Watership Down

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WATERSHIP DOWN – a cautionary tale by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hit a key,’ I say.

Which key?’ she says.

Any key,’ I say. ‘It doesn’t matter.’

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

Try the z key,’ I say.

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

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

I’ve got it plugged in,’ she says.

Is the power light on?’ I ask.

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

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

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

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

I give him a call from my mobile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

O Sole Mio

osolemio

O Sole Mio by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

……………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go and get one,’ I say.

What?’ Sophie says.

An ice-cream.’

But I’m not dressed.’

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

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

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

Flake or no flake?’ Mr Bocelli says.

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

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

Why not?’ Sophie says.

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Dog Gone

doggone2

Dog Gone by Chris Green

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

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

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

May 26th,’ she says.

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

When did he phone?’

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

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

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

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

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

B’ he had said.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am flabbergasted.

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

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

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

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

No really. I’m fine,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

 

Invisibility

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INVISIBILITY by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

South by Southwest

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South by Southwest by Chris Green

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

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

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

How will I recognise you?’ I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The one with the big coat on,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Room service is improving,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What!’ I say.

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

We did? How did we work that out?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you know who your people are?’

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

And they pay us peanuts.’

Same old, isn’t it?’

Let’s get on with it then.’

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

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

But you have my gun,’ I say.

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Slumpton 1980

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Slumpton 1980 by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harry indicated that he didn’t.

Then goweh now you dam lagga head.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. A carrot.’

You seem tense Harry. Loosen up.’

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

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

That’s all very well’

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

You seem not to.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright: © Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

IDEAS

IDEAS

IDEAS by Chris Green

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

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

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

And he just disappeared into the crowd.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re right. It is heavy.’

There is something in there. Feel inside it.’

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

It’s an enigma. That’s what it is.’

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

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can we not? Why’s that?’

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

We could just dump it.’

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

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

I don’t think so.’

The one with the multicoloured framed spectacles.’

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

What about the one who works for MI5?’

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

Someone might offer a reward for its safe return.’

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

But a mysterious Ikea bag.’

We’re getting rid of it.’

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

It’s going.’

But Flavia …….’

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

We’ve found him, boss,’ says Freeman.

Who?’ says Boss. ‘Speak up man!’

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

What is it, Freeman?’

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

Where?’

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

What’s the low down on it, Freeman?’

Could be a front for terrorist activity, possibly.’

What about the bag?’

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

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

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They sit back to take in an improvised passage.

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

Really tasty,’ says Matt.

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

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

………………………………………………………………….…

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do we do now?’ he says.

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

What are we waiting for then?’ says Boss.

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

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

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

Stay away from the bag!’ says Jagger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s what?’ says Matt.

A bag full of ideas,’ Boss repeats.

What are you all talking about?’ says Chet.

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

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

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

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

What are you talking about?’ says Chet.

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

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

And heavy,’ says Flavia.

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

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

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

Why do you think he did that?’

Panic, possibly. I don’t know.’

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved