Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Strangers When We Meet

strangerswhenwemeet

Strangers When We Meet by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose so,’ Emma says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

puffthemagicdragon

Puff the Magic Dragon by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly,’ she said. ‘Ecstasy. MDMA.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………….

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

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

Gear?’

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

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

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

Oh, and why is that?’

It burned down last night,’

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

I arranged for someone to set fire to it.’

You arranged for someone to set fire to it?’

Yes. To get the insurance money.’

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

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

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

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

Let me guess. To get some heroin.’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Aardvark of Uncertainty

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The Aardvark of Uncertainty by Chris Green

I appear to have swapped the cow for a handful of beans. My memory of the transaction is a little hazy but here are the beans. It seems a strange kind of bargain to have made. Why would I do such a thing? Looking on the bright side, at least these are magic beans. It says so here. So their yield is likely to be bountiful. And if it is to survive, the planet needs vegetation far more than it needs cattle. In any case, it’s no use crying over spilt milk. There won’t be any now the cow has gone, will there? I’d better get on and plant the beans.

The internet doesn’t have a lot to say about how or when to plant magic beans. There are pages on pages about growing runner beans, kidney beans, aduki beans, mung beans and other kinds of beans that I’ve never heard of but nothing whatsoever on the magic variety. I am in the garden wondering where I should plant them when I have a visitor. At first, I think it must be the cleaner calling round to give the house a going over but then I realise it is Karma. I am pleased she has called round. Things have been a bit up and down since she left. I become easily confused. Otto is working on this with me. Otto is not from the village. He’s a professor of something and has letters after his name. He has been helping me for a couple of months now. Reality, he says, is a slippery customer but if I follow his regimen, there is every chance I will begin to see things more clearly.

Karma doesn’t appear to have noticed that the cow has gone. Perhaps she thinks that Daisy has just wandered up the lane again and will soon be back. She wants to talk instead about how politicians and the media have adapted the Alice in Wonderland interrogation technique to everyday life to keep us all in a heightened state of confusion.

We are accustomed to a world of logic and predictability, Geoff,’ she says. ‘But we are now bombarded day and night with layer upon layer of contradictory information.’

Perhaps you should talk to Otto about it,’ I say. ‘He probably understands this sort of thing. But I’ve no idea what you are talking about. Has anyone actually seen an aardvark?’

The Alice in Wonderland technique,’ Karma says, ‘is a method of interrogation pioneered by the CIA designed to break down the familiar and normalise the strange. Several interrogators pepper the subject continuously with unrelated nonsensical questions until they are no longer sure what is going on. This technique is now being used on us in our daily lives. There are zillions of narratives coming at us every minute through advertising, the media and the internet, each claiming to be common-sense, helpful or right. Conflicting messages, many of them unfamiliar or just plain weird fighting to bury themselves in our consciousness. We find ourselves on a battlefield of ideas. With all our boundaries breached, we enter a state of cognitive dissonance. In such a state, we are ready to accept and comply with many things we would otherwise reject.’

Is Karma in her roundabout way trying to tell me that she doesn’t believe there ever was a cow? Is that where this is heading? To prove to her that there was a cow but now there is not, I show her the magic beans. How much more proof does she need? I ask her where she thinks I should plant them. She points here and there but she doesn’t seem that interested. We don’t manage to stay on the subject very long because Karma has another rant at the ready.

The social theorist, Michel Foucault posits that where there is a discourse, there will be a reverse-discourse,’ she says.

What is a discourse?’ I ask because I honestly don’t know what she is talking about. ‘Discourse is simply a medium through which power flows,’ she says. ‘This flow can be reversed via the discourse without challenging the fundamental assumptions or concepts on which the discourse relies. Realising this to be the case, people in power the world over now set the reverse discourse in motion at the same time they launch their idea. By taking charge of the whole narrative, they are then able, at any time, to direct the narrative around the subject back to the original discourse.’

Karma can be intense at times. This was one of the issues we had when we were together. She would often go off on one when all I wanted was a little peace and quiet so I could read my book. As a result, I learned to switch off. A lot of what she says comes in one ear and goes out the other. Despite this, if and when I look at what she has said, I find that she is often right. She was right about the revolution in Stanistan. It was never going to change anything for the masses. All revolutions ever do is replace one dictatorial elite with another dictatorial elite which acts exactly the same as the one they replaced. She was right about the travel companies going broke. It was to do with product life cycle. They hadn’t re-invented themselves sufficiently to take account of changing travel arrangements. Karma’s analysis of situations is usually spot on. I used to rely on her explanations of complex issues. At the moment, though, I just want her to stop talking so I can concentrate on the garden. I am not sure what to do with the seeds. And I don’t imagine Foucault is going to be much help. Karma though seems determined to keep plugging away.

The creators of the discourse can plunder the reverse discourse at any time,’ she says. ‘If their idea becomes unpopular, so long as they control the reverse discourse as well, they maintain their hold on the balance of power. They are thus able to set the agenda.’

I’m sure she is right. I have always felt that things seem to be out of our control so someone must be pulling the strings. All of them. I nod my agreement.

Perhaps the beans could just go in the old veg patch where the potatoes were,’ I say. ‘I will need to dig it over first though and fertilise it a bit.’

What people don’t realise,’ she continues, ‘is that most protest groups are actually financed and run by those they are protesting about. They fool you into thinking there is an active campaign to stop whatever it is they are doing. But the campaign is never likely to succeed because the perpetrators themselves are running it. The weapons industry run peace groups, the oil barons finance Extinction Rebellion and so on.’

I am still a little lost as to where this might be heading but for some reason, it reminds me that Otto and I are off to see the wizard later.

……………………………..

I don’t know what has happened to Otto. We got separated somewhere along the yellow brick road. I think I became distracted by the black buzzards circling overhead and lost my bearings. I was unable to find the road again. The flask of tequila may not have brought out the best in my orienteering skills. Eventually, in the middle of nowhere, I came across a railway station. I am slowly making my way back home aboard the Bob Dylan coach of the night train. I am searching for the right track. I need a tune that’s going my way or who knows where I might end up? Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again perhaps or It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry. Subterranean Homesick Blues and Like a Rolling Stone come to mind but Shelter from the Storm seems a safer bet.

But even so, there’s blood on the tracks and I am not able to settle. The Tom Waits coach is no better. Downtown Train and Tom Traubert’s Blues don’t settle me so I’m not expecting God’s Away on Business or The Piano Has Been Drinking to do it.

I hear footsteps and a door opening.

Why are you listening to Leonard Cohen?’ Karma says.

I am no longer aboard the train, it seems. I am back at home and Karma has let herself in.

Tom Waits,’ I say.

What?’ she says.

Not Leonard Cohen,’ I say. ‘It’s Tom Waits.’

Why are you listening to Tom Waits, Geoff?’ she says. ‘He’s so depressing. Especially that one about sleeping in a boxcar.’

Swordfishtrombone,’ I say. ‘Brilliant lyrics.’

It’s about shell shock,’ she says. ‘Anyway, I thought I’d better check on you. You’re not answering your phone.’

I appear to have lost my phone,’ I say. ‘I think Otto may have it but he’s disappeared. You haven’t seen him, have you?’

No I haven’t,’ she says.

We were on our way to see the wizard,’ I say. ‘And Otto just vanished.’

This Otto doesn’t seem to be someone you can depend on, does he?’ she says. ‘Never mind. I see you managed to plant the beans. You can see their purple flowers from way down the road. They’re towering over the clump of bamboo hedging already. That’s in what, forty-eight hours? They were magic, after all. ……. By the way, Geoff, I’ve been meaning to ask. Where’s the dog? Where’s Daisy?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

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

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.

……………………………………

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