ODDS

oddsOdds by Chris Green

Having worked at BiggerBet, Rick O’Shea knows a little about odds. Rick knows, for instance, the bookmakers’ odds of West Ham winning the Premier League are 1,000 to 1. The mathematical odds of being dealt a Straight Flush at five-card Draw Poker are 72,192 to 1. The odds of winning the jackpot on the six ball Lottery by getting each number correct are roughly 14 million to 1. But the odds of Billy Chance turning up on his doorstep in his Tottenham Hotspur strip bouncing a football are incalculable, especially as Billy doesn’t appear to have aged since Rick last saw him over thirty years ago. As far as Rick knows, Billy is dead. He heard Billy met his maker when his Sierra Cosworth came off the road at Fiddlers Elbow, a notoriously dangerous bend that over the years has claimed many lives.

If Billy is dead, he doesn’t seem to realise it because he wants to know if Rick is up for a kick-around in Farmer Flynn’s field. This is not going to work out as Farmer Flynn’s field has long since been built upon. It is now a mixed development of three and four bedroomed town-houses and deceptively spacious starter apartments. In any case, Rick’s arthritis means that kicking a ball around is all but impossible these days. He has an appointment with the doctor later.

You’d better come in, Billy,’ he says, hoping that something will come to light to help solve the mystery.

It looks different,’ Billy says once they are in the hallway. ‘What happened to the poster of Gazza?’

Billy doesn’t look different. He still looks ten years old. He is exactly how Rick remembers him. The same ginger hair parted harshly at the side. The same scar on his left cheek which has not quite healed, this from the scrap he had had in the playground with Johnny Keating. He isn’t sure how he should play it. There is too much of a gap between logic and what is happening here. Can Billy not see that he is no longer ten years old? That things have moved on? Rick tries to explain to him that this is not the old house he used to visit. That all happened a long time ago.

Oh! I see. You’ve moved, have you, Rick?’ Billy says. ‘When was that?’

Rick tells him in the simplest way he can that he has moved several times. And furthermore …..

If you like, we could go along to the double bridge instead,’ Billy says.

Rick recalls they sometimes used to go trainspotting in the old days. The double bridge was a place you could see the trains coming in both directions from a long way off.

No. I don’t fancy that, Billy,’ he says, hoping he will not need to explain railway developments over the last four decades.

OK,’ Billy says. ‘But I think I’ll go along. The express will be coming through soon. I’ll leave the ball here then, shall I?’

With this, Billy is gone.

……………………………………….

Too much sitting at a desk,’ Dr Baccarat says. ‘You need to get more exercise. But I have an under-the-counter spray that I think might help. And I’ll see what I can do about that other matter.’

Rick is pleased he was able to see Dr Baccarat. He is always more helpful than Dr Hopper or Dr Bolt. They usually send him away with a flea in his ear.

After the appointment and a blast of Dr Baccarat’s spray, he stops off at The Gold Cup for a Special Brew. He has a chat with his former colleague, Dean Runner. Dean has also lost his job with BiggerBet. Dean says the problem is you can bet on anything. Bog snorkelling, cheese rolling, the discovery of life on Mars, when the end of the world would be. How can you honestly offer objective odds on unusual bets? It is easy to see how Rick made a mistake offering odds on the winner of the Home Counties Conker Semi-Finals. While he probably shouldn’t have accepted such a large bet at such long odds and certainly not to someone he was acquainted with, BiggerBet could afford the payout. Besides, they themselves had not done too badly. Both Rick and Dean had frequently taken advantage of insider knowledge and backed unlikely winners.

When Rick returns home, he finds an old Fiat Uno parked on the drive. A rare sight these days but the car seems somehow familiar. He assumes it must belong to a friend of Amy’s. Amy has probably returned from work early. Since Brexit, there has been a reduced demand for eyebrow tinting. People can no longer afford such luxuries. But there is no sign of Amy’s Mini.

Inside the house, he becomes aware of a sweet perfume he doesn’t immediately recognise. Someone is shuffling about upstairs.

Is that you, Ricky?’ a female voice calls down. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I let myself in.’

It takes him a while to recognise the voice. He has not heard Donna’s voice for a long time. But it certainly sounds like her. It is then he remembers she had a Fiat Uno back when he used to see her. As he recalls, it kept breaking down. But he hasn’t seen Donna for years. What can she possibly be doing here?

He goes up to the bedroom. Donna is slipping out of her dress. She looks exactly as she did years ago. Lithe and youthful.

Shall we get in?’ she purrs, gesturing towards the bed.

Dr Baccarat’s under-the-counter spray has offered some relief to Rick’s arthritic limbs and the Special Brew has perked him up. But an under-the-sheets romp with a twenty-something Donna is an altogether different proposition. He remembers she was always what one might describe as lively. Also, it might be difficult to get Amy to be understanding if she comes home early from the salon. Meanwhile, it is difficult for him to understand what is going on. This isn’t merely a question of the odds being incalculable. They have somehow entered the realms of impossibility. What crazy shit is going down in his world?

To buy some time, he tells Donna he is going to take a quick shower. He urgently needs to gather his thoughts.

Don’t be too long,’ Donna says. ‘I’m feeling very horny.’

Rick goes into the spare room and calls Amy, this on the pretext of asking her to drop by Tesco on her way home to buy plum jam as they have run out. She tells him she is meeting Nicky after work. She told him this morning. Doesn’t he remember? He tells her not to worry, he will go out and get the jam. On the plus side, she isn’t going to suddenly come through the door.

When he goes back into the bedroom, he discovers Donna is no longer there. He hears the sound of a car starting up outside. He looks out the window and sees the Fiat disappearing up the drive.

……………………………………….

Years ago, Rick’s psychotherapist, Hoagy Platt taught him the 4-7-8 breathing technique. Remembering this, he uses it now to try to calm himself. It seems to work. As the minutes pass, he feels more centred. He questions whether either of today’s curious visits actually happened. Perhaps he was simply mistaken. This has happened before. The mind can sometimes play tricks. If you give it free rein, imagination is apt to run wild. Perhaps the visits were nothing more than illusions brought on by stress.

He checks the bedroom again. At first glance, nothing appears to be out of place. It looks as it usually does, the bed neatly made, the pillows on either side correctly stacked and the sheet folded over the duvet at the top. But then he notices a large pink hooped earring on the floor. This is not the type of thing that Amy would wear. She only ever wears studs or discreet dangles. This is a younger person’s jewellery and pink is Donna’s colour. There are traces of perfume lingering in the air, the same one he caught a whiff of earlier. While neither of these things in themselves is conclusive, together they present a strong case for Donna’s having been here. Billy’s football on the floor by the coat-rack in the hallway suggests that he too was here.

Weird though the day has been, Rick tells himself that no actual harm has been done. Whether real or not, these were his own private experiences and so long as he can put them behind him, life can return to normal. He has overcome lapses in reason before. When you consider it, life itself is strange. Many things happen to people every day for which there is no plausible explanation. Why would he be exempt from the whims of unpredictability and strangeness? Who can tell what is real and what is imaginary anymore? What is genuine and what is fake?

How’s the job hunting going?’ Amy asks when she comes home.

Rick tells her he has applied for a senior position at YouBet. He hasn’t. He had thought about putting in an application but with everything else happening, this had taken a back seat.

That’s good,’ Amy says. ‘All this sitting around at home is not good for you. Haven’t you noticed you are putting on weight? By the way, someone called Donna came in to have her eyebrows done earlier. She said she remembered you from years ago. Knew you quite well, apparently. It seems strange you’ve never mentioned her. Around fifty, I’d say, although she dressed much younger. Skimpy little dress, bleached blonde hair, lots of make-up. Mutton dressed as lamb, to coin a phrase. Ring any bells?’

No,’ Rick says. ‘I don’t think I know anyone like that.’ The Donna that Amy is describing seems to have little in common with the vision he caught a glimpse of earlier. And yet ……

……………………………………….

I wonder who that creepy old fellow is that’s been hanging around outside,’ Amy says at breakfast the next morning.

Who?’ Rick says. ‘I haven’t noticed anyone.’

The one with the long ginger hair and the scruffy white football shirt,’ she says ‘Every time I go out, he seems to be there. He talks to himself. He’s definitely strange.’

No. Can’t say I’ve seen him,’ Rick says.

Mutters to himself, Gazza’s great or something like that,’ Amy says. ‘I always give him a wide berth. Perhaps you might have a word.’

I can’t see him,’ Rick says, going over to the window. ‘Where is he?’

He’s doesn’t seem to be there at the moment but he was first thing when I got up,’ Amy says. ‘Look. I’ve been meaning to ask. Where did that football in the hallway come from?’

Don’t know,’ Rick says. ‘Your nephew, Adrian?’

But Adrian hasn’t been here for months.’

Don’t know, then. Perhaps it’s that crazy old man’s and he’s been looking for it.’

Very funny! Anyway, I have to get to work. Hope you hear about that job.’

Hoping for a less traumatic day, Rick settles down to do some research. He isn’t sure what terms to use but time shifts and false memory seem like good starting points. He finds pages and pages of results, each repeating the same things, no matter what he types in as qualifiers. Time shifts are more related to science fiction than hard science and false memory is a self-explanatory psychological phenomenon. Not exactly revelations. The internet is so frustrating. He is glad he has the cat to keep him company.

But wait, they don’t have a cat. Amy must have accidentally let this one in when she left for work. Yet Rick can’t help thinking the cat looks like Zorro. But don’t all black and white cats look the same? And Zorro died over twenty years ago. He would be about forty by now. That would be two hundred and eighty in human years. The cat has the same red collar that Zorro used to have. With a name tag. It is called Zorro. The odds against there being more than one black and white cat called Zorro with a red collar would have several noughts on the end.

Granted, these are short odds compared to the appearances of Billy Chance and Donna Betts. But still. This can wait until later. The cat is not doing any harm. It is time to find out what he can on Billy and Donna. He is about to try some targetted internet searches when he is interrupted by the arrival of a white van and a knock at the door.

You’ll have to give me a hand with this one, guv,’ the delivery driver says. ‘You’ll see why.’

The package turns out to be a three-foot by three re-enforced cardboard box. It is addressed to Rick but he feels he would remember if he had ordered anything this bulky. It is clearly not the windcheater jacket he bought on eBay or the DVDs from Amazon. The package has no return address. Rick is reluctant to accept it but the driver hovers over him threateningly and mouths something about having come all this way. Between the two of them, with a lot of huffing and puffing, they manage to get it inside the house and Rick signs for it.

Nor is it simple to open the box. Rick has to call upon most of the items in his toolbox. To his puzzlement, despite its huge size and weight, the box appears to be empty. He tries to turn it on to its side but it takes all his strength just to move it a few inches. How can an empty cardboard box be so heavy? Science and sensibility are out the window.

As Rick sits staring at the box wondering what to do with the thing, the hidden contents begin to emerge. Slowly at first. A smell, a taste, a pattern. Then a trickle. A song here, a picture there, a candle, a potted plant. A flip-top mobile phone, a new book about a boy wizard, a family pack of Honey Nut Clusters. Soon there is a settee, a chair, a CD rack, laughter and chatter. A card table, beer cans, a stack of newspapers, open at the sports pages. A TV in the corner with a chef shouting abuse at the others in his kitchen. Someone buzzing about saying something about taking the children to see Shrek. The news channel showing live pictures of planes hitting New York towers. The desktop computer is slow and clunky but it has the Internet and the facility to bet online. You can get odds of 6 to 4 on there being a third plane. A good price for a certainty. A no-brainer, Rick thinks.

He attempts to make a large bet. The site won’t accept any of his credit or debit cards. Is this a bad thing or a good thing? He cannot decide which. If, on the one hand ….. But, there again ….. The box in the room is still regurgitating the past. More clutter. The room is filling up with stuff. Tables and chairs, a backgammon set, half-empty coffee cups, discarded clothes, wine bottles, overturned ashtrays. The dog is barking. He doesn’t have a dog. Alarms are sounding. There are intruders. Everything is closing in. He feels claustrophobic. There are more shots of the burning towers on the TV. He finds it difficult to breathe from the smoke inhalation. He needs to go outside to get some air.

He makes his way out onto the street. To his relief, there are no suspicious people from the past hanging around. There are no unexpected cars on the drive. The traffic on the street is flowing orderly in both directions. A normal day here. A number 28 bus passes. It has an advert for YouBet on the side with their tag-line, you’ll get the best odds.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

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Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

Uncle Chet is planning to buy a house in the south-west of England. He wants to get out of the rat-race and retire to the country. I am in the area to look at what is available. Chet doesn’t like travelling these days. He says you lose the taste for it as you get older. Since my recent divorce, I find I relish every opportunity to get out and about. And because I have a wealth of experience in buying and selling property, Uncle Chet trusts my judgement to find him something suitable in this rural idyll. It is a bright June day and I am on my way to Bilk and Bilk Estate Agents in Little Dissing.

It’s started all over again,’ I hear someone shouting behind me. I turn around. A bearded man in a ragged raincoat is running down the road towards me. He is waving his arms madly and shouting over and over. ‘It’s happening again. It’s happening again.’

What is it that is happening? What is causing the old fellow such distress? By the looks of him, it could be he does not know what is happening either. He doesn’t look as if he knows the time of day. His hair is wild and he has that look of madness in his eyes. He runs on past me, still shouting excitedly. He does not give me so much a sideways glance. He is clearly on a mission.

I ask one or two of the people outside the Methodist Chapel if they know what is going on but they ignore me. So do the ones outside the Funeral Directors as the crazed old man runs back up the street. Perhaps you need to have lived in Little Dissing a few years before people feel the need to speak to you.

We get screwballs every day back home predicting the second coming, the end of the world or aliens landing. We get all sorts of unlikely claims. There was one the other day shouting out that fish were going to fall from the sky. But I live in a big metropolitan centre, this is a small community. You would not expect to find such people on the loose in a timeless, well-ordered English village like Little Dissing. There can’t be more than a few hundred living here and with its floral displays and its carefully manicured grass verges, it regularly features in the Good Village guide. It has literary connections too, John Betjeman was fond of the place. There’s a church with a twelfth-century granite font apparently. Agatha Christie used to have a house just down the road and T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to the village. Perhaps the crazy old man is considered part of the local colour out here in the sticks, someone who might entertain you by singing sea shanties to his sheep or babbling on about the rose garden and the door we never opened.

Inside Bilk and Bilk’s offices, the exquisitely named Lara Love takes down Uncle Chet’s details. I tell her Chet is looking for a period property with three or four bedrooms, a workshop and a bit of land to grow ornamental gourds. Particularly good soil in these parts for growing ornamental gourds, Lara says. We chat about the area in general and she fills me in with a little more of the history of the village. I learn that it was the centre of a Saxon royal estate and it is famous for its wassailing celebrations.

Lara maintains good eye contact, makes easy conversation and has a good sense of humour. And her attributes certainly do not end there.

By and by, I ask her about the old fellow.

Ah! You mean old Seth,’ she says. ‘Don’t mind him, Mr Bloke.’

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

The old fellow’s nutty as a fruitcake, Guy. He’s what you might call of a conspiracy theorist, alien abductions, unreported nuclear accidents, time travel, you name it. You’ve probably gathered everyone thinks he’s looney-tunes.’

I thought as much,’ I say. ‘His behaviour did not cause much of a stir. I guess locals are used to it. Out of curiosity, Lara, what is it he thinks is happening again?’

He’s referring to something that happened a long time ago,’ Lara says. ‘Probably twenty years or more. Certainly before my time but apparently, several people from Little Dissing disappeared one after another without trace. The mystery was never solved. No-one in the village today seems to be able to remember any details. I only know about it through an antique dealer who came in to buy a house. Bit of a local historian, this fellow was. Don’t worry! There is no reason to suspect extraterrestrials landed and took them away or that there was an unreported nuclear accident at the power plant along the coast but old Seth won’t let it go.’

Time travel then,’ I say.

I think there’s a bit of a time warp around here if that’s what you mean,’ Lara says. ‘I expect you notice it coming from the big city. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a report in the Gazette last week that someone from the village is missing,’ Lara says. ‘This is what has set him off again.’

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

Oh, you don’t want to get drawn into that,’ Lara says. ‘Let’s see if we can find a house for your Uncle Chet.’

We arrange two viewings, one at two o’clock and the other at three o’clock. I grab some lunch at The Gordon Bennett. In the hope of getting the lowdown on the area, I try to strike up conversations with the regulars but no-one seems forthcoming. None of them remember the disappearances. The landlord just wants to talk about the upcoming Nick Cave tour, although he does manage to slip in how much he enjoyed the recent Twin Peaks series. I’m beginning to get the impression that Little Dissing is protective about its secrets.

As I am leaving, I get a text from an unrecognised number. It says, ‘When catching a train, always check the timetables.’ Trains? Timetables? I have never been good at cryptic puzzles and more importantly, I have an appointment. It’s probably a wrong number anyway.

Lara drives me to the first house in her Audi. It is a four-bedroom period property with gardens, paddocks and outbuildings set in two acres. There are no near neighbours. Lara tells me it has been on the market for two years. She says she can see no obvious reason why this should be. Good houses are snapped up around here and at four hundred thousand, this one is competitively priced. If she were still with Greg, she says, they might consider buying it. She fills me in on her recent breakup in a light-hearted kind of way. I’m not sure I’m getting the whole story. The failure of her marriage can’t really be down to Greg taking selfies at the gym or his singing along to hits from the musicals in the car. From my own experience, where a separation is concerned it’s usually six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to take some of the blame for Eve and I splitting up.

I have to admit though I am not especially upset that Lara is not still with Greg. I am quite smitten. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair and a winning smile. She seems more flirty than most of the estate agents I’ve come across. During the drive, she keeps flicking her hair back and gives me darting glances. She appears to deliberately be letting her skirt creep up her leg. I’m not sure how the conversation arrives at nightwear but evidently, she wears none. A shame really that it is not a longer drive. All too soon, we arrive at the competitively-priced property and it’s back to business.

When you are looking around a house, you can detect almost straight away when something seems wrong. While you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a tingling sensation on your skin. The temperature might appear to drop by a few degrees or you might hear an unexplainable high-pitched background sound. Whatever it is that is wrong here, I know as soon as I step through the Georgian solid oak door into the panelled hallway, impressive though this is, that this house is a no-no. It’s not the layout. It’s not the décor. It’s nothing tangible. It’s not that it’s damp. It’s not that it’s dark. It’s not that it’s haunted. But, something makes me instantly feel uneasy about being there. An unexplainable malevolence lurking in the very fabric of the place. Something untimely has happened here. This is why no-one has put in an offer. Why hasn’t Lara been able to sense it? I guess it’s because she wants to sell the house to get her commission. So, it’s not really in her interests to point out any shortcomings. But still!

Was Lara making up the story about her wanting to buy it? Using her apparent interest in the property as a selling point? Perhaps, but I decide not to make a big thing out of it. How could I get mad at someone who looks so captivating? Instead, I quietly suggest we move on to the next house. This, she tells me is two miles away. She is sure I will like it. The views, she says, are awe-inspiring. You can see all the way across the valley and along the estuary. She says we ought to be able to get it for a little under the half a million asking price. Perhaps even four seven five.

As we make our way through the back lanes, the news comes on Sticks Radio that someone else has gone missing. Jarvis Heckler, a businessman in his forties from the tiny hamlet of Lympton Stoney. Mysterious circumstances, the newsreader says, giving no clue as to what these might be.

Lympton Stoney! Isn’t that near where we are going,’ I ask?

It IS where we are going,’ Lara says, noticeably traumatised.

I see from the particulars I am holding she is right. The house we are going to look at is in the heart of the beautiful village of Lympton Stoney.

We are greeted by a legion of police vehicles. An officer in military fatigues pulls us over, ask us to step out of the car and begins to interrogate us. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where have we come from? What business do we have in the village? When did we set out? He is not satisfied with our story that we are here to view a house. Paramilitary uniform aside, he is of the old school of policing. Guilty until proved otherwise. We are here so we must in some way be involved with Jarvis Heckler’s disappearance. He orders his men to search Lara’s Audi. Does he expect to find a body in the boot? One of his officers gets me to empty my pockets. He takes more than a passing interest in my iPhone. Hasn’t he seen one like this before? He quizzes me about the recent text message. He is far from happy with my explanation or lack of. None of them seem prepared to answer our questions so we are no wiser as to exactly what might or might not have taken place. All we know is what we heard on the news report. Presumably, Jarvis Heckler has not just gone off on a business jolly to the continent or stepped out for a lunchtime pint at The Time Gentlemen Please with his hedge fund mates.

They finally give us the all clear to get on with our viewing but my heart is no longer in it. Lara can sense my disappointment with our progress. She reassures me that Bilk and Bilk have plenty of other properties in the area. She asks me if I am planning to stick around. If I am and I have nothing lined up for the evening, she wonders if we could have dinner at a nice little place she knows in Bishops Tump. This is an offer I can’t refuse.

If you come back to the office, I can lock up and we can go in convoy to my place and take it from there,’ Lara says. ‘We can have a glass of wine then before we set off for the evening.’

While Lara is taking a shower, I open up Google on my laptop to do some research into the events in Little Dissing twenty years ago, the events that Lara says no-one in the village can remember. I find a report from the Daily Lark from July 1996 with the headline, Little Dissing – Twinned with Area 51? The Lark is at best a dubious source, recognised these days as a trailblazer in fake news. So I take it with a pinch of salt. But it suggests the mystery surrounding the village was something people would have been talking about back then. I come across various photos of unusual cloud formations and strange spiral patterns in the heavens allegedly taken near the village. Vortexes like you might find in a tornado. But these are just pictures and easy enough to fake. There are one or two mentions of Warminster, the favourite location for UFO sightings. Same old, really. Then, I find a report from the Western Post which links the dates of the disappearances (a dozen in all) with the sudden closure of a classified establishment at Ramsden Hole in 1996. Why is it this escaped attention at the time? I see that Ramsden Hole is less than twenty miles from Little Dissing. I entertain the possibility the base did not in fact close but merely became more secret.

After half an hour, I can’t help but notice Lara has not returned from freshening up. This is even longer even than Eve used to spend in the bathroom. Might she be waiting for me in bed? Did I miss something in our conversation? Something perhaps about my joining her after her shower? I can’t imagine that I would have missed something as important as this but, if it is the case, the research can wait.

Ready or not,’ I call upstairs. There is no reply.

The bathroom does not look as if it has even been used. I look around each of the bedrooms. There is no sign of Lara. And she is not downstairs where I have come from. She cannot possibly have slipped out without me noticing. Could she? I just don’t know anymore. Boundaries have been crossed here. I call out her name over and over. Clutching at straws, I look in the wardrobe and the cupboards in case she is playing some kind of game. Not likely that she would be, but still. And, of course, she isn’t. She has vanished without trace. I try the mobile number she gave me but there is no reply. I look out the window. Her car is no longer there. And ……. It’s snowing.

Panicked, I go back to my laptop. It is now displaying today’s weather forecast. January 18th. What the …….? Is it past, I wonder, or is it future.’

Suddenly, a man dressed in a bright coloured hoodie and training pants carrying a sports bag appears through the front door, a living advert for flashy leisurewear. He is whistling The Winner Takes It All.

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

Who am I?’ he repeats. ‘Greg! That’s who I am! I live here, pal. ………. Where’s that slut of a wife?’

You mean Lara?’

Yes, Lara. Don’t think that you are the first, buddy.’

You don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I think Lara has disappeared.’

Just get the hell out of here,’ Greg screams. ‘Before I ……’

He looks as if he means business. I grab my laptop and make a hasty exit.

I think I’ll persuade Uncle Chet to look for houses in a different part of the country. At his time of life, he needs a little more temporal certainty.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

DRUGS

drugs2

Drugs – a short story by Chris Green

We are lounging in the garden of Astral Parlour, the name we have given to a pair of crumbling farm cottages deep in the Cotswold Hills. It is a summer afternoon and the sun is high overhead. There are about a dozen of us. I can’t say for sure which of us are supposed to be living there and which of us are just hanging out, but we have temporarily taken over the cottages. I can’t remember who made the arrangement, but I think they said we would do a few repairs and a bit of painting in return for accommodation. At eighteen I believe I am the youngest, although no-one here is much over twenty five.

We are drinking jasmine tea, at least I think that’s what it is, although Nathan East was round cooking up some datura earlier. Nathan’s something of a herbalist. Datura is used in ceremonies in the east. It has hallucinogenic properties. Anything with hallucinogenic properties seems to be welcome at Astral Parlour. Zero, the mad Jack Russell that someone here has adopted is running round, frantically chasing her tail. I wonder whether she has had some of Nathan’s brew.

Meanwhile, the chocolate has run out. Someone needs to go and get some. No-one wants to drive the old grey A35 van the two miles to the filling station. It has no tax, no MOT and no number plates, and besides, everyone is too stoned. Quinn has been rolling joints all afternoon. I don’t know much about the geography of dope cultivation but he said it was Nepalese temple balls or something. I’ve noticed that my friends tend to make a big deal out of the origin of what we are smoking. There is a strict hierarchy and Nepal is near the top along with Afghanistan and Kashmir.

Everything around here is kind of strange lately. Things haven’t been the same around here since those purple tabs. They were a thousand mics, whatever that means. We were up for days.

Dewi is telling us about the brain police.

‘When we were busy on that stuff last week,’ he says. ‘That’s when the brain police came to visit.’

He is making us listen to Burnt Weeny Sandwich – again, in case there are some subliminal messages that he hasn’t picked up on. I didn’t realise it, but subliminal messages are everywhere, not just in television and advertising. A secret alliance of top people is trying to control our thoughts, we just don’t realise it. Frank Zappa must be one of these.

Dewi comes from a remote village in Wales, whose name I cannot pronounce. I don’t think the folks around there get out a lot. I can’t remember how Dewi arrived here. First thing I can remember he came at me with his hair swinging wildly and thrust Babylon by Doctor John The Night Tripper at me and said, have you heard this, man, it’s far out. Marianne thinks Dewi may have arrived in a spaceship. She could be right. He is always telling us about the UFO sightings in Wales.

I’m fed up of listening to the Mothers Of Invention and Captain Beefhart and his Magic Band. Weasels Ripped My Flesh and Trout Mask Replica are both complete nonsense. To be honest I liked it better when Mike was still here and we had Pink Floyd and King Crimson. Mike shouldn’t have been arrested. It wasn’t him who shot the Major’s pig. It was Chadwick Dial. With his shotgun. Chad is a freak in the true sense of the word. He has a Quasimodo stoop and random strands of matted hair coming out from all corners of his head punctuated by random gaps. He can only see out of one eye, but the other one follows it around like a lost dog.

We used to have all kinds of people over when Mike was around. He was well connected. We had some circus folk for a while, a magic show came to stay and a theatre troupe used to drop by. Steve and Jimmy from Traffic came over one time and brought Quinn a guitar. Quinn doesn’t play it any more. He just rolls spliffs all day long and stares at the silhouette of the tree that is shaped like a tap against the western sky.

What is happening? …….. I’m being buffeted in time and space. ………. Waves of consciousness are coming through the static. Where am I? Who am I? ……… I am he and he is me, or something like that. …….. I wonder who can be writing this. ……. Here we go again.

Is it a decade later? It seems to be. Dewi is now living back in Wales. Another place with an unpronounceable name. He comes up to the Cotswolds on a visit. He happens by sheer chance to run into Chadwick Dial in The Frog and Nightgown. At closing time after several pints, Chadwick Dial, never one to miss an opportunity gets Dewi to give him a lift to a house party on the other side of town. Dewi has some coke and Chad helps him get through this. The two of them get into an argument over a girl Dewi is making a move on, a friend of Marianne’s he says. By this time everyone is well bashed and the argument quickly gets out of control. Dewi goes to leave, but Chad and some other revellers, who see him as a stranger, stop him in his tracks. At Chad’s instigation they begin jumping up and down on the bonnet of his Sunbeam Alpine.

Dewi eventually manages to get them off. He does a swift hairpin turn and puts his foot down for a quick getaway. It could be that they have changed the priorities since he lived in these parts but he manages to go the wrong way down a one way street. He does not know where he is. He finds himself heading out of town in the wrong direction. He is heading towards Stroud. His erratic driving draws the attention of a police patrol. They give chase, sirens wailing and blue lights flashing. Dewi tries to shake them off. Unable to control the powerful car on a bend Dewi ends up driving into a stone wall. He dies on impact.

As I make my way up the M5 from Bath I am hoping that I do not suffer a similar fate. It is three a.m. and I am driving an old Austin Maxi with Nathan East as a passenger. We are being tailed by a jam sandwich patrol car. I am well over the drink drive limit and the car is full of cocaine. The bastards are following me at a distance of about twenty feet with their headlights on full beam. There are no other cars on the road so it is quite clear that they are just trying to intimidate me, trying to make me wonder when they are going to pull me over. I am nervous about night driving at the best of times, but the day’s intake of drink and drugs turns this into a state of blind panic. My feet are shaking on the pedals. I am gibbering. Nathan too is gibbering. I can already hear prison doors slam behind me.

I approach my exit. It is do or die. Will they follow me or will they carry on up the motorway? With the headlights nearly blinding me, I miss the turn-off from the exit road and find myself back on the motorway still heading north. I realise the game is up. The police are still behind me. They put the sirens on and pull me over. Nathan and I get out. We have to put as much distance between the police and the cocaine as possible.

Nathan mitigates my blunder by saying, ‘the lights, man, you were blinding him.’

Nathan looks out of his head even when he is not, which is seldom. I don’t feel he is helping my case.’

The officer with the night driving glasses goes through the routine of, is this your car, what’s the registration number, have you been drinking, to which I manage to give the right answers.

‘We’d turn you over,’ says the other officer, the senior of the two. ‘But we can’t be bothered tonight. It would mean too much paperwork. And you’ve probably only got enough hash for a joint or two. But get your tail light fixed before you go on the motorway at night again.’

The scene is fading. I feel like I’m swimming in the sea and I see people on the shore, but they’re getting farther and farther away. …… Wait! …….. The atmospheric radio is retuning. …… Where are we now? …….. Ah! I don’t think I like this one. Why am I here? ….. Can someone get me out of here!

They’ll never find it. They’ll never find it. I am willing them not to find it. It’s not that well hidden, but they’ve been searching the flat for an hour now. Will they find it? There’s seventeen ounces there. Behind the water tank, wedged against the wall. It’s a sizeable stretch for me if they do find it. They must have been tipped off. There would have been a fraction of this amount only yesterday.

I try to think of who might have grassed me up. The Welsh rugby playing next door neighbour with the dogs? He will have witnessed all the comings and goings? That little jerk that hangs around with Brad? The gopher who sits around in his BMW while he does his business. The woman I was seeing last year, what was her name? Cheryl, Cherry, Shelley? Perhaps these drug squad guys have been sitting in a car outside for days watching me. No, surely I would have noticed. Perhaps they have been following me.

They are going through my personal things, my unpublished stories, the candid photos I took of Saskia, the letters that I did not send. D.S. Bowser is telling me that they nearly got me three months ago when they raided Saskia’s. I remember it well. About a dozen of them in blue fatigues burst in, but they did not know what they were looking for. All they got was a cannabis plant in the greenhouse. The officers concerned did not realise who I was until recently, D.S. Bowser says.

I am going to have to go down to the station anyway, because of what they found in the cupboard. It was only a gram or so of billy, but I can’t imagine they’ll overlook it.

‘Can you get someone to look after your daughter?’ Bowser asks. ‘She’s a bit young for police cells.’

Does this mean they are about to give up the search? Settle for what they’ve got? I wonder who it is best to phone. I phone Saskia. She is not there, so I leave a message in such a way that she knows what’s going on. She may need to let others know not to call in. Just in case.

‘Come here Sarge!’ says an excited voice.

I instinctively know that the game is up. They have found it.

Is that it? ……. Is that all there is? I feel woozy. …….. Have I been asleep? ……. Unconscious?…… Where am I? There are tubes and cath…. What do they call those things they put in your arm? I can’t get a handle on anything. It must be the drugs. ……… I think I may be coming round from …… From what? I can smell formaldehyde ………. I hope the ………… procedure was a ……. a success.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

The Feelgood Calendar

thefeelgoodcalendar2

The Feelgood Calendar by Chris Green

Bill Feelgood awoke from a dream in which he was lost in a dark area on the outskirts of an unfamiliar town with tall shadowy buildings and cathedrals with gothic towers. He was driving a stolen car that he could not control properly. The brake and accelerator pedals had been switched and the steering wheel was loose. He was being chased by a gang, made up of years and months and days. The scene shifted. He was driving another car now and the stolen car was heading towards him. The gang, whose identities kept changing, had split up and were spread out around the two cars awaiting the impact. The days kept changing into months and the months into years.

It took a little while to realise that he was awake as the details of the dream slowly brought themselves into consciousness. He rubbed his eyes and looked blearily out of the bedroom window. It was raining again. There had been high winds in the night, he remembered, and a few of the potted plants in the garden had blown over. He needed to go and tidy the mess up before setting off for work. The radio alarm clock broke into its 7.30 call. He went to put the kettle on for his first cuppa. He looked at the kitchen calendar. It was April 43rd. He had a meeting at 3pm with Brighter Future. Tuesday was not usually a busy day at the kaleidoscope repair shop so Ben could easily manage without him: he would just take the afternoon off to be at Brighter Future’s Serendipity Street office.

With the acceleration of climate change, there were less sunny days each year, the increase in particulate matter having surreptitiously cancelled out the temperature rises threatened by the build up of carbon dioxide. Particles emitted into the air from cars, trucks, buses, factories, construction sites, tilled fields, unpaved roads, stone crushing, wood burning and other particles formed in the air from the chemical change of gases were all working together to add to cloud cover. Now it seemed it was hardly ever sunny. If there was not actually direct cloud cover, a low level haze hung in the air. There were perhaps twenty sunny days in the whole year. Bill was 56 years old. He calculated that if he lived to be 70, this would mean just another two hundred and eighty sunny days, even fewer if the build up of particulate matter continued to accelerate. Bill worked five days a week. Taking into account holidays this meant Bill worked 235 days a year. This would give him just one hundred more days to enjoy sitting around outside in the sun. He would only see the magnolia tree outside his window, that was presently in blossom, flower another thirteen times, perhaps for a shorter period each cloudy season.

Periodically prone to such crepuscular meditations Bill had set about redesigning the structure of the year to help combat the gloom of the English climate. The Feelgood calendar was the result. In the Feelgood calendar January had 9 days, February had 16, March, 25, April, 49, May, 49, June, 64, and July, 64. Thereafter months were shorter. August had 36 days, September, 25, and October, 16. There were 9 days in November and 2 in December (3 in a leap year). Bill’s calendar aimed to give the illusion that at any given time it was not winter, or that it would not be winter for long. One might not be able to do much about reversing climate change, without a complete collapse of capitalism, and this seemed unlikely to occur in Bill’s lifetime, but one could live in a fantasy world where these things mattered less. The Feelgood Calendar represented a tentative first step towards the virtual celebration of a mythic golden age.

Using desktop publishing skills picked up on a rehabilitation programme, Bill had produced several prototypes of the calendar, which he had hung on doors around the house. He acknowledged that although pleasing to the eye, his efforts were the works of an amateur. Bill perused the kitchen calendar. April was looking a bit of a mess with his jottings and it was only the 43rd. April and May needed double fold down sections for the extra days of the month to fit comfortably, with perhaps a triple for June and July. And the month-by-month pictures should all reflect summer, no ambiguity, no autumn leaves or footprints in the snow. His design did need some refinement if it were to be effectively marketed. Marketed. Bill shuddered. What a horrible term ‘marketed’ had become. Nothing was ever marketed for the common good. The term implied exploitation. Profiteering was the sole motive. Bill preferred to view this venture as the sharing of an idea; the calendar might in itself be of benefit to others. It wasn’t so much that Bill was an environmental campaigner, more of a reckless supporter of the underdog, in this case climate change, or to be more specific, the recognition that particulate matter was an issue. In the debate about climate change, the build up of particulate matter was barely mentioned; the prevailing attitude was that perhaps if no one acknowledged the fact, it would go away, and the skies would become clear again.

Changes to the Christian calendar were a rarity. Two versions have existed in recent times: The Julian calendar and the Gregorian calendar. Julius Caesar introduced the Julian calendar in 45 B.C. It established January 1st as New Year. But in order to synchronize the calendar with the sun, Caesar had to let the previous year drag on for 445 days. However, in AD 567 the Council of Tours abolished January 1st in favour of March as the start of a new year, varying the actual day to coincide with the Vernal Equinox. The Julian calendar was in common use until 1582, when countries started changing to the Gregorian calendar because the Julian calendar had become out of step with the seasonal cycle by 10 days. The Gregorian calendar moved New Year back to January 1st. The Feelgood calendar would keep this. With just two days in December, you could incorporate Christmas and New Year.

Despite Bill’s reservations about marketing, he had followed the advice of Sol Solomon, a solicitor friend and had patented the idea for the calendar. He had contacted two companies, Brighter Future and Flying Colours about production. The meeting on April 35th with Flying Colours had suggested to Bill that they wanted to make changes to his idea. He was concerned that this would affect the terms of the patent and that they would have effectively stolen his idea. As he drove to his 3pm appointment, listening to Tardelli’s Trio for Violin, Saxophone and Strimmer on Radio 3, he felt a little apprehensive that Brighter Future might want to do the same.

He need not have worried. Brighter Future’s post-modern sunburst yellow office complex in Serendipity Street with its neo-eclectic juxtaposition of styles and its dramatic fractal dome suggested immediately to Bill that this was a company at the cutting edge of change. Brighter Future would surely be open to fresh ideas. The curvilinear geometry of the reception area in the form of a Mobius Strip also inspired confidence. This was definitely a company that embraced the unusual. He felt at home in the surroundings. This feeling of comfort was strengthened when the startlingly attractive receptionist realised straightaway who Bill was. She chatted about the weather and congratulated him on his idea as she took him past the Tides of Eternity water feature through to the Dolphin Suite.

The meeting with Bradley Bright and the design team went exceptionally well. Bill’s truly terrible mnemonic rhyme: –

June and July have sixty-four days,

April forty nine and so does May.

August has thirty-six – that’s plenty,

March and September five and twenty.

Feb and October have sixteen – fine,

Jan and November only nine.

December has just two days, so,

An extra day in a leap year – yo!

which he now felt confident enough to share, was well received.

Fantastic! You’re a genius,’ beamed Bradley.

Although Bill felt he did have some very good ideas, he was unused to being described in these terms. The meeting progressed positively and one by one, a variety of summer themes for illustrations (beaches, gardens, flowers, sunrises and sunsets, village cricket, lawn tennis, etc.) was explored for a broad range of Feelgood Calendars, along with a number of fine art and decorative arts options. Matisse, Kandinsky, Patrick Heron and Klimt were given the thumbs up because of their sense of colour and optimism. Monet (too blurry – this could be interpreted as haze from pollution), and Van Gogh (too suicidal – could promote self harm) were rejected, along with Dali (too apocalyptic), and Picasso (too enigmatic).

After several hours of debate and dozens of cups of latte and cappuccino, a working range of calendars was on the table. Cost projections were analysed and the all-important figures were agreed. Brighter Future offered Bill a considerably more attractive financial package than that offered by Flying ColoursThe Feelgood calendar was on its way. Bill took the opportunity to celebrate with his girlfriend, Sloggi, with a slap up meal at a local Chechnyan brasserie that had just opened,korta-kogish (mutton head and legs) and zhizhig-galnash (meat ravioli) among the delicacies they enjoyed, along with the very best chilled Chechnyan champagne (non alcoholic as Chechens are strict Muslims).

Over the months that followed, Bill found that interest in the Feelgood calendar was surprisingly high. By the end of July (Feelgood July that is), Brighter Future had them in hundreds of shops around the country, along with a range of suitably upbeat Feelgood diaries. By October the Feelgood Calendar advertising campaign was well under way. Brighter Future had a prime-time slot in the middle of Celebrity Brain Surgery, a show featuring a live operation from a private London hospital on a C-list television personality, has been pop star or washed-up golfer in a desperate attempt to resurrect their flagging career. Celebrity Brain Surgery was ITV’s Saturday night attempt to win viewers back from BBC1’s popular World Famous for 15 Minutes. Typical of the latter was ‘world’s most obese man is hoisted out of a specially built window because he cannot get through his door and is taken to the studio to appear on the show to break the world record for eating the world’s largest pizza (25 kilos). Bill would have liked the product only to be advertised during informative programmes or ethical shows.

So would I,’ said Bradley. ‘But there are none on the main channels at prime-time and for a new idea like this we have to reach the maximum audience at its most indolent.’

Brighter Future also launched a major billboard campaign, which aimed to force Bill’s truly terrible rhyme into people’s consciousness. Every day on the ring road on his way to the kaleidescope repair shop, Bill passed two billboards featuring the rhyme. Passed them figuratively that is, situated as they were at two new sets of traffic lights that had been put in between the speed bumps and the chicanes for no apparent reason but to slow the traffic, which had moved at a crawl in the first place. The resulting gridlock had the effect of pumping larger amounts of exhaust gases into the atmosphere. To use fuel efficiently, the driver of a vehicle needed to store the energy contained in the vehicle. Traffic calming of any kind was the perfect way to waste fuel and add to pollution, not to mention the waste of time. Bill found himself with up to twenty minutes each day to study the billboards, which were printed in primary colours using a child’s handwriting typeface, complete with backwards s’s. It would be easy for anyone using the ring road regularly to learn the rhyme within a day or two, Bill imagined. While this may have been good for business, Bill could not help feel that planners were entirely missing the point over traffic policy. The cycle lane that had been put in an environmental ticket reducing the dual carriageway to a single carriageway was not used at all. In six months, Bill had not seen one single cyclist using it. And the traffic was always backed up to the ring road, propelling tonnes of noxious fumes into the atmosphere daily.

The Feelgood Calendar became the must-have novelty Christmas item, and for two or three years its popularity grew with each passing day. Sales were spectacular, generating a range of spin-off electronic merchandise, some sanctioned by Brighter Futures, some not. Riding on the wave of success, Bill became a (reluctant) celebrity. He found himself on a whirlwind schedule of personal appearances and TV chat shows.

What about the rumour I’ve heard about a 20 hour clock. Another moneymaker? asked Guy Princess on It’s a Guy Thing.

Absolutely not true,’ replied Bill. ‘what about the rumour I’ve heard that you are homosexual?’ Bill was not homophobic, he was just exasperated at endlessly being asked stupid questions. Unfortunately the show went out live. ‘Is Guy Gay Asks Bonkers Bill,’ read the headline in The Tabloid next day. He did not seem to have the support of the press. When in an earlier interview he had expressed concern about the lack of attention the world was giving to the issue of the build up of particulate matter in the debate about climate change, The Lark reported it ‘Barmy Bill Says We’re Not Going To Fry After All.’ But there is no such thing as bad publicity. Each outburst only served to help sell the Feelgood calendar.

The calendar went worldwide. It quickly became accepted as standard in Scandinavia, with its long winters, this despite the obvious difficulties in translating the mnemonic rhyme into Swedish or Norwegian so that it scanned well. It did not fare so well in Australia and South America as it was felt it made winter seem interminable. In Britain, and the rest of Europe, it sat happily alongside the Gregorian calendar rather than replace it. It was fine to have one in the home but it did not catch on in the workplace. The business world stood doggedly by the schedule that it was familiar with. Primary schools, while they liked the idea were never sure if they could teach it, as it did not feature on the curriculum. Despite repeated calls to adopt the calendar and begin the school year in January, the conservative culture of the education establishment prevailed. All of the main Churches regarded the Feelgood calendar as heresy and fiercely opposed its take up. Astrologers too were less than welcoming, and therein lay the largest obstacle. People were very reluctant to adopt a different birthday. Bill was not. Bill’s birthday was September 11th in the Gregorian calendar. All his family had died that day. They were driving back from the coast and had become lost in the outskirts of an unfamiliar town. They had been killed by a young driver in a stolen car that he could not control properly. The driver was being chased by a gang of small time criminals. Bill was the only survivor of the head-on collision.

He felt that July 42nd, the new date for his birthday, was a big improvement on September 11th, free as it was from baggage. Most years July 42nd was just as cloudy as September 11th had been. Bill was undeterred. He continued to use the calendar well into old age and long after it was fashionable. By this time sunny days were down to single figures.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

Slumpton

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Slumpton by Chris Green

The door to number 16 slammed in Harry’s face, as it had more times than Harry cared to remember. Its split green and orange panels were all too familiar. Familiar too were the plywood and chicken wire that were nailed over the space where the window should have been, perhaps in a bygone age where a window once was. The force of the sudden closure caused a liberal sprinkling of masonry to dislodge itself from an upstairs window, landing on the shoulder of Harry’s paint-smeared donkey jacket, where it did not look out of place. Even so, Harry brushed it off with the palm of his hand, and moved on down the street, past two boarded up terraced houses and a pile of rubble where others had until recently been, before arriving outside number 28. Sounds consistent with marital discord could be heard from within. Harry shuddered. He felt a strong urge to go back home. He was too old for this kind of aggravation. He lit a Woodbine and struggled to regain his composure. He must be resolute, he told himself. After all, the Luker family had been slum landlords since the thirties and this was 1980. His grandfather, George Luker had collected from these very houses during ‘the blitz.’ What would George have thought if he knew Harry was such a wuss?

His composure restored, Harry rapped firmly on the front door with his knuckles. This had the effect of bringing a corpulent, unshaven hulk of about forty face to face with him across the threshold. This was Natt, or ‘Nasty’ as he was known locally. There were signs of either a recent breakfast or perhaps last night’s vomit, on the front of Nasty’s vest – which was, in fact, the back, Harry observed, the garment being both back to front and inside out. Nasty towered above Harry and looked far from pleased at having been disturbed.

‘M’morning N’nasty,’ stammered Harry. ‘Nice day again.’

‘Pishoff,’ snarled Nasty. He was not wearing his false teeth.

Wasting no further energy on social pleasantries with unwanted visitors, Nasty returned to the arena of family strife. Harry wiped his glasses with a grubby handkerchief, doubling as it did for an old paintrag. A black and white dog with one eye missing sniffed around his heels. Harry motioned to kick it. Resisting the temptation to sink its teeth into Harry’s leg, the animal slunk off to explore the gutter. Harry wondered how long it would take it to find the remains of the dead cat.

Next door to Nasty’s, the heavy bass line of a reggae track pounded out. ‘A Babylonpolicyafolicy’ chanted a flat and mournful voice. The volume grew alarmingly as Harry approached. Through a haze of ganja smoke that had certain times of day seemed to envelop this particular stretch of the street, an assortment of brightly clothed and dreadlocked children bounced out of the house. The eldest was no more than seven. They formed a circle around Harry.

‘Money missa!,’ demanded the biggest boy, holding out his hand. They began to pummel Harry’s lower body with their fists, chanting in unison. A downstairs window opened and the space was taken up with a rainbow of colour, a mass of braids and locks as a large Jamaican woman appeared.

‘A oo dat a knock pon di door, Ras ‘im not ‘ome,’ she bawled, ‘im ain’t bin ‘ere since long-time so.’

‘Ras claat ‘im never ‘ome,’ mimicked Harry, missing the rhythm of the patois by a considerable margin.

‘Aint no mi fault mon. ‘Im not come round no mo’ mebbe. You wan’ buy ganja mon.’

Harry indicated that he didn’t.

Then goweh now you dam lagga head.’

Harry’s reply that he had come to collect the rent was swallowed up along with the reggae rhythms by the agitated roar of powerful motorcycle engines. The ‘Desperados’ were revving up their machines with some venom outside number 48. They were wearing full ‘colours’ They seemed to be off out for the day. Harry was cheered a little by this. It would mean he had one less call to make. Each time he had called at number 48, a different and progressively more menacing ruffian had answered the door. Harry could only guess at how many of them lived there but it seemed to be well into double figures and he had to admit he was terrified of each and every one, more so even than he was of Nasty. This was not the basis for a successful landlord-tenant relationship.

Harry glanced at his clipboard. This must have been instinctive for he needed no reminder that he had collected no rent on this particular morning. He turned over a few pages as if playing a game with himself to see who owed the most rent. If so, there was no doubt about the outcome of such a contest, for in the three years he had lived in Slumpton Terrace, Nolan Rocco had paid no rent at all. Nolan Rocco was the bane of his life. If Harry could find a way to get rid of Nolan Rocco he would be able to put up with all of life’s other disappointments.

The Tacklers’ had a new board nailed to their front window. Already it had been daubed with offensive comments. Roy Tackler had once been a footballer. Scoring four own goals in Slumpton United’s 4-3 defeat to Arsenal was the only time however that Roy made the headlines. Without his dubious contribution, Slumpton would have made the semi-finals in the cup for the only time in their 95 year history. What made matters worse for Roy was that the fact that his last two own goals had come in injury time. After 90 minutes his side had miraculously been leading 3-2, when Roy’s mistimed overhead kick surprised goalkeeper, Gareth Garry, and went in the top right hand corner of the net. This was reprised two minutes later by his backwards header into the top left hand corner. He was summarily dismissed by his club. After this, Roy gave up football. He tried his hand at a number of occupations, failing, sometimes dramatically to fulfil his potential in each one. He now lived here. Even his long-suffering wife, Deidre had left him, Harry had heard recently.

Harry reminded himself of Slumpton United’s brief glory days before the FA had closed the ground. Slumpton United had nearly been promoted to the Third Division. He prided himself that he could still name the entire first team. Slumpton was a place on the map then. There were three cinemas and a gymnasium, where you could learn to box. Slumpton had had a thriving Sunday morning market , one of the most prestigious in the city. The dog track that now was only of interest to those dumping toxic waste had once attracted thousands every Thursday and Saturday night. There was hope on the horizon then for residents of the borough of Slumpton. There were bingo halls – and pubs that still had a licence. And there were several Jewish tailors. Now, what was there? Prostitution, all night blues, boarded-up shops, the longest dole queue in the city. – And the likes of Nolan Rocco. But Nolan Rocco was another story.

A Police siren struck up from across the car park. It was still euphemistically thought of as a car park, although it had fallen into disuse and become a rubbish tip of some renown. Cars no longer parked in Slumpton. Taxis refused to take fares within several blocks, and even Police cars could not be left unattended. Harry had been around long enough to remember the days before the riots when Slumpton was ‘up and coming.’ It had not always been a no-go area.

Harry sidled down the street, examining the graffiti on the walls of the houses – and blocks of flats, these run by the Slumpton Squatters Estate Agency, Harry’s only serious rival in the area. Even graffiti was subject to declining standards, he reflected. What had become of the imaginative daubings of yesterday? – gems like ‘IS THAT A LADDER IN YOUR STOCKINGS OR THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN’ and ‘PLAIN CLOTHES DRUG DEALERS ARE WORKING IN THIS AREA’. Now, what graffiti there was was monochrome and unimaginative. It was all ‘SHARON SHAGS’ and ‘FUCK OFF HOME PAKIS’ And here was a new one ‘HARRY LUKER IS A FUCKING CHILDMOLESTER.’ It was all so personal. He reached number 52. Cats had attacked the black bags outside and their rubbish was strewn across the pavement. A rusty bin full of holes and minus lid stood beneath the window, its contents incinerated. Arson was one of the major pursuits now, Harry reflected – that and ram-raiding, except the latter was already in decline since there was nothing much left to ram-raid. Harry looked up. The guttering had detached itself from the upper part of the house and hung groundwards like a drainpipe. The drainpipe had long since gone and there was a slimy green stain all down the wall. There were few unbroken windows. The odd thing was that Tardelli did not seem to mind the squalor. While other tenants would tackle him periodically about repairs, Tardelli never did. He differed from his other tenants in every way. For one thing, insofar as Harry could judge, he was educated. What was it Tardelli had told him he did when he had met him in The Builders Shovel public house on the night the O’Niells were arrested? Write film scripts? Tardelli had charm and charisma, rare commodities in these parts. Why then did he choose to live in such a slum? And even sometimes pay rent – after all few others on the street seemed to bother with this nicety.

‘Tardelli,’ shouted Harry, for the front door such as it was was already open. ‘Tardelli,’ he shouted again as he peered inside into the gloom. In the hallway stood a huge dresser, which housed a collection of stone jars and old stained glass bottles. On the floor was a tall pile of yellowed newspapers and a couple of open holdalls that appeared to be full of dog-eared paperback books. The walls, where they were visible were painted a dark brown and one or two cheap Indian dhurries hung from them. A sour and musty odour hung on the air. It reminded Harry of his National Service days in Singapore. An inside door opened and the sound of an operatic tenor singing a Puccini aria floated through. Tardelli emerged from the shadows, a tall, lean, almost skeletal figure with dark Indian features and slicked-back hair, which even in the half-light was noticeably greying. His style of dress seemed to belong to a younger man. His blue jeans had reached the peak of their fade and were almost white and he wore a pink T-shirt with the logo ‘I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT’ emblazoned across the front. A red silk scarf was tied around his waist.

‘Harry,’ he beamed. ‘How nice. Come on in.’

Harry followed Tardelli along the hallway. He was of a broader physique by far than Tardelli. He edged himself carefully past the dresser and a pile of cardboard boxes full of assorted bric a brac. He ducked beneath the painted alligator skin and found himself in a room piled high with sundry lumber. The walls were decorated a la Jackson Pollock, although it could be argued without the artist’s flair. A black corduroy blind over the window kept daylight out with a vengeance and the room was lit by oil lamps. A large black paraffin stove heated the room – unsparingly. It probably heated the whole block. Harry’s eyes nervously explored their surroundings, as he tried to establish where he was, even who he was and what he had walked into. After all, he and Tardelli had in the past always conducted their business at the front door. The room that they were in was or probably had been the kitchen, but with so much disorder, it was difficult to tell. There were no pointers, like cooker, fridge or food. The room certainly fulfilled no culinary function. With a graceful gesture or at least without the use of his fist, Tardelli led Harry through to another room. This room too was dark but at least the walls had been painted red. On the floor a stone sink was filled with water with guppies swimming in it. The sink itself was painted luminous green. An abnormally large ginger cat was lapping up what appeared to be blood from an intricately sculptured bowl on a marble slab, balanced, precariously on a purple trestle table. Papers were scattered everywhere. A cuckoo clock was stopped at twelve o’clock.

‘To what do I owe this pleasure?’ Tardelli enquired, picking up a bag of carrots and handing one to Harry.

‘You seem to owe me some rent,’ said Harry, as he wondered what to do with the carrot.

‘It’s a carrot. You eat them,’ laughed Tardelli, for he could see that Harry had not come across such a vegetable in his travels.

‘Yes. A carrot.’ agreed Harry finally.

‘You seem tense Harry. Loosen up.’

‘You don’t have to collect rent in the Terrace on a Saturday,’ offered Harry by way of explanation.

‘And neither do you, Harry. You choose to. If it upsets you, don’t do it.’

‘That’s all very well’

‘Look! How do you think I manage to live round here? Do you think I’m completely insensitive to my environment? Do you think I don’t notice how bad things are?’

‘You seem not to.’

The tenor had given way to a soprano. The music was, Harry noticed, coming from an old radiogram in the corner of the room, underneath a large poster of Ayatollah Khomeini, holding a 50p piece aloft.

‘For the gas meter,’ explained Tardelli, for he could see that Harry was puzzled. ‘I’ll tell you my secret, Harry. I fantasise. I put my fantasies into writing you see. I create my own world. This way, dreams can come true. If you could, what would you have happen in your life right now.’

Harry considered the question for a moment. His fingers played almost instinctively with the papers on his clipboard. Taking the piss was one thing. A slum landlord had to be used to people taking the piss. But three years. And after all he, Harry had done for him. Not to mention the business with the O’Niells. If, if only – he would be able to put up with all of life’s other disappointments.

‘It can happen, Harry. Take my word. But perhaps you may not need to take my word. Now! About the rent. I can let you have some next week when my advance arrives. Is that OK?’

‘I suppose it will have to be. It’s the nearest I’ve come to a result today,’ Harry whimpered, pathos not absent.

‘Don’t be so negative, Harry. Loosen up. When you step out of here, you are the master of your own destiny. The author of your own script, Harry. If you believe in, in well in almost anything at all then something will happen……..You’ll see.’

With an air of despondency and a marked feeling that Tardelli too was taking the piss, Harry negotiated the obstacle course to the door and stepped outside.

A profound feeling of time disorientation hit him in the way it did after a lunchtime session at the Shovel. Perhaps Harry felt, more like the time he had been spiked with acid when he had collected rent from the Dohertys on the night Boozy Farrell was arrested. The street seemed to have altered somehow, it seemed less hostile. He thought he could hear birdsong. Surely a songbird could not have found its way to Slumpton. There were no trees. A brass band seemed to be playing, although it was rather a dull tune, with just the two notes.

Slowly as if he was coming to consciousness after a dream, Harry began to notice that a large crowd had gathered a distance down the street. Two police cars and an ambulance were parked. Outside Nolan Rocco’s in fact. Harry watched spellbound as a stretcher bearing the body was carried slowly out to the waiting ambulance. It couldn’t be …… could it?

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

 

Quicksand

quicksandnew

Quicksand by Chris Green

It is May 1967. I am fifteen years old. I am walking through Wellesley Park with my friends, Dezi, and Keith. I should be at school but I’m not. Dezi is two years older than me and should be at college but he’s not, and Keith has tagged along. I’m not sure where he’s supposed to be. The park is a cool place to hang out. We can do what we want. No-one bothers us, except occasionally Tom, the park-keeper, who tries to sell us pornography and tells us about his days in Cairo when he was doing his National Service. He has told us several times now the story about the woman and the donkey. Tom is old, he must be well into his thirties. My name is Mike, but for some reason, he calls me John.

Today, Dezi has brought his Roberts transistor radio and we are listening to Radio London, the best of the pirate radio stations. Radio London has an eight day UK exclusive of the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One by one they are trickling the tracks into their playlist. A couple of days ago Dezi and I heard A Day in the Life for the first time. Dezi had been unable to get any hash at the time and he had read that you could get high by smoking dried banana skins and we were in the front room of his parents’ house trying some. His parents had gone away and we had the radiogram on loud. We decided on the spot that A Day in the Life must be the greatest piece of music of all time. This had nothing whatsoever to do with the dried banana skins.

Dezi, Keith and I are updating one another with how far we’ve got with our respective girlfriends and waiting with anticipation for the DJ to play another track from the new album. I wonder if perhaps exaggeration is de rigeur for teenage boys sexual narrative, or is it that Judy is just too inhibited. I have not got past the outside of her lacy bra, but of course to save face I pretend otherwise. We talk about the film Blow Up, which we saw at the Colosseum last night.

‘What did it all mean?’ Keith asks.

‘There is no individual meaning,’ says Dezi. ‘Meaning can only be agreed socially and that’s why the film ended without closure. Because the David Hemmings character was on his own, we do not know in the end if the murder really took place.’

‘You mean because there was no one to corroborate what he saw?’ I suggest. ‘And the photos had disappeared.’

‘It’s existential,’ Dezi states, in summary. I can see by the expression on Keith’s face that he isn’t sure what it means either.

As we are walking up the hill past the zelkova tree towards the Pump Room, the opening notes of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds break through. It has not been announced, but we know instantly that it is The Beatles. It may seem a little sad but I have known the titles to all the tracks on Sergeant Pepper for about a month since they were announced in Record Mirror. I guess which one this is right away. Dezi turns the volume up. What is that instrument? Surely it is from another world. We are sitting on a commemorative bench now, hunched around the radio. The words to the song are incredible – like a dream – ‘cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head.’ ‘rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies’,…’newspaper taxis’,…. ‘plasticine porters with looking glass ties’. What vivid imagery, I’m thinking, as this surrealistic masterpiece captures me. This is a moment of transcendence, and I have my whole life in front of me. Time is on my side. On Tomorrow’s World, they are saying that we will not have to work much in years to come. From hereonin, life will be easy. Technology will replace drudgery. In a few years, we will be able to travel on starships to Jupiter.

When I get home at 5’o clock, the house is swarming with police. There are police in uniform and police in cheap macs and trilby hats. It is like the set of Z Cars.

‘There’s been an accident, Mike’ one of them says. He has a grave look on his face.

‘Your parents stood no chance,’ says another.

‘The lorry driver’s name,’ the uniformed Sergeant tells me, injudiciously I can’t help feeling, ‘was Mark Lennon.’

My English teacher, Mr Percy, had been banging on all term about irony. Was this what the kind of thing to which he was referring? Or was it coincidence? All I can remember is him saying that it is important not to confuse the two.

I am at Ben and Holly’s wedding reception. Rachel, my girlfriend, left earlier in a huff. We have been together long enough for me to be used to our disagreements. It is late in the evening. Everyone is off their faces. The band has finished their set and the DJ with the Rod Stewart haircut is playing Bohemian Rhapsody over and over. It is Ben and Holly’s favourite song and seems to have been Number One for ever. Uncle Dutch bored as I am with Ben and his friends air guitar demonstrations, is telling me how he lost his leg.

‘I was working as a locations finder for Columbia Pictures. What a great job, you are thinking. How did a country boy like me get a job like that?’

I am thinking this very thing. My dad’s younger brother, Uncle Dutch and I had never been particularly close. I had last seen him in the late sixties. He ran a motorcycle courier business. Quite a new idea back then. I remember too that he used to ride horses. It would be hard for him to do this now.

‘I lived in a 1930s house in Beverley Hills,’ Dutch says, ‘with a fantastic view of the foothills of the Santa Monica mountains. The sun came through my window every morning. I could have freshly squeezed orange juice on the lawn with Laura and look out on to the palm tree canyon. A short drive to Topanga and Malibu and a short drive to the studio in Burbank. It was like paradise. I met all the stars, Burt Lancaster, Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando, Dennis Hopper, Natalie Wood, Faye Dunaway, Barbara Streisand. You name them I met them. I had a season ticket for The Dodgers. I lived among the rich and famous. I went to the same shrink as Tony Curtis. You have to have a shrink in Beverley Hills, or everyone thinks you are mad. David Crosby and Mickey Dolenz were neighbours. I went to The Beach Boys barbecues in Bel Air and swam in Joni Mitchell’s pool. Life couldn’t have been better. And Laura looked more beautiful every day. ‘

He takes out his wallet and shows me a well-thumbed photo of Laura, She is a real stunner. She has long dark hair, and an hourglass figure with rounded breasts, thin waist, and voluptuous hips. She has a perfect California tan. She has beautiful brown eyes and her smile is like the sun coming up. He shows me another picture of the two of them at a Hollywood première. His eyes begin to mist over. He hands me the photo. I’m not sure what to say.

‘Is that Dustin Hoffman in the background?’ I ask.

Dutch doesn’t seem to hear me. He studies the original photo of Laura reflectively.

The hall seems to have suddenly become more claustrophobic. It is a chaos of empty bottles and fuddled friends and family. The DJ has put on Sailing. He is juggling the microphone like Rod does and encouraging people to sing along. It is painful to watch. Why do people hang around at these embarrassing gatherings once the business is over? I suggest to Uncle Dutch we go outside to smoke a joint. Despite the limitations of movement presented by his sticks, he seems to move remarkably well. After negotiating a maze of corridors and lobbies, we find ourselves in the hotel’s landscaped grounds. The recent snow sparkles under the floodlights. We pick out a discreet table and Dutch lights up.

‘I was driving around the Monterey, Big Sur area,’ Dutch continues, ‘looking for a spot to film some shots for a remake of Vertigo that the studio were planning. All I had to do was select a few vertiginous spots. Not that difficult on the Californian coast. The views from Highway 1 take your breath away. I had a 1971 Dodge Challenger. Bright red it was with a black stripe. They call them pony cars in California. God knows why. Anyway, it had a big six litre engine and handled more like a pig than a pony. Nothing sensible about it. That’s the way they like their cars out west. Anyway, I had put the thing in for a service the previous week but they had not checked the brakes.’

Dutch looks me in the eye and passes me the joint. I wonder if he wants me to put two and two together rather than continue with the story. He can see I am holding out for the story, and laughs.

‘Drove it over a cliff,’ he says. ‘I have this image in my head of a sound like the distant rumble of thunder and a line of Harley Davidsons coming the other way. There is a bend coming up. I must have tried to slow down to negotiate the bend, I guess. The Challenger goes straight ahead, through a clump of trees and down a ravine. I was trapped inside the car for three days before a Japanese hiker found me. They had to cut me out. The leg was severed off above the knee. I had lost pints of blood and was unconscious when they found me. I don’t know; I may have had a drink or two. I often stopped by at a little Hispanic bar in Salinas, but truth is I can’t remember.’

I am silent. I do know what to say.

‘To cut a long story short,’ says Dutch, ‘I was in the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital for months. Laura didn’t visit me once. The day before I got out, I found that she was divorcing me. She didn’t like the idea of living with Long John Silver. Life is quite simply before the accident and after the accident…. They didn’t film Vertigo in the end.’

I have split up with Rachel after six years. She moved her things out the week before last. I have let my friend, Iain, stay for a while. Iain got back from India a few days ago. He has been to Southern Asia many times, but the political situation is changing, and he says it is now much harder to travel around that part of the world. Chitral, Kashmir, and Nepal are now hostile areas, and he thinks the Shah of Iran may soon be deposed and word is going around that the Soviets might invade Afghanistan. The end of the hippie trail. It also looks as if the cowboy actor might become President, I point out. Dangerous times ahead, we agree.

By way of rent, Iain is helping to redecorate the flat. It is a spacious conversion, on three floors of a Regency building, if that is not a contradiction. We are painting the large front room burgundy and Venetian blue, picking out the pictures rails and the cornice. He says it will look theatrical, like a stage set. We have some modern art planned for the door panels, Piet Mondrian, maybe. Iain isn’t your stereotypical hippie. He wears a tweed jacket, listens to classical music and is a fan of ‘The Archers.’ You can pick it up on BBC World Service, he says. He tells me how he had to be near a set every day when Shula was stranded in Bangkok after her money was stolen, and how he hopes that the hapless Eddie Grundy’s turkey farm will take off. Eddie and Joe add some spark to the programme. I have no idea what he is talking about.

Iain has brought back some Nepalese temple balls and after three days of painting we are only halfway through the second wall. We are taking a break for a cup of Darjeeling Spring Flush tea. Apparently, Darjeeling tea reduces mental and physical stress and promotes a feeling of relaxation and well-being.

‘It’s to do with the amino acids,’ he says. ‘I’ve noticed that you seem on edge.’

‘Six years is a long time,’ I say. ‘It takes some adjustment. I miss Rachel’s perfume on the pillow, her books on the bookshelf, her notes around the house, her piles of clothes on the bedroom floor, the condiments and spices in the kitchen….and even the sound of the hoover on a Sunday morning.’

‘And the sex.’

‘Yes, the sex obviously.’

‘She wasn’t having an affair, was she?’

‘Not that I was aware of.’

‘And you aren’t having an affair.’

‘No. Why do you ask?’

‘Nothing. Just a thought. So the split was her decision.’

‘I suppose so.’

‘When people live together for a long time they are likely to gravitate towards stasis.’ says Iain. ‘How much of what you are feeling is down to not wanting change? ‘

‘I don’t know. Some of it, I suppose. I like to be able to pick up things where I left them.’

‘But change is the only certainty.’

‘But all the same….’

‘You wanted happy ever after,’ he says.

‘I just want to be happy,’ I say.

‘There is no happy ending,’ he laughs. ‘You only find happy endings in books. Happiness and sadness are like yin and yang. One chases the other in an never ending cosmic circle. Therefore, you must not put all your effort and energies into clinging to them. It is much better to detach yourself from these illusions and go with the flow.’

‘How do I do that? ‘

‘You will learn to. As Ibsen said, We sail with a corpse in the cargo.’

It is April 1986. I am curating an exhibition called Probably the Best Art Exhibition in the World, put together by my friend, Reuben Flood with the help of 2000 local schoolchildren. The name of the exhibition was Reuben’s idea, I was against it. I pointed out that Carlsberg had been using the slogan for fifteen years and perhaps it was a tad hackneyed. I suggested Artbeat and Plan It (Planet). Reuben, however, was adamant. Curating is perhaps a grand term for my part in proceedings. I work for a charity and the exhibition is in a large community hall that we have hired with the benefit of a huge grant from an environmental organisation. The theme for the work is the environment. It focusses loosely on Africa. The colourful exhibits are made from chicken wire, papier maché, cardboard and litres and litres of acrylic paint.

It is a beautiful spring day and, as Julia has gone to visit her family in the north, I have gone in early. It is the day before the opening and Reuben has been up all night putting the final touches to the exhibits. He is playing Highway 61 Revisited at staggering volume and jigging around with a flat bristle brush, a dab of paint here and a dab there. We are both of a generation that saw Highway 61 as a turning point. Played loud, It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry sounds incredible. I take a look around the hall and it is like being immersed in a rainbow. There is so much colour. Wherever you look the kaleidoscopic brilliance of this playground of youthful imagination animates your senses.

Reuben picks up a pot of bright green paint and I follow him into the tropical undergrowth. You can almost feel the humidity.

‘What’s the difference between rainforest and jungle?’ I ask. I feel it is something that I ought to know.

‘Rainforests have a thick canopy of tall trees. This means fewer plants at ground level. Trees block out much of the light needed by most plants, so you will usually only find shade loving ground plants in rainforest areas. Did you know that more than half of the world’s species of plants and animals are found in the rainforest,’ Reuben tells me. ‘It would be hard to do rainforest in this hall. Technically what you see here is jungle. Dense vegetation that grows around the rainforest or where the trees have been cut down. But that’s not the point. I’m not teaching the youngsters geography. It’s the bigger picture I’m interested in.’

Apart from the jungle, there is also a township with brightly painted shacks, a savannah plain, and even a river. There are lions and tigers and zebras and leopards and flamingos and ibises and a family of elephants. The elephants are colossal. Brightly coloured flags of African nations hang from the ceiling.

‘What a display!’ I say. ‘It’s fantastic. You’re a genius.’

‘Rubbish,’ says Reuben. ‘Only a select few artists are geniuses. The rest of us just work very hard. I work all the time. Even when I’m not working, I’m working. You need three things to be an artist, the eye, the hand and the heart. Two won’t do. The heart is the most important.’

The hall is very large and Reuben goes off to a back room to get some paste to stick a yellow and black python to a coconut palm. I take a walk through the lush jungle and explore the townships, cross the river, and greet the pygmy drummers. The attention to detail is extraordinary. I find myself regretting not having developed my own artistic talent. Everything had gone well until Mr Ford had ridiculed my attempt at an abstract landscape in the Lower Fifth form. I had done practically nothing since.

‘I wish everyone could see this exhibition,’ I say when Reuben returns. ‘Art from the heart as you put it.’

Throughout the morning, a number of corpulent local councillors and earnest looking environmental representatives visit. They all bestow their approval. At lunchtime, the news comes in that my sister, Sarah, an activist on the Protect Wildlife in Africa campaign, has been tragically mown down in Namibia by a rampaging elephant. She had died instantly. An elephant ‘in musth’, the report says will charge anything that crosses its path. The condition, triggered by massively increased levels of testosterone, is a major problem in these parts of Africa.

‘Is that for me?’ says Joi, her gaze taking in the bulge in my jeans.
She has just come through the door and is putting her travelling bag down. Joi and I have been seeing each other for about three months. She has been away for a few days, and I have missed her. She is tanned and her dark hair is hanging loose around her shoulders. Her Louis Vuitton skirt hugs her hips tightly and her breasts seem to be powering their way out of the low cut top she is wearing. I have Miles Davis’ Tutu playing. I pretty much only listen to jazz now. I find pop and rock in the mid-nineties so unsubtle.

Joi leads me off to the bedroom. She has a wicked smile. She slips her skirt off slowly to the sound of Miles’ muted trumpet. She is wearing sheer black tanga panties. She guides my hand towards her favourite spot. It is warm and wet. I kiss her urgently and pull her down onto the bed, where frenzied passion takes over.

‘What was that all about?’ she says afterwards. My unrestrained ardour seems to have taken her by surprise.

‘I wanted you badly,’ I say.

‘I must go away more often,’ she laughs.

‘I think I’d rather you didn’t.’

‘I’d rather I didn’t too. Perhaps I should move in. We’re good together, aren’t we?’

I hesitate before I answer what was probably not a question anyway. I give her a warm post-coital hug to give myself time to consider my words. I feel like a million dollars but at the same time a creeping melancholy. When things are this good, I begin to worry that my credit at the Metaphorical Bank of Serendipity might be running out and somehow will be paid for with something infortuitous. My experience suggests that epiphanies have the tendency to foreshadow calamity. I am also unaccustomed to sharing my deepest secret fears. It is dangerous to let down your guard. I want what I say to come out right.

‘Sometimes when everything is going well,’ I say. ‘I have this sense of foreboding that something bad is about to happen. That something is going to be taken away.’

‘You mean like Happiness, that state you dare not enter with hopes of staying, quicksand in the marshes and all.’

‘Certainly the quicksand in the marshes part. That’s very good. Where’s does it come from?’

‘It’s the opening of a poem. Stephen Dunn.’

‘The thing is, I’m usually right, which scares me a little.’

I relate to her the occasion that I had climbed the North Face of Ben Nevis, the highest peak in the UK with my fellow climber, Roy Tavistock. Roy had been my instructor at the Everest Climbing Club in the Brecon Beacons.

‘I was a comparative novice and I had never attempted anything so daring before. I had never been particularly good at physical sports, so for me the climb was a supreme accomplishment. Roy congratulated me. Its Grade he explained was ‘Difficult’. There had he said been a number of fatalities over the years. We stayed on the plateau at the summit for a bit, taking it all in, the wind whistling around us. I felt literally on top of the world. By world standards, Ben Nevis may not be the highest, but it was to me. I understood how Sir Edmund Hillary must have felt. Late in the afternoon, we began our descent. Roy warned me this would be more difficult than the ascent and would need concentration. About halfway down I was struck by a flying crampon. I was concussed and had to be rescued by air ambulance. I was in hospital for over a week.’

‘Dramatic stuff,’ says Joi. ‘So, my hero, what is it that you think it is that is going to happen?’

‘That’s the trouble. You never know. If you knew then you would be able to prepare for it.’

‘They say that every action has an opposite and equal reaction, you can’t have night without day,’ Joi says, sounding like she had just been on a Buddhist workshop.

‘Or day without night,’ I say. ‘It’s the day part that is the problem because you know that it must be followed my night.’

‘And then day again. Look! Why can’t you view it another way, crisis contains the opportunity for growth and bad luck becomes good luck. Adversity spawns creativity. But we’re not talking about adversity. I don’t see much adversity.’

I think about what Joi has said. I’m sure she has a valid point, but she is looking at the thing the wrong way round, so in a sense, she is missing the point I am trying to make.

‘My analogy is that if you have had a run of six green lights, then you are unlikely to get a seventh’, I say. ‘Each green light increases the chances that the next one will be red.’

‘Don’t you think that is a little negative,’ she says, sitting up and folding her arms over her breasts in a defensive gesture. ‘Every red light could be seen as positive because the chances of a green light next time increase.’

‘How does that help when you get the feeling that things are going too well?’

I seem to have dug myself into a hole. The conversation ends there. Joi gets dressed. She says she is going out for some air. She doesn’t return. She doesn’t come round again. Life it seems is a series of losses

Maya is awake now. She has been asleep for most of the flight.

‘Funny how some situations bring unrelated memories flooding back,’ I say to her. ‘With me, it’s air travel.’

‘You mean involuntary memory. Like Proust’s madeleine,’ she says.

I give her a disapproving look because I feel she should know I have not read Proust.

‘In the last volume of À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Proust describes how he was eating a madeleine that he had dipped in tea when a series of memories from his past came flooding back to him,’ she says. ‘He felt those things you remember involuntarily contain the essence of the past.’

‘I guess that’s it,’ I say hoping that it isn’t the case as each of my wayward reminiscences has been an episode that turned out badly.

It is September 2001. Maya and I are flying to New York to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, which is on the eleventh. We are on a Boeing 747 flying at 35,000 feet. We are over the tip of Greenland. This seems a little off course to me, so I take the opportunity to ask a stewardess.

‘Transatlantic flights go this way because it is quicker. It is known as a Great Circle route,’ she says, knowledgeably. She explains that this is the shortest distance between two points on a sphere and that westbound flights tend to run more northerly due to the prevailing westerlies. I am more confused than I was.

We are going to stay in Lower Manhattan. Maya knows New York quite well and for my birthday she is going to take me to breakfast at Wild Blue in the Windows of The World Restaurant, which is on the 107th floor of the World Trade Centre. Through the full-length windows, Maya tells me, you get unrivalled views of the southern tip of Manhattan, where the Hudson and East Rivers meet. The weather forecast is good.

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved

 

 

A Short History of Colour

shorthistoryofcolour

A Short History of Colour by Chris Green

When I was growing up, life was grey. It was not just that the suburban landscape was dull, or that life on the Bleak View estate was mundane; life in those days actually was lived in black and white. The history that I was taught at school was about grey kings and queens, wars were fought on grey battlefields, and nations were black and white with grey flags. There was not even a word for colour My home town was grey, the street I lived in was grey and Greystone Grammar School for Boys which I went to was grey. The sky was grey, clouds were grey, even rainbows were grey.

I was twelve when I went with my elder brother, Frank, to see The Beatles play at the local Gaumont. It was November1963. The world was coming to terms with the assassination of John Kennedy by a grey bullet in his grey head fired by a grey marksman with a grey rifle. Not that I was particularly interested in politics. I liked pop music. I had never been to a live concert before and had been looking forward to it for weeks.

The black curtain opened and white spotlights flooded the stage. Four figures familiar from photos ran on and the audience leapt up and let out a tumultuous scream, which comprehensively drowned out the opening bars of From Me to You. The Beatles were dressed in black suits over white shirts. The first sign of what would become known as colour came from John’s non-grey Rickenbacker guitar. This was what would later be called red. Paul’s Hohner bass guitar was also not grey, but what would later be called brown. Small signs maybe, but when you have spent your entire life in monochrome, quite a revelation.

On the way home from the cinema, a Hillman Minx with a green stripe along its body passed by amongst the black cars, on the street. We were spooked. We exchanged expletives and assumed a faster pace.

What the hell is going on?’ Frank said, as a blue tinged bus passed us. Frank had paled visibly. The grey had drained from his face.

Don’t know. It’s a bit scary, but in a way it’s cool,’ I replied, strangely excited.

We moved on down Stevenson Street past the Kitchener Lamp and the War Memorial. Arcs of ghostly white light from the streetlamps pierced the grey relief as our eyes searched for further invasions of colour. We passed the Milk Bar. I thought I detected a trace of non-grey in the sign in the window advertising milkshakes. And the mannequins in the window display in Burtons’ seemed to have an unfamiliar hue. The hot dogs and ketchup from the hot dog van at the end of Straight Street were however still reassuringly grey. Or, I began to feel, as we moved along past the statue of Queen Victoria, savouring the onion tang, disappointingly grey.

When I mentioned the instances of colour to Pete, Pete, Dave, Dave, and John at school the next day, they laughed at me and thought that I was nuts.

‘Next, you’ll be telling us that the school bus isn’t grey,’ said Pete.

‘Or that the Black and White Minstrels aren’t black and white,’ laughed the other Pete.

I was crestfallen. No boy of twelve wants to be ridiculed. Or outcast. I had wanted them to share my excitement. Surely I could not be the only one tuned in to the chromatic awakening.

At lunchtime, I sought Frank out, but he seemed to be in denial. Perhaps he had mentioned the manifestations of colour to Geoff, or Jeff, or Bill and Will, or Billy even, and had had encountered similar derision. Whatever the reason, he made it clear he wanted no part in it. It felt like I was alone in a foreign land.

Over the weeks that followed, I encountered further discrete glimpses of the strange phenomenon. The traffic lights at the corner of Dark Road and Gloomy Place beamed red, orange and blue (or non-grey, non-grey, non-grey at the time, given the absence of a taxonomy of colour). The Belisha beacon opposite the ironmongers in Quiet Street flashed a bold new colour, and at night the streetlights down by the railway cutting gave off a phosphorescent glow. A red telephone box appeared outside the railway station, a blue milk vending machine outside Pitts’ Newsagents and a red and cream barbers’ pole outside Reg Oldman Gents’ Hairdressers.

One evening I mentioned my sightings to my father who as usual had his head buried in a grey Edgar Wallace thriller, but it seemed that he had not noticed any change.

‘You’re not on drugs are you?’ he asked, looking up briefly. He had read an article by Bernard Swelter in the Daily Mail about Indian hemp, or marijuana as it was sometimes called. Bernard described the devastating effect the drug had one’s perception and the dangers its use by the youth of today posed for society in Britain.

My mother did not seem to see anything non-grey about the oranges in the fruit bowl when I pointed them out, suggested I stopped reading so many comics and carried on reading her Woman’s Weekly. It was not that my parents still saw everything in black and white, so much as their dismissive attitude to my concerns that hurt me. They might have shown some interest in what I was trying to say to them. I made a decision there and then to do badly in my exams. That would teach them.

Although my memory is a little hazy, I recall an item on the news one night about a scientist from New Zealand, or perhaps it was Newfoundland, making the discovery of colour. The report was delivered with very little emphasis or ceremony, in much the same way as the observation of a new but small moon orbiting Pluto might be today, but it did come up with some new words to describe the phenomenon. This is more or less the taxonomy we use to identify colours today.

I noticed that sometimes during the summer months the sky took on a blue colour, with a pinky hue in the west towards sunset. One or two coloured flowers popped up around the garden and the lawn was flecked with green. Some of the bottles of Corona in the confectioners on the corner were coloured, the limeade, green and the cherryade, pinky-red. The sign outside The Brass Monkey public house appeared red and brown and the newsagents’s stall in the railway station had a poster with red letters advertising Titbits. Mostly though things from day to day were still grey.

Television back then was of course black and white. Even John Lennon’s red Rickenbacker was grey on television. And when Liverpool played Everton in the FA Cup, both teams had grey shirts. You could only distinguish the referee because he seemed to be the one nobody passed the ball to.

In January 1965, Winston Churchill died, aged 91, and millions of people including my parents watched his grey funeral on TV.

You can scoff,’ said my father, ‘but if it weren’t for Winston you would be speaking German.’

I judged there was little to be gained by pointing out that I did speak German, albeit badly, and French, and Latin. Or that the tune to the Greystone Grammar School Song bore a striking resemblance to that of Deutschland Uber Alles.

One night while Frank and I were lying in our beds listening to the whistles and hisses of late night Radio Luxemburg on our Philips transistor radio, Frank confided that he had seen an arc of multicoloured light in the sky which he had read was caused by the refraction of the sun’s rays by rain. You could tell that he was in the ‘A’ stream.

What are you on about?’ I replied. I was in the ‘B’ stream following bad end of term results. To me, it would have just been a rainbow.

His revelations continued.

Also, Jeff told me he’s been to a gallery and seen an exhibition of brilliant coloured paintings by an artist called David Hockney. They’re on public display. We could go and see them.’ I was tempted to say groovy, but resisted.

The transformation from monochrome to colour was a very gradual one. One or two items might stand out in an otherwise grey landscape. The next time you passed the same items might be grey again, but other items might display a different colour. You may have seen the commercials or football trailers today where all colours on the film print but one (usually red) are reduced to greyscale. This might give you some idea of how glimpses of colour appeared back then.

Yellow is the colour of my true love’s hair,’ sang Donovan, in a hit song at the time.

In the morning,’ he added. He seemed to be describing the inconsistency. His true love’s hair was probably grey the rest of the day.

In the summer of 1965, Frank and I discovered a shop in Prospect Street that sold coloured clothes. Imagine, the Levi’s were not grey, they were blue.

We sorted excitedly through the sartorial cornucopia and came home dressed in our blue Levi’s and brightly coloured sweatshirts. Not that our parents noticed anything different in our appearance. Dad’s evening paper remained aloft and mum merely reprimanded us for being late for tea.

Maybe only people under a certain age, say thirty, could see colour,’ I thought. Perhaps that was why The Who sang, ‘hope I die before I get old,’ in My Generation which was climbing up the charts. I bought the LP, which I believe boasted the first-ever coloured album cover. On the group cover photo, bass guitarist, John Entwistle wore a red white and blue diagonal checked jacket. The cover was withdrawn hastily and replaced by a grey one, no reasons given by the record company, Brunswick, but Entwistle’s design later would become familiar to everyone as the Union Jack.

Dave and Dave Too went on a trip to London and came back with excited stories of models wearing multicoloured miniskirts on Kensington High Street, boutiques in Carnaby Street selling satin shirts in rainbow patterns, and flashing neon signs in Leicester Square and Marble Arch. Pete and Pete went on holiday with their parents to Cornwall and came back with animated tales of surfers with brilliantly coloured boards and bodysuits. And golden sands with red, yellow and blue deckchairs. When I challenged them about their earlier scepticism, they laughed it off.

You’re just jealous,’ said Pete.

Because you’re life is so dull,’ said Other Pete.

They were right. I did not have the same opportunities as Pete or Other Pete. The day trips on grey buses to towns of historical interest or to museums, or visits to ageing relatives were not by any means stimulating. I resolved to do even worse in my exams to spite my parents.

Every month new colours were reported, Prussian blue, vermillion, old gold and purple. You could now buy coloured paint sets with a huge variety of colours and grey paint sets began to be phased out. The new prismatic kaleidoscope sounded the death knell for the black and white kaleidoscope, which had amused children for decades. Some cinemas even began to show films in technicolour. The Pink Panther and Goldfinger are two that spring to mind.

I began going to Bleak View Youth Club with Pete and New Pete, or Dave, Dave and Mike. The youth club had the regulation grey coffee bar of course (serving grey coffee), a grey snooker table (with grey balls), and a black and white pinball machine. The dazzling new outfits that Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda wore on Friday nights when the club held a disco did, however, offer plenty of colour. Sue, Suzy, Susan, Lin and Linda danced to Tamla Motown chart songs under red, gold and green flashing lights. This was the most concentrated display of colour that I had ever seen, and looking back I fear I may have flung myself about embarrassingly to the music of The Supremes and The Four Tops in an attempt to be part of the action.

Radio Caroline and Radio London began playing songs by Cream and Pink Floyd. The Beatles brought out a song called Strawberry Fields and Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze. A group called the Lemon Pipers had a hit with Green Tambourine and Donovan showed he was still on the case with Mellow Yellow. Even The Rolling Stones who had earlier wanted to Paint It Black caught on and brought out Ruby Tuesday.

Psychedelia took colour on a roller coaster ride. Suddenly everything around you sparkled with vivid radiant colours, mesmerising patterns and fantastic swirls. Things such as coal, the very essence of blackness, might now be turquoise or tangerine, coral or amber. Colours shifted and undulated, changing constantly. Surfaces appeared to ripple or breathe. An object that you were focussing on might go through the whole spectrum of colours before your very eyes. It was a frightening time for many, especially the elderly who might have had seventy or eighty years of achromatic life.

The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band encapsulated colour in musical form. It was really cool that EMI chose to release the album on June 1st, 1967, my sixteenth birthday. It was timely too that, my parents were away for a long weekend having won a Daily Mail competition to see the D-day landing sites, and convenient that Frank was away on a Duke of Edinburgh’s expedition in Snowdonia.

Sergeant Pepper was described by an eminent playwright of the time as ‘a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation.’

Just think how good life is going to be,’ I said to Jenny, as we lay under my green, purple, yellow and pink paisley quilt having just enjoyed our own historical moment.

Jenny and I played the album over and over again, oh boy, on my new stereo record player. That weekend we read the news, saw a film, woke up, got out of bed and read the news again, oh boy.

After the psychedelic years, which completely saw off the grey world of yesteryear, colours settled down to create a more or less regular palette. Television was now broadcast in colour and programme producers made the most of this. Presenters were obliged to wear yellow and pink jackets even for weather reports. Colours were solid and stable and reliably identifiable; red was red and blue was blue. There was no longer a mix up when Liverpool played Everton. Ford cars came in colours like Daytona yellow, radiant red and mistral blue. The British Standard Institution (BSI) colour standards were established. Paint colour cards became available in DIY shops. In the 1970s, colour became a precise science.

Had color in fact by its universality and precision become the new grey.

The filmmaker, Woody Allen, seemed to anticipate that something peculiar was about to happen when in 1979 he chose to make Manhattan, in black and white. No films had been made in black and white since the advent of colour. Martin Scorcese brought out the acclaimed black and white Raging Bull a few months later, along with David Lynch who filmed The Elephant Man in black and white. The Police, one of the biggest bands in the world at the time, began to film all their pop videos in monochrome. We Fade to Grey sang the New Romantic band, Visage, which became a big dance hall hit. I began to notice that objects became ever so slightly tinged with grey, and colours on the television began to flicker from colour to greyscale. Sometimes when I drove home, the streetlights along Kubrick Way shone a ghostly grey and some of the red-bricked houses on Issigonis Street appeared grey-bricked. The Conran Shopping Centre, which had been seen as the quintessence of colour, suddenly seemed a shadow of its former self. And once again the referee was difficult to spot when Liverpool played Everton.

The encroaching monochrome seemed to correlate with the upheaval in my private life. I had fallen out big time with Frank over the money I owed him and I was in the middle of an acrimonious divorce from Mandy (Jenny’s sister) and was having problems over access arrangements to see our three daughters Magenta, Jade and Amber. My solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed, might be described as a half empty solicitor. He was not optimistic about my chances of securing favourable access while I lived in a bedsit in Ostler’s Yard. I suggested to Mr Shed that it was better than being homeless, which I probably would be if I had to continue to come up with the huge mortgage repayments on the family home in Diamond Drive. I had not spoken to Frank (now a successful chartered accountant) since he had slept with Mandy, so I could not even go to stay with him. Mr Shed then pointed out that the recent arrest for ‘possession of a Class A drug with intent to supply’ might not guarantee sympathy with the courts. I didn’t need to be reminded. As if this was not enough I owed my dealer, Razor, several hundred pounds. Things did not go better with coke. I was also in danger of losing his job as a sales representative for Spectrum Kaleidoscopes, as I had recently been charged with drink-driving. Had I sorted out my alcohol problems, Mr Shed asked?

Wait a minute,’ I thought. ‘Isn’t he supposed to be on my side?’

To add to this somewhat hopeless prognosis, when Mr Shed found out that Mandy’s solicitor was Mr Gunn of Cleese, Cleese and Formby, he became distinctly agitated.

We don’t stand a chance. Mr Gunn is the best divorce solicitor in the county. His performances are legendary,’ whimpered Mr Shed.

Following each visit to Mr Shed, I sunk further into the depths of despair.

Each time I went to see him, his office appeared greyer. Even the David Hockney prints which he had on the walls appeared drab. I asked him if he had noticed that the colour was draining out of his office.

Now you come to mention it, it does seem to become a bit greyer each time you come along to an appointment,’ Mr Shed replied.

In November 1980, the actor Ronald Reagan, veteran of a host of black and white films was elected President of the United States. Margaret Thatcher, with a black and white aspect and a grey agenda, was a year into her first term as Prime Minister. Between them they seemed determined to reverse all of the vibrant development of the previous twenty years, if not reduce the world to black ash. Was the reactionary political swing a sign of the bigger picture, or was the reappearance of grey symptomatic of peoples’ disenchantment with emancipation and self-expression? Was George Orwell in fact right? Was freedom slavery? Deep down was the world now rejecting colour? Were the physical demands of colour too much for nature to support? Perhaps it was a combination of these. Or maybe it was all in my head. Hallucinations, after all, can be a response to excessive mental stress.

It was December and for several days familiar features like panda cars, post boxes and pub signs had flickered from colour to grey, as if colour was dependent on one enormous light bulb and the bulb was on its way out. My red Cortina lacked its usual sparkle, but then it had been parked out in Ostler’s Yard through the gloomy autumn. I was on my way to an exhibition celebrating Twenty Years of Colour at the Royal Academy. Kaleidoscopes were one of the features of the exhibition and I had been invited to attend. Unable to sleep, I had started out early, driving through the night listening to Abbey Road to remind me of youthful innocence and better times.

I did not read too much significance into the mug of grey coffee at Watford Gap; they probably always served grey coffee. Or the black cabs that kept passing me as I approached Brent Cross; cabs had always been black, although it seemed that many of the other cars on the North Circular were black too, like a funeral cortege.

It was 7.30 in the morning as I walked around Piccadilly Circus. It was not quite dawn and the statue of Eros was still bathed in green light. Christmas lights, red, green, purple and gold were everywhere, although some of them here and there seemed to be flashing grey. I did not feel like celebrating Christmas at the best of times. This year, devoid of family, I wanted no part in Christmas. Jingle tills, jingle tills. Goodwill? Some hope! With my personal life in deep crisis, and the impending divorce and the forthcoming court case, I felt that things could not get any worse. It is always dangerous to think this way. I looked up at the circling neon display and ‘read the news today’ Oh Boy!’ Huge red capital letters announced BEATLE SHOT IN NEW YORK. It took a few moments to take this in. Which Beatle? Why? I had been listening to their music not half an hour ago. Suddenly all the Christmas displays and everything around me changed to black and white. The circling text changed and now in grey read JOHN LENNON SHOT DEAD IN NEW YORK.

The 1980s were lived out almost entirely in black and white as the world lived with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Music and cinema were effectively outlawed and television showed endless repeats of seventies sitcoms (in black and white), cold war dramas, and post-apocalyptic documentaries. All the time I was in rehabilitation, and the years afterwards when I lived on the Rank Ditch council estate, life was grey. The flats were grey, the pubs were grey, the indiscriminate masses that populated the estate were grey, and the burned out cars on the waste ground behind the derelict garage were grey. The schools were grey, the graffiti was grey, the cellophane factory was grey, and the broken shutters on the neighbourhood charity shop were grey. The sky was grey, the sports field was grey, and the cannabis plants in the allotments at the back of the council offices were grey. The Asian stores were grey, the mosques were grey, and the hooded muggers who roamed the covered walkways were grey.

Towards the end of the decade occasional hints of colour began to appear, a roundabout in a children’s playground, a floral display in the civic gardens, the amber letters above Sainsbury’s supermarket. The new examples of colour were hesitant, discreet, almost apologetic. They did not have the promise or the conviction that colours had in the 1960s. Vauxhall tentatively brought out a new range of the Astra in midnight blue, dark blue, beige and brown. Dulux came up with a choice of pastel colours, which were effectively shades of off white. Cinema Paradiso and Wings of Desire, both shot in a mix of black and white and colour, were screened at the cinema. Colour became a little bolder in the spring of 1989. The New Labour rose on the billboards, a Happy Mondays t-shirt, a new age travellers’ bus in a lay-by; little signs were everywhere. B & Q reintroduced colour charts, and you could if you searched around buy glossy magazines. Liverpool playing in their red strip beat Everton in their blue shirts in the FA Cup Final in a thrilling encounter, which saw other clubs bringing in team colours. The London Underground map was once again displayed in colour, and the Tate Gallery reopened. By the time the Berlin Wall came down in November, television was being transmitted in colour and I was able to watch the celebrations with my new friend, Scarlett.

Since 1989 colour has been in the ascendant.

However in the last year or two, there do seem to be strong hints that grey might be returning. It has not been acknowledged in any formal way but in small but subtle ways, colour is disappearing. Electrical goods, phones and computers for instance are now only manufactured in black, grey or white. Black Keys and The White Stripes are the best selling bands. While car manufacturers classify the shades of their new models as steel blue, silver frost or desert mist, new cars in the showroom are all basically grey. Grey installations have almost eliminated paintings in the art world and colossal grey edifices have been springing up in capital cities to create dark silhouettes on skylines. Recently for weeks on end through the summer months, the sky has been covered by a thick blanket of grey cloud. If I run a search on google for green, it comes back with ‘did you mean greed?’ A story in one of the papers a week or so ago suggested that the Cameron government is planning to put a bill before parliament in the next session which will outlaw colour completely. I don’t believe everything I read in the papers, but the way things are going, you never know.

I spoke to Frank last week for the first time in nearly thirty years. We seemed to be able to bury our differences so I suggested we meet up for lunch, at The Yellow River Café maybe. ‘I don’t like Chinese food,’ he said. ‘What about the Black Horse?’

© Chris Green 2014: All rights reserved