she thinks that it is a hoax,’ she said. ‘Fake news, Alison called it..’

Is she sure?’ asked Dennis.

You know Alison pet; she knows everything,’ Audrey replied. ‘She thinks it’s pranksters.’

Bit of a rum thing to joke about,’ Dennis said.

Alison said that the Sintons had two nice young men round to tell them about the total eclipse of the sun. You would only be able to see it from high up, they told her. They went to the clock tower and waited, but there was no eclipse and when they got home they found they had been burgled,’ Audrey said.

Blimey!’ Dennis said.

Then there was the time they said on the tele that Big Ben was going to go digital,’ Audrey said.

But wasn’t that April Fools Day,’ Dennis said.

I still don’t believe it,’ Audrey continued. ‘What do they say on that show, It’s a Wind Up?’

Have we ever watched it?’ Dennis said. Lately, Dennis was finding the drawers in the cabinet where he stored his narrative harder and harder to open. The wisdom of age was, as far as he could see, a fallacy. You spend your life accumulating knowledge so that you can have facts at your fingertips, but the cruel irony being that when you are at a stage of life when you might benefit from this, you are already beginning to lose stock daily from this repository of information. Dennis’s consciousness was diminishing. Most days he and Audrey watched Eggheads, Celebrity Eggheads and perhaps EastEnders, then let the cat out, put their teeth away on the bathroom shelf and went to bed. Sometimes they would stay up to watch a drama. He was not sure why they watched these programmes. He could never remember the answers to the questions on Eggheads, usually lost the thread of the complicated plot lines in EastEnders and had no idea at all what was going on in the drama. There had been one on recently called Total Eclipse, which was so incomprehensible it might as well have been science fiction.

I’ll make us a nice cup of tea,’ Audrey said.

Dennis and Audrey settled down to watch Celebrity Eggheads, which had just started. The Eggheads were playing a team of celebrity chefs. In the Music round the TV chef with the double-barrelled name and the plum in his mouth had just guessed correctly that it was Bungalow Bill and not Caravan Carl or Penthouse Pete who had ‘gone out tiger hunting with his elephant and gun’, in The Beatles’ song. Pat from when there was a knock at the door. It was Lars de Kooning.

Are you and Audrey ready?’ he asked. He had his coat on and a large Team Blitz sports bag across his shoulder.

Audrey’s sister says that it is a prank,’ Dennis said.

Well, we’re all set,’ Lars said. ‘The children are really excited. They think we’re going on holiday. They’ve packed the playhouse. How much do you think they will let us take?’

I don’t know what to think…….What did they say to you?’ Dennis asked. ‘To be truthful, I did not have much of a conversation with them.’

They’re not allowed to say very much, are they? National security. Anyway, it’s probably one of the French nuclear power stations that’s melting down or whatever they call it after there’s been an explosion. The French have got hundreds of reactors dotted all around the coast, and the southerly winds that we have been getting would be blowing the dust over this way.’

You don’t think it could be a nuclear war,’ Dennis said. ‘We seem to be very good these days at upsetting other countries.’

Either way, there would probably be a news blackout,’ Lars said.

You never know what to believe these days, do you?’ Dennis said.

No hay banda! Nothing you see or hear is real.’ Lars said.

Come again.’

Mulholland Drive’

Dennis was none the wiser. Perhaps Mulholland Drive was a film. He and Audrey seldom watched films. Except for The Great Escape or The Railway Children occasionally on Boxing Day. Films today were much too hard to follow.

3:

Matt Black was a television screen-writer by accident rather than design. He left university after his dissertation on ‘The Illusion of Reality’ had been poorly received by the School of Natural and Social Sciences. Matt’s research had been helped along by an eclectic interest in Eastern mysticism, string theory, Carl Jung, Monty Python and psychoactive drug use. The central tenet of his thesis held that contradictory statements could be true; Schrödinger’s Cat was as we know both dead and alive. Were we limited to a single outcome from our decisions, or might a number of outcomes be realised simultaneously, as in Borges’s The Garden of Forking Paths? Paradox was key to Matt’s argument. Which is better, he asked, eternal happiness or a tuna sandwich? It would appear that eternal happiness is better, but, he argued, this is really not so. After all, nothing is better than eternal happiness, and a tuna sandwich is certainly better than nothing. Therefore a tuna sandwich is better than eternal happiness. His frivolity and word play did not go down well with the examiners.

Matt had a loose circle of friends. He was a keen saxophone player and could keep fellow musicians, Bernie, Bazza, Frankie, Gooch and Ziggy, or Eric, Derek, Dolph and Mario entertained for hours with apocryphal tales, in the Jazz bar of The Blind Monkey, where they hung out. Jam sessions at The Blind Monkey interspersed with these exchanges could go on well into the night. Matt refined his stories over the years and his storytelling became more and more polished, until one day fellow saxophonist, Fats, suggested Matt should write for television.

TV drama is like painting by numbers,’ Matt said. ‘It’s so completely predictable.’

Granted most of it is garbage, but there are a few good things,’ Fats said.

One or two maybe. But the television schedule is so mindlessly conventional. The same programmes in the same order every day on every channel. It’s spoon-feeding couch potatoes syrup,’ Matt said.

You are one stubborn sonofabitch. Sometimes in life to get anywhere you have to compromise. Meet them half way. Look at it like this. The jazz world wouldn’t have been able to accept Charlie Parker if he had hit them with his virtuoso improvisations straight off. Even Bird had to establish himself as a player first,’ Fats said.

You mean I have to make a name with a style that doesn’t rock the boat too much,’ Matt said.

That’s right. You’re getting it at last,’ Fats said. ‘Once you’ve had one or two of your efforts screened, then you will be able to experiment. Take your cue from Miles. He started off filling in the harmonies for others. But, once he had made his name, he could make the music that he really wanted. He had the freedom to experiment. And of course, he went on to create some of the twentieth century’s coolest music. The point is he took his audience with him. He could get away with playing anything and they’d listen.’

So, for the time being, I stick to the banal plot line of the discovery of a crime, the plodding investigation by maverick investigator who has family problems and a battle with the bottle, moving towards the arrest of a perpetrator at the end of the episode,’ Matt said. ‘Is that what you are saying?’

Bergerac is not on anymore,’ Fats said. ‘Things have moved on a bit. They have espionage thrillers and all sorts these days.’

Still written to a formula,’ Matt said. ‘Disillusioned intelligence agent goes off the grid, defies authority, blows stuff up. Shoots a lot of people and single-handedly makes the world a safer place.’

And psychological dramas.’

Formulaic. Visibly unstable characters. Dark rooms with long shadows. Sparing dialogue with a lot of echo on the voices. Flashbacks. Bit of sinister music by Sigur Ros repeated throughout.’

I’m sure you’re allowed to throw in a twist or two,’ Fats said.

I guess I’ll have to,’ Matt said.

Matt Black’s success in screen-writing was not immediate. He had to send off numerous ‘spec scripts’ before his first was accepted, a fifty minute post-modern crime drama called Missing Link. Although it was screened at 11: 30 at night on BBC2, it was so popular with viewers that it was quickly re-shown, with just a few cuts, at a sensible hour on BBC1. It also caught the attention of producers at the corporation and Matt found himself working on the team writing for the top BBC soaps. This was not exactly what he would have wanted, he would have preferred the top BBC spy genre perhaps, but the money was good. He knuckled down and gave them scripts involving baby swaps, cot deaths and the annual torching of the pub in their flagship soap. These all seemed to go down well, but when Matt upped the ante and wrote Christian suicide bombers into the script, the producers baulked. Fortunately, people in television now knew his name and all was not lost, as a young executive recognised that Matt’s controversial themes would suit the experimental political thriller. Matt embarked upon a series of successful dramas in this genre, Double Take, The Beirut Diaries, Conspiracy, Total Eclipse, etc.

Following his initial success, Matt Black installed himself in a small but well-placed penthouse overlooking the Thames to do his writing and bought the latest ibook and software. Writing required solitude, but at the same time, it was important to be near the hub of things to provide inspiration. Surrey Quays provided both. He got himself into the habit of writing from 8 to 2 every day and again for an hour in the evening. His reputation developed steadily. His edgy thrillers Collateral Damage and Fragile both won awards, the latter compared by one critic to David Cronenberg, and it was suggested that he might move into films.

Matt was always meticulous in the way he presented his scripts, down to the last detail. He even put in stars and stripes logos where he thought the commercial breaks should be placed if the programme were sold to American television. He was certain that he had saved the document for his new script, Malice, correctly. He had updated it daily. Final Draft 10 was a piece of software on which you could rely. Nearly all screen-writers used it. But when he opened his document one day, he could not help but notice that a key scene from his story had disappeared. Matt was mystified.

He updated his firewall and virus checker, ran a host of malware checks and retyped the scene, as close as he could remember to his original. Fortunately, there was not much dialogue, as there were only two characters, Ron and Anne. Much of this section consisted of sluglines and action. As a further precaution set Final Draft to auto-save each document every two minutes. He also began to back up all his files on a data stick and also, for belt and braces security, on icloud.

Two weeks later he discovered that Bruce and Lee, the two Emergency Force characters from Brink had disappeared entirely from his screenplay. Every reference to them was gone. To his alarm, they had also disappeared from the all of the sequential copies of Brink on his data stick backup and from icloud.

Shane, the technician on the repair desk at PC World told him. ‘We’ve run dozens of tests. There have been no incursions into your hard drive. Your machine seems perfect.’

But its also gone on all of the storage backups,’ Matt said. ‘How do you explain that?’

The loss of data there is even weirder,’ Shane said. ‘It’s is all a bit GCHQ,’

Either that or X Files,’ Matt said.

Shane was not familiar with The X Files. He was from an X Factor generation.

There are measures we could take to find out where the data is disappearing to’ he said. ‘We could put a programme on that would track each byte of data.’

But doesn’t the Apple operating system do that anyway?’ queried Matt.

Well, it does and it doesn’t,’ Shane said.

Perhaps it would be a good idea,’ Matt said, ‘to start again from scratch.’

Fortunately, there was an offer on a top of the range iMac.

Shane readied the machine, and Matt was soon typing into the recovered version of Brink, putting in the passages that had disappeared from the original. It was a cracking script, he felt as he embellished the evacuation scene. Happy that he had made good progress, he went off to make a cup of tea. When he returned, to his horror, the new passages had gone again. In fact, the text of the document was disappearing before his eyes. The sentences were evaporating.

Soon there would be a blank screen.

Soon there would be no-one left in Milton Keynes. Peterborough and Northampton were being evacuated too. There would be burning and looting all over central England. There would be many casualties before order was restored. As he pressed keys helplessly and line by line Brink vanished, he was completely unaware of its far reaching consequences. How could he know? Nothing like this had happened before.

Matt also noticed that, minimised on the task bar, the screenplay for Shot Down in Downing Street was open. The assassin, posing as a reporter, was ready to strike as the Prime Minister emerged from Number 10.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

wherehavealltheflowersgone

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Chris Green

Always something of a wild man, Danny Rocco isn’t the type you would expect to find at a Ludovico Einaudi recital. But the main reason that Danny’s being at the Einaudi concert is unlikely is that Danny Rocco is dead. He met his maker three years ago when his Triumph Bonneville collided with an eighteen-wheeler truck on a notorious accident black spot on the A39. He was reportedly doing ninety-five miles per hour. He stood no chance. My sister, Sara was devastated. She and Danny had been an item. Although Danny and I had little else in common, I went with Sara to Danny’s funeral. He was cremated.

Yet, in the interval at the concert, Danny comes nonchalantly up to me and shakes my hand. He is dressed in a stylish dark suit and tie. Being dead seems to have mellowed him considerably.

Primavera sounded pretty good, this evening, didn’t it, William?’ he says. ‘One of Ludovico’s best, don’t you think?’

I am flummoxed. It is strange enough that someone who previously sprinkled his conversation with expletives and listened to Motörhead and Slipknot should be so taken with the gentle piano tunes of Einaudi. And he had never called me William, it was always Bill. It is beyond strange that I am about to have a conversation with a dead man. A number of possibilities flash though my head, this is Danny Rocco’s long-lost twin, a stunt double or perhaps it was his stunt double or his secret twin that crashed the bike. But the scar on his left cheek, sustained I remember in a fight with Slugger McGee in The Pig and Whistle suggests that, impossible though it might seem, this really is Danny Rocco. To back this up further, he is also wearing the distinctive carbon fibre black ring that Sara gave him. This is Danny Rocco.

When I come round, I find myself stretched out on a worn red velvet settee in a small windowless room. A dark-haired middle-aged woman is hovering over me. She says her name is Izzy. She says she is a designated first-aider.

What happened?’ I say.

You passed out,’ Izzy says. ‘What do you remember?’

I begin to regain my bearings. I remember I was watching an Einaudi piano recital. Suddenly, it hits me like a left hook from Wladimir Klitschko.

I was ……. I was talking to an old friend of mine,’ I say, looking around me, vaguely expecting to see him in the flesh. ‘Danny Rocco. Did he ….. Did Danny bring me in here?’

No,’ Izzy says. ‘Your friend was not with you. When I arrived on the scene, you were lying flat out on the floor in the aisle with a group of concerned people around you wondering what had happened. One or two of them said they had tried to bring you round. They kindly helped me to bring you in here.’

I should be used to strange. There have been a string of unrelated anomalies lately. Last Thursday, hundreds of clocks exploded. Time was scattered everywhere, hours and minutes strewn all over the streets. Guv Malone told me the tide didn’t come in and while you can’t believe everything Guv says, you have to agree we live in volatile times. We had yellow buses in the town and then they were green, then red and yesterday they were yellow again. No explanation. The numbers had changed too. 6 was 9, 13 was 31 and 17, 71. Without any explanation, the peacocks and cardinals disappeared from the garden and there were no parrots in the park. They just upped and left. But then they returned in their thousands. Birds were everywhere. Toucans, lovebirds, parikeets, lorikeets, red-necked tanagers, spangled cotingas. You couldn’t move for brightly-coloured birds.

It’s as if someone is playing tricks. I’m sure all of you have noticed any number of unexplainable phenomena but surely Danny Rocco’s coming back from the dead ranks among the strangest. No-one seems to believe I saw him at the concert, not even Ellie.

You should have been there,’ I tell her. ‘It was him. I’m sure of it. Why weren’t you there, anyway? I told you I had a ticket for you. I waited for ages before I went in. I missed the opening number.’

I tried phoning but you never answer your phone,’ Ellie says. ‘You do still have a phone, don’t you? I was going to tell you that Ludovico Einaudi is touring Japan so not to bother going. In any case, he’s not likely to be playing at The Little Theatre, is he? It only seats about two hundred. It must have been someone else. You don’t remember who because you fainted. And this Danny Rocco you think you saw was probably someone who worked at the theatre. You say his appearance had dramatically changed. I know you get confused when putting names to faces. You thought Rahul Joshi at the convenience store was Daniel Craig, remember? Or at least that he looked like him. I think you may have meant Dev Patel. I don’t think Meghan Markle is going to be the new James Bond either. I can’t imagine how you came up with that one.’

I try to interrupt Ellie but she has the bit between her teeth.

You do realise you keep imagining things, don’t you?’ she continues. ‘It’s time you got a grip, Bill. I think you ought to go and see Dr Rosado.’

It turns out Dr Rosado is on sabbatical so I see Dr Gray instead.

I see that over the years, Dr Rosado has had you on a range of ….. well I suppose for lack of a better expression, you would have to call them hallucinogens,’ Dr Gray says. ‘H’mmmm. A little unorthodox. But I suppose he is an experienced practitioner. And you are currently taking, let me see ……. Sorry, I’m having a little difficulty with the name. I’ve definitely not heard of them. How are you getting on with them?’

OK, I guess,’ I say. ‘My partner felt I should check in with you. That’s why I’m here. She thinks I was mistaken about something. She doesn’t believe that someone that was dead has come back to life.’

I see. Well, it has happened before.’

It has?’

Yes. Our dear Lord came back to life, didn’t he? He rolled away the stone.’

You mean Jesus?’

Yes, Jesus. On the third day.’

It’s probably best not to go into Danny Rocco’s lack of messianic credentials.

Apart from that,’ Dr Gray says. ‘Any delirium?’

Not really, no.’

Any confusion?’

Now and then. We live in very confusing times, don’t we? Everyone is finding things a little strange since the circus came to town and they changed the road names. Have you noticed that dogs have stopped barking?

Look! To be on the safe side, I think we’ll try you on something different this time. This new one they’ve brought out perhaps. There are fewer potential side effects.’

Time has settled down. The birds are back in the garden. Blue tits, finches, blackbirds, sparrows. They are singing their hearts out. And the dogs are barking again. The buses too have sorted themselves out. They are back to their muted grey. And the old road names are back. It is easier now to get your bearings. But predictability can be dull. There are no longer any surprises. I’m finding it difficult to adjust to regular patterns, waking each morning to find everything exactly as I left it. And where have all the flowers gone? Those colourful blooms that reached up to the sky. These new tablets that Dr Gray prescribed will take some getting used to. I believe that on the whole, Dr Rosado’s tablets suited me better. It’s a pity that he is now in custody.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Homburg

homburg2020

Homburg 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

When I Was Older

wheniwasolder

When I Was Older by Chris Green

When I was older, I was a saxophonist. I was one of the last living saxophonists before the instrument was banned and all saxophones were melted down to help the war effort. The trumpet suffered a similar fate. Brass instrument detection squads with sophisticated detection equipment were deployed with harsh penalties introduced for possession. But that was then. April 2047, if you want the precise date it became illegal to blow your horn.

I’m Charlie Tooting. You may not have heard of me as I am, at the present time, that is your present time, the time you are reading this, still a journeyman, working out tunes on the blues harmonica. Little Walter and Junior Wells are my inspiration. But at some stage, in what you think of as your future, you will hear my name. You will hear my music. Mark my words! You may even be moved to buy some. Make a note now! Charlie Tooting. Saxophone.

It is difficult, isn’t it, to get your head around the fact that time isn’t linear? This is not what you are led to expect. But, when you look more closely, there is no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. You need to drop the idea that time is something that flows. Time, like space, is just there. All of it. More helpful perhaps to view space-time as a four-dimensional structure. The fundamental laws of physics work the same both forward and backwards.

Saxophones were not melted down to help the war effort, of course. Nor were trumpets. By 2047, wars were not fought this way. All conflicts were conducted in cyberspace. The real reason for the ban is a puzzler. It may never be disclosed.

A group of us, a dozen in all perhaps, are sitting in Eve’s garden in the early Autumn sunshine. It is a Saturday morning. It is the time you refer to as now. Eve has put on a spread of cakes and pastries including my favourite, tiramisu. In the background, Chet Baker is singing about a lost love. It is not clear when his love went missing.

Vincent asks Eve if there is any wine.

Eve laughs and says something about 1969.

What on Earth is she on about?

A reference to a lyric from a 1976 tune by The Eagles,’ Holly Wood explains.

Mainstream rock is not really my thing. It lacks subtlety. Little use of counterpoint. Sparing use of minor keys. I prefer jazz and blues.

Is there anything going on today?’ Pascal asks. ‘Something we could all go to.’

I mention the possibility of going to the match. Our local team are playing one of the bigger teams. This doesn’t seem to interest anyone.

The stranger in the harlequin-patterned shirt stroking the Maine Coon cat tells us there is a Street Fair on Monday. With fairground rides, magicians, circus acts, music and dancing. He mentions the names of some bands. They sound like tropical diseases.

Is Monday a Bank Holiday?’ I ask. It seems strange to have one in October. If it is a public holiday, it will probably mean that my harmonica class will have been cancelled. Lou said nothing about this last week. He just told me I needed to learn a new breathing technique and practice my blocking.

Monday is a Bank Holiday,’ Eve says. ‘It’s a new one to celebrate Prince Barry’s birthday.’

Who is Prince Barry, I wonder? Have I missed something? It’s hard to keep tabs on everything. There are so many unanswered questions. Why are red buttons always the most important? Who let the dogs out? And what is that low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing for the last three months? No-one knows.

I don’t think I’ll be able to go to the Street Fair,’ I say. ‘My war wound is playing up.’

Shrapnel. Operation Olive. The Battle of Rimini. 1944. This was a proper war. A war with tanks and guns. That’s where I came across the harmonica. It must have belonged to a dead soldier. 1944.

Time can be a trickster,’ I say.

Time keeps on slipping, slipping into the future,’ Eve says.

Another tune from the 1970s, apparently. Eve is fond of quoting song lyrics. But does it? Does time keep slipping, slipping into the future? It seems to me this is not always the case. The big white Zephyr with the tail fins has been following me for weeks and I have been following the big white Zephyr with the tail fins for weeks. You may have seen it too. Big white Zephyr. Blacked out windows.

You’ve probably noticed how the night moves. Without warning, you are shifted from one narrative to another. It is said that when we leave somewhere, we leave something of ourselves behind. Even though we go away, part of us remains. We might thus inhabit many places at the same time. I was unable to understand the mechanics of the mystical crossroads until I was older but this is the way it is with time. One day, you will wake to find that the information has silently seeped into your consciousness. You will find yourself zipping about the space-time continuum. It will become so commonplace you will not even notice when it happens. And happen, it will.

I am on stage. The Charlie Tooting Quintet. We are playing at the Rimini Bar. In a small town in the west of England. Maybe you are in the audience. I can see there are quite a few in tonight. If you are not, you can catch up with us elsewhere. You will find details of our touring schedule on our website. Be sure to check the dates carefully otherwise you may find you have missed us. We have a request to play How Long Has This Been Going On. This is strictly speaking a tenor tune but I like to surprise people by playing it on soprano sax. I look around the stage for my instrument. I don’t appear to have brought the soprano. In fact, I have no saxophone at all. All I have here is a harmonica. And there is no band.

These things happen. When I was older, I discovered temporal precision, like many other things, is not something you can rely on. Best to throw out your timetables. They will do you no good. What then can you rely on? Can you rely on what you see? What you hear? What you read? Of course not! Can you rely on Divine intervention? Can you rely on intuition? Chance? Who can say?

Backgammon is considered a game that has the perfect balance between skill and luck. You need to make similar calculations to those you might make in a game of chess but at the same time, throughout the game, you have to rely on chance. The odds of throwing a double six are thirty five to one. The odds of rolling two double sixes in a row, when this is what you require to bear off, I believe, are one thousand, two hundred and ninety five to one. How then is Clancy Edo able to defy these odds? And this, of course, from a losing position and after I have upped the stakes with the doubling dice. Clancy has managed this on several occasions now. Littlewood’s Law suggests a person can expect to experience miracles, which he defines as events with odds of one in a million, at the rate of about one per month. But even so.

It was not until I was older that I realised many things in life are quite probably, unexplainable. The low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing is unexplainable. The way the big white Zephyr with the tail fins keeps appearing is unexplainable. The way an original tune appears in your head from out of nowhere is unexplainable. Perhaps any revolutionary new idea is. Where can it have come from? Consciousness itself is unexplainable. If you are looking for answers to life’s mysteries, rationality will get you nowhere. There are black holes and it is said by one of our great thinkers that black holes are where God divided by zero.

I think I can hear someone calling me. It could be that my new medication is ready.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Now

now

Now by Chris Green

The day-to-day proclamations of doom and gloom and celebrity indiscretions in the media were getting me down. It seemed none of it had anything to do with me. Why did I need to know what they were squabbling about in Parliament if I could do nothing about it? Or that a gay piano player and his partner had had another baby? And the talk of military conflicts that made the news with monotonous regularity. Should we attack? Would they attack? Should we retaliate? Would they retaliate if we attacked? Should we retaliate before they attacked? Should we set up a false flag incident and pretend we were defending our territory? Warmongering had been going on all my life. As George Orwell pointed out, wars weren’t meant to be won, the state of war was meant to be continuous with the current enemy, subject to periodical adjustment. But the realisation that this was the case made it all the more depressing. Climate change featured heavily but only inasmuch as no-one seemed to want to do a lot to tackle it. Then there was all the fake news we were fed daily through the mainstream media as vested interests aggressively pushed their jaundiced points of view. News and advertising were now almost indistinguishable. I wanted none of it.

What would happen, I wondered, if stopped watching news or current affairs programmes on TV, in fact, if I watched no TV at all and turned off the internet on my computer and my phone? If I read no papers and averted my gaze each time I passed a newsagent or found myself in a public space where I might inadvertently be subjected to the news? What awareness would I have about what was happening in the world if I relied on snippets of conversation I might accidentally pick up during the daily round? How much would I miss? Would my being out of touch even matter?

I resolved to never get involved in discussions around current affairs with friends and colleagues. Nor would I ask them questions about what was going on. As a seenager, retired and lived in a rural area, I reasoned it ought not to be too difficult to avoid the saturation news updates we were subjected to daily. I might miss Facebook a little and experience mild Twitter withdrawal symptoms but I felt sure I could cope with these. Surely, on the whole, my life would be enhanced. I could follow Eckhart Tolle’s advice and spend more time staring into space. Being here now. Oh, wait! That was the other fellow, wasn’t it?

Shopping presented one of the first big challenges. Everywhere that sold food, supermarkets, general stores, filling stations, etc. also sold newspapers. Watching people plonk their Daily Mail or Daily Express on the belt with their shopping, face up with its screaming headline visible had been one of the big problems in the first place. I found it distressing that these people believed all the stuff they read in these rags and come election time, they voted accordingly. I found that if I left it until later in the day to do my shopping, there was less chance of seeing the headlines. I took to shopping at four in the afternoon. This, of course, did not stop the rain on the way type chatter at the checkout or if they had got their information from The Express that day, the record-breaking temperatures or fourteen inches of snow that was expected before the weekend. It did not stop the racial stereotyping, the casual put-downs of minority groups or the demonising of the youth of today. I was thankful that the checkout operators at Lidl were quicker than most.

My regime also meant that I needed to avoid some of my friends. Roger Burdon was a definite no-no. He talked about little else but the political rough and tumble. He had given me an unremitting blow by blow account of both of the recent leadership elections. Trevor Bailey too was out. He could converse about nothing other than the looming terrorist threat and whether security levels were sufficient. I couldn’t imagine Trevor staring into space or being here now. Ellie Barnes-Wallis’s bizarre fascination with the plump, gay piano player’s burgeoning family suggested I needed to give her a wide berth too. Once I had written off Vince Castle (neo-liberalist alienation and Russian interference in elections), Stan Lee (tax evasion and offshore investments), Cliff and Sarah Richards (LGBT rights and BAME rights respectively), Rosey Parker (Harry and Meghan and celebrity culture) and I had stopped going to The Red Lion and The Black Horse in case conversations touched on current affairs, I was left with no-one to chew the fat with.

Solitude was not as grim as one is led to believe. Being alone was not scary at all. I had more time to stare into space. Without the constant chatter of others, I was no longer tugged this way and that by rogue thoughts. I began to appreciate the world around me. I became aware that I had a fabulous array of wild birds in the garden and took in the sweet songs they sang as they went about their day. How could I have not noticed this before? I watched the clouds float across the sky, mesmerised by their forever changing patterns. It didn’t matter I did not know what the clouds were called. The names we gave to things were just names, they had nothing to do with their essence. I felt somehow connected to it all. I talked to the wind but the wind did not know it was called the wind. It just carried on blowing. I wished upon a star but the star did not know it was called a star. It just carried on reflecting light as it had always done. Everything seemed to be in capricious harmony with everything else. I had a sense that I belonged. Was this what it meant to be in the present moment? Was this the essence of now that Eckhart Tolle talked about? Others referred to the state as mindfulness. Was this it? Free from concepts, was my personal history now just another story?

Occasionally I speculated how many Facebook notifications might have built up or what my email inbox would look like but I didn’t dwell on it. The electricity had not been cut off and the water was still running so presumably the direct debits were still being paid. I was able to resist the temptation to take a peek at any of my online accounts. The past, as someone famously once wrote, was another country. They did things differently there. Or to put it another way, there was no past and there was no future, there was and could only ever be now.

Of course, when I was out and about, I overheard snatches of conversation but did my best to shut these out. It would be the same old stuff. Moans and groans about something inconsequential. I caught the anxious looks on people’s faces but hadn’t this always been the case? Hadn’t anxiety been the norm for most people? I wasn’t about to be sucked back into their world of doom and gloom. If you took the time to look for it, there would always be something to worry about. Insecurity and dissatisfaction made up the backbone of the economic system. Capitalism depended on free-floating neediness. There was always plenty of bad news circulating, a good proportion of it manufactured or fake. To justify their existence, it seemed to be the politicians’ job to make sure of that at there was always a crisis. The role of the media in all its forms was to spread concern about it far and wide.

Retsina seemed an unlikely topic for everyone to be talking about. Retsina was an odious wine, probably only palatable to those born in the Attic peninsula and surely of no interest beyond this. Why then was it suddenly the word on everyone’s lips? I had gone into town to get supplies and the tension was palpable. Anxiety levels were off the scale. On the street and in the shops, there were heated exchanges. People were cursing Retsina. Blaming Retsina for all manner of problems. Retsina was the reason that phones were dead. Retsina was to blame for the power cuts. Retsina was the reason the shopping arcade was closed. There were no newspapers on the news-stands so it could be that Retsina was behind this too. With each step I took, people’s agitation became more and more vigorous. Panic was setting in. It was mayhem. I could contain myself no longer. Being in the present and being at one with oneself was all very well but sometimes curiosity could not be contained. I had to find out what was going on.

I would not normally seek out Ron Smoot, popularly referred to at Wet Blanket Ron but you had to hand it to Ron, he was a mine of information. If you really wanted to know something, he was your man. More importantly, he lived close by. He would no doubt be able to give me a detailed account of whatever it was that was freaking people out.

How on Earth can you not know?’ he said. ‘Everyone’s talking about it. Retsina is the most deadly computer virus yet created. It is rootkit, worm, bot, trojan, multi-purpose all-in-one. In no time at all, it appears to have knocked out all communications worldwide. It’s going to be back to the carrier pigeon and the horse and cart, old buddy.’

Was this a joke? Ron didn’t normally do jokes. He was famed far and wide for his dour delivery.

Then I may have been spared,’ I said. ‘I switched off all my devices a month or two ago.’

It won’t make any difference,’ Ron said. ‘Retsina will have found a way to reactivate them and infect them.’

So just how bad is it, Ron?’ I said.

As soon as I had said it, I realised that you asked Wet Blanket Ron how bad something was at your peril.

It’s bad!’ he said. ‘Nuclear power stations and automatic guided missile systems will have been affected. There’s probably something heading this way as we speak. We’ve no way of knowing, of course, but it could well be the end of civilisation.’

I see,’ I said. ‘Tell me! Why is it called Retsina?’

Good question!’ he said. ‘It is abominable I suppose. And it is thought to have originated in Athens. As Greece was the birthplace of Mathematics and for that matter, modernity, it’s perhaps fitting that it should be involved with the end.’

I am pleased that Eckhart Tolle taught me that there is no past. And no future. There is only now. There can only ever be now. It will always be now. I need to find a quiet space to get down to some serious Omming to contemplate the eternal.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

It Ain’t Necessarily So

itaintnecessarilyso

It Ain’t Necessarily So 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 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.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Life and Times of Roy Saxx

thelifeandtimesofroysaxx

The Life and Times of Roy Saxx by Chris Green

I’d better start at the end. Roy Saxx is dead. He met his maker in September 2011 when he lost control of his Triumph motorcycle on a blind bend in a freak thunderstorm near the aptly named village of Kilve in the Quantock Hills. He was sixty three years old. You may not have heard of Roy Saxx. But, if you have not, the chances are you will. Even though he has been dead for seven years, his star is rising. Posthumous fame is more common than you might imagine. Think Stieg Larsson, Van Gogh, Kafka, Jesus.

It is difficult to pigeonhole Roy Saxx. He was something of an enigma. But were it not for Roy, you would be without many of the things you take for granted. You would not have a tiger in your tank. You would not be changing rooms or baking off. You would not have a selfie stick and your disks would be floppy. Your eggs would all be in one basket and the ball would not be in your court.

Roy was born to Sid and Sally Saxx, the seventh of seven sons. Growing up in Somerset in the post-war years, he was a gauche and gangly child. Giving his elder brothers a wide berth and avoiding the gangs and cliques at the schools he attended, he developed a solitary persona, seeking out the places he knew his contemporaries would not. If he had a best friend, it was probably an imaginary one. He was habitually drawn towards the unusual and fascinated by the unexplainable. At a very young age, he would retire to his room for days on end where he would read the works of Nikola Tesla or the teachings of Krishnamurti. He devoured the early science fiction novels of Kurt Vonnegut and Theodore Sturgeon with equal relish. On rainy days, he often took to going on long walks on Exmoor to contemplate the nature of the universe and perhaps to seek congress with aliens.

Remarkably, there is no record of Roy Saxx from 1965 onwards. Until recently, there was little interest in what he might have been up to. But as we begin to realise his monumental importance as an innovator, speculation regarding his whereabouts during the lost years abounds. Was he in hiding or could he have been using another name? Or many names? Was he studying the occult on a barge in Burma or had he perhaps been kidnapped by extraterrestrials? No-one knows for sure.

I first became aware of Roy Saxx a week or two ago when I was researching for a short story about an eccentric inventor. I found that the patents for almost everything I had mentioned in the draft of the story were actually owned by Roy. Somehow, over the years he had accumulated a prodigious portfolio. The patents for the plug and play pet rock, the edible pen and the silent trumpet that in the story I had attributed to my character were items already patented by Roy. Each time I tried to substitute another unlikely invention, I found this too had already been thought of by Roy. Imagine someone else thinking of a USB frog, an invisible kettle or a luminous badger. It was uncanny. When I tried to bring a little more realism into the tale by having my protagonist come up with a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog, it turned out that Roy had patented this too.

I wondered if other people were aware of Roy Saxx’s clandestine enterprises. No-one at the office seemed interested. They are an incurious lot at Ideas R Us. When I brought the subject up with my partner, Carrie after dinner one evening, she said, you’re not going to go off on one of your flights of fancy, are you, Chet? She reminded me of the time I became preoccupied with the idea that lines in the sky left by planes might contain chemicals that were being used as a form of mind control, this before I found out they were after all just lines in the sky. She told me I was so obsessed with my writing I no longer spent any time with the children. I argued that at eighteen and nineteen, they no longer needed to be mollycoddled. Besides, I said, Simon spent most of his time at his girlfriend’s and Garfunkel was out of his head the whole time. I managed to parry the inevitable ‘and whose fault is that’ with a compliment on Carrie’s casserole.

I decided to phone my friend, Greg. Greg would surely know something about Roy Saxx. He read the Financial Times and watched The Culture Show.

‘Good to hear from you Chet,’ he said. ‘Is it about the pigeons?’

‘Not the pigeons, this time, Greg,’ I said. ‘The pigeons are fine. I’m calling about Roy Saxx. Have you heard of him?’

‘You mean Roy Saxx, the snakes and ladders magnate?’ he said. ‘Didn’t he die in a ballooning accident a while back?’

‘Is there …… maybe not another Roy Saxx?’ I said.

‘Just kidding you, Chet,’ Greg said. ‘You are clearly referring to Roy Saxx, the wish fulfilment engineer who grew the magic poppies.’

‘That sounds like him,’ I said.

‘Dreamer of the Year 2001,’ Greg continued. ‘Runs the Dreams Come True corporation.’

‘That’s definitely the fellow,’ I said.

‘Sorry Chet,’ he said, laughing. ‘I made that one up too. …… But look here! You just don’t hear about some of these innovators. They don’t make the front pages. They keep a low profile. Have you heard for instance of David Sun?’

‘No,’ I said.

Sun? What kind of name is Sun? I wondered if Greg was still winding me up.

‘Sun founded Kingston Technology,’ Greg said. ‘Flash drives and flash cards. He is worth billions. What about Harvey Ross Ball, the inventor of smiley faces? Or Gary Dahl who invented the pet rock? Roy Saxx is probably just another in a long line of diffident maverick inventors.’

Once you become aware of a word, a name, an object or a situation that is new to you and your brain has registered it, you begin to notice it all the time. Somehow it was there all along without you realising it. The newly discovered word or name or object or situation comes up in conversation, in the paper, on the news, on the posters at tube stations and in the book you are reading. Suddenly, it is everywhere. You wonder how it was you did not notice it before, especially because you now realise whatever it is has been around for a long time. I’m sure you must have experienced something like this. If you google it, you will find this is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, sometimes referred to less colourfully as frequency illusion.

Following my conversation with Greg, Roy Saxx’s profile seemed to grow exponentially. Most days, I would see his name in the local paper about something or other. As I made my way through the Saturday shoppers, I’d hear his name. People would be talking about him in the queue for cinema tickets and at supermarket checkouts. His picture began appearing on adverts on the side of buses for a range of products. He featured in the tabloids I found left on train seats, then the broadsheets. His name began to appear in the credits at the end of TV shows, new ones and repeats of old favourites. He had a Wikipedia page, which was constantly updating. He was becoming a popular culture icon. I even found him on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’d owned the album for years. I felt sure he didn’t used to be. At least, I thought I was sure but truth be told, I just didn’t know anymore.

Several times I asked Carrie what she made of it but she now seemed to have stopped speaking to me altogether. Simon and Garfunkel too were conspicuously silent at meal times. In fact, they were not there at meal times. Or any other time. Apparently, they had both left home. Greg was no longer answering my calls. Ideas R Us had suspended me. My world was falling apart. I did not know which way to turn. Was that the Saxx browser that has appeared on the desktop with an advert for the Saxx Bank? Without warning, Roy Saxx appeared as a Facebook friend. He began trolling me on twitter. Everything appeared to be closing in.

Perhaps I did not start at the end. It was not the end. I just wanted it to be the end. Perhaps it was just the beginning. How could all this be happening if Roy Saxx were dead? Perhaps he survived the motorcycle accident. Perhaps there was no motorcycle accident. Perhaps there was no motorcycle. I have just had another look at Wikipedia. There now appear to be a dozen entries for Roy Saxx, each offering different information. Is it possible that Roy Saxx operates outside the normal parameters of existence? Is he a time traveller, hungry for recognition and hell-bent on acquisition, who keeps coming back for more?

Be on the lookout! Something or other pertaining to Roy Saxx is certain to make an appearance in your life soon. Then you are likely to discover the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon kicks in. Suddenly, you will notice Roy Saxx’s name everywhere. It will be on the inflatable Buddha you keep on your desk. It will be on the bouncing tortoise you are thinking of buying for your partner. It will be emblazoned on the side of the plane on your flight to Honolulu. It will be ……….

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

In Dreams

indreamsdroste2

IN DREAMS by Chris Green

The girl at the next table is the spitting image of the one I was dreaming about little more than an hour ago. The dream comes back to me now in vivid technicolour cinema surround sound. There is no doubt about it. It is her. The suntanned beauty sitting six feet away from me in Costa is the one from the dream. Everything about her is the same. From the long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to the loafers she is wearing.

I might have recalled the dream in greater detail when I first woke, but Donna’s car had broken down and she needed a lift to work. Being my day off, I was able to oblige. Usually, a dream fades quickly and only small parts of it are accessible. The rest is gone forever. But this one is different. I am now able to replay it as if it were a recording. It is not just made up of visuals. It has sound, taste, touch and smell. It has body and texture. It evokes both wonder and fear. I am stunned.

In the dream, the girl leads me along dark labyrinthine corridors in a crepuscular Gothic house on the outskirts of a half-familiar town. Familiar only as a dreamscape, perhaps. Corridors upon corridors career this way and that in impossible explorations of infinity, with echoey staircases ascending and descending like those in an Escher painting. We are looking for someone called Eddie Strange. I do not know who Eddie Strange is or why we are looking for him, but the girl keeps talking about a key. We have to find the key. Does Eddie Strange perhaps know where the key can be found? The key will unlock a box, she says. A box where the dreams are kept. If we find the key and unlock the box, then I will be destined to dream about her forever. What does this mean, I wonder? Destined to dream about her forever.

There is a gap now, like a few frames of the film are missing, but I manage to pick up the thread again. Further along in the narrative, we find Eddie in one of the house’s subterranean rooms. Eddie is insubstantial, other-worldly, like silence in a vacuum. He casts no shadow, but …….. he has the key. It is like no key I have ever seen. It is a twisted cylinder, a Möbius strip. How this impossible shape opens a box I cannot imagine. I do not remember it opening a box. The scenario jumps instead to a dream where I am dreaming about myself dreaming about her and then to a dream where I am dreaming about a dream where I am dreaming about her, and on and on, like a Droste mise en abyme.

In each new episode of the dream, the girl in the black dress is leading me through an ever more complex series of cascading corridors. I feel a haunting blend of longing and trepidation. I cannot help but follow. Eventually, we are outside. We are in a city. Tall stone buildings. I can hear the thrum of traffic. But there is no traffic. The location keeps changing. We are by a river. A big brown river. Are we still looking for the box with the dreams in it? I do not get the chance to find out. In the material world, Donna is shaking me by the shoulder to tell me that her car won’t start.

The girl at the next table looks across at me. Is it a look of recognition or is it a look of suspicion? I have never been too good at reading body language. Donna is always telling me I misread her signals. Have I been staring at the girl all through my reverie, I wonder? I think I detect a smile. This is a good sign, surely. I lean over and am about to speak, but like a vision of the night, she vanishes. One moment she is there and the next she isn’t. Her place at the table is now occupied by a wrinkled old harridan with a Bichon Frise and a tartan shopping basket. Was she the one I was staring at all along? It’s possible, but on reflection, I don’t think so. This is all just too weird. I feel arcane forces may be at work.

I don’t often go to the pub at lunchtime but I know I will find Ross Cody at The Gordon Bennett. The squat little man with the curly grey hair, the paunch and the patched-up John Lennon glasses will be sat at a table reading a sci-fi thriller, nursing a pint. Ross is a fount of occult knowledge. What he doesn’t know about dreams and the paranormal is not worth knowing. He is versed in East Asian shamanism, Hassidic Kabbalism, Armenian theosophy, Caribbean voodoo, H. P. Lovecraft and probably Harry Potter. Before he sank into his present dipsomania, he worked as a supernatural adviser on films for the cult film-maker, Lars Von Trier.

Hello Ben,’ he says. ‘Long time, no see.’

I agree that it has been too long, and over a pint of Broadside, I tell Ross about my experience.

One line of thinking is that every face you see while dreaming you have seen in real life at least once,’ Ross says. ‘It is someone who you just don’t recognise. Maybe you met them nine years ago passing on a zebra crossing a busy street or nine hours ago in a cinema queue. Our brains are a lot better at remembering faces than we think.’

Why is it that I think I would have remembered if I had seen this girl before?’ I say. ‘She is not the kind you expect to see every day. She is quite striking.’

On the other hand, Ben. We might see people in dreams that are not actually people. Our brain can create characters that are totally fictional and things there is no way we could have ever seen. And we have the ability in dreams to do things that in waking life we have never been able to do. Or maybe we even see people that we will meet in the future.’

Which side do you come down upon?’

It’s hard to say, but I think your unconscious can create people and somehow they become real.’

So, I’m not going mad, then.’

No. But if I am right, you will almost certainly see her again in dreams. And probably in waking. You might find that this girl, who might only seem to be a phantom at the moment gradually comes to life.’

Ross’s guess is right on the money. That night the mystery girl turns up in my dream world once more. This time in the dream, she calls round to my house in the middle of the night and lets herself in. Donna and I are asleep. She puts a chloroform-soaked handkerchief with a monogrammed R over Donna’s mouth. It meets with some initial resistance but quickly knocks Donna out.

She takes the strange key from the previous night out of her bag and says. ‘Come on, Ben Shapiro. We’ve got work to do.’

I want to protest about what she has done to Donna. Do I want to be destined to dream about someone who is ruthless, I wonder? But it is a dream wonder and has no substance. In the dream world, R has absolute power over me. I allow myself to descend once more into the surreal netherworld, ready to do whatever we have to do and go wherever we have to go to find the box of dreams that the key unlocks. All other thoughts are now gone.

We walk through some ancient ruins, set in a desolate landscape. The night sky is illuminated by a million stars. A full moon hovers. It is blood red. Ominous looking desert rocks lurk in the distance, like those of a Dalí painting, along with the fuselage of a long-forgotten passenger jet and a sand whale. An all-enveloping silence pervades. We pass through a crumbling stone archway decorated with a Medusa head. The other side of the arch, a pageant of small black snakes slithers across a chessboard patio. Snakes from the Medusa’s head? The board is illuminated now. The top left-hand square is green instead of black. Suddenly I can hear music. I look around me to see that R is playing a clarinet. Or is it an oboe? A dwarf dressed as Robin Hood appears from out of nowhere and hands me a mandolin, and I join in the refrain.

There are unearthly delights to be found inside the box of dreams,’ R says, when we have finished the tune. ‘We will find it soon. Then you will my amante notturno.’

At breakfast, Donna seems a little dazed. She looks as if she hasn’t had a good night, so I do not mention my dream, and with her Fiat fixed, she leaves the house before me. It is probably one of the days she opens the salon early for a special customer. For a brief second, I entertain the thought that the special customer might be R.

I dismiss the idea but I remain agitated. Details of my dream keep coming back to me. The half-recognised tune we were playing was that Doors’ track. The one with the line faces come out of the rain. The Robin Hood dwarf was really freaky. And the mandolin. I didn’t know I could play the mandolin, but my dream persona seemed to know exactly where to put my fingers. Ross said that he believes that in dreams one has the ability to do things that in waking life you have never been able to do. And see people that you have never seen. But what was it the dwarf had said? ‘If you’re not a fish, how can you tell if a fish is happy?’ What did he mean by that? And the sand whale. It was a whale and it was in the sand yet I had touched it and in complete contradiction to its environment, it was sticky, wet, slimy to the touch, like an eel just out of the water. I wonder how a dream can be so bizarre but appear so real?

The other big question that needs answering is, assuming that there is an explanation for the unlikely stuff that is happening, why is it happening? Why would this vamp be interested in the devotion of a middle-aged married man? What do I have to offer? What would be in it for her, besides amusement? What is in it for me apart from the loss of free will? None of it makes any sense.

I am so distracted I almost have an accident when I pull out in front of a bus at the Scott McKenzie roundabout and go through a red light at the Frankie Vaughan crossroads. At work, I cannot concentrate. I send emails without messages and accidentally delete my inbox. Then, there she is. The girl from my dreams. Over by the photocopier. In a charcoal skirt and white blouse. The same sweeping hair and smouldering obsidian eyes. Even the same shoes. She is the one. No doubt about it. I am dumbstruck. How can this be? What is she doing here at my workplace?

Nikki Jackson from Accounts comes along and sees that I am gaping at the girl.

That’s the new girl, Rhonda,’ she says. ‘I see she’s making quite an impression on you, Mr Shapiro. Let me introduce you.’

Hi, Rhonda. This is Mr Shapiro from our legal department. Mr Shapiro, this is Rhonda Chance.’

Pleased to meet you, Mr Shapiro,’ Rhonda says, looking me right in the eye. ‘I expect I shall be seeing a lot more of you.’

When I come to, I am unable to explain to Nikki Jackson why I fainted.

It could have been something I ate last night,’ I say. ‘That’s it. We had eel for dinner last night. I’m not used to eel, so I’m not sure how it should taste but I did thought it tasted strange.’

No one remembers your name, when you’re strange starts to run through my head. The Doors’ song from the night before. On the mandolin. With the girl. With Rhonda.

Something is puzzling me,’ Nikki says later. ‘Rhonda says that she knows you. In fact, she says she has known you for a long time. She thought that it was strange that you did not recognise her. She says she hasn’t changed that much.’

I pretend to take a call on my Samsung.

Yes, I know,’ I say as if responding to something the caller is telling me.

And ‘What did you think about that?’

Suddenly to my amazement and horror, Rhonda’s voice comes on the line. ‘Hello Mr Shapiro,’ she says. ‘How have you been since our ……. meeting?’

All the blood drains from my face. Nothing could have prepared me for this. Now she is talking to me on my phone. All the encounters with her so far have been what I would think of as impossible, out of the realm of everyday life, but somehow this is cranking up the level of impossibility a notch.

See you later,’ Rhonda says. ‘I have a feeling we may find the box tonight.’

Donna wonders why I am home early. I tell her we had a power cut at work. Several times through the evening, she asks if everything is OK.

You normally like to watch The Apprentice,’ she says. ‘Is something wrong?’

I’m just tired,’ I say. ‘I don’t think I slept well last night.’

Shall we have an early night?’ she says, snuggling up to me.

There is something wrong, isn’t there?’ she says in bed when I don’t respond to her overtures. ‘I don’t know why I buy this underwear from the Ann Summers catalogue if you are not going to be interested when I wear it.’

With this, she turns over. I put off going to sleep as long as I can, but tiredness overtakes me and eventually I drift off. Rhonda, of course, is waiting.

The reason we haven’t been able to find the box up until now,’ she says, ‘is because it’s invisible.’

That does make it difficult,’ I say.

Not only is it invisible, but it only exists given certain very specific conditions. Atmospheric conditions, phases of the moon, planetary alignments and all that. But the good news is that I believe we have these conditions tonight.’

Again I feel a confusing mix of apprehension and arousal, aware that as she puts me under her spell once more, apprehension is going to lose out. The strength of her sweet sorcery is too much for my defences.

It is hard to describe how you see an object that is invisible, but as Rhonda has pointed out, under particular circumstances, it can be done. If you are thinking invisibility cloak, you are barking up the wrong tree. You cannot expect to understand matters like invisible boxes in the realm of night from a purely scientific viewpoint. Suffice to say the box is colossal, and to my amazement, Rhonda’s Möbius strip key fits the lock perfectly.

Once the box is opened things cannot be the same. Change is inevitable. A thousand and one dreams escaping from an invisible box that has been locked for years is a sight for the senses. All nineteen of the senses. It is like the moment of creation. Matter, antimatter and cosmological turbulence.

I feel a nudge in my back and I awake with a jolt. Usually, a dream fades quickly and only small parts of it are accessible. The rest is gone forever. But this one is different. It is no longer a dream. I turn over to find the girl on the pillow lying next to me looks exactly like the girl I’ve just been dreaming about. Everything about her matches. The same long flowing dark hair and smoky black eyes right down to ……… It is Rhonda, the girl of my dreams. In the flesh. In the here and now. I am stunned.

No matter how unlikely the proposition,’ she says, ‘dreams can come true. Reality is constantly in flux. Forever changes. Prepare yourself for strange days ahead.’

But, the unanswered questions, I want to protest. What? ……. How? ……… Why? ……… And, where is Donna? Has Rhonda simply taken the place of Donna?

Rhonda reads my thoughts. ‘You will get answers to your questions but not until you are ready for them. In the meantime …….’

Later, while Rhonda is out, I try to gather my thoughts on the bench at the bottom of the garden. All my boundaries have become blurred. I no longer know what is real. My life has become a Chinese puzzle, an unfathomable succession of interlocking riddles. I end up getting nowhere. Perhaps there are no answers. When I return to the house, I see there is a message on the answering machine.

I think we may be able to arrange an appointment for your husband’s little treatment for as early as next week, Mrs Shapiro,’ the message says. I don’t imagine I’m meant to be hearing it. ‘Please, could you call back to confirm how you would like us to proceed.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Pugilist

thepugilist

The Pugilist by Chris Green

I’m certain I logged out last night and shut the laptop down. It’s something I am in the habit of doing as a cautionary measure. This morning, to my utter astonishment, there’s a new document open on the screen, three thousand words give or take. It’s titled The Pugilist. It claims to be a story of mine. I know I’ve been absent-minded lately, downright forgetful even, but I would have remembered if I had got up in the night and written three thousand words. I haven’t written that much in one go in a long time. And Betty is away at her sick mother’s so there was no-one else in the house. The doors were locked overnight. I’m spooked.

But on a quick read through, I find the story is better than most of the stuff I’ve been writing lately. It’s about a poor boy who leaves his home and his family in search of fortune and fame. He’s struggling to get by in a harsh world. He is, the story suggests, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose. He now wants to escape the bitter cold of New York winters and make his way back home. He feels alone in the city, the only living boy in the great metropolis.

It’s primarily a first-person narrative but here and there, without warning, it lapses into the third person. Yet in a subtle way. It is not my usual territory though. It features no unscheduled time shifts. No talking cats. No unreliable history or Alice in Wonderland characters. It’s a plain straightforward account of a human being with real feelings and emotions. The absence of strange in the narrative is as maybe, but surely there is mystery enough in how it came to be here on my computer. The document was last saved at 3:13 a.m. This would probably place it slap bang in the middle of the steamy dream I was having about Susie Hill. Document History tells me I am looking at revision number one. I’m not sure if this statistic includes autosaves, but it suggests a competent typist with a determination to get the job done. An online plagiarism check finds no correlation with other online texts. However impossible it might seem, this has been typed out on my machine in the middle of the night without waking me by someone who knows my password.

Whatever its origins, one does not look a gift horse in the mouth. I can use the story to get over my writers block. But if I am to pass it off as mine, it important I put my stamp upon it. During the course of the day, I edit out some of the most overt sentimentality. I give the protagonist an imaginary friend called Art. I introduce a cult that worships a blind goat and create an alien communications centre in the back of an antiquarian bookshop in Queens. I make a note to develop these ideas later.

Betty phones and asks how I am and what I have been doing. I don’t want to alarm her or get her to think that I might be losing it like I did last Spring so I tell her I have been tidying up the garden. I have cut back the photinia and the laurel hedging and have weeded the veg patch. She is pleased I have separated the parsley from the sage but what about the rosemary and the time, she says? I tell her I will get on to it. She says her mother is still not very steady and she will need to stay over for another couple of days.

Still puzzled by its origin, but optimistic I can make something of the story, I feel happy with the progress I’ve made. I close the document down. As a security measure against any further incursions, I change my login password to a complex combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, and I log out. I wake at 5 a.m., not to the sound of the alarm, but to the sound of the laser printer whirring. I dash downstairs to see what is going on, only to discover that the document for The Pugilist is being printed off. How can this be happening? Not only is it being printed off but I see from the open document on the screen that it has been added to. The word count is now over four thousand words. I read through it carefully and notice that some of my changes from the previous day have been reversed.

Determined not to be beaten, I set about revising the document once more. To explain the title beyond the metaphorical, I have the protagonist carry a book about Rocky Marciano around with him. Like a bible, he takes this with him everywhere. The opening section of the story is a little verbose so I clip three hundred words from it. To give the story greater familiarity, I introduce a few old favourites from my earlier stories, Phillip C. Dark, Guy Bloke and Wet Blanket Ron. To reflect the style my readers have become accustomed to, I add few curiosities to the narrative. He now has a mongrel dog called Bono. He suffers from Porphyrophobia, a fear of the colour purple. A tall thin man with no face wearing a leather duster overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat pursues him relentlessly around New York and he has taken to hiding out in basement bars in Brooklyn, drinking Bottled in Bond Bourbon.

I save the document to the flash drive I keep in my jacket pocket and delete the original file on the laptop. I settle down to a glass of wine and a David Lynch film and try to put the riddle out of my mind. It can wait until tomorrow. All work and no play and all that. Betty phones to say her mother has taken a turn for the worse. She will be there now until after the weekend. I sympathise. I tell her I have been clearing out the shed and have taken the rusty old bike to the tip. She seems pleased that I am not spending all day huddled over the laptop.

I wake at 4 a.m. from a disturbing dream about a deranged killer on the loose in a small town logging community in Washington State to furtive sounds coming from downstairs. It is barely audible but it sounds as if someone is typing. I throw on my dressing gown and go to investigate. There is no sign of anyone but the document is once again open on the laptop and has got bigger. Over five thousand words now.

‘’Good to see you, Al,’ Charlie says. ‘But I know you only ever come and see me when you have a computer problem. So I’m guessing it’s no accident that you’ve brought the laptop. Virus again, is it?’

If only it were that simple, Charlie,’ I say. ‘It’s more of a presence than malware. And it’s pretending to be me.’

Ah, I see,’ Charlie says. ‘That will be the Takeover worm. It’s a bad one, old buddy. No-one’s come up with a way to remove it yet. It’s so deadly in fact, you’ll probably find it has cancelled your car insurance, cleaned out your bank account, and sold your house.’

What?’

Only joking, mate. Have a toke on this and I’ll take a look.’

I sit quietly back with the spliff and watch Charlie get to work. He brings up dialogue boxes I never knew existed. I find myself gradually drifting off. I haven’t smoked weed in a long time.

How’s Betty?’ Charlie says, bringing me out of my reverie. ‘I saw her a couple of days ago going into that new clothes shop with the silly name in the Strand, the one that used to be Paul Simon.’

You couldn’t have, Charlie,’ I say. ‘Betty’s at her mother’s. That’s eighty miles away. She’s been there for a week.’

Is she? Oh well! Couldn’t have been her then,’ he says.

Perhaps Betty is deceiving me and she is not really at her mother’s. Her phone calls may have just been to divert suspicion. I felt this last weekend but did not want to admit it. By not acknowledging it, I somehow felt it was not happening. But deep down, if I am honest with myself, I did fear the worst. Each time she has called, she has said she is extending her stay. Is she afraid to tell me she is with someone else? That she has left me? Is she worried that I might have another breakdown like the one last spring when I found out she was playing away? Is this what is happening? I wanted to feel that we had repaired our relationship but you can never be sure. Although I have not noticed that any of her things around the house are missing, she has told me many times over the years that I’m not very observant. That I’m too tied up with my writing to notice anything important.

Hey! Look!’ Charlie says. ‘This is really weird, Al. According to this, no files have been open on the machine for several days.’

Let me have a look.’

Here you are! See! That’s what it says. Are you sure you’re OK? You haven’t been seeing that quack doctor again, have you?’

You mean Garth’s uncle? No, but I’m wondering if perhaps I should.’

By the way, mate. When you told be about this new story, I wondered what happened to that story you were telling me about the last time I saw you? The one about the bridge.’

Bridge?’

Yes, the one over the troubled waters.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Lady and Red

ladyandred2019

Lady and Red by Chris Green

Lady does not like going up in the elevator to Red’s ninth-floor apartment in Peregrine Heights. It moves so slowly that sometimes it doesn’t seem to be moving at all. She is afraid that one day she will get stuck in it with a killer. Yet, it would appear the chance of encountering an assailant is small. Security is tight. Peregrine Heights has a uniformed concierge to vet unwanted visitors. The concierge is armed. In addition, legions of CCTV cameras keep watch. Peregrine Heights is not designed with ostentation in mind. The block is functional. There are few features. It is minimalist, secretive.

Visiting Red can be a lonely experience for Lady. She will arrive at the apartment and let herself in. Red might be typing into his iMac, playing his tenor saxophone, or just gazing out the window. The view to the west is admittedly a fine one, taking in a sweeping panorama of the city with the skyline settling against blue hills in the distance. When silhouetted against the setting sun, the twin peaks are heavenly. Red might be mixing up oil paints, watching a European movie, or stroking his white Persian cat. He might be feeding his parrots or gazing at the Picasso prints on the walls. Whichever, he doesn’t appear to see Lady’s arrival as an important interruption. He will just continue as if she weren’t there.

Lady and Red have been lovers. Are they still lovers, she wonders? If they are, this is very much on Red’s terms. He hardly casts a glance in her direction and does not speak unless he has something important to say. Lady seldom gets to start a conversation. Their communication does not work that way. Given her background, this dynamic might appear strange to outsiders. Although she is not a Lady as such, she comes from a long line of mid-European aristocrats. Lady is a soubriquet to reflect her connections with nobility. She studied Philosophy at Cambridge, can speak nine languages and is a gifted painter. In her mid-thirties, she is in her prime. She has wisdom and wit and dazzling beauty.

What is it then that draws her even through the winter months several times a week to drive across town to meet this mean man of mystery? Certainly, there is an allure. Red has mystique, poise, charisma even. But this is not the primary reason that Lady comes to visit. She needs to be there in case there is an assignment. They work together. They are a team.

Lady knows little of Red’s background. He is matter of fact but enigmatic, passionate but objective. He can be a ghostly presence. He can blend in, become one with his surroundings. Sometimes, when he is playing an extended solo, he and the saxophone become one. His physical form drifts off into space. He becomes invisible to the eye. The soft arpeggios of his improvisations are left hanging in the air like celestial smoke-rings. It is such a moment now. The silver saxophone is suspended in mid-air radiating the most sublime passage. Red is elsewhere, on his astral plane, intangible, quintesscent. Lady sits in the lotus position, silent, serene, mesmerised. For now, in this space, Lady is an acolyte of the transcendent spirit. Yet, Lady is no flower child. There are contradictions in everyone and Lady is no exception. In another space, Lady may well kill people with her bare hands. In this ever changing world, there are many paradoxes

The door entry phone buzzes. Instantly the atmosphere in the room changes. Red is back down from the heavens. He speaks on the intercom and admits the caller. It is Black. Black has no interest in jazz. Black calls round to Peregrine Heights on business. His business has to do with adjustment, temporal and psychic adjustment. He has called to give them an assignment. They will be required to stop something that has happened from happening. This is known as a correction.

Everything that happens is governed by the principles of cause and effect, action and reaction. Sometimes apparently inconsequential actions by ordinary people can set in motion a chain of events that results in catastrophe. It is important that the likes of Black and Red have the ability to intervene, otherwise, the world would have been blown to smithereens long ago. The undocumented presence of quantum gnostics like them is the force that ensures relative stability in a jumping universe. Their concern is not a political one. It is not about East and West. Nor is it about right and wrong. It is purely about balance. To keep the world turning.

Stockholm,’ says Black. ‘Here are the tickets. They are for yesterday.’

Neither Red or Lady show surprise. They are accustomed to these impossible missions. To do what they do, it is necessary to operate in the margins.

Understood,’ says Red.

Understood,’ echoes Lady.

Hemming Olofson mustn’t take that train to Malmo,’ says Black. ‘He will not then meet Marita Blom. They will not travel to Copenhagen together. They will not, therefore, discover the document that implicates his brother, Björn in the cover-up by the Danish lawyers over the ownership of the patent on ……. well you get the gist. And then finally Guatemala won’t then be destroyed by a plague of giant moths. And there won’t be a stand-off between the US and the Russians.’

Chains of events can be quite complex, can’t they?’ says Red. ‘We are on our way.’

The air crackles with the electricity of déjà vu. Two conversations take place simultaneously, one in the past and one in the present. Red says the secret is to stay focussed on both. They must coalesce. In between words, in between worlds, the air becomes turbulent as they tumble through space. They are buffeted this way and that in a whirling cyclone of uncertainty, like the Tower of Babel. Gradually Black’s presence fades. The job is over. Lady and Red are back to where they were.

I’m relieved that one is out of the way,’ says Lady. ‘These escapades can be so exhausting.’

It can be very strange,’ says Red. ‘But when you’ve seen through as many corrections as I have it will become second nature.’

I think Black was pleased,’ says Lady.

There aren’t too many people who can do what we do,’ says Red.

Is that a blessing or a curse?’ says Lady.

Nothing is ever straightforward,’ says Red. ‘Paradox is at the centre of everything.’

Red, I’ve been coming up here for a long time and for some while I’ve been meaning to ask you a question. I get a very strange sensation every time I come up in the elevator. It’s difficult to describe the feeling. On the one hand, it feels as if someone is watching and they might at any moment attack me. But on the other hand, it feels as if I’m not there anyway so how can I be being watched? What happens in the rest of the building?’

I’ll let you into a secret,’ says Red. ‘There is no rest of the building.’

But the lift and the corridors and the cameras?’

All an illusion.’

But the concierge with the gun. He says hello every time I come round.’

There is no concierge with a gun.’

But I do come up in the lift. And the lighting changes colour between floors?’

It’s all held in place by auto-suggestion and the subsequent belief that it is there.’

The space below?’

Ah! There is no space below as such. But would it help if I told you that the space you are referring to, the space where you imagine you are when you come into the building and come up in the elevator is the repository for curious matter?’ Red says, cryptically. With this said, he goes off to attend to his parrots.

Lady realises she now has an existential issue. She has always found Red’s information to be reliable and if he says that Peregrine Heights is nothing but an illusion then it is nothing but an illusion. But, therein lies the rub. If she stops believing in the substantial nature of Peregrine Heights, then she will not be able to get out. It occurs to her, not for the first time, that Red probably has not, through normal channels, left the building in years.

Lady goes into the hallway. The door through which she came, and more recently Black came, is no longer there. How is this possible? Whatever the explanation there must have been a way in. She has not always been here in this space. She has, through belief or otherwise, come and gone many times. Nothing inside has changed. She goes into the westerly facing room. Red is still attending to the parrots. He has that look of detachment that she has become used to. He does not want a conversation. He feels he has said all he wanted to say. Lady goes over to the window that looks out on to the city with the hills in the distance. The tall buildings and the blue hills look real enough, but might they too be an illusion to support the illusion of Peregrine Heights.

It takes Lady a while to get used to the idea of isolation. Rather than fight against it, she remembers learning long ago that the healthiest option in adverse circumstances like this is to go with the flow. Silence those voices that vex the spirit and nurture that peace that lies within the heart. This is a time for quiet contemplation. Besides, situations can change. In fact, change is the only certainty.

Red is of similar mind. This is after all his world. He is philosophical about his role. His wisdom and poise begin to captivate Lady once more. He reads her sonnets and teaches her to play the violin. They watch the colours change in the evening sky as the sun sets over the twin peaks. They make love to Debussy. It is in one such tender moment, they are disturbed by a new caller. The door is back. Across the threshold is Gold. If Gold comes to call at Peregrine Heights then the matter is serious. Gold on this occasion is accompanied by Silver. Silver has never been before.

Three days ago Curt Dodge, a thirty-two-year-old hacker believed to be from the Detroit, Michigan area hacked into the servers of the global communications satellites network and planted what is known as a blended threat that within fourteen days will have completely brought down the entire global system. You will have noticed already that your phone can’t detect its location.’

GPS is unable to detect Peregrine Heights anyway,’ says Red.

Ah yes. Of course. I see,’ says Gold. ‘Anyway, the threat that Dodge has come up with acts in an entirely random way. But, here’s the killer. It also gathers up any virus, worm or trojan it encounters along the way and adds them to the blend to increase its potency. One by one the satellites have gone down. There appears to be no defence against the attack.’

There are, or there were ninety-one operational satellites. To take out the entire network is no mean feat,’ says Silver.

Now, clearly the objective is to go back to last week and liquidate Dodge before he has done any of this,’ says Gold. ‘The problem is that without GPS we have no idea where he is.’

A tricky one,’ says Red.

How long do you think we have?’ asks Lady.

I’d say three days at the most to make the correction. After that the damage might be irreparable,’ says Gold. ‘Even the Russian military satellites are failing.’

We know the length of time before you make an adjustment should not make a difference to its ultimate effectiveness, once you have made the adjustment. But with the entire system of global communication crippled this might not be the case here,’ says Silver. ‘There might be no way back.’

OK. It’s down to our intuition then,’ says Red.

And good old fashioned occult powers,’ says Lady. ‘Witches broom and Abracadabra.’

I expect you have noticed that your satnavs and mobile phones have recovered from their momentary blip. You can assume from this that through the efforts of Lady and Red the correction was made. And until now. you’ve not seen the name of Curt Dodge anywhere. These things don’t get out into the public domain.

It would be difficult to describe how the job might have been done. Highlights could include mental projection, psychic navigation, invisibility, time travel, force field generation, teleportation, experimental jazz, and pranayama breathing. Planes? Guns? Maybe, maybe not. Illusion, willpower and luck will have played their part. And passion. Yes, passion is important. The operation would have been held together by imagination and belief, just like the things you see around you every day. Imagination and belief. Seeing is believing, but everyone sees things differently. Everyone constructs a different reality. No two are the same. Even should information about the exact techniques used here be available to governments, these would be classified. Better then that the secrets of their methods stay under wraps.

Make no mistake, your life will have been affected in some way by the corrections that quantum gnostics have made. Things don’t just run smoothly of their own accord and there’s no point in trusting politicians and government departments to get it right. Too much of their energy is invested in courting catastrophe. Just be thankful that there are hidden forces at work. That Lady and Red are there in the background refining their arcane skills.

If you are driving through the city, you might be surprised at the circuitous route your satnav takes you on, but you might put this down to a poorly planned one-way system. If you are on foot, at a certain point you might begin to feel dizzy. You might wonder what The Fractal Centre is and why you cannot go there. Either way, there will be no sign of Peregrine Heights.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Now Lorraine Has Gone

nowlorrainehasgone

Now Lorraine Has Gone by Chris Green

I can see clearly now Lorraine has gone. Lorraine used to hide my glasses and I would keep bumping into things around the house until I managed to find them. She knew how short-sighted I was and seemed to find my fumbling in the dark funny. I didn’t. I was covered in bruises. I’m relieved she upped and left. Now I can see all obstacles in my way.

Lorraine and I had been together for three years but with each passing day, she became more spiteful. She locked me out of the house when I went to the pub for a game of darts. She flushed my weed down the toilet. She burned a hole in my favourite floral shirt and she took my clarinet to Clic Sargent. Her malice knew no bounds. A week or so ago, she put caustic soda in the water in the washing up bowl and left it there, knowing I would come in from the shed and go to wash my hands in it. The liquid burned my hands badly. They hurt so much I was unable to crack on with the Spitfire plane construction kit I had bought on Gumtree. But I think I can make it now the pain has gone. All of the bad feelings have disappeared.

Since Lorraine left, even the weather seems to be improving. Gone are the dark clouds. The forecast is good. It’s going to be a bright, sunshiny day. I will be able to sit in the garden later with a long cool glass of cider and listen to my Jimmy Cliff Hits CD.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

A Saucerful of Secrets

asaucerfulofsecrets.jpg

A Saucerful of Secrets by Chris Green

Having missed the campus coach to the free concert in Hyde Park, Mojo, Lenny and I were in Spike’s flat listening to the new Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful of Secrets. Spike had gone off to buy hash. Supplies had been getting low. Afghani Black, he said he was getting. Glassy-Eyed George had some. Demon stuff by all accounts. A single toke and you were surfing with Jesus. It had been brought over in the tyres of a military Land Rover, he said, although I didn’t know how he knew this or if it was true. You heard all kinds of tales about the origins of a particular batch of dope. I suppose it added to the mystique. Along with the exotic names. Manali Cream, Durban Poison, Thai Sticks, Kashmir Charas, Lebanese Gold. The Nepalese Temple Balls we had been smoking had allegedly been brought through in the diplomatic bag.

It was always likely we would not make the coach. None of us had even been into college since the sit-ins in May. Even then, we were there under duress. We were not interested in politics. There were finer things in life than protesting about capitalism or wars in far-off countries. With all the extra-curricular recreational opportunities lately, we had been finding it difficult to get up in the mornings. Lenny probably hadn’t been into college since Registration the previous September. He was fondly known as Lenny the Loafer.

A Saucerful of Secrets was always going to be an experimental album. Syd Barrett, the band’s singer, lead guitarist and songwriter had recently quit. Although rumours about his fragile state of mind and apocryphal tales of his unpredictable behaviour were beginning to circulate, the affair had so far been smoothed over by the band’s management. They were trying to make out that Syd was resting. At this stage, none of us knew that he was a serious acid casualty. Or even that there was such a thing. As we saw it, acid blew away the cobwebs, took you on a roller coaster ride, gave you kaleidoscopic visuals and made you laugh a lot. It was a good idea to plan where you were going to be but it was always a fun experience.

As time passed, Syd would be viewed as a visionary. He would become a legend, a martyr to the cause, whatever this turned out to be. Pink Floyd would become the biggest band in the world by writing songs about Syd. They would make a fortune out of his craziness, centring entire albums around his breakdown. But this was all in the future. For the time being, the three of us were sitting around stoned in Spike’s flat trying to appreciate the new album.

They’re missing Syd, aren’t they?’ I said. ‘They no longer have those quirky little songs about scarecrows and bikes.’

They still sound pretty far out,’ Lenny said. ‘The long instrumental breaks are spacey. This one’s nice. What’s it called, Scott? You’ve got the album cover.’

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,’ I said. ‘I like Jugband Blues. Syd’s still on that one and I think he’s trying to make a point. And I’m wondering who could be writing this song, he sings. He knows he’s the writer and he’s saying you ain’t going to be able to do without me, fellas.’

Do you realise, guys, that in the not too distant future, there will be an invisible global jukebox,’ Mojo said. ‘And you will be able to listen to every track ever recorded by everybody through your wristwatch. There will be a vast universal library of music you can access. You will be able to see any concert ever filmed just by typing the information into your TV. Including the one we are missing today probably.’

You’re going off on one again,’ Lenny said. ‘You know, you’ve been acting weird lately. Ever since purple ones last week.’

Not so. In any case, we’ve had the orange ones since then, man,’ Mojo said. ‘They were even better. They were wild. Look! What it is! I was talking to this taxi driver dude a day or two back. He said he’d had a fare who told him he’s going to make all of that happen. A worldwide web, he called it. A Japanese guy. The cabbie took him to the airport and on the way, he told him all about it. There would be instantaneous communication between everyone in milliseconds all over the world. The science is all there, apparently. All the tech is in place. Well near as dammit, just a few things to iron out, he said. The idea just needs financial backing.’

You’re sure this was a taxi driver you were talking to and not Captain Kirk?’ Lenny said.

I was in his cab going to the bank to cash my allowance cheque,’ Mojo said. ‘He was pretty excited about the idea.’

You took a cab to get to the bank?’ I said. ‘The bank’s only a couple of streets away.’

My bank isn’t two streets away,’ Mojo said. My bank is ……. well, nowhere near here.’

The rest of us exchanged glances. Granted, higher education colleges tended to attract people from diverse backgrounds and put people from different parts of the country, even the world together. But at that moment, we realised that although we had known Mojo for two years, we did not know the first thing about him. We knew nothing about his family background or where he came from. We did not even know his real name, not his Christian name or his surname. Everything about Mojo was a mystery.

………………………………………

I don’t know when any of you bought your first personal computer, but they weren’t very sophisticated, were they? Allowing for crashes, it took the whole length of the Combat Rock album to load the operating system on my ZX Spectrum. As it chugged away, and The Clash pondered whether they should stay or go, I couldn’t help thinking back to the idea of a world wide web that Mojo had mentioned all those years ago. How impossible a dream this presently seemed. Tech was hardly moving forward at all. Digital watches were considered smart. I wondered what had happened to Mojo. We never did find out who he was. I had lost touch with him and, for that matter, all the others shortly after our conversation. We had been thrown out of college for non-attendance and had gone our separate ways.

I was working as a freelance reporter in the nineteen-eighties and accepted a commission from a popular culture magazine to get an interview with the reclusive Syd Barrett who now lived a quiet life in his home town of Cambridge. I discovered Syd lived with his mother in a leafy cul-de-sac and was rarely seen in public. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get the interview. Syd had closed down. He no longer acknowledged his former fame. It made me sad to think of the waste of talent.

During my time in Cambridge, I perused the many bookshops. My attention was randomly drawn to a Science Focus magazine on the shelves of one of the mainstream outlets. It had a photo on the cover of a naggingly familiar face. Despite the familiarity, it was so out of context, it took me a few moments to realise who it was. Shorter hair and clean-shaven, but this was unmistakably Mojo. His name was Milton Chance. It seemed he had become a leading light in network communication research. He was going to get us all connected.

I had developed a casual interest in computer technology and had picked up the occasional tech magazine so I could follow a little of the article. I discovered that the main research into network communication was taking place in Japan. Several Japanese consultants were mentioned but the focus of the piece was how Milton Chance was pioneering European research into TCP/IP, the conceptual model and set of communications protocols which would be used in the Internet. The conversation about the Japanese cab fare and Mojo’s interest in the world wide web came rushing back to me. He had perhaps exaggerated the stage of development it was at back then but this must have been what he was referring to. So, Mojo’s name was Milton Chance.

I began to come across his name everywhere. It started slowly with mentions in each of the computer science magazines I picked up. Then there was an Open University broadcast for a technology module on BBC2 in which he featured. Soon, I was seeing the name, Milton Chance further afield, in The Times, in The Independent, even in The Sun. I was not a regular reader of the daily newspapers nor did I watch a lot of television so the odds against such my coming across his name so frequently ought to have been great. I wasn’t certain, but I thought I spotted him on the cover of Viz. I discovered that this frequency illusion is known as the Baader Meinhof phenomenon. But the thing is, you simply don’t know why it is happening.

………………………………………

I was at a Cocteau Twins concert in London with my NUJ card, hoping to revive my flagging journalistic career with a stirring report on this fine band and perhaps distract myself from my failed marriage to Kate. 1992, it would have been. There up ahead of me, making his way towards his seat, was Spike. He had changed very little in appearance. Nor, I discovered, in habits. In a word, he was still dealing drugs, only the numbers had changed. The numbers were bigger. He was now dealing a lot of drugs. Seeing that I was at a loose end, he wanted to take me under his wing and like a fool I was taken. I drifted into becoming a dealer.

The market had changed considerably. Gone were the exotic labels of the past. Now there were just three types of hash, Soap Bar, Slate and Black. The origins of the product seemed to be no longer of concern. As a supplier, you were just required to keep stocks of each type at a level to meet demand. Oh, and you needed to keep a little Skunk on hand for those oblivion seekers wanted to go AWOL in the badlands. And perhaps have a few Es for personal use with the right company, should the situation arise.

My career in the drugs trade was staggeringly short. Within a month my flat was raided, and the police made off with nearly half a kilo of assorted goodies. There is nothing quite as sobering as looking ahead to a long stretch behind bars.

I’m afraid that as things stand, we are looking at twelve to eighteen months,’ my solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke said on our first meeting.

What, even though I have no previous?’ I said.

Yes. It doesn’t help your case that you had all those figures written down with the amounts your customers owed you,’ he said. ‘This is the most common mistake that drug dealers make. It makes a defence against intent to supply almost impossible.’

But it was just a few letters and numbers on a scrap of paper,’ I protested. ‘It could have referred to anything. It could be computer coding.’

The courts will have come across this practice so often that this will count for nothing,’ Guy said. ‘Besides, the list was apparently next to the chemical balance which presumably will have had traces on. That’s not good.’

Is there anything I might before the case that might help keep me out of prison?’ I asked.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two things,’ Guy said. ‘Become very, very rich or leave the country.’

Thanks to a modicum of good fortune, I was able to do both. For this, I have to thank dear old, Mojo, aka Milton Chance.

Most people see Tim Berners Lee as the inventor of the Internet. Largely speaking, this is true. But among those that gave it its commercial legacy was Milton Chance. He was one of the visionaries who, some cynics might say, mercilessly exploited the world wide web’s huge commercial potential. The first web site went up in 1991. Thereafter Milton Chance began to sell the idea to the world at large. He made the Internet more accessible through the Netscape browser. He didn’t see the internet as a research toll, he saw it as a means for growing a business. He planted the idea in peoples minds that they could join in the bonanza.

Milton Chance was well equipped to track me down. But naturally I was surprised to hear from him after all these years. Having bought a state-of-the-art 386DX PC with a modem just before the police visit, I had signed up to email, Somehow Mojo knew that this new Netscape email address, scottenglish@netscape.com related to his old buddy. It was my first email.

It said, I’m in Palo Alto, California, Scottie. Get on a plane and come on over. I will make you rich. Mojo.

Although the conditions of my bail stipulated that I could not leave the country, I managed to make it out west and caught up with my old friend in Silicon Valley. My first impression was that Mojo appeared to have completely changed but gradually it occurred to me that perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps he had always had the entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps he had always been focussed, but we had not noticed it. At nineteen years old, you are not necessarily looking for character traits. You are just trying to find people to get along with. And, under the college system, you are thrown together with a random group of fellow students. At that age, you assume that if someone likes the same bands and you sit around the same smoky rooms sharing spliffs, you have everything else in common. That you hold the same views, are thinking the same thoughts, and that your lives will run in parallel. When in reality, we could all be said to conceal a saucerful of secrets.

Clearly, I needed to become focussed. This was my great opportunity. Visas and other official documentation were a problem at first but with connections like Milton Chance, I discovered that these matters could easily be overcome. More to the point, I had the great fortune to be in Silicon Valley right at the beginning of the dot com bubble. Within months I was a millionaire. But at this stage, I still had the impending court case to consider. I had skipped bail and there was the threat of extradition hanging over me. But money talks. Very loudly I discovered in the case of the United States. Through a discrete but very expensive identity change, I was able to stay under the radar. I was able to eventually return to the UK as Simon Franklin, a believable name which was neither too common nor too rare. My aim was simply to blend in.

Who would have thought that an idler like Lenny Turner would have joined the police, let alone risen to the rank of Superintendent? Who would have thought that after thirty odd years, the two of us would find ourselves at the same Pink Floyd concert? Who would have thought that an old friend like Lenny, on the verge of a comfortable retirement, would have me taken into custody? It’s all to easy to be complacent.

As the great fictional pessimist, Wet Blanket Ron might say, if things appear to be going well, you’ve probably overlooked something. There again, given the long interval, there was always the possibility that Exhibit A, 2.3 kilos of cannabis resin may have gone missing.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Magic and Loss

magicandloss

Magic and Loss by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I called Macy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, but…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I mentioned the band.

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

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

Already taken care of, my son.’

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

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

So you wouldn’t know where Josie is?’

What are you, some kind of weirdo?’

Perhaps I was a weirdo.

I put the phone down.

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

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

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

Relief and disbelief jockeyed for prime position.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Aardvark of Uncertainty

Created with GIMP

The Aardvark of Uncertainty by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………..

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

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

I hear footsteps and a door opening.

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

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

Tom Waits,’ I say.

What?’ she says.

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

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

Swordfishtrombone,’ I say. ‘Brilliant lyrics.’

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

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

No I haven’t,’ she says.

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Watership Down

Created with GIMP

WATERSHIP DOWN – a cautionary tale by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit a key,’ I say.

Which key?’ she says.

Any key,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

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

Try the z key,’ I say.

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

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

I’ve got it plugged in,’ she says.

Is the power light on?’ I ask.

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

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

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

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

I give him a call from my mobile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

O Sole Mio

osolemio

O Sole Mio by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go and get one,’ I say.

What?’ Sophie says.

An ice-cream.’

But I’m not dressed.’

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

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

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

Flake or no flake?’ Mr Bocelli says.

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

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

Why not?’ Sophie says.

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Shipping Forecast

theshippingforecast

The Shipping Forecast by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hi, Matt. Hi, Andy,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

I find it relaxing,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

Dog Gone by Chris Green

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

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

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

May 26th,’ she says.

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

When did he phone?’

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

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

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

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

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

B’ he had said.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am flabbergasted.

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

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

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

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

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

ODDS

oddsOdds by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With this, Billy is gone.

……………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Adrian hasn’t been here for months.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Invisibility

invisibilty.jpg

INVISIBILITY by Chris Green

I discovered I could make people invisible. I found out by accident when I was working at the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Board refused to believe my evidence and summarily dismissed me. They could not see what was staring them in the face, or in this case not. They claimed it was a trick. That I was a cheap illusionist trying to get one over on them. There was no room for charlatans in the Ministry, Sir Fred Jessop said. But it seems to me, it was simply that they didn’t want something this important to get out. They wanted to keep the discovery under wraps. They were scared of the implications. Presumably, they were acting on instructions from on high. Their paymasters were people whose interests it was to make sure people were visible.

But perhaps the world should be made aware of my discovery. Things can only move forward when knowledge is shared. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine to make someone invisible. No specialist training is necessary. No background in Nuclear Physics or anything like that is needed. No scientific equipment is required. None of this quantum stealth invisibility cloak nonsense that the American military has been looking into is involved. No secret wisdom from reading the Upanishads. Nor any wand-waving Harry Potter mumbo-jumbo. It seems you just have to put the intention in place with sufficient emphasis and the victim vanishes.

After my initial success making one or two of my colleagues