‘e’

 

e’ by Chris Green

There is not a lot to do in Builth Wells when the weather is wet. Wales is, of course, famous for its damp climate. But this year was exceptional. April had been a washout, and now May looked like breaking all records. Ifan Griffiths was unsettled by it. With all the changes taking place in the country, the birds returning to nest, and the sap rising, Spring should be the best time of year. Ifan yearned to get out into the Cambrian Mountains which were right on his doorstep. They were his patch. But on the few occasions he had set out this year, not even his expensive North Face waterproofs were up to the task of keeping him dry.

Recently divorced, Ifan lived alone in a traditional lime-wash cottage on the edge of the village. It was a particularly wet night and he could not sleep because of the rain pounding on the roof. At 3 a.m. he found himself watching SyFy, one of the many new channels he was able to turn to for relief since signing up for the Sky Entertainment Extra package. As the low budget film, Syfy was showing progressed, Ifan began to feel there was something naggingly familiar about the plot. The main character in the film, Judson Cleary, was living his life in an iPod shuffle. Days were sequenced randomly after one another. And the actor playing the part stumbled about the screen looking puzzled at each turn of events. A dizzying sense of déjà vu consumed Ifan. His heart began to race.

Had he not had a similar experience two weeks previously, Ifan might have thought nothing more about the sense of familiarity. Sky Cinema Drama had shown a film called King of the Jungle, which seemed to have plundered the depths of Ifan’s unconscious for its source material. As the slow-moving kidnap drama unfolded, each scene had been familiar, and the lion appeared out of nowhere to save the day at exactly the time Ifan was expecting it. He had not seen the film before. This was its first outing on television. He checked his DVD rental account to confirm that he had not rented it and forgotten about it. Shuffle was also not on his list. Perhaps he had read the book. Memory could be an unreliable servant, but he felt he had not read the book.

Ifan came to the gradual realisation that the sense of familiarity of the two films owed itself to one simple fact. He had written the stories on which they were based. When he was not wandering the gentle slopes of the Cambrian Mountains with his binoculars and camera trying to get prize-winning shots of harriers and kites, Ifan spent much of his time writing short stories. He had started writing during a childhood bout of jaundice and had been knocking out stories for over thirty years. He had built up quite a collection, all of them, including the two that seemed to form the basis of the two films, unpublished. He had not tried very hard to get his stories published. It is fair to say he had not tried at all. He just enjoyed writing. Writing for him was almost an involuntary process. The wide-open spaces of mid-Wales fired his imagination. When he was out walking, he found himself inundated with ideas, and on returning home needed somewhere to deposit them. He frequently ended up working on several stories at once, cutting and pasting from one document to another. He loved the way words danced on the page, the way the sentences coupled and uncoupled. Hours passed without him realising it.

Ifan’s solitary pastimes were one of the reasons that Cerys had left. She felt that he did not pay her enough attention. She told him he was entirely self-obsessed. He was either up in the hills or away with the fairies. Ifan’s argument that if she didn’t spend so much time quilting and embroidering, then he would not spend so much time rambling and writing, was a weak one. She countered easily with, he never asked about her day or offered to take her out to dinner. They had not been on a proper holiday for three years and, except for a day trip to Oswestry, had never been outside Wales. Last year he had forgotten her birthday This was the final straw. She upped and left. Ifan was heartbroken. They had been together for five years.

From time to time Ifan had shared his stories with friends. They usually put them aside to read at a later date but never seemed to get round to it. Most of those in the village, those he might have a pint with in the local pub for instance, like Dafydd, Iolo and Hywel did not share his literary interests. So Ifan attended a monthly book club in Llandrindod Wells. Here he was sometimes persuaded to read a story to the group. Occasionally he photocopied one to hand out. While they gave him encouragement, Eiffon or Tegwen did not give the impression that they understood what he was writing about. Bryn felt the story about the Owlman was too long, and Nerys wondered if the story about the jungle in Cornwall might have ended differently. Dewi questioned whether drawing attention to postmodern theory was a legitimate device in short fiction.

Ifan revisited the drafts of the two television stories, both of which he had written around ten years ago. He re-read them carefully. He was prepared to admit that he had a tendency towards paranoia. His former therapist, Aura, had told him so. Although the two films had not followed the plots word for word, or scene for scene, there were too many similarities for it to be put down to coincidence. Even supposing that the idea of the days of the year playing out like a music shuffle lacked exclusivity, the explanation that time is not linear being the accidental result of a malfunctioning video installation by a Belgian nu-surrealist, did not seem the kind of idea that would be doing the rounds. This being the case, how would the film-makers have got hold of the stories? He had not sent them to any publishers. His colleagues in the book club would be aware of the penalties for plagiarism. He considered each of the group in turn but concluded they were beyond suspicion. Eiffon and Tegwen were among the last of life’s innocents, Bryn had his own literary ambitions, Nerys and Dewi only came along to the book club for company. He had not had much to do with Huw, Mfanwy or Giancarlo, and Rhodri Llewelyn didn’t speak English at all.

Ifan found out on the Internet that the screenplays for both King of the Jungle and Shuffle had been written by Corrina Herzog. Surely a pseudonym. There was no bio for Corrina on Wikipedia. Her name was notably absent on web searches. There was not even a Corrina Herzog on Facebook. Perhaps whoever it was had written these two screenplays and changed their name again. He tried different spellings for her but still turned up nothing. This brought his research to a shuddering halt.

One night after a few pints of Double Dragon, Ifan confided in Dafydd.

You’re beginning to sound like Jones the Dark Side, mind you, Dafydd said. ‘He thinks they’re tapping his phone and that Jones the Post is following him.’

I’ll give my head for breaking if I’m not right. Those are my stories, see,’ Ifan said. ‘Someone must have hacked into my computer.’

You must have emailed them to somebody. What about that girl you met at university?’

You mean Andrea?’

Yes. Andrea. You were hoping to light a fire in her hearth.’

It was all the dream of a witch according to her will.’

What?,’ said Dafyd.

Despite the leeks growing in your window box, you’re not very Welsh, are you Dafydd?’ Ifan said. ‘Wishful thinking it is. I don’t think I stood a chance.’

Ifan had met Andrea Evans at university in Aberystwyth. He was there as a mature student on a Joint Honours path of Countryside Planning and English. Andrea was on a Media Studies course and they had been on a Modern and Postmodern module together. They seemed to get along and had gone to see The Smashing Pumpkins together in Swansea. For a while, Ifan had thought that given time they might even become an item. They did not, and after University they lost touch but caught up years later on Facebook. Andrea was by then a creative with an up and coming company in London. Ifan asked her if she would like to read some of his stories and Andrea gave him her email address. Ifan sent her pdfs of some of his stories, and later when Andrea said she hadn’t received them, sent them again. Weeks passed and Ifan heard nothing from Andrea. He resigned himself to the possibility that Andrea hadn’t really wanted to read his stories but was just being polite, as so many others had been before her. Short stories were out of favour. They were not the books that you saw advertised on Amazon. Was it possible that Andrea had sold on his stories?

Since a recent bout of paranoia, Ifan’s Facebook privacy level was set to Only Me, the highest level. This meant he was the only one who could see his posts, not that there had been any. He opened up the program and changed the settings and saw that Andrea Evans was still a friend. He posted a private message, asking her how she was, hoping that she would remember him and perhaps comment on the stories he had emailed her.

I’m good,’ she replied. ‘How are you? Never did receive your stories by the way.’

Ifan responded saying that he had sent them to her email address – twice.

At this point, it occurred to Andrea that he had probably sent them to an incorrect email address. She replied saying that they should have been sent to andreaeevans@hotmail.com

Perhaps someone is this very moment getting a big fat royalty cheque from their publication.’ she joked.

Oh bugger!’ thought Ifan. He had missed the central ‘e’. ‘E’ for Elizabeth perhaps.

He remembered thinking at the time that andreaevans@hotmail.com was a very convenient address, unless she had been one of the first to register for email. Ifan’s address was ifangriffiths193@btinternet.com You wouldn’t imagine Ifan was a common name, but there must have been at least 192 other Ifan Griffiths signed up for email with his provider before him.

The email Ifan sent to the original recipient demanding an explanation for the blatant plagiarism of his work was returned undelivered. Andrea Evans’s Hotmail account was closed.

It has however stopped raining in Mid-Wales.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Waterfalls

waterfalls2

Waterfalls by Chris Green

1:

Through thick and thin, Barney Cisco has followed Bristol City’s fortunes, travelling up and down the country in all winds and weathers to watch his team play. He has been able to finance his fanatical support through a lucrative stall at Compton Regis market selling cheap foreign mattresses at inflated prices. While Bristol City, or the Robins as they are known, might not have the glamour of Manchester United or Chelsea, the club has occasionally excelled. Although he was just a lad, Barney remembers the heady days in the late seventies when City enjoyed top flight football and although they lingered near the foot of the table the entire time, he became hooked by the excitement of their annual relegation battle.

Bristol City’s purple patch was in bitter contrast to what was to follow. In 1982 they became the first club to suffer three consecutive relegations, ending up in what was then Division 4. Remarkably, the young Barney remained undeterred. He watched City yo-yo up and down the divisions over the decades without missing a single match, not even the Third Round FA Cup tie against Carlisle that was abandoned after ten minutes when the north-west suffered the worst blizzard in its history.

As soon as he was old enough, Barney took his son, Sonny to matches with him, that is until Sonny got caught in possession of a thousand ecstasy tablets and was sentenced to three years at Exeter Crown Court. Sonny claimed he was looking after the drugs for a friend, but Judge Girley in his summing up suggested that this may have been his imaginary friend, Pluto.

Barney was shocked by Sonny’s arrest and imprisonment. In his self-absorption, he had failed to notice Sonny’s disappearances after Saturday matches or his recurrent mood swings. Rather than look a little deeper into the possible causes of his downfall, he blamed Sonny’s waywardness on Dolores. Dolores had walked out on them when Sonny was just seven, acknowledged by child psychologists to be a key age in a boy’s development. She went off to live with Shaun O’Shea, a scaffolder from Skibareen. She said she hated football. She said that Shaun was a sensitive man who played the harp. Drank the Harp, more like, Barney told her. Still, Dolores would find out about Shaun’s drink problem and come running back, tail between her legs. Dolores didn’t. Barney was left to look after Sonny’s welfare. He never forgave Dolores.

With Sonny now incarcerated, Barney felt bereft.

Darren Spurlock, a friend of his, told him about Lorelei Angel, a life coach that had helped him to turn his life around.

‘She will take you from where you are to where you want to be,’ he said, over a pint or two at the Dog and Duck one Sunday lunchtime. ‘She worked on my self-confidence and fitted me out with the tools to secure a pizza delivery franchise. Although I had not realised it before, running a pizza delivery operation was something that I had secretly always wanted to do.’

Darren managed to persuade Barney to go along to Lorelei for a consultation.

Barney spent a while nervously explaining to Lorelei how he felt. To his surprise, he found that she actually listened to what he was saying and after the first few minutes, he found it easy to open up to her. He told her how he had put his life on hold to bring little Sonny up. How he had worked every day, except for match days, to put a roof over Sonny’s head with not a word of encouragement from Dolores. How heartbroken he had been when Sonny was sentenced. He had nearly cried outside the court. How he realised that it was now time to put his life in order. Start taking care of himself.

‘You need to make some changes in your life in order to bring about the transformation,’ Lorelei told him.

‘I suppose I could start selling cheap foreign settees at the market along with the mattresses, and perhaps bucket chairs and maybe some rugs’ said Barney.

‘Well, that would be a start,’ said Lorelei. ‘But it’s not what you’d call a big change, is it, Barney? You may find you need to branch out a little more than that. OK. Let’s leave the career change for now. You might want to look into changing some of your habits. What do you do at weekends?’

‘I go to watch the Robins play,’ Barney said. Had she not been listening? ‘That’s Bristol City.’

‘Bristol City. That’s a football team, isn’t it?’ Perhaps she had been listening after all.

‘That’s right.’

‘And you go every weekend?’

‘Well, yes, every weekend from August to May.’

‘There you go then. There’s are unlimited opportunities for some change there.’

‘Oh, I think I see what you are getting at,’ Barney might have been tempted to say. ‘You mean sometimes I could go to watch Bristol Rovers, instead? That would be funny. That would make it a pair of Bristols. Get it! Bristol City and Bristol Rovers. Pair of Bristols.’

‘I can see why your wife left you,’ Lorelei might have said, head in hands. ‘You might want to work a little on your misogyny too. And your sexist humour.’

But such a final exchange did not take place. That Barney showed a new found restraint was testament both to Lorelei’s motivational skills and to his willingness to learn. The session with Lorelei had brought home to him how predictable and unfulfilling his life was. He deserved better. He was tired of playing the victim. If he was to feel fulfilled, he recognised that he needed to change. He made the decision there and then not to renew his season ticket. After all, the Robins had only just seen off relegation – yet again, finishing eighteenth in the table. This was hardly something to get excited about. They would probably do just as badly next year. Into the bargain, season tickets prices were set to rise. He needed to get things in perspective. There had to be better ways to spend his weekends. Perhaps he could go to country fairs or take up yoga. There again, perhaps not. But he would find something that worked for him. What about Art? He could go and visit some galleries or try his hand at painting.

2:

Stacey Jayne has long wanted to be an artist. In such spare moments as family life has allowed, she has got her brushes out and painted tentative watercolours. She has concentrated on subjects around the house and in the garden, still lifes and flowers. To prevent her partner, Dorsey, local councillor and Mayor-Elect from belittling her attempts, she has kept these hidden. Although she has always been uncertain of her ability, one or two of her friends who have happened to call in have caught her working and complimented her on her efforts. Lindy Lou loves her subtle study of the kitchen utensils in the washing up bowl and suggests that she try the classes at the local community centre. They are not expensive and she has heard that the tutor, Lamaar Fike is very good.

Stacey Jayne decides to go along to check out the opportunity and as luck should have it, a new course is due to start the following day. She signs up for a term. From her very first effort, Lamaar tells her that she has a good eye for detail. He says that she might be ready to move on to acrylics or oils and that she should have a proper space at home to paint in, so she buys an easel and sets up a makeshift studio in the spare room. Having arranged the space to her liking, she decides what she needs is a bucket chair to be able to sit comfortably at her easel.

The man in the David Hockney tee-shirt at the stall at Compton Regis market is very helpful. He shows her a range of comfortable looking bucket chairs.

‘I rather like this red one,’ she says, after she had tried a few. ‘But ….. it says, Made in Romania. Romania? Is that good?’

‘It’s a little-known fact but all the best bucket chairs are made in Romania,’ he says. ‘And of course, I only stock the best. I have my reputation to think of.’

‘I think, I’ll take it, then,’ she says. ‘I hope you don’t mind me inquiring, but I couldn’t help noticing your tee-shirt. I love David Hockney. Do you paint?’

All that Barney knows about Hockney is that he is some kind of painter, a pop artist he thinks or is he an Impressionist? Perhaps they are the same thing. He is not sure. Nor has Barney actually started his venture into art yet, he thought he would buy the tee shirt first. This, however, is not the time for him to admit these shortcomings. His customer is a very attractive woman. And, she seems to be taking an interest in him. This is not something that has happened very much lately.

‘A little,’ he says, with a shrug, hoping that hinting at modesty might suggest he has insurmountable talent. ‘I paint a little.’

Deceit does not come naturally to Stacey Jayne. Perhaps this has something to do with her convent education. She is anxious therefore not to exaggerate her artistic prowess. But, at the same time, she would like to show this talented painter with the sideline in market trading that she is versed in the language of fine art techniques. ‘I’ve just started a course,’ she says. ‘I’m learning acrylics and oils. We’re doing stippling, dabbing and flicking at the moment.’

Acrylics? Stippling? Dabbing? Flicking? Oils? H’mm, thinks Barney.

‘That’s good,’ seems the safest response. He goes with it.

Stacey Jayne’s ‘What kind of things do you paint?’ is parried with Barney’s ‘Well, you know. A bit of this, a bit of that.’

Her bold ‘Oh really! I’d love to see some of your work,’ meets with an uncertain ‘Sure.’

‘That’s great,’ she says. ‘I look forward to that.’

Her phone rings and she moves away a little. A voice appears to be shouting down the phone at her. Her serenity vanishes. Her posture changes. Her brow furrows. Her fists clench.

‘You’re going to do what?’ she screams. ‘If you do, that’s it!’

Perhaps things at home are not hunky dory for Stacey Jayne, he thinks. Might this present him with an opportunity, later on? Probably not. But then, you never know.

3:

Stacey Jayne has been bothered by Dorsey’s petulance for some time. Toys, pram and propulsion spring to mind. If he doesn’t get his own way, he goes into infant mode and throws a tantrum. He is controlling, dictatorial. He has always shown a deep resentment of her having hobbies of her own. She recalls the time that she went a cake decorating demonstration when, apparently, she should have been raising the Union Flag in the garden for the Queen’s birthday. Dorsey went ballistic. And the occasion that she wanted to go to a belly dancing class with Donna. He hid her house keys and locked her in the house. But, returning home to find that her husband has torn up her watercolours and trashed her easel is the final straw. What would the people of the town think if they knew that Councillor Dorsey Pitts, Mayor-Elect was guilty of such wanton destruction over his pretty wife wanting to express herself? She had only joined an art class, not boiled his favourite bunny or slept with Satan.

But if she really wants to bring Dorsey’s name into disrepute, she will bring the public’s attention to his connections with the English Defence League, the English Volunteer Force, or the one with the Germanic name. When she had taken the matter of his involvement up with him, he had tried to pass his clandestine communications off as freemasonry, but bit by bit Sarah Jayne discovered his connections were more sinister. While he might not be a leading light in any of these far-right organisations, the fact that he has associations with them at all would surely be enough to ruin his mainstream political career. After all, this is a cosmopolitan town, not somewhere where a local politician of any party should be holding extreme views. However hidden Dorsey’s connections or however convincing his subsequent denial of them might be, suspicions about him would remain. The old saying there’s no smoke, and all that.

But, this is something to keep back for later, a negotiating tool if you like. He can communicate with her from now on through solicitors. She is leaving him. What he has done is unforgivable. She can go and stay with Donna until she finds somewhere. And she will give Barney Cisco a call. He is bound to know where she can rent some studio space to paint in.

4:

Hi. Barney Cisco speaking,’ he says. He does not recognise the number.

‘Hello, Barney. I don’t know if you remember me. I’m Stacey Jayne,’ she says. ‘I bought a bucket chair from you a few days ago.’

Remember her? Of course he remembers her. He’s been thinking about nothing else since their meeting. Not even Bristol City’s problems in defence or Sonny’s upcoming parole hearing. ‘Ah, yes. I think I do remember you,’ he says, trying to muster up cool indifference.

‘I was just wondering if you might be able to help me,’ she says. ‘What with your connections in the art world. My circumstances have uh …… changed and I wondered if you might know of a small studio space to rent where I could paint.’

‘I’ve think I might have the very thing,’ he says, trying desperately to think of the very thing he might have.

‘Could I come and have a look?’ she says.

‘I’ll tell you what, Stacey,’ he says. ‘Give me a day or two and I will get back to you. Is this the best number to get you on?’

Barney is thrown into a panic. Facilitating the space for Stacey Jayne to paint presents no problem. He can set aside a couple of rooms at the back of his warehouse. He will need to clear it out a bit of junk, and clean up, but this can easily be done. He can buy some easels and paints from Nicki Bello’s artists’ supply stall. But, what about the paintings? He needs to make it look like it is a working studio and that he has completed a few canvases and has others in progress. Where on earth is he going to get hold of these? Suddenly, he has the light-bulb moment. There is a prestigious exhibition on at Art Attack by an overseas artist with an unusual name. He knows this because his friend and fellow Bristol City supporter, Jarvis Vest works as a security guard there. Given favourable circumstances, and a little guile, he can borrow some paintings from there.

5:

‘These paintings are brilliant, Barney,’ says Stacey Jayne, as she moves slowly round the four large canvases of Tuscan landscapes in the makeshift studio. ‘You are so talented. I don’t know how my poor daubings will look alongside these.’

‘It’s good of you to say so, Stacey Jayne,’ he says. He is pleased with how he easily he managed to blot out Lili Stankovich’s signature and replace it with Barney Cisco using some black paint on the wrong end of a small brush. You can hardly notice the alterations.

‘What are you working on at the moment?’ she asks.

‘I’m doing another landscape in oils,’ he says. ‘I took it home to do a bit on it last night. Sometimes I find that the light is better in my conservatory.’

‘Ah, I see.’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘Look! I’ve got my bits and pieces in the car. I’ll bring them in, if that’s OK, then if you are interested, I was wondering whether you might want to go and see that Lili Stankovich exhibition that’s on at Art Attack.’

‘I’ve a lot on today, maybe next week,’ says Barney. Procrastination is a tried and tested strategy and in his line of work maybe next week means never.

‘Oh look, Barney!’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘Isn’t that the police outside?’

‘What?’ says Barney. ‘Oh my God!’

He busies himself trying his best to cover up the canvases that are on show while he tries to remember what Sonny’s solicitor was called.

‘They’re peering through the window, now,’ says Stacey Jayne. ‘I wonder what they might want. I hope you are not in trouble, Barney.’

Why, oh why had he listened to Lorelei Angel? Why had he tried to better himself? And what made him think he had a chance with a babe like Stacey Jayne? He should have followed the advice of that song that was always playing on Tonya Ludovic’s bric-a-brac stall. ‘Don’t go chasing waterfalls,’ it went, or something like that. ‘Stick to the rivers and lakes that you’re used to.’ He should have stuck to what he was good at, supporting Bristol City through thick and thin and selling cheap foreign mattresses at inflated prices at his market stall.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Silent Trumpet

Silent Trumpet by Chris Green

1:

Quincy Saxx introduces himself at a Free Eva Morales rally. I have not met him before, so I am puzzled that he appears to know me. He laughs and says that everybody knows Cliff Rhodes. The thing is, I am not Cliff Rhodes, nor am I Jordan Castle who plays Cliff in Blood Money. I am not even an actor. I don’t believe I resemble Jordan Castle in any way. Strangely, Milo Devlin at The Fantasy Factory also mistook me for Cliff Rhodes when I was there to book a hot-air balloon ride as a surprise present for Betty’s birthday recently.

Although I know nothing about Quincy, he is a straight talker, something of a rarity in these days of chancers and weak-willed charlatans. I can tell straight away that he is a go-getter. He tells me I could help him further the cause. It is always good to have the backing of a recognisable household name in a campaign, he says. I go along with the masquerade, hoping that if I play my cards right, he might also be able to help me.

With a name like Saxx, I wonder if Quincy is related to the legendary Roy Saxx, the inventor of the bouncing eggcup. Roy’s contribution to our daily lives is huge. Where would we be without the metaphorical compass or the collapsible dog? I remember, when I was growing up, the initial resistance there was to Roy’s invisible kite. But in no time at all, every child had to have one. It was Roy Saxx who came up with the expression marketing. He was the first person to realise that people desperately wanted to be persuaded to buy things they couldn’t possibly have any use for. He discovered this was a basic psychological need. I ask Quincy if there is a connection to the great man. He says that Roy is his father. While he acknowledges the importance of Roy’s inventions to our lives, he has always played down the link. He was on the receiving end of his father’s temper too many times to want to bathe in his glory. A genius he may have been, but Roy was a brutal parent.

In truth, I am not sure exactly what Eva Morales is supposed to have done or where she is being held. Farland possibly? Or is it the People’s Republic of Costaguana? I have heard her name on the news a few times, and I have a vague recollection she is a writer of some sort or a journalist, but I am not certain. To be honest, with the saturation coverage of LGBT+ Rights, Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Don’t Matter, Defund the Police and Stone the Crows protests there has been lately, I am experiencing virtue-signalling fatigue. I have merely come along to the rally to get me out of the house. Betty is having one of her cleaning blitzes and there is bound to be something that I haven’t got around to or am supposed to be doing. When Betty has the bit between her teeth, it is best to stay out of the way.

A quick search on the internet reveals that Eva Morales is a schoolteacher serving ten years in a Malbanian prison for plotting to overthrow the brutal Islamic regime. She probably took photos of a government building or found herself outside a mosque at the wrong time of day. Or tweeted something about the Koran. Or criticised the Supreme Leader in a casual conversation on the street. Google informs me that Quincy Saxx is a seasoned activist with many successful campaigns. Most recently his campaign Stop Abuse against Foreign Workers in Afistan is reckoned to have saved hundreds of lives, possibly because it stopped foreign workers going there.

Quincy seems to accept me as I am. There is no need to talk like Cliff Rhodes. Quincy understands that accents and character are part and parcel of the actor’s craft. The difficulty will arise if he requires me to do interviews. My cover will be blown when he introduces me as Jordan Castle. Milo Devlin might be fooled, but others out there may not. They will know exactly what Castle looks like and immediately realise I am not him. He is one of the most famous actors in the country and Blood Money is one of the most popular shows. I suppose I could tell the interviewers that I am staying in character for a new role in a film. I could wear a theatrical beard or a tousled-hair wig to go with the new part and get some thick horn-rimmed spectacles with a heavy tint. Actors of Castle’s stature can change their appearance out of all recognition at the drop of the hat. Or even simply by wearing a hat.

I work for SZID, an organisation so clandestine that none of us even knows what the letters of the acronym stand for. It is a nine-to-five position in a centrally located office block. It is a secure establishment with layer upon layer of security. We gather sensitive data. This is as much as we are told. It is boring, repetitive work. As everything is encrypted, none of us has any idea what this information might be or where it ends up. But it must mean something to someone, somewhere. It seems to command a high price. Enough for SZID to employ more than fifty people working around the clock to gather the information, not to mention the detail of security staff. Dmitri suggests the packets of data are thought patterns surreptitiously extrapolated from subscribers’ mobile phone use, ready to be input into a thought-control program. He’s probably right. Technology has been steadily moving in this direction for a long time. Ingrid goes a step further and says that this is the primary reason smartphones were invented. It makes sense. Why else would anyone come up with such a tiny product for watching films and listening to music when you already have sophisticated equipment to do this with? There could well be a hidden agenda behind it. It shows the same ingenuity we saw all those years ago with Roy Saxx’s silent trumpet. Can you imagine life now without the silent trumpet?

2:

I am planning to build a workshop in the garden to accommodate Betty’s growing collection of cleaning equipment. The conservatory is no longer big enough. But to do so, I need to generate some extra income. We are not well paid at SZID. What better way to make a fast buck than to sell a secret or two on the black market? Given Quincy Saxx’s wealth of maverick contacts, worldwide, I imagine he might be in a position to point me in the right direction. But as he believes that I am Jordan Castle, stealth is required. I need to tread carefully so that the information I need slips easily into the conversation. He is quite chatty so this may not present too much of a problem, so long as he doesn’t suspect I am trying to manipulate him.

Quincy invites me along to a protest outside the Malbanian Embassy. TV crews will be there, he says, along with a number of fellow celebrities who are committed to the cause, Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson, the singer from Blot, and Phillip C. Dark. I manage to hire a beard and wig and a Dickensian suit from a theatre company. I explain to the TV crew that I am staying in character for my new role.

We have just begun shooting,’ I say. ‘It’s important to get a feel for the part.

Very different from how the public has come to know you as Cliff Rhodes in Blood Money,’ Sophie Gossard-Black says.

Which is exactly why I’m staying in character,’ I say. ‘It can be difficult for an actor not to lapse back into the more familiar role. And historical characters are the hardest to crack.’

Of course,’ Sophie says.

Anyway, Sophie,’ I say, my confidence growing. ‘We are not here to talk about me. We are here to express solidarity. Thousands have turned out here today to show the strength of feeling there is to get Eva Morales, an innocent schoolteacher freed from the hell of a Malbanian gaol. We want to make the message to the rogue regime loud and clear. Free Eva Morales.’

I continue to echo the sentiments that Mark Freelance, Emma Thorson and the others have already shared, and the interview appears to pass without a hitch. Who would have thought that a desk-spook with no acting experience could pull it off? Quincy Saxx seems impressed with my performance and as far as I’m concerned, this is the main thing.

Chatting to Quincy afterwards, I discover that every government and political faction in the world spends a majority of its waking time thinking of new ways to shaft every other government and political faction.

Politics really is dirty, isn’t it?’ I say.’

You better believe it,’ he says. ‘Organisations and people to the left and right of centre. And those in the mainstream. Government departments and lobbyists. Individuals and corporations. The media, press barons, editors. Google, Apple, Microsoft. Bishops, Imams, gurus. They are all at it. There are some unlikely alliances too.’

What Quincy seems to describe is a sophisticated network of exploitation of the masses by an informal alliance for pecuniary gain. He manages to drop individual names and each time he does I make a mental note. As I see it, the bottom line is that data brokers have been buying and selling personal information for a long time. What I am planning is, in a sense, more of the same. Information is power. What I have might be seen as information on steroids. I am selling people’s thought patterns.

With Quincy’s unwitting assistance, I am able to come up with a diverse list of candidates to approach. And from this, come up with others who might have connections with them. I am spoilt for choice. I can juggle the names around and decide who is likely to pay the highest price for the information I am smuggling out of SZID. The best of it is that, in this line of endeavour, I don’t even need to go to the top. These days, it’s dog eat dog, every man for himself and all those other cliches. There are plenty of backstabbers who will be happy to do the deed. Loyalty is a thing of the past. I don’t know exactly what I am selling, of course, I can’t be specific. But mentioning SZID should be sufficient. Movers and shakers will be aware of what it is that SZID is engaged in and want some of it.

While it should be easy to sell the data, I get one knock-back after another. No-one wants to buy. It seems there are organisations like SZID the world over that are also gathering people’s thought patterns and selling them on. The market is saturated. This information fuels economies. Ingrid was right. Thought-control appears to be the main purpose of the smartphone. Like the world-wide-web, initially it was about finding out what you were interested in, but through clever algorithms, this quickly turned into telling you what you are interested in. You are now told what to think. Capitalism depends on it. It’s an open secret. Like the silent trumpet, the smartphone has taken us unawares. How could we have been so naive as to imagine it was introduced to enhance our lives?

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Best Kept Secret

Best Kept Secret by Chris Green

Van Morrison wanted to be a vet,’ the man says.

Who?’ says the girl, not looking up from the book she is reading.

Van Morrison, you know. Brown Eyed Girl, Bright Side Of The Road.’

Oh! Him!’ the girl says, hoping this will put an end to the conversation. She is not here to listen to geeky middle-aged men in paisley shirts talking about portly crooners. She has aspirations. She just needs a little downtime at the moment to get over a disappointment.

When he was at school, he wanted to be a vet. Then his father bought him a saxophone.’

That’s nice,’ the girl says, pulling her black sunglasses down from their resting place on her forehead.

The man doesn’t take the hint. ‘I was using close on 50 gigabytes a week just browsing on my iPhone and I was texting and messaging non-stop. And then there was the streaming. That took it up to 100,’ he continues. ‘What about you? Tracey, isn’t it?’

I think I was probably on more than that,’ says Tracey. ‘If I had used my phone any more they would have had to surgically remove it. Now. …… Can I get back to my book?’

I don’t know how I became so addicted,’ Dirk says. ‘I’m more of an outdoor person really.’

Tracey continues to blank him.

I had to bite the bullet and come along here,’ he says. He doesn’t tell her that his partner, Domino was knocked down texting a friend while crossing a busy London thoroughfare. Domino died from the injuries she sustained. Although this was six months ago Dirk can’t bring himself to talk about it. Instead, he continues to elaborate on his own habit, which through his days and nights of loneliness became worse.

When I wasn’t on the phone,’ he says. ‘I was on the laptop. When I wasn’t on the laptop, I was on the tablet. I took the phone to bed. I had an app to wake me if there were any status updates, another to tell me if I had any messages, another to let me know if I had any tweets. In the end, I was awake all night. I don’t like being awake all night.’

He awaits some kind of response. None is forthcoming.

Unless of course, it’s with someone nice,’ he adds, boldly. ‘I’m Dirk, by the way.’

Tracey doesn’t respond. She feels he is getting more creepy by the minute. Why is it that men feel that she is another country to be conquered or colonised? Where did she read this?

They are at Best Kept Secret, a digital detox retreat in Cornwall. There is no phone signal here and no Wi-Fi. You would have to drive several miles to get any kind of reception on your device. It is so remote that even the postman has trouble finding it. In addition, no TVs or radios are allowed here. You are permitted to bring just three books for a week-long stay. The centre has the express aim of changing people’s habits. Best Kept Secret goes one step further than Unplugged Weekend, reSTART and other establishments dealing with Internet Addiction Disorder. It is not interested in weekenders. It is so serious in its aims that during your stay it doesn’t allow you off-site. They store your car keys in a safe in case you are tempted to leave.

Katie …. Price,’ Dirk reads from the cover of the novel that Tracey is holding aloft. ‘The …. Comeback ….. Girl. Is it good?’

I’m enjoying it, yes,’ Tracey says.

I’m reading Van Morrison’s biography,’ he says. ‘You can borrow it when I’ve finished if you like.’

Well, Dirk, did you say? Perhaps, Dirk, you might want to get back to it and let me get on with my novel.’

Have you reached an exciting bit?’ he asks.

Tracey ignores him. She pulls her faux leather jacket around her to cover her cleavage and turns away.

Dirk looks around for someone else to talk to. There is no-one. Some of the guests are in the life drawing class and some are in the Pilates session. Others are in NLP therapy or else in the quiet meditation room. A couple of them are in physiotherapy for RSI. Dirk finds the whole atmosphere of withdrawal within the centre claustrophobic. He prefers it out here on the patio. He can listen to the birdsong and take in the aroma of wild roses and pennyroyal.

……………………………………………………

Although one usually thinks in terms of videos, anything can go viral on the Internet. Whether it’s a photo, an animation, an article, a quote, a tweet, a person, an animal, an idea, an argument, a coupon or an upcoming event, virtually anything that is shareable can go viral. Such is the power of hyperspace. All it takes is a handful of shares on social media and the right target audience to trigger an avalanche of sharing. News items, genuine and fake flash round the globe. If the American President were shot it is reckoned that three-quarters of the people in the world would know about it within fourteen minutes.

This is of course under normal circumstances. As it happens the American President has not been shot, but the transatlantic internet pipeline that joins Europe to the US has been down for two days. This is unprecedented. The world is waiting for something to happen. The crisis has generated record sales of newspapers but they have no news. Instead, there is a wealth of speculation. There are suggestions that terrorism is behind the breach in the pipeline. The Telegraph says it has all the hallmarks of a Russian cyber attack. The Sun blames it on Jihadis. The Express is torn between blaming in on illegal immigrants and the storms that are coming this way. The Mail doesn’t refer to it. concentrating instead on statins and house prices.

………………………………………………………….…

Dirk is unaware of the turn of events in the wider world. He doesn’t know that there has been a hiccup in hyperspace. All he knows is that he is completely at a loss in the non-digital world. Without his devices, he finds it difficult to bond with the others at the centre. Most of them seem to come from the corporate world, whilst he himself is a bit of a dreamer. He has always eked a living in the margins of society, drifting aimlessly from one job to another. Domino shared his quasi-alternative views. The irony of her demise is that she was an eco-campaigner. She hardly used her phone. Life, he feels, is full of contradictions.

Being in the confines of the centre has only served to remind him how much he misses Domino. Some of the others at Best Kept Secret have managed to find a modicum of solace in treatment or quiet contemplation, but he has not. In three days there he has become increasingly restless and edgy. He is desperate for some human contact, some love and understanding.

Tracey has now finished her Katie Price, her Sophie Kinsella and her Jojo Moyes novels. Dirk finds her once again on the patio. With nothing left to read, she stares into space.

It is against the law to have a pet dog in Iceland,’ Dirk says, hoping that Tracey might either be a dog lover or a dog hater in which case he has interesting facts about cats at the ready.

Tracey does not seem to have a view about the Nordic lack of tolerance for man’s best friend. She continues to stare into space. This provides a cue for Dirk to play his cat card and also refer to Tracey’s gaze.

The first cat in space was a French cat named Félicette in 1963,’ he says. ‘She was black and white.’

Tracey has no view about feline celebrities.

Dirk has other facts at his fingertips. Before he came in here, he often spent the whole dayspent many an afternoon browsing trivia sites. He is about to tell Tracey that Coca-Cola would be green if colouring weren’t added to it, when they are joined on the patio by Echo.

Echo looks tanned and sporty and is probably nearer his age than Tracey. She has beautiful brown eyes and a winning smile. Dirk feels he might be able to get along with Echo. And what a great name! He noticed her earlier when she arrived in a brightly coloured VW camper earlier. She came over to him to introduce herself. He was further encouraged when she showed a preference for the mung bean dahl over the oatmeal power bowl at lunch. And he might have imagined it. But didn’t she compliment him on his floral print shirt? She seems more relaxed than most of the burnt-out event organisers and ad executives inside. It is hard to imagine that she has Internet Addiction Disorder. She is even able to keep from fidgeting her fingers.

Without a device to play with, most of the others, himself included, do not know what to do with their hands. This is one of the often overlooked difficulties of digital device withdrawal. They don’t tell you about all of the side effects associated with Internet Addiction Disorder when you arrive. Some are fiddling with their spectacles, their zips, their shoelaces, or rearranging the salt and pepper pots and the cutlery on the table. Dirk has found himself playing a lot with the loose change in his pocket.

Following her break up with Blake, the last thing Echo needs is another alpha male who has to be the centre of attention. Nor does she want someone who will stare with wonder at her hair or hang on her every word. She is looking for a sensitive man who will understand her needs. She looks Dirk up and down. They smile at one another.

What is your favourite Dr Seuss book?’ she asks.

It is not a question that Dirk has often been asked, but as the only one that he knows is The Cat In The Hat, this is his answer.

You’ve not read The Butter Battle Book then,’ Echo says.

What’s it about?’ asks Dirk. He is anxious to keep this conversation going.

It is about a land where two hostile cultures, the Yooks and the Zooks,’ Echo says. ‘They live on opposite sides of a long curving wall. The Yooks wear blue clothes and the Zooks wear orange. The dispute between the two cultures is that the Yooks eat their bread with the butter-side up, while the Zooks eat their bread with the butter-side down. The conflict between the two sides leads to an arms race where each comes up with ever more deadly weapons, the result of which is mutually assured destruction.’

There is a moral to the tale then,’ Dirk says. ‘I will have to read it when I get out of here. I’ve nearly finished Van Morrison’s biography, so it’s a shame that I didn’t know about it before I signed up.’

Van Morrison. You like Van Morrison?’

Well yes. I do, rather.’

I adore Van Morrison,’ Echo says.

That’s great. Only some women find him ….. a little …..’

Dreamy?’

No, not exactly.’

Transcendental?’

No. ….. I was going to say, shouty. Some women find him a little shouty.’

Surely not,’ Echo says. ‘Van is the man.’

Well, it’s a marvellous night for a moondance.’

It’s the middle of the day,’ Echo says. ‘But you are right. Why not?’

………………………………………………………….…

It seems improbable that all the global communication pipelines could be breached at the same time. There are around five hundred different submarine cables spanning every ocean. But this is what appears to be happening. One by one they are failing. With just the transatlantic pipelines out, the possibility of some kind of rational explanation remained, excessive movement in a major tectonic plate causing sudden or greater than expected continental drift, perhaps. But what about those spanning the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean? The likelihood of the failings being from natural causes has now completely disappeared. There must be a more sinister explanation. And what is happening to the satellites in orbit? Little by little the digital world is breaking up. Sabres rattle, but then this is nothing new. Power struggles seem to be part of the human condition. The internet pipeline crisis is unlikely to fuel much of a conflict as most of the weapon systems will no longer function.

While across the board the younger generation starts to experience withdrawal symptoms, many of the older generation can remember that just twenty or so years ago, there was no internet. Perhaps it is a case of selective memory, but many reflect that life was better. Things were simpler. There was not the urgency to be in communication with everyone all the time. You could put things off, chill out. Up and down the country older people experience a feeling of relief that they do not have to check their missed calls and emails, respond to social media statuses or put updates on to their computers. Before all this technology took hold, things still got done. In many ways, it was easier to get things done. Back then there were a few mobile phones, but all you could do with them was make person-to-person calls. And you had to be in range. And even then you had to shout loudly. And they were not what you would call compact. You would have difficulty getting one in your jacket pocket.

………………………………………………………….…

Do you know, I don’t miss my devices at all,’ Dirk says. They are about to leave Best Kept Secret after their stay. Dirk has been there ten days and Echo a week.

Nor do I,’ Echo says. ‘I don’t think I will even switch my phone back on.’

Better off without them. I’ll think I will give my tablet away.’

Gives you a different perspective on life, doesn’t it?’

What does?’

The freedom to say no.’

Not that you did too much of that.’

Ha, ha,’ says Echo, hitting him on the arm with her Quicksilver backpack.

Just think of all those poor people that still have to grapple with that insane deluge of trash in their feeds day in day out.’

They will find out one day …… or not.’

Anyway, here we are, footloose and fone free,’ Dirk says.

Shall we go surfing to celebrate?’ Echo says. ‘I think Summerleaze Beach would be good. It’s west facing. The swell should be just right.’

Don’t know it,’ Dirk says. ‘Is it far?’

It’s north of here. Bude,’ Echo says.

Bude? Isn’t that where the secret listening base intercepts the traffic from the transatlantic internet pipeline?’ Dirk says.

You are still doing it,’ Echo says. ‘You have to let go of all this mental floss.’

But don’t you wonder what’s been happening in the world while we’ve been in there?’

Same old, I should think. Political posturing, smouldering racism, celebrity indiscretions. Nothing ever changes really, does it?’

You’re right.’ Dirk says. ‘Let’s go and get some air into our lungs.’

Then perhaps we can book into that nice hotel that looks out on to the ocean,’ Echo says. ‘And you can show me that thing you want to do with dark chocolate.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

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

A Blacker Shade of Blue

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A Blacker Shade of Blue by Chris Green

Tiffany Blue wonders why she is so unhappy. If all the things she is doing are so good for her, she should be in seventh heaven. She gets up at five each morning and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi before her bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. She has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. She practices yoga, in fact when her friend Indigo is busy, she runs the class for her.

Tiffany meditates to a CD with sounds of running water. Her apartment is awash with Aloe Vera plants to purify the air. She works out at the gym and she takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. She cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When she does take the car, she listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. She never drinks alcohol. She sees Moon two or three times a week. He buys her flowers and they make love tenderly. They go to Inter Faith services on a Sunday. But still she feels her life is empty. Something is missing.

Growing up in Brixton, Jeremy (Jet) Black was beaten up constantly by his big brother, Brad, and he, in turn, hammered his little brother Harry. It was a dog eat dog world where petty crime graduated easily to serious crime. Hierarchies were decided by the length of prison sentences. Jet moved swiftly up the hierarchy as he always seemed to be the one who got caught. Since he was a teenager, Jet has spent roughly half his life banged up. He is thirty-two.

Since his last spell in prison, a two-year stretch in Belmarsh for aggravated burglary, Jet has decided to go straight. He is tired of the predictable pattern his life has followed, the vicious cycle of get banged up, do his bird, get released, share ideas he learned inside with his crim mates, commit new crimes, get away with things for a bit, get grassed up by one of his crim mates who has already been caught, get nicked, and go back inside. He wants to turn his life around. He is going to avoid The Black Horse and The King Billy and give BetterBet a wide berth. And he is not going to take back up with Tracey. He can’t forgive her for what she said to the police the last time he was arrested. He hadn’t laid a finger on her and there he was facing an extra charge of assault. He might otherwise have got away with eighteen months. Now that he is out, he has also decided to stop taking drugs. He has even stopped listening to rap music.

Jet has got himself a part-time job at the community centre. At the moment, it is a voluntary position, but Gavin, the guy with the ponytail who runs the place, says that if he does a good job there might be an opening. Through a prisoner rehabilitation scheme, he has secured a studio apartment in the converted warehouse by the plastics factory. He has started to paint the place with some paint he was given and has discovered a flair for colour. Under the scheme he has also been able to get free items from the Furniture Project. The bed is rickety, and the settee has a few rips, but they will do for now. The microwave works, and that is the main thing. He has been to the animal shelter and got a rescue dog to keep him company, a black and white collie-retriever cross called Bono. He cannot yet afford to join a gym but he has enrolled in a free yoga class. He is not exactly sure what yoga involves, but he has heard it is very good for you. He has been to one session and although he found it a bit of a struggle he is determined to persevere.

Tiffany feels it might help her state of mind if she tried out new things. She needs some excitement to break up the relentless ennui of new-age austerity. Something a little reckless, something dangerous, something wild and edgy. She shows Moon the programme of headline acts for a hard rock festival. Moon is hesitant. He does not like the idea of hard or rock and together, what on earth is she thinking?

You don’t really want to go to this, do you?’ he says. ‘AC/DC are very loud, you know. And Anvil Of Doom. I don’t like the sound of them.’

You only live once,’ Tiffany says. ‘Let’s get out there and do something to show we’re still alive.’

But it’s all so unwholesome,’ Moon says. ‘We’d be camping out in a muddy field with hordes of degenerate space cadets and filthy grebos.’

Not everyone who goes to a festival is a drug addict, Moon’ Tiffany says.

Grim Reaper. Angel Corpse. Do you really want to see bands with names like that?’ Moon says.

I imagine there are all kinds of new-age activities at festivals,’ Tiffany says. ‘Look! It says here, they’ve got necromancy, neo-paganism, tarot divination, and past life regression workshops. And they have a tattoo parlour. I could get some tattoos done. They have everything at festivals. The music’s probably just an added extra at festivals these days.’

I’m not sure about the tattoo idea,’ Moon says.

I could have a rose tattooed on my bottom. How about that? I think you’d like that,’ Tiffany says.

OK. You win. We’ll give it a go,’ Moon says. ‘But can we go on the Saturday, because I don’t want to miss our crystal reading class on Friday.’

I think we could give crystal reading a miss for once,’ Tiffany says. ‘I haven’t got room for any more bloody stones and to be honest, I do find Prism’s talks a tiny bit boring.’

Prism? Boring? Surely not, Tiffany,’ Moon says. ‘It’s not just about finding out what crystals you need. Don’t you remember last week how Prism showed you that your natal chart was a dynamic indicator for your soul’s path of your healing journey.’

Well, maybe I don’t feel very healed,’ Tiffany says. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Moon. Perhaps I’m just tired.’

Let me give you an Ayurvedic massage,’ Moon says. ‘I’ve got some organic almond oil.’

I think I’ll just have a bath and go to bed,’ she says. ‘I’ve got an early start tomorrow. I have a wood to inspect.’

Jet Black is walking Bono in Long Ridge Wood when he spots her. She is the lady who was teaching the yoga class, the one in the flesh-coloured leotard who was bent double during the warm-up exercises. He would recognise that body anywhere. Not even the Wildlife Trust uniform can hide such a lovely figure. And she has a smile that could bring a dead dormouse back to life.

Tiffany recognises him by his tattoos. She knows that she shouldn’t, but she finds them attractive. And those muscles. She could tell straight away at the yoga class that although he was lacking in grace, he had been to the gym now and again. She had not seen him though at Jim’s Gym. Perhaps he was new to town.

Hello,’ he says shyly. He is not used to talking to attractive women. You do not come across many babes in The Black Horse or The King Billy. And he was certainly protected from such opportunities in Belmarsh. Not even Tracey had been to visit.

You’re not stalking me, are you,’ she laughs. ‘I’ve heard about people like you.’

I’m just taking Bono here for a walk,’ he says. ‘He loves these woods.’

Ancient beechwood and unimproved grassland,’ she says. ‘Maximum biodiversity to provide the basis for a balanced ecosystem.’

That’s a distinctive aroma,’ he says, edging a little closer. ‘What is it?’

That will be the rotting leaves,’ she says.

Not that smell,’ he says. ‘A sweet minty perfume. Is it something you are wearing?’

Oh, that’s patchouli,’ Tiffany says. ‘Do you like it?’

It’s lovely,’ he says. ‘And so are you.’ There! He has said it. There’s no going back now.

Moon is not sure what is wrong with Tiffany. Something must be troubling her. She said that she is busy at the weekend and now she is not taking his calls. In the two years that they have been seeing each other, nothing like this has happened before. She has always been so accommodating. They have always done everything together. He had hoped they might go to a Channelled Angel Reading on Friday night and then have a snack at Give Peas A Chance. Then afterwards they might try out the ginger dusk scented candle, with some soft music. He has called round several times and even spoken to her neighbours but they have not seen her. River who runs the New Age bookshop says he saw her earlier coming out of BargainBooze with a big bag, but that can’t be right.

Tiffany has invited Jet Black round. She has never done such a thing with a stranger before. It is unheard of in the circles she moves in to be so familiar with someone that you’ve only just met. She is not sure what has come over her. Perhaps it is the rugged profile of Jet’s jaw, the pounding testosterone, the rippling muscles and, of course, the tattoos. Perhaps it is the nascent desire for excitement. Whatever it is, she has never had these kinds of feelings before. She cannot recall ever having strong feelings of any kind. She has always just gone with the flow.

She was brought up in a remote rural location. There was no curriculum at the school she attended, and she remained innocent of the ways of the world. She did not rebel as a teenager because she was unaware of what she might rebel against. Life was uneventful. There were no highs and no lows. There was no site of struggle in her neighbourhood. In fact, there were no neighbours in her neighbourhood. Her parents did not bother with television, which was just as well because a lot of the time there was not even a TV signal in this isolated community. There would probably never be a mobile phone signal.

It wasn’t until she went to agricultural college at nineteen that she had her first boyfriend. Dagon was gentle and over a period of several years eased her into intimacy. Inhibited as they both were, sex never became the driving force of their relationship. She couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It was three months before she let Moon over the threshold, and another month before she let him undo the buttons of her blouse. She was in no hurry to move things forward. It wasn’t until six months into their relationship that she finally allowed him to pull down her panties. She was twenty-seven and Moon was only her second lover.

Tiffany is on her third glass of wine and feels light-headed. She has turned her phone off in case Moon calls again. While she doesn’t want to upset him, she wishes he would let her have some space. She had to hide behind the curtain for half an hour earlier. He has gone now. Hopefully, he won’t be back until after Jet has had a chance to pin her to the bed, roughly part her thighs and possess her in a frenzy of unbridled passion. Where, she wonders, are these thoughts coming from? What is happening to her?

Something about meeting Tiffany has put Jet in touch with his gentler side. He spent the previous evening carving a Buddha from a chunky stick that Bono picked up in the woods. He thinks the little wooden icon is the sort of thing a girl like Tiffany would appreciate; he noticed when they met she wore a Buddha charm bracelet. He has even read a little about Buddha on Wikipedia. Buddha seemed a sound guy, honest and trustworthy and full of thought for others. Not at all like Charlie, the self-styled guru in Belmarsh. Charlie, named after Charlie Manson, Jet found out, would stick a knife in your throat or steal the clothes off your back.

When he arrives at Tiffany’s though he finds her three sheets to the wind. This is not at all the welcome he was expecting, but he has had plenty of experience of this condition with Tracey. It usually ended in a fistfight and the kitchen getting wrecked. While he does not imagine this will be the case with Tiffany, he needs to tread carefully. He struggles to remember what they were told in the interpersonal psychology class inside. The dude banged on a lot about listening and passivity.

Would you like a glass of wine,’ Tiffany says, filling up a tumbler for him from the half-empty bottle of Rioja.

No thanks. I don’t drink wine,’ Jet says.

Not even for a special occasion,’ she purrs.

Jet remembers the psychology guy saying that distraction was a useful tactic. You could talk someone down who was about to jump or prevent someone with fists raised from hitting you by taking their mind off their subject. ‘It’s hot and humid in Kuala Lumpur,’ he continues. ‘It says on the news they are having a heatwave.’

I’ve got beer in the fridge,’ Tiffany says, lurching towards the kitchen.

I might buy a guitar when I’ve got some money,’ he says. ‘And learn to play like George Harrison.’

I did think of getting some whiskey,’ she says. ‘I could nip down to the off-licence if you like.’

The psychology guy’s reasoning was clearly flawed. ‘What I’d really like is a cup of tea,’ he says. ‘Why don’t we both have a nice cup of tea.’

On the way home on the bus, Jet feels despondent. It is clear to him that Tiffany has a serious drink problem. He had not suspected this when he met her in the woods. She seemed all sweetness and light then. Perhaps everyone has a deep-seated issue if you look for it. At least Tiffany is not trying to hide it. She is not a secret drinker like some he has known, Kathy for instance. Kathy would hide it everywhere, under the sink, behind the potted plants, in the garage and in with the grass cuttings. He is sure that Tiffany is a lovely person beneath it all. He needs to help her. She deserves that much. Helping her will also help him to convince himself that he has changed.

After the embarrassment of the evening though, he decides to leave it a few days and then call her. Or maybe wait until he sees her at the yoga class. He will ask if she would like to go for a walk on the common with him and Bono. There are no pubs or retail outlets near the common. She will probably be able to tell him what the trees are and the names of the wildflowers. He could even put together a picnic.

Why have you been ignoring my calls?’ Moon says.

Can you not shout please,’ Tiffany says. ‘I’ve got a really bad headache this morning.’

I’m not shouting,’ Moon says. He picks up one of the wine bottles. ‘Perhaps you couldn’t hear them because of the noise from your party.’

Sarcasm is just one more thing that you are not very good at,’ Tiffany says. ‘So why don’t you just shut up.’

What’s got into you?’ Moon says. ‘You have not been yourself lately. Is it all to do with me not wanting to go to this rock festival?’

Why don’t you just go off and find a unicorn or a crop circle or something,’ Tiffany says. ‘Just leave me alone, will you?’

Actual Bodily Harm is not the most serious offence in the lexicon of Offences Against The Person. Jet knows that it carries a maximum sentence of five years, but the charge is broad in its scope. It can refer to quite serious injuries, but it can also refer to just a few bruises. Perhaps Tiffany and Moon were just pushing each other around a little and Moon fell. Tiffany was certainly in a hurry to put a stop to the conversation once she felt that he was prying. But, as Tiffany has no criminal record, she will probably just get a fine, he feels, especially if Moon does not want to pursue the matter.

In Jet’s experience alcohol is at the root of a majority of threatening behaviour, not just physical aggression but verbal abuse as well. God knows, he had threatened enough people when he had been on the pop and Tracey was at her most vicious after a skinful. Before it lost its licence The Prince of Wales on a Friday night could be like Culloden. And, A and E was a who’s who of alcoholics after a darts night at The Caledonian.

Tiffany surely would not have told him to fuck off and mind his own business last night when he offered to come round if she was sober. She might be a bit resentful that he didn’t respond to her come on the other night and in her booze-fuelled haze have seen it as a rejection. Some people he has heard take rejection very badly. Jet realises that Tiffany needs his help more than ever now to turn her life around. He must try to get her off the liquor. An alcohol support group called NewLeaf meets at the community centre. When the time is right, he will suggest that she goes along.

Tiffany does not answer any more of Jet’s calls and she is not at the yoga class. He asks Indigo if she might know where she is.

I haven’t seen her,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve phoned her a couple of times but she doesn’t seem to be answering.’

I’ve been trying to get her all week,’ Jet says.

It’s not like her at all,’ Indigo says. ‘I’ve known her for years and if she sees that I’ve called she always gets straight back to me. Do you think perhaps something is wrong?’

Look. I probably shouldn’t say anything, but she was arrested last week, says Jet.

Arrested? Tiffany arrested? You’re joking, right?’ she says looking him in the eye.

He does not have the look of someone who is joking.

Yes, for ABH. I think it’s all to do with the juice,’ Jet says.

Juice?’ Indigo says. ‘What do you mean, juice? What kind of juice?’

You know, the sauce,’ Jet says. ‘The booze.’

What?’ Indigo says. ‘No. Never. Not Tiffany. She’s about as teetotal as they come. She doesn’t even drink tea or coffee.’

Well, she may not have used to drink,’ Jet says. ‘But I’m afraid she does now.’

And I can’t imagine her ever being violent,’ Indigo says. ‘Not in a million years. She wouldn’t harm a fly.’

What about this Moon dude?’ Jet says. ‘Do you know anything about him?’

She’s been with him for years,’ Indigo says. ‘Moon’s the nicest person you could ever wish to meet.’

Well, something’s gone badly wrong with the universe then,’ Jet says.

You might not be far off with that,’ Indigo says. ‘There have been some portentous planetary alignments lately. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn were roughly aligned with the Sun ten days ago, and Venus and Mars are in alignment again tonight.’

There must be a song there somewhere,’ Jet says. ‘I would like to be able to help Tiffany, so if you do hear anything.’

I know you do. Despite your build and your ….. body art, I can see you are a very sensitive man who is in touch with his feminine side. I could tell as soon as I saw you. You give off a kind vibe.’

His feminine side? This is not something that Jet has been told before. Should he take it as a compliment? Years ago he might have hit anyone who had said this, even if it was a woman. But in the given circumstances, he feels strangely flattered.

Why don’t you come along to my Vipassana meditation class on Thursday,’ Indigo says. ‘I think you’d love it.’

I might just do that,’ Jet says, studying Indigo’s flesh coloured leotard. ‘I think mediation might be exactly what I need.’

Tiffany is with her solicitor, Ray Crooner, a thickset man in his forties wearing a dark blue pinstripe suit that is a size too small and a Tattersall check shirt. Ray has the pallor of a world-weary defence solicitor and his office has that solicitor’s office smell, an odd mix of musk, laser printer toner and disappointment.

It would not be so bad if you hadn’t gone round to your friend Moon’s and beat him up all over again,’ Ray says. ‘He is out of hospital now, I believe.’

Tiffany nods.

We will have to put in a guilty plea and claim mitigating circumstances, but I don’t think that you will avoid a custodial sentence. All we can do is try to limit this to three or six months,’ he says. ‘What would you say we could use as mitigation? Did he hit you? Did he provoke you in any way? Did he crash your car or jump up and down on your iPhone or anything that might warrant retaliation?’

He said that he didn’t like my tattoos,’ Tiffany says.

If it comes to that, I don’t like your tattoos,’ Ray Crooner says. ‘And the judge will almost certainly not like your tattoos What is that one on your forehead?’

That’s the Angel of Death,’ Tiffany says.

Anyway, I don’t think this …. Moon, what kind of name is that anyway ….. this Moon not liking your tattoos is going to get us far in terms of mitigation,’ Ray says. ‘The judge will take one look at those unsightly markings and your ….. barrage of nasal jewellery and make a decision influenced by this.’

Haven’t we got to go to magistrates first?’ Tiffany says.

Yes, we do have to go to magistrates first,’ Ray says. ‘But really, do you think that magistrates are going to look favourably on someone who resembles a degenerate troglodyte. They probably won’t even ask your name or give you the Bible to swear on. They pass cases like yours straight on. I might as well not turn up.’

How about this then?’ Tiffany says. ‘I went to a heavy metal festival where Devil’s Henchmen force-fed me a vicious cocktail of mind-bending drugs and dragged me off screaming to a tattoo marquee. It was like a descent into Hell. While Dark Funeral were playing, Satanic forces took over and before I knew it I was hearing voices in my head telling me to kill Moon.’

Better,’ Ray says. ‘We might just be able to keep the sentence beneath twelve months.’

Jet and Indigo have recently returned from an ashram in Goa, where they have been receiving spiritual guidance from Swami Govinda and buying kaftans for Jet’s new wardrobe. They have moved in together. Jet now gets up at five every morning, takes Bono for a quick walk and does a half an hour’s Tai Chi, before his bowl of wholegrain cereal with goji berries and manuka honey. He now has a healthy outdoor job working with wildlife. He practices yoga, in fact when Indigo is busy, he says he will run the class for her. They meditate to a CD with sounds of running water. Their new apartment is awash with Aloe Vera and weeping fig plants to purify the air. He works out at the gym and he takes a veritable orchestra of vitamins and supplements. He cycles everywhere, well nearly everywhere. When he does take the car, he listens to soothing music, Einaudi, Eno or Enya. He never drinks alcohol.

Do you think we should visit Tiffany in Holloway?’ he says to Indigo, as he mixes the fruit smoothies. It has been on his mind lately that she may not have had any visitors.

Indigo wants him to get back to massaging her thighs. ‘Soon,’ she says. ‘Perhaps we will visit her soon.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Harry and Kate

harryandkate

Harry and Kate by Chris Green

Black cats are supposed to be lucky, aren’t they? Harry Regis thinks so. What he doesn’t realise is that in many cultures, black cats are seen as an evil omen. Most of Europe, for instance, considers the black cat to be unlucky, a harbinger of doom. Fortunate then that Harry lives in the UK. What with the collapse of his kite design business and Meg leaving him for Trevor, a film extra from Billericay, Harry has had a tough time of late. He feels he deserves a break. It is time things started going his way.

So when one evening a black cat wanders through the back door, explores the house and makes itself comfortable on the shag-pile rug in the front room, he sees it as a good omen. He offers the cat a tin of tuna chunks, which it devours with gusto. And some dried cat biscuits he discovers in one of the kitchen cupboards. The saucer of full cream milk is welcomed too. Although Harry leaves the back door open, the cat shows no sign of wanting to leave. It is still there at the end of the evening after he has finished watching Leif Velasquez’s acclaimed adaption of the postmodern thriller, Shooting Script on Netflix. It is dark outside, and his visitor is curled up on the settee, purring gently. Harry thinks it best to put the animal outside. Although it does not have a collar, it does not look like a stray. It has a glossy coat. It is a well-groomed animal. By now, someone will be wondering where their pet has got to.

The following morning, the cat is once again at the back door. It does not wait to be invited in. It rushes past Harry’s outstretched hand and makes a beeline for the kitchen. It seems to be hungry. Surely a handsome-looking cat like this can’t have been out all night, can it? Harry doesn’t have any pressing appointments, so he pops along the road to the convenience store and returns with a box of pouches of gourmet cat food. On the way, he thinks of suitable cat names. Being a fan of the musical Cats, he toys with Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, Growltigger and Shimbleshanks, but decides they are too fussy. He settles on Lucky. Lucky is the obvious name for a black cat.

Serendipity seems to work straight away. No sooner has he fed Lucky his gourmet turkey treat than the phone rings. It is Ben Maverick of Maverick Leisure Services offering him the job as General Manager of the new Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre that is opening on the industrial estate. While fridge magnet advice may not have the prestige of kite design, it is a step in the right direction. He needs to keep Lucky around and as he will be out of the house now in the daytime, he fits a cat door so that the cat can come and go.

Kate Dunning-Kruger believes that every cloud has a silver lining. So when she loses her job in marketing with BestFone in their rationalisation drive, she is sure something will turn up. When she is selected to promote a new weather phone app, her faith seems justified. She is over the moon. The new app, she is told, does not merely predict the weather, it can change localised weather conditions. It was created by a whizz-kid in California and cloned by a fourteen-year-old computer geek from Devon. Kate does not need to know how Elements works but, she is told, it has been successfully trialled in one or two places around the county. She is one of a small team who are to start a promotion campaign from a discrete office on Palace Park Industrial Estate. They are hoping to roll the revolutionary new app out nationally soon to those who can afford it. It is by no means going to be a freebie. But before it can be rolled out, she is told, there are cybersecurity issues to overcome. Their IT consultant who goes by the unlikely name of Max Acker is working on these.

Kate is recently divorced and although there are pitfalls in getting involved with anyone new so soon, she can’t wait to get dating again. Her friends wonder if perhaps she is too eager. She might end up making the same mistakes. They point out that Bill was arrogant, self-centred and lazy. She should take her time and concentrate on her own well-being. Kate explains that as a thirty-something single female, there is only so much you can do in a small town. Everything seems to be geared up to couples. And besides, now she has a new job, she will be able to work on her self-confidence.

Kate finds her office housed in a new prefabricated block on the estate, alongside the Bikini Museum, the Mulatu Astatke School of African Dance and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. An interesting selection of enterprises, she thinks, entirely different from working in the corporate environment at BestFone on the fifth floor of the city block, alongside the insurance brokers and tax consultants. Further along the avenue are Balalaika Tuition Centre, Mojo Filter Bicycle Hire and a tall featureless matt black building which has no windows. Nor does it appear to have an entrance. No lettering or insignia to suggest what it might be. Palace Park is a strange environment.

She begins to learn about the new weather app. Although it is in its infancy, there are already reports of its success. Charlie Dixon apparently used it to bring fine weather for the Exeter race meeting when it was raining in the rest of the county. Nick Carr conjured up a torrential downpour to bring a close to a village cricket match when his team were in a losing position to force a draw. The result ensured that his team, Dartmouth Royals retained the title for another year. It appears the app can be activated at short notice. Early indications suggest it works best when activated at short notice, but it now needs to be tested further afield.

Kate discovers the estate is a busy little area. The bikini museum is incredibly popular, there are lots of comings and goings at the newly opened hedgehog sanctuary and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre does a roaring trade. Following a favourable article in one of the Sunday supplements, fridge magnets are enjoying a revival. It will be a while though before Kate is fully occupied as Max Acker keeps finding more glitches in the Elements app.

On her third day at work, when Kate is outside smoking her mid-morning cigarette, she catches the manager of The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre arriving with a new delivery. He looks like a nice fellow, the type that would be kind to cats maybe. And, of course, Bill has left her with four of them.

Hi! I’m Kate, she says. ‘I’ve just started working at Elements.’

Really? I started here last week as it happens,’ he says. ‘I’m Harry, by the way. Harry Regis.’

You seem to be doing well, here Harry,’ Kate says. ‘Lots of interest in fridge magnets, these days, I gather. I can see you are busy, but perhaps one day when you have a quiet moment we could hook up for a coffee at Cuppa Joe along the way there. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.’

Sure,’ Harry says. ‘And maybe a bite to eat. We could meet up one lunchtime. It has been mad here lately with all the new editions coming out. Everyone wants fridge magnets. But there are so many magnets on the market that people don’t always know which designs to go for. The rare album cover ones are popular, of course, and the royal residence ones. They never go out of fashion. We’ve got some new Bake Off magnets and we’ve just had the new Peaky Blinders set launch. And believe it or not, the French symbolist poets magnets are popular too.’

I believe you, Harry,’ Kate says. ‘I’ve always found truth is stranger than fiction.’

Harry and Kate catch up for lunch at Cuppa Joe the following Monday. Not wanting to talk shop, by way of making conversation Harry mentions that he had a new cat called Lucky. Kate has no shop to talk. Max Acker has found a new problem with the app. She wonders if it was ever going to be ready to roll out. Max seems to spend more time trying to chat her up than he does working. Unsuccessfully. He is much too old and she just hates those floral shirts he wears not to mention the way he invades her personal space. Coronavirus may be over and done with, but hasn’t he heard of social distancing?

A new cat?’ Kate queries. Might Harry be the caring type? This is not something she could ever say about Bill. In the flesh too, Harry is much hunkier than Bill. Toned physique and a manly beard. And he has a managerial position. Something that Bill had never had. Bill had only occasionally had a job.

Yes. A black cat,’ Harry says. ‘It just came in one evening and stayed. Lucky is good company too. I was starting to find it lonely in the big house after Meg moved out. We’d been together for ten years.’

Better steer the conversation back on to cats, Kate thinks. We don’t want to dwell too much on Meg.

Cats are excellent company,’ she says. ‘I have four little darlings, Sylvester, Smokey, Tigger and Dave. You must come round and meet them one evening.’

Over their pasta lunch, Harry and Kate discover they have a mutual interest in Scrabble, owls, donating blood, and Game of Thrones. They both like listening to Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age. Harry saw Queens of the Stone Age at Finsbury Park in 2018. With Meg.

Time for some more cat chat, Kate thinks. ‘Does Harry know that Isaac Newton invented the cat door?’ she asks. Harry doesn’t, but he does know that cats spend 70% of their time sleeping and about 15% grooming. He found this out when he was looking for a cat basket for Lucky. The conversation moves on to dogs and other animals. The Lion King leads them to other films they have seen. Although he prefers action thrillers, Harry concedes that he has a secret admiration for Nora Ephron romcoms. Oh no, Kate thinks. He’s going to start talking about Meg Ryan and that will bring us back to the other Meg. She tells him instead that she has a soft spot for Quentin Tarantino films. She has seen them all but Kill Bill is her favourite. Meg’s name doesn’t come into the conversation again. Not that she is interested enough to ask, but she wonders if it is short for Megan, or Meghan. Best to let the matter go.

After lunch, as they walk up the road together, Kate points out the featureless black building.

I’ve been wondering what happens in there,’ she says.

You’ve heard of White Stuff,’ Harry says. ‘Well, that building there belonged to Black Stuff. While everyone associated White Stuff with coke, and although it was a little naughty, liked the idea, everyone associated Black Stuff with coal and didn’t go for it.

Wasn’t Black Stuff tar?’

Whatever! The brand name didn’t work. No-one wanted to buy their stuff. They went broke.’

Probably just not promoted very well,’ Kate says. ‘These things make a difference.’

To be honest, a lot of these businesses are here today and gone tomorrow,’ Harry says. ‘It’s like pop-up land on some of these out-of-town developments. I mean, look! The Pet Rock Counselling Service. How long is that going to last? What’s happening at your place, by the way? Is this new app going well?’

It’s not ready yet,’ Kate says. ‘At the moment, I’m just twiddling my thumbs.’

Teething troubles, are there?’ Harry says. ‘It’s only a phone app, isn’t it? What’s so complicated? What does it do?’

I can’t tell you that yet,’ Kate says. ‘It’s still at the development stage but I’m told there should be a beta version soon.’

Anyway, let’s do this again,’ Harry says.

Perhaps we might go out for a drink, one evening,’ Kate says.

I’d like that,’ Harry says. ‘Since Meg left …….’

You must come around and meet my cats,’ Kate interrupts. ‘How about tomorrow?’

As he drives to work, the following morning, Harry is pleased but somewhat surprised to find that the sun is shining. The storm that went on until the early hours was a violent one, rattling the doors and the windows of the house. Lucky was so frightened by the driving rain and howling wind that he snuggled up to him the whole night. Several inches of rain must have fallen in a few hours. The builder he called about the water coming through the bathroom ceiling seemed puzzled by his call but said he would pop round after five.

To Harry’s amazement, there is not so much as a puddle on the roads. How could a storm be so localised? As he makes his way through the morning commute, he gradually notices that a black BMW with tinted windows and the personalised plate, ACK3R seems to be following him. It tailgates him along Electric Avenue. It seems to be doing its best to force him off the road. Harry has the feeling he has seen this car before. Was it perhaps parked outside Elements where Kate worked? Didn’t she mention someone called Max Acker in connection with the app she is working on? That instead of getting on with work, he is always on her case?

At the Princes Street lights, Harry swings into the left-hand lane cutting up a delivery van to turn into Duke Street. Boxed in, the BMW cannot make the manoeuvre. It carries on straight ahead, towards the industrial estate. Harry dives into the superstore car park where he takes a moment to compose himself. Who exactly is this maniac who was trying to run him off the road? Why was he doing it? He googles Max Acker on his phone and discovers that Max is a fictional character that features in half a dozen stories by the author, Phillip C Dark. Several sites confirm this. Phillip C Dark, it appears, is a speculative fiction writer.

Speculative fiction, Wikipedia suggests, is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that may or may not exist in the real world, often in the context of supernatural, futuristic or other imaginative themes. If the Max Acker tailing him is fictional, then what are the ramifications? Where does that leave him, Harry Regis? Does he, Harry not exist in the real world? Does Kate not exist in the real world? These are not matters that he has had to grapple with up until now. In the flesh has always meant in the flesh. Yet here in the superstore car park, Harry suddenly finds himself in the throws of an existential crisis.

If it turns out he is fictional and at the mercy of his creator, then anything could happen. He has no control over it. He has no free will. What if his creator decides to kill him off? Just when things with Kate were looking up. He has Kate’s number and decides to give her a call before it’s too late. He feels he needs there to be some element of reality to cling to. He is not sure what he is going to say to her. She is likely to think he is going mad. There is no reply. Harry fears the worst.

Further research reveals that despite his work being categorised as speculative fiction, which can often be doom-laden, many of Phillip C Dark’s stories have happy endings. Why would this not be the case? Readers like a happy ending. Happy endings sell books. A majority of fiction in any genre has a happy ending. The author usually arranges the climax to make it look as if all hope is gone before coming up with an unexpected turn of events to save the day. This is known as the denouement. Climax and denouement are key elements of dramatic tension.

In any case, although Max Acker is not a common name, this does not mean there is just the one Max Acker. It’s a big world out there. There are likely to be many Max Ackers. Most likely, Phillip C Dark just picked the name at random. As he watches the shoppers come and go, Harry wonders why he is even thinking this way. He pinches himself. Here he is in time and space, sitting in his car in the car park, to all intents and purposes a sentient being. He must send his paranoia packing. Having placed great importance on the black cat appearing on his doorstep, he feels the need to go home to reacquaint himself with reality. His reality. Work can wait.

As Harry parks outside his house, he spots Kate at the front door. She has Lucky in her arms and is stroking him.

I hope you don’t mind me calling around like this,’ she says. ‘But I heard that Max was out to get you. When you weren’t at work, I became worried something might have happened. I thought I’d better check you were all right. This is a lovely cat you’ve got, by the way. Lucky, isn’t it?’

Harry notices the front garden has dried up already. Perhaps there hadn’t been as much rain as he had imagined.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Holiday

holiday

Holiday by Chris Green

Lastminuteholidays.com did not actually specify that Sea View had a view of the sea, but there again, it did not say that it didn’t. The default position, you would have thought, was that it did, especially as there were pictures of the waves rolling in on a clear sandy beach in the post. I ought to have checked on Google Maps. I would have seen then that Sea View was, in fact, several miles inland and unlikely to be a stone’s throw from the beach as advertised on the site. I did not check because I was too busy at work and Diane and I were in a hurry to get away. We were going through a sticky patch in our marriage. Looking at the reviews on Trip Advisor in the prison library now only adds to the feeling of regret. The highest rating Sea View was given was 1 star.

A glance at customer feedback would have let me know that the view consisted of a popular fly-tipping site, a dumping ground for broken furniture, white goods and sundry household waste. Scrap vehicles and even an old crane had been abandoned and left to rust. A bonfire of car tyres smouldered day and night. Security was also flagged up as an issue. The front door to the apartment did not even close. According to the comments, it had been that way for months. The twin beds were three-quarter length and there was no bedding. Several correspondents mentioned the stench of cabbage which was being boiled on an industrial scale in the kitchen below.

Our stay, which was to have been a week, confirmed all these points. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the diesel generator had been a little further from our bedroom window. But, what really did it for me though was the noise from the building site nearby. To maximise the use of the supply of cheap migrant labour in the area, the developer kept the pile driver going through the night.

When Diane and I first arrived at Sea View on that Saturday in July, horrified though we were, we decided we were going to make the best of it. After all, we were on holiday. And of course, we had some issues to work through. There was no sense in adding to these by getting into a state about the shortcomings of the accommodation. In any case, we could find no-one to complain to. We had paid the full week’s rental upfront and the owner saw no need to meet and greet us. And we needed no key as the door had no lock.

We’re not going to spend that much time indoors,’ I said to Diane.

She agreed. ‘I expect there’s lots of interesting scenery around here,’ she said. ‘And we can probably drive out to the coast one day. I’m sure we could do it in under an hour.’

We probably wouldn’t have spent any time indoors, had it not been for the persistent heavy rain that started just after we arrived. Every time we looked out of the window it was still raining. It was just a question of whether at any particular time it was easing off or getting harder. On the positive side, the rain did douse the smouldering heap of tyres. We could not watch TV as the set had already been stolen; there was just an aerial lead trailing from the socket which led to nowhere. I did not even bother getting my tablet out of the case as it was clear there was going to be no wi-fi.

I-Spy got us nowhere as there were not many things in the apartment to spy. The ones that there were could be guessed easily. W was window or wall and B was bed. F was for floor and C was for ceiling. There were no C to sit on and no T to sit at. There was no C or even an M to cook with and no F to put the food in.

After a sleepless Saturday night on the uncomfortable beds with the pile driver thumping away and the rain beating against the window, we spent the whole of Sunday at The Goat and Bicycle. The effects of the beer and the wine helped us to block out the disturbance from the building site on Sunday night. This was just as well, as in addition to the existing operations, I noticed they had now hired a centrifugal pump to get rid of the flood-water that had accumulated on the site.

It was still raining the following day so we drove, via several detours due to the river bursting its banks, to Littleton, a little town ten miles away. After lunch at The Blind Monkey, we saw all three films that were on offer at the Roxy. I wonder why it is that small-town cinemas choose to screen the most violent films. Saw was followed by Teeth and these were reprised by Maniac. After this, our nerves in tatters, we went for a nightcap at The Goat.

This was the night it happened. The pile driver was beating out its dull rhythm. The generator was belching out its acrid fumes to supplement the pungent smell of stale cabbage from below. The rain turned to hail and Diane and I had the mother of all rows. She asked me why I was always so miserable. I said I wasn’t. She said I was. I said that it wasn’t her, I was unhappy at work, what with the shifts and all. She said that’s no reason to take it out on her. I said I didn’t. She said I did, and if my job caused me that much stress I should give it up. I said if I did we wouldn’t be able to afford the payments on her new car or little things like holidays. She said you mean holidays like this. I suggested she might think of getting a job. She said she had a job, clearing up after me and my bloody pigeons. If you want to keep pigeons why don’t you go back oop north? She kept on pushing my buttons. I was weak. I was spineless. I had never satisfied her.

The pile driver kept on thumping. I felt murderous. I stormed off. I couldn’t control myself. I had to take it out on somebody. I made straight for the building site and ….

Because of my standing in the community, I did not come under suspicion. At first, Diane told me I should give myself up, but after I agreed to get rid of the pigeons, she came round. I hadn’t realised how much she hated my pigeons. Perhaps pigeons are more of a man thing. But, now as I sit here browsing the internet in the prison library, I question whether I deserve to be at liberty. Am I any better than the people I have in my custody? Some of them are here for minor offences. Non-payment of council tax. Possession of cannabis. Shoplifting. And I think about what I’ve done. Sometimes my conscience wants me to come clean and admit that it was me who killed Iosif Petrescu that night back in July.

Copyright Chris Green 2020: all rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

puffthemagicdragon

Puff the Magic Dragon by Chris Green

Before he met Prism, John Straight seemed destined for success. He had a Degree in Business Management from a top university, a big black BMW with bull bars and he was willing to travel. In a word, John’s future looked rosy. He was the son of Sir James Straight, the Somerset cider magnate. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the country, went to the best schools and never had to struggle. As an only child, he was cosseted. Not only did he have his own motorised BMX, he also had his own BMX track, six acres of it. He went on cultural summer camps in Europe every year. By the time he was eighteen had been to more countries than most adults. On finishing at Goldsmiths, his parents put down a large deposit on a house for him, a stylish four-bedroom barn conversion near Nether Stowey. At twenty one, he seemed to have it all going for him.

But, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, John Straight was a little worried about his future. He did not feel he was yet ready to settle down. He supposed one day he would have to knuckle down, get a job and become a responsible citizen, but could this not be delayed for a while he thought about it? John’s fate was perhaps changed forever, the day he met Prism at a party in Taunton. He was introduced to Prism and Prism introduced him to Molly.

These little beauties will loosen you up,’ Prism said.

John was not sure what she meant. He felt he couldn’t be much looser. After all, he had no plans. He was very much going with the flow. But Prism looked sexy in her skimpy dress and she had a persuasive way about her.

Take three of them,’ she said. ‘And the world will seem a different place.’

What are they?’ he asked, looking in a puzzled manner at the three purple pills she had put into his hand with Nintendo etched on them.

Molly,’ she said. ‘Ecstasy. MDMA.’

And loosen him up, they did. Three hours in, the feeling of well-being was so strong, John knew this was how he wanted things to be. This was a wonder drug. He began to understand why it was referred to as Ecstasy. A deep sense of love, peace and understanding flowed through him. He was inside the music and the music was inside him. He was the music. The music was him. His limbs moved effortlessly like he was discovering them for the first time, his body in perfect rhythm with the cosmos. He felt a powerful rush of energy and a profound connection with everyone at the party. They were all lovely people. Even Razor McNeish was lovely. Why had he not seen this before? The feeling went on and on. This was altogether more pleasurable than getting mullered on Somerset cider at a family bash to celebrate a new vintage or throwing up after a night of beer-boarding in the students’ union bar. And the skunk that his friend Frank had brought round recently had not even hinted at this kind of euphoria. This was Heaven.

We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream,’ Prism said, later, after they had made love for the third time.

More Molly-fuelled weekends with Prism followed. Concerts, parties and more intimate gatherings. Molly even made shopping more fun, especially in the big Beamer. Specialist loudspeaker shops were John’s favourite. With the right equipment, it was astonishing how loud your music could be. Meanwhile, Prism moved herself in and the house at Dulverton soon pulsated day and night with the latest tunes at frightening volume.

We are like the spider,’ Prism said. ‘We weave our life and then move along in it.’

Move along in it, they did. With neither of them going out to work, they had plenty of time to indulge themselves. But the mind is like a mad monkey. It is restless, capricious; fanciful, inconstant, confused and uncontrollable. It constantly wants to move on to something else. Things, therefore, can never stay the same. They do not always change for the better. Little by little, John and Prism’s lives began to move in a different direction. Charlie started coming round to the house with Molly and then Charlie came round instead of Molly. Whereas Molly might be described as gentle and easy going, Charlie was anything but gentle and easy going. Charlie was urgent and aggressive. The mood around the house changed. The unpredictability the Peruvian marching powder brought with it meant John and Prism frequently argued and fought. She stormed out, came back and stormed out again, over and over. He told her to get out, chased after her and told her to get out again.

Worse was to come. Henry started to visit. Henry the Horse, Smack, Scag, Heroin, whatever you want to call it. John was curious to know what it was like. You didn’t have to inject it, he discovered; you could smoke it. The first hit was wild but you were forever trying to repeat this. Smoking it was no longer enough. By the time you became disappointed with the hit you were getting, you were hooked. Henry wanted your body and soul. Henry was hard-edged and desperate. Henry took no prisoners.

The upbeat dance music was gradually replaced by downbeat grunge music. Prism had been agreeable to Charlie coming round. She had been able to take Charlie in her stride. Cocaine was upbeat, exciting, even if it did make you talk bollocks. The point was you always felt you were talking sense. But from the outset, Prism disliked Henry and eventually moved out for good.

John began to wallow in self-pity. Henry was now permanently in residence. All John’s actions in one way another revolved around the demon drug. His parents were disgusted with the direction his life was taking and cut off his allowance. The debts quickly piled up. Had he not crashed the Beamer one night after a trip to look for Henry, he could have sold it to bail himself out and perhaps buy some time until he got himself back on his feet. But the vehicle was a write-off. To make matters worse he was being prosecuted for dangerous driving and possession of a Class A Drug with Intent to Supply. Not that he had any intention of selling any but the huge quantity of heroin the police found in the car was sufficient to justify the charge.

………………………………….

It’s all going pear-shaped, isn’t it, Mr Straight?’ John’s solicitor, Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed says.

It does seem a bit unlucky. All coming at once.’ John says. ‘Look! I don’t suppose you’ve got any gear.’

Gear?’

Yes. Crack, smack, spice. Anything at all.’

Can we treat this matter seriously, Mr Straight? Now, look! We’d better put the house on the market, for starters, don’t you think?’

I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to do that, Mr Dark.’

Oh, and why is that?’

It burned down last night,’

It burned down? How did that happen, Mr Straight?’

I arranged for someone to set fire to it.’

You arranged for someone to set fire to it?’

Yes. To get the insurance money.’

For Heaven’s sake, Mr Straight. The house wasn’t insured. You told me yourself the day before yesterday that the house insurance had lapsed. Your bank account is frozen. Your Direct Debit payment bounced. You’re broke, remember!’

I know that, Mr Dark but I made the arrangement with the arsonist last week and I was so strung out, I forgot to cancel the arrangement.’

Murphy’s Law doesn’t come close to taking account of your ability to bring about disaster, does it, Mr Straight?’

Then I thought I would be in when he came round, you see but I had to go out.’

Let me guess. To get some heroin.’

That’s right. I thought I might be able to call in a favour. Glassy-Eyed Dave owed me one. But it didn’t work out. Then I came home to find that, well not to put to fine a point on it, there was no home. Just a smouldering heap of rubble. …… Are you sure you haven’t got anything in your desk drawer? Not even enough for a hit.’

Not even a puff of the magic dragon, I’m afraid,’ Sebastian Dark says. ‘But what I do have is one of my brother’s books of short stories. It’s in the cabinet over there.’

Oh great! I’ll settle down and read for a bit, shall I? That will be much better than a fix. That will sort out the cold turkey.’

What you probably don’t realise, Mr Straight is that my brother is the science fiction writer, Philip C. Dark. No doubt you have heard of him but had never made the connection. Now, you will very likely be able to find a wormhole in one of Phil’s stories to offer you a passage to a more favourable situation. Why don’t you give it a try? It’s not as if you’ve got a lot to lose.’

The solicitor hands John the book, The Logic Mines of Őjj 9. He begins to read and suddenly ……………….. somewhere in the distance, John hears the haunting sound of a brass instrument. He edges the dune buggy closer. In front of a bank of brightly coloured pods, a tall slender figure with purple hair is playing a transparent saxophone. He has a small cat on his shoulder. John is not sure he has met him before yet he does seem oddly familiar. He wonders if perhaps he saw him playing at last year’s God Election celebrations. Overhead, the usual flock of winged serpents is circling. It is twilight. Both moons are already out. It is a fine evening. All is well. He has his pipe of green herbs to look forward to. Things are as they should be in John Straight’s world.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

ICKE

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ICKE by Chris Green

It was the summer I worked for the Parks Department. Tony and I had parked up our mowers in Cortina Drive, a quiet cul-de-sac in a residential area, a place where I reasoned, Nick Ford would not find us if he came to check. It had been a hot dry summer, and the grass hadn’t grown much so I figured if he came, we could bluff it. We would work out where he had been looking for us and explain that we had been doing the verges in other roads in the area. Although Tony and I had not been teamed up before and he was a little wary, I told him this ploy had worked for me up until now. Nick Ford tended to stick to set routes on his patrols.

Tony and I settled down for a smoke on the stretch of undeveloped land at the far end of Cortina Drive. We talked about our backgrounds. We discovered that these were similar. Both sets of parents had recently divorced, both our fathers worked in IT and both our mothers, for some reason, were fans of Andy Williams. How this had come into the conversation is hard to say. Neither of us were particularly family-orientated or interested in crooners. Although Tony and I had gone to different schools, we found we had similar interests, girls, partying and sleeping. And liked the same bands, Foo Fighters, Queens of the Stone Age and The Red Hot Chili Peppers. I had some Northern Lights skunk as I recall, and it was not long before the two of us were laughing loudly at anything and everything.

Suddenly, our peace was shattered by a powerful, low-pitched whooshing noise. We looked up and saw it was coming from a vortex in the sky. I had been too young to catch the original Twin Peaks and this was years before Stranger Things on Netflix, so naturally, I had not come across anything like it before. Nor I suspect had Tony. We were only nineteen and vortexes and portals had not featured in our sheltered upbringings. The roar grew louder and louder. The spiral moved faster and faster and came closer and closer. We were buffeted this way and that by the blistering wind. This continued for what seemed an eternity, but I suppose, in reality, may just have been a few seconds. We felt ourselves being sucked up into the firmament. It was all we could do to keep our feet on the ground. Tony’s profile was cutting in and out in rapid beats like an entity materialising and dematerialising. We appeared to oscillate between terra firma and a nebulous netherworld. Fortunately, the vortex retreated as quickly as it had arrived and thankfully, we were spared.

The experience must have had a profound effect on Tony, for he didn’t come into work the following day. Or the day after. At first, I didn’t think too much about it because we both viewed working for the Parks Department as a summer job rather than a career. There was a high turnover of staff, especially as the money was not very good. But, I never saw Tony again. I tried for a while to get in touch with him but he seemed to have completely disappeared.

When you are nineteen, your world changes rapidly from day to day. You are happy-go-lucky, carefree. New experiences come your way all the time. Friendships are fluid. You are out every night, meeting new people. You hardly notice the passing of time. So understandably, I did not dwell too much on the strange episode or for that matter, Tony’s disappearance. After a while, I began to wonder if perhaps because we had been so stoned, we had imagined the vortex. Or at least exaggerated what might simply have been temporary adverse weather conditions. Nothing about it had appeared in the local paper, or if it had, I had missed it.

Growing up, I had read the odd science fiction novel and seen the occasional sci-fi movie, but they were not particularly my thing. It was not until in the twenty-tens, when I picked up a book by former sports broadcaster turned new age philosopher, David Icke, that I realised what portals were. Or that for many years, scientists had been attempting to open portals to parallel universes, shadowy dimensions that mirrored our perceived world. Or the claim that we might live in a multi-dimensional holographic universe. And the argument that if we on Earth had this type of technology then others from distant worlds would be likely to have equivalent technology. Could some of this weird stuff explain the episode with the vortex, I wondered? Could it even account for Tony’s subsequent disappearance? Had he simply been spirited away? If David Icke was to be believed, this explanation appeared to be plausible.

The Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon suggests that once you come across a new word, subject, concept or idea, you are likely to come across references to it everywhere. Many believe this is an example of collective consciousness and has a supernatural explanation. In addition, it is claimed the references often lead to other previously undiscovered but connected concepts and ideas until you find a whole new world suddenly has opened up. Such was the case around portals. Firstly, I noticed that the window of Waterstones was full of books on portals and wormholes. Then I found an advert for an upcoming talk on Time Travel and Parallel Universes at the John Morris Memorial Centre by someone called Marcellus Go. I saw a youngster on the street wearing a David Icke T-shirt and to my astonishment, another wearing a David Icke T-shirt. I hadn’t realised that David Icke had such a following. Then, out of the blue, Ravi in the corner shop struck up a conversation on hidden portals. What were the chances of this? I had only gone into KMart for cigarettes.

NASA has admitted that Earth portals teleporting human beings from one place to another are a reality,’ he said, looking up from the book he was reading. ‘They’ve been studying them for a long time. You’ve heard about The Philadelphia Experiment, right?’

I told him I hadn’t. I was new to all this.

In 1943, the US Navy teleported the entire crew of the USS Eldridge into the future. 1983 to be precise.’

Wow!’ I said. ‘That’s quite something.’

Why, I wondered, was Ravi telling me this? It wasn’t as if I knew him well. I had only been into KMart a handful of times. I could see he wasn’t busy but still it seemed odd.

And more recently in the Montauk Project, the American Air Force created a. dimension portal, a time tunnel that enabled their researchers to travel to make contact with aliens. A flying saucer became stuck in the underground tunnels along with its alien crew. I’ve just been reading about it. Cool stuff, huh?’

Do you know, I’ve often had the feeling that time was not working properly,’ I said. ‘My account of when particular things happened is often at odds with other peoples’ accounts. I keep meaning to keep a diary to keep track because so many things just don’t seem right.’

Time’s not linear,’ Ravi said. ‘I can tell you that much. Einstein proved that years ago. You want to get yourself along to that talk by Marcellus Go, last week.’

You mean next week,’ I said.

Who can tell?’ he said. ‘Like I said, time’s not linear.’

There were perhaps thirty people at the John Morris Memorial Centre to hear Marcellus Go speak. A veritable circus of jugglers, clowns and space-cadets. In the front row were the pair of youngsters I had seen in the David Icke T-shirts. Marcellus held forth about time travel and aliens and how these matters had been consistently hushed up by successive regimes the world over. Secrets and lies, it seemed formed the basis of political power. Literally thousands of sightings of UFOs had been dismissed as hoaxes. There were aliens among us, Marcellus said, possibly even some in tonight’s audience by the look of it. He went on to explain that far from being taboo subjects, wormholes and portals were matters that should interest us all, particularly in this neck of the woods as there were a handful of potential sites for portals to other dimensions nearby. It had to do with magnetic fields and energy stores. If we bought his book, Quantum Revelation, we would discover the coordinates for these sites.

I lined up with the others to buy Marcellus’s book. I found myself standing next to one of the more attractive attendees, in fact, she was the only woman there. She was tall with long flowing dark hair and was wearing tie-die balloon pants and a floral shift. I caught a whiff of patchouli.

I’m Aura,’ she said.

I’m Charlie, I said. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

I expect you’d like to go for a drink after all that,’ she said. ‘There’s a quiet little wine bar I know just around the corner.’

This seemed a little forward, but a drink seemed like a good idea and the prospect of attractive, intelligent female company for the evening seemed an even better one. I had been at a loose end since Linda had left. Linda and I had been together for three or four years but had slowly drifted apart. Linda was a creature of habit. She didn’t like anything new. She strongly disapproved of my fascination with David Icke. She started coming out with all kinds of nonsense about my naivete. How can you be taken in by him? she said. He’s a charlatan, she said. Nothing but conspiracy theories, she said. It was bad enough that she used to hide my weed but the final nail in the coffin came when she took all my David Icke books to Oxfam.

Yin Yang was tucked away down a back alley. Unless you had been told about it, you would not know it was there. Strange for a licenced premises not to advertise itself. Yin Yang too was an odd choice for the name of a wine bar, I remember thinking. Perhaps there was a connection between Taoism and wine that I did not know about.

How did you get into all this, Charlie?’ Aura asked. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. You scrub up quite well, but you don’t look like the new-age type.’

To keep her interested, I felt I had better open up. I told her how reading the David Icke books had taught me to question everything we had been told. How I came to realise the universe was made up of vibrational energy and consisted of an infinite number of dimensions sharing the same space. And that the world was run by lizard people from the fourth dimension that over time had interbred with humans. After all, once you had been alerted to this, it was obvious. The evidence was everywhere. The Royal Family, The Rothschilds, The Rockefellers along with most top politicians and world leaders past and present were the progeny of these liaisons.

Aura nodded her agreement. She was clearly familiar with the Babylonian Brotherhood or the Illuminati, as the elite were otherwise known.

Reading David Icke on parallel worlds got me around to thinking back to an experience I had years ago,’ I continued. ‘With what I now realise was in all probability a wormhole.’

Aura listened attentively while I explained where it was.

Cool!’ she said. ‘That sounds close by. It’s probably one of the local portal sites that he gives the co-ordinates for. Perhaps we might go in the morning. After breakfast.’

This sounded promising. Did this mean we were going to spend the night together?

I can’t remember much about the rest of the evening, but I suspect we may have consumed a bottle or six of wine and perhaps had more than the odd puff on a spliff. I woke in unfamiliar surroundings with a thumping head. Once I became used to the startling array of fabrics in the room, I realised there was perhaps a theme and they didn’t all clash. Even so, it was a riot of colour. Aura emerged from the shower and said something about it having been a good night, which helped to put my mind at rest. It seemed odd that according to my watch I had missed three days, but I didn’t dwell on it. If Aura seemed happy about the situation, this seemed to be sufficient.

On our drive to Cortina Drive, Aura talked about her trip out to Area 51 in the Nevada desert the previous year. There was a festival going on with people coming from all over the world. Some of those she met had drone footage of the captured spacecraft in the compound. Others, with first-hand experience of the base, had actually seen the aliens that were being held there but say they were not allowed to take photos. It was clear she said that this was not just a U.S. Air Force where they tested planes. There was so much that we just didn’t know.

It was a disappointment to find that the portal site from my youth had been built upon. It knocked the wind out of our sails. At the far end of Cortina Drive, we found ourselves facing an odd-looking industrial building with rain-screen cladding and no windows. It seemed an odd structure to build in what was otherwise a traditional red-bricked residential area, the kind of thing you would have thought it would be difficult to get planning permission for. We walked around the perimeter but found nothing to indicate what the building might be used for. We were not even able to detect an entrance.

Try as we might, we could not find out who the strange building belonged to. Or what they did in there. We even staked it out one morning but no-one arrived and no-one left. There appeared to be no record of the building anywhere. It didn’t even appear on Google maps. It was a real puzzler. It was as if it didn’t exist.

But, there are other potential portal sites mentioned in Marcellus Go’s book. Some of these are within easy travelling distance, there and back in a day. Also, I see that David Icke has a new book on the way, which is likely to have heaps of new ideas for us to investigate. But perhaps some of these things can wait awhile. Now that Aura and I have moved in together, there seems to be less of a sense of urgency. We might spend some time exploring inner space instead and see where this takes us.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Pulp Friction

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Pulp Friction by Chris Green

Nancy fancies Tafelspitz and I haven’t had Wiener Schnitzel for a long time, so we are going to treat ourselves. Things have been a little fraught since our Schnauzer, Max had to be put to rest. Respiratory disease, very sad at the end. Max was more than just the family pet. He went everywhere with us. We feel we deserve a break from our grieving. A movie on Netflix and something nice to tickle our taste buds. Nancy and I are fond of Slovenian food and also like the occasional Serbian Pljeskavica but Austrian cuisine is our favourite. Perhaps we can follow the meal with our favourite dessert, Kaiserschmarrn.

We discover that Schachelwirt in the High Street, the only Austrian establishment in Darkwell no longer offers a delivery service. As the engine of the Fiat blew up a month ago, I get the Lambretta out of the shed, dust it off and make my way downtown. Nancy can’t see why I keep putting off getting a new car. She keeps mentioning a Skoda she has seen for sale in Harmonica Drive. I keep delaying going to see it. This has been a niggling source of friction between us. I’m waiting for the right opportunity to tell her that I recently made an injudicious investment in a Ponzi scheme and funds are low. This coming on top of diminishing returns in the pulp fiction publishing house that I am involved with. Nancy probably isn’t aware of this either. I hope my new collection of surreal stories sells well and the money soon starts coming in otherwise I may have to come clean.

On the way into town, slap bang in the middle of the Scott McKenzie roundabout, I come across a huge featureless black block. How can I have not noticed it before? It is colossal, probably eighty feet tall. As a writer with his head in the clouds, I realise I get distracted from time to time. But surely something of this magnitude ought to be unmissable. The block appears to be vibrating, giving off a loud, low-pitched hum. Inevitably, it brings to mind the monolith in the Stanley Kubrick film.

Seeing a mysterious black slab in an unexpected place however is one thing, but it is not going to come up with our Austrian meal. I can just imagine what Nancy will say if I go home and say, sorry I got distracted by a potential catalyst for evolution.

Have you seen that great big black slab at the roundabout?’ I ask Jürgen in Schachelwirt while I am waiting for the food. ‘Has it been there long?’

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

At first, I wonder if he means nine days or nine years before realising that he means no. Either it hasn’t been there long or that he hasn’t seen it. Despite the language barrier, I establish that both are the case. He hasn’t seen it and therefore doesn’t know how long it might have been there.

Returning with the takeaway, I am relieved to see that the roundabout is not teeming with angry monkeys throwing bones into the air. Or puzzled lunar scientists looking skyward. But from a writer’s point of view, their absence is, at the same time, disappointing. In 2001, those two scenes were pivotal. They helped move the narrative along. Despite the lack of Kubrickian connections, though, I am curious about what the mysterious slab might be. And more than a little unnerved by its sinister aspect. So, why is such an imposing artefact not attracting any attention? Motorists are negotiating the roundabout as if the monolith is a standard item of traffic furniture.

It is not often that one has the chance to see Doinzetti’s L’elisir d’amore in an English suburban setting. But here, outside the electricity sub-station on Magnolia Street, the opera is being performed, by a troupe of multiracial cross-dressers no less. They are called CDSO. A large billboard advertises them as WOKE, BAME, LGBT. I try to recall what the acronyms stand for. Acronyms seem to be taking over our lives. Is WOKE an acronym? Whatever! L’elisir d’amore has long been one of my favourites. I pull the scooter up alongside to take in the carnival of colour.

Conscious though that our Austrian delicacies in the carrier on the back of the bike will be getting cold, I can’t afford to hang around. Nancy does not share my fondness for Gaetano Donizetti. She doesn’t like Italian opera. She prefers Richard Strauss. She is always playing Der Rosenkavalier. She would be unlikely to accept a Donizetti-related excuse for my lateness. I expect she has the plates in the oven on the scalding setting in readiness for the feast. Along with the puzzle of the strange black block, I can investigate the background to this operatic oddity later. There is bound to be an explanation somewhere on the internet.

To get the food home swiftly, I ignore the tantalising glimpse of a flying saucer over the Toker’s End flats and the curious sight of Ironman talking to Shrek at the bus stop outside the Palace cinema that recently closed down. It’s a pity the old picture houses are going out of business, the new multi-screens don’t have half the atmosphere. Why is there a dancing brown bear outside outside BiggerBet? No time for this now, but where is all this strangeness coming from, I wonder as I turn into our street? Has The Game started up again on Channel 19?

Nancy, who knows about these things, tells me that, thankfully in her view, The Game has not started again, nor has The Lark on KTV. People do not go for the candid camera stuff anymore, she says. I do not pursue it. If I go into detail, she will only say I’m imagining things. Best to enjoy our fine food along with the new Austrian blockbuster Nancy has chosen and leave my investigation until the morning.

Google tells me the performance of L’elisir d’amore is one of a series of stunts designed to change attitudes to minorities and promote LBGTQ+ awareness (what is Q+) in the provinces, where attitudes have not kept pace with those in the big cities. It claims that nineteen-sixties levels of sexism and homophobia are still present in parochial towns like Darkwell. It says bigotry is rife here and derogatory terms like shirt-lifters and rug-munchers are still used freely. Why single out Darkwell? The town appears quite liberal. Gaz and Sebastian seem to have an active social life. They often tell us about the wild parties they’ve been to, and I believe we even have a Rainbow Festival Weekend in Darkwell these days.

The dancing brown bear is part of a bizarre new advertising campaign, Barney the Bear Bets at BiggerBet. Be Like Barney the Bear. A betting bear! Smacks of desperation, that one. Is there perhaps a Creatives strike? On a local Facebook page, I find out that the flying saucer is simply someone’s expensive new drone. This model of drone has been mistaken for a UFO in many locations around the country, it says. Once you take the trouble to look beyond conspiracy theories, you find there is often a simple explanation to many of life’s mysteries. This is not to suggest that conspiracy theories are a bad thing. For the writer of fiction, they can be a useful device. I’ve often resorted to them to add a little colour to a story. Conspiracy theories were central to Twinned with Area 51, Grassy Knoll and Black Fiat Uno. And where would my Phillip C. Dark series of stories have been without them?

A search for black slab comes back with nothing of particular interest but monolith is more successful. Using Kubrick as a starting point, it makes suggestions about the possible purpose of a pulsating black block. A power source perhaps, or a transmitter of some sort. Nothing though about why there is such an artefact at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. This is going to require another trip into town.

The trip has to wait until the afternoon. Nancy has an early appointment at Curl Up and Dye, which is in the opposite direction. I drop her off and wander along to The Dream Store in Serendipity Street. The Dream Store is like a library for ideas to help artists, writers, Alice in Wonderland aficionados and random fantasists out when they are struggling for inspiration. A postmodern repository for the unconventional, a kind of leftfield Google. You find all kinds of crazy stuff here. It is run by the guy that put together The Kaleidoscope Repair Manual whose name escapes me. I head for the Random Plot Generator section.

To my puzzlement and alarm, the Random Plot Generator section has been replaced by a giant mural of John Travolta in his Pulp Fiction suit dancing with a classical figure, a moving statue. Pulp Friction, it says. I’m not well versed in Classics so I’m not sure who the Greco-Roman figure is supposed to be. The dolphin behind the desk has no information. Why is there a dolphin behind the desk? No simple explanation is forthcoming. Logic seems to have temporarily gone AWOL.

Back on the street, I realise I may have been mistaken. It cannot have been a dolphin at the desk. This is a step too far. A dolphin needs water. No amount of artistic licence can work around this idea. But the giant mural of John Travolta dancing with the classical figure has potential. There is plenty of scope to slip it somewhere into a plotline. Perhaps even into the short story I’m presently writing. I file the idea away for later.

You often hear it said that you have to separate fact from fiction, but it is not that simple. Science recognises that everyone sees things differently, selecting some stimuli while ignoring others. Cultural background, preconceived notions and psychological state all play their part. Painters and writers are, of course, prone to cognitive exploration. Seeing things in a different way is central to the art of creativity. Homing in on things that others don’t see is their bread and butter. But there must be limits to how removed from everyday reality they are. Even though reality is a slippery customer, there has to be common ground, things that cannot be open to conjecture. Their existence is absolute, indisputable, The black slab on the Scott McKenzie roundabout is such a bold image that it surely cannot be merely a figment of my overactive imagination.

I meet Nancy from Curl Up and Die. The Viennese Bob style suits her much better. I always felt her Romy Schneider cut was a little out of date. I tell her she looks good. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about women, it is that complements are a good idea after a hairdresser’s appointment. Failing to say the right thing usually has dire consequences.

I suppose we’re going off to see your pulsating black slab now,’ Nancy says, not hiding her disapproval. Or that she has not taken well to wearing the helmet on the back of the Lambretta.

If that’s OK,’ I say. ‘It’s pretty dramatic.’

Perhaps afterwards we could have lunch at that new Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum,’ she says. ‘Rachel has been telling me they do a divine Idrijski Žlikrofi.’

Halfway along Tambourine Way leading to the Scott McKenzie roundabout, diversion signs are in place. The road ahead is completely blocked off. Highway maintenance vehicles of all shapes and sizes line the road. An army of highway workers slowly goes about its business, whatever this might be. Most of them seem to be standing around waiting for instructions. I pull up alongside a swarthy passer-by in a chunky army-style jacket. He is weighed down by a battery of cameras and binoculars. He looks as if he is on a serious mission.

It wasn’t like this yesterday,’ I say, pointing to the roadworks. ‘What’s going on?’

It’s been like it for weeks, guv,’ he says.

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

The Scott McKenzie roundabout?’ he says. ‘Where have you been? They replaced that with a junction and traffic lights a year or two ago. After the big pile up. Don’t you remember?’

The monolith. That great big black slab I saw yesterday. What’s happened to that?’ I say.

I don’t know what medication you’re on, mate,’ he says. ‘But I’ve got to get on. I’m hoping to come across Captain America. Or Willy Wonka. I don’t suppose you’ve seen them. Apparently, they are in the area. Along with Darth Vader and The Terminator, what’s his name? The Austrian one.

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

Yes, Arnie. That’s him,’ Chunky Jacket says. ‘A lookalike obviously.’

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

I gather you guys aren’t aware that MovieMax is offering a chance to win a holiday in Hollywood,’ he says. ‘You have to get photos of two of these movie characters out and about. It’s a promotion for MovieMax cinemas. They are opening a new one in Darkwell. Anyway, once you’ve got the photos, all you have to do is answer a simple movie-related question.’

Well, I saw Ironman and Shrek yesterday,’ I say. ‘At the bus stop outside the old Palace cinema, as it happens. There’s irony. You might want to take a look around that part of town.’

I know where you mean,’ he says. ‘I’d better get on to it.’

What’s the question, by the way?’ I say. The idle thought passes through my mind that the question might be something to do with the monolith in 2001. This turns out not to be the case.

They are asking, what do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’ he says.

H’mmm. That’s a line from Pulp Fiction, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘OK. Refresh my memory. What do they call a quarter pounder with cheese in Paris?’

They call it Royale with Cheese,’ he says in a passable John Travolta accent. ‘They wouldn’t know what the fuck a quarter pounder is. They’ve got the metric system there.’

Of course,’ I say. ‘I remember it well now. But before you go, tell me! How would I have got to Schachelwirt in the High Street yesterday evening?’

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

There is no Austrian restaurant and takeaway in the High Street.’

What about the new Slovenian bistro?’ Nancy asks. ‘It’s by the Raincoat Museum.’

That’s easy,’ he says. ‘You just go back along Tambourine Way the way you came and turn right. Oh, look! There’s Harry Potter.’

He’s looking this way,’ I say. ‘He’s waving his wan……….

I fancy Tafelspitz,’ Nancy says. ‘I wish there was an Austrian restaurant in Darkwell.’

Well, there isn’t,’ I say. ‘Never has been. Never will be.’

Shall we go to Slovenian bistro by the Raincoat Museum then?’ she says.

I really ought to finish this story first,’ I say. ‘Perhaps we could go afterwards.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

 

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

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

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

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

Time travel then,’ I say.

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

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

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

You mean Lara?’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Listening Centre

listeningcentre

Listening Centre by Chris Green

Sandwich Man walks past our house at five to six every evening, just before the end of Pointless on television. He passes on his way home from the listening centre where he works. From the back entrance of the base, Cheltenham Close offers a short cut to Connery Way and Goldfinger Drive for those leaving the centre on foot. Sally and I can tell what kind of day Sandwich Man has had by the way he walks. If he has had a good day then there is a spring in his step as he passes our front window. He will smile as he gazes across at our Japanese cherry tree. His head will be up and he will be humming an Eastern European national anthem or perhaps mouthing the chorus of a sea shanty. He will be wearing a smart blue anorak and gripping his Tupperware sandwich box. This is of course how he got his soubriquet.

But if he has had a bad day then he walks with a limp. He will not be smiling. His brow will be furrowed. His shoulders will be hunched. His grey hair will be tousled. He will be in shirtsleeves and carry just an empty water bottle. This probably means he forgot to pack sandwiches for his lunch. He will be starving after working a seven-hour shift at the spy base. He will be anxious to get home to put his stroganoff in the microwave. He is after all not a young man and must feel the cold, especially if it is raining and he did not take his anorak or an umbrella to work that morning. Perhaps the weather was fine earlier and the rain only came on later in the day.

Every now and then Sandwich Man is late and Sally and I begin to worry about him. The minutes tick by. Is he perhaps unwell? Have his migraines started up again? Has he been attacked leaving the base? If he hasn’t walked past by the end of Eggheads, at 6:30 then we go over to the window or open the front door to look out for him. He might be lying in the street after a targeted assault by an enemy agent. After all, he works in a very sensitive area. He is a code breaker and, according to Rhonda at number 48 his real name is Jakob Olev. It is mainly out of habit Sally and I continue to call him Sandwich Man.

Jakob has a friend at the base called Peter. Rhonda doesn’t know Peter’s surname, nor have we come up with a suitable moniker for him yet. Peter lives next door to Sandwich Man in Goldfinger Drive, which is through the pedestrian alley from Cheltenham Close and a couple of streets away. We accidentally followed them home one evening a year or so ago, when we still had the dog for protection and found that Sandwich Man lives at number 18 and Peter at number 19. We don’t go out so much since Murphy was put down. There’s no need now that you can order all your shopping online.

Sometimes Sandwich Man waits for Peter so that they can walk home together. Peter works in a different department, Telephone Surveillance, European Section, according to Eddie at number 52. Now and then he is delayed. He has to stay behind to finish logging phonecalls from the German Chancellor to her crystal reader in Dusseldorf, or text messages from the Italian Premier to his paramours. Eddie used to work at the base and he tells us there is a lot of cross-referencing to be done when it comes to high profile cases. Perhaps when this happens Peter ought to tell his friend to go ahead without him.

We do not believe that Peter takes sandwiches to work. He is perhaps ten years younger than Sandwich Man and only just starting to go grey around the temples. Sally thinks that Peter probably gets by on chocolate bars and cake. He has a chocolate bars and cake kind of build. Maybe he has a high energy drink, a can or two of Red Bull or Iron Bru at lunchtime.

Sandwich Man is not normally late going home on Friday. Sally thinks Friday is his goulash night. Whether or not he has remembered to take his sandwiches that day, he likes to get back in good time to enjoy his succulent Sainsbury’s goulash. It makes a nice change from stroganoff. Stroganoff can be so boring when you have it day after day. Some Fridays we see him breaking into a trot as he makes his way towards the alley. You can almost sense his mouth watering in anticipation of his treat.

But, this Friday Eggheads finishes and there is no sign of him. Peter slinks past our window on the opposite side of the road and casts a furtive glance at the cherry tree, but still, there is no sign of Sandwich Man. I switch the television off. Sally and I begin to speculate as to what might have happened. Might he have been electrocuted by the new high voltage cabling they have installed at the base? Has he been caught by the grandees passing information to the other side, whoever that is? Whistleblowing, I believe it is called. Sally wonders if perhaps he didn’t heat yesterday’s stroganoff through properly and has E Coli or Salmonella.

You have to be so careful with microwave meals,’ she says.

We go outside and look anxiously up and down the street. We notice that Drew Carlson who lives at number 42 is polishing his new Nissan. I’m not sure that he has actually taken it out for a spin yet. You would think that he would be out driving in the hills or something on a nice evening like this, but perhaps now that he is retired he too likes to stay put, as we do. Of course, he has his hobbies. Flags are the big one. It is hard not to spot that Drew has a new flag flying on the pole in his front garden. It is quite an unusual flag, blue white and green, with a hat in the centre of the white horizontal.

I bet you don’t know what this one is,’ he says smugly, as we approach. This is a game he likes to play. Last month we had Comoros and Chad. Drew seems to have a penchant for African flags lately. We all refer to him simply as Flagman.

Mozambique?’ Sally says. ‘No, no! Wait! I know. It’s Lesotho.’ Sally does know her flags. She has a book on vexillology.

Flagman looks crestfallen. ‘How did you know that?’ he says. He does not know that Sally has a book on vexillology. She bought it to help with questions on Pointless.

I don’t suppose you’ve seen Sandwich Man,’ I say.

I was going to ask you the same,’ he says. ‘It’s not like him to be late on a Friday.’

Perhaps Sally and I should go round to his house to see if he’s there,’ I say. ‘There’s nothing much on television until Only Connect.’

Good idea,’ says Flagman. ‘I would join you but I’d like to finish waxing the car first.’

Sally and I look at each other. We are a little apprehensive about the idea but we agree to go ahead without him. We make our way cautiously through the alley. It is more overgrown than we remember it. It is a veritable jungle. Connery Way looks distinctly unfamiliar. Admittedly we have no reason to come this way so we do not know the area very well. There are no obvious landmarks. There are no cars on the street. After a while, Connery Way leads on to Goldfinger Drive. This is even more desolate. There are rows of houses, but they look abandoned. A deathly hush prevails. I don’t recall it looking this way the time we followed Sandwich Man and Peter home. Now I think of it, I do not now remember following Sandwich Man and Peter home, but I do not say anything to Sally. She might make another comment about the early onset of Alzheimer’s.

I see what appears to be a Sainsbury’s van in the distance. Outside number 18 Goldfinger Drive, probably. I draw some comfort from this. I imagine that it must be Sandwich Man’s home delivery of stroganoffs and goulashes and cheese and ham and sandwich fillers with maybe a case or two of energy drinks in case Peter drops round. Perhaps Sandwich Man has been waiting in for the delivery all day, which would explain why he hasn’t been to work.

Are you sure that we are going the right way?’ says Sally. She can’t have spotted the Sainsbury’s delivery van.

I think so,’ I say. ‘But I could be wrong.’

There are no houses,’ she says. ‘Where are all the houses?’

It is true. What I took to be houses are ramshackle farm buildings. The closer we get I can’t help but notice that the Sainsbury’s van is not a Sainsbury’s van ….. but a bear, a big brown bear.

Sally has a book on bears. ‘This one,’ she says, ‘is not the cuddly type.’

This is not the news that I want to hear. Does it also explain what has happened to Sandwich Man? No wonder Flagman didn’t want to come. It’s a dangerous world once you get out of Cheltenham Close. Unpredictable and hostile. Admittedly, we do not get out much, but we had no idea that this was such a wild area. How could Sandwich Man possibly live in an environment like this?

We are about to run, well in our case possibly not run, but the bear doesn’t seem to be interested in us. It steals off to investigate a bandicoot in the undergrowth. A bandicoot? Sally confirms that it is, in fact, a bandicoot. She has a book on Antipodean marsupials. They are always coming up on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.

Perhaps we should be getting used to surprises but the train hurtling towards us comes as a bit of a shock. We never realised there was a railway so close by. And this one isn’t a Thomas the Tank Engine or one of those light rail metro trains, this is a big blue freight train pulling a long line of those trucks that carry volatile liquids. There was a question about them on In It To Win It a week or so ago. Are they called tank cars or something? Whatever, the train is getting closer and although we are not on the railway track, it is scaring the hell out of me. At my age, I don’t tend to swear a lot. It is something that I’ve grown out of but here I make an exception.

Let’s get the fuck back to Cheltenham Close,’ I shout.

Sally is with me on this one. I’ve never heard her swear before but she does so now.

Turning around, we find to our horror that the landscape has changed again. We are now faced with barren, featureless scrubland, giving us little indication of which way we should go. But we have just come this way. It wasn’t like this. Nor was it like this the time we came with Murphy. This can’t be Goldfinger Drive. Surely! This can’t be happening. These things do not happen in our world. We just watch the quizzes and give answers when we are able. Something must have happened to rupture the space-time continuum.

We are not given chance to take stock of our queer situation. A crack of thunder like the end of the world rocks the heavens. A frightening figure in catholic robes appears to be opening up the sky. Is that a hand reaching down? It can’t be that time already. We have some time left, don’t we? I do believe we are actually running now, in defiance of our arthritic limbs. Literally running for our lives.

With an immense effort of will, we retrace our steps through the changing terrain of the hinterland, and back through the freshly clipped privet of the alley leading to Cheltenham Close. Flagman is still polishing his car. He waves. We do not want to have to explain to him what we have been through. We would not know where to begin. We dive into the house to avoid him. I switch on the TV. Only Connect is about to start.

I do hope that Sandwich Man comes by on time on Monday,’ says Sally, pouring the gin. ‘And things get back to normal.’

Me too,’ I say, holding out my glass. ‘I don’t think I could go through that again.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

wherehavealltheflowersgone

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Chris Green

Always something of a wild man, Danny Rocco isn’t the type you would expect to find at a Ludovico Einaudi recital. But the main reason that Danny’s being at the Einaudi concert is unlikely is that Danny Rocco is dead. He met his maker three years ago when his Triumph Bonneville collided with an eighteen-wheeler truck on a notorious accident black spot on the A39. He was reportedly doing ninety-five miles per hour. He stood no chance. My sister, Sara was devastated. She and Danny had been an item. Although Danny and I had little else in common, I went with Sara to Danny’s funeral. He was cremated.

Yet, in the interval at the concert, Danny comes nonchalantly up to me and shakes my hand. He is dressed in a stylish dark suit and tie. Being dead seems to have mellowed him considerably.

Primavera sounded pretty good, this evening, didn’t it, William?’ he says. ‘One of Ludovico’s best, don’t you think?’

I am flummoxed. It is strange enough that someone who previously sprinkled his conversation with expletives and listened to Motörhead and Slipknot should be so taken with the gentle piano tunes of Einaudi. And he had never called me William, it was always Bill. It is beyond strange that I am about to have a conversation with a dead man. A number of possibilities flash though my head, this is Danny Rocco’s long-lost twin, a stunt double or perhaps it was his stunt double or his secret twin that crashed the bike. But the scar on his left cheek, sustained I remember in a fight with Slugger McGee in The Pig and Whistle suggests that, impossible though it might seem, this really is Danny Rocco. To back this up further, he is also wearing the distinctive carbon fibre black ring that Sara gave him. This is Danny Rocco.

When I come round, I find myself stretched out on a worn red velvet settee in a small windowless room. A dark-haired middle-aged woman is hovering over me. She says her name is Izzy. She says she is a designated first-aider.

What happened?’ I say.

You passed out,’ Izzy says. ‘What do you remember?’

I begin to regain my bearings. I remember I was watching an Einaudi piano recital. Suddenly, it hits me like a left hook from Wladimir Klitschko.

I was ……. I was talking to an old friend of mine,’ I say, looking around me, vaguely expecting to see him in the flesh. ‘Danny Rocco. Did he ….. Did Danny bring me in here?’

No,’ Izzy says. ‘Your friend was not with you. When I arrived on the scene, you were lying flat out on the floor in the aisle with a group of concerned people around you wondering what had happened. One or two of them said they had tried to bring you round. They kindly helped me to bring you in here.’

I should be used to strange. There have been a string of unrelated anomalies lately. Last Thursday, hundreds of clocks exploded. Time was scattered everywhere, hours and minutes strewn all over the streets. Guv Malone told me the tide didn’t come in and while you can’t believe everything Guv says, you have to agree we live in volatile times. We had yellow buses in the town and then they were green, then red and yesterday they were yellow again. No explanation. The numbers had changed too. 6 was 9, 13 was 31 and 17, 71. Without any explanation, the peacocks and cardinals disappeared from the garden and there were no parrots in the park. They just upped and left. But then they returned in their thousands. Birds were everywhere. Toucans, lovebirds, parikeets, lorikeets, red-necked tanagers, spangled cotingas. You couldn’t move for brightly-coloured birds.

It’s as if someone is playing tricks. I’m sure all of you have noticed any number of unexplainable phenomena but surely Danny Rocco’s coming back from the dead ranks among the strangest. No-one seems to believe I saw him at the concert, not even Ellie.

You should have been there,’ I tell her. ‘It was him. I’m sure of it. Why weren’t you there, anyway? I told you I had a ticket for you. I waited for ages before I went in. I missed the opening number.’

I tried phoning but you never answer your phone,’ Ellie says. ‘You do still have a phone, don’t you? I was going to tell you that Ludovico Einaudi is touring Japan so not to bother going. In any case, he’s not likely to be playing at The Little Theatre, is he? It only seats about two hundred. It must have been someone else. You don’t remember who because you fainted. And this Danny Rocco you think you saw was probably someone who worked at the theatre. You say his appearance had dramatically changed. I know you get confused when putting names to faces. You thought Rahul Joshi at the convenience store was Daniel Craig, remember? Or at least that he looked like him. I think you may have meant Dev Patel. I don’t think Meghan Markle is going to be the new James Bond either. I can’t imagine how you came up with that one.’

I try to interrupt Ellie but she has the bit between her teeth.

You do realise you keep imagining things, don’t you?’ she continues. ‘It’s time you got a grip, Bill. I think you ought to go and see Dr Rosado.’

It turns out Dr Rosado is on sabbatical so I see Dr Gray instead.

I see that over the years, Dr Rosado has had you on a range of ….. well I suppose for lack of a better expression, you would have to call them hallucinogens,’ Dr Gray says. ‘H’mmmm. A little unorthodox. But I suppose he is an experienced practitioner. And you are currently taking, let me see ……. Sorry, I’m having a little difficulty with the name. I’ve definitely not heard of them. How are you getting on with them?’

OK, I guess,’ I say. ‘My partner felt I should check in with you. That’s why I’m here. She thinks I was mistaken about something. She doesn’t believe that someone that was dead has come back to life.’

I see. Well, it has happened before.’

It has?’

Yes. Our dear Lord came back to life, didn’t he? He rolled away the stone.’

You mean Jesus?’

Yes, Jesus. On the third day.’

It’s probably best not to go into Danny Rocco’s lack of messianic credentials.

Apart from that,’ Dr Gray says. ‘Any delirium?’

Not really, no.’

Any confusion?’

Now and then. We live in very confusing times, don’t we? Everyone is finding things a little strange since the circus came to town and they changed the road names. Have you noticed that dogs have stopped barking?

Look! To be on the safe side, I think we’ll try you on something different this time. This new one they’ve brought out perhaps. There are fewer potential side effects.’

Time has settled down. The birds are back in the garden. Blue tits, finches, blackbirds, sparrows. They are singing their hearts out. And the dogs are barking again. The buses too have sorted themselves out. They are back to their muted grey. And the old road names are back. It is easier now to get your bearings. But predictability can be dull. There are no longer any surprises. I’m finding it difficult to adjust to regular patterns, waking each morning to find everything exactly as I left it. And where have all the flowers gone? Those colourful blooms that reached up to the sky. These new tablets that Dr Gray prescribed will take some getting used to. I believe that on the whole, Dr Rosado’s tablets suited me better. It’s a pity that he is now in custody.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

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

The Pugilist

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The Pugilist by Chris Green

I’m certain I logged out last night and shut the laptop down. It’s something I am in the habit of doing as a cautionary measure. This morning, to my utter astonishment, there’s a new document open on the screen, three thousand words give or take. It’s titled The Pugilist. It claims to be a story of mine. I know I’ve been absent-minded lately, downright forgetful even, but I would have remembered if I had got up in the night and written three thousand words. I haven’t written that much in one go in a long time. And Betty is away at her sick mother’s so there was no-one else in the house. The doors were locked overnight. I’m spooked.

But on a quick read through, I find the story is better than most of the stuff I’ve been writing lately. It’s about a poor boy who leaves his home and his family in search of fortune and fame. He’s struggling to get by in a harsh world. He is, the story suggests, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose. He now wants to escape the bitter cold of New York winters and make his way back home. He feels alone in the city, the only living boy in the great metropolis.

It’s primarily a first-person narrative but here and there, without warning, it lapses into the third person. Yet in a subtle way. It is not my usual territory though. It features no unscheduled time shifts. No talking cats. No unreliable history or Alice in Wonderland characters. It’s a plain straightforward account of a human being with real feelings and emotions. The absence of strange in the narrative is as maybe, but surely there is mystery enough in how it came to be here on my computer. The document was last saved at 3:13 a.m. This would probably place it slap bang in the middle of the steamy dream I was having about Susie Hill. Document History tells me I am looking at revision number one. I’m not sure if this statistic includes autosaves, but it suggests a competent typist with a determination to get the job done. An online plagiarism check finds no correlation with other online texts. However impossible it might seem, this has been typed out on my machine in the middle of the night without waking me by someone who knows my password.

Whatever its origins, one does not look a gift horse in the mouth. I can use the story to get over my writers block. But if I am to pass it off as mine, it important I put my stamp upon it. During the course of the day, I edit out some of the most overt sentimentality. I give the protagonist an imaginary friend called Art. I introduce a cult that worships a blind goat and create an alien communications centre in the back of an antiquarian bookshop in Queens. I make a note to develop these ideas later.

Betty phones and asks how I am and what I have been doing. I don’t want to alarm her or get her to think that I might be losing it like I did last Spring so I tell her I have been tidying up the garden. I have cut back the photinia and the laurel hedging and have weeded the veg patch. She is pleased I have separated the parsley from the sage but what about the rosemary and the time, she says? I tell her I will get on to it. She says her mother is still not very steady and she will need to stay over for another couple of days.

Still puzzled by its origin, but optimistic I can make something of the story, I feel happy with the progress I’ve made. I close the document down. As a security measure against any further incursions, I change my login password to a complex combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, and I log out. I wake at 5 a.m., not to the sound of the alarm, but to the sound of the laser printer whirring. I dash downstairs to see what is going on, only to discover that the document for The Pugilist is being printed off. How can this be happening? Not only is it being printed off but I see from the open document on the screen that it has been added to. The word count is now over four thousand words. I read through it carefully and notice that some of my changes from the previous day have been reversed.

Determined not to be beaten, I set about revising the document once more. To explain the title beyond the metaphorical, I have the protagonist carry a book about Rocky Marciano around with him. Like a bible, he takes this with him everywhere. The opening section of the story is a little verbose so I clip three hundred words from it. To give the story greater familiarity, I introduce a few old favourites from my earlier stories, Phillip C. Dark, Guy Bloke and Wet Blanket Ron. To reflect the style my readers have become accustomed to, I add few curiosities to the narrative. He now has a mongrel dog called Bono. He suffers from Porphyrophobia, a fear of the colour purple. A tall thin man with no face wearing a leather duster overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat pursues him relentlessly around New York and he has taken to hiding out in basement bars in Brooklyn, drinking Bottled in Bond Bourbon.

I save the document to the flash drive I keep in my jacket pocket and delete the original file on the laptop. I settle down to a glass of wine and a David Lynch film and try to put the riddle out of my mind. It can wait until tomorrow. All work and no play and all that. Betty phones to say her mother has taken a turn for the worse. She will be there now until after the weekend. I sympathise. I tell her I have been clearing out the shed and have taken the rusty old bike to the tip. She seems pleased that I am not spending all day huddled over the laptop.

I wake at 4 a.m. from a disturbing dream about a deranged killer on the loose in a small town logging community in Washington State to furtive sounds coming from downstairs. It is barely audible but it sounds as if someone is typing. I throw on my dressing gown and go to investigate. There is no sign of anyone but the document is once again open on the laptop and has got bigger. Over five thousand words now.

‘’Good to see you, Al,’ Charlie says. ‘But I know you only ever come and see me when you have a computer problem. So I’m guessing it’s no accident that you’ve brought the laptop. Virus again, is it?’

If only it were that simple, Charlie,’ I say. ‘It’s more of a presence than malware. And it’s pretending to be me.’

Ah, I see,’ Charlie says. ‘That will be the Takeover worm. It’s a bad one, old buddy. No-one’s come up with a way to remove it yet. It’s so deadly in fact, you’ll probably find it has cancelled your car insurance, cleaned out your bank account, and sold your house.’

What?’

Only joking, mate. Have a toke on this and I’ll take a look.’

I sit quietly back with the spliff and watch Charlie get to work. He brings up dialogue boxes I never knew existed. I find myself gradually drifting off. I haven’t smoked weed in a long time.

How’s Betty?’ Charlie says, bringing me out of my reverie. ‘I saw her a couple of days ago going into that new clothes shop with the silly name in the Strand, the one that used to be Paul Simon.’

You couldn’t have, Charlie,’ I say. ‘Betty’s at her mother’s. That’s eighty miles away. She’s been there for a week.’

Is she? Oh well! Couldn’t have been her then,’ he says.

Perhaps Betty is deceiving me and she is not really at her mother’s. Her phone calls may have just been to divert suspicion. I felt this last weekend but did not want to admit it. By not acknowledging it, I somehow felt it was not happening. But deep down, if I am honest with myself, I did fear the worst. Each time she has called, she has said she is extending her stay. Is she afraid to tell me she is with someone else? That she has left me? Is she worried that I might have another breakdown like the one last spring when I found out she was playing away? Is this what is happening? I wanted to feel that we had repaired our relationship but you can never be sure. Although I have not noticed that any of her things around the house are missing, she has told me many times over the years that I’m not very observant. That I’m too tied up with my writing to notice anything important.

Hey! Look!’ Charlie says. ‘This is really weird, Al. According to this, no files have been open on the machine for several days.’

Let me have a look.’

Here you are! See! That’s what it says. Are you sure you’re OK? You haven’t been seeing that quack doctor again, have you?’

You mean Garth’s uncle? No, but I’m wondering if perhaps I should.’

By the way, mate. When you told be about this new story, I wondered what happened to that story you were telling me about the last time I saw you? The one about the bridge.’

Bridge?’

Yes, the one over the troubled waters.’

© Chris Green 2019: 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

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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

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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

South by Southwest

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South by Southwest by Chris Green

I have been sitting around the house all winter waiting for the call. I have been waiting so long that I have had time to set up a profitable giclée printing business. ‘Just be ready,’ I was told. That was last October. I have frequently wondered whether the phone they gave me actually works. It looks very basic. I don’t even know the number. When I try to find out by phoning my landline from it, it comes back with number not recognised. Like everything else in this game, anonymity seems to be the key. I’m wondering whether the people who have signed me up, whoever they might be, have changed their minds about giving me a mission. They may have decided that as I was dismissed from the service that I am a bad risk. But there again, they must realise I am cheaper than others who might have similar experience in the field.

I am in the middle of my morning ablutions when it happens. I hear Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head playing. At first, I wonder where the tinny tune is coming from, but quickly track it down to the black Nokia.

Meet me at the railway station at 1100,’ says a female voice, with a trace of an accent I cannot place.

How will I recognise you?’ I ask.

She replies that there is no need for me to recognise her. She knows what I look like. ‘And bring everything you might need for a week away from home,’ she says.

I take this to mean I should include the Glock in my luggage. While I would not describe myself as a hitman, in the field it is important to be armed. It gives you that extra sense of security.

Laura does not know I am a sleeper agent. I phone and tell her not to expect me around for a few days. She seems to take it well, too well perhaps. She does not even ask why. As we have been seeing each other for three years, you would have thought she might have shown more of an interest. I have the feeling it may be because she wants more commitment. Or perhaps she feels I have been drinking too much lately.

I make a habit of arriving for a meet ten minutes early. This gives me the opportunity to do a reccy. If I do not know the person I am meeting which is frequently the case, I challenge myself to spot them before they introduce themselves. I have quite a good success rate. On this occasion, I not able to. The concourse is crowded. Most of the people milling around look suspicious. They are all dressed like extras from North by Northwest. Perhaps there is a fifties overcoat and hat convention somewhere. Eventually, a woman in a fashionable dark suit with a wide-brimmed hat seems to come out of nowhere. She hands me a black folder.

The instructions are here,’ she says. She looks me in the eye. It is a firm stare. ‘You will find a number to call when it is done. Phone from a public call box. You will notice a deposit in your bank account.’

Before I know it, her shapely silhouette is disappearing into the throng of passengers. I make my way to a quiet seat outside the station complex. I open the folder and carefully read the instructions. I am to liquidate Maxwell Pagan. So it is a hit after all. But, what was I expecting my clandestine mission to involve? Recovering a stolen bicycle? Helping a cat down from a tree? In the murky world of undercover operations, it’s never likely to be a walk in the park. If there were not an element of danger, they would not be employing my services.

There is a grainy close-up of Pagan wearing a trilby and a mid-range shot of him in a blue double-breasted suit. All very old school, but how could anyone recognise him from these? Pagan is believed to be somewhere in the South West of England. There are details of several sightings in Devon and Cornwall. I should check out these locations as a starting point.

They have provided me with a rail ticket to Exeter. Second class. And booked me into a hotel under the name, Foster Grant. Who thinks up these names? I check my bank account on my iPhone. The deposit could not be considered generous for a hit but what did I expect from these cheapskates? Their initial retainer ran out in the first week. What do they imagine I’ve been living on all this time while I’ve been waiting for the call? I’ve no doubt they would argue that as I am freelance, I am open to other offers. But they must realise it is difficult for an out of favour agent to find work. In this business, there seems to be a zero-tolerance towards drinking and word quickly gets around. It’s a good thing that I have been able to apply printing skills to counterfeiting to keep the wolf from the door.

I do not know the South West well, so on the train, I get the laptop out and take a good look at Google Maps to acquaint myself with the lie of the land. Devon and Cornwall have hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline. There are worse places to find yourself for a week. The downside is that with the sightings of Pagan being so far apart, there is a huge area to cover, much of it wild. I decide that when I get to Exeter, I’ll hire a four by four.

Who exactly is Maxwell Pagan? The dossier is short on facts. I have no age, no address, no phone number, no car registration, no profession, no family information, no character traits, no clubs or organisations, no affiliations, no interests. Just a couple of photos and a list of sightings. Apparently, he is five foot nine. I look around the train. Nearly everyone is about five foot nine, even the women. Unsurprisingly, an internet search is of no help. There are several Maxwell or Max Pagans across the pond, but the search engines give me nothing closer to home. I search the UK Electoral Register, onlinelandregistry and DVLA. Not a single Maxwell Pagan.

People assume that undercover agents work for security organisations like MI5 or MI6, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. None of the organisations I have worked for has any monikers. We are just loose groups of individuals given instructions from people we don’t know. We don’t have colleagues. We don’t work in open-plan offices where we talk about Champions League football in our breaks. Nor do we go out on ops together in unmarked cars with gizmos and gadgets. We are merely operatives paid for doing a job that might or might not be legal.

I am at the Café Alf Resco at the harbour-side in Dartmouth, enjoying an afternoon cocktail. It’s quite relaxing listening to the jazz playing and looking at the boats. But wait, isn’t that man in the unseasonable trench-coat with the dark glasses the same one I saw at Exeter station? If it is, it could indicate that I am on the right track and someone else is looking for Maxwell Pagan. Perhaps they are tailing me thinking I know what I am doing. But it could mean they are after me and waiting for the right moment to strike.

Does that man come here a lot?’ I ask the well turned-out barista. His name badge says, Mario. He doesn’t look Italian.

Which geezer would you be talking about, guv?’ he says. He doesn’t sound Italian.

The one with the big coat on,’ I say.

Couldn’t say, mate,’ he says. ‘We get so many weirdos around here that I don’t take a lot of notice. Know what I mean. It’s the Naval connection, innit.’ He’s not from around here, either. He’s probably from my neck of the woods.

So you wouldn’t have noticed this one either,’ I say, showing him the photos.

No, ‘fraid not, squire.’ he says with a practised air of distraction. I get the impression that he would say this even if he had seen Pagan. Perhaps I should have left the enquiry until after I’d tipped him and slipped it in on the way out.

Trench-coat does not appear to follow me when I leave Café Alf Resco, but here he is again at Tangerine Tree in Totnes. He is tracking me somehow. Should I search my hired Freelander for a GPS tracker? He must have realised that it is going to be warmer than yesterday because he has got rid of the coat. He has a summer jacket on but I wouldn’t be betting that he isn’t packing a gun. Perhaps he thinks the Rayban sunglasses render him unrecognisable. Doesn’t he realise that I have been on courses? I debate whether to approach him and ask him politely why he is following me, whether to point a gun at his head in the car park or whether to suggest we pool our resources to find Pagan.

None of these happens. I don’t know how I come to be tailing him in his big Nissan, but I manage to stay behind him all the way across country to Mortehoe. Technically speaking, it is not my fault he drives over a cliff, but testimony to my driving skills that I do not follow him. I do not think there are any witnesses, which is handy as there is bound to be an investigation.

Witnessing an accident in the field is always traumatic. It is something you come across time and time again in this line of work but you never get used to it. You can never be sure of the facts and there is no way to go back and check. What’s done is done. That’s it. Move on. But still!

I find some suitably cathartic music on the radio, Sibelius I think, and take a B Road back to Exeter. This takes me through Exmoor National Park, a unique landscape of moorland that goes on forever. I am not in a sightseeing frame of mind. I might as well be on the moon. I have a medicinal shot or two at Cullompton Services. When I get back to my room at the Travelodge, I find a woman in my bed, which is nice, but I wasn’t expecting one.

Room service is improving,’ I say.

Save the smartass for later,’ she says. ‘Now, let’s get you in a good mood then we can discuss how we’re going to find Maxwell Pagan.’

This is certainly a surprising offer but not an unwelcome one, and she seems particularly adept at cheering a lonely man up. Half an hour later I feel much more optimistic.

I’m Olga,’ she says, by way of a belated introduction. Whether or not this is her name doesn’t really matter.

I’m Foster,’ I say. Whether or not this is my name doesn’t really matter. ‘I guess it’s time to review the case then Olga, wouldn’t you say? What have you got?’

She takes out a folder similar to the one I have but red and hands me a wad of large-format photos of Pagan. If you saw this person, you would recognise him easily from these pictures. They are clear and sharp. Also, they look as though they might have been taken around these parts.

This one’s in Penzance,’ she says. ‘And, there’s Fowey. Then we have Plymouth, I think. This one’s Truro. …..’

This one is Exeter,’ I say. ‘And is that one with him in front of the estate agents, Torquay?’

Babbacombe,’ she says. ‘Then there’s Bude and Padstow.’

He moves around a fair bit,’ doesn’t he?’ I say, examining a photo from force of habit to see how much it has been Photoshopped.

While I am doing this Olga unfolds an A3 spreadsheet listing all the locations where Pagan has allegedly been sighted within the last month, along with the times of day. She is a mine of information. Why she needs me is not obvious.

It is not until the next morning that I discover why. Olga has disappeared, along with my gun. This might be a staple of spy thrillers but it has never happened to me before. I have never been done over like this. I must be getting rusty. At least, I have avoided the other clichés, like being knocked unconscious, interrogated and tortured, or tied up and left in a dark room. But how could I have been so trusting? What was I told all those years ago? Trust no one, not even me. I can hear, my instructor, Boris Whitlock saying it.

I cannot face the thought of breakfast at the Travelodge. Perhaps this has something to do with all the supercilious drones there will be sitting around in their business suits, checking their Outlook calendars and tweeting away on their smartphones. More likely though it is to do with my hangover. How much did I have to drink last night? Instead of breakfast, I take the Freelander for a drive down the estuary with the windows open to the little town of Dawlish, home of the black swan as it advertises itself.

In the field, you constantly face the risk of things going wrong. You have to brace yourself for setbacks, accustom yourself to occasional misfortune. You establish procedures which minimise the risk. This is something you learn over time. Perhaps you never stop learning. So, what is the lesson here? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, perhaps.

I need to go somewhere quiet where I can regroup and decide what to do next. After all, I have been in difficult situations before. I just need to compose myself. My rule of thumb is to give it fifty-five minutes to adjust to any new situation. A new strategy should then present itself.

I settle on a table outside a café on the Strand and order a full English breakfast. It is then that I catch sight of him. It is definitely Pagan. He is going into Pearson Ranger Estate Agents. Might this explain the sightings? He is buying property in the South West. I realise that land and property ownership can be a contentious issue, but it is not usually a reason to kill someone. On the other hand, someone must have a reason or I would not be here now. I do not know who has ordered the killing. Mine is not to reason why. I am being paid, however badly, to do a job. Why do I do it? I don’t know. I suspect that I am just a bad man.

So, to the task at hand. Now that I have found Pagan I can tail him, but Olga has my gun. There are other ways to take someone out, but in my line of work, the bullet is by far the most popular method. Olga may, of course, appear anytime and do the job for me. She might be hiding around the corner, or in the back seat of his car waiting for him to return for all I know. It seems likely she is being paid by a different agency to the one who is paying me. My people don’t appear to be the type to pay two hitmen. But what the hell! Is any of this important? Why don’t I just hand the money back and go back to my giclée printing?

I hear the great Boris Whitlock’s booming baritone, from all those years ago in the underground bunker in the secret location that wasn’t even on OS maps, saying, ‘failure is not an option. No matter what difficult circumstances may arise, you must always complete your mission.’

With this in mind, I sidle down the street to Pearson Ranger and look in the window. I cannot see very much of the inside but I can’t help noticing that all the houses advertised in the window except for one have been marked, SOLD. What an odd situation! I realise that property has been on the up and Dawlish might be a popular location, but surely the market can’t be that buoyant. I remember some friends of mine telling me only last week that they had had to drop the price to get a sale. Boris Whitlock’s voice starts up once again. I begin to wonder how I can complete my mission. Could I strangle Pagan with my tie or my belt?

Pagan emerges from Pearson Ranger. He does not appear to notice me but then why would he? Why would he be aware of my existence? I keep an eye on him as he crosses the road. He is exactly how he looked in Olga’s photos. Displaying an air of self-confidence he goes into the estate agents on the other side of the road. Placing myself outside, I can see at a glance that except for one, all the houses advertised have big stickers on saying SOLD.

I can’t just go in and strangle him. I have to wait for him to come out and then …….. Before I can work out my strategy, Olga drives up and parks her car. I don’t know whether to be puzzled, shocked or angry.

How did you know I would be here?’ I say. ‘Or for that matter, Pagan?’

I’m guessing you don’t even remember the conversation we had last night,’ she says. ‘When I saw the empty whiskey bottle this morning, I didn’t think you would be up for much today, so I went on ahead to do a reccy. I’ve been all around Dawlish and Teignmouth this morning. You’d be surprised just how many estate agents there are here.’

What!’ I say.

Last night we reasoned that this morning we would discover Pagan buying up property in Dawlish and Teignmouth.’

We did? How did we work that out?’

I told you. ……….. Don’t you remember? I had a call from my …….. researcher. And from his information, we worked out that Pagan would be here today. ……… Perhaps you felt bad at having brought so little to the table.’

Well, I must have remembered something about Dawlish at some level. I mean, I came here, didn’t I?’ I say, trying desperately to recover some ground.

You do remember us finding out the reason that we have been given the task of getting rid of Pagan, don’t you?’

Do I?’ I say, trying to remember something, anything, of last night’s drunken conversation.

He is buying up Devon and Cornwall house by house, little by little, piece by piece and we have been assigned to stop him. You don’t remember saying you couldn’t understand how someone who had been making such obvious moves had left so little trace.’

It does ring a bell, now you come to mention it, yes.’

Pagan, of course, is not his real name. But, Foster, and I don’t suppose that is your real name either, the fellow in there already owns large chunks of Devon and Cornwall. He is rich beyond belief and yet no-one seems to know who he is. He might have made his money out of mining or telecoms, gas pipelines or media ownership, currency manipulation, pharmaceuticals, illegal drugs even. Nobody knows. Anonymously, he is building an empire down here in the South West. All I can tell you is that my people don’t want him to build an empire down here in the South West.’

I don’t suppose you know who your people are either,’ I say.

Do you know who your people are?’

No, I don’t. I’ve absolutely no idea. But if what you say is true your people and my people, whether or not they are the same ones, must stand to gain from getting Pagan out of the way, or they wouldn’t be doing it.’

And they pay us peanuts.’

Same old, isn’t it?’

Let’s get on with it then.’

Well, Olga, and I don’t suppose that is your real name either,’ I say. ‘You’ve got the gun.’

What gun? I don’t have a gun. Why do you think I teamed up with you?’

But you have my gun,’ I say.

What! I don’t. …….. Oh no! You mean you’ve lost your gun too.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Slumpton 1980

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Slumpton 1980 by Chris Green

The door to number 16 slammed in Harry’s face, as it had more times than Harry cared to remember. Its split green and orange panels were all too familiar. Familiar too were the plywood and chicken wire that was nailed over the space where the window had once been. The force of the door closing caused a liberal sprinkling of masonry to dislodge itself from an upstairs window, landing on the shoulder of Harry’s paint-smeared donkey jacket. Harry brushed it off with the palm of his hand and moved on down the street, past two boarded up terraced houses and a pile of rubble where others had until recently been, before arriving outside number 28. Sounds consistent with marital discord could be heard. Harry shuddered. He felt a strong urge to go back home. He was too old for this kind of aggravation. He lit a Woodbine and struggled to regain his composure. He must be resolute. After all, the Luker family had been slum landlords since the thirties and this was 1980. His grandfather, George Luker had collected from these very houses during ‘he blitz. What would George have thought if he knew Harry was such a wuss?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry indicated that he didn’t.

Then goweh now you dam lagga head.’

Harry’s reply that he had come to collect the rent was swallowed up by the agitated roar of powerful motorcycle engines. The Desperados were revving up their machines with some venom outside number 48. They were wearing full colours. They seemed to be off out for the day. Harry was cheered a little by this. It would mean he had one less call to make. Each time he had called at number 48, a progressively more menacing ruffian had answered the door. Harry could only guess at how many of them lived there but it seemed to be well into double figures and he had to admit he was terrified of each and every one, more so even than he was of Nasty.

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

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

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

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

Harry sidled down the street, examining the graffiti on the walls of the houses and blocks of flats, these run by the Slumpton Squatters Estate Agency, Harry’s only serious rival in the area. Even graffiti was subject to declining standards, he reflected. What had become of the imaginative daubings of yesterday? – gems like IS THAT A LADDER IN YOUR STOCKINGS OR THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN and PLAIN CLOTHES DRUG DEALERS ARE WORKING IN THIS AREA. Now, the graffiti was was monochrome and unimaginative. It was all SHARON SHAGS and FUCK OFF HOME PAKIS And here was a new one HARRY LUKER IS A CHILD MOLESTER. It was all so personal. He reached number 52. Cats had attacked the black bags outside and their rubbish was strewn across the pavement. A rusty bin full of holes stood beneath the window, its contents incinerated. Arson was one of the major pursuits now, Harry reflected. That and ram-raiding. Harry looked up. The guttering had detached itself from the upper part of the house and hung groundwards like a drainpipe. The drainpipe had long since gone and there was a slimy green stain all down the wall. There were few unbroken windows. The odd thing was that Tardelli did not seem to mind the squalor. While other tenants would tackle him periodically about repairs, Tardelli never did. He differed from his other tenants in every way. For one thing, insofar as Harry could judge, he was educated. What was it Tardelli had told him he did when he had met him in The Builders Shovel public house on the night the O’Neills were arrested? Write film scripts? Tardelli had charm and charisma, rare commodities in these parts. Why then did he choose to live in such a slum? And even sometimes pay rent. After all few others on the street seemed to bother with this nicety.

Tardelli,’ Harry shouted. The front door was already open.

Tardelli,’ he shouted again as he peered inside into the gloom.

In the hallway stood a huge dresser, which housed a collection of stone jars and old stained glass bottles. On the floor was a tall pile of yellowed newspapers and a couple of open holdalls that appeared to be full of dog-eared paperback books. The walls, where they were visible were painted a dark brown and one or two cheap Indian dhurries hung from them. A sour and musty odour hung on the air. It reminded Harry of his National Service days in Singapore. An inside door opened and the sound of an operatic tenor singing a Puccini aria floated through. Tardelli emerged from the shadows, a tall, lean, almost skeletal figure with dark Indian features and slicked-back hair, which even in the half-light was noticeably greying. His style of dress seemed to belong to a younger man. His blue jeans had reached the peak of their fade and were almost white and he wore a pink T-shirt with the logo I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT emblazoned across the front. A red silk scarf was tied around his waist.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. A carrot.’

You seem tense Harry. Loosen up.’

You don’t have to collect rent in the Terrace on a Saturday,’

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

That’s all very well’

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

You seem not to.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: © Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

IDEAS

IDEAS

IDEAS by Chris Green

I’m telling you,’ says Flavia. ‘The guy was a complete stranger. He just walked up to me and handed me the bag.’

And you didn’t think to say what are you doing or who are you or anything like that,’ says Matt.

There wasn’t time. It all happened very quickly,’ says Flavia. ‘Besides I was taken completely off guard.’

And he just disappeared into the crowd.’

Well, yes. That’s exactly what happened. Look! It was busy. There were a lot of people around. People were coming out of the cinema. People were waiting for the 61 bus. And there were a large group of passers-by watching a street musician with a trumpet. He was very good. If you hadn’t gone into that games shop you would have seen how quickly it all happened. You could have done something about it.’

So you were distracted. That’s what you are saying.’

That’s right, Matt. You know I like jazz. And this is free jazz.’

And the fellow that gave you the bag was about average height, average build and was wearing blue or grey.’

That’s right. Even his balaclava was blue, or grey. Can you get off my case, please! Who do you think you are? Inspector Wallander or someone?’

You do realise what this is, don’t you?’ says Matt.

But there’s nothing in it. I’ve looked. The bag is empty.’

I know that is how it looks. But, does it feel empty?’ says Matt, handing her back the blue Ikea bag. ‘Here! Feel it. It’s very heavy.’

You’re right. It is heavy.’

There is something in there. Feel inside it.’

It got a shape. ….. But …. but it’s invisible. What is it?’

It’s an enigma. That’s what it is.’

What? One of those machines the Germans used in the war?’

Not exactly. But you might be on the right lines.’

Well, if that’s the case someone’s going to want it. Someone’s going to be looking for it. Someone’s going to be looking for us,’ says Flavia.

………………………………………………………………….…

Flavia is right. Someone is looking for it. Casey Boss is looking for it. His department is extremely security conscious. They need to be. There is a lot at stake. How could the courier have been robbed like that? From his van. In broad daylight. Who were these cowboy logistics people? Weren’t there supposed to be two people on board when they transported sensitive cargoes? And how did the thieves get it into the Ikea bag?

Casey Boss has the van driver in his eleventh-floor office overlooking the river. He is trying hard to stay calm. He was recently hospitalised. Dr De’Ath warned him he must avoid stress. Losing his temper again will send his blood pressure through the roof. He is on powerful beta-blockers.

You do realise the gravity of the situation,’ Boss says, swilling a couple of extra Propranolol down with a glass of water. ‘You understand that we have just lost something ………. important.’

Zbigniew Wozniak has some difficulty in following him. There are several big words there. English is not even his second language. His job as he sees it is to get things from A to B. Even this can be a challenge sometimes. He has difficulty with some of the road signs. How was he to know that it wasn’t a real diversion sign? The next part of the scam was, however. easier for Wozniak to understand.

Man’s face is covered,’ he says. ‘He says gun if I don’t give him.’

Where did covered man go?’ says Casey Boss, finding himself reduced to Wozniak’s pigeon English in order to communicate.

Have big black car,’ says Wozniak. ‘Drive fast.’

………………………………………………………………….…

It’s a pity that you hit that car, George’ says Mavis Deacon. ‘Look at the time. We are going to be late for indoor bowls. And you know it was our turn to make the tea.’

I know, dear, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.’

Black ones are definitely harder to see, aren’t they? I think the last one you ran into was black.’

It was the other fellow’s fault though, dear. He did pull out in front of me.’

That man certainly didn’t want to hang around to give you his insurance details, did he? Running off like that. Why do you think, he was in such a hurry?’

I don’t know. Perhaps he had to get that bag to the shops quickly. It was one of those bags, wasn’t it?’

I think it was an Ikea bag, George? Perhaps we could go to Ikea sometime. They do some very nice kitchenware.’

Yes. I believe it was Ikea, Mavis. And we will go one day. If we can find it. Anyway, I expect the police will be along in a minute. They will be able to sort things out. His car did take a bit of a knock though, didn’t it? They don’t make them like they used to.’

Why do you think he was wearing a balaclava though, George? That seemed to me to be a little odd. Especially if he was going to the shops. The security people in the shops might think that he was a criminal with a gun, who was going to rob them.’

I’m sure there’s a rational explanation dear. And anyway he’s bound to be on CCTV cameras somewhere.’

………………………………………………………………….…

Matt and Flavia are in Café Baba, a small establishment run by a Moroccan family down a discreet alleyway, away from the main shopping centre. They have gone there to get away from the hubbub while they take stock of their situation. Matt is feeling inside the bag. What can possibly account for its weight?

I think it might be changing shape,’ he says.

You mean like it’s alive?’ says Flavia, nervously.

Kind of. …… Not exactly. …… I don’t know. Have a feel.’

No, thankyou! I’ll take your word for it,’ says Flavia, with a grimace. ‘Look Matt! Enough is enough. We’ve got to get rid of it.’

What do you suggest we do with it then?’ says Matt. ‘We can hardly go to the police with it can we?’

Can we not? Why’s that?’

Don’t you think they might find us a little suspicious, handing in a blue Ikea bag with an invisible object inside. A heavy invisible object that keeps changing shape, no less. I really don’t think they Sergeant Rozzer would be likely to understand. A man handed it to my wife in the street. No, she hadn’t seen him before. No, we did not get a look at his face, he was wearing a balaclava. They would detain us as aliens or something. We would probably be locked up forever in a secure institution.’

We could just dump it.’

I suppose so, but that seems a bit irresponsible.’

Wait! Don’t you have a friend who is some sort of scientist, Matt?’

I don’t think so.’

The one with the multicoloured framed spectacles.’

Oh, you mean Theo. No. Theo’s a prosthodontist. That’s basically a dentist. I don’t think that’s quite the same.’

What about the one who works for MI5?’

Oh, Hank. You’re talking about G4S, not MI5. Hank works for G4S. Used to be called Group 4. He’s a night security guard at a building site.’

Well. Perhaps you could come up with a suggestion, but we’re not taking it home.’

………………………………………………………………….…

Casey Boss is conscious that he has an emergency on his hands. He must not let the situation escalate. There is no telling what harm could be done. He leaps into action. He quickly puts a number of his people on the streets to requisition CCTV footage from cameras over a distance of several square miles. Freeman and Willis send him film of the crash at the Cross Hands crossroads. He plays the footage. The white Skoda ploughs into the side of the black BMW. A hooded gunman gets out of the Beamer and runs from the scene. An old couple slowly emerge from the Skoda.

Doddery old farts like that shouldn’t be allowed on the roads,’ he says to his colleague, Jagger. ‘Look at him he’s about eighty. He’s got a white stick. He’s probably blind.’

The gunman with the blue Ikea bag heads in the direction of the shopping district. It is strange, Boss thinks, how little notice people seem to take. It is as if they are all too used to seeing armed men in balaclavas running through the streets with heavy Ikea bags.

Boss moves his focus to footage from a bank of sixty-four cameras located in the centre of town in the comms suite of the municipal building. He is able to witness the masked man’s progress through the town on several cameras, past BetFred and BetterBet, past the Hungarian supermarket, past the bank of posters advertising the Psychedelic Furs reunion concert, through the park where the street drinkers assemble, into the square, past the fountain of Poseidon and into the smarter part of town. He passes the 61 bus stop by John Lewis, but then it is not clear where he goes. He disappears into a crowd of people that are watching a weathered-looking jazz trumpeter with a hunched back in a black coat and black trilby hat. It is unusual for a street musician to draw such a crowd. Jazzman’s audience grows by the minute. With the movement of the crowd, it is difficult to see what is going on. There is no sighting of the masked man emerging from the melee.

Boss tells Jagger to put out the word to bring the jazz trumpeter in for questioning.

There are no further sightings. He hopes that as the day wears on there will be more on the CCTV footage to view. Other than that, there are bound to be witnesses. Some public-spirited citizen will have noticed a man wearing a balaclava weighed down an Ikea bag. Surely. Perhaps he went into a shop. Perhaps one of the local premises is a front for some clandestine operation. Perhaps a number of the shops are fronts for clandestine operations. A lot of ethnic traders have moved in lately. He instructs his team to question all the traders in the area, threaten them if necessary.

………………………………………………………………….…

Meanwhile, the jazz trumpeter too has disappeared. He has somehow avoided Boss’s men, who are now all over the west side of town. As it happens, with his gear packed into a makeshift box trolley, he is making his way to the Café Baba. He likes to relax here with a slice of orange and almond cake and a glass of mint tea, away from the afternoon crowds. Ahmed will usually have some mellow jazz playing. They might even have a bit of a jam later in the back.

Matt and Flavia are already there, discussing what to do with the bag. It is a quiet time of day at Café Baba and they are the only customers. The Gaggia machine is switched off. There is a faint smell of hashish. Behind the counter, Ahmed and his younger brother, Youssef are sharing a pipe. A tune by Mulatu Astatke’s Black Jesus Experience plays gently in the background. East African beats. This is free jazz. All about ideas, inspiration and improvisation.

Ahmed notices that there is a little tension at Matt and Flavia’s table. Their voices are raised. Perhaps its the food. Maybe they are not familiar with Moroccan delicacies. Perhaps the briouats or the kefta wraps are not to their liking. They do not seem to have touched them. He ambles over to their table to see what the problem might be. In his djellaba and babouche slippers, his movement is hushed, so Matt and Flavia do not hear his approach. They are facing the window. They appear to be in the middle of an argument.

I think we need to find out what it is,’ says Matt. ‘Before we make a decision.’

I want it as far away from me as possible,’ says Flavia. ‘It’s gross.’

Someone might offer a reward for its safe return.’

How do you even think of these things? Matt. Where do you get these ideas from? Sometimes I think you live in a parallel universe. It’s a bloody Ikea bag for God’s sake.’

But a mysterious Ikea bag.’

We’re getting rid of it.’

We could put in in a storage unit or a locker at the station until we find out more.’

It’s going.’

But Flavia …….’

Matt! Matt! Look!’ says Flavia, grabbing him by the arm. ‘I swear the bloody bag is breathing.’

Ahmed follows her gaze to the inlaid leg of the walnut table. The blue bag, he notices, does look as though it’s breathing, in fact, it appears to be edging its way across the mosaic floor tiles. It has moved several inches. He is about to remark on this, but at that moment, Chet appears at the door with his gear. Chet comes at about this time every day after he has played his pitches in the town. He is struggling a little today. He is not getting any younger. Ahmed goes over to help him with his cart.

………………………………………………………………….…

We’ve found him, boss,’ says Freeman.

Who?’ says Boss. ‘Speak up man!’

Sorry. It’s a poor signal. …… Is that better?’

What is it, Freeman?’

We’ve found Jazzman, sir. He has been caught on CCTV passing the horologist’s in the old town. He’s gone down one of those alleys, with some equipment. Willis thinks he might be heading for the Café Baba.’

Where?’

The Café Baba. It’s an African place.’

What’s the low down on it, Freeman?’

Could be a front for terrorist activity, possibly.’

What about the bag?’

He didn’t seem to have the bag, but perhaps it was packed away with his gear.’

Keep Jazzman there until I get there. Stay outside, for now, but keep a close eye. We’re not going to lose him again. …….. But I want to be the one to apprehend him. Bring the car round, Jagger!’

You asked me to remind you to take your tablets, sir.’

Quite, Jagger. Thank you. And let me have some of the others, the ones you got from your man, Zoot.’

………………………………………………………………….…

Matt and Flavia have put away their differences for the time being and realised that they are hungry. Perhaps it has something to do with Chet and Ahmed having sat themselves down at the next table. Chet and Ahmed are waiting for Youssef to bring the mint tea. They are listening to Miles Davis’s So What. It is a live version. Ahmed has turned the volume up a bit.

Jazz should be about breaking down conventions, experimenting,’ says Chet. He looks forward to these conversations. They affirm his dedication to the art. ‘I mean it’s got to have energy, be a bit raw, come from inside. You know what I mean.’

Absolutely,’ says Ahmed. ‘You certainly get that with Miles he doesn’t do pre-written chord changes.’

That’s right,’ says Chet. ‘Miles probably never played this tune the same twice. His improvised melodic lines are the basis of the harmonic progression.’

He’s a genius. Where does he get his ideas for improvisations from?’

I know. It’s like he opens the bag just before the show and grabs a handful of ideas?’

Some of these people you hear today on Jazz FM. It’s like you are stuck in a lift,’ says Ahmed. ‘This so-called smooth jazz. I mean what’s that about. Smooth jazz is a contradiction in terms.’

They sit back to take in an improvised passage.

The pastries are delicious by the way,’ says Flavia, trying to make amends for their earlier lack of decorum.

Really tasty,’ says Matt.

Thank you,’ says Ahmed. He remembers the conversation that they were about to have before Chet’s arrival, the one about the bag. The big blue bag is still there under the table. It appears to have settled.

What is in the bag by the way?’ he asks.

………………………………………………………………….…

Casey Boss and Jagger arrive at Café Baba. Freeman and Willis are waiting outside.

How’s it looking?’ asks Boss. ‘Is jazzman in there?’

Yes,’ says Freeman. ‘He didn’t bring the bag though, but a man and a woman were already there with it.’

So there’s more than we thought. What about the café owner?’

I think they must all be in it together,’ says Willis.

Casey Boss has not done a lot of fieldwork lately. He is suddenly racked with uncertainty. Shouldn’t Zoot’s meds be working by now, he wonders, to give him a little confidence?

What do we do now?’ he says.

We generally burst through the door pointing guns and shouting,’ says Freeman. ‘I’ve always found that to be effective.’

What are we waiting for then?’ says Boss.

The four of them make their entry in the recommended manner.

Nobody move!’ yells Jagger. He has brushed up on his commands.

No-one looks as if they were about to move. It’s as much as they can do to look around. They see so much street theatre these days.

Stay away from the bag!’ says Jagger.

What’s the fuck’s going on?’ says Ahmed. His sentiments are echoed by the others. Eyes gradually focus on the Ikea bag. Whatever is happening, this is at the heart of the narrative.

Boss picks it up and examines it. He feels calmer now he has the bag and the meds are finally beginning to kick in.

Whatever is in the bag seems to have got everyone hot and bothered’ says Ahmed.

Whatever’s in the bag! Whatever’s in the bag! You know perfectly well what is in the bag. And we are going to find out everything about your little operation here at Café Baba.’ says Jagger, producing several pairs of handcuffs.

I swear none of us has any idea what’s in the bag,’ says Matt.

Well let me tell you what is in the bag,’ says Boss, feeling magnanimous. Zoot’s stuff is a real mood changer. ‘The bag is full of …….. ideas.’

It’s what?’ says Matt.

A bag full of ideas,’ Boss repeats.

What are you all talking about?’ says Chet.

It’s a bag full of concepts potentially present to consciousness,’ Boss elaborates. ‘Ideas.’

Cool,’ says Chet. ‘A bag full of ideas, eh? Can I have a look?’

Stay back,’ says Jagger, pointing the gun at his head.

I will attempt to explain,’ Boss continues. ‘It is clearly dangerous for too many people to have access to too many ideas, too many concepts potentially present to their consciousness, if you will, so it is necessary to keep a collection in a central repository. Ideas need to be carefully regulated, but it is also important to have a new idea now and then. After all, new ideas generate investment. Even the most antisocial ideas generate an investment. Sometimes raw ideas need to be transported from our warehouse to another location in order to be developed. Different skill sets you understand, storage workers and visionaries. Earlier today, in transit, a delivery was hijacked and has ended up here in the blue Ikea bag.’

What are you talking about?’ says Chet.

The bag is empty,’ says Flavia. ‘Or at least what is in it is invisible.’

Obviously, it’s invisible,’ says Boss. ‘Ideas are invisible.’

And heavy,’ says Flavia.

Of course, it’s heavy. You don’t think ideas just come in through your internet browser do you, or blow in gently on the prevailing south-westerlies?’

Anyway, you’ve got it all wrong,’ says Flavia. ‘A hooded man ran up to me in the street while I was standing there watching the jazz and handed me the bag and ran off.’

What?’ says Boss looking round at Jagger. Has his colleague messed up again, he wonders?

Why do you think he did that?’

Panic, possibly. I don’t know.’

And I’ve been trying to get rid of it ever since.’

Well, be thankful that you didn’t get rid of it,’ Boss continues. ‘There are a billion embryos of ideas in that bag. Ideas in their raw form, like the seeds of creation. Their value is immeasurable. Over time the ideas will grow and the department needs to be able to monitor their growth. Imagine if they fell into the wrong hands. We would have a free for all. We need to lock them back up in a safe place. It wouldn’t do for people to get the wrong idea.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Bad Karma

badkarma

Bad Karma by Chris Green

Eight million pounds give or take, Des Hattersley’s Lotto win set him up with a life of leisure. Being single with no family or close friends to speak of, Des did not have to share his winnings. His new found wealth enabled him to give up his position as a Parking Enforcement Officer with the Metropolitan Borough Council, give notice on his tenancy with Harry Rogue Associates and leave Rotherham behind. With fond memories of Torquay from childhood holidays thirty years ago, Des headed for the Devon coast.

With his meagre traffic warden pay, Des had not been able to afford to run a decent car. He had a series of rusty Rovers and battered Fiats. But now he could buy any model he wanted. He chose a red Lexus LC Coupé. In the wake of the child sexual exploitation scandal, he had once put a ticket on one of these belonging to a visiting dignitary parked on double yellows outside Rotherham railway station. Ever since that day he had wanted one. It was a performance car designed to take your breath away. The Lexus however took a little getting used to. With all the smart technology on board, it felt like NASA command centre. And with a top speed of 167 mph, it was a little quicker than his Fiat Panda. But he soon found himself cruising around Torbay.

The next step was to find a suitable house. The five-star hotel he booked himself into while he was settling in Torbay was comfortable but it was important to have his own space. After a summary tour of west-country estate agents, Des settled on a large detached property in the exclusive Ilsham Marine Drive. At £1.2 million, Giles Hornby-Wallis assured him he was getting a bargain, what with the recently installed swimming pool and property prices in the area expected to rise by ten per cent over the next twelve months.

Karma Lacroix was what is often referred to, for lack of a gentler expression, as a gold-digger. Karma hung around Torquay’s nightspots keeping an eye on the cars that the clientele drove up in. She could tell right away that the man in his late thirties in the ill-fitting seersucker suit who drove up in the Lexus Coupé would be a pushover. He had that look of innocence about him. This was a naive man. She could sense it. But he was clearly filthy rich. Given her powers of persuasion and a little patience, he would be hers. He would be able to bankroll her and, after a decent period of time, join her growing list of penniless ex-husbands.

Des had had little experience of gold-diggers back in Rotherham. Rotherham was not a place where there was a lot of gold. Des certainly didn’t have prospects of any. The only connection with the world of wealth was when he was ticketing around Rotherham Town Hall during a licencing meeting. He was flattered therefore when Karma came up to him in CoCo and put her arm through his.

Where are we going afterwards?’ she said.

Des was taken aback. He was not used to women taking the initiative. He was not used to women, let alone attractive women like Karma. It was years since he had had a proper girlfriend. He looked around to see if she might have mistaken him for someone else. He finally managed to stammer something non-committal.

You could always come back to mine,’ she said. ‘That is if you would like to. Or perhaps we could go back to yours. I’ve brought an overnight bag.’

Things moved along quickly. Karma was practised in the art of seduction and having moved in with Des, within a matter of days got him to propose. After the private wedding, the joint account was a formality and Karma went on a spending spree, taking in London, Paris and Milan for her new wardrobe.

A boat would be nice, Des,’ Karma said. ‘You can’t live in Torbay and not have a boat. I saw a lovely Sunseeker Manhattan for sale. A fifty-two footer. You could probably get it for around half a million. Maybe less.’

I know nothing about boats,’ Des said.

You could learn,’ Karma said. ‘Then we’d be sail over to the continent. We could visit Jacques in Cap D’Antibes. Perhaps we could even buy a place in the South of France. Nice is nice.’

Within a month, they were sailing to Cap D’Antibes aboard the Vanilla Sky. Within two months they were in the notaire’s offices signing the contract for a villa in Juan-Les-Pins. Within three months, Karma was shacked up with with Jacques in Des’s new villa overlooking the Mediterranean. Des, meanwhile, was in custody in Nice following a heated domestic dispute.

It wasn’t even his fault he was arrested. In a drunken rage after a night out, Karma had attacked him with a Gauloises ashtray. He had expressed his disapproval of her constant flirting. He was defending himself, trying desperately to hold her back. As he tightened his grip on her, she began screaming and shouting. It was unfortunate that two gendarmes were passing as she ran from the house. Her accusations of assault convinced the officers he was the aggressor, a violent sexual predator. His protests of innocence fell on deaf ears.

It has been said that incarceration can be character building. Des quickly discovered that languishing in prison in a foreign country was a great leveller. How could he have been so charitable, so trusting, so gullible? Looking back on it now, he could see that from the outset, Karma had been using him, abusing him and robbing him blind? There was no real need for the boa constrictor. Or the gold-plated iPhone. And she had sold the Cartier diamond necklace he bought her almost straight away. How could he have fallen for her lies? How could he have believed that someone like Karma would really be a big fan of Geoffrey Boycott? She didn’t even know what a straight drive was. Or that her family used to breed whippets? She hadn’t even heard of the Kennel Club. From the very beginning, she had strung him along and he had fallen for it, hook, line and sinker.

………………………………..

You should have contacted me sooner,’ Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed, Solicitors said.

I would have,’ Des said. ‘But the French police wouldn’t let me. They told me I had to use their representative. A Monsieur Dupont. I’m not sure what Monsieur Dupont’s position was. But he wasn’t much help. That’s why I’m still in here.’

Well, it’s not good news, Mr Hattersley. Over the past week, there have been major withdrawals from your accounts. The total withdrawals amount to, let me see. Ah yes, four million in all as near as dammit. Not to put too fine a point on it, you have been cleaned out.’

You’re telling me Karma has taken all my money.’

In a word. It would seem so, yes.’

I see. It all begins to make sense now. ……. But I still have the properties and the boat, don’t I?’

H’mmm. Not the boat, I’m afraid. That appears to have been sold and, of course, the two houses are in joint names. We’ll have to contest that one. And I’m not sure there’s an easy way to tell you this. I received notification through the post this morning that your wife has filed for divorce on grounds of adultery.’

Her Adultery.’

No, Mr Hattersley. That’s not how it works. Your adultery’

But I’ve never so much as looked at another woman.’

Apparently, her solicitors have photographic evidence to the contrary.’

So, what can we do about it all, Mr Dark?’ Des said. ‘Can we get any of the money back? Can we take her name off the deeds? Can we counter petition on the divorce?’

One thing at a time, Mr Hattersley. Firstly, we need to get you out of there.’

It is often thought that the party that holds the power will always be the one that holds the power. But others might argue that eventually, over time, things have a tendency to even themselves out. Some even believe that destiny will take care of things. But perhaps it is best to channel your energies into bringing about the change you want.

Over the few days that he had been locked up, Des had built up a determination to reverse the downward momentum that had gone hand in hand with meeting Karma. Des had always seen things in terms of good and bad, black or white, right or wrong. There was no middle ground. Good generated good and bad generated bad. This view needed revising. His love for Karma had turned to hate, a bitter hate that went deep down into his soul. He wanted revenge. He was a man, not a mouse. He needed to call on the same resolve that had once enabled him to win Rotherham Parking Enforcement Officer of the Year by issuing a record number of tickets over the Christmas period, a time when traditionally traffic wardens held back. No holds barred.

It now seemed obvious. Oppose the divorce. This would be straightforward enough and delay matters. Then, in the interim, get rid of Karma. Not personally of course but employ a hit man. As next of kin, assuming that she had not yet thought of making a will, Karma would die intestate and everything would revert back to him. Time was of the essence.

If you can get me out of here,’ Mr Dark,’ Des said. ‘I may have some ideas of how to go about sorting this out.’

Through Sebastian Dark’s protestations to the French authorities, Des was released the next day. He found there were a surprisingly large number of English-speaking private investigators based in the south of France. Perhaps the weather suited people of this persuasion. Perhaps the market here was more lucrative for gumshoes. Perhaps there was simply a higher demand for their services than back home.

Nick Carr, Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded agreed to tail Mrs Hattersley. He confided that he knew people that would be prepared to intervene, should this be required.

For a fee, anything is possible,’ Carr said.

You mean …..?’

Indeed! Just say the word and it will be done.’

The intervention sounds good,’ Des said. ‘Cuts out all the crap. In fact, don’t even bother tailing her. Let’s get on with the hit as soon as possible.’

As long as you’re sure,’ Carr said. ‘But, remember! Once this is set in motion, it is not something that can be cancelled.’

I’m sure,’ Des said.

They discussed fees and made arrangements for the handover of the cash. Des was sad he would have to sell the Lexus but this seemed the safest way to raise the required fifty thousand without disturbing what was left of his finances..

Erase all your computer search history,’ Carr said. ‘Then no written communication and no emails. No phonecalls or texts between us except on these single-use burner phones. Three for you and three for me. And take a holiday. Act normally. Phone a friend or two to say how much you are looking forward to getting away for a few days.’

It seemed very cloak and dagger to Des. He was used to everything being out in the open. But perhaps this attitude had contributed to his downfall. Clearly, there were grey areas, shady deals and hidden agendas to consider if you were to get by. Secrecy was certainly an important factor when doing business with the Midi underworld.

As instructed, Des took a plane to Stockholm to avoid being linked to the impending hit. He booked into the Hilton. Here there would be sufficient records of his stay to give him an alibi when the hit happened. His being in Stockholm would look like a legitimate city break, the type of leisure pursuit a man of means would be likely to entertain. He spoke freely to hotel staff and told them he expected his wife to join him in a few days. He took the precaution of posting date-sensitive selfies at key landmarks on social media throughout his stay.

News of Karma’s death reached Des over dinner. A simple message, All done. Ditch the phone. Stay put for now. Leave the day after tomorrow.

A call from Sebastian Dark cut Des’s celebrations short.

I’m afraid there has been a complication, Mr Hattersley,’ he said. ‘You will have probably heard by now that your wife met with an accident. To add to this sad news however, there are, how can I put it, some complications. It appears she did not die intestate. She left everything to her brother, Jacques.’

What exactly does this mean, Mr Dark?’ Des said as he tries to work out the ramifications.

As things stand, it means, Mr Hattersley, that you have no money and you and Jacques Lacroix are the joint owner of two properties.’

I don’t understand. You mean that Jacques was her brother and not her lover.’

It would appear so, Mr Hattersley. And from what I gather I’m not sure the two of you are going to see eye to eye.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

YODEL

yodel

Yodel by Chris Green

I took up yodelling to fight depression. I had lost my job at the packaging plant and Laura had left me. Everything came tumbling down. Each day seemed blacker than the one before. I felt unable to cope, couldn’t see any point in carrying on. I began to think of how I might end it all. I could keep the engine of the car running and close the garage door. I could take all the pills Dr Bolt had prescribed in one go. I could check out the times of the trains on the main line. There were any number of ways but somehow, I managed to hang on in there. Then, one night at 3 a.m. as I lay awake, it came to me. Perhaps yodelling might be the answer. I could take up yodelling.

I had always liked country music, of course. Who didn’t? But it was still a big leap from listening to Hank Williams and Willie Nelson in the comfort of my garden shed to signing up for a yodelling class. After all, not everyone who liked country music took up yodelling. But I discovered the country music fans that did take it up, like me, were likely to be doing it because they were depressed. My yodelling tutor, Clyde told me this was common. He himself had got into it because he had been depressed. His hard luck story involved unrequited love, gambling debts and the death of his ferret, George. George had been run over by a drunken teenage joyrider in a stolen pick-up truck. Perhaps I was missing something but while I could understand his disquiet about the debts and the rejection, I felt he might be over-reacting to the loss of a rancid polecat. But who I was I to judge? I let the matter go.

But to look at me now,’ he continued. ‘Who would have believed this time last year I was an inch away from slitting my throat. The razor was this far away from the vein? And in case that didn’t do the job, I had a loaded revolver in my belt.’

It was difficult to imagine that the grinning figure in his brightly coloured cowboy-check shirt and Ten-Gallon Stetson before me had the Samaritans number on speed dial. I resisted the temptation too to ask whether he still had the revolver. I decided I was not going to go down that route. I was determined to give yodelling a go.

I’m living proof of what a pick-me-up yodelling is,’ he said. ‘Anyway, lad, what type of yodelling are you interested in?’

I had not realised there was more than one type. I told him I liked Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow. Slim Whitman and Patsy Kline. And Frank Ifield, obviously.

What about Alpine yodelling,’ he asked? ‘The Swiss mountain stuff?’

I don’t know much about that,’ I said. ‘It’s probably not what I was thinking of.’

That’s good,’ Clyde said. ‘Neither do I. But still worth knowing about. That’s where it all began. The Tyrolese used it to call to their cattle over large distances. The sound echoed around the mountains. But, look! There have been lots of books written about yodelling. My favourite is Yodelling for Dummies. It’s quite short. You could probably read it on the front porch in an hour or so.

This being Gloucester, UK and not the Southern States, I did not have a front porch but I got stuck into the primer. I learned that American yodelling was a mix of Alpine yodelling and African yodelling. Jimmie Rodgers was one of the pioneers. His style became known as blue yodelling and it formed the basis of the cowboy yodelling in Gene Autry and Roy Rogers films.

I learned there had been many famous yodellers over the years. It was not just a handful of country stars and Hollywood cowboys. It was a worldwide phenomenon. Not many people realised it, but Winston Churchill was a dedicated yodeller. He often used to hide away in the war room and release the tension with a good session. Had it not been for these yodelling sessions, he may have submitted to the black dog and we may not have won the war. Alan Turing too was a great believer. In between cracking enemy codes, he liked nothing better than to get out in the open fields around Bletchley and yodel for all he was worth. George Orwell too was a yodeller. If you read it carefully, you will see that the subtext of 1984 concerns yodelling. Both Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton would sit at their desks yodelling while they waited for inspiration to come along. It clearly worked. They both wrote hundreds of books. King George, of course, yodelled before his social engagements and Queen Elizabeth too was known to have given it a go when Phillip wasn’t around. When you began to look into it, there had been dozens of celebrity yodellers. More recent ones included Nikita Kruschev, Stephen Hawking and David Hockney. And Ayatollah Khomenei some of you may remember was famous for bringing yodelling to a wider audience in the Muslim world. Yodelling was big in the East, so much so that it was practised in many countries several times a day.

It was refreshing to see that those who attended classes were always in good spirits. I had heard it said that any kind of singing was good for the soul but it appeared the changes of pitch and the breathing that yodelling entailed had special healing powers. Yodelling involved repeated and rapid changes of pitch between the low-pitch chest register or chest voice and the high-pitch head register or falsetto on the vowel sounds. Consonants were used as levers to launch the dramatic leap from low to high to give it its ear-penetrating and distance-spanning power. This was all I needed to know. The rest was just practising to perfect the technique. I started in earnest. I began to feel the benefit of yodelling almost right away.

When I found I couldn’t sleep, I got up and yodelled in the bathroom, repeating the Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo sound over and over in front of the mirror and found it relaxed me. Unfortunately, the neighbours didn’t see it that way and started banging on the wall. I yodelled all the way to the Job Centre but got some strange looks from people on the street. On my way to class too, I got abuse from passers-by. Despite the take-up by famous people historically, it seemed yodelling was still a long way from being accepted as a casual pastime.

I mentioned the hostility I had encountered at my yodelling class. Some of the students said they too had encountered hostility. Not everyone approved. In fact, there was a growing movement against it they said and powerful people were getting involved. It was perhaps best to be discreet about yodelling practice. I should find ways to do it secretly. At first, I put this down to paranoia. Many of them worked or had worked at the government listening centre and were accustomed to keeping secrets. Never being able to talk about their work when they got home was one of the main sources of their depression. According to Clyde, others who had worked at the base had not been so lucky. Not having taken up yodelling, they had taken their lives.

But let’s not dwell on that,’ he said. ‘It’s good to have you aboard and as you’ve found out, we are a happy bunch here.’

Thank you,’ I said. ‘Yodelling has been my saviour.’

This, of course, was several years ago now. As no doubt you will have realised, things have moved on since those heady days. The 2016 worldwide ban all but stamped out yodelling. Recordings featuring yodelling were withdrawn from the shops and streaming services and videos removed from the internet. The severe penalties if you are caught have been a huge deterrent. Apart from a few of us who, at great risk, still indulge in secret, the practice of yodelling has almost disappeared. It’s a pity that youngsters growing up today will miss out on the benefits. How long I wonder before yodelling is written out of the history books altogether? It’s hardly surprising the world is in such a perilous state. If people were still allowed to yodel, I’m sure things would be much more harmonious.

*********************

I wonder when my parcel will arrive.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

PHILANDERER

philanderer2019

Philanderer by Chris Green

I have lived in the same town most of my life yet I almost never bump into anyone from my past. This is surely beyond the realms of coincidence. I remarked on this to Suzi only this morning. She maintained we often come across people I know, but could not come up with any examples.

Why does it matter, anyway?’ she continued. ‘You don’t need to see those people. You can’t live in the past, you know.’

To save another argument, I let the matter go. But I am sure I’m right. When I was younger, I led a fairly gregarious life. How can it be that I never come across any old friends or acquaintances, or for that matter, lovers? Littleton is not a large town. I go to the same supermarkets, retail parks and the same venues for entertainment as everyone else in the town, but it appears everyone I have known steers clear of the places at the times I visit. Have all my friends and old acquaintances moved away? Am I so out of favour with all my exes that they are all avoiding me? Or am I just completely out of sync?

Imagine my surprise then, when I find Rosie Higgs in front of me at The Merchant Of Tennis. Rosie was the first affair I had when I was married to my first wife, Anna. I haven’t seen Rosie for over thirty years, yet she is instantly recognisable.

Rosie! How are you?’ I say, holding out my arms, anticipating she might fall into them.

Bobby?’ she says. She takes a step back to look me up and down. Perhaps I am not so instantly recognisable these days.

Rosie looks devastatingly good. She has aged well. I feel old and overweight.

Now that it’s summer I thought I might try to shed a few pounds on the tennis courts,’ I say to her, secretly hoping she might say that I don’t need to. ‘So I came in to buy a new racket.’

You’ll certainly shed a few pounds if you shop here,’ she laughs. I had forgotten that she had a quick wit. There are other things you notice first with Rosie and she has not lost these. She is wearing a low cut floral summer dress.

You must come round and have a game on our court,’ she says. ‘John is away on business at the moment.’

This is how it all started before. Alan, or whoever it was she was seeing back then was out of town. The first problem Rosie and I encountered was that Anna wasn’t out of town. Word must have somehow got around about our date at The Black Hole and before I knew it, my wife had poured a pint of beer over my head. Guinness, if I remember rightly. Rosie and I had to sneak around and meet in less fashionable places from then on. Eventually, I moved out of the marital home and rented a flat. Rosie came round a few times but gradually we lost touch.

That would be nice,’ I say. ‘Are you any good?’

At tennis, you mean?’ she says. ‘You ought to know, Bobby. I’m good at everything.’

My recollection bears this out. She was certainly good at the important things.

Aha,’ is the best I can manage.

Why not come over this afternoon,’ she says. ‘I’ll get the Pimms ready.’

If I’m going to have an afternoon of Pimms and tennis, and Lord knows what else, I decide I’d better have lunch while I’m in town. A healthy option one. There’s a new vegetarian place I’ve noticed just off the Colonnade called Au Naturel.

I have to do a double take. I can’t be sure, but at first glance, the woman behind the counter with the blonde hair cut into a bob looks the spitting image of Roz, who I started seeing after my second marriage, to Carol, broke up. That would be over twenty years ago. Roz was studying for a degree in Catering Management. Last I heard she had married and gone off to The Bahamas, or was it Bermuda. I don’t want to make it look like I’m staring at her, but at second glance she still looks like Roz.

Roz and I were going along fine back in the day until one night Rosie turned up unannounced at the door. It was difficult to explain what she might be doing calling round at eleven at night. But I managed to concoct something and everything might have still been OK, had Roz not caught Rosie legging it down the fire escape one morning, three weeks later. Roz had decided to skip class and surprise me by calling round early to see me. Rosie, as it happened, had called round unexpectedly late the previous night and decided to stay. When Roz rang the doorbell at 9 a.m. we were still in bed. Someone from the ground-floor flat inadvertently let her into the building as they were leaving for work. I heard the echo of voices and quickly worked out what was happening. Roz was on her way up the stairs to my top-floor flat. The fire escape seemed a good way to smuggle Rosie out but unfortunately, Roz caught a glimpse of her through the third-floor landing window. Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so bad had Rosie not been still struggling to get her blouse buttoned up.

Time, it appears, is a great healer because the woman behind the counter of Au Naturel greets me warmly.

Bob,’ she says. ‘I was wondering when I’d see you. I moved back here last year and opened this little bistro with the money from my divorce settlement. I was sure I would bump into you sooner or later. You didn’t seem the sort to move on.’

No. I’m still around. I’m living in Duke Ellington Avenue now,’ I tell her. ‘With my partner, Suzi.’

Really?’ she says. ‘That’s just around the corner from me. I’m in Charlie Parker Close. You’re not still ……… philandering, are you?’

No,’ I say. ‘Suzi and I are quite settled.’

Oh, that’s a pity,’ she says. ‘Because since Frank and I split up, I’ve ….. well, I’ve been at a bit of a loose end.’

There is then a sudden lunchtime rush, which cuts our conversation short, but after I have finished my butternut squash risotto, Roz gives me her phone number and I tell her that I will give her a call if I too find myself at a loose end. If all the wrangling with Suzi continues, I feel I might find myself at a loose end soon. But it is better not to put all my cards on the table.

I’m thinking it would be impolite not to take some flowers round to see Rosie, so I call in at Back To The Fuschia. Now, this is just too weird. There is Saskia, arranging bouquets of gardenias and peonies. Saskia and I had had a fling ten years ago, after I’d split up with my third wife, Linda. But, for Saskia to be here is impossible, not least because she is dead. A rare blood disease with a long name. I went to her funeral. But if she is dead, no-one seems to have told her. This is definitely Saskia. Those smouldering brown eyes are surely unmistakable. I am completely freaked out.

Rob,’ she says. ‘How good to see you.’

I mumble something incoherent. I am not at my best seeing dead people come back to life. It’s all a bit ‘roll away the stone.’

Are you all right, Rob?’ she says. ‘You’ve gone a little pale. I expect that you are surprised to see me, aren’t you? When was the last time?’

How can I say that the last time I saw her she was in a wooden box?

Saskia tells me she has bought a house in Bix Beiderbecke Drive with her new partner, Shaun. I can’t help but make the observation that Bix Beiderbecke Drive is quite close to the cemetery. She goes on to say that she met Shaun at a Living Dead concert. This seems apt. I wonder if Shaun realises he might be living with a zombie.

I try desperately to keep up my end of the conversation, without putting my foot in it, hoping that an explanation for her resurrection might emerge. I tell her about my new Dacia Duster, my collection of garden gnomes, and the stars that play with laughing Sam’s dice. I am conscious that I am burbling. I am anxious to get out of there to take stock. I pick up a bunch of something or other, orchids I think, and hand them to Saskia in the hope that she will gather I am in a hurry.

With my receipt, she hands me a card with her address and phone number on and says I must call round. As it happens, she is having a little soirée tomorrow. Why don’t I come along? Shaun would love to meet me. The name on the card I notice to my confusion and horror is Honey. Oh My God! This is not Saskia. I have mixed her up with Honey. Easily done, I suppose. My fling with Honey must have been around the same time as Saskia. And after so many, they all blend into one. To hide my embarrassment, I make my exit.

I am just putting the flowers in the back of the Dacia when I hear a familiar voice. It is Suzi. She has just come from Cutting It Fine. I imagine she has had her hair done, it’s a different colour or something, so I tell her that it looks nice.

You’ve bought me flowers,’ she says. ‘Orchids. My favourite. How thoughtful. I expect you felt guilty after this morning’s …… words, didn’t you?’

There’s nothing I can say. I hand the flowers to her. She thanks me with a kiss on the cheek.

Guess what,’ she continues. ‘You know you were saying you never bump into any of your old friends. Well, I just bumped into Brad Lee and told him what you said about never seeing anyone, so he said he might pop round later for a drink and some supper.’

Doesn’t she realise that it was Brad who broke up my fourth marriage, to Dawn? That it was Brad telling Dawn about my liaison with Janice so he could take advantage of the situation that had put the final nail in the coffin. He had always fancied Dawn. Or is this just Suzi getting me back for a recent indiscretion? I cannot remember anything specific. There was Heather, of course. But that was a couple of months ago. I thought taking Suzi to Paris for the weekend would have cancelled that one out, but it is so difficult to keep track of the day-to-day politics of relationships.

Hey,’ says Suzi, suddenly. ‘Isn’t that your friend, Saskia in the flower shop? The one you have the pictures of. I thought you told me she was dead.’

Saskia? Where? …….. No! That’s not Saskia,’ I say. ‘Saskia’s dead.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Phone BIll

phonebill4 

Phone Bill by Chris Green

I read somewhere that over half of all the people in the world have never received a telephone call. Sometimes I wish I was one of these. The phone should be a comfort but it can also be a curse. Unwanted calls can outnumber the ones from family and friends. Every day, for instance, Bill phones me up from Swindon to try to sell me solar panels. It is, of course, a scam. While the numbers he comes out with are designed to look favourable, the solar panels would never be mine. His company, BiSolar just want to use my roof so that they can generate electricity to sell back to the grid and keep their directors in the lap of luxury. Bill is fully aware by now I have no intention of taking up BiSolar’s offer.

I also read that more than half the people in the world have never made a telephone call. In these days of fibre optics and satellite communication, this is a difficult statistic to believe. But whoever these people are, Bill compensates for them. Bill sits in a cubicle making calls all day. Although he must have targets to meet, I have reached the conclusion that he keeps ringing me because he is lonely. He needs someone he can talk to. He talks about the weather, his arthritic hip and Swindon Town’s problems in defence. Sometimes he gives me a tip for the 3:30 at Catterick or the 4:15 at Fontwell Park, but invariably his horse falls at the thirteenth or comes in second to last. I sense that there is a black cloud hanging over him while he is talking. I can see it poised inches above his head waiting to deposit rain. I haven’t the heart to tell him not to keep calling. For all I know, I might be his lifeline. Tracey always used to say that I had good listening skills. Had I thought of becoming a counsellor? This was, of course, before our great falling out.

Linzi is another caller from this surprising global minority. She too phones me almost daily about compensation for mis-sold PPI. She must know by now that I have never taken out PPI. I didn’t even know what PPI was until she started phoning me. Mostly though, Linzi wants to talk about which carpet she should buy for the lounge. Or what she should do about her son’s truanting from St Bartholomew’s. Linzi sometimes sounds off about her husband Derek’s drinking. I dare not tell her that Derek is probably an alcoholic. No-one should be getting through two cans of Special Brew during an episode of Emmerdale, even if it is an extended episode to build up the tension before the murder of another tractor driver.

Some days, Barry phones to tell me my life insurance has lapsed. It actually lapsed back in 1996, but Barry’s company, ZZT or some hopeless acronym at the tail end of the alphabet, is still hopeful that I might resume the payments. Barry is keen on golf and gives me detailed accounts of his bunker shots and his new putter. He updates me on his handicap, 44, I believe at last count. Although I know next to nothing about golf, I am sure this is not good. My friend, Geoffrey has a handicap of 19, and he has a wooden leg.

Wednesdays are the worst. I’m not sure why this should be so but no sooner have I got home from my shift at the packaging plant than the phone starts to ring. One call follows another throughout the afternoon. Sometimes it is Linzi first and sometimes it is Bill. For some reason, Barry’s call usually comes in the middle. Oh! I haven’t mentioned Martin yet have I? Each Wednesday, Martin phones to see whether I have changed my mind about the double glazing offer. UltraGlaze can do all my windows for a little over £3000, he says. Each time he points out that his competitors would charge up to a thousand more and they would not offer a twenty-year guarantee. Once this little charade is out of the way, Martin likes to talk about his tropical fish, which are prone to an encyclopaedia of diseases. After he has run through the latest casualties, we move on seamlessly to his amateur dramatics. The Empty House Players are doing a production The Likely Lads and he is playing Bob. He is from Streatham and is having trouble with the Newcastle accent. Each week he gives me a progress report on this and we have the same conversation about what the pub names were in the TV series. We take it in turns to name The Fat Ox, The Black Horse, The Drift Inn, and The Wheatsheaf. Martin is possibly the most tiring of all the callers. It’s a good thing he only phones once a week.

What have you been doing? Your phone’s been off all afternoon,’ Diane says, angrily. ‘She’s not there is she?’

No. I told you, Diane. Tracey moved out last month.’

But she’s still got her stuff there.’

Hardly anything, and as you have seen its all packed away in the spare room.’

H’mm. Then what has been going on? You can’t have been on the phone all afternoon.’

It is Wednesday, Diane. You know that everyone calls on a Wednesday.’

You don’t have to answer the phone, do you?’

If I didn’t answer it, then I wouldn’t be talking to you now.’

Why don’t you have caller display, like everyone else?’

Probably because CheapNet don’t do caller display. It was you that suggested CheapNet.’

It wouldn’t be so bad if you got another mobile. Or got the old one repaired.’

It’s beyond that I think. They don’t like being immersed in buckets of bleach.’

But why don’t you just put the phone down when these people ring?’

Well, you know how it is, once you get talking.’

These are salesmen, Clive. They keep you talking and before you know it you’ve bought a brussels sprout farm, or a time-share in Turkmenistan or, knowing you, Beyonce’s underwear or something.’

Diane and I have been seeing each other for several months now. We met at that supermarket pub. Oh, what’s its name? The one that is not Wetherspoons. I was minding my own business, quietly drowning my sorrows having just had a row with Tracey. Diane was on a girls night out. She became upset about something one of her friends said about what she was wearing and came over to join me. Do I look like a slut to you, she said. I said no, you don’t and somehow we ended up spending the night together. These things happen. You can’t plan everything in life. Life’s what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans. Someone famous said that. I can’t remember who. Not that I ever have. Make plans that is, but the following day Tracey having put two and two together, packed her bags and left. Her plan hasn’t changed. She has shared it with her solicitor, Mr Doonican and he keeps writing me letters regarding the sale of the house. I suppose I can count myself lucky that Tracey and I did not have children.

Diane is a few years older than me. She is divorced and lives on Canal Street. She has a fluctuating number of teenage children. They keep moving out and moving back in again, depending on their fitful relationships, their finances and their oscillating states of mind. I blame Kites. You can buy anything over the counter there and they even have a delivery service for their research chemicals and plant food. There’s one called Herbal Haze that the kids seem to like and another called Blue Cheese. And of course, the old favourite Go-Caine. Riley, the eldest is probably the worst. But Randall and Regan are nearly as bad and a couple of weeks ago we even found Rhiannon calling God down the great white trumpet after a binge on something. Rhiannon is only fifteen. It’s no wonder that Diane wants to come over and spend so much time at my house.

OK, I get your point,’ I say. ‘I’ll change my phone number. I will call CheapNet as soon as I’ve put the phone down.’

I’ll be over in twenty minutes’ says Diane. ‘It’s bedlam here with Ryan’s hip hop music. …… Do you want me to wear anything special?’

No. just come as you are,’ I say.

I’d better not do that,’ she laughs. ‘I think I ought to put some clothes on first. I’m in the bath, lover.’

I explain that I am receiving nuisance calls and CheapNet are quick to change my number. Everything is in place within twenty four hours, phone, internet, the whole caboodle. Other providers might take weeks and still charge a colossal admin fee, but CheapNet charge nothing for the service. They even have a Welsh call centre, and in answer to my query, Dewi explains that CheapNet would be offering the Caller Display facility within a matter of weeks.

There are no missed calls when I come home from working late on Friday and Diane and I are able to enjoy a pleasant weekend at the seaside, the only interruption being when on Sunday morning, Diane gets a call that Riley has been arrested in the early hours for Affray. She handles it very well. She does not rush back to bail him out or anything like that. It is not entirely unexpected, she says. Diane has a measured approach, she takes things in her stride.

I get home from an early shift on Monday and am looking forward to an afternoon nap. I put the tiredness down to the late nights we had over the weekend. But, no sooner have I got through the front door than the phone rings. It is quite a pleasant melody. Mozart I think. Or is it REM? Much better though than the old ringtone. I am thinking it must be Diane calling. She is the only one who has my new number. I wonder what she might want. I hope it’s not about Riley. We had enough about his troubles yesterday. Perhaps she has just left her keys in my car or something. I pick up the phone and am greeted by Bill’s familiar voice.

The Robins didn’t do so well at the weekend, did they?’ he says. He means Swindon Town. This is their nickname. Swindon lost four one at home to Crewe, after being one nil up with twenty minutes to go. This apparently ruins their chances of promotion.

I am too taken aback to respond or even to ask how he got hold of my new number.

He is quite happy to guide the conversation. He tells me his hip has been giving him gyp over the past few days. He thinks he may need a replacement.

I’m sorry to hear that,’ I say.

But being on a zero hours contract, I don’t know how I am going to be able to afford the time off work.’

That sucks,’ I say. I do not tell him that at the packaging plant, I do not have any kind of contract. Job security does not seem to be something that is on their agenda.

But I do have some hot tips for you,’ he says. ‘And you will get good prices if you get in quick.’

I have to say, Bill, your horses have not done so well lately,’ I tell him.

These two will,’ he says. ‘Have you got a pen handy?’

Oh, go on then. Fire away!’ I say. The question of how he got my new number is fading. I must be a soft touch.

In the 3:30 at Pontefract, Forgive and Forget,’ he says. ‘And in the 4:15 At Market Rasen, Cold Call.’

I’d better get the laptop out and get on to BetterBet,’ I say.

I almost say ‘Speak to you tomorrow, Bill. I’ll give you a ring,’ but manage to catch myself. Why would I want to phone Bill?

Forgive and Forget falls at the first. I reason that Cold Call will probably do the same. But, what makes me think of betting on Brave New World instead, I don’t know. It has no chance. It is thirteen years old and has yet to finish a race. It probably has only three legs or something. What makes me put £50 on the nose is something I cannot begin to comprehend ……… but Brave New World storms in at 100 to 1.

No sooner have I got the notification from BetterBet than the phone rings. It is PPI Linzi ringing to talk about her troubles.

Without giving me the opportunity to ask how she has got hold of my new number, Linzi begins to update me on her husband Derek’s drinking, a bottle of Bacardi during last Friday’s EastEnders special, six pints yesterday lunchtime. Half a bottle of ……. I gently put the receiver back in its cradle.

© Chris Green 2019: 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

A.M.

AM

A.M. by Chris Green

Why am I awake? It’s 2:38 a.m. and it really doesn’t matter where San Anselmo is. But I have the song in my head, Snow in San Anselmo. Going around and around. My brain won’t let it go. I don’t have Van Morrison down as a skier so perhaps he’s referring to cocaine. There was a lot of that about in the rock world back in 1973. Probably still is. So where is San Anselmo? I’m completely stumped. I have to get up and Google it to find out. It’s easier than lying awake speculating. It transpires San Anselmo is in California, north of San Francisco. It is a warm place but apparently, Van is singing about an unusual bout of wintry weather they had there in the early 1970s. Good! I would not want to think that Van needed Colombian marching powder in order to write a great tune,

No sooner have I settled than I find Tupelo Honey going around in my head. Where on Earth is Tupelo? I like Van Morrison a lot but I do wish he would stick to the same hours as me. To most people, it would not matter where Tupelo was unless they were planning to go there. Certainly not at 2:46 a.m. when they need to sleep. But I have to find out. I discover Tupelo is a small city in Mississippi. No snow here, ever. Tupelo is the home to multiple arts and cultural institutions including The Elvis Presley Birthplace. And of course, honey.

I find I suddenly need to check out where Cyprus Avenue is. It is now 2:57 a.m. In case you have the same problem in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep, I can let you know it’s a residential street in Belfast. It has nothing to do with cypress trees if that was what you were thinking. There. All done.

Just in case Van has sung about any other places I don’t know about, I leave the laptop open on the bedside cabinet. It’s quite likely something will come up. Van has recorded forty studio albums plus a number of live albums.

But now it’s the other Morrison. Jim. It’s 3:17 a.m. and Love Street by The Doors has made its way into my head. I discover from Wikipedia that Love Street is Rothdell Trail off Laurel Canyon Boulevard in Los Angeles where Jim Morrison used to live with his girlfriend, Pamela. Soul Kitchen which I find lurking in my consciousness at 3:28 a.m. is, you will be pleased to know, Olivia’s in Venice Beach, Santa Monica.

I can’t sleep,’ I tell Doctor Hopper. ‘Every night I get Van Morrison and Jim Morrison tunes in my head and need to find out facts about them. There seems to be nothing I can do about it. Believe me, I have tried but it’s more than curiosity. It’s a compulsion. It’s been this way for weeks. What’s your diagnosis, doctor? What have I got?’

H’mmmm. I’m afraid it looks as if you may have Acute Morrisonia,’ Doctor Hopper says. ‘It’s quite a rare condition. In fact, Acute Morrisonia or AM as it is known has only recently been recognised by the medical profession. It’s not life-threatening but it will need careful management. You will need to avoid all classic rock music. Especially Van Morrison and Jim Morrison. That’s the first thing. Don’t listen to it. Don’t read about it. Don’t think about it. Don’t go near anyone who listens to it. Tell yourself it doesn’t exist. Also, I’m afraid you’ll need to de-sensitise yourself with four hours of bland pop every day. Mediocre middle of the road fare only. Now, I’m going to prescribe a triple album of Abbas Greatest Hits to start you off. If that doesn’t work then we may need to try you out on Phil Collins or Cliff Richard.’

I try my hardest to follow doctor’s orders but on the second day, I crack. Knowing Me, Knowing You, the fourth time around is the one that breaks my resolve. It’s simply excruciating.

And now, of course, its a.m. again and my AM is back. Where, I’m wondering, is the Vanløse that Van sings about in Vanløse Stairway?

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Schrödingers’ Cat

theschrodingerscat

The Schrödingers’ Cat by Chris Green

Each, evening, Mr and Mrs Schödinger liked to walk their salt and pepper schnauzer, Ernst along the Promenade. Mrs Schrödinger would take the opportunity to window-shop in the fashion boutiques while Mr Schrödinger used the time to fantasise about what he would like to do to Hermione Shakespeare in the office where he worked as a designer. Mr and Mrs Schrödinger had not lived in the seaside town in the west of England very long. They came over from their native Austria to follow their leisure interests, there being few opportunities for surfing or yachting in landlocked Linz.

Their evening constitutionals with Ernst took them past a new pet shop that had opened next to the holistic gifts boutique that Mrs Schrödinger liked. In amongst the mice and gerbils in the window of For Pets Sake, there was a picture of four kittens. Good homes were wanted for these said the advert.

I think we should have one,’ Mrs Schrödinger said. ‘Just look at them. Aren’t they adorable? And a cat would be company for Ernst while we are out on the boat. It would help to calm him down.’

Mr Schrödinger felt that Ernst was calm enough. A more placid schnauzer you couldn’t wish to find.

Some schnauzers can be quite vicious,’ he added. ‘George Pagan’s giant schnauzer, Bruiser would bite you as soon as look at you. But Ernst doesn’t even bark at the postman.

As always, Mrs Schrödinger was able to get her own way. The wrong side of forty she might be but she still had potent weapons in her carnal armoury. So long as Hermione Shakespeare remained no more than a twinkle in Mr Schrödinger’s eye, she would be able to retain her power over him. The mackerel tabby kitten duly arrived chez Schrödinger.

You have probably heard stories connecting the name, Schrödinger with cats, not all of these ending well. Perhaps no more than half of them ending well. Let’s dispel the notion that the new kitten will be subject to a thought experiment. This is not going to happen.

Mrs Schrödinger called the kitten, Lucy, even though it turned out to be a boy cat. Lucy quickly settled into a routine of annoying Ernst. There are so many ways in which a cat can wind a dog up and Lucy quickly mastered them. She even added some new ones. She chewed up Ernst’s soft toys, sat on his head when he was trying to sleep and went to toilet in his food bowl. Once or twice, she even managed to get a bark out of the laconic hound. Lucy was, of course, quickly neutered at Vets4Pets but this made little difference to her delinquency. There was no doubt about it, Lucy was a spirited cat.

She has the devil in her, that one,’ Aura, Mrs Schrödinger’s yoga teacher said. ‘Did you know, cats can see ghosts and angels and even demons?’

One evening, when Mr and Mrs Schrödinger were taking a trip around the bay in their boat, Lucy disappeared. When she had not returned by lunchtime the next day, they began to quiz the neighbours. Neither the Nancarrows next door or the Trescothicks across the street had seen her. Rosey Parker who knew everything that went on for miles around said she had heard nothing. Mr Singh who ran the convenience store on the corner seemed completely disinterested.

Your Lucy will be back in a day or two, Mrs Schrödinger,’ Penny Penhaligon in the hairdressers told her. ‘You mark my words. Cats like to go off to explore now and then. It’s in their nature. My Bruce is always going walkabout.’

You haven’t been here long, have you?’ Salty Jack at the Sailing Club said. ‘You’ll discover all kinds of strange things go on down here in Cornwall once you’ve been here a while. Cornwall is the home of mystery and magic.

The plea they stuck onto lampposts around the neighbourhood offering a handsome reward for Lucy’s safe return brought no response, except for a nimiety of bohemian-types collecting for new-age charities.

Mrs Schrödinger was beside herself. With the inevitable dropping off of her libido, Mr Schrödinger turned his attention once more to fantasies about Hermione Shakespeare and he even started going in to work early in the hope of wooing her. Meanwhile, without Lucy around, Ernst perked up considerably.

On the fifth or sixth evening, Mr and Mrs Schrödinger had just returned from walking Ernst when there was a hesitant knock at the door. An elderly stranger with a hangdog expression stood across the threshold.

I’m really sorry to have to call, like this,’ he said. ‘My name’s Breok. You may have seen me in passing. I live just down the road at number 55. I’m afraid I’ve found your cat at the bottom of my back garden. I looked at the collar and it had your address on it so here I am. I think the poor animal may have been attacked by a dog or a fox or something. Anyway, the cat was dead so I put it in a box. I don’t know what you want me to do with it. Perhaps you might want to bury it. If you do, I will bring the box round.

Distraught, Mr and Mrs Schrödinger identified the dead cat. It was unmistakably Lucy and Lucy unquestionably dead. Several days dead. Tears were shed, then silence prevailed, as a funereal atmosphere descended on the Schrödinger household. Even Ernst went into a protracted sulk.

The following morning, to their amazement, Lucy came bounding up the stairs. How could this be? The Schrödingers looked at one another, both waiting for the other to come up with an explanation. None was available. It was seemingly impossible. Yet, the cat meowing furiously to be fed was definitely Lucy. Exact same markings, same scratch under the left eye where Ernst had finally reacted to her constant agitation, the same Kittyrama collar with her name and address. There was no doubt about it, this was their cat.

Mrs Schrödinger was ecstatic and Mr Schrödinger was pleased as this meant their normal conjugals might be resumed. The previous day’s humiliation when Hermione Shakespeare had slapped his face could be put to the back of his mind. Ernst, of course, was crestfallen that the cat had returned.

Like its counterpart in the famous thought experiment, the Schrödingers’ cat appeared to be both dead and alive. Perhaps there would never be an explanation.

I said Lucy would be back,’ Penny Penhaligon said when Mrs Schrödinger called in for her weekly trim. ‘My Bruce always comes back with his tail between his legs.’

Why don’t we have a nice cup of tea and you can tell me all about it?’ Rosey Parker said.

I told you mysterious things happen here in Cornwall,’ Salty Jack said. ‘It’s considered the birthplace of myths and legends for good reason, you know. Theres magic in the air. The laws of cause and effect don’t apply here.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Seven

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpartseven

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

As many of you will be aware, Wet Blanket Ron started life as one of my fictional creations, based originally on someone called Dale Loveless, a ne’er-do-well of my acquaintance. This, of course, was just a starting point for the character. In the interests of drama, I allowed Ron to change according to the needs of each story he featured in. Those of you who over the years have followed his progress closely will know that recently, Ron made a bid to break free and start a new life of his own. He no longer wanted to be a character in my stories. He was tired of constantly being the victim.

To what extent, he wondered, did he exist or could he exist? There were so many everyday matters a fictional character needed to become familiar with if he was to get by in the real world. Where, for instance, would he live? How would he earn a living? As readers will know, Ron’s work record as a fictional character has been nothing short of disastrous.

Without relevant experience in the real life workplace, opportunities did not knock. The black economy beckoned. Although Ron’s first steps at wheeling and dealing showed great promise, it inevitably ran into difficulties. We left him at the end of Part Six with the Serious Crime Squad knocking at his door to bring him in, a duplication of his experiences as a fictional character. Ron was learning that, after so many years in bondage, it would not be easy to adjust to the dog-eat-dog world we live in. Without the guiding hand of an author to shape his destiny, he would need to show resilience and imagination if he was to succeed. Did he perhaps have a plan?

…………………………………….

I am horrified when I arrive home from a short break in Stockholm to discover this document open on my laptop. It appears Ron is writing his own dystopian novel.

Doom B by Wet Blanket Ron

I wish I could tell you everything was going to be all right. I’d love to let you know that you would survive this debacle. But unless a miracle occurs, this time next month, you will be dead. We will all be dead. Every single one of us will have perished. Who would have thought pigeons could be so dangerous? That each time you fed the lovable little birds in the park or put bread out for them in your garden, you were in effect signing your own death warrant.

Pigeons are not at all the cute creatures that so fascinated the painter, Pablo Picasso. His father kept pigeons back in Malaga and sometimes the young Pablo would take them with him to school. He maintained his fondness for the birds. Throughout his life, he painted them, blissfully unaware that many years later these same birds would be responsible for the downfall of mankind. That they would transmit the deadly Doom B virus, a malady for which there was no antidote. Not only is Doom B madly infectious but swift. As you have probably heard by now, the virus kills its victim within two hours.

At first, it was thought that a mass slaughter of pigeons would contain the spread of the virus. But this took place and made no impact. The rotting corpses of the pigeons turned out to be even more deadly than the live birds. In any case, it was probably too little too late. The damage had already been done. Too many people had already been infected. Billions the world over. The spread of the virus was irreversible. Although it was primarily an airborne virus, Doom B was so infectious it could even be transmitted by phone.

Ron is really going for it here, isn’t he? Nothing cheery about this scenario. No light at the end of the tunnel. No sense it will end well. It seems he is keen to justify his nomenclature. This is Wet Blanket Ron in a nutshell.

Wait! Here’s another.

Dog by Wet Blanket Ron

As she lay dying beside the burning wreck of the Subaru, Betty Oosterhuis wondered what would happen to her Jack Russell, Frank. Would poor Frank have to be put down? Surely no-one else would be able to tolerate his barking. But Frank had seen her through thick and thin. Frank saw off all those delivery people that wanted to put bills through the door or those that called around to talk to her about going to church. Frank got the annoying neighbours to move out. The ones who planted those big trees that blocked out her light. Frank’s barking saved her that time her son broke down the door with an axe. He ………

Ron is blatantly taking biographical details from my life in this one. Mrs Oosterhuis was my next-door neighbour. The neighbour from Hell. The one with the awful dog that forced me to move. How could I hope to write meaningful prose with the hideous thing barking all day? What is Ron up to?

Here’s yet another story he’s started. He’s left it open on the taskbar. It’s called Death of the Author. This was the title of an essay by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes about the need to separate a literary work from its creator. I remember it from my student days. A seminal work. My tutor, Aretha Holly spent a whole lecture talking about it. French theorists were all the rage at the time, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, the library shelves were full of their weighty tomes. Barthes was perhaps the only one I could get my head around. But Ron’s story presents a more literal interpretation of the term, death of the author. It appears to be about a real author. It’s about someone plotting to kill a writer…. Bloody hell! It has me in it as the central character.

…………………………………….

Ron must have meant me to find these stories. The documents were open on my laptop. He must have realised they would send me into a panic. A fictional character coming to life in a work of fiction is one thing but a fictional character coming to life in real life is another. And a fictional character coming to life in real life and suggesting killing his creator is scary. Even if it is not Ron who wrote these but a random breaker and enterer having a prank by pretending to be Wet Blanket Ron, there’s no getting away from the fact that someone other than me has in my absence been on my computer and written these stories. Someone with malicious intent. Someone who wants to kill me.

I take a careful look around the house. Everything appears to be in place and I can find no evidence of a break-in. I debate whether to take the matter to the police but I conclude they would probably not have the expertise to deal with a case like this. They would ask questions like has anything been taken? How do you know this man, this Wet Blanket Ron? What does he look like? They would definitely not respond favourably to my, he is fictional; I created him. I don’t know what he looks like.

But this is the problem, I don’t know what he might look like in the flesh. I’ve always pictured him in his forties, about five feet nine, a bit of a paunch, sober, ill-fitting clothes, a hangdog expression, perhaps going grey or thinning on top, maybe a pair of brow-line spectacles. But, of course, I don’t know. Even if I did, he might be in disguise. So, how will I know if Ron suddenly appears? I begin to eye everyone I see with suspicion. Might they be Wet Blanket Ron? I size up every stranger in the street. Are they following me? Are they approaching me with intent? Might they be brandishing a club, wielding a machete? Might they be reaching for a gun from a shoulder holster? Why is that man in the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds T-shirt bending down to tie his shoelace? Is the fellow in the orange hi-viz jacket delivering letters really a postman? Why are those men waiting outside the boarded-up tobacconists’ shop?

I step up the security at home. I change the locks on the doors and windows. I change all the passwords on the computer. I get into the habit of shutting it down when I am not using it. I put a new sim card in my phone.

I return home from my evening shop to find the laptop is on. There, open on the screen is a new document. It’s called simply, What Does a Writer Do All Day? It describes my movements throughout the day in great detail including where I parked the car, the people I spoke to, the shops I went into and the places I crossed the road. Ron knows my every move. This raises the level of scariness to critical.

I decide to talk to my old friend, Pete Free about it. As Wet Blanket Ron is loosely based on Dale Loveless and Pete has known Dale since college, I figure he might have an idea of what Dale, and by extension, Ron might do next. Admittedly, it is a huge leap in logic. But even if it is a longshot, I have to try something. I mull over the riddle of existence. How does anything organic come about? There must always be something that gives rise to matter, something that precedes it. Matter cannot originate out of nothing. Or can it? Can living organisms spontaneously materialise, for instance, from an idea? As Ron appears to have done here. I take comfort from the fact that Pete is a bit of a philosopher. Surely, he will be able to shed some light on this conundrum.

I call around to Pete’s and before I know it, he has handed me a large spliff to look after. I seem to recall this is exactly what happened the last time I visited him. Once again, on leaving, I remember little of our conversation except that Pete hasn’t seen Dale, has no wish to see Dale and has no idea what he might be up to, has no interest in Wet Blanket Ron and that the universe is a hologram and we are floating inside it. I have the feeling I already knew this from my previous visit.

Being skadooshed seems to stir up something in the depths of my consciousness. On the way home, it suddenly occurs to me that the answer is staring me in the face. I could re-fictionalise Ron, simply put him back on the written page where he belongs. I could write a new Wet Blanket Ron story. This time around, I could give him a favourable situation so he wouldn’t have a problem with being fictional. I could place him on a Caribbean beach with a sultry babe, a cool glass of rum and Grenadine and a big bag of Jamaican Dream collie. Perhaps he could have a long-keeled ketch moored nearby, kitted out with all mod cons. Might he even have his own private island? He could be Mr Big. Ron would command the respect of all those he came in contact with. I could even drop the Wet Blanket part of his name or at least use it sparingly.

I get down to it right away. I give Ron a record breaking lottery win, set him up with glamour model, Lara Lascala and take him to a private beach, a few miles west of Ocho Rios. He has a fully crewed, state of the art catamaran on hand for those sizzling hot days when there is nothing else for it but to take to the seas. This should keep him out of mischief for a while. Oh, and I’m giving him his own secret ganga farm in the nearby hills. What could possibly go wrong?

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Call Wyatt On The Western Front

callwyattonthewesternfront2

Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green

Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But, he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a Scriggler conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might but if Penny is honest, perhaps not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted the thing but now she finds it irritating.

She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door, when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.

The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She takes off the security chain. Still she can see no-one but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But, there is no indication who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?

Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth his moving but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From round the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.

………………………………………

Matt is surprised to get her call or perhaps he is just alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.

‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.

Penny hollers down the phone some more.

‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you?’

He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.

‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’

‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’

‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.

‘Well! He was, Matt’

‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’

‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s gone. He disappeared just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates. Is that the word I’m looking for?’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.

‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’

‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’

She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside but it is nowhere to be seen.

‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.

‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’

………………………………………

Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But, there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.

‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She just knows it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant or maybe it’s someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.

With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.

‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just, er just that I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’

‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I did try calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’

Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.

‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’

‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’

A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance complete with the cippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.

The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But, where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.

Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it so she can see what’s inside. She’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thankyou and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.

………………………………………

Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But, she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.

She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be completely empty but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo jumbo but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.

………………………………………

‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is anxious to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol round but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’

‘Thankyou for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.

‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.

‘Sorry, Sir. I was just asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’

‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’

‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’

‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Parades End, Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells.

‘And?’

‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’

‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’

‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’

You mean, Those who use the sword shall die by the sword.’

‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.

‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’

‘Meta what, Sir?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

No Elle

noelle

No Elle 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 suggests to me I had a fair bit to drink. I remember 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 daybed in the downstairs study. Elle 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 Elle, 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 Elle 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 around the door, leaving open the option of a boo type gesture, but there is no sign of her. The room is tidy. Her bed is made. It does not look as if it has been slept in. Thomas’s room, the same. Our bedroom, ditto. No Elle.

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, Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle 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, Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle 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? Is it? I don’t know. It’s never happened before. Even after Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle’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 Elle 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, Elle going off with Thomas and Maddie.’

Lovely children aren’t they,’ he says. ‘And your 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 Elle’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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle’s phone to find out if there has been any news, but they do this less and less frequently as the months go by.

Elle’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. ‘Elle 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 Elle’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 Elle, but, equally, it does not suggest that it is not. One photo is of a younger looking Elle 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 Elle 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 Elle 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 Suzie. 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 plainclothes 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 Elle’s things she took to the tip last week.

Elle won’t need this,’ she kept saying.

Six carloads in all she took, including nearly all of Elle’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 forever. 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 Elle 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 Elle 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?’

Elle 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 Elle. 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 Elle 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 Elle 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, Elle, 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 2018: All rights reserved

HEIDI

heidi2

HEIDI by Chris Green

I am stuck at the Scott McKenzie lights when I notice the car in front of me is the same model and colour, a blue Mazda 3. Not too unusual perhaps. It is a popular model. But this one somehow looks too familiar. Before I can put my finger on what it is, the lights change and the other car turns left into Mandolin Way. I drive straight on. It is Tuesday and I have deadlines to meet at work. Only then does it dawn on me that the other car had the same registration number as mine. How can it have had the same registration? Surely I must have imagined it. Perhaps I read one digit wrong. Manufacturers probably buy blocks of consecutive plate numbers.

There’s no point in going after it. It will be long gone. Mandolin Way is a fast road. But I have my Dash Cam set to record as a precaution in case of accidents. The Dash Cam was Heidi’s suggestion. She was aware of my fondness for gadgets and this was one gadget I didn’t have. I don’t recall ever having checked anything on it before. Like a Smart Meter to monitor electricity consumption, it’s one of those things that you install and then forget about.

As soon as it is safe to do, I pull over to check the other car’s plate on replay. VX09 YRG. No doubt about it. It is the same registration. To all intents and purposes, it’s the same car as the one I’m driving. I try to come up with an explanation, rational or otherwise. I cannot. I’ve owned the car for six years. It’s never been stolen, never been in an accident or written off. It’s unlikely DVLA or whoever regulates licence plates would have made a mistake and not noticed it. I am spooked. We are in the X Files, Twilight Zone territory here.

I phone the office to say I will be in a little late. Perhaps very late, I’m thinking or maybe not at all. I need time to reflect. No-one would take me seriously if I came right out with a crazy story like this. They would say they’ve noticed I’ve been acting strange lately or perhaps I ought to go easy on the wacky-backy. They are an unforgiving bunch at Zeitgeist Designs.

The feeling of unease is not going to go away. A little light refreshment in The Gordon Bennett is called for.

Probably pranksters, Charlie,’ Big Al behind the bar suggests. ‘After all, it’s only licence plates. You can get them made up anywhere.’

Sure! But why my car?’ I say. ‘What would be in it for them?’

Maybe you’ve pissed someone off and they want to get back at you,’ Al says.

If I had, surely there would be better ways to make a point,’ I say.

Perhaps it’s someone who wants to avoid paying road tax,’ Malone says.

A bit extreme,’ I say. ‘It’s an eco model, anyway.’

Perhaps it’s some kind of mega-scam and they have a whole fleet of cloned cars,’ Malone says. ‘Anyway, a Mazda, Charlie? I would have thought you could do better than that. What happened to the fast car Heidi wanted you to get?’

Back burner,’ I say.

Whatever is happening, I shouldn’t worry about it,’ Al says. ‘There’s bound to be an explanation. Another pint, is it?’

Heidi must realise from my demeanour that I have been drinking and driving but she does mention it. She does not ask what is bothering me and I do not tell her. In the end, she successfully manages to distract me. I am fortunate her libido more than matches my own. I wake the next morning with a fierce determination to return to normality.

As soon as I get in the car, yesterday’s incident comes back to me. But, I tell myself it’s a new day and there’s nothing to be gained by dwelling on it. In the big scheme of things, this is small potatoes. It is too easy to become paranoid. The slightest little thing will send some folks into a spin. I have friends for instance who believe the thought police at Facebook are controlling what they see in their feeds and forcing unnecessary purchases on them. If they could be bothered to do a little research they would discover they had complete control over their profile page. Then there are all of those conspiracy theories you get popping up in conversation. The Illuminati and the New World Order. Chemtrails. Black helicopters. The white Fiat Uno in the Alma Tunnel. No end of paranoid fixations. People need to loosen up.

I plug my iPod in and set it to a random shuffle. It plays some lilting Dave Brubeck. Traffic is light this morning. Wednesdays are often quiet. For some reason, the rush hour doesn’t kick in so much mid-week. I’m straight through the Scott McKenzie lights and in no time at all, I’m on Tambourine Way. It isn’t until I’m halfway along Reg Presley Street that I encounter any congestion. Had I had a clear run along Reg Presley, I might not have noticed it. But there, parked on the left-hand side of the road is the duplicate Mazda. VX09 YRG.

My heart is going nineteen to the dozen. I try to remember the deep breathing exercises my old Tai Chi instructor, Lars Wimoweh taught me. The 4-7-8 pranayama technique. I tell myself this could be my chance to find out once and for all what is going on. I can park up and wait until it’s owner comes along. It will be tense and the outcome will be unpredictable, possibly even dangerous but this is it. I may not get a better opportunity.

I find a space on the opposite side of the road twenty yards away. I phone the office to tell them I might be late in, something has come up. I nip into the Italian café for a large latte macchiato and a few pastries to keep me going during my stakeout. Bean Me Up’s Ciarduna con crema is to die for. You won’t find anything like this on Bake Off.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit slow but while I am in Bean Me Up it occurs to me the best way to find out what is going on would not be to wait until the owner comes along but to get in there and give the vehicle a close examination. There’s bound to be something to help solve the mystery. Might my key fob even open it?

My fob doesn’t open it. But the similarities don’t end with the number plate. It has the same My Other Car is a Porsche sticker in the back window. Heidi ordered this as a joke to try to get me to buy a more prestigious car. I may not be able to manage a Porsche but there’s a silver Sirocco GTS at Honest Joe’s I have my eye on. I bet that’s quite quick. …… What else? There’s the same unsightly key scratch along the front passenger door. Coincidence? Maybe but it has the same split in the same place on the rear bumper, the same crack on the passenger side tail-light and the same stain on the petrol filler-cap. Perhaps most spooky of all, the same book lying open face-down on the back seat. The paperback edition of Philip C Dark’s Now You See It. Granted Philip C Dark is a popular author but surely this level of coincidence is too great.

I suddenly feel dizzy, light headed. Things are becoming blurry. …… I’m slipping away ………

When I come round I find myself once more in Bean Me Up. Gianni is hovering over me.

Grazie Dio!’ he says. ‘I was just about to call an ambulance.’

My head is doing somersaults. I have no idea how I came to be here.

What?’ I say. ‘How?’

Someone brought-a you in here, my friend,’ Gianni says. ‘A fellow with a foreign accent. Not like a-mine, more ……. Eastern European.’

When?’ I say. ‘Who?’

He had big black sunglasses and a neck tattoo,’ Gianni says. ‘He said he found you lying in the gutter. Across the road there. ……. He didn’t seem to want to stay around.’

Sounds like a weirdo? Where did he go?’

More gangster than weirdo, Charlie. Mafioso or something. ……. Are you sure you’re OK? You’re not in any kind of trouble, are you? You have been acting strange lately. Perhaps you ought to lay off the papania.’

I try to regain my composure. It comes back to me that I’m looking for the duplicate car. I’m not sure I want to explain this to Gianni just yet. He’s already brought the Mafia into the conversation. I’m hoping there’s a more innocent explanation. After all, I felt dizzy and I fainted. That’s all, isn’t it? It could happen to anyone any time.

I’ll pop back in later,’ I say ‘Perhaps then I’ll try one of your sfogliatellas.’

Gianni ushers me towards a seat and gestures for me to sit down.

Later, my friend. Why not now?’ he says, bringing me a plate with a tasty looking sfoglietella on it. ‘Gratis. New recipe.’

Some things are hard to resist. Sweet pastries are near the top of the list. It all began back at Frank Portrait Secondary School with the rich sweet hot drippers they used to sell at break time. Devouring Gianni’s sfoglietellas is like bathing in syrup.

When, minutes later, I make my way out on to the street, it hits me like a blow to the solar plexus. The rogue car has gone. There is a generous parking space where it stood. Not only has the rogue car disappeared but so has mine. A big gap here too. What in Heaven’s name is going on around here?

I realise I am going to have to be very careful how I report the matter to the police. I’d probably better stick with one stolen car. I don’t want them to think I’m a sandwich short of a picnic.

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to a scratchy recording of Pachelbel’s Canon played on a ukulele, a bored-sounding girl takes down my details. Her casual response to my loss does nothing to inspire confidence. Maybe hundreds of cars are stolen in these parts every day. But when one has just lost their means of getting about, who wants to be told the police will be in touch if they hear anything? If they hear anything? You want the lazy gits to be out actively looking for your missing vehicle.

Back in The Gordon Bennett, Big Al tries to console me.

Everyone it seems is having a tough time lately, Charlie,’ he says.

He runs through a list. Spiky Pete, Billy, Wet Blanket Ron, even Tiffany Golden. All of them are apparently down on their luck. Al is telling me about the trials and tribulations of his old mate, Dylan Song when I get a call from Inspector Boss. He says he’s from the Weird Crimes Squad. When I reported the incident, I must have accidentally slipped in something about the duplicate car because he’s straight on to this.

Pleased to have someone who is actually interested in my case, I give the Inspector a detailed report on my sightings.

Lots of this kind of thing lately,’ Boss says, cryptically.

Is that right?’ I say, hoping he might elaborate.

Indeed,’ he says. ‘Strange shit accounts for nearly a quarter of all crime today. People don’t realise what a mad world we live in.’

Really?’ I say. ‘Do you know, before you phoned, I hadn’t even heard of the Weird Crimes Squad.’ I make a mental note to ask Heidi.

We are instructed to keep a low profile,’ he says. ‘A lot of the stuff we investigate has to be kept under wraps. The bigwigs maintain it would be dangerous if the public were to find out what’s really going on in their cosy little suburbs. Because of our low profile, we are underfunded. Added to which the regulars don’t always pass information about the crazy stuff they encounter on to us. So occult crime has a tendency to slip through the net. No-one is even aware of Dr Salt’s experiments or the malevolent things the Houdini Illusionists get up to. You were fortunate we picked up on your little anomaly. Sergeant Spacey just happened to be in reception at HQ when Chloe was taking your call. Something weird going on here, he thought to himself. Spacey has a sense for these things. He’s a phi beta kappa in weird. A regular David Lynch. He can read auras and interpret dreams.’

Good man to have around then,’ I say.

Between you and me, I think he’s got a bit of a thing for Chloe,’ Boss says. ‘She hasn’t got brain one but she has got big tits.’

I ask Boss what he thinks is happening.

Spacey’s wife left him recently, you see,’ he says. ‘Because of his ….. infidelities. Well, that and the stuff she found on his computer. So, I guess he’s looking for someone to….. Oh, you mean what’s the score with these cars? Well! Let’s start with the man who took you into the café. Are you quite sure you fainted? Did you perhaps catch sight of this man and not register it? Was there not some interaction between the two of you? A fracas or something maybe? An unexplained connection of some kind?’

I don’t think so, Inspector. I suddenly felt very weak and passed out.’

When I get home, Heidi manages to distract me. A different outfit this time, but just as seductive. She does not at any stage ask why I am home early or where my car is and I don’t tell her. Heidi is respectful of a man’s need for a little privacy. In the morning, I leave for work at the usual time although I am not planning on going in as I have to meet up with Boss and Spacey to talk about the missing cars.

The bus makes slow progress along Harmonica Avenue. There appears to have been an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As we edge closer, I see that two cars have collided. Two blue Mazdas. I cannot make out the registration numbers amongst the heap of twisted metal but I feel I can hazard a guess. I dial the number Boss gave me only to be told by a trembling female voice that he and Spacey have been delayed. She does not want to elaborate but when I push her, she discloses that the pair were involved in an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout and the early signs are not good.

To calm my nerves, I drop in at The Gordon Bennett. While Big Al sympathises with my plight, he reminds me it is always a mistake to trust a policeman. I point out Inspector Boss was not an ordinary policeman. I find I am already speaking about Boss in the past tense. Al seems to want to get back to yesterday’s conversation about everyone being down on their luck. Dirk Acker has gambling debts like you wouldn’t believe, Ugg Stanton’s parrot has died and Josh Jenkins is going blind. I suppose this is the mindset you develop working in a bar all day. People just want to offload. It could be that The Gordon Bennett is simply that sort of pub. Perhaps I ought to start going to The Mojo Filter instead. Or The Rose and Dalek.

Heidi has been coming up with adverts for fast cars for weeks. I decide it is time to take another look at the Sirocco. Honest Joe says for a down payment of just £1000, he will be able to arrange the finance. I tell him my Mazda was stolen and I need to wait until the insurance cheque comes through. Honest Joe tells me he can arrange this too. He says he will give me a call in a day or so. I do not mention the duplicate car. Perhaps there was no duplicate car. Sometimes it’s difficult to tell. Perhaps Gianni was right about the papania.

It’s too late to go in to Zeitgeist now. What I need is a little distraction. I head home on the bus. They have now cleared the debris at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. The road crews have been very thorough. You could be forgiven for thinking there had never been an accident. Traffic is flowing freely along Mandolin Way. No news yet on the cars or of the casualties but you can’t hurry these things. As we pass the familiar landmarks that I see day in day out, the embryo of a thought starts to form about my having sold the Mazda. For £2000. I remember filling in the slip on the registration document to someone called Ward Swisher. Where is this idea coming from? Who is Ward Swisher? How could I have sold the Mazda? False memory perhaps? If it is, there’s no sense in dwelling on it. If something is important, you remember it in due course. The truth will always out. Where does this come from? Shakespeare? The Merchant of Venice? Lancelot Gobbo, Shylock’s servant said it or something like it, didn’t he? One way or another, at least for the time being, the Mazda has gone, so there’s no point in thinking any more about it. As Lars Wimoweh was fond of telling me, whenever you are faced with uncertainty, it’s best to adopt a zen approach. Open yourself up to the universe, he used to say, go with the flow. It saves time and energy.

I arrive home in the mood for a little distraction. I’m wondering what today’s surprise érotique might be. To my alarm, there is no-one to distract me. Heidi is no longer online. The site appears to have been taken down.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

MUSHROOMS

Created with GIMP

Mushrooms by Chris Green

The cows that were in the lower field yesterday evening have gone. Perhaps they have been moved up into the top field behind the trees. I eat my breakfast on the patio, bacon, fried egg and freshly picked mushrooms with a pot of Horniman’s tea. I look out for the buzzards I can hear calling. Now and again, I spot the pair circling overhead but on the whole, they stick to the wooded area in the distance, too far away for me to get a good photo. There are some other high-flying birds which I can’t identify. They are larger than buzzards. Vultures maybe? Kites? Suzy would know what they are but she is not here.

It is a shock to see the tank coming over the hill. At first, I take the large vehicle to be a combined harvester. There was lots of harvesting going on when I drove down. It’s that time of year. It is difficult to imagine what a tank might be doing in this rural idyll. There are no military bases nearby. In fact, there is very little nearby. This is as remote a spot as you could find in the south of the country. But it is unusual to come across a combined harvester in desert camouflage. Even more unusual to come across one with a large calibre gun on the front. I do not know much about tanks but this looks like one built for modern warfare.

I have not been reading the news since I arrived at the cottage but before I left home, there seemed to be nothing in the offing that might suggest upcoming conflict. Since the American President had been impeached back in May, the world had seemed a safer place and peace talks were even underway in the Middle-East. It is said that a week is a long time in politics but even so.

There is, of course, no wi-fi here nor a phone signal here. The thinking was that without distractions I would be able to make a start on my new novel. There hasn’t been a new Lincoln Frost title for three years. This was also the reason that I came here on my own, plus the fact that Suzy and the children did not want to spend time in the back of beyond. Apparently, there were things going on in the city that took their fancy, sports events, concerts and the like.

While I try to come up with an explanation, I dart back into the house and spark up the half-finished spliff I left in the ashtray. I find it helps to calm me. Well, usually. I notice through the window the tank has been joined by a second lumbering leviathan in desert camouflage. Although the terrain is not ideal for tank-tread military vehicles, they are coming this way. They are getting closer. Unfortunately, to get to where my car is parked on the edge of the lower field, I would have to head towards them. I would be an easy target. I suppose I could just go out the back and run like hell in the opposite direction. But, why would they be interested in me? The idea is ridiculous. I’m a writer, not an insurrectionist. I tell myself to get a grip. Tough it out.

It’s a last-minute manoeuvre but with a crashing of gears they veer left and head off in a south-easterly direction towards the River Dingle. Within minutes they are out of sight. This allows me to breathe again but the puzzle as to what brought two battle tanks this way remains. While it would be nice to think it was nothing more than a routine military exercise, this somehow seems unlikely. There must surely be designated areas for these little jaunts.

The cows seem to have been oblivious to the incursion. They begin to amble back from the top field. Suddenly it is as if nothing has happened. There is peace in the valley. Once I have composed myself, I go to see if I can find the farmer. I cannot even find the farmhouse. Farms these days can spread over several miles. Instead, I take a drive to the farm shop I was told about. This is five miles away.

Farmacy is a funny little place, blink and you would miss it. Before I get chance to mention the tank, the proprietor, who introduces himself as Max, starts waxing lyrical about mushrooms. He says he has ninety three different varieties in stock, Maitake, Cordyceps, Reishi, Shiitake, Coriolus, the list goes on and on. I look around and notice he stocks little else but mushrooms. A cabbage or two and some wonky carrots. But most of the space in the shop is taken up by mushrooms, forest fungi and of all shapes and sizes. By and by, I manage to get a word in about the tanks.

No,’ he says. ‘I’ve not heard anything about any tanks in the area. Are you sure they were tanks?’

No. Perhaps they were tour buses,’ I say, sarcastically.

I don’t think so,’ he says. ‘We don’t get a lot of day-trippers around here.’

What?’ I say. ‘Not even with all these mushrooms for sale?’

In fact, we don’t get many people at all,’ Max says having missed the humour of my comment. I am about to ask him why he thinks this is but I decide to leave the conversation for another day. I bid him good day and take my leave.

I decide I might have more luck at The Ram Inn. This is several miles further west. The review of The Ram in The Good Pub Guide I keep in the car describes it as a traditional country pub where you can enjoy good food and ale and mix with the friendly locals. Admittedly it’s an old guide but what can have changed? The only other establishment listed in the area is The Blue Oboe in Little Sodding which it says caters for a more specialised clientele.

The roads consist of an informal network of narrow lanes. Some of them are little more than dirt tracks. Others are dead-ends. There are few passing places. Signposts are rare and many are vandalised, turned around or so badly weathered you cannot read them. As luck should have it, there is no traffic on the first stage of my journey. But then a Land Rover with dapple-pattern camouflage forces me, in fear of my life, to reverse about a quarter of a mile, before I finally plunge into a deep ditch. I quickly realise I am going to need help to get out. As expected, there is no phone signal. I haven’t had a signal since I came down here.

Beating my way through the undergrowth on foot with no sense of direction is hard going. The snakes are a bit of a worry. They look larger than the native species I’m used to. But perhaps the wildcats will get them. I am alone, lost, hot, thirsty, tired and terrified. The further I venture, the thicker the vegetation appears to become. I don’t think it’s my imagination. It is turning into a jungle. Do nightmares come any worse than this?

It takes me hours to reach The Ram Inn. But no consolation here. It looks as if others might have found the pub equally difficult to find. A sign says Closed Until Further Notice. It has clearly been closed for some time. Weeks, months, years possibly. It is boarded up and almost buried in buddleia and bindweed. The whole area appears to have been reclaimed by nature. Weeds several feet high grow out of gutters. Tall jungle grasses and sturdy bamboos battle to topple crumbling walls. I shudder to think what might be lurking in amongst the tree creepers. It is likely the area has been evacuated and a state of emergency declared. There is no one around to ask.

This also means there is no one to confirm what to my untrained eye looks like an abandoned lunar module in the middle of what once might have once been the village green. I suppose I should be thankful it is abandoned but I am scared. This is not a normal thing to find in the country. I begin to get the feeling once more that something apocalyptic is taking place. I need to find a passage back to the place I was before. But there again, it would be disheartening to try and retrace my steps, especially considering the car is in a ditch. So, I continue to head west. It can’t be more than fifteen miles to the coast.

Robinson Crusoe, I am not. My survival skills are at an elementary level and my navigational skills are dependent at the very least on GPS or large scale maps. Or Suzy. I have none of these. After an hour or so of trying to follow unmaintained footpaths through the wilderness, in a clearing I come upon a brightly coloured static caravan. I am greeted by a pair of beaming hippies in matching hemp dungarees and plaited ponytails.

I’m Mr Kite,’ says the one with the long white pointed beard, headband and John Lennon glasses.

And I’m Rain,’ says the woman with the purple hair. I’m a Pisces.’

I introduce myself. ‘Thank goodness I’ve found signs of human life,’ I say.

Life is the only thing worth living for,’ Mr Kite says.

What has happened to everybody?’ I say. ‘What’s going on?’

Stillness, man,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Stillness is a virtue. True happiness is not out there. True happiness lies within.’

We’re pretty much on our own now,’ Rain explains. ‘Although there is a guy with a mushroom farm a little ways down the track over there. Lovely fellow, he is, but a bit excitable. Sagittarius.’

So what happened?’ I repeat.

Things changed but then life is change,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Change brings stability.’

Perhaps you might be more specific,’ I say. I have the feeling if I am to get the story, this pair might need to be hurried along a little.

It all began a few months ago when they started making a movie around here,’ Mr Kite says.

Exactly a year ago, it was,’ Rain says. ‘I remember the date because it was the day after the Moon, Mercury and Mars were in conjunction.’

He may not be interested in Astrology, my love, Mr Kite says. ‘Shall I tell him about the film?’

OK. I expect we’ll have the chance to tell him about the conjunction later,’ Rain says. ‘After all, it is in the celestial sphere that the numbers spin.’

Anyway, the film they’ve been making is one of those apocalyptic thrillers,’ Mr Kite says. ‘You know, man, like 28 Days Later.’

They chose this as the location because it is the most remote spot in the country,’ Rain says. ‘Well, there are a few places in Scotland that are quieter but other than that.’

I tell them I came down here for the quiet but the area does appear more remote and run down than I thought it was going to be.

A lot of the folk living in the area thought the apocalypse in the film was real. I think it was the mushroom cloud scene that did it. They thought what they were seeing was really happening,’ Mr Kite says. ‘So they hurriedly packed a few things and left. You must have passed some of the abandoned houses.’

I tell them I did not come across any houses, abandoned or otherwise.

That’s probably because of the jungle,’ Mr Kite says. ‘The film people used a magic fertiliser spray to make the vegetation grow quickly.’

Probably highly toxic,’ I say.

There were one or two casualties during the filming,’ Rain says. ‘But death brings rebirth. Cells in our bodies die all the time and are replaced by newly generated cells. We get reborn every moment.’

While they were filming, for one reason or another, the others gradually moved out,’ Mr Kite says. ‘Perhaps it was the announcement the film people made about fallout. Simple country folk, you see. They didn’t realise that this was all part of the drama.’

We decided to stay,’ Rain says. ‘We like it here in the wilds. You can be at one with nature.’

Until a few days ago, we thought they had completed the film,’ Mr Kite says. ‘But they’ve been back this week to get what they call filler shots. I spoke to the unit director dude. He said they would soon be out of our way. …… You’ve probably noticed the odd army vehicle prowling about.’

Indeed,’ I say.

I expect you’re hungry,’ Rain says. ‘Would you like some mushrooms?’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Six

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpartsix

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

The fat lady is not yet singing. Wet Blanket Ron wonders if there is then still time for a reprieve. A final act? A happy ending in this long and drawn out saga? He has been at the mercy of his heartless creator for so long that there is no obvious reason for him to suppose there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Time and time again our hapless hero has been at the fall end of windfall.

Having discovered he is a fictional character, Ron dreams of a change of fortunes. In short, he wants his freedom. After all, Kilgore Trout, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional creation who suffered similar abuse at the hand of his author finally freed himself. Perhaps more famously, Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes came to life so thoroughly that many doubted he was ever fictional. Holmes even has his own pages of quotes in literary compendiums.

Ron dreams of living by the sea. The Côte d’Azur perhaps or Portofino. With Marilyn Monroe. No, wait! Marilyn Monroe’s dead. Dead’s worse than being fictional. In any case, she would be old by now. The Seven Year Itch was a long, long time ago. Even Kathleen Turner and Jessica Lange would be getting on a bit. Charlize Theron? Beyonce? The problem is that these are all famous people. The glitterati. It is not going to be easy for a small-town fictional character to master the complexities of the modern world, let alone mix with high-fliers. Maybe Ron should set his sights a little lower. A maisonette in Torquay with Tina from the nail bar perhaps or a caravan in Burnham on Sea with Karen from Greggs? Ron will, of course, need to put from his mind that his last girlfriend as a fictional character, Lola, like her namesake in The Kinks classic, to his embarrassment turned out to be a man. Neither does Ron’s work record bode well for success in the real world. His creator has been merciless. Every job Ron has had has ended in disaster, often his arrest and to cap it all, a spell or two at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The lines between fiction and reality have a tendency to become blurred. Aren’t most people’s lives a kind of fiction anyway based as they are on some social construction of reality dictated by the purveyors of taste? Fiction itself no longer seems to be separate from real life. Who can say for certain anymore which is which? Might the blurring of boundaries present in today’s metafiction work to Ron’s advantage? Might the confusion be helpful for his transition towards control of his own destiny? The fat lady is not yet singing so who knows what is around the corner?

The adjustment to real life is a big one and Ron New finds it strange at first. When you are a fictional character you do not have to make any decisions. Be it good or bad, everything is arranged for you. The real world is not like that. You have to decide when to get up, what to wear, what to have for breakfast. What foods do you actually like? Where do you like to go? Who do you speak to? What do you talk about? How do you introduce yourself to people you feel attracted to? How do you get out of situations you don’t like? But before any of this, there are more pressing problems. How do you get a job to earn money to buy food and clothing? How do you find somewhere to live? Are there any shortcuts to survival? Are there any short cuts to success?

Ron is on the street in a town that he does not recognise. He has a nagging suspicion it is in the south of England but without any previous experience of the real world, he cannot be sure. But at least it appears to be by the sea. So far as he can tell, he has little more than the clothes on his back, a pair of frayed black Levi jeans, a windcheater jacket and an Ellesse rucksack that has seen better days. There are no keys in his pockets nor is there any money. He has a vintage Nokia phone but discovers it has just 49p credit on it. Contacts has only one contact anyway, someone called Doobie. What kind of a name is that?

Ron feels every bit as depressed as he did when he was fictional. There are shadows where there should be none. A Nine Inch Nails tune is running through his head. Large black dogs are everywhere. In a desperate attempt to cheer himself, he reminds himself he is free. At last, he is free. He repeats it over and over as an affirmation. The world is his mollusc. Isn’t that what they say?

He opens the rucksack and finds an old pair of Adidas trainers, assorted socks and pants, a Swiss army knife, a diary from last year, a job interview letter with his name on it, a driving licence in his name with a different address and a large polythene bag of crushed vegetable matter. No money. No keys. So it goes. You can’t expect everything all at once.

The job interview, he notices, is for today and he seems to be heading for it. The job is for a position as an Appointment Canceller. Not the most prestigious of positions but he has to start somewhere. Ron, of course, cannot refer to the fictional job history which is still fresh in his head, his jobs with N Vision Inc, Daniel DeAngelo and PurplePhones for instance. These were strictly two-dimensional forays, nothing more than words on the written page. There again, as they turned out to be such disasters, it would hardly boost his chances if he were able to refer to them. Some of the pages of the diary are filled in. Might there be something that would help him get the job? There could be clues inside, meetings, appointments, this sort of thing. Even though he is not conscious any earlier real life existence, might he in some esoteric way have a back-story? As a grown man he ought to have some kind of a past.

He does not get the chance to find out.

Ron New,’ the receptionist calls out. ‘Mr Sulky will see you now.’

The interview goes badly. He does not have the required experience in Appointment Cancelling. Mr Sulky tells him he has better things to do than listen to lame-dog excuses for his not being prepared. As Ron walks away, his dream of a maisonette or a caravan with a Tina or a Karen in a south of England seaside resort, modest though it might be, begins to fade. He begins to see shadows again where there are none. A Leonard Cohen tune starts up in his head. Black dogs appear once more, ready to pounce.

His mobile rings. The display tells him it is Doobie, whoever Doobie is.

Ronny, my man,’ the fevered voice on the line says. ‘Why haven’t you called me, dude?’

Sorry,’ Ron says. ‘Who are you exactly?’

Who am I, dude, who am I?’ Doobie says. ‘You’re jiving me, right?’

Ron doesn’t think he is jiving the stranger. He is not sure what jiving is. Other than a fifties dance where you twist your partner around to rock and roll music. How does he even know that? Where does language come from? How do you acquire your lexicon of words and expressions? How can he explain to this person on the line, this Doobie character, that this is the first phone conversation he has had in the real world? Does everyone call each other dude here, he wonders? How can he explain that until recently he was a fictional character? His understanding of the ways of the world is bound to be below average.

It’s Doobie. You were supposed to call me. Remember!’

Ron doesn’t remember.

Doobie tells him they need to meet up. Ron is not sure whether this is a warm invitation or a threat but with nothing else scheduled, he agrees. He doesn’t know where The Frisky Goat is. He asks Doobie for directions.

Sitting at a corner table in the garden of The Frisky Goat, it becomes apparent their association has a lot to do with the large bag of vegetable matter in Ron’s rucksack. It ought to have been in Doobie’s possession two days ago. Ron is fronting it and Doobie is to pay him when he has sold it. It does not immediately sound to him like a good arrangement. What if he never sees Doobie again? What insurance does he have? But, once again, being new to all this, he lets it go.

Ron is surprised when later that day, Doobie phones him again to say he has a large wad of cash for him. There are several noughts on the end. Could they meet up at The Mad Dog? It appears the trade in vegetable matter is a lucrative one. What a stroke of good fortune then that during the day, he inadvertently stumbled on another cache of the same vegetable matter. Doobie is certain to snap this up too. What Ron doesn’t understand is, as the stuff is worth so much, why do people hide it in such obvious places? A lean-to in a municipal park doesn’t seem a very secure hiding place for a valuable commodity. Still, where it came from or why it was there are not his concern. He feels after years as a down on his luck fictional character, he deserves a break.

Deal done, and several more like it, Ron has enough funds to look for somewhere to live. Matt Black of Black and White Lettings explains, as luck should have it, a spacious furnished ground-floor flat in a nice part of town has unexpectedly become available. Although it is usual to have to wait for background checks, as Ron seems to have loads of ready cash, Matt says if he wishes he can move in immediately.

It is often said things tend to happen in threes. Perhaps this might help to explain how, no sooner has Ron moved into Bougainvillea Heights than he meets foxy cover-girl, Tiffany Golden. It might also have something to do with the new Porsche that Ron has bought but they seem to hit it off right away and in no time at all, Tiffany has moved in with him.

Having had a taste of good fortune, Ron wants more. He wants to make his mark, become a name in the big world. Living at Bougainvillea Heights is alright for the time being in the British summer while the sun is shining. And certainly having the lovely Tiffany around helps. But, why would anyone want to be stuck in one place? With one set of options? The same faces every day. If he thought there was all there was, he might as well still be fictional. There’s a big world waiting for him.

Tiffany agrees. With her experience in making her way in the world, she encourages Ron. She too has ambitions. Together they thrash out ways to make more money. Mega bucks, she says with a glint in her eye. Sunday Times Rich List rich, Ron suggests. What then are the growth areas of commerce? Short selling on the stock market or investment in bitcoin might achieve results but they need a large stake to begin with. Then there are long-term bets like property, gold or even domain squatting? But these can hardly be seen as get rich quick ideas. What they need is a sure-fire money-making start-up.

They decide that in today’s dog-eat-dog world, their best chance to make a fortune is to get into the fake news business. There appears to be an insatiable appetite for fake news, the faker the better. Fake news is all produced by small individual organisations, each with a specific agenda. Hoax sites, hyper-partisan sites, false statistic sites all seek to add to media obfuscation but there what is lacking is a neutral mercenary professional agency. Someone whose only aim is to make stacks of cash from disseminating everyone’s lies. This is the gap in the market that they plan to plug by setting up youbetterbelieveit.com, a fake news generator and bogus facts checker. To cover all angles they also set up dontbelieveaword.com

Although they have every reason to feel their enterprise ought to be successful, the speed with which the idea is taken up by media groups surprises them. Their sites quickly become the turn-to sites for meme-makers and clickbaiters on social media, people of all political persuasions, religious groups and killer cults. Contradictory fake news items are splashed daily all over the internet, along with fake provenance should anyone be bothered to check. Each one provides a pay-off for Ron and Tiffany.

Detective Inspector Crooner is tired of being a fictional character brought into the limelight only when there is a Wet Blanket Ron story in the offing. Worse, while he has been waiting in the wings for a new caper, he has heard through the grapevine that Wet Blanket Ron is no longer a fictional character. By all accounts, Ron is making his way in the real world. Presumably, there being few storylines for a struggling small-town police inspector, he will now be axed. He wants his freedom from the printed page too. He wants to be a flesh and blood police inspector with a seaside constabulary somewhere perhaps in the south of England. Mrs Crooner has always wanted to live by the sea.

He would then be able to continue where he left off, apprehending Wet Blanket Ron for the type of bizarre crime that only a reprobate like Ron was capable of. Like the time he had nicked Ron for bringing down rock star, Johnny Angel’s helicopter. Or the time he had pulled him in for smuggling packets of time out of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This had earned him his promotion. It was reasonable to assume that a real life Ron would be up to no good.

The path to self-actualisation that developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow outlines in his Hierarchy of Needs is a complicated five-step process. First, you need your physiological needs and your safety needs to be met. You then need to belong to a social network and be able to develop self-esteem. But, before any of these things can happen, you need to not be fictional. Being fictional is the biggest obstacle of all to self-actualisation. Incredible then that along with Wet Blanket Ron, Inspector Crooner is able to make this leap. He finds himself at a seaside resort in the south of England, the same seaside resort as his old adversary.

Old habits die hard and in the blink of an eye, he is once again on Ron’s tail but this time it is for real. He has a real team of officers and a real police station. He has access to the real police computer and all its real Intel. Crime has moved on. Attention in the modern force is moving towards cybercrime. Crooner reads up on internet misuse. The Communications Act 2003 for instance makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character over a public electronic communications network. During his research into how widespread this is becoming, much to his delight, the name, Ron New keeps cropping up. Ron is alleged to have a monopoly on fake news websites in this part of the world. Well, well, well, he thinks, what a stroke of luck!

The Bizzies are outside,’ Tiffany shouts.

Ron would probably not understand what she was referring to but he cannot hear her above the music. He is listening to Wagner’s Götterdamerung, the dramatic immolation scene at the end of the opera. Birgit Nilsson as Brünhilde is belting it out. Ron has been giving himself a crash course in culture. Along with Fellini, Proust and Eliot, Wagner came highly recommended. He has made his way through fifteen hours of The Ring Cycle. The immolation scene is the climax of the whole work. Brünhilde is mounting her horse and riding into the flames. This apparently is the origin of the phrase, it’s not all over until the fat lady sings.

Tiffany shouts louder this time. ‘The Old Bill are here, Ron.’

What? Who?’

The Bill. ….. The police. They want to have a word.’

Tell them they will have to wait,’ Ron shouts back. ‘Or better still, come back another day. …… What do they want, anyway?’

Inspector Crooner does not seem keen on waiting, coming back another day or telling Tiffany what he wants. He and three other determined officers barge their way into the Bougainvillea Heights apartment. It does not appear that they have called round to tell Ron to keep the noise down. It’s possible they have something else on their minds.

What was that about the fat lady singing?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Earworm

earworm

Earworm by Chris Green

I wake up for the third morning in a row with the chorus of Dominique going round in my head. I don’t understand where this can have come from. I have not heard The Singing Nun’s tiresome tune for fifty years. You have probably never heard The Singing Nun in which case you will have no idea what I’m talking about. Perhaps you do not even get earworms. Perhaps, like my neighbour, Mrs Oosterhuis, you can listen to Smooth Extra in your garden all day without wanting to put a hammer through the radio. I can’t. I have to be particular what I listen to. When I get an earworm, unfortunately, it sticks around.

Hearing any catchy melody is liable to set one off. Smooth Extra, of course, plays nothing but middle-of-the-road classics, designed to bury themselves deep into the listener’s subconscious. I cannot go outside if Mrs Oosterhuis has the radio on. But, I am so sensitive to the phenomenon, it only takes a name heard in passing to set off an earworm. Suzanne (takes you down to her place near the river) Caroline (sweet Caroline, duh, duh, duh). Or even a word. Silver (you’re everywhere and nowhere, baby), War (huh, what is it good for?). And every time I see a dog, Who Let The Dogs Out forces itself upon me. Each time an earworm develops, the blessed thing is likely to plague me until it is replaced by another. In this case, Dominique (a nique a nique), a weird one indeed. I have consciously tried to supplant it but it won’t go away.

Science has looked into the earworm phenomenon and lists of tunes with the greatest earworm potential have been produced. Among those which regularly appear in the top ten are Bohemian Rhapsody, Can’t Get You out of My Head and 500 Miles. This is as maybe. You could argue about it until the cows come home but Dominique is the most invasive earworm I’ve ever had. It’s driving me crazy.

Things have been getting pretty strange ever since it started. Last night I watched a forty minute film where three silhouetted figures dressed as the grim reaper threw ping-pong balls into a contrabass clarinet played by a rotating musician. It was on an Australian internet TV channel. For some reason, this was the only channel I could get on my Smart TV. I had been hoping to distract myself by watching the final episode of the Philip C. Dark thriller, Muddy Water. Perhaps I had not logged in correctly. With so many passwords to remember, sometimes I feel my head is going to explode. Internet banking alone is a little like Russian roulette.

Like Mr Jones in that song by the sixties troubadour, I feel something is happening but I don’t know what it is. Is it just the tune in my head or is something more sinister taking place? Why, for instance, has it been getting dark early the last few nights? Admittedly the nights are drawing in but it is only July. It might be nothing but what are those shiny, elliptical objects on the edge of the horizon? And where have all the birds gone? Since I’ve had this earworm, all manner of changes are taking place.

My friend, Casey Rizla says the weirdness will pass.

Nothing is ever predictable,’ he says. ‘You should learn to expect the unexpected.’

That’s all very well,’ I say. ‘But what about The Singing Nun?’

I’ll tell you what,’ he says. I will play you a tune that’s so catchy, it will see it off just like that and Mrs Oosterhuis’s radio station won’t even have it on their playlist. Karma Chameleon doesn’t come close. This is earworm gold. Not even Rivers of Babylon can touch this baby.’

Waltzing Matilda is certainly a catchy tune but I find it has no staying power and it is not long before Dominque is back. Disappointed, Casey tries another that he is certain will do the trick. This time it’s Ride of the Valkyries. Twenty minutes later, Dominique is back.

In an attempt to get to the bottom of it, I do some research. The Singing Nun, Soeur Sourire (Sister Smile) was Belgian. She was of the Dominican order which I guess goes some way to explaining the lyrics. St Dominic or Dominique was a Spanish priest. He lived very simply and travelled the land talking about the Lord. The song was a hit worldwide and went to number 1 in the US charts. Sister Smile moved in with her lesbian lover, Annie and they committed suicide together with barbiturates and alcohol in 1985. I saw her soul float through the clouds says the inscription on their gravestone.

So how does knowing this help? In a word, it doesn’t and things are getting weirder. Why was there a samba band outside the World’s End restaurant listening to the Shipping Forecast? They had made a pile of their drums and were hugging one another like there was no tomorrow. And why were those people walking their cabbages and cauliflowers in the park? On leads. Perhaps there are no longer any gods. Do I mean dogs? I’m getting confused. It’s that tune that keeps going round and round in my head. How many days is it now? I’ve lost all sense of time. I can no longer seem to tell left from right. Or right from wrong. Everything is wrong. It’s becoming difficult to believe anything. Casey Rizla says that fake news has taken over mainstream media and you need to look elsewhere for reliable information. He suggests it might be written on the subway wall. No, wait a minute! I think that was the other fellow, Simon and Garth’s uncle. Oh, what on Earth’s his name?

Something else is puzzling me. Why does the banker never wear a mac in the pouring rain? Hang on! This is a different tune. This is the one I heard the blind trumpeter playing outside The Mojo Filter this morning. It’s really infectious. It’s ….. it’s Penny Lane. Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes. It’s been in my head ….. well, all day. Dominique has gone. I was beginning to think I was going to have it surgically removed.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

GUN

 

gun2018

GUN by Chris Green

Gary Bilk works as a tyre technician in Camborne, an old mining town in Cornwall. Most evenings after work, he picks up his girlfriend, Suzi Foxx from outside HairCraft salon and takes her to The Cock Inn. They have a bite to eat, play pool, darts or dominoes and chat with the regulars about rugby. Most girls that Gary has known have found the pubs he likes to frequent a little unsophisticated. They have shown little interest in rugby, or darts, or dominoes for that matter. Because of this, his previous romances have never lasted long, but he has been seeing Suzi for several weeks.

Gary himself does not play much rugby these days. After all, he will be forty soon and rugby is a game for younger and fitter men. But, he likes to go and watch his team, Camborne RFC, especially when they are having a good run. They are currently having a bad run, due to the loss of their fly-half, John Scorer and their blind-side flanker, Trev Padstow. No one is sure what happened to the pair. They mysteriously disappeared halfway through the season. Camborne have only won one game since.

Having been thrown out of his accommodation over rent arrears, Gary is staying at his friend, Curnow’s, this despite Curnow supporting Camborne’s great rivals Redruth RFC. Suzi’s flatmate Tamsyn apparently does not like the idea of Gary staying over. The flat is too small for that kind of thing, she says. So, after their chilli con carne or chicken and chips and a pint or two of cloudy Cornish cyder at The Cock, once or twice a week, Gary and Suzi get their rocks off in his Mitsubishi Lancer. He has made it more comfortable with a duck feather duvet and pillows, a can of California car scent and a DVD player with cinema surround sound.

It is on one such occasion in the car park behind Tesco that a gun falls out of Suzi’s handbag. At first, Gary thinks it is her phone that has dropped down between the seats. Suzi often loses her phone. It is not until after they have finished their business in the back seat that he realises that it is a handgun. Handguns are quite unusual in Cornwall. Gary has never seen one before. This is the type he understands from the movies to be a semi-automatic pistol.

Fucking hell, Suzi!’ he says. ‘What’s going on?’

Oh. Don’t worry about that,’ Suzi says. ‘It’s …… only a toy. It’s a present for ….. my colleague, Hannah’s son, er, Vincent. He will be ten next week.’

Gary picks it up. It does not feel to him like a toy gun. It seems too heavy and has too much detail. He remarks on this.

They are very realistic these days, aren’t they?’ Suzi says, taking it from him and slipping it back in her bag. ‘But, I suppose that is the point.’

But…..,’ he begins.

Suzi does not let him finish. She is practised at the art of distraction. When it comes down to it, she finds Gary is the same as all other men she has been with. They might just as well have an on-off button.

While Suzi has not been in the habit of lying to him, the incident begins to sew the seeds of doubt in Gary’s mind. On the way home, after dropping Suzi off, he is unable to rid himself of the thought that it might have been a real pistol and that Suzi may be concealing something sinister from him. What does he really know about her? He knows she is twenty nine – or thereabouts. She has a fleur-de-lys tattoo on her thigh and she is a Gemini. She takes more of an interest in sport than most women do and even seems to understand the rules of rugby.

He knows nothing about her background. He has a vague recollection of her saying early on in their relationship that both her parents were dead although he cannot be sure. You don’t take in everything that someone says early on in a relationship because you are more concerned with getting your own biography across. He knows from her accent that she is not from Cornwall but he is not good at placing dialects and she has never offered any details of her origins. She appears to have no children and has never mentioned any brothers or sisters. On occasions, without being specific, she has alluded to former lovers and so far as he can tell, she is not without sexual experience. But for a woman of …… let’s say thirty three, Suzi Foxx comes without obvious baggage.

When Gary goes to pick Suzi up outside HairCraft the following day, she is not there. Normally she is outside waiting for him. He waits impatiently on the double-yellows just down the road but still she does not arrive. He decides to park the Lancer and go in to remind Suzi that he is here. Maybe one of her hair appointments arrived late or something. He might get the opportunity to check out Hannah at the same time and ask her about Vincent and his birthday. A gun does seem to be a strange kind of present in these days of drug gangs and terrorism.

I’m sorry but we don’t have anyone called Suzi working here,’ the alarmingly young receptionist says. ‘I’m Teegan. Can I help?’

Gary realises he has never actually been into the salon before. Suzi always had him wait outside. ‘Is Hannah here then?’ he asks, out of desperation.

We have no-one called Hannah here either,’ Teegan says. ‘You could try the PoundStretcher shop next door.’

Gary tries her phone. It is switched off. It is nearly half past six. He makes his way to The Cock Inn. He is not sure what the misunderstanding is, but doubtless Suzi will turn up there, full of apologies.

No Suzi, tonight then, Gary?’ Big Hank says. Hank is the one who arranges the monthly country and western nights at The Cock. Once a month he dresses like Roy Rogers and rides to the pub on his horse and tethers it up outside. You can’t be done for drink-driving with a horse, he says each time. The joke is now a little stale.

I expect Suzi will be in later,’ Gary says.

Like that, is it?’ Jago says. Jago is the dominoes champion at The Cock. He is possibly the only one who understands the scoring or perhaps he makes up the rules as he goes along. All that Gary knows is that he has never beaten him.

She’s trouble, that one,’ Hank says.

Better off without her if you ask me,’ Jago says.

No one’s asking you,’ Gary says.

The guys are right, Gary. I don’t think you can trust her,’ Bodmin Bob the barman says. ‘I saw her at Newquay Airport today. She was catching a flight. Düsseldorf, I think it was.’ Bodmin Bob has just returned from London, having done business there. While everyone agrees that Bodmin Bob is dodgy, no one is quite sure what his business is. Some think he is a fraudster while others think he is a drug dealer. There is even speculation he might be a people trafficker or a hit man. No-one can explain why he is working as a barman at The Cock.

Gary can’t remember Suzi mentioning any plans to go to Germany. While he has to admit he sometimes switches off when she is talking, especially if he is watching a game, he is almost sure he would have remembered something like that. While he still wants to think the best of Suzi, what with the gun and the hairdressers and now this, it is becoming increasingly difficult. He doesn’t want to lose face here in the bar though. Not in front of Big Hank and Jago. He would never live it down.

Ah, I’ve just remembered,’ he says, in a flash of inspiration. ‘Suzi’s sister Heidi lives in Düsseldorf. And it’s her son Vincent’s birthday tomorrow. He will be ten. I remember her buying the present for him.’

That’s nice,’ Hank says. ‘What did she buy him?’

He is about to say a gun, but catches himself. ‘A rugby shirt,’ he says instead. ‘A Phil Scrummer number 8 jersey.’

They play a lot of rugby in Düsseldorf, do they?’ Jago says.

She should have bought him a gun,’ Hank says. ‘Ten year old boys like guns.’

After leaving The Cock, Gary drives round to the address that Suzi has given him for her and Tamsyn’s flat. He knocks loudly. He is determined to find out what is going on and if he can’t get the information from Suzi, then he will be able to get it from Tamsyn. The burly wrestler type that answers the door is visibly unhappy at being disturbed by a drunken dolt, claims no knowledge of the pair and instructs Gary to leave forthwith before he punches his lights out. His girlfriend’s web of lies appears to be extending.

Over the next few days, Gary keeps a low profile. There is no word from Suzi Foxx and her phone stays switched off. He is disappointed, embarrassed and angry. He does not like being made a fool of. He keeps his distance from Curnow, and at work, he indignantly greets customers and changes their tyres with extreme prejudice. He steers clear of The Cock Inn. He doesn’t even go along to Big Hank’s Country and Western night. He gives Camborne RFC’s final home game of the season against Redruth, said to be the fiercest rivalry in rugby, a miss. He isn’t even aware of the mysterious disappearance of Camborne winger, Will Wilson, before the game. Missing Will’s dynamic runs, Camborne lose by a single point and as a result, face relegation.

Curnow has found that people in this neck of the woods usually have the courtesy to knock when they come round to visit. Equally, SWAT team raids are unusual in Cornwall. So, he is doubly shocked when early one morning such a team forces its way into his house using a battering ram.

Hands in the air!’ the officer with the Breaking Bad beard screams.

Where is she?’ the one wearing Men In Black sunglasses hollers.

Who?’ Curnow asks. This meets with a blow to the head from the one with the Die Hard facial scars.

What’s the fuck’s going on?’ Gary asks, emerging groggily from his room. This meets with a blow to the head from Samuel L. Jackson.

We’re looking for Clara Hess. That’s who,’ Jean Claude Van Damme yells. ‘Now! Where is she?’

Who? What?’ Curnow says. He appears to be adjusting to his new role of crime suspect quickly.

We know that she has been at this address, knucklehead,’ Breaking Bad beard shouts. ‘Keep your hands in the air.’

The other four begin to roam, methodically trashing the place, tipping over furniture, tossing Curnow’s belongings here and there, as if Clara Hess might be hiding behind the bookcase, in the closet, under the settee, in the fridge.

Why are you wrecking my flat?’ Curnow says. ‘We have never heard of the person you are looking for. Where did you get this information?’

Aha! We have your friend Robert Trescothick in custody, birdbrain, and he has been very helpful,’ Breaking Bad beard sneers.

Who?’ Gary says.

Robert Trescothick, asshole.’ BBB says. ‘You might know him better as Bodmin Bob,’

Gary does not see Bob as one to co-operate with the police but then you never know, do you? There’s not a great amount of subtlety with this bunch. And, of course, they may have caught Bob red-handed doing whatever it is that he does. But who is this Clara Hess, and where does she fit in? He reflects that it is safer if for the moment he pretends he does not know Bodmin Bob. This is a miscalculation. It earns him a hefty blow to the midriff from Die Hard, who has just returned to the fray.

Look here, smartass,’ he says. ‘You have two choices. Come down to the station and tell us what you know or come down to the station and we turn off the cameras and the tape and give you a good kicking.’

At this point, Gary wants to mention solicitors, but a fist in the windpipe prevents him. There is a sudden crackle on Breaking Bad beard’s radio, an unintelligible voice barks something through the static. Die Hard turns around. BBB hollers something in a cryptic language that probably only armed officers are able to understand. It seems to hail a change of plan. Without further explanation, the SWAT team vanishes.

Did all of that really happen?’ Curnow asks.

It certainly feels like it did,’ Gary says.

Must have got the wrong house, don’t you think?’ Curnow says.

Gary is not so sure. He does not mention it to Curnow but he has the growing feeling that Suzi Foxx and Clara Hess might be one and the same. He is not even sure any more about Curnow. When something like this happens you do not know what to think. To take himself off the radar, he decides to go to stay at a local bed and breakfast until it all blows over.

When later on he sees the headline in The Cornishman, CAMBORNE RUGBY STAR FOUND DEAD ON BODMIN MOOR he begins to suspect the SWAT team’s inept raid might have been in connection with this. The report says the body of Will Wilson is believed to have been lying in the undergrowth for several days before being discovered by a local man out walking his dog. …… Wilson is believed to have been shot several times by an automatic pistol ….. Police are combing the area …… They are also investigating whether there might be a connection with the disappearance of Camborne’s other two rugby stars earlier in the season. …. No trace of them was ever found …. Anyone who might have any information that might be of help in tracing the killer is being asked to contact ………

The next few days bring some startling disclosures. Two more bodies are found on Bodmin Moor, fitting the description of John Scorer and Trev Padstow, the two missing Camborne rugby stars. Bodmin Bob is released without charge. Curnow along with Clara Hess and several others whose names are not familiar face are arrested and face charges of murder or conspiracy to commit murder. It is all over the papers. At work, they are all talking about it. There is much speculation about the possible motive. Rumours are rife. A rival rugby team, Redruth or Launceston perhaps? The Devon Mafia? A European takeover? Everyone seems to have heard a whisper somewhere.

Gary does not know how to respond. In a way, he feels very close to it all. He might have seen this coming with Suzi Foxx or Clara Hess or whoever she was, but never in a million years would he have suspected his friend, Curnow would be involved. Curnow Trevanian, the skinny lad from Tolcarne, a gunman? Unthinkable. He has known Curnow since his school days. He cannot bring himself to look at the Cornishman report and especially not the pictures of them being taken into custody.

Hands up mister,’ says a small voice behind him, as he is leaving work.

Gary turns around to see a young lad pointing a gun at him, a semi-automatic pistol. The boy is laughing. Out of the corner of his eye, he catches a glimpse of Suzi Foxx wearing a summer print dress walking towards him.

Hello Gary,’ she says sheepishly. ‘Put that thing away, Vincent! …. It’s all right, Gary. It’s not a real gun, but they look so realistic these days, don’t they? …….. Hey! I’m sorry about all the trouble that I’ve caused you. I know I shouldn’t have lied about everything. The thing is I couldn’t tell you much before because ……… Well, if you’d like to come round to my new flat later, I’ll tell you then. ……. Oh, by the way, this is my son, Vincent.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Ed

ed

Ed by Chris Green

It came in with the cat a fortnight ago last Tuesday. I was holding the back door open for Tiggy when in it darted. I couldn’t get rid of it. It made itself well and truly at home. It seemed to consider itself the new household pet. I wouldn’t have thought that a unicorn would be such a domesticated beast. In fact, I wasn’t sure unicorns actually existed. Years ago, my erstwhile friend, Cliff went up Bleak Hill looking for them once or twice. He used to take his tent up there and camp out hoping to see one. But, I’m not sure he ever did. I seem to recall him remarking how elusive they were. The last time he went up the hill, his tent got trampled by rampaging cattle. He gave up his quest after that. I have often wondered what happened to Cliff. We lost touch after he moved to Topanga, a hippy enclave in California. He could be anywhere.

Unicorns are smaller than I would have imagined. If you have not seen one and I’m guessing that many of you have not, they are about the size of a Labrador dog and the horn is the size of a bone-handled dinner knife. People usually think of them as white but they are a curious silvery grey that in the light makes them seem almost transparent. Unicorns have unusual dietary requirements but fortunately, I have acquired a large stock of old free newspapers and they do keep coming through the door. My daughter, Cassie quickly became fond of our new pet and has taken to calling it Ed after Ed Sheeran. Ed is particularly fond of homework books. Apparently, he has devoured her Maths homework twice now. Since Ed arrived, Cassie has stopped asking when Mum is coming home and whether Anne and I might be getting divorced.

……………………………………

Who would have thought it? Unicorns like listening to music. While much of the time Ed is a bundle of nervous energy, if I put Radio 2 on when I get home or play a background music shuffle on the iMac, he stops zipping around the room and curls up on the rug with his legs stretched out in front of him. He makes a soft purring sound. So far as I can tell, his favourite artists seem to be Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds and The Smashing Pumpkins. Ed doesn’t seem to be so keen on hip-hop or some of the tunes Cassie plays to him on her tablet. It could, of course, be that he doesn’t really like having those over-ear headphones over his ears.

My colleagues at the office didn’t believe me about the unicorn at first, even after I had shown them photos of Ed. But, gradually a few of them began to accept that Ed was real. Fiona, in particular, showed an interest. She said she had always been curious about mythical beasts. Nothing mythical about Ed, I told her. She started coming around to visit. From the outset, Cassie eyed Fiona with suspicion. Although I told her there was nothing going on between us, I couldn’t help but wonder if she thought I saw Fiona as a replacement for her mother. I couldn’t help but wonder if I did too.

Because unicorns are so scarce, I began to speculate how Ed would be able to find a mate. I didn’t like the idea that unicorns might become extinct because of Ed’s exile. There appeared to be no books available on unicorns so under the handle of guybloke, I joined a unicorn forum on the internet for information and advice. Did anyone perhaps know of the whereabouts of a female unicorn? Just how plentiful were they? I posed these questions. Unfortunately, the forum was a little short of members and had just one other post, by a cliff77 from July last year. I wondered if perhaps this was my old friend, Cliff and left a response on his thread, hoping for some positive news. I checked the forum daily but to no avail.

……………………………………

Eventually, cliff77 replied to my message and wondered if I might by any chance be his old friend, Guy from years ago. He said he suspected now that unicorns did not exist but deep down, he still lived in hope that one day he might be proved wrong. I told him to look no further, I had a healthy pet unicorn called Ed. I gave him a description, posted a photo and suggested he dropped whatever he was doing and came over from wherever he was to take a look.

I was still waiting for Cliff’s visit when I got home from work one day to find Ed was nowhere to be seen. He had vanished. At first, I thought that despite my telling Cassie that under no circumstances should she take him out for a walk, perhaps she had done so. What if someone were to take a shine to him? What if he were to run off? I texted Cassie but she was adamant she had been at school all day. As if! She was probably down at the rec with her friends, Foxx and Qwerty. The ones from the Tokers End estate. She became very upset though when I told her that Ed had gone and started blaming me for not looking after him properly. When Ed failed to return, Cassie got it into her head that Fiona had stolen him. Before I knew it, she was back on the I hate you, it wasn’t like this when Mum was around, when is Mum coming home?

If you are going through a sticky patch in your marriage, have a contentious pre-teenage daughter and a needy cat, take my advice. When you hold the door open for your fussy feline, be careful not to let a unicorn into the house. If somehow a unicorn does make it across the threshold, don’t be tempted to see its apparent cuteness as a solution to your strained family dynamics. Never consider letting your daughter adopt the vagabond unicorn as a pet.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Three Sides to Every Story

threesidestoeverystory

Three Sides to Every Story by Chris Green

1:

I don’t know about you but I know when I am being watched. I get a prickly sensation on my skin and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This, along with a heightened sense of alert. The phenomenon has a name, scopaesthesia. I looked it up on Reddit a while back. It is described as a psychic staring effect. There seems to be some disagreement about what makes it happen but my guess is that it is a primal instinct, a form of extrasensory perception.

I am being watched now. As I walk home along Lostwithiel Street, I am sure I’m being observed. Not by a CCTV camera but by a real-life person. Looking around me, I can’t spot anyone. There are only a handful of people on the street and they all seem to be minding their own business. Possibly it’s someone from a window of one of the houses. Or from a parked car. Someone from a distance with binoculars maybe. But whoever it is, the surveillance is quite deliberate. Why would anyone be watching me? Working in quality control at the flag factory, I have little status and outside of work, I keep myself to myself. But for whatever reason, someone has me firmly in their gaze.

I first became aware I could detect being watched when I was very young. In the playground, in fact. It got me into no end of fights, most of which ended badly. On the plus side, in my teenage years, my gift got me laid a few times because I was able to tell in a crowded room, without having to look around, which girls were showing an interest. But in truth, these episodes were rare. There was Katherine. Then Rebecca. And Jennifer. Then there was Natalie and before I knew it Natalie was pregnant with Anthony. We were not yet twenty one. Anthony is nearly ten now. He’s a strange lad but he doesn’t appear to have inherited my gift.

I have learned over the years to keep my ability to myself. Sometimes though, when I am out shopping with Natalie, I might tap her on the shoulder and let her know that someone is watching me. I’m not sure why. Her reaction is usually one of exasperation.

Not that old thing again, Frank,’ she will say. ‘Don’t you realise people have better things to do than to stare at you? Even if you are wearing a floral Loud jacket.’

When I successfully point out the person who has been staring at me, she still refuses to acknowledge it. She tells me I am imagining it.

As I turn into Restormel Terrace, the prickly sensation becomes stronger. My skin feels like ice on fire. My observer must surely be closer. There could perhaps be more than one person. But this is an empty street and has no obvious common observation points with Lostwithiel Street and I can’t see anyone following me. If they are, they must be well camouflaged.

I begin to worry about my safety. What if the watcher has a gun? Is a madman? I know I’m not a celebrity or a political figure, but these things can happen, even down here in the south-west. If you’ve never experienced the sensation when you know for certain someone unseen is following your every move, you probably won’t understand what I’m talking about.

I am thankful to arrive home safely. At first, I think nothing of Natalie’s absence. I expect some of you have partners who are unexpectedly called upon to work late at the office, the nail bar or the foundry or wherever it is they work. Mr Van der Merwe probably had an unscheduled meeting with a difficult client or Kimberley Drewitt failed to turn in again and Natalie had to fill in. And, I imagine that Anthony is round at Dominic’s watching the snowboarding or waterboarding or whatever it is they are into this week. Nevertheless, I am unable to settle.

2:

When the police call round, I realise that something is wrong. Things are getting out of hand.

Sergeant Klitschko, Counter Terrorism Command,’ the larger of the two giants barks as he points his Heckler and Koch at me ‘Stay right where you are, Mr Fargo.’

Meanwhile, the one with the bad breath and the handcuffs twists my arms behind my back. It is clear to me there has been a mix-up. The person they are after appears to have the same name as me. A simple misunderstanding, a clerical error. I tell them that they have got the wrong Mr Fargo.

I don’t think so,’ Sergeant Klitschko sneers. ‘You are Mr Frank Fargo, right?’

How many Frank Fargos can there be? It is by no stretch of the imagination a common name. I thought I might have been the only one but the name came up in a story I read a while back by Philip C. Dark. Or maybe it was the other fellow? The one who wrote Three Sides to Every Story? I don’t know how I came to read it, really. It was one of those nonsensical post-modern stories, where the text refers to itself and the author appears, not my sort of thing at all.

I insist that despite the name being uncommon around these parts, they have made a mistake. I am clearly not the Frank Fargo they are looking for. I have done nothing that could warrant this heavy-handed treatment. I always pay bills on time, I tell them, I don’t park on yellow lines and I don’t even cheat at golf. This results in a hefty thump to the ribs. Further protests of my innocence result in yet heavier blows. This is not a routine investigation. These are not your everyday policemen.

3:

Many of you will no doubt have discovered that when you are least expecting it, your fortunes plummet. It quickly becomes apparent things are no longer going to be as they were. You find yourself in a dark forbidding place a long way from where you want to be. Your unexpected place might be metaphorical. On the face of it, mine appears not to be. Mine appears to be all too real. I find myself in a dark, dank subterranean pit. I don’t know where this place is or why I have been brought here but so far as I can tell I have been held captive for what seems like days. There are no windows and a tube light that flickers off and on. The walls are covered with anatomical illustrations. There is a rusty metal cabinet in the corner with some scientific equipment and some dusty old science books and one or two on psychology. Perhaps it was once a laboratory. Perhaps I am part of some grisly experiment. I have been subjected day and night to random sound effects, the kind you might expect in a chilling supernatural drama on TV. Every now and then, I hear footsteps coming down stone stairs and a bowl of what tastes like banana flavoured broccoli is pushed through a hatch. This is the nearest thing to communication that I have with the outside world.

If sleep deprivation is my captors’ intention then they have certainly cracked it. If an interrogator were to come in now, I would be likely to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear. But, what is it they might want to hear? How have I transgressed? Or perhaps more pertinently, how has my namesake, whoever he might be, transgressed? Is he a spy? Is he a killer? Whatever, I would confess. I would be the Dorset Ripper. I would be the one who defaced the Mona Lisa. I would be the one who shot Prince Philip. I would be any of these things if it would get me out of this hell hole. But, this seems a long way off. I don’t get the impression that anyone is even watching me now.

4:

If you find yourself in a desperate place, and happen to have a neuro linguistic programming workbook, I recommend you take a look. Don’t ask me how it works but with a little practice, NLP can entirely change your outlook. Demons are there to be conquered. NLP can see off fears and phobias, delusional disorders, depression and insomnia. In a word, it will help you to transform your life. There’s probably no end to what can be achieved with NLP. You are your own master. You set your own goals. You will probably win the lottery.

I am sitting with Natalie at a table in Rick Stein’s restaurant eating Dover sole a la Meunière with a side of salad leaves freshly picked from Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment. Perhaps Jeremy needs to do a little more work on the red chard but this is a minor point. I can see more clearly now. My delusions are in abeyance. No-one is watching me at the moment. Natalie and I are even sleeping in the same bed again and Anthony seems to have settled down at his new school. We could even be looking at a happy ending to the story.

But of course, like everything in life, things could change at any time. The whole hullabaloo could start up again. I need to work on that one. I suppose I could dress down, get rid of my red coat perhaps and wear more grey or brown. I could maybe get one of those drab zip-up jackets that you see old people wearing along the strand in South Devon seaside towns. Or to take it a little further, I wonder whether given time and some advanced mindskills training, I might even be able to become invisible. That would surely solve the problem. Or better still, perhaps I could become fictional. Frank Fargo, after all, is a good fictional name. I could be a character in one of Philip C. Dark’s mysteries. Or the protagonist in one of that other fellow’s. The one who wrote Three Sides to Every Story. You’ve probably read one or two of his tales, haven’t you? I wish I could remember his name. It’s on the tip of my tongue. …… Chris something. …… No, it’s not coming.

© 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,