Marzipan Imbroglio

marzipanimbroglio

Marzipan Imbroglio by Chris Green

When I read the post on Facebook that striker, Gary Trevor has signed for Mars United FC for a record £300 million, my first reaction is, oh yeah, sure. I run it straight through the bullshit detector on my browser, expecting it to confirm it as a fake news story, like so many of the posts on Facebook these days. To my surprise, it doesn’t. Gary Trevor it seems really has signed for the interplanetary club. Admittedly, he has never shown Mensa potential but surely even for someone as thick as Gary, this move is nothing short of crazy. For one thing, he will he be likely to lose his match fitness during the long flight. For another, there will be no pitches suitable for a big fixture on the red planet, nor any teams except perhaps Mars Athletic for Mars United to play. And what will happen about Gary’s famously profligate private life?

To make sure everything is working correctly, I check out some old favourites. After all, you never know who might be moderating the news checking sites that seem to be springing up. Perhaps the one my browser uses may have been hacked. But, the results are pretty much what I would expect. The bs detector says there is only a two per cent chance that Elvis is still alive and a one per cent chance that the American president really is an alien. Yet, there is a hundred per cent chance that the news about Gary Trevor’s transfer to Mars United FC is correct. Higher even than the question as to whether the new Pope, Clive Christopher is a Catholic which comes in at ninety nine per cent.

‘There’s no point in going on social media any longer,’ Lenny says when I mention Gary’s bizarre move to him. ‘Every post you see is immediately contradicted by another.’

‘But bs detectors are supposed to have put an end to all that,’ I say. ‘They are meant to filter out misinformation.’

‘Yeah! Course!’ Lenny says. ‘But, it’s not just social media. The internet is littered with bogus information. You just have to suspend belief when you go online.’

‘You used to be able to see the internet as a means to correct all the lies you read in the daily newspapers,’ I say.

‘Not anymore,’ Lenny says. ‘What about this, Stan? I came upon a story about Chick Strangler on Google just now. Chick’s always been a heavy rocker. Right?’

‘The heaviest,’ I say. ‘Famous for his destructive stage act and ……. er, uncompromising lifestyle.’

‘Quite!’

‘Who could forget the hotel trashings and the wild orgies that set the tabloid press alight?’

‘Or his prodigious drug use?’ Lenny says ‘And all that stuff with reptiles? Anyway, I’ve just read that he’s recording an album of country classics. Chick Strangler. Country classics. Think about it. But, this too checks out on newscheck.com. To add credibility to the story, there is his new version of John Denver’s Annie’s Song, if anything a watered down version of the original. Lies Or Not even shows the album cover.’

‘You’re saying it’s not really Chick?’

‘What do you think? It’s difficult to tell the Daily Mail site from the Daily Mash.’

‘But it always has been, Lenny,’ I say.

Patti is not interested in the exploits of Gary Trevor or Chick Strangler. In the battle of the sexes, it may not always be reported this way around but Patti feels that women have more important things to think about.

‘I know you and Lenny go for all of this celebrity chit chat,’ she says. ‘You blokes put celebrity before substance. But it’s the serious stuff that worries me. Is Asteroid Kardashian going to hit us and are we really at war with North Vesuvia? In fact, is North Vesuvia really a country? Ain’t It The Truth says it is a country in Asia and FactFinder says it doesn’t exist.’

I suggest that perhaps we are both making the same point. Patti feels we are not. She maintains there is a big difference between the trivial and the afflictive.

‘What about the Shropshire famine, Stan?’ Patti says. ‘Thousands are dying in Ludlow and Oswestry.’

I don’t mention the woolly mammoth sightings that are all over the internet in case she thinks they might come under trivial.

Perhaps all the fake news is tied in with our fascination with fiction. Perhaps we have allowed fiction to spill over into reality. Reality? There’s a slippery customer. Albert Einstein maintained that reality was merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. If I looked up Albert Einstein on Whosthat now, I would probably find he was married to Queen Victoria and built a large concert hall in the middle of London to stage rock operas.

If we could only return to those days of honest no-nonsense reporting of the facts. To the time when there was universal truth. In the not too distant past, there was no such thing as fake news. There was no need for authenticity checks on everything you came across. Back then, you could believe what you read. There might have been reports of virgin births and people coming back from the dead, but you knew these were from a reliable source. If you read about someone walking on water or living inside a whale, you knew it was right. It was a golden age of honesty and trust. Nowadays, you just don’t know what to believe.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 5

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketron5

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 5 by Chris Green

DALE

‘Dale Loveless! What are you doing here?’ says Annette Lard. ‘Everyone thinks you are dead. Even that guy that writes the stories about you thinks you are dead. You know, the one that writes the Wet Blanket Ron stories. I can’t for the life of me think of his name. Anyway, he came into the bookies where I work about a month ago to tell me. Apparently, his friend, Marlin Snider told him. A hit and run driver in Black Dog Way, he said. Tracey Minger said the same thing when I saw her at BronzeTan. ……. It is really you, isn’t it? Only I’ve been feeling a bit funny since Doctor Gauguin put me on these new pills and I get confused easily. …… What are you doing here alive, anyway?’

‘Not a good to see you, Dale or a how are you, Dale, then,’ says the downbeat figure sitting with his black and white mongrel dog on the bench outside the railway station.

‘Look! Why don’t I buy you a coffee in that café over there? We can have a chat.’

‘Can’t drink coffee. Blood pressure.’

‘Perhaps a cider or something.’

‘I’ve been trying to stay off the pop since I’ve been out of prison.’

‘You living back round here then, Dale?’

‘For the time being. Ted Drinker is renting me a room above his car lot.’

‘I suppose he felt guilty about that Rover he sold you. The one that blew up.’

‘No, I don’t think so. Ted doesn’t do feelings. Anyway, I’ve bought another one off of him since that. A Kia.’

‘Oh, that’s nice. Good little motors, Kias.’

‘Well, no. Not really. That one blew up too. The day before yesterday.’

‘I don’t suppose you’re working or you wouldn’t be sitting around here in the middle of the day.’

‘I’ve got a job interview to go to tomorrow.’

‘That’s good. Where’s that?’

It’s at that new er, ….. phone shop down past the Scott Mackenzie roundabout.’

‘Oh yes,’ I think I’ve seen the one you mean. The one with the tinted windows and purple dishes on the roof. It’s quite an unusual …… structure isn’t it? But, of course! I remember now, Dale. You used to be an engineer of some sort before all your …… troubles started.’

‘Seems a long time ago now. Anyway, I don’t expect I’ll get the job but wish me luck anyway. Look! I’d better take Leonard here for a walk down by the canal before it starts to rain again.’

‘Well. It was good to see you, Dale. And you know where I am. I’m still at BetterBet. Look in anytime.’

‘Probably not a good idea after the last time.’

‘Oh, that’s right! I remember now. You had all that money on Can’t Lose and it fell at the last fence.’

AUTHOR

I don’t know where my ideas for stories come from. I just seem to pluck them out of the air. It’s as if authors are able to tune into a radio wavelength that non-authors aren’t aware of. Other writers, I’ve spoken to, like Philip C. Dark and Guy Bloke describe it as being like a sixth sense. They say their stories bear an uncanny resemblance to things that are really happening somewhere that they are not supposed to know about. Some might see it as sorcery. I’m not exactly sure what Zeitgeist means, but it might be best to think of inspiration in those terms. There’s something unexplainable out there in the ether.

The bottom line is I don’t know where my idea for the new Wet Blanket Ron story comes from. After all, in the last one, I killed the character off. Wet Blanket Ron was dead. What is it that makes me want to bring him back to life? One reason might, of course, be his popularity. I had angry letters from my readers when I killed him off. One fan, in particular, a long-term follower from the sub-continent stopped just short of issuing a death threat. I believe the same thing happened to J. K. Rowling when she threatened to kill off Harry Potter. I had only killed Wet Blanket Ron off because Dale Loveless, the fellow I had originally based Ron’s character on, was dead; killed in an unfortunate road accident.

But this is not the primary reason I am bringing Ron back. Quite simply, I wake one morning with the idea for a new Wet Blanket Ron adventure going round and round in my head and feel compelled to write it down. So I need to pretend that Ron’s accident never happened. Or maybe he survived it. Let’s get that bit out of the way. Ron was unconscious but came round in the ambulance taking him to hospital. He survived. Here he is.

RON

Arriving at PurplePhones for his interview, Ron finds the walls are lined with rows of futuristic-looking phones, tablets and other spectacular communications devices, all of them purple. Some funky music is belting out from invisible speakers. He thinks it might be Prince.

As Ron looks at the gleaming displays, bemused, a tall man in a purple suit twirling a cane comes across and greets him.

‘I’m Miles Highman’ he says.

It takes a little while for Ron to realise that Miles Highman is the man’s name and not a passing reference to recent drug abuse. Miles guides him into a purple pod. He gestures for Ron to sit down on a purple bucket chair, and invites him to stroke one of a menagerie of purple cats. This is not the direction an interview for a job usually takes but stroking the cats makes him feel less nervous.

Although Ron has deliberately tried to hide it away at the bottom of his CV, Miles Highman asks Ron straight away about his work with NVision Inc. This was an episode in his life that Ron was anxious to put behind him. His role had been to deliver bad news to people or relatives of people before it actually happened. This was supposed to prepare the victims for what was to come or enable them to take action to avoid it. Like so many things in his life, this project did not turn out well. Due to a series of mishaps, Ron was unable to alert the West Midlands mother to her son’s upcoming death in an explosion nor was he able to convince the Manchester businessman that he was to going be shot. Sadly both died as a result.

Because Ron badly needs a job, he keeps quiet about his disastrous record of outcomes with the company. He does not mention how he was unable to do anything about a plane crash in California that he was sent out to prevent. He merely tells Miles that working at Vision Inc. was an eye opening experience and he is sure he can get a reference from Amit if need be.

DALE

‘Hey! Dale!’ Marlin Snider calls out in the middle of the pedestrian precinct.’

‘Oh! It’s you. Hello, Marlin. What do you want?’ Dale says lugubriously. He has the air of a man who does not want to engage in small talk.

‘Annette told me you were …… er, alive. Good to see you. What are you doing, man? Did you get the new job?’

‘I did, as it happens, Marlin. In fact, I’m working now.’

‘Working? What are you doing exactly, Dale? …… It looks to me like you are standing around in the middle of the shopping centre waving your arms around.’

‘It’s called working, Marlin. I’m in telecommunications.’

‘Hey. What are you talking about?’

‘I’m in front line promotion. I’ve got to use this little device here to er …….. temporarily disable everybody’s smartphone. Look! This is how it works.’

‘It’s not a very ethical kind of job, Dale. That’s worse than …. ‘

‘Well! Needs must, Marlin. It’s all right. I’m not going to disable your phone.’

‘Still, Dale.’

‘Then later on, in about ten minutes, someone is going to do a fly by and drop thousands of flyers advertising PurplePhones new range of incorruptible new communication devices. The manager tells me that this is the way business is done in the modern world.’

AUTHOR

After the initial idea for the new Wet Blanket Ron story, I find myself struggling for a way to take the plot forward so it is fortunate that I run into Dale Loveless’s friend, Marlin Snider in the Goat and Bicycle. I am surprised to discover that Dale has found a job, but I am cheered by Marlin’s news. Not only has Dale found a job but it is the kind of job that is a gift to a writer of speculative fiction. A gopher for a colourful new phone company with plans to shape the future of telecommunications. The future might have once been Orange, but now it seems, the future’s Purple. And, imagine the trouble that Wet Blanket Ron will be able to get into for zapping peoples smartphones. I might as well tip Inspector Crooner off now and instruct Ron’s brief, Brent Diaz to expect a desperate phonecall from his dissolute client. I don’t. This would only spoil things for later.

To add to the bounty, Marlin tells me that Dale has a new girlfriend. He says he hasn’t met her but apparently, she is a stunner. Given Ron’s record on relationships, there is plenty of potential for things to go wrong here. After all, Wet Blanket Ron readers would expect nothing less than a car crash romance. I press Marlin for more information. He is unable to give me much more information but this does not matter. I can fill the details in as required. Here we go.

RON

Ron has never been out with anyone like Lola before. Lola is special. Lola must have the best. He has never been to L’Ultima Cena before. It is the top Italian restaurant in town. But, with the promise of being paid handsomely for his endeavours in promoting PurplePhone, he feels he can splash out. After Crostini misti con Sottoli, Straccetti di Pasta al Germe di Grano con sugo di Lepre, Cinghiale alla Cacciatore, Insalata Radicchio e Rucola followed by Torta della Nonna and helped down by two bottles of Amarone, Ron takes his vision of loveliness back to his flat with a view to taking the relationship to the next stage. He has taken down the black out blind, put away the magazines and carefully prepared a play list with no Johnny Cash or Leonard Cohen. He has even hidden his self-help books and his copy of Jude the Obscure in case Lola should think he is a depressive.

Needless to say, things do not go according to plan. Picture if you will, Ron’s horror when he discovers that Lola, like her famous namesake from The Kinks song, is someone who needs to lift the toilet seat up. Perhaps, in hindsight, like Ray Davies, he should have spotted the tell tale signs, the dark brown voice, the physical hug, the five o’clock shadow. Perhaps even the name should have offered a clue.

Disgusted, Ron throws Lola out. Hardly has he wiped away the tears than there is a loud rap at the door. Thinking that it is probably Lola returning, remorseful and apologetic, he does not answer it immediately. The knock becomes more persistent and is accompanied now by a cry of ‘Police! Open Up!’ While nervous breakdown is fighting sense of déjà vu for control of Ron’s failing mental faculties, the door gives way to the enforcer or big key as it is referred to in the job. Not Inspector Crooner this time but a bunch of burly thugs dressed like Darth Vader. They are pointing guns and shouting in tongues.

DALE

‘Let me see if I’ve got this right, Mr Loveless,’ says Dale’s assigned solicitor, Dawlish Warren in the interview room at the central police station. ‘You were at home with your girlfriend, Deirdre watching Peaky Blinders when the police called round unexpectedly.’

‘That’s right, Mr Warren,’ Dale says.

‘And they said they wanted to talk with you about the work you were doing for ….. is that PurplePhones?’

‘Yes, PurplePhones. It’s a new mobile network.’

‘And what exactly was the work you were doing for PurplePhones? I thought for a moment back then you might have said you were disabling peoples smartphones so they no longer worked.

‘In a manner of speaking, that’s what I was doing, yes. But….. ‘

‘Aware that you were almost certainly committing a crime?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

‘In any event, the police weren’t happy with your explanation that you were just sending out a jamming signal and so they brought you here for questioning.’

‘Yes. That’s about it.’

‘Then, out of the blue, you yourself received a phonecall from a …… Wet Blanket Ron?’

‘Yes.’

‘Yet you say that Wet Blanket Ron is a fictional character.’

‘Yes. I know. Confusing, isn’t it? He said he was phoning on one of the new PurplePhones.’

‘And what did he want? This, Wet Blanket Ron?’

‘That’s just it, Mr Warren. He wanted to know what was going to happen next.’

‘What do you think he meant by that?’

‘He said that as his character in the stories was based on me, I would know what was in store.’

‘And what did you tell him?’

‘I told him I didn’t know what was going to happen but I didn’t think it would be good. He said that was pretty much the story of his life.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist

thesadnessoftheposttruthpianist

The Sadness of the Post-Truth Pianist by Chris Green

You don’t hear Mozart a lot on the radio these days. While his music isn’t officially banned like that of Beethoven and Bach, playing it is strongly discouraged. You can no longer buy decadent European music in the shops. No Fauré, No Debussy, no Chopin and certainly no Sebelius. Jingoism has spread to most areas of culture but it is perhaps most noticeable in music. Fed daily by post-truth sound bites, prejudice is now rife. England’s isolationist stance has strengthened its grip. Classic FM now feeds its listeners on a diet of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and even the latter is a bit suspect because of his Welsh sounding name. Wales and Scotland are of course long gone, this by mutual agreement in the aftermath of Brexit, so no Karl Jenkins or …… William Wallace. No, I guess you’ve not come across William Wallace all that frequently either. Perhaps the bagpipes were a natural obstacle for Scottish classical music that was never successfully overcome.

For those of us that really love music, it is thrilling to hear Wolfgang Amadeus’s Piano Concerto no. 23 again. It is heart-warming that in this stifling climate of fanatical bellicism, one or two broadcasters like Miles London still risk playing European music. Miles, despite his British-sounding name, has always been a champion of free speech. It could be argued that he gets away with his stance by virtue of his name. John Schafernaker was imprisoned for playing Shostakovich, this before the Russians actually appeared on the blacklist. Others, like Martin Paris and Michelle DuBois, were not only taken off the air but deported. Boys born today are required to be called Hugh or Rupert, Trevor or Nigel while girls must be named Audrey or Doris, Millicent or Lesley. In exceptional circumstances, Mary and Jane are allowed but notice has been issued to Registry Offices up and down the country to no longer allow names like Jennifer or Anne that have their origins across the Channel.

I used to enjoy going to Ristorante Rossellini for a Caprese salad with pesto sauce followed by tagliatelle Genovese and tiramisu. My partner, Patrizia and I would share a bottle of Rosso di Montalcino. Puccini or Donizetti would be playing gently in the background. Luigi would come over during the meal and ask if everything was a tuo piacimento. Sadly, Italian restaurants have all been closed down and Patrizia has been repatriated. Cheese on toast with a bottle of brown ale on my own at the Dog and Duck with whippets running around and Ed Sheeran blaring out is just not the same.

Puzzled by how the wave of nationalism grew so rapidly, I decided to investigate its origins. What had happened to the idea of the global village? Jingoism seemed to be going against the general tide of cultural exploration. After all, until recently we had been all too willing to go on Mediterranean holidays. We couldn’t get enough of the sun, sea and sex. We were quick to develop a taste for wine, olive oil and garlic. We readily took to café society and al fresco dining and brought it home. Pizza parlours proliferated and late night kebab houses opened in every town. We didn’t even baulk at eating snails or some of the unsavoury things Germans put in their sausages. We eagerly participated in European sporting events and brought over so many European footballers that it was difficult to find a British one in any of our top flight teams.

The turn of the tide appears to have been the outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s which prompted the EU to refuse to buy our beef. This struck at the heart of the British psyche. Cows, it appears were the linchpin of our culture. British beef, British beef, British beef, we chanted. We railed and railed but to no avail. Our continental comrades refused to listen. Brussels quickly became branded as the root of all evil. We wanted a life without the interference of Johnny Foreigner. Everything bad that happened could now be blamed on the foul capital of that slimy little lowland backwater that nobody wanted to visit.

But, to fully explain the demonisation of all things European, perhaps we might turn our eyes once more to music. Every year the United Kingdom, as it was then, would carefully craft the perfect song to win the Eurovision Song Contest. Each year it was announced in the press that this time we stood a realistic chance of taking the trophy but each year we would get fewer and fewer points. This was a travesty as we felt, with some justification I understand, that we produced the best pop music in the world. This was the area in which we excelled.

I wish I could go back to those days before the ignominious tabloid headline about bovine TB. To the days when you could hop across the Channel on Eurostar. To when you could peruse the Picasso paintings in the Tate or buy an Alfa Romeo legally. To those days when Bruch’s Violin Concerto was number 1 on the Classic FM Countdown. To the time when I was a dazzling young pianist, fresh from an Amadeus Scholarship and enjoying the first fruits of success. I had hopes and dreams. I did not need self-help books or a prescription for anti-depressants. Things were better then.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

NIGHT

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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 flat out 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 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, the door is open and they come flooding in. He is at their mercy.

The voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank gradually becomes aware that he is not going to 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, this 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 out behind the bar at weekends tells him about Rose Pink, a therapist that his wife, Betsy Lou has been seeing and suggests that 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 not done anything 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 manages to get her attention. She comes to the door. She is wearing ripped jeans and a Breaking Bad t-shirt. Hank guesses that 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 begins to tell 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 grew up in Cornwall. He’s a bit of 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, then,’ says Hank. ‘The ultimate unwelcome earworm.’

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

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

‘Come on now, Hank!’ says Rose Pink. ‘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 beginning to lose 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,’ says Hank.

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

Hank suddenly begins to realise 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 Gun’s n’ Roses.

Hank wakes at 3 am. 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 am?

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 manages to find a lunchtime slot in her schedule, one that she says she sets aside for emergencies. She does not hear his knock at first but eventually, the Sonic Youth track comes to and end and he knocks again. This brings Rose Pink to the door in her black t-shirt and punk Goth leggings. He notices that 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?’ says Rose Pink. ‘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,’ says Hank. ‘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,’ says Rose Pink. ‘But you do seem to like this …… slit your wrist country and western stuff.’

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

‘Now you are splitting hairs,’ says Rose Pink. ‘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 that 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,’ says Clint. ‘Why’s that, Hank?’

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

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

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,’ says Hank.

‘I don’t have a television,’ says Mrs Oosterhuis. ‘In any case, 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,’ says Mrs Oosterhuis. ‘I grew up in the veldt in the Transvaal.’

Following on from his bout of assertiveness, Hank finds that 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 that he must face the possibility that he is delusional. Quite 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 per cent. 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 that 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 and 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,’ says Linda. ‘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 begins to examine 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,’ laughs Dr Spurlock. ‘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 gradually becomes aware that he is not going to sleep. There’s something inherently treacherous about night.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

The Rhubarb of Doubt

the-rhubarbofdoubt

The Rhubarb of Doubt by Chris Green

I have nothing scheduled for the day and am just catching up on my Minecraft when Tara Vain pushes open the door to my office. I have my feet up on the desk and a blunt burning down in the ashtray. I was not expecting anyone. Since the downturn, there has been a lamentable drop in business. No-one can afford to hire a private detective any more. Custody battles are no longer pursued. Cuckolded spouses are tolerating greater degrees of infidelity. People are more readily relinquishing their identity to computer fraudsters. Things are so bad I have had to let my assistant, Brody go and have had to auction my prized Mercury GM. If things become any worse I will need to consider downsizing my premises.

The sight of a stunning babe in a summer dress and designer jewellery standing there takes me by surprise but not so much as when she comes out with her request. Not perhaps her request per se. She wants her husband found and tailed. No problem there. This is the kind of thing that Mason Edge Associates do as a bread and butter activity. The bombshell comes when she says that her husband is in Devon in England. We, of course, are based in Los Angeles.

‘This might seem like a stupid question,’ I say, ‘But why not hire a private detective in England? In Devon, perhaps. Surely they must have them over there.’

‘Because, Mr Edge, I live in New York,’ she says.

‘New York?’ I say. ‘This is LA, lady. Or didn’t you notice Sunset Strip on the way in?’

‘I liked the name,’ she says. ‘Mason Edge Associates suggests integrity.’

‘That’s good to know, Mrs …..’

‘Vain,’ she says. Tara Vain.’

‘Well, Mrs Vain. We do have a certain reputation around these parts,’ I say. ‘But I was unaware that this stretched as far as New York.’

‘I have a house in Los Angeles too, Mr Edge,’ she says, sitting herself down and adjusting the hem of her dress – upwards. ‘I mean, who doesn’t? But I no longer live there.’

I slide a leaflet across the desk. Is this to pretend that I have not noticed her long legs or might it be to get a little closer? Perhaps, it is a little of both. Maybe the gesture is unintentional. I can’t say that I’ve completely taken to Tara Vain. Well, apart from the legs. Everything seems to be a bit of a game to her. Perhaps I am missing Belinda more than I thought, at least in the physical sense. Belinda moved out to pastures new at the onset of the downturn. She was not ready for hardship.

‘This will explain my rates,’ I say.

‘No need, Mr Edge,’ says Tara Vain. ‘I’ve been on your website. This gave me the low down on the numbers. I’m sure you will do a fine job. Now, let’s get on.’

‘And the expenses will of course need to include flights,’ I say. ‘I assume they do have airports in Devon, England.’

‘Very droll, Mr Edge,’ she says. ‘I’ve booked all your flights and hired a car for you. I’ve even found you a comfortable hotel in Exeter.

‘Exeter. Yes, I do believe I’ve heard of Exeter,’ I say. ‘In the south-west, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a little way from London, yes, but I’m sure you’ll manage to find your way around. And they even have electricity there these days.’

‘And you believe this is where your husband is?’

‘Somewhere around there, yes. I’m sure you will find him. Devon is not a big place.’

I have the Google map up on the computer. Devon is a huge space but I let it go. After all, she is paying for my time.

‘Tell me! Why do you want me to tail your husband, Mrs Vain?’ I say. ‘Marital indiscretion?’

‘In a manner of speaking, I suppose,’ she says. ‘But it’s more complicated than that.’

Supremely confident up until now, she seems suddenly uncomfortable. She pulls the hem of her dress back down and leans forward. ‘Look, Mr Edge. I’ll be honest with you. OK? Matty has run off with my lover, Yannis. They are having …… an affair.’

‘Ah! I see,’ I say, not flinching. Deviation in one’s proclivities is becoming more and more commonplace in matrimonial cases.

Tara Vain bluetooths me some photos of her husband along with some of her and Yannis together on a yacht somewhere. She says she is not able to give me much more information on what exactly they might be up to as she has lost touch. They have both changed their phones, she says and she suspects they are both using different names for their social media activities. She suggests that Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos or whatever they are now calling themselves might be embarking on a new business venture together in Devon and this would be a good place to begin my investigation.

‘What line of business is your husband in?’ I ask.

‘Matty’s a bit of a wheeler-dealer,’ she says. ‘He’s done a bit of everything. He doesn’t stay at anything long.’

‘What about Yannis?’ I ask.

‘Yannis’s an entrepreneur too,’ she says. ‘A rather dashing one. Yannis’s full of ……. surprises. That’s why I fell for him, I suppose.’

I am fortunate with the choice of hotel in Exeter as, on arrival, I discover a nearby one burned down the previous week. The oldest hotel in the country, apparently. We don’t have anything like that in LA. Everything is new. My room is quite small but the bed is comfortable and there are some paintings on the wall. Modern stuff, I suppose you might say. A bit like Dalí. There’s one called The Rhubarb of Doubt and another called The Damson of Hope. There are another two in the lobby, The Onion of Despair and The Marrow of Certainty. Lord knows what they mean but they are quite vibrant. Apparently, the manageress’s son is doing joint honours in Horticulture and Fine Art at Dartington College nearby.

I do not have a particular strategy for my investigation but I feel it would be a good idea to start with the gay clubs in Exeter to see if Matty and Yannis might be around. After all, the gay scene in Devon is unlikely to be an extensive one. It’s more of an urban phenomenon. I look in at a gay sauna place near the hotel. This is not at all like the establishments in you find in LA. No razzmatazz here. It is little more than a shed. There is no steam room, no jacuzzi. Just as well as I was not anxious to try these out. I have a quick look upstairs at the relaxation rooms and the so-called cruising area but clearly, Matty and Yannis are not there. I do not feel inclined to linger. In the evening, I do a whistle-stop tour of the two clubs in town that Google lists as gay haunts but again there is no sign.

After a similar foray into the unknown in downtown Torquay the following day, I begin to think that I might be barking up the wrong tree. Perhaps I am just showing my preconceptions of what gay life might entail. Belinda always used to maintain I was homophobic. They are the same as anyone else, she would say. She has one or two gay friends so I’m sure she’s right. There is no reason why they should be any different. There is certainly no reason why two men who have not hitherto come across as gay, at least to Tara Vain, would have habits that are different to two straight men. They might even play soccer or go fishing. They would not necessarily frequent gay haunts. I realise I’m not going to find them by pursuing this line of enquiry. It looks as if I might have to do some real detective work after all.

I wonder why Tara wants me to find her husband at all, especially as she intimated she does not want him back. My understanding is that under New York law, divorce is easy as finding a police officer in a doughnut shop. But, she is paying for the service so why should I complain?

Tara phones me from Chicago to find out how I am getting on.

‘Chicago!’ I say, ‘What are you doing in Chicago?’

She says that her hairdresser is in Chicago, so she has flown out to get her hair restyled. It is clear that while the rest of us are struggling, Tara has money to burn. I don’t pursue it. Instead, I give her an update on my progress, or lack of.

‘Matty and Yannis are probably looking to start some kind of business over there,’ she says. ‘In which case, they will be looking for premises. Why don’t you start looking around the commercial property agents?’

This was more or less what I had planned for the next day but I find it is often best to let the client feel they are in control so I agree with her and tell her I will report back. I take a careful look through the commercial property to let on Rightmove for a twenty mile radius of Exeter and come up with hundreds of selections. On the assumption that the pair would hardly come over to Devon to embark on a small venture, I filter the results by price, top down. This still leaves a sizeable number of choices. No-one seems to be taking up commercial property. The downturn seems to have hit them harder down here in the south-west. Business, it seems, is centred around London and the south-east. I decide to take a drive around the major towns and look at a few of the options. If I engage one or two of the agents in general chat, I might be able to find out something.

The Nissan Micra is smaller than I am used to, but everyone over here seems to drive around in these miniature cars. Something to do with the narrow roads, I suspect. It isn’t so much that they drive on the wrong side of the road over here as they are forced to drive down the middle. They do have something called the Devon Expressway but it’s more like a country lane. No need for my Pacific Coast Highway playlist on these roads. The other thing I miss is a dank-ass burrito. You can’t get one for love or money in these parts.

‘What line of business are you in?’ asks Myles Harman of Travis and Babb in Newton Abbot.

‘Import and Export,’ I tell him.

‘Aha,’ says Myles. ‘I guessed that it might be something like that. You’re not from round here are you?’

‘You noticed the accent, then,’ I say. ‘Look! I don’t suppose a colleague of mine from back home called in recently. A Matthew Vain. Perhaps with his er, partner, Yannis Milos.’

‘To be honest, Mr Edge, we don’t get a lot of Americans here in Devon.’

‘How many square feet of floorspace do you think you might need for your operation?’ asks Richie Lunsford of Creamer and Vest in their Dartmouth branch.

‘I was thinking we might need a large premises and perhaps one or two smaller units as well,’ I say, hoping that this might perhaps remind him of a recent enquiry by other Americans. It doesn’t. I broach the subject directly but he all but ignores it. There seems to be some kind of language barrier. I’ve noticed it once or twice since I’ve been here. It’s as if my accent masks the fact that I want a normal conversation. It’s as if I am speaking to them from behind a TV screen and they don’t know how to respond.

‘Are you OK with premises on an industrial estate or do you need to be in town?’ asks Ben Shaver of Sadler Betts in Paignton.

‘I’d need to consult with my clients, Matthew Vain and Yannis Milos,’ I say. ‘I don’t suppose they’ve called in themselves, only I know they’re in the area.’

‘No. I don’t recall the names,’ says Ben. ‘In fact, you are the first one to enquire about commercial property for some time. There’s been a bit of a slump in the market, recently.’

‘The south coast of Devon has a rich history of smuggling,’ says Kieran Wagstaff in the Salcombe branch of Sadler Betts. He clearly does not get a lot of opportunities to chat and sees himself as something of a local historian. As I am a visiting American, he sees it as his duty to educate me.

‘And there’s talk that on dark nights it still goes on today in these waters with all the remote coves and no coastguard patrols. Contraband, drugs and lately even people come into the country this way. When Sadler Betts took on those units you are looking at the particulars of, I did wonder if this was what they had once been used for or perhaps what they would be used for in the future.’

‘But you have had no enquiries,’ I say.

‘No I’m afraid not,’ he says. ‘Not even from a developer. And we’ve had them on our books for several months now. The market is a little weak at the moment.’

Kieran Wagstaff’s words set me thinking, though. What greater entrepreneurial opportunity for two American wheeler-dealers could there be in these parts than a bit of good honest smuggling? Granted, Matty and Yannis had not taken up any of the Sadler Betts units but they could well be based somewhere around here. I decide to concentrate my search on this particular stretch of coast.

YMCA is an odd name for a juice bar, I think to myself. A juice bar? A brightly-coloured juice bar surrounded by lush vegetation, screaming out its presence, here in the otherwise sleepy village of Wembury? Could this be it? Y.M.CA? Of course. Yannis and Matty from California, with the underlying tongue in cheek gay connotations? It has to be. Perhaps it is the start of a chain of juice bars they are setting up all around the south coast. And beyond. I peer inside. There, amongst the palms and yuccas that decorate the place, are several young people sitting at tables, sipping smoothies. I can just make out the two figures behind the counter. These match the pictures I have of Matty and Yannis.

I call Tara Vain, half expecting she will be in Miami buying a crystal chandelier or in Denver buying chocolate confections, or something. How would she like me to proceed? But, her cell is switched off. I discover I don’t have another number for her.

I take another look inside YMCA, my eyes right up to the glass. This could easily be a tourist stop-off in L.A. The walls are bedecked with pictures of Malibu and Venice beaches, the Hollywood Sign, The Beach Boys, orange groves and all things California. It looks as is if Matty and Yannis might be trying to establish a brand. This is probably how Burger King, KFC, Subway, Papa John’s all got started. Begin with a small outlet somewhere by the coast where rents are cheaper than in the capital and slowly but surely expand the franchise worldwide.

I’m thinking, it won’t do any harm to go in and have a healthy smoothie, avocado and strawberry or kiwi and almond, or perhaps a purple power smoothie with mixed berries and vanilla extract. I step inside. West Coast singer-songwriter Jonathan Wilson’s Gentle Spirit is playing softly. I quietly sit myself down at a table near the window. To my surprise, Matty and Yannis come straight over to greet me. In his striped apron, Matty looks taller than I imagined and Yannis seems to have filled out a little since the photos of him were taken.

‘Ha! A fellow American,’ says Matty, even before I have spoken. How can he tell, I wonder? Is it the way I carry myself, the way I dress, my haircut?

‘From downtown L.A.’ says Yannis. How does he know? Has he seen me around the city, perhaps?

‘The game’s up, dude,’ Matty continues. ‘It’s over. We know Tara sent you.’

‘You were quicker than the last guy,’ says Yannis, smiling. ‘The last one took nearly two weeks.’

‘What! ………. ‘ I say, trying to take aboard what he is saying. ‘Why?’

‘I agree,’ says Matty. ‘You’d think she could find something more worthwhile to spend her inheritance on, wouldn’t you?’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

Call Wyatt On The Western Front

callwyattonthewesternfront2

Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green

Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But, he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a Scriggler conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might but if Penny is honest, perhaps not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted the thing but now she finds it irritating.

She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door, when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.

The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She takes off the security chain. Still she can see no-one but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But, there is no indication who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?

Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth his moving but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From round the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.

………………………………………

Matt is surprised to get her call or perhaps he is just alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.

‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.

Penny hollers down the phone some more.

‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you?’

He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.

‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’

‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’

‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.

‘Well! He was, Matt’

‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’

‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s gone. He disappeared just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates. Is that the word I’m looking for?’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.

‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’

‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’

She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside but it is nowhere to be seen.

‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.

‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’

………………………………………

Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But, there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.

‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She just knows it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant or maybe it’s someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.

With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.

‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just, er just that I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’

‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I did try calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’

Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.

‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’

‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’

A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance complete with the cippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.

The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But, where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.

Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it so she can see what’s inside. She’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thankyou and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.

………………………………………

Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But, she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.

She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be completely empty but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo jumbo but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.

………………………………………

‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is anxious to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol round but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’

‘Thankyou for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.

‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.

‘Sorry, Sir. I was just asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’

‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’

‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’

‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Parades End, Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells.

‘And?’

‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’

‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’

‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’

You mean, Those who use the sword shall die by the sword.’

‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.

‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’

‘Meta what, Sir?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Bunny Boiler

bunnyboiler

Bunny Boiler by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Sylvester Stallone?’

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

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

‘Marcello Mastroianni’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aria told me to be careful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hadn’t.

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

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

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved