It Ain’t Necessarily So

itaintnecessarilyso

It Ain’t Necessarily So by Chris Green

Man Eats Goldfish at County Fair, the headline poster outside the newsagents says. At first, I assume this must refer to a report in the local paper. A light-hearted line to draw you in and get you to buy the paper. Lord knows The West Country Gazette needs all the help it can get. But as I get closer, I see the headline is from The Times. What kind of slow news day would warrant such a headline in The Times? This is the equivalent of saying, nothing of any note has happened or is happening anywhere, no wars or skirmishes, no political upheaval, no extreme weather events, no financial irregularities, no robberies, no gun or knife crime. Nothing. Zilch. I go into the shop to buy my cigarettes and find that The Daily Telegraph and The Independent carry the same story. Ben Brickley from Bideford washed down a goldfish he won at the fair with a pint of Old Stonker. The Guardian leads on a story about a cat from Cullompton that was trapped in a lift. All four papers look thin and the tabloids don’t seem to have published at all. The lad in the torn Bolt Thrower tee-shirt behind the counter is unable to elaborate. He seems to be there under duress.

I can get no signal on the phone and when I get home, I find the internet is dead. I switch on the TV. The 24-hour news channel is concentrating on the goldfish story, interviewing someone from Fish Protection, who is trying to explain the stress the goldfish would have experienced as it made its way through Ben’s digestive tract. The usual rolling reports running along the bottom of the screen have updates on the cat from Cullompton. Apparently Poppy is recovering from her ordeal. Were it not for the comms outage, I’d be tempted to feel someone was playing a prank. But I get the feeling it’s something altogether more sinister.

I have to break off to go to my Harmonica class at the community centre. I’ve been looking forward to this. Last week we covered Junior Wells’s technique. Junior is a master of bends and diatonic phrasing. This week, it is to be Little Walter. I imagine we will be concentrating on the tongue-block style that Walter pioneered. Blues harp needed for this I imagine but I am taking a selection of my harps along just in case there are any surprises.

As we wait for our tutor to arrive, I mention the story about the goldfish to the other students.

They spent a whole hour talking about it,’ Mac says. ‘I’ve no idea what happened in last night’s football.’

If he had swallowed a whale, now that would be news,’ Ronnie says. ‘But a goldfish?’

I couldn’t get a TV signal at all,’ Ed Toker says. ‘Just static.’

Something’s being hushed up, don’t you think?’ I say.

There’s been a lot of terrorism lately,’ Mac says. ‘Perhaps the security services have shut everything down as a precaution.’

It could be that a very sophisticated hacker has taken out all the communication networks,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps someone has launched a hacker satellite that has knocked all the others out.’

I doubt if that’s possible,’ I say. ‘There would always be some kind of backup system. It’s some kind of news blackout. I’m sure of it.’

Best not to think about it,’ Ronnie says. ‘I expect we’ll find out soon enough.’

Our tutor, Duke arrives and we go on into the Little Walter session. For the next hour and a half, we blow our harps with gay abandon. The class lifts our spirits. How could it not? Walter was the Jimi Hendrix or perhaps the Charlie Parker of the blues harp. The world would be a poorer place without Walter’s contribution to music. By the end, I’m reasonably pleased with the progress I’ve made on Hoochie Coochie Man and My Babe. I decide I might even go along to the open mic night at The Gordon Bennett at the weekend.

After class, we switch our phones back on but still find none of us has a signal or internet. Duke is now up to speed with the situation and turns on the community centre TV to see if there have been any developments. On the news channel, they are still talking about goldfish. There has been a copycat incident in Barnstaple. Outside the Pannier Market, Bernie Burton has swallowed a goldfish and washed it down with a pint of Dark Horse. The rolling updates meanwhile have moved on to another cat story. Thomas from Tavistock has been named Mouser of the Year. Chelsea Kiss comes on the air to say that reports are coming in from Plymouth of a man in a pet shop swilling down the contents of the fish tank with litres of Badger’s Arse. Duke tries switching channels but there appear to be no other channels on the air.

When I get home, I turn the TV on again. Things have moved on a little. News is breaking about more widespread recreational fish swallowing. The Fowey Aquarium and The Lyme Regis Marine Aquarium are the latest to suffer. Not just goldfish now, but tropical fish. Dwarf gouramis, guppies and angelfish.

It seems no small fish in the south-west is safe,’ Chelsea remarks. ‘The outbreak is becoming uncontainable.’

I can’t tell whether or not her co-presenter, Giles Fawning is hiding a smirk. Is he in the know? Have the pair of them been told what is really going on? Are they complicit in the proceedings?

There are still no other channels available and it seems that the news channel is getting fainter. Something is obviously very wrong in the big wide world. I decide not to dwell on it. Over the years I have learned that if I can do nothing about the situation, there is no point in worrying about it. Whatever it is they are hiding behind the fish story might quickly blow over. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. I am becoming accustomed to a little adversity. Since Annie ran off with her Taekwondo trainer, Tyrone, my life has been a catalogue of misfortune. Losing Annie was one thing but when the job, the house and the car followed, I formed the impression that someone upstairs didn’t like me. I am used to living in the bed-sitter now despite the noise from the trains and the erratic behaviour of the psychotic junkie next-door-neighbour. After a while, you convince yourself that hearing Feral Scorn blaring out at 3 a.m. is normal. But hopefully it won’t be forever. Circumstances change. In fact, change is the only thing that can be guaranteed in life.

Whatever is thrown at you, cliched it might be, it is best to keep calm and carry on. Adversity is said to be character-building. Tell yourself there are many examples of famous people who didn’t give up when their backs were up against the wall. Stephen Hawking for example. Despite his crippling disabilities, he became a groundbreaking theoretical physicist. Or another Stephen. Stephen King. His first novel was rejected thirty times but he kept going and went on to be one of the most successful writers of all time. Beethoven went deaf quite early on in his composing career but was still able to create a staggering catalogue of sublime music. Nelson Mandela was able to bring about the end of the apartheid regime from his prison cell. And let us not forget Tom Crews, the surfer who despite being blind, won the Wipeout Classic in Hawaii three years in succession. Perseverance is the key.

I am not aiming at such giddy heights. I just want my life to get back to normal. A few home comforts and a little TLC wouldn’t go amiss. You don’t realise how much you miss these things until they are gone. I was hoping that Nisha, who I met at Ward Swisher’s critically acclaimed new play, The Dream Library would get back to me. We seemed to get along well in the bar afterwards. But perhaps she is not interested. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You never can tell. In the meantime, I have my harmonicas to help me through. I switch off the TV and take out my Larry Adler chromatic and run through It Ain’t Necessarily So, the George and Ira classic. My favourite tune on my favourite harp. The lyrics about Jonah living in a whale are a bit silly but perhaps that’s the point the song is trying to make. The Bible is full of silly stories. That’s probably why it has fallen out of favour. People are looking for truth in this post-truth age. But for me as a harmonica player, it is the melody that matters. Once I am happy that I have got the rhythm right, I go back over the Junior Wells tunes and the Little Walter tunes from class on my Hohner blues harp, make myself some lunch and as it seems to be quiet next door, settle down for a well-earned nap. Whatever it might be that is happening in the outside world can wait awhile.

I had always imagined they would be tall and green. They would be skeletal perhaps with angular pointed heads and disproportionally large eyes. Or maybe short and squat like ET. But they are not. They are nothing like that. The creatures I see through my window when I wake are amorphous. It is difficult to get a handle on how they are formed. Some jelly-like substance perhaps. They are black, so dark in fact that they absorb all the available light. They appear to spot I am looking their way and in a flash, they are at the window, thrashing the panes of glass with their scaly black tentacles. Or are these leathery appendages, fins of some kind or wings? Whichever, these beings are clearly not from around here. These are extraterrestrials. This is an alien invasion. My nervous system can find no adequate response to register the panic I feel. I have had no instruction as to what one is supposed to do under these circumstances. The popular viewpoint in my lifetime has been that, outside of Doctor Who and Star Wars, aliens do not exist.

Suddenly, the opening chords of Feral Scorn’s Behemoth X ring out at frightening volume. The psychotic junkie next-door neighbour appears to have surfaced. The alien creatures are clearly not accustomed to Feral Scorn’s pummelling riffs. They immediately back off. Perhaps in their world, battles are fought through sound. If so, I can appreciate that on hearing Feral Scorn for the first time, they might be terrified. This is as heavy and threatening as grunge metal gets.

Without my phone or the internet, it is not going to be easy to share my experience about the extraterrestrials with the authorities. Or more pertinently perhaps, how to get rid of them. I drive around to the police station to pass on the information for the benefit of others. Fortunately, the streets are quiet and I do not encounter any aliens on the way.

Sergeant Golfer seems less than impressed with my story.

Perhaps you would be good enough to describe these ….. extraterrestrials, Mr Dark,’ he says, chuckling. ‘Then maybe we can circulate a photofit picture of them.’

I don’t think a photofit picture is going to do it, Sergeant,’ I say. ‘They’re black and jelly-like and they keep changing shape.’

I see,’ he says. ‘And you say they are frightened by something called Feral Scorn. What exactly is that?’

Feral Scorn is a band,’ I say. ‘A heavy grunge band from Seattle. Look! Is there any way you could get in touch with the military? In case they are not aware of it. They probably know about the invasion but you never know. And can you put it out on police radio for your officers to keep a lookout for the aliens? And if they encounter any, get them to play some very loud music, preferably grunge metal.’

You want me to stop my officers policing serious goldfish-related incidents to look for marauding gangs of black blobs, do you, Mr Dark?’ Sergeant Golfer says, sharing the joke with his fellow officers at the desk. ‘And play them some hit tunes.’

I can see I’m going to get nowhere with these small-minded fools. I decide to leave them to it. Given their attitude, it is little wonder that so little crime is solved. I’m not sure what my next step should be but as I am getting into the car, my phone springs into life. Notification upon notification come up one after another on the screen, text messages, Twitter and Facebook updates, emails and WhatsApp messages. Most noticeable of all is an ad that fills the screen for the latest Feral Scorn album, Cthulhu. Guaranteed to scare the pants off you is the tagline.

I turn the ignition and the radio comes on. A communications expert is explaining that while it is relatively easy to knock out a couple of rural counties in the south-west of England for a short time, it would be much more difficult to bring the world to a standstill. In a small discrete area, you can jam all means of communication, put together some fake copies of the newspapers, come up with a few fake stories, in this instance about goldfish and cats. Then get actors to play the real hosts of a fake news station to help circulate the fake reports. Maybe you can close the main arterial roads and get the local authorities to play along. But it would be impossible to replicate this on a large scale.

I listen for a while as they talk about the operational parameters of television transmissions, data, bandwidth and stuff. It’s all very technical. There is no news as to who was behind it. And curiously, they mention nothing about the extraterrestrials. Surely something this important should come into the discussion. Who are they? What are they? Where did they land? What is their mission? Or is their presence still something they are trying to keep from us? With the communications mystery now explained though, I suppose the idea of an alien invasion restricted to one small rural area in the west country does seem a little unlikely. Had I perhaps imagined them? Was I in that confused state between sleeping and waking when they appeared? Or were the creatures fake, a publicity stunt for Cthulhu, Feral Scorn’s new album? While there appears to be a significant following for metal music in these parts, it is difficult to see a big enough return for the band to justify such random extravagance but still.

I begin to check my messages. Quite a few showing alarm at the communications blackout. One or two harmonica-related ones. News about an extra open mic night at The Gordon Bennett. And there is one from Nisha. Which is nice. Why don’t I come over later, she says? She will cook me a meal. Would fish be alright? Or squid? How about six-o’clock? And perhaps we could share a glass or two of Pinot Grigio. Then later, we might settle down to a leisurely dessert. While squid can be a little difficult to swallow and Pinot Grigio might not be my favourite wine, this sounds like an offer I would be a fool to turn down.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Life and Times of Roy Saxx

thelifeandtimesofroysaxx

The Life and Times of Roy Saxx by Chris Green

I’d better start at the end. Roy Saxx is dead. He met his maker in September 2011 when he lost control of his Triumph motorcycle on a blind bend in a freak thunderstorm near the aptly named village of Kilve in the Quantock Hills. He was sixty three years old. You may not have heard of Roy Saxx. But, if you have not, the chances are you will. Even though he has been dead for seven years, his star is rising. Posthumous fame is more common than you might imagine. Think Stieg Larsson, Van Gogh, Kafka, Jesus.

It is difficult to pigeonhole Roy Saxx. He was something of an enigma. But were it not for Roy, you would be without many of the things you take for granted. You would not have a tiger in your tank. You would not be changing rooms or baking off. You would not have a selfie stick and your disks would be floppy. Your eggs would all be in one basket and the ball would not be in your court.

Roy was born to Sid and Sally Saxx, the seventh of seven sons. Growing up in Somerset in the post-war years, he was a gauche and gangly child. Giving his elder brothers a wide berth and avoiding the gangs and cliques at the schools he attended, he developed a solitary persona, seeking out the places he knew his contemporaries would not. If he had a best friend, it was probably an imaginary one. He was habitually drawn towards the unusual and fascinated by the unexplainable. At a very young age, he would retire to his room for days on end where he would read the works of Nikola Tesla or the teachings of Krishnamurti. He devoured the early science fiction novels of Kurt Vonnegut and Theodore Sturgeon with equal relish. On rainy days, he often took to going on long walks on Exmoor to contemplate the nature of the universe and perhaps to seek congress with aliens.

Remarkably, there is no record of Roy Saxx from 1965 onwards. Until recently, there was little interest in what he might have been up to. But as we begin to realise his monumental importance as an innovator, speculation regarding his whereabouts during the lost years abounds. Was he in hiding or could he have been using another name? Or many names? Was he studying the occult on a barge in Burma or had he perhaps been kidnapped by extraterrestrials? No-one knows for sure.

I first became aware of Roy Saxx a week or two ago when I was researching for a short story about an eccentric inventor. I found that the patents for almost everything I had mentioned in the draft of the story were actually owned by Roy. Somehow, over the years he had accumulated a prodigious portfolio. The patents for the plug and play pet rock, the edible pen and the silent trumpet that in the story I had attributed to my character were items already patented by Roy. Each time I tried to substitute another unlikely invention, I found this too had already been thought of by Roy. Imagine someone else thinking of a USB frog, an invisible kettle or a luminous badger. It was uncanny. When I tried to bring a little more realism into the tale by having my protagonist come up with a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog, it turned out that Roy had patented this too.

I wondered if other people were aware of Roy Saxx’s clandestine enterprises. No-one at the office seemed interested. They are an incurious lot at Ideas R Us. When I brought the subject up with my partner, Carrie after dinner one evening, she said, you’re not going to go off on one of your flights of fancy, are you, Chet? She reminded me of the time I became preoccupied with the idea that lines in the sky left by planes might contain chemicals that were being used as a form of mind control, this before I found out they were after all just lines in the sky. She told me I was so obsessed with my writing I no longer spent any time with the children. I argued that at eighteen and nineteen, they no longer needed to be mollycoddled. Besides, I said, Simon spent most of his time at his girlfriend’s and Garfunkel was out of his head the whole time. I managed to parry the inevitable ‘and whose fault is that’ with a compliment on Carrie’s casserole.

I decided to phone my friend, Greg. Greg would surely know something about Roy Saxx. He read the Financial Times and watched The Culture Show.

‘Good to hear from you Chet,’ he said. ‘Is it about the pigeons?’

‘Not the pigeons, this time, Greg,’ I said. ‘The pigeons are fine. I’m calling about Roy Saxx. Have you heard of him?’

‘You mean Roy Saxx, the snakes and ladders magnate?’ he said. ‘Didn’t he die in a ballooning accident a while back?’

‘Is there …… maybe not another Roy Saxx?’ I said.

‘Just kidding you, Chet,’ Greg said. ‘You are clearly referring to Roy Saxx, the wish fulfilment engineer who grew the magic poppies.’

‘That sounds like him,’ I said.

‘Dreamer of the Year 2001,’ Greg continued. ‘Runs the Dreams Come True corporation.’

‘That’s definitely the fellow,’ I said.

‘Sorry Chet,’ he said, laughing. ‘I made that one up too. …… But look here! You just don’t hear about some of these innovators. They don’t make the front pages. They keep a low profile. Have you heard for instance of David Sun?’

‘No,’ I said.

Sun? What kind of name is Sun? I wondered if Greg was still winding me up.

‘Sun founded Kingston Technology,’ Greg said. ‘Flash drives and flash cards. He is worth billions. What about Harvey Ross Ball, the inventor of smiley faces? Or Gary Dahl who invented the pet rock? Roy Saxx is probably just another in a long line of diffident maverick inventors.’

Once you become aware of a word, a name, an object or a situation that is new to you and your brain has registered it, you begin to notice it all the time. Somehow it was there all along without you realising it. The newly discovered word or name or object or situation comes up in conversation, in the paper, on the news, on the posters at tube stations and in the book you are reading. Suddenly, it is everywhere. You wonder how it was you did not notice it before, especially because you now realise whatever it is has been around for a long time. I’m sure you must have experienced something like this. If you google it, you will find this is called the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, sometimes referred to less colourfully as frequency illusion.

Following my conversation with Greg, Roy Saxx’s profile seemed to grow exponentially. Most days, I would see his name in the local paper about something or other. As I made my way through the Saturday shoppers, I’d hear his name. People would be talking about him in the queue for cinema tickets and at supermarket checkouts. His picture began appearing on adverts on the side of buses for a range of products. He featured in the tabloids I found left on train seats, then the broadsheets. His name began to appear in the credits at the end of TV shows, new ones and repeats of old favourites. He had a Wikipedia page, which was constantly updating. He was becoming a popular culture icon. I even found him on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’d owned the album for years. I felt sure he didn’t used to be. At least, I thought I was sure but truth be told, I just didn’t know anymore.

Several times I asked Carrie what she made of it but she now seemed to have stopped speaking to me altogether. Simon and Garfunkel too were conspicuously silent at meal times. In fact, they were not there at meal times. Or any other time. Apparently, they had both left home. Greg was no longer answering my calls. Ideas R Us had suspended me. My world was falling apart. I did not know which way to turn. Was that the Saxx browser that has appeared on the desktop with an advert for the Saxx Bank? Without warning, Roy Saxx appeared as a Facebook friend. He began trolling me on twitter. Everything appeared to be closing in.

Perhaps I did not start at the end. It was not the end. I just wanted it to be the end. Perhaps it was just the beginning. How could all this be happening if Roy Saxx were dead? Perhaps he survived the motorcycle accident. Perhaps there was no motorcycle accident. Perhaps there was no motorcycle. I have just had another look at Wikipedia. There now appear to be a dozen entries for Roy Saxx, each offering different information. Is it possible that Roy Saxx operates outside the normal parameters of existence? Is he a time traveller, hungry for recognition and hell-bent on acquisition, who keeps coming back for more?

Be on the lookout! Something or other pertaining to Roy Saxx is certain to make an appearance in your life soon. Then you are likely to discover the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon kicks in. Suddenly, you will notice Roy Saxx’s name everywhere. It will be on the inflatable Buddha you keep on your desk. It will be on the bouncing tortoise you are thinking of buying for your partner. It will be emblazoned on the side of the plane on your flight to Honolulu. It will be ……….

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

A Saucerful of Secrets

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A Saucerful of Secrets by Chris Green

Having missed the campus coach to the free concert in Hyde Park, Mojo, Lenny and I were in Spike’s flat listening to the new Pink Floyd album, A Saucerful of Secrets. Spike had gone off to buy hash. Supplies had been getting low. Afghani Black, he said he was getting. Glassy-Eyed George had some. Demon stuff by all accounts. A single toke and you were surfing with Jesus. It had been brought over in the tyres of a military Land Rover, he said, although I didn’t know how he knew this or if it was true. You heard all kinds of tales about the origins of a particular batch of dope. I suppose it added to the mystique. Along with the exotic names. Manali Cream, Durban Poison, Thai Sticks, Kashmir Charas, Lebanese Gold. The Nepalese Temple Balls we had been smoking had allegedly been brought through in the diplomatic bag.

It was always likely we would not make the coach. None of us had even been into college since the sit-ins in May. Even then, we were there under duress. We were not interested in politics. There were finer things in life than protesting about capitalism or wars in far-off countries. With all the extra-curricular recreational opportunities lately, we had been finding it difficult to get up in the mornings. Lenny probably hadn’t been into college since Registration the previous September. He was fondly known as Lenny the Loafer.

A Saucerful of Secrets was always going to be an experimental album. Syd Barrett, the band’s singer, lead guitarist and songwriter had recently quit. Although rumours about his fragile state of mind and apocryphal tales of his unpredictable behaviour were beginning to circulate, the affair had so far been smoothed over by the band’s management. They were trying to make out that Syd was resting. At this stage, none of us knew that he was a serious acid casualty. Or even that there was such a thing. As we saw it, acid blew away the cobwebs, took you on a roller coaster ride, gave you kaleidoscopic visuals and made you laugh a lot. It was a good idea to plan where you were going to be but it was always a fun experience.

As time passed, Syd would be viewed as a visionary. He would become a legend, a martyr to the cause, whatever this turned out to be. Pink Floyd would become the biggest band in the world by writing songs about Syd. They would make a fortune out of his craziness, centring entire albums around his breakdown. But this was all in the future. For the time being, the three of us were sitting around stoned in Spike’s flat trying to appreciate the new album.

They’re missing Syd, aren’t they?’ I said. ‘They no longer have those quirky little songs about scarecrows and bikes.’

They still sound pretty far out,’ Lenny said. ‘The long instrumental breaks are spacey. This one’s nice. What’s it called, Scott? You’ve got the album cover.’

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun,’ I said. ‘I like Jugband Blues. Syd’s still on that one and I think he’s trying to make a point. And I’m wondering who could be writing this song, he sings. He knows he’s the writer and he’s saying you ain’t going to be able to do without me, fellas.’

Do you realise, guys, that in the not too distant future, there will be an invisible global jukebox,’ Mojo said. ‘And you will be able to listen to every track ever recorded by everybody through your wristwatch. There will be a vast universal library of music you can access. You will be able to see any concert ever filmed just by typing the information into your TV. Including the one we are missing today probably.’

You’re going off on one again,’ Lenny said. ‘You know, you’ve been acting weird lately. Ever since purple ones last week.’

Not so. In any case, we’ve had the orange ones since then, man,’ Mojo said. ‘They were even better. They were wild. Look! What it is! I was talking to this taxi driver dude a day or two back. He said he’d had a fare who told him he’s going to make all of that happen. A worldwide web, he called it. A Japanese guy. The cabbie took him to the airport and on the way, he told him all about it. There would be instantaneous communication between everyone in milliseconds all over the world. The science is all there, apparently. All the tech is in place. Well near as dammit, just a few things to iron out, he said. The idea just needs financial backing.’

You’re sure this was a taxi driver you were talking to and not Captain Kirk?’ Lenny said.

I was in his cab going to the bank to cash my allowance cheque,’ Mojo said. ‘He was pretty excited about the idea.’

You took a cab to get to the bank?’ I said. ‘The bank’s only a couple of streets away.’

My bank isn’t two streets away,’ Mojo said. My bank is ……. well, nowhere near here.’

The rest of us exchanged glances. Granted, higher education colleges tended to attract people from diverse backgrounds and put people from different parts of the country, even the world together. But at that moment, we realised that although we had known Mojo for two years, we did not know the first thing about him. We knew nothing about his family background or where he came from. We did not even know his real name, not his Christian name or his surname. Everything about Mojo was a mystery.

………………………………………

I don’t know when any of you bought your first personal computer, but they weren’t very sophisticated, were they? Allowing for crashes, it took the whole length of the Combat Rock album to load the operating system on my ZX Spectrum. As it chugged away, and The Clash pondered whether they should stay or go, I couldn’t help thinking back to the idea of a world wide web that Mojo had mentioned all those years ago. How impossible a dream this presently seemed. Tech was hardly moving forward at all. Digital watches were considered smart. I wondered what had happened to Mojo. We never did find out who he was. I had lost touch with him and, for that matter, all the others shortly after our conversation. We had been thrown out of college for non-attendance and had gone our separate ways.

I was working as a freelance reporter in the nineteen-eighties and accepted a commission from a popular culture magazine to get an interview with the reclusive Syd Barrett who now lived a quiet life in his home town of Cambridge. I discovered Syd lived with his mother in a leafy cul-de-sac and was rarely seen in public. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get the interview. Syd had closed down. He no longer acknowledged his former fame. It made me sad to think of the waste of talent.

During my time in Cambridge, I perused the many bookshops. My attention was randomly drawn to a Science Focus magazine on the shelves of one of the mainstream outlets. It had a photo on the cover of a naggingly familiar face. Despite the familiarity, it was so out of context, it took me a few moments to realise who it was. Shorter hair and clean-shaven, but this was unmistakably Mojo. His name was Milton Chance. It seemed he had become a leading light in network communication research. He was going to get us all connected.

I had developed a casual interest in computer technology and had picked up the occasional tech magazine so I could follow a little of the article. I discovered that the main research into network communication was taking place in Japan. Several Japanese consultants were mentioned but the focus of the piece was how Milton Chance was pioneering European research into TCP/IP, the conceptual model and set of communications protocols which would be used in the Internet. The conversation about the Japanese cab fare and Mojo’s interest in the world wide web came rushing back to me. He had perhaps exaggerated the stage of development it was at back then but this must have been what he was referring to. So, Mojo’s name was Milton Chance.

I began to come across his name everywhere. It started slowly with mentions in each of the computer science magazines I picked up. Then there was an Open University broadcast for a technology module on BBC2 in which he featured. Soon, I was seeing the name, Milton Chance further afield, in The Times, in The Independent, even in The Sun. I was not a regular reader of the daily newspapers nor did I watch a lot of television so the odds against such my coming across his name so frequently ought to have been great. I wasn’t certain, but I thought I spotted him on the cover of Viz. I discovered that this frequency illusion is known as the Baader Meinhof phenomenon. But the thing is, you simply don’t know why it is happening.

………………………………………

I was at a Cocteau Twins concert in London with my NUJ card, hoping to revive my flagging journalistic career with a stirring report on this fine band and perhaps distract myself from my failed marriage to Kate. 1992, it would have been. There up ahead of me, making his way towards his seat, was Spike. He had changed very little in appearance. Nor, I discovered, in habits. In a word, he was still dealing drugs, only the numbers had changed. The numbers were bigger. He was now dealing a lot of drugs. Seeing that I was at a loose end, he wanted to take me under his wing and like a fool I was taken. I drifted into becoming a dealer.

The market had changed considerably. Gone were the exotic labels of the past. Now there were just three types of hash, Soap Bar, Slate and Black. The origins of the product seemed to be no longer of concern. As a supplier, you were just required to keep stocks of each type at a level to meet demand. Oh, and you needed to keep a little Skunk on hand for those oblivion seekers wanted to go AWOL in the badlands. And perhaps have a few Es for personal use with the right company, should the situation arise.

My career in the drugs trade was staggeringly short. Within a month my flat was raided, and the police made off with nearly half a kilo of assorted goodies. There is nothing quite as sobering as looking ahead to a long stretch behind bars.

I’m afraid that as things stand, we are looking at twelve to eighteen months,’ my solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke said on our first meeting.

What, even though I have no previous?’ I said.

Yes. It doesn’t help your case that you had all those figures written down with the amounts your customers owed you,’ he said. ‘This is the most common mistake that drug dealers make. It makes a defence against intent to supply almost impossible.’

But it was just a few letters and numbers on a scrap of paper,’ I protested. ‘It could have referred to anything. It could be computer coding.’

The courts will have come across this practice so often that this will count for nothing,’ Guy said. ‘Besides, the list was apparently next to the chemical balance which presumably will have had traces on. That’s not good.’

Is there anything I might before the case that might help keep me out of prison?’ I asked.

Off the top of my head, I can think of two things,’ Guy said. ‘Become very, very rich or leave the country.’

Thanks to a modicum of good fortune, I was able to do both. For this, I have to thank dear old, Mojo, aka Milton Chance.

Most people see Tim Berners Lee as the inventor of the Internet. Largely speaking, this is true. But among those that gave it its commercial legacy was Milton Chance. He was one of the visionaries who, some cynics might say, mercilessly exploited the world wide web’s huge commercial potential. The first web site went up in 1991. Thereafter Milton Chance began to sell the idea to the world at large. He made the Internet more accessible through the Netscape browser. He didn’t see the internet as a research toll, he saw it as a means for growing a business. He planted the idea in peoples minds that they could join in the bonanza.

Milton Chance was well equipped to track me down. But naturally I was surprised to hear from him after all these years. Having bought a state-of-the-art 386DX PC with a modem just before the police visit, I had signed up to email, Somehow Mojo knew that this new Netscape email address, scottenglish@netscape.com related to his old buddy. It was my first email.

It said, I’m in Palo Alto, California, Scottie. Get on a plane and come on over. I will make you rich. Mojo.

Although the conditions of my bail stipulated that I could not leave the country, I managed to make it out west and caught up with my old friend in Silicon Valley. My first impression was that Mojo appeared to have completely changed but gradually it occurred to me that perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps he had always had the entrepreneurial spirit. Perhaps he had always been focussed, but we had not noticed it. At nineteen years old, you are not necessarily looking for character traits. You are just trying to find people to get along with. And, under the college system, you are thrown together with a random group of fellow students. At that age, you assume that if someone likes the same bands and you sit around the same smoky rooms sharing spliffs, you have everything else in common. That you hold the same views, are thinking the same thoughts, and that your lives will run in parallel. When in reality, we could all be said to conceal a saucerful of secrets.

Clearly, I needed to become focussed. This was my great opportunity. Visas and other official documentation were a problem at first but with connections like Milton Chance, I discovered that these matters could easily be overcome. More to the point, I had the great fortune to be in Silicon Valley right at the beginning of the dot com bubble. Within months I was a millionaire. But at this stage, I still had the impending court case to consider. I had skipped bail and there was the threat of extradition hanging over me. But money talks. Very loudly I discovered in the case of the United States. Through a discrete but very expensive identity change, I was able to stay under the radar. I was able to eventually return to the UK as Simon Franklin, a believable name which was neither too common nor too rare. My aim was simply to blend in.

Who would have thought that an idler like Lenny Turner would have joined the police, let alone risen to the rank of Superintendent? Who would have thought that after thirty odd years, the two of us would find ourselves at the same Pink Floyd concert? Who would have thought that an old friend like Lenny, on the verge of a comfortable retirement, would have me taken into custody? It’s all to easy to be complacent.

As the great fictional pessimist, Wet Blanket Ron might say, if things appear to be going well, you’ve probably overlooked something. There again, given the long interval, there was always the possibility that Exhibit A, 2.3 kilos of cannabis resin may have gone missing.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Watership Down

Created with GIMP

WATERSHIP DOWN – a cautionary tale by Chris Green

I’m round at Margot’s and her computer isn’t working, Adam,’ Suzy says. ‘We thought you might be able to help.’

Ask her if she has hit the any key again,’ I say.

She says she doesn’t know which key the any key is,’ Suzy says.

Oh! Never mind,’ I say. Clearly, the joke has fallen flat. ‘Look! You’d better put Margot on.’

I had hoped to be getting on with my gardening. It’s that time of year when there are lots of little jobs to be done and this is the only day off I have this week. Perhaps I shouldn’t have answered the phone. This could be a long one.

Hi Adam,’ Margot says. ‘My laptop’s not working.’

Yes, Suzy told me,’ I say. ‘What’s it doing?’

Well, that’s the thing, Adam,’ Margot says. ‘It’s not doing anything.’

Is it booted up?’ I say. ‘Has Windows loaded?’

I’m not sure,’ Margot says. ‘How can I tell?’

There will be pictures on the screen,’ I say. ‘Icons and the like.’

There are no pictures,’ Margot says. ‘There’s just a blank screen.’

Hit a key,’ I say.

Which key?’ she says.

Any key,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

I’ve already said I don’t know where the any key is,’ she says.

Try the z key,’ I say.

There’s still a blank screen,’ she says.

Are you using it on battery or is it plugged in?’ I say. ‘The battery might be flat.’

I’ve got it plugged in,’ she says.

Is the power light on?’ I ask.

I can hear Margot in the background asking Suzy where she should look.

I’ll have a look on my PC and check to see if there’s a network problem,’ I say. ‘And I’ll get back to you.’

I realise if the machine isn’t even booting up this is not going to be what is causing the problem but I figure that the matter can wait until I’ve at least planted the potatoes and the carrots. And done some weeding. And perhaps transplanted the fatsia. It’s getting too big for the pot. It needs to go in the ground. Margot probably only wants to get online to buy a pair of shoes or a handbag or something. I expect she can do everything else she needs on her phone. It is probably a gender-specific tech issue anyway. I don’t mean this in a sexist way but I think it’s fair to say that while women are great in the metaphorical driving seat, they are more reluctant to get under the hood when something goes wrong. It could simply be that Margot’s laptop has packed up. The build quality is poor these days. Anyway, she is going to have to wait.

There are more weeds than I thought in the veg patch and I need to tie back the daffodils that have gone over and top-dress the containers on the patio. And it looks as if it is going to rain soon. I decide to ask Ben if he will sort Margot’s laptop problem out. I don’t know why Suzy didn’t phone him in the first place. Youngsters are much more computer literate than our generation are. And Ben only has about three lectures a week on his media course. He has plenty of spare time.

I give him a call from my mobile.

I don’t think I’m going to be able to do anything about it, Dad,’ he says.

Oh, and why is that?’ I say. ‘Too busy deconstructing superhero films?’

My laptop is not working either,’ he says. ‘And the network at uni is down too. There seems to be a serious problem. To be honest, I was surprised to get your call. We’re lucky our phones are working. None of my tutor group’s are. I thought all networks were down. By the way, Dad, while you’re on the phone, could I borrow …….’

The call drops in mid-sentence. I try to call him back but my phone is now dead. No matter. Ben is always trying to borrow something. Usually money.

I find that my laptop won’t boot. Or the tablet. I can’t even interrupt into setup to see what might be wrong. This is not something I’ve come across before. I don’t have the expertise to diagnose what might be causing it. What else might not be working, I wonder? I find I have a dialling tone on the landline but most of my contact numbers are mobiles. All the numbers I try to call come up with an unable to connect voice message. Please try again later.

Finally, I try my old friend, Rick O’Shea’s landline in the hope that he might have an explanation. If anyone knows what’s going on, surely it will be Rick. Before his breakdown, he used to be a Systems Analyst for MI5. I got to know Rick when we were both involved in a campaign to free the wrongly-imprisoned activist, Iskariot Santé. I feel guilty as I haven’t been in touch since then. How long would that be? Two years? Three years? Quite a while anyway. But life moves on. Circumstances change. I believe Iskariot Santé was finally released last week. I wonder what he’s up to. Perhaps Rick will know. But first matters first.

Hi Rick,’ I say. ‘Long time! How are you?’

I know exactly what you are going to say, old buddy’ Rick says. ‘My answer is I don’t have a clue what’s going on in cyberspace. Everything seems to be down. The internet, the outernet, the fishing net, the whole damn watership probably. I imagine it’s only a matter of time before the phones are out too. The exchanges are bound to be run by a digital operating system. Just think, mate, we might be taking part in the last ever phonecall. This could be the end of remote communication, in fact, life as we know it. All it needs is one genius hacker and that’s it, old friend. Bye-bye technology. I’m thinking this could well be the Armageddon virus we’ve heard is on its way. The one that is claimed will be hundreds of times more virulent than Stuxnet or MyDoom.

I assume he is joking. With Rick, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Suzy arrives home in a bit of a funk. She storms in and starts shouting at me.

What the fuck have you been playing at?’ she screams. ‘Margot and I were sitting around like lemons waiting for you to ring back. Sometimes I don’t know why I bother.’

There is more. I don’t get the chance to get a word in.

The roads are hell too,’ she continues. ‘All the traffic lights are out. I expect someone has drilled through a cable at those road works on Bram Stoker Street. It’s chaos. There are cars careering over the place. There’s a hideous pile-up at the junction of Somerset Maugham Street and Orwell Avenue. ……. And, I couldn’t get the new radio you put in the car to work. You’ll have to have a look at it after you’ve fixed Margot’s laptop. Here it is! I’ve brought it home so you can work on it here. Since you couldn’t find the time to call us back. I don’t know why. After all, it’s probably something simple.’

Yeah! Course! Just like that! Do I let her know now or do I keep her in suspense? Perhaps I could wait until she goes to turn the heating on with the remote control. Wait until Alexa doesn’t turn on the relaxing music for her yoga workout? Wait until she switches the TV on and discovers there are no programmes? We are in the age of the internet of things, Suzy. When the internet goes down, it’s not just your Google that goes, it’s the whole caboodle. I expect Margot would be phoning right about now to find out why she can’t turn her cooker on if she could use her phone. Perhaps she has been to the ATM and found this is no longer working or gone to the delicatessen down the road for her pok choi or matsutake mushrooms and found it’s cash only, if indeed the delicatessen is still able to stay open.

If Rick O’Shea is right, there is far worse to come than a few well-to-do people missing a few home comforts. I’m not sure exactly how worldwide communications work, how the complex mix of satellites and underground cables connects and there is no way to find this out at the moment. The thought occurs that the genius hacker that Rick refers to, whether real or potentially real, would know exactly how it all works and would be able to exploit it to the max. Cyberspace would be just space, no cyber. If he were designing the Armageddon virus then it would in all likelihood be just that. Something that would knock everything out in order to devastate humanity. It would be calculated to blow out all means of communication. With no internet, no TV, no news, no fuel, no movement of supplies, no aeroplanes, no travel, no information on what is happening would be available and there would no time to assess the next step.

Suzy interrupts my reverie to tell me the tumble drier is not working. I hadn’t realised this was one of our smart devices. It turns out I was right. It isn’t. The tumble drier is not working because the electricity has gone off. Suzy looks puzzled. Perhaps she thinks this is a ruse I’ve come up with so I don’t have to fix Margot’s laptop.

I imagine our substation has gone down, love,’ I say. ‘This will have a digital operating system just like everything else. I suppose it’s quite likely that the entire National Grid is now down.’

Suzy’s resolve is wavering. She is coming round to the idea that there might be a real crisis and it is not just me coming up with a series of excuses to get me off the hook. An apology is of course out of the question. Suzy does not do apologies but I can detect a softening of her attitude. She is clearly uneasy. I am uneasy. It is impossible not to have a bad feeling about what is happening. It might just be a power cut but if you put everything together, it feels like something more sinister. This is the stuff of apocalyptic TV thrillers, the stuff of nightmares. And here it is on the doorstep. What if it is happening everywhere? How would we know? When would we know?

Out in the street, a crowd of people is gathering. A selection of our neighbours, who have barely spoken to one another in the past, are massing outside the Robinsons’ at number 42. Some are gesticulating with their phones, others clutching small electrical appliances that have presumably stopped working. I think they’ll find no community repair café is scheduled for this week.

As we approach, we pick up garbled snippets of the of conversation, references to the tech items that are now dead with suggestions of conspiracy theories creeping in. It is fascinating to witness how a group of people, who in the normal run of things have little to do with one another, interact. Their awkwardness with one another. The jostling for position in the street hierarchy. At least, it would be fascinating if the situation were not so grave.

As if that weren’t enough. I can’t get my Audi TT started,’ Pearson Ranger from next door but one is saying. What a shame, I’m thinking, and after all that polishing too.

It probably has electronic ignition,’ May Loos says. ‘My daughter’s moped won’t start and there’s nothing electronic about that.’

We’ve got beer if anyone would like one,’ Mrs Robinson says. ‘Or wine if you’d prefer. Could you bring some drinks out, Tony?’

Does anyone have any idea how widespread the power outage is?’ the Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike from number 48 says. ‘That’s what we need to establish.’

No way of finding that out, is there?’ Basil Fawlty says, still desperately trying to bring his Samsung Galaxy to life. I wonder how long it will be before he throws it to the ground and stamps on it.

It could be terrorists,’ the young reporter with the acne who lives across the street says. ‘Looking for a headline.’

On the other hand, it might just be a localised problem, don’t you think?’ Ted Drinker says. ‘Probably nothing to worry about. We’ve had power cuts before.’

I spoke to my sister in St Kitts on the house phone not half an hour ago,’ Joan Armatrading says. ‘Well, perhaps it was a little longer. Maybe an hour. Two hours tops.’

But things have moved on since then,’ the Buddy Holly lookalike from the big white house with all the building materials in the garden says. He looks around for support.

It was bound to happen one day,’ Wet Blanket Ron from number 13 says. ‘I’ve been expecting something like this. I’m only surprised it didn’t happen sooner.’

It’s most probably a coup d’état,’ Major Tom says. ‘This is exactly the way a coup would happen. Take out all means of communication. Take out the power. When I was in Zimbabwe ……..’

You think there might be something strategic about disabling my daughter’s moped then?’ May Loos interrupts.

Probably unrelated,’ Major Tom says. ‘Have you checked the plugs?’

What we need is a plan,’ Tony Robinson says. Wasn’t he the fellow who played Baldrick in Blackadder?

Food and medicines will quickly run out,’ Wet Blanket Ron says. ‘Mine already have. My fridge is empty and I took my last anti-depressant earlier.’

We must be able to defend ourselves,’ Major Tom says. ‘We’ll need guns.’

Good, that’s a start,’ Tony Robinson says. ‘What have we got, guys?’

I wouldn’t normally share this with you but I’ve stockpiled odd bits of artillery over the years in my shed,’ Major Tom says. ‘And I know where we can get ammunition.’

I have an air rifle,’ Buddy Holly says. ‘I use it to scare the pigeons away. It’s quite powerful. You may have noticed a few dead pigeons on my lawn.’

A sudden chorus of phone tunes breaks out. Burglar alarms and car alarms start up. A veritable cacophony. Lights everywhere come on. Major Tom’s military radio crackles. Pearson Ranger’s Audi TT springs into life.

I have a message on my phone,’ the Benedict Cumberbatch lookalike says.

So have I,’ Joan Armatrading says. ‘It’s from my sister in St Kitts. Oh, wait! I have another one. ……. It’s quite long.’

I have one too. It’s about the shutdown. We probably all have the same message. I’ll read it out, shall I?’ Tony Robinson says. ‘It says:

You have just experienced a PlanItEarth technology shutdown. Not a lot of fun, was it? It was calculated to cause maximum disruption. Until you start using resources responsibly and show some restraint on the size of families, similar shutdowns will occur worldwide regularly at ever-shortening intervals. There will be no warning beforehand. Nor will there be any announcement of how long each might last for. It could be minutes, hours, days or weeks. Resign yourself to a number of technology shutdowns.

There’ll be air disasters,’ Wet Blanket Ron says. ‘Planes will fall out of the sky.’

Rail crashes and pile-ups on motorways,’ Benedict Cumberbatch says.

There will be robberies and looting,’ Mary Loos says. ‘Law and order will collapse’

We’ll need to get a generator,’ Pearson Ranger says.

Wait! There’s more.’ Tony Robinson says.

You will now be thinking you can prepare for these shutdowns but whatever backup plans you come up with will be of no use. We have every contingency covered. We can suspend or disable everything including batteries and generators. We appreciate that many people may die as a result of these actions. This is regrettable. But it is a small price to pay. At PlanItEarth we can see to be no other way to our planet and with it humankind. This message will appear on all digital platforms including personal computers and television channels when you switch them back on and will stay in place for ten minutes.

Instructions on how to use resources responsibly will be broadcast regularly and reactions carefully monitored.

This communication has gone out simultaneously to others around the globe in all major languages.

For some reason, the name Iskariot Santé comes into my head. I find myself wondering what he’s up to. Perhaps I’ll give Rick another call.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

O Sole Mio

osolemio

O Sole Mio by Chris Green

Sophie and I wonder why, at around the same time every Saturday evening, the ice-cream van makes its way up the Close. At about seven-thirty, we hear twenty seconds of O Sole Mio as the van comes around the corner. The initial chime is followed by another ten-second burst of the Neapolitan classic as it nears the top of the Close. Each time, the van stops outside the last house. Back in the summer, the visits did not need an explanation. Clearly, people were going to buy ice-cream on a hot day. But on a cold wet November evening, why Bocelli’s Ices would even come out, let alone make a detour up this quiet cul-de-sac is puzzling. No-one is going to want ice-cream on a night like this.

He’s probably selling drugs, don’t you think?’ Sophie says.

If he is selling drugs, he is hardly going to advertise the fact with a chiming ice-cream van, is he?’ I say.

The ice-cream van would be perfect cover,’ Sophie says.

In July, possibly,’ I say. ‘But look at it out there. It’s like the end of the world.’

I disagree,’ Sophie says. ‘It’s exactly the opposite. July would be more difficult. But only those who know about his drop are likely to come out to the van on a night like this.’

I suppose doing deals this way would save all the time spent sitting around inspecting the goods and sampling,’ I say. ‘There would be no chit-chat. It would just be a straightforward exchange of money and drugs.’

My point exactly, Ben,’ Sophie says. ‘Mr Bocelli is probably able to fit in three times the number of drops.’

So, how would it work in July, when all the families in the Close want ice-creams?’

I suppose the ones in the know would say something like, can I have an extra flake with that. Or perhaps they hang back until the others have bought their ice-creams.’

I wonder who lives at the end house,’ I say ‘We’ve had no reason to go up there, have we?’

We could ask Annie,’ Sophie says. ‘She’s bound to know. She knows everything that goes on around here.’

Who is Annie?’ I say. I haven’t spent as much time getting to know the neighbours as Sophie.

She’s the one with the cats who sits in her front garden all day.’

……………………………………

The numbers go up one side of the Close and down the other so that you must mean number 27,’ Annie says. ‘The one with the big brown truck on the drive.’

Yes, that’s the one,’ Sophie says. We have been curious about the truck since we moved in back in the summer. It somehow doesn’t fit in with the floribundas, the manicured lawns and picket fences.

That’ll be the Morrisons.’ Annie says. ‘Jimmy and Pam. To be honest, I don’t know much about them. Although I’m often outside in the garden, I never see them. They keep themselves to themselves. You’ve probably noticed that the old truck doesn’t move. Why don’t you take a wander up there and have a scout around? See what you can find out.’

The place is pretty much as Annie suggested. There are no signs of habitation. The curtains are drawn, top and bottom. The space at the front is laid to paving with mature weeds poking through. The truck is a left-hand drive American Ford F100 pickup, in other hands probably a classic, but this one doesn’t look cared for or even roadworthy. There is a tall fence around the side of the house which blocks out the space to the back. Perhaps, after all, there is no-one in residence. Perhaps the ice-cream van calls around for the benefit of a family at one of the other houses at the top of the road.

Sophie and I decide to think no more about it. It isn’t as if an ice-cream van coming along our road on a winter’s evening, whether bringing drugs or not, is a matter of life and death. If we choose to, we can take a peek out of the window to see what is going on when it calls next Saturday. Until then there are more important things to think about like when my winter socks, the new battery for the smoke alarm and my book on modern philosophers from eBay will be delivered. And Sophie is expecting her quarterly watercolour magazine and a new sports bra from Etsy.

But, when on Wednesday morning at 2 am, we are woken by the strains of O Sole Mio as the Bocelli’s Ices van turns the corner, our curiosity is raised once more. It is difficult to come up with a plausible explanation.

I thought I was dreaming,’ Sophie says. ‘But I’m not, am I? You heard it too.’

We go over to the window. The ice-cream van is all lit up, waiting at the end of the Close, outside number 27.

Let’s go and get one,’ I say.

What?’ Sophie says.

An ice-cream.’

But I’m not dressed.’

You can sling a coat on and some loafers. Come on! If he’s not selling ice-creams, we can call his bluff.’

We make our way up to the van. The engine is idling and when we arrive, Mr Bocelli is playing with his phone. He doesn’t seem surprised to see us and makes no remark on how we are kitted out.

Can we have a double rum and raisin and a double mint choc chip, please?’ I say.

Flake or no flake?’ Mr Bocelli says.

Sophie casts a knowing glance in my direction. Perhaps she was right. Perhaps this is how it’s done.

Oh, go on then!’ I say. ‘I’ll have a flake with mine.’

Why not?’ Sophie says.

With his back to us, it is difficult for us to see exactly what Mr Bocelli is doing but when he has finished, he hands us two splendid looking ice-creams.

That will be ninety-six pounds,’ he says. ‘Cash or card?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

Dog Gone by Chris Green

It is Friday evening. Zoot has gone out with his friends and Stacey and I have the house to ourselves. Outside there is the persistent drizzle you often get at the end of a working week when you’d like to go for a walk on the hill. Not that we go for a walk on the hill that often since the dog died. Once in a while, we make it to The Belted Galloway and sit in the garden with a pint or two. This gives us a pretty good view of the common. It’s probably a mile there and back. Just the right amount of exercise. We did talk about joining the gym but decided to put it on hold. I might get the bikes out of the shed instead, once Man with a Van has collected the old mattresses. Then we will be able to go a little further afield, perhaps as far as The Pallbearers Arms.

While we wait for a break in the drizzle, we are watching a documentary about obesity in taxi drivers. There seems to be very little on in the seven o’clock slot to entertain us these days.

What’s the date?’ I ask Stacey. The linking of taxi drivers’ obesity with road accidents is jogging my memory.

May 26th,’ she says.

Oh shit! I think Geoff said he was going to kill himself round about now. When we spoke, he said if Abi wasn’t back in two weeks, he was going to end it. …….. Or was it three weeks.’

When did he phone?’

I can’t remember. I thought I’d get the chance to check him out before he did it, but with Gnarls having to be put down, it just slipped my mind.’

You’d better ring him then,’ Stacey says, taking a large pull on her brown ale.

Although she has never said as much, I get the impression that Stacey is not keen on Geoff, even though she has never actually met him. ‘Your friend Geoff called she will say if she comes home to find he has left a message, in the same tone she might use if it was the Yorkshire Ripper that had called.

As the dialler is ringing, I try to piece together Geoff’s distressed phonecall. Abi had left him for a Bulgarian plastics entrepreneur and he had lost his job at the fishing tackle museum. He was anxious about the bank repossessing his house and was being driven mad by the round the clock drum and bass music from his neighbours. His doctor had put him on anti-depressants but the anti part seemed not to be working. And to cap it all his ulcer had flared up again. He could take no more.

Hang on,’ I had said, ‘I’ll give you a list of things worth living for. Pick any letter.’

B’ he had said.’

OK. The Beach Boys, Breaking Bad, big boobs, barbecues, BB King …….’

He was dismissive of all my suggestions, even big boobs. They got in the way he said. He ranted on for a bit and said he would give Abi two weeks, or was it three weeks, and if she wasn’t back, he was going to run his car into the side of a truck. Not any old truck mind you, he had one particular truck lined up. A DHL Iveco Stralis, I seem to recall. If I were so inclined, this is not the way I would want to do it. An overdose or a lethal injection would be much more comfortable. But Geoff seemed to be quite determined about the collision and always one to concentrate on the detail, as well as the vehicle, he had worked out a date and time.

There are a lot of self-help sites on the internet,’ I remember saying.

He said he could not connect to the Internet since he had gone with CheapNet. I remember feeling a little guilty that I had recommended CheapNet. After I suggested it, however, we had nothing but problems with CheapNet. I finally cancelled our contract with them just two days ago, having become exasperated by the slowness of the connection and the language barrier when dealing with their helpline in Turkmenistan. Now we are with FreeSurf, which of course is not free but it does seem quite speedy.

At the time, I did not take Geoff’s suicide threat too seriously. But perhaps I should have. He is not picking up. Am I too late?

I think I ought to go round to see if things are …… all right,’ I say to Stacey, who has finished her brown ale and is now opening a bottle of advocaat. I have to admit that I have no idea what I will do if things are not all right.

I get the Fiesta out of the garage, tie the front bumper back on and set off, wondering if I am over the limit. True, Stacey drank the lion’s share of the Belgian cider earlier, but there is always that risk. Geoff’s place is about fifteen miles away, so just in case any police might think a brown Fiesta with no front number plate, a dent in the side and the bumper hanging off looks suspicious, I decide to go the back way.

The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way up Prospect Hill. At the summit, perhaps summit is an extravagant description for a rise of a hundred feet, a cyclist in rain-drenched Day Glo Lycra eases past me. The Fiesta coughs and splutters as it makes its way down Prospect Hill. Its days are numbered. I have seen a lovely little Daewoo for sale, but what with the extra hours at the balloon repair workshop and Zoot’s problems with his Maths teacher, I have not had chance to look at it. I resolve to make time over the weekend.

Ashoka’s, the new store on the roundabout has a board saying 20% OFF SNAKES. I make a mental to note to check if we need one. Perhaps it didn’t say snakes, but you never know. Ashoka’s seems to sell just about everything. Someone at work bought an Alan Titchmarsh garden gnome there. They have a whole range apparently, Monty Don, Diarmuid Gavin, even Percy Thrower. BUY ONE GET ONE FREE, says another sign, although I cannot make out what this is for. Inflatable Buddhas, perhaps.

I have to wait at the temporary traffic lights in Long Lane where they are rebuilding the railway bridge. The lights have been there for months, if not years. How hard is it to strengthen a bridge? I try to get something on the radio to distract me. There is a choice between teeny pop, Wayne Rooney’s Desert Island Discs, Brahms, or a discussion on downsizing. I switch it off. We were forced to downsize a year ago when Stacey’s eldest, Irie, moved in with Mojo. Irie’s money from her job at Morrisons had helped keep us afloat. It does not seem likely that Zoot will ever pass his GCSEs let alone be in a position to leave home. But perhaps I am being a little unfair. He is only seventeen.

The lights change and I drive on. The Fiesta seems to run along nicely so long as I stay in third gear and use the wipers sparingly. ALL NIGHT HAPPY HOUR the sign outside The Bucket of Eels says. I remember that Geoff and I used to play skittles there years ago. When it was a real pub, with a choice of twenty real ales, with expressive names like Feck’s Original and Old Badger. Before it was taken over by Wicked Inns. The year Geoff and I were on the team, The Bucket nearly won the County Skittles League, losing narrowly to The Pig in a Poke in the final match. Admittedly the season was quite short that particular year as only four pubs entered, but we were proud of our achievement.

In the four years I have been with Stacey, I have only seen Geoff two or three times. When you are in a relationship, there is a tendency to neglect old friendships. Geoff and I speak on the phone occasionally and agree to go to the dogs or go fishing but something always comes up. It is probably ten years since we went to the dogs, and nearly as long since we went fishing. What a strange contrivance time is. It does not seem to follow a linear course, certainly not when viewed retrospectively. The memory constantly plays tricks. On the one hand, Geoff’s cry for help phonecall, if that is what it was, seems like it had happened months ago. Could it have really been only two or three weeks? On the other hand, it seems only last year that Geoff and I went boating in France to celebrate his forty-fifth birthday, and my divorce from Donna. But now Geoff is fifty-one or perhaps it is fifty-two, as he is two years older than me. The folding of time, the inability to identify the correct order of events relative to one another is something that becomes more worrying with age. Temporal confusion will presumably happen more and more with each passing year. I will have to accept it, along with receding gums and decreasing libido. I am dreading being fifty. This is only a few months away. Fifty is a watershed. Did hitting fifty mark the beginning of Geoff’s decline, I wonder?

Even if one should feel the inclination to end it, there are the ethical implications to overcome. Committing suicide in western culture is regarded as a crime and in Christianity a mortal sin. Not that Geoff was particularly religious, but he had been brought up as a Catholic. I try to speculate how suicide might this affect one’s life after death status? Because you are in essence taking a life, do you go to hell? Purgatory? Are you perhaps allocated a shabby damp basement in Rotherham with fifties furniture, a shared kitchen and the lingering smell of yesterday’s cabbage?

My mobile rings, breaking me out of my reverie. Perhaps Geoff has got the number and is phoning me back. Why do I always put the thing on the passenger seat? Now it has fallen down the side. I have to pull over to retrieve it. It is not Geoff, but Stacey asking if I can pick up some eggs, and if I pass an off-license, a bottle of ouzo. I tell her I will lookout for a farm shop, but it is unlikely that they will sell ouzo. ‘Pernod will do,’ she says. ‘Just a small bottle.’

Before Gnarls was put down, Stacey would buy a bottle of Lambrusco with the shopping and this would last her a week. Gnarls was a sweet dog. He was a cocker spaniel retriever cross. He was just seven years old. An inoperable tumour. His passing has affected Stacey badly. She has all his doggy toys lined up on the mantelpiece and she keeps getting his basket out from under the stairs. Last week I got home to find her cuddling his blanket.

I arrive at Geoff’s, having passed nowhere that sells comestibles. The Fiesta retches and rattles as I bring it to a stop outside the house. I notice immediately with a degree of alarm that there is an estate agents board in the front garden. SOLD by Jackson and Pollock. Has it been more than three weeks since Geoff’s phonecall? Why didn’t I phone back sooner? Maybe there would have been something I could have done. My heart racing. I get out of the Fiesta and look around. There is no car on the drive. Is Geoff at this very moment ramming it into the side of the truck? Or has he already done so? The yard is tidier than I remember it. There are no dismantled motorcycles. And where are the geese? Maybe I got the date wrong and it was May 16th or something and things have moved on. I fear the worst. I feel sick in my stomach. There is an eerie silence.

Not sure exactly what I am expecting to discover, I sidle over to look in the front window. A translucent waxy green film is forming on some of the bricks around the front door. I remember in an earlier conversation Geoff referring to this. In his paranoia, he wondered if it might be radioactive. Perhaps Geoff had been on the slide for a while and I had failed to notice.

At this moment, a blue Seat with tinted windows approaches and pulls in. Geoff and Abi step out, looking fit and tanned.

Hello Al,’ says Geoff, striding over to shake my hand. ‘Long time. What are you doing out here?’

I am lost for words. Eventually, I mutter something about the phonecall, three weeks ago. ‘I thought I might have been too late’

Have you started smoking the wacky-baccy again, Al? What phonecall? Anyway, three weeks ago Abi and I were in Dubai. Had a brilliant time as it happened. Magnificent architecture! You should go. Tell you what Al; I think that our life is starting to take off. When Abi and I got back from Dubai, we found we’d had a big win on the premium bonds and decided we would sell up. Fantastic, eh? House was on the market for less than twelve hours and we got a cash buyer offering the full asking price. What about that? From Bulgaria, he is, some sort of entrepreneur.’

I am flabbergasted.

Good thing you caught us. We’re moving next week. Anyway, how are you, must be six months at least. You better come in and have a drink.’

Fine,’ I say. ‘Just a little bit shell shocked.’

Last time we spoke you sounded pretty desperate,’ Geoff says. ‘I was quite worried about you. Thought you might do something silly. The bank didn’t repossess your house in the end I take it.’

I kept saying that Geoff should phone you to make sure you were all right,’ Abi says.

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

And how’s Stacey?’ Geoff says. Although he has never met her I have formed the impression that Geoff in some way disapproves of Stacey.

I stay and have a beer with Geoff and Abi while they show me a VideoSpin film that Geoff has put together consisting of photos of staggering post-modern skyscrapers.

Those are the Dubai Emirates Towers, that’s the Burj Al Arab Hotel, and that is the Etisalat building.’

These are punctuated with photos of dramatic mosaics and water features from the Dubai marina. He has even dug out some authentic oud music for the soundtrack. I feel it is a little self-indulgent. I don’t imagine that they listen to a lot of oud music in Dubai these days. I am relieved Geoff is in good spirits but at the same time, confused. I can think of no explanation for the misunderstanding and Geoff offers none except that I seem to have been overdoing it lately. As soon as it seems courteous to do so, I take my leave.

I decide to drive back along the main roads. It is late. There won’t be any police on the roads at this time of night. I am making good progress and have just passed the Crossroads Motel when the phone rings. It is Stacey. She sounds excited, but before I can make out what she is trying to tell me the line goes dead. Probably my battery. I keep forgetting to charge it. Whatever it is will have to wait. Up ahead there is a blanket of flashing blue lights. As I draw closer, acutely aware that an old car doing forty-five in third might seem a bit conspicuous, I see that there has been an accident and that all the emergency services are in attendance. A car has driven into the side of a truck. A DHL Iveco Stralis. My mind races. What on earth is going on? Why is there so much strangeness in my life?

When I get home Stacey is still up. She has found a bottle of homemade fig schnapps and is watching Celebrity Big Brother on catch-up. Anne Widdecombe has just been evicted, which leaves Ayman al-Zawahiri, Paul Gascoigne and Vanilla Ice in the house.

I’ve just bought a dog on eBay,’ she says. ‘How was Geoff?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

Invisibility

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INVISIBILITY by Chris Green

I discovered I could make people invisible. I found out by accident when I was working at the Ministry of Science and Technology. The Board refused to believe my evidence and summarily dismissed me. They could not see what was staring them in the face, or in this case not. They claimed it was a trick. That I was a cheap illusionist trying to get one over on them. There was no room for charlatans in the Ministry, Sir Fred Jessop said. But it seems to me, it was simply that they didn’t want something this important to get out. They wanted to keep the discovery under wraps. They were scared of the implications. Presumably, they were acting on instructions from on high. Their paymasters were people whose interests it was to make sure people were visible.

But perhaps the world should be made aware of my discovery. Things can only move forward when knowledge is shared. It’s not as difficult as you might imagine to make someone invisible. No specialist training is necessary. No background in Nuclear Physics or anything like that is needed. No scientific equipment is required. None of this quantum stealth invisibility cloak nonsense that the American military has been looking into is involved. No secret wisdom from reading the Upanishads. Nor any wand-waving Harry Potter mumbo-jumbo. It seems you just have to put the intention in place with sufficient emphasis and the victim vanishes.

After my initial success making one or two of my colleagues in Room 404 invisible, I held back for a while. After all, this was so groundbreaking that I could hardly believe it was happening. And if it was, what if it was something that only worked in a controlled scientific environment like the lab on the fourth floor of the Ministry? Eventually, I felt I had nothing to lose by testing it out elsewhere. Firstly, I tried it on my cat, Ralph. It worked a treat. Ralph disappeared. As soon as I got the chance, I tried it out on to the annoying next-door neighbour. The Manchester City supporter with the Cairn Terrier who was forever having barbecues on warm summer evenings. He too vanished. Next, it was the Conservative candidate who came around to canvas for votes in the upcoming County Council Election. Gone, in a flash. Just like that. These results were encouraging. Clearly, I was on to something.

As yet, invisibility was not permanent. So far as I could tell, it lasted from between two to three hours. Before I knew it, Ralph was back for his meaty chunks and my next-door neighbour was once again lighting the coals and cranking up the Country music ready for a barbecue. I’ve no information about exactly when when the Conservative candidate re-appeared but he must have because he was duly elected.

Perhaps my method needed a little tweaking to get it to last longer but for the time being, I reasoned that two or three hours ought to be sufficient time for many of its potential uses. At least the more nefarious ones. It would be enough time, for instance, for a burglar to rob the average house, probably quite a large house or perhaps several houses. It would be enough time for someone to sneak into a big match or an event without a ticket. It would also be useful to some old lag who wanted to get out of prison. Now I was out of work, at least I had a marketable product. At a later date, perhaps I could aim higher.

Griffin, the protagonist in the H. G. Wells novel, having made himself invisible, was unable to make himself visible again. This despite considerable efforts to do so. I found myself with a different problem. Although I was able to make others disappear, I was not yet able to make myself invisible. It seemed this was going to be the biggest challenge of all. Rosicrucians, Theosophists and The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn had all claimed success here. They maintained that with practice, you could become invisible by learning to spiral your personal grid to a higher frequency.

Was I trying too hard, I wondered? Was I putting too much pressure on myself? I went to see Dr Hopper. He must have felt it was something to do with the drugs because he put me on some different ones. Take four of these three times a day, he said. At least, I think that’s what he said. When you added the mg up, it did seem quite a large figure but they worked a treat. Dr Hopper seemed to have cracked it. My ex-wife walked straight past me on the High Street. Maddie had never done this before. She was never exactly warm and welcoming but up until now, she had always acknowledged me when we met accidentally. And when I called round to ask my friend, Geoff, if he wanted to go for a drink at the Cat and Fiddle, he told me he could not see me today. Geoff could not see me. The driver of the black BMW with the tinted windows who drove straight at me when I was crossing Gulliver Street obviously couldn’t see me either. It seemed that at last I was invisible.

There is a good chance I can make you invisible too. I am going to call in at the Community Resource Centre later to see if I can hire their hall to hold Invisibility classes. Who knows where this could lead? What is it they say? Mighty oaks from little acorns grow.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved