Chinese Boxes

chineseboxes2018

Chinese Boxes by Chris Green

The fire engine comes hurtling towards me. It is out of control. It has no driver. Conan Doyle Street is narrow and the precipitate leviathan gathers momentum as it heads down the slope. I dive for safety into the doorway of the antiquarian bookstore. The fire engine forges ahead, gradually slowing as the incline levels out. It comes to a stop in the dip where Conan Doyle Street meets Rider Haggard Street. Fortunately, there are no casualties as the streets are deserted. This part of town is no longer prosperous and a lot of the shops are boarded up.

I am on my way to the doctor’s in Bram Stoker Street, a block or so away. I don’t have an appointment, but when I phoned earlier I was told someone would see me if I came along. I let the sour-faced receptionist know of my arrival and sit in the grey waiting room. Afternoon surgery has finished and I am the only one there. For comfort, I take my Doc Martens off. I start to read a monthly military magazine, but I can’t concentrate. After a few minutes, Dr Bilk comes through and says that he will see me but he has to make a phonecall to the hospital first. He asks me to go wait for him in Surgery 2.

Realising I am in stockinged feet, I go back to fetch my boots. It takes a while to lace them up and when I return Surgery 2 is locked. Dr Bilk has disappeared. I look everywhere for him. I go out into the courtyard. I look up and down the street. Back inside, a dozen or so men in dark suits are having a meeting in the room down the corridor from the locked surgery. There is a hostile air about the gathering. I do not like to interrupt. I go out to the car park. I manage to collar Dr Bilk, just as he is getting into his car. Without bothering to listen to my symptoms, he hurriedly writes me a prescription. I have not heard of the medication, he prescribes. Perhaps he has made a mistake.

What makes me want to return the fire engine to the fire station I do not know. This is what happens sometimes, isn’t it? In a moment of madness, you find you make a decision that you just can’t account for. It’s as if a force takes over and you no longer have free will. It may be just me but I have noticed that these decisions are often injudicious.

I am not used to handling such a bulky vehicle and I have several near collisions with other cars on the way. I accidentally cross two sets of red traffic lights and manage to negotiate the Henry James roundabout on two wheels. When I finally arrive at the fire station, I find that it is closed. What would happen if there were a fire? I park the vehicle outside the book depository in Franz Kafka Street. I think about phoning my brother, Quinn to come and pick me up, as it is now after six o’clock and I need to get home for dinner. I am suddenly struck by the thought that my fingerprints will be all over the fire engine and they will think that it was me that stole it.

I come to with a start. I do not recognise my surroundings. Red would not be everyone’s choice of colour for bedroom walls and Francis Bacon’s mutilated torso prints would not be to everyone’s taste to hang on them. There is a large sagging woollen drape coming down from the ceiling and a silver saxophone on a stand in the corner of the room, alongside a device that looks like a medieval instrument of torture. Mr Bojangles is playing from a portable red speaker, a grunge version that I am not familiar with. The room has a musty smell.

The important question seems to me to be how did I come to be here? I have no recollection. Where is my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my large automobile? How do I work this? Before I have a chance to get my bearings there is a loud knock at the door. I leave it at first, but when no-one else answers it, I conclude that I must be alone here. On the second or third knock, I go to to the door. A man is standing there holding a large metal plate. He doesn’t seem surprised to see me.

‘I’ve come to fix the cooker,’ he says.

‘You’d better come in.’ I say.

I don’t have any idea where the kitchen is, but he seems to know.

‘Did I wake you up?’ he asks as I follow him through to the kitchen.

‘No,’ I say, looking around to take in the funky chickens strutting about the place.

‘Good idea to keep them indoors,’ Cookerman says. ‘Stops the foxes getting them. There are a lot of foxes about round here.’

I don’t ask him where round here is in case he gets suspicious.

‘Rhode Island Reds, these little beauties,’ he says. ‘Good for laying brown eggs. Perhaps we might have breakfast when I’ve done the cooker.’

The kitchen is kitted out in an odd mix of styles, a startling hybrid of Scandinavian chic and Dickensian squalor. I have not seen a zebra patterned fridge, or a red cooker before. Cookerman takes it all in his stride. Perhaps he comes across vibrant appliances every day. Ducking beneath the cast iron pots and pans hanging from butcher’s hooks on the ceiling, he makes his way over to the cooker and opens the door. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cooker explode. I’m guessing most of you haven’t. But I can tell you, it does wake you up.

Which is how I come to find myself in a barnacled beach hut in the middle of a storm surge, with the waters already sloshing over the sandbags. The wind is getting up again and it has turned round to the north. The spring tide is due to keep coming in for the next two hours. Looking through the gap where the window once was I can see more black clouds forming over the steep escarpment the other side of the bay. With the water already around our ankles and the roof leaking like a faucet, the last thing we need is another downpour.

Earlier, I tried in vain to rescue a struggling black Labrador that was being taken away by the rip current. My leg became trapped and I was thrown against the rocks. I was knocked unconscious. She is only slight and I am nearly fourteen stone but somehow Vision dragged me here to this beach hut, the highest beach hut in the row. Some of the other huts have already broken to pieces and been taken out to sea. I can hardly move my damaged leg, so we won’t be leaving anytime soon. We are at the mercy of the elements. We are trapped.

‘Don’t you know what time high water is?’ Vision asks, looking at her watch. ‘It must be soon.’

’14:05. Nearly two hours to go.’

‘We can’t stay here that long. We’ll drown.’

‘We’ll send out a mayday then, shall we? Where did you put the flares?’

‘I could go for help,’ she says.

We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If Vision goes for help we are both at risk. If she stays we are still both at risk.

‘No,’ I say, with some authority. ‘Don’t go.’

‘I guess we’re in this together then,’ she says. ‘That’s what we used to say isn’t it?’

‘It’s been a long time,’ I say. ‘Seven years, isn’t it? Or is it nine?’

‘Twelve, I think,’ she says.

As the waves continue to crash against the flimsy fabric of the hut, it feels like being aboard a ship going down. I have the urge to break into a sea shanty, to summon up the sailor’s spirit, Blow The Man Down, Haul Away Joe or something like that.

Is that a lifeboat I can see in the distance? ……. Is it? ……. Or is it just another phantom? Am I doomed perhaps to an endless chain of unfathomable nightmares from which I can never wake? Doomed to grapple feebly with this nest of interlocking riddles, that fit inside one another like Chinese boxes?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

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Andromeda Dreaming

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Andromeda Dreaming by Chris Green

It was a warm Wednesday in September. I was walking the dog in St Peter’s Park and there was Lars Wimoweh on a seat eating his lunch. Lars could tell straight away from my demeanour that I was feeling a little below par and he asked me what was wrong. I began to explain my recent disappointment over our house sale falling through.

Open yourself up to the universe,’ Lars said. ‘You will discover that things begin to fall into place. The universe only knows abundance.’

This sounded encouraging. Abundance was something I felt I could live with. Despite Rover wanting to get back to the stick game, I asked Lars to elaborate.

It’s all to do with cosmic energy,’ he continued. ‘What you must do is learn to connect with the cosmic forces.’

In the time I had known him, I had noticed that Lars appeared to get over his own problems easily. He possessed an inner calm. He did not get flustered. So, I followed his advice and took the plunge. I opened myself up to the universe. I started dreaming of Andromeda. I had, up until now, been under the impression that action brought good fortune. This was how it was according to the song from Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But, from what Lars was telling me, it appeared that the reverse might be true. You should let the universe make the decisions.

Things began to change, just as Lars suggested they would but they did not change for the better. Things came flooding in but not in the way that I had hoped. They were not the right things. First off, I lost my house keys in the car park at the transcendental meditation centre and thus found myself unable to get in to prevent our house being flooded through Leanne having left the bath tap running. To make matters worse I discovered that the house insurance had elapsed the previous day and I had failed to spot that the renewal was due because, I suspect, I was dreaming of Andromeda. Next, I lost my job at Bricks and Mortimer and although I quickly found another position at Job Done Building Services, I quickly lost the position as I was constantly dreaming of Andromeda and, as the gaffer, Jimmy Jazz explained, not getting the job done.

Take my word, once you start dreaming of Andromeda, you find it hard to break the habit. If you have a tendency towards Andromeda dreaming then it is important to balance this out with discipline and routine. Lars had not mentioned this. He omitted to tell me that you need to be rooted, to have your feet on the ground. But, of course, you do need to be careful here. You must not be too inflexible. Being too set in one’s ways can easily lead to stagnation, frustration and, as a result, you will become a magnet for drawing in negative energy. I can’t help but bring to mind the tragic case of an acquaintance of mine, Ron Smoot, who was so downbeat that his life became a catalogue of disasters, which in turn made him more downbeat, earning him the moniker, Wet Blanket Ron.

It is not, therefore, a simple case of being open to the universe or closed to the universe. You need to be open to being open or closed to the universe dependant on the circumstances. You clearly need to develop a strategy which takes all factors into account. Mindfulness might be the key. It seems that mindfulness amalgamates dreaming of Andromeda with sprinklings of rationality. Mindfulness focusses attention on the present moment, therefore on the task at hand. If I had been focussing a little more on the present moment and not recklessly dreaming of Andromeda, perhaps I might not have had the accident with the blue tractor on the blind bend in Leafy Lane on the way to the Sparklehorse concert. The one that landed me in hospital with multiple fractures.

Following these episodes, the obvious answer would have been for me to take a reality check. The problem was that, having started dreaming of Andromeda, it was difficult to stop. I found myself distracted pretty much all of the time. Concentration on the mundane became impossible. My thoughts meandered like a restless wind inside a letter box. Where did that come from? Oh yes. On and on across the universe. I’m sure this must have been how John Lennon felt when he wrote the song. Perhaps he had had a friend like Lars, who told him he should connect with cosmic forces.

I decided to contact Lars to ask him how he managed to balance his life. How did he keep the restless wind in check? I called him up but repeatedly found that his phone was switched off. Why, I wondered, was this? It was not until a week later when I was walking Rover in St Peter’s Park and still irrepressibly dreaming of Andromeda that I found out. Lying on a bench was an old copy of The Falconmarsh Gazette with the headline Unlucky Strike. Lars Wimoweh, it said, had been struck by freak lightning at a Tai Chi workshop at Stonehenge. What cruel irony in a universe that only knows abundance. I wonder if it is time to stop dreaming.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

GHOST

ghost

GHOST by Chris Green

‘You remember that creepy old man I told you about?’ I said. ‘The one I saw outside the kite museum. Well, Dad! He’s back.’

‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, son,’ said Dad, looking up briefly from his Melody Maker. On a Thursday, his day off, Dad liked to read this cover to cover. It gave him all the latest news from the music business. He’d probably be off out later to buy a new LP by Jefferson Airplane or The Doors and I’d have to listen to that blasting out downstairs while I was trying to get to sleep. Or, perhaps he would have another go at playing I Am The Walrus on his Stratocaster. Mum would tell him to keep the noise down and they would have another row.

‘I was playing on the beach with Eddie,’ I continued. ‘You know, down by the groynes, and there he was. The same man. It looked like he was coming right out of the sea but he had all of his clothes on. Not just shirt and trousers either, a big overcoat and hat and everything.’

Still, Dad showed no surprise.

‘He had a wrinkled old face, Dad, and a big grey beard and piercing eyes,’ I said. ‘He seemed to look right through me.’

‘Uhu.’

‘He was spectral, Dad,’ I said, experimenting with a word I had learnt from my Collins dictionary. Even at twelve years old, I was keen on words. I wondered if one day I might become a writer.

Dad was unimpressed by my growing vocabulary. In fact, Dad seemed unimpressed by anything I did. Sometimes I wondered if he was really my Dad at all or whether there was some hidden family history that I wasn’t being told about.

‘He called out to me, you know,’ I continued. He seemed to know my name. Then he came out with something which I could not understand. It was as if it were in English, but not in English. Anyway, I looked around for Eddie, but by now Eddie had spotted a new boat coming in. You know what Eddie’s like when he spots a new boat. He had started running towards it and didn’t see the old man.’

‘Uhu.’

‘So I ran away as well.’

‘Good thinking, lad.’

‘He shouted something after me, but I still couldn’t catch what it was.’

‘Uhu.’

‘But this fellow’s sooooo old, Dad.’

‘Everyone’s old to you, son. You think Elvis Presley is old. He’s only, what? Twenty nine, thirty perhaps?’

‘Well. Twenty nine is old, Dad. But that’s not the point. The old feller on the beach was reeeeally ancient. He’s like the missing link.’

‘Uhu.’

‘And when he looks at you, you feel a shudder. It’s as if he’s somehow connected to you. Like a shadow……… It’s really weird. Like something out of science fiction.’ Not that I had read any. Science was of no interest to me although I had decided I was definitely going to be a writer.

‘Come on son! Now you’re being weird. ……. Hey! You haven’t been rooting around in my desk drawer, have you?’

‘No, Dad. I have not. I wouldn’t do that. Anyway, you always lock it.’

‘And you took aboard what they told you in those …… drug talks at school, didn’t you?’

‘I was there, if that’s what you mean. ……. Why are you asking?’

‘Oh, no reason, son.’

…………………………………………

The spectral old man appeared before me again a year or so later at the disused Red Rock Quarry where I sometimes went on a Wednesday afternoon when I was skipping Double Chemistry. The same sudden materialisation, otherworldly profile, resounding voice and incomprehensible soliloquy. He was substantial, yet at the same time insubstantial. Once again, I was terrified. Once again, I ran. Dad was not in residence by this time. He had left a month or two previously, following what Mum termed irreconcilable differences. Adultery on Dad’s part, I imagined or perhaps she too had discovered what he kept in his desk drawer. So, this time, it was Mum that I told about my experience, in retrospect a huge mistake. Mum’s approach was entirely different to Dad’s. Whereas he was casual, she was pro-active. She felt that I should see a psychiatrist and despite my protests, marched me off to see Dr Biggott to see if he could arrange a referral.

The term schizophrenia is more carefully defined today but in the late nineteen-sixties, it was an expression that was applied liberally, an umbrella term for a smorgasbord of disorders. Dr Harmer was an ardent fan of the term. Most symptoms of anxiety, he felt, could be explained this way. In the treatment of adolescents, classifying them as schizophrenic at the outset saved a lot of time with elaborate and unnecessary diagnosis, leaving him with more free time with which to concentrate on his female patients. The rewards, he found, were greater here.

‘I am not seeing things or hearing voices,’ I told him. ‘That is not what is happening.’

‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘This we find is the usual response. Many people come to me and say they have seen a ghost but its all in the imagination. Imagination can be very powerful, you see.’

‘But this is not a ghost. He was really there,’ I protested. ‘Large as life.’

‘You see you’ve just said it there, Dr Harmer continued. ‘If he was as large as life, then he wasn’t really there. The key is in that little preposition. I think we’ll start you off on some thorazine and then perhaps put you on a short course of ECT. This usually does the trick.’

The treatment may or may not have, as he put it, done the trick but it certainly changed the goalposts. I didn’t see the ominous stranger in the flesh again for a number of years, but I regularly had nightmares about him. In the dreams, it would always be dark and I would be lost in an unfamiliar place on the edge of town or perhaps the edge of the world. There would be the eerie echo you get from silence. Then, he would slowly materialise, a giant ghostly presence towering above me, causing me to cower in the shadows. He would issue a stentorian proclamation, like God shouting down to Moses, I would wake up in a sweat.

As a teenager, recurring nightmares aren’t the kind of thing you talk about to your friends for fear of being ridiculed. Nor are they a matter you bring up with your peers when trying to make your way in the world as a young adult. Even after I married Maddie, I was reluctant to disclose why I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night screaming. She probably wouldn’t have thought that seeing an old man in a big black coat and hat in a dream was much for a grown man to get in a stew about. And of course, she was probably right. She had once said, ‘You know what, Myles. Sometimes I think you are afraid of your own shadow’, and this had stuck with me. I always tried to play down the trauma that the dreams caused me.

When it comes to dreams, though, while the content can be surreal and deeply unsettling, it is often not the content but the timbre of the dream narrative that is really terrifying. An unspoken background commentary can dictate how the dream feels. It can insist that there is an underlying air of menace, something sinister and threatening about what is going to happen. You are now tuned into your repository of deepest secret fears. All rationality is out the window. You are at the mercy of the demons lurking in the depths of your unconscious. All manner of ghouls and monsters seemed to inhabit my netherworld.

Dreams, however, are dreams and I never came to any physical harm in any of these episodes. The spectre, it seemed, merely wanted to make me aware of something and while I got the palpable impression that his message was of great importance, to my frustration, I could never understand what the message was. It always came out as amplified babble. Once or twice, I nearly caught the drift of what he was saying, but as soon as this happened, he would vanish again and I would be left once with after images without this clarity. Nonetheless, night-times were harrowing. Although my ghostly visitor didn’t appear every night, he turned up frequently enough to make me frightened of what each night might bring. Even Dr Nice’s powerful sedatives were not enough to protect me from the possibility of a visit.

…………………………………………

Then, one day it happened. There he was. Not as a surrealistic Neptune rising out of the sea. Not as a despotic archetype running amok in a nightmare. But there, in the flesh, sitting calmly beside me on a park bench. Maddie had gone into town shopping and I had been walking the dog in Providence Park and sat down to rest for a minute or two. Maximilian was a ten mile a day dog. I had put on a few pounds since I put away my running shoes. The skiing accident in Switzerland too had added to my mobility problems. I was no longer a ten mile a day dog walker. Suddenly, he was next to me, having materialised from out of nowhere. But after the initial shock of finding him within a whisker of my personal space, his aspect seemed to be no longer threatening. The familiar coat, hat, thick grey beard, the swarthy features and the roadmap of lines crisscrossing his face had now taken on a friendly air. My companion could easily have been a fellow dog walker taking a breather to exchange dog behaviour anecdotes.

He began to speak. In contrast to his delivery in the earlier encounters, his voice was now gentle, compassionate. At first, I was unable to understand his words. But I found that this was more a case that I was unable to understand that I was able to understand. Although the language was not my own, once I had become accustomed to its nuances, I found that I could follow what he was saying. Perhaps it was some kind of sorcery or Douglas Adams’ Babelfish at work. Or maybe it was just that I was now older and had a greater understanding of the world. I wasn’t well versed in Chomsky, but I reasoned that this must be down to the same imperceptible process whereby a young child finds he suddenly understands what a parent is trying to communicate. Perhaps a dual nationality child clearing up the confusion from hearing the two tongues spoken.

‘I’ve been trying to tell you something important for years now,’ he said. ‘But each time, I have appeared to try to guide you through the mysteries of self-discovery, you seem to have been consumed by fear. You have to be able to grasp the wisdom of the dream.’

‘Are you saying that it’s just my …….. my perception of you that has been the stumbling block?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘You have been crippled by inner conflict. All your life you have been fighting with yourself. You have taken on the opinions of others. You have not trusted your inner impulses. As a result, you have been unable to make meaningful decisions. This has made you weak. This has made you condescending. But you can put all this behind you. I believe you are ready now.’

While this was encouraging, I was not really sure what he meant. None of my counsellors had hit upon inner conflict being at the root of my neuroses. They only seemed to want to let me rabbit on for fifty minutes, repeat the last line of each of my ramblings as a question and then say that they would see me next week. If I said something like, ‘My parents were selfish. They don’t understand me.’ They would come back with, ‘so you think your parents don’t understand you.’

‘I cannot stay in this realm so I don’t have long,’ he said. ‘So listen carefully.’

He told me that I was the only one who could sort out my problems. There never had been and never would be anyone else that I could rely on. It was a common mistake to think that the answer lay somewhere out there. The answer was inside. I needed to discover my essence. Find my proper place in the cosmos.

‘You are unique and valuable,’ he said. ‘Nothing that anyone else ever says or does makes the slightest difference to who you are and what you truly feel. Things may have been bad in the past but you must let go of them. They are of no consequence.’

His aphorisms began to sound a little like the ones I had come across in Maddie’s self-help books over the years but nevertheless, they hit home. The meeting had a profound effect on me. Something fundamental changed that day, the day I realised that I was part of something very large indeed. The universe. A small but integral part of the universe. A stillness came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter ceased. Past and future dropped away. I reappraised who and what I was. It was as if I had been born in that moment, brand new, mindless and innocent of all debilitating memories. There existed only the present and what was clearly given in it.

I took stock and went about making changes in my life. I persuaded Maddie we should move to a more rural location. The town had over the years turned into a tourist hotspot. It was now noisy and vulgar and the traffic was so bad it was no longer worth going out in the car. I stopped seeing my therapist. I realised she was, like many practitioners, a charlatan. There was no sense in throwing good money after bad here for little or no return. Perhaps most importantly of all, I gave up my job at the software development centre where I was a technical author. This is not the kind of writing I had envisioned I would be doing all those years ago. It was dull and soul-less. Furthermore, there was no joy in being a wage slave. Every day the task ahead was basically to describe how to reduce everything to either zero or one.

Although previously I had never managed to keep so much as a spider plant alive, something inside me told me I should move into horticulture. It didn’t happen overnight but, slowly but surely, I became a successful orchid grower. My ghost orchids, never before cultivated in this country, became much sought after. By nurturing the delicate plants, I found I was also feeding my spirit. I began to live in the light. I no longer had nightmares.

…………………………………………

Perhaps I was a little slow on the uptake but it was not until the turn of the millennium when I looked in the mirror and saw the old man’s face looking back at me that I realised who he was. I have been gradually morphing into that face in the mirror ever since. I believe I am nearly there now.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Across The Universe

acrosstheuniverse

Across The Universe by Chris Green

There has been a secret underground line in the south of England for years. It can be accessed through a network of tunnels originating from the basement of a former Turkish dry cleaners’ in Dulwich. The line runs for sixty miles deep underneath the Weald to the coast near Newhaven. It is believed to be the deepest underground tunnel anywhere in the world. It took over twenty years to build and it houses the extraterrestrials who were intercepted at Warminster in 1980. Leaving Dulwich, it is thought that there are just two stops, one at a clandestine underground military establishment and the other at a colossal subterranean dormitory village and recreational facility a couple of miles further on. There is a covert service exit at the other end but this is heavily guarded. Walkers are discouraged from going near the area by a series of signs warning against unexploded mines.

Keeping the X-Line, as it is referred to, secret has been a formidable undertaking, surely one of the major achievements of our security forces. You may have been labouring under the misconception that the principal objective of GCHQ and MI5 has been one of global surveillance because this is what we have been told. It now looks as if this may not be the case. Its main focus may have been keeping news of the X-Line project out of the public domain. While initially the operation’s cover may have relied on the premise that Turkish people do not have a lot of dry cleaning done, this does not explain how its growth from a small shop front to that of a huge edifice covering several blocks has been concealed. Might those that have questioned the development or accidentally stumbled upon the truth have been systematically liquidated?

One or two of the extraterrestrials have been sighted above ground, but these reports have been hushed up. When photos of these taller, thinner, paler creatures were put up on the internet a while back on forddriver.onion, the site was unceremoniously closed down. The proliferation of 9/11 accounts and New World Order explanations has been sufficient to keep most conspiracy theorists busy, so the posts passed largely unnoticed. Weekend conspiracy theorists are not going to spend a lot of time following up the odd alien sighting possibly put up by a paranoid bipolar photoshop photographer. The post also suggested that military personnel had interbred with the tall aliens and that the resultant hybrid race is beginning to establish itself in the hidden depths below the Sussex countryside.

……………………………………………

Helped along by the reactionary press, in just a few years, the politics of the country has lurched ever further to the right. The abandonment of welfare benefits and the reduction of the minimum wage have resulted and there is a think tank currently looking at plans to cull the disabled. With opposition parties no longer opposing, freedom is rapidly being eroded and, brainwashed or not, Joe Public seems to be going for it. Persecution of minorities is now the norm. The press is full of tirades against Eastern Europeans, Blacks and Asians, unmarried mothers and gays. There are of course no longer any immigrants. Racial purity and ethnic cleansing are the new buzz words. But where there is a discourse, there is also a reverse discourse and some of us are finally getting together to fight back. We can remember the optimism of a bygone era and would like to see a return to love and peace and freedom of speech.

Few people not involved with the secret project have ever been down the X-Line. As an undercover investigative journalist with The Lefty, I am one of a select band who through subterfuge hope to see first hand what is going on. We are an ill-equipped but determined bunch. Otto Funk is nearly seventy but he is as fit as a fiddle. Otto used to publish Undercover, but although this went under a few years ago, he still feels the need to further the revolutionary cause. Otto was the one who first drew my attention to the X-Line. He says that he has been researching the story for years. He says his big break came when he discovered Ford Driver’s unpublished manuscripts. Ford Driver, he says, had been amassing information on the X-Line project since its inception. Otto acknowledges that it might have been a mistake for Driver to put pictures on the internet and his death he says is shrouded in mystery. Otto remains undeterred in his resolution.

May Welby is the editor of Loony Left, a radical socialist magazine that comes out now and again. She is also the one who came up with the photos of the tall extraterrestrials. May’s pictures of them match Ford Driver’s descriptions exactly. They may even have been taken from Driver’s defunct web site. For the benefit of those of you that remember it, May Welby was the one that broke the BorisGate scandal a year or two back. Stanton Polk is the kooky publisher of Peace Frog magazine. Peace Frog is something of a relic of the hippie era. It still talks about revolution in the head and posts pictures of Jimi Hendrix on the cover. To be fair, Stanton has probably only come on board because he is as barmy as a box of badgers and doesn’t appreciate the dangers. Nanci Gatlin puts together The Underdog, a publication sold on street corners which remarkably is still going to print despite an unsustainable drop in sales. The last issue sold fourteen copies. ‘Everyone seems to want to be on the side that’s winning, these days,’ Nanci says. I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before but I can’t place where. Calvin Sharp runs Ethical Spy. The title is perhaps misleading as there is nothing ethical about it, nor has it very much to do with spying. At least not in the sense that you think of it. It is a top shelf porn mag. Calvin though is the only one of us with real military experience. He was in covert ops in the first Gulf war, so that makes him, at least, sixty. He had a stroke last year but there seems to be no holding him back. Importantly, he has a cache of ex-army handguns, which he says may come in handy later.

Otto tells us that the warriors from the breeding programme, although lean, might be endowed with super-human strength. As journalists, although we are always anxious for a good story, we are a naturally suspicious lot. We do not believe everything we hear, well apart from Stanton Polk possibly. Stanton believes Elvis Presley is still alive. The rest of us though realise there is a tendency to exaggerate a story each time it is passed on. Everyone adds their two penneth. Otto’s story might indeed be one of those.

However, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the risk we are taking by going in. We need to be fully prepared. We sit around the table and speculate about what might be happening below ground. What is the aim of the project? Might it be more than an exercise to hide away a handful of captured aliens? Otto suggests it might be an experiment to investigate the compatibility of their extraterrestrial genes with the human gene. The fearsome levels of security that Otto has told us about appear to suggest something apocalyptic.

To avoid suspicion, we have had fatigues made up to resemble those worn by the rangy strangers in the photos and we have had our skin bleached so that we can blend in with the lanky super-humans. We have browsed reactionary Neo-Con web sites to learn the language of the right. There are hundreds of Neo-Con web sites. If you go through TOR, they are hard to escape. Intolerance has been spreading through cyberspace unchecked, like a malignant cancer. Expressions like calibrated ethnic cleansing, white supremacy and reprogrammed meta-human now trip off my tongue.

We have discovered a remote location on the downs which gives access to the tunnels. This is where in the dead of night they remove the weekly waste from and surreptitiously take it to landfill. This is where we plan to make our entry. We imagine that below it is the main living area. The entrance does not show up on Google Earth. Otto suggests that Google could be behind the breeding programme. I think he is joking, but who knows? It is quite difficult to ascertain who is behind what these days. Nothing anywhere is quite what it seems.

………………………………………………

We are surprised by how easy it is to get inside the compound. As soon as the grey garbage truck emerges from the tunnel, we casually walk in the entrance before the hatch closes. The squad of guards that we were told would be there appear to be on a tea break or something. There is absolutely no-one about. We can’t even make out any security cameras, but on the basis that with such a sensitive project there must be cameras somewhere, we try to act as if we belong. We have practised our nonchalance, with an acting coach in preparation. We are able to make our way to what appears to be a service lift, still without seeing a soul. We cautiously press the button and get into the lift. It is much smaller than we imagined it might be. This could not have accommodated the truck that has just left or indeed it cargo. It has just two buttons, Up and Down.

As the lift starts to descend, Beatles music begins to play through hidden speakers. Loudly, especially for such a confined space.

‘All You Need Is Love,’ says Nanci, apparently unphased by the surreal experience being stepped up a notch. Perhaps she worked a little closer with the acting coach than I did. I am finding it difficult to remain calm. It is bound to be a trap.

‘Quad sound too,’ says Stanton Polk. ‘It’s the remixed version from the Cirque de Soleil soundtrack album.’ He sees no irony in the juxtaposition. He is on planet Polk. He sees things differently from the rest of us. He has spent much of his life off of his head on one thing or another.

‘Not what you would expect the neo-Nazis harbouring tall aliens would be listening to, really is it?’ says Calvin, nervously fiddling with one of the several guns that he has secreted around his person. ‘Something is not quite right here, chaps.’

Otto is beginning to look a little unsettled and May, who up until now has displayed steely confidence, tries to hang on to me to stop herself from fainting.

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that none of us, not even Calvin with his military background is really cut out for this kind of mission. How could we ever think we could pull this off? What is it we were hoping to get anyway? Even if we get out of here and one of us manages to publish something about the experience, we are not going to be allowed to get away with it. We will be hunted down.

‘I don’t want to be stating the obvious,’ I say. ‘But, this has trap written all over it.’

‘Not a very soldierly approach, giving us time to be ready,’ says Calvin. ‘It would have been more straightforward for them to have intercepted us and taken us out and then. Don’t you think?’

‘Perhaps it’s easier for them to do that down below,’ I say.

All You Need Is Love is followed by I Am The Walrus. It’s not the most sing-along of the Fabs tunes, but Nanci starts singing along to it. I wonder if perhaps Stanton Polk may have shared some of his substances with her before setting off.

For those of us without the benefit of Stanton Polk’s pick me ups, the lift is descending agonisingly slowly. It is clearly going down a long, long way. My ears are now popping and my head is bursting.

………………………………………………

They say in the event of a traumatic experience, your brain releases adrenaline which speeds up the rate that it processes information. This is apparently why it is said that your whole life flashes before you when you are about to die. And as we descend into the bowels of the earth, I am certain that I am going to die. What other outcomes can there be? I Am The Walrus gives way to While My Guitar Gently Weeps. We are all going to die.

I am drinking homemade lemonade on a summer’s afternoon. I do not know these ladies in dusty pink cardigans. They are old. Mummy has gone to the post office, they say. Will Mummy be coming back? I ask ….. Why is Miss Crabtree slapping my legs with a ruler? It wasn’t me, miss. It was, it was Ja….. I have done nothing. …… pi equals three point one four one six ….. 1066….. I hope you don’t expect anything from this school, because ………. Is Ann really going to let me do it? Without a rubber Johnny? …….. Do you, David, Andrew Norman take …… I do, I do. ………. I don’t. I won’t. Yes, you will ……. No Nukes, No Nukes, No Nukes. Are you going to arrest me, officer? ……. Don’t go, Kristin, don’t go …… I’m not going to pay that……. We’re going to craaaash….. Publish, and be damned. ……. Aliens, Otto? Really? Where? What? You mean underground?

The lift finally comes to a stop. This is it. We wait in anticipation for, for ….. we don’t know what. But no one now expects it to be good. I can’t put my finger on who or what has changed the mood, but it is now one of discomfiture and fear. Shouldn’t we have expected it to be something like this? It was always going to be dangerous. While My Guitar Gently Weeps segues into Across The Universe. The lift doors stay closed. Is the waiting for the bad thing you think is going to happen worse that facing the bad thing that is going to happen? The others scream at me to press the button, first to open the doors, but then for the lift to go back up, but the button doesn’t work and The Beatles are relentlessly going on and on about going on and on across the universe.

………………………………………………

Eventually, the lift door opens and we are greeted by a pair of rugged looking thugs with Force Security sweatshirts. They are brandishing semi-automatic handguns. They look alert.

‘I’m Billy Shears,’ says the bulkier of the two. He is built like a Challenger tank.

The one and only Billy Shears, perhaps? I do not say this. He does look as if he means business.

‘And I’m Rocky Raccoon,’ says the other. Rocky is the smaller of the two, lean but still mean looking. I can’t help but think that they have chosen their names inappropriately.

‘Welcome to uh …… The Cavern,’ says Billy.

It seems a well practised line, but Rocky chuckles.

‘You are probably wondering what’s going on,’ says Billy.

An understatement.

‘So long as you remain calm, there is nothing to worry about,’ says Rocky.

Remain calm? Where does calm come from? They have guns. They are guards. We are reporters.

‘Firstly, We’ll have your guns on the floor in front of you,’ says Billy. Instinctively, we all look in Otto’s direction.

‘Then we might show you round,’ says Rocky Raccoon. ‘What do you think, Bill?’

‘I can see you are reporters,’ says Billy. ‘You have that journalist smell about you. But, you won’t be reporting anything that you see here today.’

‘We’ve had reporters before, you see,’ says Rocky.

‘Regularly,’ says Billy.

‘And we wouldn’t like what is happening here to be misrepresented,’ says Rocky.

‘We could, of course, lock you up, or send you away with a flea in your ear,’ says Billy. ‘But now that you are here we may as well give you the tour.’

‘But if we do that we will have to erase your memories before you leave,’ says Rocky. ‘Security, you understand.’

‘But don’t worry. The procedure is quite safe,’ says Billy.

‘We’ve used it on all the others who have been curious as to what’s happening here in …… The Cavern,’ says Rocky.

‘And no-one yet has come to any harm,’ says Billy.

While I do not feel that we are out of the woods yet, the pair do seem to be taking a friendlier approach than they did when we first arrived.

‘So, if you wouldn’t mind,’ says Rocky. ‘Your guns please.’

‘That would be you he’s addressing, I believe, Mr Sharp,’ says Billy. ‘I sense that the others haven’t bothered to arm themselves.’

‘Drop them right there in front of you,’ says Rocky.

We watch as a cache of Brownings, Glocks, and Heckler and Kochs makes its way from Calvin’s person onto the paved area.

‘Excellent! Then we can begin our little …… magical mystery tour,’ says Billy.

‘It all started when in February 2008, NASA beamed the Beatles’ song Across The Universe into deep space,’ says Rocky.

‘This was at the time considered to be nothing more than a gesture,’ says Billy.

‘It was more to show that we could do it, than with any hope of making contact,’ says Rocky.

‘Time is, however, relative,’ continues Billy. ‘And this group of odd, but essentially peaceful extraterrestrials travelling through space and time picked up the transmission. They landed at Warminster in Western Wiltshire in 1980, having found the approximate site of the source of the transmission.’

‘Give or take a continent or two,’ says Rocky. ‘And three decades ahead of time.’

‘Time travel can be very imprecise, you understand,’ says Billy.

‘A bit like it is on Doctor Who,’ says Rocky.

‘They said that they were keen to listen to some more tunes like the one they had heard,’ says Billy. ‘This was the express purpose of their visit. They had no music at all back home, you see. In their haste to explore the cosmos, the arts were completely overlooked. For relaxation, they listened to recordings of power tools and hammers.’

‘Our government at the time naturally wanted their landing to be kept secret,’ says Rocky. ‘As have all governments since.’

‘Imagine if our friends from across the ocean had got wind of it,’ says Billy.

‘Our guests would all probably be in Guantanamo Bay,’ says Rocky. ‘Or on a Saturday night TV special.’

‘Also, the government didn’t want the public to be alarmed by seeing unfamiliar life-forms wandering about,’ says Billy.

‘There might have been a panic,’ says Rocky.

‘There was a responsibility to safeguard the newcomers as well,’ says Billy.

‘So they built a base from which they could come and go,’ says Rocky.

‘They have been coming and going for years,’ says Billy ‘And back home on their planet they now use Beatles music as an energy source.’

‘Where are the ….. aliens?’ I ask. ‘When are we going to see them?’

‘There are only a few of them here at the moment,’ says Rocky. ‘The others are off on their …… travels.’

I wonder how they manage to come and go and where they land their spaceships and why no-one sees them. They couldn’t get from here to Warminster every time these days, not even under the cover of darkness, and wherever their landing site is, wouldn’t the comings and goings be seen? Then I remember that according to Otto witnesses get liquidated. But how many witnesses can be liquidated without something getting out and if they close web sites down new ones always spring up. There are a million unanswered questions. And how does time travel fit into all this? What is time travel? I’m a rationalist. Well, at least some of the time. But then you do have to have some belief is the strange and unlikely to be a journalist. What is it that is really happening here that they feel the need to erase our memories before we leave? Are there more surprises to come? I begin to wonder, not for the first time today, whether anything at all that Otto has told us is true. But we’re moving on. Things are speeding up now.

‘What about the breeding programme with humans?’ May Welby is asking. Not a good question, I feel at this point.

Billy appears noticeably angered by the insinuation. ‘What on earth are you talking about, lady?’ he says.

‘I do think that would be impossible,’ laughs Rocky, doing his best to placate his prickly associate. ‘We will introduce you. You will be able to judge for yourselves. Ah look! Here comes old Flattop. He has brought George and Ringo along to say hello.’

Two tiny mud-grey creatures with domed heads and large eyes waddle towards us. They can’t be more than two feet high. They are wearing brightly coloured clothes. They have headphones on and singing along to the tune. These are a far cry from the seven foot three super beings we were being told to expect. We don’t, however, get the opportunity to register our shock. The pair are accompanied by a burly thug in a Force Security sweatshirt. This apparently is Old Flattop. He stares sternly, firstly at Otto, and then at May. A look of recognition spreads over his face. It is not a welcoming look.

‘You two miserable hacks have been down here before,’ he barks. ‘We redacted the experience from your minds, but still you are back. Perhaps you would like to explain why that is.’

Things are beginning to make sense. Otto and May may have spun us a line. As we try to work out what their motive might have been, the gun in Billy’s hand is twitching. Cute and cared for the extraterrestrials might be in their safe little haven down here below the South Downs, but I don’t now have a good feeling about our welfare in this situation.

Perhaps Scotty is now our best chance. I hope he gets the message about beaming us up I am about to send from my phone.

 

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Lenticular Clouds

lenticularcloud4

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

Lenticular clouds hang over Mount Dante in the distance. Disc-shaped and silver, they have an air of the surreal about them. You expect clouds to move across the sky with the wind, but these are stationary. Here in the town below, the inhabitants are in the midst of a heatwave. It has been searingly hot for two weeks now. Chet wishes the clouds would come over and deposit their load. His friend, Raul tells him they will not come this way. Lenticular clouds are only there because of the mountain. They could stay in place for days, hovering. They will gradually morph as the air currents push them towards the troposphere. Raul knows about weather. Before his accident, he used to be a pilot. He says they can expect another two weeks of this heat. With high pressure systems like this rain bearing clouds do not form, he says. There is not even a hint of a breeze. Chet wishes he were by the coast. Being landlocked in a heatwave is the worst.

Before the battery went flat, the weather app on Chet’s phone showed 44 degrees Celsius. He cannot charge the phone now. There has been no power in the town for seventy-two hours. There has been no explanation for the outage. There was talk of it being a terrorist attack, but why would terrorists target a backwater like this. News travels slowly in these parts. Rumours abound instead. The next town is forty miles away. Conditions were bad enough before the power went off, but if you had air conditioning you could stay indoors. If you did not, you could, at least, circulate the hot air with a barrage of fans. Chet did not have air conditioning and by the time he got round to thinking about fans, the stores had all sold out. He could have perhaps eaten humble pie and gone back to his parents, but anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Not even they with all their resources will have any protection against the interminable heat. A little discomfort will do them good, he reckons. What they did was unforgivable. He is better off staying with Raul. The accommodation may be basic, a collection of shacks tacked on to one another, with the occasional rat scurrying around, but the company is good.

The town has ground to a halt. The tar on the roads is turning to liquid. The air smells of creosote. Cracks are appearing in the concrete of buildings. The river bed has dried up. Blue-green algae have formed on the town’s swimming pool. There are warning notices posted outside. The water smells awful. Food is rotting in overflowing waste bins and on the streets. Everywhere is closed. No-one is going anywhere. Buses are no longer running and petrol stations are closed. The nearest airport is over a hundred miles away near the border, and the coast is the same distance in the other direction. Banks, offices and schools are closed. Even Bashir’s convenience store which is open 24/7 is closed. The hospital is closed and rumour has it that dozens are dying daily from the effects of the extreme heat. There is no way to confirm these rumours. Stores are being looted. Chet wonders how anyone can summon up the energy to loot. This would not be a prime pillaging place at the best of times.

Chet sits in the shade beneath a wilting zelkova tree on a lone patch of grass that the blistering heat has spared. He is decked out in shorts and flip flops. He has taken his CoolDude t-shirt off and is wearing it like a bandana. He is trying to read a book about the stars that Raul has lent him. Since the lenticular clouds appeared he has taken an interest in the sky. He finds he cannot concentrate on the book. The heavens are a celestial smorgasbord of byzantine complexity. It is too hot for long words to sink in. He puts the book down.

She appears as a mirage. She comes out of the sun in a thin white silk dress. Chet has never seen her before. He would remember. This is not a large town. There are perhaps five thousand people living here. He has never seen anyone like this before. She is stunning. She approaches him. She has a waterfall of obsidian hair and skin like porcelain. She has a smile like springtime. Her eyes are deep brown and look like they are made out of glass. How does she manage to look so cool in the sweltering heat? She looks as if she has stepped out of an ice cream parlour.

She puts her finger up to her lips in a gesture to signify that she requires silence for her mission. Chet is lost for words anyway. Where could he begin? She takes his hand and leads him off as if they were familiar lovers. With clandestine stealth, she bypasses the main square and the roads leading off it, through a series of narrow winding streets and labyrinthine alleys. He does not know where they are. Although it is a small town, he has not been this way before. It seems abandoned. Many of the buildings are falling apart. They arrive at a small white town-house. It is entirely in the shade. It is noticeably cooler. The sun never reaches these parts. They enter through a stuccoed courtyard. Chet finds they are in a small shuttered room, with ethnic tapestries hung on the walls. They are on a soft bed with brightly coloured linen. She draws him towards her and kisses him passionately. It is not until after they have made love that the silence is broken when his vision speaks softly to him in a language that he does not understand. To Chet, this is a small matter. Conversational consonance cannot compare to the poetry of the senses. For now, he’s going to stay.

Chet wakes with a start. He is disorientated. The room is dark and unfamiliar. There are slatted shutters on the windows but no light is coming through. It must be night-time, he decides. He is alone. He is naked. He is lying on a dishevelled bed. He cannot remember how he came to be here but he has had the most erotic dream. He is all sticky from the emission. He cannot find any clothes. Where are his clothes? There is no power for the light, so he stumbles around in the darkness. He finds the door is locked. It feels like quite a flimsy door, but he cannot move it. It must be strengthened with something to keep it firm. He is trapped. His mouth is dry. He is incredibly thirsty. A sense of panic mixed with despair rises in him. He listens for a sign of life outside of the room. There is a profound silence. It is still, not even the sound of the wind. He finds a bottle of water. It is a litre bottle and it is nearly full. There is nothing he can do but wait and hope. The last thing he remembers is reading Making Sense of the Heavens, the book that his friend, Raul lent him. He was sitting under a zelkova tree near the dried up river bed. And then …… And then …… Nothing. Then ….. the dream, if it was a dream – about an exotic temptress in white.

At dawn, he can just see out of a small crack in one of the window slats. He can see the peak of the mountain. The lenticular clouds still hang ominously over its summit.

…………………………………………..

Raul is secretly pleased with the lack of power in the town. It means that he does not have to go to work in the plant. He is painting a landscape in oils. Since he has not been able to get up in a plane, painting is the pastime he most enjoys. He would like to give up work and take up painting full time and sell his work. Although his art is accomplished, there is not a big demand for it since the recession. He has been told his brooding, haunted style is reminiscent of metaphysical Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. Although flattered, Raul doesn’t really like comparison to anyone. He feels his art is highly original. The landscapes with the elongated shadows of the town’s old decaying buildings are ideal source material for his moody studies. The emptiness of the streets since the power outage has also been inspirational. The painting he is working on has chimerical Iberian towers and arches leading to a desolate rocky desert landscape with lenticular clouds hanging over a mountain peak in the background. A lone silhouetted figure holding a broken wheel by the dried up fountain hints that all is not well. The stacked saucer shape of the clouds today is perfect for the balance of the composition.

He has to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly. He slapped it on the canvas yesterday and it cracked and blistered in the high temperatures. He daubs an arc of coral red at the base of the clouds and mixes in a dab of zinc white in situ on the canvas. It is a technique he uses a lot. He pauses to let the paint dry. He steps back to look at the work from different angles. He is pleased with its progress today. The scene has a dreamlike quality. The clouds with their otherworldliness add an air of mystery and menace.

He wonders what has happened to Chet. He did not come back last night, which is unusual as Chet likes to sit down with him for a chat over a bottle of wine. He was going to show Chet how to find the constellations, Hercules and Indus in the night sky. They are going through the celestial alphabet. Chet does not have a lot of friends. He is a bit of a loner. Surely he would not have gone back to his parents’ house. They disowned him when they found his drugs stash. And he would surely never have forgiven them for going to the police. After all, most young people around here smoke cannabis. It grows like a weed out in the badlands. The police probably smoke cannabis. They probably smoked Chet’s cannabis. They let him off with a caution.

…………………………………………..

‘Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

Brush still in hand, Raul turns around. He is dumbstruck. Standing there is Salvador Dalí. His handlebar moustache is fully waxed and despite the heat, he is wearing a dark three-piece suit. The immense bird of prey perched on his gloved hand is a bit of a shock too. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Raul struggles with an explanation. Not least in the mystery is the small matter that Dalí has been dead for many years. This could be an impersonator, but why would he be here? Raul can see and hear this substantial figure before him, who to all intents and purposes is the legendary painter, with an avian friend. Until a better explanation comes along, he must go by his senses.

‘I love the clouds,’ says Dalí, scanning the painting. ‘They are like how you say, objeto volador no identificado, yes?’

Raul composes himself for a reply. He manages, ‘Whuyuh,’ or something similarly devoid of language.

‘Rocks and clouds. They are the secret to a successful painting,’ Dalí continues. ‘If you remember this then your art will sell the millions and you will become famous. Let me see some more of your paisajes.’

How does one address the master, Raul wonders? The raptor on Dalí’s gauntlet is fidgeting. It looks as if it might lunge at him. The prospect makes him nervous.

Raul leads the artist into his small studio. There on rickety wooden easels are two landscapes that he has been working on. One canvas is of a sea shell suspended from a classical arch in a desert landscape. In the middle of the orange sands is an oversized mannequin in black sunglasses. The other features two columns of arches set at impossible angles casting geometric shadows, in the background the silhouette of a steam train set against a yellow and green sky. Dalí walks up and down smoothing the ends of his moustache pensively.

‘I am thinking that I see Giorgio,’ he says. ‘I should not say this, but I did copy a lot from Giorgio. All I added really were rocks and trees. And the soft watches, of course. Oh, and tigers.’

Whilst trying to resist the comparison with de Chirico once again, Raul can’t help but feel flattered that the great Avida Dollars is appraising his work. This gives him the confidence to enter the conversation a little.

‘I was wondering about a perigee moon over the train in this one,’ he says. ‘And maybe darkening the sky to compensate.’

‘I designed a tarot pack,’ says Dalí. ‘I was very pleased with The Moon card. You cannot go wrong with a big red moon in a painting.’

‘When I was a boy I wanted to go to the moon,’ says Raul. ‘I asked my parents and they said that NASA weren’t recruiting in these parts, so I trained to be a pilot instead.’

‘When I as a boy I wanted to become Dalí,’ says Dalí. ‘So that is what I did.’

‘You can never tell how things are going to turn out, can you,’ says Raul. ‘Sometimes in life, there is great irony. I was taking aerial photographs of the moon when my plane crashed.’

‘I could tell how things were going to turn out,’ says Dalí. ‘I knew I would be a great painter. I knew I would be famous. It was my destiny. It was in the stars.’

‘I study the stars,’ says Raul. ‘I’ve been teaching my friend, Chet how to read the night sky. I am showing him where to find the constellations. But he has disappeared.’

‘People come and go. Things appear and disappear,’ says Dalí. ‘All things must pass. My good friend, George Harrison told me that.’

‘He did not come back last night.’

‘Last night I could see the stars. The night sky is very clear,’ says Dalí. ‘What has happened to the lights? Is there no electricity here?’

‘No-one knows why the power is off,’ says Raul. He disappears behind a curtain to fetch some other canvases to show Dalí. When he returns there is no sign of the artist. He is fanned by the wings of a large black raptor as it flies off with a small rodent in it talons.

…………………………………………..

Time passes slowly for Chet in the locked room. After initial attempts to break down the door and dismantle the shutter he has given up. He has disturbed the shutter enough to allow a shaft of light through and if he puts his face up against it, he can see out. He is facing a whitewashed wall. He can just see the peak of the mountain and the lenticular clouds capping it. He has given up shouting for help too. He is wasting valuable energy by doing so. It is clear that no-one is around.

He tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. How much of it was real and how much of it a dream? Being brought to a secret lair and seduced by an exotic angel is certainly the territory of dreams, but here he is. In this unfamiliar room. How did this happen? Was he drugged? Perhaps the water he is drinking contains some potion. According to transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Raul is fond of quoting, reality is a sliding door. His friend would probably have an explanation for what is going on. He has a far greater experience of life. Growing up in a household where he was never encouraged to think for himself, Chet finds clarity elusive. All things seem shrouded in mystery. He has few answers. There are many questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea salty? Why do fools fall in love? And presently, and most importantly, why is he being held captive? He can think of no reason. His imprisonment would seem to benefit no-one. Also, it contradicts the initial experience where he was made more than welcome by the libertine lorelei who brought him here.

How long will a litre of water last, he wonders? It is either half full, or half empty now.

…………………………………………..

Raul takes a long pull on his beer. The warm bottled beer in the Agave Bar is unpleasant, but he feels he needs one. He has no wine at home and everywhere else is closed. The Agave never closes. It would take an earthquake. Sol, the barman seems to live at this dark and dingy bar. Raul asks him if Chet has been in.

‘No. I don’t believe he has,’ says Sol. Not seen him since you brought him in a while back.’ He explains that since the power outage hardly anyone has been in. He is ready to launch into a rant about the loss of trade that the power outage is causing. Sol is not aptly named. His disposition is anything but sunny.

Noah, who has been sat at the bar listening, interrupts him. ‘Is that the posh kid?’ he asks Raul.

‘Guess that’s who you mean,’ says Raul. ‘Why, Noah? Have you seen the lad?’

‘Think I did, now you come to mention it,’ says Noah. ‘He was with a pretty girl. I was sure surprised. Never seen him with anyone but you before. Had him down as a ….. well, a bit of a loner.’

‘When was this?’

‘Yesterday afternoon it must have been. They were heading for the old town. Did you see him, Jake?’

Jake looks up from the bottle of tequila he is nursing. ‘No, Noah, can’t say I did.’

‘Where do you think they were going?’ says Raul.

‘Well I have no idea. I’m not going to be following them, am I, although she was quite a stunner,’ says Noah.

‘Nobody goes up there much since the ….. uh, emergency, do they?’ says Sol. Sol doesn’t get out anywhere that much. He has the pallor of a dedicated barman.

‘What actually happened?’ asks Raul. He has heard all kinds of rumours, but small towns can generate fanciful stories.

Noah and Jake look at one another. Neither of them says what they are thinking.

‘The outbreak,’ says Sol. ‘There was an outbreak of something, wasn’t there?’

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

‘I’m going up there,’ says Raul doggedly. ‘Thank you, boys, for the information.’

…………………………………………..

It is morning, or perhaps it is afternoon. Chet cannot tell. Daylight is spilling through the shutter. He is woken up by a noise of someone outside. He hasn’t slept much. He is drowsy. With a rattle of keys the door opens. With the light now from the open door, he sees her standing there in all her finery. The same little white dress, the same waterfall of obsidian hair. She has brought a basket of fruit. She hands him a peach. He devours it ravenously. She slips out of her dress. She joins him on the bed and kisses him passionately. He responds to her touch. She responds to his. She is wet. Ardently they make love. It is as if nothing has happened since the previous time they were together. They are just resuming the assignation, where they left off. There are no recriminations.

Afterwards, as they share the fruit, she speaks to him in the language that she spoke to him before. The difference is, now, he finds he can understand her. This is inexplicable. It is the same language, but it is no longer foreign to him. His mind is buckling with incomprehension. How can this be happening?

She tells him that although she is made up of flesh and blood, she is insubstantial, like a spirit. She can only appear in the material world under a particular set of circumstances. She says that she cannot explain any further for now, as it would only confuse him more. What she requires from him is his trust.

‘When you appear, can everyone see you?’ asks Chet.

‘No, not everyone.’

‘When you disappear, where do you go?’

‘Please do not ask any more questions, as I cannot answer them,’ she says. ‘Just trust me is all that I ask of you. You will be rewarded if you put your faith in me. Let’s go and get your clothes. We have to go. Time is short.’

…………………………………………..

The church clock is stopped at eleven minutes past eleven as Raul makes his way through the town. The scorching heat saps his strength. The streets are still deserted. There may be no power, but where is everyone, he wonders. Where do they all go? Life cannot stop because there is no electricity. He notices that the sky over the mountain top is changing. Normally the wind blows right through lenticular clouds. They form in the crest of the mountain wave where the rising updraught of the wave has cooled and moisture has condensed. The clouds dissipate in the downdraught of the wave where the air has descended and warmed to the point where the moisture evaporates. The stacked saucer effect of the lenticular clouds above Mount Dante has gone. They are scattered. They are brightly coloured, almost psychedelic. The shape that is forming and the rich hue of the clouds suggests that they are dispersing. When he was flying, Raul was careful to avoid cloud banks like this. They could cause dangerous turbulence.

As he approaches the crumbling ruins of the old town he becomes conscious of an eerie hush. It is like entering another world, a world of spirits perhaps. It has been a no-go area for so long, he cannot remember why the townsfolk abandoned it, but Noah and Jake’s conspiratorial silence seemed to have suggested he should avoid it. Apprehensively, he enters the network of narrow winding streets. The cobbled road surface is covered in sand and strewn with assorted debris. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper compete for space on windowless ruins and gutted houses. Tumbleweed grows amongst the rubble. A path leads off to the right into a labyrinthine series of alleys, each lifeless and silent. It is a much larger area than it first appears. He feels his hopes of finding Chet here evaporating.

…………………………………………..

Chet and his revenant run hand in hand out of the dark void and into the light. The lenticular clouds over the mountain look spectacular. The whole sky is alive in a fluid chromatic explosion. It is as if the heavens are hosting a titanic light show for the Gods by a mythic rock band. It is breathtaking. Alas, all things must change. Nothing is permanent. Dreams fade, bubbles pop, and clouds evaporate. The carnival will soon be over. The lenticular clouds over Mount Dante will be gone by the end of the afternoon.

‘We have to be quick,’ Chet’s vision says. ‘Soon the power will come back on, and I too will disappear.’

He asks a thousand questions, all at once. She does not hear. Already her form is fading.

…………………………………………..

Chet and Raul sit on the stoop taking in the evening sunshine over a glass or two of red from Bashir’s new delivery. A gentle breeze rustles the canopy. Chet is pleased that it is a little cooler. The heat really got to him, he says, and he didn’t know where he was without the internet. Anything could have been happening and he wouldn’t know about it. He had some very strange thoughts. He wondered if he was going mad. Raul says that the heat didn’t bother him, nor the lack of electricity.

‘I’m glad the clouds have gone, though,’ he says. ‘There’s something about lenticular clouds that makes me uneasy.’

‘I know exactly what you mean,’ says Chet. ‘They don’t bring any rain. It’s a bit like thunder without the lightning. It throws you off balance.’

‘And they are there for days, just hovering.’

‘Bound to have an effect’

‘Like the moon and the stars.’

‘We’ll probably never know the full story.’

‘Mysteries should remain mysteries. The universe is full of secrets.’

‘We’ll have to get back on to the constellations tonight. We were up to H, weren’t we?’

‘That’s right, Hercules is next, and Indus.’

‘What about another glass of wine?’

‘I did manage to get some painting done, though,’ says Raul. ‘I don’t expect you noticed.’

‘I love the new picture,’ says Chet. ‘It reminds me of one I saw by Salvador Dalí.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

TIME

timepic2016

TIME by Chris Green

Time is a bitch. You never know quite where you are with it. Einstein, bless him, argues that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, albeit a stubbornly persistent one. This morning as I go through the mail, I begin to appreciate the great man’s uncertainty. These bills are the same ones as yesterday, electricity, phone and pet insurance. Exactly the same. And there’s an identical postcard of an Agadir beach at sunset from Rick and Sammi.

When set against the bigger issues of political corruption, terrorist bombs, and the war in the Middle East, a duplication of personal correspondence is not a big deal. Puzzling, yes, but I do have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I’m running late. It is 8.15 and the traffic on Tambourine Way will be horrific if I don’t hurry. I scrape the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and give it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the inside windows start to de-mist, and move off into the February frost.

I have a sense of déjà vu as I flash the headlights at Pedro, in his SUV on Solitaire Street, and again on the dual carriageway when I find myself behind a learner bus driver keeping to 30 where you could easily be doing 50 or 60. Does this learner bus driver come this way every day? My progress is further impeded by an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As I edge through the flashing blue chicane of police vehicles, I notice that the two battered cars seem to be the same two cars as in the accident two days ago, a white Mercedes and a black BMW. The impact of the collision has buckled both cars irreparably, as it had in the previous accident. I shudder. The coincidence is way beyond that presented by chance.

I arrive at Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service where I work. I greet Boris and Gerhard. I can’t help but notice that the cyber dog that was collected by its owner the day before yesterday is already back. There is also a familiarity about the headline War Dims Hope for Peace in Boris’s tabloid. Admittedly inanimate pet care is a repetitive line of work but the conversation Gerhard is having with Major Churchill about his pet rock seems identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard puts down the phone I tackle him about this.

He looks at me challengingly and says, ‘what are you taking about? I have never spoken to Major Churchill before. And this may be just a job to you, but the Major’s pet rock does seem to be pretty sick.’

I think of taking up the point. Yes, it is just a job to me. Unlike Gerhard who sees a visit to the dentist as a bit of an outing, I have seen a bit of the world. But I keep quiet instead. What is the point? One pearl of wisdom that comes with age is that past glories count for nothing. I am here, and it is now. My life has taken a bit of a nosedive. Like Orson Welles, I seem to have lived my life backwards, if not quite in the sense I am about to.

Over the days that follow I have a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day has happened previously. I have the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spend the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watch Groundhog Day again on DVD, and buy another new metal detector from The Army and Navy Surplus Stores. The hours on my watch are still going forward but the date is going backward. The presidential election comes round again and they bring the old president back, and that family entertainer that we all once liked is prosecuted again for entertaining children in an inappropriate way. All the papers on the news-stands each day are yesterday’s papers.

At first I imagine that it must be a huge practical joke, admittedly one with a formidable amount of complicity. Whilst I do not advertise my predicament in case people think I am a basket case, no one I speak to displays any sense that anything is wrong with their own temporal world. There is nothing in the papers or on the news to suggest anything irregular in the cosmos. Just the usual reports on war, politics and celebrity indiscretions. It appears that I am alone in my renegade perception of time, although there is a short item in The Morning Lite calling for a twenty five hour day. NASA scientists have apparently researched this and found that participants in the experiment benefited by the increased levels of melatonin. The findings it says would come in handy if astronauts go to Mars. A Martian day it points out lasts for 24.65 earthly hours.

There are a number of contradictions of logic involved in whatever it is I am experiencing. My days are still moving forwards in a linear fashion. I go to work, come home, go to the pub, walk the dog, watch the rerun episode of Spender on ITV3, and go to bed as normal, but when I wake up the next day, it is the day before yesterday. Each day, I become a day younger. This aspect of my condition is of course something that at sixty three I should be pleased about; instead of a creeping decay, there will be a gradual rejuvenation. In a world that places excessive emphasis on artifice, this is what millions of people dream of. Zillions of pounds every week are spent by slavish consumers on a staggering array of products promising the reversal of the inevitable. The consentient sorcery of keeping flowers in full bloom is the central tenet of our belief system.

If I am reliving the past there is plenty for me to look forward, or backward to. I have on balance enjoyed my life. There are all of the special places I have been with lovers or friends that I have felt I wanted to go back to sometime. All of the times I have said or thought, I’ll always remember this. Things that just could not be captured on film. I reason I will also know when to expect the difficult times, like the divorce from Monique, Sebastian’s fatal illness, and the bankruptcy hearing. Painful though it will be, I can be ready for these episodes. And I can go on to experience youth with a wise head. What was it Oscar Wilde said? Youth is wasted on the young?

Despite these deliberations, the sequential upheaval continues to be both disconcerting and disorientating. After a week or so of going over the same ground, I decide to seek professional help. I find myself limited by the need to arrange an appointment for the same day. The medical profession does not operate this way. There is no point in my making an arrangement for the any time in future, and clearly I cannot make an appointment for last week or last month. Similarly I am unable to arrange to see a priest, a mystic, a philosopher, or even a time traveller at a few hours notice. The Auric Ki practitioner that I do manage to see at the community centre at short notice talks about meridians and explains that there might be blockages on the layers of my energy field. Over a dozen or so sessions she says she can balance my chakras and time will move forward again. I try to explain that she might need to do this in one session and she suggests if this is my attitude, then I should go elsewhere.

I begin to wonder what would happen if I do not actually go to bed. Will the day progress normally to the next, or will I at a certain point be flung back to the day before? It seems that despite my predicament, there is still an element of free will about my actions so I buy a wrap of speed, from Sailor, a friend of a friend in the Dancing Monk public house.

‘This is wicked gear,’ says Sailor, so named I assume because of his abundance of tattoos. ‘It will keep you busy for fucking days.’

Good,’ I remark. ‘I may need it to.’

I see the exercise as a demonstration of free will, and not therefore merely a duplication of what happened on the corresponding day a couple of weeks previously. At my age I am not really a late night person, and have not taken drugs since my youth, so I am not sure what to expect.

Despite taking the whole wrap of wicked gear with four cans of Red Bull and playing some kicking music, I drift off at around 5 or 6, anyway before daylight.

……………………………………………………………………

When I wake up I am not sure where I am. Everything around me looks foreign, almost alien. In a conversation that must be puzzling to my companion, Song, I establish that this is the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. It is 1988 – the year before Tianamen Square. I have gone back seventeen years. Song and I are filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. It seems the Chinese authorities are keen to promote tourism in the area. It is a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I can see for miles. It is late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year has been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain is still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriate. Song points toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals are about to turn out to play.

‘We are used to a bit of water. We have long tradition. Chinese invent football in the Han period over two thousand years ago,’ he says. ‘Is called Cuju. Means to kick a ball.’

Song goes a little deeper into the history of cuju in the region and says that he feels the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nod my agreement. I am not surprised. Through classes in Tai Chi back in, well, there is no other way to say this, back in the twenty first century, I developed an interest in Sino culture. I came to understand that the Chinese invented practically everything from paper and printing to gunpowder and aerial flight, and most advances in science and medicine can be attributed to them.

I feel distracted. The future seeming like the past takes some getting used to. While I am conscious of my vitality, I have the strange sensation that I am also an observer of my life.

A boat carrying a team decked out in carnival colours chanting something patriotic is coming up the river. It is hot and humid and a dank haze hangs suspended above the water, as if waiting for an impressionist painter. The regressing part of me is trying frantically to get a handle on what is happening. According to the log I am keeping to help with later editing of the film, I have been in the Peoples’ Republic for ten days and am scheduled to be there for another ten. I am missing Monique, Sebastian and Promise. Song says that the phone lines will not be down for much longer but I know in my world they will be down until my arrival, so I will be unable to phone home.

Sebastian is six and Promise is five. It will be Promise’s birthday soon. Then she will be four. She will stop going to school. Before long, I will be reading her bedtime stories and taking her to nursery. It is curious to comprehend that my life going backwards means to all intents and purposes that everyone’s life around me is also doing so. I can only experience their past.

Filming in China goes back day-by-day as the day approaches that I arrive on a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. During this time I ponder my situation continually. When Song says, ‘see you tomorrow’, I know I had already seen him tomorrow but I will see him again yesterday.

I contemplate the age-old question as to whether we control our destiny or follow a preordained path. This seems all the more pertinent to my circumstances. Am I just reliving events in a life that I have already experienced or could my new actions or thoughts as a person coming from the future have any effect? And how will I know whether they do?

More immediately I am concerned as to why time for me has gone back seventeen years rather than the more conservative day at a time that I came to accept. I am anxious to avoid such a dramatic leap happening again. The only clue I have is that I had tried to stay awake at night to find out why time was going backwards.

I begin to become anxious about sleeping, and visit one of the four thousand acupuncturists in Harbin. I also buy various traditional Chinese remedies from a 114 year-old herbalist named Ho Noh at the local market. Not that Ho instils any confidence. He does not look as if he had ever slept. But I am particularly concerned that the flight on which I was to arrive at Beijing comes in at 5am local time. There seems to be no way of rescheduling the flight and reducing the risk of more temporal upheaval.

……………………………………………………………………

And indeed there isn’t…. When I become aware of consciousness again I find myself on stage at a Pink Floyd concert. I have some difficulty at first working out the time and place, but conclude that it is The Wall tour around February 1981 and this is one of several concerts at Wesfallenhalle, Dortmund in what was then West Germany. What is once again West Germany. I am a sound engineer, and it appears that the tape loops for The Wall have been mixed up with those from Dark Side of the Moon. I suspect I have programmed something incorrectly into the console. Roger Waters is storming around the stage set with a face like thunder and some of the band stop playing.

Back at the hotel, I have a call from Astrid from the house in Rheims.

‘You seem upset baby,’ she says. ‘Is something not good with you?’

I tell her that I have just been sacked by Pink Floyd management. It seems better than saying I have just been jettisoned through space and time from The People’s Republic of China.

‘Why?’ she asks. ‘They seemed so nice at the party in Paris.’

‘A long story,’ I reply, intensely aware of two different life forces, the present, and the future in reverse. You cannot expect to have much of a conversation about space-time continuums in an international phonecall to someone, whose first language is not English.

‘You could come down, if you want,’ said Astrid. ‘I have missed you, you know. The only thing is I’ve got Monique staying. Have I ever mentioned my friend, Monique? I’m sure you would like her. She came yesterday.’

It occurs to me that unless I travel the 400 odd kilometres between Dortmund and Rheims by yesterday I will never even meet Monique. It also occurs that I can’t anyway because I have spent yesterday in Dortmund with Pink Floyd. In a devastating flash, having travelled back to before they were even contemplated, I realise I will never see my children again, or for that matter, Monique.

Before The Wall tour starts, or after The Wall tour starts, I spend a month seeing the new year out and the old year in, with Astrid at the house in Rheims. Astrid is a freelance photographer who does shoots for Paris Match and Marie Claire, specialising in quirky subjects like Sumo wrestlers, dwarfs and circus performers. She is successful and works more or less when she chooses to. We make love, morning, afternoon and night, paint, walk along the Vesle, go to galleries, concerts, and French films without subtitles.

During this time I go to see a hypnotherapist and give up not smoking. Almost immediately I find myself getting through a pack of Gitanes a day. It is a revelation to me to discover that one session can change the habits of a lifetime.

With Astrid in Rheims I go with the flow, seize the moment, and try not to think about the disappearing future, about the first time Monique and I saw the Grand Canyon a morning in May, or looking down at The Great Barrier Reef through a glass bottomed boat, walking amongst the mystical stonework of the sun temple of Machu Picchu or watching the spectacular patterns form in the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia, the sun’s refection on the water in the Halong Bay in Vietnam, about Promise’s wedding, or Sebastian getting in to Oxford, sadly just a month before his fatal illness took hold. I do not think of the excitement of my novel being published or the acclaim I received for the first feature film I directed. I certainly do not think of the months in The Jackson Pollock Recovery Home, the job at Don Quixote or about anything else that happened after my breakdown. The future is history. And the future from a normal chronology of events will now never be. I will not have to endure that period of time later in life when those around you are slowly dying off. Those senior years when if you see a friend you haven’t seen for a while, their news will be that someone else had died. Back in the future when I was sixty three I recall that this had already begun to happen. My parents had died and of course Sebastian had died. Also, in a few short months, my friend Giorgio had died from liver cancer, Jacques had died from a heart attack, and Marianne had died from complications during surgery.

I feel I can live with going back a day at a time, and being aware of what will happen next is not a huge problem. With Astrid, life seems easy. I am twenty six years old and it seems that this is a time for pleasure. Each day the mystery of our attraction unfolds as we know less about each other. An affair lived backwards is very exciting. The fascination increases day by day, the first time you will get a mutual invitation, the first time you will go away together, the first time you will get or buy a present, the first time you will have breakfast together, the first time you will undress one another, working toward that glorious, breathtaking moment when your eyes will first meet, when intuition and desire will form an immaculate, unstoppable, mystical union, that split second when love is heaven-sent.

……………………………………………………………………

Astrid becomes Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between there is Natalie in New York, and before I know it I am twenty three. These years are wild and exciting. I go to parties with painters and dine with divas. I work on a film with Antonioni and play with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashes my car and Marc Bolan throws up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism I just soak up all the pleasure that is available, and cannot recall when I last tried to exercise free will. I have gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.

Time going backwards is by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu has become so commonplace that it is now unnoticeable. I am no longer surprised that news items and soap opera plots unfold backwards. But I am sometimes made aware of echoes of a future life. A persistent voice in my head seems to narrate stories concerning an older person. The voice is familiar, and comes from within, but while it seems it belongs to me and has some sense of self, at the same time I feel a sense of detachment. I have recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibit themselves like false memory.

This older person seems to have experienced considerable misfortune. He found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit, has seen it disappear. As a result of the dispossession he has suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lives a lonely life, works in inanimate pet care, drives a brown Skoda and listens to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were to be my own future, it is neither tangible nor attractive. It seems to me that as my life is moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing is to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness. So the more that it happens, the more I try to block out the voice.

It is often said that when you are young, life is a timeless flight, but as you get older time seems to fly by like it has been turned to fast forward. I find that as I grow younger a similar thing is happening. Months fly by. One moment it is August and the next it is April and another summer is gone. Christmases and birthdays are closer together. No sooner am I twenty three than I am twenty two, and then in what seems the blink of an eye, twenty one.

……………………………………………………………………

After, or before, an especially profligate drinking session, with a group of Dutch football supporters, in a bar in the red light district of Amsterdam during the World Cup, I make the decision I am going to fundamentally change the way I live. We have consumed bottle after bottle of genever as Holland lose to West Germany. We continue our drinking into the night, inconsolable that Johann Cruyff, despite being the finest footballer in the world, will never lift the trophy.

The binge is just the last in a long line of testimonies to guileless self-deprecation. I am unhappy with myself. I have begun to feel that my youthful comportment is frivolous and empty. My behaviour is inconsiderate and hurtful, and I despise the person I am becoming – or have been. I frequently catch myself saying really immature things, and acting badly towards those around me.

What brings matters to a head is a chance meeting at Amsterdam bus station with Faith, a friend of my mother’s. Faith is dressed in a miscellany of chiffon wraps, scarves, bead chokers and jangly jewellery. She carries a tote bag with a yantric design on it, and has rainbow coloured braids in her hair. Faith greets me with a warm hug, which brings with it an assault of patchouli.

‘What are you doing here?’ she says. ‘Where are you going?’

‘I’m not sure where I’m going,’ I say. ‘Because it seems to be more a case of where have I been.’

In that moment I have a profound sensation of being disengaged from time.

In the 1960s both Faith and my mother will live on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle. My father, a man ensconced in the decorum of the professions, will not. He will go to the races and Rotary Club dinners, while my mother and Faith will metaphorically burn their bras and go on demonstrations. It is not hard to see how they will grow apart and the disagreements and separation that will be the backdrop to my early life will arise.

‘Time present and time past are perhaps present in time future,’ Faith continues. ‘And time future is contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.’

‘Where does that come from?’ I ask.

‘Those are the opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,’ she replies, looking me in the eye. It is an English teacher kind of look. I look away.

When I am younger my mother will try to educate me in poetry, but I will prefer The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I will get an appallingly bad grade in English by reading none of the books. My father will not notice because I am too unimportant to be of any significance.

‘But, if you do not know where you are going, you should not be at the bus station. Why don’t you come and have some lunch with me?’ says Faith. ‘I live in Haarlem.’

The bus arrives and we take it. Haarlem is just a few miles. I open up to Faith. I explain I haven’t seen mother since I was twenty six and then only briefly. She looks puzzled so I tried to explain a little of my predicament.

She quotes T. S. Eliot at me once again.

‘We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.’

I began to wonder if T. S. Eliot might have shared my sequential dysfunction.

On the journey, Faith tells me about the community in which she lives, all the time emphasising how happy she is. The community, she says, support one another, share everything, and work together towards a common aim. It seems idealistic, naive even, but I can see that Faith appears to be happy and feels she has found what she is looking for. Her view of life seems to be in marked contrast with my own.

We arrive at Haarlem. A lengthy explanation about eastern philosophy, and the middle way sees us outside Faith’s house.

‘BEWARE OF THE GOD,’ says the sign on the front gate.

‘Which God?’ I ask.

‘It does not matter,’ she replies. ‘How about a Retriever?’

……………………………………………………………………

I come round in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I am wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. I am fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No!…..Wait! …… I AM Jon Keating. ‘Keating needs a beating, Keating needs a beating’ they are chanting, this swathe of little grey monsters. ‘Keating needs a beating.’ They empty my blazer pockets, and one of them, Nolan Rocco I think it is, takes my wrist watch. How will I know what time it is now?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Sticks

sticks5

Sticks by Chris Green

1.

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

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

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

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

‘Sorry,’ he says, sheepishly.

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

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

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

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

‘I moved in yesterday,’

‘How are you settling in? ‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Anything else we can help you with?’

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

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

‘What the blazes is that?’ he says.

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

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

‘Well, not very much without a signal.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t introduce myself by name.

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

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

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

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

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

‘Internet, not enternet,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert and Joss look up from their cloudy green liquid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved