Sophie’s Choice

Sophie’s Choice by Chris Green

I haven’t seen Sophie for years. Not since she moved up north. So, I am surprised to find her in the wines and spirits aisle in my local Tesco. She is looking at the Sauvignon Blanc range. This was always her favourite tipple. I would always go for Italian red. Chianti, Valpolicella. Bardolino. So many varieties to choose from. And good quality control. Although Sophie and I parted on bad terms, I am pleased that at last, we may have the chance to catch up. It will give me the opportunity to try to clear up a misunderstanding or two. It wasn’t my idea to break up. This was Sophie’s choice.

Hi Sophie,’ I say. ‘Lovely to see you. You’re looking good. What are you doing in these parts?’

Do I know you?’ she says.

Come on, Soph! It’s Matt,’ I say. ‘You can’t have forgotten. We were together for three years. Well, on and off.’

You’re mistaking me for someone else,’ she snaps. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to get on with my shopping.’

For a moment, I entertain the idea that I might be mistaken, and this is not Sophie. After all, it is several years since I have set eyes on her. And the mind can sometimes play tricks. But this woman’s appearance is ticking all the boxes. She is a little fuller of figure perhaps, but she looks about thirty-three, which would be about right. She is about five foot five and wears her skirt and fitted jacket in the way Sophie used to wear them. Sophie was fond of charcoal tights like these too, and block heels. Although her hair is shorter, the style is the same shape. Slightly darker, but like most women today, Sophie was forever changing her hair colour. In Line of Duty terms, this person would represent a 99.9% match.

Having added a couple of bottles of wine from the top shelf to her shop, she pushes her trolley in a determined fashion towards the checkout. I follow with my basket a few steps adrift and line up behind her. I try once more to initiate a conversation.

If you don’t back off and stop harassing me, I’m going to call Security,’ she says.

A burly uniformed security guard is hovering nearby. In case she gestures for him to come over, I pick another checkout, while keeping an eye on Sophie’s movements. I’m certain it is her. Why is she giving me the brush-off? Our breakup had been sudden. Up until then, things had been fine. We had our spats. All couples do. But we had some memorable times together. We had many great holidays in exotic locations, a stimulating social life and sensational sex. We did not even have the responsibilities that come with having children. We were free to do what we wanted, when we wanted. I felt we had a good life.

I make it through my checkout ahead of her. I wait outside. When she comes out, I try once more to clear the air.

I was only thinking about you the other day, Sophie,’ I say. ‘In fact, it was just yesterday. I remembered the time you got stranded on the platform on the Izmaylovo station on the Moscow metro with the balalaika you had bought at the market. The train left the station without you and you couldn’t contact me because your mobile phone didn’t work. I was on the train, heading west, but you weren’t. But as you know, I had the foresight to get off at the next station and come back to rescue you. I saw a balalaika in a Russian Week window display in Bigelows Department Store and remembered the problems we had getting yours back through customs. Did you ever learn to play the thing?’

What are you talking about?’ she says. ‘Who are you?’

A man in a black BMW drives around to the short-stay parking bay and beeps his horn. Sophie strides off towards it. The man opens the boot, ready to take the shopping. He is a large fellow wearing skinny-fit jeans and a muscleman t-shirt. He has tattoos up both arms. I have a bad feeling about what might happen if I don’t make myself scarce. Fortunately my car is parked close by.

It may be a foolish thing to do, and something that I have never attempted before, but as they draw out of the car park, I decide to follow them. Sophie won’t know that I drive a grey Tiguan, and it is a pretty nondescript car, the type you would not notice. It is so inconspicuous, I imagine it is probably the private detective’s model of choice. I expect Billy Hats drives one. It is early afternoon, and there is not much traffic on the road at this time of day, so I have little difficulty in keeping a safe distance behind.

We arrive at Descartes Avenue, a leafy suburban road on the Philosophers’ estate, and the BMW pulls into a driveway. I make a note of the house number, and keeping my head down, drive on by. I have no plan of what I might do with the information. I’m not thinking of becoming a stalker, but I feel Sophie’s address is something I ought to be aware of. I had not even known the name of the northern town she ran off to when she left. As we each had our own group of friends and Sophie did not do social media, I never discovered her whereabouts.

On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I see Magda. She comes around after work, and we have something to eat and go to bed, or go to bed and have something to eat. There is no set pattern. It depends on how we feel. But the relationship is probably going nowhere. Magda is married. I don’t know why it has to be Tuesdays and Saturdays. This is Magda’s choice. Perhaps her husband has a similar arrangement on those days. I don’t ask. It is none of my business.

Our schedule gives me scope to do other things on the evenings I don’t see her. On Mondays, I have a class in The Roots of American Jazz at the college, and on Fridays, I usually go to The Old Dog Inn or The Blind Monkey for a pint or two. But for the rest of the week, I am often left twiddling my thumbs. At thirty-six, I fall into that category between the more gregarious younger interest group and the glad to have got all of that over with older age group. People my age are likely to either be in settled relationships with young families or are socially inept.

On Thursday evening, I am driving home from work with nothing on my agenda. On the spur of the moment, I decide to take a detour along to Descartes Avenue to see if anything is going on. There is a silver Mercedes A-Class parked on the drive at number 66. No sign of the black BMW. Not sure what conclusions to draw from this, I park up a little way down the road under the shade of a London plane. I can wait here a while to see if there are any developments. Perhaps the Mercedes is Sophie’s car and her tattooed lover is out somewhere in the Beamer. But the Merc was not there the other day. Maybe lover boy is a dealer in luxury cars. But it doesn’t feel right. After all, this is suburbia. There must be something more sinister going down.

I don’t have to wait too long for a development. Another Tiguan draws up, this one a top of the range model with dark tinted windows. Nobody gets out. Could this be Billy Hats on a stake-out? If in the unlikely event it is, why is he too watching Sophie’s house? I’m not even sure that Billy Hats exists, or whether he is a fictional private detective. Perhaps it’s a name I picked up from a Darius Self thriller. But it is clear someone is watching someone here. And number 66 seems to be the focus. Perhaps it is part of an undercover police operation. I can’t hear the blues and twos yet, but I need to stick around to find out what is going on.

A broader, more tattooed version of last week’s bruiser emerges from the house and gets into the Merc. Sophie’s choice in men has apparently taken a tumble in the years since she we split up. These guys look like seasoned gangsters. There is no sign of Sophie. The Merc drives off at a pace. Seconds later, the Tiguan follows. If I were a betting man, I would back the Merc to lose the VW pretty easily, should it to come down to it. I don’t see any point in my joining the pursuit. I’m not sure what to do about Sophie, though. Is she part of some underworld gang? Might she be in danger? What could I do about it if she were? Probably nothing. She may of course be in the house. But, even if she is home, she is not likely to be in the mood for a visit from me. After a few more minutes without further incident, I head for home.

There has been a jazz revival lately, so I am kept busy at Brass and sometimes have to work late. Along with Magda’s visits on Tuesday and Saturday and my evening class, my week suddenly seems quite full. I stop off at Tesco some evenings for a bottle of wine on the off-chance of bumping into Sophie again. But other than this, my amateur sleuthing takes a back seat.

Lee Shirt comes in to Brass buy a new mute for his trumpet. Lee is an old friend. We go back to our days in The Hat Band, a colourful jazz combo. I don’t play in a band any longer, but Lee has stuck with it. The Hat Band sound good. I don’t think they miss me that much. If you get the chance, you should go and see them.

I saw Sophie last week,’ Lee says. ‘She was with this huge fellow with a shaved head. I tried to get her attention, but I don’t think she saw me. They were going into Barclays.’

I am tempted to ask what kind of weapon her friend was carrying, but I resist.

Are you sure it was her?’ I ask, instead.

Not one hundred percent, mate, but Sophie is pretty stunning and always dresses like she’s going somewhere special, so I’m fairy sure. Don’t know what she was doing with this mean-looking dude, though. He was built like a WWE wrestler. He didn’t seem like her type at all. It seems a bit odd, don’t you think?’

Magda remarks that I seem distracted during our lovemaking.

You used to give me big rogering and make me sing out,’ she says. ‘Now I am left waiting for that good seeing-to. Have you been visiting Valentina Vamp?’

I apologise and begin to tell her about Sophie and the hoodlums.

So you want this Sophie too,’ she says. ‘Am I not enough for you? Or perhaps you are liking these big boys now. Is that what it is? Anyway, it’s up to her who she hangs out with. That’s Sophie’s choice.’

Once you are on the lookout for someone, you imagine you see them everywhere you go. On the street, in the pub, in the queue at the post office, at the waste disposal site, in the back garden, everywhere. Wish fulfilment, I suppose. Sophie isn’t remotely interested in jazz. Years ago, she threatened to take my saxophone to British Heart Foundation if I didn’t stop playing it around the house. So when one morning I imagine I see her come through the door of Brass, I let Django go across to see what she wants. Django has just started, and he is keen to make an impression. Obviously this is not really her. Sophie wouldn’t be seen dead in baggy jeans and a John Coltrane t-shirt for a start. She ignores Django and comes over.

I’ve been the victim of identity theft, Matt,’ she says. ‘They have cleaned me out. They hacked my email, and most other accounts are connected to email, even bank details, etc. But somehow they even managed to crack my facial recognition stuff. Someone around here is impersonating me. There must be a lookalike. I got a fellow on to it, a private detective, but I haven’t heard from him for a while. ’

Not so good, but that might help to explain a few things.’

Look, Matt! I was hoping you might be able to help me reclaim my identity. I haven’t even got my birth certificate. I know you’re bound to have some of my old paperwork. I know what you’re like. You never throw anything away. Anyway, I didn’t have a phone number for you, or any other way to contact you. So I’ve driven all the way down from Yorkshire to come and see you. I know it was my choice, but I’m sorry I left you like I did with no warning, not so much as a note or a forwarding address. Water under the bridge I suppose, but I want you to know I do feel bad about it. I hope you haven’t been too miserable.’

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved
 

One-Eyed Jack

One-Eyed Jack by Chris Green

Most people associate the name, Jack Dempsey with Boxing. He was the undisputed World Heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. He was a legendary puncher and won most of his fights by a knockout. Few fighters in history have been so feared. But I will always think of Jack Dempsey as my Biology teacher from 1991 to 1996. A different Jack altogether. At around five feet six, with monocular vision and a limp, a lighter and less aggressive Jack. He was a Dubliner and spoke with a lilting Northside accent, something I had not heard much of in my sheltered life in provincial England.

Apart from being a Biology teacher, Jack was a prodigious gambler. For much of the time that he was supposed to be preparing us for our exams, he could be found in Ladbrokes, the betting shop down the road from the school. He seemed to do well. He was the only teacher at the school to drive a Lexus. Whether he should have been driving at all with his impaired vision was a moot point.

I had developed a passing interest in horse racing and liked to pick out winners. One day, Jack found a copy of The Sporting Life from my paper round secreted in my desk. He took me under his wing and began to coach me in the subtleties of betting. He taught me how to assess risk and how to spot bookmakers’ tricks. He taught me when to punt and when to leave. Pick your moment, he told me, and never bet with your heart. He seemed to enjoy having me as a protégé. Later on, he introduced me to the ins and outs of Blackjack and Poker, of which he appeared to have an encyclopaedic knowledge.

Sadly, along with the rest of the class, I learned little Biology in his years of teaching. Every one of us failed our GCSE. Hardly surprising considering I was third in the class in the mock exam with just 9%. A lot of the questions were on the human eye, and we hadn’t covered that particular topic in class. The only surprise was that the school let us sit the real Biology exam. I did exceptionally well at Maths, however, and took it at A-Level.

If my memory serves me correctly, Jack was not even his real name. He was Seamus Dempsey. But to my knowledge, no-one called him Seamus. He was and would always be known as Jack. For all I know, his passport probably had him down as Jack. He appeared to be a solitary man, but rumour had it he had a wife and daughter. But given his gambling interests, I imagine they didn’t see much of him.

After I left school, I lost touch with Jack. I heard through the grapevine that following a year of particularly poor exam results, he lost his job. Just how bad could these be, I wondered? My guess would be that Jack wouldn’t miss teaching too much. He was probably looking for an excuse to leave to become a professional gambler. As for me, I went off to university where I was able to finance my stay through clandestine poker schools and reeling in fellow undergraduates with sucker bets. When it came to working out odds, it was surprising how easy it was to fool even the most intelligent students. I didn’t try it on with the Statistics students, but the rest were taken in hook, line and sinker. Popular I was not, perhaps, but unlike the others, I did not have to worry about whether my student loan would come through on time or how long it might last.

If I had applied the principles I used in gambling to my relationships, I might have fared better with the fairer sex over the years. But here the heart seemed to be boss. Every time I thought I had it made, I found the taste was not so sweet. Rachel was a stunner and clearly impressed by my success at the tables at the casino. I frequently came away with a substantial sum. She liked substantial sums, especially when they were spent on her. She was quick to put herself at my disposal, should I ever want a good luck charm hanging on my arm. It was difficult to turn her offer down, so I didn’t. I was smitten, and after a particularly fruitful night at the casino, I asked her to marry me. She accepted and for the next two years wrapped me around her little finger. I still had some money left after our divorce, but a fraction of what I had before it.

It would have helped if I had learned my lesson there and then. Once bitten and all that. Suffice to say, I didn’t. Next up was Natasha. I met Natasha on King George Day during the July festival at Goodwood. It followed a familiar pattern. I was celebrating my success on a long odds accumulator in the hospitality tent when Natasha made her presence known. Immaculately dressed and tall with long black hair and a summer tan, she was in many ways similar to Rachel. Yet this did not put me off. The similarity encouraged me. She moved in almost straight away. The strength of the feelings I developed for her took me unawares. I mistakenly thought she felt the same way, but it seemed she just liked my S-Class Mercedes and the holidays in the Caribbean. The weekends in Paris and visits to Fabergé. And the endless gifts I showered her with day in, day out. All those unimaginative, sad clichés. How could I have fallen into the age-old honey trap?

After Natasha had all but cleaned me out and moved on, I vowed to replace the heart on my sleeve with a more guarded stance. It was clear that my conspicuous consumption attracted the wrong kind of attention. If I were to avoid gold-diggers in future, I would need to be more discreet about how I celebrated winning at the races. I needed to take a leaf out of Jack’s book. In my experience, Jack consistently came out well from his wagers, but no-one would ever suspect he was raking it in. He was the most unassuming of men. While he may have been lonely as a result, at least he seemed to be in control of his finances and didn’t have to re-mortgage his house.

I had to see this as a turning point. I decided to seek help to get me through my crisis. I researched what was available locally and found there were dozens of counsellors and therapists advertising their services. It was a minefield. Cognitive behavioural therapy, psychodynamic therapy, neurofeedback therapy, hypnotherapy, kinesiology, behavioural activation. The options were endless. The human psyche was clearly going through a bad patch.

What does polarity therapy involve?’ I asked Celeste at the Alternative Therapy Centre.

It focuses on the interdependence of mind, body and spirit, and how they interact with each other based on the universal laws of energy, attraction, repulsion and neutrality,’ she said. ‘It balances the body’s flow of energy.’

What about trans-cranial magnetic stimulation?’

TMS is a non-invasive therapy that uses magnetic pulses to stimulate the area of the brain that controls your emotional reactions and regulates mood,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come along for a taster?’

I think I might leave it for now,’ I said.

Although Joe Louis did not qualify his practice method, I decided he would be as good a bet as any to knock me into shape. His name instilled confidence. For some reason, it reminded me of Jack.

Joe was old school with a vengeance. He belonged to the get a grip school of psychotherapy. He had no time for all this non-directive therapy nonsense that he said was taking over the profession. He believed in telling it like it is. Avoiding issues only wasted time. You ended up talking yourself round in circles. You needed to get right down to the nitty-gritty. If something was wrong, you faced it head-on. Joe must have been about eighty years old, but he still ran six miles before breakfast every morning. He had fought in the Second World War. Or was it the First?

Get over it,’ he would say each time I complained about something. ‘Pull yourself together, man. Don’t you realise, some people have real problems? Some are deaf, dumb and blind or have no arms or legs. You’re nothing more than a weekend paranoid.’

I learned early on that but wasn’t a word he acknowledged. Six sessions in, I decided I was ready to face the world on my own terms. From now on, I would be the master of my destiny. I was better.

But I was penniless and soon to be homeless. Some disciplined gambling was called for. No casinos, no poker, just carefully researched punts on the horses. Jack Dempsey maintained that there were never more than three or four safe bets a month at worthwhile odds. Despite these horses not being favourites to win, you could nevertheless pen them in as certainties. You would often find them at smaller meetings like Fontwell Park or Wincanton. Only those who knew what they were looking for would spot them. But once you knew how to do this, all you had to do was check the race fields from day to day. To keep the starting price respectable, you kept the knowledge to yourself and spread your stake around several bookmakers. Any other bets you placed, especially speculative accumulators or Yankees, were an indulgence. These were vanity projects. This did not mean you should ignore them, but you needed to understand they were just for fun. The more bets you planned to make, of course, the more background work you would need to do. Even so, the risk element increased. If you wanted to stay ahead, you stuck to the certainties.

But how was I to get started again? I could hardly go to the bank to ask for a loan. What is the purpose of the loan, they would ask? They would be unlikely to accept, to bet on My Lovely Horse in the 2:30 at Fakenham as a legitimate reason to lend money. Not even an understanding branch manager like Mr Cleghorn would approve that. I could pretend the money was to build an extension or install a new boiler, but I would be required to provide paperwork to back this up. As the house was being re-possessed, getting this would have been difficult. Instead, I sold my camera equipment and my scuba diving gear. Neither had had much use and in any case, I had nowhere to store them. With the proceeds, I could put a thousand on Light Fandango at 10-1 in the 3:15 at Hexham. It romped home. I was on my way.

Wish You Were Here at Catterick at 100-8 and Bunny Boiler at Haydock Park at 16-1 kept up the winning run. I was able to put a deposit down on a flat and buy a second-hand Corsa. Pulp Friction coming in at 8-1 at Wetherby enabled me to take a short break in Cornwall. I avoided all frivolous wagers. It was a minimum risk strategy. It was still possible to become overconfident and miscalculate a certainty, and when Heisenberg was beaten by a short head with two grand riding on it, I resolved to be more cautious. I would stake no more than five hundred at a time. Three bets a month maximum.

Restraint doesn’t suit everyone. Within a week I was climbing up the walls with boredom. I was doing Sudoku puzzles and watching Big Brother and repeats of Countdown. The longer I exercised self-control, the crazier I became. I bought a poncho and started reading bobsleigh magazines. I took up fork bending and painted the fridge green. I joined the Bee Gees fan club. I shaved my eyebrows off and was about to have a tattoo of a fairground scene on my forehead when I stopped myself. Enough was enough. This was madness. It was time to get back in the metaphorical saddle.

Five grand on the nose on New Romance at 20-1 with minimal research beforehand put me back on track. I followed it up with a successful night at the casino, and it was here I met Siobhan. She stopped me right in my tracks. The light was shining on her. Her long golden hair was bright and luxuriant. Perhaps I had had a glass or two, but I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She was more petite than Rachel and Natasha and had a gentler demeanour. She had fair skin, dreamy bliss-blue eyes and a smile like the morning sun. Nervously, I approached her and introduced myself. She seemed pleased and accepted my offer of a drink.

I don’t know why I came here tonight,’ she said. ‘I don’t normally come to places like this, but I was curious about what went on here.’

Neither do I,’ I said. ‘Well, I haven’t been here for a long time.’

I’m glad you are here though, as it is quite intimidating when you don’t know your way around. My friend Emma was meant to meet me here, but she cancelled at the last minute, and I was left stranded. I was about to leave when you came over.’

I suppose it is more of a man’s thing.’

I did not see much of my da while I was growing up,’ she said. ‘I spent a lot of time away at boarding school and summer camp. But I know he used to come to this casino, and he seemed to do rather well. You look as if you’ve had a good night too now.’

Beginner’s luck, I suppose,’ I said, not wishing to give anything away.

Ah, I see. I don’t think Da was a beginner,’ she said. ‘Not by a long chalk. He was obsessed with gambling. I suppose I’m here because I wanted to see what the fascination was. By the way, what happened to your eyebrows?’

The eyebrows? Do you know, I’ve been asking myself the same question?. But I’m sure they will grow back.’

I was surprised when Siobhan invited me back to hers for a nightcap, but naturally I was flattered. Things were looking up again. In the taxi, we found out a little more about each other. She had recently moved back to the area, having spent a year in Brussels. She worked in finance. Her family were from these parts, she said, although she did not elaborate.

Siobhan’s apartment was in a modern, purpose-built block on the outskirts of town. It was well appointed with brightly coloured furniture and abstract prints on the walls. She put on a shuffle of late night music and without asking, poured me a glass of Jameson’s Whiskey, along with one for herself. She said she was going to freshen up, she would be back in a minute. While she was out of the room, I noticed a selection of framed photos on a shelf in the corner. Curious, I went over to investigate. The pictures appeared to be random shots of Siobhan and friends, and there was one alongside them that looked like it might be an old family photo. Something about it seemed familiar. I picked it up to investigate. It hit me like a thunderbolt. It was so out of context, I had difficulty taking it in. There was Siobhan, and next to her was Jack. Jack was a little older than I remembered him, but with his slate grey herring-bone suit, his swept-back red hair, and his cloudy eye, he was unmistakable.

There seemed to be only one explanation. Siobhan must be Jack’s daughter. When she had told me earlier that her da used to be a teacher, I had thought no more of it. Why would I have? But what mysterious forces were at work to bring about this unlikely synchronicity? How should I read it? Was it a good omen? Did it bode well for a meaningful relationship with Siobhan or should I be wary?

…………………………………………………………………………. 

It is early days, but all I can say is so far, so good. Things appear to be working out. Jack is back in Ireland. We are going over to Dublin to visit him next week. Perhaps we might have a day out at Leopardstown races.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

 


The Cat’s Tale

The Cat’s Tale by Chris Green

Where’s the cat, Zack wonders? And what is that enormous snake doing in here?

The snake curled up in the corner of the room appears completely out of context and instantly intimidating. Zack is terrified. Keeping a safe distance from the beast, he googles big fat yellow snake on his phone. This is an instinctual reaction. He belongs to the internet generation. His phone is like an extra limb. The search comes back with Burmese python. A large yellow and white snake that can grow up to fourteen feet. In the wild, Burmese pythons can devour antelopes and monkeys along with rodents and domestic fowl. As far as Zack is aware, there are no antelopes or monkeys on the estate, and while there may be rats and mice, he cannot help but worry that Roger is inside the huge reptile. He draws some consolation from the information that pythons do not eat every day, and he had seen Roger that morning when he fed him before setting off for work at the fast-food outlet. He draws less consolation from the fact that the huge snake appears to be contentedly sleeping, and in all probability digesting Roger.

Zack has not had to deal with many problems in his young life. Although he is twenty-three, he still lives at home with his parents. He has not had the complications that can come with wives and children. However, two distinct problems present themselves here. The first, but arguably the easier to solve, is how to get rid of the snake. He can phone Wild Things. They will send a trained operative out and collect it. The second problem is not so straightforward. How is he going to explain Roger’s disappearance to Mrs Donnelly?

Zack offered to come in to feed the cat while Mrs Donnelly was on holiday in Magaluf with her friend from the sewing circle. She will not appreciate it if he has fed the cat to a yellow and white monster. He remembers the conversation he’d had with Mrs D before she went away.

I don’t want to put Roger in a cattery,’ she had said, ‘He doesn’t get on well with other cats.’

Don’t worry. Your cat is in safe hands,’ Zack had said. ‘After all, I only live a few doors away.’

Thank you ever so much, Zack. You are a good boy,’ Mrs D had said. ‘I do appreciate it and I’ll bring you back a nice bottle of Spanish brandy.’

That’s kind of you, Mrs D.’

Roger’s more than a pet to me, you see. I don’t know what I’d do without him.’

Keeping a close eye on the snake in case it decides is still hungry, Zack makes the call and waits nervously. Within a few minutes, the large green Wild Things Zoo van arrives. Deputy Reptile Manager, Brett Samson, introduces himself. Brett is aptly named. He is huge. It takes Zack a moment or two to recover from the handshake.

What a magnificent specimen,’ Brett says. ‘Lovely markings. Mature adult male Burmese python. One of the largest snakes in the world, you know. I think this may be the one that went missing from SnakeWorld. He’s called Arthur. You may have seen it on the news. But SnakeWorld is a long way away. I wonder how Arthur ended up here. And how would he have got in?’

I’ve got this sneaking suspicion I may have left the back door open this morning,’ Zack says. He goes to check. The back door is open.

Brett meanwhile is getting friendly with Arthur.

Can you tell if Arthur has eaten lately?’ Zack asks. ‘I’m worried that he might have swallowed Roger.’

Oh no! They don’t eat humans.’

Roger is a cat.’

Ah!’

Brett picks up the snake, skilfully heaves it over his shoulder, wraps it around his neck and feels its stomachs.

Well, Arthur certainly seems to have eaten recently,’ Brett says. ‘How big was Roger?’

Well. Standard cat size,’ Zack says, holding his hands out in front of him to approximate Roger’s dimensions. ‘He is a mackerel tabby.’

I can’t say for definite what the snake has eaten. I would say that if Roger doesn’t appear within a day or so, he is not going to. Had you had him long?’

Zack finds it disconcerting that Brett is already talking about Roger in the past tense.

The thing is that Roger is, or was, not my cat,’ Zack says. ‘I am, was, looking after him for a neighbour.’

Oh dear! That’s unfortunate. What will you do?’

I don’t know. Mrs Donnelly was very fond of Roger. I suppose I will have to try to get a replacement. I’ll have to look on the internet or something.’

Luckily Mrs D has a framed photo of Roger on the mantelpiece. From this, Zack can flesh out his shaky recollection of what the cat looked like. It is at times like this he wishes he had taken more notice of Mr Bacon, his art teacher at St Mawgans. Mr Bacon had said, ‘don’t rely on what you think you should see, take a mental photograph of it.’ He had left at sixteen. Art was not one of his five GCSEs.

With some further research, he discovers that mackerel tabbies often have an M shape on their forehead just as Roger has and also the same pink nose with peppered black dots. This he feels will help with his search for a replacement. Just in case Roger shows up, Zack takes a day off work, but there is no sign of him. Meanwhile, he gets on the case. He finds from the internet and the local paper that kittens are plentiful. They come in all shapes and sizes, breeds and markings. Even within a radius of a few miles, there are half a dozen litters of mackerel tabby kittens available, from which it would be likely he would be able to find one to match Roger’s markings. But Mrs D is only away for a week and this does not give the kitten much chance to grow into a Roger lookalike. There are no fully grown tabby cats available.

Zack is beside himself with worry. It is now Tuesday. Mrs D gets back from Magaluf on Saturday. Time is of the essence, so he decides he must adopt a more proactive approach. He places an ad on Gumtree. Urgently Wanted: Neutered Male Mackerel Tabby Cat. He specifies a radius of 100 miles. The rest of the day and the following day bring no response. In the meantime, Zack keeps hoping against hope that Roger will suddenly come bounding up to him when he bangs the cat food tin with a spoon and calls out his name. But he is concerned that too much cat-calling will attract attention and make the neighbours suspicious, so he limits his overtures to ten minutes at a time. To make sure he does not miss Roger, should he appear, he stays around the house watching movies from Mrs D’s collection of old films on DVD.

On Thursday, in a desperate attempt to get a result, he amends the Gumtree ad. He adds Un-neutered Cat Also Considered and ups the distance he will travel to pick up the cat to 200 miles. It brings results. A Vera Mundy from Northallerton has an un-neutered mackerel tabby called Barry.

Now that I am in a wheelchair, I’m finding it a struggle to look after Barry,’ she says.

Can you send me a photo?’ Zack says.

How do I do that? I can tell you what Barry looks like.’

I would prefer a photo, if you could please.’

But I haven’t got a photo of him,’

Could you take one on your mobile phone?’

But I’m talking to you on my phone.’

Or you could email a photo.’

Oh, I don’t think I’ve got email, whatever it is when it’s at home.’

Zack manages to talk Vera through how to take a photo on her phone and send it. Moments later, a picture of Barry arrives on his phone. It is not a perfect angle to distinguish Barry’s key features, and it is difficult to judge the cat’s size, but Barry seems to be an approximate match to Roger. Zack calls her back, takes down the address and tells her he will be up to collect Barry shortly after lunch.

There are several local vets on yell.com. Before setting off, Zack books Barry in for a vasectomy for the following afternoon.

Vera Mundy is tearful about saying goodbye to Barry.

You will look after him, won’t you?’ she keeps repeating. ‘He’s a good cat, really. It’s just sometimes he can be a bit boisterous, if you know what I mean. And now I’m in a wheelchair ………’

Don’t you worry,’ Zack says. ‘I will take good care of Barry.’

Barry is not happy about being put in a cat box and bounced around in the back of Zack’s Skoda for a hundred and twenty miles. He expresses his disapproval with a lexicon of hisses and snarls and claws wildly at his cage for most of the journey. He celebrates his freedom with a lurch at Zack’s neck, which leaves a nasty gash. Zack locks the animal in Mrs D’s utility room overnight. Once again Barry is not happy at this, but even less happy at being put back in the cat box the following morning and taken to The Affordable Vet.

While Zack does not know what experience Barry has had of vets in North Yorkshire, he is certain that it is not a positive one. No sooner has Dr Mabombo recovered from the first assault, than he has his cheek gouged by a second attack. In desperation, he calls for Zack, who comes to his assistance. Between them, they manage to hold the feral animal down long enough for Dr Mabombo to get the needle in.

While he is in the waiting, Zack catches up with his missed calls from the previous day. There are eleven, seven from the fast-food outlet, the last of which was probably to let him know when he could pick up his p45, and four from Mrs Donnelly. He cannot face speaking to Mrs D just yet so he sends her a text saying sorry he missed the calls, but that Roger is well and everything at home is fine.

The good news is that Barry felt no pain,’ Dr Mabombo says. ‘The bad news is that you have had a wasted journey. Your cat had already been snipped. I suppose that I should have checked before putting him under. But he was kicking off a bit. …… Don’t worry, though, I won’t charge you for the operation.’

I see,’ Zack says. ‘I suppose that I should have checked too.’

Don’t you remember getting him neutered then?’

I’ve only just got him. Until yesterday he was someone else’s cat,’ Zack says. He tries to remember what Vera Mundy had said in their first telephone conversation. He was sure that she had said he was a tom, but there again she may not have. He might have got it wrong. His stress levels were high at the time.

Anyway. I’ve given him another sedative so that you can get him home,’ Dr Mabombo says. ‘But he will be right as rain tomorrow.’

That’s good,’ Zack says. ‘Tomorrow’s Saturday.’

When Zack gets the cat back to Mrs Donnelly’s, he puts heavy duty gaffer tape over the cat-flap. He wants the cat to stay indoors overnight. He carefully examines the sedated cat, comparing its markings to the photo on the mantelpiece. He satisfies himself that there is a reasonable likeness. He leaves a large bowl of dried food and a saucer of milk and takes the cat box back to his dad’s shed.

After a sleepless night, he arrives in the morning to feed Barry-Roger, ha, ha, Badger for short. There is hardly a whimper. The animal is still groggy, a complete contrast to the feral pre-op beast of yesterday. Whatever sedative Dr Mabombo used must have been powerful. The dried food and the milk that he left last night have not been touched and the animal isn’t interested in the fresh bowl of venison Gourmet he puts out for it. He comforts himself that Mrs Donnelly won’t be back until three o’clock. This gives him plenty of time to perk the animal up.

Zack looks to google for advice. There are a number of sites like thecatsite.com and consciouscat.net offering post-op advice, but the advice seems to concentrate on the effects of the surgery, not the sedation. He cannot find any instances of the cat being put under anaesthetic and not operated upon. A flash of inspiration comes to him. He remembers reading somewhere that cats respond to music. Perhaps it was an article in his parents’ Daily Mail.

He gets his boombox and connects it to his phone and tries out different genres from his Spotify account, pop, classical, jazz, reggae, soul, indie, hip-hop. None of these seems to do much to animate the sulky animal. Badger remains curled up on the basket of jumpers. In a do or die attempt to get the cat moving, he sets the playlist to heavy metal. This is something of a longshot as the cat can’t have heard much of this sort of music at Vera Mundy’s. To his amazement, Badger starts to show signs of life. His ears prick up to Axl Rose’s screaming vocals. He’s up on his feet and is joining in with the chorus of Paradise City, meowing spiritedly. And inspired further it seems by the wailing guitar he makes it over to his food bowl. What an unusual animal he is, thinks Zack. What is he going to do to surprise him next?

Mrs D phones to say that she is in the taxi from the airport.

Is everything OK? she says. ‘What’s that dreadful noise?’

Noise? Oh, that’s some music I was playing. I’ll turn it down.’

You haven’t been having parties, have you, Zack?’

No, Mrs D. I was just listening to a new song on my Spotify.’

I know you haven’t, pet. I was only joking. You’re such a good boy, looking after my Roger. How is my little treasure?’

He’s fine. He’s got quite an appetite sometimes, hasn’t he?’ Zack says, watching Badger demolish the bowl of Gourmet and then set about the dried food.

I hope you haven’t been overfeeding my baby. I don’t want him getting fat.’

No, Mrs D. Just what you said to feed him.’

I bet he’s missed me. I can’t wait to see him. Look. I’ll be back in half an hour. We’re stuck in traffic at the moment. I’ve brought you back a sombrero for all those sunny days The Express says we are going to get.’

Zack starts to remove the gaffer tape from the cat-flap. Badger eyes it up, planning his escape. Zack leaves the rest of the tape on until he hears the cab pull up outside. Badger spits and snarls.

Anyone home?’ calls Mrs D.

In the kitchen, Mrs D,’ Zack calls back, making a ball from the remaining gaffer tape while blocking the cat’s exit.

Mrs D joins them and plonks some bags down on the kitchen table.

Are you sure that Roger is all right?’ she says. ‘He looks different.’

That’s because you’ve been away, Mrs D. Things always look a little different when you come back to them.’

And he doesn’t seem all that pleased to see me. He normally comes bounding over when I come through the door.’

He’s probably a bit upset that you went away. Cats are very sensitive, you know.’

I suppose you are right, Zack. Thank you for looking after him, anyway. Do you like your sombrero?’

It’s fantastic, Mrs D. I have always wanted one.’

Roger’s dramatic entrance through the cat flap at this moment surely owes a debt to the movies. The shark’s entrance in Jaws springs to mind, or The Thing bursting out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. Mrs D is thunderstruck. Before her are two identical cats. Two Rogers. What arcane wizardry can have brought this about?

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Summer Time

Summer Time by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or in fifteen minutes everyone will be famous?’

That sounds to me like liberalism.’

Or will fifteen people be famous for everyone?’

That would be an oligarchy, he said.

I could not fault Andy’s political theory.

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

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

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

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

Good,’ he said. ‘Vote for me and I’ll see what I can do.’

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

Despite his unconventional appearance and his lack of political conviction, or perhaps because of these attributes, I liked Andy. Although I seldom bothered to vote, I made my way down to the John Constable Primary School on polling day and voted for him. It was a close contest, but after three recounts, Andy Warhol was elected MP for Gainsborough South by a margin of two votes.

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

I looked up the sunset times for Gainsborough and found that there indeed appeared to be a discrepancy between when the sun was due to set and when it was actually setting. As near as I could tell, the difference was twenty minutes. I checked my watch against the clocks in the house. All agreed the time to within a minute. Either there was a huge conspiracy to dupe me or something strange was happening.

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

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

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

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

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

How long will the tests take?’ I asked.

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

Is it serious?’ I asked.

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

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

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

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

I began to dread going to bed. I found myself staying up later and later, binge-watching Bates Motel, Black Mirror and Mindhunter on Netflix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But yesterday at 9.15 it was still light.’

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

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

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

I opened the door. The green light on the answer machine was flashing. I played back the message.

Hello. This is Andy Warhol. It’s now 8.30 pm on Wednesday 11th August. You may remember when I called round, you told me you’d like things to stay as they are. I expect if I asked you now, you might answer differently. So I’ve … beep beep beep.’

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Travelling Light

Travelling Light by Chris Green

It didn’t work out at first. Things often don’t the first time you try them. Suzi and I only got into it because Milo and Clover gave it the hard sell. It was simple, they told us.

You just lay down, close your eyes, relax your muscles, channel your thoughts, and gradually let go.’ Clover said. ‘You will experience a feeling of lightness of body and mind, and in no time at all, you will be able to witness your astral body floating across the ceiling.’

Once you can do this, with a little practice, you can go anywhere,’ Milo said. ‘So long as you can visualise the space, you can transport yourself to wherever you want.’

It is called astral travelling,’ Clover said. ‘It is cool.’

Perhaps it would help you to know that astral travelling is natural,’ Milo said. ‘It is something we do all the time, in dreams for example. And what you create on the astral plane brings about changes on the physical plane. It is true magick. Everyone should try it.’

Think of it as flying without wings,’ Clover said.

I was a little hesitant, but Suzi couldn’t wait to give it a go. It was time we tried something new; she said. She was excited by the idea of having an out-of-body experience, or OBE as they were referred to. When we failed miserably on our first attempt, she suggested we try again the following day.

I think I felt something happening that time, Adam,’ Suzi said after our third or fourth attempt. ‘I definitely seemed to drift off somewhere.’

I’m not sure I did,’ I said.

I felt like giving up there and then. It was fine for old hippies like Milo and Clover. They were probably taken in regularly by nonsense like this. But as I saw it, astral travelling had little place in our lives. It was not much more credible than many of those conspiracy theories that did the rounds on social media. I liked to think Suzi and I were more grounded, less gullible.

You’re probably trying too hard,’ Suzi said. ‘You need to relax. Try those breathing exercises I showed you.…… Anyway, I think we ought to stick with it, don’t you? Can we do that?’

I wondered if it would be better to just stick with smoking weed. If you wanted to get mystical about it, you could say that this provided us with our Dreamtime. It was much more straightforward. But it did not seem worth mentioning it. Once Suzi got the bit between her teeth about something, there was no stopping her. I could tell she was determined to push this one. She was eager to please Clover, with whom she had been friends since university.

Not many people were aware of it, but Clover was the heir-apparent to the FlowerPower fortune. I had only recently been introduced to her and Milo when Suzi took me along to their wedding at Scott McKenzie Hall, a month or two previously. Clover seemed to possess an almost childlike naivety. She was the archetypal hippie, all paisley pattern peasant prints and patchouli oil. But I could not make out Milo at all. He was something of an enigma. He dressed in a bohemian manner and talked the talk, but he came across as rude, edgy, opinionated, and overbearing. In a word, he appeared to be a bully. It didn’t seem the pair were suited at all, but when I had mentioned this to Suzi back then, she told me to stop being a wet blanket.

Maybe I will read up on astral travelling on the internet to see if I can get any tips,’ I said now to placate her.

Good idea!’ Suzi said. ‘Do some research. There will be lots of information about astral projection online. It always helps to get some background when you are starting something new. You never know, Adam. This could change our lives.’

I discovered from Mystic Arts that astral travelling and astral projection were overarching terms used to describe an intentional out-of-body experience that assumed the existence of a soul or astral body separate from the physical body. Connected by an invisible silver cord, one’s astral body could travel outside the realm of the physical body. There were no limits to where the experienced traveller could go. You could travel beyond the earthly bounds of your physical body to anywhere in the universe. I entertained the possibility that it had been Milo that had written this.

To please Suzi, I persevered. While she claimed her astral body had made it as far as the botanical gardens, I told her mine had hovered above my head and looked down on me. This seemed to satisfy her. She told me I was doing well. Wasn’t she right, she said, to get me to stick with it? 

However, the next time Milo and Clover came to visit, we found them too excited to even listen to how we were getting along with our astral projection. Clover was especially animated. They had moved on; she told us. They had taken the exercise a step further.

Listen to this, guys,’ she said. ‘While our subtle bodies were travelling, we decided to try swapping them. To take possession of each other. Just imagine that for a moment if you can.’

To be honest, I don’t think Clover expected it to work,’ Milo said. ‘After all, it was a pretty far-out proposition of mine. But I had faith. I knew we could do it.’ 

And it worked,’ Clover said. ‘We only occupied each other’s bodies momentarily, but it was a mind-blowing experience. I was Milo and Milo was me.’

You have to work at it, of course,’ Milo said. ‘Don’t get the impression that it’s easy. But I have no doubt at all that eventually, Clover and I will be able to swap bodies whenever we want to. And to do it for longer spells.’ 

You two should try it,’ Clover said.

Call me perverse, but I had never had any desire to be in Suzi’s body in any way other than the more accepted method of entry. I was perfectly happy with this setup. Men were men and women were women. And so far as I could tell, this worked out well. It was the natural order of things. I found all these bizarre new permutations of gender you read about in the papers sickening. But Suzi wanted to know more. She seemed fascinated by Milo and Clover’s crazy idea. Why would anyone want to swap, I wondered? What would be the purpose? It could be for good intentions or it could be for evil motives, couldn’t it? What if one of the parties decided to make the arrangement permanent against the other’s wishes? What would happen then? More importantly, what did Suzi feel she was missing out on? What was she expecting to get from it? What could she possibly have in mind? 

It was all academic, of course. I had yet to even manage the astral projection part of the manoeuvre, let alone take matters further. This latest development seemed to me like yet more new-age hocus-pocus. In order not to disappoint Suzi, I had so far pretended to be well on my way to spiritual freedom, dropping in all the buzz words they had mentioned in Mystic Arts at appropriate moments. I could not now admit my deceit, so reluctantly I agreed to give the transmigration malarkey a try. 

It was clear from the outset that it would not be a great success. Suzi’s astral body was apparently zipping all around the room, but as I expected, mine seemed determined to stay put.

You’re not trying hard enough, Adam,’ she said, returning to base.

Well, first I’m trying too hard and now I’m not trying hard enough,’ I said. ‘Come on, Suzi! Which is it?’

I don’t think your heart is in it,’ she said. ‘Don’t you want to see what it’s like to be inside me?’ 

Perhaps it would help if we tried the other way again first,’ I said. ‘That seems to usually go well.’

I enjoy it too, Adam. You know I do,’ she said. ‘But there’s more to life than sex. We need to treat astral projection as something entirely different. If we are going to get anywhere, I think you need to take it more seriously.’ 

To help things along, Suzi took me round to Milo and Clover’s to pick up some tips. 

We need to find out what we are doing wrong,’ she said. ‘More specifically, what you are doing wrong.’

Suzi seemed pleased to find that Clover appeared to be alone. No explanation was offered about where Milo was, but we both felt that without him, Clover would be easier to talk to. Milo had a way of controlling the conversation, of always being right and not giving you the chance to get your point across.  

Within the first few minutes, both of us noticed that something about Clover was different. She was dressed in her usual boho chic and her hair and make-up looked the same, but her manner had changed. Normally she was easy company, light and breezy and pleasant to talk to. She had hardened. Her voice sounded the same, but her delivery was different. She came across as rude, edgy, opinionated, and overbearing, the very traits I had previously attributed to Milo. Suzi and I exchanged glances. I got the impression she had never seen her friend like this. Something was definitely wrong. It seemed Clover couldn’t wait to get rid of us. Why were we standing in the hallway? Why was the door to the main part of the house bolted? Why hadn’t she offered us a cup of tea or invited us into the front room? Had something happened? If it had, why couldn’t she tell us? Where was Milo? What was that rank smell of rotting flesh and where was it coming from?

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved


Small Island

Small Island by Chris Green

I am walking our cocker spaniel, Trevor on Gold Dust Hill when we come across the stranger. Trevor spots him first. He is very sensitive to changes in his surroundings. We get a few hill walkers around these parts, so at first I imagine the shadowy figure in the distance is a hiker, enjoying the peace that this beautiful stretch of upland offers. But cocker spaniels were bred to be gun dogs, and Trevor can tell straight away that this is a gunman coming out from behind the clump of trees to the east towards Cascade Falls.

Milo keeps telling me not to go out on the hills on my own in case there are snipers, but he has been away a lot lately. Something to do with the merger, apparently, or is it the takeover? I don’t get into that side of things.

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

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

Run, Trevor!’ I shout.

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

Not that way, Trevor,’ I call out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But he had a rifle and ….. ‘

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

Unlikely as it may seem, I got to know Doobie through a mutual interest in experimental cinema. We met at a screening of a Leif Velasquez film in Freeport. I read about Velasquez in Artz online magazine, and went along to the Freeport show out of curiosity. Doobie is an artist of sorts, although, by his own admission, not an easy one to categorise. Milo is not one for the arts, but Doobie and I have now been to a few exhibitions together. Few, because events on Iescos are rare. If you google ‘Iescos’, it will come back with, ‘did you mean Tescos?’

To look at the two of us you would think we were polar opposites, me in my tweeds and Doobie in his denim cut-offs with the Error 404 t-shirt. Who or what is Error 404? Is it a band? An artists’ collective? A group of writers? I don’t want to show my ignorance by asking. I keep meaning to look on the internet but have not yet got around to it. But, anyway, Doobie and I seem to get along.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Doobie says he doesn’t need satnav or road signs. He knows every inch of the island. He knows which parts are safe and which bits might be rebel hideouts. I tell him it is just as well he knows his way around because I don’t have a clue how to get back to my car. We have probably only come five or six miles from where he picked me up, but I would never have been able to find my way to Mojo in a million years. I did not know that places like this existed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see,’ I say, not seeing at all.

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

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

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

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

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

I think that’s the answer, Mrs L.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

An early version of this story appeared as Blowing in the Wind

Cover Story

Cover Story by Chris Green

A vermilion memo is circulating at the research establishment, one down from red. Red means evacuate. Tension levels are rising. I am glad it is time for my shift to end. Although I keep my head down at work, I have suspected for a long time something weird is going on that the big guns do not want to get out. Information that does not belong in the public domain. Information too sensitive even to be shared with base security staff. An experiment gone wrong perhaps. I am accustomed to a quiet drive home along country lanes after the night shift. I usually drive straight home, but as Donna is up north on a training course, I decide to take a detour. There is no traffic on the road at this hour. I can relax to my Borodin CD. Or my Nick Cave compilation.

On occasions, I might come across an early morning dog walker en route or an agricultural worker, but this is rare. There is seldom anyone up. So, naturally, I am surprised when I catch sight of a woman struggling to climb out of a front window of Storm Clouds, the Gothic house on the edge of Compton Wilbury. Not only surprised but puzzled because, in my experience, cat-burglars are predominantly male. My suspicious nature tells me I ought to investigate. It is my duty as a responsible citizen. I stop the car and approach the house. As I get closer, I can’t help noticing that my quarry is wearing a skirt and a chunky jumper and ….. seamed fishnet stockings and heeled pumps, hardly the outfit you would wear for cat burgling. There must be another explanation. Some fellow’s wife has returned unexpectedly, and this is the other woman discretely leaving the scene? Or maybe she is the imprisoned wife fleeing from a catalogue of domestic abuse. Unlikely in this neck of the woods though I would have thought.

Is everything all right?’ I call out as I approach.

No. Everything is not all right,’ the woman says, straightening her skirt and trying to regain some composure. ‘Nothing in my house is working and my keys have gone and my husband is away and ……’

Whoa!’ I say ‘Slow down!’

I’m being harassed in my home and someone has broken in and my phones have been cut off and …..’

One thing at a time, please,’ I say. ‘Perhaps, start at the beginning. I’m Phil by the way.’

Hello Phil,’ she says. ‘Claire.’

Now we have introduced one another, she seems calmer. Claire is someone you would be likely to notice in a crowded room, thirty-something, blonde and well-rounded, a lady of some refinement. To be honest, I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. She gives a detailed account of a nightmare few hours.

It’s the middle of the night when she hears a knocking sound. She turns over to see if her husband, Max has heard. But Max is not there. Maybe he has gone downstairs to find out what is going on. Then she remembers he is away on a business trip. Although Max goes away often, she can’t seem to get used to him being away, and she hates being alone in the big old house. Even with all its modern security, she does not feel safe. But she is reluctant to bring this up with Max, in case he might consider her wimpish. Max, she says, comes from a tough world. He doesn’t understand fear. He was brought up in the Bush.

Random nocturnal creaks and rattles are no more than you would expect in an old house, she says, especially on a rough night. But as soon as she starts to settle, she hears the noise again and it definitely sounds like someone knocking on the front door. No way is she going to get up and answer it. It’s nearly 3 a.m.

Why would anyone be calling on anyone at this time of night?’ I say. ‘Especially out here in the sticks.’

She agrees. She says she ought to have insisted they got a guard dog when they moved out here. An Akita or a Belgian Malinois, perhaps. But, the fact remains, they do not have a dog, and she is frightened. It probably didn’t help that she watched the penultimate episode of Killers on Netflix earlier in the evening.

I am familiar with Killers. I resist the temptation to tell her what happens in the final episode. Donna couldn’t hack it. She stopped watching half-way through.

Claire doesn’t feel she can phone Max. He will be asleep and probably has an early morning meeting. For that matter, she has an early start too. She has to show the Muellers around Hope’s End at 8:30. This was the only time that both the Muellers were available and Hope’s End represents a big sale for Sellers and Sellers. Fortunately, whatever it was, the banging sound does not continue. But she finds herself unable to get back to sleep. She tosses and turns trying to neutralise the dark thoughts that keep coming. She is just about to drop off when the phone rings. When did Max change the ringtone on the landline to the Tales of the Unexpected theme music, she wonders? More importantly, why? Is this his idea of a joke? She goes downstairs to answer it but finds no-one on the other end. She replaces the receiver and dials 1471. She is told the caller did not leave their number.

…………………………………….

On occasions, most of you will have been plagued by an earworm. Annoying, isn’t it to have a tune stuck in your head? Sometimes the tune going around and around will be the last one you heard. Or the most catchy one on your last shuffle or however you listen to your music. Something you heard on the radio or in a shop. Think of those irritating Christmas tunes, for instance. Various studies have been carried out as to what song is the most catchy ever, some of these claiming to be scientific. Among those frequently cited are Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Abba’s Dancing Queen, The Queen’s We are the Champions and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I am plagued with earworms all the time, but none of these tunes features. My earworms seem to be entirely random. Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man, a Bartók String Quartet or the Tuvan National Anthem. Last week it was MacArthur Park. They just seem to come out of nowhere. Bob Dylan’s tunes aren’t always thought of as being catchy so where has the one about the silver saxophones that is going around and around in my head come from? ……… Aha! I think I might know. But should I let on?

…………………………………….

As Bob Dylan moves on to the Queen of Spades and talks to his chambermaid, I try to catch up with what Claire has been saying. I may have missed something. She has taken her shower and brewed coffee. She is now switching on News 24. From the graphics darting around the screen, she tries to work out what the disaster story they are speaking about might be that has left so many dead, when the TV goes dead.

I suspect it is an update on the fire ripping through the conference centre, but I do not interrupt. I’m not completely certain that this is where Max is. But how many Max Curtises can there be?

She discovers all channels are out. Even the twenty-four hour baking channel is down. She really has to phone Max now. To her horror, both the landline and her mobile phone are also dead and the router has a flashing red light. The stark realisation that she has no communication with the outside world strikes her, she says, like a blow to the head. She searches in her bag for her keys. They are not there. Where can she have put them? The spare set from the kitchen drawer has gone too. She searches high and low, in coat pockets, in bags she has not used for months, underneath work surfaces, in cupboards, but finds no keys. This is impossible. She is locked in, a prisoner in her own home. She is terrified. The only way out is through the downstairs bathroom window.

She seems to be up to date with her account. It has been exhausting just listening. I tell her that she has been through quite an ordeal and do my best to comfort her.

Do you have a phone I could use?’ she asks.

You are welcome to try,’ I say. ‘My phone’s in the car. But, you won’t have a signal here. It’s a bit of an O2 black spot.’

Where is your car?’ Claire asks.

It’s ……..’ I look around. To my astonishment, my Nissan Qashqai is no longer there.’

Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ I say. ‘Where has it gone?’

It is nowhere to be seen. It has completely vanished. What in God’s name is going on around these parts?

…………………………………….

Claire doesn’t have the keys to her Kia so we decide we must seek help in the village. Surely, someone must know what is happening.

We find no-one at home at any of the houses in Compton Wilbury. Speculation about where they might be is clearly going to get us nowhere. Does it matter that the Shipmans at Grey Gables have never been known to go away, or that the Mansons in the barn conversion down the road might have just popped out? Is there any point in knowing that there is a de-consecrated church in the next village or that there was a full moon last Tuesday? Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is. My phone signal does not re-appear, nor does Claire’s. The village phone box is out of order. We trudge along the lane to the neighbouring village of Myrtle Green.

How far is it to Myrtle Green?’ I say after about ten minutes. Not a single car has passed.

Not far,’ Claire says. ‘Half a mile or so. Be thankful you have sensible shoes on.’

The turning to Homiton should be round about here,’ I say. ‘We can’t have missed it.’

There are a lot of clumps of trees that look the same,’ Claire says.

Even so,’ I say. ‘We don’t appear to be making much progress.’

It doesn’t take long for the same thought to occur to Claire. Nothing in the landscape is as it should be. We should surely have passed the field with the abandoned red tractor by now, she says, and where is the dry stone wall covered in lichen that you can peer over to get a glimpse of the distant hills? It’s as if the landscape is being pulled away from us.

You said that you were driving home from the …. uh, base,’ Claire says. ‘What is it they do there?’ Is she thinking there might be a causal connection?

Even if I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,’ I say.

So, you are saying you’ve no idea?’

None.’

There are, of course, no CCTV cameras in the subterranean depths below Level D. But rumours have been circulating that the boffins are doing research into random virtual infinity lapse and they are developing a large-scale invisibility cloak down there. No smoke without fire, you might be tempted to say but it would be a mistake to believe all the rumours. I’m thinking that there might not be a causal connection with what’s happening to Claire and me. Occam’s razor suggests there should be a more obvious explanation.

Far from making any progress, we seem to be going backwards. It’s like the road ahead is being rolled up like a carpet. The scenery is disappearing. There is no longer a vanishing point. No horizon. There is nowhere to go. At this rate, before we know it, we will be back where we started from. But I have the feeling that things may not be the same. The universe is in a permanent state of flux. Change is the only certainty. On this basis, there is a good chance we might already be somewhere else. We might have been there all along.

…………………………………….

How did we end up in bed together? Claire is asking the same question. How long have we been here? Since this morning? Last night? Time runs away with you when you are enjoying yourself. But Max will be home soon, Claire says, back from his business trip. He has probably been trying to contact her. Now the phones are back on, she needs to have her story ready. I remind her that this is what I do in my spare time, make stories up. Philip C. Dark, author and auteur. Look me up on Google. She says that’s all very well, but I’d still better go. It would be easier for her if I weren’t here. Perhaps I will have to break it to her about the fire at the conference centre. How her husband is now in custody. What was it that made him, Maxwell Conner, a successful businessman, start the fire?

In case anything about my involvement should come to light, this can serve as my cover story. I’m reliably informed that, somewhat paradoxically, the more you embellish your account, the more credible it becomes.

An earlier version of this story was published as ‘Unreliable Narrator.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved

Blues Harp

Blues Harp 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 pandemics, 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.

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All Rights Reserved

Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll

Sex and Drugs and Rock-and-Roll by Chris Green

1:

The best things in life are three. At least Charlie Tooting thinks so. They are sex and drugs and rock-and-roll. Many others of his generation agree. After all, we are talking about the nineteen-seventies. Nineteen-seventy-three to be exact, and Charlie is twenty-two years old. It would be fair to say though that Charlie’s appreciation of the best three things goes further than many of his contemporaries. To the exclusion of almost anything else, perhaps.

The Pavilion, a new music venue, has opened in Charlie’s town. The Pavilion features live bands three or more times a week. If Charlie could sing or play an instrument, he would be in a rock band, but as he cannot, he is in awe of those that can. Not that he is without ambition, but Charlie’s ambition is more of a notches on the bedpost affair. He can resist everything except temptation. He might be described as vain. He is the type who probably thinks this song is about him.

He has a regular girlfriend, Annika. At least Annika believes she is his regular girlfriend. But Charlie is more than happy to stray when the opportunity presents itself. As Annika is more of a folkie than a hard rock fan, Charlie sees the new venue as somewhere that will provide him with opportunities for playing away. He has recently given up his job at Jean Machine, and makes a living by selling a little of this or that, here and there, mostly hash. The demand is high in the town where Charlie lives. Charlie doesn’t actually know anyone that doesn’t smoke. Over the years, he has built up good supply lines and never allows himself to run out. It beats working for a living and affords him a certain status, which helps him to ramp up the notches.

Rose works behind the bar of The Pavilion. She is just twenty. She has long blond hair, a magazine figure, and an outgoing personality. She notices Charlie in his new leather bomber jacket and starry Cockell and Johnson shirt. Charlie notices her in her revealing barmaid’s top. When no-one is looking, she slips him a double Glenmorangie. On the house, she says, smiling. To reciprocate, at a quiet moment when everyone is watching the band, Charlie passes her a joint. Because Snafu Celebration are especially loud, it is impossible to have a proper conversation. So, they conduct their overtures through eye contact and gestures. Towards the end of the evening, Rose hands him a scrap of paper with her phone number written in red lipstick. Call me, it says. Charlie pre-empts the outcome and instead, waits for her outside.

Rose is a newbie toker, so at his flat, while they listen to Goats Head Soup on his new stereo, Charlie gives her a world tour of the principal growing areas. She pretends to be interested, but in reality, the origin is of little importance to her. It’s not a girl thing. She doesn’t care if the stuff comes from Nepal or Afghanistan, Morocco or Lebanon, so long as it does the job. What they are smoking is something called Kashmir Twist, and it definitely seems to work. In no time at all, they find themselves between the sheets, getting it on. This is exactly what she had in mind, anyway.

Linzi, Suze, and Janice follow in quick succession to add to the notches on the bedpost. But they are little more than wham, bam, thank you, mam encounters. And then there is Verity. Charlie meets Verity at The Shed, another new rock venue that has opened in the town. She is blonde and shapely, a sophisticated version of Rose. FUBAR, an up-and-coming local band are playing. They too are very loud, this especially noticeable in a cramped, low-ceilinged space like The Shed. The volume makes it difficult to have a conversation, and Verity seems to want to chat. This gives Charlie the excuse to lure her back to his for a nightcap.

Verity has just passed her test and has her own car, a blue Fiat 500. The Fiat is her pride and joy. She tells Charlie she loves driving it. It’s a nippy little town car. She seems quite happy to ferry Charlie around. She is surprised by the number of drops he needs to make. Charlie is surprised at how good business is, but it seems that everyone smokes hash these days. Like Rose, Verity is relatively new to recreational cannabis, but she seems to take to it like a duck to water. It gives you a whole new way of looking at the day, she says.

Annika is still on the scene, and Charlie sees her from time to time. But now, not so often. Her job requires her to travel, so she is not always on hand to fulfil his needs. While Annika frequently remarked on his chauvinism, Verity does not appear to care. Perhaps she mistakes his arrogance for self-confidence. Charlie likes to be seen out with her. She is well-dressed, urbane and sexy. She is now the nearest thing Charlie has to a regular girlfriend. They make a perfect pair, he tells her.

Rose, however, has not disappeared. When Charlie returns to the flat with Verity one night after a curry at Namaste Garden, Rose is waiting outside with an overnight bag. A tricky situation. But not one that Charlie is unfamiliar with. The successful roué must be prepared for such circumstances. Charlie recalls the time that he was in bed with Coral when Annika called around unexpectedly. He had Coral throw a few clothes on, and explained her away as a neighbour who was looking for her lost dog, hence the delay in answering the door. Remarkably, he got away with it. On this occasion, he is not so successful. After some harsh words, Rose leaves. Charlie’s explanation that she was just returning some books, while not completely convincing passes for now. But Charlie is not out of the woods. Back in the flat, while Charlie is making coffee, Verity starts poking around.

Whose pants are these?’ she calls out, waving a pair of skimpy black panties.

Don’t know,’ Charlie says. ‘Perhaps they belonged to the girl who lived here before.’

It looks like she left a whole drawer full of lingerie’ she says holding up a lacy bra.

Could be,’ Charlie says. ‘I’ve been meaning to have a clear out, but I never seem to get around to it.’

And I suppose the girl who lived before left these photos too,’ Verity says. ‘That was nice of her. Do you know, she looks a little like the one who just left.’

Verity, once she too has issued some more harsh words, leaves.

Within a matter of days, though, Charlie somehow manages to patch it up with first one and then the other, and tentatively resumes his duplicity.

Depending on one’s viewpoint, it might be considered unfortunate if, at twenty-two, you get your girlfriend pregnant. To get your two girlfriends pregnant in the same month might, to echo Oscar Wilde, be seen as careless. Especially so considering his poor recent record on cautious planning. But this is the position that Charlie finds himself in. Unfortunate too that he discovers that both Verity and Rose are pregnant just days before he gets busted by the police at a rock-and-roll revival night The Pavilion with a large amount of hash and a couple of wraps of speed.

2:

How many roads must her man walk down, Sian wonders? The answer may or may not be blowing in the wind, but she thinks it is eleven. She has looked at the map and counted the number of roads on the route. She is following her husband, Marvin, and the zig-zag path he is taking suggests he is going round to see Rose in Wessex Avenue. As she always does when she is out walking, she is wearing her Sony Discman. She loves her music, and this top of the range model is her pride and joy. She is listening to Oasis, a new band she feels will make it big by the end of the year. After all the techno music of the last few years, she feels it is time for a change. Time to get back to some serious rock. Eighties synth-pop was bad enough, but the repetitive beats of house music left her cold.

Why hasn’t Marvin taken the car, she wonders? Whatever, he must be heading for Rose’s. But she needs to be sure of her facts before she thinks about taking any action. Her suspicions are confirmed. Marvin arrives at Rose’s, and she opens the door and greets him shamelessly with a big hug, and not a casual friend type hug. This is a raunchy let’s go upstairs embrace.

It all begins to add up. Rose’s Eric has been stepping out with someone called Gina, and clearly, Marvin has stepped into the breach. He has been disappearing a lot lately with lame excuses, and on two or three occasions, not made it home. Typical of him to take advantage of the situation. He has always had the hots for Rose. With her long blond hair, shapely figure, and fuck-me pumps, she can understand the attraction. She is not bad for a woman of forty. But even so, the dirty rat might have had the decency to be upfront about it.

She should have seen it coming. There were telltale signs. Apart from the unexplained absences, there were secret phone calls. Are all relationships based on secrets and lies, she wonders? Perhaps she should look elsewhere for a distraction, too. What’s good for the goose and all that. She has recently found out that Charlie and Jo have split up, and she has always had a soft spot for Charlie. He seems sweet and caring and seems to have overcome the problems he had in the past. People say he is too laid back. Yet he found the time to get a Masters’ degree in Music Media. He shares her love of rock music and seems to like the same bands. They could go to gigs. It’s a long time since Marvin took her anywhere. He has a great sense of humour and he is pretty yummy too. And, while he has never come right out with it, she is reasonably sure that Charlie fancies her.

But there are the children to consider. She and Marvin have two daughters, Chloe and Zoe, six and four respectively. Eric and Rose have a daughter at primary school, and Charlie and Jo have a little one in the same year. Surely, too much swapping around would not be good for any of them. But they are not the only ones chopping and changing. She recalls her recent conversation with Ms Blyton, Chloe’s form teacher.

You don’t know who is with who outside the school gates these days,’ Ms Blyton says.

No-one seems to stay with the same partner for long these days,’ Sian says. ‘I’m afraid it’s a sign of the times,’

I know. And there’s so much infidelity on TV, too,’ Ms Blyton says. ‘Especially in the soaps, EastEnders and Emmerdale. They’re like a partner swap shop. And those terrible Australian ones, where no-one takes their relationship seriously. It has to be a bad influence on young parents.’

I hardly know anyone who hasn’t had a break-up recently,’ Sian says. ‘You never know what to say to your friends any more in case you accidentally put your foot in it.’

Some children don’t even know who to look for when they come out of class,’ Ms Blyton continues. ‘And when you ask about their mum, they say, which mum? Families are becoming so dysfunctional. Some days, when you look at the parents lined up outside, it seems like half of them are in another world. Out of their heads on crack cocaine, I shouldn’t wonder. It’s a big worry, I can tell you. Chloe seems fairly settled though, and that’s good.’

In addition to the little ones, Sian thinks Charlie has one or two older children from earlier relationships. There is a possibility Rose does too. She is faced with a dilemma. Should she file for divorce or not?

After sleeping on it, she bites the bullet and phones Jutner, Pringle and Bloke, Solicitors for advice and speaks to Miranda Dyke. Miranda feels she should get on to it right away and go for the house, possession of everything, sole custody of the children and gargantuan maintenance payments.

It’s always best to aim high to get the outcome you want,’ she says. ‘You want the miserable little worm to genuinely regret his infidelity.’

But Marvin wasn’t all bad,’ Sian says ’We did have some nice times,’

Stop right there!’ Miranda says. ‘You need to forget all of that. Trust me! Sentimentality will get you nowhere. You need to be absolutely ruthless in divorce cases like yours or else you will end up with nothing.’

Sian discovers that by coincidence or fate, Miranda is also representing Charlie in his divorce from Jo. She is cheered by this. Jo had better look out, as Miranda is taking the same uncompromising stance re their divorce settlement. If it goes according to plan, Charlie is set to come away with everything. This bodes well for their future together.

3:

It’s probably not the time to say it, but despite all the bad feeling, I was sorry to hear about Marvin,’ Charlie says.

He always drank too much,’ Sian says. ‘I suppose I knew it from day one, but I didn’t want to believe it.’

And his death coming so soon after Eric,’ Charlie says.

Sian is afraid the conversation is going to lead back to Verity, who died from a heroin overdose not so long ago. Now is not the time to go down that road. They’ve been over this too often. Better they stick with Eric.

Eric was another one who was never out of the pub,’ Sian says. ‘I guess when Gina upped and left, that did it for him.’

Still sad though,’ Charlie says. ‘I’m lucky I managed to get my act together. Well, of course, with your help. If it wasn’t for you, you know, I might be joining them. Wherever it is, they have ended up.’

Down below, I should think,’ Sian says, looking out the window of the plane as it taxis into position for take-off. ‘Anyway, let’s not get too maudlin. We’re on our way to New York. And September is the best time to go according to the Guide. The summer heat will have subsided. Just think, Manhattan! I’ve always wanted to see Manhattan.’

Well, it is my fiftieth birthday. I’m not going to get another one,’ Charlie says. ‘After that successful promotion campaign for Muse, I felt we could push the boat out. I’m looking forward to seeing all those iconic buildings. Where we are staying is a stone’s throw from the World Trade Centre. The Twin Towers.’

I saw that in the Guide,’ Sian says. ‘Perhaps we could have breakfast at that restaurant on the 107th floor.’

Good idea,’ Charlie says. ‘It’s called Windows on the World and it says here it’s a bit formal. But there’s a more intimate one on the floor below called Wild Blue. That would be a better bet and you can book it for breakfast on the 11th. It’s still a little pricey, but why not? You only live once.’

Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All Rights Reserved

Such Stuff

 

Such Stuff by Chris Green

When I read the news about traces of cannabis being found in clay pipes from William Shakespeare’s garden, I was surprised, but then again, not too surprised. After all, many literary figures have been known to use drugs, Wordsworth and Coleridge for instance. Shelley and Byron too had famously indulged, not to mention Arthur Conan Doyle and Robert Louis Stevenson. To bring the list up to date we could add William Burroughs, Philip K. Dick and Stephen King. Artists and musicians too have dipped into the medicine jar for inspiration. In recent times we have the likes of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol. You could easily come up with a very long list. While drugs have been frowned upon by respectable society, creative people seem to have been excused their indulgence, it seems almost expected of them.

I suppose the biggest surprise regarding the clay pipes revelation was that cannabis was available back in Shakespeare’s day. I imagine the drug was moved along established trade routes from the far-east in much the same way that it is today. Or perhaps it came back from South America with Sir Walter Raleigh, along with the tobacco. Perhaps Raleigh had meant to just bring back marijuana, but the natives had stipulated that he could only have this if he took back a few tons of tobacco too. Shakespeare being a stoner was probably surprising only because cannabis doesn’t get a mention in the history books, or for that matter, in the Bard’s plays.

Moving on from the revelation, I wondered what other discoveries I might make about the drug habits of famous literary figures on the internet. I was astonished by what I found. I would not have thought that Thomas Hardy took more than the odd infusion of laudanum and then purely to treat his ailments. Surely Thomas Hardy, the ultimate in realist writers was straight. Surely he had not written Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure under the influence of psychoactive substances. I had to dig deep to find the information, but it transpired that recently a large sack of cocaine was discovered in Hardy’s old writing desk. It was of course past its best, but analysis confirmed that the contents of the sack were definitely cocaine. Hardy’s biographers, keen to paint the author in a good light had up until this point not alluded to his recreational drug use.

I always had the hunch that J. R. R. Tolkien was on something. He didn’t seem to know what day it was. And his stories are a bit weird to say the least. But who would have thought that he was on crack. Who knew crack was even around at the time he was writing? But, once you start looking, there are pictures of Tolkien with his crack pipe all over the internet. With so much evidence, it is difficult to argue. No wonder that Lord Of The Rings is so violent. This is a clear symptom of Tolkien smoking too much crack.

While one might have suspected that some children’s writers, Lewis Carroll, for instance, or Norton Juster who wrote The Phantom Tollbooth, had taken the odd substance to create their dreamlike worlds, who would have suspected that the Reverend Wilbert Awdry, the author of the Thomas the Tank Engine books was a drug fiend. The web page I landed on explained that Reverend Awdry had a voracious appetite for drugs. He took everything that was going, from angel dust to ecstasy. He was out of his head twenty-four seven. The bio went on to say that in the original manuscript of Thomas the Tank Engine all the engines’ puffing was a reference to their smoking dope and The Fat Controller character was a drug dealer and, but at the publisher’s insistence all this was edited out. Nevertheless, Reverend Awdry’s collection of bongs and chillums recently sold at auction for a four-figure sum.

So there you have it. I’m now wondering what Franz Kafka was on. It’s a shame that he has been deleted from the internet.

© Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 8

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

1:

When Picasso said everything you can imagine is real, he was presumably referring to his art. But could this also be the starting point for fiction? How else can we build a believable world out of something that doesn’t exist? How else can we become absorbed in the tale we are telling? Somewhere it is necessary to cross an invisible line, and it needs to be a line that is at least temporarily imperceptible to the reader. Surely more difficult, I hear you say, for the writer of speculative fiction or magical realism. But is it? Surely the same dictum still applies. Everything you can imagine is real. 

This is, of course, good news for Wet Blanket Ron, who must have thought that, as he had not appeared in print for nearly two years, he had probably had his final fictional outing. Although at the end of Part Seven, I had set Ron up in Ocho Rios, Jamaica with glamour model, Lara Lascala and a state-of-the-art catamaran at his disposal, I had not revisited him to see how he was getting along. My final words had been, what could possibly go wrong? 

As this is Wet Blanket Ron, the answer is plenty. The unexpected earthquake which destroys his ganga plantation in the hills and drew the attention of the Jamaican police is only the beginning of his misfortune. The generous legacy I have left him to establish himself on the island enables him to escape prosecution. Had Ron been better trained in seafaring, he might have been able to save his catamaran when he becomes caught in the unseasonal tropical storm off Pedro Cays. It is difficult to capsize a catamaran, even in the roughest of waters, but Ron manages it with consummate ease. He and Lara have to be rescued by the Haitian coastguard. They had been in the water for nearly an hour, hanging on for dear life to the remains of the vessel. This is the final straw for Lara. She has had enough of Ron’s contretemps. She ups and leaves. 

2:

I decide it is time for Ron to leave the good life behind. No more swimming in the warm tropical waters. No more pina coladas on the sun terrace. No more lazy spliffs in his God size bed. It’s time to curtail his Caribbean adventure and bring him back home to Blighty. 

We join our hapless ne’er-do-well in the middle of winter in a small bedsit in Toker’s End, a notorious housing project in the West Midlands. He has run out of money and is on the phone chasing up his Universal Credit payment. There is no sign of this and he is becoming desperate.

I haven’t eaten for three days,’ Ron says. He has a cupboard full of stolen tins of sweetcorn, but they don’t need to know that.

There are food banks, you know, Mr Smoot,’ the benefits advisor says.

It’s been two weeks since I filled in the bloody forms,’ Ron says, trying hard to keep his cool. ‘When am I going to get my money?’

He is put on hold for the third time. Your call is important to us, the recorded voice tells him mockingly, in between a scratchy recording of Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give You Up. Before anyone comes back on the line, the credit on Ron’s PAYG mobile runs out. 

Ron has few friends. No, let me rephrase that. Ron has no friends. He has no-one he feels he can try to borrow money from. He needs to get a job, PDQ. This is not going to be easy as his work record is poor. Apart from a handful of casual jobs, his recent CV comprises a spell working for NVision Inc breaking unwelcome news to people, and a few weeks promoting PurplePhones. His role here was to permanently disable users’ iPhones and Samsungs so they would buy a new PurplePhone. Not exactly ethical, but while it lasted, it was well paid. He feels that neither Daniel DeMarco at NVision nor Miles Highman at PurplePhones would be likely to welcome him back with open arms. But of the pair, Miles Highman might be the better bet for a chat about his current situation. With his underworld connections, he might know someone who could offer him a no questions asked, cash-in-hand opportunity. 

Ron finds the Toker’s End Community Foodbank is closed until further notice. No reason is given. He returns home in the rain only to discover the door to his apartment has been kicked in. Who would want to burgle a dismal bedsit on a run-down estate like this? But someone has, and they have taken not only his supply of tinned sweetcorn and his tin opener but his bedding and his spare pair of jeans. They have taken his Leonard Cohen CD too and his paperback copy of Jude the Obscure. Even his Merle Haggard poster has gone. What kind of person steals a Merle Haggard poster?

Once he has dried out, Ron walks the three miles into town to PurplePhones’ offices, and in an uncharacteristic spot of good fortune runs into Miles Highman in the car park. Miles is getting into his shiny purple Porsche and does not recognise Ron at first, but then it dawns on him who he is. It is the poor posture that gives it away, along with the hangdog expression. Ron’s spell promoting the new network had been brief and had ended badly with his arrest. At least Ron had had the sense not to implicate him directly. Inspector Crooner had been satisfied that Ron’s behaviour had not in any way reflected PurplePhones’ marketing strategy. 

Ron explains that he is looking for work. Anything will do, he says. While Miles does not feel he wants to take another chance with Ron at the moment, it occurs to him that he might be of use to his associate, Darius Bro, who is looking for an admin assistant for his timeshare scam. An off-the-book employee who, if push came to shove, could be the fall guy. Miles arranges for Ron to meet up with Darius Bro at The Goat and Bicycle public house.

When Ron arrives at the pub, there is no sign of Darius Bro. Having no money to buy himself a drink, he sits himself down at a quiet table in the corner and waits. The bartender is about to come over to check him out, but in the nick of time, Bro arrives and joins him. In contrast to Ron’s ripped jeans and grey zip jacket, he is wearing a fitted Thom Sweeney Prince of Wales check three-piece suit.

You will be Ron, I take it,’ he says, looking him up and down. ‘We’ll have to get you kitted out in something more presentable if we’re to do business. But, first things first. What are you drinking?’

No-one has asked Ron this for a long time. He takes advantage of the offer and asks for a large single malt.

Bro returns with the drinks and explains the details of his scheme. Prestige Timeshares aims to sell fifty monthly shares in a villa he has on rental on the Isle of Wight. He is to sell the allocations at competitive prices, but not that competitive, giving buyers the impression that they are part owners of the luxury property. He tells Ron that it is a tried and tested scheme. Although it is new to the UK, it has worked a treat in locations around the Mediterranean and the Canaries, Once Prestige has reached its target, or if there are any signs of their being rumbled, they will close the operation down and disappear without trace. Then later on, they can take the idea somewhere else and set up a similar scheme.

But won’t someone’s name be there as a signatory to the deals?’ Ron says, his mind conjuring up things that are likely to go wrong. ‘Mine perhaps?’

We’re not going to use real names now, are we, son?’ Bro says. ‘That would be dumb. You will be John Smith or something. And there will be no actual face-to-face meetings. You can do it all online or over the internet and phone, and I have a bottomless supply of burners for you to use. You just have to remember which phone matches which client. And don’t worry, I have the legal side of things taken care of. Now! Are you in?’

Although he has reservations, because in his experience things have a tendency to go wrong, Ron feels he has few options. He agrees.

By the look of you, I imagine you will be needing some cash upfront,’ Bro says. No-one has made this kind of offer for a long time. Ron expresses his thanks. 

Not that it’s a question of being cool, you understand,’ Bro says. ‘Who can be cool these days? Unless you are in a transgender relationship with a beached whale, you are no longer cool in these barmy woke times. But you do look a bit scruffy, mate.’

Having the burner phones is all very well, but Ron doesn’t actually have a PC to conduct the online business, and by the time he has kitted out the flat a little, he has nothing left from Darius Bro’s advance. The public library seems to offer the answer. They have a dozen machines that you can use for free. The problem is that on public machines, Ron cannot download the Tor browser that Bro has told him will be necessary to protect his anonymity. As a result, each transaction Ron makes leaves a paper trail that is easily traceable back to the ip address of the library. For instance, his timeshare sales to George and Louise Cross. Captain Newport-Black and Reverend Harry Webb. The librarian, May Wynn, is only too willing to assist Inspector Rommel of the Cyber Fraud Squad with his investigation. Several times she has caught Ron using his mobile phone in the library and gone over to ask him to stop, but as soon as her back was turned, he has carried on with his call. He is a bad one for sure. 

The mobile phone in Bent Diaz’s office drawer rings. The one with the Leonard Cohen ringtone that he assigned to calls from Ron Smoot, Wet Blanket Ron. He thought this one was dead. His legal secretary must have re-charged it. He will eed to have words with her. Of all his clients, Ron is by far the most exasperating. He is one of life’s victims. What can it possibly be about this time?  

Diaz answers it with a sense of foreboding. He has dreaded this moment. He listens while Ron explains in his dull monotone the details of his arrest and asks how he can come up with a defence against the charges he now faces of fraud and embezzlement. Fraud and embezzlement? Fake timeshares? How does Ron get himself into these predicaments? He’s not a seasoned criminal. How does he manage to get involved with these underworld characters? Daniel DeAngelo, Miles Highman and now Darius Bro. And his lifestyle choices? The women he gets mixed up with, Tracey Minger, Kirsty Tickler. Isn’t it time he took some responsibility for his own wellbeing? 

His initial instinct is to tell Ron he cannot take the case. But it dawns on him that if he can get Ron put away for a long stretch, then it will get him off his back. Furthermore, by sparing others Ron’s wet blanket negativity, he would be doing everyone a favour. Perhaps he can come up with a reverse plea bargain, whereby Ron pleads guilty to a more serious charge. But there again……..

The new plan comes to him in a flash. He can use the occasion to make a name for himself. When the case comes to court, he can argue that Wet Blanket Ron is fictional. No-one to the best of his knowledge has used this line of defence before. If he can prove beyond doubt that Ron is a fictional creation, then he cannot be tried. The case will be thrown out of court. He will make headlines. All he needs to do is order a few copies of The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron on Amazon to give out to the judge and jury. You should buy a copy too. Good book!

Copyright © Chris Green 2021: All rights reserved

Heidi

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 2021: All rights reserved

Walking the Dog

Walking The Dog by Chris Green

Ellie and I often see Dog Walking Man passing our front window with his bull terrier. He has a ruddy face, wears his hair short and has a look of determination. Whatever the time of year, he wears the same white zip-up jacket, black Adidas pants and brown boots with yellow laces. At all hours of the day and night, in all winds and weathers, he strides out with his faithful dog by his side. The dog is thickset and muscular, white with a chunky collar and a distinctive brown patch around its left eye.

When we drive to Asda, two miles away to do our shopping, we usually spot Dog Walking Man somewhere along the journey, his purposeful gait giving him away from a considerable distance. Asda does not sell very good wine, and Ellie likes her wine, so to stock up, we shop at Sainsburys, which is three miles in the opposite direction. More often than not, we pass Dog Walking Man somewhere along this route too. I see him on my way to and from work, and Ellie sees him on her way to her art classes. We see him on the way to the recreation centre and we see him walking along the dual-carriageway when we take a trip out to the tropical fish centre. I see him on the way to the match on a Saturday, sometimes even if it is an away game. He clearly covers a lot of miles with his dog.

We can’t keep calling him Dog Walking Man,’ Ellie says to me as he trudges by one evening while we are watching Pointless. ‘He seems so familiar. Why don’t we give him a name?’

What about Ivan?’ I say.

How about Eric?’ she says.

Ivan’s better,’ I say.

OK,’ she says. ‘Ivan it is. Now, what shall we call the dog?’ I see a gleam in Ellie’s eye. She is like T. S. Eliot when it comes to the naming of animals.

Rocky is a good name for a bull terrier, don’t you think?’ I say as an opener.

Rocky is a terrible name for a bull terrier,’ she says.

What about Clint?’ I say.

He doesn’t look like a Clint to me,’ says Ellie. ‘How about Axel?’

Axel. H’mm, Axel,’ I say ‘OK. You win. Axel, it is.’

Ivan always keeps a firm grip on Axel’s studded leather lead. He never lets Axel sniff at the things you imagine a dog might take a fancy to on the verges or at the foot of lampposts. There is no doubt about who is the pack leader. Axel has accepted that sniffing at things is not what a dog is supposed to do. If another dog approaches, they both ignore it. They carry on walking as if the animal isn’t there. Ivan never lets Axel off the lead. God knows when Axel gets to do his business.

Despite the names we have given the pair of them, we still refer to them as Dog Walking Man and the dog. I’m not sure why this is. Perhaps old habits die hard.

Ellie and I sometimes speculate on the story behind Dog Walking Man and his dog. Although they make a tough-looking team, we have dismissed our original idea that they could be patrolling the area for a security company. The places we see them are too random and the area too large. Ellie thinks it might be part of Ivan’s Anger Management Plan. I wonder if he is in training for an event. It may of course be that he just enjoys walking the dog.

Ellie and I decide to drive down to the coast. It is thirty-seven miles as the crow flies to the little seaside town. We park the car on Marine Parade by Tropicana and put on our sun cream. We can smell the sea. Gulls are circling overhead. We watch them as they home in on a man sitting on the sea wall eating a pasty from its paper bag. His partner spots the danger and tries to warn him. One gull swoops. The man ducks. Suddenly our attention is drawn away by the sight of Dog Walking Man, stepping out at his familiar steady pace, bull terrier by his side. It is a hot June day, but Dog Walking Man still has on his white zip-up jacket and his trademark black Adidas pants. It is, of course, conceivable that he has a car and has driven the dog down to get a breath of sea air. But, it is just as likely that he has not. We have never seen Ivan driving a car.

The small brown and yellow cat that flies across the front lawn most evenings is a bit of a freak. Ellie and I think it may belong to the people who have moved into number 42. We first noticed the strange cat a couple of weeks ago while we were watching Eggheads. By the way, it streaked past, we thought that it might be chasing another cat, or trying to catch a bird. Perhaps it was being chased by a dog. It turned out to be none of these. It is just the way the crazy animal propels itself from A to B. It doesn’t saunter and stop to look around like other cats. It zips this way and that like grease lightning. It is much smaller than the average cat, about the same size as a rabbit, which makes its appearance even more bizarre. I fear it is only a question of time before Ellie gets out Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats to help with some naming. When she does, I’m ready with Bennie and Whizzer.

Are Ellie and I the only ones who saw the spaceship land yesterday? We caught sight of it through the mezzanine window. We had just watched Only Connect and were on our way up the wooden hills. The craft appeared in the western sky in front of the blue hills. We thought it was a balloon at first. As it got closer, we could see that it was shaped like a sombrero. It floated gently down and landed gracefully on the heath. We watched intently for ten minutes. No little green men got out. It gradually faded until it became invisible. We have asked the neighbours, but no one else caught so much as a fleeting glimpse. There is nothing about it in The Chronicle, although they have a lengthy feature on Dog Walking Man. He has won a prestigious national award for his dog walking.

Copyright © Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Call Me Lottie

Call Me Lottie – by Chris Green

LOTTIE

‘Pale blinds, drawn all day, I’m afraid,’ says Landon Truitt. ‘Upstairs and down.’

‘I remember getting those blinds fitted,’ I say. ‘Local fellow. He called himself The Blind Man, which at the time I thought was amusing.’

‘The Blind Man. Good name. Very droll, Mrs Crenshaw.’

‘Lottie. You can call me Lottie,’ I say. ‘Please. You can’t imagine how much I hate the name, Crenshaw.’

Landon Truitt has dropped by to update me on his progress. He is a private detective of sorts. I found his card on the notice board at Waitrose. It read, Landon Truitt – Private Detective, Honest and Trustworthy, All Types of Investigation Undertaken. I have hired him to find out what’s happening with my soon to be ex-husband, Dwayne. No-one has seen Dwayne in the flesh since I left him last August. He doesn’t appear to have left the house in Bougainvillea Heights. He does not answer the door to me and has changed all the locks. He was behaving oddly for a while before I left him, but I put this down to business pressure. Then of course there were the experimental drugs he was taking for his rare blood disease. Dwayne has always been a bit of an enigma.

‘In all the time I’ve been watching, I haven’t seen him once, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie. Not so much as a glimpse of him.’

‘Have there been any comings and goings?’

‘Oh yes …… Lottie. There were, let me see ……. eighteen visitors yesterday. I’ve got photos of some of the visitors and I’ve written down descriptions of the others.’

‘That’s the odd thing,’ I say. ‘Others have told me the same. People seem to keep calling round to the house, but Dwayne never appears.’

‘I thought I recognised one of them,’ says Truitt. ‘Charlie Gunn. I was in uh, …. I knew Charlie years ago.’

‘Charlie Gunn. Charlie Gunn. No. Don’t know him. Let me see the photos, would you?’

Landon Truitt hands me the contact sheets he has printed off. I don’t recognise any of the visitors from the shots, although the figure in the brightly coloured boiler suit looks vaguely familiar. On second thoughts, probably not. I wouldn’t know anyone who would dress in an orange boiler suit, would I?

‘They’re not very clear, are they, Truitt?’ I say, holding one of the contact sheets up to the light.

‘I’m sorry, Mrs Crenshaw …… uh, Lottie, but I had to move the car. A candy car was cruising up and down. I thought it best to park further away from the house. But then the digital zoom on my phone was playing up a bit.’

‘Is that one wearing a spacesuit?’

‘I believe so, Mrs Crenshaw. Your husband appears to be a strange man if you don’t mind me saying so.’

‘Lottie, please. Yes. You could definitely say that Dwayne Crenshaw is a very strange man.’

‘I get the feeling that you are hiding something from me. Would it help, do, you think, if you told me a little more about him? This seems a bit different from my usual cases.’

I am not sure how much I should tell Landon Truitt. For that matter, I’m not sure how much I know about Dwayne. We were never lovey-dovey close. It was more a marriage of convenience. My family had lost its fortune on Black Wednesday, and Dwayne Crenshaw’s star seemed to be in the ascendency at the time. Dwayne for his part seemed to be attracted to my …… full figure. To please him, when he was entertaining clients, I wore dresses that showed this off.

‘What kind of cases do you usually handle, Truitt?’ I say, to dodge the subject.

‘All kinds,’ he says. ‘Mainly surveillance work. But this is usually connected with suspected infidelity or something like that. Would I be right in thinking that this is not why I’m keeping an eye on your husband’s house? A plush house like this in the suburbs must be worth megabucks. Is he a pop star or something, perhaps? If he is, I haven’t heard of him.’

I feel that there might be some mileage in pursuing this line. ‘You’ve not heard of Dwayne Crenshaw?’ I say. ‘Where have you been living?’

LANDON

Had it not been my first case in weeks, well apart from some identity checks and a search for Mrs Floyd’s missing cat, Dillinger, I would have told Lottie Crenshaw to sling her hook. Attractive she might be, but that is no excuse for rudeness. ‘Was she going to get a proper service?’ she asked, ‘was I a professional?’ What a cheek! The woman is clearly loaded. You can tell that a mile off by the designer clothes she wears, taupe skirt suits and crocodile pumps. I’m surprised she knew how to find my gaff above the garage in Corporation Street. She certainly turned some heads when she arrived in her little Lotus.

It was clear she was hiring me because my rates are cheap. I charge £25 an hour plus expenses. Much cheaper than she would get elsewhere. Even then she wanted to negotiate the price. I shouldn’t have been so casual with my business card. Perhaps it was also a mistake to put the card in Waitrose. Would Tesco have been a better bet? Reverse psychology and all that. Maybe I should have picked another line of work. I could easily have gone back to internet security, well hacking, when I was released in January.

Lottie Crenshaw doesn’t realise how difficult surveillance is in a quiet suburban area. She thinks it’s like it is on the TV, where the detective and his oppo sit posing in their Raybans in a comfortable car, listening to Chet Baker, with tea and sandwiches brought along by a girl from the agency. Admittedly shades are pretty much compulsory for a private eye, but at the same time, it’s really hard not to look conspicuous. I had to keep moving the car to avoid suspicion. I saw my old mate, Charlie from Pentonville. What was the old reprobate doing round here? Not the kind of location you would expect to find him. Unless ….. I kept my head down. I think I know where to find Charlie should I ever need him.

There have been a handful of people visiting her husband. Well, quite a lot, actually, but you can’t just get out of the car and say ‘Excuse me guv, but do you mind if I take your photo. Hold still, will you?’ And Lottie has the nerve to criticise my pictures. I expect she has an all singing, all dancing Canon Eos or something like that. Since the altercation with Mrs Nelson’s enraged husband last month when I was trying to get his picture, all I have is my smartphone. The thing is, I’m not even sure what I am supposed to be looking for. Lottie Crenshaw’s instructions were vague. She just told me to watch the house and report back. Now she tells me her husband is some kind of nut. Shouldn’t she be paying me more for the added risk?

‘I did wonder if Dwayne Crenshaw might be a bit of an oddball, Mrs C,’ I say, looking at the contact sheet of photos I printed before the printer gave up on me. ‘I think that’s a man in a spacesuit going into the house in this photo.’

‘Yes. It could well be a spaceman’ she says. ‘It does look as if the blurry figure in your picture might be wearing a spacesuit. Dwayne is a little, what do you call it? Leftfield? It could be for a photoshoot. Dwayne was a ….. pop star. Big in the eighties.’

‘I guess if he were making a video or something, that might explain the spaceman.’

‘And the man in the orange boiler suit.’

‘What about Charlie though?’

‘You keep on about Charlie. Who is Charlie?’

‘Charlie is a fixer. A clean up man.’

‘Oh! I see. I think. ……. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of my husband though.’

‘Can’t say I have, Lottie. I don’t listen to a lot of music though.’

‘You must have heard Life On Jupiter. That was massive.’

‘No. I don’t think I have heard that one,’ I say, trying to assess if she is having me on. I mean, Life on Jupiter, what a stupid title, even for the nineteen-eighties. ‘How does it go?’

Looking at her reaction, I can tell that I’ve embarrassed her. She isn’t going to sing it. I don’t want to dig myself into too deep a hole here. Peanuts it might be, but I do want to get paid. I am at the limit of my overdraft and I have bills upon bills. Not to mention the maintenance payments. I can’t see Anna being understanding about a cessation of those. Not that I ever get to see the children these days.

‘I could do some rooting around on the internet, Lottie,’ I say, to win her back round. ‘It’s amazing what you can find out if you know where to look.’

‘And you know where to look, do you?’ she says.

‘Yes ma’am,’ I say. ‘I was in the security services back in the day.’

LOTTIE

Deep down there might be something endearing about Landon Truitt or I wouldn’t have hired him. Not only is he resourceful, but he also seems honest and trustworthy. In today’s world, these are rare qualities in a man. I wish I could say I was honest and trustworthy. They say opposites attract. What am I thinking? I’m not attracted to him in the slightest. Not in the slightest. How could I be? He’s a back street private detective. There’s just an overlap in our lives’ narratives. That’s all.

I imagine he will be a little puzzled he can’t find any reference to Dwayne’s pop career on the internet. But there again, this might motivate him to look a bit harder, dig a bit deeper into his treasure trove of secret websites to find traces of him. This way, he may find something useful. He might actually discover what my husband has been up to recently. After all, I’m paying him good money to come up with information. Good money to him anyway. He’s broke. I can tell. He has a hangdog look about him. Along with the doe-eyed look of infatuation. But he still has to earn his £100 a day.

Maybe I should have mentioned my financial position before, or perhaps you’ve guessed. I’m a little strapped for cash at the moment. I had to sell a diamond ring last week to pay the rent on the flat in Compton Mews. The big worry for me is that Dwayne might spend all his money before our divorce comes through. The Aston Martin that is parked around the side of the house can’t have been cheap. There’s also the danger that when his judgement is impaired by the psychoactive properties of his life-saving drugs, he might lose it in a dodgy deal. He has made his money doing dodgy deals, buying and selling dodgy businesses. By definition, wheeling and dealing in this way is a risky enterprise. He’s certain to fall foul of the law one of these days. To live outside the law, you must be honest and no-one could ever accuse Dwayne Crenshaw of being honest.

‘All businesses are untrustworthy,’ Dwayne was fond of saying. ‘What’s the difference between selling established ones and selling less established ones, or even bogus ones? Nothing. No-one is upfront these days. They all make up the figures. Where do you think we would be if people suddenly started telling the truth?’

This may well be, but I have to look after my settlement. I’m hoping that this will be a high six-figure sum. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic of a good result, but he’s probably saying that because I am paying him a lot of money. When it comes down to it he can only do so much to plead my case, and the other side is likely to bring up a number of indiscretions I haven’t told Guy Bloke about.

LANDON

‘I stand corrected, Mrs C …. Lottie. You were right. Dwayne Crenshaw was huge, worldwide. Or at least his alter ego Dean Callisto was. Thirty-one consecutive top ten hits in the UK, and six number ones on the Billboard chart. Life On Jupiter was a minor hit compared to Sex Machine or Descent Into Madness. Not to mention Dean’s collaboration with the legendary George Toot. I can’t imagine how I overlooked him. Well, actually I can. You didn’t tell me that Dwayne changed his name, did you?’

Lottie looks a little confused. Or she pretends to look confused. I never know what to believe with her. I’d probably go so far as to say that women are a mystery to me. I will never be able to understand the perverse logic of their thought processes. How their expressions never give away what they might be thinking. Or their actions. I can’t help but think about the time I took Anna to The Coach and Horses for our anniversary. She spent hours getting ready, and then in the middle of dinner she told me she was planning to leave me. Any man who claims he can see through a woman is probably missing a lot.

‘Did you manage to find what Dwayne Crenshaw has been up to recently?’ Lottie asks.

‘Aha!’ I say. ‘All the sites seem to suggest that Dean Callisto …… alias Dwayne Crenshaw is living in New York with his new wife, Tara. She is seventeen, according to the whatsheuptonow.com site. He’s working on a new album and is planning a comeback tour later in the year.

‘Really?’

‘Yes, Lottie. Do you think the person living in the house in Bougainvillea Heights that I’m watching may not be your husband? Could he be an impostor? ……. Or is there something you are not telling me?’

LOTTIE

How on earth did he come up with all that wish-wash about Dwayne Crenshaw being Dean Callisto? Has he been researching on uncyclopedia.com or something? ……. Wait a minute! I see what’s going on. Having discovered that I was spinning him a yarn, he is now trying to get one over on me. I may have underestimated Landon Truitt. He might be smarter than he looks. Not that he looks too bad now that he’s smartened up a bit. But still.

‘OK. You’ve called my bluff on that one,’ I say. ‘What did you really find out?’

‘It may seem odd, Lottie, what with Dwayne Crenshaw being such an unusual name, but there are literally hundreds of Dwayne Crenshaws and each one of them seems to live a complicated life.’

‘I would have imagined there would be only one or two in the world.’

‘So would I. There are sixty-four in the UK alone. However, the good news is that I’ve managed to isolate our Dwayne Crenshaw.’

‘And ….’

‘He sold the house in Bougainvillea Heights six months ago to a film company. Funnily enough, the film company he sold it to is owned by Dean Callisto.’

‘Bloody hell! You are kidding, right?’

‘Not this time. Truth is stranger than fiction, isn’t it?’

LANDON

We are in Lottie’s plush apartment in Compton Mews to discuss my findings on the case. She says she doesn’t have any tea. She has poured me a gin and tonic instead. Gingerly, I fill her in on the house sale.

‘Dean Callisto?’ she says. ‘Good Lord!’

I come out with ‘Truth is stranger than fiction,’ or some such platitude to try to minimise the impact.

There is a momentary silence. I wait nervously for her reaction. Lottie gets up and walks around the room.

‘Six months ago, you say?’

‘That’s right.’

There is a more prolonged silence. I take a gulp at my G and T, wondering whether I should elaborate. Lottie continues to pace up and down. I imagine I might now be off the case. I’ve had cases like this before. Too many of them. Cases where I haven’t come up with the desired result and haven’t been paid. Not to be paid is the last thing I need right now. And I can hardly send Nolan Rocco or Charlie Gunn round to sort Lottie out. While I haven’t up to now intimated that I have a cash flow issue, I suggest politely that she might want to settle the account early. Get it out of the way. Get it off her chest. Perhaps she takes this too literally.

‘I was wondering if we couldn’t negotiate that,’ she says, unbuttoning her blouse.

Lottie is certainly an attractive woman. I have been struggling with this feeling all along, but surely there is professional etiquette to be considered. Isn’t there? …… Oh well, perhaps not. It seems we are quickly able to overcome this obstacle.

To my surprise, there is little embarrassment afterwards. It seems like it is the most natural thing in the world for Lottie and I to be sipping a post-coital cocktail with a fancy name and talking about how we can market my investigative skills to make some real money. If I am to keep her in the style to which she has become accustomed, she feels I need to make some changes. Get some new cards made up for a start.

‘Ditch honest and trustworthy,’ she says. ‘Sentimental advertising regarding scruples gets you nowhere in the twenty-first century. You don’t want to be chasing around after Mrs Floyd’s cat forever, do you?’

‘What about deceitful and arrogant?’ I suggest.

‘Ha ha. Let’s see,’ she says. ‘Licensed and Bonded inspires confidence and implies a level of trust.’

‘Landon Truitt, Private Detective, Licensed and Bonded’
Get rid of Private Detective. Private Investigator, Licensed and Bonded is better or perhaps Private Investigations Agency. Clients like to feel that there is a team working for them.

‘Landon Truitt Private Investigations Agency.’

‘Perhaps change Landon Truitt. How about Simon Alexander or Jonathan Steel?’

‘I don’t know …..’

‘That’s settled then, but first things first. Dwayne Crenshaw. What are we going to do about Dwayne Crenshaw?’

‘Find him would be a good start.’

‘You’ll be able to do that, won’t you? Now that you have a little incentive.’

‘I can’t see a problem there. I’ll get on to it right away.’

‘Well. …… Perhaps you might leave it for a few minutes, don’t you think?’

LOTTIE

Men are simplistic creatures. God may have given them both a penis and a brain, but sadly only enough blood supply to use one at a time. They might as well just have an on-off button. And they are so incredibly self-absorbed they never realise that they are being manipulated. However, that said, Landon shapes up better than most. He is a sweetie. He understands something has to be done about my husband. He thinks his friend Charlie might be able to persuade Dwayne that it is in his best interests to offer me a generous settlement. I think Landon and I are going to get along just fine.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Cover Illustration by ArtTower on Pixabay


NIGHT

night3

NIGHT by Chris Green

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

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

‘Can you hear anything,’ he asks?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But …… ‘

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

‘But ….. ‘

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘About your dog,’ he says.

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

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

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

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

Hank thinks he spots a flaw in her argument.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No. No changes.’

‘Shall we take a look?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © Chris Green, 2020: All rights reserved

Ceci n’est pas Une Batte

Ceçi n’est pas une batte by Chris Green

Not many people realise that the surrealist painter, René Magritte was a big fan of English cricket. He discovered cricket by accident in a newspaper article in the 1930s. Although he had a reasonable command of English, the unfamiliar language baffled him. Innings, runs, overs, wickets, stumps, and bails. There were no equivalents to these in his native Belgium. The game was not played here. He was amused too by the names of the fielding positions, short leg, silly mid-on, gulley, backward point, first and second slip, etc. And the rules of the game were not only complicated but surreal.

He learned that there were two sides of eleven men, one in and one out in the field. Each man on the in side went out to bat and the fielding side tried to get him out. When he was out, he came in. Then the next man went in until he was out. When he was out, he too came in. When they were all out, the side that was out came in and the side that had been in went out and tried to get those coming in out. In addition, there were many ways in which the fielding side could get the batsmen, namely bowled, caught, stumped, run out and leg before wicket, whatever this was. When both sides had been in and out twice, the game finished. The team with the most runs won, unless they had not had enough time to finish because of bad light or rain, in which case it was a draw. Runs were made by the two batsmen that were in running between two sets of stumps after the one on strike had hit the ball and the ones in the field had not stopped it. Games lasted for three or five days.

René felt he had to experience this theatre of the absurd first hand. It sounded a lot more interesting than hockey or volleyball. He took a trip to England to watch a local weekend game at a village on the Kent coast. Although he had a little difficulty understanding everything that was going on, he felt it was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. He was hooked. He began to make regular trips across the Channel to watch Kent play County Cricket at Canterbury. With his dark suit and signature bowler hat, René fitted in easily with the well-to-do spectators in the Members’ Enclosure and the hospitality tents. As he chatted away to his fellow fans, most did not realise they were in the presence of a famous artist.

He gradually got to know the Kent cricketers. As luck should have it, Kent’s captain, Bryan Valentine was a keen amateur artist and knew who René Magritte was. Bryan was aware that new art movements were springing up in Europe and eager to keep up with developments. René became a regular guest in his quarters, where they discussed the connections between art and cricket long into the night.

As cricket looked so much fun, it was only natural for René to want to have a crack at it. He bought all the kit and arranged for a few sessions in the nets. With a little coaching from the Kent players, he mastered some of the batting strokes, the cover drive, the hook, the sweep and the late cut. They told him he was a natural. Encouraged by this, René persuaded Bryan to let him play in a Sunday charity match.

The only reservation René had was in the game’s presentation. If, as he hoped, cricket was ever going to take off in Belgium, this needed a little tweaking. It would need to drop some of its formality. To add a little humour, instead of the standard cricketing cap, he wore his trademark bowler hat for the charity match. Although this was greeted with puzzlement at first, the boozy Sunday crowd soon caught on. It would not be appropriate for regular county fixtures, but once in a while, it was good to break with tradition.

With her husband disappearing regularly, Georgette Magritte began to suspect he was having an affair. The explanation for his absences that he was watching cricket was an unconvincing one. She insisted the next time he went on his travels, he took her along. René tried to put her off. He explained that the shopping opportunities in Canterbury might fall short of her expectations. It was not exactly London. She would be better off going to the department stores in Brussels for her frocks. But this did nothing to convince Georgette. She was going with him and that was that.

René was right. Georgette did not enjoy their wet week in Kent in early September one bit. Canterbury was something of a backwater. It was completely lacking in culture and had no dress shops. The weather made it worse. The sight of twenty-two men sitting around in white trousers and sweaters waiting for the rain to stop seemed to be the ultimate pointless activity. The rain was clearly not going to stop. What could it possibly be about cricket that so fascinated René?​ When she put her mind to it, Georgette could become the incredible sulk. A model of passive aggressive manipulation. René had no defence against this. He capitulated. They returned home early.

September marked the end of the cricket season, so to keep his enthusiasm for the game alive over the winter months, René embarked on a series of surreal cricket paintings. He felt these would help to promote the game in Belgium and who knows, perhaps even France. He used all of his signature themes, cricketers in bowler hats, cricketers with green apple faces, cricketers with bowler hats and green apple faces. Cricketers with fluffy clouds as faces. A picture of a cricket bat with the title, Ceçi n’est pas Une Batte. Sadly, few of these paintings have survived. The ones that have are in a private collection belonging to the reclusive Sebastian Bose-Harrington at Harrington Hall, where the public cannot view them. These were originally a gift to the less reclusive Colin Bose-Harrington, a senior Kent Cricket Club board member in the days leading up to World War 2.

With the outbreak of war, cricket in England came to an abrupt halt. Even had it continued, the Nazi occupation of Belgium would have made it difficult for René to travel. His last cricket painting is believed to have been completed in early September 1939, just days before Belgium fell. The Nazi occupying force considered his work to be degenerate art and destroyed this one along with many others.

It is not clear why René did not resume his passion for cricket after the war, but artists are restless souls. Change for them is a driving force. This versatility, in turn, adds kudos to their work. If, for instance, Picasso had had just one period, he would surely not have stood the test of time. We would no longer be talking about him in such elevated terms today. Similarly, through Magritte’s ability to re-invent himself, his paintings have increased in value logarithmically over the years. His Le Principe du Plaisir recently sold for 27 million dollars in New York. Because of their rarity, the six surviving cricket paintings in the Bose-Harrington collection might expect a similar return should they ever come onto the market. In the meantime, be comforted that the great Belgian painter was once a big fan of English cricket.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


‘Sunsets on Mars are blue,’ says the man’s voice coming from behind her. It is too loud for her to ignore.

Suzy turns around to see a stranger in a badly creased seersucker suit has sat down at the next table. He is alone. Is he talking to her or talking to himself, she wonders? Perhaps he is practising lines for a play. The Apollo is just down the road and he has that theatrical air about him. Dishevelled hair. Lined face. Goatee beard. Wild eyes. Probably best to ignore him. But, what an odd thing to say, out of the blue!

Iguanas have three eyes,’ he says. He definitely seems to be addressing her. He is staring right at her. Intently. Might he be coming on to her? If he is, she doesn’t think much of his chat up lines. Or his style. He is looking her up and down, leeringly. She had thought this morning when she got up that wearing her red dress might lift her spirits. She had been feeling a bit low. With Lev gone, everything seemed to be getting on top of her. But in hindsight, perhaps the dress was a mistake. It makes her stand out too much at this time of the morning. Luigi’s Café is not a dressing up kind of place. Supermarket shoppers mainly. And it seems, the odd weirdo.

She looks around for a waitress to ask for the bill for her Profiterole and Macchiato but they have all temporarily disappeared. She takes out her phone and pretends to make a call hoping this will deter the stranger. It doesn’t.

The brain is composed of 60% fat,’ he says. ‘Did you know that?’

He’s just plain creepy, she concludes. Looney Tunes. A basket-case. She should leave. There is still no sign of a waitress and the other customers all appear to be engaged in conversations. She pushes a ten-pound note under her plate, gathers up her bags and makes a hasty exit.

On the street, she is relieved to discover the creep has not followed her. Just the other day, her friend Yvonne told her she had had a stalker. This had all started off with someone leering at her in Starbucks when she was on her own. He began to follow her everywhere and she had to bring in the police.

Suzy is about to get into her Ssangyong when her phone rings. She does not recognise the number. She decides to answer it, anyway. Kurt, her eldest was talking about getting a new phone.

Bluetooth was named after King Harald Bluetooth who united Denmark and Norway in the tenth century,’ says the now familiar voice. Bluetooth? Is this how the creep from the café has obtained her number? A bit tecky but how else would he know it?

I understand you feel intimidated,’ Holly at the hairdressers says. ‘But really, all you have to do is steer clear of Luigi’s and not answer the phone.’

I’ve already blocked the number,’ Suzy says.

It’s not as if he knows where you live, is it?’ Holly says.

I hope not,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s not something you could find out from a mobile phone number, is it, Hol?’

No. He was just some geek trying to be clever,’ Holly says. ‘You get them all the time.’

‘I guess you’re right,’ Suzy says. ‘He was talking nonsense.’

It is Friday night. Kurt and Axel are out with their mates taking drugs or two-timing their girlfriends or whatever teenage lads get up to these days. Either way, they are likely to be out all night. Suzy is alone in the house. At times like this, she wishes Lev had not gone off like he did. It has been nearly a month now but she cannot get used to being alone. At the time, she felt she wanted him out of her life but now she is not so sure. She is all over the place. It only takes the slightest thing to upset her. Perhaps they should have given it another try. Her friends keep telling her she should move on but in the meantime, she is finding it can be very lonely, especially as all of them are in relationships. She decides there’s nothing really for it but to mix a gin and tonic and see what’s on TV. On a Friday night! How sad is that!

She sips her drink and presses the on-button on the remote. Without warning, his face fills the screen. This is impossible. Yet, there’s no mistaking him. The dishevelled mop of hair. The goatee beard. The Keith Richards creases that line his face. The intense stare. This is the creepy man from the café. In high definition and larger than life on her 56 inch TV. How can this be happening?

A tarantula can live without food for more than two years,’ he says. To add to her disorientation and distress, the freak is coming out with more surreal rubbish too. What kind of game is this? What can it all mean? What does he want?

She tries changing channels but to her horror, he is still there staring straight into the camera and, by extension, directly at her.

Earth has travelled five thousand miles in the last five minutes, Suzy’ he says.

He is even addressing her by name now.

She tries random buttons. He stays on the screen, leering menacingly at her.

There are too many black holes to count,’ he sneers.

Panicked, Suzy pulls out the plug. He is gone. She pours herself another drink. No tonic this time.

Andy Mann, the aerial installation technician who used to work with Lev assures her what she is describing is impossible. But as she seems distraught and he happens to be in the area, he says he will call around and take a look.

Take me through it,’ he says. ‘Show me exactly what you did.’

Suzy is a little reluctant, in fact, she is bricking it as she plugs the TV back in. She stands back and presses the button on the remote. BBC1 comes on as you would normally expect. The One Show. She changes the channel over and over. Each number brings up the correct station showing its normal Friday night fare.

Suzy does not know what to feel, vulnerable, confused, relieved, embarrassed.

Now that you’re here, Andy, why don’t you stop for a drink?’ she says.

SATURDAY

Thank you for staying over, Andy,’ Suzy says. ‘That was good of you.’

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

And you’re sure Amy won’t have wondered where you were.’

No. Amy’s visiting her mother. Anyway, I could always say my van broke down or something. It’s worked before.’

You mean I’m not the first. You are bad, Andy.’

The main thing is, do you feel better? You were in a bit of a state when I arrived.’

I do, Andy. Much better. Perhaps you could make me feel …… better again before you go.’

What about Kurt and Axel? Won’t they be back soon?’

You must be joking. It’s Saturday. Wherever they’ve been or wherever they are now, they won’t be up this early.’

You’re having trouble with this one, aren’t you, Phil,’ Patti says.

It’s ground to a halt the last couple of days,’ I say. ‘And I don’t know where to take it. The Philip C. Dark brand relies upon shock and surprise and this one has run out of steam.’

You could introduce a talking cat,’ Patti says. ‘That would move the story forward.’

Funnily enough, I was thinking of a talking cat,’ I say. They are always a good stand-by. I could call it Dave. Dave’s a good name for a cat, don’t you think?’

SUNDAY

Dave has been out all night. His people have left him and gone away on holiday. The lad who is supposed to be letting him and out and feeding him his pouches of Gourmet chunks has not been since Friday afternoon. Young people are so unreliable at weekends. Not the best of nights to be out either as it has been pouring with rain and he has had to sleep in a leaky old shed. It is now light and thankfully the rain has stopped. Dave sees an opportunity of some warmth and who knows, perhaps even a tasty breakfast from the lady at number 42, the one whose husband has left her. Nice smells are coming from her kitchen.

Suzy is unnerved by the scratching sound at the door. Not being accustomed to talking cats, she is freaked out when the ginger and white tom asks her if he can come in and snuggle up by the radiator to get warm.

I’m quite partial to bacon too if you have a spare rasher or two,’ Dave says. ‘And perhaps a sausage.’

Perhaps, in the wake of her recent experiences, she is becoming de-sensitised to strangeness. Rather than slip once more into panic mode, she finds herself quietly amused by the idea of a chatty moggy.

I’ve not seen you around here before,’ she says. ‘What’s your name?’

I’m Dave,’ Dave says. ‘Would you like to talk about magic carpets?’

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

I thought magic carpets would make a change,’ Dave says. ‘All my people want to talk about are cabbages and kings.’

OK,’ Suzy says. ‘Let’s talk about magic carpets.’

Or if you prefer we could talk about Red Sails in the Sunset,’ Dave says. ‘Do you know that song? I could sing it for you.’

I think I might have it somewhere,’

There are thirty nine recorded versions of Red Sails in the Sunset. Did you know that? My favourite is Fats Domino’s’ Have you got that one or did Lev take it with him when he left?’

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

OK. As you probably know, magic carpets originate in the area from Egypt to Iraq known as the Fertile Crescent, which of course is also where domestic cats come from.’

Uh huh.’

Not going well with the talking cat, is it?’ Patti says.

It does need a little work,’ I say. ‘And a title.’

Would you like to read my Richard Brautigan book?’ Patti says. ‘Trout Fishing in America. I think it might help.’

Good title,’ I say. ‘I’m guessing it’s not about trout fishing, right?’

Not completely, no,’ Patti says. ‘It’s a series of sketches of a strange yet strikingly familiar world.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Snow

Snow by Chris Green

It’s getting very cold. I wonder if it’s going to snow,’ the text message reads.

It’s an odd message and I do not recognise the number. But to get into the spirit of things I reply, ‘It’s only August.’

This appears to strike a chord because immediately I get a reply which reads, ‘Meet me in Providence Park by the lake in twenty minutes, the third seat in.’

I am now curious as to what this is about. Perhaps it is someone I know playing a prank. Perhaps not. But whatever it is, there is a sense of intrigue about it. As I am close by and not due to pick Hannah up from the hairdressers for an hour, I make my way along to the park. I approach the lake, trying to make the best use of the trees for cover. I don’t want to walk into some kind of trap. The third bench is the only one that is occupied. Beneath the fedora and dark glasses, the woman sitting there looks as though she might be quite attractive. Surely, there is no need for the overcoat at this time of year though. Curiosity gets the better of me. Throwing caution to the wind, I go across and say hello. She gestures for me to sit alongside her.

I think it is going to snow very soon,’ she says, deadpan, as she slides me a large brown envelope. With this, she gets up and leaves. I call after her, but it seems the lady is not for turning.

This appears to be textbook spy-spoof behaviour. Cloak and dagger stuff. With all the electronic media available, this cannot really be how espionage is carried out in this day and age. And what could it possibly have to do with me? Where would I fit into the clandestine world of the secret service? I’m a heating engineer.

The envelope contains a 12 by 8 black and white photo. A name, Grigoriy Zakharov. An address, 19 Len Deighton Drive. An instruction, use the Glock.

I am perplexed as I have never heard of Grigoriy Zakharov, have no idea where Len Deighton Drive is or even what town it is in, and as far as I can remember I don’t own a Glock, which as I understand it is some kind of handgun. There is not much need for small arms in central heating installation or boiler maintenance. Admittedly, since the downturn in the economy, money is tight and people are struggling to make ends meet. But we have not yet had to resort to such drastic measures to collect our fees.

If it’s not someone having a lark, it must be a case of mistaken identity. It’s easy to get a digit wrong when you are keying in a mobile phone number. I found myself talking to Ed Sheeran once. It turned out Ed didn’t need his Baxi combi-boiler serviced. I expect the woman who contacted me has by now realised she has slipped up. I don’t imagine I will hear any more about the matter. It would be too embarrassing for her to admit her mistake and contact me again. I feel it is sensible not to tell Hannah about the incident though. In case something is awry. I know if I mention it, she will worry. Hannah hates strange.

While I am sitting in the car outside Cutting Edge waiting for Hannah, I decide to change the CD in the car player. The Coldplay one has been in the player for several days. Perhaps we could have Snow Patrol instead. I am one of those old-fashioned people who has not yet embraced the digital revolution of in-car entertainment. For one thing, I have hundreds of CDs at home that I have paid good money for. What would I then do with them?

To my astonishment, in the front of the glove compartment instead of a selection of CDs, I find a gun. I don’t know much about guns. I’m more used to handling pumps and valves, but this matt black Glock pistol looks and feels like the real deal. The odd thing is, it somehow doesn’t seem out of place. It’s a scary idea, but it is almost as if I expected to find it in the glove compartment. My head is reeling with conflicting thoughts. Who, why and how? But speculation is difficult once logic goes out the window. I don’t have time to dwell on these matters. I need to conceal the gun before Hannah gets into the car.

Perhaps it is the sign of a skilled hairdresser, but Hannah’s hair looks exactly the same as when she went in. It never seems to look any different after her appointments. I tell her it looks lovely. I have learned it is always a good idea to compliment a woman emerging from the hairdressers on her coiffure.

Three text messages ping in quick succession on my phone as we are driving along Tambourine Way.

Shall I see who that is?’ Hannah says.

No,’ I say, trying hard not to show signs of panic. ‘I’ll pull in at the supermarket car park. We need a few bits and pieces, don’t we?’

I did the shopping first thing this morning. Don’t you remember?’ she says, giving me a quizzical look.

I come up a few things that weren’t on the list. Things that I know Hannah won’t have thought of. Garibaldi biscuits, Baby Bio, shaving soap, drawing pins, WD40, and Special Brew. The quizzical look morphs into a contemptuous look. I can tell she does not want to be doing this after an arduous hour or so at the hairdressers. If it comes to that, neither do I want to be doing it. There are better ways of spending a Saturday afternoon. But this is a situation that needs careful handling.

While I am getting a shopping bag out of the boot, I check the text messages. To my relief, they are all spam. But while I am looking for a more suitable place to hide the gun, I get an incoming call.

It is nearly September. Is it going to snow?’ the caller says. She does seem to want it to snow.

To pacify her, I tell her that it might still snow.

I do hope so,’ she says. ‘A lot of things depend on it. You won’t be able to ski if it doesn’t snow.’

Before I have the chance to respond, she ends the call.

Hannah says she will pop into the art supplies shop next door while I tackle the supermarket. This gives me breathing space to contemplate my course of action. Should I inform the police? Not such a good idea. While I still have the gun, this could easily backfire. Should I let Hannah in on what is going on? Probably not, if I can avoid it? Especially as I don’t have a clue what it is. At the supermarket checkout, I buy a new Sim card and put this into my phone. If my mobile phone is the perpetrator’s only means of contact, then this should be sufficient. If it is not, then who knows?

Hannah seems cheered by her visit to the art shop. She has several packages.

Let’s go to Mangia e Beve for lunch, Nick,’ she says. ‘Emma in the hairdressers says they do an excellent involtini di melanzane ripieni di uva passa, capperi e noci.’

Sounds complicated,’ I say. ‘What is it?’

Rolled aubergines stuffed with raisins, capers and walnuts,’ she says. ‘But I’m sure they will have some tasty meat dishes too.’

While I am still looking through the menu, the woman from the park comes in and sits down at a nearby table. She seems to have ditched the overcoat but is still wearing her hat and sunglasses. She looks across at me. It is not a happy, smiley look. I feel a chill run down my spine. She keys something into her phone and I receive a text message about the snow clouds forming. I’m not sure how this can be happening. How can she have found out the new number? It should be impossible. I suppose, in my confusion, I may have accidentally put the old Sim back into the phone and disposed of the new one. This is the kind of thing anyone might do when they are under stress. The message is followed by another, saying that unless it snows soon, there will be no tobogganing.

Hannah is busy texting one of her friends so I take the opportunity to google Grigoriy Zakharov. The only two matches it comes up with are a Soviet architect and a commodities trader from Minsk. Perhaps the world of international espionage has changed, but it would be stretching the imagination a little to think that spooks would be interested in this pair. Especially as according to Google, Grigoriy Zakharov the architect died in 1982. I can find no-one with that name closer to home. But, perhaps I ought not to expect there would be. The whole point of secret services is that they are secret. They operate undercover. If he were an agent, whoever Grigoriy Zakharov is would use a code name.

Having delivered her message, without further ceremony, my handler gets up to leave. But there is no reason to suspect that this means she is letting me off the hook. I get the impression she will keep appearing until the deed is done.

That was Rosie Parker from number 42,’ Hannah says. ‘She says there’s been a lot of strange activity outside our house. Men in dark suits and dark glasses getting in and out of black BMWs with tinted windows. She is worried one of them might have a gun. She wonders if we have any idea what might be going on.’

I decide that I have no choice but to come clean. I explain about the text messages concerning snow, the woman in the overcoat and dark glasses, the mysterious Grigoriy Zakharov, and the Glock pistol in the glove compartment.

You fool,’ she says. ‘What have you landed us in? If you had ignored the original message, none of this would be happening.’

We don’t know that,’ I say in my defence. ‘She does seem pretty persistent.’

So, how do you account for it, Nick?’ she says.

I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But it looks like we are in trouble.’

There is a protracted silence while Hannah seethes. I stare at the menu in the vain hope that by avoiding her gaze, the problem might somehow disappear.

I think I may have an idea about what has happened,’ Hannah says, finally.

You do?’ I say, looking up. Is she going to offer me a lifeline?’

Do you remember when we went to see that Tim Burton film at the multiplex?’ she says.

That was months ago,’ I say.

I know, but as we were leaving, you picked up a flyer about the new cold war thriller that the production company were planning to make. Don’t you remember?’

Vaguely,’ I say. ‘It was going to be based on an Ian McEwan novel.’

There was a competition in the flyer, wasn’t there?’ she says. ‘As I remember it, you had to answer questions about spy films, and this gave you the opportunity to become an extra in the film and have dinner out with the stars. It mentioned some of the ones they hoped to cast. Benedict Cumberbatch. Liam Neeson. Emily Blunt. Scarlett Johansson. ……. You didn’t happen to fill it in by any chance, did you?’

I may have,’ I say. ‘Now you come to mention it, I believe I did.’

Well, that explains it,’ she says. ‘You are slow on the uptake, you know, Nick. Don’t you see the connection? Snow. Cold. Cold War thriller. It all adds up. She couldn’t have given you more obvious clues. She’s telling you that you’ve won the competition. I expect they are ready to start shooting the film. This is probably your audition for the part. Perhaps it’s even part of the film.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

‘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

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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

slumpton1980

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 p