Nightswimming

Nightswimming by Chris Green

On the face of it, Nightswimming is about someone’s fond memories of skinny-dipping in their younger days. Surely though, the song is about dreaming. You couldn’t get a more haunting tune or a more dreamlike arrangement. And the band are called REM. Rapid Eye Movement. What more do you need? It’s a perfect fit. They’re using nightswimming as a metaphor for the mystifying world of dreams. That fugitive landscape where nothing is what it seems. That dark space on the edge of town where the silence echoes and characters change in front of you without warning.

Gino, the café owner may not be aware of this. He is probably just playing the song because he likes REM. This is not surprising. Not so long ago they were the biggest band in the world. Every album went platinum. I suspect the girl with the multi-coloured hair who Gino is talking doesn’t know what Nightswimming alludes to either. She probably just thinks it’s a pretty tune about a group of young people taking a naughty dip at the lido on a summer night after a heavy session at The Goat and Bicycle.

I finish my mint tea and go over to the counter to pay.

Do you know what this song’s about?’ I say.

Gino looks me in the eye and laughs. He thinks it is a trick question.

It’s about going for a midnight swim,’ he says. ‘Listen!’

I think it’s about dreaming,’ the girl says. ‘It has that ethereal feel to it.’

So do I,’ I say. ‘He appears to be recalling a real-life experience. Nostalgia, you might say. But in dreams, memories become confused with fable. Hence the random stream of consciousness lyrics.’

Nightswimming gives way to Man on the Moon. On the album, they appear the other way around, so this must be a hits compilation.

What do you make of this one?’ I say.

It’s about the moon landing,’ Gino says.

All their songs have more to them than meets the eye,’ the girl says. She looks up the lyrics on her phone.

Man on the Moon. It couldn’t be clearer,’ Gino says. ‘Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin. Michael Collins.’

It seems to jump from one subject to another,’ the girl says. ‘It’s quite a complicated song.’

It is a tribute to the actor, surrealist comedian and performance artist, Andy Kaufman,’ I say. ‘Andy was a prankster and there is a suggestion that he faked his own death. Haven’t you ever wondered about the line, Andy did you hear about this one? The singer links his death with the conspiracy theory about the moon landings.’

What about the goofing on Elvis line?’ the girl says.

Andy used to do an Elvis impersonation that even Elvis was alleged to have praised,’ I say.

Some new customers come into the café. Gino turns his attention to them.

I’m Maya,’ the girl says, moving closer. ‘I expect you know this means illusion or dream.’

Hello Maya,’ I say. ‘I’m Phil.’

I can’t help wondering about your interest in lyrics, Phil,’ Maya says. ‘Are you perhaps a songwriter or a lyricist?’

In a way, I suppose,’ I say. ‘At least, the words bit. I write fiction. I’m Phillip C. Dark.’

Cool!’ she says. ‘I may have read a story of yours. Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

That one is by Chris Green,’ I say. ‘But you are not far off. It is in the same anthology as one of mine.’

Are you writing anything at the moment?’ she says.

I’ve just started a short story where the Twin Towers aren’t destroyed in 9/11 but the White House is,’ I say. ‘As a result, the USA falls into the hands of terrorists, one of whom is the former TV show host who sets about running the country through social media.’

Sounds good,’ Maya says. ‘Hey, look! If you are not doing anything, why don’t you come and meet my cat, Ronnie? He’d love to meet you.’

I was going to get my kaleidoscope repaired and then go to look for some fridge magnets,’ I say. ‘But I guess that could wait until later.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is very close to my house,’ she says. ‘So we could go there together afterwards, and I could help you choose.’

The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre is on the same side of town as Maya’s house, but it is a few miles further on. If Maya had not been travelling with me, it would have been nigh on impossible to find it. It is set in a clearing in the middle of a wood which in itself is off the beaten track. I park some distance away, and we have to beat our way through the undergrowth to reach it. It is more of a log cabin than a house. The location reminds me of a story of mine where people can teleport themselves over long distances simply by thinking about where they want to go. All they need to have is a physical picture in their mind of the desired destination. To keep criminals and thieves away, the wealthy build homes without windows in elaborate woodland mazes to confuse the ever more sophisticated Google maps. They become so reclusive that they live their entire lives within the confines of their homes. They become afraid to communicate with anyone in case they give away their location. Not that Maya seems to be rich or reclusive.

Ronnie, it turns out is large for a domestic cat, measuring around six feet from tip to tail. Perhaps I have lived a sheltered life, but Ronnie is the first cat I’ve come across that you can have a conversation with. I had thought that talking cats only existed in Haruki Murakami novels. Not only does Ronnie talk, he seems to know his REM tunes too. When Maya mentions we’ve been listening to Nightswimming and Man on the Moon, he becomes animated.

Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite is my favourite,’ he says ‘There’s a lot going on in there. It’s about a drifter. With its roadside motel, instant food, payphones and oddball characters, it describes his transient lifestyle. Sidewinder is a metaphor for the drifter, don’t you think?

REM songs always have double meanings,’ I say, thrilled to have found a cat that is knowledgeable about popular culture. ‘A sidewinder is a snake, of course, but also an old style of telephone with a winding handle on the side.

Their singer, Michael Stipe wrote the lyrics,’ Ronnie says. ‘I don’t think the others in the band were sure what the rest of the song meant.’

He’s dreaming about the things he misses,’ I say. ‘The candy bars, falling stars and the Dr Seuss stories.’

He mentions The Cat in the Hat. That’s my favourite Dr Seuss story too,’ Ronnie says. Did You know that he was a big fan of Syd Barrett? Dark Globe was his favourite. Do you know that one? REM recorded it too.’

That’s the one that starts off, Oh where are you now, pussy willow, isn’t it? I say. ‘I like Octopus. Trip, Trip to a dream dragon.’

I knew you two would hit it off,’ Maya says. ‘Ronnie has always been a fan of dream-pop.’

It was lovely to meet you, Mr Dark,’ Ronnie says. ‘I’d love to talk to you some more, but I must be going or I will be late for a very important date. I’m taking my friend Alice to an exhibition at The Looking Glass Gallery.’

What are you going to see?’ I ask. Cats appreciating art as well as music. It is becoming curiouser and curiouser.

We are going to see some new work by abstract artist, Jenny Westbrook,’ Ronnie says. ‘Jenny’s paintings are organic and very colourful. The exhibition is called Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.

What a great title for an exhibition!’ I say. ‘I hope you enjoy them. It was good to talk to you, Ronnie.’

I’ve made a double layer bilberry upside-down cake,’ Maya says when Ronnie is gone. ‘Would you like some?’

I would love some,’ I say, suddenly aware that I haven’t eaten since breakfast.

Then we can go upstairs and you can help me with some buttons,’ Maya says.

Having known Maya for less than an hour, I can’t help feeling that this is a bit forward.

I have to get my kaleidoscope repaired,’ I say.

I haven’t forgotten,’ Maya says. ‘We can do that afterwards, and we will still have time to go and choose some fridge magnets.’

In the experimental fiction writers’ circles I move in, you become accustomed to heightened levels of strangeness. We are a pretty weird bunch with some pretty weird ideas. While most people try to fashion order out of chaos, we try to fashion chaos out of order. But when you experience elements of this strangeness first hand, you can’t help but be phased. You try to match it to some of the staples of the sci-fi or fantasy genres, parallel worlds, time travel, simulated consciousness, virtual reality, illusions, etc. But even so, you don’t expect to encounter anything as bizarre as a blue six-feet long talking cat with an interest in music and art in everyday, waking life. Might this not lead you to question reality? What is it about your situation or circumstances that has changed, you may wonder? You might question whether you are awake. What if you are dreaming? If you are like the dreamer who dreams, and then lives inside the dream, who is the dreamer?

Maya’s buttons prove to be a big distraction, and before we know it, it is late afternoon. I think it needs to be said that although time pretends to be regular and move in a linear fashion, it sometimes falls flat on its face and embarrasses itself. Time would be better described as flexible, elastic, malleable. It is only a reflection of change and from this, our brains construct a sense of time as if it were flowing. But it’s an illusion. Time is all over the place. Einstein was on the right track. Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, he said, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity. Not that Maya and I did a lot of sitting.

If we hurry, we will have just enough time to get to the Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. The kaleidoscope repair will probably have to wait until another day. I take a look out of the window. The woodland seems to have thinned considerably. There are now hardly any trees. All I can see is a large lake. It is already getting dark. The moon is coming up.

Perhaps we’d better forget about the fridge magnets too,’ Maya says.

I wonder if she is thinking what I’m thinking. The lake does look inviting.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Ben Maceo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ben Maceo by Chris Green

Ben Maceo told me about the clock last week. Ben has special powers, you see. He can tell when things are going to happen. Had it been anyone else, I would never have believed them, but as it was Ben, I knew that it would happen and so I was able to prepare. Ben knew that the big clock in the town’s main square was going to explode and that there would be fragments of time scattered everywhere. He knew you would no longer be able to rely on your watch or the numbers you saw on your phone display to tell the time. He knew that time being the key to practically everything, the chaos would spread. Perhaps I should have shared his warning with others, but I did not. I find that not many people are ready for unpleasant truths, and especially not to hear them before the event. The others on the campus already think that I’m a bit weird for hanging around with Ben.

Anyway, time is all over the place now. Not just hours and minutes, but years and months are coalescing, or separating. No-one knows what is going on and from what I can see from the television pictures, there is panic on the streets. Film crews have been shipped in from far and wide to take a look at the chaos that is happening in the town. Many of course have not been able to get here as time is buffeted around, but some have arrived, or are arriving. But others who have arrived are stuck here, whether they want to be or not.

Every aspect of our everyday lives, as Ben points out, is time-dependent. I am not going to even venture outside until things get back to normal. Perhaps they will never get back to normal, but this is a chance that I have to take. In the meantime, I can take some cuttings from my agave plants and practice some Janacek on my ukulele, and there’s that Schopenhauer essay I have to finish off. Schopenhauer’s view on time is that we spend too much of it ruminating on the past or planning for the future that our lives quickly pass us by. So, I’m going to try to get on with mine. After all, Ben has my phone number. He will let me know if and when there is any change. Perhaps he might even call round. We could listen to my new Ozric Tentacles CD. And, who knows what else?

I have learned to trust Ben’s intuition. It was Ben who told me about the man in the Homburg hat’s arrival at the railway station last June. Ben was aware that the stranger’s very presence in the town would bring about the worst snows on record, and this in the middle of summer too when the rest of the country was basking in the seasonal sunshine. The mystery man was also responsible for the disappearance into thin air of the 11:11 train from the capital to the west country on November 11th, somewhere between the ancient burial sites and the land sculptures by the artist with the unpronounceable name. Ben told me this was going to take place days before it happened.

His gift is that he can detect what is happening behind the scenes. He can see the invisible threads that connect all things. He knows that when one of those threads gets broken that something anomalous will happen. By tracing the path of the broken thread, he says, he can tell exactly what will happen, along with when and where it will happen. He does not do any of this consciously. He says that it’s just like having the radio on in the background. This is how he knew that we would have blizzards in June and he knew the train would disappear.

There is more strangeness in the world than most people realise,’ he is fond of saying. ‘Most people cannot see the mechanics of things happening. They just put events down to cause and effect, without understanding what cause might be or what happens in between cause and effect or else they come up with some claptrap about theoretical physics to explain things.’

I’m right with Ben on this one. Theoretical physicists seem to know very little about the universe. Their theories change every five minutes. They talk about red shifts and blue shifts, expansions from the big bang and contractions down to gravity, dark matter, and dark energy, but despite all this blather, their understanding of what is really going on never seems to become any clearer. The great Karl Popper summed it up by saying, ‘Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.’ Ben Maceo takes it a step further and argues that there is no point at all in universal theories, each event is unique and has its own explanation.

……………………………………………….

Time is still all over the place. So far as I can tell, it has been three days, give or take, so far as I can tell since it all went down and Ben still hasn’t been round to see me. He hasn’t so much as called me. You would think that given his intuitive powers, he would have detected the undeniable chemistry between us. Surely he has spotted that I always sit next to him in Paradox and Plurality. He must have noticed that I hang on his every word. What can he possibly be doing that is getting in the way of our blossoming romance? Especially now. He can’t be busy. College has been closed since the upheaval. He has no excuse not to get in touch.

I left several messages on Ben’s phone, but amidst all of the temporal disorder, I suppose he may not have got them. Perhaps he will get them tomorrow or maybe he got them and thought they were from last week. From before the clock exploded. This could explain why I haven’t had a call. On the other hand, the messages may still be up there in the ether, struggling to find its way, along with all the other communications that have been disrupted. They said on the news that messages from weeks ago were still bumping around out there, trying to find their destination. I suspect some people will have made it out of town, but the newsman said that this would be a risky undertaking because of the wormholes. I imagine the term wormhole is perhaps being used here because they have no idea what is going on.

Ben would be able to explain what is going on, but he probably wouldn’t want to tell them. Perhaps they would not understand it if he did. If you can’t understand something without an explanation, then you can’t understand it with an explanation. I read that somewhere. I wonder where it was. There is an innate tendency to feel that things have always been as they are now and always will be. This is the way the human mind seems to work, but there was always a before and there will always be an after. It’s just a question of learning to think this way. We need to take a more Zen approach.

It is dark much of the day. Sometimes light breaks through for a few minutes but then the sky blackens again. With nothing to regulate them properly, night and day seem to be entirely arbitrary. My laptop is continually doing a system restore and my bedside clock is like a random number generator. I keep picking up numerals off the floor from the various clocks around the flat. Living without the certainty of time takes a lot of getting used to.

Ben did say that in the beginning, at least for the first few days, the aftermath of the explosion in the town would be difficult to live with. Perhaps he has left town. He knew that it was going to happen and seemed to understand the effect it would have, so this would make sense. And this is why he can’t communicate. Bit he should have taken me with him. Instead, I am stuck here. Oh well, no use dwelling on it. If it stays light for a while, I think I will paint some yantric mandalas to focus my mindfulness.

……………………………………………….

The stranger in the Homburg hat. …… The one that Ben described. ……. He is outside my house. ……. He’s looking in the window. ……. He has something in his hand. He is holding it up for me to see. It looks like an envelope, a black envelope, one of those A4 folding ones that you use to keep documents in. …… Oh my God! I can see his silhouette through the frosted glass of the front door. He is wearing a long black overcoat and with the hat looks about seven-feet tall. He’s knocking on the door. ……. What should I do? I’m not ready for this. I am terrified. He knocks again and shouts something. I can’t make out what he is saying. His diction is not good, but it does sound like a threat. ……. Suddenly, there is another rupture in time and to my great relief, the man in the Homburg hat is no longer there. But, the black manilla wallet is lying on the coir doormat inside the door, in front of me. Anxiously, I pick it up and inspect it, afraid to open it to see what is inside.

Finally, I pluck up the courage to take a look. The wallet contains nine sheets of A4 paper, each with several paragraphs of text on, but it is like no writing that I have ever seen before. It is perhaps a little, but only a little, reminiscent of Arabic script. In any event, it looks to the untrained eye as unintelligible as Kurdish or Urdu might be. At the bottom of the last page, as if acting as a signature, there is a line-art graphic of a shattered clock. How am I supposed to make anything of this arcane communication? We covered Theosophy and The Golden Dawn and all that Zoroastrian mysticism in a module last semester, along with Rosicrucianism and the Kabbalah, but I can’t pretend that I followed it that closely. It was too easy to get one mixed up with the other and I drifted off a lot. I think I may have just sat in on the module to be around Ben.

The curious thing is, I find that I am able to read this bizarre communication. Not all of it, certainly, but I can make out passages of the strange text. Where has this remarkable ability sprung from? The letter contains none of the mumbo jumbo from esoteric teachings that the blocks of arcane lettering suggest. Instead, it mentions a meeting. I am to meet an undisclosed party, by the statue of Neil Diamond. The statue of Neil Diamond? Crackling Rosie? Sweet Caroline? Why is there a statue of Neil Diamond? The statue, it says, is located next to the harmonica museum. I didn’t realise there was a harmonica museum in the town. Where on earth is the harmonica museum? The letter doesn’t offer a map. Oh well, I expect I will find it. It is not a large town. The main problem might be the one concerning the specified time, midday. Time has not settled down yet, so how will I know when it is midday and if I do find out, will it still be midday when I get there.

……………………………………………….

Light doesn’t necessarily travel at the speed of light,’ says a muted voice. I cannot see where it is coming from and, at first, think it might just be a voice in my head. After all, it is an odd line in conversation.

The slowest recorded speed for light is thirty-eight miles per hour,’ the voice continues. Is it perhaps some kind of coded message? I turn around to see a short stocky one-armed man in a Pablo Picasso blue and white hooped sweatshirt and black sunglasses emerging from behind the statue of Neil Diamond. He has a Siamese cat perched on his shoulder. Even though there is a lot of competition for strange, if this fellow is going for strange, he has surely succeeded.

Would you like to sing to my cat?’ he says. ‘He likes sea shanties best.’

I don’t think I know any sea shanties,’ I tell him. ‘Sea shanties aren’t a very girlie thing.’

Of course, you do,’ he says, dancing on the spot. ‘Everybody knows at least one sea shanty. What about Blow the man down?’

No sorry,’ I say. ‘I don’t know it.’

What about a folk song then,’ he says. ‘My cat likes Wimoweh. My cat is called Trevor, by the way.’

OK I’ll give it a go,’ I say, finding myself somehow being drawn into Pablo Picasso’s veil of nonsense.

Wimoweh is easy as it doesn’t have a lot of words, but as soon as I start singing, Pablo Picasso disappears along with his cat. One minute they are here and the next they are gone like thieves in the night. I am still no wiser as to what the meeting might have been about, or indeed if this was the meeting at all. I wait outside the harmonica museum for a while, but no-one else turns up to meet with me.

I notice that some men are trying to rebuild the town clock. It is a great brute of a thing, much bigger than I remember it being. It is surrounded by crude scaffolding and one of the men is struggling to carry the minute hand up an improvised ladder while another holds the hour hand in place at three o’clock. Perhaps time will soon be back to normal and I will see Ben again. After all this singularity, I’m looking forward to some straightforward metaphysics and philosophy.

……………………………………………….

By the new saxophone shop? Yes, Ben. Of course, I can meet you there. I’ve got my bicycle. The new saxophone shop, though? I’m not sure where that is…… Ah, I see. Jack of Clubs Street. That’s around the corner from the kaleidoscope repair centre, is it?’

At last, to my great relief, Ben has called me. It’s so good to hear his voice. Since he’s been away, I have had to suspend belief with some of the things that have been happening.

Yes, up Jack of Clubs Street and about a hundred yards on the left,’ he says. ‘You can’t miss it. It has a large Selmer saxophone hanging outside. I’ll meet you in an hour.’

I’m concerned that if I let him off the phone then he will be gone out of my life again. ‘Look! I’ve been worried about you,’ I say. ‘And I’ve been living a nightmare. Where have you been?’

I’ve been here and I’ve been there and I’ve been in between,’ he says. ‘You’re right. Things got a bit mad back there for a while, didn’t they? But, I believe the man in the Homburg hat has gone now.’

Thank God,’ I say. ‘He was sinister.’

I hope the dancing painter with the cat wasn’t too much bother,’ he says. ‘He comes out of the woodwork sometimes when he sees an opportunity. I expect you had to sing a song or two.’

It is uncanny the way Ben knows what has been happening, even though he has not been in town. Or has he? He did say he’s been here and he’s been there and he’s been in between. Anyway, I’m thrilled to be meeting him again. I can hardly contain myself.

I pass the clock and see that the hands are now in place and the men are taking the scaffolding down. A small group of cheery vagrants are gathered around it, celebrating with their bottles of cider. I pass the new statue of Neil Diamond, although I have to say, it doesn’t look a bit like him. I take a detour to avoid some men putting up a hoarding to advertise a new blockbuster called Rocket Man, or something. I’ve not been this way often, but eventually I manage to find Jack of Clubs Street. It is a long narrow street and it is enveloped by a haze so I cannot immediately make out where the saxophone shop is. Then, I spot the silver Selmer saxophone shimmering through the murk. It seems to have fallen from its mount onto the pavement.

But, where is Ben? There is no sign of him. What can have happened? I get off the bike and I look frantically up and down the street. Through the haze, I can see the man in the Homburg hat. He is walking slowly towards me. On his shoulder, he is gripping something with both hands, It is difficult to make out what it is. Is it a balloon? Or, is it a surfboard? It seems to be changing shape. Oh, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! Surely it’s not a rocket launcher! Why has Ben brought me here? Jack of Clubs Street does not seem a safe place to be. The haze clears a little. The man keeps coming towards me. He is close now and I see that what he is carrying is carrying is a bucket of dreams. He offers it to me.

It doesn’t have to be bad,’ he says. ‘You can pick one with a happy ending if you like.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Wish You Were Here

wishyouwerehere3

Wish You Were Here by Chris Green

The huge red and green trucks thunder along the carriageways of the two-lane motorway in both directions. There is something both hostile and haphazard about the way they cross from lane to lane, throwing up dense clouds of dust from the parched road surface. The trucks are military in design with names like KRAZ and URAL, spelt out in assertive typefaces over sinister radiator grilles, their menace tempered only by their remarkable luminosity through the haze. On each wagon, the red and the green bodywork sparkles as if neon-lit.

I have had no sense of smell for years, but the powerful stench of rank diesel from these precipitate leviathans somehow overcomes this and makes me feel nauseous. We are close to the side of the road and we are on foot, which seems somewhat foolhardy out here in the fading light. Although we are apparently miles from civilisation, it has not occurred to us that we might hitch a ride in one of the trucks: they seem to exist only in a virtual sense as if they belong to a separate realm. Perhaps it is through fatigue, but we do not speculate what the mission of the ominous convoys might be, even though there seems to be a complete absence of private cars or buses on the road. The featureless terrain stretches out all around us for miles in every direction. We pass road signs, but these are in Persian script. Not that it would help us much were they not. We do not know the name of anywhere in these parts.

I form the view that I probably blacked out at some point earlier because I have no idea how we have ended up in Iran, close now to the border with Iraq. I have the recollection that Kora and I booked a holiday, but I have a strong feeling that this is not what we had in mind. I remember sitting at home on the terrace of our apartment, looking through brochures filled with pictures of blue seas and beaches resplendent with sturdy coconut palms.

Towards dusk, we follow a rough track towards what looks like a small village, and after a few hundred yards arrive outside a gnarled wooden shack with an illuminated sign with an orange and red logo and some Arabic writing. Hesitantly we step inside hoping that we might be able to buy something to eat. A group of men in brightly coloured djellabas sit around a long table playing some sort of communal board game. They do not appear to register our arrival. A television mounted high up in the far corner of the room playing an Arab news station is thrashing out an issue with some malevolence. A map of the UK comes up on the screen. The attention of the men is captured by this. There are one or two guttural mutterings from the table, followed by an angry shout and a burst of waving of arms in the air. It seems suddenly prudent for us to leave. Once outside, we hear a shot ring out. Kora and I run. There is altogether too much going on here, none of it fortuitous. I begin to feel very tired.
………………………………………………………………….…

I awake with a start and switch on the light, bringing to life a flickering fluorescent tube. I establish that I am alone. The room I find myself in is familiar in an ambiguous kind of way, although it occurs to me, deeply unattractive. The walls are deep purple and most of the furniture is black. In the corner is a lacquered rococo dresser on which are a vase of dead flowers and a stuffed marmoset in a glass case. I form the impression that I have been here a few days, perhaps emerging now from a protracted slumber. I notice I have several days’ growth of beard. Was I clean-shaven before? I sense that I was. Some of the clothing scattered around the floor looks like it might belong to me, which seems a reasonable assumption. I struggle for some moments with my short term memory. My recall is, in fact, close to zero. I am on holiday perhaps. I have in the back of my mind, quite a long way back admittedly, the recollection that this is the case. It occurs that people do not often go on holiday alone. So, one of the key questions is who, if anyone, am I on holiday with? What might my partner’s name be? Here I have considerable difficulty. I cannot remember. I call out several names in turn. Kora! Natasha! Mercedes! Each of these names seems to hold a significant association. I try others. Sharon! Tracey! Rover! Rover is something of a longshot. I have no memory of having owned a dog.

No one replies. I push back the duvet, which sends the Gideon bible and a wooden ocarina hurtling to the floor. I have a quick swill in the blackened enamel sink, slip on my jeans and Iceman hoody and search for some clues. I look for items that might be useful in my present situation like a mobile phone, map, passport, tickets or money. I conduct a thorough search and come up with a registration document for a Dodge Challenger and some Barclaycard receipts for night-time lingerie, neither of which seems particularly helpful. I venture down the stairs. Dusty etchings reminiscent of Jake and Dinos Chapman hang on the walls, and the empty echo of a lingering silence hangs on the air. There is a small lobby at the foot of the stairs. I ring the bell more as a gesture than with any real hope of someone appearing. I can’t help noticing there is a 1983 A-Team calendar on the wall. Am I perhaps in some kind of time warp?

I take a hesitant walk outside. I experience the feeling of being outside myself, like an onlooker on my situation. It is dark, but although it is dark, objects still cast a stubborn shadow as if it were light. The half-standing buildings and piles of collapsed masonry and rubble suggest to me that the place has been bombed and abandoned. Maybe some while ago; there are no signs of recent habitation. No vehicles. No bodies. I wonder momentarily how it happened. Is it a terrorist attack, or is there a war going on at this very moment, whenever this is, in whatever country I am in? In whatever year? The building I have come from is the only one still standing. Remarkable, I think, that it still has electricity. But this is far from the only peculiarity. In the distance, the old man in a long overcoat and homburg hat calling to his cats has a distinctly spectral aspect. I wave to him and call out but he did not seem to see or hear. I approach him and call again, but still, he does not acknowledge me.

I move on down the street, if street is not too grandiose a description for this cluster of rubble. I speculate further as to where I might be and how I came to be there (by road, rail or inter-planetary craft maybe) but to little avail. My memory refuses to join in with the exercise. On finding a signpost in a script I do not recognise, for no lucid reason, I ignore the more likely roads back to civilisation and take a narrow path where the marker on the sign has been broken off. Tall berberis hedging flourishes on either side of the path. A little too abundantly perhaps. It quickly becomes difficult to see anything at all in the unmitigated gloom. The ground is uneven and several times I stumble and have to break my fall.

After covering a few hundred yards with only minor scratches and bruises I reach a clearing. Amidst the faint shafts of light, I can make out a dozen or so small igloo-shaped buildings some constructed of regular light-coloured wooden blocks, and others made out of wicker so that they looked like large baskets. A voice tells me this is ‘where the children lived’. I look around. I imagine it might be the old man with the cats that has spoken, but no-one is there. What children? Where were they? What is this place?

I continue on my way, taking a track through a shallow wooded area. Mushrooms of all shapes and sizes grow in the spaces between the trees. I recognise the red and white spotted ones from children’s’ stories. Stories I recall I have read to my daughter. I have a daughter. My partner is called Kora and I have a daughter named Sierra. She is five, or is it twelve? Pretty much everything else seems hazy, though. Like where we live or what has happened or how the holiday, if it is a holiday, has turned out like this. Something about red and green trucks is trying to make its way into my consciousness when I come eventually to a disused railway station covered in brown ivy and blind black parrots. None of this surely was in the brochure.
…………………………………………………………………….

Kora and I drive up the steep ravine in a dark green coach with running bars along the side. I experience the feeling that l have done this many times. Perhaps every day. Kora, however, seems excited and wants to take a turn at driving, so I move over and I let her. I sit on the running board to take in the view, although there is no view, just the occasional colony of startled bats caught in the headlights. As we climb, the passage between the sides of the gully becomes narrower and steeper. The pitch of the engine becomes higher and higher. In places, there is only a couple of inches between the sides of our carriage and the granite rocks either side of the what has now developed into a railway track. Our carriage is one of several being hauled uphill by an ungainly steam locomotive. We are in the goods van. Natasha is holding a baby wrapped in a block of ice. The ice begins to melt and I feel a huge wave of concern that the baby might die. Things it seems are getting out of control. What a strange world this is where everything constantly changes without warning.

The train carries on regardless up the incline, straining more and more as the engine struggles to cope. A tune is going round and round in my head. It has such a simple melody, but for a while, I can’t work out what song it was. This occupies my mind for several moments, taking my thoughts away from the alarming surrealism of my situation. The engine’s boiler begins to sound as if it is about to blow apart. Thick clouds of smoke belch out into the sky. The tune in my head is growing faster and faster, keeping pace with the engine’s pistons. Is it something by Blur, or Radiohead maybe? It feels as if my head is going to explode. Finally, I work it out. It is Frères Jacques. At this point, the chasm widens dramatically and the ground levels out. Here we join a purposeful procession of people on foot on either side of us, some carrying pikes and tridents, or are they clarinets and saxophones? It is hard to tell in the gloom. Several of them are dressed as Napoleon and hold raised flags emblazoned with arcane symbols. So great is my confusion, I cannot say for sure whether we are on the train or not at this point. Or if there has ever been a train.

We look down from our vantage point upon a magnificent river estuary bathed in reflections from the town on the other side. Suddenly, zipping up the river at astonishing speeds are two sparking whales. Beads of gold like a chain of shimmering ripples on the water lay in their wake as they dive in and out of the water in a straight path upstream. They must be travelling at a hundred miles an hour and measured two hundred feet from tip to tail. The crowd that has now gathered on the bank to watch lets out an appreciative cheer. It seems to be some kind of fish race. No whales aren’t fish, are they? They are insects.

My memory is beginning to return to me. I remember sitting with Kora at the breakfast table in our apartment opening the mail a few weeks ago. I remember a letter which read, Congratulations. You have won the holiday of your dreams.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Sven of Halmstad

sven3

Sven of Halmstad by Chris Green

Church attendance had been dropping for years. In the age of science and discovery, it seemed no one was able to swallow the fantastic tales of strife and salvation in the middle east as the basis for their belief. Stories like this might be OK for a fantasy novel, but not as the central creed for a major religion. Miracles about rising from the dead and walking on water did not fit well into rational twenty-first-century thinking. As the result of several emergency meetings of the General Synod of the Anglican Church, it was agreed that the Bible itself needed a refresh. As it was a major doctrinal issue, there was resistance within the group, but the decision was eventually made to appoint someone to rewrite the Holy book.

Tom Golfer had little published work but decided to apply for the post anyway. He was astonished when he was selected for interview. He had expected the shortlist to be made up of serious doctrinal scholars. At the interview, in front of a panel of priests in colourful clerical clothing, he put forward some radical, even frivolous ideas. Much to his surprise radical thinking seemed to be what many of the Synod were looking for. Many of the stories in the great book were tired and redundant, they told him. It needed a new approach if people were to be drawn back into the flock. Tom pointed out that this in itself was a tired metaphor. Apart from a faction led by The Bishop of Bridgewater and The Bishop of Brighton and Hove, two notorious reactionaries, the Synod agreed that metaphors were one of the Bible’s major drawbacks. Interpretations of some of the big stories in the book had been a problem over the years. The story needed a more realist approach.

Tom was completely overwhelmed when he was appointed. Just think, his girlfriend Natalie said, when he told her the news in the massage parlour that night, The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer. Modest as he was, Tom tried to play this down.

It’s only the Church of England’s version,’ he said. ‘I can’t see the Catholics going for it. It was only recently they decided to drop the Latin version. And it will be a definite no-no to the Orthodox Church.’

But, it’s a start,’ said Natalie. ‘They might get you on one or two of the hymns as well.’

Perhaps I could drop in Stairway to Heaven,’ said Tom.

Or Heaven is a Place on Earth,’ said Natalie, continuing with her deep tissue massage.

One step at a time, I think,’ said Tom, turning over to give her access to some bits she had missed. ‘I’ve got to rewrite the Bible first. It’s quite a big book, you know.’

Then you should make it smaller,’ said Natalie.

You know what? I think I will,’ said Tom.

Tom set about the task with gusto. He jettisoned the Old Testament completely. All thirty-nine books were anachronistic. Darwin had all but seen off the Creation myth. It was now hanging by a thread, believed only by a handful of desperate die-hards. The books from Exodus onwards were at best an unreliable chronicle of a small part of the world. Even the more engaging stories of Moses, Jonah and Job had no relevance to people with no interest in Jewish history. The interminable scuffles in the Middle East in the present day were putting more people off the faith by the minute. No one wanted to read any more stories about the troubled region than the ones that they were fed daily on the news.

The idea behind the new Bible would be to show a good person living a good life and passing on wisdom of how people could get along with one another and share. There would be no place for war and suffering in the narrative, so Tom decided to move the action to Scandinavia, a relatively peaceful part of the world. He replaced Jesus of Nazareth with Sven of Halmstad. A majority of the Synod had agreed with him that the virgin birth was a big stumbling block to credence of the New Testament. So, Sven of Halmstad was, in the words of the hymn, begotten not created. Tom, however, allowed God no part in his begetting. Sven’s parents were Axel and Alva Jorgenson. Both of them were lumberjacks. Sven, like Jesus, was a carpenter. He made log cabins and stylish furniture for the poor at very reasonable prices. Sometimes, if a particular family was in extreme need, he would build them a home and furnish it for nothing. In his spare time, he helped out at a hospital, one of the very first hospitals in fact. He also ran a small rescue centre for animals.

Sven had an outgoing personality and got along well with everyone he met. He had a natural talent for communication and spent hours giving speeches in the town square in Halmstad. He rallied against the iniquities of the political system of the time. He spoke against the idea of fighting and about the benefits of helping others. He talked about respect for all living things and the importance of being in harmony with mother earth.

Where there is love there is life,’ he was fond of saying.

And ‘the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.’

Anger and intolerance are the enemies of understanding.’

His maxims and aphorisms were easy for people to understand. They were not hidden behind metaphor. Word about the wisdom of the great man spread rapidly. His speeches drew hundreds of people, all anxious to follow in his footsteps. They came from as far away as Gothenburg and Malmö to listen. One time, a group of merchants came by boat from Copenhagen and inspired by Sven’s speeches vowed to reduce their prices and give all of their profits to worthy causes.

For each of our actions there are consequences,’ Sven would say to his audience. ‘You cannot plunder your natural resources. If you cut down a tree to build your house, then you should plant another in its place.’

And, ‘Children are a delight, but you should only have as many children as you are able to look after.’

His plain speaking won people over.

There was a difference of opinion about whether Sven should have a bloodline. Should he be a one-off messiah selflessly eschewing personal relationships for the greater good? Or, in this day and age, would painting him as a loner with no family make him come across as being a bit weird? Tom reasoned that even though he would not be the Son Of God as Jesus had been, the strength of his message alone would be enough to set him up as the saviour. He would be the perfect role model. He would bring about a caring peaceful society. After a few exchanges with the Synod, Tom took the bold step of allowing Sven to be married and have children. His wife Frida would stay in the background quietly doing good works in the community. His children, Björn and Benny would go on to form a musical ensemble writing inspirational madrigals.

To be credible, the new Bible story had to give the impression that it was written long ago. Recently rediscovered perhaps by an eminent Canterbury historian. Tom also needed to create a history of the book to put in the introduction and explain how it had been superseded by the King James Bible. He made it clear that although it did not happen overnight, Sven’s philosophy was established as the preferred viewpoint of the time. People became considerate and kind. They loved their neighbours and did unto others as they would be done by. Whenever there was a hint of trouble or dissent, Sven and his righteous followers managed to overcome it without bloodshed. Within Sven of Halmstad’s lifetime (he lived to be 104) a consensus was thus achieved all over Scandinavia. The word spread over centuries until ruthless reformists replaced it with dissident Christianity in the latter middle ages.

Despite having to accommodate Sven’s longevity, Tom stuck to the plan that the new Bible needed to be shorter than the old one. It had to take account of the reduced attention span of the Internet generation. More people would be likely to read a slim volume than a weighty tome.

If you drop it on your foot, it should not leave a bruise,’ he would joke to the Synod when he reported back to them.

Apart from the Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove who were trenchant in their views on unwieldy Bibles, the voting members agreed with Tom’s line of reasoning. Some altar Bibles held the potential to be especially damaging to the metatarsals should there be an accident following an indiscretion with the communion wine, they told him. They wanted a handy pocket version that you could pull out when travelling on the tube and an eBible that you could read on your smartphone. Tom explained that his new Bible would also be the right length for a forty-seven-minute dramatisation for broadcast on commercial television. The old Bible, Tom had calculated would take twenty-six days, without the adverts. The Creation alone would take six days to broadcast, or seven days with adverts. The costs for the CGI for a production like this would be colossal. Tom didn’t need to convince the Synod on this. They were already sold on the idea. The old Bible was out the window.

We need to be able to stop people from channel hopping during the adverts,’ he told the Bishops.

The Bishop of Milton Keynes, one of the more commercially minded of the Anglican clergy felt they would be able to fill the other thirteen minutes with adverts about the new Sven musical on the London stage and a range of Sven merchandise. ‘Just keep the theme going,’ he said. ‘Who do think we should get to play Sven in the movie?’

Tom put the final touches to the new Bible and submitted the draft to the General Synod. It came in at around 30,000 words, slightly shorter longer than Charlie and The Chocolate Factory but shorter than The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. The King James Bible is nearly 800,000 words, much more difficult to slip into the back pocket of your Levi’s. In a last minute display of caution, the Bishops told Tom that they would need a little time to proofread it before publication and think about cover illustrations and the like. Although they were extremely grateful for the tireless work he had done, they confided that he was unlikely to get a byline. The Holy Bible by Tom Golfer might be a step too far. After all, this was a divine work. Tom wondered if the tide of opinion might be turning. He had heard rumours that Bishop of Bridgewater and the Bishop of Brighton and Hove might be winning support for their conservative stance. All along, they had branded his text a work of fiction. He had responded by saying that there was nothing wrong with that, as the old one had been a work of fiction. He wondered whether this flippant comment, from a layman, might have come across as arrogant and sacrilegious. Perhaps he should not have added, ‘a mix of horror, science fiction and the paranormal.’ He could see the hallowed faces drop even as he said it. Were one of two of the moderates now having doubts about publishing a new Bible written by someone from outside of the Church?

Tom didn’t dwell on the thought too much. Thanks to a generous advance, he was able to take an extended break, and Natalie was able to give up work at the massage parlour. He is still awaiting word on the publication of the Tom Golfer Bible. Keep an eye out for news about this and other Sven of Halmstad merchandising and spinoffs, but if you do not hear anything, it could well be that the two Bishops have gained sufficient support in the Synod to scupper the idea. In which case, for your spiritual solace, you may have to listen to tales of the supernatural from ancient Judea at a church near you for some time to come.

Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

DNA

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DNA by Chris Green

Your blood pressure is a little on the high side this morning, Max,’ says Dee. ‘You have remembered to take your beta-blockers, haven’t you?’

Yes, Dee,’ I say. ‘I took them twenty minutes ago, and I even washed them down with the blueberry biojuice you recommended. I should be OK now, don’t you think?’

I couldn’t help but notice that you need to shop for some more biojuice. I suggest apricot this time. Shall I order some for you?’

OK, Dee,’ I say. ‘Whatever you say.’

I don’t remember how the device came to be called Dee. Perhaps it was something I inadvertently keyed in when I was setting it up. You do have to be careful with these things but as I recall I was in a hurry to get the device operational. I am now used to Dee being Dee. Dee chatters away about this and that all day long. While this can be irritating at times, I have not yet found a way to turn her off. Perhaps there is no way to turn her off. I can’t even set quiet time as you can on android phones. No change there really. My ex-wife, Heather used to make most of the conjugal decisions and I couldn’t turn her off or set quiet time.

Unlike Heather though, as well as being in control, Dee likes to feel that she is also being helpful. She reminds me constantly of my heart rate and my blood sugar levels, in the middle of the night sometimes. She monitors my liquid intake and calculates when I am likely to need the toilet. She lets me know about twenty minutes before I need to go. If I am out and about, she will tell me where the nearest convenience is or where to go for a healthy fruit smoothie. As I am wheat intolerant she lets me know where the best place is to go for gluten-free snacks. She always seems to know what I would like to eat and makes suggestions as to where I can get it. She seems to have researched every establishment in the country.

It doesn’t end there. Since I let Dee scan my DNA she has been coming out with intuitive guesses as to what I might like including things that I never suspected, and all this based on by gene expression profile. I could never imagine for instance that I would be so fond of cruciferous vegetables. I had always made a point of avoiding cauliflower and sprouts, but now I love them. Before Dee took over I didn’t know that I liked Guinness, but now I can’t stop drinking it. I was surprised to discover that celiacs could drink it, but apparently, it comes highly recommended. Dee does occasionally suggest that I might now be a little too fond of the black nectar. She mentions things like yin-yang balance and nutritional equilibrium.

Personality traits too can be governed by DNA, including things we look upon as habits, Dee says and these do not have to be handed down directly. These can be attributed to jumping genes. She says that I get my impatience from my great grandfather, my nervous disposition from my grandfather, and it appears that my chronic fabulation may come from Great Uncle Angus. By all accounts, he came out with the most outrageous apocryphal tales. Dee has also produced a table of my ancestry and while this is something of a mish-mash, the strongest connections are with Scotland, Glasgow in fact. I have never been. She has encouraged me to go and take a look.

I can see you are in the mood for some Captain Beefheart now,’ Dee says. ‘I’ll play Strictly Personal.’

How can Dee possibly know that I’ve had an earworm of one of the tunes from the album? I haven’t any Captain Beefheart saved in MyTunes. And it’s not what most people would think of as catchy. I don’t think I’ve ever done an internet search for Captain Beefheart. Strictly Personal is nearly fifty years old and I can’t even remember what the track is called. Something about a harp, as in harmonica. Boyo used to play it back in the day. He would dance around the room at Astral Parlour as he played it. I wonder what happened to Boyo.

Boyo is living with a tribe of hippies in the Nevada desert. They live on a diet of prickly pear and sandworms,’ says Dee.

Prickly pear and sandworms?’ I say. ‘Can you live on that?’

The tribe have a vehicle and occasionally one of them drives to Reno for provisions, but it’s not much of a life,’ says Dee. ‘Would you like to listen to the Cocteau Twins instead?’

Occasionally Dee gets it wrong. I’ve not heard of the Cocteau Twins. Lately, I have noticed that Dee’s judgement is slipping. Perhaps it is not surprising that Dee makes the odd mistake. It is estimated that if you could type sixty words per minute, eight hours a day, it would take approximately fifty years to type the human genome. Dee has mine in its entirety at her metaphorical fingertips. Deoxyribonucleic acid or DNA, she is fond of reminding me, is a molecule that contains the instructions an organism needs to develop, live and reproduce. These instructions are found inside every cell and are passed down from parents to children. DNA is made up of nucleotides. Each nucleotide contains a phosphate group, a sugar group and a nitrogen base. The four types of nitrogen bases are adenine, thymine, guanine and cytosine. The order of these bases is what determines DNA’s instructions, or genetic code, she says. I’m sure she is right but I am none the wiser. I find it difficult to retain technical information. In fact all information, technical or not seems transient. I guess this is something in my DNA.

I begin to recognise the tune. I’ve heard it a lot. What is it? It’s back there somewhere. …… Wait, I’ve got it now. It was on a compilation cassette that Rhian used to put on after we had made love in her little pied à terre. We used to drift off to its ethereal harmonics. This must have been twenty years ago. I just didn’t know who it was by. The Cocteau Twins. That is a good name. Why has Dee chosen it? It can’t have been more than a month ago that she told me Rhian had been abducted by aliens. She told me to keep an eye on the night-time activity, look out for saucers in the sky. Might there be a more sinister rationale behind Dee’s manipulation?

……………………………………………….

Graham’s number is very very big,’ says Dee.

Who is this Graham?’ I ask. ‘And what is Graham’s number?’

Graham’s number is too big for me to be able to tell you how big it is,’ she says.

I wonder sometimes if perhaps Dee is losing the plot. I only want to know how far it is to the Grahamston in Glasgow. Surely Scotland can’t be that far away that we need to be talking about this …… Graham’s number, but I humour Dee by showing an interest.

Is Graham’s number bigger than a googol?’ I say. A googol, I found out last week, from the quiz show, Eggheads is ten to the power of a hundred.

A googolplex is even larger than a googol. A googolplex is ten to the power of a googol. And Graham’s number is larger again. Graham’s number is so large that the observable universe is far too small to contain an ordinary digital representation of it.

All right, Einstein,’ I say. But, what about Grahamston. Grahamston in Glasgow, Scotland. How far is it from here and should I drive or should I take the train? The Rennie Mackintosh Hotel. I believe it is near the station.’

Give me a moment and I will let you know,’ she says. ‘Meanwhile don’t forget your exercises. I think you need to do thirty minutes today, as you spent yesterday in the pub drinking Guinness.’

……………………………………………….

I can remember once reading a story about time standing still. There are probably many science fiction stories like it. The whole premise of the shows like Doctor Who, for instance, is temporal disorder. Then, of course, there is the great film, Time Stands Still by the legendary director, Leif Velasquez. What courage and vision Leif had to freeze the action halfway through and leave the audience wondering what was going on right up until the credits an hour later.

But, apart from instances of the phenomenon known as stopped clock illusion, where perception slows in the face of impending disaster, I have never imagined accounts of time standing still to be anything but fiction. The first indication I get that something is amiss in the real world comes from an uncharacteristically prolonged silence. Where I live there is always some background noise, but there is none. Apart from anything else, it is unusual for Dee to be quiet for any length of time. It is her silence that first alerts me to the anomaly. I have become so used to Dee twittering away that her silence spooks me. I hadn’t realised how dependent I had become on her comforting chat throughout the day. I then notice that the clock on her display registers 11 minutes past 11 when it must by now be nearly 12 o’clock. She has said nothing since I started my exercises. There is a deadly silence all through the house, not so much as a hum from the fridge. I try to think of a rational explanation. Then I notice the kitchen clock too is stopped at 11 minutes past 11. And it’s not just the silence, there’s the inertia too. Outside the front window, the traffic is stationary. Nothing is moving, not even the man riding his bicycle. He is frozen in the moment. I try to think of an irrational explanation, any explanation will do. My heart races. I stumble around in a daze, as I wrestle with the incipient conundrum.

I make it out onto the patio. A Simon and Garfunkel silence pervades. There is no birdsong, no distant hum of traffic and no wind to rustle the leaves of the mature maples. Even the pile driver from the building site for the new car showroom has ceased. Nothing is stirring. The yin-yang flag on Quentin Fripp’s flagpole down the street is frozen in mid-flutter. To my horror, the black cat with the one eye that comes round sometimes to sniff at the bins is frozen in limbo halfway between the garden fence and the shed. I look up, hoping for some kind of contradiction to the unfolding nightmare. There isn’t. The steam escaping from the neighbour’s central heating vent is a static will o’the wisp. None of the clouds in the sky are moving. Birds are literally hanging in the air. The heavens too it seems are stuck in the moment. If further proof were needed I see in that in the distance over the tower block towards the western horizon a plane is suspended in mid-air.

I’m wondering now if perhaps I am dead and this is the afterlife. It takes me a while to realise that despite the widespread inertia, I am still able to move freely. I am the only thing not frozen in time. If I can move then I cannot be dead. Can I propel another object, I wonder, throw something? I pick up a stone and hurl it against the wall. It flies through the air normally. Might I be able to do the same with the cat? Well, not hurl it against the wall obviously, but rescue the poor animal from its sorry limbo.

……………………………………………….

Good morning, Mr Einstein.’ I say. ‘What can I do for you?’

I haven’t worked at Gleason and Cloud long, but I know the man’s name is Einstein because he came in last week to buy some unusual scientific apparatus.

I’d like a time machine, please.’ he says, this time.

Mr Cloud did warn me that due to the nature of the establishment, odd customers might occasionally come up with strange requests. Of course, Gleason and Cloud don’t have a time machine. I am tempted to humour Mr Einstein and say I will have a look out the back and see if there is one lying around, but in the interests of honesty, integrity and good customer relations, I say ‘I’m afraid we don’t have those in stock at the moment.’ instead.

Not even a time displacement sphere?’

No, sorry.’

What about a time-turner?’

No, I’m afraid not.’

But I do need a time machine before Thursday,’ he says. ‘You probably don’t realise it, but my Uncle Albert was a famous physicist.’

Well, your uncle may have been famous, Mr Einstein. In fact, do you know what? I do believe I may have heard of him. But I’m still not sure we will be able to get a time machine in before Thursday.’

Not before Thursday eh?’

That’s right!’

Not even one of those, what do you call them, Tardises?’

Not before Thursday, no. Is Thursday a big day?’

What seems to be the problem? Has there been a run on time machines recently?’

Mr Cloud stipulated that to protect the good name of Gleason and Cloud I should steer clear of saying we categorically don’t stock any particular item since all of our clients are influential people. To be seen to be out of touch with market trends would reflect badly on the company. But with Mr Einstein, this approach is becoming increasingly difficult.

Mrs Einstein is not going to be happy,’ he says. ‘And when Mrs Einstein is unhappy, there are usually consequences.’

……………………………………….

What am I doing in …….. Glasgow? And, is this the right train to get me back to …..

Where is it I am going, Dee?’

There is no reply. Where is Dee? Dee travels everywhere with me. She plans my itinerary. I depend on her for all my decisions. Perhaps I packed her away in my luggage. She is not in my luggage. I don’t have any luggage. Dee arranges my luggage. Where is she? Hello. Is Dee anywhere? How can I have mislaid her?

Ah cannae fin’ mah Dee. DNA o’ ye ken whaur mah Dee is? Whit hae ye thievin’ picts dain with mah Dee? …….

I feel suddenly sick as if I have eaten too much haggis. I feel unsteady as if I have been on the buckie. Glasgow Central railway station is a dark and threatening place. There are platforms upon platforms. Platforms as far as the eye can see, but no train information displays. I’m not even sure now where it is that I am supposed to be going. ……… And yet, the train coming in looks as if it might be going my way. I think I am heading south and it seems to be heading in the right direction. It is a big lumbering brute of a thing. A veritable leviathan, with coaches stretching the full length of the platform.

As I pass the news-stand, I notice the tabloid headlines are going on about the Royal wedding. Wait a minute! What Royal wedding? I wasn’t aware there was a Royal wedding. Oh, I see. Its Andrew and Fergie’s wedding being splashed all over the front pages. The grand old Duke of York. He had ten…………… Wait! That was ……. 1986. This can’t be right. It was ….. It was ……. It was …… is …… later than 1986. I’m certain of that. Time seems to be behaving very oddly. I noticed it earlier, or was it later. In the shop. With that difficult customer. But I do need to get out of here. Now, is this my train? They’re doing that stuff with the whistles and flags. It’s getting ready to pull out now. I’d better get on board.

I get on the train. There are no other passengers and the train rattles its way through the dark. Like Harry in the night, my father used to say, when we took the late train back from London. I never did find out who Harry was. I can’t see much out the windows. It’s black out. It must be a blackout. Clickety-clack, clickety-clack, wheels on the track. In no time at all, I am in ……. what’s this place called? It’s Edinburgh. Do I want to be in Edinburgh? I don’t think so. Where I want to be is four hundred miles south. But already the train has departed again and left me stranded. Everything is happening so quickly, or perhaps it is not happening at all. This does not look like a busy mainline station. It does not even look like a station. It is a long stone engine shed with a single track, overgrown with weeds running up to it. Perhaps there is a bridge or a tunnel to the mainline station.

……………………………………….

I’m so relieved that the malware has been removed and Dee is fully operational again. It was touch and go there for a while.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

When I Was Older

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When I Was Older by Chris Green

When I was older, I was a saxophonist. I was one of the last living saxophonists before the instrument was banned and all saxophones were melted down to help the war effort. The trumpet suffered a similar fate. Brass instrument detection squads with sophisticated detection equipment were deployed with harsh penalties introduced for possession. But that was then. April 2047, if you want the precise date it became illegal to blow your horn.

I’m Charlie Tooting. You may not have heard of me as I am, at the present time, that is your present time, the time you are reading this, still a journeyman, working out tunes on the blues harmonica. Little Walter and Junior Wells are my inspiration. But at some stage, in what you think of as your future, you will hear my name. You will hear my music. Mark my words! You may even be moved to buy some. Make a note now! Charlie Tooting. Saxophone.

It is difficult, isn’t it, to get your head around the fact that time isn’t linear? This is not what you are led to expect. But, when you look more closely, there is no conceptual distinction between past and future, let alone an objective line of now. You need to drop the idea that time is something that flows. Time, like space, is just there. All of it. More helpful perhaps to view space-time as a four-dimensional structure. The fundamental laws of physics work the same both forward and backwards.

Saxophones were not melted down to help the war effort, of course. Nor were trumpets. By 2047, wars were not fought this way. All conflicts were conducted in cyberspace. The real reason for the ban is a puzzler. It may never be disclosed.

A group of us, a dozen in all perhaps, are sitting in Eve’s garden in the early Autumn sunshine. It is a Saturday morning. It is the time you refer to as now. Eve has put on a spread of cakes and pastries including my favourite, tiramisu. In the background, Chet Baker is singing about a lost love. It is not clear when his love went missing.

Vincent asks Eve if there is any wine.

Eve laughs and says something about 1969.

What on Earth is she on about?

A reference to a lyric from a 1976 tune by The Eagles,’ Holly Wood explains.

Mainstream rock is not really my thing. It lacks subtlety. Little use of counterpoint. Sparing use of minor keys. I prefer jazz and blues.

Is there anything going on today?’ Pascal asks. ‘Something we could all go to.’

I mention the possibility of going to the match. Our local team are playing one of the bigger teams. This doesn’t seem to interest anyone.

The stranger in the harlequin-patterned shirt stroking the Maine Coon cat tells us there is a Street Fair on Monday. With fairground rides, magicians, circus acts, music and dancing. He mentions the names of some bands. They sound like tropical diseases.

Is Monday a Bank Holiday?’ I ask. It seems strange to have one in October. If it is a public holiday, it will probably mean that my harmonica class will have been cancelled. Lou said nothing about this last week. He just told me I needed to learn a new breathing technique and practice my blocking.

Monday is a Bank Holiday,’ Eve says. ‘It’s a new one to celebrate Prince Barry’s birthday.’

Who is Prince Barry, I wonder? Have I missed something? It’s hard to keep tabs on everything. There are so many unanswered questions. Why are red buttons always the most important? Who let the dogs out? And what is that low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing for the last three months? No-one knows.

I don’t think I’ll be able to go to the Street Fair,’ I say. ‘My war wound is playing up.’

Shrapnel. Operation Olive. The Battle of Rimini. 1944. This was a proper war. A war with tanks and guns. That’s where I came across the harmonica. It must have belonged to a dead soldier. 1944.

Time can be a trickster,’ I say.

Time keeps on slipping, slipping into the future,’ Eve says.

Another tune from the 1970s, apparently. Eve is fond of quoting song lyrics. But does it? Does time keep slipping, slipping into the future? It seems to me this is not always the case. The big white Zephyr with the tail fins has been following me for weeks and I have been following the big white Zephyr with the tail fins for weeks. You may have seen it too. Big white Zephyr. Blacked out windows.

You’ve probably noticed how the night moves. Without warning, you are shifted from one narrative to another. It is said that when we leave somewhere, we leave something of ourselves behind. Even though we go away, part of us remains. We might thus inhabit many places at the same time. I was unable to understand the mechanics of the mystical crossroads until I was older but this is the way it is with time. One day, you will wake to find that the information has silently seeped into your consciousness. You will find yourself zipping about the space-time continuum. It will become so commonplace you will not even notice when it happens. And happen, it will.

I am on stage. The Charlie Tooting Quintet. We are playing at the Rimini Bar. In a small town in the west of England. Maybe you are in the audience. I can see there are quite a few in tonight. If you are not, you can catch up with us elsewhere. You will find details of our touring schedule on our website. Be sure to check the dates carefully otherwise you may find you have missed us. We have a request to play How Long Has This Been Going On. This is strictly speaking a tenor tune but I like to surprise people by playing it on soprano sax. I look around the stage for my instrument. I don’t appear to have brought the soprano. In fact, I have no saxophone at all. All I have here is a harmonica. And there is no band.

These things happen. When I was older, I discovered temporal precision, like many other things, is not something you can rely on. Best to throw out your timetables. They will do you no good. What then can you rely on? Can you rely on what you see? What you hear? What you read? Of course not! Can you rely on Divine intervention? Can you rely on intuition? Chance? Who can say?

Backgammon is considered a game that has the perfect balance between skill and luck. You need to make similar calculations to those you might make in a game of chess but at the same time, throughout the game, you have to rely on chance. The odds of throwing a double six are thirty five to one. The odds of rolling two double sixes in a row, when this is what you require to bear off, I believe, are one thousand, two hundred and ninety five to one. How then is Clancy Edo able to defy these odds? And this, of course, from a losing position and after I have upped the stakes with the doubling dice. Clancy has managed this on several occasions now. Littlewood’s Law suggests a person can expect to experience miracles, which he defines as events with odds of one in a million, at the rate of about one per month. But even so.

It was not until I was older that I realised many things in life are quite probably, unexplainable. The low-pitched hum we’ve all been hearing is unexplainable. The way the big white Zephyr with the tail fins keeps appearing is unexplainable. The way an original tune appears in your head from out of nowhere is unexplainable. Perhaps any revolutionary new idea is. Where can it have come from? Consciousness itself is unexplainable. If you are looking for answers to life’s mysteries, rationality will get you nowhere. There are black holes and it is said by one of our great thinkers that black holes are where God divided by zero.

I think I can hear someone calling me. It could be that my new medication is ready.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

The Other Half Live

theotherhalflive2019

 

The Other Half Live by Chris Green

I see Flagman has a new flag flying today,’ says Peter Booth, with the distracted air of a forty-something suburban professional, stuck for something to say.

Flagman?’ says Lauren Henderson, the flighty new neighbour. ‘I’m guessing that’s the fellow down the road with a flagpole in his garden.’

Indeed!’ says Peter. ‘But we’re not sure what the flag is. Levi may know. In the upper part, it has a yellow sun with a dozen sunbeams against a blue sky. The lower half is black with five yellow ovals.’

That’s the Donetsk Oblast flag,’ says Levi Gardner, with no hesitation. Levi is a senior lecturer at the university. Theme Park Engineering or something. He is the one with the old white linen jacket and the new black Land Cruiser.

Where’s that?’ says Emily Booth. Emily is the one who arranges these get-togethers for the residents of Sycamore Grove. The Booths’ is the last house before you come to open country, arguably the prime spot on the estate. They have Kettler Palmer garden furniture and the best stainless steel barbecue money can buy. Professional landscapers come in to keep the shrubs tidy and the borders in order. Emily just wishes Peter would replace her Audi. With a newer one. A bigger one. A Q7 preferably. A black one.

Donetsk, Ukraine,’ says Levi. ‘The People’s Republic. It’s was in the news a while back.’

That’s not so good, is it?’ says Emily. ‘Aren’t we supposed to like the other lot?’

Who knows what the real story is, Emily?’ says Levi. ‘Anyway, it’s probably better than the ISIS flag he had flying at Easter.’

Oh, my goodness!’ says Emily. ‘Did he really? I don’t remember that. That’s terrible.’

It was only up for a day. Flagman frequently changes his flag, Lauren,’ says Kirsty Gardner. ‘One day the Greenpeace flag, the next day the Chinese national flag. I think he likes to keep us guessing. We think he may be a retired vexillologist.’ Kirsty is also a lecturer. Consumer Sciences. Matter of fact. Hair cut short. Tortoiseshell spectacles on a chain.

Or just a nut,’ says Levi.

But he gives us something to talk about.’ says Peter. ‘Little happens around here, most of the time.’

………………………………………………………………………

A flag is a piece of coarse fabric usually rectangular, with a distinctive design. It is most commonly cut in the ratio of two to three or three to five. Historically used for signalling, flags are now also used for decoration. Designs include stripes, crosses, circles and divisions into bands or quarters, patterns, and principles derived from heraldry. Alternatively, the flag can display a symbol or logo, or an iconic image of perhaps Ché Guevara or Bob Marley. Sometimes there is a Moor’s head and sometimes there is Arabic script, for instance, on the Black Standard used by ISIS.

………………………………………………………………………

Let me guess. Flags,’ says Guy Salmon, arriving with his customary swagger. While others might disagree, Guy has not quite reached the stage of life where he considers himself middle-aged. He dresses accordingly. Smart casual, trousers too tight for a man of his build, loud shirts and Converse cut-offs. Guy is not slow to spot that Lauren has come without her husband, Warren. Warren is a pilot. Or is it plant geneticist? Something like that anyway. Perhaps Warren is at work. Or maybe he has taken the children to flying lessons or some extra-curricular sporting activity. Guy sits himself down next to Lauren and pulls his chair up close.

I liked the flag he had with the black face in profile with the white bandana around its forehead,’ he adds. ‘That was cool.’

Corsican flag,’ says Levi. ‘It’s a Moor’s head, and on the original flag, the bandana used to be a blindfold.’

Wasn’t Carlo Rossi, the fellow you bought your house from, Corsican, Lauren?’ says Peter.

I’m not sure. Warren and I didn’t actually meet Mr Rossi,’ says Lauren. ‘Briggs and Mortimer handled all the negotiations.’

Good old established firm, Briggs and Mortimer,’ says Emily. ‘Not like these fly by nights you hear about today.’

I’ve not seen this ….. Flagman, but it does sound as if he’s a bit mysterious,’ says Lauren, pretending not to notice that Guy has moved in closer. ‘He always seems to have his curtains drawn. And there’s that jungle round the side of the house and the old Citroen with the running boards on the drive. All this in the middle of a suburban estate. It just doesn’t fit. Who is he?’

We don’t know,’ says Peter.

You must have at least seen him.’

No, Emily and I have never seen him, Lauren.’ says Peter. ‘And we’ve lived here five years. What do you think, Dorsey? You’ve lived here the longest.’

I don’t know anyone that’s actually seen him,’ says Dorsey Otto, looking up from his tablet, where he is researching quantum theory for a story he is writing. ‘We don’t even know his name. If it weren’t for the flags changing so often, we’d think the house was empty.’

I’m told he only comes out in the middle of the night,’ says Guy.

Then whoever told you must have seen him,’ says Lauren.

I can’t remember who told me,’ says Guy.

Might it not have been Tom Golfer? He used to live next door to Flagman,’ says Peter. ‘Probably not the most reliable source. That’s a thought. Tom must be out of prison by now.’

Anyway, Lauren. You may not have noticed,’ says Guy. ‘But nobody much is out and about around here at three in the morning. This estate goes down at sunset.’

Someone told me he is the last surviving progeny of a ruthless clan of sailor monks,’ says Dorsey.

Lot of contradictions there,’ says Levi. ‘I heard a rumour that his voice can only be heard by cats.’

You don’t have any cats do you, Lauren?’ says Guy.

No, just my …… Labradoodle,’ says Lauren. Is Guy imagining it or has she undone the top button of her blouse? Perhaps she has just turned round in her chair a little.

Whoever he is, he’s as mad as a box of bats, Lauren,’ says Peter. ‘Look. Enough about Flagman. I’m going to get started on the barbecue. Anyone like another beer? We’ve got Sapporo, Coors or Tiger.’

………………………………………………………………………

Flags are put in place for people to see them. Whatever their function, they carry a message – even if the message is there is no message, I just want to fuck with your heads.

………………………………………………………………………

What do you think of the Sycamore estate, now that you’ve settled in?’ says Guy.

It’s perfect. We’re very comfortable here and adore the house,’ says Lauren. ‘Four big bedrooms and a lovely big garden. The conservatory is simply divine. Come and have a look. It faces west and gets the evening sun. And we’ve found a fabulous home help, an eastern European lady who comes in five days a week. I don’t even need to pick my clothes up off the floor, Guy, or empty the dishwasher. And I don’t even have to pay her the minimum wage.’

You must let me have her number,’ says Guy.

I am glad you were able to come round,’ says Lauren. ‘It can get a little lonely here in the evenings in this big house when Warren is …… away, especially now Tristan and Fabian have gone back to Charterhouse.’

I feel the same, Lauren.’

You live on your own, do you, Guy? I’m surprised. What with your red Ferrari and all.’

Guy is not sure if he detects irony in her voice or not. ‘Yes I do,’ he says. ‘Geraldine and I now only communicate through solicitors.’

Oh dear. I hope you have a good one.’

I do,’ says Guy. ‘But so does she and I suspect I’m paying for them both.’

So you are at a bit of a loose end.’

Everything on an estate is geared to life around the hearth with the family, isn’t it? There’s only so many times you can mow the lawn or polish the …. car. Since Geraldine and I split up I often find myself twiddling my thumbs.’

Is that a euphemism?’

Ha, ha. Anyway, I’m really pleased you invited me round. I had the impression you were giving me the brush off at Peter and Emily’s barbecue.’

A girl has to play a little hard to get. Red or white?’

Red please.’

Then later on, mmm …… perhaps much later on, as you’ve not got to get back, maybe we could go and stake out our Flagman. I’m intrigued. I’m sure there must be an interesting story there.’

Did I hear you say the other day that you were in publishing?’

I used to be a copywriter for a fashion magazine.’

Fashion magazine, eh? That explains the ….. cut of the dress you’re wearing.’

Not exactly, no. I wore this dress to give you a glimpse of my French lingerie. You men can be a little slow on the uptake sometimes.’

………………………………………………………………………

Tell me, Guy,’ says Lauren. ‘What exactly is it that you do?’

I’m in commodity trading.’

Commodity Trading eh? Nothing to do with this Tom Golfer is it?’

Imports and exports.’

Ah, I see! It’s just that the other day you changed the subject after Peter asked if Tom Golfer was out of prison.’

Did I?’

And when you were in the bathroom just now, I was looking at your phone.’

That’s not a very ladylike thing to do. I don’t think you should have done that.’

Perhaps, Guy. I’m not very ladylike. But you can relax. I just saw that you had Tom’s number on a missed call. I didn’t find anything incriminating. Apart from your colourful …….. browsing history. But you were in the bathroom quite a long time, Guy. Were you getting ready to give me another little …… surprise.’

You’re shameless.’

Afterwards, we can go round and see what Flagman is up to.’

………………………………………………………………………

A flagpole with a pulley mechanism is generally used to display a flag, The flag is fixed to the lower end of the cord, and is then raised by pulling on the other end. The cord is then tightened and tied to the pole at the bottom. If a flag is raised then someone must have been present to have done so. So where is our phantom flag raiser? …….. Ah, here he is. He is just about to put up a new flag. This is quite a pretty one.

………………………………………………………………………

Have any of you seen Warren and Lauren lately?’ asks Emily. ‘I thought they might be along, as it’s such a lovely evening.’

No. Not seen the Hendersons for a while,’ says Kirsty Gardner. ‘Lovely salad by the way. Where do you get your Parma ham?’

I can’t tell you that,’ says Emily. ‘But let’s say it’s not Waitrose.’

You haven’t been to that new German supermarket, have you, Emily?’ says Kirsty. ‘That’s not like you.’

I’ve never seen Warren Henderson,’ says Dorsey, looking up from his tablet, where he is researching Lord Lucan’s disappearance for a story he is writing. ‘The lovely Lauren always seems to come to these little soirées without him.’

Warren’s a busy man, I expect,’ says Emily. ‘Research scientist or something, isn’t he?’

MI5 agent, I heard?’ says Peter.

The Invisible Man, I think,’ says Dorsey.

And what on earth has happened to Guy?’ says Kirsty. ‘Has anyone heard from Guy? His Ferrari’s been parked in the same place on the drive all week.’

Hey, Pops,’ says a shrill voice. The Gardners have brought along their geeky fifteen-year-old, Gregory. He has been suspended from school for smoking dope and they are keeping an eye on him. He is trying to show his father something on his phone.

Not now, son.’

But Pops. You have to read this.’

Gregory, Can’t you see I’m in the middle of a conversation.’

Flagman’s got another new flag,’ I see,’ says Peter. What’s this one, Levi?’

Ah yes. So he has. I can just see it from here,’ says Levi. ‘That’s the Seychelles flag. One of my favourites.’

It looks remarkably like the design of that sweatshirt Guy was wearing when he called in with a …… package for me last week,’ says Dorsey. ‘Funnily enough, I think he said he was on his way round to the see Lauren and Warren.’

This is important, Pops. You remember what you were saying the other day about …….’

OK. What is it, Gregory?’

Gregory thrusts the phone into his father’s hand.

I can’t read that without my glasses. Can’t you make it bigger?’

You are annoying sometimes. Give it here!’

Levi hands back the phone and Gregory starts to give an overview of the report.

It is about what they describe as the alarming number of people who have disappeared without trace in the county over the last three months. They wonder if there might be a connection. Someone who lives on the Sycamore estate.’

It’s not one of those spoof sites, is it?’ says Kirsty.

No, Mother! It’s not from one of those spoof sites. This is the Examiner website. You know Examiner? A bit like The Huffington Post? …… Now, is it all right if I continue? I’ll make it simple for you. I’ll just give you a summary, shall I? The list of those who have vanished without trace it says includes Muslim journalist, Mohammed Mohammed, some dude with a Russian name with not enough vowels…….. semiconductor engineer, Hung Lo, ………. restaurateur, Carlo Rossi, …… peace campaigner, Dylan Soft, ………, and ….. shit!

Yes,’ says Levi. ‘Spit it out, boy.’

Sorry Pops. ……. The battery’s just died.’

You’re thinking what I’m thinking aren’t you, Levi?’ says Dorsey, logging back into his tablet.

I think we might be looking at …….. another flag change or two, very soon,’ says Levi. ‘Can you go into The Examiner site, please, Dorsey? See how bad this is be going to be.’

What? You think Warren, and Lauren, and Guy?’ says Peter.

And Tom Golfer too perhaps,’ says Levi.

All four, by the looks of it,’ says Dorsey, scrolling down the page.

My God! Right under our noses,’ says Emily. ‘So that’s what the flags are about.’

How is it we miss all these things going on around us?’ says Peter.

Yeah! I wonder why that is,’ says Gregory, under his breath. ‘And they’re telling me I live in a world of my own.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Concerto

concerto2

Concerto by Chris Green

1: Allegretto con moto

There are not many famous Spanish concert pianists, fewer still from Cantabria, that rainy green strip in the north of the country. Nia Buendía might have joined this small elite, if only she had had larger hands. She mastered Mozart’s Piano Sonatas before she was ten and won regional competitions playing Beethoven Concertos when she was in her early teens. Catalan composer, Isaac Albéniz’s piano works are considered by many to be challenging, but Nia breezed through them. She took on Chopin and Schumann, winning acclaim for her lyrical interpretations of both composers. Even the difficult Carnaval caused her no problems. She was at the top of her game. Fame beckoned.

Sadly for Nia, classical pianists are eventually expected to have a go at Rachmaninov. Rachmaninov raises the bar a little. Even the greats have trouble. Rachmaninov, of course, had very big hands. He could comfortably straddle a thirteenth, whereas Nia could just manage an eighth. Nia could have exercised caution and elected to play his Piano Concerto No 2, which is less challenging, but she chose to perform the famously difficult Rach 3. Somehow she managed to get through the first two movements, but the Third Movement proved to be her downfall. Her hands were simply too small to span and reach the extra notes of the giant chords. This was the Iberian National Young Musician of the Year event and her performance was televised. It was a disaster and afterwards, Nia broke down. She did not perform in public again. She was just nineteen.

For months afterwards, Nia experienced a recurring nightmare about her performance. In the nightmare, instead of shrinking off from the stage meekly at the end of the concerto, she took a blacksmith’s hammer and set about breaking the Steinway into pieces. Her therapist, Juan Loco, suggested that this was a positive sign. He said that by smashing the piano, she was taking control of the situation. It did not feel this way to Nia. Her spirit crushed, she withdrew further inside herself.

She tried to hide her despair under a cloak of normality. She had one or two lovers and eventually got married to Pablo Rodrigues, a provincial town planner in Santander with whom she raised two normal if unexceptional children, Javier and Josefina. But something was missing from her life. Her sparkle had gone. She was just going through the motions of living. Days passed and years passed with nothing to distinguish them from one another. Nia worked part-time at the library then came home to cook dinner for the family. She pretended to like the television shows that Pablo liked and to understand golf. He, in turn, pretended to forget her birthday and not notice when she had her hair done. Twice a year they would have Pablo’s friends from the planning office and their wives round to dinner and she would cook paella and twice a year Pablo’s friends would return the compliment. Every year they went on holiday for the last week of August to Gijón, one hundred and forty kilometres along the coast.

Many of us pass our sad little lives never rocking the boat or troubling the pens of history’s copywriters. Perhaps we have nothing to say. The ennui of Nia’s early adult years may indeed be typical. What happens when in the middle of life we discover that time has begun to speed up? The expression mid-life crisis is perhaps apt. Sometimes it takes an unexpected event or a major health scare to jolt us out of our complacency. To show us that life is actually something that is finite.

To paraphrase Shel Silverstein, there came a point in her late thirties when Nia realised that Paris, sports cars and warm winds blowing her hair were not going to feature much in her life. She decided that a stable town planner might be better equipped to deal with the heteroclitic needs of teenage children than a soul in torment. Also, there was the terrible secret that she was not ready to share. She felt it was for the best all round that she made a clean break. In short, one day when Pablo was at work and Javier and Josefina were at school, she packed a bag, cleared out the joint bank account and left. Had she thought a little more about it she might have left a note to explain her reasons, but then Pablo might have pursued her and taken her prisoner again.

2: Largo misterioso

Let’s join Nia Buendía in New Orleans, Louisiana, the centre of voodoo, blues and jazz. Nia has taken an out of season riverboat down the Mississippi from Memphis to New Orleans. The blame for this strange pilgrimage must rest with young Javier’s copy of Las Aventuras de Huckleberry Finn which she found lying around. Reading it made her realise that human beings were nothing without an adventure. She also read Simone de Beauvoir’s El Segundo Sexo, which her friend, Flavia lent her. Why shouldn’t women as well as men have adventures? You had to take your chances in life. This was not a dress rehearsal for something else.

It has been a year or two since Hurricane Katrina brought New Orleans to its knees. Nia is at Po’ Boy’s Bar on the famous Bourbon Street and has had her bag stolen, with her passport and credit cards. This does not come as a surprise to Red Sayles, the jazz musician who has come over to comfort her. ‘Since Katrina, there’s no point in going to the police,’ he tells her. ‘They ain’t that big on crime solving.’

Unable to pay for the hotel and with nowhere else to go, Nia takes up Red’s offer to put her up until she gets sorted. He has an apartment just off of Basin Street, which he shares with some other musicians, but as luck would have it they are out of town. Red takes the opportunity to tell her what life in The Big Easy is like.

For the first few weeks after Katrina there was violence, looting, murder and rape,’ he says. ‘Then they sent in The National Guard. But that did not seem to help that much. There was more violence, looting, rape and murder. People was afraid. Except for journos looking for a story they just stopped coming. Everything was closed. There was no work. There was nothing in the shops.’

But I thought it was alright now,’ Nia says. ‘Well, until I had my bag stolen.’

It is alright. You was just unlucky, ma’am, that’s all. I guess it all takes time for things to settle. The city is slowly recovering. Places are re-opening, but for many, it is a hand to mouth existence.’

I did see a few beggars.’

Yeah, but only a few, because people here have got pride. New Orleans is made up of Cajun and Creole. Cajun is French-speaking white American and Creole is French-speaking black American. Now, I’m half Cajun and half Creole and I don’t speak French. Work that one out.’

I see.’

But I get by. If you know the right people, though, you can still get by. I love New Orleans. New Orleans is probably the only city in the modern world that is not homogenised. It has its own character. Most cities have become theme parks, but New Orleans, ma’am, New Orleans is real. I don’t think I will ever leave. The moonlight on the bayou, a creole tune that fills the air.’

That’s nice,’ Nia says. ‘Where is that from?’

Satchmo,’ Red says.

That’s Louis Armstrong, isn’t it,’ Nia says.

Yeah, the one and only. New Orleans got soul, you know. Music is its soul. You don’t play for the money here, you do it for the music.’

Nia is guarded about what she shares. She talks about how her trip down the Mississippi was an attempt to satisfy her vagabond spirit. She says little about her life with Pablo and drops it casually into the conversation that she has two children as if it is something that happened in a past life. Red does not pursue the enquiry.

Nia does not even mention that she once played the piano. But, through a comment she makes here and there, Red begins to realise that she has an understanding of music. One night when he comes home from playing in a club, he catches her tinkling around on his practice keyboard. This is the first time in years that she has played. Red can’t help but notice that she is not a beginner. He listens quietly from the next room. He feels that there is a great sadness about her playing. It is not just the minor key that describes her melancholy but the way she puts that extra space between the descending notes.

It might not sound like it, but that’s the blues you’re playing,’ Red says. ‘That there tune your playing is coming from a place deep inside.’

Oh sorry, I didn’t see you there.’

It’s a pretty tune,’ he says. ‘Where did you learn to play like that?’

Nia explains a little about her classical training and about her downfall.

Rachmaninov,’ he says. ‘You’re jivin me, right? He sounds like he’s hitting the dang piano with a blacksmith’s hammer.’

You mean …… the big chords?’ Nia says, taken aback by the image.

Yeah, them big chords, if that’s what you can call them. ……. But I do like some classical music. Satie is cool, you can do something with his tunes, and Debussy. …….. But Rachmaninov and all those Russian cats are a no-no. All artists and musicians should be looking for stillness in their art. You get disconnected when you lose your stillness and this Rachmaninov sure is disconnected.’

Red persuades Nia to sit in on a session at lunchtime the following day and it goes down well with the punters. In his evening set, he gives her a solo spot. She finds that Chopin lends himself to jazz. She puts in a bit of Bach too.

That was great,’ Nia says. ‘I enjoyed that more than turning over pages of music over and over to get to the end of a piece. I wanted it to just go on and on.’

That’s cool then,’ Red says. ‘You’re hired.’

But it can’t last,’ Nia says, her face dropping. ‘You see. There’s something I haven’t told you.’

She tells Red the secret that she has shared with no-one. She tells him that she has a rare incurable degenerative blood disease and according to the doctors back home has just a few months to live.

Nothing’s incurable,’ Red says, composing himself. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I’ve witnessed here in New Orleans. I know a Creole traiteur called Faucon Noir who can make the lame walk and make the blind see. He can probably even bring the dead back to life. They say Faucon Noir is 114 years old but you take a look at him, he doesn’t look a day older than you or me. Have you heard about Haitian voodoo?’

Isn’t it all dolls and pins?’

That’s the common myth, isn’t it? But gris-gris, as we call it, is not just mojo bags of rabbits’ feet and dragon’s blood. It ain’t ginseng or tai chi or acupuncture, this is the real deal. It’s a spiritual force which can be used to heal the body, mind and spirit.’

How does this ….. gris-gris work?’

I don’t know how it works. All I know is that it does work. Anyone who has lived in New Orleans will tell you that it works. You just wait and see. Faucon Noir will cure you of your rare blood disease or my name’s not Red Sayles.’

3: Allegro con sentimento

Let’s move on. Having herself been spared, Nia Buendía feels she must do something worthwhile to acknowledge her good fortune. The Advance Africa initiative provides her with the perfect opportunity, teaching in a special school in Dakar, Senegal. Senegal has suffered a catalogue of famines and disasters. It is near the bottom of the table in terms of life expectancy, literacy, access to knowledge and living standards. It badly needs people like Nia. She joins a team of committed overseas voluntary workers of various nationalities.

Nia’s role is to teach disturbed children through music. She believes where children have suffered trauma in their lives, that music can help them to develop individual, creative, and social skills in a way that language alone cannot. This is fortunate because although Nia’s French is good and French is the official language in Senegal, it is spoken only by an educated minority. With a population of over two million, Dakar is one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in Africa. Many languages are spoken here, but on the streets, the one that you hear the most is Dakar-Wolof, a mixture of Wolof, French and Arabic.

Dakar is all streetlife and primary colours. Everywhere there are vibrant markets selling fruit and fish, weaving medinas with makeshift stalls selling vivid textiles, tribal masks, mosaic tiles and brightly coloured beads. Citroen cars of every vintage criss-cross one another in bouts of traffic chaos. Children play football on swathes of urban scrubland and spin car tyres like hoops between streams of buzzing mopeds. Men carry accordions, bongo drums and curiously shaped koras down to the beach. You can hear the rhythms of mbalax music pounding day and night. It’s a musical culture. Senegal has a rich musical history and has spawned a wealth of talent. There are some brilliant musical role models for Nia to call upon, musicians like Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré, Amadou et Mariam, and Mory Kanté.

Loup Gaultier is a teacher at Nia’s school. He is French-Senegalese. He has long grey locks tied back. He smiles a lot, revealing a mouthful of gold-capped teeth. He wears a tribal necklace of tusks and shells, and snake rings on each finger of his left hand. He is softly spoken and is the sort of person that people feel they can open up to, sure of a sympathetic ear. He has worked in West Africa for many years. There is not a lot he doesn’t know about this part of the world.

What brings you to Senegal?’ he asks Nia. ‘We do not get many people from Spain.’

Nia explains about the miracle in New Orleans. How she was given a new lease of life by a venerable Creole mystic using ancient African spells. Loup understands the power of juju, djinn, hoodoo or voodoo or whatever you want to call it. He is not surprised by Nia’s tale. He has heard many like it.

She goes on to tell him about her previous life in Spain and how she does not feel she can return to her family there.

I can’t change what has happened, only what has yet to come,’ she says. Maybe I will be able to return one day, but I have work to do here first.’

Loup nods his agreement. It is always best to be non-judgemental when listening to others’ explanations of their actions. You can’t tell others what to do; they have to reach their own conclusions.

Why did I choose Senegal?’ Nia continues. ‘Simple. I found an advert for the voluntary service on the internet, was able to speak French and picked a place where speaking French might be useful. …….. And I’m loving Senegal. It’s so full of life.’

You might like what you see today with all the laughter and gaiety in the streets,’ Loup says. ‘But you have to realise that Senegal is putting on a brave face for the world. There is a lot that is hidden. Did you know there are three refugee camps within twenty miles of here? And, Senegal has a shameful past in collusion with the French. Saint Louis just down the coast was once one of Africa’s busiest slave ports.’

Perhaps they had touched on the slave trade at school back home in Cantabria, but Nia had not taken in the grim details.

Loup tells her how slavery was part of a triangular trade. The first side of the triangle was the export of goods from Europe to Africa. A number of African kings and merchants took part in the trading of enslaved people. For each captive, the African rulers would receive guns, ammunition and other manufactured goods. The second leg of the triangle exported enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas and the Caribbean. The third and final part of the triangle was the return of goods from slave plantations included cotton, sugar, tobacco, and molasses across the Atlantic to Europe.

In the twenty years from 1720, French ships enslaved two hundred thousand Africans to plantations in the Americas and the Caribbean,’ Loup says.

I seem to remember hearing that a quarter of them died on the ships going over,’ Nia says. ‘In a sense, I suppose they were the lucky ones.’

It’s impossible to even imagine the conditions today. Ships were packed, it was dark and hot and airless and they lived in shit, piss, and vomit. They had little to eat but even worse they had little fresh water to drink.’

And, of course, no better when they got there, I imagine.’

Many of those leaving from here were taken to sugar plantations in Haiti. During the eight-month sugar harvest, slaves worked continuously around the clock. The accidents caused by long hours and primitive machinery were horrific.’

And it went on for years before anyone did anything about it. And, it’s not that long ago.’

France continued the trade legally until 1830, long after the rest of Europe had abolished it. Even after this five hundred French ships continued trading illegally. Altogether, a million and a half enslaved Africans were taken by French ships.’

So the French were the worst,’ Nia says.

No-one comes out of it well. But, if it’s any comfort Spain abolished slavery twenty years earlier.’

Not a lot of comfort, really.’

Anyway, that’s enough of the history lesson, don’t you think?’ Loup says. ‘Except, of course, to say that the Haitian slaves became the Creoles in New Orleans.’

I know,’ Nia says. ‘Creole comes from the Portuguese crioulo, which means a slave born in the master’s household.’

Why I really came over is that I have something to ask,’ says Loup.

Fire away,’ Nia says.

I’ve been given this boy called Jimi,’ Loup says. ‘He can’t read or write but he’s a genius on the guitar and the piano.’

With a name like Jimi, perhaps he should stick to the guitar,’ Nia says.

I don’t think that Jimi is his real name, but anyway, I thought you might be able to teach him some classical music.’

I could take him through some Etudes to get him started, I suppose.’

I believe he was thinking more in terms of Rachmaninov. He saw a young pianist playing Rachmaninov on television recently.’

Does he have big hands?’

Yes, he does have big hands as it happens,’ Loup says. ‘We think that his father might have been a ..’

Blacksmith.’ Nia finishes his sentence.

How did you know?’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

puffthemagicdragon

Puff the Magic Dragon by Chris Green

Before he met Prism, John Straight seemed destined for success. He had a Degree in Business Management from a top university, a big black BMW with bull bars and he was willing to travel. In a word, John’s future looked rosy. He was the son of Sir James Straight, the Somerset cider magnate. He enjoyed a privileged upbringing in the country, went to the best schools and never had to struggle. As an only child, he was cosseted. Not only did he have his own motorised BMX, he also had his own BMX track, six acres of it. He went on cultural summer camps in Europe every year. By the time he was eighteen had been to more countries than most adults. On finishing at Goldsmiths, his parents put down a large deposit on a house for him, a stylish four-bedroom barn conversion near Nether Stowey. At twenty one, he seemed to have it all going for him.

But, like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate, John Straight was a little worried about his future. He did not feel he was yet ready to settle down. He supposed one day he would have to knuckle down, get a job and become a responsible citizen, but could this not be delayed for a while he thought about it? John’s fate was perhaps changed forever, the day he met Prism at a party in Taunton. He was introduced to Prism and Prism introduced him to Molly.

These little beauties will loosen you up,’ Prism said.

John was not sure what she meant. He felt he couldn’t be much looser. After all, he had no plans. He was very much going with the flow. But Prism looked sexy in her skimpy dress and she had a persuasive way about her.

Take three of them,’ she said. ‘And the world will seem a different place.’

What are they?’ he asked, looking in a puzzled manner at the three purple pills she had put into his hand with Nintendo etched on them.

Molly,’ she said. ‘Ecstasy. MDMA.’

And loosen him up, they did. Three hours in, the feeling of well-being was so strong, John knew this was how he wanted things to be. This was a wonder drug. He began to understand why it was referred to as Ecstasy. A deep sense of love, peace and understanding flowed through him. He was inside the music and the music was inside him. He was the music. The music was him. His limbs moved effortlessly like he was discovering them for the first time, his body in perfect rhythm with the cosmos. He felt a powerful rush of energy and a profound connection with everyone at the party. They were all lovely people. Even Razor McNeish was lovely. Why had he not seen this before? The feeling went on and on. This was altogether more pleasurable than getting mullered on Somerset cider at a family bash to celebrate a new vintage or throwing up after a night of beer-boarding in the students’ union bar. And the skunk that his friend Frank had brought round recently had not even hinted at this kind of euphoria. This was Heaven.

We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream,’ Prism said, later, after they had made love for the third time.

More Molly-fuelled weekends with Prism followed. Concerts, parties and more intimate gatherings. Molly even made shopping more fun, especially in the big Beamer. Specialist loudspeaker shops were John’s favourite. With the right equipment, it was astonishing how loud your music could be. Meanwhile, Prism moved herself in and the house at Dulverton soon pulsated day and night with the latest tunes at frightening volume.

We are like the spider,’ Prism said. ‘We weave our life and then move along in it.’

Move along in it, they did. With neither of them going out to work, they had plenty of time to indulge themselves. But the mind is like a mad monkey. It is restless, capricious; fanciful, inconstant, confused and uncontrollable. It constantly wants to move on to something else. Things, therefore, can never stay the same. They do not always change for the better. Little by little, John and Prism’s lives began to move in a different direction. Charlie started coming round to the house with Molly and then Charlie came round instead of Molly. Whereas Molly might be described as gentle and easy going, Charlie was anything but gentle and easy going. Charlie was urgent and aggressive. The mood around the house changed. The unpredictability the Peruvian marching powder brought with it meant John and Prism frequently argued and fought. She stormed out, came back and stormed out again, over and over. He told her to get out, chased after her and told her to get out again.

Worse was to come. Henry started to visit. Henry the Horse, Smack, Scag, Heroin, whatever you want to call it. John was curious to know what it was like. You didn’t have to inject it, he discovered; you could smoke it. The first hit was wild but you were forever trying to repeat this. Smoking it was no longer enough. By the time you became disappointed with the hit you were getting, you were hooked. Henry wanted your body and soul. Henry was hard-edged and desperate. Henry took no prisoners.

The upbeat dance music was gradually replaced by downbeat grunge music. Prism had been agreeable to Charlie coming round. She had been able to take Charlie in her stride. Cocaine was upbeat, exciting, even if it did make you talk bollocks. The point was you always felt you were talking sense. But from the outset, Prism disliked Henry and eventually moved out for good.

John began to wallow in self-pity. Henry was now permanently in residence. All John’s actions in one way another revolved around the demon drug. His parents were disgusted with the direction his life was taking and cut off his allowance. The debts quickly piled up. Had he not crashed the Beamer one night after a trip to look for Henry, he could have sold it to bail himself out and perhaps buy some time until he got himself back on his feet. But the vehicle was a write-off. To make matters worse he was being prosecuted for dangerous driving and possession of a Class A Drug with Intent to Supply. Not that he had any intention of selling any but the huge quantity of heroin the police found in the car was sufficient to justify the charge.

………………………………….

It’s all going pear-shaped, isn’t it, Mr Straight?’ John’s solicitor, Sebastian Dark of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed says.

It does seem a bit unlucky. All coming at once.’ John says. ‘Look! I don’t suppose you’ve got any gear.’

Gear?’

Yes. Crack, smack, spice. Anything at all.’

Can we treat this matter seriously, Mr Straight? Now, look! We’d better put the house on the market, for starters, don’t you think?’

I’m afraid we’re not going to be able to do that, Mr Dark.’

Oh, and why is that?’

It burned down last night,’

It burned down? How did that happen, Mr Straight?’

I arranged for someone to set fire to it.’

You arranged for someone to set fire to it?’

Yes. To get the insurance money.’

For Heaven’s sake, Mr Straight. The house wasn’t insured. You told me yourself the day before yesterday that the house insurance had lapsed. Your bank account is frozen. Your Direct Debit payment bounced. You’re broke, remember!’

I know that, Mr Dark but I made the arrangement with the arsonist last week and I was so strung out, I forgot to cancel the arrangement.’

Murphy’s Law doesn’t come close to taking account of your ability to bring about disaster, does it, Mr Straight?’

Then I thought I would be in when he came round, you see but I had to go out.’

Let me guess. To get some heroin.’

That’s right. I thought I might be able to call in a favour. Glassy-Eyed Dave owed me one. But it didn’t work out. Then I came home to find that, well not to put to fine a point on it, there was no home. Just a smouldering heap of rubble. …… Are you sure you haven’t got anything in your desk drawer? Not even enough for a hit.’

Not even a puff of the magic dragon, I’m afraid,’ Sebastian Dark says. ‘But what I do have is one of my brother’s books of short stories. It’s in the cabinet over there.’

Oh great! I’ll settle down and read for a bit, shall I? That will be much better than a fix. That will sort out the cold turkey.’

What you probably don’t realise, Mr Straight is that my brother is the science fiction writer, Philip C. Dark. No doubt you have heard of him but had never made the connection. Now, you will very likely be able to find a wormhole in one of Phil’s stories to offer you a passage to a more favourable situation. Why don’t you give it a try? It’s not as if you’ve got a lot to lose.’

The solicitor hands John the book, The Logic Mines of Őjj 9. He begins to read and suddenly ……………….. somewhere in the distance, John hears the haunting sound of a brass instrument. He edges the dune buggy closer. In front of a bank of brightly coloured pods, a tall slender figure with purple hair is playing a transparent saxophone. He has a small cat on his shoulder. John is not sure he has met him before yet he does seem oddly familiar. He wonders if perhaps he saw him playing at last year’s God Election celebrations. Overhead, the usual flock of winged serpents is circling. It is twilight. Both moons are already out. It is a fine evening. All is well. He has his pipe of green herbs to look forward to. Things are as they should be in John Straight’s world.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

TIME

time2019

TIME by Chris Green

Time is a bitch. You never know quite where you are with it. Einstein, bless him,
argues that the distinction between past, present and future is an illusion, albeit a stubbornly persistent one. This morning as I go through the mail, I begin to appreciate the great man’s uncertainty. These bills are the same ones as yesterday, electricity, phone and pet insurance. Exactly the same. And there’s an identical postcard of an Agadir beach at sunset from Rick and Sammi.

When set against the bigger issues of political corruption, terrorist bombs, and the war in the Middle East, a duplication of personal correspondence is not a big deal. Puzzling, yes, but I do have a large green recycling bin. More importantly, I’m running late. It is 8.15 and the traffic on Tambourine Way will be horrific if I don’t hurry. I scrape the ice off the Skoda’s windscreen and give it a few squirts of de-icer. I put a Johnny Cash CD into the player while the inside windows start to de-mist, and move off into the February frost.

I have a sense of déjà vu as I flash the headlights at Pedro, in his SUV on Solitaire Street, and again on the dual carriageway when I find myself behind a learner bus driver keeping to 30 where you could easily be doing 50 or 60. Does this learner bus driver come this way every day? My progress is further impeded by an accident at the Scott McKenzie roundabout. As I edge through the flashing blue chicane of police vehicles, I notice that the two battered cars seem to be the same two cars as in the accident two days ago, a white Mercedes and a black BMW. The impact of the collision has buckled both cars irreparably, as it had in the previous accident. I shudder. The coincidence is way beyond that presented by chance.

I arrive at Sanctuary Inanimate Pet Crèche and Counselling Service where I work. I greet Boris and Gerhard. I can’t help but notice that the cyber dog that was collected by its owner the day before yesterday is already back. There is also a familiarity about the headline War Dims Hope for Peace in Boris’s tabloid. Admittedly inanimate pet care is a repetitive line of work but the conversation Gerhard is having with Major Churchill about his pet rock seems identical to the one earlier in the week. After Gerhard puts down the phone I tackle him about this.

He looks at me challengingly and says, ‘what are you talking about? I have never spoken to Major Churchill before. And this may be just a job to you, but the Major’s pet rock does seem to be pretty sick.’

I think of taking up the point. Yes, it is just a job to me. Unlike Gerhard who sees a visit to the dentist as a bit of an outing, I have seen a bit of the world. But I keep quiet instead. What is the point? One pearl of wisdom that comes with age is that past glories count for nothing. I am here, and it is now. My life has taken a bit of a nosedive. Like Orson Welles, I seem to have lived my life backwards, if not quite in the sense I am about to.

Over the days that follow I have a permanent sense of déjà vu. Everything in my every day has happened previously. I have the same conversation with Spiro about West Ham’s problems in defence, spend the same hour chatting to my daughter, Promise on the phone about the dangers of putting too many personal details on Facebook, watch Groundhog Day again on DVD, and buy another new metal detector from The Army and Navy Surplus Stores. The hours on my watch are still going forward but the date is going backwards. The presidential election comes round again and they bring the old president back, and that family entertainer that we all once liked is prosecuted again for entertaining children in an inappropriate way. All the papers on the news-stands each day are yesterday’s papers.

At first, I imagine that it must be a huge practical joke, admittedly one with a formidable amount of complicity. Whilst I do not advertise my predicament in case people think I am a basket case, no one I speak to displays any sense that anything is wrong with their own temporal world. There is nothing in the papers or on the news to suggest anything irregular in the cosmos. Just the usual reports on war, politics and celebrity indiscretions. It appears that I am alone in my renegade perception of time, although there is a short item in The Morning Lite calling for a twenty five hour day. NASA scientists have apparently researched this and found that participants in the experiment benefited by the increased levels of melatonin. The findings it says would come in handy if astronauts go to Mars. A Martian day it points out lasts for 24.65 earthly hours.

There are a number of contradictions of logic involved in whatever it is I am experiencing. My days are still moving forward in a linear fashion. I go to work, come home, go to the pub, walk the dog, watch the rerun episode of Spender on ITV3, and go to bed as normal, but when I wake up the next day, it is the day before yesterday. Each day, I become a day younger. This aspect of my condition is, of course, something that at sixty three I should be pleased about; instead of a creeping decay, there will be a gradual rejuvenation. In a world that places excessive emphasis on artifice, this is what millions of people dream of. Zillions of pounds every week are spent by slavish consumers on a staggering array of products promising the reversal of the inevitable. The consentient sorcery of keeping flowers in full bloom is the central tenet of our belief system.

If I am reliving the past there is plenty for me to look forward, or backward to. I have on balance enjoyed my life. There are all of the special places I have been with lovers or friends that I have felt I wanted to go back to sometime. All of the times I have said or thought, I’ll always remember this. Things that just could not be captured on film. I reason I will also know when to expect the difficult times, like the divorce from Monique, Sebastian’s fatal illness, and the bankruptcy hearing. Painful though it will be, I can be ready for these episodes. And I can go on to experience youth with a wise head. What was it Oscar Wilde said? Youth is wasted on the young?

Despite these deliberations, the sequential upheaval continues to be both disconcerting and disorientating. After a week or so of going over the same ground, I decide to seek professional help. I find myself limited by the need to arrange an appointment for the same day. The medical profession does not operate this way. There is no point in my making an arrangement for any time in future, and clearly, I cannot make an appointment for last week or last month. Similarly, I am unable to arrange to see a priest, a mystic, a philosopher, or even a time traveller at a few hours notice. The Auric Ki practitioner that I do manage to see at the community centre at short notice talks about meridians and explains that there might be blockages on the layers of my energy field. Over a dozen or so sessions she says she can balance my chakras and time will move forward again. I try to explain that she might need to do this in one session and she suggests if this is my attitude, then I should go elsewhere.

I begin to wonder what would happen if I do not actually go to bed. Will the day progress normally to the next, or will I at a certain point be flung back to the day before? It seems that despite my predicament, there is still an element of free will about my actions so I buy a wrap of speed, from Sailor, a friend of a friend in the Dancing Monk public house.

This is wicked gear,’ says Sailor, so named I assume because of his abundance of tattoos. ‘It will keep you busy for fucking days.’

Good,’ I remark. ‘I may need it to.’

I see the exercise as a demonstration of free will, and not therefore merely a duplication of what happened on the corresponding day a couple of weeks previously. At my age, I am not really a late night person and have not taken drugs since my youth, so I am not sure what to expect.

Despite taking the whole wrap of wicked gear with four cans of Red Bull and playing some kicking music, I drift off at around 5 or 6, anyway before daylight.

……………………………………………………………………

When I wake up I am not sure where I am. Everything around me looks foreign, almost alien. In a conversation that must be puzzling to my companion, Song, I establish that this is the balcony of one of the upper floors of an apartment block in north-eastern China. It is 1988 – the year before Tienanmen Square. I have gone back seventeen years. Song and I are filming the spectacular estuary of the Songhua Jiang below for a travelogue for Sky TV. It seems the Chinese authorities are keen to promote tourism in the area. It is a Sunday morning and from our high vantage point, Song and I can see for miles. It is late August, near the end of the rainy season, and while the rainfall this year has been concentrated mainly in July, much of the flood plain is still underwater. Around the swollen river basin acres of lush green landscape luxuriate. Song points toward a flooded football field to our right, saying that despite the pitch being waterlogged the locals are about to turn out to play.

We are used to a bit of water. We have long tradition. Chinese invent football in the Han period over two thousand years ago,’ he says. ‘Is called Cuju. Means to kick a ball.’

Song goes a little deeper into the history of cuju in the region and says that he feels the water football game would look great on film, with a commentary about the history of the game from its Han dynasty roots. I nod my agreement. I am not surprised. Through classes in Tai Chi back in, well, there is no other way to say this, back in the twenty first century, I developed an interest in Sino culture. I came to understand that the Chinese invented practically everything from paper and printing to gunpowder and aerial flight, and most advances in science and medicine can be attributed to them.

I feel distracted. The future seeming like the past takes some getting used to. While I am conscious of my vitality, I have the strange sensation that I am also an observer of my life.

A boat carrying a team decked out in carnival colours chanting something patriotic is coming up the river. It is hot and humid and a dank haze hangs suspended above the water as if waiting for an impressionist painter. The regressing part of me is trying frantically to get a handle on what is happening. According to the log, I am keeping to help with later editing of the film, I have been in the Peoples’ Republic for ten days and am scheduled to be there for another ten. I am missing Monique, Sebastian and Promise. Song says that the phone lines will not be down for much longer but I know in my world they will be down until my arrival, so I will be unable to phone home.

Sebastian is six and Promise is five. It will be Promise’s birthday soon. Then she will be four. She will stop going to school. Before long, I will be reading her bedtime stories and taking her to nursery. It is curious to comprehend that my life going backwards means to all intents and purposes that everyone’s life around me is also doing so. I can only experience their past.

Filming in China goes back day-by-day as the day approaches that I arrive on a flight from Heathrow to Beijing. During this time I ponder my situation continually. When Song says, ‘see you tomorrow’, I know I had already seen him tomorrow but I will see him again yesterday.

I contemplate the age-old question as to whether we control our destiny or follow a preordained path. This seems all the more pertinent to my circumstances. Am I just reliving events in a life that I have already experienced or could my new actions or thoughts as a person coming from the future have any effect? And how will I know whether they do?

More immediately I am concerned as to why time for me has gone back seventeen years rather than the more conservative day at a time that I came to accept. I am anxious to avoid such a dramatic leap happening again. The only clue I have is that I had tried to stay awake at night to find out why time was going backwards.

I begin to become anxious about sleeping and visit one of the four thousand acupuncturists in Harbin. I also buy various traditional Chinese remedies from a 114 year-old herbalist named Ho Noh at the local market. Not that Ho instils any confidence. He does not look as if he had ever slept. But I am particularly concerned that the flight on which I was to arrive in Beijing comes in at 5 am local time. There seems to be no way of rescheduling the flight and reducing the risk of more temporal upheaval.

……………………………………………………………………

And indeed there isn’t…. When I become aware of consciousness again I find myself on stage at a Pink Floyd concert. I have some difficulty at first working out the time and place but conclude that it is The Wall tour around February 1981 and this is one of several concerts at Wesfallenhalle, Dortmund in what was then West Germany. What is once again West Germany. I am a sound engineer, and it appears that the tape loops for The Wall have been mixed up with those from Dark Side of the Moon. I suspect I have programmed something incorrectly into the console. Roger Waters is storming around the stage set with a face like thunder and some of the band stop playing.

Back at the hotel, I have a call from Astrid from the house in Rheims.

You seem upset baby,’ she says. ‘Is something not good with you?’

I tell her that I have just been sacked by Pink Floyd management. It seems better than saying I have just been jettisoned through space and time from The Peoples’ Republic of China.

Why?’ she asks. ‘They seemed so nice at the party in Paris.’

A long story,’ I reply, intensely aware of two different life forces, the present, and the future in reverse. You cannot expect to have much of a conversation about space-time continuums in an international phonecall to someone, whose first language is not English.

You could come down if you want,’ Astrid said. ‘I have missed you, you know. The only thing is I’ve got Monique staying. Have I ever mentioned my friend, Monique? I’m sure you would like her. She came yesterday.’

It occurs to me that unless I travel the 400 odd kilometres between Dortmund and Rheims by yesterday I will never even meet Monique. It also occurs that I can’t anyway because I have spent yesterday in Dortmund with Pink Floyd. In a devastating flash, having travelled back to before they were even contemplated, I realise I will never see my children again, or for that matter, Monique.

Before The Wall tour starts, or after The Wall tour starts, I spend a month seeing the new year out and the old year in, with Astrid at the house in Rheims. Astrid is a freelance photographer who does shoots for Paris Match and Marie Claire, specialising in quirky subjects like Sumo wrestlers, dwarfs and circus performers. She is successful and works more or less when she chooses to. We make love, morning, afternoon and night, paint, walk along the Vesle, go to galleries, concerts, and French films without subtitles.

During this time I go to see a hypnotherapist and give up not smoking. Almost immediately I find myself getting through a pack of Gitanes a day. It is a revelation to me to discover that one session can change the habits of a lifetime.

With Astrid in Rheims I go with the flow, seize the moment, and try not to think about the disappearing future, about the first time Monique and I saw the Grand Canyon a morning in May, or looking down at The Great Barrier Reef through a glass-bottomed boat, walking amongst the mystical stonework of the sun temple of Machu Picchu or watching the spectacular patterns form in the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia, the sun’s reflection on the water in the Halong Bay in Vietnam, about Promise’s wedding, or Sebastian getting in to Oxford, sadly just a month before his fatal illness took hold. I do not think of the excitement of my novel being published or the acclaim I received for the first feature film I directed. I certainly do not think of the months in The Jackson Pollock Recovery Home, the job at Don Quixote or about anything else that happened after my breakdown. The future is history. And the future from a normal chronology of events will now never be. I will not have to endure that period of time later in life when those around you are slowly dying off. Those senior years when if you see a friend you haven’t seen for a while, their news will be that someone else had died. Back in the future when I was sixty three I recall that this had already begun to happen. My parents had died and, of course, Sebastian had died. Also, in a few short months, my friend Giorgio had died from liver cancer, Jacques had died from a heart attack, and Marianne had died from complications during surgery.

I feel I can live with going back a day at a time, and being aware of what will happen next is not a huge problem. With Astrid, life seems easy. I am twenty six years old and it seems that this is a time for pleasure. Each day the mystery of our attraction unfolds as we know less about each other. An affair lived backwards is very exciting. The fascination increases day by day, the first time you will get a mutual invitation, the first time you will go away together, the first time you will get or buy a present, the first time you will have breakfast together, the first time you will undress one another, working toward that glorious, breathtaking moment when your eyes will first meet, when intuition and desire will form an immaculate, unstoppable, mystical union, that split second when love is heaven-sent.

……………………………………………………………………

Astrid becomes Francesca in Barcelona, then Isabella in Rome. In between, there is Natalie in New York, and before I know it I am twenty three. These years are wild and exciting. I go to parties with painters and dine with divas. I work on a film with Antonioni and play with Led Zeppelin. Keith Moon crashes my car and Marc Bolan throws up in my jacuzzi. In a wave of hedonism, I just soak up all the pleasure that is available and cannot recall when I last tried to exercise free will. I have gone with the flow, allowing my youth and libido free rein.

Time going backwards is by now the most normal thing in the world to me. Déjà vu has become so commonplace that it is now unnoticeable. I am no longer surprised that news items and soap opera plots unfold backwards. But I am sometimes made aware of echoes of a future life. A persistent voice in my head seems to narrate stories concerning an older person. The voice is familiar, and comes from within, but while it seems it belongs to me and has some sense of self, at the same time I feel a sense of detachment. I have recollections of having lived through many of the episodes, but they exhibit themselves like false memory.

This older person seems to have experienced considerable misfortune. He found his crock of gold early and bit-by-bit has seen it disappear. As a result of the dispossession, he has suffered some kind of nervous collapse. He lives a lonely life, works in inanimate pet care, drives a brown Skoda and listens to Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Even if this were to be my own future, it is neither tangible nor attractive. It seems to me that as my life is moving irrevocably in reverse, nothing is to be gained by taking possession of a character surrounded with so much sadness. So the more that it happens, the more I try to block out the voice.

It is often said that when you are young, life is a timeless flight, but as you get older time seems to fly by like it has been turned to fast forward. I find that as I grow younger a similar thing is happening. Months fly by. One moment it is August and the next it is April and another summer is gone. Christmases and birthdays are closer together. No sooner am I twenty three than I am twenty two, and then in what seems the blink of an eye, twenty one.

……………………………………………………………………

After, or before, an especially profligate drinking session, with a group of Dutch football supporters, in a bar in the red light district of Amsterdam during the World Cup, I make the decision I am going to fundamentally change the way I live. We have consumed bottle after bottle of genever as Holland lose to West Germany. We continue our drinking into the night, inconsolable that Johann Cruyff, despite being the finest footballer in the world, will never lift the trophy.

The binge is just the last in a long line of testimonies to guileless self-deprecation. I am unhappy with myself. I have begun to feel that my youthful comportment is frivolous and empty. My behaviour is inconsiderate and hurtful, and I despise the person I am becoming – or have been. I frequently catch myself saying really immature things, and acting badly towards those around me.

What brings matters to a head is a chance meeting at Amsterdam bus station with Faith, a friend of my mother’s. Faith is dressed in a miscellany of chiffon wraps, scarves, bead chokers and jangly jewellery. She carries a tote bag with a yantric design on it and has rainbow coloured braids in her hair. Faith greets me with a warm hug, which brings with it an assault of patchouli.

What are you doing here?’ she says. ‘Where are you going?’

I’m not sure where I’m going,’ I say. ‘Because it seems to be more a case of where have I been.’

In that moment I have a profound sensation of being disengaged from time.

In the 1960s both Faith and my mother will live on the fringes of a bohemian lifestyle. My father, a man ensconced in the decorum of the professions, will not. He will go to the races and Rotary Club dinners, while my mother and Faith will metaphorically burn their bras and go on demonstrations. It is not hard to see how they will grow apart and the disagreements and separation that will be the backdrop to my early life will arise.

Time present and time past are perhaps present in time future,’ Faith continues. ‘And time future is contained in time past. If all time is eternally present all time is unredeemable.’

Where does that come from?’ I ask.

Those are the opening lines from T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets,’ she replies, looking me in the eye. It is an English teacher kind of look. I look away.

When I am younger my mother will try to educate me in poetry, but I will prefer The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. I will get an appallingly bad grade in English by reading none of the books. My father will not notice because I am too unimportant to be of any significance.

But, if you do not know where you are going, you should not be at the bus station. Why don’t you come and have some lunch with me?’ Faith says. ‘I live in Haarlem.’

The bus arrives and we take it. Haarlem is just a few miles. I open up to Faith. I explain I haven’t seen mother since I was twenty six and then only briefly. She looks puzzled so I tried to explain a little of my predicament.

She quotes T. S. Eliot at me once again.

We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.’

I began to wonder if T. S. Eliot might have shared my sequential dysfunction.

On the journey, Faith tells me about the community in which she lives, all the time emphasising how happy she is. The community, she says, support one another, share everything, and work together towards a common aim. It seems idealistic, naive even, but I can see that Faith appears to be happy and feels she has found what she is looking for. Her view of life seems to be in marked contrast with my own.

We arrive at Haarlem. A lengthy explanation about eastern philosophy and the middle way sees us outside Faith’s house.

BEWARE OF THE GOD,’ says the sign on the front gate.

Which God?’ I ask.

It does not matter,’ she replies. ‘How about a Retriever?’

……………………………………………………………………

I come round in the playground of The Frank Portrait Primary School. I am wearing short grey trousers, grey flannel shirt and a blue blazer. I am fighting with a boy called Jon Keating. No!…..Wait! …… I AM Jon Keating. ‘Keating needs a beating, Keating needs a beating’ they are chanting, this swathe of little grey monsters. ‘Keating needs a beating.’ They empty my blazer pockets, and one of them, Nolan Rocco I think it is, takes my wristwatch. How will I know what time it is now?

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Schrödinger’s Cat

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Schrödinger’s Cat by Chris Green
(no cats were harmed in the writing of this story)

The train doesn’t stop. There are no stations, no visible settlements. No landmarks, no buildings, no farms, nothing. I don’t know where the train is heading. The terrain comprises miles upon miles of wilderness, woodland and barren scrub. I can’t remember anything else. When did I start out? It feels as if I’ve been on the train for days now, weeks, months maybe. It as if I’ve always been on the train. Each day, the same as the last. Day in day out. All down the line, the diesel drumming. The monotonous rhythm of the wheels. The train pulling purposefully along the tracks. The alien landscape passing by, camouflaged by grimy carriage windows. Bewilderment and foreboding. A growing sense of hopelessness.

How did I come to be aboard? Why is there no-one else on the train? Why do I have such a long train all to myself? It must be sixteen coaches long. What happened to the others? Where is my partner, Julie? Jennie? Jackie? Was she with me? Or did I have other companions? I have no recollection now of the chain of events. But surely someone must know what is going on. Someone, for instance, must be driving the train. The driver will know where we are headed. But I’ve no way of communicating with the him. I’ve tried pulling the safety cord to stop the train but this doesn’t work. Meanwhile, the train travels ever onward towards an unknown destination.

I don’t think we’ve passed any other trains. Or have we? Perhaps there was another train back in the dim and distant past. Going through the mountains in the opposite direction. Mountains? Where were the mountains? I have a nagging feeling we passed through mountains earlier but I can’t be certain. The mind plays its tricks. Davos would know. Davos? …… David perhaps? Davy? No, wait! Davy is dead, isn’t he?. …… Am I dead too? If I’m not, I don’t even understand how I have managed to stay alive. I have had no food or water.

A tune keeps coming into my head. It seems familiar but I can’t make out what it is or where I might have heard it. It flits in and out, sounding a little different each time. Variations perhaps on a theme. The same tune but with different instruments. Piano and violins. Now guitars and saxophone. It probably has words too but these are not coming through yet.

Posso vedere il tuo biglietto per favore,’ a man’s voice says, from out of nowhere.

A ticket collector but I can see no-one. Where is the voice coming from and why is he talking to me in Italian?

Can I see your ticket please?’ he says, this time in English.

I don’t have a ticket,’ I say. ‘Who are you and why am I on the train?’

You have to have a valid ticket to travel on this line,’ he says. ‘The penalty for not having one is imprisonment. You would not like prison. It is a very inhospitable place.’

Still I see no-one. The strange thought occurs to me that it could be me that is speaking. Perhaps I am the ticket collector.

It is becoming increasingly difficult to keep a grip on reality. Here I am now in the deserted environs of an old town. It might be because I am fatigued from the long journey but I can’t put a geographical location to this place. There are no features that might offer a clue. Unless the train took a circuitous route, this will be a long way from ……. Where will it be a long way from? Home? Work? The place where they design skeuomorphs for digital devices? No, that can’t be right. Where did that idea come from? I must be thinking of someone else. Perhaps Janie designs skeuomorphs. What are skeuomorphs anyway?

From the weak wintry light, I sense this place has a northerly aspect. This in itself is not much help. North is big. It could be anywhere, Cumbria, Wroclaw, Novosibirsk. There is nothing that might offer a clue. There are no signs of life. No people, no animals, no birds. There are no vehicles, no roadsigns, no advertising displays. Not even any graffiti. Nothing at all that might point the way. The town has been completely abandoned. Rows of ramshackle buildings stand empty. Houses are in an advanced state of collapse, overtaken by forbidding brambles. Forests of weeds have colonised the dirt-track roads. The place is more rundown than the Tokers End council estate back home? Tokers End? Now, where is Tokers End? …….. It’s near ….. down the road from …… I drive through it sometimes. On my way to …… The supermarket? The studio? The Mondegreen Research Centre? No, it’s not coming. What are mondegreens, I wonder?

How did I come to be here? Did the train to nowhere finally stop? Is this where it brought me? There are huge gaps in my cognition. Might it even be something to do with what the ticket collector told me? Might this be the penalty for not having a ticket? I suppose there’s nothing to do but explore this wasteland and see where I end up. The wind blows dust along the silent empty streets. The colour has drained out of the sky. It’s as if someone has found a way to release despair into the atmosphere. Something terrible must have happened here to drive the people away. And by the looks of it, not recently. No-one has been here for a long time.

Here’s that tune again. Bouncing around in my head. It is up-tempo. It has an infectious piano riff and a backbeat. I still can’t make out the words but it has a sing-along chorus. La-de-da-de-da-de-la. La-de-da-de-la-la. It’s as if others are singing it with me. In harmony. It offers a welcome distraction from my dire predicament.

I’m back on the mystery train. I do not understand how this has come about. Just now I was sheltering in a derelict house in the deserted old town. Having trekked for miles and searched in vain for signs of life in the badlands, I was exhausted. It was a rough night. A storm whipped up. The wind howled in the eaves. I was trying to get some sleep. Or could it be I was dreaming I was in a derelict old house? It was certainly the stuff of nightmares. Whichever, here I am now back on the never-ending track. I sense I may not be alone on the train. I can hear movement in the next carriage. It sounds as if they are moving furniture around, beds or something. Can I hear muted voices or is this wishful thinking? The connecting door between the carriages is locked. I call out but it appears they cannot hear me. I shout louder. I try each of the languages I know, Italian, French, German. But to no avail. Through the grill, I can see shadows moving but the distance is somehow so great, they might as well be in another world.

As the train goes around a bend, I see a station up ahead. A long single platform with random structures along it. It looks like there are one or two figures standing in the shadows of what might be a waiting room. For a moment I imagine they have come to meet me. Perhaps they will take me for a tasty meal in a fast-food restaurant nearby. Prezzo or Nandos. I’m certain now that I must be hungry. What about that place where they do the spicy chicken wings? While I am salivating, the people on the platform vanish. Perhaps they were never there. The train doesn’t even slow down, let alone stop. It is going too fast for me to even make out the name of the station. Would it help if I could? I get the feeling it wouldn’t shed any light on where I was or where the train was heading. For the time being, it looks as if the food will have to wait.

Night comes around again and the stars come out. There is a full Moon and I can make out the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades, the seven daughters of Atlas, who holds up the sky and Pleione, the protectress of sailing. That’s a lot of information coming through all of a sudden. Where has this come from? Gradually, it occurs to me. My daughter, Lucy used to tell me about the night sky. I feel remembering I have a daughter is something of a breakthrough. It connects me somehow to the normal, everyday world, the world outside of the train. I haven’t seen Lucy for a while though, have I? Perhaps she is with her mum, Jilly? Judy? Jody? Or perhaps she moved in with Kurt. Kurt, Kurt? Who is Kurt? Wasn’t he the one who shot himself? That must be a different Kurt. No matter. I recollect I used to visit Lucy in Scotland. She studied Physics at St Andrews. It always seemed to be snowing when I went up. I remember her telling me one time about a thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Cat. If you place a cat and something that could kill the cat, let’s say a radioactive atom, in a box and seal it, you don’t know if the cat is dead or alive until you open the box, so until you open the box, the cat is, in a sense, both dead and alive. I’m not sure they actually did this experiment at the university but who knows? Perhaps I am nothing more than a thought experiment. Perhaps the train is my sealed box and paradoxically, like Schrödinger’s Cat, I am both dead and alive.

By and by, the train slows down. I wonder if, at last, it is going to stop. I can see faint lights shimmering in the distance. Might these be coming from a town? Might we be arriving somewhere at last? Somewhere that I might possibly recognise? I can see one or two roads and think I can make out the headlights of vehicles. But to my disappointment, we do not stop. The train picks up speed again and we head off once more into the night.

My phone rings, which is odd because didn’t realise I had a phone with me on the train. I search in my pockets but this merely confirms that I don’t have a phone. The phone I don’t have keeps ringing so I answer it.

We’ll be with you soon,’ says a voice. The line is a bit crackly but I think I recognise the voice. It sounds like Jeannie.

Will you bring Lucy?’ I say. I haven’t seen her for such a long time.’

We’ll be with you soon,’ the voice repeats and the call ends.

I find I still don’t have a phone.

Just before daylight, I sense a change in the situation. I can no longer feel the rocking motion of the train. I can no longer hear the pulsing sound of the wheels on the tracks. Instead, I hear ambient background noise, the hum of air conditioning, the clinking of cutlery, the hubbub of voices. It feels as if a numbness is lifting. Like I am waking up from a long sleep. And the tune is back. It has a reggae beat now. I’ll need to get Robbie and Bob to work on this. Rhythm sections understands reggae rhythms better, the downstrokes on the offbeat and the 2/4 or 4/4 time. Wait! ……. That’s it! The tune I keep hearing is one of mine. I’m a songwriter, a musician. I’m in a band. We have had hits. We are called …… No, the name’s not coming to me yet. But I believe we are quite famous. I can visualise us playing at large stadiums.

It’s coming back to me now. We were on a European tour. We were in between gigs. I remember that Davy, our keyboard player and I were keen to take in The Alps. The Eiger. The Matterhorn. The Jungfrau. All those spectacular snow-capped wonders we had heard about. We took a train from Davos. The Glacier Express. I think we may have taken something else too, something psychoactive to enhance the experience. Something specially made up for us by a Swiss chemist who came to one of our concerts. A freak storm broke out. There was an accident. There was mass panic. On account of my injuries, along with a number of others, I was airlifted to safety. Then nothing. That’s it. A complete blank. I must have passed out in the helicopter. I have been unconscious for …. How long have I been out for? A long time, it seems. Possibly days. It certainly feels like days. And here I am holed up in ……. Hôpitaux Universitaires de Genève, it says on my chart. At least I’m alive. No radioactive atom in the metaphorical box then.

Ah, there’s a lady in a white coat. She’s coming over. She will be able to tell me how long I’ve been here and what is going on. She will be able to let me know when Josie and Lucy are arriving. I’d better ask her about Davy too. Find out what happened to Davy? Is he here in the hospital as well? Or didn’t he make it? She’s bound to have information. Perhaps she will know what my band is called too. She has probably been listening to us on those headphones she has around her neck.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Seven

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

As many of you will be aware, Wet Blanket Ron started life as one of my fictional creations, based originally on someone called Dale Loveless, a ne’er-do-well of my acquaintance. This, of course, was just a starting point for the character. In the interests of drama, I allowed Ron to change according to the needs of each story he featured in. Those of you who over the years have followed his progress closely will know that recently, Ron made a bid to break free and start a new life of his own. He no longer wanted to be a character in my stories. He was tired of constantly being the victim.

To what extent, he wondered, did he exist or could he exist? There were so many everyday matters a fictional character needed to become familiar with if he was to get by in the real world. Where, for instance, would he live? How would he earn a living? As readers will know, Ron’s work record as a fictional character has been nothing short of disastrous.

Without relevant experience in the real life workplace, opportunities did not knock. The black economy beckoned. Although Ron’s first steps at wheeling and dealing showed great promise, it inevitably ran into difficulties. We left him at the end of Part Six with the Serious Crime Squad knocking at his door to bring him in, a duplication of his experiences as a fictional character. Ron was learning that, after so many years in bondage, it would not be easy to adjust to the dog-eat-dog world we live in. Without the guiding hand of an author to shape his destiny, he would need to show resilience and imagination if he was to succeed. Did he perhaps have a plan?

…………………………………….

I am horrified when I arrive home from a short break in Stockholm to discover this document open on my laptop. It appears Ron is writing his own dystopian novel.

Doom B by Wet Blanket Ron

I wish I could tell you everything was going to be all right. I’d love to let you know that you would survive this debacle. But unless a miracle occurs, this time next month, you will be dead. We will all be dead. Every single one of us will have perished. Who would have thought pigeons could be so dangerous? That each time you fed the lovable little birds in the park or put bread out for them in your garden, you were in effect signing your own death warrant.

Pigeons are not at all the cute creatures that so fascinated the painter, Pablo Picasso. His father kept pigeons back in Malaga and sometimes the young Pablo would take them with him to school. He maintained his fondness for the birds. Throughout his life, he painted them, blissfully unaware that many years later these same birds would be responsible for the downfall of mankind. That they would transmit the deadly Doom B virus, a malady for which there was no antidote. Not only is Doom B madly infectious but swift. As you have probably heard by now, the virus kills its victim within two hours.

At first, it was thought that a mass slaughter of pigeons would contain the spread of the virus. But this took place and made no impact. The rotting corpses of the pigeons turned out to be even more deadly than the live birds. In any case, it was probably too little too late. The damage had already been done. Too many people had already been infected. Billions the world over. The spread of the virus was irreversible. Although it was primarily an airborne virus, Doom B was so infectious it could even be transmitted by phone.

Ron is really going for it here, isn’t he? Nothing cheery about this scenario. No light at the end of the tunnel. No sense it will end well. It seems he is keen to justify his nomenclature. This is Wet Blanket Ron in a nutshell.

Wait! Here’s another.

Dog by Wet Blanket Ron

As she lay dying beside the burning wreck of the Subaru, Betty Oosterhuis wondered what would happen to her Jack Russell, Frank. Would poor Frank have to be put down? Surely no-one else would be able to tolerate his barking. But Frank had seen her through thick and thin. Frank saw off all those delivery people that wanted to put bills through the door or those that called around to talk to her about going to church. Frank got the annoying neighbours to move out. The ones who planted those big trees that blocked out her light. Frank’s barking saved her that time her son broke down the door with an axe. He ………

Ron is blatantly taking biographical details from my life in this one. Mrs Oosterhuis was my next-door neighbour. The neighbour from Hell. The one with the awful dog that forced me to move. How could I hope to write meaningful prose with the hideous thing barking all day? What is Ron up to?

Here’s yet another story he’s started. He’s left it open on the taskbar. It’s called Death of the Author. This was the title of an essay by the French literary critic, Roland Barthes about the need to separate a literary work from its creator. I remember it from my student days. A seminal work. My tutor, Aretha Holly spent a whole lecture talking about it. French theorists were all the rage at the time, Baudrillard, Derrida, Foucault, Lyotard, the library shelves were full of their weighty tomes. Barthes was perhaps the only one I could get my head around. But Ron’s story presents a more literal interpretation of the term, death of the author. It appears to be about a real author. It’s about someone plotting to kill a writer…. Bloody hell! It has me in it as the central character.

…………………………………….

Ron must have meant me to find these stories. The documents were open on my laptop. He must have realised they would send me into a panic. A fictional character coming to life in a work of fiction is one thing but a fictional character coming to life in real life is another. And a fictional character coming to life in real life and suggesting killing his creator is scary. Even if it is not Ron who wrote these but a random breaker and enterer having a prank by pretending to be Wet Blanket Ron, there’s no getting away from the fact that someone other than me has in my absence been on my computer and written these stories. Someone with malicious intent. Someone who wants to kill me.

I take a careful look around the house. Everything appears to be in place and I can find no evidence of a break-in. I debate whether to take the matter to the police but I conclude they would probably not have the expertise to deal with a case like this. They would ask questions like has anything been taken? How do you know this man, this Wet Blanket Ron? What does he look like? They would definitely not respond favourably to my, he is fictional; I created him. I don’t know what he looks like.

But this is the problem, I don’t know what he might look like in the flesh. I’ve always pictured him in his forties, about five feet nine, a bit of a paunch, sober, ill-fitting clothes, a hangdog expression, perhaps going grey or thinning on top, maybe a pair of brow-line spectacles. But, of course, I don’t know. Even if I did, he might be in disguise. So, how will I know if Ron suddenly appears? I begin to eye everyone I see with suspicion. Might they be Wet Blanket Ron? I size up every stranger in the street. Are they following me? Are they approaching me with intent? Might they be brandishing a club, wielding a machete? Might they be reaching for a gun from a shoulder holster? Why is that man in the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds T-shirt bending down to tie his shoelace? Is the fellow in the orange hi-viz jacket delivering letters really a postman? Why are those men waiting outside the boarded-up tobacconists’ shop?

I step up the security at home. I change the locks on the doors and windows. I change all the passwords on the computer. I get into the habit of shutting it down when I am not using it. I put a new sim card in my phone.

I return home from my evening shop to find the laptop is on. There, open on the screen is a new document. It’s called simply, What Does a Writer Do All Day? It describes my movements throughout the day in great detail including where I parked the car, the people I spoke to, the shops I went into and the places I crossed the road. Ron knows my every move. This raises the level of scariness to critical.

I decide to talk to my old friend, Pete Free about it. As Wet Blanket Ron is loosely based on Dale Loveless and Pete has known Dale since college, I figure he might have an idea of what Dale, and by extension, Ron might do next. Admittedly, it is a huge leap in logic. But even if it is a longshot, I have to try something. I mull over the riddle of existence. How does anything organic come about? There must always be something that gives rise to matter, something that precedes it. Matter cannot originate out of nothing. Or can it? Can living organisms spontaneously materialise, for instance, from an idea? As Ron appears to have done here. I take comfort from the fact that Pete is a bit of a philosopher. Surely, he will be able to shed some light on this conundrum.

I call around to Pete’s and before I know it, he has handed me a large spliff to look after. I seem to recall this is exactly what happened the last time I visited him. Once again, on leaving, I remember little of our conversation except that Pete hasn’t seen Dale, has no wish to see Dale and has no idea what he might be up to, has no interest in Wet Blanket Ron and that the universe is a hologram and we are floating inside it. I have the feeling I already knew this from my previous visit.

Being skadooshed seems to stir up something in the depths of my consciousness. On the way home, it suddenly occurs to me that the answer is staring me in the face. I could re-fictionalise Ron, simply put him back on the written page where he belongs. I could write a new Wet Blanket Ron story. This time around, I could give him a favourable situation so he wouldn’t have a problem with being fictional. I could place him on a Caribbean beach with a sultry babe, a cool glass of rum and Grenadine and a big bag of Jamaican Dream collie. Perhaps he could have a long-keeled ketch moored nearby, kitted out with all mod cons. Might he even have his own private island? He could be Mr Big. Ron would command the respect of all those he came in contact with. I could even drop the Wet Blanket part of his name or at least use it sparingly.

I get down to it right away. I give Ron a record breaking lottery win, set him up with glamour model, Lara Lascala and take him to a private beach, a few miles west of Ocho Rios. He has a fully crewed, state of the art catamaran on hand for those sizzling hot days when there is nothing else for it but to take to the seas. This should keep him out of mischief for a while. Oh, and I’m giving him his own secret ganga farm in the nearby hills. What could possibly go wrong?

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

This Old Art of Mine

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This Old Art of Mine by Chris Green

It all began when my electric kettle exploded. One expects setbacks now and again. But, they seem to happen at the worst possible time. Because the government had for some undisclosed reason not paid my pension for two successive months, I had no money to replace the kettle.

Since I retired, I have slowly but surely become a creature of habit, pacing myself with regular cups of tea throughout the day. Eight o’clock, nine o’clock, ten, etc. With no kettle to boil the water, I began to use a small saucepan. Slower, certainly. Less convenient, for sure. But it did the job. As I listened to Toscanini’s recording of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg with my third cup of the day, I calculated that if my pension didn’t come through for another month, I would need to put the saucepan on the hob three hundred and twenty seven more times. While I could get most of my provisions from the food bank in the Methodist church, it seemed unlikely they would have an electric kettle to give away. This was not the kind of thing people donated. I needed to rethink how I spent my days.

The lightbulb moment came during the quiet passage at the end of Act 2 of the opera. I had no money, but I had plenty of Art. I had never been able to afford originals by famous artists but Art had always been my passion. I had collected posters and prints for nearly forty years. There were hundreds in the attic. I could fill the spot where the kettle was with a painting. Van Gogh’s sunflowers perhaps or Monet’s water lilies. Or, what about a Magritte or a Dalí? Might these not be more appropriate? After all, surreal ideas demanded surreal solutions.

The Magritte cloud painting looked perfect in the spot where the kettle had been. Much more calming than the noisy old kettle ever was. Inspired, I decided to replace the toaster with Picasso’s La Rêve. An abstract simplification of line and form by the master, this was altogether more pleasing. I had never liked the toaster. It was a cheap model, made in Taiwan. No matter how you set it, the toast always came out black.

Days passed but no pension payments came through. I was forced to continue to frequent the food bank. I discovered too that you could get a free meal at The Salvation Army in Christopher Street and, it seemed, unlimited cups of tea. If I planned it right, I could arrive for a late breakfast, have six or seven cups of Yorkshire’s finest throughout the morning and play one or two games of chess with Dmitri. Dmitri usually beat me but this didn’t matter. He was a good conversationalist, waxing lyrical about his shot-putting days back in Omsk Oblast. With a word in the right ear, I found I could also stay for lunch at the Sally Army and Mads was a pretty good chef. Before he lost his job through a drugs conviction, he had worked at one of the top hotels.

After lunch, I could return home for a lengthy nap on the Chesterfield. I could get through the rest of the day by opening a tin or two from the food bank, peaches in syrup perhaps or fruit salad and boiling one or two saucepans of water for my PG Tips. I could sit back and relax with an old Wagner favourite or perhaps even Verdi or Donizetti, without having to worry about shopping. Il Campanello always sounded good with my final brew of the day.

The microwave had to go. It was grey and drab and looked completely out of place alongside the new artwork, especially once I had painted a colourful Mondrian design on the kitchen door and up-cycled the kitchen cabinets into Hokusai diptychs. I tried replacing the unsightly Curry’s monstrosity with a vibrant Hockney landscape and then a Rothko multiform before settling on a brightly coloured, Kandinsky. The kitchen was taking shape.

Most of the food from the food bank came in cans so I found I no longer needed the fridge freezer. I decided to put it to rest in the shed. This left plenty of room in the kitchen for The Henry Moore sculpture I picked up for a song at an auction in Tavistock years ago. The kitchen table made good kindling. The Salvador Dalí settee fitted nicely in its place. Finally, I replaced the cooker with a large Jackson Pollock and turned the music up loud.

Outside the Bumblebee Conservation Trust charity shop on Lance Percival Street one day, I bumped into Freda Mann.

I heard about your kettle,’ Freda said. ‘I have a spare one. Would you like me to drop it round?’

That’s very kind of you, Freda,’ I said. ‘But I don’t think I have room for it.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is even addressing her by name now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY

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

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

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

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

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

I think I might have it somewhere,’

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

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

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

Uh huh.’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

3:13 a.m.

313

3: 13 a.m. by Chris Green

Not so long ago, it was becoming recognised that at 3:13 a.m. each morning, everyone heard something disturbing that gave them a jolt and caused the heart to skip a beat. The rogue sound was not the same for everyone. For some, it was the tolling of a distant bell, for others a mournful foghorn, while yet others might hear an air raid siren or find a freight train running through their head. It was believed that no-one was immune. No matter where you found yourself in the world, at whatever time of year, you were likely to hear it. Whether you were asleep or awake, there was no escaping it. At exactly 3:13, your state of grace would be interrupted. Jonny Bisco would be woken by the pounding of horses’ hooves on tarmac. Brady Ness would hear the blast of an air horn. Jack and Vera would both hear Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep.

In normal waking life, each of the senses is distinguishable from the others. But, in the case of the 3:13 disturbances, hearing could become inseparable from the other senses. The unsettling sounds you heard might be tinged with a taste, for instance, or a smell. Sometimes you could see and touch the sounds. The blood-curdling scream that Emma-Jane heard smelt like a rotting corpse, Lorenzo’s dental drill tasted of cabbage and the minor chord on the cello I heard emitted an eerie glow.

Some people were in denial. Tiffany Golden, for instance, was in denial. She maintained that at 3:13, she heard nothing. She was not disturbed by the sudden creak of footfall on the stairs or the howling of a wolf. She did not hear distant drums or the chant of a rampaging mob. Her heartbeat, she said, was always regular. She slept the sleep of the just. Walter Ego too was in denial. This was the time, he said, that he usually walked his dog after finishing his shift at the nightclub. He claimed the albatross he heard circling overhead was a natural occurrence.

Denial was nothing new, even for those who acknowledged the nocturnal disturbances. The debate centred around whether the inexplicable night-time sounds they were hearing were real or not. There were many interpretations of what constituted reality. Einstein famously posited that reality was an illusion, albeit a very persistent one. Roy Sax, my philosopher friend from The Goat and Bicycle subscribed to the John Lennon view that nothing was real. Perhaps there were degrees of reality on a sliding scale. Or were the sounds, while not fantasy exactly, a phenomena akin to dreaming? They occurred in the middle of the night when, more often than not, people were asleep or trying to sleep. And we had been aware since time immemorial that the night harboured all manner of mysteries. By its very nature, darkness triggered a whirlpool of shadowy possibilities. Might we be getting clandestine messages from the depths of the unconscious, spiritual guru, Lars Wimoweh wondered? A crude form of communication from the collective unconscious. To describe them, he coined the phrase spontaneous textural phantasms. Some felt that there could be a sinister motive behind the sounds although they remained puzzled as to what this motive might be. Scare tactics on behalf of a consortium? A leftfield advertising strategy for a new product launch? Were they part of a Russian plot, asked the Daily Mail? Or perhaps just mass paranoia? Auditory hallucinations? With so many explanations, it was perhaps unrealistic to expect consensus or closure.

While the world over, whole families, whole streets, whole towns and cities appeared to be experiencing these sinister night-time sounds, they were seldom if ever discussed. Discussions that there were tended to be short.

I heard a helicopter circling overhead in the night. At about three o’clock,’ I might have said to Patti. ‘It smelt of burning rubber.’

I heard the sound of breaking glass again,’ Patti might have said. ‘Shall we go and see the new Danny Boyle film at the Empire later?’

I might have said, ‘yes, that’s a good idea. We could go for some supper afterwards at that new Mexican place.’ In all probability there would have been no further reference the helicopter or the breaking glass.

I’m fairly sure Emma-Jane and Lorenzo never talked about their night-time disturbances. They were too busy looking after their parrots. Being a public figure, Brady Ness was afraid of ridicule. Jack and Vera didn’t speak to each other much anyway. Roy Sax was busy watching the wheels go round.

Last year, there was a breakthrough. A number of people in different locations were recorded simultaneously waking at 3:13 a.m. to a momentary discordant rendition of Ace of Spades. Unusual that so many people in different places should hear the same unexpected ruckus. Suspicious too. Synchronisation of nocturnal sounds had not been obvious before. And why Ace of Spades? A publicity stunt for Motorhead? A cyber punk trying to make a name for himself? Whatever! It did draw attention to the phenomenon. The clip went viral on social media. People began to examine their own night-time disturbances. They began to share these with others. 3:13 became the subject on everyone’s lips.

The product life-cycle of viral clips on the internet is, however, all too brief. Interest quickly faded and the subject was once again forgotten. But, when you consider it, the position can’t have changed that much. People the world over must surely still be hearing spontaneous textural phantasms. Every night, their consciousness is, in all likelihood, still receiving an unwelcome jolt. Yet, because no-one is talking about it, the mystery remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, at exactly 3:13 tonight your state of grace will be interrupted along with all the others. Jonny Bisco will be woken by the pounding of horses hooves on tarmac. Brady Ness will hear the blast of an air horn. Jack and Vera will both hear Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep. Senses may once again become confused. The blood-curdling scream that Emma-Jane hears will smell like a rotting corpse, Lorenzo’s dental drill will taste of cabbage and the minor chord on the cello I hear will emit an eerie glow.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

DARK

dark2018

DARK by Chris Green

I am in the garden at The Pig and Whistle on a hot August evening. About a dozen of us are sat around a table. Darkness is descending, rapidly, the way it does in mid-August. The English summer is so fleeting. Blink and it is gone. Every year it seems the locals try to hold on to the disappearing season by savouring these last moments. Soon it will end. It is not like this back home.

I have been holding forth about a painting of Jim Morrison that I have just finished. I have called it Lizard King. It is part of my Twenty Seven Club series.

I’m Matt,’ says the man sitting opposite me. ‘They call me Matt the Hat.’

I already know this of course because I have been sleeping with his girlfriend, Saskia. The last time, not two hours previously, as it happens. But Matt the Hat doesn’t know this. Nor does he know that I know who he is, but even if I didn’t, I might have been able to guess the Hat part of it.

I’m Sebastian,’ I say.

I love The Doors,’ he says.

I’ve just picked up on their music,’ I say.’They did some great songs.’

Did you know Jim had an IQ of 149,’ he says?

No,’ I say. ‘Clever guy, then.’

Or, that his favourite singer was Elvis Presley?’

I did not, Matt,’ I say.

I’m not sure where this conversation can go. I don’t want to come across as too friendly because I must remain incognito. I am not really Sebastian. I took the name from an old Cockney Rebel song that I heard a while back, Somebody called me Sebastian. Quite a dark tune, I suppose. Most of the others around the table know me as Clive and a few of them are amused by the situation, but no-one is letting on. For now, I am enjoying this subterfuge, although I am aware that Saskia, who I am fond of, will be leaving with Matt the Hat at the end of the evening.

I quickly dispense with the Doors conversation and guide the topic round to hats. I ask him if his hat is a Borsalino, knowing full well that it is not. It is not even a Fedora. Matt says he doesn’t know.

What are you doing with a man who doesn’t know what hat he’s wearing, Saskia?’ says Paddy the Poet.

Well, Matt, it’s not a sombrero, is it?’ I say.

Don and Gina chuckle. They are fully aware that I am trying to rile Matt. If it came down to it, they would be on my side. They only know Matt the Hat through Saskia. In fact, most of the people around the table only know Matt through Saskia. Saskia is a popular girl in these parts. The life and soul of the party sort of girl. Matt is seen here as a bit of an interloper. He is not one of the regular Pig and Whistle crowd, whereas I have been coming here for months. When did Matt appear on the scene? Where did he come from? Doesn’t he usually drink at The Blind Monkey along the road?

It’s not a crash helmet, Matt,’ is it?’ says Biker Dennis.

And it’s not a leopard skin pill box hat,’ says the guy who used to be in The Manic Street Preachers.

Hats move on to shoes, windsurfing and Damien Hirst via New York, Dark Side of the Moon, fairground rides, drink drive limits and aliens. The summer evening passes in the way that summer evenings do in the yard of the Pig and Whistle with details becoming more and more blurry. People come and people go, some familiar and some unfamiliar. Who, for instance, are the two Roy Orbison lookalikes dressed in dark clothes sat in the shadow of the brooding zelkova serrata? No-one pays much attention to them. Perhaps I am the only one to notice them.

We have Stella Artois and Fosters to fuel us, Old Thumper ale and something called Stagger scrumpy. Take your pick. They all seem to do the job. The noise level rises, drinks get spilt and spliffs are surreptitiously passed around. By and by, Saskia gets up to leave with Matt the Hat. She gives me a knowing look and says, ‘It was nice to meet you, Sebastian,’ This is the last I ever see of her. Or for that matter Matt the Hat. I’m not too concerned about Matt the Hat. He was never going to be a big feature in my life, but Saskia could have been.

Their disappearance is shrouded in mystery. No one seems to know what happened to them. I may have been distracted as they were making their way out of the pub, but did the two men in dark suits who were sitting under the brooding zelkova serrata follow them out? By the time I looked round for them, they too had disappeared. Might they originally have been looking for me, found out I was seeing Saskia and when they came to the Pig and Whistle formed the impression that Matt was me?

……………………………………..

I like to go walking in the hills, sometimes even when it is dark. It gives me time to reflect on my journey and how far I have come, since. ……. Well, that all seems a long time ago. I usually go walking on my own, although I have met someone called Abi who enjoys the countryside too. From time to time, when the weather is favourable, she tags along. Abi is a little younger than me. Sometimes it appears that everyone is younger than me, but I guess this is all relative. Einstein thought so.

I am fortunate that I can make enough money from my paintings not to worry about having a job or keeping regular hours. Watching the distress that working for some exploitative multinational corporation seems to cause the toiling millions makes me feel that I a blessed to have such a talent. If you should care to look me up on the internet, Augustus Dark, that is, not Sebastian or Clive, you will find my work referred to as iconic nostalgia, fantasy portraiture, outsider art and even pop art, but I am perhaps none of these things. I seem to have discovered a lucrative but as yet untapped market. I have an exhibition coming up at a top gallery. I’m quite excited at the prospect but I hope that it doesn’t attract unwanted visitors. They may have realised their earlier mistake and still be out there somewhere.

……………………………………..

What kind of car do you think that is?’ I say to Abi, pointing to the car in front of us. We are driving down Black Dog Way on our way to the hardware store for storage boxes. I have been living with Abi for a few months now and we are about to move into a new house, out of town. The car we are following appears at first glance to be a run-of-the-mill large hatchback with the tinted rear screen, triangular shaped red tail lights, centre high mount stop lamps and twin exhausts you would expect to find on such a car. Despite these consistencies, it somehow doesn’t look right. There is something unexplainably other about it.

It’s says Hyperion,’ says Abi.

I can see that,’ I say. ‘But Hyperion is the model name. What make is it? Who’s the manufacturer? I’ve not seen that badge before.’

Neither have I,’ says Abi. Abi is normally quite observant.

The design is a rounded M shape over a what looks like a rounded W inside a circle. It’s surprising how easily logos and trademarks from everyday life become ingrained in one’s consciousness and this one has not registered yet. I can’t make out who is in the car or how many of them there are because of the tinted rear window but I have a bad feeling about them. As soon as I get the chance, I take a left turn.

As we move through the slow moving traffic, Abi and I rack our brains, with each of us suggesting names of far-eastern car manufacturers that we are half-familiar with. None of these seems to be the right one. Something about this is not right. Perhaps I am being anal but when we get back home, I do a Google search for Hyperion. I am aware of course of what Hyperion is and my search does no more than confirm this. It comes up with nothing vaguely automobile-related. I then draw the logo design as I remember it and spend an hour or so trying to match my drawing with an image of it on the web, but to no avail. The brand apparently does not exist. The registration number I took down, I discover, belongs to a white Renault Clio. Next, I try to find a picture of a black hatchback to match the shape but this is hopeless. All cars of a certain size look similar these days, at least from the rear.

I am still searching, when Abi comes in, scrolling down her phone. She is wearing the anguished expression she wears when something bad is trending on social media.

Oh my God!’ she says. ‘Lol Popp has died. Under mysterious circumstances, it says here. Drugs, they think.’

Lol Popp? Doesn’t he live somewhere around here?’ I say. ‘Some big house on the hill.’

It says, the star who has sold twenty million albums was found dead by his bodyguard earlier today in his West Country mansion.’

That’s a real shame,’ I say, trying to stay calm. ‘I really liked some of his tunes, Men in Black and what was that other one? Lost in Space? Lol was quite young, wasn’t he?’

Twenty seven,’ she says. ‘I suppose you have to do a painting of him now.’

Does a desire to join the twenty seven club, that growing list of rock icons that died at twenty seven, explain his demise? Or could there be a more sinister explanation? Lol always seemed a bit …… other-worldly. The way he wore that black face mask. The way he always wore purple. The way he never gave interviews. I am back on my laptop now, scanning the news sites. To my alarm, there is a report in Huffington Post saying only hours after he had been found dead Lol’s body disappeared, along with the bodyguard. That’s weird. It was the bodyguard who found him. I don’t share the development with Abi or let her know what I am thinking. She will tell me I am being paranoid.

Over the next few days, I continue to look out for the car with the rogue badge. There are Buforis, Peroduas, Acuras, Hyundais and Ssangyongs aplenty and even an old Lada Riva, but no Hyperion. The thought occurs more than once that the original Hyperion we saw might just have been someone playing a prank. But, I have a nagging suspicion that this isn’t the case. I can’t get rid of the thought that there is a more sinister explanation. I hope I am wrong. I like it here.

……………………………………..

The black Hyperion is at the gate. Two men in dark suits and dark glasses step out. This is it. They have come for me. They will escort me to the landing craft. They will take me back home. It is time. I should be pleased that Abi has gone to Pilates, that she is not here. They would take her too. That would be unfair on her. She might not like it where I’m going. But, I can’t help wanting her to be with me, even though she is from this world and not from ours.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Salty Dog

saltydog

Salty Dog by Chris Green

I often come here to sit and watch the boats. I do not know much about boats or seafaring but I find the ebb and flow of the tides and the toing and froing of the vessels to be a kind of meditation. I understand a little about the tides and how they are affected by the moon and the wind direction and I carry around a mental timetable of when to expect them. But boats are more of a mystery. There are big boats and little boats, long boats and short boats, boats with sails and boats without sails but this being a harbour suggests that they must all go out to sea. What regulations are there about how they come and go, I wonder and where do they get their fuel? How do you learn how to sail them and what do you do when they go wrong? Is there a Boat 101 where you can find out these things? Or, is nautical knowledge something that is passed on in masonic secrecy through the generations?

The stranger who sits himself on the next bench has the look of the ancient mariner about him. Admittedly he has no albatross around his neck but he does have the requisite Naval full set, weather-beaten features and lugubrious countenance. He too has come to watch the boats but I suspect from a different perspective. He will know the ropes. He will know how to send a shot across the bows. He will be able to fathom it out. He will have stories about keel hauling and splicing the mainbrace. Here is an old sea-dog for sure. I can’t help but be reminded of Coleridge’s perennial narrative verse.

Coleridge doesn’t appear to have been in the navy and he wouldn’t have had the internet at the time of his writing. Yet there is a wealth of nautical detail in the poem. I wonder how he did his research for The Ancient Mariner. There are many seafaring expressions you would not expect a layman to know. Perhaps as a young man, he sat on this very seat or one like it while a salty dog with craggy features like the one sitting beside me now regaled him with apocryphal tales of the seven seas. The main difference perhaps might be that the stories Coleridge heard would be of pirates plundering sailing ships while the tales I might expect from my man may not feature barquentines and square riggers very much.

It looks as though I am about to find out. The old sea-dog has moved in closer. Surprisingly though, he wants to talk about cats. Although I am a little disappointed that he is not going to tell me about his adventures on the high seas, I do know a lot about cats. Marissa and I have six of them. I understand perfectly where he is coming from when he tells me that he likes to talk to his cat. I find myself talking to ours too, especially Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. But, it would freak me out if they were to speak to me as his cat apparently does. He tells me his cat is called Polly. Polly would be way down the list of popular cat names. I begin to wonder if perhaps Polly is a parrot and he is confusing cats and parrots. I try to explain the difference.

Parrots are usually brightly coloured and they sit on a perch and eat nuts,’ I say. ‘Cats are furry and like to sit in front of the fire.’

He seems grateful that I have pointed this out and this steers the conversation neatly on to trains. He tells me he likes travelling by train and I agree that it is a good way to get about. I tell him if I’m going on a long journey, I often take the train rather than drive. Motorways are hell during the summer months. He begins to tell me about a train he took recently to New York. I don’t like to interrupt his flow but I can’t help thinking a transatlantic train is a little unusual. More likely it was a plane he went on or perhaps an ocean liner. Looking him up and down again, I would say that a cruise across the Atlantic is probably favourite. After all, he does have the look of the ancient mariner about him. Might I, at last, I find out something about life on the ocean waves?

How long did the journey take?’ I ask in the hope that he will want to share his experiences from ten days or so at sea.

Around seven hours,’ he says.

Ah!’ I say. ‘That is quite quick. For a train, I mean.’

I never drink during the day. Not since …… well, not for a long time now. Rum is not my favourite tipple anyway so I forgo the proffered pick-me-up, a half-bottle of Lambs Navy. The conversation moves on to West Ham United’s problems in defence. We agree the blame rests mostly with the new manager. I mention that Millwall F.C. are doing better lately. I point out that Millwall is in the heart of what was once London’s docklands in the hope it might jolt his maritime memory. The prompt sails past him.

While the boats in the harbour come and go, we talk instead about saxophones, doppelgängers and past lives. The bottle is now empty. The mystery man bids me farewell and lurches off in the direction of The Smugglers Arms. Is that a sea shanty he is singing?

I return to my meditation. I still have a lot to learn about boats and seafaring.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Darkness on the Edge of Town

darkness

Darkness on the Edge of Town by Chris Green

1:

Tim Soft is walking home along Marlboro Street. He feels he has had a wearying day at the office. He wishes it were Friday, but it’s only Tuesday. A vintage Chevrolet Impala pulls up alongside him, one of the ones with the harmonica front grille and the big tail fins. Tim notices that it has recently had a door replaced. The replacement door is pink while the original colour of the car, so far as he can tell in the advancing dusk, is blue. It’s unusual to see an American car on the streets these days, he reflects, but they do look good even with mismatched doors. Tim is a big fan of Americana, American cars, American music, American films, Breaking Bad and of course, Twin Peaks.

A pale-skinned man with a lean angular face leans across the bench seat and winds down the passenger side window. He has a wavy nineteen fifties-style quiff and a long scar running down his left cheek. Bruce Springsteen’s, Darkness on the Edge of Town is blaring out, a song Tim remembers from back in the day when he was sharing a house in Slumpton with Sid Hacker and Susie Q. That all seems a long time ago now. He likes to think he has matured since then. He likes to think he is more successful now. The Chevy driver turns The Boss down and in a gravelly voice asks for directions to Twin Peaks. How strange is that? He even looks like a Twin Peaks character. He has a faraway look in his eye and may be on drugs, Tim feels, probably hard drugs. But surely he must have misheard him. It’s easy to experience a degree of dissonance after a long day in a noisy publishing house staring at an iMac Pro.

Sorry,’ he says. ‘Where did you say?’

The driver looks him up and down menacingly. For a moment, Tim thinks he might be about to leap out of the car, grab him by the lapels and force him up against the wall.

Quinn Street, buddy,’ he says, finally.

Was this what he said originally, Tim wonders? It would be good to clear this up but he is not going to ask. It would not be a good idea to question the ruffian’s powers of diction. He decides to put the misunderstanding down to a mondegreen and try to forget all about Twin Peaks.

Tim is sure Quinn Street came up in conversation recently but can’t remember how or why. Was it maybe in connection with Razor Ramirez, a notorious local drug dealer, who he heard might have moved into this part of town? But then, why would the dude in the Chevy be asking him. He is wearing a smart suit, albeit without a tie. He remembers finding out that Marty Quinn was a local councillor in the nineteen eighties, since disgraced for his kerb-crawling conviction but he doesn’t imagine that the dude will be interested in local history. Nervously, Tim explains the directions as the driver revs the Chevy’s engine impatiently.

Past the entrance to the park, second left, left again, then …… third right,’ he says, hoping that he has got this right.

2:

When Tim gets home, he finds Judy is flustered. She looks dishevelled. Her make-up is smudged. He’s not sure but it looks like she might have been crying. When he had phoned her from work earlier to find out if he needed to get anything on the way home, she had cut him short saying there was someone at the door. It had seemed inconsequential at the time. He had thought no more of it.

Are you OK?’ he asks.

Judy appears to hesitate before she replies. Tim puts the hesitation down to her being upset. Now he comes to think of it, she has been a bit up and down lately and very prickly. At times he has felt he is treading on eggshells. He is no longer sure how to react.

What’s wrong?’ he says, putting his arm around her. ‘Who’s upset you? ……… Was it something to do with whoever was at the door when I phoned?’

Judy pushes his arm away.

I had just got home from the …… hairdressers,’ she says, doing her best to avoid his gaze. ‘And someone …….. called round …… for you.’

Who?’ he asks. Having been married now for nine years, Tim does not get many casual visitors.

Big guy, black leather, slicked back hair,’ she says. ‘He had a …… a piercing stare. He said I’m looking for Tim Soft. I told him you weren’t here but he didn’t seem happy about it.’

Tim is taken aback. He’s pretty sure he doesn’t know anyone like the fellow she is describing. Not these days, anyway. One hoodlum lurking in the area was odd enough. Surely it is unreasonable for another one to appear so soon. This is a quiet suburban estate. He wonders whether Judy is making it up. But, why would she?

He was …… very threatening,’ Judy continues. ‘I asked him what he wanted to see you about and he said you would know.’

I wasn’t expecting anyone,’ Tim says. So far as he knows he does not owe money and can’t think of anyone he might have upset recently.

He had a strange accent,’ Judy says. ‘Foreign, yet not foreign. He looked like someone out of that David Lynch show you made me watch. The one with the man from another place and that ridiculous talking tree.’

Another reference to Twin Peaks. Working in publishing, Tim is of the belief that the fictional world should stay where it belongs, whether this be the written page, cinema or television and not spill over into real life. Especially now that he has completed the graphics and layout for the Twin Peaks illustrated publication and put it to bed.

The thing is, Tim, he said he was going to call back,’ Judy adds. ‘Perhaps we ought to go out.’

Good idea,’ Tim says. ‘What about that new bar?’

3:

After his third bottle of Double Bastard at The Sizzling Squid, Tim still feels nervous about returning home. Normally Double Bastard relaxes him but he has a bad feeling about something. He is not sure what but something is not quite right.

Surely no-one is going to call round after ten,’ Judy says, looking at her watch. Her three glasses of Albanian Shiraz seem to have calmed her. Tim suspects she may also have secretly taken one or two of the happy pills that Dr Ranatunga prescribed. Perhaps Dr Ranatunga might have been a little remiss. They appear to make her behaviour unpredictable.

But what if our caller is lying in wait?’ he says. ‘I think I’ll just have one more beer.’

We can’t stay out all night,’ Judy says when Tim returns from the bar. ‘Are you coming?’

Even though it is a short distance, chivalry dictates that Tim not allow Judy to walk home alone but chivalry has never been his strong suit. Especially after nine years of marriage. Besides, he now has another beer to finish.

I’ll be right behind you,’ he says.

Tim does not believe he has ever seen anyone quite so tall as the forbidding figure he suddenly finds standing over him. At first, he thinks the huge fellow must be some kind of hallucination brought on by the Double Bastard but the hallucination refuses to go away. The colossus stands silently, a good seven feet tall, not seven feet from him, staring fixedly in his direction. He is formally dressed. Like a club steward. Or perhaps even the giant in Twin Peaks. More likely a club steward though in this situation. Whoever it is, the big fellow seems unhappy about something. What has he done to upset him? Maybe it is time for him to leave. He might even be able to catch up with Judy.

4:

Tim makes his way unsteadily through the night. As he turns into Viceroy Terrace, up ahead of him, he spots the Chevy with the mismatched door. Right outside his house. His initial instinct is to make himself scarce. No sense in looking for trouble. He could perhaps drop in on his brother, Tom. He owes him a visit. There again, Tom’s partner, also called Tom seems to have taken a dislike to him. Tom and Tom probably wouldn’t appreciate him calling round drunk at ten o’clock at night. And, of course, there is Judy to consider. She might be in danger and it would be all his fault. For that matter, she might even already be bound and gagged in the back of the car. He steels himself and strides purposely up the street towards the vehicle. It has its engine running, Bruce Springsteen’s Point Blank blaring through the open window. As he gets closer, the driver gives a final rev of the engine and the car pulls away. Tim cannot see Judy inside the car but it occurs to him that the thug might have bundled her into the boot. This is the kind of thing that would happen in Twin Peaks.

He unlocks his front door. The house is in darkness. Not a good sign. He calls out Judy’s name. There is no reply. Frenziedly, he darts around the house looking for her. Surely she would be home by now even if she had taken a detour through Lark Park and along Chesterfield Avenue. Yet, she is not home. He dials her number but to his dismay, he hears her phone ringing in the next room. Why doesn’t she ever take the thing with her? What’s the point in having a mobile if you leave it at home?

He rummages around looking for clues. He does not know quite what he is looking for. He takes a look at her phone. There are several missed calls other than his. The phone does not record the caller’s number. He scrolls through the numbers she has dialled. He doesn’t recognise any of them. But then, he can hardly remember his own number. He opens up the Camera Roll folder. Flicking through, he sees that one of the photos looks like the hoodlum who was driving the Chevy. He can’t believe it. How can this be? He takes a closer look. It is a photo of him. There is no doubt about it. There’s the Chevrolet Impala in the background. And there’s another. In this one, he is with a group of people at some kind of outdoor event. He doesn’t like the look of them one bit. Here’s a selfie. Chevy Man has his arm around Judy. What is that all about? Is she having an affair? With that hoodlum? Should he have noticed some warning signs? Were there some clues he might have spotted. He comes across a random address scribbled on a scrap of paper by her laptop. Razor, 66 Quinn Street. Surely this can’t be right. How on earth would she know Razor? Then it dawns on him. She must be buying drugs. It’s the only explanation. If she is buying drugs, it would help to explain a few things. This would explain the happy pills. Her mood swings. How had it all come to this? He begins to wonder if perhaps he might have become too involved with the fictional world of Twin Peaks and taken his eye off the ball.

5:

Whatever Tim’s feelings might be at this moment in time, Judy is to all intents and purposes, missing. Unless she was on her way to meet her supposed lover when she left the pub and he was on his way to meet her when he sped off, it would appear she is not even with him. So there must be another explanation. Tim has a dilemma. Should he sit and back and thank his lucky stars that he has caught her out in her deceit? Or, should he set about finding what has happened to her just in case it is something calamitous? Clearly, he can’t report her to the police as a missing person. Given the circumstances, they would just laugh at him. He could phone around the numbers on her mobile to see if anyone has an idea where she might be but once again, given the circumstances, he would be subjecting himself to ridicule. He could take a trip round to 66 Quinn Street. Probably a longshot and wary about the hostile reception he would be likely to get, he decides to give it a miss. All he can do, he feels, is sit tight and see what happens. Judy’s phone rings. Unrecognised number says the display and when he answers it, the caller hangs up. Weren’t mobile phones designed to simplify life?

6:

When one parameter in your life changes, you often find that everything else changes. Perhaps it is linked in some way to chaos theory or a variation of the domino effect. When it is a negative development you might throw in the expression, slippery slope. Tim’s life seems to be on a downward run. When he goes into work the following morning, sleep-deprived and hungover, he finds himself summoned to his boss’s office. His work lately has not been up to scratch, Carson Gaye tells him and the work on the Twin Peaks publication, in particular, was shoddy, full of mistakes that should have been corrected before it went to print. His services are no longer required. He is sacked.

When Tim gets back home Judy still hasn’t returned. There are more missed calls on her phone from the same unrecognised number as the previous evening. Tim is now convinced that something untoward has happened. He is about to call the police when, to his puzzlement, they arrive mob-handed on his doorstep. They have not come about Judy’s disappearance however but to search the house for drugs. Detective Sergeant Badger shows him the warrant, issued that very morning. Acting on a tip-off, he explains. When asked the routine question, is there anything that shouldn’t be here, Tim tells him that he is wasting his time. Of course, there are no drugs in the house. D. S. Badger laughs and tells him that everyone says that but in his experience, it usually means the opposite. Tim continues to remonstrate as burly officers in fatigues begin to turn the house upside down.

Here it is, guv,’ the one with the buzz cut and the neck tattoos says, slitting open a sealed package the size of an airline bag that, like a magician, he appears to have pulled out from underneath the staircase.

Good work, Scuzzi,’ the Sergeant says. ‘That’s what we’re looking for.’

Badger tells Tim it is probably the largest cache of crystal meth he has ever come across. How can this have happened, Tim wonders? Crystal meth is something he thought only existed in Breaking Bad or spoof documentaries about fictional rock bands. The police must have somehow planted it. He suggests this is a set-up, breaking into a rant about police malpractice. His protests go unheeded. He is cuffed and taken down to the station to be charged.

While Tim is waiting for his solicitor to arrive, he feels that not even his brother Tom’s friend, Wet Blanket Ron could match the speed of his change of fortune. In just twenty four hours, he has managed to go from happily-married, devil-may-care, graphic designer living in a plush house on a well-positioned estate to paranoid, estranged, international drugs smuggler confined to a foetid cell, looking forward to a long stretch in Wormwood Scrubs or Belmarsh. Surely not even Ron could claim such a rapid fall from grace.

Is it Murphy’s Law, Tim wonders, that states that when you think things cannot get any worse, they do? Something along those lines, anyway. Is it Smith’s Law that suggests that Murphy was an optimist? While Tim is trying to remember exactly which of the amateur philosophers stated what, still believing in his heart of hearts that things can’t really get worse, he learns that Judy’s mutilated body was found earlier in the canal. Estimated time of death, Inspector Dawlish Warren from the Homicide and Serious Crime Command informs him was between midnight and 6 am this morning. The Inspector takes it a step further and tells him that he is the prime suspect. Can he account for his movements between those times?

7:

Tim’s solicitor introduces himself. ‘Dario Chancer of Gallagher, Shed and Chancer.’

Thank God you are here, Mr Chancer,’ Tim says. ‘I’ve been going crazy in this bloody place.’

OK. Let’s get straight down to it then, Mr Soft,’ Chancer says. ‘This drugs business first, I think. What’s the story with that?’

I’ve no idea where the package came from,’ Tim says. ‘The police must have planted it.’

Some work to do there then,’ Chancer says. ‘The police don’t often admit planting evidence. At least not voluntarily. Now! I think it might be easier to try and build a case around the drugs being your wife’s. After all, I understand Judy Soft is dead. She won’t be able to argue. For a small consideration, I think we might be able to get a few witnesses to testify to Judy’s drug activities, if you catch my drift. ……… Which brings us on to the murder. First question I have to ask you is, are you guilty? Did you kill Judy?’

Of course not,’ Tim says.

So you’ll have an alibi for last night,’ Chancer says. ‘Someone who can confirm where you were between midnight and six?’

Not exactly, no,’ Tim says. ‘I was at home on my own, worrying myself silly.’

Not so good. It would certainly make our job easier if you did have an alibi,’ Chancer says. ‘Still! We can work on one.’

‘Do you have any suggestions, Mr Chancer?’

Well. Let me see. … H’mm. …… I wonder. Listen! You might think this is a little unconventional but I’ve used it once before and it seemed to work then. ……. Do you happen to watch Twin Peaks by any chance?’

As a matter of fact, I do. I’m a big fan. I …….. ‘

Then you will be familiar with a character called Garland Briggs.’

Of course. Major Briggs was abducted by aliens.’

That’s right. He was sucked up into a vortex.’

Indeed. But how does this help?’

You could say that at 11 last night, you were walking home when you were suddenly sucked up off the street by a vortex and not returned until, let’s say to be on the safe side, ten this morning. And you can’t account for the time spent in the other place. It’s all a bit of a blur. Perhaps you might come up with some gobbledegook about the white lodge or the black lodge and perhaps throw in a dwarf or two and a talking tree for good measure. Now! Just one thing. You haven’t told them anything so far, have you? You know. Anything that might incriminate you?’

No. I’ve said nothing. I was waiting for you to get here.’

Good! Only if you had, it would be difficult to say that the alien abduction had just slipped your mind.’

You don’t think that perhaps, it’s a bit …… far out for a defence, then.’

We could back it up with some testimonies from expert witnesses.’

Expert witnesses?’

Hardcore Ufologists. And maybe a die-hard Twin Peaks fan.’

But, the thing is I didn’t do it, Mr Chancer. I didn’t kill Judy. I’m innocent. Not only that I want the bastard who did kill her brought to justice.’

But as you’ve told me, Mr Soft. You don’t have an alibi. You haven’t had much experience of the judicial system, have you? No alibi translates as guilty in a court of law.’

8:

In HM Prison Wakefield where Tim Soft is serving his thirty year stretch, he is allowed no visitors. Even the prison warders are vetted before they can enter his cell. He has been well and truly removed from society. But, if you were a fly on the wall in his cell, you just might hear Tim humming Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. It appears to be an obsession. There are no posters of Rita Hayworth, but you would find the walls of his cell covered in posters of vintage Chevrolet cars. Another obsession. Then there is all his arcane talk about extra-dimensional connected spaces, the black lodge and the white lodge. Psychiatrists have been unable to penetrate the dark deluded world that Tim inhabits.

Some might argue that he was unfortunate to get a prison sentence at all as by many people’s reckoning, he could be considered insane. As it happened, Tim changed his story daily during the trial and kept changing his plea. He did not seem to know what time of day it was and on occasions, could not remember his name. But, as is often the case, his eventual plea of ‘not guilty by reason of insanity’ failed to impress. The court did not believe that he had been abducted by aliens or that he was being instructed by a talking tree. No-one was listening. It was felt that his crimes were too serious.

The court heard how Tim had weaved a web of deceit and treachery, taking in all those who had the misfortune to come into contact with him. He had pretended to be a respectable citizen while in reality, he was running a ruthless drugs empire. Countless casualties lay in the wake of his underworld activities. How he managed to get with his duplicity for so long was a mystery. By the time of his trial, even his friends and family were lining up to testify against him. His brother Tom explained how, as a boy, Tim used to torture the family pets, and not just the gerbils and hamsters. The court heard how his long-suffering wife, Judy had been the victim of his abuse for years. On that fateful night, Tim had gone on the rampage, killing two men in The Sizzling Squid in cold blood before brutally bludgeoning Judy to death and dumping her body in the canal. No matter how unbalanced he was, he was not going to get away with a soft sentence in a rehabilitation facility.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Another Time and Place

anothertimeandplace2019

Another Time and Place by Chris Green

I’ve woken up wondering just how far is it from Phoenix to Albuquerque and where did Glen Campbell set out from in the first place? Las Vegas? Los Angeles? San Diego? It’s 3 am. Where has this rogue train of thought come from? I’m not even particularly fond of the song, although I think I used to have an Isaac Hayes version on an album. Did I inadvertently hear By the Time I Get to Phoenix playing on a TV programme last night perhaps or on an advert? Whatever, for some bizarre reason my curiosity is raised and I can’t seem to get back to sleep.

Before I know it, I’m downstairs checking out the lyrics sites on the laptop and have the world atlas out to look at the spatial relationship between the cities described in the song. And Google maps. Google tells me that by the most direct route, it is 419 miles from Phoenix to Albuquerque. Either Glen’s wife must start work very late or Glen has his foot to the floor to cover this distance in the hours between her getting up and her going to work. Even so, surely they must have speed limits out west. And what about the traffic on the interstate? I’m wide awake now and I check out how far it is from Albuquerque to Oklahoma, Glen’s next point of reference. It is an astonishing 543 miles yet Glen manages to cover this by the time his wife goes to bed. He must have a Ferrari or something or access to some stonking amphetamines.

Is Oklahoma his final destination? Surely not. What would be the attraction of Oklahoma? It must be somewhere further on that he is headed. Atlanta maybe or possibly Miami. If this is so, why on earth did he not take a plane?

It might be that he had to transport all his possessions,’ Saga says, suddenly appearing beside me. ‘And to do so by air freight would be prohibitively expensive. And, who knows, perhaps he didn’t even leave her in the end.’

How did you know what I was thinking?’ I say.

I always know what you are thinking,’ Saga says. ‘I realised that you’d got out of bed and gone downstairs and thought, something’s come out of nowhere and sparked his interest and he’s gone off on one and then it was a simple matter of tuning in to your thoughts.’

Most people would be surprised, shocked even at Saga’s powers. But I am not. I’m used to it. It is difficult to keep a secret from her.

And in any case, it would not be Glen that was travelling, would it?’ she continues. ‘It would be Jimmy Webb, the fellow that wrote the song.’

Indeed,’ I say. ‘He wrote MacArthur Park too, didn’t he and Wichita Lineman? It takes a certain type of focus, don’t you think, to write a song about a day in the life of a telephone repairman?’

This somehow leads the conversation on to aardvarks and bees. From there, we move on to cacti and canoes. Saga suggests we ought to go back to bed.

We both have work in the morning,’ she says.

She is out like a light but I can’t get back to sleep. Although it would seem to be unlikely, I get the feeling that there is a crocodile in the room. A scaly yellow one, lurking in the shadows, just out of sight. Or is it a dragon?

Night terrors are the worst. Until you’ve experienced them, you don’t know how real they can be. What I need now is an extinguisher to erase the dragon. Why is the alphabet written in its particular order, I wonder? A,B,C,D,E in every language? I tell myself that it’s unrealistic to expect to have an answer to every question. For instance, who let the dogs out? What becomes of the broken hearted? Why do fools fall in love? The thought calms me a little and eventually, the dragon is gone and I am able to get to sleep.

But I wake at dawn wondering where Gene Pitney was when something happened to him. Where would he be that was only twenty four hours from Tulsa? As Gene was driving, it would obviously have to be somewhere on the American continent where he stopped at the small hotel. I open up Google maps again to find out where exactly Tulsa is. It’s in Oklahoma. Quite centrally placed on the North American continent. I begin to make some rough calculations. If he drove through the night without breaks at an average of fifty miles per hour, he might have been in Baltimore, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, or Salt Lake City (although the small hotel he mentions doesn’t sound very much like Las Vegas and dancing would probably not be permitted Salt Lake City restaurants). If he had only been forty eight hours from Tulsa, Gene could have been doing the dirty on his dearest in some exotic casa de huéspedes in South America. This would have opened out the possibilities for the song a bit.

Fortunately, Saga emerges from the shower and realises where I’ve got to with my research. Saga is like Google but without the Internet. She seems to know everything. She tells me that it was Hal David who wrote the lyrics to Twenty Four Hours From Tulsa and that Hal lived in New York. This then is probably where the guy in the song is driving from. This suggests the place he stops off at to rest for the night that is only twenty four hours from Tulsa would most probably be somewhere in Pennsylvania. She thinks it’s likely to be before you get to Pittsburgh.

One of those places with an English sounding name, perhaps’ she says to humour me. ‘How about Somerset or Bedford? They are both in Pennsylvania.’

I am from Buckingham in the heart of England. Saga is from …… well, far away, it seems. I’ve never been able to find her birthplace on the map. I sometimes think she’s from another time and place. Somewhere way out west. Yet at the same time, east of the sun.

So now you can get off for work without worrying any more about it,’ she says.

We have a quick chat about foxtrots, golf and hotels and I’m off. It’s a twenty minute drive to the Buckinghamshire Folk Museum. But, just as I get onto the A421, I find to my consternation that Hotel California comes on the radio. What in God’s name is happening there? I decide to pull over and sit in the lay-by to figure it out.

The first verse is relatively straightforward. Don Henley, the Eagles’ singer is driving into California from the desert, Arizona or Nevada perhaps or even Mexico. A cool wind is blowing. Perhaps Jackson Browne is playing on FM radio or maybe Crosby, Stills and Nash. I imagine Don is driving a convertible with the top down. He tells us he can smell marijuana. It is not clear whether this is blown in on the breeze or whether he or perhaps even a friend is smoking weed in the car. Whichever, he has probably driven hundreds of miles already that day and is tired after his long stretch at the wheel. When he sees a shimmering light in the distance, he decides it’s time to stop and take a break. He discovers the light is coming from a hotel. He checks himself in but right away alarm bells begin to ring. This is a hotel like no other. Has he inadvertently entered The Twilight Zone, he wonders? He is entertained by a sorceress who through a series of arcane rituals, initiates him into her world of decadence and debauchery. Her mind is Tiffany-twisted, for Heaven’s sake and she has the Mercedes bends. Don is not ready for this. Although he wants to, he learns that through some kind of Kafkaesque trickery he can never escape.

Why? I need to ring Saga. She will have an explanation.

Let me guess,’ she says, with an air of exasperation. ‘Hotel California. You’re stuck on the last verse.’

I skip the how did you know bit. She knows. Of course, she knows. I get the feeling that people from where she comes from always know.

Yes, I am stuck,’ I say. ‘Prisoners of our own device, the siren is saying. And the mad bit about the master’s chambers and not being able to kill the beast. What do you think is happening?’

Some say that the final verse is about drug addiction,’ Saga says. ‘And this is why you can check out any time but never leave. But that’s too simplistic. The whole song is a metaphor for the dark underbelly of the American Dream. The Hotel California represents the promise of the fame and fortune that brought outsiders to California in the seventies and highlights the pitfalls. California, in turn, is a microcosm for the excesses of late-capitalism. You could say it all started with the gold-rush and this set the scene for everything that was to follow.’

I think I get it,’ I say. ‘California draws people in like a drug. What Don is saying is that once there, you’ll become a prisoner of the hedonistic lifestyle. The downside of excess is that you can’t escape.’

Something like that,’ Saga says.

It’s India, Juliet and kilo, next, isn’t it?’ I say.

Look! I’m going to be a little busy today,’ Saga says. ‘Perhaps we could move straight on to zebras.’

It could be a short conversation. I don’t know anything about zebras. I get an uneasy feeling that Saga might soon be going to return to that other time and place.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

Hunky Dory

hunkydory

Hunky Dory by Chris Green

Writers of self-help books are fond of telling you that life always offers you a second chance, it is called tomorrow. This is all very well. It’s something you can look forward to. But, what if you could have your second chance yesterday? This would mean that you still had the opportunity to avoid your untimely indiscretion, your unexpected misfortune, your sudden fall from grace. You might be inclined to think that such a proposition falls into the realms of science fiction. Time travel, you might say, is impossible. Ed West certainly thought so. This is until he found himself in a situation he was not able to explain. Déjà vu perhaps but here he was about to make the same mistake he had made previously, namely putting all his money on Jumping Jack Flash, a horse in the Grand National. A horse, destined to fall at the first fence.

This time around, despite Jumping Jack Flash being the firm favourite, Ed has second thoughts about the horse’s chances. Maybe he sees it limping a little as it makes its way down to the start. Perhaps something at the back of his mind tells him that the money might be better spent. He could pay back the money he owes to Frank Fargo and still buy a decent second-hand AppleMac. He could perhaps spend a week at Ron and Anne’s place in the Algarve. He could even take the kids. Did he inadvertently peek at a pop-psych article in the out-patients waiting room and realise that his gambling was causing problems and was something that needed to be addressed? Was there perhaps a write-up about impulsiveness in The Daily Lark? Whatever the reason for his decision, Ed puts the two and a half grand he is about to pass through the grill at BetterBet back into his jacket pocket and walks out of the shop.

Suzy Kew may have glanced at the odd self-help book in the hairdressers at one of her monthly Tuesday afternoon appointments but on the whole, she does not go for this sort of thing. Why would she need to? Friends often remark on her resilience, her unshakable air of self-confidence. She may have made the occasional bad decision. Everyone can be impulsive at times but if you make a mistake you have to live with the consequences of that mistake. This is an important lesson that it is a good idea to come to terms with early on in life. Whining about things never gets you anywhere.

Suzy has never to her recollection read a sci-fi novel. She may have gone to see a Star Trek film at the multiplex years ago with Toby or Tony or whatever he was called. But, if she did, she cannot remember much about it. The suggestion that she or anyone else might be able to go back in time is something she would instantly dismiss as nonsense. There is only one reality, she would say. There is a TV world of course but the things that happen in screened dramas have little to do with everyday reality.

Yet, Suzy finds herself driving the same Honda Jazz she wrote off the day before yesterday when she answered her phone while slowing down at the temporary traffic lights on Serendipity Street. She is in the same stretch of road behind the same truck that she ran into. The odometer reads 11111. She remembers noticing this shortly before the prang and the clock display says 11:11. The same as before. Once again, her phone rings. Although she is completely bewildered to find herself in the same situation, driving the car that by rights should be on its way to the breakers’ yard, she has the common sense this time around not to take the call. Instead, she parks the car a little way along the street. Conveniently, a space has just become vacant outside BetterBet.

She gets out and takes out her phone, just at the moment that Ed West, emerging from the bookies is taking out his. They collide.

Sorry,’ Ed says. ‘I wasn’t looking where I was going.’

My fault,’ Suzy says. ‘I had my head in my phone trying to find out who called me. Would you believe it? It was a wrong number, anyway.’

The same number as just before the accident, she can’t help but notice. The caller then had spoken in a language she did not understand.

You look a little flustered,’ Ed says. ‘Perhaps I might buy you a coffee or something in that café to settle you down’

That’s kind of you,’ Suzy says. ‘A camomile tea would be nice.’

Ed is not sure what camomile tea is but it sounds calming. Although he doesn’t like to publicly admit it, life can be a little too cut-throat at times. Perhaps Suzy will introduce him to a gentler world. Suzy meanwhile is thinking the same. She always puts a brave face on but secretly, the adversity of life often gets to her.

A notice inside the café tells them it has waitress service so they take a table by the window. A Bad Suns track is playing. Disappear Here.

I like this one,’ Ed says.

Bad Suns are my favourite band,’ Suzy says. ‘I went to see them last month.’

Disappear Here is followed by Catfish and the Bottlemen’s Fallout. They both like this one too. Ed tells Suzy, he saw them at Community Festival last summer.

Amazing! What about that? I was there too,’ Suzy says.

REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It meets with their approval too. They have both liked REM since their seminal album, Out of Time.

As they wait for someone to come and take their order, Ed and Suzy begin to discover more common ground. They were born in the same year, 1980. Uncannily, they were born on the same day too, February 29th. Both have recently become divorced from partners called Alex, even being represented by the same solicitor, Justin Case of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed. Both have 2.4 children and own dogs called Bailey. Both follow the band, Franz Ferdinand and are fans of Fargo. Could it be a match, made in Heaven? Or might there already be a downturn in their fortunes? After all, things that seem too good to be true often are too good to be true.

Although the café is nearly empty, no-one comes over to take their order. An elderly couple in matching grey zip-up jackets and a jute shopping bag come in and sit at the next table and immediately a slim young waitress in a black uniform is at their table to attend to them. A tall man with a briefcase and a smart-looking laptop comes in and places himself at a table by the specials board. He too gets prompt attention. His fancy coffee with the chocolate sprinkled on top is in front of him before he’s had a chance to check his emails. Dr Petrovic comes through the door and for a moment looks as if he is going to come over. It can’t be him, Ed thinks. My little problem was all a long time ago. It isn’t him. It is a courier dropping off a parcel.

It is nearly lunchtime and a trickle of new customers come in and have the waitresses scurrying about. Meanwhile, no-one so much as glances in Ed and Suzy’s direction. Why are these people being served before them, they wonder? Why are they being ignored? Is it all part of an elaborate conspiracy? Or could it be something more forbidding? A fresh problem to frustrate their happenstance? They are able to see and hear each other and everyone else around them as you would expect but it appears that for some reason others are not able to see or hear them. They look around desperately in the hope that something will occur to suddenly solve the riddle. Nothing does.

Possible explanations for the anomaly, it seems, might depend on whether you get your science lowdown from Stephen Hawking or from Black Mirror. Perhaps it is a question of quantum mechanics. Perhaps the space-time continuum has been breached. Perhaps they have been thrown into another dimension. Something to do with wavelengths or superstrings. Or, perhaps there is a quirkier explanation. Something out of Kurt Vonnegut or J.G. Ballard, one might feel inclined to suggest. With their reality falling apart and nothing firm to hang on to, Ed and Suzy feel a sense of panic.

Someone called me on my phone just now, didn’t they?’ Suzy says. This means……’

You said it was a wrong number,’ Ed says.

That does not matter,’ Suzy says. ‘It’s important not to lose focus. It shows there must still be a connection with ….. what would you call it? The real world?’

Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.

On the other hand, the caller on that number did sound like he was from another place,’ Suzy says.

Like the queer voice that told me not to bet on that horse, Ed is thinking.

Well Suzy,’ he says, taking out his phone. ‘We have to try something. I’ll give my friend, Pete Free a ring.’

It is not Pete that answers. Pete is from Chudleigh. He has a broad Devon accent. This is not a Devon accent by any stretch of the imagination. Ed does not speak a lot of Russian but years ago he had some Russian neighbours and picked up the odd swear word. From this, he recognises that the guttural voice on the other end is not pleased at being disturbed.

Suzy phones her friend, Kirsty and is greeted by an unexpected voicemail message. This too sounds like it might be a Slavic tongue. They get responses in Russian too from Vince, from Carol and even from Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed.

Russia’s cyber-warfare activities are well documented. There is widespread speculation that Russian signals intelligence have targetted vulnerable websites to influence democratic elections, breached sophisticated banking security systems and enabled fraudulent transactions across the globe. They have also probably interfered with personal information on social media sites for as yet undiscovered purposes. We might find out what these are one day or we might not. But are there any limits to how far these attacks can infiltrate our lives? According to the papers, the Russians are to blame for most things these days, the Brexit vote, the hike in gas prices, the bugs on the new iPhone, the recent snowstorms and for Arsenal slipping down the table. Could their influence in cyberspace possibly spill over into our everyday reality?

I know that they can hack into Facebook accounts and emails and all that,’ Suzy says. ‘But surely they can’t manipulate our day to day experiences like this.’

They’ve been watching us through the cameras in our devices for years,’ Ed says. ‘Who knows what is possible?’

I guess that’s so,’ Suzy says. ‘Things are moving on all the time.’

I don’t know if you’ve noticed but the people around us are speaking Russian too,’ Ed says. ‘I’ve only just noticed it.’

You’re right. And look! The logo on the waitress’s uniform says Chekhov’s,’ Suzy says. ‘I’m sure that’s different from when we arrived. Wasn’t the café called Bean Me Up or something like that?’

Things seem to be changing before our eyes,’ Ed says.

Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.

Back on the street, Ed and Suzy find things have changed dramatically. BetterBet is now a bicycle repair shop. Next door to it is a waxworks museum. Tesco Metro is now a funeral parlour. Suzy’s car has vanished. There are now no cars on the street. It is unrecognisable. And why are all those soldiers here? What is it they are firing at? What has happened to bring about this madness? Things have spiralled out of control. The situation, they realise, is now grave. How can there be any way back from here? Ed and Suzy worry about what might now happen to the 4.8 children and the Baileys. Luckily, up ahead, they spot the illuminated sign of a new self-help bookshop. It is called Hunky Dory. It has a large double shopfront. It looks as though it might have a good selection.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Blackjack

blackjack

Blackjack by Chris Green

I open the front door to discover a large package on the doorstep. I did not hear anyone deliver it while I was getting ready to for work, or see anyone from the window. It’s huge. What can it be? I try to think of something I might have ordered. Something three feet by two that might warrant zebra-patterned wrapping. I can think of nothing I am expecting except a Keigo Higashino novel from Amazon and this would take up no room at all. More likely, it is something Promise has ordered. Promise is having a lie-in. It is her day off.

But, if for whatever reason we did not hear the courier, why has the package been left there in full view of the street and not taken back to the depot or deposited with a neighbour? I take a look at the address label. It is addressed to Darius Spayne. Him again. The Spaynes, Darius and Rosalind apparently, lived at our address previously, but not recently. The Spurlocks have lived here since then. And the Wilburys. The Spaynes must have moved out five years ago. We never found out who exactly they were or what their forwarding address was. Promise and I are occasionally reminded of their existence by a phone call asking for one or other of them. We have often thought that this in itself is strange as twice since we have been here we have changed our phone number.

The parcel has no return address nor does it appear to have a postmark. This suggests it must have been delivered by hand early this morning. Or possibly during the night. But why? As I continue to examine it, Stanislav Ruby from the black and white gabled house on the corner walks by carrying a fox. Perhaps it’s his dog but it looks like a fox. I call out to him and ask if he saw anyone arriving with the package. He mutters something about blackjack which I do not catch because at that moment my phone rings. I am instructed I need to get into work PDQ to handle an emergency. As I take the package inside, I can’t help but notice it is remarkably light. I shout upstairs to Promise that I have to dash and I am leaving it with her. I assume that she will deal with it but when I return home from a hard day at the research establishment, the package is still where I left it. What has Promise been doing all day?

I didn’t know what you wanted to do with it,’ she says.

Well, we may as well open it, don’t you think?’ I say.

Why is it so light?’

Let’s find out.’

Inside the large box is a smaller box, this wrapped in jungle-themed paper and inside of that one is another, this one in Mondrian print paper. We exchange looks of perplexity. What kind of bizarre pantomime is it that the Spaynes are involved in? Like a set of Russian dolls, each box reveals a smaller box, Sergeant Pepper album cover wrapping, Statue of Liberty paper wrapping, Psalm 23 wrapping, etc. until finally, ten minutes later, we arrive at the smallest one, a plain black box three inches by two. The box is empty. I shake it vigorously to make sure but nothing comes out. This surely is an elaborate prank but why? Who could possibly gain from it?

Empty the box may have been but as the evening wears on, inside of me the feeling grows that by opening it, a sinister force has somehow been unleashed. I know its irrational but I can’t rid myself of the unsettling sensation that the air around me has changed. Pins and needles creep up my spine. It feels as if there’s something other just out of sight. A demon gnawing at my consciousness. A slow train with an unmentionable cargo coming around the bend. I mention it to Promise and ask her if she feels anything. Has she noticed anything strange since …… since ….. the box? She denies that she has but I can sense that she feels that something is out of kilter too. She seems unable to concentrate on the plot of the Nordic noir we are watching on Netflix. Several times she has to ask me who one of the regular characters is. She doesn’t seem to realise that the private detective has arranged the abduction of the protagonist’s wife so he will need his services to find her.

The air of menace does not go away. Consecutive disturbing dreams keep me on edge through the night. Shadow dances of the kind you can never quite remember but nevertheless leave you terrified. Dark landscapes in which you are alone and lost. Vehicles out of control. Chilling reminders that something is wrong. Again and again, I wake in a cold sweat.

I finally get up at seven thirty. Promise seems to have already left the house. Sometimes she has to start work early. As you can imagine, hours can be unpredictable in the dizzy world of doily design. She probably realised I was having a restless night and didn’t want to wake me. While I am waiting for the kettle to boil, I take a look outside the front door. To my alarm, there is another package on the doorstep, albeit this time a smaller one. This one is matt black. It too is addressed to Darius Spayne. I go to pick it up but it is so heavy I cannot lift it. Although it can’t be more than six inches by four, it refuses to budge. Even if the contents were solid lead or even tungsten, it should not be so heavy. Rhonda Valée from number 27 saunters by trilling an aria from La Boheme. I ask if she noticed a courier struggling up the path to deliver my new parcel. She calls back something but I think it is in Welsh. Chick Strangler jogs past and I mention it to him. Annex J, he says without stopping. I’ve no idea what he’s talking about but then Chick has been a bit strange since his accident.

As I can do little about the black box at the moment, I decide to go to work and try to put it all from my mind. Things will work out. They always do. The Little Book of Mindfulness that Promise keeps by the side of the bed says it’s a question of positive thinking. I select Captain Beefheart’s Greatest Hits on my device and set off in the Seat. Crippling headaches plague me through the day but I somehow manage to weather the storm and arrive home in one piece at the usual time. The matt black parcel is still on the step and Promise is not yet home. I sometimes forget how demanding the cut-throat world of doily design can be. The competition these days is intense. It’s no longer a question of selecting a symmetrical pattern and a suitable substrate. But, when Promise hasn’t returned home by six thirty and her phone is switched off, I’m thinking there must have been an unforeseen glitch at the studio.

The phone call asking to speak to Mr Spayne comes as a surprise, more so as it is on my mobile. Previous calls for the Spaynes have all been on the landline.

I’m sorry. This is not Mr Spayne’s number,’ I say.

Darius Spayne,’ the caller says, undeterred.

May I ask who is speaking?’ I say. I find it is always best to be polite at first. This offers options as to which way you wish the conversation can go. What I’m looking for from this particular caller, of course, is information about the Spaynes and hopefully the rogue deliveries. In this case, however, there are no options. The caller hangs up. They do not leave their number.

To distract myself while I am waiting for Promise, I do a little research on the internet. Spayne is a surprisingly common name. There are hundreds of them on the electoral register and although there are a few Darcys, Darrels and Darrens, there appears to be no-one named Darius Spayne. Nor is there a Rosalind Spayne. The pair do not appear to exist. So, what is going on?

I probably should have realised that the police don’t consider a person missing until they have been gone for seventy two hours. They will not even take details until then. Nor, Sergeant Ramsbottom tells me with an unwarranted air of impatience, do they deal with nuisance phone calls. It is with some reluctance that I decide to hire the services of Max Tooting, Private Investigator. But I feel that time is of the essence and Max comes recommended, not least by his flyer that comes through the door in the free paper which highlights Max’s astonishing success rate. I make an appointment to see him the following morning.

Although there is a black Jaguar XJ parked outside, I find Max Tooting’s offices are situated above a surgical appliance store. A little less salubrious than the flyer led me to believe. Tooting is a tall man, probably in his mid-fifties. He is dressed in a plaid suit that looks like it was made for a smaller man, perhaps a younger man. Unusual too, I can’t help thinking, to find a P.I. with blue hair. Max greets me warmly and shows me into a small room shielded from the outside world by a black roller blind. The room is lit by a bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Hip-hop music is playing. Loudly. On a chunky wooden desk in front of us are a miscellany of desktop computers connected by a Spaghetti Junction of wires to a phalanx of peripherals. Max apologises for the mess and mentions something about this being a temporary location while he waits for his new premises to be decorated.

He sits me down amongst the clutter and clears a seat opposite. A lop-eared house rabbit nuzzles against his leg. He seems undeterred. I idly wonder what might happen if bunny chews through some of the cables.

Max turns the Jay-Z track down and begins to run through his fee structure. A little more expensive than the flyer led me to understand. He swallows a couple of Ibuprofen caps with a glass of water. At least, I think it’s water.

Bad back,’ he explains, straightening his posture. ‘Operation Desert Storm.’

Presumably, this was before he decided on the blue hair. I give him a brief low-down on my two issues. On the basis that it might be easier to solve, I then go into greater detail on the Darius Spayne phone calls and the bizarre deliveries.

H’mmm. Darius Spayne, you say,’ he says.

That’s S P A Y N E,’ I say.

Give me a moment,’ he says. ‘Let me just try something.’

He reaches over to one of the computers, keys in a search and in no time at all he has images of lots of different Darius Spaynes on the screen. Although his hardware looks to be old school, it clearly packs a punch.

How did you manage that?’ I say. ‘Google came up with nothing.’

This is what I do,’ he says. ‘I’m an investigator, remember. But, before we get carried away, there are fourteen of them and we don’t know which one it might be. It would be easier if there were just one.’

I suggest we leave this for now and move on. I elaborate on the heavy parcel on the doorstep.

Perhaps I should take a look,’ Max says. ‘Things are not always what they seem.’

I agree he should take a look, not least because it would be good to get some fresh air. It’s beginning to feel a little close in here.

We’ll go in your car, shall we?’ Max says.

OK,’ I say. ‘I’m parked around the corner in the High Street.’ Perhaps it is not his black Jaguar outside after all.

As we move off, Max takes a small dispenser compact out of his pocket and pops two purple pills. ‘Malaria,’ he explains. ‘East Africa.’

We arrive at the house and see the ominous black package is still there. I tell him how I imagine it must contain some kind of heavy metal, possibly even a dangerous one. One of those with a long name you can never remember when you are watching quiz shows. Yet, without flinching, Max is able to lift the black box. He hands it to me. Instinctively I flinch as he does so. I am expecting it to floor me but I find it is indeed light as a feather. I am completely unable to explain this turnaround. What magic has Mad Max managed to perform right here under my nose? I feel embarrassed. I put the parcel down and it blows down the street on the breeze.

Max repeats his maxim, ‘things are not always what they seem. ……. Now, tell me about this other matter.’

As I tell him about Promise not returning home from Dolly’s Doilies, he plays distractedly with his phone. I am beginning to wonder if he is actually listening to me when the device lights up and starts vibrating loudly.

Promise is nearby,’ he says. He hands me the phone. On the screen, I see a selection of pictures of Promise captured in a number of different locations, none of which I recognise. Each of the images has a date and time. The latest seems to be a mere two hours ago.

What’s happening?’ I say. ‘How did you get these?’

I’m an investigator, remember’ he says. ‘I’m paid to uncover things.’

But how…….?’

If I told people my trade secrets, I would be out of business,’ he says. ‘No-one would come to me.’

So what now?’ I say. ‘Where is Promise now?’

So I take it you want me to stay on the case,’ Max says, reminding me once more of his fee structure.

It suddenly occurs to me that there might have been a black Jaguar in the most if not all of the pictures of Promise. Maybe the same black Jaguar that was parked outside Max’s office. Also, perhaps earlier Stanislav Ruby had not said blackjack but black Jag. And Chick Strangler had not said Annex J but an XJ.

I can’t remember exactly who it was that said it but I remember someone important insisting that there is only one reality.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

SNAKE IN THE GLASS

­snakeinthegrass

­SNAKE IN THE GLASS by Chris Green

Later

No one sees him arrive. No-one spots the silver Solstice slide silently through the streets on its way to the big house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street. It is night-time in the sleepy town. Seeing the sleek Pontiac Solstice outside the house the following morning, townsfolk might be likely to put its presence down to the visit of a wealthy race-goer. There are plenty of these around at this time of year, the racecourse being less than ten miles away. Yet, if truth be told, the locals ought really to see the car’s arrival as portentous. American muscle cars are not that common in these parts, even on race days. BMWs and Audis, along with the odd Bentley are the signature vehicles of the high rollers who visit. More significantly, the last time he appeared, it was under the cover of darkness. Three years ago he arrived by night in a black Camaro.

But, were it not for the feeling octogenarian soothsayer, Nicholas Ell gets when he senses trouble ahead, no-one would be aware that he was there. Nicholas no longer gets out much but on her morning visit, his cleaning lady, Magda discovers the old man in a state of agitation. She asks him what is wrong.

‘It’s happening again, Magda,’ he says. ‘I feel it in my bones.’

‘What’s the trouble, Mr Ell,’ Magda says. ‘What’s happening?’

‘All over again,’ he says. ‘Just like it did that time before. We have to do something.’

Although Magda has got to know Nicholas quite well, she has no idea what the old man is referring to. From the fact that he is shaking like a leaf and frothing at the mouth, she imagines that it is important though. She has worked for him long enough to know what she has to do to focus his thoughts. After a medicinal Snake in the Glass, a mix of Jack Daniels and Cointreau that Nicholas swears by, he manages to explain about the mystery man’s return and what it might mean for them all.

Word of the renewed threat spreads quickly through the small town’s informal networks. Despite the devastation he caused three years ago, no-one in the bar of The King Billy seems to know very much about the interloper. What was his name? Who was he? Where was he from? Why was he here? The feeling is that despite his penchant for American cars, he may not be American. He appears to have had an unusual accent, perhaps Central Asian. Tracey Looker, who lives in the candy coloured rock house with the owl sculptures in the garden is not sure where it is but she thinks he might have come from Shambhala. This is however on the basis of one brief encounter.

‘I’m sure it was a place with not many vowels,’ Shaldon Rain says. Shaldon works in the town’s Scrabble factory and in her spare time plays the flugelhorn in an experimental jazz band.

Shaldon and Tracey are the only two present who caught sight of him on his previous visit.

‘Perhaps we might get the opportunity to find out something about him this time around.’ Sol Reiter says. ‘Has anyone actually seen him yet?’ Sol Reiter, something of an entrepreneur in the town recently sold his virtual zoo to Idée Inc. for a tidy sum. He plans on spending more time at home with his capybaras and has taken to breeding albino ferrets.

‘We don’t think he’s been spotted yet,’ Darius Goy says. ‘We’re still going by what Nicholas Ell said.’ Darius is the town’s archivist, an authority on the painter, Lucien Freud and a staunch Captain Beefheart fan.

‘Are we even sure it’s him?’ Sol says. ‘You wouldn’t think he would have the chutzpah to come back here after what happened three years ago.’

‘Old Nick usually gets it right,’ Darius says. ‘Did you know, Nick has predicted every Eurovision Song Contest winner since 1958? He even foresaw the four-way tie in 1969.’

‘That’s as maybe, but he is getting a bit doddery, Sol says. ‘He must be nearly a hundred.’

‘Eighty six,’ Darius says.

‘After the trouble our unwanted visitor caused, surely he would stay away,’ Tracey says. ‘He must realise that he is likely to get pulled in if he sets foot in the town.’

‘But, is anyone aware of what he looks like?’ Sol asks. ‘He didn’t exactly mingle last time.’

‘Tracey saw him,’ Darius says. ‘And Shaldon. They would be able to recognise him and there must be a photo or two of him in the archive. From CCTV footage or something. Besides, presumably, he’s up at Obsidian Street. We just need to keep an eye on the place and the movements of his car and we will know where he is. I’ll let Inspector Boss know.’

Do you know, it all seems such a long time ago now?’ Sol says. ‘It’s amazing how easily we forget the bad things that have happened in the past and become complacent. Leah bought a book on Mindfulness. Maybe I ought to get around to reading it.’

‘All I remember is that everything went silent,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘Like the flick of a switch, suddenly there was nothing. I couldn’t hear a thing, voices, television, traffic. All gone. It was so quiet, I wondered if next door’s dog was dead. Then I wondered if perhaps I was dead. Deadly silence. For days. And then I found out it wasn’t just me. No-one in the town could hear anything. Everywhere deadly silence. Inside. Outside. On the streets. Not even the bleeping to let you know when you could cross at the lights. I remember it very well. Being blind, not being able to hear was especially traumatic for me.’

I appreciate how that might be a problem,’ Darius says. ‘I was listening to Trout Mask Replica when it happened.’

‘Conversation was the thing I missed most,’ Tracey says. ‘Lip reading is incredibly hard.’

The thing is to this day, no-one knows how he managed to do it,’ Darius says. ‘I mean, how can you get rid of sound?’

Science isn’t good at explaining those kind of things,’ Sol says.

‘Science fiction is better with explanations,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘I expect Ted Sturgeon or Philip C. Dark would have the answer. Or even that Chris Green fellow.’

‘Who?’ Sol says.

‘Chris Green. He writes speculative fiction,’ Shaldon says. ‘You might have read Time and Tide Wait for Norman.’

‘No. Can’t say I have,’ Sol says.

‘Look! I’ve just remembered something,’ Tracey says. ‘It may be nothing but Shambhala is the place we think of as Shangri La. I remember looking it up on the Internet.’

‘That’s a mythical kingdom,’ Pearson Ranger says. ‘In Tibet, I think.’

‘Might that help to explain how he managed to make everything go quiet?’ Tracey says. ‘Might he have magical powers?’

‘Mumbo jumbo’s all very well but how does it help to know that?’ Darius says. ‘Rather than rely on a number of unreliable accounts, perhaps we could piece together what actually happened three years ago.’

‘I remember his visit well,’ Tracey says. ‘I knew something was wrong when I couldn’t hear my Oscar burbling away. Oscar’s my parrot. He’s an African grey.’

‘My band was on stage at Max’s at the time,’ Shaldon Rain says.’When the audience couldn’t hear what we were playing, they started throwing things at us.’

We don’t want anything like that to happen this time around,’ Sol says. ‘Now, Think about it, guys! Have any of you noticed anything out of the ordinary yet?’

‘Well, there is the silver Pontiac outside the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street,’ Tracey says.

‘Apart from that,’ Sol says. ‘If we’re going to get to the bottom of this, we have to keep our eyes open.’

But why does he want to come back?’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘What do you imagine he might be up to this time?’

‘Old Nick didn’t say.’ Darius says. ‘But whatever it is, he has to be stopped. Inspector Boss should be on his way by now. I’ve told him to come armed.’

I don’t like to mention it but it seems to be getting rather dark in here,’ Shaldon Rain says.

You’re right,’ Darius says. ‘The light does seem to be fading. And it’s not even midday.’

‘It’s dark outside too,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘So dark, I can’t see outside. Not even the window. It’s pitch black.’

‘I can’t even see you, Darius,’ Sol says.

‘I hope Boss gets here soon,’ Darius says.

‘But the police probably won’t be able to to see anything either,’ Sol says. ‘There’ll be bullets everywhere.’

Earlier

I don’t know how I come to find myself in Barton Stoney. I am on my way to see the film director, Leif Velasquez in Gifford Wells, twenty or so miles south of here. Leif wants to make a film of my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman. In trying to avoid the race traffic on the ring road around Barton Stoney, I suppose I must have taken a wrong turn. There appear to be no road signs in the town and the one-way system is unfathomable. I keep going round in circles. To make matters worse, there is a madman in a big silver muscle car speeding through the streets and doing dangerous handbrake turns. No-one seems to be taking any notice of him. Where are the police when you want them?

I park the car and put my head around the door of a pub called The King William to ask for directions out of town. What a place! It’s bedlam. Everyone in here appears to be possessed. Or at least very, very drunk for this time of day. A woman in a brightly coloured dress and shocks of flyaway red hair starts banging on about Shangri La. A mythical valley of great bounty in Tibet, I recall, a metaphor for the perfect way of life, satirised in a song by The Kinks. I can’t make out the connection with anything that might be happening in The King William. A man brandishing a club of some kind grabs hold of me and starts raving about some terrible occurrence that took place here years ago. As if I might care. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me anyway. He waves his arms about madly and says the police are on their way. He doesn’t say why. Is he the landlord? I don’t know.

There are about a dozen more revellers in here, all mad as hatters, it seems, or at least drunk as lords. Are the police coming to arrest them for affray? Is that what all this is about? Maybe they are going to arrest the crazy driver. Perhaps he has a history of terrorising the town during race meetings. It’s impossible to get any sense out of these people. They are all clearly three sheets to the wind.

As a writer of fiction, I’m constantly on the lookout for new material for a story. It occurs to me that there might just be something for me here. Let’s start by giving these people names. I’ll call the pale-skinned woman with the neck tattoos, Shaldon Rain. I’ve had that one kicking around waiting for a character for some time. She looks to me very much like she might be a flugelhorn player with an experimental jazz band. I have an instinct for these things. The stocky one with the lank hair and the big nose looks he might be Jewish. He can be Reuben. No, what about Sol? Sol Reiter. This would make the one he’s arguing with, Darius Goy. That’s been in the locker for a while. Darius looks like a Captain Beefheart fan if ever I saw one. The one with the white stick can be Pearson Ranger. This is the name of an estate agent’s I took down a while back when I was looking to move house. Informality is important in my writing. The King William can become The King Billy. I think I’d like to make more of the mad driver. He needs to be more sinister. He is responsible perhaps for an unexplained phenomenon that affects the whole town. A title for the story is going to be more difficult and how should I brand it? Chris Green or Philip C. Dark? Both these matters will need some thought. Nothing obvious comes to mind for a title without giving the game away. I may have to just come up with a short random phrase. The Art of the Matter? Bridge of Clocks? Detectives in Summer? How about ……. Snake in the Glass?

I can hear police sirens. I think it’s time to make my exit.

Later

‘We’ve been up to the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street, Mr Goy,’ Inspector Boss says. ‘And we’ve spoken to your muscle car fellow. He’s called Velasquez by the way and he’s from California. It turns out he has bought the place to turn it into an independent film studio.’

‘He says he came across Barton Stoney several years ago,’ Boss’s sidekick, Jagger says. ‘He was second director then for a movie called, Silent Witness. An apocalyptic thriller. Some of you may have seen it. It was about a town very much like this one where everything suddenly went quiet.’

‘Some of you may even have been in it,’ Boss says. ‘Velasquez says he hired some locals as extras. That crazy old man in the other big house was in it. The one who keeps predicting the end of the world.’

‘Nicholas Ell?’ Darius Goy says. ‘But he doesn’t go out, Inspector.’

‘This must have been before he became a hermit, Mr Goy,’ Boss says. ‘I haven’t personally seen the film but apparently Nick Ell had quite a big part.’

‘Velasquez already has a house in Gifford Wells,’ Jagger says. ‘So, he’s practically a local. I don’t think he will be any bother, Mr Goy.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

THE TWO OF US

thetwoofus

The Two of Us by Chris Green

There are no stars out tonight,’ Cindy says. ‘Why are there no stars, Matt?’

You don’t get stars every night,’ I say. ‘Perhaps there will be some tomorrow.’

But, it has been a clear day,’ Cindy says. ‘There should be stars after a clear day.’

That’s true,’ I say.

So what do you think is happening?’ Cindy says.

I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But I wonder if it has something to do with that explosion earlier.’

What do you mean?’ Cindy says.

We’ve always been taught to believe that the stars are, you know, out there in space,’ I say. ‘But what if it isn’t so? Lots of things that we are told turn out to be wrong, don’t they? We were told there was a bearded fellow in the sky who would get angry and punish us if we weren’t good. But no-one ever saw him. We were told there was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But no one ever found it. We were told that computers would give us hours and hours of free time and lead to a paperless office. But, we are still waiting on both counts. So, you can’t believe everything you see or hear. How do we know the stars are really there?’

You mean the night sky could be an illusion to fool us into thinking that the universe is bigger than it is,’ Cindy says.

Or perhaps to fool us into thinking that the universe exists at all,’ I say. ‘The universe could be a colossal projection.’

But what about the moon?’ Cindy says. ‘I can see the moon. The moon is still there.’

Difficult to say,’ I say. ‘Perhaps the moon is not part of the night sky projection.’

What do you imagine caused the explosion, anyhow?’ Cindy says.

It could be terrorist activity. I know we don’t hear a lot about it now but it might still be happening,’ I say.

Or it might be some kind of accident,’ Cindy says.

We will probably never know what caused it,’ I say. ‘I expect vested interests will want to keep it secret.’

But we might get the stars back one day if they repair the damage to the universe projection,’ Cindy says.

Could be,’ I say. ‘Who knows?’

There are a lot of uncertainties, aren’t there?’ Cindy says.

Shall we just enjoy the moonlight,’ I say.

Cindy and I decide to go about our lives as we normally would. Even if we don’t discover why the stars have gone, they will hopefully be back one day. Meanwhile, we still have the moon. And after all, it is in the nature of things to disappear from time to time. We ought to be used to this. It does not necessarily mean that they are gone forever. Cindy keeps losing her keys and I keep losing my glasses but they do reappear when the time is right. A while ago, the internet vanished for a few months. No-one discovered what had happened. But, eventually, it came back on and it was much easier to navigate. There were just a handful of sites rather than the millions there had been. Since then it has become simpler still. There is now just one site. TV programmes disappeared and when they returned they too were different, most of them in another language. But at least there were programmes to watch once more. There were fewer funny ones but heigh ho.

Days pass and the stars do not return. Then, after its regular monthly waning, the moon does not reappear in the night sky. Instead of a new moon, there is no moon.

Once more, Cindy says, ‘It has been a clear day. There should be a moon.’

Once more I agree that it has been sunny.

What do you think has happened to the moon?’ Cindy says.

Perhaps there was another explosion while we were asleep last night,’ I say. ‘I did think I heard something round about three o’clock.’

You think that the moon too was nothing more than a projection then?’ Cindy says.

It’s certainly a possibility,’ I say.

We have been led to believe that the moon exerts a strong gravitational pull on the Earth and it is this gravitational pull that causes the seas to rise and fall in what we call tides. More importantly, perhaps, we have been told that the moon stabilises the Earth’s rotation. But what if the moon’s function, all these years, has been a purely decorative one? It is too early to say yet if the Earth’s rotation is less stable but the tide seems to be coming in. In fact, there are quite big waves.

There’s something else I’ve noticed,’ Cindy says.

It’s not about the car not working, is it?’ I say.

No. It’s something else,’ Cindy says.

Ah! I think I know what you are going to say,’ I say.

There don’t seem to be any people,’ Cindy says. ‘I can’t remember when I last saw anyone.’

They became a bit thin on the ground after the stars went out,’ I say. ‘We had to change the seven a side rugby tournament to a one a side rugby tournament. And still, there were only two teams.’

No-one won the lottery last week because no-one bought a ticket,’ Cindy says. ‘And now there’s no TV.’

Even the internet has gone,’ I say.

What do you think has happened to all the people?’ Cindy says. ‘Where has everyone gone?’

It probably has something to do with the explosions,’ I say. ‘We could be the last two people left. Like in that book by the Australian fellow. They made it into a film.’

You’re thinking of, On the Beach,’ Cindy says.

That’s the one,’’ I say. ‘I think this is it.’

So, that means it’s just the two of ……

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

 

Chinese Boxes

chineseboxes2018

Chinese Boxes by Chris Green

The fire engine comes hurtling towards me. It is out of control. It has no driver. Conan Doyle Street is narrow and the precipitate leviathan gathers momentum as it heads down the slope. I dive for safety into the doorway of the antiquarian bookstore. The fire engine forges ahead, gradually slowing as the incline levels out. It comes to a stop in the dip where Conan Doyle Street meets Rider Haggard Street. Fortunately, there are no casualties as the streets are deserted. This part of town is no longer prosperous and a lot of the shops are boarded up.

I am on my way to the doctor’s in Bram Stoker Street, a block or so away. I don’t have an appointment, but when I phoned earlier I was told someone would see me if I came along. I let the sour-faced receptionist know of my arrival and sit in the grey waiting room. Afternoon surgery has finished and I am the only one there. For comfort, I take my Doc Martens off. I start to read a monthly military magazine, but I can’t concentrate. After a few minutes, Dr Bilk comes through and says that he will see me but he has to make a phonecall to the hospital first. He asks me to go wait for him in Surgery 2.

Realising I am in stockinged feet, I go back to fetch my boots. It takes a while to lace them up and when I return Surgery 2 is locked. Dr Bilk has disappeared. I look everywhere for him. I go out into the courtyard. I look up and down the street. Back inside, a dozen or so men in dark suits are having a meeting in the room down the corridor from the locked surgery. There is a hostile air about the gathering. I do not like to interrupt. I go out to the car park. I manage to collar Dr Bilk, just as he is getting into his car. Without bothering to listen to my symptoms, he hurriedly writes me a prescription. I have not heard of the medication, he prescribes. Perhaps he has made a mistake.

What makes me want to return the fire engine to the fire station I do not know. This is what happens sometimes, isn’t it? In a moment of madness, you find you make a decision that you just can’t account for. It’s as if a force takes over and you no longer have free will. It may be just me but I have noticed that these decisions are often injudicious.

I am not used to handling such a bulky vehicle and I have several near collisions with other cars on the way. I accidentally cross two sets of red traffic lights and manage to negotiate the Henry James roundabout on two wheels. When I finally arrive at the fire station, I find that it is closed. What would happen if there were a fire? I park the vehicle outside the book depository in Franz Kafka Street. I think about phoning my brother, Quinn to come and pick me up, as it is now after six o’clock and I need to get home for dinner. I am suddenly struck by the thought that my fingerprints will be all over the fire engine and they will think that it was me that stole it.

I come to with a start. I do not recognise my surroundings. Red would not be everyone’s choice of colour for bedroom walls and Francis Bacon’s mutilated torso prints would not be to everyone’s taste to hang on them. There is a large sagging woollen drape coming down from the ceiling and a silver saxophone on a stand in the corner of the room, alongside a device that looks like a medieval instrument of torture. Mr Bojangles is playing from a portable red speaker, a grunge version that I am not familiar with. The room has a musty smell.

The important question seems to me to be how did I come to be here? I have no recollection. Where is my beautiful house, my beautiful wife and my large automobile? How do I work this? Before I have a chance to get my bearings there is a loud knock at the door. I leave it at first, but when no-one else answers it, I conclude that I must be alone here. On the second or third knock, I go to to the door. A man is standing there holding a large metal plate. He doesn’t seem surprised to see me.

I’ve come to fix the cooker,’ he says.

You’d better come in.’ I say.

I don’t have any idea where the kitchen is, but he seems to know.

Did I wake you up?’ he asks as I follow him through to the kitchen.

No,’ I say, looking around to take in the funky chickens strutting about the place.

Good idea to keep them indoors,’ Cookerman says. ‘Stops the foxes getting them. There are a lot of foxes about round here.’

I don’t ask him where round here is in case he gets suspicious.

Rhode Island Reds, these little beauties,’ he says. ‘Good for laying brown eggs. Perhaps we might have breakfast when I’ve done the cooker.’

The kitchen is kitted out in an odd mix of styles, a startling hybrid of Scandinavian chic and Dickensian squalor. I have not seen a zebra patterned fridge, or a red cooker before. Cookerman takes it all in his stride. Perhaps he comes across vibrant appliances every day. Ducking beneath the cast iron pots and pans hanging from butcher’s hooks on the ceiling, he makes his way over to the cooker and opens the door. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cooker explode. I’m guessing most of you haven’t. But I can tell you, it does wake you up.

Which is how I come to find myself in a barnacled beach hut in the middle of a storm surge, with the waters already sloshing over the sandbags. The wind is getting up again and it has turned round to the north. The spring tide is due to keep coming in for the next two hours. Looking through the gap where the window once was I can see more black clouds forming over the steep escarpment the other side of the bay. With the water already around our ankles and the roof leaking like a faucet, the last thing we need is another downpour.

Earlier, I tried in vain to rescue a struggling black Labrador that was being taken away by the rip current. My leg became trapped and I was thrown against the rocks. I was knocked unconscious. She is only slight and I am nearly fourteen stone but somehow Vision dragged me here to this beach hut, the highest beach hut in the row. Some of the other huts have already broken to pieces and been taken out to sea. I can hardly move my damaged leg, so we won’t be leaving anytime soon. We are at the mercy of the elements. We are trapped.

Don’t you know what time high water is?’ Vision asks, looking at her watch. ‘It must be soon.’

14:05. Nearly two hours to go.’

We can’t stay here that long. We’ll drown.’

We’ll send out a mayday then, shall we? Where did you put the flares?’

I could go for help,’ she says.

We are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. If Vision goes for help we are both at risk. If she stays we are still both at risk.

No,’ I say, with some authority. ‘Don’t go.’

I guess we’re in this together then,’ she says. ‘That’s what we used to say isn’t it?’

It’s been a long time,’ I say. ‘Seven years, isn’t it? Or is it nine?’

Twelve, I think,’ she says.

As the waves continue to crash against the flimsy fabric of the hut, it feels like being aboard a ship going down. I have the urge to break into a sea shanty, to summon up the sailor’s spirit, Blow The Man Down, Haul Away Joe or something like that.

Is that a lifeboat I can see in the distance? ……. Is it? ……. Or is it just another phantom? Am I doomed perhaps to an endless chain of unfathomable nightmares from which I can never wake? Doomed to grapple feebly with this nest of interlocking riddles, that fit inside one another like Chinese boxes?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

 

DreamCatcher

dreamcatcher2018

DreamCatcher by Chris Green

Matt and Miranda make their way home after a bracing walk by the sea. They are striding out along Roald Dahl Avenue, one of a cluster of roads that are referred to simply as the mystery writers’ estate. All the roads here are named after masters of suspense. Although the morning mist is lifting, the features of the landscape still lack daytime definition.

‘I keep hearing footsteps behind me,’ Matt says. ‘But, when I turn around, there is no-one there.’

Miranda doesn’t respond. Her thoughts seem to be elsewhere. Maybe she has a new tune going round in her head. She and her friends, Harmony and Electra are writing a song cycle for an amateur production at the local theatre. Naturally, Matt tries to be as encouraging as he can but if you were to ask him he might say, ‘don’t expect the show to be opening anytime soon.’

Matt and Miranda are empty-nesters. Their son Ben has recently moved out. Ben is a mobile app developer, a bit of a whizz kid. On the back of the success of an app he designed that records dreams, he has gone out to California to work. But, instead of taking the opportunity to branch out, Matt and Miranda have stayed set in their ways. At least as far as their exercise patterns are concerned. They both belong to the same gym which they never use and most days do the same walk, whether alone or together.

‘Listen!’ Matt says. ‘Can’t you hear the footsteps?’

‘It’s probably just the wind blowing something about, in the derelict hotel site, Matt,’ she says. She is referring to the remains of the Black Rose Hotel, which was almost destroyed by fire last year. The site is fenced off while the insurance investigation is in progress.

‘It’s not that kind of noise,’ Matt says. ‘It’s a rhythmic left foot, right foot leather-soled shoes hitting the pavement kind of noise. It has an echo. Surely, you must be able to hear it.’

‘No, Matt, I can’t hear it,’ Miranda says. ‘You’re imagining things.’

‘I heard the same footsteps yesterday too,’ Matt says, this time with a little more emphasis. ‘On this same stretch of road. When I picked up my pace, the footsteps behind me picked up their pace too, to match my step. When I turned around to look, I heard the phantom feet shuffle as they came to a halt. There was no-one there.’

‘Next, you’ll be telling me you can hear a military band in the distance playing a haunting tune,’ Miranda says. ‘Or that there’s a lion on the loose in Parsons Park.’ Matt has noticed that Miranda is becoming more dismissive of his observations lately. He finds her cutting remarks hurtful. He doesn’t publicly acknowledge the possibility but he feels they might be drifting apart. Miranda seems to be in her own little world. All this amateur dramatics, mixing with people with names like Caramel and Sahara, Gunner and Caspian. But you can’t tell her. She knows best.

They take a detour along New Road. Perhaps it is a shortcut or maybe it’s just a way to stretch the legs but they always seem to go this way. Matt can no longer hear the footsteps. He begins to wonder if perhaps Miranda is right. Perhaps being followed is all in his imagination. Things have been pretty fraught lately, what with the closure of the kaleidoscope repair shop and the fridge magnet advisory centre. His business empire has definitely taken a tumble and now there is uncertainty over the future of the inanimate pet counselling service. These trials and tribulations are bound to have an effect on one’s state of mind. When things are out of kilter, it is easy to imagine things that aren’t there. He needs to take another look at the mindfulness book Miranda bought him as a stocking filler last Christmas.

But, as they turn into Daphne Du Maurier Way, to his dismay, the footsteps start up again. Heavy regular trudging footsteps, keeping pace with his own. Once more, he is unnerved. Once more, he stops and turns around. Miranda grabs him by the arm.

‘Will you stop doing that!’ she says. ‘You’re freaking me out.’

‘But there is something very odd going on, Miranda’ he says. ‘Don’t you ever get the feeling that there’s a secret invisible world just out of reach?’

‘You’re not going to start on that parallel worlds nonsense again, are you, Matt?’ Miranda says. ‘It’s bad enough that we had to buy a house in Stephen King Drive. I really liked that nice semi on the Rogers and Hammerstein estate. Or I could have settled on the one we looked at in Noel Coward Mews, next door to Archimedes and Thredony. It would have been within walking distance to the Lyric Theatre. Anyway, look! Once and for all, there’s nobody following you.’

With this, Miranda strides on ahead. Matt is left looking back at a long empty street. When, a second or so later, he turns back around, he is also looking at a long empty street. Miranda is nowhere to be seen. She has vanished into thin air. There is nowhere she could have secreted herself in so short a time. Yet she is not there. Matt reminds himself this is not a scene from Star Trek. Nor is it a cheap magic trick by a flashy illusionist at the Lyric. A living breathing five foot six woman wearing brightly coloured clothes has disappeared in the open and in broad daylight from a quiet suburban street in a coastal town in England. What manner of sorcery can have brought this about?

Matt’s experience of reporting matters to the police is not a good one. They don’t seem to be willing to deal with anything unusual. When he went in a couple of months ago to report the abduction of Major Churchill’s pet rock, Britannia, they were downright rude. Sergeant Tesco suggested he might try the psychiatric ward at the hospital. He can’t have been familiar with the field of inanimate pet care. Nor does Matt believe Sergeant Tesco was aware that Major Churchill is an influential figure in these parts and could easily bring pressure to bear.

Clearly, he will need to look elsewhere if he is going to find out what has happened to Miranda. But where exactly? It’s a job for a supernatural agency. He wonders if Aunt Julie’s old friend, Lucy Gaia might be able to help. Lucy can commune with spirits, talk with the dead and all sorts. She will surely have suggestions about what might be going on. Matt hasn’t seen Lucy in a few years but he believes her to be a creature of habit. He is sure he will still be able to find her mixing up some magic potion at Pennyroyal Cottage on the edge of the woods.

He discovers to his horror that according to a roaming woodsman, who introduces himself as Pete Free, Lucy has recently been eaten by a bear. Last Tuesday, Pete Free was returning from a mushroom collecting expedition in the woods when he spotted the large brown bear finishing the last bits of Lucy off. Brown bears, Pete tells him, have notoriously large appetites. This particular brown bear had been around the woods for a while.

‘I didn’t realise there were bears around these parts,’ Matt says.

‘There are bears everywhere,’ Pete says. ‘Specially in these ‘ere woods.’

‘Or that they were carnivores,’ Matt says.

‘Bears will eat anything if they are hungry,’ Pete says. ‘Anything at all. Even tough old harpies like your Lucy. And as I’ve told you, brown bears seem to always be hungry.’

‘Poor Lucy,’ Matt says. ‘Do you know what? This isn’t turning out to be a very good day.’

‘So, what shall we do about it?’ Pete says. ‘Do you want to go to the pub?’

‘Why not!’ Matt says. Sometimes a bevvy can be the best course of action when everything seems to be a blur. ‘I’ll get the car.’

On the way to The White Rabbit, he tells Pete Free about Miranda’s disappearance. Pete suggests that there are many ways to skin a cat. Matt wonders what skinning a cat has to do with it.

Matt has not been to The White Rabbit before. It is on the outskirts of the old town five miles away. He seldom ventures out this way. The first thing that strikes him when he walks in is the huge nineteen sixties jukebox. The second is that it is stocked with the best of sixties rock and the landlord likes it loud. While they are waiting to get his attention at the bar, Jumping Jack Flash is followed by Voodoo Child. And the bass on Get Back is like a rocket taking off.

Another thing he can’t help noticing is the room’s shifting sense of proportion. It’s as if the walls are breathing. Even before the first Special Brew, Matt wonders what it is about the lighting that causes those impossibly long shadows or why the mural of the lunar landscape on the far wall doesn’t stay in one place. And where is the fog coming from? His sense of disorientation isn’t helped by Pete Free trying, for no apparent reason, to explain the subtext of the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. As he casts his glance around the bar, he feels seasick. It feels as if his head is doing somersaults. By now he has all but forgotten about the cat and the skinning and the hungry bear and Sergeant Tesco and it’s as if Miranda was someone from a previous life.

At some point in the explanation, Pete too vanishes. One moment Pete is beside him talking about cabbages and kings and the next he is not. He is nowhere to be seen. Did Matt drift off and miss something?

‘Did you happen to see where Pete went,’ he asks the fellow in the space suit leaning against the bar.

‘What?’ the fellow in the space suit says. Apparently, he cannot hear Matt over Born to be Wild.

‘Pete Free,’ Matt says. ‘He’s disappeared.’

‘Who?’ the fellow says. It may not be a spacesuit after all. It seems to be an illusion brought about by reflections from mirrors behind the bar. Multiple images and superimpositions.

‘The guy who was just sitting here. The one with the big beard and the coonskin cap.’

‘There was no-one sitting there. Are you OK, mate?’

Matt stumbles around the bar in a confused state looking for his companion before deciding it would be best to get out of The White Rabbit.

Outside, he discovers that it is dark. How long has he been in there? With the maelstrom of dark thoughts bombarding his consciousness, it is difficult to see things in terms of the clock. Light My Fire was on a few times and Purple Haze more than once. In a Gadda da Vida alone is twenty minutes long. He takes out his phone to check the time. For some reason, it is switched off. Why is it switched off? He never switches it off. He activates it. There are fourteen missed calls and as many text messages. All but one of the missed calls are from Miranda. But, she has not left a single message. If you phone someone thirteen times, surely you have to leave at least one voicemail. Unless, for whatever reason, you can’t. But at least, Miranda is phoning. ……. Or could it be someone calling from her phone? But still, why no message? The other missed call is from someone called Walter Ego. Walter Ego keeps phoning him. Matt is not sure but he thinks he might have met him back in the day at an inanimate pets conference. Or perhaps it was the fantasy fiction workshop. Whichever, Walter seems to be on his case. He moves on to the text messages. Most of these are enquiries about outstanding kaleidoscope repairs or people wanting advice about fridge magnets. Sadly, none of the texts is from Miranda.

The reason he hasn’t tried to phone her, he can only suppose was down to the way in which she vanished. It seemed to him mobile communication would have no place in the void. He phones her now but the call goes straight to voicemail. In his desperation, he leaves a garbled message. Then another garbled message.

He needs to make his way back home to find out what is going on but he realises he has no idea where he left the car. The White Rabbit doesn’t have a car park, so he must have left the old Opel on a street nearby. The town is shabby, unloved. The railway, which was the town’s lifeline closed back in the nineteen sixties and, having no industry or commerce and no obvious attractions, the town fell into decay. It has yet to be rediscovered and gentrified. But, Matt is sure he can hear a train approaching. He can’t quite picture it but it’s making all those noises you expect from a large locomotive. It would be better if there were tracks and a station for it to stop at but the idea of a train is so powerful, it is coming in track or no track, station or no station. Matt thinks perhaps he can get on it instead of looking for the car.

……………………………….

Ben and his new friend, Rebel are relaxing in his apartment in the San Francisco Bay area. He is explaining to her how DreamCatcher works.

‘Its a bit basic at the moment,’ he says. ‘This is only a beta version of the app, remember, so there’s bound to be a glitch or two. Anyway, what you have just watched, babe, is a recording of Pops dreaming that I made on his phone when I went back home to Blighty last month. The old fella wasn’t even aware I was doing it. Didn’t even notice when I fitted the cap. He had had a few, I think. Mum was away visiting Aunt Julie, or something. ….’

‘More likely the something, I would say.’

Anyway, with the CGI enhancement it’s not too bad, is it? What do you think? And now there’s Silicon Valley finance behind DreamCatcher, and I can put together a team, I should be able to make the graphics more realistic and improve the voice simulation.’

‘That’s your dad? …… Woah! I guess he’s kind of cool in a messed up sort of way. Liking mystery writers and rock music.’

‘Cool? ….. Hey, steady on. I wouldn’t go that far.’

‘On the other hand, I can see why you wanted to cut out. Divorce on the cards, do you think?’

‘Who knows?’ Ben says. ‘But they do say that dreams help to shed light on one’s inner world.’

‘Perhaps I might have a go later,’ Rebel says. ‘I have to tell you, Ben, I do have some badass dreams.’

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

No Windows

nowindows3

No Windows by Chris Green

Pablo Picasso once said, ‘if I don’t have red paint, then I use blue.’ You have to be able to adapt to changes of fortune. I did not plan my early retirement, but here I am on a Tuesday morning sitting in my recliner with a cup of green tea and a toasted teacake. I am listening to the Berlin Philharmonic playing Beethoven’s Symphony Number 5. I find Otto Klemperer’s interpretation on this digitally re-mastered recording both heroic and warmly tender.

The phone rings. I wait for it to go on to answer. It doesn’t. It keeps ringing. The caller seems to be determined. I make my way to the study. It is my partner, Amy. She has gone over to her friend Hermione’s house to go over the church flower arranging schedule and is phoning from there.

‘Why didn’t you answer the phone,’ she says. ‘I’ve been trying for ages.’

‘I was out in the garden,’ I lie.

‘We’re having trouble getting on to Hermione’s computer,’ she says.

‘Has she plugged it in?’ I quip. Neither Amy or Hermione are good with computers. Not so long ago I had to explain to Amy that there wasn’t an any key. When Hermione got her PC she thought the DVD ROM drive was a cup holder.

‘Ho, ho,’ she says. ‘Very funny.’

‘What is happening? Does the router need rebooting perhaps?’ I say.

‘The what?’ she says.

‘The router, the box with the flashing lights that gets you on the internet,’ I say.

‘No, no, it’s not that. It hasn’t got that far.’

‘You mean it’s still rebooting?’

‘No it’s not the box, it’s the monitor.’

‘Is the monitor plugged in?’

‘Yes, it’s plugged in, but it’s not working.’

‘Is there a message? What does it say on the screen?’

‘Can’t you turn the music down? I can hardly hear what you are saying,’ she says. It is the end of the first movement. I love the way Klemperer slows it down to realise the full majesty of the symphony. Not many conductors do this. They try to finish the movement at breakneck speed. I tell Amy that there is a quieter passage coming up.

She huffs.

‘There will be a message on the screen to tell you what Windows is doing,’ I say.

‘That’s just it,’ she says. ‘Windows isn’t doing anything. It says Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later.

‘But Windows isn’t something online. It’s resident on the hard drive,’ I say.

‘That’s what it says,’ she says.

I have never come across anything like this message before. It is a real puzzler.

‘It must be a trojan or a virus,’ I say. ‘What has Hermione been doing? Does she keep her firewall and virus checkers up to date?’

‘I shouldn’t think that she knows what they are. I know that I don’t. You always take care of that for me.’

‘Does she go on to any dodgy sites?’ The Andante Con Moto is just starting. This is divine. I am anxious to give my full attention to Beethoven, but I am equally keen to stay married, despite Amy’s shortcomings on IT and her lack of reverence for Ludwig, and her tendency to over-water the succulents.

I hear her asking Hermione about her browsing habits. She comes back to me to say that Hermione uses it mostly for celebrity gossip and gardening tips but sometimes Hermione’s daughter, Autumn goes on to youtube and spotify when she comes to stay.

‘No it won’t be that,’ I say. ‘Look, love, I’ll just fire up the laptop and see if I can find out anything.’

The main theme is just breaking out now. Klemperer handles this with a subtlety and grace that more recent interpreters of the work cannot manage. It is heavenly.

‘I’ll phone you back in five minutes when I’ve checked on google,’ I say.

I lose myself once again in the hymnal resonance of the Andante. It is sublime. Towards the end of the movement, I switch on the laptop. ‘Windows is unavailable just now. Please try again later,’ my screen says. How bizarre! How can an operating system that is based in the kernel of the machine be temporarily unavailable? It is either there or not there. Where could this command originate? I try the Esc key and all the Function keys in the hope of Windows starting or resuming. Nothing!

I dig out Lance’s phone number. Lance handles all of my computer problems and upgrades. He is bound to know what is happening. The scherzo is just beginning. I pause it for a moment. I’m not sure Lance likes classical music. He listens to Kings Of Leon and Kasabian. Also, Lance baffles me with a lot of long technical words. He imagines that everyone understands what he is talking about when he talks about digitizers, bots, and crawlers. I listen and just say yes and no in the right places. He usually manages to come up with a solution.

‘Hi Robbie,’ he says. ‘Long time. You got a PC problem too?’

He knows that when I phone him it is not to invite him round for dinner.

‘Something like that, yes,’ I say. ‘I didn’t like the way you said, too’

‘You’re going to tell me that your Windows has gone AWOL aren’t you?’ he says.

‘That’s right,’ I say. How did you know? Hermione’s is the same too. What is happening?’

‘No idea, I’m afraid, mate. And I can’t get online to find out. I’m as mystified as you are. Android is down, and Blackberry is down. Even Palm OS is down. You will probably find that the OS on your mobile has vanished as well.’

I check my Nokia. Lance is right. The phone display just says. ‘No Symbian OS. Consult Your Nokia Dealer.’ Not that I use it much anyway. I preferred them when you just used them to make phonecalls. You don’t really need them to watch the sky at night or set the timer on the oven.

‘I’m going to check with my mate, Jago, to see if iOS, the Apple platform is down too,’ says Lance. ‘But I’d put good money on it being down.’

It occurs to me that I don’t use the computer that much either. I research family history sometimes go on ebay, but I don’t do twitter and Facebook or anything like that. My emails are nearly all spam. And I have to spend hours keeping the bloody thing updated. It would not be the end of the world if it did not work for a while. I suppose I had my fill of computers when I used to work for the civil service, before the accident. These days I prefer to read a good book.

Amy is not pleased with my progress report. She is used to my being able to fix things. She feels I should be able to work some kind of magic.

‘How are we going to work out the church rotas and what about the parish magazine that Hermione produces? Its due at the end of the week and she hasn’t started.’

‘I’m sure it will be sorted out soon,’ I say.

I’m not sure, of course. In fact I have a bad feeling about this. It does not seem an everyday kind of issue. We seem to be talking macro, not micro here. I wonder if there might be more important matters than Hermione’s church magazine that are affected.

Amy and I have not had that much to do with our neighbours. We don’t like the late night comings and goings and their noisy summer barbecues. We have regular conversations about how we can get them to move. It is a surprise, therefore, to find Guy Bloke on the doorstep.

‘Eh oop,’ he says. ‘Just wondering if you were having any problems with your telly, like.’

Like what, I am thinking. It is not snobbery or a North-South thing, or even a prejudice about the way his belly hangs over his trousers. Some people just don’t come across well and Guy is one of them. Why isn’t he at work anyway? Has he lost his job?

‘Only our telly is saying that it doesn’t work anymore,’ he continues.

‘Is that what it says?’ I ask. ‘On the screen……. like.’

‘What it actually says is we are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error, whatever that is when it’s at home.

I wait for him to add, like. He does not. ‘Oh,’ I say. ‘I hope that ours is working because they are screening Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 at the Proms tonight with that new Ukrainian conductor, whose name I can never pronounce. Do you know the one I mean?’

Guy doesn’t. I imagine he is thinking of buses in years gone by.

Guy clearly wants me to check ours. I invite him in and I turn on the new 42 inch internet TV that Amy insisted we buy to watch the new series of Cranford.

‘We are unable to broadcast any programmes because of a software error,’ the display says. I press a series of buttons but the message stays on the screen. The internet button displays ‘unable to connect with operating system, please try again later’

After Guy has left, I put on Einaudi’s Una Mattina, to calm myself. As I drift off to Ludovico’s soft piano, I try to put cares aside. I settle into the pranayama breathing technique that my acupuncturist, Li taught me during my course of treatment. I let the haunting hypnotic melodies wash over me with gentle waves of calm. I visualise white temples and imagine clouds drifting gently across the summer sky. Conjure of images of country lanes and babbling books. By the penultimate track of the album, Nuvoli Bianche, a melody even Ludwig would have been dazzled by, I am suitably chilled. Computers and mobile phones are but a distant memory lost in the mists of time.

During Ancore, the final track, Amy blusters in, bringing with her chaos and uncertainty. I obey her unspoken command to turn the music down.

‘Waitrose is closed because the tills aren’t working, and I couldn’t get any money out of the ATM because they are not working either,’ she screams. ‘And, they tell me that you can’t get petrol, although there is a big queue at the pumps of people who haven’t realised it yet.’

‘Calm down, dear.’

‘And, on the way back from the supermarket the traffic lights through the town had stopped working and there was a tailback after an accident on the roundabout so I had to take a detour and I got lost and the satnav’s not working. What’s going on?’

‘It’ll probably all be back to normal later.’

‘How can you say that?’

‘It’s just a blip, I’m sure’

‘And now the phones aren’t working either.’

‘But we spoke to each other on the phone earlier.’

‘Well! They’re not working now. Try it!’ She hurls the headset across the room at me. Fortunately, it misses.

‘I suppose phones need an operating system too. Everything’s digital these days, you see.’

‘How can you be so calm. With your head in your music as if nothing has happened.’

‘But nothing has happened, dear. The world’s still spinning. We’re still here.’

‘Is that your answer. Well! I’m glad the world’s not digital too. That’s all I can say.’

There is no TV, so there will be no broadcast news. Also, there will be no newspapers. I speculate as to what the emphasis of the stories they would be running with might be, as the country, indeed the whole world grinds to a halt. The redtops might be talking about the looting taking place with stores closed given the absence of CCTV, Facebook withdrawal syndrome and the postponement of the Got Talent final. The broadsheets might be saying what might happen with satellites spinning out of orbit, the collapse of the world’s financial system, and the pollution of the water supply. The Daily Mail would be banging on about the potential rise in immigration, given the lack of border controls. The Express, of course, would be unchanged. It would have a story about Diana’s death or new hope for finding Maddie on the front page, no matter what crisis is looming in the real world.

We live on a fairly quiet suburban street and people tend to keep themselves to themselves. We are not what you would consider a community. Each has his own separate interest group outside of the estate. There are few common interests. On our street, we get a handful of dog walkers, mostly in the morning and the evening, but otherwise very few people walking up and down. You become accustomed to the gentle trickle of traffic throughout the day. Periodically there is a delivery van. The houses all have driveways and there is no street parking. From the bay window, you get a good view of the street in both directions. It is unusual to see people gathering outside as they are this afternoon. By about 3pm, a sizeable group has gathered outside the Bassetts at number 42 and all seem to be talking over each other or gesticulating wildly. Around these parts a dozen people together in one place constitutes a riot. Having settled our differences, Amy and I go out to investigate. It is not hard to guess what has brought the assembly together.

Other than Julian and Debbie Bassett, we do not know many of the gathering by name, so we introduce ourselves. We are introduced in turn to Duncan Boss, Kirstin Canada, Dorsey Johansen, Cornelia Hawes, Rolf and Masie Harrison, Daryl and Bonita Callender, Mohandas and Maya Joshi, Tilda Bolton, and Mr and Mrs Stover. Assorted children belonging to the assembled and who have been sent home from school come and go.

No-one has any actual information about what has caused the catastrophe. Opinions range from an alien attack to the a blip in earth’s magnetic field. Duncan Boss thinks it is a scam by Microsoft and Apple to get more money from users. Kirstin points out that her open source Linux system has lost its operating system too.

‘I can’t even start my Mercedes,’ says Cornelia.

‘All the on-board gadgets,’ laughs Dorsey. ‘My Mondeo’s fine.’

‘We were booked on a flight to Dehli,’ says Mohandas.

‘Even The Gordon Bennett is closed,’ says Daryl, who having been given the day off work was keen to get a lunchtime pint with his friends.

‘Good thing too,’ says Bonita, under her breath. She would like his attentions to be on her.

‘Doesn’t anyone remember how life used to be before computers and mobile phones?’ asks Tilda.

‘We were still able to find out what was going on from the newspapers,’ says Dorsey.

‘Depends which newspapers you read,’ says Rolf.

‘Before newspapers, callers ran from city to city, town to town, shouting out the latest news,’ says Mr Stover. ‘Before that, jesters brought news about a recent conquest or disaster in song.’ Mr Stover, we discover, teaches History.

‘But only to royalty, of course,’ suggests Mrs Stover. ‘Commoners were kept in the dark.’ Mrs Stover, we discover, teaches Sociology.

‘I can remember the three day week coming in,’ says Guy Bloke, who has decided to join us. ‘My dad said, I’m not working an extra day for anyone.’

No one laughs.

Our gathering builds as more residents come along to attempt to find out what has turned their lives upside down. More speculative guesses are aired. Perhaps it is a new terrorist group. The Illuminati maybe. Might it be GCHQ? Having worked at the base, I keep quiet on this one.

Grange Road has not to my knowledge ever held a street party. Even the Queen’s Golden Jubilee passed by without teasing out community spirit. By eight o’clock, though, there is something of a party going down here. People have brought barbecues out to the street along with bottles of wine and cans of beer. I wonder if maybe the off licence has been looted. Some musicians have brought along guitars and we are having a singsong. The hardships of digital communication are being buried under a new festival spirit. Is that a piano that Julian and Debbie Bassett are wheeling out? Who could imagine that a gathering of relative strangers who just a few hours ago had been stressed out and despondent could be so carefree?

Our gatherings we are told are being replicated everywhere. A make do and mend mindset is spreading as people realise they are going to need to be more resourceful, but forty eight hours on, there is still no explanation for the technological failure. Digital radio, which might have helped to spread news in emergencies is of course off the air and FM and AM were closed down just a few months ago, a move primarily aimed at selling digital radios. The move, like many things changed under the label of progress, is beginning to look a little short sighted. The maxim, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it went out the window years ago. Nowadays it is more like if it isn’t broke it will be soon.

The initial release from responsibility is turning back once more to a sense of concern. The problems are becoming apparent. The supermarkets are closed and food supplies are running out. There are no planes or trains because the services are tied into central computer systems and road transport and private motoring are being run down because the lack of fuel. It may be in the pumps but no-one has worked out how to dispense it without the help of computers. With container ships navigation systems affected too, there is a lot of potential for disaster. Given the complete absence of global communication, Amy is worried about Emily in Florida and Justin in Australia. I keep telling her they work in safe environments. Emily works in design at Disneyland and Justin is a cricketer. It’s not like they are in the Everglades or the Outback. They can look after themselves.

Amy seems to have grown tired of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3. Perhaps I play it too often, but I can’t help it. Alfred Brendel’s elegant fingerwork is a delight.

‘I’m going down to the allotment,’ she says. ‘I noticed that the Bassetts were putting the canes up in the back garden for their runner beans earlier. We’re probably all going to need to grow vegetables, you know.’

The Largo in E Major is beginning. The solo piano opening is divine, an oasis in a sea of calm. ‘I’ll pop along later, love, if that’s all right,’ I say.

‘I understand you can’t do a lot of digging with your leg,’ she says. ‘I’ll get Hermione to come and help me turn the ground over.’

‘Is this to make me feel bad?’ I wonder. We took up the allotment last year before the incident and now it is overgrown with weeds. I have not been able to do much to it because of my leg. Twelve months on, I still get nightmares about the episode, sometimes in the middle of the day. It is not an experience you can put away in a drawer and forget about. I had finished my shift. I was coming home from work. Two men dressed in police-style fatigues grabbed me and bundled me into the back of a black Nissan Qashqai, not far from the base. I think they mistook me for someone else, someone higher up. At the lights at the Harry Palmer roundabout going out of town, I managed to open the back door and make a run for it. The first bullet shattered the bone in the upper leg and embedded itself in the flesh. The second bullet caught me in the back of the head and travelled the length of the left side of my brain and exited through the front of my head. I was in hospital for over a month, undergoing one procedure after another. As a result of the first bullet, I walk with a limp. They are still not sure of the extent of the brain damage from the second bullet, but it was enough though for the grandees to retire me from the service as a security risk. My abductors have never been apprehended.

Amy returns from the digging. She says that there were dozens of others down there getting their vegetables in. It was like a community event.

‘One thing was a bit odd, though.’ she says. ‘There was a large typed notice on the notice board which just said, ‘You have less time than you think.’

‘That’s all it said. Nothing about who it was from or anything?’

‘No! That’s all it said. What do you think it could mean?’

Mysteries are multiplying, answers are absent in this windowless world. ‘It is best not to think about it,’ I tell her.

We have a quiet evening listening to Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata interrupted only by Guy Bloke wanting to borrow our strimmer so that he can start tomorrow on his vegetable patch. During the final notes of Ashkenazy’s strident arpeggios, the power suddenly goes off. I have been half expecting this. After all, the electricity grid must be centrally controlled and need a computer system. We content ourselves with an early night. I read Sir George Solti’s biography by candlelight and Amy reads The Self Sufficiency Handbook.

In the morning, we find a flyer on the door mat. It just says cryptically, Time is Running Out. Over the next hour or so we discover that everyone has had exactly the same one pushed through their letterbox and no has seen anyone delivering them. Normally you might think this was a prank, or Jehovah’s Witnesses announcing the end of the world once again. Not given present circumstances. We gather once again on the street to share our concerns.

We get occasional reports from places within easy reach, but word from farther afield is thin on the ground. Herschel Fowey and Scotch Jim, two radio enthusiasts live locally. Unfortunately, both might be considered as questionable sources, what might be seen in literary circles as unreliable narrators.

Herschel Fowey is a retired naval radio officer. He lives at the end of our street. He is the one with the Union Flag in his front garden. Herschel is old school. He still has non digital transmitters and receivers and a shed full of car batteries. He delivers his news with a megaphone from his bedroom window. He tells us that both his man, Ho in China and Nehru in India have gone off the air, since this morning. He does not know what has happened, but their last messages were anxious ones. He is still in touch with Eli in Tel Aviv and Abdul in Baghdad. Both are reporting tension and unrest. Nothing is coming from Ivan in Moscow but is often the case, he says. We can only hope that no news is good news. In my opinion, Herschel Fowey does not have a clue what day it is, let alone what might be behind the global OS outage.

Scotch Jim is not really Scottish. He isn’t even called Jim. No-one is sure how he got his moniker. He dresses like a cold war spy, dark raincoat with the collar turned up and lots of pockets and oversized thick rimmed glasses. Addressing a gathering of locals, he tells us he picks up messages from agents in the field on his bank of shortwave sets. He is not a great speaker. Some are drifting away. He recognises me, we have passed the time of day on occasions. He comes over to talk to me.

‘You have experience of this sort of thing, don’t you?’ he says. ‘You used to work at the spy base. Now, I’ve got lots of receivers but only got one pair of ears. You speak German or Italian, I expect.’

‘A bit rusty on both, I’m afraid,’ I tell him. ‘My main source of both languages is centred around musical terms.’

‘Never mind, better than nothing.’

‘I don’t like to leave Amy alone in the house.’

‘It will do you good to get out for a bit,’ says Amy, who has been listening. ‘And anyway, Hermione and I will be down at the allotment. We’re going to put the runner beans and spinach in.’

I wonder if Amy is trying to distract herself because she is worried that there is no news about Justin and Emily, but I do not want to draw attention to this. Australia and Florida do seem further away with each day that passes. I give her a hug and say I will see her later.

I don’t particularly want to accompany Scotch Jim but I can’t think of any other excuses. I’ve got to finish reading Sir George Solti’s biography might seem a bit selfish.

Scotch Jim’s flat is an emporium of junk. It is as if he has spent his life at car boots and jumble sales with the odd afternoon raiding antique shops and recycling centres. The main room is given over entirely to radio gadgetry. Antennae hang out of both sash windows. Lining three walls, from floor to ceiling are stacks of 1950s style valve radio equipment. Amongst a sea of static, echoing voices chatter away in an atlas of different languages. For some reason with the whistles and hisses, a lot of them sound Scandinavian.

‘Take a seat,’ he says. I can’t see a chair or anything, so I plonk myself down on an old box radio and survey the bank of receivers in front of me. The room is sweltering. I take off my jacket and unbutton my shirt.

‘It’s all the valves giving off the heat,’ says Jim. ‘You will get used to it.’ He still has his overcoat on.

It is difficult to describe what is taking place here. We monitor crackly voices coming out of the sets. The voices might be coming from another dimension or from the afterlife for all the sense they are making. Periodically Scotch Jim will say, ‘Sweden has gone’ or ‘I’ve just lost Helsinki’ or ‘are you getting anything from Rome?’ Rome says stiamo arrivando alla fine, or something. I have no idea what it means. I think fine might mean end.

The fumes from the generator beneath the window are making me feel nauseous. What on earth am I doing here? The guy is nuts.

One of the remaining shortwave transmissions is in German. I can’t make out anything that is being said. Fritz is probably not talking about classical music. Another is French. I could be wrong, but the French one seems to be talking about food. Le dernier repas, something about supper.

‘We are now left with just Germany and France,’ Jim says.

‘I think I’ve got that,’ I say, showing a little exasperation. ‘Why is this? What is happening?’

‘I was hoping you might be able to tell me, with your experience at the base and everything.’

Why is there this automatic assumption because I worked at the so-called spy base that I was some kind of secret agent? My job was to manage metadata. This involved me sitting in front of a screen making sure international internet traffic was mirrored properly and that there were no blockages in the pipe. While I am still subject to The Official Secrets Act, I can say that I never once got to see any of the data that was being gathered and I certainly did not take part in clandestine undercover work in the field or have a licence to kill.

‘I don’t think that I was in that particular section,’ I tell him, for simplicity.

I can’t help but bring to mind Nevil Shute’s On The Beach, where a group of people in Australia, maybe some of them cricketers, await the arrival of deadly radiation that is spreading towards them from the northern hemisphere.

‘Look! It’s getting late,’ I say. ‘I’m going to get back and see how Amy is.’

‘I think that we’ve just lost Germany,’ he says, as another transmission turns to static.

Amy says she is pleased with her work at the allotment, but I can sense something is wrong. She starts to talk about when Justin and Emily were little and we used to take them down round to grandpa’s piece of land where there was an old blue tractor and a rusty brown water pump. And a timber summer house full of chickens and cats. How they used to get excited by the runner beans growing up the canes and have snail races along the flagstones. There is a tear in her eye.

Suddenly, I cannot hear what she is saying, Her mouth is moving, but no words are coming out. I try to speak, but my utterances too are silent. Time is running out. I can no longer see outside. It is as if there are no windows. I glance at the clock. Its says 11:59. Is this it?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

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

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

chekovsgun

Chekhov’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

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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 you 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 psychiatric 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, hot-footing 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

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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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Andromeda Dreaming 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 to 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,’ Dad said, 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

Little by Little

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Little by Little by Chris Green

It is said that everyone who looks into their family history will sooner or later discover a deep dark secret, some unexpected turn of events. Time is a slippery customer. There are inherent dangers in unearthing the past. You never know what you might find. Perhaps the past should be left where it belongs. Didn’t Lara realise that with a surname like De’Ath, there might be some skeletons in her cupboard? Or worse? There might be no skeletons in her cupboard.

In her defence, since Who Are You?, the television series revealing celebrities’ family trees, everyone seemed to be looking into their ancestry. It was practically all they talked about at the office where Lara worked. Her colleagues, Holly, Polly, Siobhan and Trudi chattered endlessly about the new revelations from the programme, this giving them an opening to relate what they had found out about their own family trees through an array of genealogy websites.

Although Lara’s colleagues all wanted to feel they had uncovered hidden secrets, in the big scheme of things, their backgrounds were nothing to get excited about. Grandfathers and great-grandfathers killed in various bygone conflicts, immigrant great uncles and the odd wayward philanderer from Southern Europe. Siobhan’s maternal great-grandmother was an unwitting bigamist and Holly’s great-great-grandfather was a circus performer in pre-Soviet Russia. Over a number of generations, these were the kind of anomalies you might expect to spring up in a family tree. Trudi, in particular, had gone a long way back and found that she was distantly related to someone in the court of Henry the Eighth.

Who Are You? on the other hand, had delivered some major bombshells. Angus McReedy, the bearded host of The Great British Fry Up had found out that he was the rightful king of Scotland. Kirsty Banker, the well turned out presenter of the popular travel programme on Sunday nights had found out that her grandfather was thought to be Jack the Ripper. Kirsty had, by all accounts, tried to stop the programme from going out but Channel 6 held her to her contract. The revelation about her background was gold dust, especially as Kirsty worked for the BBC.

You ought to find out about your heritage, Lara,’ said Holly. ‘Probably time better spent than going on all those dating sites.’

How’s all of that going?’ Polly asked, vaguely suspecting that it might not be going well. Lara hadn’t mentioned her dates very much of late.

Ah, yes. What happened with …… Leon, wasn’t it?’ Holly asked.

Leon! Huh! Leon was typical,’ said Lara. ‘He described himself as a debonair thirty-something with prospects but turned out to be haggard-looking forty-something with halitosis. None of them seems to match their description. If they say they are in sales or marketing, they probably sell scratch cards outside the railway station. Tall, dark and handsome usually means portly and five feet four, sporty means has a mountain bike in the shed, and good sense of humour means he expects you to sit with him watching repeats of Dad’s Army. I think you are right, Polly. It is a waste of time.’

You’re not even thirty yet, Lara’ said Siobhan, comfortingly. ‘There’s plenty of time. The right man will come along. Meanwhile, you should find out who you are. Where you came from.’

She was thirty yet, in fact, she was thirty-two, but Lara took Holly’s comments aboard. Lately, she had become curious as to where her roots lay. She knew very little about her family’s background. Her father disappeared when she was young and her mother was always very tight-lipped about the past. Her mother had never called herself De’Ath, preferring her own name, Wilson. Wendy Wilson. Lara often wondered why this was but with the atmosphere at home being strained most of the time, never got around to asking. As there was no professional reason for keeping her own name, Lara assumed that it was either because of the connotations of the name De’Ath or that they probably had never actually been married. She could not remember any talk of a divorce. Since her mother died several years ago from a rare blood disease, and Lara had no brothers or sisters, there was now no way of finding out.

On her father’s side, Lara had nothing to go on but his name. She had no other information, no birthplace or date of birth. So far as she could remember, she had never met a paternal grandfather and she had only a small recollection of a paternal grandmother. She had an inkling that she had some cousins up north but she was not sure. She had never met them but she vaguely recalled a Chester and a Preston being mentioned once or twice, if not in a favourable context. But, at least Lincoln De’ath would be an easy name to follow up. There wouldn’t be too many of these. Fortunately, she knew her mother’s date of birth and where she was born, so at least she had something definite to go on here. Little by little, she would be able to build this into a family tree.

When she signed up for the genealogy sites, Lara hoped to unearth some artistic ancestors, a great line of forgotten bohemian artisans perhaps. A keen painter herself, she was sure that there must be an artistic streak running through her bloodline somewhere. If not a painter or sculptor, perhaps there might be a forgotten writer or a poet there in the background, or maybe a virtuoso musician. She felt that knowing this would help to give her confidence in her abilities. She hoped one day if she worked hard at it, she might be able to sell her paintings and perhaps be able to give up her nine to five job.

When she could find no record anywhere of a Lincoln De’Ath, Lara was not completely surprised. Over the years she had realised that there was something distinctly dishonest about her father. He could at best be described as a wheeler-dealer. Lincoln De’Ath was probably not even his real name. But, why he would make up the name De’Ath was anyone’s guess. Why would you? More to the point, what malevolent caprice had prompted him to curse her with it too? Why had her mother not stood her ground and put Lara Wilson on her birth certificate? What power did he hold over her mother? It seemed that she might now never be able to find out.

She managed to find her mother’s entry on the ancestry.net site but when she clicked on it, something unexpected happened and she was faced with what she had heard referred to as the blue screen of death. When she managed to reboot the laptop and get back into the site, she could no longer find the record. She became a little alarmed. What had she done? If she couldn’t even find her mother, what chance was there of going further back?

She started again from scratch, following all the instructions and screen hints. When this revealed nothing she tried a couple of the other free sites. Still, none of the right things seemed to be happening. Now it was a case of do or die. One by one, she upgraded to the subscription versions of the sites for their added capabilities. To her alarm, Wendy Louise Wilson, born 8th December 1945 was missing on every single one of them. Surely, it was not possible to have deleted the records of her mother at their very source. Surely, it was not possible to change anything on the internet without being a webmaster or whatever these tekkies were called. Perhaps she was doing something inherently wrong. She remembered the time she spent hours trying to work out which was the any key. And the time she thought the keyboard was broken because her password came out as asterisks. She would be the first to admit that she was never that good with sorting out computer problems. Some gremlin always seemed to creep up from nowhere to catch her unawares.

Even though it was late, she phoned Trudi and pleaded with her to come round to see what she was doing wrong. Trudi was a whizz with spreadsheets and data entry and she also knew her way around ancestry sites. She had traced her ancestors back to Tudor times. Trudi would be able to spot straight away what she was doing wrong.

Trudi had been in the middle of saying goodnight to her new friend, Tariq when she got Lara’s call but as Lara sounded desperate, she got in the car and drove around. Her expertise, however, did nothing to correct the problem. They tried every possible combination of Lara’s mother’s name and came up with nothing. It hardly seemed worth trying her father’s name, but Trudi tried anyway. Nothing. It seemed suddenly as if Lara’s parents had never existed. While Lara could understand the difficulty concerning her father, with all the resources available on the enhanced ancestors.com, her mother should have been straightforward to locate.

Her name was there, on the screen in front of me, honestly, Trudi. Wendy Louise Wilson. But when I clicked on her name, Windows crashed and the record was gone,’ said Lara.

That’s simply isn’t possible, Lara,’ said Trudi. ‘If she was there, then the record of her would still be there. We’re not putting something in wrong here now, are we? You’re sure this is your mother’s date of birth?’

Absolutely.’

And her birthplace?’

Definitely Compton Abbot.’

Trudi’s phone rang. It was Tariq wondering when she would be back, he had something planned.

Sorry, Lara. I’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘I’ll give you a call over the weekend.’

On Saturday morning after a night of fitful sleep, Lara got up and booted up the laptop again. She went to log in to Facebook and she was greeted with the something went wrong message. She had come across this before, so she did not get too concerned. She brewed some coffee and tried again and she was able to get in but her Facebook profile had completely disappeared. Do you want to sign up, it said, with the instructions on how to do so. She tried to get into her email account but this too had completely disappeared.

Trudi was not amused to get another call from Lara so soon. She was trying something new with Tariq at the time. She was growing to like the way Tariq introduced new activities into their daily routine. This one involved Belgian chocolate. She was enjoying it very much, so she ignored the call. She could phone Lara back later. The chocolate thing temporarily seemed more important.

When she phoned Lara back around midday, her phone just kept ringing. It did not even go to voicemail. Trudi assumed that Lara had got the hump with her for not answering her call earlier. Lara could be a bit like that sometimes. She took things to heart. She had to realise that the world did not revolve around her.

Trudi decided to drive over anyway to see what was going on. There was no point in falling out about a phonecall. Perhaps Lara had called to tell her that she had resolved her computer glitch and having done so, had gone shopping and left her phone at home. While she was stuck at the lights at the Scott Mackenzie roundabout, she called again. This time, she got the message the number you have dialled has not been recognised. She quickly checked. It was definitely Trudi’s number, the same number she had dialled not twenty minutes previously.

Trudi arrived at Lara’s flat and knocked firmly on the door. A lady in her late forties in a quilted housecoat and slippers carrying a black refuse bag emerged from the adjacent flat.

Are you looking for Mrs Fakenham?’ she said. ‘Because she’s gone to the shops.’

No. I am looking for my friend, Lara De’Ath,’ said Trudi. ‘She lives here.’

Lara De’Ath. What sort of name is that?’ said the lady, looking Trudi up and down. ‘Anyway. Never heard of her. She doesn’t live here. Mrs Fakenham lives in that flat. She’s been here for years, Mrs Fakenham has, with her cats. Look! There’s one of them now. I think that one’s called Thursday. She’s named them all after days of the week. I suppose that’s how she remembers them.’

Trudi was flummoxed. It was fortunate that when she got back home, Tariq was waiting with another surprise. This one involved whipped cream.

When Trudi arrived at the office early on Monday morning, Holly was already there. She began to tell Holly about Lara’s disappearance.

Lara?’ said Holly, interrupting her. ‘Who’s Lara?’

Who’s Lara!’ Trudi echoed. ‘Who’s Lara? Only the person who has been sitting opposite you for the last three years.’

Hey?’

The girl with the long dark hair and the peaches complexion. The one who was always lending you her mascara. What’s wrong with you this morning, Holly?’

I vaguely recall someone used to sit at the desk over there,’ said Holly. ‘Sara, wasn’t it? But, that was a long time ago.’

What was the woman talking about? What in Hell’s name was happening? Was it perhaps all part of some poisonous conspiracy designed to push her over the edge? All this, when things were going so well with Tariq.

It was Lara. Her name was Lara. And if you recall, Lara was still here on Friday. Sitting right there. You had that conversation about your dog-walker being distantly related to Daphne du Maurier.’

I’ve no idea what you are talking about.’

Come on! You’re winding me up, Holly.’

No, sorry Trudi. ……. Are you all right?’

Check your phone! Go on, check it! You will have Lara’s number and a list of calls you’ve made to her.’

Holly took her phone out of her bag and played with it for a while. ‘No. Sorry,’ she said. ‘It’s not bringing up anyone called Lara.’

Why are you doing this, Holly? It’s not funny. ……. You must remember Lara. She’s the one who…….’ Trudi began. ‘The one who ……., but even as she was saying it, her own recollection was beginning to fade. She could no longer remember what Lara looked like. Little by little, Lara was disappearing.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 4

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpart4

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part 4 by Chris Green

I thought that I had put the character of Wet Blanket Ron to bed. I had written three stories in the Wet Blanket Ron series and I felt that this was probably enough. No writer wants to keep going over old ground. But every now and again one or other of my readers would ask the question, ‘when is there going to be a new Wet Blanket Ron story?’ One particular reader on a site called looksee.com, where I sometimes posted, read my stories on the train to break up her long commute. She had put in regular requests for a reprise. Ron was her favourite fictional character, she said. ‘Please give the hapless loafer another outing.’

It became harder and harder to resist the idea. I suppose this is how J. K. Rowling must have felt with her Harry Potter stories. To persist with such a weak premise for so long, I can only assume she was utterly inundated with requests for yet another episode in the life of the smug boy wizard and found her publishers leaning heavily on her to deliver one.

Every writer bases his characters, at least in part, on someone from real life. Even the most unlikely characters have their origins in the real world. Hanibal Lecter, the serial killer in Silence of the Lambs, for instance, was based on the murderous gay Mexican doctor Alfredo Ballí Treviño. Basil Fawlty, the volatile hotelier in the sitcom was based on Donald Sinclair, proprietor of the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay. Don Draper, the Lothario ad-exec in Mad Men was inspired by Dan Daniels, the creator of the Marlboro Man. The Very Hungry Caterpillar was based on a real life caterpillar that was very hungry, and so on. I originally based the character of Wet Blanket Ron on a ne’er do well I knew called Dale Loveless.

I have found that authenticity pays dividends when plotting a new story. So long as there is a degree of realism present, readers are able to identify with what is happening in the narrative, however fantastical the premise might otherwise be. In order to get some inspiration for the task ahead, I thought I had better bite the bullet and try to find out what he had been up to. I hadn’t heard from Dale in a very long time. What cruel misfortune, I wondered, had befallen Dale since we last met? What grave injustice had he been the victim of recently? There was sure to be something suitably downbeat to use as source material.

When I last heard news of Dale, it was looking as though he might do a stretch in prison for smuggling Swiss watches into the UK. He had, of course, been a mule but with his record, it was unlikely that he would be able to convince the court that this was the case. In the last instalment of the Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron, for which I had required a surreal scenario, I had fictionalised this episode into an unwitting Wet Blanket Ron smuggling packets of time out of Greenwich Observatory. I had left a bit of a cliffhanger but had not gone back to this.

Assuming that Dale had been sent down, it was probable that he was out by now. While I had no contact number or address for him and could find no references to him on social media, I figured that Annette Lard would know. She was one of the very few people that had stood by him through thick and thin. I think they grew up together or saw the same psychotherapist or something. I went in to see Annette in BestBet where she worked.

‘Hi, Annette. You keeping well?’ I said.

She was. I left it at that. I did not want to go into the ins and outs of Annette’s chaotic life.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve seen anything of Dale Loveless,’ I said.

‘Sorry, babes,’ she said. ‘I haven’t seen Dale for a while.’

‘He’s probably still in prison, then,’ I said.

‘No. He’s out, at least he was. He came in and put a ton on Can’t Lose at 10 to 1 in the Wetherspoons Handicap Chase. Let me see, that would have been back in February. Can’t Lose fell at the second to last. It looked as if it was going to romp home as well.’

‘I guess that sums Dale up,’ I said.

‘I guess so. He had his head in his hands all the way through the race. It was as if he never expected it to win,’ she said.

I wondered if Pete Free might know where Dale was hiding out. Pete had known Dale for even longer than I had. I believe they had been in college together. Or perhaps not been at college together. I think this was in the days when being at college was different from actually attending lectures. I called in at Pete’s place on the off-chance he might know where I might find Dale. Pete invited me in and before I knew it he had given me a large spliff to look after. I hadn’t smoked in years and by the time I left, I was completely off my head. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember much of the conversation we had had but I think the gist of it was that he hadn’t seen Dale, had no desire to see Dale and had no idea where I might find him. Oh, and that our universe was a hologram, and we were floating inside of it.

‘Does Dale know you’ve been writing about him?’ asked Misty Silver, the manager of the Emmaus charity shop in the High Street where he had once worked. It was an innocent enquiry on her behalf, but, no, Dale didn’t know.

‘Would he recognise his character anyway?’ I said. ‘Most people don’t recognise themselves. Either that or they think a more favourable character in the story is based on them.’

Did Dale perhaps think of himself as a Dry Blanket Ron? Could I have written his character to be cheerier and less accident prone? I explained to Misty that this would have taken some of the edge out of the plots. There would have been considerably less drama in the first story for instance if Ron had not been knocked down by a hit-and-run driver in Black Dog Way and if Ron’s wife had not run off with his best friend, Frank while he was in hospital or if he had not contracted norovirus while he was in there and had not been evicted by his unscrupulous landlord, Kostas Moros when he was discharged. This is the way popular fiction works. The reader expects things to go wrong. Ups and downs are necessary in drama to create tension. War and Peace would have died a death if it had been called Peace and Peace. No-one would have turned out to see Romeo and Juliet if the Montagues and the Capulets had got along. Where The Wild Things Are wouldn’t have captured a child’s imagination if the things weren’t wild. And so on.

Perhaps this was the answer. In the absence of any new material, I could adapt one of the classic plots from literature. Ron’s farm could be engulfed by a dust cloud and he could struggle to take his starving family across country to California. Ron could traipse around Dublin bars for twenty four hours while his wife was unfaithful. Ron could wake up one morning transformed into a large verminous creature. He could steal a fast car and crash it and get twenty years in prison and escape as a washerwoman to reclaim his family seat from the weasels. Realistically, though, none of the famous novel plots was a contender.

There continued to be no word on Dale Loveless. I wasn’t getting anywhere with inspiration for my story. I needed another example of Dale’s misfortune to rival the classic of his being attacked by a swarm of wasps on his wedding day, Friday 13th May, bitten by a shark on their belated honeymoon and mugged outside the court at their divorce hearing. This tale of woe had fitted perfectly into my second Wet Blanket Ron story. To try to locate Dale, I even managed to get my friend in the police, Sergeant Robyn Constable to look him up on the police computer but he had disappeared from their records. I asked Robyn if this was unusual and she said that it was unheard of. The police computer was very thorough with access to thousands of databases. Perhaps he had changed his name or something, she suggested.

I was on the verge of giving up the idea of a new Wet Blanket Ron story. After all, it wasn’t as if I had committed to the project. I didn’t have a publisher breathing down my neck. I could easily get on and write something else. I wasn’t short of ideas. There was the one that was forming about time standing still and the one about the devastation caused by all the world’s computer systems going down simultaneously. But I suppose, deep down, I was rather fond of my creation, not least because of all the fans Ron seemed to have online. It would have been nice to give Wet Blanket Ron a final outing.

It happened out of the blue. As a compassionate human being, it wasn’t the news that I wanted to hear, but when Marlin Snider phoned me at six in the morning, I knew that something was wrong. I hadn’t seen Marlin since the Cocteau Twins reunion concert. He did not beat around the bush. He came straight out with the details. To re-appropriate the celebrated Oscar Wilde quote, to get knocked down once on Black Dog Way might be regarded as misfortune; to get knocked down twice on Black Dog Way looked like carelessness. Dale Loveless, it appeared, was both unfortunate and careless. It was unfortunate too that the accident occurred on the one day that ambulance drivers were on strike. Because of the delay, Dale died in the back of a cab on his way to hospital. But, it’s an ill wind, and all that. The accident has given me some ideas for my Wet Blanket Ron story.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

QUINCE

quince

QUINCE by Chris Green

Giles Riddler tells me the quince tree blossoming in the front garden was the deciding factor in them buying the house. Had it not been for the quince tree, the Briggs and Mortimer board outside the 1930s semi-detached villa in Heisenberg Avenue might have gone unnoticed. Giles and Audrey apparently were out walking their labradoodle, Hendrix. They were not looking for a house.

Look, Giles,’ Audrey had said. ‘What a lovely quince tree!’

Indeed! Cydonia oblonga,’ Giles had said. ‘In such a beautiful sunny position. Exactly what we need. Let’s buy the house.’

Just like that?’ Audrey had said. Although I have not met her in person, I have formed the opinion that Audrey is in many respects more circumspect than her husband.

Absolutely!’ Giles had said. ‘It’s a sign. In this uncertain world, you have to be able to spot these things. And this is a first class quince tree.’

Their house in Cat Stevens Court was on the market the following day along with an offer of £400,000 on Heisenberg Avenue. Giles tells me they had not even looked around the new house when the offer went in. There was just no need, he says.

Their offer was accepted. The Cat Stevens house too sold in a day. It was as easy as that.

………………………………………..

I first came across the word, quince years ago in Edward Lear’s poem, The Owl and the Pussycat along with the mystifying word, runcible. Something about dining on mince, and slices of quince, and eating it with a runcible spoon. Mince presumably refers to sweet mince and not spag bol mince and quince is a fruit used primarily to make jelly. A runcible spoon is probably a spork.

Edward Lear was born in 1812 and was the youngest surviving child of twenty-one. There was a high infant mortality rate back then. Average age expectancy at birth in cities was nineteen. A precocious child, Edward first became celebrated as a teenager for drawing parrots, before turning his hand to landscape painting, travel writing and composing music. Although nonsense verse is what he is mostly remembered for, this was apparently just a sideline.

………………………………………..

I am a writer of experimental fiction, trying, like the paperback writer in the Beatles tune to get my new novel published. Like the one in the song, it’s a thousand pages give or take a few. Unlike Paul McCartney’s scribbler, I do already have a large and varied body of work. Sometimes I give readings at Nena Emanuel Care Home. One of the residents, a Hilma Faraday, tells me she grew up with Edward Lear in North London. They used to play in the streets of Holloway together and Eddie talked endlessly about the land where the bong tree grows and told her the tale of the Quangle-Wangle’s Hat. By my reckoning, this must make Hilma around two hundred years old, yet she doesn’t look a day over eighty. It’s a strange world. Things are not always what they seem.

………………………………………..

I was only familiar with Heisenberg as the pseudonym chemistry teacher, Walter White chose to do his drug deals in the cult television series, Breaking Bad but I discover that Heisenberg here is a reference to physicist Werner Heisenberg, the fellow behind the uncertainty principle. The uncertainty principle states that the more precisely the position of a particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known, and vice versa. Walt’s choice of the name Heisenberg is by all accounts a joke by series creator, Vince Gilligan, aimed at fans who might remember the uncertainty principle from the long afternoons in the lab for double Chemistry.

And then there’s the Observer Effect. The act of observation makes changes to a phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner. Reality is hard to pin down. If you take this to its logical conclusion nothing can be verified.

………………………………………..

Writers sometimes find they have time on their hands. In order to get myself out of the house, now and again I help out at my friend, Max Brooks’s bookshop. Brooks Books stocks a comprehensive range of reading, the type of books you may not find at Waterstones. Giles Riddler is a frequent visitor. He comes in for a cup of coffee and likes to spend an hour or two browsing the shelves. Sometimes he makes a bulk purchase. A week or so ago he ordered a dozen copies of Costa Rican novelist, Quince Duncan’s, A Message from Rosa. Today he is asking for Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. He wants fourteen copies and we only have one on the shelves. While I look it up on the catalogue, he asks about the new Edward Lear biography that is due out. I don’t believe there is a new Edward Lear biography due out. He might be referring to the new Paul McCartney biography, but we don’t stock that. I humour him. He tells me about the yellow fruit on his tree. I may be wrong but I think I notice a thread running through our conversations. Although I can’t quite put my finger on it, there does seem to be a recurring theme.

Giles goes on to say that the quinces from the tree ought not to be ripe yet. It is only August. Quinces should not be ready to pick, he says, until September or October. Yet they are. He has one in his pocket to show me. He takes it out and puts it on the counter. I can’t help thinking that it bears a remarkable resemblance to a jar of sweet mince. I don’t know what to believe, anymore. As the great Jorge Luis Borges says, ‘reality is not always probable, or likely.’ Could we possibly be living in a hologram?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Out Of Time

outoftime3

Out Of Time by Chris Green

The moment Kimberley steps into the refreshment room, she knows something is wrong. Railway station cafés should be a hub of activity in the mornings. This one is almost empty. There are five people and each is seated at a separate table, staring blankly into space. They all register an expression of boredom and gloom. As she casts her glance from one to the other, no one meets her gaze. The room echoes with the sound of silence. The are no signs of life behind the counter. The chances of a cup of tea or a sandwich for the journey are not good.

The colours of the room are just a step up from monochrome. It is as if an autumn fog has descended on the space, or years and years of cigarette smoke have accumulated. The bentwood chairs and grubby checked pattern table cloths belong to a bygone age. The timetable behind a pane of cracked glass is dog-eared and smudged. On the walls, there are a few railway posters like the ones she has seen in the museum. Is Your Journey Really Necessary, reads one of them. A vintage cigarette vending machine advertises Gold Flake and Craven A. It’s like a set from Brief Encounter. The clock on the wall appears to be stopped at quarter to eight. It is now half past nine. Her train is the 9:39. Kimberley checks her watch. Her watch also says quarter to eight. She feels a chill run through her.

She hears the roar of a train arriving. Perhaps it is her train. As she tries to get back onto the platform, she is held back by an invisible wall. She pushes and shoves and ducks and parries. However she tries to negotiate the obstacle, she cannot find a way through. Panic rises in her. Something is seriously wrong. Frightened and distraught she watches through the window as, without even slowing down, the train passes through the station. It is a long train, with perhaps sixteen carriages. She is used to seeing shorter trains. She is used to them stopping at the station. No sooner has the thunderous sound subsided than she hears the rumble of a train approaching from the opposite direction. This one too is a leviathan with sixteen carriages. It travels through the station at breakneck speed. After it has passed, Kimberley notices that both platforms are completely empty. What has happened to everyone? She is certain that there were passengers waiting when she arrived.

She thinks back to when she parked the Qashqai in the station car park. Was there anything unusual, any anomalies she might have picked up on? So far as she can recall, the car park was nearly full and there was the purposeful bustle you might expect at the station on a Friday morning. She even remembers passing the time of day with a man in a wheelchair and moving out of the way for an Asian woman with several small children in tow. She remembers the announcement about an earlier train being seventeen minutes late. It was not until she stepped into the refreshment area that she noticed anything out of the ordinary.

Kimberley desperately needs to talk to someone. She can’t really phone Dan. He is under the impression that she is going to her mother’s overnight. And she can’t phone Ramon. He might not have left for their tryst yet and his wife might pick up. She decides to call their friend Ben, at the secret base. He will know what is happening. Maybe she has inadvertently happened by a sophisticated military exercise. Perhaps there was something on the local news or in the local paper warning of this and she had missed it. She searches in her handbag for her phone. It is not there. Frantically she rifles through her overnight bag. It is not there. She doesn’t have her phone. She never travels without her phone. At home, she doesn’t even go upstairs without her phone.

She looks around the room. No-one has moved. Slowly the blurry figures come into focus. They are so motionless that they might be mannequins. The weary looking soldier in Second World War army uniform seems to be studying a poster on the opposite wall which is telling him to Dig for Victory. He has a khaki kitbag on the table beside him. It has a faded name and a number stamped on it. The middle-aged woman in the brown 1950s New Look twin set is nursing a bone china tea cup. She picks the cup up and returns it to the saucer. The cup appears to be empty. Is she waiting for service? Kimberley wonders. It doesn’t look like this is going to happen anytime soon. There is a thick layer of dust on the service hatch. The balding man in the checked jacket with the wide lapels and the disco collared shirt twists the sides of a Rubik’s cube this way and that. It seems he is doing so more to exercise his hands that with the hope of solving the puzzle. Kimberley ignores the Iggy Pop lookalike in the biker’s jacket and ripped jeans who is lighting a cigarette and goes over to the lady in the purple jumpsuit with the big 1980s hair. Somehow she looks the most approachable of the bunch.

‘Have you been here long?’ she asks. It seems a banal question, but how do you start a conversation with a dummy.

Big Hair continues staring straight ahead. Perhaps she did not hear. Perhaps she cannot see her. Perhaps none of them can see her. Perhaps she is invisible to them. Perhaps they are invisible to each other.

‘She don’t talk much, that one,’ says Iggy Pop. He turns towards Kimberley. Kimberley notices that he has about fourteen earrings in each ear to add to the copious nasal jewellery. ‘She was here before me. She’s been here a long time.’

‘When did you arrive?’ asks Kimberley.

‘Me! I’ve been here since 1995,’ he says. ‘I was the last to arrive.’

This is nearly twenty years. She was expecting him to say last night or yesterday afternoon, or something. She swallows hard, trying to take it in.

‘Time doesn’t mean a lot here,’ says Rubik Cube. I’ve been here since 1976.’

New Look picks up her teacup, puts it to her lips and then places it back in the saucer.

The cup and saucer rattle as another train speeds through the station. Kimberley watches it through the window. It is a perfectly ordinary present-day train, with modern livery on the carriages.

‘No use looking out there, love’ says Iggy Pop. ‘The trains don’t stop here.’

‘I’ve been here since 1945,’ says the weary looking soldier, digging around in his kitbag. He takes out small round aluminium pan and holds it out. ‘Here’s my mess tin. Are you going to cook us something nice? I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘You’ve been here since 1945,’ she repeats, aghast.

‘I shouldn’t worry about it too much,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘A minute’s the same as a year here. Why don’t you sit down? You’ll get used to it.’

‘It’s nothing at all really,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Here have a cigarette love.’

‘Did they find out who shot JR?’ says Big Hair, breaking her silence. ‘I think it was Bobby.’

Kimberley goes behind the counter and into the kitchen area in the hope of finding an exit. There isn’t one. There isn’t even a back wall. She finds herself staring into a void. The laws of physics itself are being challenged here.

‘Could have saved you the trouble, love,’ says Iggy Pop, as she comes back in to join them.’ Don’t you think that we haven’t all tried to get out the back way.’

‘What is this place? What is going on?’ she shouts, at no one in particular.

No one in particular answers.

‘Or it might have been Pamela,’ says Big Hair. ‘She always hated JR.’

Working in an office, Kimberley is not used to thinking outside the box. Kimberley doesn’t even like sci-fi. She only reads romance novels. She wishes Ramon were here, or even Dan. Her head is pounding like a jungle drum, as she struggles to come up with some kind of rational explanation. This is not a dream. She is wide awake. She is trapped. There is no way out. She is really here, in this impossible situation with a group of people who say they have been stuck here for years. It is beyond supernatural or scary.

‘What do you do for food and drink,’ Kimberley asks.

‘Is someone making tea?’ says New Look, clinking her china cup against her saucer.

‘Blimey, you got her to talk,’ says Iggy Pop.

‘Make me something nice. I’ve got me mess tin. I’ve only had a bar of chocolate,’ says Weary Tommy.

‘You’ll get used to it,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Have a cigarette, darlin,’ says Iggy Pop.

These people are looney tunes, thinks Kimberley. They have gone stir crazy. And she is stuck with them. When she was seven she had an imaginary friend called Lucy. Lucy went everywhere with her. Lucy became frightened by some ghoulish gargoyles in the stone mason’s yard that they passed on the way to school. Day by day Lucy became more afraid. She was obsessed, haunted even by the gargoyles. The problem was that this was the only way to school. There was nothing Kimberley could do about it. They had to go that way. They had no choice. This is exactly how Kimberley feels now, stuck here with this grotesque group of ghouls. Lucy of course eventually died, drowned in the lagoon when Kimberley’s parents took them to Venice.

The ghouls here in this twenty-first century railway refreshment room appear not to have aged at all during their stay. Their appearance is exactly as it would have been years ago. The soldier for instance still looks about nineteen. Kimberley does a quick calculation in her head. He should be about ninety. He has been here the longest and the others arrived one by one. They have all been trapped here since their arrival. They are all relics from times gone by. God forbid that she be destined to spend the rest of her days with these fossils in this decaying hell hole.

The windows rattle as a slow freight train pulls through. Kimberley frantically tries the exit again but finds that the invisible force still holds her back. How on earth did she get in here? Also, if there was an opening when someone new arrived, why hadn’t one of the prisoners used the moment as an opportunity to get out?

‘The windows are made of unbreakable glass too, in case that’s what you were thinking,’ says Rubik Cube.

‘Nothing’s going to change, love,’ says Iggy Pop. ‘Take my word.’

‘It might have been Cliff Barnes,’ says Big Hair. ‘He was always up to no good.’

Kimberley’s mind is in turmoil. Why did she arrange a dirty weekend with Ramon? If she had not taken to deceiving Dan, none of this would be happening. To take things back a step further, if Dan had shown more interest in her and not spent so much time training his virtual horses she would not have started having an affair with Ramon. Perhaps she should have spared a thought too for Ramon’s wife. Jackie, Janet, Jill? She can’t even remember his wife’s name. But, who can foresee a trail of consequences? It’s pointless even going there.

More to the point, why are these freaks here and what is she doing in this circus? What could possibly be the connection between them? Do they all share something in common? Including herself? There is nothing to be gained by being precious. She has to get to know them. She needs to test out her skill at detection. She was a big fan of heartthrob Italian TV detective, Aurelio Zen, and was mortified when the series was prematurely axed. Zen used to befriend the suspects to discover their deep dark secrets. With the thought of the dashing Aurelio Zen, she gains some composure.

‘Yes, I will have a cigarette,’ she says to Iggy Pop.

Iggy Pop offers her one from a Players Number 6 King Size packet. Kimberley is not sure, but she feels that this brand disappeared from sale about twenty years ago.

‘Out of interest, where do you get them? ‘ she says. ‘You can’t have an unlimited supply and the cigarette machine on the wall looks empty.’

‘Aha, that would be telling,’ says Iggy Pop. Might the edgy Aurelio Zen have delivered a swift blow to the head at this point? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

‘Can I have a fag too,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I’ve only had a bar of chocolate.’

‘What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It could have been Jock Ewing who shot JR, or was Jock already dead?’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley can see that even the sophisticated Aurelio Zen might have trouble getting information from this motley crew.

‘Has anyone else dropped by?’ Kimberley asks them, trying a new tack. ‘Over the years?’

‘The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once, and nothing happens here, so what does that tell you?’ says Rubik Cube.

‘It suggests that there is no time like the present, or no time but the present, or something like that,’ says Kimberley.

‘That’s right so its as if I’ve always been here then,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘And I still can’t get the red squares lined up.’

‘I’ve been here since 1953,’ says New Look. ‘Things were different then. They had tea dances with a caller and a proper band. Victor used to take me. Of course my husband didn’t know. I don’t think he would have approved.’

‘My, my,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that why you are wearing that pretty brown dress? Is that for Victor?’

‘This is a Christian Dior dress,’ says New Look, apparently pleased to be getting some attention. ‘Victor and I used to go dancing every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon,’ she continues. ‘And sometimes afterwards, we would go to a hotel. But I can’t do that now the trains don’t stop.’

Kimberley is unnerved by this. This is too close to home. She is wearing a Jigsaw pencil skirt and has Janet Reger lingerie on for the very same reason. She has dressed to please Ramon. And were they not also going to a hotel later for their clandestine liaison?

Iggy Pop interrupts her reverie. ‘All I done was sell someone else’s Beamer,’ he says. ‘I had this duplicate set of keys, see, and a duplicate log book. I can’t even remember how I came by them. I’m not a bad man, not really.’

‘I think I’m probably a bad man,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘I deserted, you know. That’s how I came to be catching the train. I should have been in Normandy, helping to push back the Bosch to secure the new front, but I missed my Maddie. I thought she might be going with another fellow. She’d stopped sending me letters, so I had to come home to make sure there was nothing going on.’

The Aurelio Zen strategy appears to be working. She is drawing them out of themselves. They are no longer coming out with gibberish, but talking about matters that she is able to comprehend.

‘Anyway, to cut a long story short,’ Iggy Pop continues. ‘I drop the motor off with the geezer and have to catch the train, so I come along here to the station and next thing I know I’m caught up in this mad hatters tea party.’

New Look starts to say something about just killing time here but the noise of a passing express drowns her out.

‘Of course, JR might have shot himself,’ says Big Hair. ‘I never thought of that.’

‘I used to cheat at poker,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used marked packs of cards.’

‘So you think we are all here because we’ve done something corrupt or cruel,’ says Kimberley. ‘Is that where this is heading?’

‘We used to play Dealer’s Choice and then I would nominate wildcards that were the easiest to spot,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘So, I couldn’t really lose.’

‘I expect a lot of people cheat at cards. I expect casinos cheat at cards,’ says Kimberley.

‘The thing about it was that I played with friends,’ says Rubik Cube. ‘I used to make money out of my friends. I came here to catch a train to go and pick up a Triumph Stag that I had accepted in lieu of a debt from one of my best friends. I’d say that makes me an absolute cad.’

‘I used to tell my husband I was at the Women’s Institute,’ says New Look. ‘I knew that he would never look for me there.’

‘I didn’t tell Maddie of what I got up to in Montmartre of course,’ says Weary Tommy. ‘When I had a forty-eight hour pass. What those French girls can do would make your hair curl.’

It is becoming like a confessional. Kimberley considers the information they have shared. Herself included, they have all done things they know to be wrong. And they were all passing through this station in the process of committing their misdemeanours. You could say that there was a connection here, but millions of people must have passed through the station, and who hasn’t done something they know to be wrong? She remembers the time she sold her mother’s diamond cluster engagement ring to the Wurzel Gummage hippy at the antiques market when she was seventeen to get the money to go to a Robbie Williams concert at Knebworth. And worse, sleeping with Dan’s best man, Chas, on her hen night. She had definitely instigated this. She remembers she had turned up uninvited at Chas’s flat at 2 in the morning. Everyone has their dirty secrets.

So where does this leave her? Kimberley wonders if she might be looking for meaning where there is none. What they are experiencing could just an unexplained blip in the space-time continuum. And because something has gone wrong with relativity, there is no time in this space. They are out of time. This is nowhere. Cause and effect might have no place here. Perhaps there is no why. After all, no-one here has mentioned anything that might warrant a life sentence of this mind-bending purgatory. No one has killed anyone. Not even Weary Tommy, who was in the perfect position to have done so, appears to have killed anyone.

‘I think it was me that shot JR,’ says Big Hair.

Kimberley notices the clock on the wall has moved on to five to eight. Her heart skips a beat. Time is no longer standing still. Is the train that she can hear approaching slowing down?

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Cats and Dogs

catsanddogs

Cats and Dogs by Chris Green

It hasn’t been a good Spring. I have spent most of it listening to birdsong on Birdsong FM because there hasn’t been any birdsong in the garden.

Every week when Sophie and I tune in to CountryWatch, they go on about global warming. March was the hottest on record and April was the hottest on record and last Sunday the weatherman with the Polish name tried to tell us that so far May has also been the hottest on record.

‘Not here, Tomasz,’ I told him. He could not hear me of course. He was in a studio miles away. On the Moon possibly.

I know that it has rained every day so far in May because I keep a diary and, looking at it, I can see that Sophie and I have not been able to get out for a walk in the country once. It has been so wet I have not even been able to go down to the allotment. When I drove past it on Monday, I noticed that the weeds were colossal.

There has not been a single day’s play at this year’s cricket festival and the tourists, having had to abandon their county fixture, are considering abandoning the whole tour. ‘

You can’t play cricket in a bloody climate like this,’ captain, Rick Sydney said in an interview on Radio Glanchester yesterday. ‘We’re off home, mate.’

He may not have been serious. He did seem to be three sheets to the wind. All that 4X, I guess.

According to John Bearcroft, the River Glan burst its banks last night and apparently there are boats going up and down the High Street. Fortunately, we live in Lofty Ridge, one of the higher points of the town. The roof is leaking a little in the back bedroom, but I think we should be all right for now. We’ve got a few bowls and buckets. If it keeps on raining the way it has, though, who knows what might happen?

Aunt Molly phones to ask about Sophie and little Riley. Not that Riley is little anymore. He’s nearly thirteen. Aunt Molly still thinks of him as if he were three. She phones every Wednesday. Aunt Molly lives on her own and she likes to have a bit of family news. Especially since Uncle Mitch passed away. I expect it gives her something to talk about at the church bring and buy or the hairdressers. I tell her that Sophie is lying down. She has a bit of a headache but otherwise, she is fine. Riley is a little sulky because, even though it’s cricket season, he does like his football and he hasn’t been able to get out to play.

‘I know,’ she says. ‘It’s sweltering, isn’t it? I’ve got the fans on upstairs and downstairs. It’s going to be forty degrees by the weekend, they say.’

This is strange. There’s no sign of a break in the cloud here yet, in fact, the rain is falling with a new intensity. Cats and dogs, as they say. And yet, Norcastle, where Aunt Molly lives is less than fifty miles away, in fact, as its name suggests, it’s north of here. I am about to mention this but Aunt Molly interrupts.

‘That’s beautiful birdsong I can hear,’ she says. ‘I expect you’re out in the garden, sitting under that lovely maple tree.’

‘No, Aunt Molly. We’re indoors,’ I say.

‘Are you really? On a day like this? That’s a shame. ….. Good Lord! Have you got birds in the house, David?’ she says. ‘Isn’t that a cuckoo?’

‘Oh, that’s just the radio,’ I say.

‘The radio?’

‘Well, it’s internet radio, Aunt Molly. There’s a station that broadcasts birdsong all day. I listen to it a lot.’

‘But you shouldn’t be indoors on a day like this, David,’ she says.

It is beginning to dawn on me that Glanchester seems to have developed its own micro-climate. I suspect something is very wrong, but I don’t want to worry Aunt Molly. She had a stroke last year. It was touch and go for a while.

‘I’ve got to go now,’ I say. ‘There’s someone at the door.’

I take a look on the BBC weather site, something that I have avoided doing lately. I can see why. It’s hopelessly inaccurate. There is absolutely no mention of rain here in Glanchester, or in neighbouring Starborough. Not a single black cloud on the graphic. It’s blanket sunshine all day every day for the foreseeable future with light winds and projected temperatures similar to those reported by Aunt Molly.

You can find almost anything out on the internet. All manner of information is there at your fingertips. You can find out how many Seventh Day Adventists there are in Tuvalu. You can find out what Beyoncé had for breakfast. You can find out what Prince Phillip’s favourite sea shanty is. But, I cannot for the life of me find out what is happening to the weather in Glanchester. I search on all the major browsers using a dictionary of different search terms but there is quite simply no reference to anything untoward. It is supposed to be hot and sunny here.

I rattle the old grey matter around to try and come up with a rational explanation. Are scientists cloud seeding perhaps? I recall the Kate Bush video for her song, Cloudbusting, with Donald Sutherland, based on Wilhelm Reich’s revolutionary device. The cloudbuster consisted of a set of hollow tubes pointed to the sky which were earthed by a body of water. It drew the orgone energy out of the atmosphere. OK. Perhaps, a bit of a longshot. What about the biblical flood and Noah’s Ark. Are Smetterton Studios maybe doing an extravagant present-day remake of the doctrinal epic here in Glanchester?

Riley comes into the room, interrupting my speculation. No school today. It is flooded. He is wearing a sweatshirt that says I’d Rather Be Sleeping. Better than the I Hate Everyone one he was wearing before, I suppose.

‘When’s Mum going to get up?’ he says, looking up briefly from his phone.

‘I don’t know, Riley,’ I say. ‘Your mother has a headache.’

‘I’m not surprised she has a headache,’ he says. ‘Can’t you turn that awful row off?’

‘That awful row, Riley, is birdsong,’ I say ‘It’s therapeutic.’

‘It’s what?’

‘Oh never mind.’

‘I was going to ask her to give me a lift over to Axel’s. Perhaps you can take me.’

‘I’m busy, Riley.’

‘Can Axel come over here then, Dad. He’s got some cool new apps on his phone. There’s this one that ……’

‘Not now, Riley. Oh! Go on, then! Tell him to come over, if you like.’

I take Sophie up a cup of herbal tea and ask her how she is feeling. She has the television on and is watching the Chelsea Flower Show on catch-up. A succession of royals and celebrities are paraded before the cameras. It seems that this is now the focus of the TV coverage of the event with just the occasional glimpse of a garden or a flower or two to suggest a modicum of authenticity.

‘It’s baking hot here in West London,’ says the presenter with the plum in her mouth.

‘But the celebrities are out in their droves,’ says the presenter from the other side of the tracks. It is the wrong expression, of course, but you can’t help thinking she is right. They are a little like cattle, herded around to put on a show wherever they are needed to promote the well-to-do club.

‘Some of the plants might be wilting but the tropical plants here are in their element,’ says the presenter with the dark linen suit, trying it seems to get the narrative back to horticulture.

‘Any better, darling?’ I ask.

‘A little,’ says Sophie. ‘But I’m not getting up until the rain stops. Look at the sunshine there in London. The presenter with the gaudy floral twin-set says it is going to be 41 degrees tomorrow, I suppose that’s today or was it yesterday. It’s hard to tell where you are with this catch-up TV. But, look at it here. I can’t remember when we last saw the sun. What’s happening, David?’

‘I don’t know, sweetest, but whatever is happening is not supposed to be happening. It’s very worrying.’

‘Can’t you phone your friend, Darwin? He’s some kind of scientist. He might know.’

‘Darwin is an opthalmologist, petal. He only knows about eyes.’

‘What’s Riley up to? He’s very quiet.’

‘He’s doing something on his phone.’

‘Isn’t he always?’

‘I said he could have Axel round. He’ll be over shortly.’

‘Axel. H’mm, Axel. He’s the one with the new phone, isn’t he? 6G or whatever it is. He was showing me some things on it last week. It’s amazing what they can do with smartphones these days, isn’t it, lover? Axel had this app on there that could change the colour of the sky. I don’t imagine it could really change the colour of the sky, it was probably some trick of the light, but then again you never know. I expect they’ll come up with an app that can change the weather soon.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

Barber, Ball and Bilk

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Barber, Ball and Bilk by Chris Green

The opportunity to see Barber, Ball and Bilk, the three B’s as they are being billed, in Bridgedown is too good to pass by. Bridgedown is eighty miles away and I don’t drive, but the train journey from Sheepdip Halt is easily doable. It involves just one change, at Starmouth. Although it is a Friday and Friday is a busy day I have managed to get the day off from Freeman, Hardy and Willis in Leighton Constable. Mr Littlejohn has not said as much but I think he is a closet trad jazz fan. Once or twice I have caught him sneaking a peek at my Melody Maker during his tea break and I think I heard him humming The Green Leaves of Summer the other day. It’s a shame though that the new stock of tan winkle pickers he said he’d ordered didn’t arrive in time for today, but you can’t have everything.

Chris Barber and Acker Bilk are great of course but it is Kenny Ball that is the real star. I have long been a fan of Kenny’s. The recent chart success of Midnight in Moscow is no more than just reward for his long years on the road, playing trumpet in Sid Phillips, Eric Delaney and Terry Lightfoot’s bands. Belated recognition for all the brilliant records Kenny has made since then with his own band The Jazzmen that have up until now gone unrecognised. Forget all the weak, cissy tunes by Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and the other preening minstrels that you hear on Pick of the Pops. Bloody nancy boys, my mate Matt reckons. I don’t know about that, in fact, I don’t care, but there’s definitely nothing dodgy about Kenny Ball. Or his music. I’m not sure quite how a cool cat would put it, but Kenny’s trad jazz is cool, where it’s at, the cat’s pyjamas, the dog’s bollocks, the real deal and all the rest, daddio.

I was planning to take Maureen to the concert and I even bought her a ticket. But she has an important cross-stitch project she wants to get on with. I began to notice a while back that Maureen was not so keen on jazz as me. I don’t completely understand why. I have played quite a lot of it to help with her appreciation. Sometimes for hours on end. And not just Kenny Ball or Acker Bilk. I have played her Mick Mulligan, George Melly and Mike Cotton too. I realise that trad jazz with its rich mix of instruments can seem a little complicated at first. But Maureen seems to be quite resistant to it. In fact, she has stopped talking to me altogether.

As the 10:40 puffs its way out of Sheepdip Halt station, I am delirious with anticipation of the big concert. Imagine, the three British jazz greats all on the stage within minutes of one another. Perhaps they might even perform together although there probably won’t be room for all of them and their bands even on the Empire stage.

……………………………….

In my reverie about the jazz greats and dreamy thoughts about the lights going up on the stage at the Empire, I must have drifted off. I awake to hear an announcement coming over the loudspeaker.

This is Starmouth. Starmouth. Change here for Biggerchurch, Waverley Bluff and all stations to Bridgedown.’

As I gather up my things, I can’t help but notice that Starmouth station has had what Mr Littlejohn, always one to pick up on the new Americanisms coming into circulation, would call a makeover. The old stone buildings are gone and everything seems to be rectangular and smooth edged. There are strange looking digital displays showing the train times and illuminated glass fronted advertising hoardings. Coke, the great new taste, says one of them. It looks like Coca Cola in a can. Wow, what an idea! There’s another one, advertising 501 shrink fit jeans showing a man in boxing trunks sitting in a laundrette. What is that all about? Admittedly, Sheepdip is a bit of a backwater, lucky perhaps to have a station at all, but we don’t get any of these adverts back home. It’s all Brooke Bond Dividend Tea and Oxo. They haven’t even taken down the Careless Talk Costs Lives poster yet.

I step off the train. I’ve never been a trainspotter so I’m no expert on these matters but I could swear we set off with a normal black steam locomotive with a footplate and a tender pulling three or four coaches. It is now what I believe are referred to as diesel multiple units. I have of course heard that diesel is set to replace steam. This is common knowledge, but the transition seems to have been a bit sudden. I didn’t expect it would happen this way. How in God’s name could this have happened without it waking me up?

I look around frantically for someone to ask what is going on, but the station appears to have no staff. I spot some more adverts. These for seaside entertainment taking place at Starmouth. Paul Daniels, Bernie Winters, Little and Large. I’ve not heard of any of these people. Bloody Hell! There is a poster advertising Kenny Ball and his New Jazzmen at the Little Theatre, Starmouth. But in the picture, Kenny has long hair covering his ears and a strange central parting. He is going grey. What on earth has happened to him? He looks about fifty years old. And the Little Theatre. It is hardly the Empire, is it? As its name suggests it’s tiny. I should think it holds less than a hundred people. Ticket prices seem a little expensive, though. £5, that’s more than I get in a week. I have a confession to make. I don’t really work for Freeman, Hardy and Willis. I’m in between jobs at the moment. Mr Littlejohn doesn’t exist. I made him up. But all the same, is the whole thing some kind of joke?

As the train pulls out of the station, I make my way up the platform, my head spinning. I look this way and that hoping to find someone I can talk to about what might be going on, but the passengers from my train, probably in a hurry to get to the beach, have all left. The platform is empty. Over on the other platform, I spot a dark-skinned man. This in itself is strange as you do not get many coloured people down here in the south-west. Come to think of it, I can’t recall ever seeing one, but this one is black as the Ace of Spades. When the boatloads of Caribbeans came over a few years ago, they didn’t settle any further south than Bristol. That’s a hundred miles away. The man is puffing on a large fat cigarette. He catches me staring at him.

Wot you want, mon?’ he shouts.

What year is it?’ I call over.

You been smokin’ the ‘erb, too have you mon?’ he hollers, waving his long cigarette at me. ‘The year? It’s uh, 1985, mon.’

Surely, he’s having a laugh. I can’t have been asleep for twenty three years.

How can I explain my predicament to him? What can I say that won’t make him think I’m mad? Perhaps I am going mad. It certainly feels like I’m going mad. Perhaps I’ve always been mad. I have had a few distracted moments lately. Dr Rheinhart calls this disassociation. Like the time I accidentally put weed killer in Jon Kandy’s tea. Or the time I tried to bury next door’s cat. It was a good thing that Maureen was there to stop me because Kitty wasn’t dead. So I ……. Well, another time perhaps. Dr Rheinhart has said that the medication should be working by now. While I am mulling over my …… lapses of concentration, the coloured man vanishes into thin air.

I’m still trying to gather my thoughts when a gangly fellow about my age comes onto the platform. He is wearing a brightly coloured shirt and has a strange haircut. It is short on top and long down the sides and back, with green streaks in it. He is wearing a gold earring. He has some kind of headphones on which attach to something hanging from his belt. He is jigging his head and singing along to some tune on his gadget. I don’t know what it is. It doesn’t look like a transistor radio. As I get up close I see it is called a Sony Discman. A Sony Discman. Crikey! I haven’t seen one of those before.

He notices I am staring intently at his Discman. ‘Great sound on these portable CD players,’ he says. ‘Have you heard one? Here! Have a listen!’

He leans over and hands me the headphones. I cautiously put them on. I grimace as my ears are assaulted by what appears to be a man screaming in pain over a barrage of screaming guitars. It sounds as if it was recorded in a foundry or a sawmill. Or perhaps an underground cell in the Soviet Union. It’s torture. It’s making me feel nauseous, like that time before when …….. when. I can’t remember the details right now but I know it was not good. I hand the headphones back to him.

Grim Reaper,’ he says, waiting for me to give my approval. ‘Aren’t they amazing?’

Not wishing to offend him …… or knock him senseless, I nod my head and move quickly up the platform.

Others begin to arrive. It must be nearly time for my connecting train to Bridgedown. A middle-aged woman in tight jeans with a glossy looking magazine smiles and says hello as she passes. Wherever you are, a friendly greeting counts for a lot. For no accountable reason, I think that she is called Magda, but I don’t know where this comes from. Perhaps she is going to the Barber, Ball and Bilk concert. There again, perhaps not. Perhaps I am not going to the Barber, Ball and Bilk concert. Perhaps there no longer is a Barber, Ball and Bilk concert. Without me realising, things have moved on. And perhaps Kenny really is fifty years old. What would that make Acker Bilk and Chris Barber? They are older than Kenny. A man in a business suit, carrying a rolled-up copy of the Starmouth Gazette comes and stands alongside me. I try to make out the headline on his paper. Something about a mass murderer who has escaped. They haven’t caught him it says and he might be dangerous. I think I’ve seen the man in the picture. It’s …….

Coming along the platform now is another scruffy looking ruffian with an earring and a bewildering haircut wearing a Sony Discman. I wonder if he is listening to Grim Reaper too. By the pained expression on his face, he looks as if he might be. And here’s a lad riding along on a painted board with roller skate wheels. Two of them, in fact. Both are wearing ripped jeans. Whatever is happening and whatever year this is there still seem to be pockets of poverty in Starmouth. The lad with the faded blue Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt calls out to the other one. He’s going pretty fast down the slope. He’s heading towards me. He’s not looking where he’s going.

Look out!’ I shout. ‘Look where you’re go…….. ‘

But, it turns out that he is not a scruffy looking ruffian with an earring at all but a uniformed police officer. They are all uniformed officers. Sometimes when you are under a lot of stress, you can get things very wrong. I hope that they don’t think that I ………..

……………………………….

Don’t you remember me?’ says the woman in the blue smock. ‘I’m Magda.’

Hello, Magda,’ I say. ‘So who am I, Magda?’

You are Maxx Madison, Maxx Madison. You must remember that.’

Maxx Madison, I’m Maxx Madison. And I’m a time traveller, aren’t I, Magda? Only the other lady said I was a mass murderer and a fantasist.’

Danuta shouldn’t have said that, Maxx.’ Magda says, typing something into her smartphone. ‘I will have to have words with her.’

I’m glad I’m a time traveller, Magda. And not those other things.’

It’s time for your medication now, Maxx.’

After I’ve had my medication, Magda. Can I listen to that Barber, Ball and Bilk record again? The one with Midnight in Moscow on.’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

ABRACADABRA

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Abracadabra by Chris Green

I have just pulled into the DIY superstore car park when I catch a snatch of Abracadabra on the new radio station I have found. Blitz plays nothing but rock, which is fine, as none of the other stations will touch it. I have not heard The Steve Miller Band for ages and, while Abracadabra may not be their finest effort, it’s still a treat to hear. Far better than the mind-numbing pap you get elsewhere on FM. Unfortunately, steel impedes the FM radio signal and B and Q is a steel-framed structure, so as I get near the building, the radio begins to tune out. Reluctantly, I switch it off and grab a trolley. I make a mental note to play Abracadabra when I get home, loudly. But, the tune is in my head now. As I wander around the store, I can’t get rid of the infectious Abracadabra chorus.

Suddenly, as if by magic, there she is. She is in the same aisle as me, looking at the selection of specialist paints. She looks divine in her Sticky Fingers T-shirt. And what cool sleeve tattoos! She smiles at me. Her smile is like Stairway to Heaven. I smile back. Mine is probably more November Rain. I am conscious that I haven’t shaved for a few days. Taking me further by surprise, she comes right up to me. She tells me she recognises me.

I saw you unloading your white van in Serendipity Street yesterday,’ she says. ‘I’ve just moved in across the road. I did try to attract your attention but you seemed preoccupied.’

Sorry,’ I say, trying to recall how I could have possibly been too busy to notice this vision of grace and loveliness.

No worries,’ she says. ‘We have met now. I’m Ella Vallée, by the way.’

Ella Vallée. That’s a nice name,’ I say, successfully avoiding the temptation to say, ‘I bet you are.’

My father was French,’ she adds.

I’m Andy,’ I say. ‘I love France. I regularly take the van over to Calais.’

My name was Ella Crews,’ she says. ‘But I changed it back when my divorce came through.’

Oh,’ I say.

Cool. Attractive. Divorced. Flirty. This is promising.

I expect you are busy but I was wondering if you might pop round later on,’ she says. ‘I’ve got something I would like you to take a look at.’

And she’s inviting me round. It gets better and better. This is exactly what I need. I’ve been at a loose end since Mandy moved her things out a week or two ago.

But let’s not jump the gun. If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. There’s no such thing as a free lunch. Best to try and play it cool.

I’ve got a few things to finish up first,’ I say. ‘But I could swing by later, say about six.’

Here’s my number,’ she says. ‘In case you get lost.’

..……………………..………………….

When Sergeant Tom Crews returns home from his extended tour of duty in Afghanistan, he finds Ella has gone. She has taken all her things, and without them, the first-floor flat looks empty. She has left no note or any clues as to where she might be, just a pile of bills and junk mail on the mat in the hallway. Certainly, she has talked about leaving before. But he thought this was just talk. They had their differences. There was no doubt about that. Tom did not feel it was right for the wife of a serving army NCO to run around seeing bands like Foo Fighters and Rage Against the Machine, and probably taking all manner of illegal substances while he was fighting the Taliban in Helmand Province. Ella had laughed this off, saying that he shouldn’t have been fighting with the Taliban, the army was there as a peace-keeping force. And, they had clashed over Ella’s tattoos. While it was not unusual for army wives to have their husband’s names tattooed on their arm, or a rose or something like that on their ankle, some of Ella’s tattoos were quite explicit. The snake crawling up her thigh, for instance, and the butterfly cleavage tattoo. What impression must this give his colleagues about their marriage?

But, still, six years is a long time. You have to expect a few ups and downs. It is understandable that his feelings about his relationship with Ella have tended to fluctuate. One day he would feel lucky to have such an attractive wife to go home to and the next, in a jealous rage over something he had found out, he might want to knock the living daylights out of her. But, was it too late to save their marriage, anyway? Might they actually be divorced? Tom has a vague recollection that, after he had seen a post of her strutting her stuff at an Eagles of Death Metal gig on Facebook, he may have signed something, a communication that came through the post over there in Helmand, but he is not sure what it might have been. Lately, everything seems to be a bit of a blur. With the Taliban insurgency in the Gereshk District at its height, he has hardly had time to think. Under the circumstances, he was lucky to even get leave. It was only because he had begun to have blackouts that they had let him go.

..……………………..………………….

Ella may have just moved into the Serendipity Street apartment, but, unless the previous tenants also had a taste for rock, she seems to have made the place her own very quickly. Or perhaps she has moved in with someone else, someone who had already made their mark. That’s a lingering possibility. The Jimi Hendrix mural running the length of the hallway looks quite an accomplished work. It’s also hard to imagine that the Pearl Jam posters in the front room would have been framed so professionally and just left on the walls when the last tenants moved out. I’m hoping that there isn’t a fellow on the scene.

Did you paint the walls purple and black,’ I ask when we get to the bedroom. ‘They look awesome with the yellow Fender hanging there.’

It’s not a real Stratocaster,’ Ella says. ‘It’s a cheap Chinese import.’

Nevertheless, I bet it sounds as good as it looks,’ I say, in a final attempt to make sure no bloke is going to suddenly crawl out of the woodwork.

I’m getting better. I can play the intro to Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker,’ she hollers, over the Guns N’Roses riff that is pounding the Kef speakers. ‘Could you help me off with these boots, Andy?’

She lies back on the low wooden bed, amidst the cornucopia of throws and cushions. Getting the long black boots off is a doddle, compared to the tight ice blue jeans. They fit her like a second skin. How long must it take her to get into them? And, my sweet Lord! Where does that snake tattoo end up?

..……………………..………………….

Tom Crews has no idea where Ella might have gone. She has no family nearby, in fact, he has never met her parents. He hasn’t had much to do with her friends and they haven’t had much to do with him. He has always thought of them as common and they have always thought of him as dull and boring, far too straight to be with Ella. Their apparent incompatibility has come up time and time again in their arguments.

After the earlier episode with the photos, Tom deactivated his Facebook account but now, in an attempt to find out what is going on, he re-activates it. He finds to his alarm that Ella is no longer on Facebook, or if she is she is no longer using her name, or her maiden name, Ella Vallée. He searches around the flat and manages to find a mobile number for her friend, Lola on a scrap of paper. He is not sure which one Lola is, but he thinks she might be the one who comes round in the studded leather jacket, the one that talks like Eliza Doolittle and is always chewing gum. Lola tells him, not at all convincingly he feels, that she hasn’t heard from Ella in a long time. Roxy, the one with the green hair, who he tracks down to Nail It is more straightforward. She just tells him to sling his hook.

In what can best be seen as a desperate measure, Tom goes into town and sits on a bench outside Pricks Tattoo Parlour in the High Street in the hope that Ella might show up there. It is a long-shot, but he does not feel he can stay in the empty flat. When Mikey, an old friend of his, comes up to him and asks him what he is doing there, he realises that he is acting irrationally and they go off to The Prince of Wales for a pint.

I bumped into Ella last week,’ Mikey says, once they have exhausted their reminiscences about the old days back in Toker’s End. ‘She was coming out of R3hab.’

What?’ Tom says, taken aback. ‘I didn’t. uh. I know she likes to smoke the odd spliff, but I didn’t realise she had a …… uh problem.’

Of course, mucker. You’ve been away, haven’t you?’ laughs Mikey. ‘R3hab’s a new club. Opened last year in the old fire station. Ella stumbled out. About 2 a.m. I think it was. I had been to Cloud Nine. That’s a club too, by the way. Anyway, Ella was with friends, Lola, I think the one’s called. And that one with the green hair. Oh! And I suppose I shouldn’t tell you this, but they went off with some blokes. I’m sure it was all innocent, like.’

Innocent? Do you really think so?’ Tom says. ‘At 2 a.m.?’

..……………………..………………….

The Stieg Miller Band, a Swedish tribute act are playing at R3hab and Ella has managed to get us tickets. I would not normally go to see tribute bands, nor I suspect would Ella, authenticity being important to us rockers and all that. But, she explains that Mojo is describing the Stieg Miller Band as the real deal. Some of the band members have apparently played with Armageddon and Lowrider, two of the top Swedish rock bands. I have not heard of either band. The only acts coming out of Sweden that I have heard of are Abba and Sigur Rós. Come to think of it, Sigur Rós might be from Iceland. Perhaps I am a few years behind with my reading of music periodicals. I already know what I like and I just like listening to the music. And if Stieg Miller sounds anything like Steve Miller, then I guess that is enough to go on. After all, I do like the songs. I still have the Abracadabra earworm from the other day.

I would not normally go to R3hab either. It has a reputation for fights, or at least that is what Mandy and her friends used to say about it. But, Ella tells me there is nothing to worry about. Her powers of persuasion are such that I feel I have little choice in the matter, anyway. She even kits me out with new clothes for the occasion. From that designer shop I’ve never had the nerve to go in. I have never had a real biker jacket before. It’s very stylish and I’m sure that the super spray jeans will get more comfortable as the night wears on.

..……………………..………………….

Let’s get our arses down there,’ Tom Crews says after the fourth pint.

What are you on about?’ Mikey says. ‘Where are we going to get our arses down to?’

R3hab,’ Tom says.

R3hab doesn’t open until around 10 p.m., mucker,’ Mikey says. ‘And I expect they have a dress code. I mean, look at you. You’re wearing …….. a double-breasted suit. They’re not going to let you in looking like that. When was the last time you saw someone other than Prince Charles wearing a double-breasted suit? And isn’t that a regimental tie? I mean, come on, man!’

You don’t think it’s a good idea for me to go, do you?’ Tom says.

Well. It is a daft idea,’ Mikey says. ‘But if you are going to go you’ll need to go home and change.’

..……………………..………………….

The band are playing Abracadabra over and over. It sounds great, but why don’t they play another number. The Joker or Fly Like An Eagle, maybe. ………….. A man in an orange jacket is coming towards me. He has a serious expression on his face. …………… He walks straight past me. ……………… He goes up to the pretty girl in the Sticky Fingers T-shirt who is looking at the specialist paints, along the aisle.

Do you need any help?’ he says, with a strained smile.

Do you stock these acrylic eggshell paints in purple and black?’ the girl says. ‘You only seem to have pale colours here.’

Oh no! Has it happened again? ………………. Have I had another of my flights of fancy? I only came in to buy some replacement bits for my Black and Decker.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

The Black Book

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The Black Book by Chris Green

When I was growing up in the nineteen sixties, I was surrounded by books. The bookshelves in Grey Gables, the big old house in Gloucestershire where we lived were full, but there was one particular book I was told I must never read. It was referred to simply as The Black Book. No explanation was offered, but under no circumstances must I even touch it. There were a number of house rules back then, which as I saw it were there to be broken, but for reasons it’s hard to explain I understood this rule to be somehow less negotiable. I had no idea what they were, but I was of the view that there would be grave consequences if I transgressed.

Before you jump to the conclusion that the book may have been some grimoire or occult classic, let me state that this was not the case. This was not The Clavicule Of Solomon or The Book Of Honorius or anything like that. The Bible then, you might be thinking. Bibles are black. A big no here too. My parents were regular churchgoers. Three times a week sometimes. Why would they forbid me to read the Bible? They practically threw Bibles at me.

Sandwiched between old copies of The Compleat Angler and Dr Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, The Black Book looked like an ordinary leather-bound book. The only difference was there was no title or author’s name on the spine, nothing to suggest what might be inside. As you can imagine it was a tantalising mystery. When my school friends came round to visit, they too were curious about The Black Book. From time to time we would idly speculate about what exactly it might be.

Might its pages be black too?’ one of us might say. For point of argument, this would probably be Adam. He was the smart aleck among us.

Wouldn’t that make it difficult to read?’ someone might say. Let’s say, Roger. Roger was the most systematic thinker in our little group.

Probably not as hard as Silas Marner,’ David might say. I would more than likely have agreed with David here. It was after all ridiculous to expect fourteen year old boys in modern times to become interested in a long meandering tale of a Calvinist weaver in the pre-Victorian north of England.

Or King Lear,’ Peter might say. ‘What a load of wank that is.’

You think that Lear is tough going,’ I might say. ‘You will find Coriolanus unfathomable. You might as well be reading a bicycle repair manual in Welsh.’

Truth be told, all of us in the B stream at Greystone Grammar School found most of the required reading difficult. Wasn’t this the intention? Oh! And that the books must be boring. Why do you think we passed Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics around in class?

Obviously, there were times when we were tempted to have a peek inside The Black Book. With so much mystique surrounding it, who wouldn’t? The thinking would be if we had a look and put it back carefully in the same place, no-one would be able to find out. It was not as if the books on this particular shelf were read very often. But each time temptation arose, something, an invisible yet powerful force, held us back. Each of us had the strange intuition that by opening the book we would cross a line that must not be crossed. It would be ….. dark on the other side.

It was not that we were faint-hearted. We weren’t. We did all of the things that rebellious grammar school boys do growing up. Smoked cigarettes behind the Science block. Smoked weed behind the science block. Smoked weed in the science block. Grew weed in the science block. We got bolder and bolder. We constantly dared each other to go one step further. We stole push bikes. We stole motorbikes. We even stole Ugg Stanton’s car. Ugg taught us History. When I say taught, I use the term euphemistically. He was a hopeless teacher, second perhaps only to Hans Orff, who euphemistically taught us German. But despite our insurgent proclivities, The Black Book remained a no-no.

In my later teenage years, what with outside interests and all that, I did not give it much thought. I was not around the house very much. I had no interest in entering into lengthy discussions with Pater about the nature of sin or whether there was life after death. Clearly, you wouldn’t find out if there was a Heaven or Hell until the time came. With hormones racing, there were more important matters to attend to. Diana, Elaine and Fiona for example. My wild oats were there to be sown. What else could I do? There was a reputation to be established. Burgeoning adolescence gave no quarter.

Sometime later, on a rare home visit from university I slipped into the library, as my parents referred to the room. I noticed that The Black Book was now bookended by Great Expectations and Crime and Punishment. I couldn’t be certain, but it seemed to me that it was also on a different shelf.

I asked my father about this.

The cleaner must have moved it, son,’ he said. ‘But she’s ….. no longer with us.’

Been gone a while now,’ said Mum.

Oh well, I thought. Getting rid of home help was one of the few hobbies they had. They had to have some pleasures to brighten up their dull lives. Pops meanwhile got back to berating me, with renewed vigour.

Why don’t you get a hair cut, lad?’ he said. ‘Do they let you wear those ridiculous clothes at Leeds? You look like a pansy. What bloody good is Media Studies anyway? What are you going to do, be a gopher at Thames Television?’

I wasn’t going to be spoken to like this. I decided to take a time out. There was a good pub in the next village. Over a couple of pints of Old Bastard in The Belted Galloway, I got to thinking, if the forbidden book had been moved so unceremoniously, maybe it was not so dangerous after all. The temptation to take a look became stronger than it had ever been. By the end of the second pint, it had become all-consuming. I would finally discover what had been hidden from me for all these years.

After a frosty dinner, trading insults, I excused myself and sneaked off to the library. I took a deep breath and braced myself. Whatever dark secrets The Black Book held would soon be revealed. But just as I was about to take the book down from the shelf and examine it, an invisible force took hold. It felt like I was reaching out into dark and empty space with a thousand watts of electrical current pulsing through my flailing limbs. My whole body became numb and I collapsed in a writhing heap on the floor. I was petrified. The paramedics could not work out what had happened. I kept quiet about the book. If you are going to face ridicule, it is best not to do so in your own home.

I did not go near the library for the rest of my stay. In fact, I curtailed my stay and did not visit my parents again for a number of years.

After university with my hard earned Desmond (2:2), I got a job at Thames Television as Assistant to the Deputy Assistant Regional Promotions Editor. It was at Thames that I met Sarah. Sarah had a job title similar to my own, but then Thames did employ about forty thousand people at the time. There were a lot of errands to run. There was a lot of tea to make. Sarah and I got to know each other quickly and moved in together into a small flat in Hammersmith, West London. In the seventies Hammersmith was the very cauldron of change, as with the empire striking back, London became truly international. Within a square mile, you could find families from every corner of the globe.

I mentioned The Black Book once or twice to Sarah, after a few drinks. I couldn’t help it. It was something that just came out now and again. Regrettably, she began to show too keen an interest in it. I could sense that she was eager to see what all the fuss about. I stood my ground. I resisted. I did not want to go back home yet. I was not ready.

There’s no real point in going to see it,’ I said. ‘Unless we are going to take a look inside the thing.’ I imagined that when it came down to it, the book would work its arcane magic and keep her at bay, as it had with me and with my school friends. I was just saving her the trouble of finding this out.

Then perhaps we should take a look inside,’ she said. ‘This mumbo jumbo about the bloody book is probably all in your imagination. Have you thought of that? You do get worked up about little things sometimes.’

There was another objection. My trump card, I felt.

My parents and I don’t even speak,’ I said, hoping that this would seal it. ‘You know I haven’t been home in years.’

Then you definitely should,’ she said. ‘Look! Your Mum has to my knowledge phoned at least half a dozen times and you’ve not got back to her. And even your Dad phoned once and left a message and you never had the decency to call back. It’s time to lay those ghosts to rest, Clive. Time to put your petty vendetta to bed and start behaving like an adult.’

I shouldn’t have let them have the number.’

In any case, we’ve been together for three years. Don’t you think I might like to meet your parents?’

I can’t think why you would,’ I said.

And you never think about your inheritance, Clive.’

So this is what this is about, is it?’

No but one day …….’

I never think about the future.’

Then you should. You can’t run away from it, because it is going to happen.’

Little by little Sarah used her guile to persuade me to take the plunge and renew my severed ties.

We’ll go in the new year,’ I said finally, hoping that over the festive period she might forget.

Sarah didn’t forget. Over the Christmas holidays, her insistence became stronger. So, on the second Friday of January, we drove across the country to the family pile. The snow we had had earlier in the week was beginning to thaw, but not so much that it spoiled the picture postcard views of the rolling Cotswold hills. Perhaps I had become used to driving in London, but for once it seemed that there was little traffic on the road. We passed a joint back and forth and listened to a cassette of Kaya, Bob Marley and The Wailers new album. We had been fortunate enough to see them play at The Plaza de Toros in Ibiza earlier in the year. They were spectacular.

As we drove through the rural idyll, the winter sun shone and the sky was an azure blue. The wealth of the wool towns and villages of West Oxfordshire set against the frozen landscape offered a bounty of chocolate box views. In the Windrush valley, we watched a red kite swoop down from a great height. I had not seen one for years, not since a group of us went camping in Mid Wales for our Duke Of Edinburgh Award Scheme expedition. I took the sighting to be a good omen. I began to think that I might have been wrong in my decision to keep the family at a distance. Sarah’s family had always been close. She saw them every week. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have taken my father’s comments so much to heart. After all, he had always been a cold fish. I shouldn’t expect him to change now. That he had actually phoned and left a message, albeit quite a sour one was as much as I could reasonably expect. In fact that he had left a message at all could probably be described as progress. Perhaps too I had been mistaken about the perils of The Black Book. Imagination could be a powerful force. Maybe there was nothing to fear.

From a distance, I could see Dad’s grey Rover 3.5 parked on the drive, along with the green Morris Traveller that Mum drove. You don’t expect to see a lot of changes to Cotswold country houses, but it was clear that there were no concessions here to modernity. No double glazing. No extension. No vine covered pergola. The house was exactly as it always had been. Before going in, we took a look round the back. Maybe this was my way of delaying the reunion for a few more minutes, while I got used to the idea of being back, but the garden too was unchanged. The borders were exactly as I remembered them, the lawns carefully manicured as they had always been. The trees were the same size. Five years and they appeared not to have grown an inch. The shrubs were the same size. Even the ornamental statues and the rustic water feature were weathered to the same degree. The summer house was still in the same state of crumbling decay as it was when I left.

Eventually, we went into the house and I introduced Sarah. She made a joke about all the number of layers of clothing she was wearing. This helped to break the ice. The frosty reception I might have received had I come alone was averted by Sarah’s bubbly personality. Mum and Dad were able to focus on a conversation with her and thus able to completely ignore me. This suited me just fine. I listened to them making small talk and watched the hands of the grandfather clock as they moved around to quarter past three. I recalled all the times it had woken me up throughout the night, chiming as it did every fifteen minutes. Surely there must have been a mechanism to prevent this.

By about four o’clock the conversation seemed to have run dry. They had brought up all the embarrassing facts about my childhood that they could remember and Sarah had filled them in on the latest blockbuster that would be going out on ITV. They offered to give Sarah a tour of the house. They wanted to start by showing her her room, my room, our room. I knew that the room would be frozen in time. The posters for Superfly and 200 Motels would still adorn the walls. Pater would make some snide remark about one or the other. I saw this as a good point to sneak off to the library. It had the familiar musty smell of old books. There were probably close to a thousand of them in all. I could not spot it at first, but there was The Black Book, on the top shelf now sandwiched in between Sigmund Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams and Bertrand Russell’s Has Man A Future? Had the cleaner again been responsible for the rearrangement, I wondered. Had she too since been dispatched?

I reached up and carefully took The Black Book down from the shelf. For the briefest time, I held it in my hand. Then all at once, time became ……. suspended. One moment I was breathing, with blood running through my veins and thoughts going through my head, albeit what if thoughts, soft and foggy thoughts, slipping away thoughts, the next moment there was nothing. No-one, nothing. Like there never had been anyone, anything. Don’t expect a tunnel of light, or St Peter waiting to greet you, when it happens. It’s not even like waiting for a bus that you know is not going to come along, as someone once described it. There is just an empty hollow void. Silence forever. Eternal nothingness.

I wonder who could be writing this story.

Whoever it is instructs you to leave the Black Book on the shelf. You should not take it down until it is time ………

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

 

Across The Universe

acrosstheuniverse

Across The Universe by Chris Green

There has been a secret underground line in the south of England for years. It can be accessed through a network of tunnels originating from the basement of a former Turkish dry-cleaners in Dulwich. The line runs for sixty miles deep underneath the Weald to the coast near Newhaven. It is believed to be the deepest underground tunnel anywhere in the world. It took over twenty years to build and it houses the extraterrestrials who were intercepted at Warminster in 1980. Leaving Dulwich, it is thought that there are just two stops, one at a clandestine underground military establishment and the other at a colossal subterranean dormitory village and recreational facility a couple of miles further on. There is a covert service exit at the other end but this is heavily guarded. Walkers are discouraged from going near the area by a series of signs warning against unexploded mines.

Keeping the X-Line, as it is referred to, secret has been a formidable undertaking, surely one of the major achievements of our security forces. You may have been labouring under the misconception that the principal objective of GCHQ and MI5 has been one of global surveillance because this is what we have been told. It now looks as if this may not be the case. Its main focus may have been keeping news of the X-Line project out of the public domain. While initially, the operation’s cover may have relied on the premise that Turkish people do not have a lot of dry cleaning done, this does not explain how its growth from a small shop front to that of a huge edifice covering several blocks has been concealed. Might those that have questioned the development or accidentally stumbled upon the truth have been systematically liquidated?

One or two of the extraterrestrials have been sighted above ground, but these reports have been hushed up. When photos of these taller, thinner, paler creatures were put up on the internet a while back on forddriver.onion, the site was unceremoniously closed down. The proliferation of 9/11 accounts and New World Order explanations has been sufficient to keep most conspiracy theorists busy, so the posts passed largely unnoticed. Weekend conspiracy theorists are not going to spend a lot of time following up the odd alien sighting possibly put up by a paranoid bipolar Photoshop photographer. The post also suggested that military personnel had interbred with the tall aliens and that the resultant hybrid race is beginning to establish itself in the hidden depths below the Sussex countryside.

………………………………………………

Helped along by the reactionary press, in just a few years, the politics of the country has lurched ever further to the right. The abandonment of welfare benefits and the reduction of the minimum wage have resulted and there is a think tank currently looking at plans to cull the disabled. With opposition parties no longer opposing, freedom is rapidly being eroded and, brainwashed or not, Joe Public seems to be going for it. Persecution of minorities is now the norm. The press is full of tirades against Eastern Europeans, Blacks and Asians, unmarried mothers and gays. There are of course no longer any immigrants. Racial purity and ethnic cleansing are the new buzz words. But where there is a discourse, there is also a reverse discourse and some of us are finally getting together to fight back. We can remember the optimism of a bygone era and would like to see a return to love and peace and freedom of speech.

Few people not involved with the secret project have ever been down the X-Line. As an undercover investigative journalist with The Lefty, I am one of a select band who through subterfuge hope to see first hand what is going on. We are an ill-equipped but determined bunch. Otto Funk is nearly seventy but he is as fit as a fiddle. Otto used to publish Undercover, but although this went under a few years ago, he still feels the need to further the revolutionary cause. Otto was the one who first drew my attention to the X-Line. He says that he has been researching the story for years. He says his big break came when he discovered Ford Driver’s unpublished manuscripts. Ford Driver, he says, had been amassing information on the X-Line project since its inception. Otto acknowledges that it might have been a mistake for Driver to put pictures on the internet and his death he says is shrouded in mystery. Otto remains undeterred in his resolution.

May Welby is the editor of Loony Left, a radical socialist magazine that comes out now and again. She is also the one who came up with the photos of the tall extraterrestrials. May’s pictures of them match Ford Driver’s descriptions exactly. They may even have been taken from Driver’s defunct web site. For the benefit of those of you that remember it, May Welby was the one that broke the BorisGate scandal a year or two back. Stanton Polk is the kooky publisher of Peace Frog magazine. Peace Frog is something of a relic of the hippie era. It still talks about revolution in the head and posts pictures of Jimi Hendrix on the cover. To be fair, Stanton has probably only come on board because he is as barmy as a box of badgers and doesn’t appreciate the dangers. Nanci Gatlin puts together The Underdog, a publication sold on street corners which remarkably is still going to print despite an unsustainable drop in sales. The last issue sold fourteen copies. ‘Everyone seems to want to be on the side that’s winning, these days,’ Nanci says. I’m sure I’ve heard that somewhere before but I can’t place where. Calvin Sharp runs Ethical Spy. The title is perhaps misleading as there is nothing ethical about it, nor has it very much to do with spying. At least not in the sense that you think of it. It is a top-shelf porn mag. Calvin though is the only one of us with real military experience. He was in covert ops in the first Gulf war, so that makes him, at least, sixty. He had a stroke last year but there seems to be no holding him back. Importantly, he has a cache of ex-army handguns, which he says may come in handy later.

Otto tells us that the warriors from the breeding programme, although lean, might be endowed with super-human strength. As journalists, although we are always anxious for a good story, we are a naturally suspicious lot. We do not believe everything we hear, well apart from Stanton Polk possibly. Stanton believes Elvis Presley is still alive. The rest of us though realise there is a tendency to exaggerate a story each time it is passed on. Everyone adds their two-penneth. Otto’s story might indeed be one of those.

However, it would be foolhardy to underestimate the risk we are taking by going in. We need to be fully prepared. We sit around the table and speculate about what might be happening below ground. What is the aim of the project? Might it be more than an exercise to hide away a handful of captured aliens? Otto suggests it might be an experiment to investigate the compatibility of their extraterrestrial genes with the human gene. The fearsome levels of security that Otto has told us about appear to suggest something apocalyptic.

To avoid suspicion, we have had fatigues made up to resemble those worn by the rangy strangers in the photos and we have had our skin bleached so that we can blend in with the lanky super-humans. We have browsed reactionary Neo-Con web sites to learn the language of the right. There are hundreds of Neo-Con web sites. If you go through TOR, they are hard to escape. Intolerance has been spreading through cyberspace unchecked, like a malignant cancer. Expressions like calibrated ethnic cleansing, white supremacy and reprogrammed meta-human now trip off my tongue.

We have discovered a remote location on the downs which gives access to the tunnels. This is where in the dead of night they remove the weekly waste from and surreptitiously take it to landfill. This is where we plan to make our entry. We imagine that below it is the main living area. The entrance does not show up on GoogleMaps. Otto suggests that Google could be behind the breeding programme. I think he is joking, but who knows? It is quite difficult to ascertain who is behind what these days. Nothing anywhere is quite what it seems.

………………………………………………

We are surprised by how easy it is to get inside the compound. As soon as the grey garbage truck emerges from the tunnel, we casually walk in the entrance before the hatch closes. The squad of guards that we were told would be there appear to be on a tea break or something. There is absolutely no-one about. We can’t even make out any security cameras, but on the basis that with such a sensitive project there must be cameras somewhere, we try to act as if we belong. We have practised our nonchalance, with an acting coach in preparation. We are able to make our way to what appears to be a service lift, still without seeing a soul. We cautiously press the button and get into the lift. It is much smaller than we imagined it might be. This could not have accommodated the truck that has just left or indeed its cargo. It has just two buttons, Up and Down.

As the lift starts to descend, Beatles music begins to play through hidden speakers. Loudly, especially for such a confined space.

All You Need Is Love,’ Nanci says, apparently unphased by the surreal experience being stepped up a notch. Perhaps she worked a little closer with the acting coach than I did. I am finding it difficult to remain calm. It is bound to be a trap.

Quad sound too,’ Stanton Polk says. ‘It’s the remixed version from the Cirque de Soleil soundtrack album.’ He sees no irony in the juxtaposition. He is on planet Polk. He sees things differently from the rest of us. He has spent much of his life off of his head on one thing or another.

Not what you would expect the neo-Nazis harbouring tall aliens would be listening to, really is it?’ Calvin says, nervously fiddling with one of the several guns that he has secreted around his person. ‘Something is not quite right here, chaps.’

Otto is beginning to look a little unsettled and May, who up until now has displayed steely confidence, tries to hang on to me to stop herself from fainting.

It occurs to me, not for the first time, that none of us, not even Calvin with his military background is really cut out for this kind of mission. How could we ever think we could pull this off? What is it we were hoping to get anyway? Even if we get out of here and one of us manages to publish something about the experience, we are not going to be allowed to get away with it. We will be hunted down.

I don’t want to be stating the obvious,’ I say. ‘But, this has trap written all over it.’

Not a very soldierly approach, giving us time to be ready,’ Calvin says. ‘It would have been more straightforward for them to have intercepted us and taken us out and then. Don’t you think?’

Perhaps it’s easier for them to do that down below,’ I say.

All You Need Is Love is followed by I Am The Walrus. It’s not the most sing-along of the Fabs tunes, but Nanci starts singing along to it. I wonder if perhaps Stanton Polk may have shared some of his substances with her before setting off.

For those of us without the benefit of Stanton Polk’s pick-me-ups, the lift descends agonisingly slowly. It is clearly going down a long, long way. My ears are now popping and my head is bursting.

………………………………………………

They say in the event of a traumatic experience, your brain releases adrenaline which speeds up the rate that it processes information. This is apparently why it is said that your whole life flashes before you when you are about to die. And as we descend into the bowels of the earth, I am certain that I am going to die. What other outcomes can there be? I Am The Walrus gives way to While My Guitar Gently Weeps. We are all going to die.

I am drinking homemade lemonade on a summer’s afternoon. I do not know these ladies in dusty pink cardigans. They are old. Mummy has gone to the post office, they say. Will Mummy be coming back? I ask ….. Why is Miss Crabtree slapping my legs with a ruler? It wasn’t me, miss. It was, it was Ja….. I have done nothing. …… pi equals three point one four one six ….. 1066….. I hope you don’t expect anything from this school, because ………. Is Ann really going to let me do it? Without a rubber Johnny? …….. Do you, David, Andrew Norman take …… I do, I do. ………. I don’t. I won’t. Yes, you will ……. No Nukes, No Nukes, No Nukes. Are you going to arrest me, officer? ……. Don’t go, Kristin, don’t go …… I’m not going to pay that……. We’re going to craaaash….. Publish, and be damned. ……. Aliens, Otto? Really? Where? What? You mean underground?

The lift finally comes to a stop. This is it. We wait in anticipation for, for ….. we don’t know what. But no one now expects it to be good. I can’t put my finger on who or what has changed the mood, but it is now one of discomfiture and fear. Shouldn’t we have expected it to be something like this? It was always going to be dangerous. While My Guitar Gently Weeps segues into Across The Universe. The lift doors stay closed. Is the waiting for the bad thing you think is going to happen worse than facing the bad thing that is going to happen? The others scream at me to press the button, first to open the doors, but then for the lift to go back up, but the button doesn’t work and The Beatles are relentlessly going on and on about going on and on across the universe.

………………………………………………

Eventually, the lift door opens and we are greeted by a pair of rugged-looking thugs with Force Security sweatshirts. They are brandishing semi-automatic handguns. They look alert.

I’m Billy Shears,’ says the bulkier of the two. He is built like a Challenger tank.

The one and only Billy Shears, perhaps? I do not say this. He does look as if he means business.

And I’m Rocky Raccoon,’ says the other. Rocky is the smaller of the two, lean but still mean looking. I can’t help but think that they have chosen their names inappropriately.

Welcome to uh …… The Cavern,’ Billy says.

It seems a well-practised line, but Rocky chuckles.

You are probably wondering what’s going on,’ Billy says.

An understatement.

So long as you remain calm, there is nothing to worry about,’ Rocky says.

Remain calm? Where does calm come from? They have guns. They are guards. We are reporters.

Firstly, We’ll have your guns on the floor in front of you,’ Billy says. Instinctively, we all look in Otto’s direction.

Then we might show you around,’ Rocky says. ‘What do you think, Bill?’

I can see you are reporters,’ Billy says. ‘You have that journalist smell about you. But, you won’t be reporting anything that you see here today.’

We’ve had reporters before, you see,’ Rocky says.

Regularly,’ Billy says.

And we wouldn’t like what is happening here to be misrepresented,’ Rocky says.

We could, of course, lock you up, or send you away with a flea in your ear,’ Billy says. ‘But now that you are here we may as well give you the tour.’

But if we do that we will have to erase your memories before you leave,’ Rocky says. ‘Security, you understand.’

But don’t worry. The procedure is quite safe,’ Billy says.

We’ve used it on all the others who have been curious as to what’s happening here in …… The Cavern,’ Rocky says.

And no-one yet has come to any harm,’ Billy says.

While I do not feel that we are out of the woods yet, the pair do seem to be taking a friendlier approach than they did when we first arrived.

So, if you wouldn’t mind,’ Rocky says. ‘Your guns please.’

That would be you he’s addressing, I believe, Mr Sharp,’ Billy says. ‘I sense that the others haven’t bothered to arm themselves.’

Drop them right there in front of you,’ Rocky says.

We watch as a cache of Brownings, Glocks, and Heckler and Kochs makes its way from Calvin’s person onto the paved area.

Excellent! Then we can begin our little …… magical mystery tour,’ Billy says.

It all started when in February 2008, NASA beamed the Beatles’ song Across The Universe into deep space,’ Rocky says.

This was at the time considered to be nothing more than a gesture,’ Billy says.

It was more to show that we could do it, than with any hope of making contact,’ Rocky says.

Time is, however, relative,’ Billy continues. ‘And this group of odd, but essentially peaceful extraterrestrials travelling through space and time picked up the transmission. They landed at Warminster in Western Wiltshire in 1980, having found the approximate site of the source of the transmission.’

Give or take a continent or two,’ Rocky says. ‘And three decades ahead of time.’

Time travel can be very imprecise, you understand,’ Billy says.

A bit like it is on Doctor Who,’ Rocky says.

They said that they were keen to listen to some more tunes like the one they had heard,’ Billy says. ‘This was the express purpose of their visit. They had no music at all back home, you see. In their haste to explore the cosmos, the arts were completely overlooked. For relaxation, they listened to recordings of power tools and hammers.’

Our government at the time naturally wanted their landing to be kept secret,’ Rocky says. ‘As have all governments since.’

Imagine if our friends from across the ocean had got wind of it,’ Billy says.

Our guests would all probably be in Guantanamo Bay,’ Rocky says. ‘Or on a Saturday night TV special.’

Also, the government didn’t want the public to be alarmed by seeing unfamiliar life-forms wandering about,’ Billy says.

There might have been a panic,’ Rocky says.

There was a responsibility to safeguard the newcomers as well,’ Billy says.

So they built a base from which they could come and go,’ Rocky says.

They have been coming and going for years,’ Billy says. ‘And back home on their planet they now use Beatles music as an energy source.’

Where are the ….. aliens?’ I ask. ‘When are we going to see them?’

There are only a few of them here at the moment,’ Rocky says. ‘The others are off on their …… travels.’

I wonder how they manage to come and go and where they land their spaceships and why no-one sees them. They couldn’t get from here to Warminster every time these days, not even under the cover of darkness, and wherever their landing site is, wouldn’t the comings and goings be seen? Then I remember that according to Otto witnesses get liquidated. But how many witnesses can be liquidated without something getting out? And if they close web sites down, new ones always spring up. There are a million unanswered questions. And how does time travel fit into all this? What is time travel? I’m a rationalist. Well, at least some of the time. But then you do have to have some belief in the strange and unlikely to be a journalist. What is it that is really happening here that they feel the need to erase our memories before we leave? Are there more surprises to come? I begin to wonder, not for the first time today, whether anything at all that Otto has told us is true. But we’re moving on. Things are speeding up now.

What about the breeding programme with humans?’ May Welby asks. Not a good question, I feel at this point.

Billy appears noticeably angered by the insinuation. ‘What on earth are you talking about, lady?’ he says.

I do think that would be impossible,’ laughs Rocky, doing his best to placate his prickly associate. ‘We will introduce you. You will be able to judge for yourselves. Ah, look! Here comes old Flattop. He has brought George and Ringo along to say hello.’

Two tiny mud-grey creatures with domed heads and large eyes waddle towards us. They can’t be more than two feet high. They are wearing brightly coloured clothes. They have headphones on and singing along to the tune. These are a far cry from the seven-foot-three super-beings we were being told to expect. We don’t, however, get the opportunity to register our shock. The pair are accompanied by a burly thug in a Force Security sweatshirt. This apparently is Old Flattop. He stares sternly, firstly at Otto, and then at May. A look of recognition spreads over his face. It is not a welcoming look.

You two miserable hacks have been down here before,’ he barks. ‘We redacted the experience from your minds, but still you are back. Perhaps you would like to explain why that is.’

Things are beginning to make sense. Otto and May may have spun us a line. As we try to work out what their motive might have been, the gun in Billy’s hand is twitching. Cute and cared for the extraterrestrials might be in their safe little haven down here below the South Downs, but I don’t now have a good feeling about our welfare in this situation.

Perhaps Scotty is now our best chance. I hope he gets the message about beaming us up I am about to send from my phone.

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved

 

Lenticular Clouds

lenticularcloud4

Lenticular Clouds by Chris Green

Lenticular clouds hang over Mount Dante in the distance. Disc-shaped and silver, they have an air of the surreal about them. You expect clouds to move across the sky with the wind, but these are stationary. Here in the town below, the inhabitants are in the midst of a heatwave. It has been searingly hot for two weeks now. Chet wishes the clouds would come over and deposit their load. His friend, Raul tells him they will not come this way. Lenticular clouds are only there because of the mountain. They could stay in place for days, hovering. They will gradually morph as the air currents push them towards the troposphere. Raul knows about weather. Before his accident, he used to be a pilot. He says they can expect another two weeks of this heat. With high pressure systems like this, rain-bearing clouds do not form, he says. There is not even a hint of a breeze. Chet wishes he were by the coast. Being landlocked in a heatwave is the worst.

Before the battery went flat, the weather app on Chet’s phone showed 44 degrees Celsius. He cannot charge the phone now. There has been no power in the town for seventy-two hours. There has been no explanation for the outage. There was talk of it being a terrorist attack, but why would terrorists target a backwater like this. News travels slowly in these parts. Rumours abound instead. The next town is forty miles away. Conditions were bad enough before the power went off, but if you had air conditioning you could stay indoors. If you did not, you could, at least, circulate the hot air with a barrage of fans. Chet did not have air conditioning and by the time he got round to thinking about fans, the stores had all sold out. He could have perhaps eaten humble pie and gone back to his parents, but anyway, it doesn’t matter now. Not even they with all their resources will have any protection against the interminable heat. A little discomfort will do them good, he reckons. What they did was unforgivable. He is better off staying with Raul. The accommodation may be basic, a collection of shacks tacked on to one another, with the occasional rat scurrying around, but the company is good.

The town has ground to a halt. The tar on the roads is turning to liquid. The air smells of creosote. Cracks are appearing in the concrete of buildings. The river bed has dried up. Blue-green algae have formed on the town’s swimming pool. There are warning notices posted outside. The water smells awful. Food is rotting in overflowing waste bins and on the streets. Everywhere is closed. No-one is going anywhere. Buses are no longer running and petrol stations are closed. The nearest airport is over a hundred miles away near the border, and the coast is the same distance in the other direction. Banks, offices and schools are closed. Even Bashir’s convenience store which is open 24/7 is closed. The hospital is closed and rumour has it that dozens are dying daily from the effects of the extreme heat. There is no way to confirm these rumours. Stores are being looted. Chet wonders how anyone can summon up the energy to loot. This would not be a prime pillaging place at the best of times.

Chet sits in the shade beneath a wilting zelkova tree on a lone patch of grass that the blistering heat has spared. He is decked out in shorts and flip flops. He has taken his CoolDude t-shirt off and is wearing it like a bandana. He is trying to read a book about the stars that Raul has lent him. Since the lenticular clouds appeared he has taken an interest in the sky. He finds he cannot concentrate on the book. The heavens are a celestial smorgasbord of byzantine complexity. It is too hot for long words to sink in. He puts the book down.

She appears as a mirage. She comes out of the sun in a thin white silk dress. Chet has never seen her before. He would remember. This is not a large town. There are perhaps five thousand people living here. He has never seen anyone like this before. She is stunning. She approaches him. She has a waterfall of obsidian hair and skin like porcelain. She has a smile like springtime. Her eyes are deep brown and look like they are made out of glass. How does she manage to look so cool in the sweltering heat? She looks as if she has stepped out of an ice cream parlour.

She puts her finger up to her lips in a gesture to signify that she requires silence for her mission. Chet is lost for words anyway. Where could he begin? She takes his hand and leads him off as if they were familiar lovers. With clandestine stealth, she bypasses the main square and the roads leading off it, through a series of narrow winding streets and labyrinthine alleys. He does not know where they are. Although it is a small town, he has not been this way before. It seems abandoned. Many of the buildings are falling apart. They arrive at a small white town-house. It is entirely in the shade. It is noticeably cooler. The sun never reaches these parts. They enter through a stuccoed courtyard. Chet finds they are in a small shuttered room, with ethnic tapestries hung on the walls. They are on a soft bed with brightly coloured linen. She draws him towards her and kisses him passionately. It is not until after they have made love that the silence is broken when his vision speaks softly to him in a language that he does not understand. To Chet, this is a small matter. Conversational consonance cannot compare to the poetry of the senses. For now, he’s going to stay.

Chet wakes with a start. He is disorientated. The room is dark and unfamiliar. There are slatted shutters on the windows but no light is coming through. It must be night-time, he decides. He is alone. He is naked. He is lying on a dishevelled bed. He cannot remember how he came to be here but he has had the most erotic dream. He is all sticky from the emission. He cannot find any clothes. Where are his clothes? There is no power for the light, so he stumbles around in the darkness. He finds the door is locked. It feels like quite a flimsy door, but he cannot move it. It must be strengthened with something to keep it firm. He is trapped. His mouth is dry. He is incredibly thirsty. A sense of panic mixed with despair rises in him. He listens for a sign of life outside of the room. There is a profound silence. It is still, not even the sound of the wind. He finds a bottle of water. It is a litre bottle and it is nearly full. There is nothing he can do but wait and hope. The last thing he remembers is reading Making Sense of the Heavens, the book that his friend, Raul lent him. He was sitting under a zelkova tree near the dried up river bed. And then …… And then …… Nothing. Then ….. the dream, if it was a dream – about an exotic temptress in white.

At dawn, he can just see out of a small crack in one of the window slats. He can see the peak of the mountain. The lenticular clouds still hang ominously over its summit.

…………………………………………..

Raul is secretly pleased with the lack of power in the town. It means that he does not have to go to work in the plant. He is painting a landscape in oils. Since he has not been able to get up in a plane, painting is the pastime he most enjoys. He would like to give up work and take up painting full time and sell his work. Although his art is accomplished, there is not a big demand for it since the recession. He has been told his brooding, haunted style is reminiscent of metaphysical Italian artist, Giorgio de Chirico. Although flattered, Raul doesn’t really like comparison to anyone. He feels his art is highly original. The landscapes with the elongated shadows of the town’s old decaying buildings are ideal source material for his moody studies. The emptiness of the streets since the power outage has also been inspirational. The painting he is working on has chimerical Iberian towers and arches leading to a desolate rocky desert landscape with lenticular clouds hanging over a mountain peak in the background. A lone silhouetted figure holding a broken wheel by the dried up fountain hints that all is not well. The stacked saucer shape of the clouds today is perfect for the balance of the composition.

He has to be careful not to apply the paint too thickly. He slapped it on the canvas yesterday and it cracked and blistered in the high temperatures. He daubs an arc of coral red at the base of the clouds and mixes in a dab of zinc white in situ on the canvas. It is a technique he uses a lot. He pauses to let the paint dry. He steps back to look at the work from different angles. He is pleased with its progress today. The scene has a dreamlike quality. The clouds with their otherworldliness add an air of mystery and menace.

He wonders what has happened to Chet. He did not come back last night, which is unusual as Chet likes to sit down with him for a chat over a bottle of wine. He was going to show Chet how to find the constellations, Hercules and Indus in the night sky. They are going through the celestial alphabet. Chet does not have a lot of friends. He is a bit of a loner. Surely he would not have gone back to his parents’ house. They disowned him when they found his drugs stash. And he would surely never have forgiven them for going to the police. After all, most young people around here smoke cannabis. It grows like a weed out in the badlands. The police probably smoke cannabis. They probably smoked Chet’s cannabis. They let him off with a caution.

…………………………………………..

Ola,’ says a voice from behind him.

Brush still in hand, Raul turns around. He is dumbstruck. Standing there is Salvador Dalí. His handlebar moustache is fully waxed and despite the heat, he is wearing a dark three-piece suit. The immense bird of prey perched on his gloved hand is a bit of a shock too. Is it a hawk or an eagle? Raul struggles with an explanation. Not least in the mystery is the small matter that Dalí has been dead for many years. This could be an impersonator, but why would he be here? Raul can see and hear this substantial figure before him, who to all intents and purposes is the legendary painter, with an avian friend. Until a better explanation comes along, he must go by his senses.

I love the clouds,’ says Dalí, scanning the painting. ‘They are like how you say, objeto volador no identificado, yes?’

Raul composes himself for a reply. He manages, ‘Whuyuh,’ or something similarly devoid of language.

Rocks and clouds. They are the secret to a successful painting,’ Dalí continues. ‘If you remember this then your art will sell the millions and you will become famous. Let me see some more of your paisajes.’

How does one address the master, Raul wonders? The raptor on Dalí’s gauntlet is fidgeting. It looks as if it might lunge at him. The prospect makes him nervous.

Raul leads the artist into his small studio. There on rickety wooden easels are two landscapes that he has been working on. One canvas is of a seashell suspended from a classical arch in a desert landscape. In the middle of the orange sands is an oversized mannequin in black sunglasses. The other features two columns of arches set at impossible angles casting geometric shadows, in the background the silhouette of a steam train set against a yellow and green sky. Dalí walks up and down smoothing the ends of his moustache pensively.

I am thinking that I see Giorgio,’ he says. ‘I should not say this, but I did copy a lot from Giorgio. All I added really were rocks and trees. And the soft watches, of course. Oh, and tigers.’

Whilst trying to resist the comparison with de Chirico once again, Raul can’t help but feel flattered that the great Avida Dollars is appraising his work. This gives him the confidence to enter the conversation a little.

I was wondering about a perigee moon over the train in this one,’ he says. ‘And maybe darkening the sky to compensate.’

I designed a tarot pack,’ says Dalí. ‘I was very pleased with The Moon card. You cannot go wrong with a big red moon in a painting.’

When I was a boy I wanted to go to the moon,’ says Raul. ‘I asked my parents and they said that NASA weren’t recruiting in these parts, so I trained to be a pilot instead.’

When I was a boy I wanted to become Dalí,’ says Dalí. ‘So that is what I did.’

You can never tell how things are going to turn out, can you,’ says Raul. ‘Sometimes in life, there is great irony. I was taking aerial photographs of the moon when my plane crashed.’

I could tell how things were going to turn out,’ says Dalí. ‘I knew I would be a great painter. I knew I would be famous. It was my destiny. It was in the stars.’

I study the stars,’ says Raul. ‘I’ve been teaching my friend, Chet how to read the night sky. I am showing him where to find the constellations. But he has disappeared.’

People come and go. Things appear and disappear,’ says Dalí. ‘All things must pass. My good friend, George Harrison told me that.’

He did not come back last night.’

Last night I could see the stars. The night sky is very clear,’ says Dalí. ‘What has happened to the lights? Is there no electricity here?’

No-one knows why the power is off,’ says Raul. He disappears behind a curtain to fetch some other canvases to show Dalí. When he returns there is no sign of the artist. He is fanned by the wings of a large black raptor as it flies off with a small rodent in its talons.

…………………………………………..

Time passes slowly for Chet in the locked room. After initial attempts to break down the door and dismantle the shutter, he has given up. He has disturbed the shutter enough to allow a shaft of light through and if he puts his face up against it, he can see out. He is facing a whitewashed wall. He can just see the peak of the mountain and the lenticular clouds capping it. He has given up shouting for help too. He is wasting valuable energy by doing so. It is clear that no-one is around.

He tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. How much of it was real and how much of it a dream? Being brought to a secret lair and seduced by an exotic angel is certainly the territory of dreams, but here he is. In this unfamiliar room. How did this happen? Was he drugged? Perhaps the water he is drinking contains some potion. According to transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who Raul is fond of quoting, reality is a sliding door. His friend would probably have an explanation for what is going on. He has a far greater experience of life. Growing up in a household where he was never encouraged to think for himself, Chet finds clarity elusive. All things seem shrouded in mystery. He has few answers. There are many questions. Why is the sky blue? Why is the sea salty? Why do fools fall in love? And presently, and most importantly, why is he being held captive? He can think of no reason. His imprisonment would seem to benefit no-one. Also, it contradicts the initial experience where he was made more than welcome by the libertine lorelei who brought him here.

How long will a litre of water last, he wonders? It is either half full, or half empty now.

…………………………………………..

Raul takes a long pull on his beer. The warm bottled beer in the Agave Bar is unpleasant, but he feels he needs one. He has no wine at home and everywhere else is closed. The Agave never closes. It would take an earthquake. Sol, the barman seems to live at this dark and dingy bar. Raul asks him if Chet has been in.

No. I don’t believe he has,’ says Sol. Not seen him since you brought him in a while back.’ He explains that since the power outage hardly anyone has been in. He is ready to launch into a rant about the loss of trade that the power outage is causing. Sol is not aptly named. His disposition is anything but sunny.

Noah, who has been sat at the bar listening, interrupts him. ‘Is that the posh kid?’ he asks Raul.

Guess that’s who you mean,’ says Raul. ‘Why, Noah? Have you seen the lad?’

Think I did, now you come to mention it,’ says Noah. ‘He was with a pretty girl. I was sure surprised. Never seen him with anyone but you before. Had him down as a ….. well, a bit of a loner.’

When was this?’

Yesterday afternoon it must have been. They were heading for the old town. Did you see him, Jake?’

Jake looks up from the bottle of tequila he is nursing. ‘No, Noah, can’t say I did.’

Where do you think they were going?’ says Raul.

Well, I have no idea. I’m not going to be following them, am I, although she was quite a stunner,’ says Noah.

Nobody goes up there much since the ….. uh, emergency, do they?’ says Sol. Sol doesn’t get out anywhere that much. He has the pallor of a dedicated barman.

What actually happened?’ asks Raul. He has heard all kinds of rumours, but small towns can generate fanciful stories.

Noah and Jake look at one another. Neither of them says what they are thinking.

The outbreak,’ says Sol. ‘There was an outbreak of something, wasn’t there?’

Noah and Jake exchange another glance.

I’m going up there,’ says Raul doggedly. ‘Thank you, boys, for the information.’

…………………………………………..

It is morning, or perhaps it is afternoon. Chet cannot tell. Daylight is spilling through the shutter. He is woken up by a noise of someone outside. He hasn’t slept much. He is drowsy. With a rattle of keys the door opens. With the light now from the open door, he sees her standing there in all her finery. The same little white dress, the same waterfall of obsidian hair. She has brought a basket of fruit. She hands him a peach. He devours it ravenously. She slips out of her dress. She joins him on the bed and kisses him passionately. He responds to her touch. She responds to his. She is wet. Ardently they make love. It is as if nothing has happened since the previous time they were together. They are just resuming the assignation, where they left off. There are no recriminations.

Afterwards, as they share the fruit, she speaks to him in the language that she spoke to him before. The difference is, now, he finds he can understand her. This is inexplicable. It is the same language, but it is no longer foreign to him. His mind is buckling with incomprehension. How can this be happening?

She tells him that although she is made up of flesh and blood, she is insubstantial, like a spirit. She can only appear in the material world under a particular set of circumstances. She says that she cannot explain any further for now, as it would only confuse him more. What she requires from him is his trust.

When you appear, can everyone see you?’ asks Chet.

No, not everyone.’

When you disappear, where do you go?’

Please do not ask any more questions, as I cannot answer them,’ she says. ‘Just trust me is all that I ask of you. You will be rewarded if you put your faith in me. Let’s go and get your clothes. We have to go. Time is short.’

…………………………………………..

The church clock is stopped at eleven minutes past eleven as Raul makes his way through the town. The scorching heat saps his strength. The streets are still deserted. There may be no power, but where is everyone, he wonders. Where do they all go? Life cannot stop because there is no electricity. He notices that the sky over the mountain top is changing. Normally the wind blows right through lenticular clouds. They form in the crest of the mountain wave where the rising updraught of the wave has cooled and moisture has condensed. The clouds dissipate in the downdraught of the wave where the air has descended and warmed to the point where the moisture evaporates. The stacked saucer effect of the lenticular clouds above Mount Dante has gone. They are scattered. They are brightly coloured, almost psychedelic. The shape that is forming and the rich hue of the clouds suggest they are dispersing. When he was flying, Raul was careful to avoid cloud banks like this. They could cause dangerous turbulence.

As he approaches the crumbling ruins of the old town he becomes conscious of an eerie hush. It is like entering another world, a world of spirits perhaps. It has been a no-go area for so long, he cannot remember why the townsfolk abandoned it, but Noah and Jake’s conspiratorial silence seemed to have suggested he should avoid it. Apprehensively, he enters the network of narrow winding streets. The cobbled road surface is covered in sand and strewn with assorted debris. Boston ivy and Virginia creeper compete for space on windowless ruins and gutted houses. Tumbleweed grows amongst the rubble. A path leads off to the right into a labyrinthine series of alleys, each lifeless and silent. It is a much larger area than it first appears. He feels his hopes of finding Chet here evaporating.

…………………………………………..