Another Time and Place

anothertimeandplace

Another Time and Place by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something like that,’ Saga says.

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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Hunky Dory

hunkydory

Hunky Dory by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I like this one,’ Ed says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normality, you mean,’ Ed says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get out of here,’ Suzy says.

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

On The Origin Of On The Origin Of Species

darwinpic

On The Origin Of On The Origin Of Species by Chris Green

The port of Falmouth in Cornwall boasts a rich maritime history. It has all the right features for seafaring. The River Fal has a wide estuary and Falmouth has the deepest natural harbour in Europe. It was turned from a sleepy little village where Cornish fishermen brought home their catch into the information hub of the British Empire when in 1688 the Royal Mail made Falmouth its appointed packet station. Falmouth is latterly notable for being frequent host to the Tall Ships Race and being the start or finish point of various round-the-world record-breaking voyages. The comings and goings of famous vessels have over the years put Falmouth well and truly on the maritime map. Perhaps the most celebrated visitor to Falmouth, however, was HMS Beagle on which Darwin sailed to conduct the research that would result in On The Origin Of Species.

Starting with Sir Garfield Thunder in the mid-nineteenth century, the Thunder family made their money by exploiting Falmouth’s Darwin connection. Although this particular commerce has less importance today, earlier generations of Thunders missed no opportunity to tell the world about Darwin, drawing the public’s attention to the great man’s relationship to Falmouth. Most of what you read about Charles Darwin today is the legacy of the Thunder family’s persistence. Had it not been for the myth started by Sir Garfield Thunder, Darwin might have been just another research botanist spending long hours bent over a microscope trying to put bread on the table for a growing family.

The mystery that is about to shake the very foundations of the scientific world begins one Saturday during a powercut in the middle of an unseasonal snow storm. Falmouth enjoys a temperate micro-climate and does not get a lot of this type of weather. The storm cuts through power lines. The lights in Amberleigh, the plush suburban villa where Kimberley Thunder lives and works as a psychologist, go out. Her live-in partner, debonair private detective, Ben Archer is out on a case. Kimberley, finding no candles in the obvious places, goes down to the cellar where she thinks she might find some. She has not been down here often. Attractive, well-groomed, well-to-do young ladies like Kimberley do not find themselves poking about in cellars.

In her search, she comes across a dusty old cardboard box full of her great great great great grandfather’s tattered journals. At first, she doesn’t realise what she has found, but Sir Garfield’s gilded monogram stares up at her from one of the covers. Her interest piqued, she takes them upstairs and dusts them off. There are half a dozen of them, each morocco-bound with peeling gold leaf around the edges of the pages. Later that evening, with the electricity back on, she pulls one out and begins reading. The journal covers the year 1837. HMS Beagle has set off from Falmouth on what we think of today as The Third Voyage. Reports about the voyage jotted in Sir Garfield’s cursive handwriting begin with excitement and optimism, but as she turns the pages, the entries become graver and graver. By July, he acknowledges that the Beagle must have sunk. He does not specify the origin of his information but there are several mentions of Sidney Morse, the inventor of the telegraph.

It appears Sir Garfield is a close friend and confidant of Darwin. He is heavily invested in his friend’s mission. He reveals in the journal that Darwin has left most of the notebooks from his experiences during The Second Voyage in his possession. Pages and pages of the Sir Garfield’s journal are taken up explaining the discoveries. Sir Garfield has spoken to others in the field and feels that Darwin might be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. It is worth noting that in 1837 Darwin has not himself formulated the theory of natural selection. At this stage, it is not on his radar that organisms which adapt to their environment tend to survive longer and produce more offspring and this, in turn, becomes the driver for evolution. He is just recording information. He admits that some of the data is unexpected and confusing but this is as far as he takes it. Although he himself does not completely understand what he is doing, Sir Garfield Thunder somehow manages to join up all the dots and comes up with the idea of natural selection that will turn our understanding of life the universe and everything upside down.

Kimberley is dumbfounded. She doesn’t know what to think. If the journal is to be believed, her family’s fortune and perhaps worse, its reputation are built on shameful lies. She shares her concern with Ben when he arrives home and asks him to do some digging, find out what he can from historical records. She feels his detection skills will be invaluable in this situation. What is actually on the public record for the time? What stories were in the newspapers in 1837 that might either substantiate or discredit Sir Garfield’s account?

The following day, with mixed feelings, Kimberley carries on reading. In the second volume, Sir Garfield ponders what to do about the discoveries. He has not yet shared them with anyone. It appears too that no-one else has found out about the Beagle. Days pass and there is no word. There is no explanation for this. It is one of those remarkable episodes in history that lack rhyme or reason. It leaves him in possession of a dangerous secret. He is afraid. With great knowledge comes great responsibility. As he sees it, he has two choices. He can come clean and reveal that the Beagle has gone under and that Darwin is dead. He could then publish what he has from Darwin’s notebooks. Or he can embellish the account and make a lot of money. After some soul-searching, he chooses the latter, writing it up as The Voyage of the Beagle. This is a teaser. It only hints at what is to come.

Ben comes up with accounts in The Times and The Manchester Guardian of the sailing of HMS Beagle in 1837 and there are occasional snippets about its progress but these are short on detail. There is not much news after the sailing. The newspaper strike of 1838, which goes on for months, means that there are no reports for this period in Britain, although the St Ives Examiner which somehow escapes the strike action carries one or two letters about Darwin and The Beagle, but none which has any concrete information. The closest Ben comes to a result is a report in Sydney Morning Herald which has the headline ‘WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE BEAGLE?’ In the report, there are suggestions that it has gone aground on the east coast of Australia, although these are not substantiated and for some reason not followed up. Needless to say, Ben can find no trace of Darwin’s notebooks from either before or after the sailing. These, where they existed, have gone missing.

‘Nothing to go on really is there,’ says Kimberley.

‘There is something that’s not quite right, though,’ says Ben. ‘I wonder if there really was a newspaper strike in 1838.’

‘Twelve months does seem a long period, especially before trade unions,’ says Kimberley.

‘Those letters in the St Ives Examiner are by someone called Eloy DeJesus. He is not a fan by all accounts. He is also mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald report. If the Beagle was in fact sunk, I wonder if Mr DeJesus had something to do with it.’

‘Who is this Eloy deJesus?’ asks Kimberley.

‘Creationist zealot. Fire and brimstone stuff,’ Ben says. ‘This fellow really does not like what he believes Charles Darwin and others of his ilk are trying to do.’

‘Two thousand years of routine supernatural belief to protect,’ says Kimberley. ‘He was probably not alone.’

In the third volume of the journal Sir Garfield moves the story on. He sees another opportunity. He begins to write reports of Darwin’s discoveries from the new trip. He expresses some reservations about his deceit but he justifies this as a measure for the greater good. Too long people have been fooled into believing that they were created by a divine being and put on this earth to carry out his will. Sir Garfield briefly toys with the idea that he could perhaps pass the new and completely fabricated, discoveries off as his own, but he has never been on a boat, far less sailed in all winds and weathers to the far reaches of the globe. He dismisses the idea. This leaves him with just as large a problem. How long can he fool the scientific community into thinking that HMS Beagle is still on its mission and Charles Darwin still alive? Somehow, through a series of letters to publications of the day, the ones presumably that Eloy does not have an interest in, he manages to keep the Darwin myth alive. Arguably this is a bigger achievement than the publication of The Voyage of the Beagle. It buys him time to write On The Origin of Species which is by his own admission in the journal a complete work of fiction. There were no barnacles, there were no finches and there were no pigeons. His rival, Alfred Russel Wallace, at least, has his beetles and tree frogs to evidence his own findings on natural selection.

‘Someone else would have come up with the idea, wouldn’t they,’ says Kimberley. ‘Sooner or later.’ She is perhaps trying to justify Sir Garfield’s actions. She wonders how much Sir Vivian Thunder, Sir George Thunder, Harold Thunder, Harold Thunder Junior or even her father Roger Thunder might have known about the great deception. She suspects that while the earlier generations of Thunders must have known, the latter-day Thunders might have had an inkling but turned a blind eye. The irony that both her parents died of a rare blood disease three years ago while on The Galapagos visiting The Darwin Institute is not lost on her. She was just twenty-six when they died.

‘From what I’ve been able to discover there were huge barriers in the way that stopped Darwin, I mean your great-great-great-great grandfather from publishing,’ says Ben. ‘One of these was Eloy DeJesus. It seems he was a very powerful man at the time.’

‘What’s puzzling me is that the world believes that Darwin lived to be an old man. I’ve seen photos of him with his long white beard,’ says Kimberley.

‘That’s puzzling me too,’ says Ben. ‘Perhaps Sir Garfield was a master of disguise.’

The fourth and fifth journals concern themselves with Sir Garfield’s prolonged battle with Eloy DeJesus to get On Origin of Species published. Eloy, it seems owns nearly all of the existing publishing houses and is a major shareholder in the newspaper chains of the day. Sir Garfield paints him as a formidable adversary. His jottings release bursts of invective unimaginable in a Victorian gentleman’s journal, as he rallies against this fervent creationist defender. God created everything and nothing that was created can be changed, is Eloy’s view. Every organism is in its fixed place as determined by God. Flexing his political muscle he seems to have held back the publication of On the Origin of Species for over ten years.

You would expect Eloy DeJesus to be remembered, perhaps not as a great Victorian, but for the vigour and determination of his creationist stance. His name, however, seems to have almost disappeared from the records. There are copious references to him in Sir Garfield’s journal, but apart from these Kimberley and Ben are able to find few references to the man elsewhere. The journals portray him as a man of influence second only to Sir Robert Peel or The Duke of Wellington. Why, they wonder, is Eloy DeJesus not a household name in the way that they are? How, has history so comprehensibly failed to recall such a powerful man. Could the impetus of Sir Garfield’s theory of natural selection have been so powerful that no one, not even the church cared to remember the ultimate failure Eloy’s campaign? Perhaps it became no longer sexy in the age of invention discovery to think of a wrathful bearded figure letting there be light.

Kimberley and Ben read the final volume of the journal together. It is in a more delicate state than the other volumes and some of the pages are falling apart. On the Origin of Species has just been published and the world is crying out for Darwin to appear to promote the work. Important people are heralding the sea change. Sir Garfield, at this stage, sees himself as a hero for shedding two thousand years of dogma for humankind. Once again he has two choices. He can come clean and say that he has made it all up, or he can, albeit in a limited way, pass himself off as Charles Darwin. The pages of the journal have become almost impossible to read now. They have been too badly damaged by water. It is only possible to make out the odd word.

‘Daguerre,’ reads Ben. ‘He mentions him a lot. Pioneer of photography. Must have been a friend of Sir Garfield’s. The word photography was first coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839, so that would be about right.’

‘I think that word is impersonate,’ says Kimberley.

‘I think you’re right,’ says Ben. Does that say beard? In all the photos we have seen of Darwin, he has this long grey beard.’

‘The photos are all very similar,’ says Kimberley. She has Google Images open on her tablet and is scrolling through them. ‘And – Now you come to mention it they do bear a startling resemblance to the portrait of Sir Garfield that used to be hung on the wall in the library. I haven’t actually seen a photo of him.’

‘Which is strange if he was a friend of Daguerre,’ remarks Ben.

Kimberley is on the Wikipedia entry for Charles Darwin now.

‘It’s a little difficult to explain Darwin’s nine surviving children, all born after Sir Garfield suggests that Charles disappeared,’ she says.

‘Quite,’ says Ben. ‘But perhaps you’ve hit the nail on the head. Emma must have been in on the collusion. These were hard times. Emma was probably struggling to keep a roof over her head and Sir Garfield may have supported her.’

‘But how far might he have supported her. Are you saying that these nine children would have been step-great-great-great-great aunts and uncles,’ says Kimberley. She extrapolates the information in her head. Sir Vivian Thunder, apart from his sisters Constance and Maud, would have had nine stepbrothers and sisters, and George Thunder would have had an unthinkable number of once removed relatives. She herself would probably have distant relatives in every town.

For the next few days, Ben tries to find records of Darwin’s public appearances. He visits the British Library, The National Archives, The Westminster Reference Library and the Bodleian Library, but finds he is wasting his time. Darwin apparently didn’t like speaking in public. Little is on the record of any engagements. He is famously reclusive. There seem to be just two photos of him in later life, one of him with his bald head and long grey mutton-chop sideburns and another with a long grey beard. These are used over and over again. Both of them are grainy. In the latter years, there are no reports of him at all. This is at the same time that On the Origin of Species is being translated into dozens of different languages.

Ben visits Kent, but even in Downe, Darwin’s hometown, it appears he doesn’t get out much. Everyone Ben speaks to in the village is very guarded. It feels as if there is a guilty secret that the whole village has agreed not to talk about. Darwin’s house has heavy security around it. It is closed to all comers. He reports back to Kimberley. Her Google research echoes his findings. The Darwin narrative is shrouded in mystery. No-one has ever discovered how or where HMS Beagle may have gone down. But she discovers this is not in itself unusual. Thousands of ships have disappeared without a trace, if many of them not so famous as the Beagle.

Kimberley Thunder is waiting in the BBC studio. She is about to be interviewed by historian, Geoffrey Frobisher. She is going to set the record straight. She is about to rock the foundations of accepted historical understanding. She is nervous about how her bombshell will be received. Victorian history, with Britain in her ascendency is a stronghold of certainty. Great men from every county are making their mark in all fields. In the results of Great Britons poll to be broadcast next month, Darwin has been voted Number Two, behind Churchill, but ahead of Brunel and Shakespeare. People may not be ready to accept his new status as a run of the mill botanist who gets lost at sea. To add to this, there is her family’s upstanding reputation to be considered. Why is she doing it, she wonders as she sits under the studio lights. She is taking a big risk. There is a lot at stake. The outcome depends on what spin the media put on the revelation. Just in case things go badly, she and Ben have booked a passage to Tuvalu. They have a year’s lease on a modest villa in Funafuti. Trelawney and Bilk have instructions for the sale of Amberleigh, should she decide to sell.

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

Blackjack

blackjack

Blackjack by Chris Green

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

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

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

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

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

‘Why is it so light?’

‘Let’s find out.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Darius Spayne,’ the caller says, undeterred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘That’s S P A Y N E,’ I say.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But how…….?’

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

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

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

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

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

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

SNAKE IN THE GLASS

­snakeinthegrass

­SNAKE IN THE GLASS by Chris Green

Later

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Eighty six,’ Darius says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Who?’ Sol says.

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

‘No. Can’t say I have,’ Sol says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘It’s dark outside too,’ Shaldon Rain says. ‘So dark, I can’t see outside. Not even the window. It’s pitch black.’

‘I can’t even see you, Darius,’ Sol says.

‘I hope Boss gets here soon,’ Darius says.

‘But the police probably won’t be able to to see anything either,’ Sol says. ‘There’ll be bullets everywhere.’

Earlier

I don’t know how I come to find myself in Barton Stoney. I am on my way to see the film director, Leif Velasquez in Gifford Wells, twenty or so miles south of here. Leif wants to make a film of my story, Time and Tide Wait for Norman. In trying to avoid the race traffic on the ring road around Barton Stoney, I suppose I must have taken a wrong turn. There appear to be no road signs in the town and the one-way system is unfathomable. I keep going round in circles. To make matters worse, there is a madman in a big silver muscle car speeding through the streets and doing dangerous handbrake turns. No-one seems to be taking any notice of him. Where are the police when you want them?

I park the car and put my head around the door of a pub called The King William to ask for directions out of town. What a place! It’s bedlam. Everyone in here appears to be possessed. Or at least very, very drunk for this time of day. A woman in a brightly coloured dress and shocks of flyaway red hair starts banging on about Shangri La. A mythical valley of great bounty in Tibet, I recall, a metaphor for the perfect way of life, satirised in a song by The Kinks. I can’t make out the connection with anything that might be happening in The King William. A man brandishing a club of some kind grabs hold of me and starts raving about some terrible occurrence that took place here years ago. As if I might care. I can’t understand what he is trying to tell me anyway. He waves his arms about madly and says the police are on their way. He doesn’t say why. Is he the landlord? I don’t know.

There are about a dozen more revellers in here, all mad as hatters, it seems, or at least drunk as lords. Are the police coming to arrest them for affray? Is that what all this is about? Maybe they are going to arrest the crazy driver. Perhaps he has a history of terrorising the town during race meetings. It’s impossible to get any sense out of these people. They are all clearly three sheets to the wind.

As a writer of fiction, I’m constantly on the lookout for new material for a story. It occurs to me that there might just be something for me here. Let’s start by giving these people names. I’ll call the pale-skinned woman with the neck tattoos, Shaldon Rain. I’ve had that one kicking around waiting for a character for some time. She looks to me very much like she might be a flugelhorn player with an experimental jazz band. I have an instinct for these things. The stocky one with the lank hair and the big nose looks he might be Jewish. He can be Reuben. No, what about Sol? Sol Reiter. This would make the one he’s arguing with, Darius Goy. That’s been in the locker for a while. Darius looks like a Captain Beefheart fan if ever I saw one. The one with the white stick can be Pearson Ranger. This is the name of an estate agent’s I took down a while back when I was looking to move house. Informality is important in my writing. The King William can become The King Billy. I think I’d like to make more of the mad driver. He needs to be more sinister. He is responsible perhaps for an unexplained phenomenon that affects the whole town. A title for the story is going to be more difficult and how should I brand it? Chris Green or Philip C. Dark? Both these matters will need some thought. Nothing obvious comes to mind for a title without giving the game away. I may have to just come up with a short random phrase. The Art of the Matter? Bridge of Clocks? Detectives in Summer? How about ……. Snake in the Glass?

I can hear police sirens. I think it’s time to make my exit.

Later

‘We’ve been up to the old house with the crow-stepped gables on Obsidian Street, Mr Goy,’ Inspector Boss says. ‘And we’ve spoken to your muscle car fellow. He’s called Velasquez by the way and he’s from California. It turns out he has bought the place to turn it into an independent film studio.’

‘He says he came across Barton Stoney several years ago,’ Boss’s sidekick, Jagger says. ‘He was second director then for a movie called, Silent Witness. An apocalyptic thriller. Some of you may have seen it. It was about a town very much like this one where everything suddenly went quiet.’

‘Some of you may even have been in it,’ Boss says. ‘Velasquez says he hired some locals as extras. That crazy old man in the other big house was in it. The one who keeps predicting the end of the world.’

‘Nicholas Ell?’ Darius Goy says. ‘But he doesn’t go out, Inspector.’

‘This must have been before he became a hermit, Mr Goy,’ Boss says. ‘I haven’t personally seen the film but apparently Nick Ell had quite a big part.’

‘Velasquez already has a house in Gifford Wells,’ Jagger says. ‘So, he’s practically a local. I don’t think he will be any bother, Mr Goy.’

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved

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

THE TWO OF US

thetwoofus

The Two of Us by Chris Green

‘There are no stars out tonight,’ Cindy says. ‘Why are there no stars, Matt?’

‘You don’t get stars every night,’ I say. ‘Perhaps there will be some tomorrow.’

‘But, it has been a clear day,’ Cindy says. ‘There should be stars after a clear day.’

‘That’s true,’ I say.

‘So what do you think is happening?’ Cindy says.

‘I don’t know,’ I say. ‘But I wonder if it has something to do with that explosion earlier.’

‘What do you mean?’ Cindy says.

‘We’ve always been taught to believe that the stars are, you know, out there in space,’ I say. ‘But what if it isn’t so? Lots of things that we are told turn out to be wrong, don’t they? We were told there was a bearded fellow in the sky who would get angry and punish us if we weren’t good. But no-one ever saw him. We were told there was a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. But no one ever found it. We were told that computers would give us hours and hours of free time and lead to a paperless office. But, we are still waiting on both counts. So, you can’t believe everything you see or hear. How do we know the stars are really there?’

‘You mean the night sky could be an illusion to fool us into thinking that the universe is bigger than it is,’ Cindy says.

‘Or perhaps to fool us into thinking that the universe exists at all,’ I say. ‘The universe could be a colossal projection.’

‘But what about the moon?’ Cindy says. ‘I can see the moon. The moon is still there.’

‘Difficult to say,’ I say. ‘Perhaps the moon is not part of the night sky projection.’

‘What do you imagine caused the explosion, anyhow?’ Cindy says.

‘It could be terrorist activity. I know we don’t hear a lot about it now but it might still be happening,’ I say.

‘Or it might be some kind of accident,’ Cindy says.

‘We will probably never know what caused it,’ I say. ‘I expect vested interests will want to keep it secret.’

‘But we might get the stars back one day if they repair the damage to the universe projection,’ Cindy says.

‘Could be,’ I say. ‘Who knows?’

‘There are a lot of uncertainties, aren’t there?’ Cindy says.

‘Shall we just enjoy the moonlight,’ I say.

Cindy and I decide to go about our lives as we normally would. Even if we don’t discover why the stars have gone, they will hopefully be back one day. Meanwhile, we still have the moon. And after all, it is in the nature of things to disappear from time to time. We ought to be used to this. It does not necessarily mean that they are gone forever. Cindy keeps losing her keys and I keep losing my glasses but they do reappear when the time is right. A while ago, the internet vanished for a few months. No-one discovered what had happened. But, eventually, it came back on and it was much easier to navigate. There were just a handful of sites rather than the millions there had been. Since then it has become simpler still. There is now just one site. TV programmes disappeared and when they returned they too were different, most of them in another language. But at least there were programmes to watch once more. There were fewer funny ones but heigh ho.

Days pass and the stars do not return. Then, after its regular monthly waning, the moon does not reappear in the night sky. Instead of a new moon, there is no moon.

Once more, Cindy says, ‘It has been a clear day. There should be a moon.’

Once more I agree that it has been sunny.

‘What do you think has happened to the moon?’ Cindy says.

‘Perhaps there was another explosion while we were asleep last night,’ I say. ‘I did think I heard something round about three o’clock.’

‘You think that the moon too was nothing more than a projection then?’ Cindy says.

‘It’s certainly a possibility,’ I say.

We have been led to believe that the moon exerts a strong gravitational pull on the Earth and it is this gravitational pull that causes the seas to rise and fall in what we call tides. More importantly, perhaps, we have been told that the moon stabilises the Earth’s rotation. But what if the moon’s function, all these years, has been a purely decorative one? It is too early to say yet if the Earth’s rotation is less stable but the tide seems to be coming in. In fact, there are quite big waves.

‘There’s something else I’ve noticed,’ Cindy says.

‘It’s not about the car not working, is it?’ I say.

‘No. It’s something else,’ Cindy says.

‘Ah! I think I know what you are going to say,’ I say.

‘There don’t seem to be any people,’ Cindy says. ‘I can’t remember when I last saw anyone.’

‘They became a bit thin on the ground after the stars went out,’ I say. ‘We had to change the seven a side rugby tournament to a one a side rugby tournament. And still, there were only two teams.’

‘No-one won the lottery last week because no-one bought a ticket,’ Cindy says. ‘And now there’s no TV.’

‘Even the internet has gone,’ I say.

‘What do you think has happened to all the people?’ Cindy says. ‘Where has everyone gone?’

‘It probably has something to do with the explosions,’ I say. ‘We could be the last two people left. Like in that book by the Australian fellow. They made it into a film.’

‘You’re thinking of, On the Beach,’ Cindy says.

‘That’s the one,’ I say. ‘I think this is it.’

‘So, that means it’s just the two of ……

© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved