Mario and Lorelei

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Mario and Lorelei by Chris Green

Lorelei Love possesses a rare talent. She knows that things are going to happen before they do. As a result of her premonitory powers, Lorelei’s life has been alternately comforting or frightening, depending on what is scheduled to happen. Unfortunately knowing something is going to occur does not give Lorelei powers to prevent it. Try as she might to take steps to avoid something unpleasant, she has not found a means to do so. She has however developed her persuasive powers to prevent too much disappointment or distress. Sometimes destiny needs a helping hand.

Lorelei Love is not a clairvoyant or fortune teller. She cannot tell which horse is going to win the Derby, or if there is going to be an earthquake. She only knows what is going to happen in relation to her. If she were to put a bet on a horse, she would know if she was going to pick up money later on, and if the earthquake was going to affect her daily life, then she would know about it. Otherwise, she has the same faculties as those without the gift.

Today, the first Friday in April, her day will be alternately tiresome and exciting. Tiresome that she knows she is going to be waiting twenty minutes in the tailback on the Buena Vista bypass, exciting that she knows she is going to meet Mario Van Horn in the tropical fish department of the pet superstore on the retail park at three o’clock, even though she never goes there and has no interest in tropical fish. She knows with equal certainty that, although he is a complete stranger, with just a fleeting glance in her direction, Mario will make her heart skip a beat. In short, she knows that Mario Van Horn will sweep her off her feet.

Mario Van Horn does not possess such a talent. Dashing and debonair he might be in his dark blue suit, but he comes across as preoccupied. He has been told he can be unaccommodating and unresponsive. Casual and dispassionate are also terms that have been thrown at him. In the studio where he works as a producer, musicians that he is recording say that he is oblivious to how they would like to play. He takes the edge out of their music. He makes whatever they play sound like the famously bland band, Keane.

Mario is often not aware that something has happened even after it has. It was not until his decree absolute arrived on the mat that he realised his wife, Ursula had started divorce proceedings. He had thought that she was on holiday with her friend, Sharita. Try as he might, Mario has found himself unable to redress his shortcomings. An army of life coaches, psychologists and consultants have become exasperated at his inability to change. They all say his aloofness is astonishing. He could be a textbook study for a new condition.

It is three o’clock on the first Friday in April and Mario Van Horn has absolutely no idea that he is glancing in Lorelei Love’s direction, let alone that his glance is making a lasting impression on her. He is so unobservant that he has not even grasped that he is in the tropical fish department in the pet superstore. He has only stepped in there to buy a house rabbit for his sister in law, Mercedes, who will be nineteen on Sunday.

Lorelei Love leaves the pet superstore with a warm glow, brought about by Mario’s loving gaze. She understands that he has been too shy to approach her, but she knows this will not matter. She sits in her yellow Mini Cooper with the black stripes and waits for Mario to leave and get in his car. She knows this is a black Toyota Auris with a 69 plate. She knows that she is going to follow him home, even though she already knows where he lives. She knows that within a week she is going to be spending nights there.

Mario’s awareness of fate is non-existent. When, having stalked him for days, Lorelei calls round to his house, he still does not recognise her.

Are you the Avon lady?’ he asks. ‘I’m afraid that Ursula has gone away.’

He is surprised by the kiss. It is not the type of apologetic peck on the cheek you might expect from someone selling beauty products door to door, who has accidentally called at the wrong house. It is a passionate take your breath away all-out assault on his face. It is the type of kiss you might expect from an aroused lover. It is the type of kiss that in a raunchy film might serve as a prelude to the participants ripping off each others’ clothes. Having established that she is not the Avon lady and finding that things are happening down below, Mario responds with wild abandon. He is not at all sure what is happening or if what is happening is happening to him. But despite this uncertainty, in no time at all, they are upstairs and are ripping off one another’s clothes. A little later, after a bout of bountiful coupling, he asks her name.

Lorelei Love,’ she says.

Well, Lorelei Love,’ says Mario Van Horn. ‘That was ….. unexpected. I don’t know what came over me. I’m not usually so …… forward,’

I do hope that isn’t so,’ says Lorelei. ‘I was hoping we might do it again soon.’

I think that it was possibly the most unusual experience of my life,’ says Mario.

I knew that this was going to happen, so there was no point in fighting it,’ says Lorelei Love.

I couldn’t help but notice that you weren’t fighting it,’ says Mario. ‘I’m Mario Van Horn by the way,’

I know,’ says Lorelei.

You do?’

I think I probably know everything about you.’

It is the third Thursday in May. Lorelei Love is now living with Mario Van Horn. As long as she takes the lead, she gets what she wants. She is happy with this arrangement. She has shown photos of Mario to her friends and her colleagues at the advertising agency, and they all think that he is a dreamboat. It is disconcerting that Mario doesn’t always notice that she is there, but there are small signs that he might be changing. Once or twice lately he has greeted her with kisses when she has got in from work. As she drives home from the office along the Santa Rosa Boulevard, she wonders if today is going to be one of those days. This is an odd sensation for Lorelei because she feels she should know definitely one way or the other. Perhaps Mario will not even be home. Maybe he will be mixing muzak at the studio, or perhaps it is his sister in law, Portia’s birthday and he has had to take an animal round. Lorelei is not accustomed to such uncertainty. She is sure though that it will pass.

Mario has noticed that there are more house plants to water and the washing machine is nearly always on. The kitchen is filling up with cookery books and kitchen utensils that he does not know the names of. The red wine has been replaced with white. Pink paperbacks with titles in handwritten script and cover illustrations of smiling young women in white chiffon are appearing on the bookshelf. There is no longer room in the wardrobe for all of his dark blue suits. There is a chess game going on with the bottles in the bathroom. He has noticed that Lorelei is around the place more than she used to be, in fact nearly all the time. Did she ask if she could move in? Did he say she could? Should he ask her if she asked him when she gets home from work?

Mario finds it a little worrying that Lorelei tends to be right all of the time, but on balance, he enjoys her company. Lorelei wears raunchier lingerie that Ursula did, laughs heartily at his badly told jokes, and is unexpectedly good at solving those tricky popular culture allusion clues to finish the Guardian cryptic crossword on a Saturday. And he likes the way she sometimes surprises him in the shower. He wonders if he ought to clear some of his old equipment out of the garage to make room for Lorelei’s Pro Trainer All In One Gym and maybe paint over the grey in the spare room with a brighter colour. Blue perhaps.

Mario starts to prepare the ingredients for an omelette. He will remember to put the peppers and mushrooms in this time. The one last Thursday was a little bland without them.

Anyone home,’ choruses Lorelei. She knows that Mario is home because the Toyota is parked in its usual way across both parking spaces on the drive. The music that is playing, while it still has a discernible melody, has traces of dubstep and acid jazz. It is a departure from the bland overproduced middle of the road music she is used to him playing while she is out of the house. ‘I like the music. What is it?’

Oh, that’s one I made earlier,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the hairdressers.’

I haven’t been to the hairdressers. I’ve been working,’ says Lorelei.

Oh, that’s right,’ says Mario. ‘While you were at the travel agents.’

Ad agency,’ says Lorelei. ‘I work at AdAge. Its an ad agency. Remember, you picked me up from there. You remarked on what a clever play on words it was.’ She is secretly pleased that although one or two things seem to have changed lately, Mario still retains hints of his heedlessness. Detachment is part of his charm.

I’m just making us an omelette,’ he says. ‘Afterwards, I thought we might go out to the greyhound racing. You keep telling me how much you like dogs.’

Did I say that?’ she says. Watching a bunch of skinny mutts chasing an electric rabbit around a gravel track has not been not on her radar. She was budgeting for a quiet night in with a bottle of Prosecco and a scented bath. Then perhaps Mario could give her a massage with the new oils she had bought. She hopes she is not witnessing a change in the dynamic of their relationship. With the dimming of her prescience, is Mario attempting to take over the decision making?

It is the second Saturday in July. Lorelei Love comes home from the hairdressers to the sound of Sufi music. Are there whirling dervishes in the front room, she wonders. Each day this week she has come home to increasingly unusual music. Each time she has asked Mario what it is, it has been ‘something that he mixed that day’. On Monday it was garage punk, on Tuesday it was psytrance. On Wednesday it was psychedelic rock, on Thursday it was trip-hop.

What is it today?’ asked Lorelei yesterday.

Steampunk animé with a touch of drum and bass,’ said Mario.

The melody has all but disappeared,’ said Lorelei.

Mario Van Horn, Lorelei realises, is changing. He doesn’t even wear his dark blue suit any more and he hardly ever shaves. And why does he wear sunglasses around the house? While she understands that two people in a relationship tend to mould each other to some degree, she is not sure that the changes are going in the right direction. She remembers making a casual comment a while back that they probably didn’t get out enough but Mario seems insensitive to her interests. Over the past week, she has been treated to a twenty-twenty cricket match, a rugby sevens tournament, an orienteering workshop and a strip show. Although Mario claims they had discussions regarding plans for these evenings out, she has no recollections of these.

Accustomed to knowing in advance what is going to happen, each day now she is racked with anxiety about what is going to take place. Surely not another night at the dog track, or a rock-climbing weekend. There were times in the past when she felt the burden of knowing what was going to happen was an irritation. It weighed heavily on her shoulders, but this was compensated by its comforts. Why is it she is no longer able to call the shots? Has she lost the gift of prescience completely?

Mario doesn’t know what is wrong. Lorelei no longer wears raunchy lingerie and has stopped surprising him in the shower. He has even painted the spare room purple for her and put up some shelves to accommodate her growing self-help book collection. Surely it can’t be his comment about her putting on weight. He had meant it in a nice way.

I thought we might go to see some Sufi tonight, darling,’ he says. ‘So I put this sampler together to get us in the mood.’

Lorelei registers a robust look of disapproval. Mario thinks she is beginning to seem more like Ursula every day. He turns the music down a little.

We can have a curry,’ he says. ‘Akbar’s has an excellent selection of Punjabi dishes and the cabaret comes on at nine. Authentic qawwali music.’

I hate this awful wailing and I hate curry,’ screams Lorelei. What could she have ever seen in Mario Van Horn? The man is singularly intolerable. How, she wonders had she not seen this situation coming?

We could go to Ping Pong and have some noodle dishes if you prefer,’ he continues, seemingly oblivious to his falling star. ‘They have bamboo music, I believe, That’s quite gentle.’

I hate you,’ she shrieks.

Or we could just go The Black Horse for a pie and a game of darts if you like.’

You just don’t get it, do you?’

You’ll be hungry later on.’

I’m leaving you.’

It is the second Sunday in September. Lorelei Love is pleased to be shot of Mario Van Horn. She is starting to enjoy life again. While her rare talent is still not fully functioning, she is beginning to get her premonitory powers back. Just last week, she foresaw that she was going to meet a tall stranger with blond curls who would sweep her off her feet. And here she is driving along Las Palomas in her new Mini Cooper S Coupé with the roof down to meet DoubleTake.

DoubleTake’s singer, Ben Cool with his blond hair and black suede eyepatch is a dreamboat. AdAge has won the contract to handle the band’s PR. Naturally, Lorelei has volunteered to take personal control of the contract. What she doesn’t realise is that Mario Van Horn has dyed his hair blond and changed his name to Ben Cool. He didn’t even realise he could sing, until about a month ago when he was recording the overdubs for HashTag’s album, and now look at him. His fifteen minutes of fame beckons. What he doesn’t know is that the agency his management company has hired to handle the band’s promotion is AdAge.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

You Never Can Tell

younevecantell2019

You Never Can Tell by Chris Green

Annie and I are sitting in a café called Lemon Jelli sipping peppermint tea. The space is laid out to look like a continental bar with comfortable seating and 1930s French travel posters on the wall. We have come to Newton Abbot for the market. Annie is shopping for shoes. The flimsy ones she bought last week have not lasted well.

How old do you think I am?’ says a swarthy stranger sitting on the table next to us. ‘Go on! Have a guess!’

We have not registered his presence up until now. We exchange glances. By the tone of the question, we assume that he is probably older than he thinks he looks. In truth, with his hair greased back like a fifties icon and his short-sleeved plaid checked shirt, he looks about seventy four.

Sixty?’ Annie says, diplomatically.

No,’ he says, smiling. ‘I’m seventy four. I don’t look it, do I?’

No, you don’t. You must live a healthy life,’ I say, turning away and hoping to end the conversation.

It transpires that he lives in Torquay, but he comes from Somerset, Taunton to be precise. Taunton is about sixty miles north of Torquay. He used to be married but is not anymore. He says he doesn’t want to talk about this. He has an eighteen year old daughter, but he doesn’t see her very often except on birthdays and Christmas. She lives in Somerset somewhere but he doesn’t specify where. He used to be an electrical engineer with a company that makes microwave ovens but he retired early at sixty four after his triple heart by-pass.

What’s Torquay like?’ Annie asks, before I can stop her. ‘We were thinking of going there one day while we’re down here.’

Torquay is great,’ he says. ‘I like living in Torquay. A lot of people say bad things about it, but really its very nice. I know there are lots of druggies, hanging around the streets, but you get that everywhere now, don’t you? I don’t take drugs. I never have, well, only prescription drugs for my heart condition. I’m on twelve different sorts. That’s why I don’t drive anymore. I nearly crashed the car and thought, sod this for a game of soldiers. So I sold the car. That was nine years ago. I’ve got my bus pass of course. I can get around with my bus pass. That’s how I got here today. On the bus. It’s a good service from Torquay to Newton Abbot. And I can get to Exeter and Teignmouth. I can even get back to Taunton, but I don’t like to do that often. You can’t live in the past, can you? You’ve got to move on.’

I start to realise the conversation is going to be a more of a monologue.

Torquay Man doesn’t like gambling either.

It’s another addiction, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘You can bet on anything, these days, can’t you?’

Anything,’ I agree. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the Pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship…..’

My humour is lost on him. He is not listening. He begins to talk over me.

I still bet on horses,’ he says. ‘But I don’t stay in the bookies anymore, I put my bet on and then leave. If I stayed and the horse won, I would probably put the money on another horse and it would probably lose. Sometimes I come here to go to the races. I do like to see the horses running around the track and Newton Abbot is one of the best summer jumps courses.’

I didn’t know there was a racecourse,’ Annie says.

It’s just up the road. Are you staying around here?’

Teignmouth,’ I say, giving Annie a conspiratorial wink. We are actually staying in Dawlish, a few miles north of Teignmouth, but do not want Swarthy Stranger to get wind of this, just in case he finds out where we are and decides to call in.

Ah Teignmouth!’ he says. ‘I lived in Teignmouth for a while. In the 1980s. It was a nice place back then. Clean white beaches. Trips around the bay. But now it’s all street drinkers. In the bus shelters. On the prom. On the pier. Everywhere, they are. It’s all right to have a drink, but some people don’t know when to stop, do they? My Uncle Albert was one who liked a drink. I would say to him when he’d had a few, like, Albert, I’d say, I can’t understand a bloody word you’re saying. ……. I used to drink too, mind you, back in the day, when I came back from Aden. Saw some terrible things out there, I did. Make your hair curl. I was a Scammel driver in the Sappers, you know. You don’t hear them called Sappers anymore do you? You wouldn’t believe it now, would you? But all those years ago I was in the Royal Engineers.’

I don’t think it can be anything we say, because Annie and I aren’t been given the opportunity to say very much, but something seems to darken his narrative. A free-floating malice creeps into the monologue. What we took as the friendly banter of a lonely old man becomes a platform for his intolerance and bigotry. The idle youths that hang around the shopping centre ought to be rounded up and sent to boot camps in the Bristol Channel. Benefits scroungers should be put to work cleaning out the sewers, and immigrants should be turned back at Dover or shipped to concentration camps in the Channel. Prisoners should all be put on treadmills and the treadmills linked to the National Grid. It is if he has just read a year’s worth of Daily Mail headlines.

I am now hurrying to finish my peppermint tea and Annie is putting on a few of her scarves and cardigans. Torquay Man can see we are getting ready to leave.

Just one more story before you go,’ he says. ‘You’ll want to hear this one.’

Another time,’ I say, and with this we are out of the door and walking along Queen Street in the direction of the car.

What an awful man!’ I say to Annie. ‘You didn’t have to encourage him so much.’

I thought, at first, he just needed someone to talk to,’ Annie says. ‘It’s not easy being old and lonely with nothing to look forward to and time slipping away.’

But he didn’t even seem to have time for his family,’ I say. ‘Anyway, let’s get out of here.’

We are parked in the multi-storey car park, a few streets away. We normally avoid these, but when we arrived in Newton Abbot this morning we found ourselves corralled into it. We cannot get near it now. The streets on the approach to the car park are cordoned off. Ahead of us, there is a carnival of flashing blue lights, as police cars, fire engines and ambulances line the streets. People meander this way and that in confusion. No-one seems able to tell us what is going on. Rumours are circulating about a there being a bomb and some local residents have been evacuated.

The first I knew about it was these two men in flak jackets in my back yard,’ the lady in the unseasonable raincoat with the black and white cat on her shoulder says. ‘They said I had to leave right away. I asked them what was going on and all they could tell me was that they had their orders.’

East Street and Tudor Road are closed off, bloody pigs everywhere.’ the man in the orange boiler suit and the Jesus beard says.

They’re shutting down the market,’ the man with the Sticky Fingers t-shirt and the battery of nasal jewellery says. ‘Can you imagine. The market never shuts. This is Newton Abbot.’

We can’t get anywhere near the multi-storey,’ I say.

There’ll be a few hundred cars in there at a guess,’ the corpulent traffic warden with the limp says. ‘God help us if that goes up.’

Probably another suicide bomber, like the one in Plymouth last week,’ the thick-set man with the bull terrier says.

I didn’t hear an explosion,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

You don’t always hear them these days,’ Jesus Beard says. ‘They have silent bombs.’

A new task force in army fatigues arrives to move us back further.

Could you tell us what’s going on, please?’ I say.

What about my market stall?’ Sticky Fingers says. ‘I didn’t lock it up. I got thousands of pounds worth of rare albums there.’

I think I may have left the iron on,’ Unseasonable Raincoat says.

All comments are greeted with a taciturn silence from the surly militia. Methodically they kettle us like protesters at an anti-capitalist rally.

Get your hands off me,’ Jesus Beard yells.

He is forced into a doorway and handcuffed.

This provides the incentive for rest of us move back behind the barricades. These guys are serious about security.

You might imagine that emergency situations like would be tense, but in reality very little happens. Soon, because they can do nothing about it, people accept the situation and start drifting away. Jesus beard is probably back at home lighting a big spliff and Sticky Fingers Man has probably found a welcoming pub, somewhere where he can tell his tales of the glory days with the blues band that never quite made it.

I expect Lemon Jelli is full up now,’ I say to Annie. ‘They’re probably all going there.’

Do you want to go back?’ Annie asks.

We take a look at each other and decide to give it a miss. We listen to the busker making his way through the Paul Simon songbook instead.

Shame about the shoes,’ I say.

‘We can get some in Exeter tomorrow,’ Annie says.

Eventually, without any explanation, we are given the all clear. It takes half an hour or so to get out of the car park and then we find ourselves in a formidable queue of traffic. Everybody is trying to get out of Newton Abbot. Annie is on her iPhone, trawling the news sites to find information about the incident.

It says here that explosives experts were called to two suspect packages found in the town centre,’ she reads from the Exeter Express and Echo website. ‘This prompted a large area to be evacuated. Both devices were detonated safely in controlled explosions. Police are looking for an elderly man with a swarthy complexion and slicked-back hair who was seen acting suspiciously near in the vicinity earlier today. There are reports of a man fitting this description at both of the crime scenes. More details will follow as the information comes in.’

You think it was him?’ Annie says.

It does sound like it, doesn’t it?’ I say.

Shouldn’t we let the police know?’

Let them know what? That we had a conversation with a seventy four year old man from Torquay. Besides, he’s not still going to be at Lemon Jelli now, is he,’ I say. ‘He’s long gone.’

Do you think that this was the one more story that he was going to tell us?’ Annie asks.

You mean like he might have wanted us to turn him in?’ I say. ‘I guess we’ll never know.’

Who would have thought?’ Annie says. ‘He’s not what you think of when you think of terrorists.’

It goes to show that you never can tell,’ I say. ‘Terrorists don’t all have big beards and unpronounceable names.’

He never did say his name, did he?’

But he was definitely clean shaven.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

DARK

dark2018

DARK by Chris Green

I am in the garden at The Pig and Whistle on a hot August evening. About a dozen of us are sat around a table. Darkness is descending, rapidly, the way it does in mid-August. The English summer is so fleeting. Blink and it is gone. Every year it seems the locals try to hold on to the disappearing season by savouring these last moments. Soon it will end. It is not like this back home.

I have been holding forth about a painting of Jim Morrison that I have just finished. I have called it Lizard King. It is part of my Twenty Seven Club series.

I’m Matt,’ says the man sitting opposite me. ‘They call me Matt the Hat.’

I already know this of course because I have been sleeping with his girlfriend, Saskia. The last time, not two hours previously, as it happens. But Matt the Hat doesn’t know this. Nor does he know that I know who he is, but even if I didn’t, I might have been able to guess the Hat part of it.

I’m Sebastian,’ I say.

I love The Doors,’ he says.

I’ve just picked up on their music,’ I say.’They did some great songs.’

Did you know Jim had an IQ of 149,’ he says?

No,’ I say. ‘Clever guy, then.’

Or, that his favourite singer was Elvis Presley?’

I did not, Matt,’ I say.

I’m not sure where this conversation can go. I don’t want to come across as too friendly because I must remain incognito. I am not really Sebastian. I took the name from an old Cockney Rebel song that I heard a while back, Somebody called me Sebastian. Quite a dark tune, I suppose. Most of the others around the table know me as Clive and a few of them are amused by the situation, but no-one is letting on. For now, I am enjoying this subterfuge, although I am aware that Saskia, who I am fond of, will be leaving with Matt the Hat at the end of the evening.

I quickly dispense with the Doors conversation and guide the topic round to hats. I ask him if his hat is a Borsalino, knowing full well that it is not. It is not even a Fedora. Matt says he doesn’t know.

What are you doing with a man who doesn’t know what hat he’s wearing, Saskia?’ says Paddy the Poet.

Well, Matt, it’s not a sombrero, is it?’ I say.

Don and Gina chuckle. They are fully aware that I am trying to rile Matt. If it came down to it, they would be on my side. They only know Matt the Hat through Saskia. In fact, most of the people around the table only know Matt through Saskia. Saskia is a popular girl in these parts. The life and soul of the party sort of girl. Matt is seen here as a bit of an interloper. He is not one of the regular Pig and Whistle crowd, whereas I have been coming here for months. When did Matt appear on the scene? Where did he come from? Doesn’t he usually drink at The Blind Monkey along the road?

It’s not a crash helmet, Matt,’ is it?’ says Biker Dennis.

And it’s not a leopard skin pill box hat,’ says the guy who used to be in The Manic Street Preachers.

Hats move on to shoes, windsurfing and Damien Hirst via New York, Dark Side of the Moon, fairground rides, drink drive limits and aliens. The summer evening passes in the way that summer evenings do in the yard of the Pig and Whistle with details becoming more and more blurry. People come and people go, some familiar and some unfamiliar. Who, for instance, are the two Roy Orbison lookalikes dressed in dark clothes sat in the shadow of the brooding zelkova serrata? No-one pays much attention to them. Perhaps I am the only one to notice them.

We have Stella Artois and Fosters to fuel us, Old Thumper ale and something called Stagger scrumpy. Take your pick. They all seem to do the job. The noise level rises, drinks get spilt and spliffs are surreptitiously passed around. By and by, Saskia gets up to leave with Matt the Hat. She gives me a knowing look and says, ‘It was nice to meet you, Sebastian,’ This is the last I ever see of her. Or for that matter Matt the Hat. I’m not too concerned about Matt the Hat. He was never going to be a big feature in my life, but Saskia could have been.

Their disappearance is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know what happened to them. I may have been distracted as they were making their way out of the pub, but did the two men in dark suits who were sitting under the brooding zelkova serrata follow them out? By the time I looked round for them, they too had disappeared. Might they originally have been looking for me, found out I was seeing Saskia and when they came to the Pig and Whistle formed the impression that Matt was me?

……………………………………..

I like to go walking in the hills, sometimes even when it is dark. It gives me time to reflect on my journey and how far I have come, since. ……. Well, that all seems a long time ago. I usually go walking on my own, although I have met someone called Abi who enjoys the countryside too. From time to time, when the weather is favourable, she tags along. Abi is a little younger than me. Sometimes it appears that everyone is younger than me, but I guess this is all relative. Einstein thought so.

I am fortunate that I can make enough money from my paintings not to worry about having a job or keeping regular hours. Watching the distress that working for some exploitative multinational corporation seems to cause the toiling millions makes me feel that I a blessed to have such a talent. If you should care to look me up on the internet, Augustus Dark, that is, not Sebastian or Clive, you will find my work referred to as iconic nostalgia, fantasy portraiture, outsider art and even pop art, but I am perhaps none of these things. I seem to have discovered a lucrative but as yet untapped market. I have an exhibition coming up at a top gallery. I’m quite excited at the prospect but I hope that it doesn’t attract unwanted visitors. They may have realised their earlier mistake and still be out there somewhere.

……………………………………..

What kind of car do you think that is?’ I say to Abi, pointing to the car in front of us. We are driving down Black Dog Way on our way to the hardware store for storage boxes. I have been living with Abi for a few months now and we are about to move into a new house, out of town. The car we are following appears at first glance to be a run-of-the-mill large hatchback with the tinted rear screen, triangular shaped red tail lights, centre high mount stop lamps and twin exhausts you would expect to find on such a car. Despite these consistencies, it somehow doesn’t look right. There is something unexplainably other about it.

It’s says Hyperion,’ says Abi.

I can see that,’ I say. ‘But Hyperion is the model name. What make is it? Who’s the manufacturer? I’ve not seen that badge before.’

Neither have I,’ says Abi. Abi is normally quite observant.

The design is a rounded M shape over a what looks like a rounded W inside a circle. It’s surprising how easily logos and trademarks from everyday life become ingrained in one’s consciousness and this one has not registered yet. I can’t make out who is in the car or how many of them there are because of the tinted rear window but I have a bad feeling about them. As soon as I get the chance, I take a left turn.

As we move through the slow moving traffic, Abi and I rack our brains, with each of us suggesting names of far-eastern car manufacturers that we are half-familiar with. None of these seems to be the right one. Something about this is not right. Perhaps I am being anal but when we get back home, I do a Google search for Hyperion. I am aware of course of what Hyperion is and my search does no more than confirm this. It comes up with nothing vaguely automobile-related. I then draw the logo design as I remember it and spend an hour or so trying to match my drawing with an image of it on the web, but to no avail. The brand apparently does not exist. The registration number I took down, I discover, belongs to a white Renault Clio. Next, I try to find a picture of a black hatchback to match the shape but this is hopeless. All cars of a certain size look similar these days, at least from the rear.

I am still searching, when Abi comes in, scrolling down her phone. She is wearing the anguished expression she wears when something bad is trending on social media.

Oh my God!’ she says. ‘Lol Popp has died. Under mysterious circumstances, it says here. Drugs, they think.’

Lol Popp? Doesn’t he live somewhere around here?’ I say. ‘Some big house on the hill.’

It says, the star who has sold twenty million albums was found dead by his bodyguard earlier today in his West Country mansion.’

That’s a real shame,’ I say, trying to stay calm. ‘I really liked some of his tunes, Men in Black and what was that other one? Lost in Space? Lol was quite young, wasn’t he?’

Twenty seven,’ she says. ‘I suppose you have to do a painting of him now.’

Does a desire to join the twenty seven club, that growing list of rock icons that died at twenty seven, explain his demise? Or could there be a more sinister explanation? Lol always seemed a bit …… other-worldly. The way he wore that black face mask. The way he always wore purple. The way he never gave interviews. I am back on my laptop now, scanning the news sites. To my alarm, there is a report in Huffington Post saying only hours after he had been found dead Lol’s body disappeared, along with the bodyguard. That’s weird. It was the bodyguard who found him. I don’t share the development with Abi or let her know what I am thinking. She will tell me I am being paranoid.

Over the next few days, I continue to look out for the car with the rogue badge. There are Buforis, Peroduas, Acuras, Hyundais and Ssangyongs aplenty and even an old Lada Riva, but no Hyperion. The thought occurs more than once that the original Hyperion we saw might just have been someone playing a prank. But, I have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t the case. I can’t get rid of the thought that there is a more sinister explanation. I hope I am wrong. I like it here.

……………………………………..

The black Hyperion is at the gate. Two men in dark suits and dark glasses step out. This is it. They have come for me. They will escort me to the landing craft. They will take me back home. It is time. I should be pleased that Abi has gone to Pilates, that she is not here. They would take her too. That would be unfair on her. She might not like it where I’m going. But, I can’t help wanting her to be with me, even though she is from this world and not from ours.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Chinese Boxes

chineseboxes2018

Chinese Boxes by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’d better come in.’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

14:05. Nearly two hours to go.’

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

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

I could go for help,’ she says.

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

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

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

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

Twelve, I think,’ she says.

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Be Here Now

beherenow

Be Here Now by Chris Green

1:

‘I recommend you listen to two hours of Einaudi each evening,’ says Dr Hopper. ‘His soft piano music is perfect for quiet contemplation. You will notice a remarkable improvement in just a few days.’

‘Two hours of Einaudi?’ I repeat. ‘But I like listening to experimental jazz on my iPod, when I go jogging around the heath in the evening. John Zorn, The World Saxophone Quartet, The Kilimanjaro DarkJazz Ensemble, this sort of thing.

‘And cut out the jogging altogether,’ Dr Hopper continues. ‘Exercise is no good at all for relaxation. No wonder you feel so stressed out. You need to be still. Focus the mind. Get some Rothko prints on your walls to focus on.’

I point out that Rothko had suffered aneurysm of the aorta as a result of his chronic high blood pressure and committed suicide, overdosing on antidepressants. I watched a series recently on the tragic deaths of 20th Century American painters.

‘Did he now? H’mm interesting…. All the same, his paintings instil a sense of calm. His aim was to relieve modern man’s spiritual emptiness. Take my word! You will sleep much better with the influence of Rothko’s paintings and Einaudi’s music. Try some Gorecki some evenings as well. The Third Symphony is a good place to start’

‘Isn’t that The Symphony of Sorrowful Songs?’ I say.

‘That’s the one,’ he confirms. ‘Not sorrowful at all in my opinion, though, quite uplifting in fact. I like to listen to it when I am driving to the surgery. Now, let’s see. What else can we do? I expect you’ve got a houseful of unnecessary consumer durables, probably a 60 inch TV, a laptop and a kitchen full of white goods and gadgets. Am I right?’

I nod.

‘Be a good thing too if you get rid of those too. Clear the house a bit. Too much clutter is one of the principal causes of stress. What colour are the walls of the rooms in your house?’

I conjure up a mental image of each of the rooms, in turn, a mishmash of orange, pink and purple and explain that Sandy and I don’t have a unifying colour scheme.

‘Best to paint them all blue then,’ he says.

I have not seen Dr Hopper before. He is new to the practice, and I am beginning to feel his approach to medical matters is a little unconventional. My usual practitioner, Dr Bolt is on sabbatical. Dr Bolt would have blamed my symptoms of stress on the long hours I put in at the charity shop, written a prescription for selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and left it at that, but Dr Hopper seems determined to pursue a more holistic approach.

‘Phones are the worst thing for stress,’ he continues. You are constantly on edge in case they ring and so you never get to completely relax. Mobile phones are producing a race of neurotics. I get half a dozen people in here a week suffering from various neuroses and I ask them, have they bought a new mobile phone recently, and the answer is invariably yes. I take it that you have just bought a new smartphone.’

‘Last week,’ I tell him. ‘A Samsung Galaxy. It does just about everything but I still can’t work out how to make phone calls with it.’

‘You need to get rid of it,’ he says. ‘You can leave it with me if you like and I will send it to Africa.’

Why do the people of Africa need these pocket neuroses, I wonder. Aren’t their own lives already stressful enough? But I keep quiet.

Over the course of the consultation, Dr Hopper tells me to avoid red meat, red peppers, red cabbage and red wine, in fact, anything red. He tells me where I can find an Auric Ki practitioner and where the nearest Buddhist meeting is. He even gives me the contact details of a group of Yogic flyers.

When I get home Sandy is hoovering the lounge carpet, a Mashad design in a mixture of reds blues and purples, which now given Dr Hopper’s insight, does seem to clash with the orange and yellow geometric pattern of the wallpaper. Sandy is always very thorough with the Dyson, so I escape to the kitchen, to try a cup of the jasmine oolong tea that Dr Hopper recommended and am struck by just how much clutter there is. It is quite a large kitchen with enough space for a dining table, but possibly not two. How long have we had the second one, I wonder? It does make it hard to get to the sink. All the work surfaces in the kitchen are covered in blenders and toasters, slicers and grinders, squeezers and juicers, coffee machines and waffle makers.

‘Why do we need three microwaves?’ I shout through to Sandy, but she is now cleaning up behind the brocade settee with one of the new attachments she has bought for the Dyson and she does not hear me.

While looking for the kettle to boil water for my tea, I find an arsenal of new kitchen devices, an ice cream maker, a yoghurt maker, a salami slicer. I don’t know what many of the gadgets are. Is this an avocado flesh remover or a fish descaler? The competition for the most useless kitchen device seems to be fierce. The drawers are crammed so full of pea podders, tin openers, knife sharpeners, garlic crushers and mango stoners that I can hardly get them open. I begin to realise that I might have a little trouble persuading Sandy that de-cluttering the home is a remedial imperative. Most days boxes from Amazon arrive, with more prospective chaos and confusion, and some days when I come home from work early, I find a collection of catalogues from couturiers piled up on the mat in the vestibule awaiting Sandy’s approval.

Clearly what I need is a strategy. While I am sipping my soothing cup of jasmine oolong, I weigh up my options. I could start moving things that we do not use up to the loft, except that the loft is already full of things we do not use, and the garage too. I could accidentally cancel the home insurance, disconnect the intruder alarm and arrange a burglary. Too risky. And there would be the guilt and the stress of being found out. I could, of course, come right out with it and say that Dr Hopper has given me three months to live if we do not embark on a life laundry.

Sandy comes into the kitchen.

‘How did you get on?’ she asks.

‘Dr Hopper says that I have to give up jogging,’ I begin.

‘What! After I bought you that new Le Coq Sportif jogging suit and those Nike trainers. Why’s that?’

She seems to be suffering from post-hoovering tension, so I proceed cautiously. I decide to leave the Einaudi part until later. I picked up The Essential Einaudi from the specialist classical music shop on Morricone Street, along with a couple of Philip Glass CDs that he recommended. Sadly, Gorecki’s Symphony of Sad Songs was out of stock.

‘And he thinks we might benefit from living more simply,’ I continue. Including her in those benefiting might help to get her on board with the idea of a life laundry at a later date. ‘And perhaps get a nice painting or two.’

‘It was a doctor you went to see, wasn’t it? she says. ‘Not a shaman or an art dealer.’

Sandy puts on her FatFace coat dismissively. ‘I’m going to Homebase to buy a new lava lamp for the alcove in the study,’ she announces. ‘I might have a look at the sales too. Can you think of anything we need?’

‘Forty litres of moonlight blue silk paint,’ is on the tip of my tongue, but I judge that the moment is not the right one.

It does not matter, because while Sandy is out at the shops, a trip that I judged from past experience of the January sales will take all afternoon, I find some blue paint in the shed. In no time at all, I have done a passable job in rag rolling the walls of the spare bedroom. Although the room is in estate agents’ terms, compact I feel it could serve, at least temporarily, as a meditation room. Sandy has been trying to get me to decorate the room for months, and while we have not decided on the colour scheme, I feel she will soon grow to like the calming effect of blue. I am pleased to find that there is sufficient space in the loft to accommodate Sandy’s exercise bicycle, the sunbed, the standard lamp and the writing desk, which breaks down quite easily. I then turn my attention to an internet search for the recommended art work. I discover a surprising number of Rothko prints available on eBay so I order several, all of which are enigmatically titled Untitled. I feel better than I have in weeks. I have no headache or nausea or anxiety. My body feels relaxed and my breathing steady. I can hardly wait to try out the Einaudi.

Sandy returns at about six and asks me to help her in with the bags. Accessorize, Blacks, Blue, Cargo, Clarks, Debenhams, Habitat, Heals, Homebase, Holland and Barratt, Jigsaw, John Lewis, Marks and Spencer, The Body Shop, Waterstones, and White Stuff, I think, but I may have missed a few.

‘I’m exhausted,’ she says. ‘The shops were a nightmare. No evidence of austerity. I tried phoning you but the number was unavailable. Can I smell paint?’ From her tone, I detect an air of disapproval and can see trouble ahead.

2:

I meet Anisha at Transcendental Meditation classes at the community centre. We hit it off right away. We have so much in common; we both adore the music of Einaudi and Gorecki and love Rothko’s paintings, and we are both drawn towards the colour blue. Besides this, we both feel that jogging is pointless and both dislike experimental jazz. Anisha says that it sounds as if all the musicians are playing different tunes at different tempos. I agree that this just about sums it up. Anisha has also resisted the idea of having a mobile phone or even a landline and does not own a computer or a TV. It is through Anisha that I become properly introduced to the concept of minimalism as a lifestyle. Zen is a word she frequently uses.

‘Less is more,’ she is fond of saying.’An over-abundance of possessions breeds discontent. I feel free from the worries of acquiring and maintaining things that I don’t really need.’

Anisha does not ask me to move in with her immediately but at the end of February when she finds out I am sleeping in the spare room at home, she suggests it. Since her daughter has been at university, she says she misses the company and while she is at one with herself as she puts it, she would love to have a soulmate. Not that moving in with Anisha involves very much on my part. I take two holdalls of clothes, a toothbrush, my meditation mat, and a book of Haiku verse. And of course, my small collection of ambient CDs.

The interior of Anisha’s house is decorated entirely in complimentary shades of blue. Even her Rothko prints are primarily blue. The plan of the house is uncompromisingly minimalist with no bookcases, shelves or chests of drawers. All the hard furniture is built-in and the storage is behind false walls. The house is so tidy, one could be forgiven for thinking that no one has been living there. The bedrooms have foldaway beds. The living room has a blue rug and a solitary vase in one corner with a single artificial blue bloom. The kitchen shows no evidence of its culinary purpose. Even the kettle is tidied away. The only sound one can hear comes from a subtle water feature in the Japanese garden behind the contemplation room.

‘Hidden storage and a sense of order,’ she explains are the key. ‘All clutter is a form of visual distraction. Everything in our vision pulls at our attention at least a little. The less clutter, the less visual stress we have.’

She does not need to convince me. She is preaching to the converted.

Each evening after we have tidied away the wok, we listen to Einaudi in the music room. We sit in silence and let Ludovico’s trance-inducing melodies calm us. Sometimes we give each other massages with essential oils and twice a week make tantric love on the low deco bed. We both share the belief that it is beneficial to have a routine. We still go to Transcendental Meditation classes on a Monday evening. By diving within as he describes it, TM apostle, David Lynch says you can experience the field of silence and bliss and harness the enormous reservoir of energy and intelligence that is deep within all of us. This is exactly what Anisha and I are finding too. TM gives us stillness, serenity, and peace of mind. We discuss other approaches to spiritual awakening with our friends, Dream and Echo, who we met at the Monday classes. We find that they go to Tai Chi on a Tuesday, Angel Readings on Wednesday, Crystal Healing on Thursday, and Astral Projection on Friday. We briefly consider joining Dream and Echo for perhaps one of the extra classes but decide that it would be a mistake to allow our social calendar to become too crowded.

One evening, while Anisha and I are listening to Dolce Droga, I suggest that we buy a baby grand piano and learn to play. I have seen a second hand Yamaha at a reasonable price, I tell her. From Anisha’s reaction, you might think I was suggesting playing an Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers CD.

‘Where would we put it?’ she screams. I can see what she means. It would be a difficult item to hide away.

This is the closest I have seen her to becoming agitated. As a compromise I suggest we might buy a small keyboard instead. She sulks all the way through Giorni Dispari. She is clearly against the idea of anything that takes up surplus space so I do not mention the subject again.

In May, I find I have to go back to the marital home to pick up some important papers. There have been changes. Gary, a soft furnishing salesman Sandy met when she was shopping in the Avarice Retail Park, has moved in. The house now resembles a DFS warehouse, but with all the furniture crowded into about a tenth of the space. The hallway is an obstacle course and the front room barely navigable. I find the clutter deeply upsetting and feel physically sick. I can’t even get into the study to find my papers. Sandy says that she will get Gary to clear some stuff and I can come round again another time. I very nearly stop at The Black Hole Inn on the way home for a Carlsberg Special. Fortunately, the New Age radio station I have taken to listening to while driving puts on a particularly soothing piece by Brian Eno just as I am coming into the car park.

With the arrival of summer, Anisha and I make the decision that we will both work part time so we can enjoy the shade of the Japanese garden through the long afternoons. After all our needs are few, it isn’t as if we need the money. Mindfulness is the key. Through the quiet contemplation offered by the garden, we feel we can harmonise the spirit with the essence of all things. We can in the words of the great Ram Dass, be here now.

This works well through June. Listening to the gentle trickling of the water feature we feel calmer and more centred day by day. The heat of July, however, seems to increase my libido and I find myself wanting to make love more frequently. Anisha is determined to that we should stick to the routine of Wednesday and Saturday evenings. ‘Breaking routine is not healthy,’ she says. One Wednesday evening she insists that it is too hot for any activity and that she wants us to wait until the heatwave has finished before we resume our passions. I consider trying to remind her of what she said earlier about breaking a routine being unhealthy but I let it go. It is never good to have an argument so late in the day.

A couple of evenings later that I feel the urge to go jogging and ask Anisha if she would mind.

‘Jogging,’ she yells. ‘I thought you hated jogging. I suppose you’ll be wanting to listen to experimental jazz next.’

I think it best not to tell her that I have been listening to a Mulatu Astatqe and The Heliocentrics CD in the car.

By way of an apology, I bring Anisha a large spray of blue carnations which I hope might heal the rift. She, in turn, apologises for shouting at me. It seems that things are back on an even keel. That afternoon, we sip valerian tea and listen to the soft cascading of the running water in the garden. The occasional fluted warble of a blackbird provides us with music. We cook a nourishing vegan stir-fry in the wok and settle down to listen to Einaudi. Later that evening, I find that the flowers I bought her have been tidied away.

3:

Before my initial visit to Dr Hopper, I had suffered from all the classic symptoms of stress and paranoia. I was forever anxious that the phone would ring or worrying that the computer might have a virus. Had I installed the latest anti-spyware? Was the firewall up to date? Anisha had steered clear of these things. She wouldn’t even have known what a firewall was or how to send a text message. At home, Sandy and I were always on the go and there was no space. It seemed that we forever waiting for a service engineer to come for one of the electrical items that had gone wrong, or choosing this item from a new range in a catalogue or sending an item back that had been wrongly described at Amazon. The hedges needed clipping or the lawns needed mowing. The house insurance needed updating or the one of the cars’ MOT was due. The HD TV needed retuning because there were fresh channels or we had to go shopping because there was a new coffee jug in House of Fraser. Life was too short for all of this nonsense.

Since my initial de-cluttering and the very first meditation classes, I have been able to think more clearly. Even my early experiences of Einaudi and Rothko in the blue room brought about a positive change in my thought patterns. I have fallen in easily with Anisha’s obsession with harmony and things being in their proper place.

‘Be empty, be still. Watch everything. Just come and go.’ is a favourite piece of Zen wisdom of hers.

With this as my mantra, I have found living in her space calming. I feel safe. I like order and tidiness.

But now and again, I have this nagging feeling that we are missing out on something. Maybe just once in a while, it would be nice to listen to some music that has words. Or occasionally, watch a film. Is there any room for growth with the unremitting stasis of a strict routine and everything in place? Perhaps there is no need to have everything apart from the Rothko prints hidden away out of sight. The incident with the flowers has made me realise that too much is being hidden. Not just around the house, but on a personal level too. There are too many secrets. Perhaps in the months we have been together, Anisha might have opened up a little about her background and her life before we met. What, for instance, has become of her daughter who has gone off to university? She never talks about her and there are no signs of her around the house. I do not even know her name and Anisha has never once mentioned the father. Admittedly I do not talk a great deal about my past, about Sandy, or for that matter Lucy or anyone else before Lucy. And of course, I have no children. But considering all the diving within that we have been doing, it does seem bizarre that so little about Anisha’s past has surfaced. If the relationship is going to continue to work, I have to find a way of bringing things out into the open.

An opportunity arises the next day. I have just finished raking the gravel in the garden into its wave pattern and Anisha has just brought out the Tibetan tea on a flower tray. I decide to try a gentle enquiry.

‘What is your favourite childhood memory?’ I ask.

Anisha looks at me as if I have just rapped her around the head with a rifle butt. …. After I have cleared up the broken cup, I go to find her in the meditation room. By then, she has stopped crying. I put my arms around her and she responds by putting her arms around me and we stay this way for some time.

‘I’m sorry for my outburst,’ she says, finally. ‘Things have just been getting on top of me lately.

I have been wondering for a little while if we might benefit from a holiday. Something to take us out of ourselves. I recall that Dr Hopper singing the praises of Mundesley, a quiet backwater in North Norfolk with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He goes there every year and describes it as the perfect place to relax and be in the present moment. As I massage Anisha’s shoulders, I suggest it. I tell her about Mundesley’s blue flag beach, its rural location, the bordering fields, and its proximity to the picturesque village of Trunch. To my great surprise, she says that she will think about it.

When I get home from work a few days later, Anisha tells me she has been to the doctors. She has never mentioned going to a doctor before and, given her views, I assumed that she had always avoided medical practitioners, preferring instead new age remedies to tackle ailments. I wonder momentarily if she might be pregnant. This might explain her recent mood swings. How would I feel about being a father? I’m not sure. First thoughts are that the wheels on the bus going round and round would put substantial pressure on our minimalist lifestyle.

‘I’ve never told you this but there’s a history in my family of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder,’ Anisha says. ‘So I phoned for an appointment with Dr Bolt at the local practice, but he is on paternity leave, so they gave me an appointment with Dr Hopper. He’s a new doctor, I think. Quite young with green hair. Anyway, he was very understanding and once I had given some background details, he told me that I had nothing to worry about. My behaviour is perfectly normal, exemplary in fact. Rituals are healthy and to be encouraged and that my life sounds very harmonious. He was pleased to hear that I did not overdo the exercise or go jogging.’

I decide there is nothing to be gained by telling her about my earlier visit to Dr Hopper.

‘He approves of Einaudi,’ she continues. ‘In fact, he lent me a new CD. And he feels it is good that I am a vegan. But he told me to be careful of red peppers and red cabbage.’

‘Which we don’t eat anyway,’ I say.

‘He suggests I might need a holiday, a change being as good as a rest. He said he knows just the place and you’d never guess where he goes every year with Mrs Hopper.’

‘No,’ I lie. ‘I probably wouldn’t be able to guess.’

‘Go on! Guess!’ she prompts.

‘All right, Poland.’ I say. It is good to see that she is being playful. The meditative life can be a little intense at times.

‘Now you’re being facetious. They go to Mundesley, in North Norfolk,’ she beams excitedly. ‘Dr Hopper describes it as a quiet backwater with spectacular views and miles of deserted sands. He says he thinks I would enjoy it there. He says that there is a meditation centre nearby and a Reiki practitioner in the village. So, I think we should go. This is synchronicity, don’t you see.’

I agree that it is an astonishing coincidence.

‘How did you hear about Mundesley?’ she asks.

I am prepared for this. ‘My parents used to take me to Cromer,’ I lie. ‘Just a few miles up the coast.’

I go on the internet at the library and do a search on Mundesley to make sure that it is going to be quiet enough for us at the end of September. I discover little of any note happens after the end of the summer holidays. All of the accommodation in the area appears to be vacant and I have no trouble in finding us a small cottage in between Mundesley and Trunch with a super-king sized double bed and a French window which opens out onto the patio. It does not have a TV or a telephone I am told by Margery Gedge when I enquire. And it is, she confides, a long way from a shop, so we would need to bring provisions. It sounds perfect.

4:

The cottage is pretty much as it was described, compact but offering peace and quiet in beautiful scenery. Tranquil and secluded were the favoured terms in the brochure Mrs Gedge sent. The cottage is built of Norfolk flint and has a small flagged patio with a cherry tree. The rooms are small but quite tidy. Even so, Anisha manages to find a few items that need putting away, kitsch ornaments, pictures of boats, and the rubber plant. There is enough room under the stairs for most of the unsightly bric-a-brac, but the glass fronted bookcase with its collection of Danielle Steel and Dick Francis paperbacks does not fit and she has to cover it with a throw. We read through the visitors’ book and notice the cottage had been occupied infrequently over the summer months. Among the comments was one from a Sandy and Gary, saying kitchen poorly equipped, no cappuccino machine and only one microwave. We are briefly taken aback but reading on we notice that this pair are from Essex, so it must be a different Sandy and Gary.

Sadly there is no CD player to play the Debussy CD I bought Anisha for her birthday. Although Debussy is a bit of a departure for her, she seems happy with the present, and she has even read the cover notes about the composer and the pentatonic scale. Having no meditation music in the evening worries Anisha a little at first, but we just cannot face the thought of going to Cromer to buy a player. Cromer would be bustling with fractious shoppers and unruly day trippers, probably a pensioners coach trip or two, and nowhere to park. Instead, we listen to the silence and gaze at the Rothko painting we’ve brought along.

Experimental jazz is not something that I expected to find much of in North Norfolk but on Monday when we are in the store in a nearby village to buy rice and vegetables, I notice a flyer in the window for JazzNorfolk. An experimental jazz workshop is taking place at the Overstrand Parish Hall at 10.30 on Thursday. It is only a small poster that blends in with the rest of the ads in the window so I do not think that Anisha notices it. I realise that it is likely that she would disapprove if I tell her about it and express a wish to go to such a function. Before we came away, I had been playing a Groove Collective CD in the car and began to realise how much I had missed the edgy unpredictability of contemporary jazz. I have not told Anisha of course. I have however managed to introduce Erik Satie into our small repertoire and had slipped in a Ravel piano piece one evening but there is perhaps a long way to go before she stops thinking of radical artists like Groove Collective as the devil’s music.

We fall into a daily ritual of a morning walk along Mundesley’s endless stretches of beach, our bare feet sinking in the soft sand. Apart from the occasional dog walker most days, we have the beach to ourselves. Anisha seems particularly relaxed on the walks and once or twice begins to open up about her past. I discover her daughter’s name was Gaia. She went off to university in Vancouver and is living close to Anisha’s ex-partner, Gideon. Gaia has not replied to any of her letters for nearly a year. Anisha finds this upsetting, which is why she has never mentioned it to me. While it is encouraging that Anisha has started to confide in me, each time I try to dig deeper she clams up. I am only able to find out snippets of information. She once owned a Coventry Eagle bicycle and liked to go cycling in the country. She was a girl guide young leader and had been good at netball. But I still do not know where she grew up or if her parents are alive. This does not bother me I realise as much as it should. I wondered if Anisha’s apparent lack of baggage was not part of the initial attraction. She had no past for me to wrestle with.

As the week goes by, I find myself wanting to go to the experimental jazz workshop more and more. It is so tempting. An opportunity too good to miss. Overstrand is just a mile or two up the coast. The late-night improvisation sessions after hours at Ronnie Scott’s all those years ago go through my head. All you had to do was take along an instrument and you could join in and play some avant-garde jazz. I used to take along my bass clarinet. I was not very good but that didn’t seem to matter. None of the musicians at these sessions would be playing in tune anyway. This was the heyday of free jazz with its contrapuntal tempos, polyrhythmic drumming, honking saxophones, washboards, bass clarinets and muted trumpets. You might get a band made up of two basses, violin, and kazoo. Someone came along one time with a conch shell into which he’d drilled a mouthpiece and played a cracking duet with someone else on musical saw. I remember a composition of mine for slide guitar, clarinet and garden strimmer. My favourite unusual improvised instrument from those sessions was Ronnie Scott’s floor polisher. We had the blues player, Big Bill Broonzy on floor polisher one time with Memphis Slim on hatstand.

All Tuesday and Wednesday, I try to think of a way that I might be able to slip out for a few hours to go to the workshop. Anisha and I do everything together so she is unlikely to go off on her own to the hairdressers or the shops for the day as Sandy might have done. I wonder if I might go on an errand to get some runny honey or some Greek yoghurt and pretend that the car has broken down in Overstrand and that I am waiting for the AA to come. Not that I have a phone to phone the AA, or any means to let Anisha know.

‘I’m just going out to buy you another birthday present,’ I could perhaps say ‘It’s a special surprise.’

Or what about a sudden toothache and the nearest dentist would be in Cromer. Or I could, of course, come right out with it, say I am going to the workshop, and face the consequences.

On Thursday morning, we are pacing briskly along Mundesley beach, bright and early. The wind has turned round to the east and it feels bitterly cold. It is nearly ten o’clock.

‘Not a day for being outside,’ the lone dog walker on the beach called. ‘Come on Tarquin!’

A dishevelled schnauzer stops sniffing the clump of seaweed that has been detaining it and moves on to inspect a piece of driftwood. Anisha and I agree that on a day like this we ought to be indoors and draw our coats around us in a demonstrative shiver.

‘Wind’s coming off the North Sea,’ the dog walker shouts back. ‘It’ll be raining cats and dogs by midday. Leave it, Tarquin!’

We feel a few spots of rain. We quicken our pace until we are almost jogging. Out of the blue, Anisha says ‘ I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we go along to that experimental jazz workshop in Overstrand?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

No Windows

nowindows3

No Windows by Chris Green

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘if I don’t have red paint, then I use blue.’ You have to be able to adapt to changes of fortune. I did not plan my early retirement, but here I am on a Tuesday morning sitting in my recliner with a cup of green tea and a toasted teacake. I am listening to the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. I find Otto Klemperer’s interpretation on this digitally re-mastered recording both heroic and warmly tender.

The phone rings. I wait for it to go on to answer. It doesn’t. It keeps ringing. The caller seems to be determined. I make my way to the study. It is my partner, Amy. She has gone over to her friend Hermione’s house to go over the church flower arranging schedule and is phoning from there.

‘Why didn’t you answer the phone,’ she says. ‘I’ve been trying for ages.’

‘I was out in the garden,’ I lie.

‘We’re having trouble getting on to Hermione’s computer,’ she says.

‘Has she plugged it in?’ I quip. Neither Amy or Hermione are good with computers. Not so long ago I had to explain to Amy that there wasn’t an any key. When Hermione got her PC she thought the DVD ROM drive was a cup holder.

‘Ho, ho,’ she says. ‘Very funny.’

‘What is happening? Does the router need rebooting perhaps?’ I say.

‘The what?’ she says.

‘The router, the box with the flashing lights that gets you on the internet,’ I say.

‘No, no, it’s not that. It hasn’t got that far.’

‘You mean it’s still rebooting?’

‘No it’s not the box, it’s the monitor.’

‘Is the monitor plugged in?’

‘Yes, it’s plugged in, but it’s not working.’

‘Is there a message? What does it say on the screen?’

‘Can’t you turn the music down? I can hardly hear what you are saying,’ she says. It is the end of the first movement. I love the way Klemperer slows it down to realise the full majesty of the symphony. Not many conductors do this. They try to finish the movement at breakneck speed. I tell Amy that there is a quieter passage coming up.

She huffs.

‘There will be a message on the screen to tell you what Windows is doing,’ I say.

‘That’s just it,’ she says. ‘Windows isn’t doing anything. It says Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later.

‘But Windows isn’t something online. It’s resident on the hard drive,’ I say.

‘That’s what it says,’ she says.

I have never come across anything like this message before. It is a real puzzler.

‘It must be a trojan or a virus,’ I say. ‘What has Hermione been doing? Does she keep her firewall and virus checkers up to date?’

‘I shouldn’t think that she knows what they are. I know that I don’t. You always take care of that for me.’

‘Does she go on to any dodgy sites?’ The Andante Con Moto is just starting. This is divine. I am anxious to give my full attention to Beethoven, but I am equally keen to stay married, despite Amy’s shortcomings on IT and her lack of reverence for Ludwig, and her tendency to over-water the succulents.

I hear her asking Hermione about her browsing habits. She comes back to me to say that Hermione uses it mostly for celebrity gossip and gardening tips but sometimes Hermione’s daughter, Autumn goes on to youtube and spotify when she comes to stay.

‘No it won’t be that,’ I say. ‘Look, love, I’ll just fire up the laptop and see if I can find out anything.’

The main theme is just breaking out now. Klemperer handles this with a subtlety and grace that more recent interpreters of the work cannot manage. It is heavenly.

‘I’ll phone you back in five minutes when I’ve checked on google,’ I say.

I lose myself once again in the hymnal resonance of the Andante. It is sublime. Towards the end of the movement, I switch on the laptop. ‘Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later,’ my screen says. How bizarre! How can an operating system that is based in the kernel of the machine be temporarily unavailable? It is either there or not there. Where could this command originate? I try the Esc key and all the Function keys in the hope of Windows starting or resuming. Nothing!

I dig out Lance’s phone number. Lance handles all of my computer problems and upgrades. He is bound to know what is happening. The scherzo is just beginning. I pause it for a moment. I’m not sure Lance likes classical music. He listens to Kings Of Leon and Kasabian. Also, Lance baffles me with a lot of long technical words. He imagines that everyone understands what he is talking about when he talks about digitizers, bots, and crawlers. I listen and just say yes and no in the right places. He usually manages to come up with a solution.

‘Hi Robbie,’ he says. ‘Long time. You got a PC problem too?’

He knows that when I phone him it is not to invite him round for dinner.

‘Something like that, yes,’ I say. ‘I didn’t like the way you said, too’

‘You’re going to tell me that your Windows has gone AWOL aren’t you?’ he says.

‘That’s right,’ I say. How did you know? Hermione’s is the same too. What is happening?’

‘No idea, I’m afraid, mate. And I can’t get online to find out. I’m as mystified as you are. Android is down, and Blackberry is down. Even Palm OS is down. You will probably find that the OS on your mobile has vanished as well.’

I check my Nokia. Lance is right. The phone display just says. ‘No Symbian OS. Consult Your Nokia Dealer.’ Not that I use it much anyway. I preferred them when you just used them to make phonecalls. You don’t really need them to watch the sky at night or set the timer on the oven.

‘I’m going to check with my mate, Jago, to see if iOS, the Apple platform is down too,’ says Lance. ‘But I’d put good money on it being down.’

It occurs to me that I don’t use the computer that much either. I research family history sometimes go on ebay, but I don’t do twitter and Facebook or anything like that. My emails are nearly all spam. And I have to spend hours keeping the bloody thing updated. It would not be the end of the world if it did not work for a while. I suppose I had my fill of computers when I used to work for the civil service, before the accident. These days I prefer to read a good book.

Amy is not pleased with my progress report. She is used to my being able to fix things. She feels I should be able to work some kind of magic.

‘How are we going to work out the church rotas and what about the parish magazine that Hermione produces? Its due at the end of the week and she hasn’t started.’

‘I’m sure it will be sorted out soon,’ I say.

I’m not sure, of course. In fact I have a bad feeling about this. It does not seem an everyday kind of issue. We seem to be talking macro, not micro here. I wonder if there might be more important matters than Hermione’s church magazine that are affected.

Amy and I have not had that much to do with our neighbours. We don’t like the late night comings and goings and their noisy summer barbecues. We have regular conversations about how we can get them to move. It is a surprise, therefore, to find Guy Bloke on the doorstep.

‘Eh oop,’ he says. ‘Just wondering if you were having any problems with your telly, like.’

Like what, I am thinking. It is not snobbery or a North-South thing, or even a prejudice about the way his belly hangs over his trousers. Some people just don’t come across well and Guy is one of them. Why isn’t he at work anyway? Has he lost his job?

‘Only our telly is saying that it doesn’t work anymore,’ he continues.

‘Is that what it says?’ I ask. ‘On the screen……. like.’

‘What it actually says is we are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error, whatever that is when it’s at home.

I wait for him to add, like. He does not. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I hope that ours is working because they are screening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at the Proms tonight with that new Ukrainian conductor, whose name I can never pronounce. Do you know the one I mean?’

Guy doesn’t. I imagine he is thinking of buses in years gone by.

Guy clearly wants me to check ours. I invite him in and I turn on the new 42 inch internet TV that Amy insisted we buy to watch the new series of Cranford.

‘We are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error,’ the display says. I press a series of buttons but the message stays on the screen. The internet button displays ‘unable to connect with operating system, please try again later’

After Guy has left, I put on Einaudi’s Una Mattina, to calm myself. As I drift off to Ludovico’s soft piano, I try to put cares aside. I settle into the pranayama breathing technique that my acupuncturist, Li taught me during my course of treatment. I let the haunting hypnotic melodies wash over me with gentle waves of calm. I visualise white temples and imagine clouds drifting gently across the summer sky. Conjure of images of country lanes and babbling books. By the penultimate track of the album, Nuvoli Bianche, a melody even Ludwig would have been dazzled by, I am suitably chilled. Computers and mobile phones are but a distant memory lost in the mists of time.

During Ancore, the final track, Amy blusters in, bringing with her chaos and uncertainty. I obey her unspoken command to turn the music down.

‘Waitrose is closed because the tills aren’t working, and I couldn’t get any money out of the ATM because they are not working either,’ she screams. ‘And, they tell me that you can’t get petrol, although there is a big queue at the pumps of people who haven’t realised it yet.’

‘Calm down, dear.’

‘And, on the way back from the supermarket the traffic lights through the town had stopped working and there was a tailback after an accident on the roundabout so I had to take a detour and I got lost and the satnav’s not working. What’s going on?’

‘It’ll probably all be back to normal later.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘It’s just a blip, I’m sure’

‘And now the phones aren’t working either.’

‘But we spoke to each other on the phone earlier.’

‘Well! They’re not working now. Try it!’ She hurls the headset across the room at me. Fortunately, it misses.

‘I suppose phones need an operating system too. Everything’s digital these days, you see.’

‘How can you be so calm. With your head in your music as if nothing has happened.’

‘But nothing has happened, dear. The world’s still spinning. We’re still here.’

‘Is that your answer. Well! I’m glad the world’s not digital too. That’s all I can say.’

There is no TV, so there will be no broadcast news. Also, there will be no newspapers. I speculate as to what the emphasis of the stories they would be running with might be, as the country, indeed the whole world grinds to a halt. The redtops might be talking about the looting taking place with stores closed given the absence of CCTV, Facebook withdrawal syndrome and the postponement of the Got Talent final. The broadsheets might be saying what might happen with satellites spinning out of orbit, the collapse of the world’s financial system, and the pollution of the water supply. The Daily Mail would be banging on about the potential rise in immigration, given the lack of border controls. The Express, of course, would be unchanged. It would have a story about Diana’s death or new hope for finding Maddie on the front page, no matter what crisis is looming in the real world.

We live on a fairly quiet suburban street and people tend to keep themselves to themselves. We are not what you would consider a community. Each has his own separate interest group outside of the estate. There are few common interests. On our street, we get a handful of dog walkers, mostly in the morning and the evening, but otherwise very few people walking up and down. You become accustomed to the gentle trickle of traffic throughout the day. Periodically there is a delivery van. The houses all have driveways and there is no street parking. From the bay window, you get a good view of the street in both directions. It is unusual to see people gathering outside as they are this afternoon. By about 3pm, a sizeable group has gathered outside the Bassetts at number 42 and all seem to be talking over each other or gesticulating wildly. Around these parts a dozen people together in one place constitutes a riot. Having settled our differences, Amy and I go out to investigate. It is not hard to guess what has brought the assembly together.

Other than Julian and Debbie Bassett, we do not know many of the gathering by name, so we introduce ourselves. We are introduced in turn to Duncan Boss, Kirstin Canada, Dorsey Johansen, Cornelia Hawes, Rolf and Masie Harrison, Daryl and Bonita Callender, Mohandas and Maya Joshi, Tilda Bolton, and Mr and Mrs Stover. Assorted children belonging to the assembled and who have been sent home from school come and go.

No-one has any actual information about what has caused the catastrophe. Opinions range from an alien attack to the a blip in earth’s magnetic field. Duncan Boss thinks it is a scam by Microsoft and Apple to get more money from users. Kirstin points out that her open source Linux system has lost its operating system too.

‘I can’t even start my Mercedes,’ says Cornelia.

‘All the on-board gadgets,’ laughs Dorsey. ‘My Mondeo’s fine.’

‘We were booked on a flight to Dehli,’ says Mohandas.

‘Even The Gordon Bennett is closed,’ says Daryl, who having been given the day off work was keen to get a lunchtime pint with his friends.

‘Good thing too,’ says Bonita, under her breath. She would like his attentions to be on her.

‘Doesn’t anyone remember how life used to be before computers and mobile phones?’ asks Tilda.

‘We were still able to find out what was going on from the newspapers,’ says Dorsey.

‘Depends which newspapers you read,’ says Rolf.

‘Before newspapers, callers ran from city to city, town to town, shouting out the latest news,’ says Mr Stover. ‘Before that, jesters brought news about a recent conquest or disaster in song.’ Mr Stover, we discover, teaches History.

‘But only to royalty, of course,’ suggests Mrs Stover. ‘Commoners were kept in the dark.’ Mrs Stover, we discover, teaches Sociology.

‘I can remember the three day week coming in,’ says Guy Bloke, who has decided to join us. ‘My dad said, I’m not working an extra day for anyone.’

No one laughs.

Our gathering builds as more residents come along to attempt to find out what has turned their lives upside down. More speculative guesses are aired. Perhaps it is a new terrorist group. The Illuminati maybe. Might it be GCHQ? Having worked at the base, I keep quiet on this one.

Grange Road has not to my knowledge ever held a street party. Even the Queen’s Golden Jubilee passed by without teasing out community spirit. By eight o’clock, though, there is something of a party going down here. People have brought barbecues out to the street along with bottles of wine and cans of beer. I wonder if maybe the off licence has been looted. Some musicians have brought along guitars and we are having a singsong. The hardships of digital communication are being buried under a new festival spirit. Is that a piano that Julian and Debbie Bassett are wheeling out? Who could imagine that a gathering of relative strangers who just a few hours ago had been stressed out and despondent could be so carefree?

Our gatherings we are told are being replicated everywhere. A make do and mend mindset is spreading as people realise they are going to need to be more resourceful, but forty eight hours on, there is still no explanation for the technological failure. Digital radio, which might have helped to spread news in emergencies is of course off the air and FM and AM were closed down just a few months ago, a move primarily aimed at selling digital radios. The move, like many things changed under the label of progress, is beginning to look a little short sighted. The maxim, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it went out the window years ago. Nowadays it is more like if it isn’t broke it will be soon.

The initial release from responsibility is turning back once more to a sense of concern. The problems are becoming apparent. The supermarkets are closed and food supplies are running out. There are no planes or trains because the services are tied into central computer systems and road transport and private motoring are being run down because the lack of fuel. It may be in the pumps but no-one has worked out how to dispense it without the help of computers. With container ships navigation systems affected too, there is a lot of potential for disaster. Given the complete absence of global communication, Amy is worried about Emily in Florida and Justin in Australia. I keep telling her they work in safe environments. Emily works in design at Disneyland and Justin is a cricketer. It’s not like they are in the Everglades or the Outback. They can look after themselves.

Amy seems to have grown tired of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps I play it too often, but I can’t help it. Alfred Brendel’s elegant fingerwork is a delight.

‘I’m going down to the allotment,’ she says. ‘I noticed that the Bassetts were putting the canes up in the back garden for their runner beans earlier. We’re probably all going to need to grow vegetables, you know.’

The Largo in E Major is beginning. The solo piano opening is divine, an oasis in a sea of calm. ‘I’ll pop along later, love, if that’s all right,’ I say.

‘I understand you can’t do a lot of digging with your leg,’ she says. ‘I’ll get Hermione to come and help me turn the ground over.’

‘Is this to make me feel bad?’ I wonder. We took up the allotment last year before the incident and now it is overgrown with weeds. I have not been able to do much to it because of my leg. Twelve months on, I still get nightmares about the episode, sometimes in the middle of the day. It is not an experience you can put away in a drawer and forget about. I had finished my shift. I was coming home from work. Two men dressed in police-style fatigues grabbed me and bundled me into the back of a black Nissan Qashqai, not far from the base. I think they mistook me for someone else, someone higher up. At the lights at the Harry Palmer roundabout going out of town, I managed to open the back door and make a run for it. The first bullet shattered the bone in the upper leg and embedded itself in the flesh. The second bullet caught me in the back of the head and travelled the length of the left side of my brain and exited through the front of my head. I was in hospital for over a month, undergoing one procedure after another. As a result of the first bullet, I walk with a limp. They are still not sure of the extent of the brain damage from the second bullet, but it was enough though for the grandees to retire me from the service as a security risk. My abductors have never been apprehended.

Amy returns from the digging. She says that there were dozens of others down there getting their vegetables in. It was like a community event.

‘One thing was a bit odd, though.’ she says. ‘There was a large typed notice on the notice board which just said, ‘You have less time than you think.’

‘That’s all it said. Nothing about who it was from or anything?’

‘No! That’s all it said. What do you think it could mean?’

Mysteries are multiplying, answers are absent in this windowless world. ‘It is best not to think about it,’ I tell her.

We have a quiet evening listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata interrupted only by Guy Bloke wanting to borrow our strimmer so that he can start tomorrow on his vegetable patch. During the final notes of Ashkenazy’s strident arpeggios, the power suddenly goes off. I have been half expecting this. After all, the electricity grid must be centrally controlled and need a computer system. We content ourselves with an early night. I read Sir George Solti’s biography by candlelight and Amy reads The Self Sufficiency Handbook.

In the morning, we find a flyer on the door mat. It just says cryptically, Time is Running Out. Over the next hour or so we discover that everyone has had exactly the same one pushed through their letterbox and no has seen anyone delivering them. Normally you might think this was a prank, or Jehovah’s Witnesses announcing the end of the world once again. Not given present circumstances. We gather once again on the street to share our concerns.

We get occasional reports from places within easy reach, but word from farther afield is thin on the ground. Herschel Fowey and Scotch Jim, two radio enthusiasts live locally. Unfortunately, both might be considered as questionable sources, what might be seen in literary circles as unreliable narrators.

Herschel Fowey is a retired naval radio officer. He lives at the end of our street. He is the one with the Union Flag in his front garden. Herschel is old school. He still has non digital transmitters and receivers and a shed full of car batteries. He delivers his news with a megaphone from his bedroom window. He tells us that both his man, Ho in China and Nehru in India have gone off the air, since this morning. He does not know what has happened, but their last messages were anxious ones. He is still in touch with Eli in Tel Aviv and Abdul in Baghdad. Both are reporting tension and unrest. Nothing is coming from Ivan in Moscow but is often the case, he says. We can only hope that no news is good news. In my opinion, Herschel Fowey does not have a clue what day it is, let alone what might be behind the global OS outage.

Scotch Jim is not really Scottish. He isn’t even called Jim. No-one is sure how he got his moniker. He dresses like a cold war spy, dark raincoat with the collar turned up and lots of pockets and oversized thick rimmed glasses. Addressing a gathering of locals, he tells us he picks up messages from agents in the field on his bank of shortwave sets. He is not a great speaker. Some are drifting away. He recognises me, we have passed the time of day on occasions. He comes over to talk to me.

‘You have experience of this sort of thing, don’t you?’ he says. ‘You used to work at the spy base. Now, I’ve got lots of receivers but only got one pair of ears. You speak German or Italian, I expect.’

‘A bit rusty on both, I’m afraid,’ I tell him. ‘My main source of both languages is centred around musical terms.’

‘Never mind, better than nothing.’

‘I don’t like to leave Amy alone in the house.’

‘It will do you good to get out for a bit,’ says Amy, who has been listening. ‘And anyway, Hermione and I will be down at the allotment. We’re going to put the runner beans and spinach in.’

I wonder if Amy is trying to distract herself because she is worried that there is no news about Justin and Emily, but I do not want to draw attention to this. Australia and Florida do seem further away with each day that passes. I give her a hug and say I will see her later.

I don’t particularly want to accompany Scotch Jim but I can’t think of any other excuses. I’ve got to finish reading Sir George Solti’s biography might seem a bit selfish.

Scotch Jim’s flat is an emporium of junk. It is as if he has spent his life at car boots and jumble sales with the odd afternoon raiding antique shops and recycling centres. The main room is given over entirely to radio gadgetry. Antennae hang out of both sash windows. Lining three walls, from floor to ceiling are stacks of 1950s style valve radio equipment. Amongst a sea of static, echoing voices chatter away in an atlas of different languages. For some reason with the whistles and hisses, a lot of them sound Scandinavian.

‘Take a seat,’ he says. I can’t see a chair or anything, so I plonk myself down on an old box radio and survey the bank of receivers in front of me. The room is sweltering. I take off my jacket and unbutton my shirt.

‘It’s all the valves giving off the heat,’ says Jim. ‘You will get used to it.’ He still has his overcoat on.

It is difficult to describe what is taking place here. We monitor crackly voices coming out of the sets. The voices might be coming from another dimension or from the afterlife for all the sense they are making. Periodically Scotch Jim will say, ‘Sweden has gone’ or ‘I’ve just lost Helsinki’ or ‘are you getting anything from Rome?’ Rome says stiamo arrivando alla fine, or something. I have no idea what it means. I think fine might mean end.

The fumes from the generator beneath the window are making me feel nauseous. What on earth am I doing here? The guy is nuts.

One of the remaining shortwave transmissions is in German. I can’t make out anything that is being said. Fritz is probably not talking about classical music. Another is French. I could be wrong, but the French one seems to be talking about food. Le dernier repas, something about supper.

‘We are now left with just Germany and France,’ Jim says.

‘I think I’ve got that,’ I say, showing a little exasperation. ‘Why is this? What is happening?’

‘I was hoping you might be able to tell me, with your experience at the base and everything.’

Why is there this automatic assumption because I worked at the so-called spy base that I was some kind of secret agent? My job was to manage metadata. This involved me sitting in front of a screen making sure international internet traffic was mirrored properly and that there were no blockages in the pipe. While I am still subject to The Official Secrets Act, I can say that I never once got to see any of the data that was being gathered and I certainly did not take part in clandestine undercover work in the field or have a licence to kill.

‘I don’t think that I was in that particular section,’ I tell him, for simplicity.

I can’t help but bring to mind Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, where a group of people in Australia, maybe some of them cricketers, await the arrival of deadly radiation that is spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere.

‘Look! It’s getting late,’ I say. ‘I’m going to get back and see how Amy is.’

‘I think that we’ve just lost Germany,’ he says, as another transmission turns to static.

Amy says she is pleased with her work at the allotment, but I can sense something is wrong. She starts to talk about when Justin and Emily were little and we used to take them down round to grandpa’s piece of land where there was an old blue tractor and a rusty brown water pump. And a timber summer house full of chickens and cats. How they used to get excited by the runner beans growing up the canes and have snail races along the flagstones. There is a tear in her eye.

Suddenly, I cannot hear what she is saying, Her mouth is moving, but no words are coming out. I try to speak, but my utterances too are silent. Time is running out. I can no longer see outside. It is as if there are no windows. I glance at the clock. Its says 11:59. Is this it?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

Bunny Boiler

bunnyboiler

Bunny Boiler by Chris Green

I hadn’t seen Glen Manley for nearly twenty years, so it was a bolt out of the blue to find him in front of me at the checkout at Sainsburys. When I had last seen him, he had said that he and Sadie were moving to France. They had inherited some land in the Medoc. Before his fatal accident Sadie’s father, Gaston Chevalier had been a name in the equestrian world, bloodlines and the like. I got the impression that Glen was seduced by this opportunity for social advancement.

Over the years, I had thought of Glen occasionally, well to be honest more than occasionally, but only as a distant star in my firmament. We had had a tempestuous affair when we were in our early twenties. I had nearly moved in with him, before I found out he was also sleeping with my friend, Louise. But all this happened a long time ago. Water under the bridge and all that. While I would not say that I had carried a torch, I did have a soft spot for him.

At first, I was not sure that it was him and had to do a double-take. I did not want to embarrass myself. He had put on a few pounds and had a little less hair, but I have to say, he still looked hunky in his checked shirt. Perhaps he had taken up sports or something. Not that he was the sporty type when I knew him. We used to smoke dope in his flat and listen to The Joshua Tree and Appetite for Destruction. We went to see Gaye Bikers On Acid and Pop Will Eat Itself at a festival in Finsbury Park, I recalled. Bands seemed to have more anarchic names back then. I couldn’t see either of these getting on The X Factor.

As Glen was loading his wine onto the belt, I took the opportunity to strike up a conversation.

‘Having a party, Glen?’ I said. ‘Am I invited?’

He turned around and for a second or two looked spooked. You do not always recognise someone immediately when they appear out of context. I could practically hear the cerebral activity that was taking place behind those sparkling brown eyes as he struggled to identify me. I was worried for a moment that I too had put on a few pounds.

‘My God! Heather, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘Hey, it’s great to see you.’

‘You’re looking well,’ I said, looking him up and down, mostly down I’m ashamed to say.

‘Well, you know,’ he said. ‘You have to make an effort. None of us are getting any younger.’

‘How’s Sadie?’ I said, as a follow-up, hoping I wasn’t being too transparent by my tone. My own long term relationship with Pete was at the stage where you might describe it on social media as ‘it’s complicated’. Of course, I wanted Glen to say that Sadie was history. He was enjoying being a bachelor again, could he take me out for dinner sometime. But this is not what he came out with.

Perhaps the bouquet of flowers he was unloading from his trolley should have provided a clue, but there could have been a number of explanations for these. I could not have known that Sadie had been in hospital. How the conversation might have progressed without my faux pas is hard to say but I’m certain that it closed its scope a little. He told me they had sold up in France when Sadie became ill and I told him I had two grown up children, Charles and Eddie.

‘Eddie is a girl by the way,’ I said. ‘Anyway, they have both gone off to university, to opposite ends of the country. To get away from me, I think.’ Did it seem like I was inviting him to come round, I wondered? I hadn’t mentioned Pete at all in the conversation

‘See you later,’ he said all too casually after he had packed away his shopping.

Although it seemed on the surface that he couldn’t wait to get away, this only served to hide his embarrassment at feeling attracted to me. It was clear to me that he was fighting it. I could see it in his body language. I only had a few items and I left the store just in time to catch a glimpse of him driving off in his black Audi. He had a personalised number plate, 6LEN. An easy one to remember.

While I assumed that as Glen was shopping locally so he must live close by, I didn’t imagine that I’d see the car again so soon. The following day, I found myself behind him at the London Road traffic lights. He did not see me in my grey Focus. He seemed to be playing with the controls of his in-car hi-fi or whatever it is that men do to relieve the boredom when they are stopped at lights. I pulled the sunshade down anyway. I thought it would be interesting to follow him to see where he was heading. I did not know what he did these days for a living, so I used my imagination about what he might be up to. I followed him several blocks keeping a discreet distance, during which time he was a film director, a stockbroker, a heart surgeon, a cabinet minister and a spy. Perhaps he might be too conspicuous to be a spy, driving an Audi with a cherished number plate. In fact, all these ideas were a bit frivolous, Glen had always been an opportunist, what you might call a fly by night. I couldn’t see him putting in the hours for a professional career.

Along Albion Road he signalled to pull in and I too pulled in, several vehicles behind him. He got out and a woman in a floral printed dress got out of a red sports car a little ahead of him and came towards him. I was shocked to see how he greeted his new friend. A passionate kiss in broad daylight by the side of the road, and off they went off arm in arm. He was cheating on Sadie and with her only just out of hospital. What a cad! This must have been who the flowers were for. The lavish arrangement had seemed altogether too vibrant for a get well soon bouquet.

It is difficult to explain why but there is something attractive about a blackguard. Since time immemorial women have fallen for absolute swine, and it seemed I was no exception. Glen’s apparent profligacy only added to his appeal. I was smitten. Maybe it was visceral or maybe it was hormonal, but I found I couldn’t stop thinking about him. I found it difficult to concentrate on anything. Several times a day at work I forgot what I was meant to be doing. I would forget who I was talking to on the phone and have to ask. My work colleagues remarked that I seemed distracted, what I needed was a girls night out. I told them I didn’t think that was what I needed. They laughed. My boss, Michelle called me in to ask if anything was wrong. The enquiry over, the meeting turned into more of a dressing down.

‘Blue Heaven is a niche PR company,’ she said. ‘We can’t have our representatives calling important clients Glen, when they are not called Glen.’

‘I was just having a bad hair day,’ I said. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘That was Vaughan Conti of Conti and Conti you realise. This is a six-figure contract.’

‘Shall I send him and email to apologise?’ I said.

‘I think you should take a few days leave to sort things out,’ she said. ‘Go away somewhere to clear your head. The Cotswolds are very nice at this time of year.’

With time on my hands, I found myself thinking of Glen more and more. I read Fifty Shades of Grey in the garden and it turned into Fifty Shades of Glen. When Pete and I made love, which wasn’t often these days, I found myself fantasising about Glen taking me in the back seat of his car or roughly over the kitchen table. Sometimes he would tie me up and sometimes he would let me tie him up.

By following his car in my anonymous looking grey Focus, I found out that Glen lived in a barn conversion just out of town. There were not many cars on the road, so even in the Ford, I had to keep a safe distance. I made several visits to Grange Rustique see what I could find out. The salmon pink Mini that was always parked outside was presumably Sadie’s. My National Trust binoculars came in useful. I was able to keep an eye on the place for hours. Sadie didn’t go out at all, but then if you are still convalescing, you would want to take it easy at home.

I also discovered Glen worked at a construction site. He wasn’t a brickie or an electrician or anything like that. He went to work smartly dressed and seemed to come and go as he pleased. He was project manager or site manager or whatever these are called. They were building a new block of bespoke luxury apartments called Kensington Towers which the hoarding said would be ready for Christmas.

While finding out his phone number was easy, finding him on Facebook proved to be a little harder. There were a number of Glen Manleys so it took me a while to find the right one. His profile picture showed him on the beach in a white T shirt. It might have been taken a few years ago but he did look yummy. There were a number of other photos. I scrolled through them. None of them showed Sadie. I was encouraged by this. He had 104 Facebook friends. I didn’t recognise any of the names. Sadie, it seemed didn’t use Facebook, which I thought was unusual because often it is the other way around. A lot of my friends spent hours on Facebook while their husbands or partners didn’t bother with it. Pete had never shown an interest in it. He referred to it as wastebook. The joke was by now wearing a little thin.

I noticed that Glen’s musical tastes had changed. He now liked downtempo and sensual lounge music. I tried listening to Lemongrass and De Phazz on youtube and found to my surprise that I liked them too. I had not heard much of this type of thing. It didn’t get on to Radio 2 playlists and at home Pete usually played Bruce Springsteen or Eric Clapton. I also found Goldfrapp and Thievery Corporation and some of Glen’s other choices to my taste. These were promising signs for our blossoming relationship. Soon we would be going to dimly lit jazz clubs and taking off to the coast for dirty weekends. Later on depending on how things went I might even get to boil his bunny. I began to look up rabbit recipes on my iphone. Delia Smith made a delicious rabbit pie. I also found that Mary Berry’s recipes included a sumptuous rabbit stew.

I arranged to meet my friend Azora for coffee. Azora was a psychologist and we had known each other for about ten years. She knew that I was prone to occasional flights of fancy. She would be able to put my situation in perspective. Over cappuccino and caramel cake at Carluccio’s I shared my news.

‘You were lovers twenty years ago, Wow,’ she said.

‘Probably nearer thirty years, come to think of it,’ I said, calculating how long I’d been with Pete and considering Charles and Eddie’s ages.

‘And this old flame, this blast from the past is still hunky?’

‘He’s divine. He’s aged well,’ I said. ‘He’s like that Italian actor, you know the one I mean.’

‘Sylvester Stallone?’

‘No, definitely not Sylvester Stallone. The one who was in La Dolce Vita.’

‘Before my time, I’m afraid, sweetie,’ said Azora laughing.

‘Marcello Mastroianni’

‘And this Glen knows all about your ….. fascination.’

‘Not exactly, but he will soon. I think perhaps when we met in the supermarket he was just shy.’

‘He doesn’t sound shy. What about this other woman?’

‘I don’t know about her yet. I think that’s the next thing I have to do.’

‘My advice is steer clear,’ said Azora, ‘but I suppose you know what you are doing.’

Psychologist, she may have been, but I don’t think that Azora really understood what I felt. So, I didn’t tell her I had made a few silent calls from my anonymous number just to hear his voice. More often than not though my calls went straight on to voicemail.

Sadie was absent from Glen’s social media circles, but I could not see Glen’s new friend amongst his Facebook friends or photos either. Maybe she too didn’t bother. Or was Glen trying to keep their relationship secret? Perhaps she too was married. I phoned Blue Heaven and told Michelle I needed a few more days off. I had taken a turn for the worse I told her and I was about to go to the doctors. I bought some large black sunglasses and a floppy hat and used the time to tail Glen. I became very good at concealing the Focus in parking spaces between other grey cars. Whether they were marketed as wilderness, windspray, evening haze or monument about half the cars on the street were grey. I also became adept at following two cars behind him once I had an idea where he might be heading. Tailing someone it turned out was remarkably easy. Whenever he stopped I took photos with the generous zoom on my pocket Nikon.

Several times he left the construction site to go to an address in Chelsea Square. He stayed for two to three hours. I assumed he was visiting his new friend. Perhaps she wasn’t married. Or perhaps she was married and they used this apartment as their love nest. I felt hurt but at the same time, I felt excited. It was as if it were my own secret tryst, as if I were alone with Glen. I fantasised about what this would be like, trying to arouse sense memories from our time together.

Each time Glen visited Chelsea Square the front door would be opened by the entryphone mechanism and I could see suspicious movement behind a window on the ground floor. After this, the Venetian blind was drawn. On my third visit I plucked up my courage and crept up to the window and peered in through a small gap in the slats.

What I saw was not what I had expected to see. Glen was in a steamy embrace with a different woman. This was not his new friend, this was a new new friend. The man was shameless. Just like he had cheated on me all those years ago, he was still cheating. He was cheating on his cheat. My shock at my discovery, however, was tempered with excitement. If I planned things right I figured I could be next. After I had followed him back home, I booked myself in at Wax Factor for a complete beauty treatment and Hair Today for a style overhaul. Next time he went to the supermarket for his wine I would be there in all my finery. He would not be able to resist.

After my hairdresser, Aria had told me about her holiday in St Lucia, she asked me if I had any holidays planned and we got into a conversation about Glen.

‘It’s a shame you can’t take a course in being a mistress,’ she said. ‘Then you’d be able to see how to get the best from the situation.’

I told her I didn’t think I needed a course. I knew what I was doing.

‘A friend of my brother’s says he thinks of women like library books,’ she said. ‘He takes one out for a couple of weeks, returns her and takes another out.’

‘Then I’ll need to make sure that Glen wants to renew me,’ I said.

Aria told me to be careful.

At the supermarket, Glen was putting the Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon into his trolley, when I surprised him.

‘I prefer Merlot,’ I said. ‘Had you thought of that?’

‘Heather,’ he said. ‘Wow, babe. You look fantastic. Are you going somewhere nice?’

‘Only if you are taking me somewhere nice,’ I said.

He seemed to fiddle with the loose change in his trouser pocket while he thought it over. ‘I can’t right now,’ he said finally. ‘But we could meet up for a drink later, if you are not doing anything, that is.’

I was not doing anything. I gave him my number. I had already written it out on some scented notepaper.

We went out to dinner and before I knew it we were spending long weekends away, during which he took me to clubs I thought I was much to old for to listen to music I thought I was much too conventional for. We made love in ways that I had never dreamt possible. One time he even took me to his house. I said that I did not think it was a good idea, what about Sadie? He just said that it would be all right. At the house, the salmon coloured Mini was gone and there was no sign of Sadie. I wondered where she might be. Had she gone way perhaps to convalesce? Had she even been in hospital? It was not that Glen lied about her during any of our clandestine meetings, he never once mentioned her. The only time that he had spoken about her was in Sainsbury’s that first time. Each time I brought her name into the conversation, he changed the subject. He did not mention any of his new friends either and of course I could not tell him I knew about them. He never referred to our relationship of old, or to Louise who he had dumped me for all those tears ago. The past it seemed was taboo.

Azora phoned me. I suspect that she had an inkling that I hadn’t followed her advice.

‘How’s it going? she said. ‘How’s Marcello Mastroianni shaping up?’

‘It’s going well,’ I said. ‘Everything’s fantastic between us. Glen opens new doors for me.’

‘I’m pleased to hear that,’ she said. ‘As you know, I had my doubts.’

‘But it does look as if Pete might be moving out,’ I said, giving her something to work with. Psychologists don’t like it if you don’t have a problem. ‘We haven’t spoken for days and he’s packing things in boxes.’

‘That’s a shame,’ she said. ‘You’ve been together a long time.’

‘We haven’t been happy together for years,’ I said. ‘My affair just gave us the excuse to take the next step.’

‘But your Italian stallion is married too, isn’t he? What has happened there?’ said Azora.

‘Its a mystery. He doesn’t talk about her,’ I said. ‘It does seem a little odd, I know, but he doesn’t acknowledge the past at all.’

‘Sounds dangerous to me,’ she said. ‘I do hope you know what you are doing, Heather’

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘I’ve got it all under control.’

I hadn’t.

Towards the end of our third weekend away, an idyllic couple of days soaking up the sun in Brighton, I sensed that Glen was nearing his boredom threshold. Not only was he was eyeing up all the girls on the beach, he was making secret phonecalls. On our last night there he disappeared in the middle of the night and next morning at breakfast refused to say where he had been. He smelt too of an unfamiliar perfume. It confirmed all my suspicions that I was dealing with a pathological philanderer. He was always moving forward, planning ahead. To my chagrin when we had gone to the house, there had been no sign that he kept rabbits or pets of any sort. I also felt it was unlikely that I would get another invitation to Grange Rustique. I would have to think of another way to wreak my revenge.

The billboard wasn’t originally my idea, but I was surprised by just how many revenge websites there were to offer suggestions. Working in PR, I had built up a network of creative contacts, so it was easy to get a forty-eight by fourteen feet design made up. Glen was so narcissistic, photos of him were plentiful. I was spoiled for choice as I also had an array of secret shots to pick from. I chose a head and shoulders portrait. THIS MAN IS A DIRTY LYING CHEAT WITH A SMALL PENIS in bold red type looked quite dramatic beside it on a white background. Within days, there were three hundred billboards over five counties telling this to the world. The best of it was that I managed to pay for the whole set with his credit card.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

GHOST

ghost

GHOST by Chris Green

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

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

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

Still, Dad showed no surprise.

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

‘Uhu.’

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

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

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

‘Uhu.’

‘So I ran away as well.’

‘Good thinking, lad.’

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

‘Uhu.’

‘But this fellow’s sooooo old, Dad.’

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

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

‘Uhu.’

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

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

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

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

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

‘Oh, no reason, son.’

…………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………………………

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

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Little by Little

Created with GIMP

Little by Little by Chris Green

It is said that everyone who looks into their family history will sooner or later discover a deep dark secret, some unexpected turn of events. Time is a slippery customer. There are inherent dangers in unearthing the past. You never know what you might find. Perhaps the past should be left where it belongs. Didn’t Lara realise that with a surname like De’Ath, there might be some skeletons in her cupboard? Or worse? There might be no skeletons in her cupboard.

In her defence, since Who Are You?, the television series revealing celebrities’ family trees, everyone seemed to be looking into their ancestry. It was practically all they talked about at the office where Lara worked. Her colleagues, Holly, Polly, Siobhan and Trudi chattered endlessly about the new revelations from the programme, this giving them an opening to relate what they had found out about their own family trees through an array of genealogy websites.

Although Lara’s colleagues all wanted to feel they had uncovered hidden secrets, in the big scheme of things, their backgrounds were nothing to get excited about. Grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed in various bygone conflicts, immigrant great uncles and the odd wayward philanderer from Southern Europe. Siobhan’s maternal great-grandmother was an unwitting bigamist and Holly’s great-great-grandfather was a circus performer in pre-Soviet Russia. Over a number of generations, these were the kind of anomalies you might expect to spring up in a family tree. Trudi, in particular, had gone a long way back and found that she was distantly related to someone in the court of Henry the Eighth.

Who Are You? on the other hand, had delivered some major bombshells. Angus McReedy, the bearded host of The Great British Fry Up had found out that he was the rightful king of Scotland. Kirsty Banker, the well turned out presenter of the popular travel programme on Sunday nights had found out that her grandfather was thought to be Jack the Ripper. Kirsty had, by all accounts, tried to stop the programme from going out but Channel 6 held her to her contract. The revelation about her background was gold dust, especially as Kirsty worked for the BBC.

You ought to find out about your heritage, Lara,’ said Holly. ‘Probably time better spent than going on all those dating sites.’

How’s all of that going?’ Polly asked, vaguely suspecting that it might not be going well. Lara hadn’t mentioned her dates very much of late.

Ah, yes. What happened with …… Leon, wasn’t it?’ Holly asked.

Leon! Huh! Leon was typical,’ said Lara. ‘He described himself as a debonair thirty-something with prospects but turned out to be haggard-looking forty-something with halitosis. None of them seems to match their description. If they say they are in sales or marketing, they probably sell scratch cards outside the railway station. Tall, dark and handsome usually means portly and five feet four, sporty means has a mountain bike in the shed, and good sense of humour means he expects you to sit with him watching repeats of Dad’s Army. I think you are right, Polly. It is a waste of time.’

You’re not even thirty yet, Lara’ said Siobhan, comfortingly. ‘There’s plenty of time. The right man will come along. Meanwhile, you should find out who you are. Where you came from.’

She was thirty yet, in fact, she was thirty-two, but Lara took Holly’s comments aboard. Lately, she had become curious as to where her roots lay. She knew very little about her family’s background. Her father disappeared when she was young and her mother was always very tight-lipped about the past. Her mother had never called herself De’Ath, preferring her own name, Wilson. Wendy Wilson. Lara often wondered why this was but with the atmosphere at home being strained most of the time, never got around to asking. As there was no professional reason for keeping her own name, Lara assumed that it was either because of the connotations of the name De’Ath or that they probably had never actually been married. She could not remember any talk of a divorce. Since her mother died several years ago from a rare blood disease, and Lara had no brothers or sisters, there was now no way of finding out.

On her father’s side, Lara had nothing to go on but his name. She had no other information, no birthplace or date of birth. So far as she could remember, she had never met a paternal grandfather and she had only a small recollection of a paternal grandmother. She had an inkling that she had some cousins up north but she was not sure. She had never met them but she vaguely recalled a Chester and a Preston being mentioned once or twice, if not in a favourable context. But, at least Lincoln De’ath would be an easy name to follow up. There wouldn’t be too many of these. Fortunately, she knew her mother’s date of birth and where she was born, so at least she had something definite to go on here. Little by little, she would be able to build this into a family tree.

When she signed up for the genealogy sites, Lara hoped to unearth some artistic ancestors, a great line of forgotten bohemian artisans perhaps. A keen painter herself, she was sure that there must be an artistic streak running through her bloodline somewhere. If not a painter or sculptor, perhaps there might be a forgotten writer or a poet there in the background, or maybe a virtuoso musician. She felt that knowing this would help to give her confidence in her abilities. She hoped one day if she worked hard at it, she might be able to sell her paintings and perhaps be able to give up her nine to five job.

When she could find no record anywhere of a Lincoln De’Ath, Lara was not completely surprised. Over the years she had realised that there was something distinctly dishonest about her father. He could at best be described as a wheeler-dealer. Lincoln De’Ath was probably not even his real name. But, why he would make up the name De’Ath was anyone’s guess. Why would you? More to the point, what malevolent caprice had prompted him to curse her with it too? Why had her mother not stood her ground and put Lara Wilson on her birth certificate? What power did he hold over her mother? It seemed that she might now never be able to find out.

She managed to find her mother’s entry on the ancestry.net site but when she clicked on it, something unexpected happened and she was faced with what she had heard referred to as the blue screen of death. When she managed to reboot the laptop and get back into the site, she could no longer find the record. She became a little alarmed. What had she done? If she couldn’t even find her mother, what chance was there of going further back?

She started again from scratch, following all the instructions and screen hints. When this revealed nothing she tried a couple of the other free sites. Still, none of the right things seemed to be happening. Now it was a case of do or die. One by one, she upgraded to the subscription versions of the sites for their added capabilities. To her alarm, Wendy Louise Wilson, born 8th December 1945 was missing on every single one of them. Surely, it was not possible to have deleted the records of her mother at their very source. Surely, it was not possible to change anything on the internet without being a webmaster or whatever these tekkies were called. Perhaps she was doing something inherently wrong. She remembered the time she spent hours trying to work out which was the any key. And the time she thought the keyboard was broken because her password came out as asterisks. She would be the first to admit that she was never that good with sorting out computer problems. Some gremlin always seemed to creep up from nowhere to catch her unawares.

Even though it was late, she phoned Trudi and pleaded with her to come round to see what she was doing wrong. Trudi was a whizz with spreadsheets and data entry and she also knew her way around ancestry sites. She had traced her ancestors back to Tudor times. Trudi would be able to spot straight away what she was doing wrong.

Trudi had been in the middle of saying goodnight to her new friend, Tariq when she got Lara’s call but as Lara sounded desperate, she got in the car and drove around. Her expertise, however, did nothing to correct the problem. They tried every possible combination of Lara’s mother’s name and came up with nothing. It hardly seemed worth trying her father’s name, but Trudi tried anyway. Nothing. It seemed suddenly as if Lara’s parents had never existed. While Lara could understand the difficulty concerning her father, with all the resources available on the enhanced ancestors.com, her mother should have been straightforward to locate.

Her name was there, on the screen in front of me, honestly, Trudi. Wendy Louise Wilson. But when I clicked on her name, Windows crashed and the record was gone,’ said Lara.

That’s simply isn’t possible, Lara,’ said Trudi. ‘If she was there, then the record of her would still be there. We’re not putting something in wrong here now, are we? You’re sure this is your mother’s date of birth?’

Absolutely.’

And her birthplace?’

Definitely Compton Abbot.’

Trudi’s phone rang. It was Tariq wondering when she would be back, he had something planned.

Sorry, Lara. I’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘I’ll give you a call over the weekend.’

On Saturday morning after a night of fitful sleep, Lara got up and booted up the laptop again. She went to log in to Facebook and she was greeted with the something went wrong message. She had come across this before, so she did not get too concerned. She brewed some coffee and tried again and she was able to get in but her Facebook profile had completely disappeared. Do you want to sign up, it said, with the instructions on how to do so. She tried to get into her email account but this too had completely disappeared.

Trudi was not amused to get another call from Lara so soon. She was trying something new with Tariq at the time. She was growing to like the way Tariq introduced new activities into their daily routine. This one involved Belgian chocolate. She was enjoying it very much, so she ignored the call. She could phone Lara back later. The chocolate thing temporarily seemed more important.

When she phoned Lara back around midday, her phone just kept ringing. It did not even go to voicemail. Trudi assumed that Lara had got the hump with her for not answering her call earlier. Lara could be a bit like that sometimes. She took things to heart. She had to realise that the world did not revolve around her.

Trudi decided to drive over anyway to see what was going on. There was no point in falling out about a phonecall. Perhaps Lara had called to tell her that she had resolved her computer glitch and having done so, had gone shopping and left her phone at home. While she was stuck at the lights at the Scott Mackenzie roundabout, she called again. This time, she got the message the number you have dialled has not been recognised. She quickly checked. It was definitely Trudi’s number, the same number she had dialled not twenty minutes previously.

Trudi arrived at Lara’s flat and knocked firmly on the door. A lady in her late forties in a quilted housecoat and slippers carrying a black refuse bag emerged from the adjacent flat.

Are you looking for Mrs Fakenham?’ she said. ‘Because she’s gone to the shops.’

No. I am looking for my friend, Lara De’Ath,’ said Trudi. ‘She lives here.’

Lara De’Ath. What sort of name is that?’ said the lady, looking Trudi up and down. ‘Anyway. Never heard of her. She doesn’t live here. Mrs Fakenham lives in that flat. She’s been here for years, Mrs Fakenham has, with her cats. Look! There’s one of them now. I think that one’s called Thursday. She’s named them all after days of the week. I suppose that’s how she remembers them.’

Trudi was flummoxed. It was fortunate that when she got back home, Tariq was waiting with another surprise. This one involved whipped cream.

When Trudi arrived at the office early on Monday morning, Holly was already there. She began to tell Holly about Lara’s disappearance.

Lara?’ said Holly, interrupting her. ‘Who’s Lara?’

Who’s Lara!’ Trudi echoed. ‘Who’s Lara? Only the person who has been sitting opposite you for the last three years.’

Hey?’

The girl with the long dark hair and the peaches complexion. The one who was always lending you her mascara. What’s wrong with you this morning, Holly?’

I vaguely recall someone used to sit at the desk over there,’ said Holly. ‘Sara, wasn’t it? But, that was a long time ago.’

What was the woman talking about? What in Hell’s name was happening? Was it perhaps all part of some poisonous conspiracy designed to push her over the edge? All this, when things were going so well with Tariq.

It was Lara. Her name was Lara. And if you recall, Lara was still here on Friday. Sitting right there. You had that conversation about your dog-walker being distantly related to Daphne du Maurier.’

I’ve no idea what you are talking about.’

Come on! You’re winding me up, Holly.’

No, sorry Trudi. ……. Are you all right?’

Check your phone! Go on, check it! You will have Lara’s number and a list of calls you’ve made to her.’

Holly took her phone out of her bag and played with it for a while. ‘No. Sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s not bringing up anyone called Lara.’

Why are you doing this, Holly? It’s not funny. ……. You must remember Lara. She’s the one who…….’ Trudi began. ‘The one who ……., but even as she was saying it, her own recollection was beginning to fade. She could no longer remember what Lara looked like. Little by little, Lara was disappearing.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 4

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpart4

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 4 by Chris Green

I thought that I had put the character of Wet Blanket Ron to bed. I had written three stories in the Wet Blanket Ron series and I felt that this was probably enough. No writer wants to keep going over old ground. But every now and again one or other of my readers would ask the question, ‘when is there going to be a new Wet Blanket Ron story?’ One particular reader on a site called looksee.com, where I sometimes posted, read my stories on the train to break up her long commute. She had put in regular requests for a reprise. Ron was her favourite fictional character, she said. ‘Please give the hapless loafer another outing.’

It became harder and harder to resist the idea. I suppose this is how J. K. Rowling must have felt with her Harry Potter stories. To persist with such a weak premise for so long, I can only assume she was utterly inundated with requests for yet another episode in the life of the smug boy wizard and found her publishers leaning heavily on her to deliver one.

Every writer bases his characters, at least in part, on someone from real life. Even the most unlikely characters have their origins in the real world. Hanibal Lecter, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, for instance, was based on the murderous gay Mexican doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Basil Fawlty, the volatile hotelier in the sitcom was based on Donald Sinclair, proprietor of the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Don Draper, the Lothario ad-exec in Mad Men was inspired by Dan Daniels, the creator of the Marlboro Man. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was based on a real life caterpillar that was very hungry, and so on. I originally based the character of Wet Blanket Ron on a ne’er do well I knew called Dale Loveless.

I have found that authenticity pays dividends when plotting a new story. So long as there is a degree of realism present, readers are able to identify with what is happening in the narrative, however fantastical the premise might otherwise be. In order to get some inspiration for the task ahead, I thought I had better bite the bullet and try to find out what he had been up to. I hadn’t heard from Dale in a very long time. What cruel misfortune, I wondered, had befallen Dale since we last met? What grave injustice had he been the victim of recently? There was sure to be something suitably downbeat to use as source material.

When I last heard news of Dale, it was looking as though he might do a stretch in prison for smuggling Swiss watches into the UK. He had, of course, been a mule but with his record, it was unlikely that he would be able to convince the court that this was the case. In the last instalment of the Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron, for which I had required a surreal scenario, I had fictionalised this episode into an unwitting Wet Blanket Ron smuggling packets of time out of Greenwich Observatory. I had left a bit of a cliffhanger but had not gone back to this.

Assuming that Dale had been sent down, it was probable that he was out by now. While I had no contact number or address for him and could find no references to him on social media, I figured that Annette Lard would know. She was one of the very few people that had stood by him through thick and thin. I think they grew up together or saw the same psychotherapist or something. I went in to see Annette in BestBet where she worked.

‘Hi, Annette. You keeping well?’ I said.

She was. I left it at that. I did not want to go into the ins and outs of Annette’s chaotic life.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything of Dale Loveless,’ I said.

‘Sorry, babes,’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen Dale for a while.’

‘He’s probably still in prison, then,’ I said.

‘No. He’s out, at least he was. He came in and put a ton on Can’t Lose at 10 to 1 in the Wetherspoons Handicap Chase. Let me see, that would have been back in February. Can’t Lose fell at the second to last. It looked as if it was going to romp home as well.’

‘I guess that sums Dale up,’ I said.

‘I guess so. He had his head in his hands all the way through the race. It was as if he never expected it to win,’ she said.

I wondered if Pete Free might know where Dale was hiding out. Pete had known Dale for even longer than I had. I believe they had been in college together. Or perhaps not been at college together. I think this was in the days when being at college was different from actually attending lectures. I called in at Pete’s place on the off-chance he might know where I might find Dale. Pete invited me in and before I knew it he had given me a large spliff to look after. I hadn’t smoked in years and by the time I left, I was completely off my head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember much of the conversation we had had but I think the gist of it was that he hadn’t seen Dale, had no desire to see Dale and had no idea where I might find him. Oh, and that our universe was a hologram, and we were floating inside of it.

‘Does Dale know you’ve been writing about him?’ asked Misty Silver, the manager of the Emmaus charity shop in the High Street where he had once worked. It was an innocent enquiry on her behalf, but, no, Dale didn’t know.

‘Would he recognise his character anyway?’ I said. ‘Most people don’t recognise themselves. Either that or they think a more favourable character in the story is based on them.’

Did Dale perhaps think of himself as a Dry Blanket Ron? Could I have written his character to be cheerier and less accident prone? I explained to Misty that this would have taken some of the edge out of the plots. There would have been considerably less drama in the first story for instance if Ron had not been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver in Black Dog Way and if Ron’s wife had not run off with his best friend, Frank while he was in hospital or if he had not contracted norovirus while he was in there and had not been evicted by his unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros when he was discharged. This is the way popular fiction works. The reader expects things to go wrong. Ups and downs are necessary in drama to create tension. War and Peace would have died a death if it had been called Peace and Peace. No-one would have turned out to see Romeo and Juliet if the Montagues and the Capulets had got along. Where The Wild Things Are wouldn’t have captured a child’s imagination if the things weren’t wild. And so on.

Perhaps this was the answer. In the absence of any new material, I could adapt one of the classic plots from literature. Ron’s farm could be engulfed by a dust cloud and he could struggle to take his starving family across country to California. Ron could traipse around Dublin bars for twenty four hours while his wife was unfaithful. Ron could wake up one morning transformed into a large verminous creature. He could steal a fast car and crash it and get twenty years in prison and escape as a washerwoman to reclaim his family seat from the weasels. Realistically, though, none of the famous novel plots was a contender.

There continued to be no word on Dale Loveless. I wasn’t getting anywhere with inspiration for my story. I needed another example of Dale’s misfortune to rival the classic of his being attacked by a swarm of wasps on his wedding day, Friday 13th May, bitten by a shark on their belated honeymoon and mugged outside the court at their divorce hearing. This tale of woe had fitted perfectly into my second Wet Blanket Ron story. To try to locate Dale, I even managed to get my friend in the police, Sergeant Robyn Constable to look him up on the police computer but he had disappeared from their records. I asked Robyn if this was unusual and she said that it was unheard of. The police computer was very thorough with access to thousands of databases. Perhaps he had changed his name or something, she suggested.

I was on the verge of giving up the idea of a new Wet Blanket Ron story. After all, it wasn’t as if I had committed to the project. I didn’t have a publisher breathing down my neck. I could easily get on and write something else. I wasn’t short of ideas. There was the one that was forming about time standing still and the one about the devastation caused by all the world’s computer systems going down simultaneously. But I suppose, deep down, I was rather fond of my creation, not least because of all the fans Ron seemed to have online. It would have been nice to give Wet Blanket Ron a final outing.

It happened out of the blue. As a compassionate human being, it wasn’t the news that I wanted to hear, but when Marlin Snider phoned me at six in the morning, I knew that something was wrong. I hadn’t seen Marlin since the Cocteau Twins reunion concert. He did not beat around the bush. He came straight out with the details. To re-appropriate the celebrated Oscar Wilde quote, to get knocked down once on Black Dog Way might be regarded as misfortune; to get knocked down twice on Black Dog Way looked like carelessness. Dale Loveless, it appeared, was both unfortunate and careless. It was unfortunate too that the accident occurred on the one day that ambulance drivers were on strike. Because of the delay, Dale died in the back of a cab on his way to hospital. But, it’s an ill wind, and all that. The accident has given me some ideas for my Wet Blanket Ron story.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Walter Funk

walterfunk

Walter Funk by Chris Green

Walter Funk was a legend. Yet, if you ask most people today, they will not have heard of him. Walter Funk has no Wikipedia page and an internet search will take you instead to the Nazi economist, Walther Funk, but we need not concern ourselves with him. Walter, on the other hand, was a genius. He invented reversible clothes pegs and double sided fridge magnets, tipped cigars and weather vanes that shoot, so many things that we use every day. Yet, in these fickle days of throwaway fashions and disposable heroes, he has all but been forgotten. His name has disappeared from the history books.

Walter came from humble beginnings. He and his brother Marvin were born above a kaleidoscope repair shop in Shenton Bovis in the days between the wars. Money was tight. Their parents, Ken and Diedre Funk struggled against mounting debts to keep a roof over the brothers’ heads, Diedre perhaps more than Ken. Their debt levels were buoyed up by Ken’s gambling addiction which meant that Diedre often had to work double shifts at the cellophane factory to keep the bailiffs away. While Marvin did poorly at school, condemning him to a series of dead-end jobs, Walter displayed precocious talent, excelling at everything he turned his hand to.

Most of all, though, Walter showed an aptitude for invention. From the inflatable dartboard to the bouncing eggcup, he kept coming up with ideas for useful bits and pieces that people felt they just had to have. The one that really set the world alight was the wind-up tortoise. No longer was it necessary to find a warm place to house your pet for the long winter. The success of this was quickly followed by the clockwork hedgehog and the battery powered pigeon.

In 1944, at just twenty years old, Walter Funk was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year, the youngest by far to achieve the honour. The award was announced in the same edition of Time that exposed the real story about the war. As you now know, World War 2 actually finished in 1940, but both sides agreed to keep up the pretence of hostilities in order to keep people in work. There was of course, no actual fighting after the December truce of 1940.

Famous people in the modern world can be seen as products and as such they are subject to the stages of the product life cycle, namely introduction, growth, maturity and decline. Perhaps after decline we might add disappearance. Certainly, this seems to apply in the case of Walter Funk. People in the public eye have a shelf life and a sell by date. Walter’s rise was so swift that his decline appears to have been equally swift. By 1950, apparently ravaged by drink and drugs, Walter was on the scrap heap. There are no further references to him after this date. If you troll around the second-hand bookshops in your town, you might find an old encyclopaedia that still carries a reference to him, but all rewrites have taken out all records of his great achievements. If you now look up Time magazine’s records, you will discover that they now list someone called Eisenhower as 1944 Man of the Year, quite clearly a fictitious character. You may notice too that they have once again begun to introduce fanciful accounts of the fierce fighting in World War Two and stories about an atom bomb. Can you believe it? What will they think of next?

Copyright: © Chris Green, 2016

Oleander Drive

oleanderdrive

Oleander Drive by Chris Green

The black Mitsubishi has been parked there for several days now. Les Rubio first noticed it on Monday, when he came back from a business lunch at The Whistle Blower. The big SUV has been there in the same position, on the opposite side of the road fifty yards from his house, day and night. It has not moved once. The tinted windows have made it difficult for him to get a clear view inside but from occasional sorties to the park with his dog, Murphy, he has noticed that the two suspicious-looking characters occupying the front seats are not always the same ones. They seem to be working in shifts. But, whichever pair is skulking behind their newspapers, they seem to be watching his house. What else could they be doing in this quiet suburban neighbourhood? Who else would they be watching? This is a select residential area. House prices start at about half a million.

There are only a handful of houses in Oleander Drive and the others are all occupied by respectable families. It’s a little difficult, Les feels, to imagine they would be looking out for Brice Shipley, who goes off to work at his dental practice at 8:30 sharp every morning or his wife Sally who so far as he can tell spends her time putting together the parish magazine. Equally hard to suspect Mr Masterson, the headmaster at St Sampson’s or Mrs Masterson who puts the little Mastersons on the red bus to Acme Academy every morning. And, as far as he knows, Dr Pilsner’s house has been empty for a while now. Les feels he is definitely the square peg in the round hole, here in this enclave.

The pair surely cannot be private detectives paid by Grace to see if he has another woman dropping by. Les and Grace have been separated for months. In any case, chance to get his rocks off would be a fine thing. He has been too busy trying to find ways to settle the galaxy of outstanding bills she left him with, not to mention having to deal with the descent into darkness that follows a break-up when it was not your decision or preference. At the same time, he has had to keep up with the changes to his way of life that the new government has brought in. They seem to have got it in for entrepreneurs and small businesses. All the forms you have to fill in and all the things you have to register for. Tax returns and VAT receipts. Are they kidding? This is not his forte. He is a wheeler-dealer. He’s been so snowed under by all the bureaucracy he hasn’t even had time to put the house on the market.

It’s equally hard to conceive that they might be hitmen, hired to eliminate him. He hasn’t, so far as he knows, upset anyone. He conducts business in a straightforward way. He might be a bit behind with his paperwork but that would be no reason for HMRC to send in the boys and even if this were the case, surely one marksman would be sufficient. It wouldn’t need Samuel L Jackson and John Travolta to put the bullet through his chest, or wherever it is professional hitmen choose to aim. And the hitmen would hardly be hanging around. They would have made the hit by now and gone back to their lonely hotel rooms to wait for instructions on further missions.

Les has become so paranoid, though, he’s not driven in to his warehouse for the past few days in case they tail him. Granted, he can do much of his day-to-day work at home over the phone or online. He is fortunate too that he can ask his oppo, Zak to step in for a pick-up or a delivery, like the fake Alibaba rugs or the bogus Sennheiser sound equipment that arrived yesterday.

You’ve got a bit of skirt up there, ain’t you, Mr Rubio?’ Zak said when he told him he wasn’t coming in.

I wish,’ he said. ‘Look, Zak! I will be in soon. In a day or two. Three, tops. Definitely Friday.’

I can come over if you like and we can go over things,’ said Zak.

You’d better stay away, Zak,’ he said. ‘I’ve got the …… Zika virus.’

He thinks it best not to let them see someone like Zak visit him. Zak is more Trotters’ Trading than reputable entrepreneur. He wouldn’t look right in Oleander Drive. He’s from Toker’s End. That’s the other side of the tracks. The Mitsubishi men would pounce on him straight away.

I thought you only got that Zika thing in Brazil,’ said Zak.

It has spread, mate, Haven’t you heard?’ Les told him. ‘But don’t worry. I think I’m on the mend now.’

…………………………………………

On one of this reccies with Murphy, Les manages to get a better look inside the SUV. They have the windows wound down and he can almost make out the men’s features. Just a feeling he has, but they do look like they might be police. They have police sunglasses and police haircuts. Beyond that though he is at a loss. There are so many facets to police work these days it’s pointless to speculate which squad these might be from. He recalls being woken by the resonant thrum of the police helicopter hovering over his house on Wednesday night. He pulled back the curtains and could just make out its shape above the back garden. It was so black it was practically invisible, but certainly not silent. His friend, Jimmy Jazz says it was probably a Chinook. The modern police see themselves as a military unit, Jimmy says. It’s to do with all those movies.

Les phones his friend, Robyn Constable downtown to see if she knows what might be going on. Sergeant Constable has helped him out several times before for a small consideration and makes sure a blind eye is turned to his nefarious schemes. Les does not like to think of it as bribes. It’s a bit like paying insurance premiums. Sergeant Constable does not think of it as bribes. It’s just another aspect of police procedure in these troubled times.

I’m being watched night and day,’ Les tells her.

That doesn’t sound good, Les,’ she says. ‘For a man in your position.’

It’s not anything to do with your …… officers, is it?’

I’ve not heard anything,’ she says. ‘But you better fill me in with a few details so that I can check if we’ve got the word out on you. No guarantee I will be able to stop it if its another squad, though, you understand.’

Two men dressed in dark clothes. Parked up in a black Mitsubishi outside my house. Round the clock, 24/7,’ Les says. ‘They do look like they might be plain-clothes if you know what I mean. But it’s not always the same two.’

What are you saying, Les?’ she laughs. ‘Do we look different to others? Is it the prognathous jaw, or the third eye, perhaps? I tell you what. I will ask around and let you know if there’s a match. Your payment is due by the way.’

Again?’

Every three months, Les. The payment is due every three months. Unless of course, you want me to…’

No, it’s OK. I will get it to you. Just find out about these guys, please.

They might, of course, be security services, Les. Had you considered that?’

Sergeant Robyn Constable has a point. They could be from the nearby spy base, the so-called listening centre. There are thousands of people working at the base. Les has often wondered what they find for them all to do all day. Perhaps this is part of their outreach programme. Might it be something to do with the dodgy domain names he bought, the ones with the sensitive addresses? This is the kind of thing that perhaps might be of interest to intelligence services. But there again, given the nefarious things that go on in cyberspace, would the security services be especially excited over the innocent purchase of a few domains with names like bombisrael(dot)com? There was, of course, the domain he purchased that actually had gchq in the name.

Les hasn’t set up websites on any of the domains. He wouldn’t know how to. He just bought the domain names for his amusement after coming back from The Whistle Blower one night. There was a pop-up ad for buy one get one free offer on domain names. He bought forty-eight of them for the price of twenty-four. He bought them purely to see how far he could go with the names before someone would try to stop him. No-one did. He realises he shouldn’t have done it, but when you are drunk sometimes crazy ideas come into your head, and he was very drunk, he recalls. Grace had not long packed her bags.

To cut a long story short, Les Rubio spent time in la-la land. Whisky and gin, along with his appointed psychiatrist Dr Pilsner’s powerful prescription drugs, temporarily got the better of him. He was in such a bad way, he feels lucky now to have pulled through. It was a mistake to stock those cheap spirits from China. You never know what you are drinking and God knows what the pills were. Perhaps he just took too many. It’s so easy to get a digit wrong when you are under stress. He might have taken ten a day rather than one a day. He wonders what has happened to Dr Pilsner. He hasn’t seen him around since his discharge. Perhaps he has taken a sabbatical to write a primer on anxiety disorders or taken a lucrative teaching post in his native Vienna or something.

Whoever the mysterious emissaries in the Mitsubishi are, if they want him, why don’t they just come and get him? What are they waiting for? Surely they don’t imagine he’s armed and dangerous. And why he wonders are they drawing attention to themselves? There must be subtler ways to spy on him. What about drones? Or a rotation of cars parked in different places. A plain white van. Bogus workmen digging up the road. There must be any number of ways for surveillance operatives to look anonymous, even in an exclusive residential area like Oleander Drive. Perhaps he should have driven normally past them a moment ago, then they would have followed him and then they would have to have it out. At least then he would know what was what.

Les is astonished that the well-to-do neighbours haven’t said something to him about it all. It’s not as if the surveillance could have escaped their notice on such a quiet street. Jarvis Heckler lives in the large detached house opposite where they are parked. He is a retired civil servant and he is always outside washing his Jaguar or manicuring his box hedges. You would have thought he would have been around or at least gone over and had a word with them. And the Mitsubishi is practically parked outside Stacey Aragon’s house. She is forever asking him about Grace and when she might be coming back, waiting to see what his reaction is. There only has to be an unexpected conversation in the street for Stacey to be rustling her Cath Kidston curtains to see what’s going on. But somehow the parked vehicle seems to have escaped her attention. Has she gone away to see an ailing relative or something, Les wonders? Why have none of the neighbours registered the intrusion to their settled lives? Perhaps they have all gone off to see ailing relatives. Might they all be in collusion? Maybe the mystery men in the car have phoned them all and got them all on side with the assurance that it will soon be over and they will be gone.

…………………………………………

Today is Friday and Les Rubio does have to go in to the warehouse and the men in the Mitsubishi are still outside. He drives slowly past, hoping that they will realise that he has spotted them and they will realise that he will be expecting them to follow him. So they won’t. Reverse psychology. He thinks that it is the original pair casting a furtive glance over their red-tops, the ones he spotted on Monday. To his relief, no-one tails him and there is no black stakeout vehicle waiting to intercept him at the warehouse. Inside the premises, everything seems to be as it should be. He logs into the computer, half expecting to find some gremlin in the system or some horror in the inbox, but there is nothing. Everything seems to be running smoothly. There are even some new orders. He takes a look around the stock. The silver saxophones are still in the storeroom along with the multicoloured Gucci handbags. The Alibaba rugs and the new sound equipment are there. He needs to get on to moving some of the internet TVs later to make room for the Japanese clarinets that are arriving.

Zak arrives in his beaten up old van, the one he uses to ferry his band, Corpse around. They are death metal or thrash metal or some kind of metal, Les can’t remember which. Zak keeps asking him to go along to gigs but he is delaying this particular pleasure. He comes in with his headphones on, singing along to some crashing guitar chords. With an air of distraction, Les greets him.

Whatcha, Mr R,’ says Zak, taking off his phones. They look suspiciously to Les like one of the sets that came in yesterday, but he lets it go. ‘You recovered from the Zika bug a bit quick.’

Well, you know, Zak. I do keep myself in shape,’ Les says, puffing out my chest and holding his stomach in. ‘Takes more than a virus to get the better of me.’

I drove by your place on the way in, Mr R.’

But you live in Toker’s End.’

I know. I took a bit of a detour. I was going to call in to see how you were, but there were dozens of Old Bill around.’

What?’

Old Bill. You know, the bizzies.’

What? Outside my house?’

Difficult to tell, Mr R. There were shitloads of candy cars around and more of them seemed to be arriving, so I didn’t hang around to find out. Some funky shit is going down, I’d say.’

Come on! We’d better go and see what’s happening.’

Are you sure, Mr R. What if……. You know ….. All right. We’d better go in the van, then. Incognito, like.’

No. It’s too late for that now. Get in the Merc!’

Over the three-mile journey, traffic is slow. The atmosphere is strained. Conversation is sporadic and staccato.

How many police cars, Zak?’

Lots of them. ……. Wasn’t that a red light, Mr R?’

Can’t you stop blowing that in my face, Zak? What do you put in those….. joints?….. Wait. Pass it here! It might help.’

It’s called Northern Lights, Mr R.’

That’s skunk, is it?’

The best. ….. Are you OK, Mr R?’

I’ve not been thinking straight lately, Zak. I’m not sure what is real and what is not.’

I wouldn’t worry too much about that, Mr R. Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.’

I don’t know if I’m in a state to make decisions anymore.’

I can’t help but notice that you have seemed a little weird recently, Mr R. In fact, you’ve not been the same since Grace left.

Is it that noticeable? Tell me, Zak! Why am I going into the lion’s den?’

I think if it were me I might be doing a runner or at least lying low. ……. Didn’t you see that woman in the Toyota pulling out?’

Despite the advice, indecision persists. The Mercedes makes it way westward and before they know it they are approaching Oleander Drive. They are greeted by a battery of flashing blue lights. Police vehicles are everywhere. A bustling crowd has gathered to watch the unfolding drama, including a pack of press reporters and a TV crew. Amongst the confusion, it is difficult to ascertain what exactly is going on. As Les and Zak push their way through the mêlée, it slowly becomes clear that a handcuffed man is being led kicking and screaming by a pack of burly police officers to a riot wagon.

Mad doctor. Multiple murder. Motive unknown,’ says a disarmingly young reporter, bringing the new arrivals up to speed. ‘I’ll have my own byline.’

The thing is, they had been watching his house for days,’ says another whippersnapper, with a bag full of hi-tech accessories. ‘They were on to him a week ago and waiting for him to return home. What they didn’t know was that he was there all the time. This one is going to run for days.’

And night by night, he managed to get into his neighbours’ houses and murder them in their sleep,’ says the first one, as he keys the story into this phone. ‘Right under the noses of the surveillance team.’

Dr Pilsner,’ Les manages to say. ‘That’s Dr Pilsner. What…..’

Dr Pilsner. Yes, that’s his name,’ says the whippersnapper. ‘He’s a psychiatrist, apparently. This is going to sell some papers. They’ll fly off the news stands. Do you live around here by any chance?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Out Of Time

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Out Of Time by Chris Green

The moment Kimberley steps into the refreshment room, she knows something is wrong. Railway station cafés should be a hub of activity in the mornings. This one is almost empty. There are five people and each is seated at a separate table, staring blankly into space. They all register an expression of boredom and gloom. As she casts her glance from one to the other, no one meets her gaze. The room echoes with the sound of silence. The are no signs of life behind the counter. The chances of a cup of tea or a sandwich for the journey are not good.

The colours of the room are just a step up from monochrome. It is as if an autumn fog has descended on the space, or years and years of cigarette smoke have accumulated. The bentwood chairs and grubby checked pattern table cloths belong to a bygone age. The timetable behind a pane of cracked glass is dog-eared and smudged. On the walls, there are a few railway posters like the ones she has seen in the museum. Is Your Journey Really Necessary, reads one of them. A vintage cigarette vending machine advertises Gold Flake and Craven A. It’s like a set from Brief Encounter. The clock on the wall appears to be stopped at quarter to eight. It is now half past nine. Her train is the 9:39. Kimberley checks her watch. Her watch also says quarter to eight. She feels a chill run through her.

She hears the roar of a train arriving. Perhaps it is her train. As she tries to get back onto the platform, she is held back by an invisible wall. She pushes and shoves and ducks and parries. However she tries to negotiate the obstacle, she cannot find a way through. Panic rises in her. Something is seriously wrong. Frightened and distraught she watches through the window as, without even slowing down, the train passes through the station. It is a long train, with perhaps sixteen carriages. She is used to seeing shorter trains. She is used to them stopping at the station. No sooner has the thunderous sound subsided than she hears the rumble of a train approaching from the opposite direction. This one too is a leviathan with sixteen carriages. It travels through the station at breakneck speed. After it has passed, Kimberley notices that both platforms are completely empty. What has happened to everyone? She is certain that there were passengers waiting when she arrived.

She thinks back to when she parked the Qashqai in the station car park. Was there anything unusual, any anomalies she might have picked up on? So far as she can recall, the car park was nearly full and there was the purposeful bustle you might expect at the station on a Friday morning. She even remembers passing the time of day with a man in a wheelchair and moving out of the way for an Asian woman with several small children in tow. She remembers the announcement about an earlier train being seventeen minutes late. It was not until she stepped into the refreshment area that she noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Kimberley desperately needs to talk to someone. She can’t really phone Dan. He is under the impression that she is going to her mother’s overnight. And she can’t phone Ramon. He might not have left for their tryst yet and his wife might pick up. She decides to call their friend Ben, at the secret base. He will know what is happening. Maybe she has inadvertently happened by a sophisticated military exercise. Perhaps there was something on the local news or in the local paper warning of this and she had missed it. She searches in her handbag for her phone. It is not there. Frantically she rifles through her overnight bag. It is not there. She doesn’t have her phone. She never travels without her phone. At home, she doesn’t even go upstairs without her phone.

She looks around the room. No-one has moved. Slowly the blurry figures come into focus. They are so motionless that they might be mannequins. The weary looking soldier in Second World War army uniform seems to be studying a poster on the opposite wall which is telling him to Dig for Victory. He has a khaki kitbag on the table beside him. It has a faded name and a number stamped on it. The middle-aged woman in the brown 1950s New Look twin set is nursing a bone china tea cup. She picks the cup up and returns it to the saucer. The cup appears to be empty. Is she waiting for service? Kimberley wonders. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen anytime soon. There is a thick layer of dust on the service hatch. The balding man in the checked jacket with the wide lapels and the disco collared shirt twists the sides of a Rubik’s cube this way and that. It seems he is doing so more to exercise his hands that with the hope of solving the puzzle. Kimberley ignores the Iggy Pop lookalike in the biker’s jacket and ripped jeans who is lighting a cigarette and goes over to the lady in the purple jumpsuit with the big 1980s hair. Somehow she looks the most approachable of the bunch.

‘Have you been here long?’ she asks. It seems a banal question, but how do you start a conversation with a dummy.

Big Hair continues staring straight ahead. Perhaps she did not hear. Perhaps she cannot see her. Perhaps none of them can see her. Perhaps she is invisible to them. Perhaps they are invisible to each other.

‘She don’t talk much, that one,’ says Iggy Pop. He turns towards Kimberley. Kimberley notices that he has about fourteen earrings in each ear to add to the copious nasal jewellery. ‘She was here before me. She’s been here a long time.’

‘When did you arrive?’ asks Kimberley.

‘Me! I’ve been here since 1995,’ he says. ‘I was the last to arrive.’

This is nearly twenty years. She was expecting him to say last night or yesterday afternoon, or something. She swallows hard, trying to take it in.

‘Time doesn’t mean a lot here,’ says Rubik Cube. I’ve been here since 1976.’

New Look picks up her teacup, puts it to her lips and then places it back in the saucer.

The cup and saucer rattle as another train speeds through the station. Kimberley watches it through the window. It is a perfectly ordinary present-day train, with modern livery on the carriages.

‘No use looking out there, love’ says Iggy Pop. ‘The trains don’t stop here.’

‘I’ve been here since 1945,’ says the weary looking soldier, digging around in his kitbag. He takes out small round aluminium pan and holds it out. ‘Here’s my mess tin. Are you going to cook us something nice? I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘You’ve been here since 1945,’ she repeats, aghast.

‘I shouldn’t worry about it too much,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘A minute’s the same as a year here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll get used to it.’

‘It’s nothing at all really,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Here have a cigarette love.’

‘Did they find out who shot JR?’ says Big Hair, breaking her silence. ‘I think it was Bobby.’

Kimberley goes behind the counter and into the kitchen area in the hope of finding an exit. There isn’t one. There isn’t even a back wall. She finds herself staring into a void. The laws of physics itself are being challenged here.

‘Could have saved you the trouble, love,’ says Iggy Pop, as she comes back in to join them.’ Don’t you think that we haven’t all tried to get out the back way.’

‘What is this place? What is going on?’ she shouts, at no one in particular.

No one in particular answers.

‘Or it might have been Pamela,’ says Big Hair. ‘She always hated JR.’

Working in an office, Kimberley is not used to thinking outside the box. Kimberley doesn’t even like sci-fi. She only reads romance novels. She wishes Ramon were here, or even Dan. Her head is pounding like a jungle drum, as she struggles to come up with some kind of rational explanation. This is not a dream. She is wide awake. She is trapped. There is no way out. She is really here, in this impossible situation with a group of people who say they have been stuck here for years. It is beyond supernatural or scary.

‘What do you do for food and drink,’ Kimberley asks.

‘Is someone making tea?’ says New Look, clinking her china cup against her saucer.

‘Blimey, you got her to talk,’ says Iggy Pop.

‘Make me something nice. I’ve got me mess tin. I’ve only had a bar of chocolate,’ says Weary Tommy.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Have a cigarette, darlin,’ says Iggy Pop.

These people are looney tunes, thinks Kimberley. They have gone stir crazy. And she is stuck with them. When she was seven she had an imaginary friend called Lucy. Lucy went everywhere with her. Lucy became frightened by some ghoulish gargoyles in the stone mason’s yard that they passed on the way to school. Day by day Lucy became more afraid. She was obsessed, haunted even by the gargoyles. The problem was that this was the only way to school. There was nothing Kimberley could do about it. They had to go that way. They had no choice. This is exactly how Kimberley feels now, stuck here with this grotesque group of ghouls. Lucy of course eventually died, drowned in the lagoon when Kimberley’s parents took them to Venice.

The ghouls here in this twenty-first century railway refreshment room appear not to have aged at all during their stay. Their appearance is exactly as it would have been years ago. The soldier for instance still looks about nineteen. Kimberley does a quick calculation in her head. He should be about ninety. He has been here the longest and the others arrived one by one. They have all been trapped here since their arrival. They are all relics from times gone by. God forbid that she be destined to spend the rest of her days with these fossils in this decaying hell hole.

The windows rattle as a slow freight train pulls through. Kimberley frantically tries the exit again but finds that the invisible force still holds her back. How on earth did she get in here? Also, if there was an opening when someone new arrived, why hadn’t one of the prisoners used the moment as an opportunity to get out?

‘The windows are made of unbreakable glass too, in case that’s what you were thinking,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Nothing’s going to change, love,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Take my word.’

‘It might have been Cliff Barnes,’ says Big Hair. ‘He was always up to no good.’

Kimberley’s mind is in turmoil. Why did she arrange a dirty weekend with Ramon? If she had not taken to deceiving Dan, none of this would be happening. To take things back a step further, if Dan had shown more interest in her and not spent so much time training his virtual horses she would not have started having an affair with Ramon. Perhaps she should have spared a thought too for Ramon’s wife. Jackie, Janet, Jill? She can’t even remember his wife’s name. But, who can foresee a trail of consequences? It’s pointless even going there.

More to the point, why are these freaks here and what is she doing in this circus? What could possibly be the connection between them? Do they all share something in common? Including herself? There is nothing to be gained by being precious. She has to get to know them. She needs to test out her skill at detection. She was a big fan of heartthrob Italian TV detective, Aurelio Zen, and was mortified when the series was prematurely axed. Zen used to befriend the suspects to discover their deep dark secrets. With the thought of the dashing Aurelio Zen, she gains some composure.

‘Yes, I will have a cigarette,’ she says to Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop offers her one from a Players Number 6 King Size packet. Kimberley is not sure, but she feels that this brand disappeared from sale about twenty years ago.

‘Out of interest, where do you get them? ‘ she says. ‘You can’t have an unlimited supply and the cigarette machine on the wall looks empty.’

‘Aha, that would be telling,’ says Iggy Pop. Might the edgy Aurelio Zen have delivered a swift blow to the head at this point? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

‘Can I have a fag too,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It could have been Jock Ewing who shot JR, or was Jock already dead?’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley can see that even the sophisticated Aurelio Zen might have trouble getting information from this motley crew.

‘Has anyone else dropped by?’ Kimberley asks them, trying a new tack. ‘Over the years?’

‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, and nothing happens here, so what does that tell you?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It suggests that there is no time like the present, or no time but the present, or something like that,’ says Kimberley.

‘That’s right so its as if I’ve always been here then,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘And I still can’t get the red squares lined up.’

‘I’ve been here since 1953,’ says New Look. ‘Things were different then. They had tea dances with a caller and a proper band. Victor used to take me. Of course my husband didn’t know. I don’t think he would have approved.’

‘My, my,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that why you are wearing that pretty brown dress? Is that for Victor?’

‘This is a Christian Dior dress,’ says New Look, apparently pleased to be getting some attention. ‘Victor and I used to go dancing every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon,’ she continues. ‘And sometimes afterwards, we would go to a hotel. But I can’t do that now the trains don’t stop.’

Kimberley is unnerved by this. This is too close to home. She is wearing a Jigsaw pencil skirt and has Janet Reger lingerie on for the very same reason. She has dressed to please Ramon. And were they not also going to a hotel later for their clandestine liaison?

Iggy Pop interrupts her reverie. ‘All I done was sell someone else’s Beamer,’ he says. ‘I had this duplicate set of keys, see, and a duplicate log book. I can’t even remember how I came by them. I’m not a bad man, not really.’

‘I think I’m probably a bad man,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I deserted, you know. That’s how I came to be catching the train. I should have been in Normandy, helping to push back the Bosch to secure the new front, but I missed my Maddie. I thought she might be going with another fellow. She’d stopped sending me letters, so I had to come home to make sure there was nothing going on.’

The Aurelio Zen strategy appears to be working. She is drawing them out of themselves. They are no longer coming out with gibberish, but talking about matters that she is able to comprehend.

‘Anyway, to cut a long story short,’ Iggy Pop continues. ‘I drop the motor off with the geezer and have to catch the train, so I come along here to the station and next thing I know I’m caught up in this mad hatters tea party.’

New Look starts to say something about just killing time here but the noise of a passing express drowns her out.

‘Of course, JR might have shot himself,’ says Big Hair. ‘I never thought of that.’

‘I used to cheat at poker,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used marked packs of cards.’

‘So you think we are all here because we’ve done something corrupt or cruel,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that where this is heading?’

‘We used to play Dealer’s Choice and then I would nominate wildcards that were the easiest to spot,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘So, I couldn’t really lose.’

‘I expect a lot of people cheat at cards. I expect casinos cheat at cards,’ says Kimberley.

‘The thing about it was that I played with friends,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used to make money out of my friends. I came here to catch a train to go and pick up a Triumph Stag that I had accepted in lieu of a debt from one of my best friends. I’d say that makes me an absolute cad.’

‘I used to tell my husband I was at the Women’s Institute,’ says New Look. ‘I knew that he would never look for me there.’

‘I didn’t tell Maddie of what I got up to in Montmartre of course,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘When I had a forty-eight hour pass. What those French girls can do would make your hair curl.’

It is becoming like a confessional. Kimberley considers the information they have shared. Herself included, they have all done things they know to be wrong. And they were all passing through this station in the process of committing their misdemeanours. You could say that there was a connection here, but millions of people must have passed through the station, and who hasn’t done something they know to be wrong? She remembers the time she sold her mother’s diamond cluster engagement ring to the Wurzel Gummage hippy at the antiques market when she was seventeen to get the money to go to a Robbie Williams concert at Knebworth. And worse, sleeping with Dan’s best man, Chas, on her hen night. She had definitely instigated this. She remembers she had turned up uninvited at Chas’s flat at 2 in the morning. Everyone has their dirty secrets.

So where does this leave her? Kimberley wonders if she might be looking for meaning where there is none. What they are experiencing could just an unexplained blip in the space-time continuum. And because something has gone wrong with relativity, there is no time in this space. They are out of time. This is nowhere. Cause and effect might have no place here. Perhaps there is no why. After all, no-one here has mentioned anything that might warrant a life sentence of this mind-bending purgatory. No one has killed anyone. Not even Weary Tommy, who was in the perfect position to have done so, appears to have killed anyone.

‘I think it was me that shot JR,’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley notices the clock on the wall has moved on to five to eight. Her heart skips a beat. Time is no longer standing still. Is the train that she can hear approaching slowing down?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Famous For Fifteen Minutes

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Famous For Fifteen Minutes by Chris Green

It was already the middle of July. Only a few moments ago it seemed it was June, or May even. The Bank Holiday Mondays, the Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Ascot, Summer Solstice, Glastonbury, Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix had come and gone like thieves in the night. In quick succession, each of my shrubs had flowered and gone over. Already the hydrangeas were out and the sunflowers were beginning to open. My life was playing on fast forward. Any day now someone would say, ‘the nights are drawing in,’ somehow, it seemed, stating the obvious. A friend of mine was fond of saying, ‘change is the only certainty.’ As I grew older, I was beginning to appreciate the wisdom of his words. ‘Now’ was forever slipping away. Time was, as Bob Dylan had observed back in the seventies, a jet plane.

It was polling time. A by-election had been called following the death of our local MP, Rickie Hamilton, in a sword-fight with the landlord of The Belted Galloway. I had begun to receive a plethora of political pamphlets through the door. Each day I would come home from work at the brass instrument advice centre to find a new pile of brightly coloured electoral fliers on the mat. There must have been more than a dozen different candidates. There were a range of views on local issues but most of them agreed that the country was in a bit of a mess. Some promised to put more police on the streets to help fight crime while others wanted to see a volunteer police force to save money. One or two wanted to make such deep cuts they suggested closing hospitals, schools and libraries, and deporting the disabled and unemployed.

In my neighbourhood there seemed to be a predominance of VOTE WARHOL stickers in the windows of the houses, although there were half a dozen or so VOTE ROTHKO stickers, several VOTE POLLOCK and one or two VOTE EMIN.

I was cooking liver and onions for my supper one evening, when Mr Warhol called round.

Hi! I’m Andy,’ he said by way of a greeting. He was an odd-looking man with pale features and large glasses. I could not tell whether he was wearing a wig or not, but I didn’t like to ask.

I asked him instead ‘If you get in, will everyone be famous for fifteen minutes?’

That would be communism,’ he replied, circumventing the reference. Perhaps he had become immune to smart-aleck remarks.

Or in fifteen minutes everyone will be famous?’

That sounds to me like liberalism.’

Or will fifteen people be famous for everyone?’

That would be an oligarchy, he said.

I could not fault Andy’s ‘political theory’.

Will I notice any difference if you get in?’ I asked.

Put it this way,’ he said. ‘If you like your life, I’ll be trying to keep things as they are; if you don’t like your life I’ll be trying to change things. You choose’

Very diplomatic,’ I thought. Despite my occasional propensity to complain, I liked my life. I was forever wishing I could hold back the relentless progress of time. This feeling was especially strong at this time of year. It seemed important to capture and hang on to those precious fleeting moments when summer was at its most vital, those few brief days when the celestial magic cast its powerful spell. Light evenings were nourishment to the soul. The Sunday at the seaside. The walk in the woods with the birds singing. These would be the times that one would look back to and remember as special in the dark winter months ahead.

If I could choose I’d like things to stay pretty much as they are,’ I said, with this in mind.

Good,’ he said. ‘Vote for me and I’ll see what I can do.’ He shook my hand and made his way across my front lawn to Mr and Mrs De Kooning’s next door. I suspected the De Koonings would give him a tougher time as they had a VOTE TURNER sticker in their window. Furthermore, I had always found them confrontational, particularly over the issue of my rhododendron, which they claimed spoilt their view of Hogarth Hill.

Despite his unconventional appearance and his lack of political conviction, or perhaps because of these attributes, I liked Andy. Although I didn’t usually bother to vote, I made my way down to the John Constable Primary School on polling day and voted for him. It was a close contest but after three recounts Andy Warhol was elected MP for Sisley South by a margin of two votes.

On Mondays, I go to a Flower Arranging class at the Francis Bacon Memorial Centre, and on Tuesdays, Snake Charming at the Hindu Community Centre. On Wednesdays, I have a head massage and on Thursday I attend a bricklaying course at the college. At the weekends, I spend time with my girlfriend, Yoni. I have been described as a creature of habit. While it is good to have varied interests I do like to keep to a routine. Most evenings I get home at 9 to 9.30, although sometimes Snake Charming goes on a little late. During the second half of July, the sun sets just over one minute earlier each evening so it was not until the end of July that I began to notice that it was still light as I drove home when perhaps it shouldn’t be.

I looked up the sunset times for Sisley on the Internet and found that there indeed appeared to be a discrepancy, between when the sun was due to set and when it was actually setting. As near as I could tell the difference was twenty minutes. I checked my watch against the clocks in the house and dialled the speaking clock (accurate to within five-thousandths of a second). All agreed the time to within a minute. Either there was a huge conspiracy to dupe me or something strange was really happening.

It was hard not to feel a sense of panic, but in the interest of my sanity, I decided I would do my best not to draw attention to the situation. I felt it was better to keep it to myself for the time being, in case there was a rational explanation that I might have overlooked. I did not even tell Yoni, although once or twice, she remarked that I seemed distracted during our lovemaking. I explained that we were having a lot of intonation problems at the centre with four-valve euphoniums. Over dinner at Vettriano’s, she noticed that I kept looking at my watch and looking out of the window.

Are we expecting someone or should I not be here?’ she asked.

Sorry darling,’ I said. ‘I just thought I saw Paul Gauguin from my Snake Charming class.’

I read the broadsheet newspapers thoroughly, kept a close eye on the television news and trawled the Internet to see if I could find any clarification, but drew a total blank. It appeared no one else had noticed the celestial upheaval that was upon us. Not even climate change sites had any helpful information. I alone had spotted that the seasons were playing up.

Shaving had never been an activity that I had particularly enjoyed. But, when around the beginning of August, I noticed I no longer needed to, I felt a little unsettled. Furthermore, while I felt that I would miss the convivial conversations about football, opera and pizza with Leonardo, my barber, this was not my prime concern when I found that my hair was no longer growing longer. Doctor Hopper, the only doctor at the Rembrandt Surgery I could get an appointment with at short notice checked me over to ascertain whether I was dead, and after finding a pulse and a heartbeat, began to ask me questions. Had I been feeling any stress? Was I eating a balanced diet? Had I taken any narcotic drugs? Had I been near a source of nuclear energy? I told him that life had been fine, and I ate healthy meals like butternut squash bakes and sardine salads, made sure I ate an apple a day and took regular exercise. He took a blood sample and said he would send it off for some tests to be done.

How long do you think the tests will take?’ I asked.

Well, the tests will only take a couple of minutes,’ he replied, a little smugly. ‘But there might be another 40,000 samples already waiting for tests at the lab. This is how the NHS works, unfortunately. Three to four weeks maybe. In the meantime, I’ll just give you something to help and I think I had better sign you off work’

Is it serious? I asked.

It may be, but there again it may not be,’ was his reply. Why could no one commit themselves these days? ‘But I don’t want you to worry about it.’

I picked up the lithium that Doctor Hopper prescribed and took my sick note into the brass instrument advice centre. For the next few days, I sat in the garden taking stock of the floral inertia. The hydrangeas and the borders I had planted from seed were still in full bloom. The lawnmower had stayed in the shed and the grass was exactly the same length as it had been in the middle of July. I hadn’t had to water the garden, not even the rhododendron. While it must have rained during this time, it certainly hadn’t rained excessively. I could think of absolutely no explanation for these phenomena.

I began dropping comments into conversations with friends and neighbours about it being a strange summer, or about how manageable my garden seemed this year, hoping that one might come back with something like, ‘the night’s don’t seem to be drawing in at all this year,’ or ‘fantastic isn’t it the way that the flowers are lasting this year, I haven’t had to deadhead my petunias once.’ There was, however, no hint from any of them that they were experiencing anything untoward. The nearest to a result was when Graham Sutherland from number 44 had said his roses were doing well compared to last year. I was momentarily cheered but it transpired that this was because last year they had been attacked by leafhoppers, spittlebugs and whitefly. It seemed I was alone in my predicament.

My waking turmoil reflected itself in my sleep. I began having disturbing dreams at night. In one series of dreams, I was falling from a tall Gothic building. But whereas in such episodes I was accustomed to waking up before I hit the ground, in these dreams I didn’t. I splattered all over the pavement. In the one I remembered most vividly, people had come to stand around and watch me fall. A television crew were filming the spectacle. At one point I was watching their film of my fall on television and I tried to switch off the set with the remote control, but the batteries were flat and I screamed as I watched myself hit the pavement. I woke up terrified. In another dream, I was driving along a very straight, featureless, dark road and all the other vehicles driving in both directions along the road were AA vans. In the next frame, they had all become ambulances. I was unable to control the car and was struggling to avoid a collision with the ambulances. In yet another I was trapped in windowless rooms in a dark house, unable to move or make any sound. People dressed in red with voices talking backwards were searching for me. I did not know whether they wanted to harm me or rescue me.

I began to dread going to bed. I found myself staying up later and later watching Murder She Wrote, Beach Volleyball and repeats of CSI on television.

One morning I got up and the green light on the phone was flashing. I played back the message on the answer machine. ‘Hello,’ it said ‘this is Doctor Hopper. I hope you are all right. I have a feeling I may have prescribed you the wrong … beep beep beep’ My answering machine was a cheap one I had bought at a car boot and had had no instructions of how to reset the message allocation time. It did not matter anyway as I had looked up lithium on HealthLine and decided that it might not be a good idea to take it, especially not 1800 milligrams per day.

I am not one of these motorists who continually check their mileage, but I could not help but notice that the milometer on my Citroen Xsara Picasso had been registering 33333 for several days, during which I had been to my acupuncturist twice, and had also driven to the health centre for an extra head-massage. There was nothing subjective about my perception regarding the mileage. This was entirely scientific; the car was moving along the road, the speedometer was registering the speed, but the odometer was not recording any mileage. In some ways, this seemed more sinister to me than some of the other examples of torpidity. I set the journey distance register to zero and drove off to buy a newspaper and some groceries. The register remained on zero.

It was the evening of my snake-charming exam. I had decided to confide in someone about what was happening to me. I had chosen Sanjay, my tutor as the most appropriate candidate. Aside from being a damn good snake charmer, he was well versed in phenomenology. He seemed understanding, non-judgemental, and had a mystical presence.

Considering the stress I was under, my exam went well. I had the cobra dancing to the music of my flute as if I was a professional. This is of course not completely true. Snakes are actually deaf. They only appear to be dancing to the music. The thing to remember is that the cobra is expecting an attack so you have to keep the flute moving from side to side as you play and the snake will mimic the movements. A cobra’s striking range is roughly one-third of its total length, so it is also a good idea to keep a few feet between you and the snake in case it is having a bad day.

After the exam was over, Sanjay came over to congratulate me, presenting me with an ideal opportunity to have a chat. Once Sanjay had finished shaking my hand and bowing politely, I said, ‘Sanjay, something’s been bothering me for a while.’

Yes, I can see that,’ he said. ‘Would like to tell me what is this thing that is bothering you?’

Today is the eleventh of August,’ I continued. ‘And it’s still as light in the evenings as it was in the middle of July. It’s not dark until 10 o’clock. You must have noticed’

No. I have not been noticing that,’ he replied.

Let me show you what I mean,’ I said. ‘It’s 9.15 now. If we go outside you will see that the sun has not quite set.’

First I have to put the snake basket away so they will not be escaping and poisoning the streetwalkers. But I can see from your expression that you have been worrying so I will not be long.’

Sanjay came back from putting the snakes away and I pushed open the double doors at the back of the community centre. I was about to say to Sanjay, ‘there, you see what I mean,’ but instead, I found we were confronted by almost total darkness. You could just detect a tinge of pink in the bottom corner of the sky over the moor, where the sun had set, but otherwise, the sky was a dark grey and the orange streetlights were shining brightly. I was stunned. I checked my watch. It confirmed that it was 9.15. It was August 11th. It was dark – as one would have expected. I did not know what to say, or what I should feel.

What is happening to me, Sanjay?’ I gasped.

I have observed for two or three weeks now that you have been stressing,’ Sanjay said. ‘You should not worry you know, many people are stressing before their snake charming exam. Stress can make you imagine strange things.’

But yesterday at 9.15 it was still light,’ I protested.

Life can be illusory,’ he said. ‘Reality is not necessarily what you are seeing.’

I took a detour on my way home and called in at The David Hockney for a drink. The journey was exactly 303 miles according to my milometer, which now registered 33636. I ordered a Carlsberg Special and phoned Yoni. She did not pick up, which probably meant she was researching for her dissertation on Dissertation Research Methods. I sat by the window, looking out across the moors and noticed that there was a full moon. I had not seen a lot of the moon during the light evenings. I wondered momentarily whether the moon’s phases had been consistent over the past few weeks. I sipped at my drink idly brushing my beard with my hand. Beard! I had a beard. Quite a thick one too. Why had Yoni not remarked on it? She must surely have noticed. Why from day to day had I not noticed it growing in the mirror?

I arrived home around midnight, after another two or three medicinal Carlsberg Specials. The first thing I noticed was that my neatly manicured front lawn was now like a wild meadow. The grass had grown several inches and there were weeds everywhere. Most of the flowers that were in bloom had dropped petals and all of the border plants needed dead-heading. It provided a complete contrast with my neighbours’ gardens, which were fastidiously well maintained. I wondered briefly if my nascent wilderness might be the reason behind the For Sale sign outside the de Koonings. I dreaded to think how much the rhododendron had grown.

I opened the door. The green light on the phone was flashing. I played back the message on the answer machine. ‘Hello,’ it said. ‘This is Andy Warhol. It’s now 8.30 pm on Wednesday 11th August. You may remember when I called round you told me you’d like things to stay as they are. I expect if I asked you now you might answer differently. So I’ve … beep beep beep’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Blowing in the Wind

blowinginthewind

Blowing in the Wind by Chris Green

I am walking Malcolm on Panhandlers Hill when I first spot him. In fact, it is Malcolm who spots him first. Malcolm is a cocker spaniel and he is very sensitive to changes in his surroundings. We get a few hill walkers around these parts and at first, I think the shadowy figure in the distance is just another hiker, enjoying the peace that this beautiful stretch of upland has to offer. But cocker spaniels were bred to be gun dogs and Malcolm seems to be able to tell straight away that this is a gunman coming out from behind the clump of trees to the east towards Cascade Falls. When he phones, Milo is always telling me not to go out on the hills on my own in case there are snipers. Milo is away a lot lately. Something to do with the merger, apparently, or is it the takeover? I don’t get into that side of things.

I won’t be on my own,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll have Malcolm.’

A fat lot of good Malcolm will be when you are faced with a battalion of bloodthirsty rebels,’ he says. Sometimes Milo’s outlook verges on paranoia, but it looks as if he may have got it right this time, although he has perhaps overestimated the scale of the threat. The lone figure is ambling towards us, rifle cocked. Have I got the right word? Is cocking something that you do with a rifle? Whatever, it’s still a man with a rifle. And cocking or not, he’s getting closer.

Run, Malcolm!’ I shout.

The stupid mutt starts running towards the sniper. At times like this, I wish I’d continued with his obedience classes at Sit Happens.

Not that way, Malcolm,’ I call out.

I might be pushing fifty but I can still manage a canter if need be. The problem now is we’re heading in the wrong direction for the car park but I dare not double back.

When I feel we are a safe distance from the ridge where we caught sight of the sniper, I get the phone out of my shoulder bag. My heart is racing. Malcolm is now barking furiously. He can smell my fear. How on earth are we going to get out of here? It’s no good phoning Milo, of course. Even if he were to answer, he would just rant and rave about me going up on to the hill despite his warnings. Not that he’d be able to get here anyway. He’s out of the country on business. Most of the people I know live in Richmond which is a good ten miles away or Freeport which is even further. In any case, most of them would probably be tied up at this time of day. People have work to do or people to see. I decide to phone Doobie. He will be able to get here quickly, plus he is streetwise. Unconventional certainly, but resourceful.

Within a matter of minutes, Doobie, his long straggly hair blowing like Bob Dylan’s answer, arrives in a curiously customised Jeep at the arranged spot along the dirt-track lane by the derelict grain store. Crashing guitar chords ring out from an improvised onboard speaker system. I don’t believe that this is Bob Dylan. Thrash metal perhaps. Or nu-metal. Whichever, you don’t hear a lot of this kind of music on Iescos. The Rolling Stones are still considered to be new kids on the block here. I have often wondered how someone who draws so much attention to himself as Doobie does can get through life in such a cavalier fashion without requital. But he appears to do so. Hiding in the light, I believe it is called.

I lift Malcolm into the vehicle and jump in beside him. With a spin of wheels, we speed off, hopefully out of danger.

What was happening back there, Nattie?’ Doobie says. ‘You seem a bit shaken up.’

There was a gunman coming for us and Malcolm was running towards him and …….’

Slow down, will you, Nats? You’ll give yourself a heart attack.’

But he had a rifle and ….. ‘

Oh, I wouldn’t get too alarmed about that,’ he laughs. ‘If it was a sniper, he’s not going to waste a bullet on you. Ammunition is precious when you are a renegade in hiding. You worry too much, Nattie, you know that? Time for a cold one at Mojo I think.’

Unlikely as it may seem, I got to know Doobie through a mutual interest in avant-garde cinema. We met at a rare screening of one of Leif Velasquez’s films in Freeport. I read about Velasquez in Artz magazine, on the internet and went along to the Freeport show out of curiosity. Doobie was there setting up the props. He is an artist of sorts, although, by his own admission, not an easy one to categorise. Interactive guerilla street installation art or subversive performance sculpture mural art. Anyway, something unusual.

Doobie and I were the only two people to attend the Velasquez screening. Even today, it seems few people you speak to have heard of Leif Velasquez. I don’t believe Artz magazine has a wide readership, even in the US or the UK, and certainly not on Iescos. Interactive film has therefore not caught on yet, but it will. Give it time and it will fulfil the MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) criteria for innovation. Milo is not one for the arts, but Doobie and I have now been to a few shows together. Few, because events on Iescos are rare. If you google ‘Iescos’, it will come back with, ‘did you mean Tescos?’

To look at the two of us you would think we were polar opposites, me in my tweedy twin-sets and Doobie in his denim cut-offs with a torn The Bloody Rook t-shirt. Who is The Bloody Rook? Is it a band? An artists’ collective? A group of writers? I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. I keep meaning to look on the internet but have not yet got round to it. But, anyway, Doobie and I seem to get along. Opposites, and all of that.

The recent uprising was a bit of a joke. Most of the rebels were rounded up within the first twenty-four hours. Iescos is, after all, a small island and because of this it has since its colonial days been relatively easy to govern. A few of the more enterprising insurgents managed to escape capture and most of these headed this way, the cover of the hills providing a treasury of hiding places. As it was such a shambles, I’m not sure that mastermind is the right word here but nobody I have spoken to seems to know for sure who the mastermind behind the uprising was.

Around two hundred ill-equipped rebels stormed the government building and imprisoned the government officials. To announce the change of leadership to that of a popular co-operative and to manage the flow of information, they took control of the radio station and the press. What they overlooked was that hardly anyone on the island listens to the local radio station and even fewer read the newspaper. This is the internet age, even on Iescos. Unfortunately, there was not a skilled webmaster among the band of insurgents. So, unaware that we had to acknowledge a change in fortunes, we all went about our business as usual. By the time the rebels realised what was happening, or in this case not happening, outside help was at hand. GCHQ had already processed the information and, almost before the uprising had started, a pair of British frigates were in Freeport harbour. The freedom fighters who were not captured by their former colonial oppressors took to the hills.

We pull up outside Mojo. It is almost buried beneath lush vegetation. It looks like a former colonial trading post. As we make our way through the greenery, we are greeted by colourful adverts for exotic herbs, hummingbirds, parrots, livestock, alligators and two-headed snakes. Island Sweet Skunk and Gurage Khat. It appears you can buy anything here. Or in Doobie’s case, it seems you can just help yourself. He ushers me inside to the darkened interior, Malcolm at my heels. He directs us to a table, nods to a shadowy figure behind the counter, takes two glistening bottles of Sol Original out from a giant peppermint green fridge and places one in front of me. Clearly, he is a man of standing in these parts.

The gin here is fresh too if you would like one in a bit,’ he says, pointing to a still, visible, despite a beaded curtain, in the corner. ‘And duty-free.’

We settle into a conversation about the complicated topography of Iescos, all the peaks and promontories, twists and turns, ridges and rills, swales and dingles. Or in plain language, the ups and downs.

Although Milo and I have been here for three years and the island is less than forty miles across, I still get lost,’ I say. ‘Even with satnav. Some of the roads are little more than tracks or paths and even out in the open there are next to no road signs.’

The road signs all but disappeared in the uprising,’ he says. ‘One of the rebels’ tactics.’

This is why I take Malcolm out on to Panhandlers Hill,’ I say. ‘It’s an easy journey from the house and it has a safe place to park the car.’

Doobie says he doesn’t need satnav or road signs, he knows every inch of the island. He knows which parts are safe and which bits might be rebel hideouts. I tell him it is just as well he knows his way around because I don’t have any idea how to get back to my car. We have probably only come five or six miles from where he picked me up, but I would never have been able to find my way to Mojo in a million years. I had no idea that places like this existed.

Most of the people on the island never make it out of the towns,’ he says.

In breaks in our conversation, I overhear the murmur of two men in conversation at a nearby table. They are speaking in their native tongue. It is something that you could easily miss, in fact, it is Malcolm who draws my attention to it, but their conversation seems to be interspersed with occasional utterances of Milo’s name. Malcolm’s ears prick up and he gives out a little yelp each time that Milo’s name is mentioned. He misses Milo. At first, I wonder if the pair might be referring to a different Milo. Or perhaps Milo or something that sounds like it is a word in their language. But, when Doobie goes off to speak to someone at the bar, I distinctly hear one of them say the name, Milo Lorenz. He repeats it several times. No doubt then that it is my Milo. This is disconcerting. What connection could they possibly have with my husband?

I look around discreetly, anxious not to draw more attention to myself than I might already be doing. I am aware that a lady dressed in Barbour country clothing as I am might look out of place in a bar like this. A lady of any sort might look out of place. Except possibly a lap dancer. This is a male domain. I’m not at all comfortable that Doobie has brought me here. The lightness of the atmosphere earlier when we were sipping our Sol Original has vanished. Dressed in torn fatigues and baseball caps, the two men don’t look like the kind of associates I would expect Milo to have. They would not fit easily into the world of commerce. For one thing, I don’t imagine that you are allowed to spit on the floor in the meetings that Milo goes to. But, it occurs to me I do not know much about what Milo actually does and he is around so infrequently that there is not much opportunity to find out. I do not believe that he has been home now for nearly a month, in fact, he hasn’t phoned for a week or so.

The longer Doobie spends talking to the sinister man at the bar, the more nervous I become. They have sneaked away into a corner of the bar and I am unable to see what they are doing. The two men on the table behind me now have raised voices. They seem more menacing by the minute. I call over to Doobie, but he completely ignores me. I have a bad feeling about what might be happening here. What if I have been lured into some kind of trap? What if they are all in on it? What if I am being kidnapped? It is perhaps not the conventional way of doing it, but then there has been nothing conventional about today. They might be using me as a way to get money out of Milo. I take the phone out to give him a call but, predictably, it goes straight to voicemail. I can no longer see Doobie. He has disappeared.

Malcolm begins to bark. One of the men at the table, the one with the scar running the length of his cheek, mouths something guttural at him. The other man, the one with the dental problems, then addresses me in a threatening manner. He spits. I don’t understand Iescan but I think I understand the gesture. It is aimed at me. I am not welcome. I look around me for support. There is none. I am scared. I get up quickly and go over to where Doobie disappeared. I push open a door, Malcolm following at my heels. We go down a couple of wooden steps and find ourselves in a murky room. Parrots call out as we enter. There is an overpowering aroma from a potpourri of herbs and spices, tarragon and eucalyptus, coriander and nutmeg. It is like a bazaar. Shelves are stacked with a dizzying assortment of strange artefacts. Malcolm is spooked by the two-headed green snake that peers out from its glass tank. Next to it in another glass tank is a writhing congregation of baby alligators. Are those bats circling overhead? Or are they large moths? This is the stuff of nightmares. There is no sign of Doobie.

I backtrack and along a corridor find another door. I push it open. This is a much larger room. There are no parrots. No two headed snakes. No alligators. Instead, dominating the space and looking completely out of context is a Heidelberg offset printing machine. I do not know much about printing, but this looks like a serious piece of kit. Although it is not in use, it appears to have done its job. Stacked alongside it are bales and bales of printed material wrapped in polythene, newspapers, posters, flyers. I move in closer, brush the dust off the nearest pile and take a look. To my alarm, they have Milo’s photo on. President Lorenz, it says. So do the other bales. President Lorenz? What on earth? Is this some kind of joke?

Gradually it dawns on me that Milo must have been the one behind the failed uprising. This must have been the takeover that I heard him talking about in those clandestine phonecalls late at night. This would explain why he hasn’t phoned me. This must be why his phone is off. He must be in detention somewhere. This will be why I was being spat at in the bar. I can see straight away why the plan might have failed. Milo’s big problem is that he never thinks things through. He has an idea and thinks that this is enough; the job is then done. Not that Milo would have made a good president anyway. His politics are too fickle. He has a low boredom threshold. One thing one day, the opposite the next. He would have been quickly overthrown.

But, why haven’t the authorities contacted me? And why has Doobie brought me to this godforsaken place?

As if summoned, Doobie sidles into the room. His aura seems to have darkened a little.

There was no easy way of telling you, Nattie,’ he says, apologetically. ‘When you called me I wasn’t sure what I should say. Not a lot of people in respectable circles realised who was behind the uprising. And it was seen as important that they didn’t find out. We’re no different here on Iescos than anywhere else when it comes to secrecy. The fewer that know the truth the better.’

I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.

You wouldn’t have believed me anyway,’ he says. ‘So, I thought it would be best if I brought you here and let you find out for yourself.’

I am about to point out that all the people here seem to know about Milo, but, I think I am beginning to get it. After all, the peasants here in the interior don’t have a voice, do they? They don’t have access to one. Nor will they have. The printing press is shut down for now.

So, Doobie. Whose side are you on,’ I say.

Sides, Nattie? I don’t do sides, Nattie,’ he says. ‘I’m too smart for that.’

I put too much faith in people, Doobie. I always expect to find things how I left them. But life isn’t like that. It’s full of surprises. From now on, I’m going to see which way the wind blows.’

I think that’s the answer, Mrs L.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Cats and Dogs

catsanddogs

Cats and Dogs by Chris Green

It hasn’t been a good Spring. I have spent most of it listening to birdsong on Birdsong FM because there hasn’t been any birdsong in the garden.

Every week when Sophie and I tune in to CountryWatch, they go on about global warming. March was the hottest on record and April was the hottest on record and last Sunday the weatherman with the Polish name tried to tell us that so far May has also been the hottest on record.

‘Not here, Tomasz,’ I told him. He could not hear me of course. He was in a studio miles away. On the Moon possibly.

I know that it has rained every day so far in May because I keep a diary and, looking at it, I can see that Sophie and I have not been able to get out for a walk in the country once. It has been so wet I have not even been able to go down to the allotment. When I drove past it on Monday, I noticed that the weeds were colossal.

There has not been a single day’s play at this year’s cricket festival and the tourists, having had to abandon their county fixture, are considering abandoning the whole tour. ‘

You can’t play cricket in a bloody climate like this,’ captain, Rick Sydney said in an interview on Radio Glanchester yesterday. ‘We’re off home, mate.’

He may not have been serious. He did seem to be three sheets to the wind. All that 4X, I guess.

According to John Bearcroft, the River Glan burst its banks last night and apparently there are boats going up and down the High Street. Fortunately, we live in Lofty Ridge, one of the higher points of the town. The roof is leaking a little in the back bedroom, but I think we should be all right for now. We’ve got a few bowls and buckets. If it keeps on raining the way it has, though, who knows what might happen?

Aunt Molly phones to ask about Sophie and little Riley. Not that Riley is little anymore. He’s nearly thirteen. Aunt Molly still thinks of him as if he were three. She phones every Wednesday. Aunt Molly lives on her own and she likes to have a bit of family news. Especially since Uncle Mitch passed away. I expect it gives her something to talk about at the church bring and buy or the hairdressers. I tell her that Sophie is lying down. She has a bit of a headache but otherwise, she is fine. Riley is a little sulky because, even though it’s cricket season, he does like his football and he hasn’t been able to get out to play.

‘I know,’ she says. ‘It’s sweltering, isn’t it? I’ve got the fans on upstairs and downstairs. It’s going to be forty degrees by the weekend, they say.’

This is strange. There’s no sign of a break in the cloud here yet, in fact, the rain is falling with a new intensity. Cats and dogs, as they say. And yet, Norcastle, where Aunt Molly lives is less than fifty miles away, in fact, as its name suggests, it’s north of here. I am about to mention this but Aunt Molly interrupts.

‘That’s beautiful birdsong I can hear,’ she says. ‘I expect you’re out in the garden, sitting under that lovely maple tree.’

‘No, Aunt Molly. We’re indoors,’ I say.

‘Are you really? On a day like this? That’s a shame. ….. Good Lord! Have you got birds in the house, David?’ she says. ‘Isn’t that a cuckoo?’

‘Oh, that’s just the radio,’ I say.

‘The radio?’

‘Well, it’s internet radio, Aunt Molly. There’s a station that broadcasts birdsong all day. I listen to it a lot.’

‘But you shouldn’t be indoors on a day like this, David,’ she says.

It is beginning to dawn on me that Glanchester seems to have developed its own micro-climate. I suspect something is very wrong, but I don’t want to worry Aunt Molly. She had a stroke last year. It was touch and go for a while.

‘I’ve got to go now,’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door.’

I take a look on the BBC weather site, something that I have avoided doing lately. I can see why. It’s hopelessly inaccurate. There is absolutely no mention of rain here in Glanchester, or in neighbouring Starborough. Not a single black cloud on the graphic. It’s blanket sunshine all day every day for the foreseeable future with light winds and projected temperatures similar to those reported by Aunt Molly.

You can find almost anything out on the internet. All manner of information is there at your fingertips. You can find out how many Seventh Day Adventists there are in Tuvalu. You can find out what Beyoncé had for breakfast. You can find out what Prince Phillip’s favourite sea shanty is. But, I cannot for the life of me find out what is happening to the weather in Glanchester. I search on all the major browsers using a dictionary of different search terms but there is quite simply no reference to anything untoward. It is supposed to be hot and sunny here.

I rattle the old grey matter around to try and come up with a rational explanation. Are scientists cloud seeding perhaps? I recall the Kate Bush video for her song, Cloudbusting, with Donald Sutherland, based on Wilhelm Reich’s revolutionary device. The cloudbuster consisted of a set of hollow tubes pointed to the sky which were earthed by a body of water. It drew the orgone energy out of the atmosphere. OK. Perhaps, a bit of a longshot. What about the biblical flood and Noah’s Ark. Are Smetterton Studios maybe doing an extravagant present-day remake of the doctrinal epic here in Glanchester?

Riley comes into the room, interrupting my speculation. No school today. It is flooded. He is wearing a sweatshirt that says I’d Rather Be Sleeping. Better than the I Hate Everyone one he was wearing before, I suppose.

‘When’s Mum going to get up?’ he says, looking up briefly from his phone.

‘I don’t know, Riley,’ I say. ‘Your mother has a headache.’

‘I’m not surprised she has a headache,’ he says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful row off?’

‘That awful row, Riley, is birdsong,’ I say ‘It’s therapeutic.’

‘It’s what?’

‘Oh never mind.’

‘I was going to ask her to give me a lift over to Axel’s. Perhaps you can take me.’

‘I’m busy, Riley.’

‘Can Axel come over here then, Dad. He’s got some cool new apps on his phone. There’s this one that ……’

‘Not now, Riley. Oh! Go on, then! Tell him to come over, if you like.’

I take Sophie up a cup of herbal tea and ask her how she is feeling. She has the television on and is watching the Chelsea Flower Show on catch-up. A succession of royals and celebrities are paraded before the cameras. It seems that this is now the focus of the TV coverage of the event with just the occasional glimpse of a garden or a flower or two to suggest a modicum of authenticity.

‘It’s baking hot here in West London,’ says the presenter with the plum in her mouth.

‘But the celebrities are out in their droves,’ says the presenter from the other side of the tracks. It is the wrong expression, of course, but you can’t help thinking she is right. They are a little like cattle, herded around to put on a show wherever they are needed to promote the well-to-do club.

‘Some of the plants might be wilting but the tropical plants here are in their element,’ says the presenter with the dark linen suit, trying it seems to get the narrative back to horticulture.

‘Any better, darling?’ I ask.

‘A little,’ says Sophie. ‘But I’m not getting up until the rain stops. Look at the sunshine there in London. The presenter with the gaudy floral twin-set says it is going to be 41 degrees tomorrow, I suppose that’s today or was it yesterday. It’s hard to tell where you are with this catch-up TV. But, look at it here. I can’t remember when we last saw the sun. What’s happening, David?’

‘I don’t know, sweetest, but whatever is happening is not supposed to be happening. It’s very worrying.’

‘Can’t you phone your friend, Darwin? He’s some kind of scientist. He might know.’

‘Darwin is an opthalmologist, petal. He only knows about eyes.’

‘What’s Riley up to? He’s very quiet.’

‘He’s doing something on his phone.’

‘Isn’t he always?’

‘I said he could have Axel round. He’ll be over shortly.’

‘Axel. H’mm, Axel. He’s the one with the new phone, isn’t he? 6G or whatever it is. He was showing me some things on it last week. It’s amazing what they can do with smartphones these days, isn’t it, lover? Axel had this app on there that could change the colour of the sky. I don’t imagine it could really change the colour of the sky, it was probably some trick of the light, but then again you never know. I expect they’ll come up with an app that can change the weather soon.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

MISSING

missingpic

Missing by Chris Green

Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head lets me know I had a fair bit to drink. I got in late from a celebration of my team’s promotion. It was altogether a good night. In order not to wake anyone when I got home, I took the day bed in the downstairs study. Ellie has not been sleeping well lately, stress at work and the like, and I thought I might be a little restless. Also, it gave me a chance to be able to look at the photos of the evening on my phone. Probably best not to share all of these with Ellie, I thought.

It gradually occurs to me that it has been light for some time. I take a look at my watch. It’s eight o’clock. I wonder why no one is up. It’s Friday, a work day and of course a school day as well, but it certainly seems very quiet upstairs. Thomas is sometimes a little slow in the morning but Maddie is normally bouncing around by now. And Ellie herself has to be at the office by nine. She ought to be up and about.

Being self-employed, getting up at a specific time doesn’t matter so much to me. My colleague, Duke is flexible. He doesn’t mind opening up once in a while, so I can roll in when I like, or not at all. Duke is a handy fellow to have around. His main role is that of a fixer. Sometimes a bit of good honest persuasion is needed in my line of work and not many people would argue with Duke.

I’d better get the others up, though.

‘Anyone about,’ I call up the stairs as I do my ritual morning stretches.

There is no response.

‘Come on guys, rise and shine,’ I holler, in between my ritual morning yawns.

There is no response.

I decide I’d better go and take a look.

I make my way up the stairs trying to think of a novel way of waking them up, perhaps with a fake phone call or perhaps a sarcastic comment about their laziness. I look in Maddie’s room first. Maddie is the youngest. She’s four, no, wait, she’s five. Thomas is seven. I push the door open slowly waiting for Maddie to ask who is there. She doesn’t. Is she having a sulk about something? I poke my head round the door, leaving open the option of a boo type gesture, but there is no sign of her. The room is tidy and her bed is made. It does not look as if it has been slept in. Our bedroom reveals the same scenario. Tidy and bed apparently not slept in. Ditto, Thomas’s room.

There must surely be a rational explanation. Have they gone to stay with a friend? Has something just slipped my mind? Was there part of a conversation that I missed before I went out yesterday evening? Just a hint that they might have been going somewhere for the night. This seems unlikely. We are creatures of habit, well, Ellie perhaps more than me. In her world, these type of arrangements need to be made weeks in advance.

I didn’t have much contact with any of them yesterday, but they were around at tea time and I didn’t go out until half past seven. They were still here then, weren’t they? I remember now, I did go out a little early to stop off at the betting shop on the way to the pub. But still, this would have been nearly seven. Well, more like six I suppose. But, if something had happened, surely Ellie would have phoned me. I had my phone on. I’m sure of that. I got that call from Darius about the new shipment while I was at The Blind Monkey.

It is of course theoretically possible that they’ve all got up, dressed, used the bathroom, had breakfast and that Ellie has made the beds and taken the children to school very early, without waking me. Theoretically possible, but unlikely. I am a light sleeper even after a skinful and anyway Ellie’s yellow Fiat is still parked on the drive and all their coats are all still hanging up in the hallway. So whatever has happened, happened before I got home.

So what does this mean? I can’t think of anything that would have made Ellie leave me. Quite the reverse. We have been getting on rather well lately. Certainly as well as you can expect after eight years of marriage. Obviously, there have been one or two ups and downs over the years but surely, that’s all water under the bridge. If Ellie had left me, then you would have expected at the very least a note, explaining how she saw things. A list perhaps of unforgivable misdemeanours of which I have been completely unaware. This is what usually happens, isn’t it? Isn’t it? I don’t know. It’s never happened before. Even after Ellie discovered I was seeing Tracey. But, this is the way it happens in TV dramas.

At a glance, it doesn’t seem that anything is missing. Even Ellie’s handbag is still on the kitchen table where she has a habit of leaving it and it weighs about the same as it usually does. About ten kilos. What am I worrying about? I can just phone her. She never goes anywhere without her phone. It’s never out of her reach. I speed-dial the number. It doesn’t even go onto voicemail. ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later,’ is the message.

……………………………………

Twenty five minutes on hold, listening to Suspicious Minds, waiting to speak to an officer does nothing to instil confidence in police procedure. Once I’m put through to a real policeman, Sergeant Filcher does nothing to restore my confidence either. He sounds as if he is on diazepam medication and at the end of a twelve hour shift. I give him an account of the sequence of events since I last saw my family, but his interest in their disappearance is slight. Perhaps families go missing in Norcastle every day.

‘It’s only been a couple of hours,’ he says. ‘Perhaps your wife went to Asda on the way to school or something. Have you thought of that?’

‘Of course. But she never shops at Asda.’ To be honest, I’m not sure where she shops.

‘Have you checked the school? They have breakfast clubs and things these days.’

I haven’t checked the school, but to save time, I tell him that I have.

‘Look, Mr Black. If we investigated every family that changes its arrangements then there would be no officers available to catch the real criminals. Anyway, they’ll be down again next year.’

‘What are you talking about?’ I say.

‘Your team, they’ll be relegated again next year,’ he says. Sergeant Filcher must be a Blues supporter. The Reds beat the Blues with a goal in the very last minute of the very last game to secure promotion, at the Blues expense. I am anxious to not let Sergeant Filcher’s animosity get in the way of our conversation.

‘You’ll get on to looking for my family then, will you Sergeant?’ I say.

‘If your wife hasn’t turned up by, let us say, tomorrow evening, then call us again,’ he says. ‘Meanwhile, phone round your friends and relatives, will you! Goodbye, Mr Black.’

It can be difficult to convey the gravity of a desperate situation to others when you are the only one who realises it, so I sit down and think about how I am going to handle it. It may be wishful thinking but it is eminently possible that Ellie might walk in through the door at any time with an explanation that I have not hitherto considered. Or that she might phone. ‘Sorry,’ she might say. ‘I had no way of letting you know, but …….. ‘ I have no way of telling if such a scenario is a long-shot or not. Sergeant Filcher is probably right. It has only been a matter of hours. Perhaps I should leave it for a bit. There’s no point in treating it as an abduction or a murder investigation just yet. Perhaps Ellie’s just having a sulk. There again, he might be wrong. Uncertainty is often the worst. Given time, I could probably come to terms with the despair, but isn’t it the hope that is the problem? There again, perhaps I don’t care as much as I once did.

I don’t think Ellie ever puts her phone on silent, so, as I did not hear it ring when I dialled it earlier, I can assume that it is not in the house. In which case, she probably still has it with her. I try ringing again, but get the same message, ‘We are unable to connect you at this time. Please try again later.’ I decide to make my way through the contact numbers that Ellie has written down in the pad by the phone over the years. Friends, relatives, extended family, hairdresser, former hairdresser, former hairdresser’s friend’s cat-sitter. I keep the conversations as casual as I can. It is important to find out if anyone has seen Ellie but, at the same time, I don’t want everyone knowing our business. I don’t want people to think that I’m losing control. Reactions to the news of my family’s disappearance range from, ‘I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about.’ to ‘Oh dear, what have you been up to, now?’ No-one seems to take it seriously. You would think that there would at least be some concern for Thomas and Maddie’s welfare. The closest I get to concern is from Ellie’s friend, Shannon, who is worried that I may have buried them in the back garden. Shannon has always disapproved of me.

Around midday, as I am coming to the end of the list, the house phone rings. It doesn’t often ring. We only use our mobiles these days. I am on it like a shot but it is a call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Carl begins to tell me how the service works. I swear at him and slam the phone down. No sooner have I sat down, than the house phone rings again. Once again, I am on it like a shot but it is another call from a telemarketing company offering a unique service to block unwanted telemarketing calls. A robot called Craig begins to tell me how the service works.

I’m going up the wall, trying to think back over the last few days. Have there been any signs of restlessness, excitement, anxiety? Have the children been behaving in a secretive way or doing anything unusual? I suppose I have been out quite a lot lately but it seemed that everything was as it always was, work, school, mealtimes, staggered bedtimes.

I check our paperwork box files. Nothing seems to be missing. The passports are still in the safety deposit box and no money is gone from the joint account. I cannot get into Ellie’s account as I do not know the password, so I have no way of finding out if she has made a large cash withdrawal. I go round opening drawers and take a look in cupboards and under cushions. I do not know what I might be looking for. Am I really expecting to find a nicely typed page of A4 that will explain the disappearance, or even a scribbled note? I unearth some of the things that Ellie has kept to remind her perhaps of the good times; the programme for the Opening Ceremony of the World Cup (I’d forgotten she came along to that),both the Happy Anniversary cards I sent her when I was away, the postcards and letters I sent her from before we were married. I begin to feel a little guilt-ridden. Could I have been more caring? Should I have taken more notice?

In terms of solving the mystery, though, I am getting nowhere. Is abduction a possibility? What should I be looking for? There are no signs of forced entry. There are no obvious signs of a struggle, no furniture out of place, no scuff marks on the carpet. Everything seems as it always has been. I really don’t feel I’m going to come up with anything meaningful staying around the house.

……………………………………

As I’m locking up, I see Frank Fargo at number 66 is mowing his lawn. Since his retirement, Frank is home all day and he’s always looking out of the front window. He must see everything that goes on around here. Some sort of writer now, I believe. Spy stories or something, I think he said.’

‘Hi Frank,’ I say. ‘Sorry to bother you, mate, but I wonder if you happened to see anything last night. For instance, Ellie going off with Thomas and Maddie.’

‘Lovely children aren’t they,’ he says. ‘And you wife is looking, uh, very fit. Yesterday evening, you say. No. I don’t think I did. I saw you go off in your cab. That must have been about seven thirty three, and then nothing. Of course, I do go to bed quite early. I like to turn in about nine.’

‘What about your CCTV cameras?’ I say. ‘Do you think they might have caught something?’

‘No. I’m afraid the device that records the footage has died,’ he says. ‘Went down a couple of days ago, as it happens. I’m waiting for SlowTech or whatever they are called to come out and fix it. I thought when the doorbell rang that it might be them.’

‘So, you haven’t seen anything suspicious?’

‘Well. Now you come to mention it. Tony Demarco from number 72 has been unloading a lot of stuff into his lock up garage lately.’

‘Tony Demarco. Is he the one with the big yellow van?’

‘That’s the one. I’ve never quite been able to work out quite what he does, But I think he’s some kind of wheeler dealer.’

It’s a strange phenomenon, but when there is a mystery like this, everyone suddenly seems to be acting suspiciously. All the people I spoke to earlier about Ellie’s disappearance are probably hiding something. Even Sergeant Filcher. Especially Sergeant Filcher. He is hiding something. Frank Fargo is definitely hiding something. He must have seen what happened. And Tony Demarco must have had something to do with it. The guy who comes round to clean the windows is probably in on it too. Even the lad who delivers the flyers for the community centre events is a suspect, and certainly the Avon lady is a bit dodgy. The whole thing is a conspiracy. Everyone knows what is going on but me. I don’t like being in this position. I have a reputation to maintain.

……………………………………

I leave it for forty eight hours then call the police again and after I have badgered them for a bit, they agree to come round and have a look. After I’ve cleared a few things away, a detective with a forensics man comes along and spends an hour or so going over the place. They ask a few questions but I can tell their hearts aren’t in it. It is just a job to them. They don’t say much about what they are doing or whether they have found anything but as I hear nothing more, I assume they haven’t found anything.

I call the station just in case and when Sergeant Filcher says as far as he knows they’ve turned up nothing, I suggest they might put out a newspaper plea. He tells me he doesn’t make those kind of decisions but he will run it past Inspector Boss, but he thinks he knows what the answer will be. They have their reasons for keeping cases like mine out of the press.

‘And what might those be?’ I ask. His low-key approach does not do it for me. Does he not know that I have a certain standing in the community? If my family have been abducted, I want every officer out combing the streets looking for them.

‘You clearly do not understand police procedure, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘You’ve been watching too many crime dramas, on TV, I expect. For the time being at least, this is being treated as a matrimonial dispute.’

‘You think that we had a row in the middle of the night and Ellie walked out and took the two children without even taking her handbag, do you?’ I say.

Look, Mr Black! There is no reason to suppose that Ellie and the children have been abducted. There is absolutely no evidence to support this. Or any other line of enquiry that might constitute a serious crime.’

‘For all you know, I could have killed them and dumped the bodies in the canal,’ I say.

‘Now you are just being facetious, Mr Black,’ he says. ‘We will monitor the case, and if anything develops we will, of course, let you know. Oh! By the way, I see your team has had to sell its star players.’

Half-heartedly I take it to the Gazette. Everyone is saying that it is an avenue that should be explored. Well, when I say everyone, I suppose I mostly mean Majid at the off-licence. His family had a similar experience. The editor of the Gazette, Burford Quigley decides that it warrants no more than a few column inches on page five. Not even a picture. Perhaps I forgot to let them have a photo.

……………………………………

As the days pass and weeks turn into months, I become less and less hopeful. Occasionally there is an alleged sighting but none of these comes to anything. Friends of mine sometimes drop by to take advantage of my hospitality and from time to time friends of Ellie’s phone to find out if there has been any news, but they do this less and less frequently as the months go by.

Ellie’s best friend, Lois is the only one who phones regularly.

‘Hi Matt,’ she will say. ‘Any news?’

‘No,’ I tell her.

‘I can’t understand it,’ she will say. ‘Ellie used to tell me everything and she never once said anything about leaving.’

I tell her that she is very kind, but there’s probably nothing she can do.

‘But, you must get very lonely there all by yourself,’ she will say. ‘Why don’t you come round and I will cook you dinner? Or I could come over.’

Lois is the most attractive of Ellie’s friends and she is recently divorced. Although the offer is tempting, it wouldn’t seem right, would it?

‘Maybe another time,’ I say.

‘No-one would need to know if that’s what you are worried about,’ she says.

The letter that arrives contains five random six by four photos. There is no message to accompany the photos and the address on the front of the envelope is printed on a sticky label in the anonymous Times New Roman font. The communication does not actually suggest that it is from Ellie, but, equally, it does not suggest that it is not. One photo is of a younger looking Ellie in front of The Bell in Tanworth in Arden in Warwickshire. Although I cannot remember the specific shot, I could have easily taken this photo. I can recall Ellie and I going there about ten years ago to see the singer, Nick Drake’s grave. Northern Sky was always one of her favourites. I like Pink Moon. There is a photo of Ellie with Thomas and Maddie in a rowing boat on the lake in the local park. I presumably took this one.

Who took the other photos is less clear cut. They are of me and Tracey. I had almost forgotten about Suzie. It must have been the year before last. Who could have sent these random pics and what exactly are they trying to say? There is not even a blackmail note. Come to think of it what use would that be anyway. All in all the communication makes no sense. It is difficult to make out the postmark on the envelope. I think about it for a while and then decide to call the police. I decide to hold the three of me and Suzie back. A plain clothes policewoman comes over to collect. She looks about thirteen.

‘I’ll get the forensics team to examine these closely,’ she says. She writes a receipt, to my surprise in joined-up writing, and takes the envelope and photos away.

I hear nothing more from the police regarding the matter. When I enquire it appears that the package has gone missing. I begin to wonder if the youngster that came round was a real policewoman. Perhaps, in my confusion, I called the wrong number or something and someone is playing a joke on me.

‘Isn’t it unusual for evidence on a case to go missing?’ I say.

The duty officer, whose name I don’t manage to catch, says that he has had a good look but can find no reference to the case I am speaking about.

‘The disappearance of my wife and children,’ I say, angrily.

He puts me on hold again. I am subjected to ten minutes of Suspicious Minds and when he comes back on he says he has no record of this.

‘Would you like to go over it again?’ he says.

‘I would like to speak to Sergeant Filcher,’ I say.

He tells me that Sergeant Filcher is currently on sick leave.

……………………………………

I cannot say for sure that I am being followed, and it’s only occasionally that it happens, but once or twice lately when I’m driving out to see clients, I notice there is a dark blue Tiguan with obscured registration plates on my tail. It appears out of nowhere a couple of blocks from where I live. On the occasions that I go a roundabout route, the Tiguan does the same. Duke tells me I am being paranoid.

‘It’s not the bizzies, Matt,’ he says. ‘They mostly drive Fords.’

‘Why do you think we’re being followed then, Duke?’ I say, squinting to try and make out who is driving the Tiguan, but it has tinted windows and the sun shade is down.

‘Is it the same one?’ he says. ‘There are a lot of them about and they are nearly all dark blue?’

‘It looks like the same one,’ I say. ‘Tinted windows and sun shade down.’

‘It’s just one of those things,’ he says. ‘Tiguans have a tendency to tail you. I’ve noticed that before. And they all have tinted windows but still the drivers drive with the sun shade down.’

Is he serious or is he just having me on? Perhaps they are tailing Duke.

Later, in The Blind Monkey, Lois asks me what is wrong. She says I seem worried about something. I tell her about the Tiguan tailing me. She echoes Duke’s thoughts. She has noticed it too, she says. Tiguan drivers have a habit of tailing you. Like red sky at night, shepherd’s delight or the grass is greener on the other side, it is one of those commonplace assertions that despite you wanting to think otherwise, keep proving to be right. Where on earth did she get that from? Is she in collusion with Duke?

Oh! Did I not say? I have started seeing Lois. Two or three times a week, and perhaps the occasional weekend. And she has started to stop over. Well, I can’t be expected to live like a monk, can I? Besides, what would people think if Matt Black couldn’t get a girl? They might think I was batting for the other side.

……………………………………

I think that the Tiguan driver might be a private detective. I read on the internet that the car of choice for private detectives is a VW Tiguan. Apparently nearly all private eyes in the UK drive a Tiguan and their favourite colour is dark blue. A survey has shown that this is the least conspicuous car on the road, followed by a grey Tiguan and a grey Ford Focus. Why would a private detective be following me? Might it be because of Lois? Or for that matter, Duke?

Something else has been bothering me. I’m sure it’s nothing, but I can’t help but be a little concerned with the speed with which Lois has dispatched the children’s things to the garage and the amount of Ellie’s things she took to the tip last week.

‘Ellie won’t need this,’ she kept saying.

Six carloads in all she took, including nearly all of Ellie’s clothes and, it seemed, quite a lot of her personal papers. It is one thing Lois making room to move some of her things in so that she can stay over but another her taking over the house. I mentioned that this might be happening to Duke but he just laughed.

‘Now, you really are becoming paranoid,’ he said. ‘Why can’t you ever enjoy something for what it is?’

……………………………………

Not wishing to start the day just yet, I listen to the springtime chirping of the birds outside the window while I piece together the events of last night. The concrete that seems to be lining my head lets me know I had a fair bit to drink. I watched the match on Sky. It was a tense affair with a lot at stake. The Reds were finally beaten by a last minute goal by ex-Blues striker, Joe Turner and are now relegated. To make matters worse the Blues are promoted. I think that Lois was a bit shocked at the level of my support for the Reds, but she did manage to stop me before I actually put the hammer through the TV screen at the end of the match. I don’t think she likes football a lot. This doesn’t bode well.

The phone rings. It is an ebullient Inspector Filcher. He has the air of a man who is on ecstasy and has just been told he will live for ever. He reminds me in great detail about the match last night, what the result means for my team and what he said a year ago. Surely he has not phoned up to tell me this. Surely he cannot get so much pleasure at another’s misfortune.

‘And, what about the Blues?’ he adds. ‘Ironic or what!’

I am about to put the phone down when he says that he too has been promoted. He asks me if I will come down to the station but says he is not going what it is about over the phone. Has he been handed back the case? Have there been developments?

‘Who was that?’ says Lois. She is already dressed.

‘It was Filcher,’ I say.

‘I thought that you said he was….. off the case,’ she says.

‘He was. But he’s back. There may have been developments. He wants me to come down at the station.’ Lois seems suddenly nervous.

‘That’s …… great news,’ she says, although her body language tells a different story. Her muscles tense and the colour drains out of her face.

‘I think I’ll phone Duke,’ I say. ‘Get him to look into it.’

‘No! Don’t do that,’ she says.

‘Why not?’

‘I can’t really say.’

‘But I’m bound to find out.’

‘All right. ……… Are you ready? It was Duke that helped Ellie move her things out that night, a year ago. While you were at your football do.’

‘Duke? Never. He wouldn’t do that.’

‘Well, he did. You are so unobservant you didn’t even realise that Ellie was seeing Duke’s brother, Earl. Didn’t you think it was suspicious the way she used to dress to go to Pilates?’

‘But she didn’t take anything. Not even her car’

‘She took lots of things. As I said, you are really not very observant. And, let’s face it, the Fiat was a wreck. You know she kept on at you to get her a new one.’

‘But, why did she do it? I mean, go off with Duke’s brother like that behind my back. We were getting along fine.’

‘She said she was fed up with your lies and deceit. And the sordid little affairs. And the football. Constant football. Day and night.’

‘What about the children? What about Thomas and Maddie?’ ‘

‘Ellie says that you never took any notice of the children. She said she was surprised you could even remember their names.’

‘What about you, Lois? If I’m so terrible, why did you keep chasing after me?’

‘Chasing after you? That’s a laugh. Well, you’re so stupid, perhaps I’d better explain. I started phoning you, initially to report back to Ellie. It was amusing, playing with you like that. Then, a month ago, out of the blue, I was given notice to move out of my flat, so moving some things in here seemed the easy option. You weren’t exactly resistant to the idea. You didn’t think this was a permanent arrangement did you? But that business last night with the match on the TV. Well, that was the final straw.’

I believe that it is time I got a word in to present my side of the case, but Lois’s tirade is not yet finished.

‘And the thing is,’ she continues, ‘you just don’t see it. You always think you are right. You bend the truth to suit you. Black is white. Up is down. You are the most self-absorbed person I’ve met. Your way of seeing things is so far removed from the way things are that it might as well be a parallel universe.’

‘OK! OK! You’ve made your point. So, how does Filcher fit into all this? What is it he wants to tell me?’

‘I’ve no idea,’ says Lois. ‘It wouldn’t have been that hard to find your family. It’s not going to have taken the police a year. Anyway, I imagine Filcher knew that Ellie had gone off with Earl, or something like that. That’s why he fobbed you off. If you had been a bit more resourceful then you could have found them yourself.’

‘But Filcher went off sick. What was that all about?’

‘Probably just overwork. Rising crime rates and all that. Sometimes they have to deal with proper crimes, you know. Well. You do know. You’ve been on the wrong side of them yourself once or twice in the past. In fact, what you and Duke are doing now isn’t exactly legal is it? Perhaps Filcher wants to catch up on what is happening there.’

I am slowly running out of places to take the discussion.

‘What about the photos?’ I say. ‘Who sent the photos and what happened to them?’

‘I don’t know who sent the photos,’ she says, ‘or what happened to them. For all I know, it might have been Ellie having a laugh. ….. And, before you ask, I don’t know who has been following you either. Perhaps that’s just something else that you’ve made up.’

‘But you agreed with Duke about the Tiguan. You said that …… ‘

‘Ah, Duke! We are back to Duke. Your trusted right-hand man, who would never double-cross you. Get a life, will you! Do you think that you can trust anyone in your line of work.’

‘I’m going out now,’ I tell her. ‘When I get back, I want you gone.’

‘No problem. I couldn’t stay a minute longer.’

As I slam the front door, I see that Frank Fargo is painting his picket fence.

‘Hello,’ he calls out. ‘Nice morning!’

‘Morning Frank,’ I say. I’m not in the mood for Frank. It’s a pity I parked the car on the street and not the drive.

‘Your new ….. girlfriend is very pretty,’ he says. ‘Lois, isn’t it?’

‘What!’ I say.

‘Very nice. Your new girlfriend.’ He has put down the brush now and is coming over.

‘I expect you saw her yourself,’ he says, ‘but I noticed your wife, uh, Ellie, round here yesterday.’

‘No. I didn’t see her.’

‘She was in a dark blue Tiguan. With a big burly black fellow. He looked a bit like your man, Count. I think they might be moving into number 96. …….. You’ll be able to see a bit more of the children then, I expect. Lovely children.’

‘What!’ I say again. I am dumbstruck.

He is not finished yet. ‘I hope you don’t mind me asking but what is it that you and Count do exactly?’ he says. ‘It’s just that I’m writing a new story. It’s a bit of a departure from my spy novels and it has a pair of small-time underworld characters in it, so I was curious as to what type of activities bring in the money.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

ABRACADABRA

abracadabra2

Abracadabra by Chris Green

I have just pulled into the DIY superstore car park when I catch a snatch of Abracadabra on the new radio station I have found. Blitz plays nothing but rock, which is fine, as none of the other stations will touch it. I have not heard The Steve Miller Band for ages and, while Abracadabra may not be their finest effort, it’s still a treat to hear. Far better than the mind-numbing pap you get elsewhere on FM. Unfortunately, steel impedes the FM radio signal and B and Q is a steel-framed structure, so as I get near the building, the radio begins to tune out. Reluctantly, I switch it off and grab a trolley. I make a mental note to play Abracadabra when I get home, loudly. But, the tune is in my head now. As I wander around the store, I can’t get rid of the infectious Abracadabra chorus.

Suddenly, as if by magic, there she is. She is in the same aisle as me, looking at the selection of specialist paints. She looks divine in her Sticky Fingers T-shirt. And what cool sleeve tattoos! She smiles at me. Her smile is like Stairway to Heaven. I smile back. Mine is probably more November Rain. I am conscious that I haven’t shaved for a few days. Taking me further by surprise, she comes right up to me. She tells me she recognises me.

I saw you unloading your white van in Serendipity Street yesterday,’ she says. ‘I’ve just moved in across the road. I did try to attract your attention but you seemed preoccupied.’

Sorry,’ I say, trying to recall how I could have possibly been too busy to notice this vision of grace and loveliness.

No worries,’ she says. ‘We have met now. I’m Ella Vallée, by the way.’

Ella Vallée. That’s a nice name,’ I say, successfully avoiding the temptation to say, ‘I bet you are.’

My father was French,’ she adds.

I’m Andy,’ I say. ‘I love France. I regularly take the van over to Calais.’

My name was Ella Crews,’ she says. ‘But I changed it back when my divorce came through.’

Oh,’ I say.

Cool. Attractive. Divorced. Flirty. This is promising.

I expect you are busy but I was wondering if you might pop round later on,’ she says. ‘I’ve got something I would like you to take a look at.’

And she’s inviting me round. It gets better and better. This is exactly what I need. I’ve been at a loose end since Mandy moved her things out a week or two ago.

But let’s not jump the gun. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Best to try and play it cool.

I’ve got a few things to finish up first,’ I say. ‘But I could swing by later, say about six.’

Here’s my number,’ she says. ‘In case you get lost.’

..……………………..………………….

When Sergeant Tom Crews returns home from his extended tour of duty in Afghanistan, he finds Ella has gone. She has taken all her things, and without them, the first-floor flat looks empty. She has left no note or any clues as to where she might be, just a pile of bills and junk mail on the mat in the hallway. Certainly, she has talked about leaving before. But he thought this was just talk. They had their differences. There was no doubt about that. Tom did not feel it was right for the wife of a serving army NCO to run around seeing bands like Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine, and probably taking all manner of illegal substances while he was fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province. Ella had laughed this off, saying that he shouldn’t have been fighting with the Taliban, the army was there as a peace-keeping force. And, they had clashed over Ella’s tattoos. While it was not unusual for army wives to have their husband’s names tattooed on their arm, or a rose or something like that on their ankle, some of Ella’s tattoos were quite explicit. The snake crawling up her thigh, for instance, and the butterfly cleavage tattoo. What impression must this give his colleagues about their marriage?

But, still, six years is a long time. You have to expect a few ups and downs. It is understandable that his feelings about his relationship with Ella have tended to fluctuate. One day he would feel lucky to have such an attractive wife to go home to and the next, in a jealous rage over something he had found out, he might want to knock the living daylights out of her. But, was it too late to save their marriage, anyway? Might they actually be divorced? Tom has a vague recollection that, after he had seen a post of her strutting her stuff at an Eagles of Death Metal gig on Facebook, he may have signed something, a communication that came through the post over there in Helmand, but he is not sure what it might have been. Lately, everything seems to be a bit of a blur. With the Taliban insurgency in the Gereshk District at its height, he has hardly had time to think. Under the circumstances, he was lucky to even get leave. It was only because he had begun to have blackouts that they had let him go.

..……………………..………………….

Ella may have just moved into the Serendipity Street apartment, but, unless the previous tenants also had a taste for rock, she seems to have made the place her own very quickly. Or perhaps she has moved in with someone else, someone who had already made their mark. That’s a lingering possibility. The Jimi Hendrix mural running the length of the hallway looks quite an accomplished work. It’s also hard to imagine that the Pearl Jam posters in the front room would have been framed so professionally and just left on the walls when the last tenants moved out. I’m hoping that there isn’t a fellow on the scene.

Did you paint the walls purple and black,’ I ask when we get to the bedroom. ‘They look awesome with the yellow Fender hanging there.’

It’s not a real Stratocaster,’ Ella says. ‘It’s a cheap Chinese import.’

Nevertheless, I bet it sounds as good as it looks,’ I say, in a final attempt to make sure no bloke is going to suddenly crawl out of the woodwork.

I’m getting better. I can play the intro to Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker,’ she hollers, over the Guns N’Roses riff that is pounding the Kef speakers. ‘Could you help me off with these boots, Andy?’

She lies back on the low wooden bed, amidst the cornucopia of throws and cushions. Getting the long black boots off is a doddle, compared to the tight ice blue jeans. They fit her like a second skin. How long must it take her to get into them? And, my sweet Lord! Where does that snake tattoo end up?

..……………………..………………….

Tom Crews has no idea where Ella might have gone. She has no family nearby, in fact, he has never met her parents. He hasn’t had much to do with her friends and they haven’t had much to do with him. He has always thought of them as common and they have always thought of him as dull and boring, far too straight to be with Ella. Their apparent incompatibility has come up time and time again in their arguments.

After the earlier episode with the photos, Tom deactivated his Facebook account but now, in an attempt to find out what is going on, he re-activates it. He finds to his alarm that Ella is no longer on Facebook, or if she is she is no longer using her name, or her maiden name, Ella Vallée. He searches around the flat and manages to find a mobile number for her friend, Lola on a scrap of paper. He is not sure which one Lola is, but he thinks she might be the one who comes round in the studded leather jacket, the one that talks like Eliza Doolittle and is always chewing gum. Lola tells him, not at all convincingly he feels, that she hasn’t heard from Ella in a long time. Roxy, the one with the green hair, who he tracks down to Nail It is more straightforward. She just tells him to sling his hook.

In what can best be seen as a desperate measure, Tom goes into town and sits on a bench outside Pricks Tattoo Parlour in the High Street in the hope that Ella might show up there. It is a long-shot, but he does not feel he can stay in the empty flat. When Mikey, an old friend of his, comes up to him and asks him what he is doing there, he realises that he is acting irrationally and they go off to The Prince of Wales for a pint.

I bumped into Ella last week,’ Mikey says, once they have exhausted their reminiscences about the old days back in Toker’s End. ‘She was coming out of R3hab.’

What?’ Tom says, taken aback. ‘I didn’t. uh. I know she likes to smoke the odd spliff, but I didn’t realise she had a …… uh problem.’

Of course, mucker. You’ve been away, haven’t you?’ laughs Mikey. ‘R3hab’s a new club. Opened last year in the old fire station. Ella stumbled out. About 2 a.m. I think it was. I had been to Cloud Nine. That’s a club too, by the way. Anyway, Ella was with friends, Lola, I think the one’s called. And that one with the green hair. Oh! And I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, but they went off with some blokes. I’m sure it was all innocent, like.’

Innocent? Do you really think so?’ Tom says. ‘At 2 a.m.?’

..……………………..………………….

The Stieg Miller Band, a Swedish tribute act are playing at R3hab and Ella has managed to get us tickets. I would not normally go to see tribute bands, nor I suspect would Ella, authenticity being important to us rockers and all that. But, she explains that Mojo is describing the Stieg Miller Band as the real deal. Some of the band members have apparently played with Armageddon and Lowrider, two of the top Swedish rock bands. I have not heard of either band. The only acts coming out of Sweden that I have heard of are Abba and Sigur Rós. Come to think of it, Sigur Rós might be from Iceland. Perhaps I am a few years behind with my reading of music periodicals. I already know what I like and I just like listening to the music. And if Stieg Miller sounds anything like Steve Miller, then I guess that is enough to go on. After all, I do like the songs. I still have the Abracadabra earworm from the other day.

I would not normally go to R3hab either. It has a reputation for fights, or at least that is what Mandy and her friends used to say about it. But, Ella tells me there is nothing to worry about. Her powers of persuasion are such that I feel I have little choice in the matter, anyway. She even kits me out with new clothes for the occasion. From that designer shop I’ve never had the nerve to go in. I have never had a real biker jacket before. It’s very stylish and I’m sure that the super spray jeans will get more comfortable as the night wears on.

..……………………..………………….

Let’s get our arses down there,’ Tom Crews says after the fourth pint.

What are you on about?’ Mikey says. ‘Where are we going to get our arses down to?’

R3hab,’ Tom says.

R3hab doesn’t open until around 10 p.m., mucker,’ Mikey says. ‘And I expect they have a dress code. I mean, look at you. You’re wearing …….. a double-breasted suit. They’re not going to let you in looking like that. When was the last time you saw someone other than Prince Charles wearing a double-breasted suit? And isn’t that a regimental tie? I mean, come on, man!’

You don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go, do you?’ Tom says.

Well. It is a daft idea,’ Mikey says. ‘But if you are going to go you’ll need to go home and change.’

..……………………..………………….

The band are playing Abracadabra over and over. It sounds great, but why don’t they play another number. The Joker or Fly Like An Eagle, maybe. ………….. A man in an orange jacket is coming towards me. He has a serious expression on his face. …………… He walks straight past me. ……………… He goes up to the pretty girl in the Sticky Fingers T-shirt who is looking at the specialist paints, along the aisle.

Do you need any help?’ he says, with a strained smile.

Do you stock these acrylic eggshell paints in purple and black?’ the girl says. ‘You only seem to have pale colours here.’

Oh no! Has it happened again? ………………. Have I had another of my flights of fancy? I only came in to buy some replacement bits for my Black and Decker.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Across The Universe

acrosstheuniverse

Across The Universe by Chris Green

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

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

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

………………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………………

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

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

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

………………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

It seems a well-practised line, but Rocky chuckles.

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

An understatement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Regularly,’ Billy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There might have been a panic,’ Rocky says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Three

ronpic3

The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Three by Chris Green

In his nineteen years on the force Sergeant Crooner has happened upon many strange scenarios. If he has learnt one thing from police work though, it is when something seems amiss there is usually a rational explanation. Cause and effect, action and reaction and all that. The supernatural does not feature heavily in the life of the plod. He can however see no rational explanation this time. He is flummoxed.

‘That is a dead pig in the back seat, isn’t it, Vaz?’ he says. He feels he needs to make sure. With all the back to back shifts he has been doing lately, he doesn’t know if he is coming or going. Only yesterday, he drove through a red light on the pedestrian crossing outside BronzeTan and narrowly missed a lady walking her Bichon Frise. It certainly looks to him like a dead pig, the kind you used to see hung in butchers’ shops before namby pamby political correctionists took over the western world.

‘Yes Sarge,’ says Vaz. He is not sure how to react. He is a newcomer to police work. He drifted into it when he found no commercial opportunities for street art. ‘I think that describes it perfectly. It is a dead pig.’

‘And it wasn’t there just now, was it Vaz? When we went up to Mrs DeAngelo’s house.’

‘No Sarge,’ says Vaz distractedly. ‘It definitely wasn’t there then.’ Vaz recalls the scene with the horse’s head in the bed in The Godfather. And Marlon Brando saying I’m going to make him an offer he cannot refuse. This worries him a little. He doesn’t mention it. It seems reasonable to assume that Sergeant Crooner will also have referenced this. After all, the iconic film was from his boss’s generation.

‘And you did lock the car, didn’t you?’

‘Yes. I never forget to lock the car, Sarge. You keep telling me that thieves will stop at nothing.’ There again this is 2016 English suburban Home Counties, not Mafioso run 1950s New York. There is no real reason to suppose that whoever deposited the dead pig is delivering the same kind of message as Vito Corleone. Is there?

‘And we definitely didn’t go into Mrs DeAngelo’s house, because no-one answered the door, right?’

‘That’s right, Sarge.’

Sergeant Crooner mops his brow. He feels dizzy. For a moment he thinks that he might be going to faint.

‘Are you all right, Sir?’ says Vaz. ‘You’ve gone a funny colour. Uh, cerise, I think.’ Vaz is good at colours. Art college education.

‘So,’ says Sergeant Crooner, bypassing the enquiry after his welfare. ‘The dead pig must have been put there while we were trying to get someone to answer the door. ….. How long do you think that was, Vaz?’

‘About a minute and a half, I would say, Sarge. Three minutes tops.’

‘The car was in full view as well wasn’t it?’

‘Yes Sarge. When you went round the back I stayed at the front as you recall.’ He does not mention that he used the time to change the ringtone on his iphone to Catfish and the Bottlemen’s new tune.

‘H’mm.’

‘Do you want me to call Division to get someone to come and dispose of the dead animal?’

‘Forensics, Vaz. We need to bring in Forensics.’

‘Remind me why we were calling on Mrs DeAngelo, Sarge. I’m not sure you let me in on this.’

‘Later, Vaz. Later.’

…………………………………………….

Ron Smoot met Daniel DeAngelo in prison. Anxious to rid himself of the moniker, Wet Blanket Ron, which had plagued him for years, Ron took the CBT course on offer at Strangeways, four times. Daniel DeAngelo was on CBT course number four, under the misapprehension that CBT was some king of boxing training. He discovered quickly that it wasn’t, but he found Ron to be amenable and latched on to him for the rest of his stay. He was mysteriously released after two years of his sentence. When taunted with the line everyone in here is innocent DeAngelo had consistently said the difference is I AM innocent. I was fitted up by a bent cop. Ron never discovered if this really was the case or in fact why DeAngelo was released. By and large he kept his head down. When he was himself was released after serving three years of his six year stretch, Daniel DeAngelo offered him a position in his trading firm, this in return for the many favours that Ron had done for him inside. Although it was not a high powered position, and his job description was vague, Ron was grateful. He felt his efforts had paid off.

Ron had been jailed for his part in bringing down the rock star, Johnny Angel’s helicopter. As it happened Ron had had nothing to do with it. He was a victim of circumstance. But then, this was the story of his life. Bad luck had dogged him since kinder-garden. For instance, years ago he suffered multiple injuries when he was was knocked down by a hit and run driver. In hospital he went down with Norovirus. While he was in the isolation ward, his wife, Heather ran off with his best friend, Frank. When he came out of hospital, his landlord, Kostas Moros, who was also seeing Heather when she was not seeing Frank, threw him out of his flat to let it for more money and charged Ron two grand for damages incurred during his tenancy.

Ron acted like a magnet to calamity. Disaster and disappointment were constant companions. His every endeavour went tits up. Time and time again, outrageous misfortune tracked him down. No-one would have bet against him going to prison for a crime he did not commit; there was a strange inevitability about this happening.

On being released from prison, Ron was determined to turn his life around. Feeling positive, he put his Hank Williams CD collection on ebay, ditched his Life is Meaningless and Everything Dies sweatshirt, and joined the InstaDate dating agency. He started seeing someone called Simone. It was unfortunate that Simone turned out to be a transvestite. Simone’s dark brown voice should have given him a clue, as should the fact that her feet were bigger than his, but Ron in his enthusiasm, missed these pointers. It was unfortunate too that it took him nearly a month to discover Simone’s proclivities, but he did not dwell on it. The Wet Blanket Ron of old would have seen the episode as an insurmountable knock-back to his confidence. He would have dined out on the story for weeks, but the post-CBT Ron resolved to quickly put the matter behind him. He told himself there were plenty more fish in the sea. He just had to be more careful, next time.

Although working for Daniel DeAngelo offered no company car, and pay days were a little irregular, Ron was eventually able to buy a Rover 75 from Ted Drinker Quality Second Hand Cars. This way he was able to do pick ups and deliveries for DeAngelo. Although Rovers were notoriously unreliable, for a week or two Ron had no trouble with his purchase. He made no less than seventeen journeys up and down the motorway with important packages. He did not know what the packages contained. He was curious as the packages seemed unnaturally light but he thought that it was not his place to ask. It was enough that Daniel DeAngelo had described them as important and had entrusted him with them.

Ron knew he shouldn’t have ignored the oil light, but when you have to get somewhere quickly, you sometimes overlook these things. Daniel DeAngelo did stress that time was of the essence on this particular mission. Il tempo è importante. Le borse contengono tempo, he had said lapsing into his native Italian. Strictly speaking Ron’s judgement was right, as the car did make it the hundred or so miles to his pick up and back. It wasn’t until he was nearly home that the engine started labouring. Pulling off from the traffic lights at the Scott Mackenzie roundabout it started to make unwelcome noises. At first the smoke that emerged from under the bonnet was light in colour, but over half a mile or so of chugging and lurching, the poor Rover began belching out thick grey clouds of the stuff. Ron was never mechanically minded but it was apparent even to him that the engine was now on its way out. By the time he pulled it over on to the kerb, to let the traffic pass, the Rover had all but disappeared in a cloud of acrid black smoke.

Ron of old would have been mortified but his post-CBT voice tells him that the main thing is that he has the package safe and sound. He can still deliver it to DeAngelo.

…………………………………………….

‘I don’t want to bother you, Sarge,’ says PC Vaz. ‘But, look over there! Someone’s just ……. uh, torched a car.’

‘Oh, so they have, Vaz. Lot of it about, I’m afraid,’ says Sergeant Crooner, dismissively. Vaz is beginning to get on his nerves. Why did they keep giving him these hopeless rookies. If he had been promoted to Inspector, he wouldn’t have to break in these fresh-faced kids with no aptitude for police work. He had missed out on promotion five years in a row now. Wasn’t his nineteen years of service enough? Debbie might not have left him for Kirsty Tickler if he’d been promoted. But arguably he might have been promoted if Debbie hadn’t left him for Kirsty Tickler. This sort of thing was still looked down upon in the Constabulary. Or was it all down to that business with DeAngelo that they had not considered him suitable for higher office?

‘Shouldn’t we go and have a look, Sarge?’ says PC Vaz, bringing him out of his reverie.

‘You’re like an excited child, Vaz. Wait until you’ve been on the beat a few years, son. ……… Oh go on then. I suppose we should have a look. I’m guessing it will be a while before forensics get here to go over the pig. We may as well be doing something useful.’

‘There’s someone standing by it, Sarge. He’s on his phone. Seems to be gesticulating a lot.’

‘Oh my God, Vaz! That’s ….. That’s Ron Smoot. Wet Blanket Ron. He can’t be out of the nick already, can he?’

‘Who is Wet. …. Blanket. ….. Ron. Sarge?’

‘He’s notorious, Vaz. He’s the one that brought down Johnny Angel’s helicopter. Before your time I expect, Johnny Angel.’

‘Oh no, Sarge. I remember Johnny Angel. Rocket Man. Crocodile Rock.’

‘No. That was the other fellow, Vaz.’ Why had then given him this plank?

‘This Wet. Blanket. Ron, Sarge. Why is he called that?’

‘You don’t want to know, Vaz.’

…………………………………………….

Ron is relieved to see the two police officers approaching. He was getting nowhere on the phone with Stan Feckwith Salvage. They did not seem to be treating his request seriously. Tomorrow afternoon, indeed. As if you can leave a burned out Rover by the side of a main road until then. And £50 to take it away. They should be paying him. When his Metro had gone to the breakers years ago Andy Carr Breakers had written him a check for £50. Never mind, the officers are sure to be able to help. They probably come across problems like this all the time. They will know what he should do next.

‘Am I pleased that you have come along?’ he calls out. ‘You can’t believe how difficult it is to get a car towed away around here.’

‘Well, well, well! If it isn’t Ron Smoot,’ says Sergeant Crooner. ‘What is it this time, Ron? Oh dear, torching cars. That’s slumming it a bit isn’t it after bringing down helicopters?’

‘Might he have had something to do with the dead pig, Sarge?’ says Vaz.

‘Not now, Vaz.’

‘I haven’t done anything,’ says Ron. ‘I’m trying to be helpful. I’m just trying to get the car taken away.’

‘I think we should take him in, Vaz. We’re bound to find something we can charge him with. Search him will you.’

‘OK Smoot!’ says PC Vaz. ‘Hands up against the wall and no funny business!’

‘I need to call my lawyer.’

‘We’ve caught you red handed setting alight to a car, Smoot.’

‘The engine blew up on me, officer. I want to call my lawyer.’

‘That would be the celebrated, Brent Diaz, would it?’ says Sergeant Crooner ‘In case you don’t know, Vaz, Brent Diaz is the most famous crooked lawyer in these parts. He is popularly known down town as Bent Diaz.’

‘I resent that allegation.’

‘Shut up, Smoot. Cuff him, Vaz! We’ll take him in.’

‘What about Mrs DeAngelo’s house and the dead pig, Sarge?’

Ron may not be the brightest button in the box, but the mention of the name DeAngelo puts him on a higher state of alert. Last time he was in the office he overheard a phone conversation about settling a score with a mention of sending a dead animal as a message. There was an allusion to a scene in The Godfather and although he could not remember the film that well, there was one particular scene that had stayed with him. What was the offer that the victim couldn’t refuse, though? Was it something to do with getting the character that wasn’t meant to be Frank Sinatra a part in a film? More to the point what had DeAngelo been referring to?

…………………………………………….

Brent Diaz is surprised to get the call, and a little horrified. When he said goodbye to Wet Blanket Ron at the trial, he thought he had seen the last of him. ……. Wrongful arrest? Daniel DeAngelo? What is the fellow talking about? He can’t have been out five minutes. Surely he is not in trouble already. You would have thought he would have learned his lesson by now. I mean, he doesn’t come across as a career criminal, just a recurrent loser. Still, there is something about Wet Blanket Ron that against your better judgement elicits sympathy.

‘Slow down, Ron,’ he says. ‘I can’t make out what you are saying. ……. Sergeant Crooner? Yes a regular pain in the ass, that one. …….. I agree there’s nothing worse that a bent cop.’

‘They’ve already taken the packages that I was supposed to deliver to Daniel DeAngelo and opened them.’

‘H’mmm. Out of interest, Ron. What was in the packages?’

‘That’s just it, Mr Diaz. Nothing. The packages seemed to be ……. empty.’

‘Then they have no reason to detain you.’

‘There’s still the business with the car, Mr Diaz. They are still saying that I torched the car. But I didn’t. It just blew up on me.’

‘OK Ron. Hang on in there. I’m on my way. Give me twenty minutes and I’ll be there at the station.’

…………………………………………….

‘I feel really bad about what happened to young Vaz, Inspector,’ says Sergeant Crooner. My heart goes out to his family. I know he was a bit naive, and could be a pain in the ass with his arty farty stuff, but he didn’t deserve that. I can’t stop from thinking that the explosion was meant for me. DeAngelo seems to have felt that there was an old score to settle. To be honest I would have thought that stuff about framing him would have blown over. But maybe it hadn’t. It seems he was driven by revenge. That must have been what the dead pig was about. He was sending a warning. Do you know, Vaz said something about a scene in The Godfather. But never having seen the film I did not understand what he was talking about. I’m probably the only person in the county that hasn’t watched the film. Never was one for watching films. But now I wish I had watched it. It might not have come to this.’

‘Perhaps give it a miss now, eh, Crooner? …… The film, I mean.’

‘Right there in broad daylight too.’

‘Vaz walked right into it, didn’t he,’ says Inspector Otis. ‘Poor sod. Probably never be able to walk again though, they are saying.’

‘Don’t make me feel even worse, sir.’

‘Well. I guess as officers of the law we have to learn to expect these things.’

‘Any word on DeAneglo yet?’

‘No. The bastard seems to have disappeared without trace.’

‘How long do you think we can hold Smoot?’

‘Indefinitely, I should think, now that Brent Diaz has backed off. Even if we can’t pin the bomb on him, arson is a pretty serious offence in these days of terrorism.’

‘Bit of a mystery why Diaz didn’t want to stay on the case. He seemed to give up too easily.’

‘Probably two hours of listening to Wet Blanket Ron was as much as he could take.’

‘I wonder what happened to the stuff that he was carrying when we brought him in. ‘

‘I expect it’s downstairs with Evidence.’

‘Anyway, what’s done is done I suppose. What have you got?’

‘This is a weird one, that’s just come in, Crooner. Someone has been smuggling what they describe as small packages of time out of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. This it says has happened now on seventeen occasions in all.’

‘What would these packages look like, Inspector? These packages of ….. time?’

‘That’s just it, Crooner. Nobody seems to be able to describe what a package of time would look like. Time doesn’t have mass, as such. Whatever shape or size it was when you opened the package up it would just look like it was empty.’

‘There must be a market for it, wouldn’t you say, sir? A market for time. I mean everybody needs time.’

‘You mean as in buy some time or buy more time.’

‘Exactly.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Lenticular Clouds

lenticularcloud4

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

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

…………………………………………..

Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He did not come back last night.’

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

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

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

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

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

When was this?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

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

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

No, not everyone.’

When you disappear, where do you go?’

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

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

…………………………………………..

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

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

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

And they are there for days, just hovering.’

Bound to have an effect’

Like the moon and the stars.’

We’ll probably never know the full story.’

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

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

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

What about another glass of wine?’

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

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

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

The Importance of Being Nearest

theimportanceofbeingnearest2

The Importance Of Being Nearest by Chris Green

‘Milk,’ I say. ‘Milk.’

‘Is that all you want?’ says Karim, the Asian shopkeeper.

‘My mate Marmite,’ I say.

‘On the shelf over there, mate,’ says Karim, the Asian shopkeeper.

‘Maybe Mimi might make more marmalade,’ I say.

‘What?’ says Karim. ‘Come on! I’ve got customers waiting.’

‘Maureen may marry Marvin Monday morning,’ I say. ‘Mild mann …..’

‘Get out of my shop!’ says Karim.

He is shaking his fist at me. I leave the milk on the counter.

No-one seems to understand that I have to practice my resonance exercises. Little and often throughout the day, my speech therapist, Heather says. She tells me I should try to work the phrases into everyday conversations. Living on my own and having an arthritic hip I don’t really get the chance to have everyday conversations every day. Unless you count talking to Alfonso, my cat. Alfonso, bless him, is getting old, though. He is eighty-three in cat years. That’s eight years older than me. He spends most of his time sleeping. The main chance I have to practice my phrases is when I go out shopping.

In the post office, I try to strike up a conversation with the cashier with the purple hair and the nasal jewellery.

‘Many men make mountains out of molehills,’ I say. ‘Minced meat never manages to minimise my migraines.’

‘Have you come about disability benefits?’ the cashier says.

‘Mac Macnamara manages a military museum in Miami,’ I say.

The cashier makes a politically incorrect loony tunes gesture and calls her manager. Her manager, a pro wrestler type covered in tattoos, comes over. She glares at me and roughly grabs the parcel I have brought in to send to my eldest daughter, Zoe in Canada. She takes the tenner I am holding out and roughly throws my change down the steel chute. It lands on the floor. I struggle to pick it up. Old people are not treated with much reverence these days, especially here in Downmarket. I would not stay here if I could afford to move. Mimi says that I can move in with her and Malcolm. It’s important to be with your nearest and dearest as you get older, she says. But I don’t know. Even though Noel and Liam have grown up and left home, it wouldn’t be fair. Apart from this, I still have my pride.

I tell Heather about my unfortunate experiences. She sympathises. She is very professional. I have had four sessions with her now. She says I am suffering from muscle tension dysphonia. The condition is the result of the lengthy bronchial tract infection that I had over the winter. My vocal chords do not meet properly. She showed me a film of this on her monitor. It was quite scary seeing my internal organs there on the screen. Over the four weeks I have been coming along to the hospital, we have progressed from basic humming sounds to words to phrases. Each exercise Heather gives me concentrates on the Em sound. She says this sound encourages forward resonance.

‘The problem is that people round here don’t seem to understand that I need opportunities to develop my forward resonance,’ I tell her. ‘They don’t take into consideration that I have no one at home.’

‘Perhaps you could ease the phrases more gently into your conversations, Dennis’ says Heather. ‘Start off by saying something about the weather or The Great British Bake Off.’

‘But I don’t watch The Great British Bake Off,’ I say. ‘And the weather is always the same, wet and windy.’

‘Well, there you are then,’ says Heather. ‘You could remark how wet and windy the weather is.’

………………………………………………………….

I’m not much good in the kitchen. Brenda always did the cooking. Brenda died three years ago. Liver failure. Sometimes I feel that part of me went with her, but you have to carry on, don’t you? When you are old and live on your own, though, you don’t tend to cook anything fancy. You just put something in the microwave. You have enough to do every day, just remembering to take all your medications and supplements, without learning how to cook Beef Wellington or Baked Alaska.

But, to get myself up to speed on what The Great British Bake Off programme is all about, I watch three episodes of it back to back on iplayer. Jonathan showed me how to use iplayer last time he was out of prison. It doesn’t always work, but maybe I’m doing something wrong. Anyway, the aim of The Great British Bake Off seems to be to put the contestants under so much pressure that they forget to put a key ingredient in the cake they are making, so that the celebrity cooks can tell them how hopeless they are, in front of ten million viewers. But at least, I have something to bring into the conversation next time I go to the shops.

I start to practice my conversations about the weather on Alfonso. It is as well to try them out at home before taking them out into the real world.

‘There’s a real storm blowing out there today, Alfonso,’ I say. ‘In fact, you could say it is raining cats and dogs. Cats and dogs, get it?’

Alfonso doesn’t stir.

‘There’s a strong north easterly, Alfonso. That’s unusual, don’t you think for this time of year? We mostly get mild to moderate south westerlies. It might be milder on Monday morning.’

Alfonso doesn’t stir. He hasn’t stirred all day, in fact he didn’t stir much yesterday either.

‘The weather forecast for the next few days isn’t good either, Alfonso. Blustery showers with more persistent rain arriving from the west later.’

Alfonso’s ears twitch a little.

‘I think it might be to do with El Niño.’

Alfonso pricks up his ears. He clearly likes this development in the narrative. He has consistently shown an interest in the climate change debate. He always sits up and takes notice when Attenborough is on the television. Who says dogs are cleverer than cats? When he puts his mind to it, Alfonso is a match for any mutt.

………………………………………………………….

‘Oh look!’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door, Alfonso. He looks like one of those charity workers. We haven’t got any more money to give away, have we? …… Not since we lost our pension top ups. Never mind. I expect he’ll go away.’

My visitor doggedly stands his ground. He is young and, it seems, determined. When he rings the bell a third time, I slowly make my way to the door.

The young man in the red anorak stands there for a moment, not saying anything. I look him up and down. His anorak has an unfamiliar logo on it. Something to do with communities in crisis. At least, he’s come to the right place. Downmarket definitely fits the bill. Things have been getting steadily worse for years. The decline of textile manufacturing marked the beginning of the end for the town. No-one has wanted to invest here since and there’s now no work to be had anywhere.

Years ago, Downmarket was an easy going nice friendly place, a prosperous town awash with opportunity. It had a Third Division football team, three cinemas and a gymnasium, where you could learn to box. There used to be a thriving Sunday morning market and a dog track. There were bingo halls, and selection of pubs where you could go to play darts or skittles. Now, what is there? Boarded up shops, street drinkers, kerb crawlers, joy riders. I’m afraid to go out at night. The Mature Times that I picked up in the post office says the so-called Big Society too has failed local communities. The demise of the town centre it says is a major contributing factor towards loneliness and isolation. Small towns like Downmarket it says are the worst affected. There’s even talk that they might close the hospital. How will I manage then? The nearest one will be forty miles away in Slumpton.

The youngster brings me out of my reverie.

‘A big bag of baking powder’ he says. ‘And baked a batch of biscuits,

At least, that’s how it sounds to me, but my tinnitus has flared up today, so it is hard to tell what he is really saying.

I don’t get a lot of visitors, and given different circumstances, I might have welcomed the opportunity to stop and chat with him. But I don’t want to start a conversation about the weather as it is now raining heavily. He is drenched. He might see it as an invitation to step inside. At my age, you do have to be careful who you let into your house. Mrs Spurlock at number fifty-seven had someone call on her who said he was from British Gas. Next thing she knew he had run off with her prized collection of crocheted kestrels. PCSO Stringer says that they are called distraction burglars.

‘I’m not interested, thank you,’ I say, politely.

‘A big bug bit a bold bald bear badly,’ I think the fellow says. Once again it is difficult to tell exactly what he is saying. The rain is beating down and his articulation is poor, this on top of the background noise from my tinnitus.

‘I already donate to charity,’ I tell him. ‘I buy all my clothes at CLIC Sargent.’

‘Ben bought a big black bag of banned beta blockers,’ he says. Or something similar. His voice is now cracking a little. He does seem a little …… nervous.

Maybe I have been slow on the uptake. I find this happens more and more as I get older. It had seemed unlikely that the whipper-snapper on the doorstep should have voice problems on account of his being so young. But it occurs to me now that he himself might be on a regimen of speech therapy. Perhaps he is under a different therapist at the hospital. Maybe his therapist isn’t aware of the benefits of practising the em sound, or misguidedly thinks that the be sound is more beneficial. If this is the case then the young man needs a little advice on annunciation. Also, he needs to understand how to open a conversation with a more general topic. Perhaps he might even begin by introducing himself and saying what it is that he is calling about. Heather is right. Kicking off with the resonance exercises is the wrong approach. You don’t tend to notice how off-putting this alliterative nonsense can be until you experience someone else coming out it.

‘Have you thought of starting off by saying who you are,’ I say. ‘Or perhaps commenting on the weather? It puts people off when you dive straight in with gibberish sentences. I realise that you have to practise your phrases, but you have to learn to work these in gradually. Why don’t you come in and dry off and I will show you? We could even watch Celebrity Bake Off on iplayer if you want. That’s a good topic for conversation. Nearly everyone you meet watches Celebrity Bake Off.‘ I think they have Ken Dodd, Samantha Cameron and Bono on the next heat and that fellow, what’s his name, Ayman al-Zawahiri. You know, the fellow with the …. beard.

‘I’m not …… big on baking,’ says the youngster. ‘I’m …… uh, Billy by the way.’

‘Pleased to meet you, Bobby, I say. ‘Celebrity Bake Off wouldn’t have been my cup of tea either, but it is helpful to be able to talk about this stuff. I was able to hold a conversation in the convenience store yesterday when I went in to buy Alfonso’s pilchards because I knew what they were talking about. That was The Jeremy Kyle Show by the way. That’s another programme I never used to watch. If you’ve got time we could have a go at that after Celebrity Bake Off.’

Over a cup of Yorkshire tea, Bobby and I watch Bake Off and have a nice chat about speech therapy, the state of the NHS and the difficulty in getting your point across. Bobby seemed a nice young chap. It is not until the next day that I discover that the money from under my mattress is missing along with most of my military medals.

………………………………………………………….

I might move in with Mimi and Malcolm. Mimi and Malcolm moved to Monmouth in March last year. Mimi was horrified that I had been robbed and practically ordered me to join them. Monmouth seems like a nice place. It’s a prosperous small rural market town two miles over the Welsh border. Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it says on Wikipedia. The River Wye looks lovely. Malcolm says he will take me fishing there. Although Monmouth hospital closed recently, Mimi thinks I should be able to get my hip done at a nearby hospital. I can’t remember the name of the place. They look after people better in Wales, she says. The country air might also perk Alfonso up a bit.

PCSO Stringer thinks I will be able to claim for the medals on my insurance, so I should have a little money coming. He has even offered to help me fill out the forms. He doesn’t think I will be able to claim for the cash that was stolen, though. You should never leave money lying around the house, he says. But it was only a hundred or so. He says they haven’t caught Bobby yet but he thinks that Bobby probably wasn’t his real name anyway. There’s been a lot of distraction burglary lately. Pretending to be charity workers is their latest trick. It is easy to target elderly or vulnerable people this way. PCSO Stringer says that victims can lose their confidence and peace of mind, as well as money and possessions. I mustn’t let it get to me. I should view my misfortune as motivation to move on.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

NOIR

NOIR

NOIR by Chris Green

It’s early evening and it is beginning to get dark. The street lights are just coming on. Apart from a middle-aged man in a black coat sitting near the door, Bianca is the only customer in Café Noir. She is uncomfortable because the man keeps staring at her. She feels there is something familiar about him, but she cannot put her finger on what it is. She has had this feeling on occasions before and it has turned out to be a bad omen.

Bianca doesn’t usually stop off on her way home from work. After a hard day at Trask and Wherry, she normally goes straight home, but she has had a late meeting, and anyway it is Ronnie’s poker night. There is no sense in getting home much before eleven on Ronnie’s poker night, so she has dropped in for a glass or two of Prosecco to unwind and perhaps a bite to eat, before she goes home. She had wondered if she might see Cathy at Café Noir, but she is not here. She has probably gone to see the film that is on at the Odeon. The one with Hugh Jackman, that she has been talking about. Still, she has the novel that Louise lent her to get on with while she enjoys a quiet drink. Black Veil, a tense thriller.

The half familiar stranger in the black coat keeps up his vigil. Bianca has a nagging suspicion that there might be some connection with her friend Trudi. Might Trudi know who he is? It would be good to have a chat with her anyway to put her mind at rest. She is about to make the call, but she finds that the battery on her Samsung is flat. She suspects it is probably to do with all the background apps that she has installed to check on what background apps are running. At least, this is what Derek at work told her last week when the same thing happened.

Didier, the bar manager has just slipped behind the counter to fetch her a menu when the man makes his way over. Standing, and silhouetted by the backlight, he looks even taller. He sweeps his hair back and Bianca notices he has a scar running up his left cheek. Other than this he has a symmetrical face, reminiscent of a matinee idol from the fifties, so much so that he almost appears to be in black and white. Without asking her if it is OK to do so, he takes a seat at her table. She waits for him to introduce himself, but instead, he starts talking about Ryu Sakomoto. He talks about Sakomoto’s regular themes of journeys into the unknown and the external nature of evil.

‘He feeds on modern-day paranoia,’ he says. ‘That concern we all have that something terrible is about to happen.’

Who is Ryu Sakamoto, she wonders? Is he a film director? Like David Lynch perhaps. A painter? More to the point, why is this man with the piercing eyes talking about him as if she might be interested? It is not exactly a sparkling chat up line.

‘Sakamoto gets up at 4am and writes for five or six hours,’ says the stranger. He is edging closer, invading her personal space.

Ah! So he’s a writer then, she thinks, this Sakamoto. Perhaps Ronnie has read something of his. Ronnie likes authors with foreign-sounding names. There’s that one who wrote The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Larsson is it? Sven? Steig? Steig Larsson. Not that he ever finishes a book. They just lie open face down on his bedside cabinet.

‘Sakamoto never plans a story,’ the man continues. ‘He lets it unfold by itself. He doesn’t know who did it until the end of the story.’

Who did what, she wonders. Why is he telling me this?

…………………………………………………………………………..

Ronnie Kemp is not used to losing at poker, but tonight he has lost hundreds. How often does a full house, aces over kings, get beaten? And losing hands to Tim Little. Tim is the most transparent poker player for miles around. If Tim were a better player, Ronnie might have suspected that he was cheating. After all, what are the odds of landing four queens in 5 Card Draw? It would be stretching the imagination though to see Tim as a bottom dealer or hand mucker. These tricks are strictly for professional card sharps.

But, what a fool he was to then try and bluff his way out of trouble in the next hand with a pair of jacks. This had cost him another ton. When things are not going your way, they have a tendency to go from bad to worse. Isn’t that known as Murphy’s Law or something? Whatever, it’s right, Ronnie reflects. This is exactly how Lady Luck seems to work. In the last few hands of the evening, the best he could manage was two pairs, fives on threes. How are you supposed to win with hands like that? He would have liked to have continued the session a little longer, but Bill, Phil and Tim understandably wanted to call it a day. They were all well up on the night, and all at his expense.

And where the blazes is Bianca? It’s nearly midnight. She should be home by now. She never said she would be late, but he has to admit they don’t communicate well first thing in the morning. They don’t sit down at the breakfast table or anything like that. Perhaps she did say something. Did he imagine it, or did she pack some bottom drawer lingerie before she left? For a clandestine liaison perhaps, or even an overnight stay? He can’t remember exactly, but she did seem to spend a long time getting ready before she went off to work.

Ronnie tries to phone her on his Experia, but he finds his battery is flat. All the resource hungry battery saving apps draining it probably. That’s what Sid Hacker, the techie at work had told him the last time this happened. Perhaps Bianca has been trying to call him. He has no means of calling her now as they no longer have a landline. He cancelled this a while ago because of the volume of nuisance calls they were getting. Accident claims, mis-sold PPI and solar panels, mostly. Oh, and payday loans. He could try a Facebook call but these don’t work well with a wi-fi dongle.

…………………………………………………………………………..

Bianca finds herself in a dark room, windowless and foetid. She has been asleep. A deep sleep. She can hear a drip, drip, drip of water. She is not sure if it is coming from inside the room or outside the room. She is unable to see a thing. There is no light at all. She can’t even make out where the door might be. The floor that she has been lying on feels cold. She has no idea where she might be and has no recollection of how she came to be here.

Last thing she remembers, she was in Café Noir, wasn’t she? Or was this an occasion some time ago? She thinks she may have heard jazz playing earlier, but it could have been a dream. The tall stranger with the piercing eyes and the facial scar. Was he part of the dream too? He was talking about some writer …… and then there was the drink. The drink that he bought her tasted odd. She can remember the taste. It was like ……. like almonds. This must have been last night. She can’t have been asleep any longer than that. Surely. Not in these uncomfortable conditions. She shivers. She is so cold. She has a raging thirst. She needs a drink. She needs the toilet. She needs to freshen up. She needs to know where she is. She needs light. Bianca had been led to understand that in a dark room, your eyes gradually become accustomed to the level of light, or lack of, and eventually you can begin to detect shapes. She finds that this is not the case. This is black. Like blindness is black. This must be underground.

As the gravity of her situation begins to dawn on her, she is terrified. Surely, to be abandoned in an unfamiliar dark room is everyone’s deepest secret fear. It’s suggestive of the grave. It is time for those unavoidable what ifs. What if she hadn’t accepted that drink? What if she had thought to charge her phone, or better still not installed those rogue apps? What if she had gone home instead of stopping off at Café Noir? What if she hadn’t taken the job at Trask and Wherry? Giving mortgage advice is, after all, a little dull. And there are quite a lot of late meetings if she is honest. Those deeper regrets start to creep in. Why hadn’t she had picked a more suitable partner than Ronnie? Someone a little more cultured. Someone with a little more understanding. Ronnie was always going to be a gambler. Why hadn’t she married Boyd Fleming? Boyd had worshipped her. Boyd would have taken proper care of her. Boyd has prospects. Or John Trilby. Someone honest. Someone dependable.

God! She might never get out of here. This might be it. Why hadn’t she taken that opportunity to go to Australia when she was younger? Her brother owns land out there. He is an entrepreneur. Ostrich farms or something along those lines. He could have set her up in business. Not in ostrich farming perhaps, but something more girly. He did offer to put up some money. ‘Anytime you want to come over,’ he had said. ‘You’d love it over here. All the wide open spaces.’ If only she had taken him up on it.

…………………………………………………………………………..

Ronnie is dazed. He has hardly slept. His phone rings. He makes a mental note to change the ringtone from Viva Las Vegas. He takes a look at the display. It is a number he doesn’t recognise, but he is sure it must be Bianca.

‘Hi babes,’ he says coolly, anxious to give the impression that he has not been worrying.

‘Aren’t you the cool one,’ says a vaguely familiar voice. ‘It’s Cathy. Is Bianca there? I’ve been trying to get hold of her, but her phone seems to be dead.’

‘No,’ says Ronnie. ‘She didn’t come home last night. I was wondering if she might be with you.’

‘No. She’s not with me,’ says Cathy. ‘I did say that I might see her at Café Noir last night but it was a loose arrangement. I went to the cinema instead. I expect she’s lost her phone again. She’s probably at Trudi’s.’

‘I’ll try Trudi in a bit then,’ says Ronnie.

‘How did the poker go?’ says Cathy. ‘Bianca said that it was your poker night.’

‘OK,’ he says. Professional card players, he has been told, never let on that they have made a loss. Something to do with positive thinking.

He manages to find Trudi’s number and gives her a call. It goes on to voice mail. He leaves a message, trying to sound casual.

A minute or two later, Trudi returns the call.

‘Hello,’ she says. ‘You called my number.’

‘Yes,’ says Ronnie. ‘It’s Ronnie. I was wondering if you had heard from Bianca. I’m having a little trouble locating her.’

‘No, Ronnie. I haven’t seen her,’ she says. ‘Look. I’d love to stay and chat, but I’m at the lights at the moment. And they are about to change. I’ll tell her that you’re trying to catch her if she phones me.’

Café Noir is not the sort of place that Ronnie normally frequents. He finds it a bit twee. He prefers the more earthy atmosphere of The Black Horse or The Fat Ox, but by lunchtime, there is still no word from Bianca, so he decides to call in to Café Noir on his way to BetterBet.

Didier asks him to describe his wife and following on from Ronnie’s description says that although he cannot be sure, he has the feeling that she was in last night and that she left with a tall man in a black coat.

‘Perhaps I shouldn’t say this,’ he adds. ‘But they did seem to be quite cosy tucked away there in the corner. I would keep an eye on her if I were you.’

………………………………………………………………………..…

While Physics doesn’t actually state that it is impossible for someone to walk through a solid wall, it discourages you strongly from believing that it can happen. Pauli’s exclusion principle and all that. But, this is exactly what appears to take place. One moment Bianca is alone in the darkened room and the next moment she finds she is not. The man in the black coat and the piercing eyes stands before her. Is that a lamp? There is a bright light coming from somewhere. With her eyes shielded against the sudden illumination, she takes in her surroundings. A quick scan of the room reveals four stone walls but there is no windows and no door. No, that’s not right. Is it a room at all? Nothing seems to stay in place. It’s like a digital television picture that is breaking up. Or words dancing on a printed page. The man moves slowly towards her. Is that a gun in his pocket or is he just ……..

A sound she recognises is trying to break through the silence. It takes Bianca a few moments to realise that it is coming from the table in front of her. It is her phone. It is displaying incoming call along with the battery critically low icon. She puts down the thriller she is reading and answers it. It is Cathy.

‘Hi Cathy,’ she says, ‘Am I glad to hear a ……… a familiar voice? Look! I’m in …… ‘

‘Are you all right?’ says Cathy. ‘You seem in a bit of a state.’

‘I’m in Café Noir,’ says Bianca, regaining her composure. ‘But there’s this creepy man in a dark coat with a scar down his cheek who keeps staring at me. I have been trying to hide myself behind a book, hoping that he will take the hint. But, he looks as if he’s going to come over. He is coming over. You know what. I think I will come to the cinema with you after all.’

‘You’d better hurry then. The film starts at 8:20.’

‘I’ll be ri …..… ‘

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Trust

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Trust by Chris Green

Following the split with his long-term partner, Darci, Nick Easter feels at a loose end. He cannot face the idea of singles nights and has heard nothing but horror stories about dating agencies. He does not want to go down to The Gordon Bennett to be asked ‘where’s Darci’, or be encouraged to ‘have another’ to drown his sorrows at The Cock and Bull. He wants to avoid anyone putting a sympathetic arm around his shoulder and coming out with clichés like ‘there are plenty more fish in the sea’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’. Worse still, he can imagine Dirk Acker or Ugg White asking if they can have the all clear to ask Darci out. After all, she is an attractive woman. He is also determined not to go to pieces and take to the bottle as he did when he split up with Roz. He thinks it best to avoid The Gordon Bennett and The Cock and Bull and other places of temptation altogether. He decides instead to join The National Trust.

When Nick receives his pack through the post he discovers that The National Trust offers more than visits to stately homes and landscaped parks and gardens, the Trust runs a smorgasbord of organised activities as well. You can go horse riding, cycling, canoeing, running, geocaching whatever this is, stargazing and even surfing. Because of his inexperience and his general fitness level, Nick feels that he might be best starting off with some organised walks. November is too late for the rutting stag walk, and the red squirrel walk is too far away, but still there are a selection of interesting looking options within an hour or two’s drive.

Not wanting to look out of place on his first walk. he buys Berghaus Explorer walking boots, a range of waterproof jackets, and two trekking poles from GO Outdoors. So that he will come across as a seasoned National Trust member, he also orders a rucksack, a walking stick, binoculars, a torch, an umbrella, hand-warmers, a multi-tool, and a selection of hats for all weathers from the NT catalogue. His fellow walkers will all have these. All that is left is to get a good selection of OS maps and to make them look a little weathered.

Nick feels that the May Hill Countryside Walk at just seven miles will be a good introduction. Suitably attired, he strides out from May Hill common on the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border on a cold Saturday morning. By keeping close to the National Trust guide and listening carefully he hopes to be able to pick up some of the language that walkers use. There are about forty people on the walk, most of them couples. Even those who are not paired up seem to be on familiar terms with each other. He feels a little sad that he is alone. He wishes he had a partner.

He had hoped that he and Darci might get married, but each time he had suggested it, she had been dismissive. He hadn’t actually got down on one knee and proposed or anything like this, but it was clear from her attitude that she was more of a free spirit than he was. As he is trekking through the woodland, he replays a typical conversation in his head.

‘Just think. We could be like this every day, if we got married,’ he had said.

‘We would be under each others feet all the time,’ she had said. ‘We see plenty of each other.’

‘But if it were a sunny day on a weekend, we could just get up and go,’ he had said.

‘But I may not want to,’ she had said. ‘It’s important to each have our own interests. We need to be able to do things separately.’

‘But I don’t want to do things without you,’ he had said.

‘Well I do like doing things without you,’ she had said.

‘And if we got married there would only be one set of expenses,’ he had said.

They had this conversation or an approximation of it at regular intervals. The last time he had tacked on to the end.

‘And of course, there’s the tax relief.’

This had been the final straw for Darci. She felt that reducing her status to that of an Inland Revenue Tax Code was insulting. How could he say he loved her. There again he hadn’t said he loved her – ever. This as another issue. In retrospect, Nick could see where she was coming from. He did seem to have a remarkable talent for saying the wrong things, and for not saying the right things. He thinks he now realises that men and women have different ways of looking at things.

After a mile or so, Nick notices that one of the group seems to be lagging behind slightly. She is one of the younger of the walkers. She is probably in her mid-thirties and when she flicks her hair back off her face is quite attractive. She is on the tall side of average and her slim fitting jeans show off her shapely legs well. But shouldn’t she probably be wearing a thicker jacket for trekking at this time of year, especially in the woods where the sun never shines, and sturdier footwear? Pumps are no good. He holds back, waiting for her to draw level. He has the feeling that he recognises her from somewhere and then it hits him.

You’re from the health food store,’ he says. ‘The one in Ledbury.’

That’s right,’ she says. ‘Organics. When you were crumpling up your map back there, I thought perhaps I’d seen you before.’

Savannah, isn’t it?’

Very good memory you have.’

‘I’m Nick, Nick Easter.’

‘Hi, Nick. Good to meet you. Thank you for hanging back.’

‘That’s OK. I could see you were struggling a little. That was quite a steep climb back there.’

‘I know I’m a bit of a slowcoach,’ she says. ‘Tom and Sarah, my friends up ahead there come on these adventures every week, but I’m quite new to it.’

Nick feels comforted by this but does not admit that he too is new to it. This would take away his advantage.

As the main party forge ahead, Nick and Savannah discover that they have a mutual interest in cricket, and although Savannah doesn’t know the name of the England captain, they chat merrily about the sound of leather on willow on a sunny Sunday afternoon, regretting that it is now November.

Over bowls of spiced parsnip soup in the café, Nick is introduced to Tom and Sarah. Tom holds forth about walking in the Lake District, and how a digital SLR camera is better for panoramic shots than an automatic while Sarah texts all her family and friends on her iphone. Eventually, Tom and Sarah go off to buy some cards in the souvenir shop. Nick takes the opportunity to ask Savannah if she will meet him next week for the Woodchester Park Woodland Walk.

‘It says in the Trust Handbook that it is a scenic walk around five lakes,’ he says. ‘But it does include some steep gradients.’

Savannah is not sure about the gradients.

‘There is the option of a five mile walk, if you prefer,’ he says.

She does prefer.

‘Perhaps we could take a picnic,’ says Nick.

Savannah brightens at the mention of this. Nick makes a note to buy a picnic blanket from the Trust shop before he leaves.

All week Nick looks forward to seeing Savannah on Saturday, keeping a keen eye on the five day weather forecast. It looks as if they might be lucky. The high winds are scheduled to finish on Friday afternoon and the torrential rain is not forecast until Sunday. From Wednesday onwards, he packs and repacks his rucksack. By Friday evening, it is bursting at the seams and he hasn’t even put the picnic blanket in yet. He takes out the lighter of the two extra jackets and repositions the umbrella and the waterproof over-trousers. He probably won’t need the polar torch so he packs an extra fleece instead in case Savannah gets cold. And an extra pair of thick socks. He decides finally he will have to pack the picnic separately, so he takes a late night trip to Blacks to buy a shoulder bag.

He takes the laptop to bed and reads up on Woodchester Park so he has facts at his fingertips for the walk. Woodchester House, the great gothic mansion around which the park is built, has featured twice in Most Haunted Live and again on Ghost Hunters International. It was also the setting for the BBC production of Dracula. There are horseshoe bats in the park, along with sparrow hawks, green woodpecker and tawny owl. While they are walking through the woods they must also keep an eye out for sedge, Solomon’s seal and stinking hellebore among the flora, although he imagines that late November may not be the best time to spot these.

Nick waits for thirty minutes in the NT car park. The guide goes on ahead with the group but there is no sign of Savannah. Just as he is about to call it a day, Savannah drives up in her blue Fiat 500. She steps out and apologises for being late.

‘ I had a job finding the place,’ she says. ‘I’m not very good with maps.’

‘That’s OK,’ he says. ‘I’ve only just got here myself. I think the others might have gone on ahead. But don’t worry, I’ve got a map.’

He waits for her to open the boot of her car and take out her rucksack and walking boots and perhaps a waterproof jacket to go over her thin fleece, but she does not. All she has with her is a flimsy hemp tote bag.

‘Come on then,’ she says. ‘Shall we get started? We might be able to catch them up.’

‘Are you going to be all right in Converse trainers?’ he asks.

‘I’ll keep to the dry bits,’ she says.

Nick doesn’t say that he does not think there will be too many dry bits.

They set off in the direction that Nick saw the walkers take. They climb steeply through thick woodland. Nick becomes nervous about the lack of grip of Savannah’s canvas shoes on the wet leaves. After a few skids, she slips and falls. He helps her up. This is the first bodily contact that they have had. Nick feels excited by it. He is not sure how Savannah feels, but she did not appear to resist.

As they near the top Nick begins to find the weight of his rucksack a struggle. They reach a clearing and stop to look down at the lake. It begins to drizzle. The picnic blanket seems a little superfluous now. They exchange glances and press on. Neither of them wants to be the first to suggest they turn back. On the path down to the boathouse Nick maintains over and over that this rain was not forecast. They could shelter in the boathouse, but having consulted his sodden Best One Hundred Wildlife Walks Nick says it is accessible only by boat. Eventually the driving rain that sets in forces them to return to the car park. The trekking umbrella offers little protection and they get soaked.

Having dried off a bit with the bank of beach towels Nick has brought, they share the picnic in the intimacy of his car.

‘These four bean salad wraps are delicious,’ says Savannah. ‘Did you make them yourself?’

Nick is pleased he took the cellophane wrappers off and repacked them in paper bags. ‘Sorry they are a bit squashed,’ he says. ‘It must have happened when the shoulder bag fell onto the rocks at the bottom of the hill back there.’

‘And this mango and pineapple smoothie is divine. It’s much nicer than the ones we sell in Organics.’

They move off the subject of food and Nick asks politely after Tom and Sarah. Savannah explains that she does not see a lot of them, they tend to go further afield, Offa’s Dyke, The Peak District and the Lakes. They had just taken her under her wing after she had split with Conor. Nick’s heart leaps. He has not wanted to broach the subject of her relationship status directly, in case it might be in a relationship or its complicated. When Savannah offers him her phone number, he feels that he is in with a chance.

Tyler Armstrong, the lothario in the office tells him that it is not good form to appear too keen, so Nick leaves it until Tuesday to phone. But he phones on Wednesday, Thursday and twice on Friday. He discovers that Savannah has a busy schedule of hair washing, cat grooming and getting milk in before the shop closes. She always seems to be in the middle of something. He arranges to pick her up on Saturday to take her to Croome Park. It is a much shorter walk, he says, and they can have a lunch at Croome Court restaurant afterwards. He drops in a bio about Capability Brown, but she has not heard of him. She hadn’t realised that gardeners could be the stuff of legend.

If he and Savannah are going to have a relationship, he must take account of what she wants. He must not make the mistake he made with Roz. He tries to remember their conversation. It must be ten years ago now that she had dumped him.

‘When are you going to get in into your thick head that I don’t want to go and watch Bristol City play football every week,’ Roz had said.

‘Well I suppose we could go to watch Bristol Rovers,’ he had said. ‘Or Swindon Town.’

This had been the final straw for Roz. Nick had by and large avoided the mistake with Darci. He had not taken her to football games. They had gone to watch Gloucester play rugby instead, but even here, he found that Darci did not always want to go. He resolves to be more considerate with Savannah. He will take her to farmer’s markets and craft fairs and perhaps they can take up ballroom dancing or yoga. He won’t even invite her to his old school reunions and definitely won’t take her along to Hornby, Mills and Nash dinners. Quantity surveyors can be so dull when they have get togethers.

On their way to Croome, Nick pulls into Go Outdoors and he buys Savannah a pair of tan Helly Hansen Forester walking boots to go with the pink North Face insulated jacket and the Jack Wills woolly hat, he bought her off Amazon. He is going to leave the rucksack until next week. He doesn’t want to load her down too much. He doesn’t mind doing the carrying for the time being. Feeling that he is just trying to buy his way into her pants, Savannah resists the purchase a little, but Nick insists.

‘You must have the proper gear for walking,’ he says. ‘You will find it so much easier. Why don’t you keep them on, then your feet will be used to them by the time we get to Croome.’ With this he gets the Saturday shop assistant, who looks about fourteen, to put her trainers in a bag. During the rest of the journey to Croome, she speculates meanwhile what it might be like letting Nick into her pants; although he is a bit controlling, he does have an athletic build. From a certain angle, his profile reminds her of Hugh Jackman.

The weather holds up nicely as Nick and Savannah make their way leisurely around the lake. This is as good as it gets in early December. From his bevy of guide books, Nick feeds her historical information about the Earls of Coventry, Neo-Palladian architecture, landscape gardens and the temples and pavilions in the park like a seasoned tour guide. They stop to feed the swans with wholemeal bread that Nick has brought.

‘Did you know that swans mate for life?’ he says. It is an innocent reflection.

‘Not at all like humans then’, she says, with more of an edge. ‘How many people do you know that have been together for more than five years?’

‘Certainly not my family,’ he says. ‘What about you? You must know some. What about Tom and Sarah?’

‘Tom and Sarah are probably the only ones that I can think of. All my other friends are in and out of relationships every couple of months. I never know who to address Christmas cards to.’

Nick was hoping that this was not the case. He was hoping that Savannah represented a world of normal people with stable relationships. It would be a shame though to take it to heart and spoil a lovely day. He will just have to try a little harder than others have.’

After a late afternoon lunch at Croome Court, and a couple of halves at The Crown Inn at Shuthonger they go back to Nick’s and warm themselves up before an open fire that Nick has prepared. They make cautious small talk over the new James Blunt album, before shedding their clothes and getting comfortable for the night. He has bought condoms and she has brought a toothbrush. She doesn’t leave until noon the next day.

Despite the euphoria of the weekend, with the festive season looming, Nick feels a creeping despondency. It is supposed to be a time of happiness, but he finds the emotions thrown up by Christmas disturbing and bewildering. Perhaps it goes back to his childhood. Most of all he does not want to spend Christmas with either arm of his family. He is also desperate not to spend Christmas alone, nothing could be worse. Lots of differing perspectives compete for space in his head. If he is honest he would like to spend Christmas with Savannah, but it is early days. He hardly knows her. After all, they have only slept together once and you can’t tell all that much from the first time. What is she really like? What do you look for in a partner, someone who is like you, someone who is different, someone like you but different, someone who is different but like you, someone to make up for your shortcomings, anyone at all to stop you from feeling lonely? How closely does the person you end up choosing match what you are looking for anyway?

Out of the blue Darci phones. She wants to know what he is doing for Christmas. Perhaps she is feeling the same way. Perhaps she does not want to spend it alone and maybe she does not want to spend it with her family as she and Nick have split up. They have spent the last five Christmases with Darci’s family. He tells her he does not know yet but he has had an invitation. She says she does not know yet, but has had an invitation. Amongst barbed pleasantries, they both fish around for information but the conversation ends with both of them none the wiser.

Nick instantly worries that Conor might be doing similar checking up with Savannah. While Savannah has not talked a lot about Conor, from what he has picked up they were together for a long time. Savannah has said that sometimes she has to work late at Organics and that Nick doesn’t need to phone her every night, but now he feels he needs to speak to her more than ever. He is not due to see her until Saturday when they are going to explore Dirham Park and it is only Tuesday. He phones. She does not answer. When she doesn’t answer on Wednesday or Thursday either, his sense of optimism tries to tell him it could just be that Savannah’s hair might be particularly tangled this week, the cat may have chewing gum in its fur or the shop may have sold out of milk and she has had to drive to the supermarket, but his sense of pessimism tells him she could be in the throes of ecstasy beneath a panting Conor.

What forms the basis of trust, Nick wonders? Can you trust someone that you have just met? Can you trust someone if you have been with them a long time? Maybe you trust someone you have just met because you haven’t been with them a long time. What are you trusting them with? What exactly constitutes breaking trust? There are probably no meaningful statistics about faithfulness in relationships, but over time, few survive intact. The modern world puts so many things in the way of fidelity.

It is Friday night and Nick has given up on reaching Savannah. He has been trying all evening but her phone goes on to voicemail. He is about to go to bed when his phone rings. It is Savannah.

‘Sorry to call so late,’ she says. ‘You’ve probably been ringing me haven’t you. My phone says I have a lot of missed calls.’

‘I tried once or twice earlier,’ says Nick. He does not say that for the last hour or so he has been a small step away from coming round to make sure that Conor’s car was not there, not that he would know what Conor’s car looked like.

‘Sorry, I didn’t hear the phone, says Savannah. ‘It was in the inside pocket of my new insulated jacket. Look, I know we are seeing each other tomorrow but I just wanted to ask what you are doing for Christmas.’

‘I’ve got no plans,’ says Nick. ‘But I was hoping I might be able to spend it with you.’

‘I’ve got a week off and I thought we might go to Santiago de Compestela,’ says Savannah.

‘Santiago de Compestela,’ Nick repeats.

‘Yes,’ says Savannah. ‘It’s in Spain.’

‘You mean the pilgrimage walk, but I’m not a Catholic.’

‘Neither am I, but Trip Advisor says that you don’t have to be. It says it’s for those who want to get away from the Disney Christmas.’

‘Isn’t it about five hundred miles long?’

‘Yes, but we could just do a bit of it and save the rest for later,’ says Savannah. ‘I’ve even ordered a Survivor rucksack on Amazon. What do you think?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

April’s Shower

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April’s Shower by Chris Green

Hotel California strikes me as an odd little café. Apart from the curious choice of name, the café is situated underground and has no windows. Despite its claustrophobic feel, the acoustics seem to belong to a much larger space. The sound fades in and out and bounces off the walls in a weird subterranean echo. I sit myself down on a Vienna chair and glance furtively around. I do a head count. There are fourteen people, sitting in twos or threes around stark tables. There is an air of detachment about each of them as if their minds are somewhere else. They look as if they don’t get out much. Their skin is pale and translucent as if it has been photoshopped. They fidget fitfully, their movements like marionettes. As I place my order and take in the unfamiliar surroundings Fly Like An Eagle is playing. It occurs to me that you don’t hear seventies music much anymore. At some point, the arbiters of taste decided that eighties music was better than seventies music, when clearly it wasn’t. The seventies wins hands down.

My scrambled eggs arrive. They are orange in colour. I am used to my scrambled eggs being much lighter. I am about to complain to the sullen waitress in the white coat, but when I take a mouthful off the eggs they taste good. Perhaps they are from very happy hens. The Year of The Cat is playing now. It has an infectious piano riff. The marionettes at their tables bounce up and down in time to the beat. I notice a steady drip of a wax-like substance from the artificial ceiling. It is red in colour. A mound of it has formed on a cracked white tile of the black and white chequered floor. Drip! Drip! Drip! It is disturbing. Where is it coming from? What is up there?

As if on a given cue, the ghouls suddenly stop eating or drinking. They all stare at me. I can’t help but feel intimidated by their gaze. I am the retiring sort. I hate being the centre of attention in any circumstances. I take my plate to another table. This takes me nearer to the counter. The Gaggia machine lets out a belch then the flushing sound drowns out the music, even though this is loud. The barista looks a bit like Hannibal Lecter. I am anxious to get out of here. Where is Chantelle? She was supposed to meet me here, wasn’t she? My memory is not so good. Perhaps I am supposed to pick her up. It can’t have been the latter, though. I do not know where she lives.

I am trying to rest but Night Moves is playing. I can hear it through the walls. I don’t know where it is coming from but I feel intense discomfort. Sometimes a song can have a particular association and then something happens and that meaning changes. Like the lyrics in Bob Seger’s song. Night Moves used to be my favourite tune, but then…. and ….. well, it’s now. I told them that April was going to die in the shower, but they didn’t believe me. Sometimes I know that things are going to happen, but I don’t know why. Chantelle has a word for it. It begins with a ‘p’. I’m not good at remembering long words. Chantelle says that everything will be all right. I wish she were here. Where is she? She must have forgotten that she is meeting me.

Fog is descending. I am going too fast for the road conditions. I take my foot off the accelerator pedal, but it stays down. I can’t do anything about it. It seems to be jammed. Going ever faster, the Outlander careers forward, narrowly missing a string of other vehicles. I face a barrage of horns from the oncoming motorists, who must think I am reckless. I am not. I am a careful driver. In twenty-five years on the road, I have never had an accident. I have the brake pedal to the floor. The brakes are howling. The fog is getting thicker. I cannot see ahead at all now. I see April’s face in the rear-view mirror. Suddenly it shatters.

The car horns have stopped. I think I have driven off road, but it is hard to tell. The accelerator pedal is still jammed. I turn the steering wheel this way and that as I was once taught by my advanced driving instructor, or was it Glassy Eyed John. I have trouble sometimes with details. Whichever, the manoeuvre has the desired effect. With the Outlander engine revving like a plane during take-off, it ploughs its way through a patch of thick undergrowth before smashing against a sturdy beech tree and coming to rest.

Smoke is coming from under the bonnet. I jump out. I am on the edge of a wood. The fog has lifted, but one nightmare makes way for another. There are bloodstained hands everywhere, dozens of them, clutching at tree trunks and clumps of fallen branches. The hands are not connected to arms, they are cut off at the wrist. I am terrified. What is happening? What is this place? The sun is trying to make its way through the haze and I notice to my horror that I have the bold shadow of a large raptor. A thin green snake settles on my arm, or is it my wing. It coils itself around. A scream pierces the air. I realise it is my scream. A legion of brawny woodsmen emerges from a thicket. They are carrying hammers and sickles, or are they guns and roses. It is hard to tell in the gloom. I feel a sense of deja vu. I have been here before. I have been to places like this many times since April’s brutal ….. since ….. I have been here since…. April’s shower. Where is Chantelle?

The Outlander engine bursts into flames. This allows me the opportunity to put distance between myself and my pursuers. I take a slalom route in the general direction of the sun. I find myself beside a still lake. I have chance to gather my thoughts. Not they help me very much. What are those brightly coloured birds? They can’t be parrots, can they? Parrots don’t swim. Chantelle is the one who might have explanations for what is going on. She is the Incongruence Investigator. She is supposed to be helping me because of the strange experiences I’ve been having. Most things she says are easily explainable. After all science itself is pretty weird with its uncertainty principles, matter being in two places at once and the same particles being everywhere at the same time. If you think about it too much, it could drive you mad. You must become accustomed to the unexpected, Chantelle says. Any number of things might be happening simultaneously. Or might not be happening at all. Everything might be imaginary. The scene in the woods back there might be a second unit shoot for a Harry Potter film for all that I know. What is a second unit shoot, I wonder. Who is Harry Potter? I have not seen him around.

Do you like my goat?’ the stranger on the park bench says.

It is best to humour men sitting on park benches with invisible goats, so I say, ‘Yes that is a fine goat you have there. What is she called?’

Not a she,’ he says. ‘It’s a he and he’s called Ronald. Ronald is a good name for a goat, don’t you think.’

A fine name, Ronald,’ I say. ‘I used to have a stoat called Steve, or was it a badger?’

Do you play the French horn?’ he asks.

No,’ I tell him.

That’s a shame. Ronald likes listening to the French horn. What about the cor anglais?’

I wonder if I should find another seat.

Are you waiting for Chantelle?’ he asks.

Yes, I think so’ I say. ‘She was supposed to meet me.’

I think she’s just gone into that big house over there,’ he says. ‘I expect she will be along in a minute with the meds. Do you find you need yours twice a day too?’

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

THE WAR ON TERRA

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The War On Terra by Chris Green

There are now just thirty four of us trying to save the planet. I’ve counted. Thirty four, plus a few more perhaps living off the grid. The other seven point four billion residents of Terra are hell bent on its destruction, some pushing to get the job done more quickly. What was God playing at letting his unpredictable monkeys run the show? She should have given it to the snakes or the zebras. The ferrets or the pigeons. Or possibly even the trees. The only way to save the world in these dark days could be to get rid of the human race.

Time was when for a short while, things were impossibly beautiful. There were two hundred and seven million of us trying to save the world. A paradise seemed possible if only people would listen to the message of love, peace and understanding that we preached. The Incredible String Band played in our hearts. Everywhere colourful birds were in song. Lovely spring had arrived.

But it was a brief interlude. God’s chosen monkeys were just beginning to get organised in THE WAR ON TERRA. Terra’s climate, they claimed, was not good enough, so in earnest they set about changing it, coming up with staggeringly stupid new products to use up Terra’s resources in record time. Compassion and common sense were universally outlawed to allow feral capitalism to flex its bloated muscles. They came up with alarming new ways to pollute the life giving waters in every corner of the globe. They came up with bizarre new reasons to reduce the rain forests to grow numbers in their profit columns. It was seen as important that the War On Terra be settled swiftly.

Two hundred and seven million gentle campaigners were seduced by the arrogant mendacity of those determined to destroy the delicate domain of existence. The powerful media groups the plunderers owned persuaded would be dissenters that their interests lay in siding with them in their irredeemable mission. Like the Native Americans before them who had traded Manhattan for beads and trinkets, would be eco warriors were bought. A few electronic toys were all it needed to win them over.

The War on Terra may be already be in its endgame, but while there are still a few fish left in the oceans and a pair of polar bears at the pole, join us if you can so we can say we went down fighting. There. That’s thirty five of us now. Thirty six. Thirty seven. ………

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Thursday Night and Friday Morning

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Thursday Night and Friday Morning by Chris Green

A car outside my window sounds its horn three times and I stir from my sleep. I was on a golden beach listening to the gentle echo of summer voices. Dolphins were playing with gondolas in the surf. A woman with long dark hair and iridescent tantric tattoos who I met on a balloon trip was rubbing oil into my back and talking in soft Italian. A man in a harlequin suit with a limp was selling doughnuts, and dwarf camels, as small as cats, were frolicking around pyramids that children had made in the sand.

I drift back off, but the disturbance outside has been enough to change the landscape of my dream. I am now in a crowded marketplace and a hooded figure riding a jet black quad bike and waving a dead fish is chasing me past stalls selling large bongo drums and ritual masks. He is shouting at me in a language I do not recognise. I wonder if it is Welsh, but it may not be. I shout back in a language I do not recognise. It is dark and I trying to find my car. I cannot remember what make of car it is or where I have left it. I have the thought that it is not a Maserati or an Alfa Romeo, but this does not seem to help much. There is a large moon low in the sky and shapes of a craggy landscape are in silhouette. I am running. I have a battered leather suitcase in my hand. I have not packed it properly and Monica’s clothes are spilling out onto the cobbled stone street. I make an effort to look back but I know the scene is disappearing. There is a faint light ahead, but this too is becoming fainter and more distant.

The horn outside sounds a piercing continuous note. I feel disorientated. My flailing arms meet with a sharp cry of feline disapproval and my bedside lamp crashes to the floor. It takes me a while to take in that it is Thursday night, or to be more precise 1 a.m. on Friday morning, and that the car outside is a taxi to take me out drinking. I had completely forgotten.

I do not mean that I have missed a rendezvous with friends. Or that I need a drink. I am not an alcoholic or anything like that; in fact, I only recently started drinking alcohol. And I am not by any means a night owl. Early to bed, early to rise, me.

I will try to explain. The new law obliges me to drink. Firstly the government passed licensing laws permitting round the clock drinking. They argued at the time that twenty-four hour opening for pubs and clubs would reduce binge drinking and help to tackle the problem of violence and antisocial behaviour on the streets at 2 a.m. when the clubs closed. As many pointed out, it was an absurd argument. I can remember fragments of conversations with friends and colleagues at the time and no-one in my recollection had expressed enthusiasm for the idea, although Monica did start coming home in high spirits in the middle of the night once in a while. The general consensus was that if those so inclined were given the opportunity to drink more freely, surely they would become more drunk and less concerned with respectful behaviour on the street.

The real motive behind the legislation emerged, that twenty-four hour drinking was a measure to try to buoy up an ailing economy. The hope was that it would present entrepreneurial opportunities to the licensing trade and offer service jobs for the marginalised sections of society. Primarily it would be a great revenue raiser for a government committed to not raising income tax. It was one’s duty to drink for Britain.

Despite blanket advertising of all alcoholic drinks at every opportunity everywhere you could advertise alcoholic drinks, it didn’t work out that way. Drink sales rose only slightly. Regardless of a proliferation of new bars and clubs, opened by wide boys and fly-by-nights hoping to cash in, many people stayed in as they had always done, not drinking, or perhaps buying the odd bottle of wine or pack of premium lager with their shopping at the supermarket. A majority of the population were responsible citizens at heart, still interested in family life or concerned with the practicalities of getting up in the morning and going to work. Clubbing remained the preserve of those under twenty-five with few commitments. I am over twenty five and Monica’s occasional friskiness aside, twenty four hour licensing did not initially affect me that much.

But matters did not end there. Despite widespread protests from the medical profession, Muslims, pregnant women, diabetics and those living in areas where there were pubs and clubs The New Licensing Act, phased in over a six-month period last year, makes it compulsory to partake. Everyone under 65, regardless of gender, race, religion, occupation or financial circumstances is now required to go out clubbing at least once a week – or face a fixed penalty fine of £400. Prisoners and those in secure mental institutions are exempt. While exemptions are also in theory possible for others, for example, the blind or terminally ill, the application forms for an exemption certificate have apparently not yet become available.

Being under 65 and not blind or so far as I know terminally ill, the new licencing legislation began to affect me. Not least because Monica started coming home less frequently, and then not at all. But here is the real killer clause. If I have not consumed the necessary weekly units in one of the approved establishments by Thursday, I have to attend one of several new clubs on the High Street opened to cater for drink-dodgers, and drink my quota there, or pay the fine, deductible at source from my salary. The simultaneous introduction of identity cards simplified the administration. A central database now keeps track of each individual’s consumption throughout the week. Thursday night is now the busiest night of the week everywhere as like me, many others struggle to meet their target.

The DirectGov leaflet, DD17 spells out my options. I can drink a dozen designer bottles (DNA, KGB, WKD, Colaholic, etc.), thirteen pints of Guinness, ten pints of Strongbow, eight cans of Special Brew, three bottles of wine, ten double vodkas or ten doubles of another spirit. All equally unpleasant in my opinion. I generally opt for ten double absinthes in a half litre glass. This way I can get the business over with and be back on the street throwing up outside the bus station by about 2. 30, and be on the earliest clubbers bus, which leaves at 2.45. It also represents the cheapest option. Ten designer bottles in Scuffles would set me back at least £60, whereas ten double absinthes in a half litre glass costs a mere £30. I did email the Home Office website, suggesting I just send a cheque each week for the £30, but the reply I received ignored the request and threatened me with court proceedings.

The cab waiting outside for me is a DriveU2Drink taxi. DriveU2Drink is a cab company employed to help facilitate compulsory clubbing. I throw on a tracksuit, breeze through a brisk bathroom routine, turn off the ambient CD of ocean sounds I use to help me sleep, put the anxious cat out, and make it to the cab, all in about sixty seconds.

It is my usual driver, Bryn. Bryn is not a man who finds it easy to relax.

‘Ten minutes, I’ve been waiting out here boyo,’ he says, lighting a cigarette from the one he is just finishing. ‘It’s not like I haven’t got other calls to make.’

He looks me up and down disapprovingly.

And I do not think they will let you into Scuffles dressed like that.’

Everyone wears sports clothes in clubs,’ I protest.

Not tracksuits like that, they don’t. It looks like it came from HomeBargains. Where’s the logo? You’ll have to go and change, and remember that the meter is running.’

I don’t anticipate that Bryn will be keen to stop on the way for me to get a kebab from Tariqs’, so I grab a slice of carrot cake from the fridge to provide something to help absorb the alcohol.

I live on the Rolf Harris estate in the suburbs, for the time being at least until my divorce from Monica comes through (or the estate gets renamed following recent allegations), and the town centre is a four mile drive. Bryn uses the distance to rant about the price of petrol, Eastern Europeans, asylum seekers, chavs, hoodies, smackheads, crackheads, gays, Blacks, Asians, speed limits, traffic calming, the royal family, the police, and modern art.

Having just taken up a post as a community worker, I wonder if I should take him up on some of his prejudices. As we drive on, I feel that there would be little point. His enmity seems to be free-floating. He could just as easily be ranting about the NHS, schools, social workers, Yanks, Chinese, transsexuals, celebrities in space or whatever is on the front page of his tabloid today.

We drive past Corporation Square, the hub of the sprawling Tokers End council estate. Around Betterbet there is a lively throng of locals keen on getting a bet on the night football, or as Betterbet is next to Bruisers’ Bar, perhaps the Mauler-Stitch bare-knuckle fight from the Milton Keynes Colosseum. Betting Tax has recently been reintroduced, but is proving not to deter punters. And as compulsory lotto and compulsory scratch cards have been such a success, compulsory betting is now being considered as another means to boost government coffers. The residents of Tokers End are clearly ahead of the game. They need little encouragement.

They will bet on anything, see,’ says Bryn. ‘The Christmas number one, the Christmas number two, the discovery of life on Mars, the pope to break a leg skiing, The Finnish Wife Carrying Championship, where the next terrorist attack will be, how many will be killed in the next hurricane.’

‘I know someone that bets on virtual horse racing,’ I say.

‘Look you,’ says Bryn. ‘My next door neighbour trains virtual horses. He tells me that when you buy a virtual horse, the fitness level is only about fifty percent. This increases by between two to five percent each time you train it, see. He trains his virtual horses six times a day.’

I nod, trying not to get crumbs of carrot cake on the floor. Perhaps the recipe would benefit from an extra egg.

‘How are things between you and the missus?’ asks Bryn, breaking off from his tirade.

I confide that things are not good. That Monica is staying with friends, and that letters between Hoffman, Cohen and Partners and Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed are arriving daily.

‘Tough business, I can sympathise with you boyo.’ says Bryn. ‘I had the same thing with Tegwyn, see. Tegwyn liked the pop too. I had to sell the Beamer, you know. Heavy shit, the drink. You cannot imagine how much I hate this fucking job.’

Stacey is a single mum. Her daughter, Jade is three years old. Stacey is forced to take the DriveU2Drink cab one Thursday night to fulfil her obligation. She has no babysitter. She cannot afford one. All her disposable income goes on her weekly night out. While Stacey is at Moonies, Jade burns herself on the electric hob. The neighbours hear Jade’s screams, break the door down and phone for an ambulance. They phone Stacey on the number that they have been given, but Stacey cannot hear the phone over the thumping jungle music. In years gone by, Social Services would have become involved in a case like this. There is no talk of prosecution. Stacey’s case is summarily brushed under the carpet. There are many Staceys. There is probably one living next door to you, so, if you do not have to go out drinking on Thursday nights, be vigilant.

We drive on, the details of Bryn’s divorce passing in one ear and out the other. The overturned Passat outside The Cold Store suggests that little has improved in Tokers End over the past week, but at least the council have removed the burnt out police car from outside the housing office. The ten foot high supermarket trolley and paint can sculpture adds a spark of interest to the drab paved area, taking attention away from the mountain of polystyrene fast food containers in the overgrown planters. Bryn takes a right into Bob Marley Avenue to avoid the traffic calming on Malcolm X Street. The boarded up windows of the Lebanese café on the corner boasts a selection of new spray can art, some of it quite colourful and creative. Art of the state, I believe it is now called. The overall effect is unfortunately compromised by the puerile fascination of less talented taggers for obscenity. Budgens’ supermarket, which has over the years suffered more than most from graffiti and vandalism, now has a large red sign saying closed until further notice and the premises of Accessible Finance next door thanks to a recent ram raid has become accessible to all. A row of clamped cars outside the Baghdad House flats suggests the police were round earlier as part of their crackdown on expired tax discs. Even the Tokers End Community Centre minibus is clamped.

I remember, almost fondly now, the time that Monica and I were clamped several years ago when we were shopping in Soho. We still had the Cosworth then, so it must have been before the gallery went bust. Just after the Diane Arbus exhibition. It was after the loss of the gallery that Monica started drinking. ….. I wonder what she is doing now. We haven’t spoken since the solicitors became involved. She will not be happy with Giancarlo. She will always play second fiddle to his Maserati, or his Alfa Romeo, or whatever car he is playing around with in his workshop, and he is nearly twice her age.

‘Hard not to be bitter, you know what I mean,’ says Bryn.

I hadn’t realised we were still having the same conversation. I agree, bitter is part of what I feel, but I do miss her.

We stop at the temporary traffic lights on Karl Jenkins Way where they are building the new twenty four hour retail park to replace the recently demolished factories. A lengthy wait in a long line of other DriveU2Drink and BoozeCruise cabs gives Bryn the opportunity to acquaint me with just how many famous Welsh people there have been: David Lloyd George, Dylan Thomas, Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey and Charlotte Church to name but a few. The relative obscurity of his other nominees does not seem to help his case, leaving me with the thought that perhaps the Welsh are not cut out for fame.

The lights eventually change and we move on past the HSBC Hospital and the John Lewis Primary School towards the centre of town. Bryn points out the Lost Cause public house, hidden away behind a battalion of mobile phone masts.

‘The only pub in town that still allows smoking,’ he says, lighting up another cigarette. ‘They’ve turned the inside into the outside.’

Smoking is banned in the workplace of course and this includes restaurants and bars and, it occurs to me, taxis too. The government’s attitude to smoking is, some cynics feel, a missed opportunity. Compulsory smoking in public places would bring in heaps of revenue for the Chancellor, and help to pay the escalating bill of our foreign conflicts. By bringing in more revenue and systematically reducing the number of claimants, promotion of tobacco might also have also help to tackle the pensions crisis. Legislation of a few class B or C substances as well, with a little favourable promotion, might finance an invasion of some more middle eastern countries to help secure our supplies of oil and gas.

I don’t watch the news very much, in fact, I hardly watch television at all. Monica succumbed to the Sky advertising early on and I still have a choice of about four hundred channels, but if I have some spare time in the evening I prefer to work on one of my stories on the computer.

‘Why do you always write about ghosts?’ Monica used to say. ‘All of that went out with Harry Potter. And nobody wants to know about your dreams. There’s no money to be made in that supernatural stuff.’

‘There’s no money to be made in watching Celebrity Love Triangle night after night,’ I may have replied. ‘It’s not about the money.’ But of course, it was about the money. After the gallery closed, Monica showed no signs of wanting to go out and earn any.

‘Tegwyn used to have these visions, see,’ says Bryn returning the focus to his own marital breakdown. ‘I suppose you could say she lost touch with reality. I thought it was the drink, like. But then they put her on this new medication and she could see into the future. She would say something like, Idris is going to win eighteen million on the lottery – and it would happen. Exactly eighteen million, Idris won. One day not long before she left she said, ‘I can see increasing signs of unrest. When’s that going to happen, Tegwen? I remember saying.’ ‘twenty fifteen,’ she said. And here we are.’

Wayne was allergic to alcohol. Drinking brought him out in hives and affected his breathing. Although Wayne was diagnosed with anaphylaxis early on, he found over the years that he could manage the odd glass of wine at a function without major effects. However, when faced with the compulsory Thursday night binge at WhiteRiot his breathing became constricted and he collapsed by the bar. Collapsing by the bar was not so unusual here, so there was a delay before he was attended to by the stewards and taken to hospital. Held up further by the Thursday night mayhem in the streets and with the Thursday night bottleneck at A and E, he died waiting to see a consultant. You will know someone with alcohol intolerance. Keep an eye on them when they have to meet their weekly target.

As we approach the outskirts of town the streets shows increasing signs of unrest. Bryn’s radio operator spits staccato messages to let the drivers know which streets to avoid. Even so, each bar we pass had a noisy mob of hammered hooded hooligans outside taking advantage of all night happy hours. The smoking ban inside licensed premises has served to promote large unruly alfresco gatherings. We can hear loud urban music coming from every direction. Gangs of pale six-foot pro-wrestlers, with shaved heads, tattooed biceps, and rings hanging from their ears, eyes and noses parade chanting and singing. Black youths are taunting Asian youths and Asians are taunting blacks in front of a bank of CCTV cameras. The gold jewellery on display looks like it could be an advert for El Dorado. An air of uncontrolled mayhem reigns. Fights are breaking out here and there between groups decked out in rival brands of leisure wear. It is like a noisy playground where the children have just become older. The muted wailing of police and ambulance sirens is continuous and we have to pull over several times on Eminem Street to let emergency vehicles pass. Outside Blazes, a predatory gang of teenage girls with short skirts and large bare waists swigging out of pink bottles shaped like penises shout and swear at a gang of teenage girls with shorter skirts and larger bare waists, swigging out of red bottles shaped like penises. Bryn tries to negotiate a path through the two groups of marauding youngsters. Missiles fly through the air as the two gangs meet. We are caught in the crossfire and a pink penis narrowly misses the windscreen of the cab. The red penis, which follows it, is more accurate and a large crack appears in Bryn’s line of vision. Instinctively he winds his window down and hurls some abuse. Ill-advisedly, I feel. Next thing we know, a writhing mass of tattooed teenage flesh is all over the cab. The girls scream madly, baseball bats smashing against glass. The cab follows an uncertain path down Cameron Street towards the Thatcher Monument as it was rocked up and down. Several vehicles coming toward us collided, there was some kind of explosion, and that is as much as I can remember.

The HSBC Hospital is nowhere near the top of the Daily Telegraph Performance League Table, but there again it is not near the bottom. It is at 106 out of 187 hospitals in the Mortality Rating. It could be argued that the figures are a little skewed by the fact that the HSBC has borne the brunt of last year’s fish flu epidemic. It is still well ahead of The KFC Hospital and The Vodafone Hospital in its average waiting time at A&E, just four and a half hours. After midnight on Thursday this, of course, rises fourfold. The Telegraph’s ratings show that the HSBC’s record of successful operations is below the national average, and it is 123 out of 187 for cases MRSA, but perhaps all of this is beside the point. The hospital’s reputation is built primarily on being a leader in experimental research.

Anyway, whatever its merits, it is in the HSBC Hospital that I find myself. I don’t remember if I have signed any forms of consent but I have been placed on a programme to test an experimental new drug called Contradil.

While the manufacturers are hailing Contradil as something of a universal panacea, tests have revealed that it might not be without side effects. Among the documented side effects are sweating, dizziness, visual disturbances, sickness, nausea and mood swings. Among the undocumented side effects are paranoia, time disorientation, loss of reason, inability to stay awake, and vivid dreams.

Dr Black is injecting me with plasticine. The room has the warped geometry of a Maurits Escher painting. It is one of many in a large gothic house that is both familiar and unfamiliar. It is at once my school, my parental home, and my workplace. But still I do not know my way around and it is dark. I am anxious because I am late for something. I have missed an exam or an appointment and am searching for clarity. The corridor is charged with the bitter aroma of absinthe. On a large screen, gangs of pale six-foot pro-wrestlers, with shaved heads, tattooed biceps, and rings hanging from their ears, eyes and noses parade chanting and singing. There is a commentary. I recognise the voice. It is my own, but my speech is slurred. I climb up a flight of stairs that takes me downward. I become immersed suddenly in a pool of clear warm saliva. Hank Williams is singing a song about being chained and manacled. I begin humming along to the tune. Someone joins in on the harmonica. They wanted to harm Monica. I am in a different room now; this one is long and narrow like a gallery. Its walls are of weathered blocked stone as if they should be outer walls. I struggle on my hands and knees along a row of Diane Arbus photographs, which keep changing. I know the people in some of the photographs, but their faces are stretched into grotesque caricatures. Now I am in another room, an upstairs room with an exaggeratedly concave ceiling. I go through a small gnarled wooden door and find myself in a grey corridor. It is damp and water trickles down the walls. I switch on a torch and there are bugs the size of rats on the floor, and rats the size of cats. Petrified, I make it to the other end of the corridor, where I crawl through the eye of a Lebanese hunchback. I find myself in white open space with a transparent green and magenta yin yang motif window hanging from a tree. I peel a large succulent peach. Now I am on a golden beach listening to the gentle echo of summer voices. A woman with long dark hair and iridescent tantric tattoos who I met on a balloon trip is rubbing oil into my back and talking in soft Italian. A man in a harlequin suit with a limp is selling doughnuts, and dwarf camels, as small as cats, are frolicking around pyramids that children have made in the sand. A car outside my window sounds its horn three times.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

The 16:06

the1606

The 16:06 by Chris Green

The 16:06 from Paddington is usually on time. I rely on its punctuality to catch my connecting train from Taunton to Bridgewater, where I live. It runs at the right time for me. I do not like to work late on a Friday and I don’t want to spend a lot of time travelling. After all I have been up in town all week and feel I deserve a break. I want to get home. As a bonus, in summer this service gives me a chance to listen to the closing stages of Test Match Special on my iphone.

The train is often nearly empty. Most people travelling from the capital catch later trains. But, after five thirty I find the trains are a nightmare, on any day of the week. Paddington station becomes like something out of a wartime evacuation blockbuster. Why would anyone put themselves through this day after day?

Had the 16:06 been on time, the seat next to me would in all probability be empty, perhaps for the entire trip, and I would be able to relax and prepare for the weekend.

‘Is this seat taken?’ she asks. She is wearing an Afghan coat and her hair is braided.

I am tempted to say yes, but my better nature prevails. And she does have a nice smile, but this is as far as it goes. I am twice her age and I think we would have little in common. I mean. Afghan coat? In June? In 2015?

She spends several minutes depositing, arranging and rearranging a startling array of hand luggage. There are haversacks and rucksacks and tote bags of every colour. There are scarves and hats and even a potted plant. The tent alone needs its own seat. How did she manage to carry it all. At least she doesn’t have a dog.

She takes off her coat and places it on top of the tent. She finally sits down. She is wearing a tangerine cheesecloth smock. My nasal passages are invaded by the powerful aroma of incense and patchouli. I try to ignore her by turning away to look out the window, but it becomes clear that she wants to talk. I try turning up the volume of the cricket commentary, but she carries on chattering, as if I am hanging on her every word. Eventually I take my headphones out and look her way.

She explains that she has been camping out. She came up to London last weekend to go to a concert and stayed on.

‘Who did you go to see?’ I ask, out of politeness.

‘Blind Faith,’ she says, excitedly.’ They played a free concert in Hyde Park.’

‘Who?’ I say.

‘Blind Faith,’ she repeats. ‘You know, Eric Clapton. Steve Winwood.’

‘Oh,’ I say, while I turn this over in his mind. To say, have they reformed I feel would just prolong the conversation, but to the best of my recollection the concert she is referring to took place in 1969. I think my parents went …. both of them ….. together.

‘I’m Luna,’ she says. ‘But you can call me Loon. Everybody does.’

Tempted to say, sounds about right, I manage to resist. ‘Pleased to meet you, Loon,’ I offer instead.

‘You’re a Pisces, aren’t you? Luna says, looking me in the eye.

‘That’s right, Loon. I am as it happens. How did you know?’

‘You are imaginative, creative and kind.’

‘Am I?’

‘And compassionate and intuitive.’

‘That’s pretty good, isn’t it?’

‘But, you are lazy, weak willed and pessimistic.’

‘Ah, I see. Not so good then.’

‘But you have Leo rising.’

‘Is that good? I knew a Leo when I was in the army but he wasn’t very good at rising.’

‘And the Moon in Scorpio.’

After a few false starts (what do those whistles and flags mean), the train finally sets off. I look at my watch. It is twenty to five. Even if the driver goes like Harry in the night, there’s no chance of catching the connection now. I have no idea what time the next one leaves Taunton. I am about to check on my iphone, but Luna interrupts me.

‘Don’t be uptight,’ she says. ‘Be here now, man. Just go with the flow.’ These are expressions I remember my dad using, yet oddly he never seemed to practice them. Dad wanted to control everything. And you had to watch out if things didn’t go according to plan. This is why I moved out at eighteen. This was why Mum ran off with Didier, a Belgian gymnast.

As the train powers its way towards Reading, Luna talks about macrobiotics, Malcolm X and The Mothers Of Invention. She talks about International Times and Oz. Everything about her is retro, backdated. She does not seem connected to the modern world. It is as if she carries her own time bubble around with her which keeps her separate from the here and now of this railway carriage. She is either completely unaware of this, or is acting a role. I begin to wonder if it is not perhaps an enormous hoax at my expense, a television spoof maybe. I look around me for cameras. I do not see any.

Luna holds forth about cosmic evolutionary development, transcendental understanding and what she does to balance her chakras. I am not convinced I have chakras. Perhaps my parents had chakras. They were a a bit far out. They seemed to go for all this Eastern mysticism. Guru this and Swami that. I narrowly avoided being taken to an ashram in Rishikesh one time by feigning yellow jaundice and was sent to stay with Aunt Trudi in Fife, while they buggered off to the subcontinent. They came back just the same, arguing at the slightest opportunity.

I try to divert the conversation on to more earthly matters. I am anxious to get back to the Test Match commentary. The match had reached a critical stage when I left it. Following another famous collapse, England were eight wickets down with twenty overs left, trying once more to save the game.

‘What good is all this …… esoteric wisdom?’ I say.

‘Wisdom is your third eye,’ she says. And knowledge is your third arm.’

I do not think I want a third eye or third arm. They sound just plain ridiculous.

Luna is still away with the fairies. She begins to talk about the journey, but it is not the train journey she is referring to, it is life’s journey.

‘Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls,’ she says.

What a load of twaddle, I am thinking. She needs to work in the city for a couple of months. She would soon realise that the universe didn’t give a damn about you.

As we pull out of Reading, Luna says that the train will soon sweep past the Westbury White Horse, a giant chalk horse carved into the landscape. It is meant to represent the Celtic horse goddess, Rhiannon. She explains about The Golden Bough, earth magic and ley lines.

‘Do you know they levitated the stones for Stonehenge from Wales along ley lines,’ she says.

‘I don’t believe in magic,’ I tell her. ‘It’s all done with mirrors.’

‘Watch this!’ she says, and with it she vanishes. Her luggage disappears too. All of it. It is as if she never ………..

In fact everything has changed. I find myself aboard a completely different train. The carriage is old. From the 1970s. It has ripped cloth seats, no smoking signs and windows you can open. It is the type I remember from the trips to Torquay that I was forced to go on as a teenager to please one or other of my parents. Twelve year-olds don’t build sandcastles, I would tell Mum. Or, no thankyou dad, I’m too young to smoke dope. And why would I want to if it makes you listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer?

To my astonishment I discover that I have a Mohican haircut, a studded leather jacket, ragged drainpipe jeans and an old khaki rucksack. How old would I be? About fifteen or sixteen? Despite the amazing transformation, I find my train of thought is still linear. I am still in the mindset of going home to Bridgewater for the weekend on a train that is a few minutes late which means that I will probably miss my connecting train. I take a look at my watch. It is a old watch. A digital model with a silver strap. It says 17:25. I look out the window to assess the train’s progress. I know this journey like the back of my hand. We are halfway between Reading and Swindon. I do a quick calculation. This is consistent at this stage with the 16:06 being a few minutes late.

In the seat next to me is a girl in her late twenties wearing a charcoal office skirt suit and dark patterned tights. She has long black hair and cakey make-up. She reminds me a little of the actress, Megan Fox. She has kicked off her high heels. Perhaps she has been on her feet all day. At the perfume counter of a department store maybe. Or running up and down the corridors of an advertising agency. She is scrolling through some pictures of celebrities on her laptop. One of the celebrities is in fact none other than Megan Fox. The lookalike Megan Fox seems to be in her own world, protecting her space with an air of disinterest. She does not want a train conversation. When I look her way, she pulls her skirt down an inch or two and turns herself slightly to face the aisle. She is wised up to the ways of teenagers with strange haircuts, frenzied eyes and nasal jewellery.

I pick up the rucksack. It has some half recognised names of bands scribbled on it in felt-tip pen. The 4 Skins, The Slits, The Dead Kennedys. I find a silver Sony transistor radio in the front pocket. It looks oddly familiar. I switch it on. I fiddle around with the tuning dial and find a crackling cricket commentary. It doesn’t take long for me to realise that I am now listening to a different match. One from a bygone era. This one has Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd batting. Ian Botham is bowling. This would make it England versus West Indies….. 1979? Megan looks around, disapprovingly.

I switch the radio off. I feel the sudden need to start a conversation with Megan. I have to find out what she feels might be going on. What is her take on this major lapse in logic and reason? Surely she is out of time in this 1970s railway carriage, the same as I am out of time. We both belong to 2015. The real world. Surely. Why are we so misplaced? Has Luna really had something to do with this ….. this shifting time? Sorcery? Magic? We are passing the Westbury White horse. Should I tell Megan about the horse goddess, Rhiannon as an opener to show her that I am not just a dissident punk? Not an spotty adolescent on an inappropriate train leering at her lovely long legs.

My youthful demeanour precludes much in the way of approaches to an attractive older woman. I cannot for instance say, ‘are you going all the way?’ This would be like saying, ‘are you up for it?’

‘I’m getting off at Swindon,’ she says, looking up from her laptop.

‘Oh,’ is all I can manage. Is she telepathic?

‘So. You will have the seat to yourself, all the way to Taunton.’

‘Thankyou.’

‘Do you really like those bands, by the way?’

‘Which bands?’

‘The ones on your, what would you call it ….. rucksack?’

‘Well. I did. Once.’

‘But you’ve moved on.’

Given my appearance, I figure she is not going to believe me if I says that I go to lunchtime concerts at St Martin in the Fields, listen mostly to chamber music and sing in the choir at St John The Baptist church. I settle for the less committal, ‘I guess so.’

‘I do like Nirvana,’ she says.

I cannot tell if she is winding me up. Is she aware of what is going on? Might she be in on it? Could this be a phenomenon that is more widespread? Something that’s happening all over? Like Mr Jones in the song that Dad used to play, I certainly doesn’t know what it is.

‘Could you log on to some news sites,’ I say. ‘Huffington Post, …… BBC News, …… Google News. See if there’s anything there about temporal irregularities.’

Megan looks at a bit of a loss. These aren’t sites that she visits often. She shrugs.

‘See if there’s anything trending on Twitter or Facebook maybe.’

The train slows down. A hazy announcement comes over the loudspeaker, ‘the next station will be Swindon. Change here for ……….. ‘

Megan starts to gather up her things and gets up to leave. ‘Look out for me in your dreams,’ she says, cryptically.

The train waits, the diesel engine idling. Being alone brings no clarity. It only serves to add to my confusion. My reason is so ravaged that my brain wants to shut down. A sinister tune plays in my head. Descending chords over and over as the sound of the diesel engine resonates. Change here for …… Change here …. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. The lights go out. It is dark. The blinds are all drawn. Why are all the blinds drawn? Have I descended into …. Descended into? Descending chords. Over and over. Dark. Dark. Dark. Change here for. …..

When the lights come on I find that time has shifted once more. I am no longer a fifteen year old punk. I am a British soldier in uniform. Royal Welch Fusiliers. With service ribbons. Bosnia. Srebrenica. Battle honours. All the stuff you take home on leave neatly packed. The carriage too has been through a transformation. It is cleaner, shinier, newer, the seats no longer torn. I look around. I have no fellow passengers. The couple with the corgi have gone. The old lady who was reading the murder mystery has gone. The man with the silver euphonium has gone. The barber’s shop quartet with the red striped jackets have gone. The carriage is empty. I make my way to the end of the carriage and lean my head out of the window to see what is going on. The platform too is completely deserted.

I decide I must get out to investigate, but just at this moment I feel the familiar shudder of rolling stock as the train starts to move. There is a second or two when I could still climb down if I wish, but the train accelerates quickly and the opportunity is lost. I look at my new watch. Five past six. This one is not digital. It is analogue with a vengeance. With its many dials it tells you the time all around the world. I take a seat and look out the window. I could pull the communication cord, but I don’t want to do this, at least not yet. Maybe there’s no need to panic. I recognise the buildings as we pull out of Swindon. They are the ones I have become familiar with. Perhaps the train is still headed for Taunton, even if everything else about the journey is wrong. I must go with the flow and see what happens.

‘Tickets Please!’ calls out a voice.

A wizened old man in a black uniform with some shiny bits and badges shuffles along the aisle. He is short and thin with little round glasses. He looks like Gandhi.

I ask him if I am on the right train. If I can establish this, the fine details of my misadventures can be worked out later. Along with some rational explanations. At home. On the internet. On the phone. You can get to the bottom of most things retrospectively. The important thing right now is to get home.

‘Yes sir. The train is going to Taunton,’ says Gandhi. ‘Unfortunately, we are 58 minutes late due to an alien spacecraft on the line at Wootton Bassett. It has gone now though, so we should be able to make up some of the time.’

‘Alien spacecraft?’

‘Yes sir. Just down the line at Wootton Basset. Is that where you are from, sir?’

‘No. There’s an RAF base there, isn’t there?’

‘We get a lot of people for Wootton Bassett. It’s where they hold the funerals for the dead soldiers. But then you would know that wouldn’t you sir? Being in the army and all that.’

‘Yes. Yes I suppose I would. Now. About this alien spacecraft.’

‘Yes sir. We get a lot of those around here, too. Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge, Avebury, Warminster. They seem to like this part of the country.’

‘They probably navigate along the ley lines.’

‘Ley lines, sir?’

‘Ley lines apparently are mystical alignments which harness the earth’s magnetic fields. They work like a primitive GPS. Now tell me. Where did all the other passengers go?’

‘They all left the train at Swindon, sir.’

‘What’s going on at Swindon?’

‘Oh. Some TV cook is giving a talk there, I think, sir. I’d love to be able to stay and chat with you, sir, but I’ve got to get along the train. Could I see your ticket please?’

I search for his ticket, but I don’t seem to have one.

‘I realise that you are in the army, sir, but travelling without a ticket is against the law and we cannot make exceptions. I’m going to have to charge you the full single fare plus a penalty which is the equivalent of the full single fare. That will be let me see. London to Taunton is it? Two hundred and eighty four pounds.’

I offer him a Visa card.

‘What am I supposed to do with this?’ he says. ‘In any case it has expired.’

‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘But could you tell me what year it is?’

‘You can pretend to be stupid if you wish, sir,’ says Gandhi, ‘But it won’t wash with me. I can issue you with an Unpaid Fare Notice, if you like. But you will still have to pay it. Army or no army.’

Isambard Brunel always had a sense of drama. His Great Western Railway from Paddington to Penzance is full of surprises. I know as soon as we enter the two mile long Box tunnel that something is bound to happen. It does. The lights go out once more. We are in darkness. As we emerge from the tunnel, I catch a whiff of patchouli. Luna is back. Not only that, somehow we are back on the original train. I am back in my city suit. I have my iphone in my hand. I am logged in to the cricket live text. The match is in the final over. England are nine wickets down and the tail enders only have to survive three more balls to save the match.

I might be back in present time, but Luna is cutting in to normality like static on the airwaves. She is the radio interference from a rogue FM station on a stormy night.

I take a look around the carriage. All the other passengers are reading their papers, playing with their tablets or talking on their phones. One or two are looking out the window as the 16:06 from Paddington crosses the River Avon on its way to Bath. Each one of them seems confident in the authenticity of their worlds. There appears to be consensus among them that this is 2015. Luna is the stranger at the party. She is stuck in a 1969 mindset. Forget the magic tricks for now, 1969 is clearly her reality.

She starts to tell me more about going with the flow.

‘Going with the flow isn’t about being passive or being lazy,’ she says. ‘It’s not aimless wandering. The flow that you are going with is the ocean of cosmic intelligence. Going with the flow is about wakeful trust and …….. ‘

The train is coming into Bath now. I make the decision to get off here to take a cab the rest of the way. I have made a note not to catch the 16:06 from Paddington in future. It’s a bad choice. It takes far too long. Too much time travelling.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

Just The Way It Is

justthewayitis

Just The Way It Is by Chris Green

A second did not seem an important integer, but therein lay the problem. It was such a small unit of time. Yet, such was the degree of precision operating in the overcrowded skies that if Quincey Sargent had returned from his break seven seconds earlier or seven seconds later, the dreadful accident would not have happened. Sargent would not have given the instruction that resulted in the collision between the two leviathans that changed, albeit ever so slightly, Earth’s path around the sun.

Had the accident not happened, things would be as they had always been. Earth would spin on its axis once every twenty four hours and revolve around the sun in its normal orbit every three hundred and sixty five days. There would still be thirty one million, five hundred and thirty six thousand seconds in a calendar year. But as you know there are now more. Just how many more has still to be calculated accurately. We hear new estimates every day with eminent scientists forever trying to steal a march on one another. No one can even say for sure that Earth’s orbit is going to settle into a regular pattern. As you will be aware, the uncertainty has played havoc with digital technology and really messed up schedules and timetables. Try catching the eight o’clock Eurostar now.

Quincey Sargent has of course been dealt with, along with Stanton Kelso at ATC who failed to notice that the two giant craft were on a collision course. You probably saw Sargent and Kelso’s execution on television, if you have one that still works. But knowing that they were punished can never make up for the hundreds of thousands of lives that were lost. I expect from time to time some of you still take a look at the film of the explosion on topnet, if you can get topnet, to remind yourselves.

But it is not only the measurement of time that we have to consider. The accident has a far greater legacy, affecting every area of our lives. We’re only just beginning to find out the full extent of the disruption it has caused.

My friend, Ƣ, who works at the spy base calls me up out of the blue. He says that many of the strange phenomena that might be attributable to the catastrophe are being hushed up. Ƣ is not a WikiLeaks scaremonger. When Ƣ tells me something I believe him. I trust Ƣ implicitly. We go back a long way. We belonged to the same motorcycle club, The Diabolos when we were younger. He rode a Triumph Bonneville and I had a Norton Commando. You build up trust when you are riding fast bikes on long runs in large groups like this. Margins of error are small. Ƣ would not lie to me now.

‘I’m sure you’ve noticed that your satnav no longer works and there aren’t nearly as many websites as there once were,’ he says. ‘

‘Of course,’ I say. ‘As you know digital is my field.’

‘Quite! Time is well and truly screwed, isn’t it?’ he says. ‘Anything that depends on time or needs a timer to operate, forget it.

‘At least you no longer need to keep looking at your watch.’ I say. ‘Do you know? Even the oven timer is kaput and I’ve no idea when to put the cat out. In fact, the cat no longer wants to go out.’

‘Who can blame it with all that fog?’ he says. ‘But, there’s a whole bunch of other stuff that for whatever reason is not being reported. Why has an eight kilometre wide trench opened up across Central Asia?’ he says. ‘I don’t think that has been on the news. Why are they keeping the lid on that?’

‘Perhaps they have been too preoccupied with the floods in Nevada and Arizona to report on it,’ I say.

‘Why have the people in Australia started talking in a language that no one understands? Why do goats no longer have shadows.’ he says. ‘And what’s happened to all the fish in the sea?’

‘You think it’s all part of a big cover-up then,’ I say.

‘The communication satellites weren’t taken out by the explosion like they told us,’ he says. ‘They’ve been shut down since. And it’s not our people that are doing it. There’s definitely something sinister going on.’

I tell Ƣ about the after images that have begun to appear on all my photos. ‘They make it look like people are slowly leaving or arriving,’ I say. ‘It is as if I have set a long exposure or superimposed a series of images on one another.’

Ƣ tells me that others are having the same problem. A friend of his finds he has a Serbian First World War ambulance superimposed on all his pictures and someone else he knows has a spectral German shepherd in every shot. Every day he says he comes across more and more curious things that cannot be explained.

‘I’m wondering whether we are seeing more strange things lately, Ƣ, because we’re beginning to expect things to be odd,’ I say. ‘Aren’t we looking for weirdness?’

‘I suppose you might have a point, Bob,’ he says. ‘But I’m guessing that you don’t really believe that what you say explains everything. There are just so many things that have changed. Life bears no resemblance to how it used to be. Look! There is one important thing that has never been revealed and no-one seems to have picked up on it. What was on board those two craft that collided? We just don’t know. The Ministry hasn’t been able to find out. Our allies haven’t been able to find out. Nobody seems to know. Which is where you come in.’

‘I do? You’ll have to make that a little clearer,’ I say.

‘Well, Bob. For obvious reasons I can’t go public with any of the information I come across. I mean, look what happened to Eddie Snowden. I don’t want to have to live like that.’

‘What you are saying is that I can, is that it?’

‘Pretty much, Bob. I know that the internet is a bit skinnier than it once was, but you’ve got the skills to set up a proxy website and you know all there is to know about SEO, if that is the right expression and assuming that search engines still work. You could at least begin to post information for me. At the same time, you could discretely find out what other people might be noticing that we are not being told and report back.’

‘But …..’

‘You will get paid.’

‘It’s not that. It’s …..’

‘I know. I know. I work in the secrecy business. But there’s a limit. When something this serious is going down, I don’t think you should keep people in the dark. What do you say?’

I don’t have anything better to do. I no longer have a job. Nobody seems to need digital display designers anymore. I suppose I could get a job repairing cars or something. With all the electrics failing that’s where the demand is. But everyone’s going to be turning their hand to that. I agree to Ƣ’s proposal.

I try to think of a suitable name for the site. aintthatthetruth.com, wtfshappening.com, alliwantisthetruth.com, none of them very snappy. Surprised that the domain hasn’t been taken, I settle on whistleblower.com.

Ƣ comes up with staggering tales from the word go, extraordinary stories from around the world. He wants people to know that they have started practising voodoo in Switzerland. He wants it out there that everybody in Japan has become left handed. That there are giant badgers in Nepal. The reason that the fish are all dead it is now thought is that there is no salt left in the sea. They have moved the International Date Line three times in a week and changed the value of pi. The latest on the length of a day is now that it is believed to be twenty five hours and twenty four minutes in old time. Ƣ says that no-one is talking about the number of seconds in a year anymore. This he says is going to be impossible to calculate until Earth’s orbit has settled.

My site begins to attract whistleblowers from around the world. Rigatony posts that Venice is sinking fast and that everyone in Padova is having identical disturbing dreams at night. Plastic has become unstable and computer keyboards and TV remote controls are decomposing, posts MercyCaptain. According to Kommunique, all the babies born in Kyrgyzstan since the catastrophe have been female, not a popular option in a Muslim country. There are dust storms in Oklahoma says CrashSlayer. Aren’t there often dust storms in Oklahoma?

A lively online community quickly comes together through the forum. My admin duties keep me busy day and night. In no time at all the analogue hit counter is up to five figures. Although there’s nothing directly relating to the cargoes of the craft, a majority of the posts are constructive and informative. Being an open forum there are of course also time wasters and religious fanatics. Fire and brimstone and Sodom and Gomorrah are mentioned a lot. What we are witnessing, the evangelists claim, is God’s punishment for planned parenthood, spare parts surgery and gay marriage.

There have always been conspiracy theories, so it is unsurprising that some of these also find their way on to whistleblower.com pages. Everything going wrong it is claimed is part of a plan by ruthless aliens who want to force us into submission so they can take over Earth. It is an Illuminati or Zionist plot to take over the planet. It is part of a big budget surreality television show. Everything is an illusion anyway. Some things you have to take with a pinch of salt. Nothing resembling a conclusive explanation for the upheaval appears, although the illusion explanation, while clearly impossible to confirm, is tempting. Everything that is happening might well be part of someone’s dream. Or a hologram. Gravity in the universe comes from thin, vibrating strings. These strings are holograms of events that take place in a simpler, flatter cosmos. The holographic principle suggests that, like the security chip on your credit card, there is a two-dimensional surface that contains all the information needed to be able to describe a three-dimensional object, our universe. In essence, the information containing a description of a volume of space, be it a person or our Earth could be hidden in a region of this flattened real version of the universe.

It’s a bit of a head-banger. I put this to Ƣ as best I can.

He agrees that multiverses and strings are legitimate lines of enquiry and the Ministry has been putting resources into their research. But how does this help?

‘We have a whole heap of strangeness, that we didn’t have before,’ he says. ‘If parallel worlds could explain what is happening, we would have had the kind of anomalies we are getting now all along. There would have always been parallel worlds. That’s not what it is.’

It is difficult to disagree with him. Quantum mechanics even in its simpler form is something I have never been able to grasp, despite watching many programmes about it on television.

Ƣ goes on to tell me I am doing a good job and if I keep at it, all should be revealed. There is bound to be an explanation for the apparent rupture in the space-time continuum. So that’s what it is, a rupture in the space-time continuum.

One moment I am sat at my computer, keying in a report about the dense swarm of black moths that has appeared over London, the next I am in a darkened room. The space is unfamiliar. It is small. There are no windows. There is a dank smell. The door is locked. I can hear the hollow sound of a slow but steady drip of water. I have always suffered from claustrophobia. Being confined like this has always been my deepest secret fear. I am terrified. This feels like the grave. Is this what death is like? Is this how it happens? Could this be it? No blinding light. No life flashing before your eyes. No white tunnel. Is this it? The other side? Or, perhaps it’s the waiting chamber, the holding bay.

This is not it. Sometime later, it may be hours, minutes or even seconds, my captors reveal themselves. Not before I have been to hell and back. The door opens and they materialise slowly as if they are made up of dots, like a halftone in an old newspaper. There are three of them. As my eyes get used to the light I can see that they are three-dimensional figures and they are wearing military fatigues. They don’t look friendly. There are no welcoming gestures. They have guns.

The one on the right of the group opens his mouth to speak. The sound appears to come from the one on the left, the one with the scar down his cheek and the alligator grin. ‘You will close the website down,’ he barks.

‘Immediately,’ says the one on the right. The sound appears to come from the one on the left. This one has a gallery of Japanese Dragon tattoos on his arms.

‘We would have taken it down ourselves, but you did something ……. smart with it,’ says the one in the centre. He is built like a Sherman tank and aptly he is the one with the biggest gun. It is pointing directly at my head.

Beneath my fear, I can’t help thinking that this is a heavy-handed approach. Just one of them, any one of them could have knocked me up at home, pointed a gun at my head and expected to get results. You would not mistake these people for boy scouts. They really look like killers.

‘We are the time police,’ says Alligator Grin.’ This may not be what he says, but this is how I hear it. Perhaps they are the time police. Perhaps they are not. Perhaps they are hallucinations but I am not taking that chance. My survival mechanism tells me that they are armed and I am not.

‘We are here to set the record straight,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘To put an end to all that nonsense you’ve been publishing,’ says Tank.

‘Lies,’ says Alligator Grin. At least I think that’s what he says. His diction is not good.

‘There’s only one reality,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘And it’s not yours,’ says Tank.

‘You are going to start again on your server and tell people the facts,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘The real facts,’ says Tank. They have lost the rhythm. It’s not his turn to speak.

‘The day is twenty Ferraris,’ says Alligator Grin. I’m getting the hang of it now. He means twenty four hours.

‘And there are sixty minutes to the hour, and sixty seconds to the minute,’ says Dragon Tattoos.

‘The same as it has always been,’ says Tank. For a moment, I think he is about to pull the trigger, but if he does that then the website is still going to be there.

‘And the earth sorbet has always been the same,’ says Alligator Grin. Perhaps he means Earth’s orbit.

‘You will say all the rest was a misapprehension.’ I lose track of who is saying what. They are firing phrases at me like bullets. I feel dizzy. The room is spinning.

‘A result of an over-active imagination,’

‘Too much science fiction,’

‘Choo many movies,’

‘Too many video games,’

One moment I am face to face with three menacing mercenaries, the next moment I am back in front of my computer at home. The mercenaries must have been an hallucination caused by the stress of being in the darkened room. The darkened room might itself have been a delusion. It’s hard to tell what is really happening anymore. But, here I am at home. I breathe a sigh of relief. But I’m not out of the woods yet. Two men in dark suits are with me in the room. One looks like a Mormon missionary, the other looks like Napoleon Solo. They both have guns. They are both pointed at me.

‘You have not heard from Ƣ,’ says Mormon missionary. This is a statement.

‘You are not going to be seeing Ƣ,’ says Napoleon Solo. This too is a statement.

‘Ƣ died in a motorcycle accident in 1999.’ Mormon Missionary again.

‘So let’s get started on the new website,’ says Napoleon Solo. He is beginning to look less like Napoleon Solo. More Reservoir Dogs. Is it the way he angles his gun? Or is it the look of intent he has on his face? Mr Blue, perhaps.

‘People need to know what’s really going on,’ says Mormon Missionary. He begins to look a little less like a Mormon missionary. More Men in Black.

‘sameasiteverwas.com,’ says Mr Blue.

‘And put this little piece of …….. worm software on the back of it,’ says Man In Black. ‘It will take over all internet browsers and stop anyone getting access to any …….. rogue sites.’

‘People will be able to sleep easy in their beds, with the assurance that everything is OK,’ says Mr Blue.

‘And know that someone is looking out for them,’ says Man In Black. ‘Like a big brother.’

I begin to see how it is that history is always written by the ones with the guns, the ones with the biggest guns, whoever they might be. The ones who can manipulate the media, whatever the media might be. How science at any point in time is what the scientists of the day tell us, however erroneous, and why God persists, albeit in one or two different versions. The people who are in charge make the rules, all the rules. They are the ones that dictate what is true and what is lies and that their way is the way it has always been. They establish their set of beliefs as facts and employ militia to enforce their truth, their version of events. They quash dissent. They find out what people’s fears are and work on them until they are too frightened to disagree. There are no ways of seeing. There is just the one way, their way. Their version of events will always be the one that has always been. If necessary they will burn books and rewrite history. They will put worms onto your computer. They will destroy civilisations to make the oven timer work. You will know exactly when you have to put the cat out.

Earth will revolve around the sun in the same way at the same distance and there will always be thirty one million, five hundred and thirty six second in a year until such time as the people in charge say otherwise. Goats will always have shadows, Switzerland will never practice voodoo. Plastic will continue to be stable. Venice will not sink. There will always be fish in the sea. There will never be a multiverse. Pi will always be three point one four one six. The same as it ever was. There will only be one reality. All the rest will be make believe. That’s just the way it is.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

Strike While The Iron Is Hot

strikewhiletheironisshot

Strike While The Iron Is Hot by Chris Green

It is time. She has fought against it for too long. If she doesn’t do it now, she never will. What is so difficult about telling Dirk he has to leave? Each time that her friend Marie has said, ‘you’ve got to do it, Donna,’ she has said ‘it’s not that simple, Marie.’ But, it is that simple. She just has to say ‘I’ve had enough, Dirk’ and tell him to pack his things. After all, it is her flat.

Dirk coming home drunk from the dog track last night with his mate Dean was the final straw. He knew that she had arranged for Sam and Samantha to come round for a meal. She had been talking about it for days. He had even watched her preparing the marinade. Then her guests had had to put up with Dirk and Dean making lewd remarks and swapping dirty jokes. She was so embarrassed. She didn’t know where to put herself.

As soon as Dirk steps through the front door, she will let him know. She won’t even give him chance to put his work bag down. It’s the only way. Strike while the iron is hot.

The only problem is, Dirk Fiftey doesn’t come through the door. Donna waits and waits. She seethes and smoulders to keep the iron hot, reminding herself of all the occasions he has let her down or abused her. About all of the times she has had to bail him out. The drinking. The drugs. The thieving. The lies. The deceit. What did she ever see in him? He wasn’t even good in bed. All he was concerned about was his own gratification. And now the spineless wuss doesn’t even have the decency to come and face the music.

Finally, at midnight, she puts the metaphorical blacksmith’s hammer back and goes off to bed. She has to work in the morning and it’s a busy day at the salon. End of the month is always fully booked. And she has to talk to Tina about Mrs Nesbitt’s green hair and explain that it wasn’t her fault. The product labelling was wrong.

She hears no more of Dirk until the police come calling, two days later. They want her to come down to the station. Dirk’s battered body, they are saying, has been found by the canal path. That morning apparently by a man walking his schnauzer. She is reminded of her rights.

‘Am I a suspect?’ Donna asks.

‘We’d like you to answer some questions,’ Sergeant Phelon says. If you’d just like to get your coat, Ms. Davies and get into the car.’

‘What? Just like that?’ she says. ‘Are you arresting me?’

‘We’d just like you to answer some questions,’ he repeats, this time, a little more forcefully. ‘Down at the station.’ His hands are now playing with the handcuffs.

Donna gets her coat and locks up. As they drive downtown, she bursts into tears. She can’t hold back any longer. Her nerves are in tatters. The contestants on The Voice and Strictly Come Dancing are always banging on about being on an emotional roller coaster. That is not an emotional rollercoaster, that is ego massaging or ego bashing. The turbulent feelings that punch into your head after being suddenly told that you might have murdered your partner when you didn’t know he was dead, this is an emotional roller coaster. The history. The abuse. The fights. The retaliation. The times out of sheer frustration she has threatened to kill him. The making up. The threats of leaving. The decision to throw him out. The battered body. Where is Dirk’s battered body now?

‘I don’t have to identify the body or anything like that, do I?’

‘No. Mrs Fiftey is coming in to identify the body later.’

‘Dirk’s mother! I thought she was dead.’

‘No, Mrs Fiftey, his wife.’

‘He’s married?’ says Donna.

‘I take it that you are telling me you didn’t know,’ says Sergeant Phelon.

‘Dirk Fiftey has been living at my flat for three years, Sergeant. Well, when I say living I mean he has been treating my flat like a hotel for three years. And in all that time he didn’t once think to mention that he had a wife. He deserves everything he fucking …….. ‘

‘I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, Donna, but I don’t think you should be saying too much until you’ve spoken to your solicitor,’ says W.P.C. Mabombo, who has come along as the female support officer. Sergeant Phelon glares at her. Why do Division keep sending him these basket-weaver rookies, he is thinking. There was nothing wrong with Noriega and Suggs’ more direct approach to policing. It certainly helped with confessions. They helped clear up a lot of difficult cases. It’s a shame they are under investigation.

Donna manages to find one positive thing you could say about Dirk. He had a very good solicitor. Max Tempo could get him off anything. Who else would have been able to get the police to drop charges as diverse as Aggravated Burglary and Indecent Assault? Donna manages to find Max’s number from the deep recesses of her handbag and within twenty minutes there he is telling the police what they can and can’t do. Sergeant Phelon has his head in his hands. Donna gets the impression that he has come across Max Tempo before. A little later after a no comment interview, she is free to go.

Whatever her view of Dirk might have been, his having apparently been murdered puts a slightly different spin on things. How many obituaries or eulogies, for instance, do you find in the papers or on TV that dwell on what a cad the deceased was. When anyone she has ever known, friend or relative has died, she cannot recall anyone ever having a bad word to say about them. Even great Uncle Malkie, who was by all accounts an arsonist and an armed robber, was praised for his courage and generosity. Certainly Dirk had his faults and they were plentiful, but she is a compassionate woman. Three years is a fair chunk of her life, a tenth to be exact. She can’t completely ignore these years. Twice, for instance, Dirk brought home flowers, although she suspects that one bouquet came from a neighbour’s garden. And he did sometimes point out bargains for her on ebay.

The feeling of sympathy is not shared by her friends. They always felt that Dirk was an asshole and they are not slow to refresh Donna’s memory.

‘Don’t you remember the time he left you stranded in Turkey,’ says Marie. ‘And the time he sold your jewellery to buy himself a new smartphone.’

‘You can’t have forgotten the time he threw up on your new dress at Tasha’s daughter’s Christening at St Margaret’s,’ says Gemma.

‘Or that bull terrier he bought you for your birthday,’ says Marie. ‘The one that bit the child and had to be put down,’

‘What about the time he crashed your car and pretended it had been stolen,’ says Gemma.

‘Good riddance, I say,’ says Marie.

‘Now you can get on with your life,’ says Gemma.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ says Donna.

‘Come out with us on Friday,’ says Marie. ‘We can have a proper girlie night out. We can go to that new Albanian restaurant that Rick Stein recommends and then go on to a club.’

Vibe is cool, or what about R3Hab,’ says Gemma.

Chaos is re-opening,’ says Marie. ‘Or there’s always Heaven.

Donna buys a new skirt and little black top from River Island to go out with the girls. She is looking forward to her big night out although with a certain amount of trepidation. She has not been to a club for so long. She showers and dresses and puts on her makeup. Self-consciously she dances around the kitchen to a Ministry of Sound CD she has bought to get her in the mood for the night ahead.

‘Hi babes,’ says a familiar voice. ‘Sorry, I haven’t been …….. home, like. I bet I’m in the doghouse. Thing is, I got caught up in a spot of bother with Nolan Rocco and his boys. I may have to get my man, Max on to it. ……… Hey, honeybun! Did you see that in the paper about the body they found down by the canal? For a while, they thought it was my brother, Kirk. I don’t know how they got that idea. Tracey even had to go down to the morgue. It wasn’t him of course, just some old crusty. Incompetent the police, these days, innit. Just think. It could have been me, eh? You gotta be real careful these days. Never know what’s around the corner.’

It is unfortunate for Dirk that he has chosen this moment to come in because Donna has the iron on to smooth out the wrinkles in the red jacket she is going to wear. Just one thought occurs to her, strike while the iron is hot.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

FILM

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FILM by Chris Green

I have never watched an interactive film before. IF, as it is becoming known, is a revolutionary idea to get the audience involved in what they would like to see happen on the screen. I am watching with an open mind. I feel that democratising cinema in this way has great potential, so long as it avoids the perils of lowest common denominator that have befallen 3D. IF is being hailed as a way to combat dwindling cinema audiences. You will not get this experience at home, is its slogan. The idea behind IF is that at the end of each scene the screen fades to black and the audience is given a multiple-choice question about what they would like to happen next. The director, in this case, Leif Velásquez, might have filmed many different options for each segment. Film budgets have reportedly gone through the roof since IF’s introduction.

There are some very odd camera angles. It appears that Leif likes to keep the cameras running all the time to catch the actors even when they are out of character. He must have had cameras everywhere to get some of the shots. Leif is what is often described as a cult director and this is one of the smaller productions running at the Cinelux. Modest though Screen 19 might be, it seems most of the audience have firm ideas about how the narrative should be driven. With so much audience participation the plot becomes almost incomprehensible, marred by more gratuitous violence and profligate sex than is strictly necessary for a story about the life of an ageing landscape painter in the Lincolnshire Wolds. Bradley and I leave our seats a few minutes before the film is scheduled to finish to catch the 10:30 bus home.

I insert my CineCard into the checkout machine in the foyer and begin to answer the barrage of questions that appear on the touch screen. Did I enjoy the film? How many stars do I give it? Will I recommend it to friends? How often do I visit the cinema? How many are in my party? How far have I travelled? The database has information about me that it tells me I am overdue to confirm. Is Source Code still my favourite film? Is Purple Rain still my favourite movie song? Cinema feedback has become intrusive. Last time I came it was a simple yes or not to did you enjoy the film. Now they seem to be doing everything possible to keep you in the cinema. It gives CineLux yet another opportunity to advertise their upcoming productions, which they fire at you from every corner of the prodigious foyer generating information overload.

A queue of people has formed behind me and Dale, the young male assistant in his turquoise CineLux uniform can see I am struggling with the questions. He comes over to help. Dale has a supercilious customer-service grin. I tell him that I have a bus to catch and he says he will be as quick as he can. You don’t need to answer all of the domestic product questions, he says, deleting the list, and you can skip the ones about your income group if you press this. He guides me through the rest of the questions and as the barrier lifts, I thank him. I cannot see Bradley. I wonder where he has got to. I imagine that he must have made his way through his checkout quicker than me and will be waiting outside.

I leave the warm interior of the CineLux and find myself in the midst of a thick fog. This has descended since we have been in the cinema. I probably shouldn’t see this as too much of a surprise as city fogs have become a regular occurrence. Pea soupers they are calling them, after the London fogs of the nineteen-fifties. Meteorologists blame them on industrial air pollution. There has been much talk about taking measures to tackle them, but with the political impasse little has actually been done to clean up manufacturing processes. The loss of life through tuberculosis is constantly trumped by the drive to match China’s output. The argument put forward by many industrialists that the fogs were made worse by the atmospheric conditions of the summer months is wearing thin now that it is November. There have been half a dozen in the last few weeks, sometimes lasting for days.

Despite the thick fog, the streets are busy. I do not come to these parts often. I try to get my bearings. To move out of the way of the masses that are now leaving the cinema, I carelessly step off the pavement into the trajectory of an articulated lorry which is going much too fast for the conditions. The leviathan narrowly misses me. Why do they have to come through the city at night? Isn’t it time that they re-opened the ring road? Is it really because of a nuclear leak? The driver gives a blast on his horn which sounds like a rock concert. I step the other way and a black Mercedes van with tinted windows narrowly misses me. It has a white logo on the side, MovieMax or something. Isn’t that the name of a film production company? Someone shouts something at me out of the window.

Bradley is nowhere to be seen. I imagine that he is making his way to the bus stop. Bradley is three years older than me, but as his brother, I feel responsible for him. While his autism is what they call high-functioning, it does give him the tendency to go on ahead, unaware of any companions or any complications there might be. He does not always see the need to put his intentions into words. It would be fair to say that he sometimes has difficulty with communication, and social interaction. He might have been fired by a sudden interest in something and already be back at the house we share.

It is but a short distance to the bus stop, but with visibility down to a few feet, I get lost somewhere along Church Street. There is a lot of redevelopment and scaffolding is everywhere. The shops seem to have all changed since I was last in this part of the city and I can’t even see the church. The miasma is all-enveloping. Even if I can find the bus stop, the buses will have surely stopped running. I begin to worry again about Bradley. What on earth could he be thinking, going off like that without me? I wonder about catching a cab. It is unlikely that cabs ever stop running.

I have to wait half an hour for a cab. I ask my cabbie, Gayna if she has by any chance picked up Bradley. I tell her that he is about six two and he is wearing a dark green padded hoodie with an orange logo on the front. I explain that he can be a bit direct and does not make eye contact when he speaks to you. She says that she hasn’t seen him, but she kindly radios her fellow cabbies and puts the word out on the street to look out for him. I am her last fare tonight, she says, as we trundle out to the suburbs at about ten miles an hour. She thinks the fog is getting worse and comes out with stories of the near accidents she has had. Her colleague, Maccy was not so lucky she says. He got mown down last week by an army truck at the Mason Williams roundabout.

Bradley does not turn up that night. I am not at first unduly alarmed. Although we have no family nearby, Bradley does have a number of friends; perhaps not friends in the traditional sense, but people who look out for him. He may have taken it into his head to drop in on one of them. After I have phoned round the ones I have numbers for and drawn a blank, I begin to feel a little concern. I let myself into his room and have a look around. It looks just as it always does, meticulously tidy, books lined up neatly in alphabetical order on pristine shelves and clothes neatly folded in drawers, shirts ironed and hanging neatly in the white-wood wardrobe. Nothing looks out of place. What in these circumstances would constitute a clue? I really do not know what I am looking for.

Heather, Bradley’s Support Worker returns my call from earlier. She says, ‘Bradley was fine last week. We had a great chat about probability. He really knows his stuff with numbers and IT.’

Can you think of any reason he would go off?’ I ask. ‘Or anywhere he may have gone?’

No. But he is quite capable of doing things by himself, Parris. Don’t underestimate his abilities. He is more capable than a lot of people think. He practically runs the centre when he’s here. His only weakness is with customer-facing issues. Although he helped out with a performing arts workshop recently. He seemed to lose his inhibitions a little one he got into it.’

Right.’

He did say he likes playing online poker. He can calculate the odds. Card counting, he calls it. Between you and me I think that he’s won a bit of money. But I think that he thinks you don’t approve.’

I haven’t said that,’ I say. ‘I don’t think we’ve fallen out about it.’

He was excited about being in a film’, Heather says. ‘Excited probably isn’t the right word when you are talking about an ASD with HFA, but he was let’s say very positive about it. While he’s not OCD, he has a strange POV for an HFA.’

What on earth was she talking about? ‘We went to see an interactive film together,’ I say. ‘I think it must have been that. That’s when he disappeared in fact.’

Probably,’ Heather says. ‘I’m always getting details wrong. Look! I’ve got to go into a meeting. But I will have a think and get back to you.’

Heather doesn’t get back to me. When I phone back she is in another meeting.

I don’t feel that Heather has done enough to convince me that Bradley is safe. I decide to report Bradley missing.

Do you know how many people go missing in the fog,’ Sergeant Sangakkara says.

I tell him that I don’t. Does he want me to guess?

He doesn’t give me a figure, but neither does he show much sympathy as he takes the details, even after I mention Bradley’s autism.

How do you spell that,’ he says.

He tells me he will be in touch if there are any developments. It is clearly a practised line, which means he doesn’t give a damn. He doesn’t even ask me to phone him if Bradley turns up. He probably didn’t want to be a policeman, he would have liked to be a pro-wrestler or something.

I rack my brains for an explanation. Am I missing something? Has Bradley said something that might have given me a clue? I begin to look at everyone suspiciously as if they might know something about his disappearance. I keep an eye on the news. The winds have picked up they say and the fog is dispersing. Flights are to resume from several airports. Two hundred people are trapped in a mine in North-East China. Antarctica is now even smaller than they thought. There is tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. There is always tension in Iraq, Iran and Syria. Why is it still on the news? The ring road is still closed. There is speculation that there might be some connection with terrorism. No-one it seems is available for comment.

I phone the CineLux. Perhaps they can give me some information about Bradley, from his checkout answers. I realise as I am dialling that it is a longshot.

Someone called Keisha introduces herself.

My name is Parris France,’ I say. ‘I came with my brother Bradley France to see Landscape on Screen 19 earlier this week, eleventh of November. That’s 11/11.’

She makes a joke about my name.

Yes, a lot of people remark on that,’ I say. ‘It’s Parris with a double r.’

How can I help, you, Mr France?’

My brother is missing,’ I say. ‘I was wondering if you could have a look at Bradley’s checkout record to see if it might throw any light on his disappearance.’

Do I mind if she puts me on hold? I listen to a minute or two of Miley Cyrus. Ugh!

Keisha comes back on the phone. ‘I’m afraid we have no record of Bradley France being here that night, or in fact any other night. Are you sure you have the right cinema?’

I confirm this and suggest that she may be mistaken. She assures me that there is no chance of a mistake. ‘Perhaps he used another name,’ she suggests. ‘Several hundred people visited that evening. It would take a long time to go through each one and check out if they were genuine.’

I am by now desperate for news of Bradley and keep the phone by the bed just in case. It is a day or so before the silent phonecalls start. There is no pattern to them. They come at all hours. None of them brings up a number on caller display and each time I pick up, there is no one at the other end. I want to believe that these are automated calls, but once or twice I detect some background noise, traffic passing, or a dog barking. The information is too vague to offer any real clues. Predictably each time there is no call return number. I don’t want to think that it is Bradley trying to reach me because his silence during the call would indicate that he is in a particular kind of situation which means he cannot speak. On the other hand, even if he is in danger, it would mean that he is alive. I recall seeing a psychological thriller about a woman who is driven to suicide by silent phonecalls. I cannot remember what it was called. Perhaps it was Silence or Mute or something like that. All I can recall was that it was incredibly scary.

Syreena, my married girlfriend, usually comes round to visit me two or three times a week, depending on when she can get away. To my chagrin, she is only able to come round on Thursday evening this week and the phone rings right in the middle of our lovemaking. I have the impression that Syreena secretly resents my continued support of Bradley. Although she has never said as much, she feels Bradley might be pulling the wool over our eyes with what she refers to as his condition. I hope we don’t fall out over it.

She has to get back, she says because Mikhail will be back at ten. She does not specify where he will be back from. I do not know much about Mikhail. Syreena has never offered the information and I have never asked. Our clandestine liaison probably works better this way.

Sorry,’ I say. ‘I will make it up to you.’

I’ll try and come over at the weekend,’ she says. ‘I expect everything will be fine by then.’

After about a dozen silent calls, I register with a call tracking service. TracknHack promise results, but it seems that they just want my money; they don’t actually have access to any special technology that would enable them to do so. I think about phoning Sergeant Sangakkara to chase up the police’s progress, but something tells me there won’t have been any. I’m sure that he won’t step up the investigation based on a few silent calls. I decide to leave it for another day.

I experiment with different passwords and am finally able to get into Bradley’s Facebook account, but after a good look around I find no clues. Bradley has surprisingly few friends and there are no recent status reports from those he does have. I can’t put my finger on why I feel it, but it feels as if he, or somebody else, has been tidying the account up. I turn my attention towards his gmail account. After an hour of trying to get into his account, I give up. His password is too difficult. He has not chosen something easy like IwntAstrONGpasswd28!! Someone has deleted his file history and there is nothing at all in Documents or Pictures. I do not have a lot to go on.

If there has been a fatality, the authorities surely would have come knocking. Bradley always carries ID and this is after all his home address. I try to use this as comfort, but my sense of optimism seems to be on a rest day. I begin to fear the worst. I do some internet research into the methods investigators use to find a missing person and discover that I am already employing them.

Bermuda is a small British overseas territory near the western edge of the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic. The nearest landmass is over six hundred miles away. Bermuda is famous primarily for The Bermuda Triangle. This is unfortunate if you live in Bermuda and your family fly a lot or sail a lot, as many aircraft and ships have disappeared under mysterious circumstances. My family were in such a position. My father ran a courier business, although it is widely believed this was a cover for his undercover activity with the secret service. My parents light aircraft disappeared with both of them aboard shortly after taking off for Martha’s Vineyard. Searches were not so sophisticated back then; There were fewer satellites and GPS had not come in to being.

The loss of one’s parents in tragic circumstances is not a thing that you ever come to terms with. The pain does not go away. It is nearly twenty years since it happened, but I often think back to the carefree summer days when we enjoyed a family picnic on the beach at Horseshoe Bay with a gentle breeze coming in off the sea. Or swimming in the calm waters of Jobson’s Cove with its pink sands and volcanic rocks. Or Bradley and I playing volleyball with our friends on Elbow Beach in the school holidays. In Bermuda, you are never more than a couple of miles from the coast. This idyllic life was taken away by a freak storm, or was it a magnetic fog that blew the plane’s instruments. Losing my brother in the dismal fogs in Britain’s second city would be adding insult to injury. I’m praying that lightning never strikes twice.

When they finally called off the search for the plane, we moved to England to stay with Uncle Cliff and his partner, Richard in Gweek in Cornwall. I was fourteen and Bradley was seventeen. Gweek is a village on the Helford River which is not, in fact, a river but a ria, a series of creeks flooded by the sea. Activity centred around boats and once we became used to having two uncles, we settled in easily. Bradley became very interested in boat engines and could spend all day taking one apart and putting it back together, withdrawing into his shell. Gradually Bradley’s ASD was diagnosed and his needs became a priority, although it wasn’t until eight years later after I had graduated from Birmingham University, that he moved in with me here. Despite the fogs that over the years began to envelop the Midlands, there are more facilities here that take account of Bradley’s condition and he can more or less lead a normal life.

My neighbour, Dermot is at the door. He looks sober.

This parcel came for yer man Bradley earlier,’ he says. ‘I took it in for the UPS delivery man, so I did.’

I must have been asleep,’ I say. ‘I didn’t hear him.’

No worries,’ he says. ‘I haven’t seen Bradley around a lot lately. Is he all right?’

He’s disappeared,’ I say. ‘Don’t you remember? I told you about it the other day and you said the same thing then.’

I think I may have just got back from O’Reillys’. You’re as full as a catholic school, Niamh says to me sometimes. I like that, full as a catholic school. She’s got a grand way with words, Niamh.’

I was telling you about Bradley disappearing,’ I remind him.

Oh, that’s right. I believe you did say something. Hey, wait a minute! A week ago, no it might have been a bit longer, some men came round for Bradley and they looked a bit odd, so they did. I thought at the time, what’s the craic, they don’t look like they’re from around here. They were in a black Mercedes van with tinted windows.’

But there are lots of vans with tinted windows driving around here.’

No, not drug dealers vehicles. I think this one had some big white writing on the side and a logo.’ Dermot sketches something in the air.

What do you mean, they didn’t look like they were from around here?’

Well they didn’t have Al Qaeda beards, I reckon …… and they weren’t Irish. And they weren’t Caribbean either. The van had a lot of …. you know, equipment in it.’

Would you be able to describe them?’

Some of them had, ……. like suits on, dark suits.’

You don’t remember when this was?’

There was a soft rain fog I remember, but that does not help ye much now does it?’

The fog seems to be descending again as we speak.

I expect you noticed but the ring road is open now that they’ve finished filming, Dermot says. ‘Must be quite a big film, don’t you think?’

With a cheery shrug of his shoulders, he says he must crack on. We have only been talking for a couple of minutes but his departure leaves a vacuum. A creeping desolation settles over me. I’m not very good on my own any more. I need company. What I really need is for Bradley to come through the door and everything to be all right. It would be good to talk to someone. I wonder what I have done with my counsellor’s number. I can’t even remember her name now. Janelle Council? Milly Stover? No, she was my acupuncturist. Clora Kaiser? No! It’s not coming. It was a few years ago that I had my problem.

I am racked with indecision. I don’t seem to know what to do with the parcel. I should open it. Should I open it? It is addressed to Bradley. I think perhaps I should open it, but scared of what I might find, I just stare at the large rectangular box wrapped in brown paper and parcel tape. There is no return address on it, just Bradley’s name and address in black marker pen. What might be inside? The more I look at it, the more I become paralysed with fear. It is very light. Much lighter than a box this size should be. Everything about the balance of the package is unsettling. The chilling thought runs through me that it might contain Bradley’s soul. I recall seeing the film 21 Grams. The title refers to the apparent loss in body weight when the soul leaves the body. Bradley’s soul boxed up, what an absurd idea. But the package is so light. If I put it down I think it might just float away, like a helium balloon. Gingerly, I shake it. There is no sound.

I take the plunge and start slicing at the package tape with a kitchen knife. There is no torque and I have to hold the package down firmly with my other hand to stop it slipping away. I too have a sense of slipping away. My mind begins to wander, my thoughts become more and more fluid. I think about what Dermot was saying about the black van with the tinted windows. I didn’t let him finish telling me about the men who came with the van. He told me about the ones in dark suits but he was about to tell me about the others. There was equipment in the van, he said. Could they have been a film crew? And, what he said about the ring road. They were filming, he said. Filming. I think back to Landscape, the interactive film Bradley and I watched, what now seems like aeons ago. It was Bradley’s idea to go and see the film. With IF, they film lots of different scenes and let the audience choose. Lots of different scenes! Very odd camera angles! I wonder …… It begins to dawn on me what is happening. I notice there is a camera lens in the smoke alarm. And another in the ceiling light. There are small cameras all around the house. There is even one in the flowering bird of paradise plant and two in the eyes of Bradley’s OwlMan poster. They are everywhere. Why haven’t I noticed them before? Isn’t that Leif Velásquez peering through the window? He is wearing a jacket like Bradley’s. It has the same logo on.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

DRUGS

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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 Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Two

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The Continuing Story Of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Two by Chris Green

I can hear a phone, one of the emergency ones I keep in my office drawer. Each has an individual ring tone, but I’ve lost track of which ring tone is for which client. It seemed a good idea, at first, when there were just a few. I selected Hey Joe for hitman, Joe Luga, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking for cocaine dealer, Charlie Snow, and Ace Of Spades for card sharp, Vince Shuffler. But now there are twenty three phones in there, it doesn’t seem so clever.

What is that tune? Oh no! It’s Leonard Cohen, Bird On A Wire. That’s Ron Smoot. Wet Blanket Ron! Why the fuck is he calling?

I debate whether to leave it. Leonard Cohen’s cracked voice persists. Halfway through the second verse of the song, the one about the stillborn baby, I give in and answer it.

Ron is speaking fast. Something about being stuck in California and a plane crash. It is hard to make sense of what he is saying. I get him to slow down. He repeats what he has said.

‘What do you mean, your friends are on a flight to Chicago that is going to crash?’ I say. ‘I didn’t think you had any friends.’

Ron misses the put-down. ‘You might remember, Mr Diaz, that I got a job with a company called N Vision Inc,’ he says.

I don’t remember. I tend to choose to forget conversations with Ron. Life seems better that way.

‘And my job is to tell people in advance that bad things are destined to happen to them to give them chance to avoid them.’

What on earth is he talking about?

‘Sounds a bit far out,’ I say. ‘You haven’t been taking those mushrooms again, have you, Ron?’

‘Look! Tom and Tom are on a plane that is going to go down,’ he continues. ‘I tried to tell them, Mr Diaz, but they got on the flight anyway.’

‘I’m finding it quite difficult to follow you, Ron,’ I say, looking for an opportunity to end the conversation.

I suddenly remember that I have a client called Tom Carlevero. He is a computer technician. I had to cover up some hacking that he had been doing a while back on a Government computer system. Tom Carlevaro is gay and he has a partner called Tom Soft. Tom and Tom. Surely it couldn’t be this pair of Toms that Ron was talking about. That would be far too much of a coincidence. In these days of rainbow communities and gay marriage, there must be dozens of Tom and Toms.

‘Who are Tom and Tom?’ I say.

‘They are friends of mine,’ he says. ‘Look Mr Diaz …’

‘Their surnames, Ron. What are their surnames?’

‘Tom Carlevaro and …..’

‘I’ll get back to you,’ Ron,’ I say. I end the call and switch the phone off. He is bound to try to phone me back.

Now which is Tom Carlevaro’s phone, I wonder, looking in the drawer. I call in Shelley, my secretary. She is the one who keeps all the phones charged for me.

‘What is it Mr D?’ she says, blowing on her fingers to dry the nail varnish.

‘Tom Carlevaro,’ I say. Which phone?’

‘This one,’ she says. ‘The one with Go West ringtone.’

I do a redial. There is just a chance that Tom has ignored the cabin crew’s instructions and kept his phone switched on during the flight. I am in luck. He has. I explain to him what Ron has told me. He starts to tell me about the close shave he has had with Ron in Los Angeles.

‘No time for that now, Tom,’ I tell him. ‘Your plane is going to crash, buddy.’

I have to hand it to Tom Carlevero; he is a very resourceful man. On the basis of my phonecall which must have sounded like I was loony tunes, he somehow manages to persuade the captain of the 737 to turn back and land at Los Angeles. Can you imagine convincing a major airline to do something like that without arousing suspicion. I mean, what on earth could he have said? I do hope there’s no comeback on me. I feel I have done a good turn. I may be many things, but I am not a terrorist.

But as soon as I put the phone back on and return it to the desk drawer, Ron is back on, saying that this was not what was supposed to happen. He says the plane was supposed to come down in Kansas, with many casualties, but Tom and Tom were not supposed to be aboard when it did. Now he says he is in trouble with someone called Kojo or Mojo or something at N Vision Inc for interfering with the course of fate. Who the fuck are N Vision Inc? What is the guy on, for God’s sake?

Perhaps I should tell you a little about myself. My name is Brent Diaz and I’m what’s known as a fixer. I get people out of a hole in any way that I can, for which they pay me a lot of money. While I try to operate legally, this is not always possible. Now, one of the issues that I have here is that the last time I encountered Ron Smoot he was broke. The chance of a paycheck here is a small one.

Ron’s life has been a catalogue of misfortune. This wouldn’t be so bad if he kept it to himself but he insists on sharing it with everyone. How about this? He was attacked by a swarm of wasps on his wedding day, Friday 13th May, bitten by a shark on their belated honeymoon and mugged outside the court at their divorce hearing. He has been struck by lightning, not once but three times. After one of his many road accidents, the ambulance taking him to hospital crashed. You do have to wonder if his ill luck isn’t connected to his negativity. He isn’t just half empty, his cup is bottomless. He’s the living embodiment of a minus sign, a powerhouse of negative energy.

All is not lost on this occasion, however. Remarkably, Ron has not lost his job over the plane mix up. That must be a first. Perhaps it has become difficult to recruit people prepared to deliver bad news.

After I hang up, I ask Frankie what he knows about N Vision Inc. Frankie is my right-hand man, my facts at your fingertips man. He’s like google without broadband. He knows everything. He tells me he thinks that N Vision Inc is an affiliate of The God Corporation.

‘And they know that things are going to happen before they do?’ I say.

‘Apparently so,’ Frankie says.

‘Couldn’t we find some way to take advantage of that,’ I say.

‘Just what I was thinking,’ he says. ‘Next time you get a call from Ron, we’ll analyse the situation before recommending any action.’

‘Better still, I could keep in touch Ron. I could phone him every now and then to see what is in the pipeline,’ I say. ‘I’m sure he will be happy to have a friend.’

‘Good plan.’

‘And if anything goes wrong.’

‘Which it probably will do.’

‘We can take advantage of that too.’

I leave it for a few days and then Give Ron a call.

‘How are you, Ron?’ I ask.

‘Not good,’ he says, with the air of a prisoner who has just been shown the noose. He goes on to tell me that the head gasket on his Rover blew. He had to push it about half a mile, uphill, to the nearest breakers, as they wouldn’t collect. They gave him a cheque for £50 but when he got home he realised that they hadn’t signed it, so he had to go back there on the bus and then they were closed.

‘I thought you had a Citröen Saxo,’ I say. I have been doing my homework. In my line of work, I find it pays dividends to get inside the head of your clients.

‘The Saxo was impounded at Heathrow while I was in California,’ he says.

‘Oh dear,’ I say. ‘Things still OK at N Vision Inc are they?’ I am nervous I am about to hear the word, ‘sacked’, but surprisingly things are still OK at N Vision Inc.

Later that day Ron phones me back with a surprise request. ‘Can I borrow your car, Mr Diaz?’

What a cheek, the guy has. Has my offer of friendship backfired already?

‘I think I’m probably going to be using my car, Ron,’ I say. As it happens I have two cars, a BMW, and an Audi, but I’m hardly going to let Wet Blanket Ron in on this.

N Vision Inc have given me this new assignment,’ he continues. ‘The rock star, Johnny Angel is playing a concert at Kingsholm stadium in Gloucester tomorrow and he’s going to be shot. I have to stop it happening.’

‘Gloucester! That’s a hundred miles away,’ I say.

‘That’s right. That’s why I need a car. I’ve bought an old Skoda Fabia, but it’s not going to be ready until the weekend.’

‘You could rent a car.’

‘I’ve just cleaned out my bank account to pay for the Skoda.’

‘Second hand Skoda’s aren’t that expensive are they? They must have stopped making the Fabia over ten years ago.’

‘It was quite cheap but there wasn’t much in my bank account, Mr Diaz. I’ve had a lot of bills lately.’

‘Now, have I got this right?’ I say. ‘N Vision Inc called to tell you that Johnny Angel is going to be shot tomorrow in Gloucester and your assignment if I’ve understood you correctly is to prevent this from happening. The only way that you can do it is get a car to get there, you can’t afford Hertz and you don’t have any friends that will lend you theirs, in fact, you don’t have any friends, so you are asking me to lend you mine without much hope of being able to pay me.’

‘That’s about it, I suppose, yes.’

‘And meanwhile, I have to swallow this mumbo jumbo about some weirdos being able to see into the future.’

‘I’m still not sure how this works, Mr Diaz,’ he says. ‘But Kojo says that most people think that time is linear, but it isn’t. Kojo showed me the day after tomorrow’s papers. It’s on the front page in all the dailies. Headlines like Angel Falls, The Day The Music Died and Gay Rocker Shocker’

‘Not very imaginative,’ I say. How about Goodbye Norma Jean?’

‘I think that was the other fellow,’ says Ron.

‘Aha, so it was,’ I say.

‘So what do you say, Mr Diaz. Can I borrow your car? I’m desperate. …….. And I’m sure Johnny Angel would thank you.’

I used to be a fan of Johnny Angel, back in the day. I remember buying some of his early albums. I loved the song about him standing by the wall and the one about the spaceman. I’d never seen him play live, though.

‘It’s a mad idea, but I haven’t been to a rock concert in years and this one sounds as if it might be to be quite theatrical,’ I say. ‘How about I take you?’

What on earth made me say that, I wonder, after I’ve said it. Was it to do with what Frankie said about being able to take advantage of precognition? Or, have I been taken over by dark forces?

During the journey, I try to get some sense out of Ron about N Vision Inc. Frankie has researched them and come across very little. Even GCHQ have a more visible web presence. Ron tells me about Amir, Kojo, and Kazumi, the team of exotic personnel who run the show and about the constantly morphing office interior with random wildlife wandering about. He says that the reason people don’t know about the offices is that the building is invisible from the street. Apparently there is some scientific explanation for this.

He goes on to tell me about his ill-fated field missions to date. He starts with the tale of not saving research scientist, Maxwell Loveless from a gas explosion.

‘You mean to say that you were given the assignment, but didn’t manage to save him,’ I say.

‘Kind of, but that was not the objective,’ says Ron. ‘My job was to let his mother, Eileen Loveless know that her son was going to die.’

‘And she didn’t think to save him?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘I still don’t get it,’ I say.

‘I just do what they ask me to do,’ says Ron. ‘Next, I had to warn entrepreneur, Garret Wing that he was going to be shot. But he didn’t take any notice.’

‘So, another failure really,’ I say, already having visions of Johnny Angel’s bloodstained body slumped over the piano. ‘Why exactly are we doing all this?’

‘Amir says we cannot intervene directly, we can only take measures to alert the victim that something is going to happen. If the victim takes notice for instance, then the newspaper headlines that I talked about will change, but if he doesn’t, then the page will never have existed. A different page will have replaced it. Amir says that reality isn’t a straightforward business.’

‘So I’m beginning to find out,’ I say. ‘So what about Tom Carlevero? How do you know Tom, anyway?’

‘After my breakup with Heather, I rented a room in his house,’ he says.

‘Ah yes. I remember your breakup with Heather,’ I say. ‘She ran off with your best friend while you were in hospital, didn’t she? And you called me, and like a fool, I sympathised and said I would, uh ….. help. That was how you came to be on my list wasn’t it?’

‘And then you didn’t answer any of my calls until yesterday.’

‘I’ve been out of he office a lot.’

‘Anyway, to continue my story. Tom Soft moved in with Tom Carlevero and later they went off to California to get married and asked me to look after the house while they were on honeymoon.’

‘OK. Enough of that. Let’s get down to the job in hand,’ I say. ‘How are we going to get in to the gig. You’ve got tickets I take it.’

‘Well, no I haven’t.’

‘And you also have no money.’

‘No.’

‘So I’m expected to pay. Is that it?’

‘If you wouldn’t mind. They’re only £50 each. Oh and another £50 for backstage access. I’ll recompense you.’

‘When you get paid by N Vision Inc I suppose. And when will that be? Have you been paid at all yet?’

‘Well, now you come to mention it, no.’

‘They didn’t think of phoning Johnny Angel’s management and doing it the sensible way, I suppose.’

‘Might that not come across as a threat, Mr D?’

‘But it would have simplified the situation.’

I can’t help noticing that there are more hold-ups on the route west than usual. Every light we come to is red. Roundabouts which are normally clear have long tailbacks. I find myself behind a succession of slow moving tractors and learner drivers. There seem to be an unusual amount of lane closures and temporary traffic lights. I’m not superstitious or anything like that but it feels like something is in the air. Meanwhile, Ron tells me about his skin complaint, his anti-depressants, and the viruses on his computer. He throws in a few stories about Heather’s infidelity for good measure. I recall seeing a television programme about magnetic force and energy where people could project their thoughts beyond the limits of the brain into the atmosphere. The programme was concerned primarily with projecting the power of positive thought. Surely Ron’s sphere of negative influence could not extend to the environment around him, could it?

We approach the last section of dual carriageway. Traffic is at a standstill. Not what we need at this stage. Time is moving on. A diversion is in place, in the distance an army of police vehicles, fire engines, and ambulances. We make our way through the slow moving traffic. Unconcerned with what may have taken place, Ron uses the time to regale me with further tales of woe. The time he lost his passport on the way to the airport, how his numbers came up the week after he stopped doing the lottery, that his home insurance lapsed the day before the house fire. The reports may have gone on indefinitely but for us finally arriving in Kingsholm.

‘How are we going to do this,’ I say. ‘Have you got a plan of action, or do you want my input?’

‘I thought we would go backstage, ask his manager if we could speak to Johnny and then just tell him that he can’t play tonight because he’s going to be shot,’ Ron says. ‘Kojo says to deliver bad news you need to be assertive. No point in beating around the bush.’

‘So after I’ve driven all this way and paid out good money, I don’t even get to see him play Crocodile Rock.’

‘That’s not one of his,’ Ron says. ‘That’s the other guy again. ……. What were you thinking would be best then, Mr Diaz?’

‘Your methods don’t seem to have had much success so far, do they?’ I say. ‘I’ll let you know when we get inside.’

As we approach the stadium we see a huge crowd has gathered outside. Surely with such a big event they should have opened the gates by now. The concert is due to start in a few minutes. As we get up close, we can see a large illuminated message board reading ‘JOHNNY ANGEL CONCERT CANCELLED’

Why is the concert cancelled? No further information is given. There is mass confusion on the street. No one seems to know what to do. These people are all psyched up. They were ready to party. You can almost smell the disappointment in the air. No, perhaps it’s skunk you can smell. And alcohol. A couple of minor scuffles break out. I manage to catch the attention of a steward with a walkie talkie.

‘What is going on,’ I ask.

‘Haven’t you heard?’ he says, as if its common knowledge. ‘Johnny Angel’s helicopter was shot down over the ring road. The helicopter burst into flames. Everyone aboard was killed instantly.’

Although he should be used to things going wrong by now, Ron is inconsolable. He has his head in his hands. Having messed up his previous missions, he probably saw this as his last chance to get a result. Now he will almost certainly lose his job. But things are set to become a whole lot worse. As I guide him slowly along Kingsholm Road back towards the car, through the open window of a white transit van we catch the end of a news bulletin on the radio. It is turned up loud.

.. Police are treating the bringing down of the rock star’s helicopter as a terrorist act. They have released the names of two men they are anxious to apprehend in connection with the incident, Ron Smoot and Brent Diaz and have launched a search for the pair. The men are believed to be heavily armed and travelling in a black BMW …..…

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

Toker’s End

tokersend2

Toker’s End by Chris Green

My DuckDuckGo search came back with the names of several estate agents in my area, but King and Castle seemed to be the premier firm, not least because their advertisement said so. So, later that day I called into their High Street office and asked if I could see Mr King or Mr Castle to talk about my requirements. Mr King it transpired was in prison and Mr Castle, according to Saskia the heavily made up blonde haired girl who greeted me, was fictitious. Thus I found myself talking to a disarmingly young man called Matt Black. He wore a shiny grey suit and a grey knitted skinny tie. He fiddled nervously with an empire of desk accessories.

I told Matt I was looking to buy a small town and asked him what King and Castle had on their books. He told me that there were not too many small towns on the market, because with other investments taking a tumble, small towns represented a popular option for the great and the good to invest their capital. The smart money was going into large plots of real estate, he said. In the last week, King and Castle had sold both Bridgewater and Bideford, Bridgewater fetching the full asking price.

I looked at him aghast. ‘Bridgewater, really?’ I said.

Twiddling his grey bullet pen, Matt explained that the cellophane factory that had been the cause of the notorious Bridgewater smell had recently closed. Bideford of course had been snapped up because it was in Devon. Devon was the cream of the crop when it came to mass freehold residential. Even Barnstable, the epitome of blandness, had sold within forty eight hours.

Setting his Newton’s cradle in motion, Matt confided that he had Cheadle at £4,000 million and Yate at £3,000 million and also Didcot and Hythe, but he felt that at £5,500 million neither was realistically priced, and if I were to consider either of them he would recommend I put in a lower offer.

I began scanning the details of Cheadle and Yate, but despite what Matt called ideal renovation opportunities, neither of them captured my imagination. Cheadle’s proximity to Manchester was not in its favour and Yate was just plain awful. I remembered the Crap Towns description of Yate, citing it as a hell hole, a mecca for chavs, goths, skaterboys and griegos. Didcot did look more attractive but there was the power station to consider. I understood Hythe being on the Kent coast, to be overrun with asylum seekers.

‘Or you might contemplate renting a small town,’ Matt continued, massaging the keys on his laptop. ‘Our letting agency has several to rent.’ He directed his delicate, manicured hand towards Saskia, who apparently was in charge of lettings.

It was not a reflection of Saskia’s attributes or abilities that I did not look up. What would be the point in taking out a rental agreement on a small town?

Matt could sense my apprehension. He tried a new tack.

‘I have here an interesting opportunity,’ he crooned. ‘And it has only just come on to the market. It is a fabulous little suburb. It has a quaint name, Toker’s End. Its on the fringes of a smart Regency town. And its a steal at £999 million. It has a bohemian feel, a cosmopolitan population, and a falling crime rate. And there are plans to renovate the derelict shopping centre.

‘You might even be able to get a 95% mortgage on it,’ he added encouragingly.

I told him I might need to borrow the 5% deposit as well.

‘No problem,’ he chirped. ‘A lot of buyers are doing the very same thing.’

I enquired what the repayments on £999 million might be.

Taking out a calculator that looked more like something Scotty might use to beam up Captain Kirk, he started to press some buttons. He finally arrived at a figure. ‘£5,570,000 a month based on 25 years,’ he said.

At first this appeared like a large commitment, especially as I owed £29 million on my Titanium card. I quickly regained my composure, at least I like to think that it was quickly, although when I came to, Matt was on the phone talking to another client. Saskia smiled across at me and carried on painting her nails.

By the time Matt was free I had reasoned that although I owed £29 million, this had not stopped financial institutions pleading with me to borrow more, almost on a daily basis and it was impossible to use the internet without pop ups for loans appearing all over the desktop. Debt encouraged lenders.

‘Let me show you some pictures,’ Matt purred.

Looking at the virtual model of the estate on his laptop, I began to discuss with Matt what I might like to do with Toker’s End.

‘I think it would be better if these two streets were knocked into one. What do you think I should do with the residents?’

Matt confided that there was a small refugee camp nearby, where they could go. ‘New government initiative,’ he revealed. ‘You know, to stem the influx of immigrants.’

‘And I’d get rid of this unsightly Catholic church.’

‘I think I might do the same,’ Matt chuckled.

‘I might want to extend this park and knock down these tower blocks here and build a lake.’

‘No problem,’ said Matt. ‘I think we would be able to arrange a favourable rate for a loan to do that.’

I began to wonder what had happened to the restraints on financial institutions that were brought in after the meltdown. You heard nothing now about sub-prime lending or due diligence. It was business as usual for the banks. Even if you were hugely in debt, there were few obstacles to buying a small town, well at least a suburb with an interesting name. Even my speculative plans for an airport it appeared could be easily accommodated. All I had to do was to say how much I wanted to borrow.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

Footsteps

footsteps

Footsteps by Chris Green

You may not have heard of Tregorran. Most people haven’t. It is a tiny hamlet, remote even by Cornish standards. Although I keep hearing that providers are investing millions of pounds to tackle poor reception in rural areas, I have no phone signal where I am staying at Little Wormwood Cottage, a rural retreat, accessible only a long windy track. I only pick up the voicemail message from Unknown Caller when I come into range the next day. There is no spoken message, just a background track which sounds like footsteps in the rain.

I put it down to a phone in someone’s pocket accidentally dialling my number. Although I do not use the phone that much, it could be someone whose number is not in my phonebook, a casual acquaintance for instance or a tradesperson that I have contacted who has saved my number. The odds that the keypad itself could hit eleven digits in the right order to correspond with a mobile phone number are ten to the power of something astronomical.

I think nothing more of it, but to my alarm, the same thing happens again the next day. It is a carbon copy of the first. Both calls were made at 10:24pm by an unknown caller and both times the message consists of footsteps tramping in the rain, lasting for one minute thirty seconds. This really spooks me. It is not something that can have happened accidentally. This is way beyond the realms of coincidence. Something is definitely not quite right.

I listen carefully to the calls several times, playing them back through the car’s speakers. It sounds like a single set of footsteps. The tread is rhythmic and purposeful. There is the suggestion of waterproofs rubbing together, perhaps from a jacket or pair of wet weather trousers. It has been raining heavily on and off for days here in Cornwall. The calls may not have been from Cornwall of course. In fact, why would they have come from Cornwall? I know very few people here. They could have come from anywhere, Alaska, China, anywhere, although it’s fair to say I cannot recall having contact with anyone so far flung. I think I detect a suggestion of light traffic on a wet road in the background, but I am not sure. There are no voices to be heard on either recording.

The man in the dark suit and the Men In Black sunglasses standing outside the village post office in St Mervyn looks distinctly out of place. I give the sinister figure a wide birth but as I walk past, he barks out something in a foreign language. Whether he is addressing me or not I cannot tell. Then I notice another figure in a dark suit with even blacker sunglasses talking into a phone outside the twelfth-century church. How is it that he is able to get a signal around here when I am not? He is pointing in my direction. If that isn’t threatening enough, there is Vladimir Putin mounted on a black horse outside the butchers’ shop. Reason would suggest it is not the Russian leader, but the resemblance is uncanny and he carries with him the same air of menace. He is holding what looks like a hunting rifle.

I don’t aim to stay and find out what these outsiders are doing in this sleepy backwater. I double back over the stone bridge where my Golf is parked and dive into it. It is not a fast car but after some cute manoeuvres I manage to lose the black sedan that I find is following me up the narrow muddy country lanes. I have been here several days and have become used to the lie of the land. My pursuers clearly have not.

Nothing seems to make sense. Why am I being hounded? I have come down here to do some writing. To finish of a story about fly fishing ready for publication next month. And to spend some time with my partner, Jodi. She’ll be here later. She was supposed to arrive yesterday but was delayed. She is in advertising. Precise arrangements can be difficult as project times often overrun with television campaigns and the like.

Perhaps these interlopers, whoever they are, have confused me with someone else. If they want me, why don’t they just confront me directly? Why would they make themselves so obvious? They are just drawing attention to themselves. Are they just trying to frighten me? If this is the case they are succeeding. I am terrified.

When I get back to the apartment, much to my relief Jodi is there. I explain to her what has been happening.

She is not impressed. I am a little disappointed. I was hoping she might be more understanding and supportive.

‘So you had a couple of strange voicemail messages,’ she says. ‘I get lots of them. I don’t know why but that’s the way it is with phones these days.’

‘But the two calls were identical, and at exactly the same time on consecutive nights,’ I protest.

‘Even less reason to be concerned. It’s just a technical hiccup at Vodafone.’

‘O2,’ I correct her.

‘OK. A gremlin at O2. I’m sure these things happen all the time.’

‘What about the men in the village?’ I say.

‘Two men wearing shades. Don’t you feel you are being a little over-sensitive?’

‘But it wasn’t even sunny,’ I say. ‘And what about Vladimir Putin?’

‘On a horse, you say. People do ride horses in the country.’

‘But then they chased after me in the black sedan.’

‘Oh come on now! If professionals were tailing you, don’t you think they might have managed to keep up with you on these slow roads? They turned off. They were going somewhere else. The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know.’

‘I guess not,’ I concede.

‘Anyway,’ she says, putting her arms around me. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me?’

‘Of course.’

‘So, Where are you going to take me? What delights does the back of beyond have to offer?’

I tell her that there is not much going on out of season.

‘I know a place,’ she says. ‘The one that was named after that Daphne Du Maurier book’

‘Jamaica Inn?’

‘No not that one, the other one.’

We drive a few miles to The House On The Strand. We take Jodi’s car just in case. No-one follows us. Since we were last down here, The House In The Strand has been converted into a gastropub and has a French chef.

I have Boudin Blanc in Leeks and Mustard Sauce which turns out to be sausages in cream and Jodi has Battered Cod with Marie Rose Sauce and Chick Pea Fries which looks very much like fish and chips. The presentation is nice though and the Pistachio Mascarpone with Milk Chocolate Port Truffle, and the Dulce de Leche Crème Fraiche with Almond are both delicious. The second bottle of Shiraz is even better than the first. While we are trying to decide who is the most fit to drive back, Jodi goes off to the Ladies.

I have almost forgotten about the earlier traumas. Perhaps Jodi is right, I do occasionally indulge a little paranoia. I am looking forward to a few days relaxation with her now. We can wine and dine and make love. We can tour around taking in the beautiful landscape. We can swim in the sea and perhaps hire a boat to explore the bays. We can go to the Eden Project and the Lost Gardens. The Minack Theatre. St Michaels Mount. Cornwall has plenty to offer.

Jodi often spends a few minutes powdering her nose, so at first, I am not concerned when she doesn’t return, but after ten minutes or so I begin to worry. She has never spent quite this long. She has taken her handbag, so I give her mobile a ring. While mine is working fine here, she seems to have hers switched off. My next thought is that, thinking that we were ready to leave, she may have gone out to the car. I go over to the window and take a look outside. Her Polo is still in the car park. She is not in it.

A waiter comes over, concerned that we are trying to do a runner. Frantically I explain the situation to him. He asks me to calm down and offers to send a colleague to the Ladies to investigate. His colleague returns. Jodi is not there. I am beside myself. My paranoia comes flooding back, this time with interest. Perhaps the lady has just gone for a walk to clear her head, says the maître d’, pointing out that we have had quite a lot of wine. And the second bottle was 13.5%. Just then my phone rings. Thinking it must be Jodi, complete with an explanation, I answer it. It is not Jodi. There is no-one on the other end. All I can hear are the familiar footsteps in the rain. It is not raining outside. It is 10:24.

‘Who Is This?’ I yell into the phone. ‘Why do you keep phoning me? What Do You Want?’ The caller does not respond. The footsteps continue, their dull trudging rhythm regular as a metronome.

Everyone in the pub is looking at me. I don’t care. It seems unlikely that the caller will respond, but like a madman, I keep shouting into the phone. After an eternity, the call ends. The display says that the call has lasted just ninety seconds.

I turn my attention back to Jodi’s disappearance. I begin to ask other diners if they saw anything. Having witnessed my behaviour on the phone, they are reluctant to cooperate. Several of them are already asking for their bills. From the few that are still civil, it appears no-one saw Jodi go to the Ladies and no-one saw her leave the establishment. No-one saw anything suspicious. They are of the view that we have had a lover’s tiff, Jodi stormed off and that I called her on my mobile and started shouting at her. The maître d’ is asking me to leave. He is threatening to call the police. There is no need. One of the customers has already done so.

For a rural force, The Devon and Cornwall Constabulary arrive on the scene remarkably quickly as if they have been waiting just up the road. There are four of them in blue fatigues, all built like Bulgarian shot-putters. They issue stock commands from the police lexicon, all of which suggest I should not move. The press arrive. Legions of them. What is going on? Surely the crime rate around here cannot be so low that a small disagreement in a pub can warrant so much attention, but as the officers are putting the handcuffs on and leading me away to the patrol car, the paparazzi are snapping away like I’m a disgraced celebrity.

I have not been in this position before, but police custody is probably the same the world over. You are bundled into a cell, probably drunk, by burly officers, and subjected to maximum indignity and discomfort for the duration of your stay. The cell probably has concrete floors and walls, with bars on one side so the duty officer can keep an eye on you and a wooden bench for you to sober up on. It probably smells of urine, body odour and vomit. In all these ways the one in which I find myself at a remote location in Cornwall might be seen as typical.

What may be different here is that there is country music playing, loudly. Very loudly. This cannot be with the motive of settling the prisoner in. It can only promote thoughts of self-harm or worse. Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry is followed by Merle Haggard’s If We Make It Through December and Dolly Parton’s I Will Forever Hate Roses and then the daddy of them all, Jim Reeves’ He’ll Have To Go. God! This music is awful. Tennessee must be a living Hell.

The pounding in my head makes me think I may have had more of the wine than Jodi, and, didn’t I start off with a pint of beer? This is not the time to be listening to Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart and I do believe they have turned it up. Do they know how much I hate country music? Is this a special programme for my benefit? Eddy Arnold’s Make The World Go Away is now playing, over and over. They must have left it on repeat and buggered off. Why would anyone want to listen to this, even once? The potential damage to the brain from earworm is unimaginable. This is surely a tried and tested technique from Guantanamo Bay. If introduced in prisons here the threat of 24/7 Eddy Arnold I imagine would significantly cut offending rates.

To add to my suffering, I can’t help but be concerned as to what might be happening to Jodi. She must have been abducted and if I can be detained in this manner, then perhaps she is too. God forbid! Jodi likes her creature comforts. I like her to have her creature comforts. I do my best to ensure she has her creature comforts. I love Jodi more than anything in the world. But to get back to my situation, if she too is being held, she is not going to be available to bail me out. How am I going to get out of here to help her get out of wherever she is? Will I ever see her again?

Fuck me! what is happening to me? Everything is escalating out of my control. I lie down on the bench to try to temper the bouts of nausea. Hard though it is, I try to arrange my chaotic thoughts into those of reason. My captors didn’t seem concerned with charging me so much as just banging me up. This is odd. Police like their procedures. Perhaps they are not real police ….. but villains …… although this does seem like a real police station. But surely real police wouldn’t just abandon me doomed to listen forever to a loop of the Tennessee Plowboy. This is not the kind of professional behaviour one expects from modern officers, it is more like the antics of pranksters.

My mind keeps returning to the footsteps. That haunting repetitive sound keeps thumping away in my head. What is it about those footsteps? From somewhere at the back of my consciousness I dredge up a faint recollection of an advertising campaign that Jodi was involved with a year or so ago. Gradually I am able to build up a picture of a series of television adverts. They are filmed in black and white with a retro man trudging home through sludgy snow late at night. He is looking forward to his cup of hot drinking chocolate and as he does so a red glow forms around him. There are no words or music on the ads, just the hypnotic sound of the footsteps and logo of the company in the corner of the screen.

Could Jodi be responsible for my present situation? Could she have made those phonecalls from an unregistered phone, arranged the men in black, the Vladimir Putin lookalike and the car chase? She would know the effect that these things would have on me. She would know that I have a tendency to blow things out of all proportion. It would then be easy for her to get me drunk and then disappear. She is in a position to recruit actors to be paparazzi and brutish policemen. It would be like casting an advertising campaign. But here’s the coup de grâce. More than anyone, Jodi knows how much I hate country music. But then, why would she do this to me?

Oh! My! God! Might Jodi have discovered that I slept with …… her sister, Suzi, when she was away at that conference last year? I wondered what she had the hump about when she came back from Pilates last Thursday. Pilates normally relaxes her. I heard a while back that Suzi’s friend, Amy had started going to the class. I am aware that Amy can be spiteful. She must have dropped a hint about our clandestine liaison into the conversation somewhere.

Jodi must have realised that tackling me about it there and then would have met with my denial. Nevertheless, she must have thought, no smoke without fire. Keeping her discovery to herself then would then have given her chance to quietly plan her revenge. To further humiliate me, she may even be making a film of my entire Cornwall escapade. I am in all probably being filmed right now. Movie cameras are so inconspicuous these days, indistinguishable from the CCTV cameras we are so used to seeing every day, like ….. that one over there.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

 

 

Retriever

retriever

Retriever by Chris Green

Einstein posits
that the distinction between past, present and future is no more than a stubbornly persistent illusion. I can see where he was coming from this morning as I go through the mail. This certainly seems like the same CheapCall bill I received the day before yesterday. And the same BestPower statement? The circular from PayLess Insurance looks more than a little familiar too.

At fifty nine, it has to be said, my memory for detail is sketchier than it once was. When set against the political corruption, the floods and the threat of war in the Middle east, a duplication of paperwork is not a momentous problem. I have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I am now late. It is 8.15 already and the traffic on Tambourine Way will be horrific if I don’t hurry. I scrape the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and give it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the windows start to de-mist, and move off into the February frost.

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

I arrive at Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service where I work. I greet Boris and Gerhard. I notice that the cyber dog that was collected by its owner the day before yesterday is already back. There is also, I feel, a familiarity about the headline War Dims Hope for Peace in Boris’s tabloid. And Gerhard seems to be having the same telephone conversation that he had a couple of days ago. Admittedly inanimate pet care is a repetitive line of work but the conversation with Major Churchill about his pet rock seems identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard puts down the phone I tackle him about this.

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

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

Over the days that follow I have a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day has happened previously. I have the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spend the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watch Groundhog Day again on DVD, buy another aspidistra from Marks and Spencer, another new metal detector from The Army and Navy Surplus Stores and another Corby trouser press from the charity shop by the library. The presidential election comes round again and they bring the old president back, and entertainer Rolf Harris is prosecuted again for entertaining children in in an inappropriate way. The hours on my watch are still going forward but the date is going backward.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good,’ I remark. ‘I may need it to.’

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

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

When I wake up I find myself on the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. My associate, Song, and I are filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. It seems the Chinese authorities are keen to promote tourism in the area. It is a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I can see for miles. It is late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year has been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain is still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriate. Song points toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals are about to turn out to play.

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

I show no surprise. Through classes in Tai Chi, I have developed an interest in Sino culture, and have come to understand that the Chinese invented practically everything from paper and printing to gunpowder and aerial flight, and most advances in science and medicine can be attributed to the Chinese.

Song goes a little deeper into the history of cuju in the region and says that he feels the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nod my agreement, but in reality I feel distracted.

In a conversation that must be puzzling to Song I establish that it is 1988 – the year before Tianamen Square. I have gone back seventeen years. While I am conscious of my vitality, I have the strange sensation that I am also an observer of my life. I can remember my yesterday quite literally as if it were yesterday but this is seventeen years forward. I am aware of this as I resume the dialogue with Song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Astrid becomes Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between there is Natalie in New York, and before I know it I am twenty three. These years are wild and exciting but I begin to feel like Dorian Gray, without the immortality. I go to parties with painters and dine with divas. I work on a film with Antonioni and play with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashes my car and Marc Bolan throws up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism I just soak up all the pleasure that is available, and cannot recall when I last tried to exercise free will. I have gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.

Time going backwards is by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu has long since become so commonplace that it is now unnoticeable. And that the plot of soap operas and news items if I can be bothered with them unfolds backwards is completely normal. But I am frequently made aware of echoes of a future life. A persistent voice in my head seems to narrate stories concerning an older person, in fact a much older person, someone perhaps in his fifties. The voice is familiar, and comes from within, but while it seems it belongs to me and has some sense of self, at the same time I feels a sense of detachment. I have recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibit themselves like false memory. This older person seems to have experienced considerable misfortune, have found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit, have seen it disappear. As a result of the dispossession he has suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lives a lonely life, works in inanimate pet care, drives a brown Skoda and listens to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were to be my own future, it is neither tangible nor attractive. It seems to me that as my life is moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing is to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness, so the more that it happens, the more I try to block out the voice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where does that come from?’ I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Which God?’ I ask.

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

I do not go in. I say my goodbyes. I know what I have to do.

If I can do nothing about life in reverse, it is time to take a step back and try to get in touch with my spirituality. I take a bus to Athens and from there a boat to Santorini, a small Greek island, where there is a meditation centre. I suppose I hope to discover the meaning of life.

I come round in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I am wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. I am fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No, wait, I AM Jon Keating. ‘Keating needs a beating,’ they are chanting, this swathe of little grey monsters. ‘Keating needs a beating.’ Oh shit!

I am going to ask Dr Self to take me off Paradoxin. Before he went on holiday, he did stress it was an experimental drug and there was the possibility that there might be undocumented side effects.

© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved

Cadence and Kascade

cadenceandkascade

Cadence and Kascade by Chris Green

I wake in an unfamiliar room. My head is pounding and my mouth feels like a dried up drainage ditch. I am used to more formal surroundings, when I wake, a comfortable bed and sometimes a cup of tea. My recall of how I came to be here is nil. Across from me, a few feet away lies a naked woman with a snake tattoo running up one of her thighs. She is asleep amongst a heap of Film Noir print cushions. She has her back to me. At first I do not recognise her. It slowly dawns on me this is Kascade. On a small rococo table beside her sits a retro black bakelite telephone. A zebra patterned rug hangs on the wall over her. A large aloe vera plant skulks in the corner. There is musty smell in the air. Four identical black cats sit in different parts of the room at exactly the same angle in the same upright position looking towards the window. It takes me a few moments to realise that they are stuffed. I go over to the window. It looks out on to a pool of dark water. The pool is rich with vegetation and is brown in colour. This is a strange space. The room is large. There is a lot to take in.

Another woman has come into the room. I’m not sure where she has come from. A little of the puzzle falls into place. This is Cadence. She is my partner. Kascade is a friend of Cadence’s. This must be where Kascade lives. Cadence told me that she moved house recently. Even before she took up with Ivan, Kascade struck me as a little kooky. Ivan is a taxi driver or is it a taxidermist. He is Albanian. He may be using his taxi driving or taxiderming as a cover. He may have connections with the Albanian Mafia. This view might be influenced by the stereotype, but who knows? Kascade is a travel writer, but she hasn’t done much travelling or much writing lately. The drugs she takes can have that effect, although she does come over as something of a femme fatale.

Cadence and I must have arrived last night, although I can remember very little. I feel something is wrong. I suggest to her that we need to get back.

‘What!’ she says. She looks as dazed as I feel. Her eyes are sunken and her hair is matted. Her dark mesh tights are laddered and her pale jacket is smeared with something. There is probably no point in asking her anything about last night at present.

‘I think it would be good if we got on home,’ I say.

‘Back home,’ she says. There is something strange about the way she emphasises home. I am not sure why. Perhaps she does not consider our flat as home. Technically I suppose it is my flat although Cadence has been living there on and off for nearly twelve months. Perhaps she feels she has somewhere else to go. Maybe this is why we are at Kascade’s. I try to remember what has happened.

‘Yes, back home,’ I say. ‘I feel weak. I think I may need to eat soon.’

‘And having breakfast is going to solve everything is it?’

‘Well, perhaps we could have a talk at the same time. Find out what’s happening between us.’

Cadence greets this with an icy stare. She goes into another room and returns with a scuffed black leather overnight bag. She throws it across her shoulder. I do not seem to have any baggage. There is clearly something about the situation I am missing. Until I can discover what this is, I decide I must back off.

Kascade is still asleep. Cadence scribbles a note for her. We take our leave along a dark corridor. It is difficult to get one’s bearings. A succession of rooms lead off. Some have doors but others do not. No light comes through from the rooms. It looks as if the space might be used as a storage area. It must be a very large building. Perhaps it is a converted warehouse. Maybe a warehouse in the process of conversion. In the nineties it may have been used for art shows or parties. There is a menacing echo to our footsteps as we tread the floorboards. I cannot find a light switch. I bump into a large spiders web and send its occupant goes scurrying across the floor. Cadence is several steps ahead. She is definitely in a mood about something. I wonder if it is about something that happened last night. The freight train running through my head denies me access to the recent past.

We find ourselves at a staircase and go down some steps. We make it out into the daylight. Where is the car, I wonder. Did we not come in the car? I go through my pockets. I do not even have the car keys.