Pulp Friction

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Pulp Friction by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s been like it for weeks, guv,’ he says. ‘Where have you been?’

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

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

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

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

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

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

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

 

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

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

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

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

Time travel then,’ I say.

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

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

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

You mean Lara?’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Sandwich Man

sandwichman

Sandwich Man by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Where Have All the Flowers Gone?

wherehavealltheflowersgone

Where Have All the Flowers Gone? by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

What happened?’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I see. Well, it has happened before.’

It has?’

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

You mean Jesus?’

Yes, Jesus. On the third day.’

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

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

Not really, no.’

Any confusion?’

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

It Ain’t Necessarily So

itaintnecessarilyso

It Ain’t Necessarily So by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sergeant Golfer seems less than impressed with my story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Life and Times of Roy Saxx

thelifeandtimesofroysaxx

The Life and Times of Roy Saxx by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That sounds like him,’ I said.

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

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

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

‘No,’ I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

A Saucerful of Secrets

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A Saucerful of Secrets by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

………………………………………

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved