Harry and Kate

harryandkate

Harry and Kate by Chris Green

Black cats are supposed to be lucky, aren’t they? Harry Regis thinks so. What he doesn’t realise is that in many cultures, black cats are seen as an evil omen. Most of Europe, for instance, considers the black cat to be unlucky, a harbinger of doom. Fortunate then that Harry lives in the UK. What with the collapse of his kite design business and Meg leaving him for Trevor, a film extra from Billericay, Harry has had a tough time of late. He feels he deserves a break. It is time things started going his way.

So when one evening a black cat wanders through the back door, explores the house and makes itself comfortable on the shag-pile rug in the front room, he sees it as a good omen. He offers the cat a tin of tuna chunks, which it devours with gusto. And some dried cat biscuits he discovers in one of the kitchen cupboards. The saucer of full cream milk is welcomed too. Although Harry leaves the back door open, the cat shows no sign of wanting to leave. It is still there at the end of the evening after he has finished watching Leif Velasquez’s acclaimed adaption of the postmodern thriller, Shooting Script on Netflix. It is dark outside, and his visitor is curled up on the settee, purring gently. Harry thinks it best to put the animal outside. Although it does not have a collar, it does not look like a stray. It has a glossy coat. It is a well-groomed animal. By now, someone will be wondering where their pet has got to.

The following morning, the cat is once again at the back door. It does not wait to be invited in. It rushes past Harry’s outstretched hand and makes a beeline for the kitchen. It seems to be hungry. Surely a handsome-looking cat like this can’t have been out all night, can it? Harry doesn’t have any pressing appointments, so he pops along the road to the convenience store and returns with a box of pouches of gourmet cat food. On the way, he thinks of suitable cat names. Being a fan of the musical Cats, he toys with Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, Growltigger and Shimbleshanks, but decides they are too fussy. He settles on Lucky. Lucky is the obvious name for a black cat.

Serendipity seems to work straight away. No sooner has he fed Lucky his gourmet turkey treat than the phone rings. It is Ben Maverick of Maverick Leisure Services offering him the job as General Manager of the new Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre that is opening on the industrial estate. While fridge magnet advice may not have the prestige of kite design, it is a step in the right direction. He needs to keep Lucky around and as he will be out of the house now in the daytime, he fits a cat door so that the cat can come and go.

Kate Dunning-Kruger believes that every cloud has a silver lining. So when she loses her job in marketing with BestFone in their rationalisation drive, she is sure something will turn up. When she is selected to promote a new weather phone app, her faith seems justified. She is over the moon. The new app, she is told, does not merely predict the weather, it can change localised weather conditions. It was created by a whizz-kid in California and cloned by a fourteen-year-old computer geek from Devon. Kate does not need to know how Elements works but, she is told, it has been successfully trialled in one or two places around the county. She is one of a small team who are to start a promotion campaign from a discrete office on Palace Park Industrial Estate. They are hoping to roll the revolutionary new app out nationally soon to those who can afford it. It is by no means going to be a freebie. But before it can be rolled out, she is told, there are cybersecurity issues to overcome. Their IT consultant who goes by the unlikely name of Max Acker is working on these.

Kate is recently divorced and although there are pitfalls in getting involved with anyone new so soon, she can’t wait to get dating again. Her friends wonder if perhaps she is too eager. She might end up making the same mistakes. They point out that Bill was arrogant, self-centred and lazy. She should take her time and concentrate on her own well-being. Kate explains that as a thirty-something single female, there is only so much you can do in a small town. Everything seems to be geared up to couples. And besides, now she has a new job, she will be able to work on her self-confidence.

Kate finds her office housed in a new prefabricated block on the estate, alongside the Bikini Museum, the Mulatu Astatke School of African Dance and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre. An interesting selection of enterprises, she thinks, entirely different from working in the corporate environment at BestFone on the fifth floor of the city block, alongside the insurance brokers and tax consultants. Further along the avenue are Balalaika Tuition Centre, Mojo Filter Bicycle Hire and a tall featureless matt black building which has no windows. Nor does it appear to have an entrance. No lettering or insignia to suggest what it might be. Palace Park is a strange environment.

She begins to learn about the new weather app. Although it is in its infancy, there are already reports of its success. Charlie Dixon apparently used it to bring fine weather for the Exeter race meeting when it was raining in the rest of the county. Nick Carr conjured up a torrential downpour to bring a close to a village cricket match when his team were in a losing position to force a draw. The result ensured that his team, Dartmouth Royals retained the title for another year. It appears the app can be activated at short notice. Early indications suggest it works best when activated at short notice, but it now needs to be tested further afield.

Kate discovers the estate is a busy little area. The bikini museum is incredibly popular, there are lots of comings and goings at the newly opened hedgehog sanctuary and The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre does a roaring trade. Following a favourable article in one of the Sunday supplements, fridge magnets are enjoying a revival. It will be a while though before Kate is fully occupied as Max Acker keeps finding more glitches in the Elements app.

On her third day at work, when Kate is outside smoking her mid-morning cigarette, she catches the manager of The Fridge Magnet Advisory Centre arriving with a new delivery. He looks like a nice fellow, the type that would be kind to cats maybe. And, of course, Bill has left her with four of them.

Hi! I’m Kate, she says. ‘I’ve just started working at Elements.’

Really? I started here last week as it happens,’ he says. ‘I’m Harry, by the way. Harry Regis.’

You seem to be doing well, here Harry,’ Kate says. ‘Lots of interest in fridge magnets, these days, I gather. I can see you are busy, but perhaps one day when you have a quiet moment we could hook up for a coffee at Cuppa Joe along the way there. I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.’

Sure,’ Harry says. ‘And maybe a bite to eat. We could meet up one lunchtime. It has been mad here lately with all the new editions coming out. Everyone wants fridge magnets. But there are so many magnets on the market that people don’t always know which designs to go for. The rare album cover ones are popular, of course, and the royal residence ones. They never go out of fashion. We’ve got some new Bake Off magnets and we’ve just had the new Peaky Blinders set launch. And believe it or not, the French symbolist poets magnets are popular too.’

I believe you, Harry,’ Kate says. ‘I’ve always found truth is stranger than fiction.’

Harry and Kate catch up for lunch at Cuppa Joe the following Monday. Not wanting to talk shop, by way of making conversation Harry mentions that he had a new cat called Lucky. Kate has no shop to talk. Max Acker has found a new problem with the app. She wonders if it was ever going to be ready to roll out. Max seems to spend more time trying to chat her up than he does working. Unsuccessfully. He is much too old and she just hates those floral shirts he wears not to mention the way he invades her personal space. Coronavirus may be over and done with, but hasn’t he heard of social distancing?

A new cat?’ Kate queries. Might Harry be the caring type? This is not something she could ever say about Bill. In the flesh too, Harry is much hunkier than Bill. Toned physique and a manly beard. And he has a managerial position. Something that Bill had never had. Bill had only occasionally had a job.

Yes. A black cat,’ Harry says. ‘It just came in one evening and stayed. Lucky is good company too. I was starting to find it lonely in the big house after Meg moved out. We’d been together for ten years.’

Better steer the conversation back on to cats, Kate thinks. We don’t want to dwell too much on Meg.

Cats are excellent company,’ she says. ‘I have four little darlings, Sylvester, Smokey, Tigger and Dave. You must come round and meet them one evening.’

Over their pasta lunch, Harry and Kate discover they have a mutual interest in Scrabble, owls, donating blood, and Game of Thrones. They both like listening to Kings of Leon and Queens of the Stone Age. Harry saw Queens of the Stone Age at Finsbury Park in 2018. With Meg.

Time for some more cat chat, Kate thinks. ‘Does Harry know that Isaac Newton invented the cat door?’ she asks. Harry doesn’t, but he does know that cats spend 70% of their time sleeping and about 15% grooming. He found this out when he was looking for a cat basket for Lucky. The conversation moves on to dogs and other animals. The Lion King leads them to other films they have seen. Although he prefers action thrillers, Harry concedes that he has a secret admiration for Nora Ephron romcoms. Oh no, Kate thinks. He’s going to start talking about Meg Ryan and that will bring us back to the other Meg. She tells him instead that she has a soft spot for Quentin Tarantino films. She has seen them all but Kill Bill is her favourite. Meg’s name doesn’t come into the conversation again. Not that she is interested enough to ask, but she wonders if it is short for Megan, or Meghan. Best to let the matter go.

After lunch, as they walk up the road together, Kate points out the featureless black building.

I’ve been wondering what happens in there,’ she says.

You’ve heard of White Stuff,’ Harry says. ‘Well, that building there belonged to Black Stuff. While everyone associated White Stuff with coke, and although it was a little naughty, liked the idea, everyone associated Black Stuff with coal and didn’t go for it.

Wasn’t Black Stuff tar?’

Whatever! The brand name didn’t work. No-one wanted to buy their stuff. They went broke.’

Probably just not promoted very well,’ Kate says. ‘These things make a difference.’

To be honest, a lot of these businesses are here today and gone tomorrow,’ Harry says. ‘It’s like pop-up land on some of these out-of-town developments. I mean, look! The Pet Rock Counselling Service. How long is that going to last? What’s happening at your place, by the way? Is this new app going well?’

It’s not ready yet,’ Kate says. ‘At the moment, I’m just twiddling my thumbs.’

Teething troubles, are there?’ Harry says. ‘It’s only a phone app, isn’t it? What’s so complicated? What does it do?’

I can’t tell you that yet,’ Kate says. ‘It’s still at the development stage but I’m told there should be a beta version soon.’

Anyway, let’s do this again,’ Harry says.

Perhaps we might go out for a drink, one evening,’ Kate says.

I’d like that,’ Harry says. ‘Since Meg left …….’

You must come around and meet my cats,’ Kate interrupts. ‘How about tomorrow?’

As he drives to work, the following morning, Harry is pleased but somewhat surprised to find that the sun is shining. The storm that went on until the early hours was a violent one, rattling the doors and the windows of the house. Lucky was so frightened by the driving rain and howling wind that he snuggled up to him the whole night. Several inches of rain must have fallen in a few hours. The builder he called about the water coming through the bathroom ceiling seemed puzzled by his call but said he would pop round after five.

To Harry’s amazement, there is not so much as a puddle on the roads. How could a storm be so localised? As he makes his way through the morning commute, he gradually notices that a black BMW with tinted windows and the personalised plate, ACK3R seems to be following him. It tailgates him along Electric Avenue. It seems to be doing its best to force him off the road. Harry has the feeling he has seen this car before. Was it perhaps parked outside Elements where Kate worked? Didn’t she mention someone called Max Acker in connection with the app she is working on? That instead of getting on with work, he is always on her case?

At the Princes Street lights, Harry swings into the left-hand lane cutting up a delivery van to turn into Duke Street. Boxed in, the BMW cannot make the manoeuvre. It carries on straight ahead, towards the industrial estate. Harry dives into the superstore car park where he takes a moment to compose himself. Who exactly is this maniac who was trying to run him off the road? Why was he doing it? He googles Max Acker on his phone and discovers that Max is a fictional character that features in half a dozen stories by the author, Phillip C Dark. Several sites confirm this. Phillip C Dark, it appears, is a speculative fiction writer.

Speculative fiction, Wikipedia suggests, is a broad category of fiction encompassing genres with certain elements that may or may not exist in the real world, often in the context of supernatural, futuristic or other imaginative themes. If the Max Acker tailing him is fictional, then what are the ramifications? Where does that leave him, Harry Regis? Does he, Harry not exist in the real world? Does Kate not exist in the real world? These are not matters that he has had to grapple with up until now. In the flesh has always meant in the flesh. Yet here in the superstore car park, Harry suddenly finds himself in the throws of an existential crisis.

If it turns out he is fictional and at the mercy of his creator, then anything could happen. He has no control over it. He has no free will. What if his creator decides to kill him off? Just when things with Kate were looking up. He has Kate’s number and decides to give her a call before it’s too late. He feels he needs there to be some element of reality to cling to. He is not sure what he is going to say to her. She is likely to think he is going mad. There is no reply. Harry fears the worst.

Further research reveals that despite his work being categorised as speculative fiction, which can often be doom-laden, many of Phillip C Dark’s stories have happy endings. Why would this not be the case? Readers like a happy ending. Happy endings sell books. A majority of fiction in any genre has a happy ending. The author usually arranges the climax to make it look as if all hope is gone before coming up with an unexpected turn of events to save the day. This is known as the denouement. Climax and denouement are key elements of dramatic tension.

In any case, although Max Acker is not a common name, this does not mean there is just the one Max Acker. It’s a big world out there. There are likely to be many Max Ackers. Most likely, Phillip C Dark just picked the name at random. As he watches the shoppers come and go, Harry wonders why he is even thinking this way. He pinches himself. Here he is in time and space, sitting in his car in the car park, to all intents and purposes a sentient being. He must send his paranoia packing. Having placed great importance on the black cat appearing on his doorstep, he feels the need to go home to reacquaint himself with reality. His reality. Work can wait.

As Harry parks outside his house, he spots Kate at the front door. She has Lucky in her arms and is stroking him.

I hope you don’t mind me calling around like this,’ she says. ‘But I heard that Max was out to get you. When you weren’t at work, I became worried something might have happened. I thought I’d better check you were all right. This is a lovely cat you’ve got, by the way. Lucky, isn’t it?’

Harry notices the front garden has dried up already. Perhaps there hadn’t been as much rain as he had imagined.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

666 – The Number of the Bus

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666 – The Number of the Bus by Chris Green

Mr Saxx who taught us Maths in Year 11 was obsessed with probability. In his classes, we were required to calculate the probability of many unlikely scenarios. Based on historical performance and the profile of those players currently available for selection, what was the probability that Chamberlain House would win the Fives trophy this year, he might ask? What were the chances that Jarvis Vest would beat Dish Price in the Upper School Middleweight Boxing Final? Would Bogey Yates win Bully of the Year again, or would it go to Marty Wheeler? Mr Saxx even started up a class bookmakers so that we could practice calculating odds and understand how to be successful in beating them. Each day we had to read The Sporting Life to learn the ins and outs of bookmaker’s odds. I won a tidy sum of money when Bucket of Rum won a Handicap Chase at Fontwell Park at 66-1. This was enough to spark my interest in Maths. I came top of the class that year. Sadly, Mr Saxx was struck off for malpractice, but I was on my way.

Many people see chance and probability as slippery customers, hard to pin down. To make progress here, you need to understand a little about how they operate. Let’s look at probability. How many people would you imagine it would need to be in a room before there was a 50/50 chance that two of them would share the same birthday? You might think at least 50 people would be necessary. After all, there are 365 days in a year. There are a lot of possibilities. But the answer is just 23. It’s the 50/50 element of the question that catches you out. This is possibly why many people are afraid of mathematics and steer clear of numbers. Numbers, it is true, can be treacherous.

A car travels a distance of 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. How fast would the car have to travel the same 60-mile distance home to average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip? Most people say 90 miles per hour, not realising it is a trick question. The first leg of the trip covers 60 miles at an average speed of 30 miles per hour. So, this means the car travelled for two hours (60/30). For the car to average 60 miles per hour over 120 miles, it would have to travel for exactly two hours (120/60). Since the car has already travelled for two hours, it can’t average 60 miles per hour over the entire trip. It is important to read the question carefully and not rush into coming to a conclusion.

With a basic understanding of mathematics, I learned to avoid sucker bets like the lottery and scratch-cards. These were a complete con. A large proportion of the pot was creamed off to give to worthy causes. Not good at all for the punter. Maths also enabled me to quickly calculate the odds of my hand winning in any given situation when playing poker. While I may have missed out on the excitement of bluffing with a pair of jacks, this was more than compensated for by a fatter wallet at the end of the night. But where was the fun in being risk-averse? What on earth was the point of having a fondness for numbers and a skill with them without looking for ways to beat the odds? Surely, life without taking chances was no life at all.

I was leaving the casino one evening when, to my surprise, I bumped into Mr Saxx. He was getting out of a shiny silver Bentley. I hadn’t seen him since he was dismissed from my school, several years previously.

Hello, Mr Saxx,’ I said. ‘Nice motor.’

Ah, Davy, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘You’ve just come from The Flamingo, have you?’

I told him I had.

How did you get on?’ he asked. ‘Not too well, I hope.’

Why’s that, Mr Saxx?’ I asked.

It’s my casino, Davy,’ he said. ‘It’s one of a chain that I own.’

You’re not teaching Maths any more then, Mr Saxx.’

Charles! Call me Charles!’ he said. ‘No, Davy. Those days are in the past. You like my new car then. Better than the old Mazda I used to drive, isn’t it?’

I had heard of high-yield investment schemes, of course. They were basically Ponzi schemes. Initially, the operator pays high returns to attract investors and entice current investors to invest more money and in turn, new investors. When new investors join, a cascade effect begins. The operator pays a return to initial investors from the investments of the new participants, rather than from genuine profits. I was surprised when Charles Saxx suggested I might like to manage such a venture for him.

It’s all right, lad,’ he said. ‘You won’t need to put a penny in. I’m offering you the opportunity because I recall how good you were with numbers back when I used to teach you. I still remember the conversation we had in class about Graham’s number, the biggest number ever used in maths, a number so big that even if each digit were written in the tiniest writing possible, it would still be too big to fit in the observable universe. Way bigger than a googolplex, I remember you pointing out.’

At first, I was wary. I had grown up in a world where the common-sense view was that if something seemed to be too good to be true, it probably was too good to be true. But I quickly discovered this was no longer the case. Now everyone seemed to believe they could get something for nothing. With the carrot of easy money dangled before them, it was remarkable how gullible people could be. Even when we called one of the investment opportunities Scammer, they still lapped it up. And it wasn’t just the punters. This one got a recommendation on YourMoney.com. Their advisor, Dudley Bills described the initiative as the perfect place for your nest-egg.

Could it be that people simply didn’t understand the basics of arithmetic, I wondered? Without inspiring teachers like Mr Saxx, had Maths in their schools been so dull that they could not recognise sleight of hand? That because of their lack of insight into how numbers worked, they were always destined to be victims of their ignorance? It was certainly a possibility, but not one that I would lose sleep over. When you are rich, you never have to take responsibility for your actions. Others with a lesser understanding of figures will always be there to carry the can for your misrepresentation when the time comes. So, exit strategies for this scheme and others like it were merely a formality.

Yet it was not plain sailing. Like many others, I had been led to believe that money could buy you happiness. If you were wealthy, your life would be easy. You would have infinite leisure time. You would be the picture of health. You would have beautiful women falling at your feet. As it turned out, not all of these were true. Certainly, money could act as a women magnet, but what was often overlooked was that the women wealth attracted were likely to have their own agenda. In a word, they tended to be gold-diggers. I discovered this to my cost. My leisure time disappeared. Life was anything but easy. And each time the inevitable acrimonious break-up occurred, my assets were halved. As a result, my health deteriorated. I should have learned when Rachel took me for a pretty penny, but I didn’t. Charmain was charming and Desirée desirable, but both had the same idea. They were not interested in happy families, they both wanted money. That’s what they wanted. My money. And now the same thing was happening with Sarah.

I decided to seek Charles Saxx’s advice. I had from time to time read about his successes in the paper. Hardly a week went by without the launch of some new venture. Charles was clearly loaded and yet he seemed to manage to keep his boat afloat. How had he avoided the gold-diggers? What was his secret? Although I hadn’t seen Charles for a year or two, I dug out the number he had given me and called him. He seemed pleased to hear from me. It had been too long, he said, and he invited me round for canapés. I found his large new house, Robles Altos, a mile or so along a steep, private road leading to the common. His new McLaren was parked on the drive. I pressed the button on the entry phone on the iron gates and he let me through.

I did not think it was appropriate to come right out with my problem. This was something that needed to be slowly worked into the broader conversation. I allowed Charles to tell me a little about his background. He told me he grew up in the west country. He was an only child and had had few friends. He said he had always been in awe of his cousin, Roy.

Roy had six siblings and lots of friends, he said. Not only that, but Roy also had vision. He was an innovator. I can’t imagine anyone else coming up with a USB frog, an invisible kettle, or a luminous badger. Or a self-cleaning, solar-powered smartdog.’

I knew I had heard the name Saxx somewhere else,’ I said. ‘So, Roy, the inventor of the inflatable Buddha and the bouncing tortoise is your cousin.’

From an early age, Roy was always creative,’ he said. ‘I realised I could not compete. The best I could come up with was a digital mojo.’

What on earth was a digital mojo? I began to wonder if perhaps all the Saxx family were oddballs. Might Trevor Saxx, the presenter of Underwater Football on The Marine Channel also be related? However, kookiness didn’t seem to have been a significant handicap to the Saxx’s success.

Not being able to compete with Roy was what drew me to mathematics,’ Charles continued. I needed something I could rely on. I did well at Maths at school so naturally, I went for Maths at university and came out with a First. Even the notoriously difficult Numerology module presented no challenge. My degree should have opened up opportunities right away,’ he continued. ‘But I guess I was a bit lazy. I saw the post at the school advertised and thought I’d give it a go. I could have plodded along, teaching calculus to spotty fifteen-year-olds, but I thought I could put my own stamp on it. Make it more interesting. Then as you know, I was dismissed. This was what spurred me into action. I realised that everything in this material world revolved around numbers. Understanding numbers gave me a huge advantage over others. So I thought, why not go for it?

You’ve certainly done very well for yourself since you ….. moved on, Charles,’ I said. ‘I wish I could say the same. But each time I think I’ve got it made, it seems to get taken away again.’

What do you mean?’ he said.

In a word, women,’ I said ‘Either I’m a poor judge of character or they spot that I am rich and home in on me with one thing in mind. To exploit my vulnerability and make themselves a quick buck. In quick succession, Rachel, Charmain and Desirée all fleeced me. When the time came, they all came up with up fearsome matrimonial solicitors. And now Sarah is doing the same, and we are not even married. When my solicitor, Mr Shed of Gallagher, Dreamer and Shed heard we were up against Mr Glock of Stipe, Stipe and Juttner, he told me we might as well throw in the towel. We stood no chance of getting a result.’

Do you think you maybe wear your heart on your sleeve, Davy?’ he said.

I had to acknowledge Charles had a point. Once I became attracted to someone, I tended to dive straight in. I may have even proposed to Desirée on the first night.

You think I play my cards too early, don’t you?’ I said. ‘Would it be better if I were to apply poker tactics?’

Exactly,’ he said. ‘Or the same attitude you had with regard to our investment scams. Take no prisoners. Now, look! What’s done is done but you must get a more ruthless legal representative this time around. Don’t go for a regular divorce solicitor. What you need is a different approach. Nolan Rocco is good. He will be more than a match for this Mr Glock. He will surprise you, that’s for sure.

Nolan Rocco, it turned out, was a pseudonym for the speculative fiction writer, Phillip C. Dark. Phillip spotted straight away what was required. He didn’t even need to face Mr Glock. He had a novel solution. He was going to get rid of him completely, along with Rachel, Charmain, Desirée and Sarah. To do this, he would use a mathematical sleight of hand. Numbers, he said, were the key. Naturally, this met with my approval.

I was 36 years old. So Phillip C. Dark planned to rewrite my story by adding 1 to 36, halving the high number to get the number of pairs, 18, then multiplying 37 by 18. This, as I knew it would, came to the magic number, 666. He then simply deleted 666 words from my biography. This took the story back to exit strategies for my investment scams being a formality. I was once again in a good position. From here, I could move on to better things. No need to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part or any of the other commitments that came with getting one’s rocks off. These were optional extras and ones I would not be signing up for.

Paul Gauguin trailblazed the idea of leaving his old life behind and starting afresh on a tropical island. In search of meaning in my own life, I made the decision to follow in his footsteps. I needed a new direction. Having been a stockbroker in Paris, Gauguin too had a numbers background. There, alas, the similarities ended. Art was something I had little talent for. But to let this get in the way would be defeatist? After all, I had money to support me and I had plenty of time to learn how to paint.

I headed for the volcanic island of La Gomera, the least populous of the Canary Islands. La Gomera was Columbus’s last port of call before crossing the Atlantic in 1492 with his three ships. He stopped here for a month to replenish his crew’s food and water supplies. Since then, little of any note had happened on the island. La Gomera was Trip Advisor’s idea of a quiet place. It was described as the perfect place to look at the night sky. There were usually clear skies and little light pollution. It seemed like an ideal spot to take stock and regroup.

I had not been on the island very long when walking though San Sebastian de la Gomera, among the brightly coloured shopfronts, I came across a darkened single-storey building, set back a little from the others. It was painted black with thick blinds drawn. Above it was a dark display board with 666 written in large white Gothic numerals. No letters, just the number 666. Not exactly what you would expect to find among the market stalls, cheese shops and tapas bars. 666 is, of course, the magic sum of the first 36 digits, the sum if you like of the numbers on a roulette wheel. Was this then a gambling den? Or something more sinister? 666 was also the Number of the Beast from the Book of Revelation, the so-called Devil’s Number. Although 666 appeared to be closed, it seemed reasonable to assume something iniquitous took place here.

I had rented a house close to the town and in the short time I had been resident, I had got to know one or two of the locals. None of them seemed to have any idea what went on at 666. It never seemed to be open, they said. Perhaps it was used to store contraband. Perhaps something of a maritime nature. It would be closed for months on end while ships were at sea. Pablo, however, who was teaching me how to paint landscapes, was sure there must be a Satanic connection.

It’s all too easy to jump to Satanic conclusions,’ I said. Was this an attempt to get him to elaborate or was I trying to be clever?Some people take the diabolic associations of 666 so seriously that they avoid anything related to the digits 6-6-6. This is known as hexakosioihexekontahexophobia. I think I’ve got that right. Quite a mouthful, isn’t it? 666 has zillions of references in popular culture, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Phantom of the Opera, Escape from LA, to name but a few. But look, Pablo! The number 666 has other associations too. Apart from being the number of the Beast, it is the sum total of the numbers 1 to 36, which is known in mathematics as a triangular number. In Roman numerals, it is DCLXVI, all the numeric symbols in decreasing order. And there are any number of biblical connections. And what about the trigonometry of the Golden Mean? It is an all-round special number. And 666 is the number of the bus to Oxborough where I used to live.’

But, my friend, none of these would explain the dead goats that have been found around here,’ he said. ‘Miguel from the panadería tells me he has seen them at night in their dark cloaks.’

Did I really want to think about dead goats? I had come to La Gomera for a quiet life and to learn to paint. I couldn’t recall seeing dead goats in any of Gauguin’s pictures. 666 could wait.

Anyway, Pablo, what do you think of this painting I’ve done of the hills over the back?’ I said to change the subject. ‘Perhaps you could tell me a little more about chiaroscuro.’

I wasn’t expecting Phillip C. Dark to call me, but I was pleased he did. I had no idea how my Canary Island adventure was going to turn out. He had obviously given it some thought, after all, as a writer, this was his job. He told me he had it in hand but I would have to wait and see.

Will it be a happy ending?’ I asked. From what I could remember, some of Phillip’s stories ended happily and some of them didn’t. I estimated the percentages might work out at about 52 – 48, although some of the endings were so enigmatic, it was difficult to tell.

Like I said, you’ll have to wait and see,’ Phillip C. Dark said.

I waited. As I distanced myself from the idea of 666, my painting came on in leaps and bounds. Spring was perfect for capturing the landscapes of La Gomera. I especially relished painting the spectacular sunrises. At first light each day, I would make the effort to be in place to take advantage of the natural beauty. I got up early as usual on June 6th and found my spot. At 6 a.m. the sun was just coming up when I noticed a group of hooded figures in dark cloaks coming over the crest of the hill. They were heading my way. They were carrying lighted wooden torches. They appeared to be chanting something in low voices. Were they returning from some nefarious night-time activity or were they just setting out? While I was debating which way I should run, I woke up. To my alarm, I was back in England. At home in Crowley Crescent in Oxborough. At the breakfast table with Sarah. She was angry about something I had done. Some unforgivable transgression. She had had enough, she said, she was leaving me. I had better think about getting myself a good solicitor. Even though we hadn’t been together long, were not married and her name was not on the deeds, Mr Glock had told her she ought to be looking to come away with at least half of everything.

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

Pulp Friction

Created with GIMP

Pulp Friction by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

Nein,’ Jürgen says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What about the Scott McKenzie roundabout and …..’

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

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

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

Arnold Schwarzenegger,’ Nancy says.

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

Why all the cameras?’ Nancy asks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Schachelwirt?’

The Austrian restaurant and takeaway.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

 

 

The Pugilist

thepugilist

The Pugilist by Chris Green

I’m certain I logged out last night and shut the laptop down. It’s something I am in the habit of doing as a cautionary measure. This morning, to my utter astonishment, there’s a new document open on the screen, three thousand words give or take. It’s titled The Pugilist. It claims to be a story of mine. I know I’ve been absent-minded lately, downright forgetful even, but I would have remembered if I had got up in the night and written three thousand words. I haven’t written that much in one go in a long time. And Betty is away at her sick mother’s so there was no-one else in the house. The doors were locked overnight. I’m spooked.

But on a quick read through, I find the story is better than most of the stuff I’ve been writing lately. It’s about a poor boy who leaves his home and his family in search of fortune and fame. He’s struggling to get by in a harsh world. He is, the story suggests, empty as a pocket with nothing to lose. He now wants to escape the bitter cold of New York winters and make his way back home. He feels alone in the city, the only living boy in the great metropolis.

It’s primarily a first-person narrative but here and there, without warning, it lapses into the third person. Yet in a subtle way. It is not my usual territory though. It features no unscheduled time shifts. No talking cats. No unreliable history or Alice in Wonderland characters. It’s a plain straightforward account of a human being with real feelings and emotions. The absence of strange in the narrative is as maybe, but surely there is mystery enough in how it came to be here on my computer. The document was last saved at 3:13 a.m. This would probably place it slap bang in the middle of the steamy dream I was having about Susie Hill. Document History tells me I am looking at revision number one. I’m not sure if this statistic includes autosaves, but it suggests a competent typist with a determination to get the job done. An online plagiarism check finds no correlation with other online texts. However impossible it might seem, this has been typed out on my machine in the middle of the night without waking me by someone who knows my password.

Whatever its origins, one does not look a gift horse in the mouth. I can use the story to get over my writers block. But if I am to pass it off as mine, it important I put my stamp upon it. During the course of the day, I edit out some of the most overt sentimentality. I give the protagonist an imaginary friend called Art. I introduce a cult that worships a blind goat and create an alien communications centre in the back of an antiquarian bookshop in Queens. I make a note to develop these ideas later.

Betty phones and asks how I am and what I have been doing. I don’t want to alarm her or get her to think that I might be losing it like I did last Spring so I tell her I have been tidying up the garden. I have cut back the photinia and the laurel hedging and have weeded the veg patch. She is pleased I have separated the parsley from the sage but what about the rosemary and the time, she says? I tell her I will get on to it. She says her mother is still not very steady and she will need to stay over for another couple of days.

Still puzzled by its origin, but optimistic I can make something of the story, I feel happy with the progress I’ve made. I close the document down. As a security measure against any further incursions, I change my login password to a complex combination of uppercase letters, lowercase letters, numbers and symbols, and I log out. I wake at 5 a.m., not to the sound of the alarm, but to the sound of the laser printer whirring. I dash downstairs to see what is going on, only to discover that the document for The Pugilist is being printed off. How can this be happening? Not only is it being printed off but I see from the open document on the screen that it has been added to. The word count is now over four thousand words. I read through it carefully and notice that some of my changes from the previous day have been reversed.

Determined not to be beaten, I set about revising the document once more. To explain the title beyond the metaphorical, I have the protagonist carry a book about Rocky Marciano around with him. Like a bible, he takes this with him everywhere. The opening section of the story is a little verbose so I clip three hundred words from it. To give the story greater familiarity, I introduce a few old favourites from my earlier stories, Phillip C. Dark, Guy Bloke and Wet Blanket Ron. To reflect the style my readers have become accustomed to, I add few curiosities to the narrative. He now has a mongrel dog called Bono. He suffers from Porphyrophobia, a fear of the colour purple. A tall thin man with no face wearing a leather duster overcoat and a broad-brimmed black hat pursues him relentlessly around New York and he has taken to hiding out in basement bars in Brooklyn, drinking Bottled in Bond Bourbon.

I save the document to the flash drive I keep in my jacket pocket and delete the original file on the laptop. I settle down to a glass of wine and a David Lynch film and try to put the riddle out of my mind. It can wait until tomorrow. All work and no play and all that. Betty phones to say her mother has taken a turn for the worse. She will be there now until after the weekend. I sympathise. I tell her I have been clearing out the shed and have taken the rusty old bike to the tip. She seems pleased that I am not spending all day huddled over the laptop.

I wake at 4 a.m. from a disturbing dream about a deranged killer on the loose in a small town logging community in Washington State to furtive sounds coming from downstairs. It is barely audible but it sounds as if someone is typing. I throw on my dressing gown and go to investigate. There is no sign of anyone but the document is once again open on the laptop and has got bigger. Over five thousand words now.

‘’Good to see you, Al,’ Charlie says. ‘But I know you only ever come and see me when you have a computer problem. So I’m guessing it’s no accident that you’ve brought the laptop. Virus again, is it?’

If only it were that simple, Charlie,’ I say. ‘It’s more of a presence than malware. And it’s pretending to be me.’

Ah, I see,’ Charlie says. ‘That will be the Takeover worm. It’s a bad one, old buddy. No-one’s come up with a way to remove it yet. It’s so deadly in fact, you’ll probably find it has cancelled your car insurance, cleaned out your bank account, and sold your house.’

What?’

Only joking, mate. Have a toke on this and I’ll take a look.’

I sit quietly back with the spliff and watch Charlie get to work. He brings up dialogue boxes I never knew existed. I find myself gradually drifting off. I haven’t smoked weed in a long time.

How’s Betty?’ Charlie says, bringing me out of my reverie. ‘I saw her a couple of days ago going into that new clothes shop with the silly name in the Strand, the one that used to be Paul Simon.’

You couldn’t have, Charlie,’ I say. ‘Betty’s at her mother’s. That’s eighty miles away. She’s been there for a week.’

Is she? Oh well! Couldn’t have been her then,’ he says.

Perhaps Betty is deceiving me and she is not really at her mother’s. Her phone calls may have just been to divert suspicion. I felt this last weekend but did not want to admit it. By not acknowledging it, I somehow felt it was not happening. But deep down, if I am honest with myself, I did fear the worst. Each time she has called, she has said she is extending her stay. Is she afraid to tell me she is with someone else? That she has left me? Is she worried that I might have another breakdown like the one last spring when I found out she was playing away? Is this what is happening? I wanted to feel that we had repaired our relationship but you can never be sure. Although I have not noticed that any of her things around the house are missing, she has told me many times over the years that I’m not very observant. That I’m too tied up with my writing to notice anything important.

Hey! Look!’ Charlie says. ‘This is really weird, Al. According to this, no files have been open on the machine for several days.’

Let me have a look.’

Here you are! See! That’s what it says. Are you sure you’re OK? You haven’t been seeing that quack doctor again, have you?’

You mean Garth’s uncle? No, but I’m wondering if perhaps I should.’

By the way, mate. When you told be about this new story, I wondered what happened to that story you were telling me about the last time I saw you? The one about the bridge.’

Bridge?’

Yes, the one over the troubled waters.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Hunky Dory 2019

hunkdory2019

Hunky Dory 2019 by Chris Green

It all began one hot stormy night two years back when Hermione and I were living in Joy Street in Bridgewater. I dreamt it was 1972 and the album, Hunky Dory was playing. I was listening to the album, slowly and leisurely as I would have back then if someone had put it on the turntable. One side then the other. It was one of those rare dreams that you stay in for a long time. While my dreams normally comprised multiple interlocking narratives, this one had just a single thread. Hunky Dory. It seemed to move forward in real-time. The music flowed through me and over me. It inhabited my senses. It felt in a curious way like I was the music. The eponymous title track of the album, in particular, sounded sublime.

It was not until I woke that I realised there was no song called Hunky Dory on the album. While most of Bowie’s albums had a title track, Hunky Dory notably didn’t. Where could the phantom tune I had heard possibly have come from? In the dream, the tune was slipped in seamlessly between Changes and Oh You Pretty Things. I was able to recall it note for note. It was still there intact, going around and around my head like an earworm. It was a sweet slow-tempo number with tinkling piano, playful acoustic guitar runs and a haunting melody. Reminiscent perhaps of Quicksand from the album with hints of The Bewlay Brothers. I wondered if perhaps it was a song from another of Bowie’s albums. Maybe a later one. Having been a lifelong fan, I was familiar with most of his work. I spent some time running through the possibilities in my head. Nothing fitted. So far as I could tell, this was an original tune. My original tune.

I remembered reading that Paul McCartney claimed the melody of Yesterday came to him in a dream. Keith Richards made a similar claim about Satisfaction. He had woken up with it and put it down on a cassette machine. Both had worried that they had heard the respective tunes somewhere or other in the past and they were someone else’s work. They both discovered that they were their originals. So perhaps this wasn’t so unusual. Classical composers too, it was said, often arrived at important passages this way. Perhaps musical ideas were in the ether like radio waves and it was a question of tuning in to them. Perhaps sleep created favourable conditions for this. When all the other senses were switched off.

But still! If I was right about the quality of this song, then it would probably have been the standout track on the Hunky Dory album which is frequently cited as Bowie’s finest work. But it wasn’t on the acclaimed album. I couldn’t let it slip away. Starting with the melody, I began to put the notes down on manuscript paper. I then put down the piano and guitar parts. The words were a little harder but with those I couldn’t remember, I improvised. I could always improve these if need be. It was the melody that mattered most.

Many of you will have heard the song by now, perhaps several different mixes of it. Even cover versions. If so, you will understand how excited I must have been that morning two years ago. But, as an unknown artist, it was not easy to get Hunky Dory onto the market. Not being an established name, no-one wanted to even talk to me. I couldn’t exactly tell them I had heard it on a David Bowie album. Even supposing I could have, this would hardly support provenance of authorship. For a start, I would have been about four years old at the time of the album. Even Mozart would have struggled to come up with a decent tune at this age. Nor could I say it came to me in a dream. They would think I was loony tunes and end the call there and then. Someone will get back to you became a familiar line. No-one ever did. I almost gave up.

Hermione had made it clear all along that she was not that keen on the song.

You’ve done all you can, Ziggy,’ I remember her saying. ‘You ought to give up on it. Then perhaps you would have some time and we would be able to go out now and again. We could go and see a band or something.’

The song will never get anywhere, no matter how good it is,’ I remember my brother Nathan saying. ‘The market’s sown up.’

I found the line, turn and face the strange crack in the sky a little puzzling,’ I remember my therapist, Rebel saying. ‘Perhaps you might explain what it means to you. And this line, strange fascinations of a hand reaching down. Hunky Dory’s an odd kind of song, isn’t it?’

Although they’re a bit weird, Ziggy, I can’t help thinking some of those lyrics seem familiar,’ I remember Jonny Bisco, the landlord of The Major Tom saying.

It seemed no-one believed in my song. But through thick and thin, I persevered. Eventually, Chris Green at The Kaleidoscope Repair Shop where I worked said he quite liked it. He persuaded his friend, Vic Timov at Unicorn Records, a small independent label based in Devon to give me studio time to record the song properly. Although there were problems with distribution of the CD and vinyl when the tune started selling in tens of thousands, downloads alone took it to the top the charts in several countries.

It’s a pity Mercury Records are taking me to court. They claim that the melody of Hunky Dory is identical to the melody of After All, one of David Bowie’s early tunes. There may be a slight similarity but there are only so many combinations of notes available. Occasionally some duplication is inevitable. And the lyrics to Hunky Dory are completely different. I can’t for the life of me see that they have a case. It’s essentially a different song. My solicitor, Guy Bloke of Chesterton, Pringle and Bloke is optimistic he can deliver a favourable outcome.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

A Sword In Every Pond

swordineverypond

A Sword In Every Pond by Chris Green

You have never in your life been to Stockport. You weren’t even aware that it was a town in Greater Manchester. So where are these phantom thoughts coming from? Conversations about black puddings with Ruby Leighton in the Asian convenience store off Warren Street. Supping stout in the snug at The Whippet with Beryl Braithwaite. Teaching textiles to truculent sixteen-year-olds on Tuesday evenings at Stockport College. These visitations, if you can call them that, started earlier today, when you and Lance were walking along the Cornwall coastal path between Bedruthan Steps and Porthcothan. Your consciousness was breached by rogue meanderings about Stockport. You have been unable to stop them since. Several times you have found yourself lapsing into Mancunian dialect with something being dead this and dead that, and coming out with ee oop and our kid.

So far you have managed to cover these slips so that Lance hasn’t noticed. He’d just say that you were being a hysterical woman. Sometimes you wonder if Lance notices anything about you, or whether he regards you as part of the furniture. But, where is all this coming from? You are scared. Cornwall is said to be the spookiest place in Britain but there’s spooky and there’s spooky. You mostly read about things going bump in the night in remote smugglers’ inns or legendary beasts roaming misty moors, not daemons fighting for control of your consciousness on coastal cliff paths.

The hallucinations continue most of the night. False memory cuts in and out, like a short-wave radio signal in a tropical storm. You are bathed in sweat. You’ve never got past page ten of Finnegan’s Wake, but this is like a cerebral implant of the whole novel. The spiritual turbulence just goes on and on. Eventually, you get up and do an hour’s Tai Chi. This seems to help to exorcise the daemon. Things are a little quieter this morning. Your thoughts have returned to received pronunciation.

……………………………………….…

You have driven along the coast to settle yourself. You are in Tintagel.

Mon Dieu!’ You have not spoken in French before, not even in France. ‘Ici on parle Français,’ the shop said, so you are parling Français. You are telling the shop assistant that you are from Bretagne and that your name is Camille. Where has this come from?

Nous recevons beaucoup de gens ici de Bretagne,’ she says.

Votre français est très bon,’ you say.

Merci,’ she says. ‘Je suis allé en Bretagne l’année dernière.’

Cornwall et Bretagne partagent une riche histoire maritime,’ you say.

Nous sommes les mêmes personnes,’ she says. ‘Les Cornish et les Bretons.’

You tell her that you are here to learn about the mythical kingdom of Avalon.

Many French people come here because they are fascinated by the Arthurian legend. Everything in Tintagel has some connection with it’ she says. ‘You will have noticed The King Arthur Arms next door. All the shops are named Camelot or Pendragon. Locals even name their pets after the Knights of the Round Table.’

You should be in a state of utter panic at becoming Camille, one set of thoughts and words being replaced by another, but this time you seem to be going with the flow. You are a teacher and you have come to Cornwall with your partner, Luc. Luc is a keen surfer and has gone off to Fistral for the day to catch the swell and you are taking photos of Tintagel for a course on Avalon you are planning.

This is why I have come,’ you say, taking out your Canon Eos.

You must expect strange things to happen while you are here,’ she says.

Is Cornwall then still a place of magic and sorcery?’ you ask.

There is magic in the air. You live it and breathe it,’ she says. ‘You cannot escape it. There is a sword in every pond.’

……………………………………….…

You can’t remember where you have left the car. In fact, you can’t remember what car it is you’re looking for. And you’ve bought a metal detector. Not to look for the car, but to look for hidden treasure. Perhaps you are seeking the Holy Grail. And …… you’ve turned into a man. You have checked. You have all your man bits. Your Santander bank card says that you are called D. A. Knight and your …… Gay Pride card confirms this. You are Daniel Knight. But, you can’t remember what car you’re supposed to have. You’re not sure even where you are. You think you are in Padstow. At least this is where you bought the metal detector, or was it Newquay? You remember thinking it was an odd item to find in a surf shop. Anyway, you have a pocketful of coins that you have found. This is how you discovered that you had turned into a man. What car should you be looking for? You have a recollection of a black Silhouette and a white Apparition but for some reason, you think it might be grey. Most cars are grey, so this does not help. Perhaps it’s a grey Golf. You need to phone Arthur. Arthur will know. Wait, you think, who is Arthur?

……………………………………….…

My partner, Patti is reading the visitors book. It is a habit she has when we go away. She likes to know what to expect. We are staying in West Cornwall. We have driven a long way and have just arrived at our accommodation.

Listen to this,’ she says.

Natasha and Lance say great holiday everything perfect except for the noisy people from Stockport who were staying next door.’

I shouldn’t worry too much. I expect the people from Stockport will have gone back by now,’ I say. ‘Where is Stockport, anyway?’

Camille and Luc from Brittany, France say Avoid Tintagel if you can. It’s no good at all for surfing.’

I don’t expect you can get much of a wifi signal with all those granite rocks,’ I say.

The visitors’ book has given me an idea though. I squeeze in beside Patti on the striped canvas settee to read it with her.

What about this one?’ I say. ‘Daniel and Arthur from Glastonbury, Somerset say great holiday except for the ironing board cover which lifts up with the shirts.’

Too much information,’ says Patti.

But, don’t you see? There is potential here,’ I say. ‘And ….. Look! They all stayed here in consecutive weeks.’

You mean, turn it into a story.’

Absolutely!’ I say.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Seven

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpartseven

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

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

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

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

…………………………………….

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

Doom B by Wet Blanket Ron

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

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

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

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

Wait! Here’s another.

Dog by Wet Blanket Ron

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

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

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

…………………………………….

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Trout Fishing

troutfishing

Trout Fishing by Chris Green

FRIDAY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is even addressing her by name now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SATURDAY

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

The least I could do,’ Andy says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SUNDAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

Magic carpets?’ Suzy is confused.

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

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

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

I think I might have it somewhere,’

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

Perhaps we should stick with magic carpets.’

Or we could try Belgian Surrealists.’

Magic carpets would be better.’

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

Uh huh.’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

The Continuing Story of Wet Blanket Ron – Part Six

thecontinuingstoryofwetblanketronpartsix

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

The fat lady is not yet singing. Wet Blanket Ron wonders if there is then still time for a reprieve. A final act? A happy ending in this long and drawn out saga? He has been at the mercy of his heartless creator for so long that there is no obvious reason for him to suppose there might be light at the end of the tunnel. Time and time again our hapless hero has been at the fall end of windfall.

Having discovered he is a fictional character, Ron dreams of a change of fortunes. In short, he wants his freedom. After all, Kilgore Trout, Kurt Vonnegut’s fictional creation who suffered similar abuse at the hand of his author finally freed himself. Perhaps more famously, Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation, Sherlock Holmes came to life so thoroughly that many doubted he was ever fictional. Holmes even has his own pages of quotes in literary compendiums.

Ron dreams of living by the sea. The Côte d’Azur perhaps or Portofino. With Marilyn Monroe. No, wait! Marilyn Monroe’s dead. Dead’s worse than being fictional. In any case, she would be old by now. The Seven Year Itch was a long, long time ago. Even Kathleen Turner and Jessica Lange would be getting on a bit. Charlize Theron? Beyonce? The problem is that these are all famous people. The glitterati. It is not going to be easy for a small-town fictional character to master the complexities of the modern world, let alone mix with high-fliers. Maybe Ron should set his sights a little lower. A maisonette in Torquay with Tina from the nail bar perhaps or a caravan in Burnham on Sea with Karen from Greggs? Ron will, of course, need to put from his mind that his last girlfriend as a fictional character, Lola, like her namesake in The Kinks classic, to his embarrassment turned out to be a man. Neither does Ron’s work record bode well for success in the real world. His creator has been merciless. Every job Ron has had has ended in disaster, often his arrest and to cap it all, a spell or two at Her Majesty’s pleasure.

The lines between fiction and reality have a tendency to become blurred. Aren’t most people’s lives a kind of fiction anyway based as they are on some social construction of reality dictated by the purveyors of taste? Fiction itself no longer seems to be separate from real life. Who can say for certain anymore which is which? Might the blurring of boundaries present in today’s metafiction work to Ron’s advantage? Might the confusion be helpful for his transition towards control of his own destiny? The fat lady is not yet singing so who knows what is around the corner?

The adjustment to real life is a big one and Ron New finds it strange at first. When you are a fictional character you do not have to make any decisions. Be it good or bad, everything is arranged for you. The real world is not like that. You have to decide when to get up, what to wear, what to have for breakfast. What foods do you actually like? Where do you like to go? Who do you speak to? What do you talk about? How do you introduce yourself to people you feel attracted to? How do you get out of situations you don’t like? But before any of this, there are more pressing problems. How do you get a job to earn money to buy food and clothing? How do you find somewhere to live? Are there any shortcuts to survival? Are there any short cuts to success?

Ron is on the street in a town that he does not recognise. He has a nagging suspicion it is in the south of England but without any previous experience of the real world, he cannot be sure. But at least it appears to be by the sea. So far as he can tell, he has little more than the clothes on his back, a pair of frayed black Levi jeans, a windcheater jacket and an Ellesse rucksack that has seen better days. There are no keys in his pockets nor is there any money. He has a vintage Nokia phone but discovers it has just 49p credit on it. Contacts has only one contact anyway, someone called Doobie. What kind of a name is that?

Ron feels every bit as depressed as he did when he was fictional. There are shadows where there should be none. A Nine Inch Nails tune is running through his head. Large black dogs are everywhere. In a desperate attempt to cheer himself, he reminds himself he is free. At last, he is free. He repeats it over and over as an affirmation. The world is his mollusc. Isn’t that what they say?

He opens the rucksack and finds an old pair of Adidas trainers, assorted socks and pants, a Swiss army knife, a diary from last year, a job interview letter with his name on it, a driving licence in his name with a different address and a large polythene bag of crushed vegetable matter. No money. No keys. So it goes. You can’t expect everything all at once.

The job interview, he notices, is for today and he seems to be heading for it. The job is for a position as an Appointment Canceller. Not the most prestigious of positions but he has to start somewhere. Ron, of course, cannot refer to the fictional job history which is still fresh in his head, his jobs with N Vision Inc, Daniel DeAngelo and PurplePhones for instance. These were strictly two-dimensional forays, nothing more than words on the written page. There again, as they turned out to be such disasters, it would hardly boost his chances if he were able to refer to them. Some of the pages of the diary are filled in. Might there be something that would help him get the job? There could be clues inside, meetings, appointments, this sort of thing. Even though he is not conscious any earlier real life existence, might he in some esoteric way have a back-story? As a grown man he ought to have some kind of a past.

He does not get the chance to find out.

Ron New,’ the receptionist calls out. ‘Mr Sulky will see you now.’

The interview goes badly. He does not have the required experience in Appointment Cancelling. Mr Sulky tells him he has better things to do than listen to lame-dog excuses for his not being prepared. As Ron walks away, his dream of a maisonette or a caravan with a Tina or a Karen in a south of England seaside resort, modest though it might be, begins to fade. He begins to see shadows again where there are none. A Leonard Cohen tune starts up in his head. Black dogs appear once more, ready to pounce.

His mobile rings. The display tells him it is Doobie, whoever Doobie is.

Ronny, my man,’ the fevered voice on the line says. ‘Why haven’t you called me, dude?’

Sorry,’ Ron says. ‘Who are you exactly?’

Who am I, dude, who am I?’ Doobie says. ‘You’re jiving me, right?’

Ron doesn’t think he is jiving the stranger. He is not sure what jiving is. Other than a fifties dance where you twist your partner around to rock and roll music. How does he even know that? Where does language come from? How do you acquire your lexicon of words and expressions? How can he explain to this person on the line, this Doobie character, that this is the first phone conversation he has had in the real world? Does everyone call each other dude here, he wonders? How can he explain that until recently he was a fictional character? His understanding of the ways of the world is bound to be below average.

It’s Doobie. You were supposed to call me. Remember!’

Ron doesn’t remember.

Doobie tells him they need to meet up. Ron is not sure whether this is a warm invitation or a threat but with nothing else scheduled, he agrees. He doesn’t know where The Frisky Goat is. He asks Doobie for directions.

Sitting at a corner table in the garden of The Frisky Goat, it becomes apparent their association has a lot to do with the large bag of vegetable matter in Ron’s rucksack. It ought to have been in Doobie’s possession two days ago. Ron is fronting it and Doobie is to pay him when he has sold it. It does not immediately sound to him like a good arrangement. What if he never sees Doobie again? What insurance does he have? But, once again, being new to all this, he lets it go.

Ron is surprised when later that day, Doobie phones him again to say he has a large wad of cash for him. There are several noughts on the end. Could they meet up at The Mad Dog? It appears the trade in vegetable matter is a lucrative one. What a stroke of good fortune then that during the day, he inadvertently stumbled on another cache of the same vegetable matter. Doobie is certain to snap this up too. What Ron doesn’t understand is, as the stuff is worth so much, why do people hide it in such obvious places? A lean-to in a municipal park doesn’t seem a very secure hiding place for a valuable commodity. Still, where it came from or why it was there are not his concern. He feels after years as a down on his luck fictional character, he deserves a break.

Deal done, and several more like it, Ron has enough funds to look for somewhere to live. Matt Black of Black and White Lettings explains, as luck should have it, a spacious furnished ground-floor flat in a nice part of town has unexpectedly become available. Although it is usual to have to wait for background checks, as Ron seems to have loads of ready cash, Matt says if he wishes he can move in immediately.

It is often said things tend to happen in threes. Perhaps this might help to explain how, no sooner has Ron moved into Bougainvillea Heights than he meets foxy cover-girl, Tiffany Golden. It might also have something to do with the new Porsche that Ron has bought but they seem to hit it off right away and in no time at all, Tiffany has moved in with him.

Having had a taste of good fortune, Ron wants more. He wants to make his mark, become a name in the big world. Living at Bougainvillea Heights is alright for the time being in the British summer while the sun is shining. And certainly having the lovely Tiffany around helps. But, why would anyone want to be stuck in one place? With one set of options? The same faces every day. If he thought there was all there was, he might as well still be fictional. There’s a big world waiting for him.

Tiffany agrees. With her experience in making her way in the world, she encourages Ron. She too has ambitions. Together they thrash out ways to make more money. Mega bucks, she says with a glint in her eye. Sunday Times Rich List rich, Ron suggests. What then are the growth areas of commerce? Short selling on the stock market or investment in bitcoin might achieve results but they need a large stake to begin with. Then there are long-term bets like property, gold or even domain squatting? But these can hardly be seen as get rich quick ideas. What they need is a sure-fire money-making start-up.

They decide that in today’s dog-eat-dog world, their best chance to make a fortune is to get into the fake news business. There appears to be an insatiable appetite for fake news, the faker the better. Fake news is all produced by small individual organisations, each with a specific agenda. Hoax sites, hyper-partisan sites, false statistic sites all seek to add to media obfuscation but there what is lacking is a neutral mercenary professional agency. Someone whose only aim is to make stacks of cash from disseminating everyone’s lies. This is the gap in the market that they plan to plug by setting up youbetterbelieveit.com, a fake news generator and bogus facts checker. To cover all angles they also set up dontbelieveaword.com

Although they have every reason to feel their enterprise ought to be successful, the speed with which the idea is taken up by media groups surprises them. Their sites quickly become the turn-to sites for meme-makers and clickbaiters on social media, people of all political persuasions, religious groups and killer cults. Contradictory fake news items are splashed daily all over the internet, along with fake provenance should anyone be bothered to check. Each one provides a pay-off for Ron and Tiffany.

Detective Inspector Crooner is tired of being a fictional character brought into the limelight only when there is a Wet Blanket Ron story in the offing. Worse, while he has been waiting in the wings for a new caper, he has heard through the grapevine that Wet Blanket Ron is no longer a fictional character. By all accounts, Ron is making his way in the real world. Presumably, there being few storylines for a struggling small-town police inspector, he will now be axed. He wants his freedom from the printed page too. He wants to be a flesh and blood police inspector with a seaside constabulary somewhere perhaps in the south of England. Mrs Crooner has always wanted to live by the sea.

He would then be able to continue where he left off, apprehending Wet Blanket Ron for the type of bizarre crime that only a reprobate like Ron was capable of. Like the time he had nicked Ron for bringing down rock star, Johnny Angel’s helicopter. Or the time he had pulled him in for smuggling packets of time out of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. This had earned him his promotion. It was reasonable to assume that a real life Ron would be up to no good.

The path to self-actualisation that developmental psychologist, Abraham Maslow outlines in his Hierarchy of Needs is a complicated five-step process. First, you need your physiological needs and your safety needs to be met. You then need to belong to a social network and be able to develop self-esteem. But, before any of these things can happen, you need to not be fictional. Being fictional is the biggest obstacle of all to self-actualisation. Incredible then that along with Wet Blanket Ron, Inspector Crooner is able to make this leap. He finds himself at a seaside resort in the south of England, the same seaside resort as his old adversary.

Old habits die hard and in the blink of an eye, he is once again on Ron’s tail but this time it is for real. He has a real team of officers and a real police station. He has access to the real police computer and all its real Intel. Crime has moved on. Attention in the modern force is moving towards cybercrime. Crooner reads up on internet misuse. The Communications Act 2003 for instance makes it an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character over a public electronic communications network. During his research into how widespread this is becoming, much to his delight, the name, Ron New keeps cropping up. Ron is alleged to have a monopoly on fake news websites in this part of the world. Well, well, well, he thinks, what a stroke of luck!

The Bizzies are outside,’ Tiffany shouts.

Ron would probably not understand what she was referring to but he cannot hear her above the music. He is listening to Wagner’s Götterdamerung, the dramatic immolation scene at the end of the opera. Birgit Nilsson as Brünhilde is belting it out. Ron has been giving himself a crash course in culture. Along with Fellini, Proust and Eliot, Wagner came highly recommended. He has made his way through fifteen hours of The Ring Cycle. The immolation scene is the climax of the whole work. Brünhilde is mounting her horse and riding into the flames. This apparently is the origin of the phrase, it’s not all over until the fat lady sings.

Tiffany shouts louder this time. ‘The Old Bill are here, Ron.’

What? Who?’

The Bill. ….. The police. They want to have a word.’

Tell them they will have to wait,’ Ron shouts back. ‘Or better still, come back another day. …… What do they want, anyway?’

Inspector Crooner does not seem keen on waiting, coming back another day or telling Tiffany what he wants. He and three other determined officers barge their way into the Bougainvillea Heights apartment. It does not appear that they have called round to tell Ron to keep the noise down. It’s possible they have something else on their minds.

What was that about the fat lady singing?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Three Sides to Every Story

threesidestoeverystory

Three Sides to Every Story by Chris Green

1:

I don’t know about you but I know when I am being watched. I get a prickly sensation on my skin and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. This, along with a heightened sense of alert. The phenomenon has a name, scopaesthesia. I looked it up on Reddit a while back. It is described as a psychic staring effect. There seems to be some disagreement about what makes it happen but my guess is that it is a primal instinct, a form of extrasensory perception.

I am being watched now. As I walk home along Lostwithiel Street, I am sure I’m being observed. Not by a CCTV camera but by a real-life person. Looking around me, I can’t spot anyone. There are only a handful of people on the street and they all seem to be minding their own business. Possibly it’s someone from a window of one of the houses. Or from a parked car. Someone from a distance with binoculars maybe. But whoever it is, the surveillance is quite deliberate. Why would anyone be watching me? Working in quality control at the flag factory, I have little status and outside of work, I keep myself to myself. But for whatever reason, someone has me firmly in their gaze.

I first became aware I could detect being watched when I was very young. In the playground, in fact. It got me into no end of fights, most of which ended badly. On the plus side, in my teenage years, my gift got me laid a few times because I was able to tell in a crowded room, without having to look around, which girls were showing an interest. But in truth, these episodes were rare. There was Katherine. Then Rebecca. And Jennifer. Then there was Natalie and before I knew it Natalie was pregnant with Anthony. We were not yet twenty one. Anthony is nearly ten now. He’s a strange lad but he doesn’t appear to have inherited my gift.

I have learned over the years to keep my ability to myself. Sometimes though, when I am out shopping with Natalie, I might tap her on the shoulder and let her know that someone is watching me. I’m not sure why. Her reaction is usually one of exasperation.

Not that old thing again, Frank,’ she will say. ‘Don’t you realise people have better things to do than to stare at you? Even if you are wearing a floral Loud jacket.’

When I successfully point out the person who has been staring at me, she still refuses to acknowledge it. She tells me I am imagining it.

As I turn into Restormel Terrace, the prickly sensation becomes stronger. My skin feels like ice on fire. My observer must surely be closer. There could perhaps be more than one person. But this is an empty street and has no obvious common observation points with Lostwithiel Street and I can’t see anyone following me. If they are, they must be well camouflaged.

I begin to worry about my safety. What if the watcher has a gun? Is a madman? I know I’m not a celebrity or a political figure, but these things can happen, even down here in the south-west. If you’ve never experienced the sensation when you know for certain someone unseen is following your every move, you probably won’t understand what I’m talking about.

I am thankful to arrive home safely. At first, I think nothing of Natalie’s absence. I expect some of you have partners who are unexpectedly called upon to work late at the office, the nail bar or the foundry or wherever it is they work. Mr Van der Merwe probably had an unscheduled meeting with a difficult client or Kimberley Drewitt failed to turn in again and Natalie had to fill in. And, I imagine that Anthony is round at Dominic’s watching the snowboarding or waterboarding or whatever it is they are into this week. Nevertheless, I am unable to settle.

2:

When the police call round, I realise that something is wrong. Things are getting out of hand.

Sergeant Klitschko, Counter Terrorism Command,’ the larger of the two giants barks as he points his Heckler and Koch at me ‘Stay right where you are, Mr Fargo.’

Meanwhile, the one with the bad breath and the handcuffs twists my arms behind my back. It is clear to me there has been a mix-up. The person they are after appears to have the same name as me. A simple misunderstanding, a clerical error. I tell them that they have got the wrong Mr Fargo.

I don’t think so,’ Sergeant Klitschko sneers. ‘You are Mr Frank Fargo, right?’

How many Frank Fargos can there be? It is by no stretch of the imagination a common name. I thought I might have been the only one but the name came up in a story I read a while back by Philip C. Dark. Or maybe it was the other fellow? The one who wrote Three Sides to Every Story? I don’t know how I came to read it, really. It was one of those nonsensical post-modern stories, where the text refers to itself and the author appears, not my sort of thing at all.

I insist that despite the name being uncommon around these parts, they have made a mistake. I am clearly not the Frank Fargo they are looking for. I have done nothing that could warrant this heavy-handed treatment. I always pay bills on time, I tell them, I don’t park on yellow lines and I don’t even cheat at golf. This results in a hefty thump to the ribs. Further protests of my innocence result in yet heavier blows. This is not a routine investigation. These are not your everyday policemen.

3:

Many of you will no doubt have discovered that when you are least expecting it, your fortunes plummet. It quickly becomes apparent things are no longer going to be as they were. You find yourself in a dark forbidding place a long way from where you want to be. Your unexpected place might be metaphorical. On the face of it, mine appears not to be. Mine appears to be all too real. I find myself in a dark, dank subterranean pit. I don’t know where this place is or why I have been brought here but so far as I can tell I have been held captive for what seems like days. There are no windows and a tube light that flickers off and on. The walls are covered with anatomical illustrations. There is a rusty metal cabinet in the corner with some scientific equipment and some dusty old science books and one or two on psychology. Perhaps it was once a laboratory. Perhaps I am part of some grisly experiment. I have been subjected day and night to random sound effects, the kind you might expect in a chilling supernatural drama on TV. Every now and then, I hear footsteps coming down stone stairs and a bowl of what tastes like banana flavoured broccoli is pushed through a hatch. This is the nearest thing to communication that I have with the outside world.

If sleep deprivation is my captors’ intention then they have certainly cracked it. If an interrogator were to come in now, I would be likely to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear. But, what is it they might want to hear? How have I transgressed? Or perhaps more pertinently, how has my namesake, whoever he might be, transgressed? Is he a spy? Is he a killer? Whatever, I would confess. I would be the Dorset Ripper. I would be the one who defaced the Mona Lisa. I would be the one who shot Prince Philip. I would be any of these things if it would get me out of this hell hole. But, this seems a long way off. I don’t get the impression that anyone is even watching me now.

4:

If you find yourself in a desperate place, and happen to have a neuro linguistic programming workbook, I recommend you take a look. Don’t ask me how it works but with a little practice, NLP can entirely change your outlook. Demons are there to be conquered. NLP can see off fears and phobias, delusional disorders, depression and insomnia. In a word, it will help you to transform your life. There’s probably no end to what can be achieved with NLP. You are your own master. You set your own goals. You will probably win the lottery.

I am sitting with Natalie at a table in Rick Stein’s restaurant eating Dover sole a la Meunière with a side of salad leaves freshly picked from Jeremy Corbyn’s allotment. Perhaps Jeremy needs to do a little more work on the red chard but this is a minor point. I can see more clearly now. My delusions are in abeyance. No-one is watching me at the moment. Natalie and I are even sleeping in the same bed again and Anthony seems to have settled down at his new school. We could even be looking at a happy ending to the story.

But of course, like everything in life, things could change at any time. The whole hullabaloo could start up again. I need to work on that one. I suppose I could dress down, get rid of my red coat perhaps and wear more grey or brown. I could maybe get one of those drab zip-up jackets that you see old people wearing along the strand in South Devon seaside towns. Or to take it a little further, I wonder whether given time and some advanced mindskills training, I might even be able to become invisible. That would surely solve the problem. Or better still, perhaps I could become fictional. Frank Fargo, after all, is a good fictional name. I could be a character in one of Philip C. Dark’s mysteries. Or the protagonist in one of that other fellow’s. The one who wrote Three Sides to Every Story. You’ve probably read one or two of his tales, haven’t you? I wish I could remember his name. It’s on the tip of my tongue. …… Chris something. …… No, it’s not coming.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Unreliable Narraror

unreliablenarrator

Unreliable Narrator by Chris Green

A vermilion memo is circulating at the research establishment, one down from red. Red means evacuate. Tension levels are rising. I am glad it is time for my shift to end. Although I keep my head down at work, I have suspected for some time that there is something weird going on that the big guns do not want to get out. Information that does not belong in the public domain. For that matter, information not even to be shared with base security staff. An experiment gone wrong perhaps. I am accustomed to a quiet drive home along country lanes after the night shift. I usually drive straight home but as Donna is up north on a training course, I decide to take a detour. There is no traffic on the road at this hour. I can relax to my Borodin CD. Or my Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds compilation.

On occasions, I might come across an early morning dog walker en route or an agricultural worker, but this is rare. There is seldom anyone up. So, naturally, I am surprised when I catch sight of a woman struggling to climb out of a front window of Storm Clouds, the Gothic house on the edge of Compton Wilbury. Not only surprised but puzzled because, in my experience, cat-burglars tend to predominantly be male. My suspicious nature tells me I ought to investigate. It is my duty as a responsible citizen. I stop the car and approach the house. As I get closer, I can’t help noticing that my quarry is wearing a skirt and a chunky jumper and ….. seamed fishnet stockings and heeled pumps, hardly the outfit you would wear for cat burgling. There must be another explanation. Some fellow’s wife has returned unexpectedly and this is the other woman discretely leaving the scene? Or maybe she is the imprisoned wife fleeing from a catalogue of domestic violence. Unlikely in this neck of the woods though I would have thought.

‘Is everything all right?’ I call out as I approach.

‘No. Everything is not all right,’ the woman says, straightening her skirt and trying to regain some composure. ‘Nothing in my house is working and my keys have gone and my husband is away and ……’

‘Whoa!’ I say ‘Slow down!’

‘I’m being harassed in my home and someone has broken in and my phones have been cut off and …..’

‘One thing at a time, please,’ I say. ‘Perhaps, start at the beginning. I’m Lee by the way.’

‘Hello Lee,’ she says. ‘Anne.’

Perhaps she sees it as a good omen that our names go so well together. She now seems much calmer. Anne is someone that you would be likely to notice in a crowded room, thirty-something, blonde and well-rounded, a lady of some refinement. To be honest, I can’t seem to take my eyes off her. She proceeds to give a detailed account of a nightmare few hours.

It’s the middle of the night when she hears a knocking sound. She turns over to see if her husband, Curt has heard. But, Curt is not there. Maybe he has gone downstairs to find out what is going on. Then she remembers he is away on a business trip. Although Curt goes away often, she can’t seem to get used to him being away and she hates being alone in the big old house. Even with all its modern security, she does not feel safe. But she is reluctant to bring this up with Curt, in case he might consider her wimpish. Curt, she says, comes from a tough world. He doesn’t understand fear. He was brought up in the Bush.

Random nocturnal creaks and rattles are no more than you would expect in an old house, she says, especially on a rough night. But as soon as she starts to settle, she hears the noise again and it definitely sounds like someone knocking on the front door. No way is she going to get up and answer it. It’s nearly 3 am.

‘Why would anyone be calling on anyone at this time of night?’ I say. ‘Especially out here in the sticks?’

She agrees. She says she ought to have insisted they got a guard dog when they moved out here. An Akita or a Belgian Malinois perhaps. But, the fact remains, at this point in time, they do not have a dog and she is frightened. It probably didn’t help that she watched the penultimate episode of Killers on Netflix earlier in the evening.

I am familiar with Killers. I resist the temptation to tell her what happens in the final episode. Donna couldn’t hack it. She stopped watching half-way through.

Anne doesn’t feel she can phone Curt. He will be asleep and probably has an early morning meeting. For that matter, she has an early start too. She has to show the Muellers around Hope’s End at 8:30. This was the only time that both the Muellers were available and Hope’s End represents a big sale for Sellers and Sellers. Fortunately, whatever it was, the banging sound does not continue. But, she finds herself unable to get back to sleep. She tosses and turns trying to neutralise the dark thoughts that keep coming. She is just about to drop off when the phone rings. When did Curt change the ringtone to the Tales of the Unexpected theme music, she wonders? More importantly, why? Is this his idea of a joke? She goes downstairs to answer it but finds no-one on the other end. She replaces the receiver and dials 1471. She is told the caller did not leave their number.

…………………………………….

On occasions, most of you will have been plagued by an earworm. Annoying, isn’t it to have a tune stuck in your head? Sometimes the tune going around and around will be the last one you heard. Or the most catchy one on your last shuffle or however you listen to your music. Something you heard on the radio or in a shop. Think of those irritating Christmas tunes for instance. Various studies have been carried out as to what song is the most catchy ever, some of these claiming to be scientific. Among those frequently cited are Michael Jackson’s Beat It, Abba’s Dancing Queen, The Queen’s We are the Champions and Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline. I am plagued with earworms all the time but none of these tunes features. Nor do Call Me Maybe or Gangnam Style or other more recent tunes that are claimed to be contenders. My earworms seem to be entirely random. Captain Beefheart’s Mirror Man, a Bartók String Quartet or the Tuvan National Anthem. Last week it was MacArthur Park. They just seem to come out of nowhere. Bob Dylan’s tunes aren’t always thought of as being catchy so where has the one about the silver saxophones that is going around and around in my head come from? ……… Aha! I think I might know. But should I let on?

…………………………………….

As Bob Dylan moves on to the Queen of Spades and talks to his chambermaid, I try to catch up with what Anne has been saying. I may have missed something. She has taken her shower and brewed coffee. She is now switching on News 24. From the graphics darting around the screen, she tries to work out what the disaster story they are speaking about might be that has left so many dead, when the TV goes dead.

I suspect it is an update on the fire ripping through the conference centre but I do not interrupt. I’m not completely certain that this is where Curt is. But how many Curt Curtises can there be?

She discovers all channels are out. Even the twenty four hour baking channel is down. She really has to phone Curt now. To her horror, both the landline and her mobile phone are also dead and the router has a flashing red light. The stark realisation that she has no communication with the outside world strikes her, she says, like a blow to the head. She searches frantically in her bag for her keys. They are not there. Where can she have put them? The spare set from the kitchen drawer has gone too. She searches high and low, in coat pockets, in bags she has not used for months, underneath work surfaces, in cupboards, but finds no keys. This is impossible. She is locked in, a prisoner in her own home. She is terrified. The only way out is through the downstairs bathroom window.

She seems to be up to date with her account. It has been exhausting just listening. I tell her that she has been through quite an ordeal and do my best to comfort her.

‘Do you have a phone I could use?’ she asks.

‘You are welcome to try,’ I say. ‘My phone’s in the car. But, you probably won’t have a signal here. It’s a bit of an O2 black spot.’

‘Where is your car?’ Anne says.

‘It’s ……..’ I look around. To my astonishment, my Nissan Qashqai is no longer there.’

‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph!’ I say. ‘Where has it gone?’

It is nowhere to be seen. It has completely vanished. What in God’s name is going on around these parts?

…………………………………….

Anne doesn’t have the keys to her Kia so we decide we must seek help in the village. Surely, someone must know what is happening.

We find no-one at home at any of the houses in Compton Wilbury. Speculation about where they might be is clearly going to get us nowhere. Does it matter that the Shipmans at Grey Gables have never been known to go away or that the Mansons in the barn conversion down the road might have just popped out? Is there any point in knowing that there is a de-consecrated church in the next village or that there was a full moon last Tuesday? Something is happening here and we don’t know what it is. My phone signal does not re-appear, nor does Anne’s. The village phone box is out of order. We find ourselves trudging along the lane to the neighbouring village of Myrtle Green.

‘How far is it to Myrtle Green?’ I say after about ten minutes. Not a single car has passed.

‘Not far,’ Anne says. ‘Half a mile or so. Be thankful you have sensible shoes on.’

‘The turning to Homiton should be round about here,’ I say. ‘We can’t have missed it.’

‘There are a lot of clumps of trees that look the same,’ Anne says.

‘Even so,’ I say. ‘We don’t appear to be making much progress.’

It doesn’t take long for the same thought to occur to Anne. Nothing in the landscape is as it should be. We should surely have passed the field with the abandoned red tractor by now, she says and where is the dry stone wall covered in lichen that you can peer over to get a glimpse of the distant hills? It’s as if the landscape is being pulled away from us.

‘You said that you were driving home from the …. uh, base,’ Anne says. ‘What is it that they do there?’ Is she thinking there might be a causal connection?

‘Even if I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you,’ I say.

‘So, you are saying you’ve no idea?’

‘None.’

There are, of course, no CCTV cameras in the subterranean depths below Level D but rumours have been circulating that the boffins are doing research into random virtual infinity lapse and that they are developing a large-scale invisibility cloak down there. No smoke without fire, you might be tempted to say but it would be a mistake to believe all the rumours. I’m thinking that there might not be a causal connection with what’s happening to Anne and me. Occam’s razor suggests there should be a more obvious explanation.

Far from making any progress, we seem to be going backwards. It’s like the road ahead is being rolled up like a carpet. The scenery is disappearing. There is no longer a vanishing point. No horizon. There is nowhere to go. At this rate, before we know it we will be back where we started from. But I have the feeling that things may not be the same. The universe is in a permanent state of flux. Change is the only certainty. On this basis, there is a good chance we might already be somewhere else. We might have been there all along.

…………………………………….

How did we end up in bed together? Anne is asking the same question. How long have we been here? Since this morning? Last night? Time runs away with you when you are enjoying yourself. But, Curt will be home soon, Anne says, back from his business trip. He has probably been trying to contact her. Now the phones are back on, she needs to have her story ready. I remind her that this is what I do in my spare time, make stories up. Leif Velasquez, author and auteur. Look me up on Google, I say. I thought you were Lee, Anne says. Short for Leif, I tell her. She says that’s all very well but I’d still better go. It would be easier for her if I weren’t here. Perhaps I will have to break it to her about the fire at the conference centre. How her husband is now in custody. What was it that made him, Curt Curtis, a successful businessman, start the fire?

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Time and Tide Wait for Norman

timeandtidewaitfornorman2019

Time and Tide Wait for Norman by Chris Green

Good Lord! There’s Liz Boa. I haven’t seen Liz since…… Well, since she left Grace and Favour, where we both worked. That must have been, what? Ten years ago? She went off to live in Ireland. Skibbereen, I believe. Strange choice, I thought but her partner was a psychologist. Or was it a ventriloquist? Anyway, something like that and he had a job over there. …… No. Wait. He was in shipping and it was a three-year contract in Cork. That was it. …….. There was always something simmering beneath the surface between Liz and I. Given different circumstances, who knows what might have happened? We came close on one or two occasions and even met up after work but we held back because we were both married.

What’s Liz doing here in Newton Abbot? She has looked after herself well. She doesn’t look a day older than when I last saw her. She still looks about thirty nine. She’s moving around the platform now. She hasn’t seen me waving. She doesn’t appear to be getting on this train. Should I get off and have a word with her? I could always catch the next train to Plymouth. There are plenty of them going that way and my appointment with the publisher isn’t until eleven thirty.

Before I have chance to act on my impulse, Liz boards the train that has just pulled in on the adjacent platform. She is heading north. I am still speculating what she might be doing in these parts when I hear a familiar voice beside me.

Hello Phil,’ the voice says.

It takes me a while to realise that the figure in the crimson Paul Smith suit is Andy Mann. In fact, in the end, he needs to prompt me. Andy and I used to play Sunday league football together many years ago. This, of course, was before I became lazy and my girth started to broaden. And, as you do, Andy and I lost touch. What is he doing here? When I moved down here to Devon, I hadn’t expected to see anyone from back home. After all, Scarborough is three hundred miles away. First Liz and now Andy. What are the odds?

Hi Andy,’ I manage to say finally as he sits himself down beside me. ‘I didn’t recognise you for a minute.’

I haven’t changed that much, have I, Phil?’ he laughs.

I don’t quite know how to respond to this. The thing is, that apart from the Paul Smith suit, Andy still looks the same as he did back then. Not a day older. Well, perhaps a day or two, but he certainly looks trim. He has obviously been eating his five a day and getting to the gym regularly. Ten a day, maybe along with a morning swim and an evening run. Or perhaps he has made a pact with the Devil.

No,’ I say. ‘You are looking well, Andy.’

Well, I do my best. None of us is getting any younger, Phil. Still working on that newspaper, are you?’

I have to think hard to bring to mind what he might be referring to. I conclude he must mean the Whitby Gazette. I was a sub-editor there for a short while. Now, that was a long time ago. Nineteen eighties, I’d say. Surely I’ve seen Andy more recently than this.

I’m a writer now,’ I say. ‘Short stories and novels. My pen name is Philip C. Dark. You may have come across something of mine. Time and Tide Wait for Norman, my last collection of short stories sold well. In fact, I’m just off to see my publisher now to discuss some amendments to my new novel, The Knee of the Idle.’

Hey! A novelist. That’s fantastic, Phil,’ Andy says. ‘I’m pleased for you. You’re not on holiday down here, then?’

No, Andy. Shelley and I moved down earlier this year,’ I say. ‘We live in Topsham. By the river.’

Good Lord! That’s just up the road from me. I’m in Exeter. We’ll have to meet up for a drink. I’ve just done some business in Newton Abbot and now I’m just off to Totnes to look at a car. A vintage Apparition. From a fellow from up north, as it happens. Brent Struggler.’

Brent Struggler! Do you know what? Brent Struggler was the name of the guy that I bought my Marauder from. Back in Scarborough. It must be the same guy. There can’t be two car salesmen with a name like Brent Struggler.’

I wasn’t aware of him until I moved down south. But I’m sure you are right. Brent is definitely from those parts. I’ve spoken to him a few times now. It’s a small world Phil, isn’t it?’

How long have you been living down here then, Andy?’

I came down about seven or eight years ago. I had a trial with Exeter City.’

Seven or eight years ago?’

About that, yes. It was just coming up to the General Election. 2010, it would have been.’

I start to do the maths. Andy Mann would have been forty something at the time of the trial. I realise Exeter City are in one of the lower leagues and not able to recruit young talent so easily, but still ……

Perhaps Andy has sold his soul to the Devil after all. I feel suddenly strange being in his company. I avoid his question about whether he is a character in any of my books. I imagine he is joking, but with a writer, the familiar does have a habit of slipping into the narrative now and then. I continue to make superficial conversation with Andy about the issues of the day while I try in vain to come up with a plausible explanation for the apparent slippages in reality. I can’t concentrate on anything he is saying. Words bounce around in my head and rogue thoughts float in and out. I feel light-headed. As we pull into Totnes station, I feel pleased that he is getting off the train. I offer him one of my business cards. With an old friend, it seems like the polite thing to do. He takes it, shakes me firmly by the hand and tells me he will call me. He will take me for a night out, he says, in Exeter.

……………………………………………………

I think the train may have come off the track once or twice between Totnes and Plymouth or taken an unscheduled detour because when I arrive, it is half-past three in the afternoon. Perhaps I fell asleep and have been going backwards and forwards on the same train for several hours. Time is all over the place and no-one at the station seems to be able to explain what might have happened. They just look at me as if I am mad. My brain is certainly doing somersaults, my clothes are a mess and I seem to have lost my phone. I’m not sure what to do but I don’t want to get back on a train so I start walking into the city looking for a place to have a snack and a cup of tea.

I went to Rex Cardiff’s funeral, so I know that he is dead. I listened while his close friends delivered heartfelt eulogies. I watched the pallbearers lower the wooden box into the ground. So, what is he doing here at Costa Coffee in Plymouth? Living and breathing. And by the looks of it enjoying a double espresso. I do a double take but there’s no mistaking Rex. He has looked exactly the same since the first time I met him. He has the same 1970s haircut, the same round glasses and the same brown leather bush hat. Those are probably the same pair of shiny looking skin-tight jeans from back then too. And, of course, he has the ubiquitous Sainsburys carrier bags, three of them inside one another apparently, to carry around his hip flask, his paperback books, his soldering irons and his Tom Waits album. It is Rex Cardiff’s voice, though, as he holds forth about the history of the Isle of Wight Festival, that really gives the game away. That strident articulation of flowery language that he is using to familiarise the unsuspecting stranger in Costa with one of his favourite topics. His BBC voice has the faintest trace of Scouse vowels to dampen it, the legacy of his three years at Liverpool University reading Oceanography, he once explained. Rex was the inspiration for Reuben, a character in my short story, Wolf in Cheap Clothing. I can see the stranger is feigning interest in Rex’s monologue but at the same time seems anxious to get away. I want to get away too.

Seeing Liz Boa and Andy Mann, unexpectedly, out of context and untainted by the passing of time was, to say the least, unnerving. Seeing Rex, long since dead and buried, is in all its implications, terrifying. As my teacup crashes to the floor, I am conscious that my body is making involuntary movements. People are staring at me. How can they know what is wrong? How can they know that the man with the loud voice three tables down is supposed to be dead? His voice is echoing around the walls. The room is spinning. The floor is where the ceiling should be. I feel I am going to pass out.

I find myself on a bench on Plymouth Hoe near the imposing statue of Sir Francis Drake, looking out onto the Sound. How long have I been here, staring into the beyond, I wonder? The water in the historic bay, silver against the stacked cumulostratus, seems still as if there is no tide in these parts. The ship on the horizon, moving slowly from side to side, is little more than a dab of battleship grey. There is barely a sound, save for the blackbird’s song from a nearby tree. This situation should be calming but I can’t shake off the feeling that something is very wrong. How can I dismiss the unlikely series of events leading up to this? Is there a common thread that links the sightings of Liz, Andy and Rex? And where does Brent Struggler fit in?

You only have yourself to blame for your …….. fragile state of mind,’ says a tall man, who appears out of nowhere. ‘What goes around, comes around.’

I don’t recognise him. Yet, at the same time, something about him is disturbingly familiar. He wears a scuzzy seersucker suit several sizes too small. He has an unsightly scar leading up to his forehead. He walks with a limp and wears an eye-patch over his left eye. Where, I wonder, can I possibly know this reprobate from?

You don’t appear to know who I am, do you, Phil?’ he says. ‘But, you should. Oh yes! You definitely should. You should know me very well.’

I have the feeling that I ought to recognise you,’ I say. ‘But, I can’t for the life of me work out where from.’

You should know me like a father knows a son,’ he continues. ‘I’m practically family. After all, Philip, I am your brainchild.’

N n n norman,’ I stammer. ‘You’re Norman? From my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman?’

Bravo, Philip! You’ve got it at last. Norman Norman. Your very own creation. I’m like flesh and blood and that should have counted for something. But, look how you treated me. Take a good look at me, will you? You made me half-blind. You gave me a limp. You made me wear these ill-fitting clothes. You gave me these hideous features. All in the interest of a story. Not only that but your title, the one that you thought was so clever, was misleading. Time and tide didn’t wait for me, did they, Philip? You subjected me to humiliation after humiliation. You were merciless. Wouldn’t you agree that it is payback time?’

I am scared. What’s written on the page should stay on the page and not leap into the everyday. I look anxiously around me, wondering what is going to happen next. It is then that I spot the brightly coloured Wessex Theatre Company van.

It takes me a few more moments to register that this is the direction that Norman came from. Didn’t I also see the same van earlier on my way to Costa Coffee? And somewhere else too? Might it have been Newton Abbot? Suddenly, everything seems to fall into place. I only wish I had realised at the time that Liz, Andy and Rex were actors too. Surely, I should have picked up on the niggling little things about them that did not add up. The whole business appears to have all been an elaborate set-up. I think I know who is behind it. If you are ever invited to be the guest reviewer of the literary pages of the Wessex Courier, be careful what you say about other writers’ works. Some, it seems, will stop at nothing to exact their revenge.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved