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

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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