Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes by Chris Green

What happened to the old bus station, Ricky?’ I say. ‘While I was driving here, I couldn’t help noticing it had gone. I know it was a bit of a monstrosity, but it was a landmark. I grew up around there.’

God’s teeth, Vince!’ he says. ‘They knocked that old thing down years ago. Don’t you remember?’

It was still there when we moved away,’ I say. ‘That was two years ago. I remember Tasha and I caught a coach to London from there to go to a Picasso exhibition at Tate Modern just before we left. We moved in September, so that would have been August.’

You’ve got it wrong, mate,’ Ricky says. ‘It went at least five years ago. Probably longer. The flats have been there for five years for sure. I remember because Stacey Looker bought one. I used to visit her there. Remember Stacey?’

I remember Stacey. Long black hair. Big ….’

Indeed!’

I was going to say, heart.’

That too. Mind you, I haven’t seen Stacey for ages. Jo was beginning to suspect so I knocked it on the head. Anyway, National Coaches no longer stop off here. Budget restraints. And the local buses go from Jules Verne Street.’

Perhaps Ricky is right. Time is a slippery customer. With so many other distractions, it’s easy to miscalculate dates.

I guess it doesn’t matter,’ I say. ‘Now, what about this drink?’

I thought we could go to The Goat and Bicycle,’ Ricky says. ‘They serve a good pint of SkullSplitter there, and perhaps we can have a game of Pool.’

The Goat and Bicycle?’ I say. ‘Is that new?’

Oh, come on, Vince!’ Ricky says. ‘Stop playing silly buggers. We used to go there all the time, back in the day.’

For the life of me, I can’t remember a pub called The Goat and Bicycle. With a name like that, you would think I would. But not wanting to embarrass myself, I let it go. I’m sure it will become clear.

We’ll walk then, will we?’ I say, hoping to get a hint at where it might be.

Not worth taking the car, is it, mate?’ he says, apparently still under the impression I know where it is.

On the way to the Goat, the streets seem unfamiliar. I try to convince myself that the strangeness is no more than you would expect when you have been away from a place for a while. Shops and business premises everywhere change hands, are renamed or revamped with monotonous regularity. Tastes change. Streams of warm impermanence and all that. Where did that come from? Anyway, the product life cycle applies to businesses, too. New houses and apartment blocks spring up and new traffic furniture and mobile phone architecture appear without you realising it. You have to expect this. And given today’s burgeoning homogeneity, doesn’t one place look much like any other? Yet the departure from the familiar I experience seems to go beyond changing tastes or environmental remodelling. These streets seem somehow alien. It feels like I’ve never been to this place before.

I try not to show my alarm. Instead, Ricky and I chat about this and that. Strange fascinations. Scandi noirs, René Magritte, wind turbines, the collapse of the pound, and West Ham United’s problems in defence. I remark that the street art that has sprung up here and there on the walls of end-terrace houses is awesome. Much more sophisticated than our crude daubs in the bus station years ago. Ricky changes the subject as if he does not want to talk about the bus station. He tells me that to get out of the house when Jo is on a cleaning blitz, he has taken up fishing, something he swore he would never do. I tell him I’ve been upcycling old furniture that I’ve bought on eBay, and Tasha and I have started a veg patch and are growing leeks and potatoes. I don’t mention the arguments we have had about planting, or our other disputes lately. I get the impression that Ricky has never approved of Tasha. He says he has started mowing the grass again lately. He doesn’t have a lawn, so I take this to mean that he has started smoking weed again. Why didn’t he offer me a spliff earlier? I haven’t had a smoke in months.

I have definitely not been to The Goat and Bicycle before, or any pub in Lewis Carroll Street. I’m not even sure that Lewis Carroll Street was here when I lived around these parts. But in the absence of an explanation of what might have been, I don’t mention it. The disorientation seems to affect my pool game, though. I lose all five games to Ricky, whereas nine times out of ten, I would expect to have beaten him.

Tasha and I are staying at her friend, Debbie’s house on the outskirts of town. I cannot recall exactly where this is, so I head towards where the bus station used to be, hoping I will remember. After all, this is the way I came earlier. My sense of direction doesn’t return. I am forced to admit I am lost. I need to phone Tasha for instructions. I’m sure I will get an earful, but it needs to be done. I stop outside one of the new blocks of flats where the bus station used to be, only to discover I don’t have my phone. I must have left it in The Goat and Bicycle. I step out of the car to get my bearings.

Hello Vince,’ says a voice. ‘What are you doing around here?’

I turn around. It is Stacey Looker. Charlie Young from my class would probably explain a meeting like this as synchronicity. Charlie has always been a serious-minded dude, talking about archetypes, the collective unconscious and the like. But there again, he is often right. The more you look into synchronicity, for instance, the more sense it makes. Most of my life events have been the result of unexplained coincidences.

I look Stacey up and down. At least she doesn’t seem to have changed. I do my best to explain my predicament.

You’re sozzled, Vince,’ she says. ‘You definitely shouldn’t be driving. You’d better come in for a coffee and we’ll try to sort you out.’

Although Stacey might be exaggerating my inebriation, this seems like a good idea. It will give me a few minutes to take stock. I follow her up the stairs to her second-floor apartment.

Don’t you remember the name of Debbie’s road?’ Stacey asks.

All I remember is that it was a mile or two the other side of the old bus station,’ I say. ‘I was trying to follow the route I took, backwards.’

Well, that’s no help at all. I don’t even know where the old bus station was,’ Stacey says.

Until two years ago, the bus station was right here, where we are now,’ I say.

I’ve lived here six years, Vince,’ Stacey says. ‘I think I might have noticed a bus station, don’t you?’

I may have mentioned where I was staying in passing to Ricky,’ I say. ‘At least Debbie’s street name.’

I don’t seem to have a number for Ricky anymore,’ Stacey says. ‘We didn’t part on the best of terms. You could phone the pub, I suppose, but I’m not going to let you drive back there in your state.’

I only had a couple of pints,’ I say.

Come on! That’s not likely is it,’ she says. ‘Not if I know Ricky.’

I realise that on occasions such as this, there is no point in attempting to defy fate. You only sink deeper into its clutches. So when Stacey Looker tells me I am welcome to stay the night, I don’t argue. I expect that Tasha and Debbie will be well into the Prosecco by now anyway, and laughing girlishly at things that don’t seem funny. They will probably have a selection of romcoms or worse still, romcom sequels lined up for streaming later. This trip was mostly for Tasha’s benefit. For her to catch up with Debbie. I only agreed to come at the last minute when my Abstract Expressionist class was cancelled. But that hardly justifies coming all this way.

I’m not sure how I come to wake up in Stacey’s bed, but it doesn’t seem a bad place to be. It seems we may have had a little wine last night. And apparently, we threw caution to the wind. And yes, we did all that. All my additional questions remain unasked. What’s done is done.

What did you say that pub was called?’ Stacey asks, scrolling down on her phone.

The Goat and Bicycle,’ I say.

I thought that’s what you said,’ she says. ’I don’t think there’s any such pub. According to Google, there’s a Goat and Tricycle in Bournemouth. As that’s over a hundred miles away, I don’t imagine it is that one.’

That’s odd,’ I say. ‘Ricky made a big thing about us going to The Goat and Bicycle. He said we always used to go there. But for the life of me, I couldn’t remember it.’

So you didn’t look at the pub sign when you went there. Or notice any merchandising.’

I suppose I just took it for granted.’

I am comforted that at least I know where Ricky lives. After breakfast, I bid my farewells to Stacey.

You have my number,’ she says. ‘Any time you’re passing.’

I arrive at Ricky’s house in Franz Kafka Street and ring the doorbell. There is no reply. I try again. I am about to conclude that Ricky is at work and cursing myself for not having checked yesterday, when a wrinkled old lady with white hair answers the door. She looks puzzled, frightened even.

Is Ricky there?’ I ask, puzzled by what a wrinkled old lady might be doing in Ricky’s house.’

Who?’ she says, taking a step back. She looks as if she thinks I am a con man, come to rob her of her life savings.

Ricky, I say, ‘Mr Geist.’

There’s no-one of that name here,’ she says. ‘And I’ve lived here for the last twenty years. On my own too, since Jack died. God, rest his soul.’

That’s strange,’ I say. I’m sure this was Ricky, Mr Geist’s house. 42 Franz Kafka Street.’

Sorry,’ she says, ‘This is number 42 but there’s no Mr Ricky here.’ With this, she closes the door.

I drive around the area looking for the pub we went to. There is no sign of it. I become more desperate by the minute. What is happening to me? Am I having a nervous breakdown? Am I going mad? I need to locate Ricky urgently. He must have some kind of explanation. Sadly, I don’t even know where he works. We’ve never talked much about work, at least not lately. Perhaps he no longer works. In these days of high unemployment, who knows? Although I have to say, he didn’t seem to be broke.

Stacey is surprised to see me, but not too surprised, and I can’t help noticing, a little pleased. Bit by bit, we go over the mystery. Clearly, I saw Ricky in some form or other yesterday. We agree on this, yet for whatever reason, I don’t appear to know where he lives or where he works. I had a phone and now I don’t have a phone. The Goat and Bicycle does not exist, nor does Lewis Carroll Street. Perceptions of historical time can vary from person to person. I have no idea where Debbie’s house is. There is no way for me to contact Tasha or for her to contact me.

Other than that, everything is hunky dory. Stacey and I seem to enjoy one another’s company. Why not go with the flow? Take it as it comes. Charlie Young says it is important to be prepared for the unexpected. Everything is in flux, he says. We live in a jumping universe. Sometimes things get turned on their head. You need to be ready to adjust to any new situation or circumstances you may find yourself in within fifty-five minutes. If fate decrees that changes are needed, you need to turn and face the strange.

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved






NIGHT

night3

NIGHT by Chris Green

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs blown in on the wind, or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the noise from the night workers laying the new cables for the listening centre and the beefy Alsatian from two doors down barking at a visiting fox in the garden. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block out the noise, but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away. Even if the voices stop, the door is open and they come flooding in. He is at their mercy. 

The voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank realises he will not get back to sleep. Finally, he wakes Linda up. It annoys him sometimes that Linda can sleep through anything, even Mrs Oosterhuis’s television on loud at 3 a.m. 

‘Can you hear anything,’ he asks?

‘You’re not going to go on about Randy what’s-his-name again, are you?’ says Linda, moving restlessly in the bed. ‘Look! I can’t hear a thing. Now, can we go back to sleep?

Are the voices in his head, perhaps, Hank wonders, not for the first time? Nothing more than figments of his imagination? 

Clint, a colleague of Hank’s at Desperados, the country and western club where he helps behind the bar at weekends, tells him about Rose Pink, a therapist that his wife, Betsy Lou has been seeing. He suggests Hank makes an appointment to see her. Betsy Lou has come on in leaps and bounds, he says, and can now even go to the gun shop on her own. 

Hank makes an appointment to see Rose Pink the following Thursday morning. He is a little apprehensive as he has done nothing like this before. He has always seen therapy as some kind of punishment for drug addicts and psychopaths. Not something for average Joes who live a normal life. Despite his reservations, he steels himself and goes along to the house in the suburbs where Rose Pink practices. At first, she does not appear to hear him over the Black Sabbath track that is playing, an odd choice, he feels, for a psychotherapist. In the break between tracks, he gets her attention. She comes to the door. She is wearing ripped jeans and a Breaking Bad t-shirt. Hank guesses she is a few years younger than him, the right side of forty, perhaps.

She turns the music off and apologises for keeping him waiting. She sits him down in a comfortable chair and after a shaky start, Hank tells her about his nocturnal demons.

‘Who is this …… Randy Van Wormer,’ Rose Pink asks? 

‘Van Warmer. It’s Randy VanWarmer,’ says Hank. ‘He’s a singer-songwriter. From Colorado but he grew up in Cornwall. He’s a one-hit-wonder. He had his big hit back in 1979. It was called Just When I Needed You Most. When my father left her and ran off with a waitress from Hungry Jacks, my mother played it over and over for days. It’s a truly heart-wrenching song. Have you never heard it?’

‘No, I don’t believe I have,’ says Rose Pink.

‘You are lucky,’ says Hank. ‘The ultimate unwelcome earworm.’

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

‘Anyway, Randy VanWarmer died in January 2004 on the same day that my mother died. I was seven years old. From that time I became aware of his ghost.

‘Come on now, Hank!’ Rose Pink says. ‘You don’t believe all that crap, do you? You’re a grown man. I mean, look at you. You must be six foot, even without your Stetson. Don’t you think it’s time to get a grip? Pull yourself together!’

This is not the type of response that Hank expects. It says on the Internet that empathy and understanding are the bedrock of psychotherapy. Rose Pink’s take on it seems to be an unnecessarily aggressive one.

‘Look, here’s an idea,’ she continues. ‘Before you go to bed, why don’t you play Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City a few times. That’s what I do if I feel stressed. Paradise City will see off any other potential earworm. Guaranteed! Now! About these other things that stop you sleeping.’

Although he is losing faith in Rose Pink, Hank gives her a brief account of the things that keep him awake at night, the night workers laying the cables for the spy base, the singsong of chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television, the neighbour’s Alsatian.

‘Let’s look at these one at a time,’ Rose Pink says. ‘There’s not much you can do about the cabling, or perhaps the revellers, but the other issues are easily resolvable. You could threaten Mrs Oosterhuis. You could tell her that the next time you hear her TV you’ll come round and put a hammer through the screen. And the fellow with the Alsatian. Why don’t you just go round and punch his lights out?’

‘But once I get the idea that I’m not going to be able to sleep, it stays there,’ Hank says.

‘For Christ’s sake, man! The answer to that one is easy,’ Rose Pink says. ‘Don’t get the idea in the first place. Drink a tumbler of rum or something before you go to bed.’

Hank suddenly realises why Clint’s wife Betsy Lou is usually swaying from side to side when he sees her. 

Despite this, Hank decides to give the rum cure a go. He buys a bottle of Captain Morgan from BargainBooze and, while Question Time is on, pours himself a generous tumbler. Although Linda gets upset about him shouting ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ at the politicians, the public, the pundits and even the presenter throughout the programme, the rum seems to do the business. By 11:30, he is sleeping like a baby. He did not even need Guns n’ Roses.

Hank wakes at 3 a.m. however. Against the background of the neighbour’s Alsatian dog barking madly at a fox in the garden, he can hear the raised voices of revellers coming back from the late-night clubs and Mrs Oosterhuis’s television turned up louder than ever. Perhaps she has been out and bought a new 56-inch model. As if this weren’t enough, he can hear Randy VanWarmer’s ghost belting out his erstwhile hit. And more. The elaborate sonic picture reverberates around his aching head. Next to him, Linda is sleeping the sleep of the just. 

Hank gets up and makes himself a cup of tea but it is no good. The demons are with him now. No matter what he does, he knows he will continue to be at their mercy. If just one of them would stop. For instance, why can’t the fox just slink off somewhere and what are people still doing coming home from clubs at 5 a.m.?

Although it is the busiest time of year at the surfboard repair centre, Hank tells them he is sick. He says it must be something he ate. He phones Rose Pink and she finds a lunchtime slot in her schedule, one that she says she sets aside for emergencies. At first, she does not hear his knock, but eventually, the Sonic Youth track ends, and he knocks again. This brings Rose Pink to the door in her black t-shirt and punk Goth leggings. He notices her hair is a different colour to the previous day, more purple.  

‘This had better be good,’ Rose Pink says, by way of a greeting.

‘Thankyou for seeing me at such short notice,’ says Hank. ‘It’s very good of you.’

‘Just get on with it, will you?’ Rose Pink says. ‘Did you do what I said?’

‘I did. I drank nearly half a bottle of rum, but I woke in the night and there was what I can best describe as a new intensity to the disturbance,’ Hank says. ‘As if it’s all closing in. And getting louder. And going on for longer. Added to which, Randy VanWarmer seems to have also found a new song. It’s called I Never Got Over You.’

‘Sounds pretty miserable,’ Rose Pink says. ‘But you seem to like this …… slit your wrist country music.’ 

‘I like real country music,’ Hank says. ‘George Jones, Merle Haggard …… ‘

‘Now you are splitting hairs,’ Rose Pink says. ‘It’s all indulgent, self-pitying drivel. You have to distance yourself from all of that crud. You need to rock a little.’ 

‘But …… ‘

‘You have to take the rough with the smooth. Tackle things, head-on. Take control of the situation.’

‘But ….. ‘

‘Christ, Hank! What are you, a man or a mouse?’

‘I thought therapists were supposed to show understanding and compassion.’

‘Oh, that’s what you read, was it? Well, buster! That’s not therapy, that’s babysitting. Real therapy requires shock and awe tactics. Goddammit! How else is anyone ever going to address their shortcomings? How do you think anyone is ever going to change if someone constantly mollycoddles them and says there, there?’

Following the session, Hank decides it is time he did something about his sorry situation. He wants to be a man, not a mouse. He begins by phoning Clint.

‘I’m not going to be able to help out at Desperados any longer, Clint,’ he says.

‘That’s a shame,’ Clint says. ‘Why’s that, Hank?’

‘All the songs we play at the club are so depressing,’ Hank says.

‘What! Willie Nelson depressing? Surely not,’ Clint says.

Next, Hank goes around to see his next-door neighbour but one. 

‘About your dog,’ he says.

‘What dog?’ says the neighbour. ‘Bruiser died three months ago.’

‘Why have you brought that hammer round?’ says Mrs Oosterhuis on his next call.

‘I’ve come to give you an ultimatum about your television,’ Hank says.

‘I don’t have a television,’ Mrs Oosterhuis says. ‘A television wouldn’t be much use to me. I’m blind.’

Hank thinks he spots a flaw in her argument.

‘If you are blind, how did you know I had a hammer?’ he says.

‘I have very good hearing,’ Mrs Oosterhuis says. ‘I grew up in the veldt in the Transvaal.’

Following on from his bout of assertiveness, Hank finds things are a little better that night. Just a trickle of revellers speaking in hushed tones make their way home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television is much fainter, and the dog comes out with little more than a muted ruff when the fox comes in the garden. And Randy VW barely gets past the opening line of his hit. This is, of course, comforting, but Hank wonders why he can still hear any of these noises at all. At breakfast, Linda suggests he must face the possibility that he is delusional. Forcefully, he feels. 

Hank debates whether he might need another session with Rose Pink to clarify exactly what is wrong. Her unconventional approach to therapy appears to have given him a nudge in the right direction, but perhaps there are more holistic ways to address his …… what should he call it? Confusion? Anxiety? Phobia? Neurosis? Not that he thinks it is going to be a walk in the park, but half the battle, as he understands it, is admitting that you have a psychological problem. He is pleased to see on Facebook that a group of neuroscientists have discovered a song that reduces anxiety by sixty-five percent. If he could perhaps replace Randy VanWarmer’s heartfelt lament with this, then he might be in business. He could play the tune, say five or six times during the day and then another five or six times before going to bed. 

After several hours of listening to Weightlessness, Hank’s breathing is barely discernible. When Linda comes home late from the salon and finds him motionless in his chair with his eyes closed, she thinks he is dead. She turns off the ethereal music that is coming from the hi-fi system and calls the NHS out of hours’ service. She tells them she does not know what has caused Hank’s catatonia but that lately, he has been showing signs of ……. confusion. 

‘Don’t do anything until the doctor gets there,’ she is told.

To steady herself, she pours herself a glass of the rum that Hank brought home. She calls out his name repeatedly to try to rouse him, but he remains immobile. 

‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ she says. ‘You haven’t gone and done anything silly, have you? You haven’t taken anything?’ 

She goes over to him and puts her hand on his wrist. She thinks she can detect a faint pulse, but not being medically trained, she can’t be sure. She might also be imagining it, but thinks she senses a slight movement in his chest.

‘Hank!’ she says, gently shaking him. ‘Hank! Wake up, Hank!’ 

 There is still no response. It is at this moment that the doorbell rings. Linda rushes to the door.

‘I’m Dr Spurlock,’ says the diminutive man in the overcoat and the large black bag standing there. 

‘Thank God you’ve come,’ Linda says. ‘Come on in.’

‘Any changes with your husband, Mrs Hank?’ Dr Spurlock asks.

‘No. No changes.’

‘Shall we take a look?’

Dr Spurlock puts his bag down and examines Hank. He feels for a pulse and then takes out his stethoscope.

‘Now, tell me,’ he says. ‘How long has your husband been like this?’

‘It is hard to say, Doctor,’ says Linda, pushing her tumbler of rum out of sight, behind a potted plant. ‘He was like it when I came home from work a little while ago.’

‘It looks as if he is …… floating, Mrs Hank. My guess is that Mr Hank is somewhere up there on the ceiling. Not usually a common condition but we’ve come across this a lot lately. Has he been listening to …… Weightlessness by any chance?’

‘He did have some strange music on when I got home, yes.’

‘That will probably be Weightlessness, Mrs Hank,’ Dr Spurlock laughs. ‘Now if you’ll just stand back, I’ll just give your husband a shot and that should do the trick. It will bring him round and in no time, he will be as right as rain.’

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of people coming home from the night shift at the foundry blown in on the wind, or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the thumping bass from the Reggae sound system at number 44 and the fierce Rottweiler from across the way howling defiantly at the moon. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out, but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away, even if the voices stop. But the voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank realises he will not be able to get back to sleep. Nor is there any point in waking Linda. There’s something inherently treacherous about night. Time to get up and listen to Motörhead again or perhaps the Pestilential Goat Live in Saigon album that Rose Pink suggested he keep back for emergencies.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved