Play Your Sitar, Percy

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Play Your Sitar, Percy by Chris Green

We were carefree students caught up in the rapidly changing world of the late sixties. Five of us, Dylan, Barry, Roy, Syd and I shared a converted attic in a big old house, sufficiently far away from campus not to attract attention to us. We were stoned most of the time, occasionally turning in for lectures if they were late enough in the day. Lectures were certainly not the main focus of being a student back in 1969. Those were the days. Academic endeavour was taking a haitus.

Bob was not our usual dealer. He was a new kid on the block, so to speak. Byrd, a mutual acquaintance introduced us and we arranged to buy some hash from him. He had some Red Leb as I recall. It was late at night when Bob called round, not that there was anything unusual in this but he managed to knock up some of the Sports Science students, referred to affectionately the P.E. thickies, who had digs on the floor below before he realised that we lived on the top floor. Sports Science students bucked the trend. Unusually, they went to bed early and actually turned up for lectures to learn about golf swings or football refereeing or whatever it was they were studying. They were less than pleased to have been woken. It might not have been so bad had Bob not offered one of them a joint. But anyway, Bob eventually managed to find his way up the stairs.

The landlord had ingeniously divided the attic space up into five or six smaller units. It would be too generous to refer to them as rooms. But, their size did not matter greatly to us so long as you could fit a bed in there somewhere and have room for a stereo. We each had a stereo. We liked our music. There was a lot of it to like in the late sixties.

We got on with the business at hand and before we knew it we were all pleasantly stoned and burbling away as you did at late night sessions back in the day.

‘What’s behind that partition?’ Bob asked, out of the blue. He had heard a noise behind what might or might not have been a serving hatch and for some reason was curious.

‘Percy lives in there,’ Roy said. ‘He’s a hermit.’

‘Really? Bob said. ‘A hermit.’ He seemed quite excited by the idea of a recluse living in the roof space.

‘Percy never comes out,’ Barry said. ‘We pass through some melons and grapes for him occasionally and some sunflower seeds and he seems happy with the arrangement.’

‘He has a sitar,’ Dylan said, winking at me.

I spotted an opportunity and pretending I was going to the toilet, slid away to my room.

A few seconds later I heard Dylan shout, ‘Play your sitar, Percy.’

I had by now managed to find my Ravi Shankar record.

As the needle made its way down on to the disc, Ray repeated the request.

‘Play your sitar, Percy. Come on, Percy. Play your sitar.’

When I returned to the room, the opening theme of the raga was being sketched out. Bob’s face was a sight to behold. He had been taken in hook, line and sinker by our ruse. Meanwhile, we kept schtum and pretended to be in awe at Percy’s playing.

‘He’s fantastic, isn’t he?’ Bob said.

Dylan came out with some spiel about Percy having studied in India with Allauddin Khan, one of the great sitar players of old, before deciding he needed a more solitary life.

If the record hadn’t stuck in the groove a minute or two in, Bob might have taken longer to cotton on to what was happening. Perhaps he might never have found out, although in the cold light of day he would surely have realised he’d been taken in. As it was, his embarrassment was perhaps lessened by the effects a few spliffs of Red Leb. He was able to use being out of his head as an excuse for his being suckered. To his credit, he managed to suggest that it was a good advertisement for the quality of his wares. But, I imagine deep down Bob found this episode humiliating, something it would be difficult to live down. While we kept in touch, future business between us was always conducted elsewhere.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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Light Fandango

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LIGHT FANDANGO by Chris Green

July 1966: Sunny Afternoon

We are in the midst of a heatwave, there are smiles on people’s faces and Sunny Afternoon is at Number One. It seems that the gloom and austerity of the post-war years, which in my nineteen years is all I have known, have finally been stripped away. There is a new sense of optimism. According to Magic Max, the time is right for change. It’s the dawning of a new age, he says. A cultural shift is taking place. You only have to look around you to see that people are getting out a bit more and beginning to dress more colourfully.

There isn’t often a lunchtime rush at Licensed to Fill sandwich bar, more of a steady trickle of customers throughout the day. Although local artist, Gooch did some creative sign-writing to draw attention to our little establishment, we are not in what you might call a prime position. We are off the lower end of East Street. We are at the wrong end of Blind Alley to get the office workers from the banks and insurance companies and too near to the Eight Bells to be attractive to browsers from the gift shops in Coleridge Close.

However, today we are inundated. Swarms of young people in their gladrags are tentatively looking the place over to see what is going on. The singer from the Small Faces came in yesterday. I don’t know what he was doing here in the provinces but he seemed to know what he wanted. So, word has probably got around that there is more to be had at Licensed to Fill than cheese and tomato toasties and tuna mayonnaise baguettes. What we have is hashish. Nineteen kilos of Morocco’s finest that Arlo brought back last week in his converted camper van, along with his stories of how they smoke it freely everywhere in Marrakesh and Tangier. We can’t really put a sign up at Licensed to Fill advertising our new line as it is definitely illegal in the UK, but by the interest we are now getting perhaps we won’t need to advertise it. Word of mouth might be sufficient. Arlo says we just need to be cool. I think he means we need to keep an eye out for the law. Not that we see them too much in Sinton Green. It is not a crime hotspot.

Arlo runs Licensed to Fill with his partner, Orla. They bought the lease from Mr and Mrs Broccoli a few months ago. I am helping out at Licensed to Fill through the summer to supplement my meagre student grant. It was either this or deckchair attendant at Broad Sands beach which is ten miles away. An easy decision, as I have no transport. Licensed to Fill is a relaxed pace to work. We have a background soundtrack of all the latest releases as they come out. Arlo and Orla are hip to what’s happening. We’ve got Stan Getz, Miles Davis and John Coltrane. We’ve got Blonde on Blonde, Pet Sounds, Love, The Byrds’ Fifth Dimension and something by a new band called Jefferson Airplane. All to be played loudly.

September 1966: Tomorrow Never Knows

Magic Max might be right. Things are moving on. We have the Mothers of Invention. We have Seven and Seven Is. We have Revolver, with the transcendent, Tomorrow Never Knows. There is a new word, psychedelic. It’s not in the dictionary yet, but it will be. The whole language that we speak is changing. Guys are now dudes or cats and girls are now chicks or babes. Good things are a gas or a blast and bad things are a drag or a bummer. We’re having a name change too. Arlo and Orla have decided that the name Licensed to Fill is yesterday. James Bond is old hat. Gooch is painting a new sign. I’m not sure about the durability of a name like New Hat. People might think that it refers to a milliners, but it is Arlo and Orla’s decision. If they really were set on a hat theme, perhaps Mad Hatter might have been a better choice, considering the clientele we are getting lately. The dude in the floral brocade trousers and the lime green cowboy boots and the tall one in the orange boiler suit with the corkscrew hair, for instance. And the cat in the space suit, the one we call Major Tom. Someone should write about these people. They would make a great story, or a play, or maybe a song.

Our trade links with Morocco have been streamlined. Now the hash is brought over, hidden in cases of clothing and textiles. Being shipped it may be, but it is flying off the shelves. I think Arlo has an arrangement with the police, whereby he bungs them a few quid now and again and they turn a blind eye to what is going on in Blind Alley.

We have a monkey called Harold who performs magic tricks and a crimson-bellied parakeet called Oscar who mimics every sound he hears. Oscar can say hello, how are you today and would you like coleslaw on that. In addition, he warbles and whistles his way through the day like an accomplished flautist. His repertoire includes Autumn Leaves and Blue Rondo a la Turk along with passable imitations of Paint it Black and Norwegian Wood.

November 1966: Sunshine Superman

I missed enrolment. Somehow, it just slipped my mind and it’s been six weeks now. I won’t be going back to university. I can’t see the point. Sociology seems such a waste of time. All that number crunching about people’s lives and examining the ins and outs of matters that should simply be allowed to run their course. Besides, the opportunities for gratification are so much greater in this brave new world I am exploring through my connections with New Hat.

The cultural landscape, as Magic Max refers to it as, is becoming stranger by the week. I’m not sure who the Foucault and Bourdieu dudes that he speaks of are, but we do have conversations about the likes of Andy Warhol, Marshall McLuhan, RD Laing and Kurt Vonnegut, well, mostly Kurt Vonnegut, as I have just read Cat’s Cradle. We have started selling International Times, a cool new underground newspaper at the café. The editor, Miles is a friend of Arlo’s. But most importantly for us, the music is breaking new ground. With Sunshine Superman, Good Vibrations, Da Capo, and Don Cherry’s Symphony for Improvisers, stylistic boundaries are being expanded. Melody Maker is calling it progressive pop.

We have begun showing art-house films on Thursday evenings, Jean-Luc Godard, Truffaut, Resnais. I’m not sure what some of them are about but perhaps that’s not the point. They are ambiguous, dreamlike, surrealistic. Perhaps this is enough. Weird is cool. Last Year in Marienbad was long and baffling but oddly enjoyable. Orla says you should not look for meaning in everything, you should go with the flow, whatever that means. She punctuates her conversation with aphorisms, like, be here now, do not hate, meditate, and you’re either on the bus or off the bus.

Lately, I am finding it hard to get in to work on time. Ten am. seems very early. It’s not that work at New Hat is strenuous. It’s the changes in lifestyle. Late nights now seem obligatory. I’m often not in bed before six. It’s a good thing that most of the customers also seem to be late risers and that Arlo and Orla are not too concerned with New Hat attracting breakfast trade.

By midday, New Hat will be crowded with colourful people. There’s Satan Ziegler and the earth magic crowd, waxing lyrical about ley lines and UFOs. There are the dandies of the underworld and the laid back musos. Then there are the jugglers and the clowns. Denny, Lenny and Bozo are usually buzzing around doing their business and Spike and Stoner will be doing drug deals with anyone who comes in looking to have a little scene. Although they should be at odds, macrobiotics and toking sit surprisingly well together. By mid-afternoon, the seating area will be awash with half-empty dishes of millet and buckwheat, being used as ashtrays and the place will be bathed in a thick fug of blue smoke.

January 1967: Light My Fire

Arlo brought in an album called The Doors by a new band from Los Angeles called The Doors. The title refers to Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception, the celebrated author’s exaltation of psychoactive drugs. The music is minor-keyed, spacey and subterranean, with lyrics unashamedly about sex, death and getting stoned. It’s wild and free. New Hat has changed its name again. It is now called Soul Kitchen, after a track from the album. Soul Kitchen with the tagline, the doors are open.

Lots of cool things are starting to happen. The underground is burgeoning. It’s being called the counter-culture and its long-term aim is to overthrow straight society. This make take a few years but even Magic Max is surprised by the speed of change. A restless energy has taken hold. The emphasis is now firmly on youth. It’s a great time to be nineteen. Nineteen months ago I was still at school and now here I am living the most extravagantly decadent of lifestyles. There are Dita and Rita and Suzie and Pixie and, of course, there’s Mary Jane. Life is an endless party. I feel so alive, I’m probably going to live for ever. …….. There again, perhaps not. I’m with Pete Townshend on this one. I don’t think I’d like that. Imagine what it’s like being thirty five or forty. It must be awful.

April 1967: Strawberry Fields Forever

Soul Kitchen has been so successful that Arlo and Orla have taken out the lease on the vacant premises next door. It is colossal. We are going to have live entertainment and circus acts. You will be invited to bring flowers, incense, candles, banners, flags, families, animals, drums, cymbals and flutes to happenings here. Arlo feels that a few of these will really put Sinton Green on the map.

Artists and musicians from far and wide are already starting to drop in, despite the fact that we are miles from the capital. Peter Blake, the artist who is working on the cover for the new Beatles album has become a regular at Soul Kitchen and that dress designer who does the geometric prints comes in quite a lot. Salvador Dali, at least I think it was him, called in with a Siamese cat on his shoulder and promised to paint a mural. Brian Jones and his entourage dropped by last week, resplendent in their Berber finery and, I’m not sure, but do believe I saw Stanley Kubrick secretly filming here a day or two ago. I can’t be sure of everything. Things can be a bit blurry round the edges at times.

Rock music is reaching dizzying new heights. We have Cream. We have Pink Floyd. We have Purple Haze and Strawberry Fields and we now have paper suns. Paper suns are LSD. LSD or acid, as it is becoming known, heightens your awareness of yourself and your surroundings. You feel that you are floating and have a great sense of well-being. You experience things that were probably always there but you could never reach before. Acid helps you to appreciate music with all of your senses. You not only hear it but taste, smell, feel and see the music too.

Meanwhile, a moral panic is breaking out about acid. Nathan Blocker in The Daily Mail says that it makes you strangle kittens and jump out of fourth floor windows. That the God that people have claimed to see under its influence is not the Christian God but Beelzebub. Blocker goes on to says its advocates like Timothy Leary, Ram Dass and even Paul McCartney should be boiled alive, hung drawn and quartered or keel hauled. Well, something like that. Sufficient to say the paper is not in favour of LSD. My parents read the Mail, and aren’t what you might call free thinkers, so this will be their view too. I haven’t spoken to them since the row about Mao Tse Tung a year ago. I was only trying to wind them up; I didn’t really carry the Little Red Book around with me.

June 1967: A Whiter Shade of Pale

A Whiter Shade of Pale is at Number One. Everywhere people are skipping the light fandango and feeling kind of seasick. The crowd is calling out for more. Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is blaring out from living rooms across the country. The Fourteen Hour Technicolour Dream at Alexandra Palace in London, a tripped-out psychedelic gathering of the underground has set the scene for the summer. We are going to stage some far out gatherings of the tribes at Soul Kitchen.

But, philosopher-poet, Christian Dara, who sometimes pops in for his mint tea and Lebanese crêpe, says that this is it. The dream is already fading. It will soon be over. The underground, as it has been called, is becoming visible at ground level. The quiet revolution, he says, is being appropriated by the mainstream. There, it will be neutralised, cleansed and absorbed into the everyday. There will perhaps be a summer of beads and bells, love and peace and false sentiment and then it will be back to business. On to the next thing.

Why would turning on, tuning in and dropping out be any different to say, angry young men, teddy boys, mods and rockers?‘ he says. It’s just another fad. ……. In any case, it would not work.’

‘Why?’

‘It lacks substance. It’s impractical.’

‘How?’

‘OK, you’ve all turned on. That’s fine. You’re all sitting cross-legged on the floor. You all feel mellow yellow. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. ……. You’ve tuned in. You’re listening to some groovy music. You’re turning cartwheels across the floor. ……. You’ve created some cool art. You‘ve painted your rooms in a colourful way and everything around you is dripping in psychedelic patterns.

‘That’s what we want. Get loaded. Groovy music. Cool art. What’s wrong with that?’

‘Nothing. That’s fine. ……. But now, you’ve all dropped out. You’re calling out for another drink but there is no waiter to bring a tray. The waiter too has dropped out.’

‘Hey.’

There’s no plan. You have no plan.’

‘Perhaps we don’t need a plan. Life is organic, not mechanical.’

First of all, you need to identify how you want to shape your organic life. Decide what you want to create. Not what you want to stop, but what you want to make.

‘We’ll make love, not war.’

‘Well, that’s a start, I suppose, but what will you do then. You’ll have lots of babies.’

‘We’ll use contraceptives.’

‘But remember, the pharmacist who sells the contraceptives has dropped out. He’s off somewhere kissing the sky. You’ll have a growing population and no means to feed them. There are no crops. The farmer has dropped out. Or perhaps he has grown a different crop and he’s eight miles high. Should you not have factored all of this in? Everything will fall apart if you don’t have a plan. You will perish. You will …….. wait for it, turn a whiter shade of pale.’

That’s not going to happen.’

No. You’re probably right. Once they’ve woken up to what is going on, the powers that be will be on your case. And you‘ll be busted, busted and busted again and your dealers will end up in jail. And then you’ll have no drugs. And no motivation. At best, you’ll end up as small enclaves of weekend hippies, working at dead-end jobs to pay for damp basement flats, saving up to go to occasional pop festivals to listen to long-haired bands singing protest songs about police brutality and conflicts in far off lands. A far cry from skipping the light fandango.

© Chris Green 2016 : All rights reserved

The Black Book

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The Black Book by Chris Green

When I was growing up in the nineteen sixties, I was surrounded by books. The bookshelves in Grey Gables, the big old house in Gloucestershire where we lived were full, but there was one particular book I was told I must never read. It was referred to simply as The Black Book. No explanation was offered, but under no circumstances must I even touch it. There were a number of house rules back then, which as I saw it were there to be broken, but for reasons its hard to explain I understood this rule to be somehow less negotiable. I had no idea what they were, but I was of the view that there would be grave consequences if I transgressed.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the book may have been some grimoire or occult classic, let me state that this was not the case. This was not The Clavicule Of Solomon or The Book Of Honorius or anything like that. The Bible then, you might be thinking. Bibles are black. A big no here too. My parents were regular church goers. Three times a week sometimes. Why would they forbid me to read the Bible? They practically threw Bibles at me.

Sandwiched between old copies of The Compleat Angler and Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, The Black Book looked like an ordinary leather bound book. The only difference was there was no title or author’s name on the spine, nothing to suggest what might be inside. As you can imagine it was a tantalising mystery. When my school friends came round to visit, they too were curious about The Black Book. From time to time we would idly speculate about what exactly it might be.

‘Might its pages be black too?’ one of us might say. For point of argument, this would probably be Adam. He was the smart aleck among us.

‘Wouldn’t that make it difficult to read?’ someone might say. Let’s say Roger. Roger was the most systematic thinker in our little group.

‘Probably not as hard as Silas Marner,’ David might say. I would more than likely have agreed with David here. It was after all ridiculous to expect fourteen year old boys in modern times to become interested in a long meandering tale of a Calvinist weaver in the pre Victorian north of England.

‘Or King Lear,’ Peter might say. ‘What a load of wank that is.’

‘You think that Lear is tough going,’ I might say. ‘You will find Coriolanus unfathomable. You might as well be reading a bicycle repair manual in Welsh.’

Truth be told, all of us in the B stream at Greystone Grammar School found most of the required reading difficult. Wasn’t this the intention? Oh! And that the books must be boring. Why do you think we passed Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics around in class?

Obviously there were times when we were tempted to have a peek inside The Black Book. With so much mystique surrounding it, who wouldn’t? The thinking would be if we had a look and put it back carefully in the same place, no-one would be able to find out. It was not as if the books on this particular shelf were read very often. But each time temptation arose, something, an invisible yet powerful force, held us back. Each of us had the strange intuition that by opening the book we would cross a line that must not be crossed. It would be ….. dark on the other side.

It was not that we were faint hearted. We weren’t. We did all of things that rebellious grammar school boys do growing up. Smoked cigarettes behind the Science block. Smoked weed behind the science block. Smoked weed in the science block. Grew weed in the science block. We got bolder and bolder. We constantly dared each other to go one step further. We stole push bikes. We stole motor bikes. We even stole Ugg Stanton’s car. Ugg taught us History. When I say taught, I use the term euphemistically. He was a hopeless teacher, secondperhaps only to Hans Orff, who euphemistically taught us German. But despite our insurgent proclivities, The Black Book remained a no-no.

In my later teenage years, what with outside interests and all that, I did not give it much thought. I was not around the house very much. I had no interest in entering into lengthy discussions with Pater about the nature of sin or whether there was life after death. Clearly you wouldn’t find out if there was a Heaven or Hell until the time came. With hormones racing, there were more important matters to attend to. Diana, Elaine and Fiona for example. My wild oats were there to be sown. What else could I do? There was a reputation to be established. Burgeoning adolescence gave no quarter.

Some time later, on a rare home visit from university I slipped into the library, as my parents referred to the room. I noticed that The Black Book was now bookended by Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed to me that it was also on a different shelf.

I asked my father about this.

‘The cleaner must have moved it, son,’ he said. ‘but she’s ….. no longer with us.’

‘Been gone a while now,’ said Mum.

Oh well, I thought. Getting rid of home help was one of the few hobbies they had. They had to have some pleasures to brighten up their dull lives. Pops meanwhile got back to berating me, with renewed vigour.

‘Why don’t you get a hair cut, lad?’ he said. ‘Do they let you wear those ridiculous clothes at Leeds? You look like a pansy. What bloody good is Media Studies anyway? What are you going to do, be a gopher at Thames Television?’

I wasn’t going to be spoken to like this. I decided to take a time out. There was a good pub in the next village. Over a couple of pints of Old Bastard in The Belted Galloway, I got to thinking, if the forbidden book had been moved so unceremoniously, maybe it was not so dangerous after all. The temptation to take a look became stronger than it had ever been. By the end of the second pint it had become all consuming. I would finally discover what had been hidden from me for all these years.

After a frosty dinner, trading insults, I excused myself and sneaked off to the library. I took a deep breath and braced myself. Whatever dark secrets The Black Book held would soon be revealed. But just as I was about to take the book down from the shelf and examine it, an invisible force took hold. It felt like I was reaching out into dark and empty space with a thousand watts of electrical current pulsing through my flailing limbs. My whole body became numb and I collapsed in a writhing heap on the floor. I was petrified. The paramedics could not work out what had happened. I kept quiet about the book. If you are going to face ridicule, it is best not to do so in your own home.

I did not go near the library for the rest of my stay. In fact I curtailed my stay and did not visit my parents again for a number of years.

After university with my hard earned Desmond (2:2), I got a job at Thames Television as Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Regional Promotions Editor. It was at Thames that I met Sarah. Sarah had a job title similar to my own, but then Thames did employ about forty thousand people at the time. There were a lot of errands to run. There was a lot of tea to make. Sarah and I got to know each other quickly and moved in together into a small flat in Hammersmith, West London. In the seventies Hammersmith was the very cauldron of change, as with the empire striking back, London became truly international. Within a square mile you could find families from every corner of the globe.

I mentioned The Black Book once or twice to Sarah, after a few drinks. I couldn’t help it. It was something that just came out now and again. Regrettably she began to show too keen an interest in it. I could sense that she was eager to see what all the fuss about. I stood my ground. I resisted. I did not want to go back home yet. I was not ready.

‘There’s no real point in going to see it,’ I said. ‘Unless we are going to take a look inside the thing.’ I imagined that when it came down to it, the book would work its arcane magic and keep her at bay, as it had with me and with my school friends. I was just saving her the trouble of finding this out.

‘Then perhaps we should take a look inside,’ she said. ‘This mumbo jumbo about the bloody book is probably all in your imagination. Have you thought of that? You do get worked up about little things sometimes.’

There was another objection. My trump card, I felt.

‘My parents and I don’t even speak,’ I said, hoping that this would seal it. ‘You know I haven’t been home in years.’

‘Then you definitely should,’ she said. ‘Look! Your Mum has to my knowledge phoned at least half a dozen times and you’ve not got back to her. And even your Dad phoned once and left a message and you never had the decency to call back. It’s time to lay those ghosts to rest, Clive. Time to put your petty vendetta to bed and start behaving like an adult.’

‘I shouldn’t have let them have the number.’

‘In any case, we’ve been together for three years. Don’t you think I might like to meet your parents?’

‘I can’t think why you would,’ I said.

‘And you never think about your inheritance, Clive.’

‘So this is what this is about, is it?’

‘No but one day …….’

‘I never think about the future.’

‘Then you should. You can’t run away from it, because it is going to happen.’

Little by little Sarah used her guile to persuade me to take the plunge and renew my severed ties.

‘We’ll go in the new year,’ I said finally, hoping that over the festive period she might forget.

Sarah didn’t forget. Over the Christmas holidays, her insistence became stronger. So, on the second Friday of January, we drove across the country to the family pile. The snow we had had earlier in the week was beginning to thaw, but not so much that it spoiled the picture postcard views of the rolling Cotswold hills. Perhaps I had become used to driving in London, but for once it seemed that there was little traffic on the road. We passed a joint back and forth and listened to a cassette of Kaya, Bob Marley and The Wailers new album. We had been fortunate enough to see them play at The Plaza de Toros in Ibiza earlier in the year. They were spectacular.

As we drove through the rural idyll, the winter sun shone and the sky was an azure blue. The wealth of the wool towns and villages of West Oxfordshire set against the frozen landscape offered a bounty of chocolate box views. In the Windrush valley we watched a red kite swoop down from a great height. I had not seen one for years, not since a group of us went camping in Mid Wales for our Duke Of Edinburgh Award Scheme expedition. I took the sighting to be a good omen. I began to think that I might have been wrong in my decision to keep the family at a distance. Sarah’s family had always been close. She saw them every week. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have taken my father’s comments so much to heart. After all, he had always been a cold fish. I shouldn’t expect him to change now. That he had actually phoned and left a message, albeit quite a sour one was was as much as I could reasonably expect. In fact that he had left a message at all could probably be described as progress. Perhaps too I had been mistaken about the perils of The Black Book. Imagination could be a powerful force. Maybe there was nothing to fear.

From a distance I could see Dad’s grey Rover 3.5 parked on the drive, along with the green Morris Traveller that Mum drove. You don’t expect to see a lot of changes to Cotswold country houses, but it was clear that there were no concessions here to modernity. No double glazing. No extension. No vine covered pergola. The house was exactly as it always had been. Before going in, we took a look round the back. Maybe this was my way of delaying the reunion for a few more minutes, while I got used to the idea of being back, but the garden too was unchanged. The borders were exactly as I remembered them, the lawns carefully manicured as they had always been. The trees were the same size. Five years and they appeared not to have grown an inch. The shrubs were the same size. Even the ornamental statues and the rustic water feature were weathered to the same degree. The summer house was still in the same state of crumbling decay as it was when I left.

Eventually we went into the house and I introduced Sarah. She made a joke about all the number of layers of clothing she was wearing. This helped to break the ice. The frosty reception I might have received had I come alone was averted by Sarah’s bubbly personality. Mum and Dad were able to focus on a conversation with her and thus able to completely ignore me. This suited me just fine. I listened to them making small talk and watched the hands of the grandfather clock as they moved around to quarter past three. I recalled all the times it had woken me up throughout the night, chiming as it did every fifteen minutes. Surely there must have been a mechanism to prevent this.

By about four o’clock the conversation seemed to have run dry. They had brought up all the embarrassing facts about my childhood that they could remember and Sarah had filled them in on the latest blockbuster that would be going out on ITV. They offered to give Sarah a tour of the house. They wanted to start by showing her her room, my room, our room. I knew that the room would be frozen in time. The posters for Superfly and 200 Motels would still adorn the walls. Pater would make some snide remark about one or the other. I saw this as a good point to sneak off to the library. It had the familiar musty smell of old books. There were probably close to a thousand of them in all. I could not spot it at first, but there was The Black Book, on the top shelf now sandwiched in between Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Bertrand Russell’s Has Man A Future? Had the cleaner again been responsible for the rearrangement, I wondered. Had she too since been dispatched?

I reached up and carefully took The Black Book down from the shelf. For the briefest time I held it in my hand. Then all at once time became ……. suspended. One moment I was breathing, with blood running through my veins and thoughts going through my head, albeit what if thoughts, soft and foggy thoughts, slipping away thoughts, the next moment there was nothing. No-one, nothing. Like there never had been anyone, anything. Don’t expect a tunnel of light, or St Peter waiting to greet you, when it happens. Its not even like waiting for a bus that you know is not going to come along, as someone once described it. There is just an empty hollow void. Silence forever. Eternal nothingness.

I wonder who could be writing this story.

Whoever it is instructs you to leave the Black Book on the shelf. You should not take it down until it is time ………

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

Sticks

sticks5

Sticks by Chris Green

1.

‘Broadband?’ says Mr Silver, scratching his head. ‘No, we don’t have broadband here. Whatever that is when it’s at home.’

‘The internet,’ I say. ‘Are you still on dial up round these parts, perhaps?’

He looks around for someone else to ask, but there is no-one else in the shop.

‘It’s OK, I can manage without it for now,’ I say, sensing his embarrassment. It is well known that fibre optic coverage is poor in rural areas. I don’t want to come across as too metropolitan.

‘Sorry,’ he says, sheepishly.

‘But I do need an aerial for my TV,’ I say.

‘We don’t actually stock them,’ he says. ‘But we can probably order one for you. You want one that gets BBC and ITV, I expect. It will take about two weeks. And then if you want we can get Mr Eager to fit it for you. Mr Eager has a ladder.’

‘Is that all you can get here, BBC and ITV?’ I say. ‘No digital?’

‘We’re a hardware store not a magic show,’ he says, fiddling with the buttons on his knitted waistcoat. ‘You’ve moved into the Devlins’ cottage by the old mill haven’t you?’

‘I moved in yesterday,’

‘How are you settling in? ‘

‘It’s OK,’ I say. ‘But it’s not well equipped.’

‘You’ll probably be needing a kettle then. Would you like a whistling one or a standard one? We’ve got both types.’

‘I’ve got a kettle,’ I say. ‘An electric one.’

‘An electric one, eh? I don’t think I’ve seen one of those.’

‘But I will need a new plug. At the cottage they are still using the round pin sockets.’

‘We do have plugs. How many would you like?’

‘I’d better take a dozen then while I’m in here.’

‘Anything else we can help you with?’

‘I can’t seem to get a signal on my phone. I suppose that it drops out a lot out here in the sticks. I know Vodafone is not the best, so I might have to change networks. I thought you might know.’

I take out my Samsung and show him. It’s as if I’ve shown him the Orb or the Diadem.

‘What the blazes is that?’ he says.

‘You are a bit behind the times here,’ I say. ‘It’s a 3G smartphone,’

‘A 3G smartphone. Well, I never. What does it do?’

‘Well, not very much without a signal.’

The shopkeeper’s bell rings and another customer comes in. He exchanges a rustic greeting with Mr Silver. I am anxious not to become the centre of attention in this small community. I have come down to this hinterland to keep a low profile. I tell Mr Silver I will call in later for the plugs.

I had not been to view the cottage before taking on the six-month tenancy, as it was too far away and due to the turn of events, I felt I needed to move quickly. Conway and Tillotson were very helpful in finding me somewhere, but the pictures they sent did little to convey the degree of isolation of this community. I realised that Littlechurch was something of a backwater, but I had expected it to have a few concessions to modernity. The juggernaut of progress tends to take no prisoners as it ploughs its path, but somehow it seems to have completely bypassed Littlechurch.

But, shouldn’t I have realised when I first arrived yesterday that something was odd? The sit up and beg bicycles left unlocked outside the houses were relics from a bygone age. The fact that all the cars were old and that there were so few of them should also have given me a clue. How could I have missed the headline on the board outside the grocers come newsagents about Sputnik? Or the poster advertising The Ladykillers starring Alec Guinness at the village hall next Thursday afternoon. Yet I noticed none of these things. All I can say in mitigation is that I was tired after a long drive.

I make my way back to the cottage to take stock. As I drive up, some boys in grey flannel short trousers take a keen interest in my Ford Focus. It’s an everyday sort of car but they behave as if they have never seen anything like it before. Concerned by their interest, I decide to park it round the back out of harm’s way.

The prices in the village are still in pounds, shillings and pence. Surely this is taking heritage and preservation too far. It occurs to me that my cash might not be accepted here, nor I imagine my Visa or Barclaycard. Fortunately, I do still have a cheque book. I can use this to make purchases and just write the cheques in the old money. On the plus side, I expect everything will seem remarkably cheap, which is just as well because I do need a whole range of provisions. I do not even have milk to go in my tea. For that matter, I do not even have tea to go in my tea.

I figure that it is best to try and fit in here while I discover what is happening. I call in to Coward’s General Store and Newsagents, a brown and gold double fronted shop with period detail. You don’t see those cutaway typefaces much any more. The art of the sign-writer is disappearing. A vintage green and cream BSA Bantam is parked on the pavement. There are adverts outside the shop for Senior Service, Craven A, Gold Flake, and Woodbine. My first cigarette I recall was a Woody in the bicycle sheds in my last year at Frank Portrait Junior School, over forty years ago. I was sick and could not go into Mr Crudd’s afternoon class. But somehow this did not deter me. Smoking for young lads was less of a life choice then, it was almost compulsory.

I step inside. The shelves resemble Robert Opie’s packaging museum. Brooke Bond Dividend Tea, Bovril, Fray Bentos, Bournvita, Golden Wonder, Daz, Omo, Sunlight, Brylcreem, Alka Selzer, all these forgotten brands. Ah Bisto! brings back memories of Sunday lunches, beef one week and lamb the next, my sister Sarah and I subjected to the horrors of Two Way Family Favourites on the radio while we waited for the joints of meat to catch up with the stewed vegetables. There was no daytime TV then.

A middle-aged man wearing a starched white shirt, striped braces with a polka dot bow tie emerges from a cloud of cigarette smoke and interrupts my reverie.

‘Hello. I’m Mr Coward,’ he says. ‘Mr Silver was telling me about you.’

I don’t introduce myself by name.

‘You’ve moved into the Devlins’ cottage by the old mill haven’t you? he says.

‘News travels fast in these parts,’ I say.

‘Long John said something about a strange phone you have,’ he says.

Given my situation, I should know better, but Mr Coward seems one of life’s innocents, so I show him the phone. He thinks that it is very clever that you can take photos, add up numbers and type into it, but he is disappointed that you can’t use it as a telephone.

‘LJ also said you were talking about something called the enternet,’ he says. ‘He thought I might know what is was, but I’ve never heard of it. I even had a look through my Pears’ Cyclopaedia. What is this enternet?’

‘Internet, not enternet,’ I say.

‘Internet,’ he repeats, waiting for me to elaborate.

It is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite to link several billion devices worldwide, and it is an integral part of our everyday lives,’ though simplistic, seems too complicated an explanation for this situation. How can I begin to explain browsers, search engines, surfing, emails, streaming, gaming, social networking, VOIP and podcasting to someone who has not come across the Internet.

‘It’s a bit like the post office,’ I say instead. ‘But a lot quicker with its deliveries.’

Mr Coward tells me it can take as long as two weeks for a letter from London to reach them, then launches into a brief history of Littlechurch which is brief because Littlechurch has little history. It used to have a lot of sheep and there are now not so many. They built a little church in the fourteenth century but parishioners stopped going so it was de-consecrated in the 1930s. It has never been a market town and the railway missed it by ten miles. Most of the houses now have electricity. There is a pub called the King’s Head and the police station is open every second Wednesday.

After I have put away my provisions, I venture up the hill to the King’s Head, thinking I might be able to have a hearty meal there along with a pint or two. The King’s Head it turns out does not serve food.

‘Never has, never will,’ says Amos, the landlord. ‘Pubs are for supping.’

‘I’ll just have a pint of your best,’ then I say.

‘Fraid we’re right out of beer,’ he says. ‘Been waiting for a delivery for over a week. All we’ve got is farmer’s cider.’

‘I’ll have a pint of that then,’ I say.

‘Draymens’ strike,’ Amos continues. ‘I’ve lost nearly all me regulars. There’s just these two left.’

Albert and Joss look up from their cloudy green liquid.

‘You’ll be the new bloke what’s just moved in to the Devlins’ place,’ says Albert.

‘What’s it like up there since old Ma Riley got butchered?’ says Joss.

‘What?’ I say. I am surprised that Mr Coward omitted this from his potted history. This elevates Littlechurch from a sleepy backwater to somewhere where something happened.

‘You mean you didn’t know about Ma Riley,’ says Albert studying the look of shock on my face.

‘Right gruesome it was. Cut her into little pieces and put her in plastic bags in the dustbin, he did.’

‘Place has been empty ever since,’ says Joss. ‘Couldn’t let it. No bugger wanted to live there. How long has it been, Amos? A year or more do you think?’

‘Take no notice of them,’ says Amos. ‘They’re pulling your pisser.’

2.

I don’t know if you have ever found yourself in a place where there is no stimulation whatsoever. A place where you wish there were church bells to liven things up or wish that Jehovah’s Witnesses would drop by for a chat. You will be familiar with the expression stir crazy, especially if you know someone that has been in prison. Perhaps you yourself have been in prison. Well, let me tell you, you don’t need to be locked up to be stir crazy. After two weeks of living in Littlechurch I am climbing up the walls. I am completely without home entertainment. Although I have fitted round pin plugs to my laptop and to my phone charger there is no sign whatever of wifi and no hint of a phone signal no matter where I take them in the village. Not only is there no wifi but I have no TV and LJ’s store has just sold out of radios. To to cap it all the mobile library which is seen as a bit of a highlight here has stopped coming. I go in to Cowards to get an evening paper each day but for some reason they have always just sold out.

‘Local people have become very interested in news about Sputnik,’ Mrs Coward says. ‘The Gazette says they might send a man into space soon.’ Mr Coward has not been in the general store much lately. Perhaps he’s been selected as a candidate.

Mrs Coward is a much duller conversationalist than her husband. Yesterday was a good day for drying the washing but today not so good. The best day was about a week ago when the washing dried in a matter of hours. I am wondering what Mr and Mrs Coward get up to that requires her to do so much washing.

The draymens’ strike has not been resolved and the Kings Head hasn’t had its delivery of beer. Even the supply of farmers’ cider has run out. Without even Joss and Albert to entertain, Amos has closed the pub altogether. There is not another pub nearby, in fact there is not another village nearby. Sputnik’s progress aside, people in Littlechurch appear so incurious. They don’t appear to venture outside their houses very much. It is rare to meet anyone on the street. When I do come across someone, they have that faraway look in their eye. About half a dozen of them come along to the village hall screenings. It turns out that The Ladykillers starring Alec Guinness was not just a one off, they show it every Thursday afternoon and on a Friday evening as well. After the third viewing, the jokes begin to wear a little thin.

I decide it is time to find out if the heat has died down back home. One day I suppose I will have to go back and face the music. While it is hard to imagine vandalism being a big problem in Littlechurch, I find to my chagrin that both phone boxes have been vandalised. Perhaps it was the boys in grey flannel short trousers I have seen a couple of times. I take a trip to the Fina filling station a mile or so from the village, but as I feared it does not sell unleaded petrol. To add to my isolation, they have just started major road works on the only road in and out of Littlechurch. The signs say that the road will be closed for seven days. LJ explains that this is due to a recently discovered geological anomaly which if not attended to will cause dangerous subsidence in the future. They have to reroute a stretch of two hundred yards of road. I tell him that they seem to have closed about four miles and they have an armed guard.

‘You should have had a notice through your door about it,’ he says. ‘Quite interesting geology we have around here. There are elements of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.’

‘No, I didn’t get anything through the door.’

‘No, neither did I, come to think of it, but that’s the Ministry of Transport for you.’

‘Aren’t you worried that it will affect your business?’ I ask.

‘I only run the shop as a kind of hobby,’ he says. ‘I started off making nesting boxes and before I knew it I was making raised planters and garden furniture. People started buying things that I made and I couldn’t keep up with demand. But, still it keeps me off the streets.’

‘I’ve been meaning to mention that, there never seems to be a soul on the streets.’

‘Oh really! I hadn’t noticed that myself. I’ve always thought of Littlechurch as a busy little place. There was even talk not so long ago of having a coffee morning at the community centre. That was before it closed of course.’

3.

Just a few days behind schedule the road opens again and I manage to get the Focus to a filling station that sells unleaded. It is touch and go, with the fuel gauge on red all the way. I am fortunate, the forecourt attendant says. They are one of the first garages to stock unleaded. He is curious about my car. Did I import it? he wonders. He finds the number plate a little puzzling too. I just play along with him. It’s astonishing how backward things are in this part of the world.

From there I am able to drive the final ten miles to Biggerchurch. Biggerchurch is a thriving metropolis compared to Littlechurch. It still has a church I notice as I drive around looking for a quiet spot to park. Apparently Biggerchurch even used to have a branch line railway station before the Beeching cuts and was once a market town. It looks much more cosmopolitan than its neighbour. It has a fish and chip shop, an off-licence, a laundrette and even has some 1960s housing. Vodafone still isn’t connecting though. I spot an un-vandalised phone box. All I need now are some coins that fit.

I see from a psychedelic poster on the bus shelter that there is a free festival in a farmer’s field nearby starting later with Jethro Tull, The Pretty Things and The Incredible String Band. This explains why the town is packed with hippies. Groups of them in uniform of jeans with sewn in patches to make them flared topped with tie died green and orange safari jackets maraud the narrow streets. One such group gathers outside Keith Shakespeare Radio and Television to watch an old black and white set showing footage of the moon landings.

‘Far out, isn’t it, man,’ says a flower child lost in a menagerie of decorative neck-scarves. ‘Those cats are too much.’ It takes me a moment to realise firstly that he is talking about the astronauts on the TV and secondly that he is addressing me.

I give a non-committal reply and turn down the spliff he offers me.

‘Hey! Look! He’s jumping up and down. What a gas!’ says a hippie chick with lank blonde hair and a plague of nasal jewellery. She nudges me in case I miss the action. She is wearing an Afghan coat. In July.

On the screen, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their spacesuits are demonstrating zero gravity. It is difficult to get excited about something that happened so long ago. I am more concerned about my own here and now, or my own here and then. But, whatever is happening in my own personal hyperreality, at least, I am a dozen years further along.

‘They’re not really on the moon of course,’ says a swarthy freak with big Afro hair and chin curtain beard. ‘Look at the shadows, man. They’re just like you would see from studio lights on a Hollywood film. The whole thing’s a fake.’

This sounds a familiar argument. Is this the very genesis of conspiracy theory? I ask them if any of them have change for a five pound note so that I can make some phone calls.’

‘You’re jiving me, man,’ says the dark skinned one in the brightly coloured Moroccan hat. ‘That’s Monopoly money or something you have there.’

This has the effect of killing negotiations with any of the others.

I take my fiver into the nearest shops and I find a similar reluctance to acknowledge the currency. The man in the saddler’s holds it up to the light, before shaking his head. The butcher waves a meat cleaver at me. The lady in the pet shop threatens to call the police.

This was how it had all started. With the police. The arrest. Perhaps I overreacted by disappearing before the court case. Perhaps I shouldn’t have come down here. I might have got off with a community sentence. After all, it was an innocent mistake. You’ve probably done the same. Purely by accident you’ve probably put the shop takings for the week into the wrong account. Into your account. I have to admit that I did think at the time the cashier at the bank looked a little surprised. Did you find this too?

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved