Cat Town

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Cat Town by Chris Green

Chet’s train to Chatton has never been this late. It is seven o’clock. He has been on the platform for an hour and a half without seeing a soul. Where are the other passengers? Admittedly, Dark Hollow is a quiet backwater, but in the six weeks he has been working at the secret research establishment here, Chet has never known the station to be completely empty. At this time of day, there are usually a steady stream of people on their way home from the base. For that matter, where are the trains going up the line to Everwinter? Even if there are delays on the southbound track, surely there should have been a northbound train or two in the time he has been waiting. Where are Vlad and Dmitri, he wonders? They always take the northbound train.

Chet puts away his paperback of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, and gets up to check the timetable on the wall. According to this, it should be the busiest time of the day. Half a dozen trains are scheduled to stop. Something is badly wrong. He tries to phone Mandy to let her know that he will be late, but he does not have a signal. He takes the battery out of the phone and the SIM card and puts them back in. He fiddles around with Settings. Still nothing. No signal, no wi-fi, nothing.

It is Friday, so Mandy will be setting off for her Pilates class about now. Chet remembers that he has sometimes seen a taxi waiting outside the station. It is a long journey and will be expensive, but it will be worth it. He takes the exit to investigate. There is no taxi waiting today. But there is a phone box. He can phone Mandy on her mobile and find out what is going on. If she is in the middle of her spine stretches or leg circles and does not answer, he can phone Doug or Pete. One of them will surely have some information about what is going on. He inserts his debit card, but the machine spits it out. He tries his other cards. The same thing happens.

The streets are empty, no people, no vehicles anywhere. The air is gripped by a Simon and Garfunkel silence. Has the village been evacuated in the time he has been waiting in the station? Chet considers walking back to the base, but it is getting dark now, and it is coming on to rain. The base itself is half a mile away and he would be able to contact someone from there. But as he does not have to work tomorrow, he does not feel the inclination to retrace his steps. Perhaps next week he will start driving to work like some of his colleagues do. He could do a car share with Kobayashi perhaps. He also lives in Chatton. In truth, he is a little scared by the idea of going back into the underground base at night. It is quite a sinister place at the best of times. He has not yet discovered what its actual function is. All he knows is that the information he handles is Classified.

He crosses the footbridge to the other platform. The door to the station office is locked, but it submits easily to a gentle nudge from his shoulder. He tries the phone. It is disconnected. After a few deep breaths to calm himself, he concludes there must be a simple explanation. Meanwhile, there is nothing to do but to stay put. If the worst comes to the worst, he can sleep on the bench in the waiting room. If a train turns up in the night then fine but if not, whatever emergency is causing the delays is certain to be sorted out by morning.

Chet has a night of fitful sleep, plagued by dreams of searching for missing cats and being trapped at the bottom of dried-up wells. This is only broken by an announcement over the public address system that the 5:29 train to Ramwood, calling at Fool’s Marsh and Little Holbeck and Cat Town will be 11 hours and 41 minutes late, due to an irretrievable loss. The 5:29? This is his train from yesterday evening. Clinging to the hope that the 11 hours and 41 minutes has elapsed, Chet wearily makes his way on to the platform to see what is going on. But really, the excuses they come up with for train delays. Irretrievable loss, what is all that about? And the announcer. Cat Town. Surely he means Chatton.

The platform is empty. Overnight, clumps of weeds have sprung up between the paving. A few of the station’s windows have been broken and there is some fresh graffiti. It is in a language that he does not understand. To his greater astonishment, the railway tracks have disappeared. For as far as he can see up and down the line in both directions, there are no tracks. It is as if the line has been closed for years. The space has been taken over by bramble and bindweed, burdock and bracken. There are prize-winning marsh thistles and even some sizeable sycamore trees growing.

Chet feels a surge of panic. While he is aware that the work he does at the base might be sensitive, none of his training has prepared him for any eventuality like this. Any prospect of a rational explanation appears to have vanished. Anxiously he investigates the area outside the front of the station. Here again, things have changed since yesterday. There is random debris strewn on the tarmac, a buckled bicycle wheel, a torn rubber boot, a shattered picture frame and a washing-up bowl. There is broken glass on the pavement here and there and a build-up of litter in the gutter. Yet, there is no sign of life. The streets are in the grip of the intimidating mute stillness they were yesterday.

Mandy must be worried sick by now. Either that or she is thinking he is having an illicit affair. Perhaps she thinks that he has run off with her friend, Lucy again. It was last Christmas, but Mandy doesn’t seem to have completely forgiven him for his transgressions. He needs to get back to reassure her, and soon. He takes the phone out again, but now it won’t even power up. How is he going to get back home? Back to reality? Also, might whatever has happened here be happening everywhere? Might what was accepted by everyone as reality yesterday now be gone forever?

Back on the platform of the station, Chet spots the lone figure of a man in the distance. He is a few hundred yards along the track, or what yesterday would have been the railway track. Today it is a veritable jungle. The man has a stick and is beating back the bracken. He seems to be searching for something. The railway track perhaps? Disorientated Chet might be, and terrified, but at least he has not lost his sense of humour. He chuckles. Slowly he makes his way through the undergrowth. He can hear a faint voice. The man is calling out something, a name maybe. Perhaps he has lost his cat. Or his parrot. Or his pig. Or his monkey.

With each step, the vegetation becomes thicker until it is so dense it threatens to envelop him. The more Chet moves towards Doctor Dolittle, the further away he seems to get. Doctor Dolittle grows fainter and fainter as if he is evaporating. Finally, he vanishes altogether. Was he nothing more than a phantom, Chet wonders? Is he losing his mind? At least, the station was a place of relative safety. He turns around to make his way back there. To his horror, the station has disappeared. He is faced with an unfamiliar terrain. He cannot even work out where the station might have been.

Chet stumbles through the wilderness, in search of something, anything, that will offer hope of escape from this surreal nightmare. He successfully avoids the swarm of wild bees that comes at him, but he does not see the gap in the ground cover until it is too late. There is nothing he can hold on to. He finds himself at the bottom of what seems to be a dried up well. The air is chilling and has the smell of damp earth, mould, moss, lichen. He is dazed. He tries to pick himself up. His legs feel weak and his shoulders, arms, and chest hurt from the impact. He tries to examine the grazes on his arms, but he cannot see his body at all. He looks up. He can only see is a thin slither of daylight.

He is now shaking with fear. How is he going to get out of here? The gap is narrow and the walls are sheer. There is no way he will be able to scale them. And surely the chances of someone happening by in this wilderness are minuscule. Is this it, then? A slow lingering death? He will never see Mandy again. He will never again touch her soft skin or taste her sweet lips. Nor Lucy’s, for that matter. He will never make that trip to Venice. Or see the final episode of Black Mirror. He will never own that small jazz club that he has dreamed about. He will never live to see West Ham win the Premier League. Well, no change there then.

Hello! …… Chet!’ calls an echoey voice from up above.

God, am I glad to hear a voice,’ Chet shouts back.

I’m sorry that you fell down the well,’ the voice says. ‘I should have covered it up. Are you OK?’

Get me out, can you please,’ Chet shouts.

Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I will soon have you out of there. Let me go and get some rope.’

No. I don’t need any dope. I just want to get out of here.’

Rope! I will throw down a rope for you. ……. Just hang on there a moment.’

With this, the stranger goes off. Chet is nervous that he will not return. But he is given little chance to indulge his dark despair. In no time at all the man is back and has secured a length of rope. He tosses it down. Chet catches it and climbs up to daylight.

I am sorry about that, Chet,’ he says. ‘I hope you don’t mind. I’m Haruki Murakami. I noticed that you were reading a book of mine, back there at the station.’

The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. Yes, I was. I love it.’

Now! Chet! I’m doing some research around here for a new novel. It has the usual themes, murder, sex, war, jazz from the nineteen fifties, lost cats and, of course, dried-up wells, but this time there are going to be some English characters. It has a protagonist who works in covert operations, has a dark foreboding character, dreams of owning a jazz bar and is having a clandestine liaison with his wife’s friend. I do apologise, but you seem to have walked into my novel.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

DNA

dna2

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

Listening Centre

listeningcentre

Listening Centre by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

Puff the Magic Dragon

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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

The Schrödingers’ Cat

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The Schrödingers’ Cat by Chris Green

Each, evening, Mr and Mrs Schödinger liked to walk their salt and pepper schnauzer, Ernst along the Promenade. Mrs Schrödinger would take the opportunity to window-shop in the fashion boutiques while Mr Schrödinger used the time to fantasise about what he would like to do to Hermione Shakespeare in the office where he worked as a designer. Mr and Mrs Schrödinger had not lived in the seaside town in the west of England very long. They came over from their native Austria to follow their leisure interests, there being few opportunities for surfing or yachting in landlocked Linz.

Their evening constitutionals with Ernst took them past a new pet shop that had opened next to the holistic gifts boutique that Mrs Schrödinger liked. In amongst the mice and gerbils in the window of For Pets Sake, there was a picture of four kittens. Good homes were wanted for these said the advert.

I think we should have one,’ Mrs Schrödinger said. ‘Just look at them. Aren’t they adorable? And a cat would be company for Ernst while we are out on the boat. It would help to calm him down.’

Mr Schrödinger felt that Ernst was calm enough. A more placid schnauzer you couldn’t wish to find.

Some schnauzers can be quite vicious,’ he added. ‘George Pagan’s giant schnauzer, Bruiser would bite you as soon as look at you. But Ernst doesn’t even bark at the postman.

As always, Mrs Schrödinger was able to get her own way. The wrong side of forty she might be but she still had potent weapons in her carnal armoury. So long as Hermione Shakespeare remained no more than a twinkle in Mr Schrödinger’s eye, she would be able to retain her power over him. The mackerel tabby kitten duly arrived chez Schrödinger.

You have probably heard stories connecting the name, Schrödinger with cats, not all of these ending well. Perhaps no more than half of them ending well. Let’s dispel the notion that the new kitten will be subject to a thought experiment. This is not going to happen.

Mrs Schrödinger called the kitten, Lucy, even though it turned out to be a boy cat. Lucy quickly settled into a routine of annoying Ernst. There are so many ways in which a cat can wind a dog up and Lucy quickly mastered them. She even added some new ones. She chewed up Ernst’s soft toys, sat on his head when he was trying to sleep and went to toilet in his food bowl. Once or twice, she even managed to get a bark out of the laconic hound. Lucy was, of course, quickly neutered at Vets4Pets but this made little difference to her delinquency. There was no doubt about it, Lucy was a spirited cat.

She has the devil in her, that one,’ Aura, Mrs Schrödinger’s yoga teacher said. ‘Did you know, cats can see ghosts and angels and even demons?’

One evening, when Mr and Mrs Schrödinger were taking a trip around the bay in their boat, Lucy disappeared. When she had not returned by lunchtime the next day, they began to quiz the neighbours. Neither the Nancarrows next door or the Trescothicks across the street had seen her. Rosey Parker who knew everything that went on for miles around said she had heard nothing. Mr Singh who ran the convenience store on the corner seemed completely disinterested.

Your Lucy will be back in a day or two, Mrs Schrödinger,’ Penny Penhaligon in the hairdressers told her. ‘You mark my words. Cats like to go off to explore now and then. It’s in their nature. My Bruce is always going walkabout.’

You haven’t been here long, have you?’ Salty Jack at the Sailing Club said. ‘You’ll discover all kinds of strange things go on down here in Cornwall once you’ve been here a while. Cornwall is the home of mystery and magic.

The plea they stuck onto lampposts around the neighbourhood offering a handsome reward for Lucy’s safe return brought no response, except for a nimiety of bohemian-types collecting for new-age charities.

Mrs Schrödinger was beside herself. With the inevitable dropping off of her libido, Mr Schrödinger turned his attention once more to fantasies about Hermione Shakespeare and he even started going in to work early in the hope of wooing her. Meanwhile, without Lucy around, Ernst perked up considerably.

On the fifth or sixth evening, Mr and Mrs Schrödinger had just returned from walking Ernst when there was a hesitant knock at the door. An elderly stranger with a hangdog expression stood across the threshold.

I’m really sorry to have to call, like this,’ he said. ‘My name’s Breok. You may have seen me in passing. I live just down the road at number 55. I’m afraid I’ve found your cat at the bottom of my back garden. I looked at the collar and it had your address on it so here I am. I think the poor animal may have been attacked by a dog or a fox or something. Anyway, the cat was dead so I put it in a box. I don’t know what you want me to do with it. Perhaps you might want to bury it. If you do, I will bring the box round.

Distraught, Mr and Mrs Schrödinger identified the dead cat. It was unmistakably Lucy and Lucy unquestionably dead. Several days dead. Tears were shed, then silence prevailed, as a funereal atmosphere descended on the Schrödinger household. Even Ernst went into a protracted sulk.

The following morning, to their amazement, Lucy came bounding up the stairs. How could this be? The Schrödingers looked at one another, both waiting for the other to come up with an explanation. None was available. It was seemingly impossible. Yet, the cat meowing furiously to be fed was definitely Lucy. Exact same markings, same scratch under the left eye where Ernst had finally reacted to her constant agitation, the same Kittyrama collar with her name and address. There was no doubt about it, this was their cat.

Mrs Schrödinger was ecstatic and Mr Schrödinger was pleased as this meant their normal conjugals might be resumed. The previous day’s humiliation when Hermione Shakespeare had slapped his face could be put to the back of his mind. Ernst, of course, was crestfallen that the cat had returned.

Like its counterpart in the famous thought experiment, the Schrödingers’ cat appeared to be both dead and alive. Perhaps there would never be an explanation.

I said Lucy would be back,’ Penny Penhaligon said when Mrs Schrödinger called in for her weekly trim. ‘My Bruce always comes back with his tail between his legs.’

Why don’t we have a nice cup of tea and you can tell me all about it?’ Rosey Parker said.

I told you mysterious things happen here in Cornwall,’ Salty Jack said. ‘It’s considered the birthplace of myths and legends for good reason, you know. Theres magic in the air. The laws of cause and effect don’t apply here.

© 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

Harmonica Drive

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Harmonica Drive by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved