Schrödinger’s Cat

schrodingerscat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I find I still don’t have a phone.

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

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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

When I Was Older

wheniwasolder

When I Was Older by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

Vincent asks Eve if there is any wine.

Eve laughs and says something about 1969.

What on Earth is she on about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time can be a trickster,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

TRAIN

train

TRAIN by Chris Green

The 16:06 from Paddington is usually on time. I rely on its punctuality to catch my connecting train from Taunton to Bridgewater where I live. Although it does not go on the most direct route, this train runs at the right time for me. I do not like to work late on a Friday and I don’t want to spend a time travelling on crowded trains. After all, I have been up in town all week and feel I deserve a break. As a bonus, in summer this service gives me a chance to listen to the closing stages of Test Match Special on my iPhone.

The train is often nearly empty. Most people travelling from the capital catch later trains. But, after five thirty I find the trains are a nightmare, on any day of the week. Paddington station becomes like something out of a wartime evacuation blockbuster. Why would anyone put themselves through this day after day?

Had the 16:06 been on time, the seat next to me would probably be empty, perhaps for the entire trip, and I could relax and prepare for the weekend.

Is this seat taken?’ she asks. She is wearing an Afghan coat and her hair is braided.

I am tempted to say yes, but my better nature prevails. And she does have a nice smile, but this is as far as it goes. I am twice her age and I think we would have little in common. I mean. Afghan coat? In June? In 2019?

She spends several minutes depositing, arranging and rearranging a startling array of hand luggage. There are haversacks and rucksacks and tote bags of every colour. There are scarves and hats and even a potted plant. The tent alone needs its own seat. How did she carry it all? At least she doesn’t have a dog.

She takes off her coat and places it on top of the tent. She finally sits down. She is wearing a tangerine cheesecloth smock. My nasal passages are invaded by the powerful aroma of incense and patchouli. I try to ignore her by turning away to look out the window, but it becomes clear she wants to talk. I try turning up the volume of the cricket commentary, but she carries on chattering as if I am hanging on her every word. Eventually, I take my headphones out and look her way.

She explains that she has been camping out. She came up to London last weekend to go to a concert and stayed on.

Who did you go to see?’ I ask, out of politeness.

Blind Faith,’ she says, excitedly. ’They played a free concert in Hyde Park.’

Who?’ I say.

Blind Faith,’ she repeats. ‘You know, Eric Clapton. Steve Winwood.’

Oh,’ I say, while I turn this over in his mind. To say, have they reformed I feel would just prolong the conversation, but to the best of my recollection, the concert she is referring to took place, fifty years ago, in 1969. I think my parents went …. both of them ….. together.

I’m Luna,’ she says. ‘But you can call me Loon. Everybody does.’

Tempted to say, sounds about right, I resist. ‘Pleased to meet you, Loon,’ I offer instead.

You’re a Pisces, aren’t you?’ Luna says, looking me in the eye.

That’s right, Loon. I am as it happens. How did you know?’

You are imaginative, creative and kind.’

Am I?’

And compassionate and intuitive.’

That’s pretty good, isn’t it?’

But, you are lazy, weak-willed and pessimistic.’

Ah, I see. Not so good then.’

But you have Leo rising.’

Is that good? I knew a Leo when I was in the army but he wasn’t very good at rising.’

And the Moon in Scorpio.’

After a few false starts (what do those whistles and flags mean), the train finally sets off. I look at my watch. It is twenty to five. Even if the driver goes like Harry in the night, there’s no chance of catching the connection now. I have no idea what time the next one leaves Taunton. Perhaps there is one from Bristol instead. I am about to check on my iPhone, but Luna interrupts me.

Don’t be uptight,’ she says. ‘Be here now, man. Just go with the flow.’ These are expressions I remember my dad using, yet oddly he never seemed to practice them. Dad wanted to control everything. And you had to watch out if things didn’t go according to plan. This is why I moved out at eighteen. This was why Mum ran off with Didier, a Belgian gymnast.

As the train powers its way towards Reading, Luna talks about macrobiotics, Malcolm X and The Mothers Of Invention. She talks about International Times and Oz. Everything about her is retro, backdated. She does not seem connected to the modern world. It is as if she carries her own time bubble around with her which keeps her separate from the here and now of this railway carriage. She is either completely unaware of this or is acting a role. I begin to wonder if it is not perhaps an enormous hoax at my expense, a television spoof maybe. I try to spot the cameras. I do not see any.

Luna holds forth about cosmic evolutionary development, transcendental understanding and what she does to balance her chakras. I am not convinced I have chakras. Perhaps my parents had chakras. They were a bit far out. They seemed to go for all this Eastern mysticism. Guru this and Swami that. I narrowly avoided being taken to an ashram in Rishikesh one time by feigning yellow jaundice and was sent to stay with Aunt Trudi in Fife, while they buggered off to the subcontinent. They came back just the same, arguing at the slightest opportunity.

I try to divert the conversation on to more earthly matters. I am anxious to get back to the Test Match commentary. The match had reached a critical stage when I left it. Following another famous collapse, England were eight wickets down with twenty overs left, trying once more to save the game.

What good is all this …… esoteric wisdom?’ I say.

Wisdom is your third eye,’ she says. ‘And knowledge is your third arm.’

I do not think I want a third eye or third arm. They sound just plain ridiculous.

Luna is still away with the fairies. She begins to talk about the journey, but it is not the train journey she is referring to, it is life’s journey.

Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls,’ she says.

What a load of twaddle, I am thinking. She needs to work in the city for a couple of months. She would soon realise the universe doesn’t give a damn about you.

As we pull out of Reading, Luna says the train will soon sweep past the Westbury White Horse, a giant chalk horse carved into the landscape. It is meant to represent the Celtic horse goddess, Rhiannon. She explains about The Golden Bough, earth magic and ley lines.

Do you know they levitated the stones for Stonehenge from Wales along ley lines,’ she says.

I don’t believe in magic,’ I tell her. ‘It’s all done with mirrors.’

Watch this!’ she says, and with it, she vanishes. Her luggage disappears too. All of it. It is as if she never ………..

In fact, everything has changed. I find myself aboard a completely different train. The carriage is old. From the 1970s. It has ripped cloth seats, No Smoking signs and windows you can open. It is the type I remember from the trips to Torquay I was forced to go on as a teenager to please one or other of my parents. Twelve year-olds don’t build sandcastles, I would tell Mum. Or, no thank you dad, I’m too young to smoke dope. And why would I want to if it makes you listen to Emerson, Lake and Palmer?

To my astonishment, I discover I have a Mohican haircut, a studded leather jacket, ragged drainpipe jeans and an old khaki rucksack. How old would I be? About fifteen or sixteen? Despite the amazing transformation, I find my train of thought is still linear. I am still in the mindset of going home to Bridgewater for the weekend on a train that is a few minutes late which means I will probably miss my connecting train. I take a look at my watch. It is an old watch. A digital model with a silver strap. It says 17:25. I look out the window to assess the train’s progress. I know this journey like the back of my hand. We are halfway between Reading and Swindon. I do a quick calculation. This is consistent at this stage with the 16:06 being a few minutes late.

In the seat next to me is a girl in her late twenties wearing a charcoal office skirt suit and dark patterned tights. She has long black hair and cakey make-up. She reminds me a little of the actress, Megan Fox. She has kicked off her high heels. Perhaps she has been on her feet all day. At the perfume counter of a department store maybe. Or running up and down the corridors of an advertising agency. She is scrolling through some pictures of celebrities on her laptop. One of the celebrities is in fact none other than Megan Fox. The lookalike Megan Fox seems to be in her own world, protecting her space with an air of disinterest. She does not want a train conversation. When I look her way, she pulls her skirt down an inch or two and turns herself slightly to face the aisle. She is wised up to the ways of teenagers with strange haircuts, frenzied eyes and nasal jewellery.

I pick up the rucksack. It has some half recognised names of bands scribbled on it in felt-tip pen. The 4 Skins, The Slits, The Dead Kennedys. I find a silver Sony transistor radio in the front pocket. It seems oddly familiar. I switch it on. I fiddle around with the tuning dial and find a crackling cricket commentary. It doesn’t take long for me to realise I am now listening to a different match. One from a bygone era. This one has Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd batting. Ian Botham is bowling. This would make it England versus West Indies….. 1979? Megan looks around, disapprovingly.

I switch the radio off. I feel the sudden need to start a conversation with Megan. I have to find out what she feels might be going on. What is her take on this major lapse in logic and reason? Surely she is out of time in this 1970s railway carriage, the same as I am out of time. We both belong to 2019. The real world. Surely. Why are we so misplaced? Has Luna really had something to do with this ….. this shifting time? Sorcery? Magic? We are passing the Westbury White Horse. Should I tell Megan about the horse goddess, Rhiannon as an opener to show her I am not just a dissident punk? Not a spotty adolescent on an inappropriate train leering at her lovely long legs.

My youthful demeanour precludes much in the way of approaches to an attractive older woman. I cannot, for instance. say, ‘are you going all the way?’ This would be like saying, ‘are you up for it?’

I’m getting off at Swindon,’ she says, looking up from her laptop.

Oh,’ is all I can manage. Is she telepathic?

So. You will have the seat to yourself, all the way to Taunton.’

Thank you.’

Do you really like those bands, by the way?’

Which bands?’

The ones on your, what would you call it ….. rucksack?’

Well. I did. Once.’

But you’ve moved on.’

Given my appearance, I figure she is not going to believe me if I say I go to lunchtime concerts at St Martin in the Fields, listen mostly to chamber music and sing in the choir at St John the Baptist church. I settle for the less committal, ‘I guess so.’

I do like Nirvana,’ she says.

I cannot tell if she is winding me up. Is she aware of what is going on? Might she be in on it? Could this be a phenomenon that is more widespread? Something that’s happening all over? Like Mr Jones in the song Dad used to play, I certainly don’t know what it is.

Could you log on to some news sites,’ I say. ‘Huffington Post, …… BBC News, …… Google News. See if there’s anything there about temporal irregularities.’

Megan looks at a bit of a loss. These aren’t sites she visits often. She shrugs.

See if there’s anything trending on Twitter or Facebook perhaps.’

The train slows down. A hazy announcement comes over the loudspeaker, ‘the next station will be Swindon. Change here for ………..’

Megan starts to gather up her things and gets up to leave. ‘Look out for me in your dreams,’ she says, cryptically.

The train waits, the diesel engine idling. Being alone brings no clarity. It only serves to add to my confusion. My reason is so ravaged that my brain wants to shut down. A sinister tune plays in my head. Descending chords over and over as the sound of the diesel engine resonates. Change here for …… Change here …. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. ….. Change. The lights go out. It is dark. The blinds are all drawn. Why are all the blinds drawn? Have I descended into …. Descended into? Descending chords. Over and over. Dark. Dark. Dark. Change here for. …..

When the lights come on I find that time has shifted once more. I am no longer a fifteen year old punk. I am a British soldier in uniform. Royal Welch Fusiliers. With service ribbons. Bosnia. Srebrenica. Battle honours. All the stuff you take home on leave neatly packed. The carriage too has been through a transformation. It is cleaner, shinier, newer, the seats no longer torn. I look around. I have no fellow passengers. The couple with the corgi have gone. The old lady who was reading the murder mystery has gone. The man with the silver euphonium has gone. The barber’s shop quartet with the red striped jackets have gone. The carriage is empty. I make my way to the end of the carriage and lean my head out of the window to see what is going on. The platform too is completely deserted.

I decide I must get out to investigate, but just at this moment, I feel the familiar shudder of rolling stock as the train starts to move. I look at my new watch. Five past six. This one is not digital. It is analogue with a vengeance. With its many dials, it tells you the time all around the world. I take a seat and look out the window. I could pull the communication cord, but I don’t want to do this, at least not yet. Maybe there’s no need to panic. I recognise the buildings as we pull out of Swindon. They are the ones I have become familiar with. Perhaps the train is still headed for Taunton, even if everything else about the journey is wrong. I must go with the flow and see what happens.

Tickets Please!’ calls out a voice.

A wizened old man in a black uniform with some shiny bits and badges shuffles along the aisle. He is short and thin with little round glasses. He looks like Gandhi.

I ask him if I am on the right train. If I can establish this, the fine details of my misadventures can be worked out later. Along with some rational explanations. At home. On the internet. On the phone. You can get to the bottom of most things retrospectively. The important thing right now is to get home.

Yes, sir. The train is going to Taunton,’ says Gandhi. ‘Unfortunately, we are fifty eight minutes late due to an alien spacecraft on the line at Wootton Bassett. It has gone now though, so we should be able to make up some of the time.’

Alien spacecraft?’

Yes, sir. Just down the line at Wootton Bassett. Is that where you are from, sir?’

No. There’s an RAF base there, isn’t there?’

We get a lot of people for Wootton Bassett. It’s where they hold the funerals for the dead soldiers. But then you would know that wouldn’t you sir? Being in the army and all that.’

Yes. Yes, I suppose I would. Now. About this alien spacecraft.’

Yes, sir. We get a lot of those around here, too. Salisbury Plain, Stonehenge, Avebury, Warminster. They seem to like this part of the country.’

They probably navigate along the ley lines.’

Ley lines, sir?’

Ley lines apparently are mystical alignments which harness the earth’s magnetic fields. They work like a primitive GPS. Now tell me. Where did all the other passengers go?’

They all left the train at Swindon, sir.’

What’s going on at Swindon?’

Oh! Some TV cook is giving a talk there, I think, sir. I’d love to be able to stay and chat with you, sir, but I’ve got to get along the train. Could I see your ticket please?’

I search for his ticket, but I don’t seem to have one.

I realise you are in the army, sir, but travelling without a ticket is against the law and we cannot make exceptions. I’m going to have to charge you the full single fare plus a penalty which is the equivalent of the full single fare. That will be let me see. London to Taunton is it? Two hundred and eighty four pounds.’

I offer him a Visa card.

What am I supposed to do with this?’ he says. ‘In any case, it has expired.’

Excuse me,’ I say. ‘But could you tell me what year it is?’

You can pretend to be stupid if you wish, sir,’ says Gandhi, ‘But it won’t wash with me. I can issue you with an Unpaid Fare Notice if you like. But you will still have to pay it. Army or no army.’

Isambard Kingdom Brunel always had a sense of drama. His Great Western Railway from Paddington to Penzance is full of surprises. I know as soon as we enter the two mile long Box tunnel that something is bound to happen. It does. The lights go out once more. We are in darkness. As we emerge from the tunnel, I catch a whiff of patchouli. Luna is back. Not only that, somehow we are back on the original train. I am back in my city suit. I have my iPhone in my hand. I am logged in to the cricket live text. The match is in the final over. England are nine wickets down and the tail-enders only have to survive three more balls to save the match.

I might be back in present time, but Luna is cutting into normality like static on the airwaves. She is the radio interference from a rogue FM station on a stormy night.

I look around the carriage. All the other passengers are reading their papers, playing with their tablets or talking on their phones. One or two are looking out the window as the 16:06 from Paddington crosses the River Avon on its way to Bath. Each one of them seems confident in the authenticity of their worlds. There appears to be consensus among them that this is 2019. Luna is the stranger at the party. She is stuck in a 1969 mindset. Forget the magic tricks for now, 1969 is clearly her reality.

She starts to tell me more about going with the flow.

Going with the flow isn’t about being passive or being lazy,’ she says. ‘It’s not aimless wandering. The flow you are going with is the ocean of cosmic intelligence. Going with the flow is about wakeful trust and ……..’

The train is coming into Bath now. I decide to get off here to take a cab the rest of the way. I have made a note not to catch the 16:06 from Paddington in future. It’s a bad choice. It takes far too long. Too much time travelling.

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved

Little Dissing

littledissing

Little Dissing by Chris Green

Uncle Chet is planning to buy a house in the south-west of England. He wants to get out of the rat-race and retire to the country. I am in the area to look at what is available. Chet doesn’t like travelling these days. He says you lose the taste for it as you get older. Since my recent divorce, I find I relish every opportunity to get out and about. And because I have a wealth of experience in buying and selling property, Uncle Chet trusts my judgement to find him something suitable in this rural idyll. It is a bright June day and I am on my way to Bilk and Bilk Estate Agents in Little Dissing.

It’s started all over again,’ I hear someone shouting behind me. I turn around. A bearded man in a ragged raincoat is running down the road towards me. He is waving his arms madly and shouting over and over. ‘It’s happening again. It’s happening again.’

What is it that is happening? What is causing the old fellow such distress? By the looks of him, it could be he does not know what is happening either. He doesn’t look as if he knows the time of day. His hair is wild and he has that look of madness in his eyes. He runs on past me, still shouting excitedly. He does not give me so much a sideways glance. He is clearly on a mission.

I ask one or two of the people outside the Methodist Chapel if they know what is going on but they ignore me. So do the ones outside the Funeral Directors as the crazed old man runs back up the street. Perhaps you need to have lived in Little Dissing a few years before people feel the need to speak to you.

We get screwballs every day back home predicting the second coming, the end of the world or aliens landing. We get all sorts of unlikely claims. There was one the other day shouting out that fish were going to fall from the sky. But I live in a big metropolitan centre, this is a small community. You would not expect to find such people on the loose in a timeless, well-ordered English village like Little Dissing. There can’t be more than a few hundred living here and with its floral displays and its carefully manicured grass verges, it regularly features in the Good Village guide. It has literary connections too, John Betjeman was fond of the place. There’s a church with a twelfth-century granite font apparently. Agatha Christie used to have a house just down the road and T. S. Eliot was a frequent visitor to the village. Perhaps the crazy old man is considered part of the local colour out here in the sticks, someone who might entertain you by singing sea shanties to his sheep or babbling on about the rose garden and the door we never opened.

Inside Bilk and Bilk’s offices, the exquisitely named Lara Love takes down Uncle Chet’s details. I tell her Chet is looking for a period property with three or four bedrooms, a workshop and a bit of land to grow ornamental gourds. Particularly good soil in these parts for growing ornamental gourds, Lara says. We chat about the area in general and she fills me in with a little more of the history of the village. I learn that it was the centre of a Saxon royal estate and it is famous for its wassailing celebrations.

Lara maintains good eye contact, makes easy conversation and has a good sense of humour. And her attributes certainly do not end there.

By and by, I ask her about the old fellow.

Ah! You mean old Seth,’ she says. ‘Don’t mind him, Mr Bloke.’

Guy,’ I say. ‘Call me Guy.’

The old fellow’s nutty as a fruitcake, Guy. He’s what you might call of a conspiracy theorist, alien abductions, unreported nuclear accidents, time travel, you name it. You’ve probably gathered everyone thinks he’s looney-tunes.’

I thought as much,’ I say. ‘His behaviour did not cause much of a stir. I guess locals are used to it. Out of curiosity, Lara, what is it he thinks is happening again?’

He’s referring to something that happened a long time ago,’ Lara says. ‘Probably twenty years or more. Certainly before my time but apparently, several people from Little Dissing disappeared one after another without trace. The mystery was never solved. No-one in the village today seems to be able to remember any details. I only know about it through an antique dealer who came in to buy a house. Bit of a local historian, this fellow was. Don’t worry! There is no reason to suspect extraterrestrials landed and took them away or that there was an unreported nuclear accident at the power plant along the coast but old Seth won’t let it go.’

Time travel then,’ I say.

I think there’s a bit of a time warp around here if that’s what you mean,’ Lara says. ‘I expect you notice it coming from the big city. Anyway, to cut a long story short, there was a report in the Gazette last week that someone from the village is missing,’ Lara says. ‘This is what has set him off again.’

I see,’ I say. ‘Any thoughts on that?

Oh, you don’t want to get drawn into that,’ Lara says. ‘Let’s see if we can find a house for your Uncle Chet.’

We arrange two viewings, one at two o’clock and the other at three o’clock. I grab some lunch at The Gordon Bennett. In the hope of getting the lowdown on the area, I try to strike up conversations with the regulars but no-one seems forthcoming. None of them remember the disappearances. The landlord just wants to talk about the upcoming Nick Cave tour, although he does manage to slip in how much he enjoyed the recent Twin Peaks series. I’m beginning to get the impression that Little Dissing is protective about its secrets.

As I am leaving, I get a text from an unrecognised number. It says, ‘When catching a train, always check the timetables.’ Trains? Timetables? I have never been good at cryptic puzzles and more importantly, I have an appointment. It’s probably a wrong number anyway.

Lara drives me to the first house in her Audi. It is a four-bedroom period property with gardens, paddocks and outbuildings set in two acres. There are no near neighbours. Lara tells me it has been on the market for two years. She says she can see no obvious reason why this should be. Good houses are snapped up around here and at four hundred thousand, this one is competitively priced. If she were still with Greg, she says, they might consider buying it. She fills me in on her recent breakup in a light-hearted kind of way. I’m not sure I’m getting the whole story. The failure of her marriage can’t really be down to Greg taking selfies at the gym or his singing along to hits from the musicals in the car. From my own experience, where a separation is concerned it’s usually six of one and half a dozen of the other. I have to take some of the blame for Eve and I splitting up.

I have to admit though I am not especially upset that Lara is not still with Greg. I am quite smitten. She is an attractive woman in her mid-thirties with long dark hair and a winning smile. She seems more flirty than most of the estate agents I’ve come across. During the drive, she keeps flicking her hair back and gives me darting glances. She appears to deliberately be letting her skirt creep up her leg. I’m not sure how the conversation arrives at nightwear but evidently, she wears none. A shame really that it is not a longer drive. All too soon, we arrive at the competitively-priced property and it’s back to business.

When you are looking around a house, you can detect almost straight away when something seems wrong. While you can’t always put your finger on exactly what it is, you get a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a tingling sensation on your skin. The temperature might appear to drop by a few degrees or you might hear an unexplainable high-pitched background sound. Whatever it is that is wrong here, I know as soon as I step through the Georgian solid oak door into the panelled hallway, impressive though this is, that this house is a no-no. It’s not the layout. It’s not the décor. It’s nothing tangible. It’s not that it’s damp. It’s not that it’s dark. It’s not that it’s haunted. But, something makes me instantly feel uneasy about being there. An unexplainable malevolence lurking in the very fabric of the place. Something untimely has happened here. This is why no-one has put in an offer. Why hasn’t Lara been able to sense it? I guess it’s because she wants to sell the house to get her commission. So, it’s not really in her interests to point out any shortcomings. But still!

Was Lara making up the story about her wanting to buy it? Using her apparent interest in the property as a selling point? Perhaps, but I decide not to make a big thing out of it. How could I get mad at someone who looks so captivating? Instead, I quietly suggest we move on to the next house. This, she tells me is two miles away. She is sure I will like it. The views, she says, are awe-inspiring. You can see all the way across the valley and along the estuary. She says we ought to be able to get it for a little under the half a million asking price. Perhaps even four seven five.

As we make our way through the back lanes, the news comes on Sticks Radio that someone else has gone missing. Jarvis Heckler, a businessman in his forties from the tiny hamlet of Lympton Stoney. Mysterious circumstances, the newsreader says, giving no clue as to what these might be.

Lympton Stoney! Isn’t that near where we are going,’ I ask?

It IS where we are going,’ Lara says, noticeably traumatised.

I see from the particulars I am holding she is right. The house we are going to look at is in the heart of the beautiful village of Lympton Stoney.

We are greeted by a legion of police vehicles. An officer in military fatigues pulls us over, ask us to step out of the car and begins to interrogate us. Who are we? What are we doing here? Where have we come from? What business do we have in the village? When did we set out? He is not satisfied with our story that we are here to view a house. Paramilitary uniform aside, he is of the old school of policing. Guilty until proved otherwise. We are here so we must in some way be involved with Jarvis Heckler’s disappearance. He orders his men to search Lara’s Audi. Does he expect to find a body in the boot? One of his officers gets me to empty my pockets. He takes more than a passing interest in my iPhone. Hasn’t he seen one like this before? He quizzes me about the recent text message. He is far from happy with my explanation or lack of. None of them seem prepared to answer our questions so we are no wiser as to exactly what might or might not have taken place. All we know is what we heard on the news report. Presumably, Jarvis Heckler has not just gone off on a business jolly to the continent or stepped out for a lunchtime pint at The Time Gentlemen Please with his hedge fund mates.

They finally give us the all clear to get on with our viewing but my heart is no longer in it. Lara can sense my disappointment with our progress. She reassures me that Bilk and Bilk have plenty of other properties in the area. She asks me if I am planning to stick around. If I am and I have nothing lined up for the evening, she wonders if we could have dinner at a nice little place she knows in Bishops Tump. This is an offer I can’t refuse.

If you come back to the office, I can lock up and we can go in convoy to my place and take it from there,’ Lara says. ‘We can have a glass of wine then before we set off for the evening.’

While Lara is taking a shower, I open up Google on my laptop to do some research into the events in Little Dissing twenty years ago, the events that Lara says no-one in the village can remember. I find a report from the Daily Lark from July 1996 with the headline, Little Dissing – Twinned with Area 51? The Lark is at best a dubious source, recognised these days as a trailblazer in fake news. So I take it with a pinch of salt. But it suggests the mystery surrounding the village was something people would have been talking about back then. I come across various photos of unusual cloud formations and strange spiral patterns in the heavens allegedly taken near the village. Vortexes like you might find in a tornado. But these are just pictures and easy enough to fake. There are one or two mentions of Warminster, the favourite location for UFO sightings. Same old, really. Then, I find a report from the Western Post which links the dates of the disappearances (a dozen in all) with the sudden closure of a classified establishment at Ramsden Hole in 1996. Why is it this escaped attention at the time? I see that Ramsden Hole is less than twenty miles from Little Dissing. I entertain the possibility the base did not in fact close but merely became more secret.

After half an hour, I can’t help but notice Lara has not returned from freshening up. This is even longer even than Eve used to spend in the bathroom. Might she be waiting for me in bed? Did I miss something in our conversation? Something perhaps about my joining her after her shower? I can’t imagine that I would have missed something as important as this but, if it is the case, the research can wait.

Ready or not,’ I call upstairs. There is no reply.

The bathroom does not look as if it has even been used. I look around each of the bedrooms. There is no sign of Lara. And she is not downstairs where I have come from. She cannot possibly have slipped out without me noticing. Could she? I just don’t know anymore. Boundaries have been crossed here. I call out her name over and over. Clutching at straws, I look in the wardrobe and the cupboards in case she is playing some kind of game. Not likely that she would be, but still. And, of course, she isn’t. She has vanished without trace. I try the mobile number she gave me but there is no reply. I look out the window. Her car is no longer there. And ……. It’s snowing.

Panicked, I go back to my laptop. It is now displaying today’s weather forecast. January 18th. What the …….? Is it past, I wonder, or is it future.’

Suddenly, a man dressed in a bright coloured hoodie and training pants carrying a sports bag appears through the front door, a living advert for flashy leisurewear. He is whistling The Winner Takes It All.

Lara!’ he calls out.

He spots me.

Who the fuck are you?’ he shouts.

I ask him who he is.

Who am I?’ he repeats. ‘Greg! That’s who I am! I live here, pal. ………. Where’s that slut of a wife?’

You mean Lara?’

Yes, Lara. Don’t think that you are the first, buddy.’

You don’t understand,’ I say. ‘I think Lara has disappeared.’

Just get the hell out of here,’ Greg screams. ‘Before I ……’

He looks as if he means business. I grab my laptop and make a hasty exit.

I think I’ll persuade Uncle Chet to look for houses in a different part of the country. At his time of life, he needs a little more temporal certainty.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Call Wyatt On The Western Front

callwyattonthewesternfront2

Call Wyatt On The Western Front by Chris Green

Penny hits the button on the bedside clock. 4:33 AM. We’re hardly going to get up and answer the door at this unearthly hour, she thinks. No matter what is going on. She tries to drift back off but again the doorbell rings. She turns over to give Matt a nudge. But, he’s not there. Then she remembers. Matt is away at a Scriggler conference. Matt is a writer. You may have read him. Matt Black. Mystery stories. A little like Stephen King. Love him she might but if Penny is honest, perhaps not as good as Stephen King. Maybe that’s Matt at the door now, she thinks, having returned unexpectedly for some mysterious reason. Perhaps he has lost his keys again and is locked out. But surely, if this were the case, he would phone her. The doorbell rings yet again. The Mozart tune was a novelty when they first fitted the thing but now she finds it irritating.

She checks the clock again. 4:35. She wasn’t imagining it, it really is that early. Whatever the commotion is about, she thinks, it’s not going to be good, is it? She doesn’t like being alone in the house in the early hours at the best of times. Why does Matt need to go away so often? Perhaps it might have been different if they had had children. Even though it’s not her fault, does he still blame her? He seems to find any excuse to be out of the house these days. It should be Matt answering the door, when it’s dark. It’s a man’s job.

The tune starts up again. Her heart is thumping. Her mouth is dry. She braces herself. She takes a look out the bedroom window. It is still dark. The streetlight in front of their row of suburban villas has been out for several days so she can see very little. She pulls on her dressing gown and makes her way down the stairs. She peers through the spyglass in the front door. She can’t see anyone. Gingerly, she eases the door open. She takes off the security chain. Still she can see no-one but her attention is drawn to the package on the front doorstep. She picks it up and examines it. It is addressed to her, Penny Black. But, there is no indication who it might be from. It is square, well, cubic. Matt is always correcting her on her use of simple mathematical terms. A circle and a sphere and all that. The parcel is about ten inches, each way. Retro wrapping, brown paper, string, sealing wax. She tries to remember what she might have ordered from Etsy or Amazon recently. Something perhaps that might warrant period packaging. Whatever it is, why in God’s name, she wonders, has a courier delivered it at this time of the morning?

Suddenly, standing there in front of her is a man in a military uniform. She nearly jumps out of her skin. The soldier is standing just three or four feet ahead of her on the garden path. He can’t have appeared out of thin air. Was he there just now, when she first opened the door, she wonders? Lurking in the shadows of next door’s zelkova tree, maybe? Penny doesn’t know much about soldiering but she knows this is an old type of military uniform, First World War perhaps. He looks like someone from The Passing Bells that she watched recently. He looks as if he is trying to say something. His mouth his moving but she can’t hear what he is saying. The silence echoes. He is a ghostly presence, his figure almost transparent. She is terrified. This is the stuff of nightmares, the kind of thing that should stay in the netherworld where it belongs. Not sure what to do, she ducks back into the relative safety of the house. From round the front door, transfixed, she keeps the spooky soldier in her gaze. Then, before her eyes, his form disappears, bit by bit, like a digital picture breaking up when the Wi-Fi signal drops.

………………………………………

Matt is surprised to get her call or perhaps he is just alarmed that Penny is hollering down the phone at him.

‘What … t’time is it?’ he stammers.

Penny hollers down the phone some more.

‘I can’t make any sense of what you are saying,’ he says. ‘Slow down, will you?’

He’s probably had a late night. These mystery writers’ conference booze-ups can go on until the early hours.

‘There was a soldier at the door in one of those khaki uniforms,’ Penny says, more slowly. ‘You know. The ones with lots of buttons and epaulettes.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ he says. ‘I’m getting something about an old soldier at the door.’

‘Yes, Matt,’ she says. ‘A soldier. First World War. Dressed like the ones in Birdsong.’

‘Are you sure? What would a soldier in First World War uniform be doing at the door?’ he says.

‘Well! He was, Matt’

‘He didn’t have a gun, did he?’

‘I can’t remember if he had a gun,’ she says. ‘But he was scary, Matt. Like something out of a horror film.’

‘Where is he now?’

‘He’s gone. He disappeared just like that. You know, like when the TV goes funny. Pixelates. Is that the word I’m looking for?’

‘What the blazes are you talking about?’ he says.

‘And he brought a parcel,’ she says. ‘It was wrapped up in brown paper and string.’

‘A parcel?’ he says. ‘What was in the parcel?’

She realises that in her panic she never got around to actually opening the parcel. She put it down somewhere and got on the phone to Matt. She goes and searches for it in the hallway by the front door and on the path outside but it is nowhere to be seen.

‘Are you still there?’ says Matt.

‘I can’t find the parcel now,’ she says. ‘It’s gone.’

‘Are you all right?’ he asks. ‘Look! Stay put. I’m going to come back right now. I’ll be an hour or so.’

………………………………………

Penny can’t explain why she goes back to bed because there’s no chance that she will be able to sleep after an experience like she’s had. But, remarkably, she does. For five hours. When she wakes, it is 9:45. But, there is no sign of Matt. She realises the rush hour traffic can be bad, especially since they built the relief road to supposedly improve traffic flow, but he should have arrived by now. The conference centre is less than fifty miles away. She tries his mobile. He has a hands-free in the SUV. He should be able to answer.

‘The number you have dialled has not been recognised,’ says the message. Perhaps there is something wrong with the auto-dial. She keys the number in this time. Same message. Her sense of unease returns and when, moments later, she hears the doorbell, this becomes full-scale panic. She trembles with fear. She just knows it’s going to be bad. Perhaps it’s another spectral revenant or maybe it’s someone come to tell her that Matt has been killed in an accident at that notorious roundabout.

With trepidation, she opens the door and there is her neighbour, Lacey Tattler, clutching the brown paper parcel from earlier.

‘Are you OK, Penny?’ says Lacey. ‘You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.’

‘No. It’s all right,’ says Penny. ‘It’s just, er just that I wasn’t expecting you.’

‘No need to be like that,’ says Lacey. ‘Anyway, I found this by the hedge at the front. It’s addressed to you.’

‘You didn’t ….. you didn’t see who delivered it, did you, Lacey?’ she says.

‘No, I didn’t. I don’t know why it was left there,’ says Lacey. ‘I did try calling round earlier, but you didn’t answer.’

Penny is not sure how to play this. She doesn’t want to give too much away. She doesn’t want Lacey thinking she’s losing her marbles. It will be all around the neighbourhood in no time. Bilberry Avenue is a close-knit community.

‘I must have dropped off,’ she says. ‘I didn’t sleep too well last night.’

‘Oh dear! Is something wrong?’ says Lacey, fishing. She has probably noticed that Matt’s car has not been around for a couple of nights. ‘Anything I can do?’

A horse-drawn Red Cross ambulance like the ones in Parade’s End comes along. Its livery bears the scars of battle. The horses look to be on their last legs and the driver looks shell-shocked and exhausted. A rational explanation is difficult to conjure up. This appears to be a moving, three-dimensional image, not a projection. It really is a horse-drawn ambulance complete with the cippety-clop rhythm of hoofs along the street. As the ambulance trundles past, it flickers disturbingly from full colour to monochrome and back again. Penny is petrified. She waits for Lacey to comment but astonishingly she does not seem to have noticed it. Not for the first time today, Penny begins to doubt her sanity.

The anomalies are mounting up. She feels she’s too old to be imagining things that aren’t really there and too young to be doolally. She’s forty three years old, for God’s sake. Something apocalyptic is happening here. Why is she thinking that the Red Cross ambulance might be taking Matt to hospital after an imagined accident on the Western Front? That can’t be right. After an accident at the magic roundabout, perhaps? This is still absurd. But, where has Matt got to? She needs him here. She can’t make sense of this new world with its random strangeness alone. Being a writer, Matt might be able to shed some light on what is happening.

Lacey is going on again about the parcel like there is nothing wrong with the universe. Penny thinks she wants her to open it so she can see what’s inside. She’s afraid to open it. She’s afraid of everything that is happening around her. Why can’t Lacey see that there has been a colossal slippage in reality? She no longer cares what Lacey thinks of her, there are more important things to attend to. She gives her a summary thankyou and although she just wants to throw the confounded package as far as she can away from her, instead she takes it inside.

………………………………………

Penny is fearful of what might be inside the parcel. She turns it over and over in her hands. It seems inconceivably light. She has a sense of dark foreboding. But, she must open it. It has to be done. There’s no backing out now.

She has never opened a package sealed with red wax before. Instead of breaking the seal, she cuts through the coarse string with kitchen scissors and gradually unfolds the brown paper wrapping. Inside is a tightly sealed cardboard box. She manages to prise it open. It appears to be completely empty but she has the uneasy feeling that something is escaping, something ethereal. She is not normally susceptible to such mumbo jumbo but she can sense the atmosphere in the room begin to change. At first, she tries to tell herself that after everything that has happened, she is on heightened alert for weird. But, she definitely does feel something, a presence if you like. Someone or something is with her in the room. Something threatening and hostile. Not so much a physical presence perhaps, but something in the air. She finds it difficult to breathe. She’s burning up. She feels ……. faint.

………………………………………

‘Sergeant Wyatt on the front desk at Western Street police station took a call from the neighbour at 10:17, Sir,’ says P. C. Watson, reading from his notes. Watson is new to policing and is anxious to make an impression. ‘One Lacey Tattler. She felt something strange was going on. Sergeant Wyatt sent a patrol round but there was no response when they called at the premises. An entry team was subsequently sent round but Penelope Black was already dead by the time they gained access. That was at 11:19. The body was taken away at ……’

‘Thankyou for the history lesson, er, Watson,’ says the world-weary Detective Inspector Holmes. ‘Watson? Is that really your name?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ says Watson.

‘I see. Well, lad. I am aware of the details,’ says Holmes.

‘Sorry, Sir. I was just asked to stay on the scene and bring you up to speed when you arrived.’

‘Well, Watson. Things have moved on a little since then. Our crime scene people handed the forensics over to the M.O.D. I’ve just been talking to a fellow there. Brigadier something or other. Mustard gas, he reckons.’

‘Isn’t that what they used in the trenches in the First World War, Sir?’

‘Yes, that’s right, Constable. Deadly stuff, mustard gas. Killed thousands. The curious thing is, lad, Mrs Black’s husband, Matthew was found dead in his car, just up the road. The same thing. Mustard gas. In case you want to make a note that was at 12:39.’

‘That is a bit weird, Sir. …….. Look! I was nosing around the house a bit before you got here and I couldn’t help noticing all these boxed sets they’ve got. Parades End, Birdsong, Gallipoli, The Crimson Field, Our World War, The Passing Bells.

‘And?’

‘They are all First World War TV dramas.’

‘Ah yes, I see, Constable. Good thinking.’

‘Do you think there might be a connection, Sir?’

You mean, Those who use the sword shall die by the sword.’

‘No swords here,’ says Watson, looking confused.

‘It’s from the Bible, Watson. Jesus said it. When Peter cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear. I was using the expression metaphorically.’

‘Meta what, Sir?’

© Chris Green 2016: All rights reserved