Nevermind

nevermind

Nevermind by Chris Green

Growing up was never going to be easy for me. I could see from an early age that my parents were simply too distracted to put effort into raising a family. In the circles in which they moved, parenting was not fashionable. They immersed themselves in a series of leisure interests, none of which involved having a youngster in tow. Perhaps it was a generational thing. In the nineteen-seventies and nineteen-eighties, attitudes to family life in society were changing. As a result, I missed out on Santa’s Grottos, pantomimes, seaside outings, board games and skateboarding.

Busy pursuing a series of unsuccessful band projects, Dad was absent a lot of the time but Mum was hardly there at all. After years of talking about movie stardom, she finally left for Hollywood when I was nine, destined to become a film extra in a series of low budget B-Movies. Dad called it a day on performing with bands. It was obviously not going to make him a fortune. From this point on, he began to focus on building his vast record collection and growing a long beard. He looked like some kind of shaman or Eastern mystic. Does he have hidden powers, Phil Dark asked me one time, is he a soothsayer? Eddie Whitlock, who I used to play football with, referred to him as Mephistopheles. It slowly dawned on me that Dad was a bit weird.

I was never sure exactly what he did for a living but it was not a nine to five at the office. As far as I could tell, it involved a lot of sitting around in our smoke-filled front room with groups of dazed-looking people listening to loud music. Whatever it was, he put in very long hours. Clearly, this paid off. He always seemed to have large wads of tens and twentys in rubber bands. From time to time, he would peel off a couple of notes and tell me to go down the arcade or something. I quickly became adept at losing money on the machines. School was never of much interest to me and Dad didn’t even insist that I attended. I’m not sure I missed a lot.

By the time I was fourteen, Dad’s collection of albums extended around all four walls of the front room and beyond. It must have run into thousands. This was before the digital age. In Dad’s world, even the then-new medium of CDs was frowned upon. As for cassettes, he said, you might as well be listening through polythene. It had to be vinyl. He insisted the sound vinyl gave was richer. He was eclectic in his tastes and enjoyed everything from reggae to Nepalese gong music, heavy metal to acid jazz, The New York Dolls to The Third Ear Band. He had everything. The Velvet Underground, The Dead Kennedys. The Psychedelic Furs. He had to my reckoning no less than nineteen Captain Beefheart albums. And probably the only Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs album in existence

While it would be wrong to say I liked all the music he played. Frank Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy and Throbbing Gristle’s The Second Annual Report, for instance, were hard to get into. But Dad’s collection provided me with a musical education way beyond that which I would have got from my peers or by listening to the radio. In the normal run of things I would never have heard be-bop jazz, roots reggae or Creole. And I would have probably only heard the punk they played on Radio 1 and not the gritty New York stuff. Dad was keen for me to show an interest. He actively encouraged my appreciation of music. When he wasn’t too busy, he would take time out and like a history teacher, take me through his collection.

This is Chuck Berry,’ he might say. ‘This is where rock music began. The intro of Johnny B. Goode changed everything. And this is Dick Dale who pioneered the surf guitar sound.’

Or another time, ‘This is Nirvana, son. It’s called Nevermind. You won’t come across this for another ten years. But then you will hear it a lot. There are others too.’

I didn’t take much notice of the ten years bit at the time but I wish I had. If had I taken it in, it may have helped me later on.

Given there was little else happening around the house, I developed a keen interest in music. I discovered a lot of it sounded brilliant, especially on the kit that Dad had set up, the Lin deck, the powerful Quad amp and the massive Kef speakers. Music from all genres. It was also not too shabby on the Sony music centre he bought me for my bedroom. I was becoming hooked. Sometimes we both had our systems on full blast. It must have been hell for the neighbours.

I don’t mind you playing my albums,’ he said. ‘So long as you are careful. But whatever you do, don’t be tempted to play this one.’

With this, he drew out an album with a plain matt black sleeve with no writing or artwork.

Naturally, I asked him why. Was it dangerous? Was it illegal? He did not answer my questions.

Seriously,’ he said, to emphasise the point. ‘Don’t be tempted to play it. It would not be a good idea.’

He ignored further protestations and gave me the look that I knew from experience meant business. I put the matter to the back of my mind. No doubt one day I would find out what the record was but for now it didn’t matter. There were plenty of others to get my teeth into.

Inspired by Dad’s collection, and through the twentys, he continued to slip me every couple of days, I began a collection of my own. Marvin Gaye, Miles Davis, The Ramones, Def Leppard, Was Not Was, Nick Drake, Jacob Miller. I liked a lot of different types of music. I felt I was ahead of my peers at school, who were still listening to the likes of Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet.

Although he had given up gigging, Dad still had some of his guitars hanging around and with my new-found interest in music, it seemed only natural that I should learn to play. The Gibson I plugged in didn’t make sweet sounds right away but after a few days practice, I began to get the hang of it. With a view to perhaps forming a group, I began to write songs with my friend, Charlie. Charlie had been playing longer than me and knew more than just a few chords. He could even play keyboards and read music.

By this time, Dad had met Debbie. At last, there was someone who seemed to like his Karl Marx beard. I had felt for a long time the beard had held him back in the romance stakes since Mum left. There was so much beard and it was so unkempt. Not every woman would want to wake up to that. But Debbie clearly didn’t mind. With a new spring in his step, he started to go out more often taking Debbie to exhibitions and concerts. This meant I often had the house to myself. Charlie took to coming around and we began to put together new songs. Charlie was impressed by Dad’s huge collection and we would go through it and play our favourites on the new Bang and Olufsen hi-fi Dad had bought to impress Debbie.

On one of Charlie’s visits, I went out to get refreshments and when I returned, I found him collapsed on the floor. I tried to bring him round by slapping him and shaking him but he did not respond. Had he taken something, he shouldn’t, I wondered? Had he suffered an attack of a mysterious life-threatening condition he had not told me about? I checked his pulse. It seemed to be pulsing and so far as I could tell, he was still breathing which was lucky. I sure as hell wasn’t going to give him the kiss of life. I would never live it down. I called an ambulance. They asked me who he was. They asked me what had happened. I said I didn’t know. The paramedics tried to bring him round. They seemed to become more and more flustered. One of them talked urgently to a colleague over the radio. Evidently, Charlie’s condition was serious. I went with the crew in the ambulance as it rushed him to hospital, alarms sounding.

While I was waiting in Littleton General for news, I got an angry call from Dad.

I told you to leave that album alone,’ he shouted down the phone.

Which album?’ I said.

The one I told you about,’ he said. ‘The black album. I found it in its dust jacket on the floor. …… At least, you didn’t play it. ……. You didn’t play it, did you? No, of course not. You couldn’t have. Otherwise …..’

I suddenly realised he was talking about the black album. As it happened, I hadn’t even thought about it for years.

Without saying where I was or what had happened to Charlie, I told Dad I had more important things to think about and hung up. But, might Charlie have played the album while I was out? Could there be a connection between this and his collapse? Dad had been very definite that I should not play it. There had to be a reason. But this was absurd. It was a ridiculous idea. What was I thinking? It couldn’t realistically have had anything to do with it.

I kept out of Dad’s way for a few days and he was pre-occupied with Debbie’s birthday preparations and he appeared to forget all about the episode. Charlie meanwhile recovered, but he did not come around much after this. I don’t know if this was down to Charlie or whether it was down to me but we never got around to discussing what had actually happened that day. Meanwhile, I found a new writing partner, Jilli who I discovered I could quite happily give the kiss of life to if needed. Things moved forward rapidly as they tend to do for teenagers.

You may not have heard of The Lenticular Clouds but in 1987, for one week in July, our single, Out of Time was in the charts at number 39. Also we recorded an album that we felt might have cemented us in the annals of rock history had it sadly not been shelved by the record company after an alleged wrangle with our manager, Larry Funk. The master tapes of Up in the Clouds mysteriously disappeared. We re-recorded the songs from the album but with poor facilities and wholesale changes in our line-up, they didn’t come out the same. Given the poor quality of the recording, this too was shelved. By the end of 1988, I found I was the only surviving member of the original band. Charlie, Vince, Hank and Freddie had all left, along with Jilli.

Out of the blue one day, I remembered the Nirvana disc that Dad had shown me back in 1981. The one he told me I would not come across for another decade. Why the anomaly had not troubled me before, I cannot say. Perhaps I had never been big on mindfulness. Like Mum and Dad, I was too easily distracted, unable to concentrate on one thing long enough to get to the bottom of it. But surely this was a biggie. How had I let this one go? It occurred to me now that there might be others like Nevermind, other items in Dad’s collection that denied temporal logic. Albums that Dad owned that rightly belonged to a future time. Hadn’t he suggested this was the case when he first mentioned it? How or why this might be, of course, was a different matter. Perhaps Phil Dark and Eddie Whitlock had been right and Dad did have special powers. Might the curious black album that he had made all the fuss about be part of the weirdness as well? It was time for me to investigate.

I did not confront Dad with it immediately but when he and Debbie had gone to see an art-house film at the cinema, I looked through the shelves for the black album. He had moved it but I eventually found it. I slowly took it out of its sleeve. There was nothing written on the plain black label. I placed it carefully on Dad’s new Linn Axis turntable and lowered the arm. I think I knew what I expected to hear but at the same time, I refused to believe it. Sure enough, it was Make Believe, the opening track from The Lenticular Clouds’ original album. The fist song Charlie and I wrote. I tried to get my head around how this could have happened. We had not even recorded it at the time that Dad first showed me the disc. But in a way it made sense because this was on the same occasion that he showed me Nevermind, which would not be available for Another ten years. There was no rational explanation for this either. Perhaps there never would be. Dad refused point-blank to explain. What was the point, he said? I never listened to him and anyway, I would not understand. While I was not an expert in these matters, I had worked out that the passing of time was in a sense illusory. There was no tomorrow. Every time I had woken up it was today. But you could play around with concepts for evermore. This was abstract thinking. It did not help towards understanding. Why are life’s mysteries so tantalising?

It was anything but straightforward but I managed to track down Mum in California. I wished I hadn’t bothered. It was distressing. She didn’t seem to know who I was let alone what the score was with Dad’s music collection. Nor did she seem interested in talking. It sounded as if she wanted to get back to her bottle. Why are family units so dysfunctional?

Coda

I left home shortly after this. I left the music business behind and moved away from Littleton to sort my life out. I travelled for a year or two and ended up in New Zealand where I joined a sheep worshipping cult. This did not work out. Sheep worshipping is not for everyone. It is not all it is cracked up to be. I had a breakdown. On my recovery, I struck up a relationship with my psychotherapist’s daughter, Naida. We got married and now have two teenage children who are hopefully better adjusted than I was when I was growing up.

These days, I find it is far easier to stream music. You no longer need to build up a collection. It’s all out there. Apart from The Lenticular Clouds album that is. You may have some difficulty finding this. Nevermind, should you want to, you can stream all of Nirvana’s stuff. And as Johnny B. Goode was sent into interstellar space on the Voyager mission a while back, it is quite likely that aliens from some distant place are heading this way to see what else we have to offer. They are probably ready for Dick Dale’s surf guitar classics and Captain Beefheart’s nineteen albums. They are probably even ready for Impaled Northern Moonforest and Compressorhead. And who knows what they might bring to the table?

So far as I can make out, Dad’s record collection gradually got replaced by CDs and later, digital. I think Debbie was keen to free up the space. I never asked how much he got for it but it must have been thousands. The beard has gone too, I gather. Now and again, I try to recall how strange life was back then. But, it all seems so long ago, I sometimes question whether it happened at all. Memory is not always a reliable servant. I don’t know if I can say for certain that temporal order has been restored or whether it was ever breached. Perhaps its best to be mindful and be on the look out for more surprises, just in case.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

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Concerto

concerto2

Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of the country. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s Piano Sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. Fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concerto No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part-time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copywriters. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

But I thought it was alright now,’ Nia says. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many, it is a hand to mouth existence.’

I did see a few beggars.’

Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French-speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

I see.’

But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised. It has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

That’s nice,’ Nia says. ‘Where is that from?’

Satchmo,’ Red says.

That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ Nia says.

Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ Red says. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

You mean …… the big chords?’ Nia says, taken aback by the image.

Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

That’s cool then,’ Red says. ‘You’re hired.’

But it can’t last,’ Nia says, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

Nothing’s incurable,’ Red says, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older than you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

That’s the common myth, isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there.

I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ Loup says.

I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ Nia says. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

It’s impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

So the French were the worst,’ Nia says.

No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

Not a lot of comfort, really.’

Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ Loup says. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

I know,’ Nia says. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

Fire away,’ Nia says.

I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ Loup says. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ Nia says.

I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.’

I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

Does he have big hands?’

Yes, he does have big hands as it happens,’ Loup says. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

Blacksmith.’ Nia finishes his sentence.

How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Phone BIll

phonebill4 

Phone Bill by Chris Green

I read somewhere that over half of all the people in the world have never received a telephone call. Sometimes I wish I was one of these. The phone should be a comfort but it can also be a curse. Unwanted calls can outnumber the ones from family and friends. Every day, for instance, Bill phones me up from Swindon to try to sell me solar panels. It is, of course, a scam. While the numbers he comes out with are designed to look favourable, the solar panels would never be mine. His company, BiSolar just want to use my roof so that they can generate electricity to sell back to the grid and keep their directors in the lap of luxury. Bill is fully aware by now I have no intention of taking up BiSolar’s offer.

I also read that more than half the people in the world have never made a telephone call. In these days of fibre optics and satellite communication, this is a difficult statistic to believe. But whoever these people are, Bill compensates for them. Bill sits in a cubicle making calls all day. Although he must have targets to meet, I have reached the conclusion that he keeps ringing me because he is lonely. He needs someone he can talk to. He talks about the weather, his arthritic hip and Swindon Town’s problems in defence. Sometimes he gives me a tip for the 3:30 at Catterick or the 4:15 at Fontwell Park, but invariably his horse falls at the thirteenth or comes in second to last. I sense that there is a black cloud hanging over him while he is talking. I can see it poised inches above his head waiting to deposit rain. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to keep calling. For all I know, I might be his lifeline. Tracey always used to say that I had good listening skills. Had I thought of becoming a counsellor? This was, of course, before our great falling out.

Linzi is another caller from this surprising global minority. She too phones me almost daily about compensation for mis-sold PPI. She must know by now that I have never taken out PPI. I didn’t even know what PPI was until she started phoning me. Mostly though, Linzi wants to talk about which carpet she should buy for the lounge. Or what she should do about her son’s truanting from St Bartholomew’s. Linzi sometimes sounds off about her husband Derek’s drinking. I dare not tell her that Derek is probably an alcoholic. No-one should be getting through two cans of Special Brew during an episode of Emmerdale, even if it is an extended episode to build up the tension before the murder of another tractor driver.

Some days, Barry phones to tell me my life insurance has lapsed. It actually lapsed back in 1996, but Barry’s company, ZZT or some hopeless acronym at the tail end of the alphabet, is still hopeful that I might resume the payments. Barry is keen on golf and gives me detailed accounts of his bunker shots and his new putter. He updates me on his handicap, 44, I believe at last count. Although I know next to nothing about golf, I am sure this is not good. My friend, Geoffrey has a handicap of 19, and he has a wooden leg.

Wednesdays are the worst. I’m not sure why this should be so but no sooner have I got home from my shift at the packaging plant than the phone starts to ring. One call follows another throughout the afternoon. Sometimes it is Linzi first and sometimes it is Bill. For some reason, Barry’s call usually comes in the middle. Oh! I haven’t mentioned Martin yet have I? Each Wednesday, Martin phones to see whether I have changed my mind about the double glazing offer. UltraGlaze can do all my windows for a little over £3000, he says. Each time he points out that his competitors would charge up to a thousand more and they would not offer a twenty-year guarantee. Once this little charade is out of the way, Martin likes to talk about his tropical fish, which are prone to an encyclopaedia of diseases. After he has run through the latest casualties, we move on seamlessly to his amateur dramatics. The Empty House Players are doing a production The Likely Lads and he is playing Bob. He is from Streatham and is having trouble with the Newcastle accent. Each week he gives me a progress report on this and we have the same conversation about what the pub names were in the TV series. We take it in turns to name The Fat Ox, The Black Horse, The Drift Inn, and The Wheatsheaf. Martin is possibly the most tiring of all the callers. It’s a good thing he only phones once a week.

What have you been doing? Your phone’s been off all afternoon,’ Diane says, angrily. ‘She’s not there is she?’

No. I told you, Diane. Tracey moved out last month.’

But she’s still got her stuff there.’

Hardly anything, and as you have seen its all packed away in the spare room.’

H’mm. Then what has been going on? You can’t have been on the phone all afternoon.’

It is Wednesday, Diane. You know that everyone calls on a Wednesday.’

You don’t have to answer the phone, do you?’

If I didn’t answer it, then I wouldn’t be talking to you now.’

Why don’t you have caller display, like everyone else?’

Probably because CheapNet don’t do caller display. It was you that suggested CheapNet.’

It wouldn’t be so bad if you got another mobile. Or got the old one repaired.’

It’s beyond that I think. They don’t like being immersed in buckets of bleach.’

But why don’t you just put the phone down when these people ring?’

Well, you know how it is, once you get talking.’

These are salesmen, Clive. They keep you talking and before you know it you’ve bought a brussels sprout farm, or a time-share in Turkmenistan or, knowing you, Beyonce’s underwear or something.’

Diane and I have been seeing each other for several months now. We met at that supermarket pub. Oh, what’s its name? The one that is not Wetherspoons. I was minding my own business, quietly drowning my sorrows having just had a row with Tracey. Diane was on a girls night out. She became upset about something one of her friends said about what she was wearing and came over to join me. Do I look like a slut to you, she said. I said no, you don’t and somehow we ended up spending the night together. These things happen. You can’t plan everything in life. Life’s what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Someone famous said that. I can’t remember who. Not that I ever have. Make plans that is, but the following day Tracey having put two and two together, packed her bags and left. Her plan hasn’t changed. She has shared it with her solicitor, Mr Doonican and he keeps writing me letters regarding the sale of the house. I suppose I can count myself lucky that Tracey and I did not have children.

Diane is a few years older than me. She is divorced and lives on Canal Street. She has a fluctuating number of teenage children. They keep moving out and moving back in again, depending on their fitful relationships, their finances and their oscillating states of mind. I blame Kites. You can buy anything over the counter there and they even have a delivery service for their research chemicals and plant food. There’s one called Herbal Haze that the kids seem to like and another called Blue Cheese. And of course, the old favourite Go-Caine. Riley, the eldest is probably the worst. But Randall and Regan are nearly as bad and a couple of weeks ago we even found Rhiannon calling God down the great white trumpet after a binge on something. Rhiannon is only fifteen. It’s no wonder that Diane wants to come over and spend so much time at my house.

OK, I get your point,’ I say. ‘I’ll change my phone number. I will call CheapNet as soon as I’ve put the phone down.’

I’ll be over in twenty minutes’ says Diane. ‘It’s bedlam here with Ryan’s hip hop music. …… Do you want me to wear anything special?’

No. just come as you are,’ I say.

I’d better not do that,’ she laughs. ‘I think I ought to put some clothes on first. I’m in the bath, lover.’

I explain that I am receiving nuisance calls and CheapNet are quick to change my number. Everything is in place within twenty four hours, phone, internet, the whole caboodle. Other providers might take weeks and still charge a colossal admin fee, but CheapNet charge nothing for the service. They even have a Welsh call centre, and in answer to my query, Dewi explains that CheapNet would be offering the Caller Display facility within a matter of weeks.

There are no missed calls when I come home from working late on Friday and Diane and I are able to enjoy a pleasant weekend at the seaside, the only interruption being when on Sunday morning, Diane gets a call that Riley has been arrested in the early hours for Affray. She handles it very well. She does not rush back to bail him out or anything like that. It is not entirely unexpected, she says. Diane has a measured approach, she takes things in her stride.

I get home from an early shift on Monday and am looking forward to an afternoon nap. I put the tiredness down to the late nights we had over the weekend. But, no sooner have I got through the front door than the phone rings. It is quite a pleasant melody. Mozart I think. Or is it REM? Much better though than the old ringtone. I am thinking it must be Diane calling. She is the only one who has my new number. I wonder what she might want. I hope it’s not about Riley. We had enough about his troubles yesterday. Perhaps she has just left her keys in my car or something. I pick up the phone and am greeted by Bill’s familiar voice.

The Robins didn’t do so well at the weekend, did they?’ he says. He means Swindon Town. This is their nickname. Swindon lost four one at home to Crewe, after being one nil up with twenty minutes to go. This apparently ruins their chances of promotion.

I am too taken aback to respond or even to ask how he got hold of my new number.

He is quite happy to guide the conversation. He tells me his hip has been giving him gyp over the past few days. He thinks he may need a replacement.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say.

But being on a zero hours contract, I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford the time off work.’

That sucks,’ I say. I do not tell him that at the packaging plant, I do not have any kind of contract. Job security does not seem to be something that is on their agenda.

But I do have some hot tips for you,’ he says. ‘And you will get good prices if you get in quick.’

I have to say, Bill, your horses have not done so well lately,’ I tell him.

These two will,’ he says. ‘Have you got a pen handy?’

Oh, go on then. Fire away!’ I say. The question of how he got my new number is fading. I must be a soft touch.

In the 3:30 at Pontefract, Forgive and Forget,’ he says. ‘And in the 4:15 At Market Rasen, Cold Call.’

I’d better get the laptop out and get on to BetterBet,’ I say.

I almost say ‘Speak to you tomorrow, Bill. I’ll give you a ring,’ but manage to catch myself. Why would I want to phone Bill?

Forgive and Forget falls at the first. I reason that Cold Call will probably do the same. But, what makes me think of betting on Brave New World instead, I don’t know. It has no chance. It is thirteen years old and has yet to finish a race. It probably has only three legs or something. What makes me put £50 on the nose is something I cannot begin to comprehend ……… but Brave New World storms in at 100 to 1.

No sooner have I got the notification from BetterBet than the phone rings. It is PPI Linzi ringing to talk about her troubles.

Without giving me the opportunity to ask how she has got hold of my new number, Linzi begins to update me on her husband Derek’s drinking, a bottle of Bacardi during last Friday’s EastEnders special, six pints yesterday lunchtime. Half a bottle of ……. I gently put the receiver back in its cradle.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

It’s Not Unusual

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It’s Not Unusual by Chris Green

1:

Because of my vertigo, crossing the Severn Bridge has always been a problem for me. On account of my phobia, as I live in the south of England, I don’t tend to visit Wales. I don’t even know any Welsh people. I once worked with a Dewi Davies who came from Merthyr Tydfil. We used to call him Davies the Dark Side on account of his half-empty outlook on life. And at college, I had a friend called Rhys who came from Plwmp. But, this was a long time ago. Admittedly, I used to fancy Catherine Zeta Jones when she was younger and I went to see Manic Street Preachers a couple of years back. But on the whole, Wales is a foreign country to me.

I went to bed last night at ten, read a few pages of my Ian McEwan novel and put out the light, thinking normally in English. It came over me in the night. Everything changed. Wales came flooding in. This morning, I appear to be thinking in Welsh. It’s all leeks and lava bread, St David’s Day and daffodils. I am thinking in familiar terms of Llandindrod Wells and Bets y Coed and places with strange sounding names I’d never heard of. I feel the impulse to greet people with Alright or Wha? I want to address them as bach, start each statement with What it is or I’m only saying and end sentences with look you or see. And raise glasses and say Iechyd Da. We’ll keep a welcome in the hillsides.

It’s disconcerting that I can’t run this past my partner, Lorelei. She is at a psychotherapists’ conference somewhere up north. She specifically said she couldn’t be contacted. Back-to-back meetings and seminars, she said. If I were of a suspicious nature, I might suspect she was having an affair.

I must try to see the whole episode as an overblown dream and move on. There’s no time to dwell on it. No time even for a shower. I need to get to work. I have to pick up my colleague, Barry Sadler on the way. We car-share and it is my turn to drive him in this week. I haven’t noticed it before but I see the road signs at the Scott McKenzie roundabout are now displayed in English and Welsh. The Town Centre sign at the Macmillan Street junction also says Canol y Dref. And how long has that statue of Owen Glendower been outside the entrance to the Churchill Street park, I wonder?

Lorelei probably didn’t mean she couldn’t be contacted at all. After all, it is a little early for her to be in conference. On the basis she’ll probably still be in the breakfast room of the hotel reading The Guardian and sipping her Macchiato, I phone her. It goes straight to voicemail. I leave a garbled message about missing her.

When I arrive at Barry’s, he is waiting by the kerb. He seems agitated. He looks at his watch. Perhaps I am a few minutes late. He goes to get into the car but I step out. He looks at me disapprovingly. I can see he wants to get going but feels something might be wrong.

Are you OK, Dan?’ he says. ‘You look a bit …… dazed.’

Just a strange start to the day, Barry,’ I say ‘Nothing to worry about though, butty bach. I’ll be fine.’

As long as you’re OK. Shall we get going? It’s nearly eight-thirty.’

What it is, mate, have you noticed anything, h’mm …… different on the streets lately?’ I say once we are on our way.

No. Same as it ever was,’ he says.

Nothing, say, more Welsh?’

Ah, I see,’ he says. ‘That’s where the butty bach came from, is it? Well, no I can’t say I have, old buddy. In fact, I was only saying to Sharon just now that nothing ever seems to change around here. It’s so boring. The same old, day in, day out. We’re thinking of a holiday to get us out of the daily grind. A bit of a break. We’re thinking Mexico or somewhere exotic.’

Look you!’ I say. ‘Isn’t that Anthony Hopkins? Over by there. Walking the Welsh Terrier.’

It looks nothing like him,’ Barry says. ‘What’s wrong with you today, man?’

Sorry. Not Anthony Hopkins. I meant the other fellow. Richard Burton.’

Richard Burton’s dead.’

Are you sure, mate? Well, if it’s not him, he’s the spitting image of him.’

He’s been dead for over thirty years. Look. I’m getting worried about you. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?’

I manage to blag it until we get to the office. I don’t mention Wales being the new favourites to win the Rugby World Cup or draw attention to the billboard we pass advertising the Tom Jones concert at the football ground.

2:

My co-workers seem to be worried about me. My line manager, Harvey Golfer wonders why I have sent him an email about the Ffestiniog railway. I tell him it wasn’t intentional, it must be a glitch in the software. He gives me a strange look and is about to express his disbelief when his phone rings. Back at my desk, Lee Cooper who sits opposite asks me to stop humming Delilah. I tell him I wasn’t aware I was. I find myself humming I’ll Never Fall in Love Again instead. Lee draws my attention to this straight away.

And don’t you dare start on The Green Green Grass of Home,’ he says.

Susie Dee tells me I’ve just printed off twenty four copies of the Welsh flag. I laugh it off and tell her there is nothing to worry about. I had a bad night but I will be OK after a strong cup of coffee. Susie doesn’t want to let it go.

You’ve been acting strangely all week,’ she says. ‘Is there anything I might be able to do to help?’

No really, Susie, I’m fine,’ I say, trying to ignore the fact that she is now leaning over my desk in her low-cut plunge top.

It’s all right, Dan,’ she says. ‘You can stop the pretence. I know exactly what’s been bothering you. It’s not unusual, you know. It happens all the time.’

What?’ I say. ‘What’s not unusual?’

Well, a little bird told me Lorelei has left,’ Susie says. ‘She has gone off with an esoteric book publisher from Swansea Bay. People break up with one another every day, Dan. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last. My Greg ran off with Twinkle, a glove designer from Saffron Weldon. I know it can be hard at first and can make you crazy ……’

But I …… you ….. what? …..’

I can see you are upset, Dan. It’s only natural. What you need is some female company. So I wondered if you would like to come round for a bite to eat later. Perhaps we can share a glass or two of wine to celebrate, I mean commiserate.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Sven of Halmstad

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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

Pub

pub

Pub by Chris Green

1:

You’re probably wondering why the pub is called The Skydog Slaver aren’t you?’ Nigel Slough says.

As it happens, I am not. I have been coming here for several weeks. At first, I may have been curious about the name but now I just take it for granted.

I’m just going to take Murphy for a walk,’ I might say to Stacey. ‘And then I may pop in at Skydog.’ Sometimes I refer to it simply as The Slaver. Either way, the name slips off the tongue as the most natural thing in the world. I felt the same way when I used to drink at Pizza Burning. I didn’t wonder why it was called Pizza Burning. In the end, I found out but pub names are pub names. They have always been somewhat removed from sensible everyday language. The Bull and Spectacles, The Cat and Custard Pot, The Swan with Two Necks. You can get away with any mad name. I noticed the other day there’s a pub called The Job Centre.

I wouldn’t want you to think of me as an alcoholic. But Murphy is an Irish Setter. He needs a lot of walks and walking Murphy is thirsty work. One of the disadvantages of going to pubs during the day though is that you are likely to be preyed on by the pub bore. Nigel Slough is the pub bore at Skydog. Regulars give him a wide berth.

Go on then, Nigel,’ I say. ‘I can see you are dying to tell me the story.’

When you listen to Brown Sugar, you probably think Mick Jagger is singing skydog slaver knows he’s doing alright,’ Nigel says.

I’d always heard it as scarred old slaver,’ I say. ‘But I could be wrong.’

It’s what’s known as a mondegreen,’ Nigel says.

Is that right?’ I say.

No. It’s not right. That’s the point,’ Nigel says. ‘But in America, Mick now sings skydog slaver in that verse to humour those who think it ought to be skydog slaver. Anyway, that’s the reference. That’s how this pub was named. I just thought you’d like to know.’

Uh uh,’ I say.

Pointing out that I recently discovered Pizza Burning is a misnomer of Beast of Burden would only prolong the conversation.

Scuse me while I kiss this guy is another mondegreen,’ Nigel says, undeterred.

I can tell he has an encyclopaedia of misheard lyrics at the ready but Murphy has finished his bowl of Guinness and is anxious to leave.

Back in the car, I put on my Major Lance compilation CD. Major was his real name, by the way, not a title. He is still a big hit on the Northern Soul scene. While, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um, Um is playing, it occurs to me that Nigel is probably the way he is because he is lonely. If he had a partner he would, in all likelihood, be completely different. He is not altogether unpresentable. He wears bold-checked shirts with dark chinos and is only a little overweight. A few sessions at the gym would sort this out. He might be the wrong side of forty but if he didn’t wear those old-fashioned aviator spectacles and had a more stylish haircut, he would probably brush up quite well.

If Nigel had a partner, of course, he would be able to share all his factoids with her and not save them up for unsuspecting tipplers at Skydog. But I feel I should be a little sympathetic. Perhaps we all have a tendency to hold forth on things that interest us. I’m sure that on occasions, I have bored people silly waxing lyrical about Northern Soul. After all, it appears not everyone is interested in the history of the Prestatyn Weekender or which Little Anthony and the Imperials B-sides are popular. And most people have never heard of Archie Bell and the Drells.

I recall Stacey telling me recently that her friend, Lottie was lonely. She had just broken up with her partner, Nick. They had been together for fifteen years. Nick ran off with Tina from the tanning shop.

Perhaps we could invite Nigel and Lottie round for dinner,’ I say to Stacey. ‘They are both at a loose end. You never know, they might hit it off.’

That’s not like you, Roger,’ Stacey says. You don’t normally show much concern for other people’s welfare. Are you sure you’re feeling alright?’

I just thought it would be a nice gesture.’ I say. ‘Everyone needs somebody.’

Well, Lottie did seem a bit down in the dumps when I saw her at yoga. She could do with a bit of TLC. What’s he like, this Nigel?’

Considerate. Witty. Knowledgeable. On the whole, I would say he’s pretty entertaining. All the guys at The Slaver like him.’

It’s just that I thought I remembered you saying he was a bit of a bore.’

No. You’re thinking of Trevor. Trevor is really tiresome. Trevor just goes on and on about nothing.’

Stacey invites Lottie around for Friday evening. I’m not sure she has mentioned that Nigel is coming but she says she has. In the meantime, I manage to drop a couple of hints to Nigel about the dress code for the occasion and mention in passing that perhaps his hair could do with a trim. I also suggest he limits his pop-culture references as Stacey is a little old-fashioned. Time being of the essence, I decide we will have to accept the aviator specs for now.

2:

This asparagus and Parma ham bruschetta is lovely, Stacey,’ Nigel says. ‘Did you know that bruschetta dates from the time of the Roman Empire? Olive growers used to bring their olives to a local press to taste their freshly pressed oil using a slice of bread. Roman cuisine was more sophisticated then people realise. They included olives in entrées and dressed their salads with oil of the highest quality. It was also the basis of their sauces and they used it in different kinds of dough or pasta.’

I’m wondering if, having taken aboard my hint about avoiding pop-culture references, he is overcompensating with historical references.

Speaking of oil,’ Lottie interrupts. ‘Have you seen the film, Bohemian Rhapsody, Nigel? What made me think of it is that line, I sometimes wish I’d never been boiled in oil.’

I get you,’ Nigel says. ‘Good one, Lottie. You mean the misheard lyric for, I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.’

That’s right,’ Lottie says. ‘Did you know that’s what’s known as a mondegreen?’

Little darlin’, I feel the acid’s slowly melting,’ Nigel says

Happy as a rafter in the market place,’ Lottie says.

The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind,’ Nigel says.

Sweet dreams are made of cheese,’ Lottie says. ‘Who am I to diss a brie?

I always heard are you going to Scarborough Fair as are you going to starve an old friend,’ Stacey says, not wishing to be left out.

What have I started here? I try changing the subject to Northern Soul but to no avail. Nigel and Lottie have their own agenda. They move on seamlessly to not many people know that trivia. I feel left out. Not even my story about the police raid at the Edwin Starr concert at Wigan Casino sparks interest.

On the plus side, Stacey seems happy. She feels her dinner party is going well. Even the slightly overdone steak and parmesan involtini does nothing to dampen her spirits. Nigel and Lottie are so enamoured with each other they would not have noticed if it had been served cold. They probably would not have minded if Stacey had dished up cabbage pie with broccoli. At the end of the evening, they go off together arm in arm.

3:

Each time I pop into Skydog with Murphy for a refresher now, I cannot help but notice that Nigel is not there. He seems to have stopped coming in altogether. Lottie must have him on a tight rein. I had not noticed it before but without Nigel, I have no-one here to talk to. None of the regulars seem to be interested in Northern Soul. If I didn’t know better, I would say they were going out of their way to avoid me. Barry no longer offers me racing tips and Gary no longer offers to share his porky scratchings with Murphy. And Dave, the landlord has started charging me full price for Murphy’s bowl of Guinness when I know he gets it from the dregs. I think I may have to start drinking at The Dalek in Pain. Dalek in Pain? I wonder how they arrived at that name. Perhaps, like Skydog Slaver and Pizza Burning, it’s another misheard lyric from a Rolling Stones song.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Early Worm Catches The Bird

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The Early Worm Catches The Bird by Chris Green

You’re telling me you found it in the car park and you thought you’d just plug it into your workstation,’ says Frank Flint. ‘It’s a fucking data stick. What did you suppose it might be doing lying there in the car park of a high-security organisation like this?’

I had an idea that this was coming. Sir Frank Flint, MBE does not call you into his office for a chat about the weather.

You’ve heard of Stuxnet, right?’ he continues.

I haven’t,’ I tell him. Should I ask him if it is an internet service provider? Perhaps not.

The CIA or Israeli Intelligence left random memory sticks with logos in Iranian script printed on them outside their nuclear compound at Parachin. One of the operatives working on the Uranium Enrichment Programme there apparently expressed the same kind of curiosity that you have shown. He picked one of them up and plugged it in.’

I’m tempted to ask whose side we are supposed to be on at this point, but I don’t.

The Stuxnet worm that was on the data stick got to work on the programmable logic controller,’ he continues. ‘And destroyed a large chunk of Iran’s nuclear centrifuges. The rootkit the stick contained rendered it undetectable to Windows.’

I’m not sure whether it’s in my best interests to express admiration. Surprise or shock horror might be better.

So why do you think that our network might have suddenly crashed?’ he says.

Stuxnet?’ I ask.

No it is not fucking Stuxnet. If it were Stuxnet, we might be able to do something about it. We don’t know yet what it is, but Mr Kusnetsov is coming in later to help us find out. Tech support tell me with some degree of certainty that whatever it is originated on this stick.’

I know exactly what’s coming. Sir Frank just wants to humiliate me a little more first. In fact, were the positions reversed, I would probably do the same.

Summarily dismissed, I gather up a few belongings from my desk and make my way home. Over the next couple of hours, as I listen to the news on the car radio, similar glitches are reported at telecoms firms and at a government base. There are it seems a number of people losing their jobs because they were curious about flash drives they found in works canteens, car parks or railway carriages.

Maria may view it a little differently, but I am not bothered by the prospect of having time on my hands. I am not one of these career-minded people who are always looking for new openings, which is probably just as well as my CV will have been dealt a blow by my dismissal. I can use the time to brush up my saxophone playing while Maria is at work. She does not like me running through my Charlie Parker tutorial in the evenings. But for me, Bird is the greatest.

Maria is not overjoyed by the news of my dismissal but she says it will give me the chance to do the jobs around the house that I’ve been promising to do, like clear out the attic and mend the garden fence. In no time at all, she has written a list. I didn’t realise so many things were broken and nearly everything we have needs repainting. There are curtain rails to be fixed, light fittings that need replacing, paving slabs that need laying, the old harmonium needs to go to the tip and the dead cat needs burying. The conservatory too features quite heavily. It’s a wonder that it’s still standing. Perhaps Maria is over-reacting. I can always tell when she has the hump though because she slinks off to the art room and puts her Sparklehorse CD on. It calms her down, she says.

Next morning, after Maria has gone off to work, I bury the cat at the bottom of the garden. This is probably the most urgent task on the list. The rest can wait until later. Then, I watch the news while I assemble and polish my instrument. It is a Selmer Prelude alto, which while it is not a professional sax, does give a lovely rich sound. The celebrity newsreader who has just married the celebrity chef makes reference briefly to yesterday’s computer glitches but quickly moves back to their main story, the child abuse scandal that is rocking the political world. I turn it off and get started on the intro to Cool Blues. This is one of my favourite of Bird’s tunes and I am anxious to get the embouchure right.

After several attempts, I feel that I have got the feel of the first few bars, perhaps not with the panache of the master, but the tune is recognisable. I make myself a cup of tea. After lunch, I move some furniture around, line up some cans of paint in the spare room and hide the harmonium behind some dust sheets in the shed. I am then able to make some progress on the solo of Bird of Paradise before Maria gets home. Maria is pleased with my day’s work. After dinner, she lights the scented candles in the bedroom. I make a mental note to go on to the Agent Provocateur website.

The following day I manage to get the first wall of the spare room painted. There is no sense in hurrying these things. I then have time for a good run through of Night in Tunisia. It is quite a complex tune, one that is going to take a lot of practice. I’ve read that Bird used to practice up to fifteen hours a day, not on this one tune of course. I turn next to Lover Man. The slow tempo of this makes its fingering easier to master. It sounds good.

I would have liked to have lived in the 1950s, with the slower pace of life. Things must have been much simpler before digital technology took over our lives. There were no needy netbooks and tablets and no attention-seeking smartphones. People talked to each other, face to face. You probably even had proper friends and not just Facebook friends. You would not have had to press 1, 2, 3,4 and 5 on your keypads every time you made a phonecall and then be put be on hold listening to Orinocco Flow over and over again for twenty minutes before you were put through to the wrong department. Or be called day and night by robotic machines wanting to handle your mis-sold insurance claim.

Most of all, though, in the 1950s everyone would have listened to jazz. Swing, Bebop, Hard bop, cool jazz, modal jazz, there was a type to suit every mood. Even on the estate where I grew up, they would have been listening to Duke Ellington or Miles Davis, Chet Baker or Stan Getz. You would have gone down to the Palais on a Saturday night and danced to a jazz band. You would have met your partner there. The music was special which is why it is so enduring.

I am just putting the instrument away when I hear Maria’s car pull up. I quickly open the paper at the jobs pages. Maria storms in. She appears to be a little flustered.

The roads are gridlocked,’ she says, throwing her heavy bag down. ‘And those traffic lights at the Longditch roundabout were completely crazy.’

They are always bad there,’ I say, giving her a hug. ‘Its a wonder there aren’t more accidents.’

They were going off and on like a strobe light,’ she says, pushing me away. ‘There was just this endless chorus of car horns and drivers getting out of their cars and shouting at other drivers. I was there for ten minutes, too frightened to move.’

Probably water has got into the works or something,’ I say.

She breezes through to the kitchen. There is a clatter of dishes and I hear the microwave go on.

You could be doing this,’ she calls through to me.

I’ll do dinner tomorrow,’ I say.

And, when I was in the hairdressers,’ she says, her voice raised above the rumble of the microwave. ‘Louise was saying that the bloody trains have stopped running, something to do with signalling failure.’

There’s always something, isn’t there?’ I say. ‘I expect they will sort it out.’

She huffs loudly and goes on upstairs to change. She puts her head around the door of the spare room. She doesn’t comment on my progress. I see little prospect of a scented candle after dinner tonight.

It is 10 am and I am in the middle of Bye Bye Blackbird when the phone rings. At first, I leave it, but it carries on ringing. On the basis it might be important, I answer it, the saxophone still around my neck.

Hello. I’m Brice Cromer from the Gazette,’ says the voice. ‘Am I speaking to Brendan Rogue?’

Yes, you are,’ I say. Instantly I have reservations about acknowledging my identity, but what’s done is done. I swing the instrument behind my back.

And until two days ago you were working for the security organisation who don’t like to be named,’ he says. I imagine he thinks the description is humorous. The joke, however, is a little stale.

What is this about?’ I say in as challenging a manner as a mellow musician can muster.

It’s being reported that you are responsible for their little computer problem,’ Brice says.

He is referring to the data stick episode. How would he have got hold of the information and connected it back to me? It seems unlikely that any of my colleagues would have offered it voluntarily. They are a tight-lipped bunch and everyone as straight as a die. I can’t imagine how I got the job there in the first place with my record. They must have had a work experience student working in HR that day. I put the phone down. In case Brice calls again, I leave the receiver off.

I can’t concentrate on Bye Bye Blackbird any longer. I need a quiet place to think. I get the roller and brushes and resume painting the spare room. I seem to have a talent for digging myself into a hole. Ever since I was a boy I have landed myself in trouble by doing a succession of remarkably injudicious things while at the same time drawing attention to them. The expression hiding in the light comes to mind, not a great idea. Why did I get thrown out of school for smoking dope when none of my contemporaries did? How did I get into stealing cars before I was old enough to drive? Why did I always get arrested on protest marches? Did I even know what I was protesting about back then? Was it the need to be noticed? Perhaps I would never change. Perhaps I was born for trouble.

Before I know it, I have finished two more walls in blue planet. I am going to use Tibetan gold as an accent colour on the fourth wall, a combination I have seen on a design programme on television. I am planning now on finishing the room today. When Maria comes home she will be impressed by my achievement. After dinner, she might even light the scented candles again.

Maria arrives home unexpectedly at lunchtime. Is she checking on me, I wonder? Have I broken my word so many times that she feels she needs to monitor my progress? She clumps up the stairs. She has not even taken her boots off. Something is amiss.

Why are all those reporters outside?’ she demands.

W’what!’ I splutter. I had not imagined that this would happen so soon.

I go to the master bedroom to take a look. There are about a dozen of them on the driveway, big burly bastards with microphones and notebooks at the ready. There is also a TV camera crew, jostling for position. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with my musings to have heard the disturbance. But how could I have possibly missed them? Admittedly, getting the bell to work is one of the jobs on Maria’s list that I’ve not got round to yet, but, surely one of the hacks would have worked out that the bell wasn’t working and hammered on the door. Perhaps I was away with the fairies.

To my surprise, Maria agrees to go to the front door and keep the press busy while I dart out the back. She cannot know what I am up to. Can she? I grab my canvas messenger bag and make a run for it. Fortunately, my Jeep is parked in the back lane. I hadn’t planned it this way, but now time is probably short. I check my texts. ‘Guinness tastes better in the afternoon,’ says the one I am looking for. It is time to get started.

My next step is to find the locations where I am to deposit the rest of the flash drives. There are twenty-four in all to carry out the cyber attack, each bearing the deadly DuneWorm which regardless of platform will burrow into your system like an Alaskan mining drill. I have the map here showing the favoured targets. These I am told have been selected to cause maximum disruption. Others will be delivering the same message elsewhere round about now.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved