Tag Archives: literary fiction

NIGHT TRAIN

nighttrain

Night Train by Chris Green

No matter where you might be, the night train rumbles through every night at 3:05 am. Its low-pitched drone makes the whole room quake. Every time this happens, you find it disturbing. You briefly speculate as to what its ominous cargo might be and vow to find out, before going back to sleep. Your dreams for the remainder of the night are tinged with an air of menace but in the morning you are too busy to investigate what the lumbering leviathan that wakes you each night might be carrying.

Now and again you find yourself in conversation with a friend or a colleague about being woken by the train and they will tell you that they were woken by a train at the same time, but it never occurs to either of you that it might be the same train. The laws of physics suggest that this would be impossible. Yet, each conversation you have with anyone, anywhere about this will be a replica of every other one. The train woke you at 3:05 am, the train woke them at 3:05 am, even though you might live fifty miles apart, even though you are the other side of the continent. It never occurs to either one of you to investigate how this might have happened, what sorcery might have brought this about.

Explosives, spontaneously combustible substances and radioactive material are all on occasions transported by rail. You might imagine that the night train might be carrying one or other of these, but most likely it does not. We are talking here of a heavy, heavy cargo, a dark mass of considerable magnitude. Heavy metals would probably pale into insignificance beside the weight of what this sinister transport of the night is likely to be conveying.

Anyone really wanting to know what is aboard could do worse than to ask Stanislav Ruby. Stanislav Ruby is allegedly the leading authority in these matters. But nobody asks Stanislav Ruby. So the train keeps on coming, unobserved, determined, relentless. You will hear it tonight at 3:05 and there will be an air of menace in your subsequent dreams. Your friends and family will hear it too, along with the talk show host that you like, the jockey who rode the horse you backed in the Gold Cup, the man you bought your car from and all the people you met on holiday in Portugal last year.

……………………………………

I spend most of the day writing the introduction to a book on the history of the blues. I am writing about how the music originated from African spirituals and work songs, share-croppers singing in a call and response pattern to dull the monotony and pain of working long hours in the plantations of the Southern states. Early blues took the form of a loose narrative, relating the troubles experienced in Afro-American society. Ma Rainey, one of the first professional blues singers claimed to have coined the term, blues, although the term might originate from the pre-coital shuffle known as blues, popular in Southern juke-joints around the turn of the century. The twelve-bar delta blues format that we are familiar with was introduced by William C. Handy in his 1912 sheet music, Memphis Blues.

The 1920s brought big names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Leadbelly, names that are remembered as blues greats today. Robert Johnson at the crossroads enacting the Faustian myth but still dead at 27, the first of many to join that club. The music then began to spread out from the Mississippi delta, upriver to Chicago where it became amplified and spawned legends like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. But it is getting late and this is something that Heather, who fresh from mixing herbs has joined me, feels I should leave for another day. She has some other ideas about what we might be doing on an April evening. I am pleased that she does. By and by, we play a post-coital shuffle. Before turning out the lights, we have our nightly chat about the nature of the night train. We conclude once more that there are many things we don’t know.

…………………………………

At 3:05, right on cue, the bedroom begins to vibrate with the portentous approach of the night train. It’s as if someone has left their eighteen-wheeler truck underneath the bedroom window with the engine running. The sound gradually grows louder. The walls begin to emit a bassy hum. Plates and cutlery in the kitchen begin to rattle. It feels as if the train is actually inside the house now. Just as she does ever night, Heather turns over and moans. Her wax earplugs offer little defence against the thunderous roar of the engine. In my head, I visualise the leviathan, shiny black with a bright, piercing headlight up front to signal its presence as it powers its way up the line. Or might its headlight be not light at all but dark like a massive black hole, sucking in everything in its path? Whichever, it leads the way to the murky depths of the night. The store of nightmares seems intact.

I find myself descending into a crepuscular netherworld. I am being led down into the abyss by a shadowy figure who seems half-familiar yet completely unrecognisable. He is dark with reptilian features. He carries a large hammer in his right hand and his left hand is hidden beneath a black leather duster overcoat. He takes his hand out to direct me down the steep steps. His hand is a scaly raptor’s claw.

The abyss is immense, a maze of stone stairs and echoing corridors. What rooms there are serve only to lead from one gloomy corridor to another gloomy corridor and we go, round and round, down and down yet somehow end up back at the beginning where the half-familiar man with the clawed hand utters something in some arcane guttural language.

The scene switches. We are now outside, on the edge of an old deserted town. I can wolves howling in the distance. The man who has been leading me has turned into a giant or have I become a dwarf. He motions for me to lie down. He points to a stretch of railway track. Hear my train a’coming, he sings, as he ties me to the track. What is the train carrying, I ask, although this seems irrelevant. He lets out a blood-curdling laugh. I wake up, screaming. But, this is not the end. I find I am not awake, I am still asleep. I cannot wake. There is another level, a dream within a dream. I am on a battle-scarred hillside now and insurrectionists are throwing American Civil War uniforms on to a huge fire. They are blue uniforms. The blues. Which side in the Civil War is that? The Union of the Confederates? It’s the Union. The Yankees wore blue. Wait! There are soldiers in the uniforms they are throwing on the fire. They are black soldiers. One of the insurrectionists points at me. I look down. To my astonishment, I am black and I am wearing a blue uniform. I turn around to flee. There is a resounding crash. …….. Heather has knocked the bedside light onto the floor.

‘I was having a terrible dream’ she says, clinging to me for dear life. ‘Has the night train gone?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘The night train has gone.’

‘But it will be back again tomorrow night, won’t it? Why does it keep coming? And what is it carrying?’

‘I wish I had the answer,’ I say.

The thing is, no-one knows what the night train is carrying. Not even Stanislav Ruby is sure. It could be carrying a colossal cargo of cosmic consciousness, he might say. Or, it might be loaded with metaphors, allegories, symbolism. There is the possibility that what is in tow is unknowable. But, wherever you are, be certain that the night train will rumble slowly through tonight and every night at 3:05 am.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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SOUTH

south

SOUTH by Chris Green

On occasions, just for a moment, everything seems in place. For this brief spell of time, a supernatural force seems to be at work. There is equilibrium in the universe. It might be referred to by some as an epiphany, an insight through the divine. Here at the top of the mountain, Gregory North enjoys such a moment. Gregory’s mountain may be metaphorical, as might the moment, but briefly, space and time conspire to offer him that sentient feeling of arrival. He is where he wants to be. It, of course, cannot last. Destiny cannot allow contentment. All actions from here on in are bound to burst the bubble.

So, how is it that Gregory finds himself at the summit of the metaphorical mountain? What is the back story? Gregory is born into a steady middle-class family in a small town in the south of England. From an early age, he displays an inquisitive nature and a creative spirit. He passes all the right exams with appropriate distinctions and wins a scholarship to a revered English university. His tutor describes him as a genius. He quickly lives up to this weighty kudos. He invents a life-saving product that the world desperately needs. The life-saving product not only makes him at twenty five the youngest person to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, it makes him a multi-millionaire. Money does not necessarily buy you love or indeed happiness, and fame and fortune are notoriously fickle. Nevertheless, Gregory meets a beautiful woman who in addition he feels he can communicate with on a spiritual level. He marries her. Fairy tales proliferate. Clichés abound. He has his crock of gold. There is equilibrium in his universe. The fame of a Nobel scientist, however, is low key. You will not have heard of Gregory North. His name is never in the papers.

Where there is light, there must also be shadow. They are interdependent. Gregory might like to stay exactly where he is but life insists on change. Change is the only certainty. Hidden forces are already at work. It can only be downhill from here. There are different paths down the mountain. The west would be the best but Gregory North might go for the east putting himself in peril. The compass points may be metaphorical. The trouble that lies ahead may not be metaphorical.

Crime can take many forms. The view that crime is the province of those that do not have a large enough stake in the system, or that there is some biological or psychological explanation that accounts for deviant behaviour misrepresent the evidence. Criminals lurk everywhere. There is one not far from you now. There are many in the vicinity of Gregory. He is right in the firing line. They want to plunder his ideas, hack his computer, or forge his documents. They want to steal his money, burgle his house or steal his identity. They want to beat him up, burn his house down or kidnap his wife.

The descent begins. Gregory gets a phonecall. He does not recognise the voice. It has been disguised by software called geocrasher. You can download geocrasher for free. It makes your voice sound like a robot. The robot voice tells him that they have kidnapped his wife. The caller does not specify what the demands are for her safe return. He says he will call later. He tells Gregory he is not to contact anyone about the call and he should not try to trace it. The whole strategy is calculated to cause maximum uncertainty, something that the kidnappers have been working on. This is not something that should be happening to a Nobel Prize winner who has invented a life-saving product that the world needs. He does not want to be heading south.

Gregory’s wife is Italian. She is called Allegra, which translates as happy. Allegra is not happy, as she is locked in a windowless space miles away from home. She is being held captive by two ruthless villains. One of them seems to do all the talking. He barks orders at her. His accent is hard to place but may be eastern European. The consonants seem to crowd the vowels. His Heckler and Koch handgun has the look of one that has been fired. He is covered in tattoos and has a scar running down one side of his face. He is disarmingly tall and has to stoop to get through the door. His drainpipe trousers are tucked into a pair of jackboots, somehow making him look even taller. He does not look like he would blend in easily anywhere. The stocky one wearing the camel coloured overcoat with the fur collar and the large white Stetson does not say anything. He just slaps her now and again to establish his authority. His eyes seem to point in opposite directions. His skin is pale, like an albino. Allegra thinks perhaps he may be wearing a mask. She is not sure which of the pair is the more sinister. She is terrified.

Psychology is an important weapon in the kidnapper’s arsenal. Abduction can be viewed as a transaction. The relationship is between captor and prisoner, owner and chattel. The captor holds absolute power. He knew the moment was coming. The captive who had no idea the moment was coming holds no power. To show his cards too soon can take away the obvious advantage in negotiations that the kidnapper has. The mechanics of human nature is something these kidnappers have been working on.

Gregory waits for the follow-up call with the ransom demand, but this does not materialise. He waits by the phone. He checks his emails and his social media. He even checks the newspapers, but the Hollywood celebrity divorce and the resignation of the England football manager over match-fixing allegations have kept everything else of the front pages. But even if it got out, it would not be here, would it? Nobel prize winners are not household names.

The finger that arrives in the mail comes as a shock to Gregory. This is not what he expected the next step to be. He thought that there might be a phonecall asking him to meet at a remote location with a case full of unmarked notes, as it is in films. This is much more horrifying. He is violently sick. He cannot help himself. Whoever has sent it wants him to believe that it is his wife’s finger. It is Allegra’s finger, isn’t it? He cannot be sure. It is the little finger of the left hand. It looks about the right size. There is no message to accompany it, but an hour later the robotic voice comes on the line.

‘You’ve got the message, I believe,’ says the menacing voice. ‘Stay put. Don’t talk to anyone. We will be in touch later.’

Gregory attempts a reply but the call ends. How can things have changed so much in just twenty four hours, he wonders?

Allegra has not told Gregory she is pregnant. She was saving it for the coming weekend when they would be away together. They were going to their favourite hideaway, the one that no one else seemed to have discovered. The fact that Gregory does not know she is expecting makes her situation seem all the more wretched. There are two lives at stake. Jackboots and Overcoat, of course, do not know. It would probably up the ransom demand if they did. Allegra has no idea what their plans are. They have not mentioned the reason for her internment or what any ransom demand might be. She is in a dark room, about ten feet by ten feet. The room has a hollow sound. It could also be below ground level. Although she was blindfolded, she recalls going down some steps when they arrived. She is no longer blindfolded but she cannot see anything except when her captors visit. She can hear them approaching now. She shivers with fright.

Gregory’s phone rings. He picks it up. The scrambled voice issues a demand.

‘Twenty four hours is not long to come up with five million,’ Gregory protests.

‘In used notes,’ spits the voice. ‘None of your electronic transfer or bitcoin.’

‘That will be impossible,’ says Gregory.

‘Each day you don’t deliver you will get another finger through the post.’

Gregory mumbles something. He is not sure what he is saying. He has the idea that he needs to keep the conversation going. To what ends, we can only speculate. No-one is tracing the call. The phone goes dead. Black clouds tower in the morning sky. There are distant rumbles of thunder. The forecast is not good.

Gregory takes his portfolio and every form of identification he can muster to his local bank branch. He has never actually visited the bank before. He knows nothing about banking. He is not optimistic that he will be able to liquidate his investments, but he feels he has to try something. His wife’s captors seem to be uncompromising, but at this stage, he does not want to risk going to the police. Mr Leach, the bank manager is unavailable without an appointment and he is told there is a three week waiting list. Mr Cash, the deputy bank manager sits him down and goes on at length about money laundering. Every question or request that Gregory makes is greeted with a round the houses no. Mr Cash is full of suspicion. He clearly knows that something is amiss, but will not come right out and say so. Gregory gets up to leave. He wonders if Mr Cash will call the police as soon as he has gone. He returns to the Pay and Display to find his Lexus has been stolen. The rain is torrential now.

Sergeant East seems more concerned about the theft of the Lexus than about Allegra’s kidnapping.

‘Which model is that, Mr North?’ he says.

Gregory tells him it is the Lexus LS.

‘Very nice motor, sir. Would that be the LS460 or the LS 600?’

‘The 460, but what about my wife’s kidnapping?’

‘One thing at a time sir. Is that the long wheelbase model or the sport model?’

‘How many Lexus 460s do you see on the road around here? Look! You’ve got everything you need to know you have the registration and the colour and even the chassis number, now what about my wife?’

Jackboots holds Allegra down. Despite her struggles, he begins to force her rings off over her swollen knuckle.

‘We need these, lady’ he barks. ‘I think they might help with our negotiations.’

It is only when they are being taken away that Allegra realises that rings are more than just tokens of affection. They represent her marriage. Everything that she and Gregory have built together. Ties that bind in this way are sacred. She experiences the symbolism of the loathsome act that is taking place. It feels to her like murder. She screams. Jackboots covers her mouth with his hand. Her instinct tells her she should bite it. Quick as a flash, Overcoat pulls out his pistol. It is now pointing at her. She has never been more terrified. A trickle runs down her leg.

Jackboots has the rings in his hand now. He holds the engagement ring up to catch the light that filters through the open door. He forms the impression that it is a valuable one. Allegra knows it is a valuable one. It is a single stone Cartier diamond.

‘You’ll get your money,’ stammers Allegra. ‘My husband will give you the money. For my safe return.’

‘You think so,’ barks Jackboots. ‘You don’t know how much we are asking for, lady.’ Overcoat stands there, pistol still raised. Unlike the pistol, his eyes still seem to point in both directions.

‘I could speak to him if you like and tell him that I am safe.’ Allegra bursts into tears once more.

‘That will not be necessary, Jackboots says, a smile emerging from the wreckage of his features. ‘He will get the message soon enough,’

Using his pistol, Overcoat motions her over to the back of the room. Without further ceremony, they leave. She is thrown into darkness once more. According to historian Thomas Fuller, things seem darkest before the dawn. Is he stating the obvious or is this axiom more profound?

The ring finger with Allegra’s engagement ring and wedding ring on it arrives by courier, early next morning. It is freeze wrapped in muslin inside a small cardboard package. The courier does not have the sender’s address. He seems a bit vague on everything. Gregory suspects he is not a real courier, but before he has chance to quiz him further he has disappeared on his Honda. Gregory does not have a car to pursue him.

Max Tempo of The West Detective Agency is not what Gregory expects a private detective to look like. The West is the Best is the agency’s slogan, but the diminutive middle-aged figure with the receding hairline, the crumpled blue linen suit and the red and orange striped sunglasses, that the agency has sent along, does not seem to fit with this image at all. As he introduces himself, Gregory who is six foot tall towers over him. Max cannot be more than five foot two.

‘Let’s get down to business,’ says Max, offering Gregory some chewing gum. ‘How did you find out about the abduction?’

‘I got home and found a crude note in red marker pen, at least I hope it red marker pen blu-tacked to the fridge. It said, ‘We’ve got your wife! Stay put!’

‘Any sign of a struggle?’ Max asks.

‘Now you come to mention it, no,’ Gregory says.

‘Could mean nothing. Could mean nothing. Does she have a laptop, tablet or anything? Any sign of her phone?’

‘I’ve looked through her phone, but found nothing out of the ordinary, but laptop and tablet both have passwords.’

‘You don’t know what they are. Am I right?’

Gregory says he does not.

‘No worries,’ says Max. ‘Let’s have a look, we’ll be on in no time.’

Max is able to get in straight away. ‘John the Ripper,’ he says. ‘Great little app.’

In no time at all Max has scanned the emails, recent documents and pictures. Nothing remarkable shows up. This is often what he finds in cases like this. The good detective has to come up with more imaginative methods, he says. Meanwhile, he has wired up a device to record the phone.

Time, of course, is of the essence here. Gregory is impressed with the speed that Max works. First impressions can be misleading. He lets Max know.

‘It’s not every day I get a Nobel Prize winner as a client,’ says Max.

‘How do you know that?’ asks Gregory.

‘I just sensed it,’ says Max, cryptically. ‘Now tell me about the phonecalls, and while you’re at it show me the fingers. We can get to the bottom of this I’m sure.’

Gregory explains the phonecalls and how he is unable to cash in his portfolio.

Max nods, while he examines the two fingers. He draws no conclusions from these. He is more interested in the diamond ring. Why have they returned the ring, he wonders, when it could be worth a hundred thousand in itself?

‘It can mean one of two things, he says. Either they are very confident that they will get the money or they are amateurs.’

It would be difficult for the observer to guess the power relations between Jackboots and Overcoat. Although Overcoat does not, perhaps cannot speak, they communicate effectively. They are a good fit as a team. They operate with a strange telepathy. Perhaps Overcoat has peripheral vision and his function in the team is to be watchful. The observer would not be able to pinpoint their country of origin. Jackboot’s accent might make Romania favourite. His tattoos too are in an Eastern European language. If you are looking for sartorial clues, you wouldn’t know where to begin. There is something theatrical, perhaps filmic about their bizarre appearance. In everyday life, they would be as inconspicuous as a pair of tarantulas in a bowl of fresh cream. All in all, they are an enigma. The indications are that, as in many kidnapping cases, the motive is money. It is time for Jackboots to make another phonecall. He once again makes it over VoIP using geocrasher.

Allegra wonders how it has come to this. How has she moved from her work with Dior and Dolce Gabbana in the high-flying fashion world of Milan, weekends on Lake Garda and skiing in Cortina D’Ampezzo to being held captive in this darkened room, not knowing if she will live or die? It is quite a descent. It all started when she came to London for a fashion shoot. How had she come to meet a Nobel scientist? She didn’t have the slightest interest in science. She was into the arts. Gregory might cut a dashing figure but perhaps she should have found someone that looked after her better. Why hadn’t he come up with the ransom? It was hours since they had taken the rings as a bargaining tool. Why had she fallen for him? Certainly, he had a lot of money, but she was not exactly poor herself. The fashion work brought in a decent income. And she gave all this up. They didn’t even socialise that much. Gregory was always working on some paper or had a meeting with the board. If he hadn’t been working, these two murderous villains would not have been able to just walk in and bundle her into the van. She thinks she has been here now for nearly two days. She is hungry. She has had nothing but water for the duration. Even if she could find a way to relax, she cannot sleep. The room gives off a continuous hollow sound like amplified tinnitus.

‘You will have taken delivery of the ring finger,’ says the metallic voice. A green light appears on Max’s device to show it is recording. ‘Quite generous of us to return the valuable rings, do you not think. But, my friend, that is all we will be returning until we have five million.’

Gregory says that he is working on this. Max has advised him to do so. He has said that you should never show defiance in such a situation.

‘Good! I’m glad you are beginning to see things our way. I expect your lovely wife will be glad too. I will call at exactly five o’clock and we will arrange a time and place to pick up. You will have the money by then I am sure.’

Gregory says that he will do his best.

‘I expect you would also like your nice car back too. When you deliver the money, we will deliver your wife in the boot of your car.’

On that note, the conversation ends. The green light on the device changes back to red.

‘That was great,’ says Max. ‘Watch this!’

He presses a couple of keys on his device and plays the recording. It is now a proper sounding human voice. ‘ModulatorPlus. Great little app,’ he smiles.

The voice, they both agree, does sound Eastern European. Max explains that Eastern European languages have consonant clusters so they tend to shorten the vowels when speaking English. To Gregory, it just sounds Eastern European. Max takes a gigantic pair of Sennheiser headphones from his bag to listen more closely. His bag must be dimensionally transcendental, Gregory thinks. He appears to have a whole workshop in there. Max says he is listening for background noise. He closes his eyes in concentration and begins playing with the frequency sliders on the side of the headphones. Finally, several minutes later, he takes them off.

‘I think I’ve got it,’ he says. ‘The call was made by a mobile phone redirected from an unlisted landline from a blue Ford transit van near a railway station, but what I’m not getting is which railway station or the registration of the van.’

Gregory wonders how Max can tell that the transit van is blue but he doesn’t like to ask.

Iancu Emanuel Constantinescu’s career as a lion tamer ended when circuses stopped using wild animals. The Romanian International Circus, which had built its reputation on dangerous stunts, folded. Iancu’s appearance, the legacy of years of taming ferocious big cats and a long relationship with Silvia Daciana Vacilescu, the circus’s tattoo artist, left him with little prospect of getting a job. In a word, he looked scary. He felt he might as well use his intimidating stature to frighten people. Kidnapping seems to be the obvious place to use his skill set. His friend, Dragomir Stan Antonescu had been a clown with the circus. As he was mute, his chances of getting a job when the circus folded were also slim. Dragomir’s lack of speech was however compensated by remarkable eyesight. He had long been a collector of handguns and was a crackshot. It seemed natural that he should team up with Iancu.

The only way that you can learn kidnapping is by going ahead and doing it. There are no training manuals or kidnappers’ colleges. If you get it right, you can make a good living and you do not need to work long hours. Iancu and Dragomir start small by kidnapping a pub landlord in a popular seaside town and asking for £500. They find that this does not cover their expenses. Their next outing is a football manager of a Championship team, where they manage to get £5000. They brush up their technique by watching a number of kidnapping films. After watching Fargo, it occurs to them that it might be a better idea to abduct a partner rather than the target himself. They get £20,000 this way by kidnapping a minor celebrity’s wife. They manage to convince the celebrity to pay up when they send him a lock of her hair. Allegra is only their fourth victim. They are thinking of asking £50,000 when they find out that Gregory is an incredibly rich man. He has reaped the benefits of inventing a life-saving product that the world needs. To up the ante, Iancu feels that they need to employ scarier tactics, so he purchases a preserved hand from Stelian Serafim Albescu, a former reptile trainer with the circus who is now working as a mortuary assistant. With so much inexperience, the potential for disaster is immense.

‘How do we find the blue van and what do we do if we find it?’ Gregory asks.

‘We follow it,’ says Max. ‘What we do when it takes us to Allegra is probably the question you should be asking. But don’t worry I’ll think of something. That’s what you are paying me for. Now come on! Let’s get to the station. They might still be there.’

‘But, you said you couldn’t tell which station.’

‘Have you any better ideas? Next, you will be saying what if there are two blue vans. There! I’ve diverted your phone. Now let’s get going.’

Max packs his bag, cracks open a new pack of chewing gum and off they go in Max’s grey Yaris.

‘Nobody notices you in one of these,’ he explains. ‘Not even with tinted windows. Inconspicuous but fast.’

Allegra’s miscarriage is sudden. Jackboots and Overcoat arrive just after it has happened. She is covered in blood. At first, J and O have no idea what has happened. It slowly dawns on them both. She seems hysterical. They do not know how to handle the tirade of verbal abuse she subjects them to.

‘ I need a fucking doctor,’ she screams at them. ‘Get me a doctor, You fucking scum.’

They sense that pointing guns is not the appropriate response, but are not in a position to offer understanding and tenderness. They back off. They decide they can wait in the van. It is parked just down the road by the railway station. They can go back in a few minutes. Allegra, they reason, will have calmed down by then.

Max and Gregory arrive at the railway station car park just in time to see Jackboots and Overcoat getting into the blue van. There is only one blue transit van. They must be the captors. What an odd looking pair they are, though.

‘How’s that for timing,’ says Max.

He parks the Yaris a few bays behind the van, in preparation for it driving off. He can follow at a discreet distance. The van, however, does not move. Although the van is fifty feet away, Max manages to rig up a device up to listen to their conversation.

‘A friend of mine borrowed the device from the secret government base,’ he explains.

Jackboots and Overcoat’s conversation comes through loud and clear. Unfortunately, they are not speaking English.

‘It will come with a translator in a couple of years,’ Max says by way of apology.

One voice seems to do all the talking. It is the same voice that made the phonecall earlier. The one wearing the overcoat and the Stetson seems to be nodding or using sign language.

Had Max’s hypothetical translator been operational the conversation they would hear would go something like this.

‘Perhaps we should reduce the demand.’

Silence

‘Count our losses.’

Silence

‘Down to ten thousand. What do you think?’

Silence.

‘We can make a bit more on our next job, maybe.’

Silence.

If Max’s hypothetical translator had been operational, the substance of the phonecall that Gregory receives on his mobile would not have been so unexpected. As it is, he feels he has been let off the hook somewhat. He is sure that Mr Cash will let him have ten thousand pounds from his assets. Why, he wonders, have they reduced the sum so drastically. It feels like bargain basement.

‘Three hours time, that’s five o’clock, Used twenty pound notes’ says Jackboots, establishing the upper hand once more. ‘At the entrance to the disused airfield. Look out for a blue van. Your car will be close by. You won’t be able to see your car from the road. Your wife will be in the boot. No funny business or you know what will happen.’

No-one makes a move. Max wants to stay put so as not to lose sight of the villains. Gregory thinks that he should probably be at the bank, but is dependent on Max for transport, and it seems J and O are in no hurry to move business along.

Max has been in stakeouts before. He understands the terrain. A good deal of patience is necessary. You need a cap to pull down over your forehead. And a pack of cigarettes. Gregory is a stranger to the underworld, university did not prepare him for this. To him, the underworld is something that Orpheus got himself into in Offenbach’s operetta. Gregory does not have a cap to pull down over his forehead. And he has never smoked.

Jackboots and Overcoat sense that they still have a lot to learn. Things are not going as planned. And now a police car has drawn up a few cars away. How long will it be until they spot the stolen blue van they are in, or for that matter the stolen Lexus 460 about a hundred metres away, and who are those people in the grey Yaris? Are they watching them?

Miscarriages can be psychologically damaging. It is said that the attachment to the foetus begins very early into pregnancy. Women are often reported to lose themselves after such an event. Given the circumstances of Allegra’s loss, this might be the expected consequence, but she finds that there are immediate and more profound results of this cruel termination. Her soul has gone. Science now believes that the soul could be the link that connects individuals to the universe, a dynamic connection that explains consciousness. If nothing else, the soul is a poor thing to be without and Allegra’s has parted company with her physical body and disappeared into the ether. When she screams it is not now her that is screaming but something that is happening as a result of a bodily impulse. She does not inhabit the scream. It is no longer her scream. It is not her who finds that she can push the door to her prison open, where Jackboots and Overcoat have not secured properly. It is not her who finds herself staggering up an unfamiliar street.

Whoever it is that has managed these things finds herself in the vicinity of a railway station. Something tells her she should recognise it, but she can’t connect with this part of her. The link has been severed. There are a lot of people about. She spots a blue van and a police car. The police seem to be asking the people in the van to step out of it.

‘My God! There’s Allegra,’ shouts a shell-shocked Gregory, making a move to jump out of the Yaris.

‘Stop! No! Don’t,’ yells Max, grabbing him by the shoulder to restrain him. ‘Kidnappers have guns, remember.’

This is a pivotal moment. From here, it could go any way. It depends on how competent the police are. It depends on how desperate Jackboots and Overcoat are. It depends on whether Max has anything up his sleeve. Certainly, Max is aware that the kidnappers would recognise Gregory, but perhaps he should have let Gregory go and talk to the police. Is it his professional pride that is urging against this?

Max seems to have subdued Gregory for the moment and they duck down out of sight. J and O seem reluctant to get out of the van. Allegra lurches on zombie-like and disappears into a throng of people emerging from the station. Gregory and Max’s attention is drawn away by a squeal of tyres and a scattering of police officers. In a daring attempt at escape, the blue van speeds off. With a squeal of tyres to match, the police car gives chase. By the time Gregory and Max focus back on the station, Allegra has disappeared out of sight. There are hundreds of people now, jostling one another for position around the station entrance. Why hasn’t Max got an app on one of his devices that can find someone in a crowd?

As he and Max dash here and there searching for Allegra in the bustling station, Gregory asks himself how this reversal of fortune has come about. Circumstance has up till now always favoured him. He rose to elevated heights with so little effort. There was never a struggle. Doors opened easily. His discovery of a life-saving product that the world desperately needed felt as if it were something he just plucked out of the air. He has never knowingly taken advantage of anyone or abused his position. He has always looked for the best in people. He has paid his taxes, given to charity and been kind to animals. He has even on occasions said his prayers. What is happening in the cosmos to deliver such a cataclysmic volte-face?

The station has a staggering seven platforms, each one swarming with restless passengers. Trains are arriving from everywhere. Trains are leaving to go to all points of the compass. Allegra finds herself on one of the trains. She does not know where she is heading. She may be going east or she may be going west. It does not matter to a person who has no soul. People stare at her. They do not understand what has happened. Everyone keeps their distance. They know that something is wrong. They make up their own stories about her from the true life magazines in their heads. Gregory North continues frantically to search the station but cannot spot her. He will never find her. He has lost her. He will continue on his way on a train of his own. It will be heading south.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

CHEKHOV’S GUN

chekovsgunChekhov’s Gun by Chris Green

Having signed off my latest story, I am on the lookout for characters for a new one. A writer’s mind is never idle. Even though Jodie and I are on holiday in a small seaside town in Norfolk to catch up with her family, the search is on. In the shop next to our cottage, the fishmonger gets up to take the delivery of fresh fish at about six thirty and starts throwing crates around the yard, waking us up. He has a weather-beaten face with deep creases from years of hard fishmongering. But, I have my readers to consider. A story about a small town retailer would not be in keeping with the Philip C. Dark brand. My stories usually revolve around time shifts or altered states, not matters you could ease into a tale about the price of fish.

John, the ageing caretaker for our group of holiday-lets comes by to see how Jodie and I are getting on with the cooker. He says that it has been on the blink. On the blink? We hadn’t realised it worked at all. It’s an odd looking piece of kit. Perhaps the newer models haven’t reached these remote parts yet.

‘It’s the timer that’s broken,’ John the Caretaker says. ‘You have to turn it this way and then that way to get it working.’

John is ineffectual, apologetic. He looks as if he has been trying to become invisible all his life, not the kind of character you could fit into a speculative fiction or a psychodrama.

The couple in the holiday apartment across from us with the two point three children, the Debenhams shopping bags and the Ford Focus are also non-starters. How could you create intrigue in a story about them? Ditch-water and dull are words that spring to mind.

Lord Nelson grew up around these parts and as we make our way through the town, everywhere we look, we are reminded of this. Even though the nearest harbour is a few miles down the coast, here they are proud of North Norfolk’s maritime heritage. We have a cup of tea and a light breakfast in the Trafalgar Café on the seafront. As they throw chewed balls for their excited dogs, the early morning dog walkers down on the shingle beach look exactly like early morning dog walkers on shingle beaches look the world over. Nothing for the story there. Neither do the ramblers on the coastal path provide inspiration. In their expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and identical uncomfortable-looking heavy boots, they are clones of one another. It probably isn’t their fault. Years of relentless leisure-wear promotion featuring sporty looking models in expensive padded waterproof jackets screaming with logos and uncomfortable-looking walking boots has put pressure on them to conform to such rigid sartorial uniformity.

The man in the brown SuperDry windcheater looking out to sea with snazzy binoculars regales us with a story about two Polish men who drowned out there because they were calling out for help in Polish. He says that the onlookers did not understand that they were in trouble. They thought they were just waving to them and started waving back. Perhaps I could save this anecdote up for later. Meanwhile, I need a punchy opening and some quirky characters.

While the fiction writer must recognise the importance of Chekhovian realism, he must also be aware that nobody wants to read about someone whose actions are predictable. A successful character in fiction requires an element of contradiction. Oxymoronic inconsistencies are necessary to create unforgettable characters, the honest thief, the philanthropic murderer, the frightened hero. When drawing a character in a short story it is vital to establish their complexity. You must do so quickly. What better way to hint at latent duality than in the initial description?

Names are often a good starting point. A well-chosen name can go a long way to suggesting the type of person, the type of story or even the content of the story itself. Dickens understood the importance of names. Think Ebeneezer Scrooge, Wackford Squeers, Harold Skinpole. As does Martin Amis. Think Clint Smoker, Spunk Davis, Lionel Asbo. I have a long list of names lined up for possible characters. Chadwick Dial, Guy Bloke, Lars Wimoweh ………

The old man with the big green beard walking down Station Road has potential. Most men around his age in these parts do not have big green beards. I’ll pencil him in as Tom Esso. Tom Esso will have an unusual background. A circus performer, maybe, or wayward scientist or necromancer. Perhaps he had an illustrious career as a Naval spy in war-torn Asia before double-crossing the wrong people. Perhaps he lives in a yurt or is Lord Lucan. But this is to jump ahead. He could be any of these. There is no point in getting into plot detail yet but I will keep Tom Esso in mind.

While Jodie is doing the rounds of the shops with her sister, I find myself chatting to the man pushing the yellow cart along the sands. He is collecting debris that he finds on the beach. Amongst the assorted food wrappers, he has miscellaneous discarded plastic, several umbrellas, a raincoat, a dead seabird and a Nike trainer in his cart. He says he goes back and forth along the three mile stretch twice a day. I tell him I’m Philip C. Dark, the writer. He says he has not heard of me. I tell him not to worry, not many people have.

‘I’m looking for some inspiration for a story,’ I say. ‘I bet you meet some odd characters around here.’

‘I certainly do,’ he says. ‘There’s a fellow who comes down early in the morning in Naval uniform to practice his martial arts. First time I saw him waving his sword about, I was a little worried. But, he’s OK. Is that the sort of thing you are looking for?’

‘Uhu,’ I say, making a mental note.

‘And there’s the old lady with the leopard print coat who comes down, to feed the dolphins,’ he says. ‘Except that there aren’t any dolphins. She has bats in the belfry but I think she’s safe.’

‘Uhu.’

‘Oh, and there’s a couple of weird musicians, buskers I suppose you’d call them. They come down on a Sunday afternoon. The fellow plays the bagpipes and the woman plays the sitar.’

‘Bagpipes and sitar,’ I say. ‘That’s an odd combination.’

‘They have a raccoon, at least that’s what I think it is,’ he says. ‘It dances to the music.’

‘That sounds like a bit of a tourist attraction,’ I say. ‘I expect it draws the crowds.’

‘Local people seem to make an effort to stay away,’ he says ‘Round here, you see, folks mostly like sea shanties. Now, if they were to play some sea shanties, they’d be in business.’

‘Perhaps it’s hard to play sea shanties on bagpipes and sitar,’ I say, as I try to visualise the image of Rob Roy and Rani struggling to adapt their musical style to the work songs of merchant sailing vessels. Meanwhile, I am already writing the duo into my narrative.

‘Perhaps you could take a didgeridoo along,’ he says, with a straight face so I can’t tell whether he is joking or not. ‘I noticed they have a couple of nice didgeridoos for sale in the window of the charity shop up the road.’

The idea of the trio does add to the possibilities. I passed the British Heart Foundation shop on the way down and, although I can’t explain why I was tempted then to pop in and buy one of the didgeridoos.

‘Jodie and I will come down and have a listen to them tomorrow,’ I say. ‘We’ll bring the family.’

So, I have Tom Esso, Rob Roy and Rani in the bag. Between them they can add colour to the story but I am still looking a central plot to tack the pieces on to. I need an apocalyptic theme, an eerie backdrop, an unexplained emergency, the trademark elements of the Philip C. Dark brand. Where will I find the Hitchcockian McGuffin, the psychological uncertainty, the unexpected twist?

We have been to visit Jodie’s family in these parts many times now and the streets of the small seaside town are familiar. I make my way back to our cottage via British Heart Foundation taking a short cut off Nelson Street but unfortunately, they have sold both the didgeridoos.

‘A lady came in earlier and bought them both,’ the Saturday girl says. ‘She said they were for a present for her husband.’

Could it be Jodie, I wonder as I start to wander back to the cottage? Might I have mentioned the didgeridoos to her earlier?

As as I make my way along Victory Street towards Temeraire Terrace, everything that has over the years become so familiar begins to look different. There is little traffic on the roads and what cars there are all seem to be vintage models. Is there a classic car rally, perhaps? I haven’t seen one advertised. The health food shop has disappeared, along with the electrical store with the display of digital devices in the window. The cinema has changed its name and is now showing a Greta Garbo film. There are a number of horse drawn vehicles on the approach to the farriers. Farriers? There wasn’t a farriers here when I passed by earlier. And none of those game birds were hanging up outside Biggs Butchers.

When I arrive at the cottage, the door is open. Inside, John the Caretaker is fiddling with the controls on the cooker. He appears to be in a panic.

‘The timer is playing up big time,’ he says. ‘It seems to have gone back to 1935.’

Epilogue:

To paraphrase the principle of Chekhov’s Gun:

A writer should not introduce a dodgy cooker in the opening paragraphs of a story unless it is going to be used to to good effect in the story.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

 

TIME OUT

timeout1

Time Out by Chris Green

The train has never been this late. It is nearly 10 o’clock. Max has been waiting for over an hour. He has been through nearly all of the Thelonious Monk selections on his iPhone. He may have missed something but so far as he can tell, there have been no announcements giving a reason for the delay. Before the departures display stopped working for some unexplained reason, it stated that the 8:39 to Broadchurch was on time. Thus, Max kept thinking it would soon be along. One or two trains going in the opposite direction have stopped at the other platform and a trickle of people have got on and off. Churston Stoney is not a busy station

Max is in no hurry. It doesn’t matter what time he opens All About Jazz on a Tuesday. Few people come in to buy anything so early in the week. For most, jazz seems to be primarily a weekend fascination. But, curiously, the handful of other passengers waiting on platform 2 for the 8:39 seem similarly unperturbed by the train’s delay. From time to time, one or other of them wanders up to the Take the Train poster to see if it provides a clue or feigns interest in the safety procedures notice but, in the spirit of train travel, each keeps his distance and avoids conversation or even eye contact with the others. The cordylines in their raised wooden planters have never attracted so many admiring glances.

Max is beginning to suspect that something may be wrong. There should be some news by now. There are no railway staff on hand to ask what the issue might be and the ticket office is on the approach to the other platform over the bridge. He takes his earbuds out and sidles up to the broken bench where a young girl in a purple duffle coat is sitting. She is probably a student, he thinks. At Broadchurch College. Positive Pathways, most likely. This would explain why she herself is not in a hurry to get anywhere. In fact, it’s probably a little early for her first class. Most of the students there don’t turn up much before lunchtime.

At Max’s approach, the girl’s fingers stop playing with her phone for a moment.

Max does not want to sound too hung up about the lateness of the train, but equally, he doesn’t want it to seem like he is chatting her up. He is more than twice her age.

‘Good tune?’ he asks.

She looks the newcomer up and down. She is wary of middle-aged men wearing striped linen jackets and Fedora hats thinking they look cool.

‘You wouldn’t like it,’ she says, taking her buds out. ‘Rat Boy. Probably not heard of him, have you, Granddad? It’s called Get Over It. Essex hip-hop.’

He seems undeterred by the offhand way she addresses him. Perhaps she should have just blanked him, she thinks, and turned her head. Now he wants to chat about trains. Is there an 8:39 train? What has happened to it? How would she know? She is happy to sit here until one comes along. She has nothing pressing to get on with. She is often the only one at her mime class, so it probably doesn’t matter if she attends or not. The world as she sees it is on her phone. This is where the important things happen. People of a certain age don’t seem to have caught on yet that there is no need for personal interaction.

‘I’m sure the train will be along soon,’ she says, turning her attention to the screen once more.

‘I manage a jazz shop in town,’ he says. ‘You might want to pop in sometime to see if there is anything you like.’

Why is he telling her this? Does she look like she cares?

In the nick of time, she is saved by another passenger coming along. This one seems happy to talk to Max about trains and timetables. The new arrival, she thinks, looks considerably more sinister than the other. Although it is Spring, he wears darkness like an overcoat. There is no mistaking that look of serious intent. It does not belong in her world. She puts her head down and gets back to her hip hop. Best to leave the two men to their concerns over punctuality.

‘I’m hearing that this section of the line is experiencing some unexpected temporal turbulence,’ the newcomer says. ‘A rupture in time, you might call it.’ He has that look of dark formality about him that Max notices when he visits his accountant. But despite his seriousness, there is something other-worldly about him.

‘A rupture in time?’ queries Max. ‘Is that an elaborate way of saying that the train is late?’

‘No. Not exactly,’ the shadowy figure continues. ‘While, yes the 8:39 is indeed late, it is on its way. However, you may notice some ……. differences.’

Detecting some activity, at last, other passengers have begun to gather around the two of them, curious to know what the new developments might be.

‘How are getting this ……. information?’ asks the man in the ill-fitting beige zip up jacket and the striped shopping bag who is probably younger than he looks.

‘Or lack of,’ adds the woman in the orange shell suit carrying a small child in a papoose.

‘Aliens landed in Westmallow this morning,’ says the man with the long hair and the Syd Barrett t-shirt, who has just arrived. This overshadows all the other comments and gets everyone’s immediate attention. Westmallow is just five miles away, in fact, the next station up the line.

‘Only joking,’ he adds. ‘Got you going, though, didn’t it?’

‘So tell us! When will the train be here?’ says Beige zip up.

‘And what is happening?’ says Orange shell suit.

‘Just be aware that the train might seem a little strange today,’ says the shadowy figure. ‘I will not be travelling with you.’

With this, he takes his leave. They watch him aghast as he makes his way down off the platform and hotfoots it down the steps. No sooner has he gone than the train drifts into the station. It appears to be the usual two-car multiple unit that is used for this service with the usual shabby dark blue livery.

Max gets on and takes a seat. He glances around nervously, trying to spot anything that might be considered odd. The layout of the carriage is familiar. There is the usual amount of grime suggesting it might be due for a deep clean. The proportions of old and young, men, women and children are what you might expect at this time of day. In fact, Max recognises many of them. Not that he is in the habit of speaking to any of them, but they are regulars on the route. He decides to settle back and listen to a little Miles Davis. He finds Miles’s mellow mute is perfect for relaxation. He selects Miles Davis from the playlist. To his alarm, what he hears is not Miles Davis at all but some terrible hip-hop music. He glances at the cover art on the phone’s display. The track is called Get Over It by Rat Boy. How could this have happened?

Then he remembers. The girl in the purple duffle coat had been listening to Rat Boy. Perhaps she has somehow bluetoothed the tune to his device. He looks around for her, half expecting to see her somewhere in the carriage laughing, perhaps with Syd Barrett t-shirt sharing the joke, but neither of them is anywhere to be seen. He makes his way down the aisle and into the adjoining carriage. They are not there either. Did they not actually get on the train? The assumption is that passengers waiting for a train board the train but, at the time, he had been too pre-occupied with his anxieties to notice who did and who didn’t get on.

Puzzled, Max returns to his carriage. There now seem to be extra passengers. He is certain, well, almost certain. The lady with the bichon frise was not there previously. Nor the two soldiers. Sometimes the memory can play tricks, especially at times of stress, but surely he would have noticed the soldiers. Shouldn’t they have got off at Gunleigh, where the army base is? That’s two stops back up the line, no wait, three stops. The man in the mac is no longer there, nor the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses who kept blowing his nose. He can’t see the man who was reading the book on string theory either. Max takes a look at his watch. 8:56. The train now appears to be on time. Proper time. Well, perhaps a few minutes late, but certainly no more than you would expect on a normal working day. Unless. ……….

The train passes through the Blackstone tunnel. This is definitely further back up the line. The tunnel is before you reach Gunleigh. How can this have happened? Max continues to puzzle over this as the train pulls into Gunleigh, where the soldiers leave the train. The train stays in the station for several minutes. There is no explanation for this and the restless murmur of conversation around the train reflects the growing frustration of the passengers. No-one seems to know what is going on.

‘I’m going to miss my connection,’ says the man in the mac. ‘If I miss it, I’m going to be writing to someone.’

‘I’ve got an important iatric appointment in Broadchurch,’ says the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, the one who keeps blowing his nose.

The man who is reading the book on string theory nods his head.

‘Insulting, the wait they treat us,’ says the man in the mac. ‘It never used to be like this.’

‘Not so much as a word of apology,’ says the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, who keeps blowing his nose.

The man who is reading the book on string theory shakes his head.

Max tries his phone to see if he can find out anything from the internet to explain what is happening but predictably, given the unusual circumstances, he cannot get a signal. He is struggling to work out what he might be doing on the train on this part of the route when he lives in Churston Stoney, which is still eight or so miles up the line, coupled with the fact that he remembers getting on the train at Churston Stoney, just now. To go to work. He is dressed for work.

Max closes his eyes and begins to count slowly from one to a hundred in French, German and Spanish, a distraction exercise he taught himself to overcome confused states of mind. Sometimes he uses this exercise to help himself get off to sleep after a busy weekend at the Broadchurch Jazz Festival. By the time he has reached ochenta y siete, it is ten past ten and the train is pulling into Churston Stoney station. To his amazement, there on the platform are the girl in the purple duffle coat with her head in her iPhone, the man in the beige zip up jacket with his striped shopping bag who is probably younger than he looks, the woman in the orange shell suit with the baby in the papoose, the man with the long hair wearing the Syd Barrett t-shirt and to his great horror, he notices the sinister man from earlier is just leaving the station, hotfooting it down the steps. To his greater horror, there by the cordylines in the raised wooden planters he himself is, dressed in his striped linen jacket and his Fedora hat, carrying his leather work bag. Up until this moment, déjà vu had been just an expression that he had heard bandied about by people who, he realises now, had no comprehension of what it might feel like to really experience the trauma of it.

The train is soon on its way and hurtling down the line. For the benefit of those who boarded at Churston Stoney, the conductor apologises for its lateness. The delay, he says, was due to a giant clown on the tracks. He goes on to announce that the train will be stopping at Bymoor, Pitfield, Littlechurch and Broadchurch. The man in the mac and the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, who keeps blowing his nose are in Max’s carriage, along with the man who is reading the book on string theory. He has been joined by a man who looks a little like him, but is perhaps a little thinner. His lookalike companion, Max notices, is wearing a Heisenberg t-shirt and reading something called The Uncertainty Principle.

The girl in the purple duffle coat, who seems to have made a point of taking a seat opposite him says, ‘There was no need to copy that bloody jazz to my phone. It was terrible. How can you listen to it?’

‘What?’ says Max. He is still trying to imagine what could have possibly happened to his doppelgänger. Perhaps he is the doppelgänger.

‘That Duke of Wellington, or whatever he is called, says the girl in the purple duffle coat. ‘That Mood Indigo.’

‘Ellington, it’s Duke Ellington, one or other of him says.

‘Whatever!’ says purple duffle coat.

This development suggests to Max that not only is there a rupture in time which is turning all rational thinking on its head but music is getting muddled too. Music and time makes him think of musical time. Musical time makes him think of Dave Brubeck and Time Out, the seminal album based on the idea of unusual time signatures, 9/8, 5/4, 6/4 and the like.

But, Max realises none of this explains what is really happening or why what is happening is happening. Reduced to its simplest form, he had a long wait on Churston Stoney station for the 8:39 train to Broadchurch, during which he had some unaccountable experiences, including travelling on the train that had not arrived. The train that had not arrived has since arrived and he is on it, again, possibly along with his doppelgänger and the other passengers who were waiting at Churston Stoney station, who have not previously boarded the train, with the notable absence of a mystery man who had maintained that something was wrong with the universe.

But, it’s all part of life’s rich pageant. What’s past is prologue. Max must move on. Take what comes and do what he can to have a say in this. This is as much as anyone can do. As the great novelist and jazz enthusiast, Haruki Murakami says, ‘don’t let appearances fool you, there is only one reality.’ But is this really true, Max wonders as his eyes are drawn once more to the man reading The Uncertainty Principle? As he recollects, the principle states that nothing has a definite position, a definite trajectory or a definite momentum. Trying to pin something down to one definite position will make its momentum less well pinned down and vice-versa. What about the other fellow, Max wonders, the one that is reading the book on string theory? Perhaps he would have an explanation for what is going on. String theory, as he understands it, proposes that the fundamental constituents of a nine or ten-dimensional universe are one-dimensional “strings” and not point-like particles. Thus, the universe that we are familiar with is not the only one; multiple universes exist parallel to each other. Any number of different realities then? He could, for instance, also at this moment be still waiting for the train at Churston Stoney, travelling on the train further up the line and travelling on a different train and in another dimension, he could never have been on a train in his life. Equally, the girl in the purple duffle coat and all the others might be on multiple trains or not at all. He decides it might be best not to talk to the fellow reading the book on string theory just yet.

‘Tickets please!’ says the conductor, making his along the aisle. ‘Anyone who got on the train at Churston Stoney.’

Max fishes around in his jacket pocket and finds that he has dozens of tickets. Baffled, he turns them over in his hand. The conductor eyes him suspiciously. Max glances once again at the man reading the book on string theory. Perhaps he does need to speak to him after all.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon

baadermeinhoffphenomenon

Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon by Chris Green

I’ll start at the end. Jonny Bisco is dead. He met his maker in October 2009 when his Moto Guzzi motorcycle skidded off the road in a freak thunderstorm near the small town of Bovey Tracey on the edge of Dartmoor. He was sixty four years old. You may not have heard of Jonny Bisco yet, but the chances are, you will. Even now. Even though he has been dead for seven years, his star is rising. Posthumous fame is more frequent than you imagine. Think Van Gogh, Kafka, Jesus.

Who was Jonny Bisco, you must be wondering? It is difficult to pigeonhole him but were it not for him you would be without many of the things that 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 or be enjoying free selfie tuition at your local college on a Thursday evening. Jonny Bisco was undoubtedly an enigma. So let’s establish what we do know about him.

Jonny Bisco was born to Ron and Anne Bisco, the seventh of seven sons. Growing up in Barnstaple in the post-war years, Jonny was a gauche and gangly child. Giving his elder brothers a wide berth and avoiding the gangs and cliques at the Devon schools he attended, he developed a solitary persona, seeking out the places that 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 was known to retire to his room for days on end to 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 the moors to contemplate the nature of the universe and perhaps to seek congress with aliens.

Remarkably, there is no record of Jonny Bisco from 1963 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.

I first became aware of Jonny Bisco a week or two ago when I was researching for a short story about an eccentric inventor. I found that the patents for virtually everything I had mentioned in the draft of the story were actually owned by him. 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 Jonny. Each time I tried to substitute another unlikely invention, I found that this too had already been thought of by Bisco. 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 and a universal healing balm, it turned out that Jonny had also thought of these and patented the ideas.

I wondered if other people were aware of Jonny Bisco’s clandestine enterprises but no-one at the office where I worked seemed interested. They were 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, dear? 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, before I found out they were after all just lines in the sky. She told me that 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, Grant. Grant would surely know something about Jonny Bisco. He read the Financial Times and watched Newsnight.

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

‘Not the pigeons, this time, Grant,’ I said. ‘The pigeons are fine. I’m calling about Jonny Bisco. Have you heard of him?’

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

‘Is there …… maybe not another Jonny Bisco?’ I said.

‘Just kidding you, Chet,’ said Grant. ‘You are clearly referring to Jonny Bisco, the wish fulfilment engineer who grew the magic poppies.’

‘That sounds like him,’ I said.

‘Dreamer of the Year 2001,’ he 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 Grant was still winding me up.

‘Sun founded Kingston Technology,’ said Grant. ‘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? Jonny Bisco 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 that you did not notice it before, especially because you now realise that whatever it is has been around for a long time. I’m sure that you must have experienced something like this. If you google it, you will find that this is called the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, sometimes referred to less colourfully as frequency illusion.

Following my conversation with Grant, Jonny Bisco’s profile seemed to grow exponentially. Most days, I would see his name in the local paper in connection with 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. This kept updating. I may have imagined it but thought I saw him on the cover of Time magazine. He was becoming a popular culture icon. He was even on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. I’d owned the album for years and I’d never noticed his face there before.

I felt certain none of these instances had been there until recently. At least, I thought I was certain but truth be told, I just didn’t know anymore. Several times I asked Carrie what her view is 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. Grant 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 Bisco browser that has appeared on the desktop with an advert for the Bisco Bank? Without warning Jonny Bisco 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. I don’t think it was the end. I just wanted it to be the end. Perhaps it was just the beginning. How could all this be happening if Jonny Bisco were dead? Perhaps he survived the motorcycle accident. Perhaps there was no motorcycle accident. Perhaps there was no motorcycle. I have just checked his Wikipedia entry. There are now a dozen Jonny Biscos, all offering different information. Does Jonny Bisco operate outside the normal parameters of existence? Is he a time traveller? A time traveller, hungry for recognition and hell bent on acquisition, who keeps coming back for more.

In which case, prepare yourself. Jonny Bisco will appear in your life soon.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Andromeda Dreaming

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Dreaming of Andromeda by Chris Green

It was a warm Wednesday in September. I was walking the dog in St Peter’s Park and there was Lars Wimoweh on a seat eating his lunch. Lars could tell straight away from my demeanour that I was feeling a little below par and he asked me what was wrong. I began to explain my recent disappointment over our house sale falling through.

‘Open yourself up to the universe,’ Lars said. ‘You will discover that things begin to fall into place. The universe only knows abundance.’

This sounded encouraging. Abundance was something I felt I could live with. Despite Rover wanting to get back to the stick game, I asked Lars to elaborate.

‘It’s all to do with cosmic energy,’ he continued. ‘What you must do is learn to connect with the cosmic forces.’

In the time I had known him, I had noticed that Lars appeared to get over his own problems easily. He possessed an inner calm. He did not get flustered. So, I followed his advice and took the plunge. I opened myself up to the universe. I started dreaming of Andromeda. I had, up until now, been under the impression that action brought good fortune. This was how it was according to the song from Piper at the Gates of Dawn. But, from what Lars was telling me, it appeared that the reverse might be true. You should let the universe make the decisions.

Things began to change, just as Lars suggested they would but they did not change for the better. Things came flooding in but not in the way that I had hoped. They were not the right things. First off, I lost my house keys in the car park at the transcendental meditation centre and thus found myself unable get in to prevent our house being flooded through Leanne having left the bath tap running. To make matters worse I discovered that the house insurance had elapsed the previous day and I had failed to spot that the renewal was due because, I suspect, I was dreaming of Andromeda. Next, I lost my job at Bricks and Mortimer and although I quickly found another position at Job Done Building Services, I quickly lost the position as I was constantly dreaming of Andromeda and, as the gaffer, Jimmy Jazz explained, not getting the job done.

Take my word, once you start dreaming of Andromeda, you find it hard to break the habit. If you have a tendency towards Andromeda dreaming then it is important to balance this out with discipline and routine. Lars had not mentioned this. He omitted to tell me that you need to be rooted, to have your feet on the ground. But, of course, you do need to be careful here. You must not be too inflexible. Being too set in one’s ways can easily lead to stagnation, frustration and, as a result, you will become a magnet for drawing in negative energy. I can’t help but bring to mind the tragic case of an acquaintance of mine, Ron Smoot, who was so downbeat that his life became a catalogue of disasters, which in turn made him more downbeat, earning him the moniker, Wet Blanket Ron.

It is not, therefore, a simple case of being open to the universe or closed to the universe. You need to be open to being open or closed to the universe dependant on the circumstances. You clearly need to develop a strategy which takes all factors into account. Mindfulness might be the key. It seems that mindfulness amalgamates dreaming of Andromeda with sprinklings of rationality. Mindfulness focusses attention on the present moment, therefore on the task at hand. If I had been focussing a little more on the present moment and not recklessly dreaming of Andromeda, perhaps I might not have had the accident with the blue tractor on the blind bend in Leafy Lane on the way to the Sparklehorse concert. The one that landed me in hospital with multiple fractures.

Following these episodes, the obvious answer would have been for me to take a reality check. The problem was that, having started dreaming of Andromeda, it was difficult to stop. I found myself distracted pretty much all of the time. Concentration on the mundane became impossible. My thoughts meandered like a restless wind inside a letter box. Where did that come from? Oh yes. On and on across the universe. I’m sure this must have been how John Lennon felt when he wrote the song. Perhaps he had had a friend like Lars, who told him he should connect with cosmic forces.

I decided to contact Lars to ask him how he managed to balance his life. How did he keep the restless wind in check? I called him up but repeatedly found that his phone was switched off. Why, I wondered, was this? It was not until a week later when I was walking Rover in St Peter’s Park and still irrepressibly dreaming of Andromeda that I found out. Lying on a bench was an old copy of The Falconmarsh Gazette with the headline Unlucky Strike. Lars Wimoweh, it said, had been struck by freak lightning at a Tai Chi workshop at Stonehenge. What cruel irony in a universe that only knows abundance. I wonder if it is time to stop dreaming.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

GHOST

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GHOST by Chris Green

‘You remember that creepy old man I told you about?’ I said. ‘The one I saw outside the kite museum. Well, Dad! He’s back.’

‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, son,’ said Dad, looking up briefly from his Melody Maker. On a Thursday, his day off, Dad liked to read this cover to cover. It gave him all the latest news from the music business. He’d probably be off out later to buy a new LP by Jefferson Airplane or The Doors and I’d have to listen to that blasting out downstairs while I was trying to get to sleep. Or, perhaps he would have another go at playing I Am The Walrus on his Stratocaster. Mum would tell him to keep the noise down and they would have another row.

‘I was playing on the beach with Eddie,’ I continued. ‘You know, down by the groynes, and there he was. The same man. It looked like he was coming right out of the sea but he had all of his clothes on. Not just shirt and trousers either, a big overcoat and hat and everything.’

Still, Dad showed no surprise.

‘He had a wrinkled old face, Dad, and a big grey beard and piercing eyes,’ I said. ‘He seemed to look right through me.’

‘Uhu.’

‘He was spectral, Dad,’ I said, experimenting with a word I had learnt from my Collins dictionary. Even at twelve years old, I was keen on words. I wondered if one day I might become a writer.

Dad was unimpressed by my growing vocabulary. In fact, Dad seemed unimpressed by anything I did. Sometimes I wondered if he was really my Dad at all or whether there was some hidden family history that I wasn’t being told about.

‘He called out to me, you know,’ I continued. He seemed to know my name. Then he came out with something which I could not understand. It was as if it were in English, but not in English. Anyway, I looked around for Eddie, but by now Eddie had spotted a new boat coming in. You know what Eddie’s like when he spots a new boat. He had started running towards it and didn’t see the old man.’

‘Uhu.’

‘So I ran away as well.’

‘Good thinking, lad.’

‘He shouted something after me, but I still couldn’t catch what it was.’

‘Uhu.’

‘But this fellow’s sooooo old, Dad.’

‘Everyone’s old to you, son. You think Elvis Presley is old. He’s only, what? Twenty nine, thirty perhaps?’

‘Well. Twenty nine is old, Dad. But that’s not the point. The old feller on the beach was reeeeally ancient. He’s like the missing link.’

‘Uhu.’

‘And when he looks at you, you feel a shudder. It’s as if he’s somehow connected to you. Like a shadow……… It’s really weird. Like something out of science fiction.’ Not that I had read any. Science was of no interest to me although I had decided I was definitely going to be a writer.

‘Come on son! Now you’re being weird. ……. Hey! You haven’t been rooting around in my desk drawer, have you?’

‘No, Dad. I have not. I wouldn’t do that. Anyway, you always lock it.’

‘And you took aboard what they told you in those …… drug talks at school, didn’t you?’

‘I was there, if that’s what you mean. ……. Why are you asking?’

‘Oh, no reason, son.’

…………………………………………

The spectral old man appeared before me again a year or so later at the disused Red Rock Quarry where I sometimes went on a Wednesday afternoon when I was skipping Double Chemistry. The same sudden materialisation, otherworldly profile, resounding voice and incomprehensible soliloquy. He was substantial, yet at the same time insubstantial. Once again, I was terrified. Once again, I ran. Dad was not in residence by this time. He had left a month or two previously, following what Mum termed irreconcilable differences. Adultery on Dad’s part, I imagined or perhaps she too had discovered what he kept in his desk drawer. So, this time, it was Mum that I told about my experience, in retrospect a huge mistake. Mum’s approach was entirely different to Dad’s. Whereas he was casual, she was pro-active. She felt that I should see a psychiatrist and despite my protests, marched me off to see Dr Biggott to see if he could arrange a referral.

The term schizophrenia is more carefully defined today but in the late nineteen-sixties, it was an expression that was applied liberally, an umbrella term for a smorgasbord of disorders. Dr Harmer was an ardent fan of the term. Most symptoms of anxiety, he felt, could be explained this way. In the treatment of adolescents, classifying them as schizophrenic at the outset saved a lot of time with elaborate and unnecessary diagnosis, leaving him with more free time with which to concentrate on his female patients. The rewards, he found, were greater here.

‘I am not seeing things or hearing voices,’ I told him. ‘That is not what is happening.’

‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘This we find is the usual response. Many people come to me and say they have seen a ghost but its all in the imagination. Imagination can be very powerful, you see.’

‘But this is not a ghost. He was really there,’ I protested. ‘Large as life.’

‘You see you’ve just said it there, Dr Harmer continued. ‘If he was as large as life, then he wasn’t really there. The key is in that little preposition. I think we’ll start you off on some thorazine and then perhaps put you on a short course of ECT. This usually does the trick.’

The treatment may or may not have, as he put it, done the trick but it certainly changed the goalposts. I didn’t see the ominous stranger in the flesh again for a number of years, but I regularly had nightmares about him. In the dreams, it would always be dark and I would be lost in an unfamiliar place on the edge of town or perhaps the edge of the world. There would be the eerie echo you get from silence. Then, he would slowly materialise, a giant ghostly presence towering above me, causing me to cower in the shadows. He would issue a stentorian proclamation, like God shouting down to Moses, I would wake up in a sweat.

As a teenager, recurring nightmares aren’t the kind of thing you talk about to your friends for fear of being ridiculed. Nor are they a matter you bring up with your peers when trying to make your way in the world as a young adult. Even after I married Maddie, I was reluctant to disclose why I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night screaming. She probably wouldn’t have thought that seeing an old man in a big black coat and hat in a dream was much for a grown man to get in a stew about. And of course, she was probably right. She had once said, ‘You know what, Myles. Sometimes I think you are afraid of your own shadow’, and this had stuck with me. I always tried to play down the trauma that the dreams caused me.

When it comes to dreams, though, while the content can be surreal and deeply unsettling, it is often not the content but the timbre of the dream narrative that is really terrifying. An unspoken background commentary can dictate how the dream feels. It can insist that there is an underlying air of menace, something sinister and threatening about what is going to happen. You are now tuned into your repository of deepest secret fears. All rationality is out the window. You are at the mercy of the demons lurking in the depths of your unconscious. All manner of ghouls and monsters seemed to inhabit my netherworld.

Dreams, however, are dreams and I never came to any physical harm in any of these episodes. The spectre, it seemed, merely wanted to make me aware of something and while I got the palpable impression that his message was of great importance, to my frustration, I could never understand what the message was. It always came out as amplified babble. Once or twice, I nearly caught the drift of what he was saying, but as soon as this happened, he would vanish again and I would be left once with after images without this clarity. Nonetheless, night-times were harrowing. Although my ghostly visitor didn’t appear every night, he turned up frequently enough to make me frightened of what each night might bring. Even Dr Nice’s powerful sedatives were not enough to protect me from the possibility of a visit.

…………………………………………

Then, one day it happened. There he was. Not as a surrealistic Neptune rising out of the sea. Not as a despotic archetype running amok in a nightmare. But there, in the flesh, sitting calmly beside me on a park bench. Maddie had gone into town shopping and I had been walking the dog in Providence Park and sat down to rest for a minute or two. Maximilian was a ten mile a day dog. I had put on a few pounds since I put away my running shoes. The skiing accident in Switzerland too had added to my mobility problems. I was no longer a ten mile a day dog walker. Suddenly, he was next to me, having materialised from out of nowhere. But after the initial shock of finding him within a whisker of my personal space, his aspect seemed to be no longer threatening. The familiar coat, hat, thick grey beard, the swarthy features and the roadmap of lines crisscrossing his face had now taken on a friendly air. My companion could easily have been a fellow dog walker taking a breather to exchange dog behaviour anecdotes.

He began to speak. In contrast to his delivery in the earlier encounters, his voice was now gentle, compassionate. At first, I was unable to understand his words. But I found that this was more a case that I was unable to understand that I was able to understand. Although the language was not my own, once I had become accustomed to its nuances, I found that I could follow what he was saying. Perhaps it was some kind of sorcery or Douglas Adams’ Babelfish at work. Or maybe it was just that I was now older and had a greater understanding of the world. I wasn’t well versed in Chomsky, but I reasoned that this must be down to the same imperceptible process whereby a young child finds he suddenly understands what a parent is trying to communicate. Perhaps a dual nationality child clearing up the confusion from hearing the two tongues spoken.

‘I’ve been trying to tell you something important for years now,’ he said. ‘But each time, I have appeared to try to guide you through the mysteries of self-discovery, you seem to have been consumed by fear. You have to be able to grasp the wisdom of the dream.’

‘Are you saying that it’s just my …….. my perception of you that has been the stumbling block?’ I said.

‘Exactly,’ he said. ‘You have been crippled by inner conflict. All your life you have been fighting with yourself. You have taken on the opinions of others. You have not trusted your inner impulses. As a result, you have been unable to make meaningful decisions. This has made you weak. This has made you condescending. But you can put all this behind you. I believe you are ready now.’

While this was encouraging, I was not really sure what he meant. None of my counsellors had hit upon inner conflict being at the root of my neuroses. They only seemed to want to let me rabbit on for fifty minutes, repeat the last line of each of my ramblings as a question and then say that they would see me next week. If I said something like, ‘My parents were selfish. They don’t understand me.’ They would come back with, ‘so you think your parents don’t understand you.’

‘I cannot stay in this realm so I don’t have long,’ he said. ‘So listen carefully.’

He told me that I was the only one who could sort out my problems. There never had been and never would be anyone else that I could rely on. It was a common mistake to think that the answer lay somewhere out there. The answer was inside. I needed to discover my essence. Find my proper place in the cosmos.

‘You are unique and valuable,’ he said. ‘Nothing that anyone else ever says or does makes the slightest difference to who you are and what you truly feel. Things may have been bad in the past but you must let go of them. They are of no consequence.’

His aphorisms began to sound a little like the ones I had come across in Maddie’s self-help books over the years but nevertheless, they hit home. The meeting had a profound effect on me. Something fundamental changed that day, the day I realised that I was part of something very large indeed. The universe. A small but integral part of the universe. A stillness came over me. Reason and imagination and all mental chatter ceased. Past and future dropped away. I reappraised who and what I was. It was as if I had been born in that moment, brand new, mindless and innocent of all debilitating memories. There existed only the present and what was clearly given in it.

I took stock and went about making changes in my life. I persuaded Maddie we should move to a more rural location. The town had over the years turned into a tourist hotspot. It was now noisy and vulgar and the traffic was so bad it was no longer worth going out in the car. I stopped seeing my therapist. I realised she was, like many practitioners, a charlatan. There was no sense in throwing good money after bad here for little or no return. Perhaps most importantly of all, I gave up my job at the software development centre where I was a technical author. This is not the kind of writing I had envisioned I would be doing all those years ago. It was dull and soul-less. Furthermore, there was no joy in being a wage slave. Every day the task ahead was basically to describe how to reduce everything to either zero or one.

Although previously I had never managed to keep so much as a spider plant alive, something inside me told me I should move into horticulture. It didn’t happen overnight but, slowly but surely, I became a successful orchid grower. My ghost orchids, never before cultivated in this country, became much sought after. By nurturing the delicate plants, I found I was also feeding my spirit. I began to live in the light. I no longer had nightmares.

…………………………………………

Perhaps I was a little slow on the uptake but it was not until the turn of the millennium when I looked in the mirror and saw the old man’s face looking back at me that I realised who he was. I have been gradually morphing into that face in the mirror ever since. I believe I am nearly there now.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved