Cor Anglais

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Cor Anglais by Chris Green

I’m guessing many of you haven’t had someone following you in the fog playing The Diabelli Variations on the cor anglais. Beethoven piano pieces aren’t something you expect to hear on a double reed woodwind instrument in a concert hall, let alone while you are taking a morning walk along the coastal path. You will be able then to understand my puzzlement. Here I am on my way to Red Rock and so is the mystery cor anglais player in pursuit. Sea mists have been building in strength throughout the year in these parts and this is the worst one we’ve had. It’s a solid sheet of dense grey. Visibility is down a matter of feet. It is foolhardy to be walking along the narrow path at all. But the dogs next door were barking furiously. I could no longer concentrate on the chess video I was watching. The so-called game of the (last) century, Bobby Fischer versus Donald Byrne. We had reached Fischer’s famous Queen sacrifice on move seventeen. There were only four moves to go but I had to get out of the house.

When I stop to allow my pursuer to catch up so that I can catch a glimpse, he stops too. But he continues playing. I have only a rudimentary knowledge of music but my understanding is that the range of the English horn is a little under four octaves while the pianoforte spans seven octaves. As Beethoven was one to make full use of the keyboard, you would have to say this interpretation of the Diabelli Variations falls short.

My phone rings. ‘Bonjour Monsieur Gibson,’ the caller says.

He continues speaking in French but slowly, as if it is not his main language. Not that this helps. My knowledge of French is almost non-existent. I blame this on my old language teacher, Mr Coot. I don’t think his heart was in it. He spent whole lessons talking about cricket or telling us about the time he met Harold Macmillan. I wasn’t able to learn much French. But argent means money, doesn’t it? And I can make out the words, fils and tuer. Son. Kill. I don’t much like where the conversation is heading. I was wondering why Paul hadn’t phoned me but I had put it down to his being too busy with his Environmental Science assignment and not because he was being held hostage. It appears he’s been kidnapped. There’s not a lot else that kidnappé can mean, is there? I can’t understand much of the rest though. What’s the point in him issuing a threat in a language I don’t understand?

I try to get the caller to speak English but he clearly wants to call the shots. When he hangs up, I still have no idea who he is, how or why he might be holding Paul or exactly what his demands are. Why does he imagine that I have any money, anyway? Since I lost my job at the software company, I have been living on handouts. Could the phonecall even be a hoax? Someone pretending to be French? To confuse the issue, shift the emphasis? Might it even be something Paul has for some reason cooked up with his friends? Probably not. It does not seem like the kind of thing Paul would do. In any case, it would be irresponsible for me to let the matter go. For the time being, I have to assume my son is being held to ransom and it is not a hoax. I need to phone the police. Unfortunately, the Emergency 999 service has been suspended and I don’t have enough credit to phone the 118 Directory Enquiries services to get a number.

It is getting murkier by the minute. I need to take stock and get to a phone I can use. I remember my old chess buddy, Krzysztof lives close by, in a static home in the holiday park. He rents it cheaply during the winter months and I haven’t seen him for a while. Krzysztof is a resourceful man. He is one of those fortunate people that know how to get out of difficult situations. I’m certain he will be able to help. He will know what I should do.

I give him a call and explain my predicament.

Strange things are happening to us all, my friend,’ he says. ‘These days, day is night and black is white.’

I agree with him. Things are indeed upside down. Until recently, Paul’s future seemed guaranteed. The world was crying out for environmental scientists. But how quickly things change. Unlike climate, which is officially not now changing, even though everyone can see it is. I am not a great one for reading the papers but the outlook hasn’t looked good since the big squabble started. Then there was that other business. The one we voted on. It’s a shame the young did not get out to vote because it is going to be worse for them. Wherever you look now there is doom and gloom. Censored internet. Less choice. Poor prospects. Smaller horizons. You probably remember those days not so long ago when you could book a holiday in the sun. You could fly anywhere. Chess players from my club can no longer play any of the guys from overseas. Sundays have been replaced by Mondays, they are fracking in the park, packs of dogs are roaming the streets and a bottle of red wine costs an arm and a leg.

When I arrive at Krzysztof’s, I find to my horror that he has no face. I look at him but no-one is looking back at me. Between the collar of his shirt and his hat, there is a void. No eyes. No ears. No mouth. He did not warn me about this. Would it have been better if he had given me the heads-up? I don’t know. It would still have been a shock. Some of you may not have experienced it but until you get used to talking to a hat bobbing up and down and stranger still, the hat talking back, it can be disorientating. I try not to draw attention to it but Krzysztof detects I am uncomfortable and tries to put me at ease.

It’s not as unusual as you might imagine, Bill’ he says. ‘Many people from my country living here have no faces now. It’s one way we are able to stay put since that vote.’

On the other hand, they’ve made it easier to stay put,’ I say. ‘There’s not even a rail link to the continent anymore.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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It Doesn’t Matter Anymore

itdoesntmatteranymore

It Doesn’t Matter Anymore by Chris Green

I have just taken delivery of a large pot of gloss sealer when the call comes through on the burner. I was not expecting to be back in action so soon. I was hoping to finish off some painted ornamental stones, a hobby I’ve taken up to keep me mellow and mindful in between assignments. Art therapy, I suppose you would call it. Then perhaps spend the weekend with Sakura in Juan-les-Pins. But this is the way it is with sleeper agents. A few weeks of leisure in quiet surroundings followed by what might be weeks of uncertainty, dicing with death.

I send Sakura a text message saying I’ve been called away on business and then I turn off my personal mobile. I do not go into detail. I tell her, it’s a last-minute thing and my phone will be out of range for a while. Sakura doesn’t know what I do for a living. She thinks I’m a reclusive writer. When the time is right, I will tell her but for now, it’s best to observe the security procedures that go with my position. In my world, everything is on a need-to-know basis.

Although I have been signed up for three years, I have never met Ж, the head honcho of Department Z but rumours circulate. It is said Ж is famous for his riddles. Perhaps they help him diffuse the seriousness of the business we are in. He tells me I am to rendezvous with Buddy Holly at Gloucester Services on the M5 in Southern England. I don’t imagine that Buddy Holly is his real name. For that matter, I’m not sure that Buddy Holly was Buddy Holly’s real name.

I have no difficulty in finding my contact. I can see right away why Ж referred to him as Buddy Holly. With the trademark thick black spectacles, charcoal nineteen-fifties suit and slim red tie, he is the spitting image. I expect him to pick up a Stratocaster and start belting out Peggy Sue at any moment. He doesn’t. With the Department’s bear’s paw handshake, he introduces himself formally as Ћ. We sometimes never get to be on last name terms with our associates, let alone first names. The degree of familiarity depends on the level of security needed for a particular operation. This one is Category X, the highest category. There will probably not too many opportunities then to discuss the durability of Winsor and Newton acrylics here or the new exhibition of Cornish Modernists that is starting at Tate St Ives. Significant upheaval must be taking place.

A phonecall from Ж establishes what we are being assigned to investigate. It is indeed a biggie. North of Gloucester, he tells us, it is no longer getting light in the mornings as it should in April. The further north you go, the later the dawn is. In Birmingham, the clouds peel back after 9 and by the time you get to Sheffield, the dawn chorus arrives around 10:15. He says it is a mystery what might be causing this. Surprisingly not everyone in these areas has even noticed the anomaly and for some reason, it is not being reported in the press. Not even the weather-obsessed Daily Express is covering it. The implications are huge. Our remit is to find out what is happening and why it is happening.

I can’t help but be curious as to why I have been selected as I do not have a scientific background. Certainly not one in Physics. My background is in the Arts. Literature to be specific, magical realism. I can conjure up a carnivorous jungle or a bottomless well out of nothing. Talking cats are a speciality. So why has Ж selected me? Perhaps that is it. Perhaps it is precisely because of my creative credentials. But, surely Ж should know, magical realism is not the same as sci-fi. The essence of the puzzle would seem to sit easier with the latter. I don’t know how I should interpret it but Ћ says he only reads sci-fi. He tells me he has been recruited from Black Ops. To put it crudely, he eliminates people.

I find I can’t get on with addressing my companion as Ћ. Sometimes all this cloak and dagger seems too oppressive. I tell him I’ll call him Buddy instead. It seems only fitting. He says he will reciprocate by calling me, Ray. On account of the Ray Bans I’ve taken to wearing on assignments I assume. Or perhaps it is an allusion to Ray Charles.

Where do we begin on this one?’ I ask. ‘Everything seems a bit vague. To add to this, there’s the oddity that apparently people are split on whether anything is happening. Some say it is dark in the mornings but yet others say it isn’t. In fact about fifty-fifty according to the report I’ve just downloaded.

Fifty two-forty eight to be precise, Ray,’ Buddy says.

I might be wrong but those numbers seem to be familiar,’ I say.

I thought I’d heard them somewhere too,’ Buddy says. ‘But I can’t place where. Anyway, best we start asking some people what’s going on. Let’s see how their experiences differ as we move north.’

It hasn’t been a sudden thing, by any means, bab,’ Les Yardley tells us in Wolverhampton. ‘For the last two years or so, every morning things have been just a little greyer than they were the day before. Not the kind of thing you notice at first, mind, particularly in winter but when spring comes round you think to yourself, hang on, the streetlights are still on. It is still dark. The trees aren’t coming into leaf and the birds aren’t singing.’ Father McKenzie in Stafford is more emphatic. He says it has been so dark that businesses have begun to move out. All the automotive assembly plants have now gone. The queues at the church food banks, he says, are colossal. In a word, the future’s looking grim. May Loos in North Norfolk tells us it doesn’t get light until the afternoon and when it does, it usually rains. But, she says, oddly enough, the people in her parts don’t seem to care. They seem to like it this way. It’s as if it’s what they always wanted. Either this or they haven’t noticed that all the other cars they meet on the A149 have their lights on all day and the big skies over the county reflect the title for that erotic novel everyone was reading a while back.

It’s a strange situation. I realise it is part of the human condition that everyone sees things differently. A Rothko painting, for instance, might be seen by some as blots of blurry colour, perhaps painted by a myopic child but to others, it is a transcendent statement, a work of true genius. But even so, it is difficult to explain the staggering variation in existential perception Buddy and I are coming across as we make our way up-country. As the figures suggest, opinion about what, if anything, is happening is split down the middle. Although it now seems more people are able to detect that there has been some sort of change for the worse, whether it be the delayed dawn, the increased rainfall or the astonishing job losses. Many of those we speak to tell us it is now a rarity to see a smile on the street. Children no longer play in the parks. Perhaps if you were to take stock now, the numbers might now come out at seventy-thirty.

I tell Buddy that while some of the people we are speaking to will inevitably be prone to exaggeration, the North is not at all how I remember it. It is a shadow of its former self. It is as if the colour has been drained from it, its vital energy sapped. Buddy agrees. He’s only been up this way once before but the thing that struck him then was how friendly people were. They don’t seem so friendly now. They are sullen, dispirited. Like those matchstick figures in those Lowry paintings, he suggests.

We drive on, still puzzled by what exactly our mission might be. How on earth could our respective fields of expertise be put to any use in this bizarre situation? There’s possibly not going to be much need here for a parallel universe filled with kites or, for that matter, all that ordnance Buddy has brought along. What course of action are we meant to take? We decide for the moment to hold off in reporting back. Perhaps there is something we have not yet grasped about where our skills might come in.

We arrive in the north-east, Tyne and Wear. It is lunchtime. The streets of Sunderland are still dark. There is a steady drizzle. A queue of drenched downtrodden looking locals are queueing outside a boarded-up Morrisons supermarket. Word is going around that there has been a delivery and it will open its doors soon. They will be able to buy bread and maybe potatoes.

This is all down to a big mistake we made two years ago, kidder,’ a thick-set man tells us. Despite the wintry drizzle, he is decked out in builders-cut jeans and t-shirt. ‘In that voting malarkey. We thought we was being canny by saying we wanted out. Thought it would stop the flow of foreigners. That’s what The Sun was saying. They were giving out free copies of The Sun at Morrisons. And then there was that red bus with all that bollocks written on the side. Parked it in the square over there, they did. Anyway, we can’t go back now, can we? If only we could. I guess it doesn’t matter anymore. ……. Wait a minute! …….. You’re Buddy Holly, aren’t you? Not Back to the Future or something is it?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Legend Bemusement

legendbemusement

Legend Bemusement by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who?’

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

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

‘His telescope is for sale.’

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

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

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

‘We could view it as an investment.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1999. What is the fellow talking about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s right, son.’

‘Who are we going to see?’

‘Jimi Hendrix,’ he says.

‘Who?’ I say.

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

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

NIGHT TRAIN

nighttrain

Night Train by Chris Green

No matter where you might be, the night train rumbles through every night at 3:05 am. Its low-pitched drone makes the whole room quake. Every time this happens, you find it disturbing. You briefly speculate as to what its ominous cargo might be and vow to find out, before going back to sleep. Your dreams for the remainder of the night are tinged with an air of menace but in the morning you are too busy to investigate what the lumbering leviathan that wakes you each night might be carrying.

Now and again you find yourself in conversation with a friend or a colleague about being woken by the train and they will tell you that they were woken by a train at the same time, but it never occurs to either of you that it might be the same train. The laws of physics suggest that this would be impossible. Yet, each conversation you have with anyone, anywhere about this will be a replica of every other one. The train woke you at 3:05 am, the train woke them at 3:05 am, even though you might live fifty miles apart, even though you are the other side of the continent. It never occurs to either one of you to investigate how this might have happened, what sorcery might have brought this about.

Explosives, spontaneously combustible substances and radioactive material are all on occasions transported by rail. You might imagine that the night train might be carrying one or other of these, but most likely it does not. We are talking here of a heavy, heavy cargo, a dark mass of considerable magnitude. Heavy metals would probably pale into insignificance beside the weight of what this sinister transport of the night is likely to be conveying.

Anyone really wanting to know what is aboard could do worse than to ask Stanislav Ruby. Stanislav Ruby is allegedly the leading authority in these matters. But nobody asks Stanislav Ruby. So the train keeps on coming, unobserved, determined, relentless. You will hear it tonight at 3:05 and there will be an air of menace in your subsequent dreams. Your friends and family will hear it too, along with the talk show host that you like, the jockey who rode the horse you backed in the Gold Cup, the man you bought your car from and all the people you met on holiday in Portugal last year.

……………………………………

I spend most of the day writing the introduction to a book on the history of the blues. I am writing about how the music originated from African spirituals and work songs, share-croppers singing in a call and response pattern to dull the monotony and pain of working long hours in the plantations of the Southern states. Early blues took the form of a loose narrative, relating the troubles experienced in Afro-American society. Ma Rainey, one of the first professional blues singers claimed to have coined the term, blues, although the term might originate from the pre-coital shuffle known as blues, popular in Southern juke-joints around the turn of the century. The twelve-bar delta blues format that we are familiar with was introduced by William C. Handy in his 1912 sheet music, Memphis Blues.

The 1920s brought big names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Leadbelly, names that are remembered as blues greats today. Robert Johnson at the crossroads enacting the Faustian myth but still dead at 27, the first of many to join that club. The music then began to spread out from the Mississippi delta, upriver to Chicago where it became amplified and spawned legends like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. But it is getting late and this is something that Heather, who fresh from mixing herbs has joined me, feels I should leave for another day. She has some other ideas about what we might be doing on an April evening. I am pleased that she does. By and by, we play a post-coital shuffle. Before turning out the lights, we have our nightly chat about the nature of the night train. We conclude once more that there are many things we don’t know.

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At 3:05, right on cue, the bedroom begins to vibrate with the portentous approach of the night train. It’s as if someone has left their eighteen-wheeler truck underneath the bedroom window with the engine running. The sound gradually grows louder. The walls begin to emit a bassy hum. Plates and cutlery in the kitchen begin to rattle. It feels as if the train is actually inside the house now. Just as she does ever night, Heather turns over and moans. Her wax earplugs offer little defence against the thunderous roar of the engine. In my head, I visualise the leviathan, shiny black with a bright, piercing headlight up front to signal its presence as it powers its way up the line. Or might its headlight be not light at all but dark like a massive black hole, sucking in everything in its path? Whichever, it leads the way to the murky depths of the night. The store of nightmares seems intact.

I find myself descending into a crepuscular netherworld. I am being led down into the abyss by a shadowy figure who seems half-familiar yet completely unrecognisable. He is dark with reptilian features. He carries a large hammer in his right hand and his left hand is hidden beneath a black leather duster overcoat. He takes his hand out to direct me down the steep steps. His hand is a scaly raptor’s claw.

The abyss is immense, a maze of stone stairs and echoing corridors. What rooms there are serve only to lead from one gloomy corridor to another gloomy corridor and we go, round and round, down and down yet somehow end up back at the beginning where the half-familiar man with the clawed hand utters something in some arcane guttural language.

The scene switches. We are now outside, on the edge of an old deserted town. I can wolves howling in the distance. The man who has been leading me has turned into a giant or have I become a dwarf. He motions for me to lie down. He points to a stretch of railway track. Hear my train a’coming, he sings, as he ties me to the track. What is the train carrying, I ask, although this seems irrelevant. He lets out a blood-curdling laugh. I wake up, screaming. But, this is not the end. I find I am not awake, I am still asleep. I cannot wake. There is another level, a dream within a dream. I am on a battle-scarred hillside now and insurrectionists are throwing American Civil War uniforms on to a huge fire. They are blue uniforms. The blues. Which side in the Civil War is that? The Union of the Confederates? It’s the Union. The Yankees wore blue. Wait! There are soldiers in the uniforms they are throwing on the fire. They are black soldiers. One of the insurrectionists points at me. I look down. To my astonishment, I am black and I am wearing a blue uniform. I turn around to flee. There is a resounding crash. …….. Heather has knocked the bedside light onto the floor.

‘I was having a terrible dream’ she says, clinging to me for dear life. ‘Has the night train gone?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘The night train has gone.’

‘But it will be back again tomorrow night, won’t it? Why does it keep coming? And what is it carrying?’

‘I wish I had the answer,’ I say.

The thing is, no-one knows what the night train is carrying. Not even Stanislav Ruby is sure. It could be carrying a colossal cargo of cosmic consciousness, he might say. Or, it might be loaded with metaphors, allegories, symbolism. There is the possibility that what is in tow is unknowable. But, wherever you are, be certain that the night train will rumble slowly through tonight and every night at 3:05 am.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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